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.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Her? THE DUFF


The DUFF is a cute, formulaic teen comedy interested in playing within the bounds of the stereotypical high school caste system. It buys into the clichéd social structure of athletes, nerds, and other Breakfast Club groupings for maximum cliquish silliness and angst, before breaking it down in a happily every after scene at the Big Dance. It’s a movie about being comfortable in your own skin and owning what makes you unique. I suppose it makes a certain sort of sense that the movie follows suit, being comfortable settling into a bright, colorful, light mood, content to do nothing but the predictable and expected. Plot turns are not merely telegraphed, they’re practically scrawled on the poster in the lobby. They practically give away the ending free with the purchase of your ticket.

So it doesn’t benefit from the screenplay cleverness that factors into the genre’s best. There’s nothing like a Tina Fey (Mean Girls), or Amy Heckerling (Clueless), or Cameron Crowe (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) sociological wit to the writing here. But the script by Josh A. Cagan, from a book by Kody Keplinger, does feature a bouncy energy that carries across its thin derivative ideas about how teenagers relate to one another. It starts with a girl (Mae Whitman) who is told by her jerk hunk neighbor (Robbie Amell) that she’s her group of friends’ DUFF – their Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Ouch. Mad, she ignores her friends (Bianca A. Santos and Skyler Samuels) and improbably asks this rude boy to coach her into coolness, hoping to win the affections of her crush object (Nick Eversman) in the process.

It’s a conventional makeover teen comedy, in which a perceived ugly duckling makes minor changes and suddenly she’s stunning. In this case, Whitman, no DUFF to begin with, starts with baggy pants and a limp haircut. She also leans into the role, slouching and pulling inwards, shyly avoiding the gaze of her crush. The jerk next door ignores his on-again-off-again mean girl girlfriend (Bella Thorne) and spends a lot of time with Whitman, helping pick out new outfits and telling her she’s not so bad looking after all. You can see where this is going. Director Ari Sandel, of the Oscar-winning short West Bank Story, brings some instantly-dated modern touches – cutesy webspeak references, a light cyberbullying subplot – that add a bit of freshness around the edges. But the core is conventional, filled with thin stereotypes in an overfamiliar story.

What makes this mildly bemusing movie an agreeably painless distraction is Whitman. A comedy veteran of everything from Arrested Development to Tinker Bell, she takes what could be a garnish’s worth of material and turns it into a three-course meal of sympathetic awkwardness, sly sarcasm, funny voices, blushing crushing, terrific reaction shots, and believable teen angst. While hardly ugly or fat – I wanted to tell the film to stop trying to make “DUFF” happen – Whitman does look out of place in high school, though less so this one populated with twentysomethings. She’s a decade older than her character, and uses that to her advantage. It’s easy to look at this cool young woman and see how her best features – an easy goofiness, dark sense of humor, and love for cult horror films – could go unappreciated in the moment, but help her make her way in the future.

It’s not about the ugly becoming beautiful, but a girl finding her way back to a sense of self-confidence. That’s sweet and empowering, saving the film from being a total waste of time. Familiar but well intentioned is a reasonable accomplishment, I suppose. It won’t hurt anyone. It helps that Whitman’s so watchable, and is surrounded by a capable cast, including charming Allison Janney, Romany Malco, and Ken Jeong livening up underwritten adult roles. There’s not much here, but what is can be pleasant enough.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Unlove Song: THE LAST FIVE YEARS


Telling the story of a failed marriage, The Last Five Years is a musical two-hander. It’s sung through, trading perspectives between spouses with each new number. This gives it a good sense of balance, starting with Cathy (Anna Kendrick) lamenting the end of a relationship, before launching into a back-and-forth chronology that shows us Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) at the beginning of their time together. Then it keeps switching as their overlapping timelines cross in the middle and then leave them on opposite sides once again. Yanking us between the good times and the bad, it attempts to dissect what went wrong, juxtaposing happy rushes of love, domesticity, and success with frustrations, arguments, and difficulties. Adapted by writer-director Richard LaGravenese from Jason Robert Brown’s Off-Broadway play, the results are small, cramped, low-budget intimacy decorated with cutesy theatrical flourishes. I found it mostly irritating.

But if you have to spend 90 musical minutes with a couple, it may as well be Kendrick and Jordan. Both accomplished Broadway performers, they’re terrific singers who know how to modulate their performances for film. They’re big and tuneful, but carry the light touch of film acting, knowing when a small shift of eyes will sell a feeling just as well as projecting to the back row. I can only imagine how unendurable the film would be without them. As it is, the plotting lets the audience in on the futility of the relationship immediately, emphasizing the disjunction that was always there, which makes the entire experience one of watching charming Kendrick stuck in a doomed marriage that never seems worth it. Sure, they had love, but we can read the early warning signs she muddles past. Such ironies are meant to be insightful, but I couldn’t take satisfaction reading hindsight.

There are fleeting minutes of enjoyment, a few hummable bars here and there, but it’s a blur of melody that started sounding awfully samey to me. It’s monotonous musically and emotionally, especially once you get the hang of its flip-flopping chronology. The couple’s moments of happiness – he signs a book deal, she works at a summer theater, they get married and move in together – are sickly sweet. Their arguments are bickering that’s supposed to be real and raw, but are instead just vague specificities, Mad Lib style conflict. Kendrick plays blushing excitement and exhausted frustration well, and Jordan, to his credit, leans into his character’s insufferable clichés, like a wandering eye, and a big ego brought about by early success. (Is the line “He’s like a young Jonathan Franzen!” foreshadowing?)

But their enervating disagreements are just as hard to sit through as their lovey-dovey syrupy good times. LaGravenese films their numbers with the usual American-indie faux casual looseness, but layers in some theatrical conceits – backup dancers, breakaway walls, dramatic lighting – to emphasize important moments. It’s fine, but never rings true. The film made a break straight for my last nerve and scraped away for the duration. I found it irritating, not just for how little it worked on me, but also for how much I wanted to like it – we don’t get too many musicals these days.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Tied Up: FIFTY SHADES OF GREY


Another in a long cinematic tradition of excavating an intriguing movie out of a trash novel, director Sam Taylor-Johnson (of the young John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy) and screenwriter Kelly Marcel (of Saving Mr. Banks) treat E.L. James’ bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey seriously as a picture of a problematic relationship between two very different people. It’s a strange, half-convincing film, part movie romance formula, and part psychological melodrama, shot like a thriller but with a cautiously sad core. It appears to head down troubling paths before pulling up short in a sudden conclusion. It’s a girl meets boy, girl tries out boy’s demands, girl’s not so sure she wants to stay story.

A young woman (Dakota Johnson) meets a rich young billionaire bachelor (Jamie Dornan) whose intensity attracts her. He likes her too, aggressively wooing her with expensive gifts, like first edition Thomas Hardy novels. She’s flattered, and allows her curiosity to pull her into his version of a relationship. They’re a study in opposites, she shy and giggly, and he self-serious and creepily controlled in all aspects of his life. She’s a romantic, and prone to drink a little and turn into a Broad City supporting character. He’s a movie workaholic, talking about “business” and standing around handsomely austere skyscraper conference rooms without ever getting into what, exactly, he does. All we know is she’s an English major without a job, and he’s a man who can afford to get his way.

He’s a dominant personality looking for someone to submit to his every whim. He wants to control her. This goes beyond the kinks that have made the story a sight-unseen source of derision and tittering (whips, handcuffs, and the like). She gets a thrill out of having her hands tied to the bedpost. But as their arrangement intensifies, bedroom negotiations soon involve an absurdly detailed and lengthy proposed contract. He’s clearly put in a lot of time thinking about his preferred partner’s activities. She says she’ll think about it, a totally reasonable reaction to his desire to determine her schedule, her diet, where she goes, who she sees.

To the movie’s credit, his increasingly controlling stalkerish behavior – appearing places unannounced, or taking over her life by, say, trading in her car for a new one without permission – isn’t soft-pedaled as twisted romance. A clear line is drawn between sex (even adventurous kinds) and exploitation. The problem isn’t the billionaire’s kinks, but the intensity with which he demands punishment and obedience, and how unwilling he is to pay attention to the needs of his partner. It’s all about his pleasure, his desires. This uncompromising can scare her, and yet she draws pleasure from their encounters, discovering that physical submission doesn’t need to include emotional compromise.

I never quite understood what they saw in each other. It doesn’t work as romance. He sees someone inexperienced and naïve, able to be molded into the partner he wants. She sees a handsome rich guy. What’s love got to do with it? There’s a tricky arc to be played here, a relationship that starts kinked and grows ominous. Johnson’s winning, vulnerable and charming, giving a real movie star performance. (Could we expect less from the daughter of Melanie Griffith and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren?) She bites her lips and rolls her eyes, able to make fun of her new boyfriend’s oddities, having fun with them, and then getting a little scared of how far he’ll go. She’s so good, floating through with intelligence and good humor, she even carries Dornan’s wooden sulky performance that’s mostly glowering and standing upright. (The supporting cast includes small roles for Marcia Gay Harden and Jennifer Ehle, so it’s not hurting for strong women.)

The leads draw clear differences between their characters, as opposites attract. We get several sex scenes that play dirtier in implication than in practice. They’re soft montages with lots of movement and skin but little lingering reveals. Two are set to Beyoncé songs, so you know they're smooth. The film saves the power plays for their negotiations, as she tries to get a “normal” boyfriend and accuses him of just wanting her as a sex slave. Their relationship is presented ambiguously enough, I wasn’t sure what we were rooting for. Do we want a Beauty and the Beast change on his part to loosen his rigid rules, or for her to leave him for someone more playful? I knew I wanted her to leave. He’s a gender-swapped Fatal Attraction waiting to happen. In its way, the movie’s an extreme metaphor for the difficulties couples face trying to compromise.

The movie should be looser and funnier, overheated in passion and problems. Imagine what a Pedro Almodovar approach could’ve ripened it into! Instead, it’s serious and slow, with long stretches of boredom between moments where Johnson’s allowed to leap to life with a twinkle in her eyes. Surprisingly little happens in the middle stretch as she decides whether or not to agree to his terms and submit to his will in all things. It allows ugly implications to creep in around the edges. But there’s a nice mix of giggling curiosity (“You’re so bossy,” she laughs mid spanking) and tentative caution, wondering just how much pleasure he derives from hurting her. She’s smart, refusing to get steamrolled by his uptight dominance, but curious to experiment a little first.

Taylor-Johnson, with cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, films it all in grey steel tones, making a film cool to the touch. It moves like a thriller, weighing its protagonist’s options seriously while keeping her partner’s motivations frustrating and frighteningly mysterious. I was pleasantly surprised to find a film focused on communication and consent, policing boundaries, and ending on what seems to me a triumphant “no means no.” Perhaps it’s a cliffhanger resolved in proposed sequels, but viewed as a single story unto itself, it’s a break for freedom, where a woman leaves a damaged man behind and goes forth into the world with the skills to have a mutually fulfilling relationship on her terms in the future. I’m not familiar with the source material, but somehow I think the filmmakers got the best possible movie out of it.

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2014












1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Boyhood
3. Love is Strange
4. Under the Skin
5. Only Lovers Left Alive
6. Belle
7. Manakamana
8. We Are the Best!
9. Beyond the Lights
10. Goodbye to Language

Special Prize
     Over the Garden Wall

The next ten
11. Godzilla
12. Still Alice
13. Whiplash
14. The Congress
15. Selma
16. How to Train Your Dragon 2
17. The Immigrant
18. Snowpiercer
19. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
20. Dear White People

Honorable mentions (alphabetically)
Birdman, The Book of Life, The Boxtrolls, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Fury, Gone Girl, Interstellar, The Lego Movie, Life Itself, Lucy, Muppets Most Wanted, Nightcrawler, Two Days One NightWhy Don't You Play in Hell?

More 2014 Bests

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Other 2014 Bests


Best Cinematography
            Hoyte Van Hoytema Interstellar
Yorick Le Saux Only Lovers Left Alive
            Emmanuel Lubezki Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Seamus McGarvey Godzilla
Robert Yeoman The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Sound
            Godzilla
            The Grand Budapest Hotel
            How to Train Your Dragon 2
            Snowpiercer
            Under the Skin

Best Special Effects
            Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
            Godzilla
            The Grand Budapest Hotel
            Interstellar
Noah

Best Stunts
            Godzilla
            John Wick
            Need for Speed
            Selma
            Snowpiercer
           
Best Costumes
            Belle
            Beyond the Lights
            The Grand Budapest Hotel
            Snowpiercer
            Step Up All In
           
Best Makeup
            The Grand Budapest Hotel
            Maleficent
            Only Lovers Left Alive
            Selma
            Snowpiercer
           
Best Set/Art Direction
            Boyhood
            Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
            The Grand Budapest Hotel
            Only Lovers Left Alive
            Snowpiercer

Best Editing
            Boyhood
            The Grand Budapest Hotel
            Love is Strange
            Only Lovers Left Alive
            Under the Skin
           
Best Score
            Belle Rachel Portman
            Godzilla/The Grand Budapest Hotel Alexandre Desplat
How to Train Your Dragon 2 John Powell
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya Joe Hisaishi
            Under the Skin Mica Levi
                                   
Best Song
            “Everything is AWESOME!!!” The Lego Movie           
            “The Hanging Tree” The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
            “Hate the Sport” We Are the Best!
“The Last Goodbye” The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
“Something So Right” Muppets Most Wanted

Best Adapted Screenplay
            Belle by Amma Assante
            Selma by Ava DuVernay
            Under the Skin by Jonathan Glazer
            We Are the Best! by Lukas Moodysson
            Whiplash by Damien Chazelle
           
Best Original Screenplay
            Beyond the Lights by Gina Prince-Bythewood
            Boyhood by Richard Linklater
            The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson
            Love is Strange by Ira Sachs
Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch

Best Documentary
            Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Life Itself
            Maidentrip
            Manakamana
            What Now? Remind Me

Best Animated Film
The Book of Life
The Boxtrolls
            How to Train Your Dragon 2
            The Lego Movie
            The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Best Foreign Film
            Manakamana
            The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
            Two Days, One Night
            We Are the Best!
            Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
                       
Best Supporting Actress
Minnie Driver Beyond the Lights
Rene Russo Nightcrawler
Emma Stone Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Tilda Swinton Snowpiercer
Mia Wasikowska Only Lovers Left Alive
           
Best Supporting Actor
Ethan Hawke Boyhood
            Alfred Molina Love is Strange
Edward Norton Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Tyler Perry Gone Girl
            J.K. Simmons Whiplash

Best Actress
            Patricia Arquette Boyhood
            Marion Cotillard Two Days, One Night
Scarlett Johansson Under the Skin
            Gugu Mbatha-Raw Belle
            Julianne Moore Still Alice

Best Actor
            Ralph Fiennes The Grand Budapest Hotel
            Jake Gyllenhaal Nightcrawler
            Michael Keaton Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
            John Lithgow Love is Strange
David Oyelowo Selma

Best Director
            Wes Anderson The Grand Budapest Hotel
            Jonathan Glazer Under the Skin
Jim Jarmusch Only Lovers Left Alive
Richard Linklater Boyhood
            Ira Sachs Love is Strange
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