Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ebertfest 2014: Opening Night

Tonight marked the start of the 16th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival. I’ve attended the previous thirteen years, so there really wasn’t any question I’d be here in Champaign, Illinois to make it fourteen in a row. Put it on the calendar. Make the necessary arrangements. Still, part of me wished I were back home in Columbus at Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs conference quarterfinal series between the Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. Perhaps if the opening night film were something I’d already seen, I would have skipped my first Ebertfest film and come a day later. I did have a ticket for the hockey game. With the Ebert documentary LIFE ITSELF opening the festival, there was no other decision to make but to be at the movie. There will be more games, but seeing this particular film in these particular conditions won’t happen again.

LIFE ITSELF’s notices coming out of Sundance were positive, but I confess to being a bit skeptical of the gushing tweet reviews. If ever there were a sure thing, a film about a critic that many writers had a direct, personal connection with and many others felt a kinship with is as close as you’ll get to one. I didn’t doubt director Steve James’ talents, and I’m not accusing anyone of reviewing in bad faith. I just wondered if this film might hit so close to home that people wouldn’t be able to see it clearly.

How cavalier of me to think such things, especially as I’m sitting there in the Virginia Theatre at the festival Ebert founded ready to watch a film about him. I’ve come to Ebertfest since 2001 and have been inspired by his professional and personal examples. It’s not like I’m coming to the documentary without a vested interest.

I’m pleased to report that James’ film dodges the pitfall of being worshipful to fault and instead presents an admiring portrait of a man who loved movies and, well, that broader thing laid out in the title. It’s hard to imagine anyone just casually interested in film wanting to take a look at LIFE ITSELF, but if those folks are out there, they’ll see what it means to live with passion, self-knowledge, generosity, and a sense of humor. As the film based on his memoir demonstrates, Ebert lived a life that seemed like one colorful story after another. He certainly had many experiences that make for entertaining fodder for us as viewers, but isn’t the greater lesson that your life tales or mine can also seem grand with the proper telling? Yes, Ebert’s position afforded him opportunities to have adventures and encounters that most won’t be fortunate to receive, yet LIFE ITSELF leaves the impression that a rich time on earth isn’t concerned so much with what it brings us but how we choose to perceive it.

To me the film and the man can be summarized in a small moment. It’s late in 2012, and Ebert is in the hospital. He’s getting out, at least for a bit, to see a film. He gives a little clap at the news. Keep in mind that he’s seen and forgotten a staggering number of films, yet that palpable joy linked to the possibilities a new movie might deliver remains undiminished. Even if films don’t mean that much to you, approaching an interest and the world in general that way makes a lot of sense to me.

I’ve seen or heard Ebert say that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough. It’s a credit to LIFE ITSELF that its two hours flew by. A film two or three times longer than this surely would have been just as entertaining and illuminating. (This version was the same as the one that premiered at Sundance, although a deleted scene about Ebertfest was played prior to the film.) And while it turns out that I missed an incredible hockey game that my preferred team improbably won, it was appropriate for me to be in Ebert’s hometown theater at his festival watching his film with friends and strangers connected in the enthusiasm he shared with us for flickering, projected images. We said goodbye to him at last year’s Ebertfest, but this film and this festival reinforce that, for those touched by his work in some way, he’s still here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Veronica Mars

VERONICA MARS (Rob Thomas, 2014)

Picking up nine years after the TV series ended, VERONICA MARS finds Kristen Bell’s titular character having left behind her sleuthing days in Neptune, California for an imminent legal career and stability with longtime boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) in New York City.  Her old flame, bad boy Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), is also well in her past until he becomes the primary suspect in the death of his girlfriend, their former classmate turned pop star Bonnie De Ville (Andrea Estella).  Although she knows trouble may await her by getting involved, Veronica can’t deny Logan her help when he asks her to assist him in picking a lawyer.  She returns to her old hometown intending to perform this favor, meet up with a couple old friends, and visit her private eye dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni).  Try as she might, Veronica can’t help but get dragged into investigating the case and, even more regrettably, attending her tenth high school class reunion.

Canceled in 2007 after three seasons, VERONICA MARS was revived with a Kickstarter campaign in which fans contributed more than $5.7 million to get a movie made.  (In the spirit of disclosure, I am one of the more than 91-thousand project backers.)  All the key players in front of the camera and behind the scenes, most notably series creator and the film’s writer-director Rob Thomas and co-writer Diane Ruggiero, are involved, although that doesn’t keep at bay the strange sense that this work is like the novelizations or comic books that have kept other properties alive after the films or TV series ended.  Simultaneously released in theaters and video on demand services, VERONICA MARS is being treated as a film although the rhythms and visual style make it more like two merged television episodes or an extended pilot for the relaunch of the show.

Thomas’ execution exhibits some rust in bringing back this corrupt southern California town.  The murder mystery isn’t all that compelling as a whodunit, and the plotting has the tidiness distinct to episodic TV procedurals.  The mystery’s perfunctory nature can be attributed in part to the need to carve out screen time for all of the fan favorite characters and to build on past storylines, creative decisions that are a direct result of the film’s crowdfunding origin.  VERONICA MARS was made because of the fans, and Thomas works hard to give them what he believes they want.  One can’t fault him for thinking catering to the diehards is merited even if it might leave newcomers to VERONICA MARS on the outside looking in at particular moments and jokes.

Much of the appeal of the TV series and the VERONICA MARS film resides in Bell’s dryly funny and vulnerable performance.  WIth the proper touch of ironic knowingness she dispenses the snappy dialogue mimicking hard-boiled exchanges from the 1940s. While Bell has fun slinging Veronica’s wit at her loved ones and enemies, she’s also good at showing the wounds that have required her to develop a tough shell.  The relationship between father and daughter was the show’s real heart, not her on-again, off-again romance with Logan, and in her few scenes with Colantoni she reveals what it means to love and be loved unconditionally.  Keith and Veronica disagree and tease without harming the fundamental warmth they feel for each other, especially because it’s what they each need more than anything else.

While the film can be rightly criticized for indulging in fan service, Thomas also has words of caution about chasing what used to be.  It’s not that he’s hedging on whether he can deliver with the VERONICA MARS revival but rather that he’s reminding the series’ biggest supporters that nostalgia is seductive but not always healthy.  The hard-bitten sentiment is very much in keeping with the film noir styling.  Veronica couches her renewed attraction to Logan and detective work in terms of addiction and suggests that returning to both may bring about her downfall like alcohol ruined her mother.  The film’s conclusion satisfies with the rush of fulfilling what seems like a natural progression for the gumshoe, but it’s murkier whether this realization of destiny is a positive development.  The character will live on in paperback novels, but if this is the end of VERONICA MARS in films or a television series, Thomas manages to send her out in a way that seems like both a happy and potentially bitter finish.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (David Lowery, 2013)

The latest armed robbery by husband and wife Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) and Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) goes south when it leads to them and their partner getting holed up in a shack shooting it out with the cops in Texas hill country.  In the exchange of gunfire their accomplice Freddy (Kentucker Audley), the son of their criminal mentor Skerritt (Keith Carradine), is killed while Ruth wounds police officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster).  The outlaws have no choice but to surrender, and Bob accepts all of the blame to keep his pregnant wife from also going to the penitentiary.  Although they are being forced apart, he promises he’ll be with Ruth and their unborn child soon.

Nearly four years later Ruth and daughter Sylvie (Kennadie Smith and Jacklynn Smith) have something resembling a normal life in a small town.  She leaves her wild ways behind to support her kid.  Skerritt sees to it that they have a home next to his, although his charity may just as well be a means of keeping an eye out for Bob if he ever manages to break out of prison.  Indeed, on his sixth attempt, Bob escapes.  Based on the passionate letters he wrote to Ruth for the duration of his incarceration, their former associates and law enforcement expect him to turn up eventually at her door.

AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS is set in what looks to be the 1970s, and the style is reminiscent of that decade’s new Hollywood even if the scenario belongs to classic westerns taking place in the Old West a hundred years prior.  Through spare storytelling, magic hour cinematography, and naturalistic voiceover writer-director David Lowery’s film displays the influence of Terrence Malick, BADLANDS in particular.  Although Lowery zips through considerable plot, he’s far more interested in mood than narrative details.

AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS swells with regret and romantic longing.  Bob imagines a future with the woman he loves and the little girl he has yet to meet.  The intense singular focus undiminished by the circumstances bestows nobility on the character despite the shortcomings that led him and Ruth to be separated.  Affleck transforms Bob into a sympathetic figure by wearing his heart on his sleeve and seeming naive to the situation’s reality, yet his overwhelming passion is also a weapon for making a reunion with Ruth possible.

Ruth’s feelings for Bob are harder to discern, not because she has reason to love him less but because his presence will complicate the stability she needs to care for Sylvie. Mara maintains the film’s internal tension by being difficult to read as she processes what Bob’s escape means and how she needs to respond.  Ruth has made it through recent years by hiding the truth, so there’s suspense in determining her real motivation in entertaining Patrick’s shy flirtations and sadness in knowing she is probably stuck in a spot unresolved without at least one person suffering grievous injury.  

The characters in AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS receive sanctification of a sort through self-denial. They are permitted to express affection but only from a distance, for direct contact possesses too much mortal or emotional danger.  Lowery’s achingly beautiful film vibrates with the knowledge that sometimes love means depriving oneself from giving in to it.

Grade: B+

Monday, March 24, 2014

Divergent

DIVERGENT (Neil Burger, 2014)

After the war the survivors in Chicago construct a wall around their metropolis and maintain civilization by dividing the population according to five virtues.  This society’s groups are the intellectual (Erudite), the peaceful (Amity), the honest (Candor), the brave (Dauntless), and the selfless (Abnegation), plus a factionless caste that subsists largely on the mercy of Abnegation.  Each faction lives in its own part of the city and is assigned tasks that play to the class’s personality strengths.  For instance, Abnegation runs the government, Amity farms the land, and Dauntless protects the city.  

In DIVERGENT teenagers are tested to determine which faction suits them best, but ultimately they can choose to defect to one different from what they were born into and how they were assessed.  Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) has been raised in Abnegation but hasn’t always felt as though she fit in there.  Still, selecting another faction means being separated from her parents (Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd) and brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort).  Beatrice’s test reveals that she is a good fit in Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite.  Her tester Tori (Maggie Q) stresses that she keep this result secret and stay with the faction she knows.  Being predisposed to multiple factions marks Beatrice as Divergent and thus viewed as a danger to those in power.

Despite the risks Beatrice decides to join Dauntless.  For Tris, which she now goes by, life in Dauntless proves to be daunting.  Eric (Jai Courtney), one of the Dauntless leaders, informs the new transfers that those who do not rate highly enough at the end of the initiation process will be banished to join the factionless.  Her instructor Four (Theo James) may perceive that there’s something unusual about the initiate under his command.

Based on the first novel in Veronica Roth’s best-selling series, DIVERGENT comes off as an indistinct combination of other young-adult literature adaptations.  With the isolated districts, dystopian America, and gifted but self-doubting heroine, it most closely resembles THE HUNGER GAMES, although these particular aspects are generic enough to cover a whole swath of fiction than resemble any one source specifically. The overly familiar nature of the material strains patience in going through a programmatic set of level completion and ground-laying for future installments.  Much of DIVERGENT focuses on Tris enduring the three stages of initiation, which would be all well and good if more characters jumped to the foreground.  Like others adapting a property with a passionate, established fanbase, it feels as though director Neil Burger and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor had to treat the popular book as sacred text and thus depict everything.  Slash a half-hour out of this, and anything significant would likely not be missed.

DIVERGENT introduces some potentially worthwhile questions about the limitations society places on people, but this is not a film with much on its mind beyond hitting the repetitive plot points.  Basic information about how this particular world came to be accepted by all and what exists beyond the walls is withheld, presumably to be answered in the next film and more.  This delaying tactic is surely profitable for movie studios, but in narrative terms it keeps everything in a holding pattern that tests the viewer’s good will.  

Woodley is not wholly convincing as an action star, but she does well with the emotional nuances of Tris.  The camera often holds tight close-ups of her as, like in THE SPECTACULAR NOW, she conveys a regular girl’s struggles to make sense of new experiences and difficult choices.  It’s a role of discovery that Woodley approaches with gentleness and fearlessness.  She’s better than the film around her.  Maybe the sequel will realize that.

Grade: C

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Twenty Feet from Stardom

TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM (Morgan Neville, 2013)

No one dreams of growing up to be a backup singer, but for some skilled vocalists, standing behind or to the side of the star is as close as they come to the spotlight. While TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM suggests that these supporting performers deserve greater solo success, it also contends that they should be proud of the careers they have made.  Those interviewed for the documentary have contributed to some of the biggest pop and rock hits of the last fifty-plus years and toured with many of the most popular entertainers.  Unlike many all-or-nothing showbiz stories, this one recognizes that it doesn’t take coming out on top to be valued in the industry and to find satisfaction in the work.

Director Morgan Neville talks to a lot of backup singers, many of them African-American women, in tracking the path of this particular kind of performer since the 1960s.  None of their stories are told in full, although four are granted a little more time to link their prospects through the decades.  Darlene Love, the best known of the bunch and one who eventually managed to cross over as a solo artist, speaks of her days in a session group that worked for producer Phil Spector on many of the time’s most memorable hits and the problems she encountered in trying to establish her name.  Merry Clayton tells of her time working with Ray Charles and how she came to provide backing vocals on rock classics such as “Sweet Home Alabama”.  Lisa Fischer released a Grammy-winning single in 1991 but has primarily worked as backup singer, most notably on tour with The Rolling Stones since 1989.  Judith Hill was preparing to tour with Michael Jackson when he died and aspires to solo career.

Neville incorporates a lot of great music and draws attention to the parts of the songs where his subjects made a difference.  Clayton’s isolated track from “Gimme Shelter” is still a stunner when separated from the rest of the recording.  Love’s stories about unwittingly ghosting hit songs and being limited by her contract reveal the injustices in a system where these performers lacked power.  These and other tales bring into greater focus the challenges of the job, but as TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM floats among the backup singers without going deeper on anyone in particular, it feels like a hodgepodge of anecdotes.

Although TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM doesn’t display a lot of range, Neville does well at pulling together the history and noting how the role of the backup singer has evolved.  The film makes a good point about how technological changes are having an adverse affect on these vocalists.  AutoTuning and home studio recording lead to less demand, even if such digital solutions make qualitative variations that some don’t feel improve the music.  While Neville doesn’t point out the increase of featured roles in songs, those parts seem like what would have been the domain of backups but now go to stars.

No one has a quick and easy answer as to why these women have trouble going from backup to lead.  It would’ve been interesting if TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM explored that question more.  Nevertheless, it succeeds as a celebration of talents often unheralded by wider audiences.

Grade: B-

Monday, March 10, 2014

Non-Stop

NON-STOP (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2014)

In NON-STOP United States federal air marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) faces an urgent situation when a terrorist on-board his New York-to-London flight threatens to kill someone every twenty minutes unless $150 million is placed in a secure account.  Bill can only communicate with the hijacker through text messages, so he has no way of knowing who among the 150 passengers and crew is putting everyone on the plane in danger.  

The tense group of fliers becomes more agitated as they object to Bill violating their civil rights in his search for the villain.  They also have reason to believe that he is really the bad guy.  Bill is already the prime suspect in the minds of those on the ground because the bank account is revealed to be in his name.  Like it or not, Bill has to trust others, including row mate Jen (Julianne Moore) and flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery), to look for the responsible party even if he can’t be completely sure that they aren’t in on the plot.  

NON-STOP’s high concept premise delivers DIE HARD on a plane if it were written by Agatha Christie.  As he’s shown in his recent run of action films, Neeson makes a striking hero whose credibility is never in doubt here as he singlehandedly takes control of an anxious mass in a confined space.  If he needs to throat-punch everyone on the flight to subdue them, by God he’ll do it.  The cast is populated with several familiar faces that even if they’re not identifiable by name, enough plausible options for the perpetrator exist to keep the audience guessing.  In pure genre terms NON-STOP lives up to its name by combining the intensity of an action movie with the pleasures of a whodunit.     

Jaume Collet-Serra, who also directed Neeson in UNKNOWN, lays out the tight quarters well and has some fun visualizing the texts Bill gets.  Bill does a lot of communicating through a device. thus making it necessary to integrate the pop-up text and images with some extra flair.  So, when a device’s screen is smashed, the pop-up data gets glitchy.  Collet-Serra uses Neeson’s gruff presence and the film’s forward momentum to help to smooth over the increasingly implausible events.   

NON-STOP strives for some relevance regarding post-9/11 life.  The film works best as a demonstration of the security process and the aggravation and doubts many feel about it, even if incorporating more serious commentary can feel like the filmmakers are overreaching.  The latitude given to law enforcement, the lack of information provided to the public,and false positives create distrust between those sworn to protect and those under their watch.  Bill struggles to sort through a mass of data that can cast suspicion on the innocent.  The passengers and crew don’t have full confidence that this drunk with a badge is using the information appropriately.  NON-STOP makes its points less effectively when assigning motivation to whoever is orchestrating the terror.  The film’s subtext gives NON-STOP a bit of substance, but ultimately it’s most successful in creating a mystery and reveling in Neeson showing everyone who’s the boss.

Grade: B

Friday, February 28, 2014

Adult World

ADULT WORLD (Scott Coffey, 2013)

The glut of talent competition shows on television push the narrative that everyone is a potential superstar.  A glance at AMERICAN IDOL, THE VOICE, SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE, and the like reveals teens and young adults convinced that discovery is the only thing keeping them from fame and fortune.  Even when the judges and viewing public deny them passage to the next round, the aspiring performers often refuse to believe the rejections stem from not being good enough.  Some are surely right that evaluators are failing to recognize their skills, but a great many are incapable of accepting the hard truth that they aren’t as great as they think, especially when their self-esteems have been shielded from challenges.

ADULT WORLD’s would-be poet Amy Anderson (Emma Roberts) is one of those special little flowers.  She sails through Syracuse University with top grades and is told by everyone how terrific her writing is.  The economic prospects for a poet aren’t exactly numerous nowadays, but Amy eagerly submits to as many literary journals and contests as she can find with full confidence that something will come through.  Like many who have earned degrees but aren’t yet making a living, she stays at home with her parents in the suburbs.  They’re supportive of her dream but eventually have to insist that Amy starts bringing in some money in the meantime. She has $90,000 in college loans beginning to come due, and they can’t foot all of her expenses.

Amy’s specialized education and lack of retail experience do not make her an attractive candidate to those doing the hiring, so she’s desperate to find anyone who might provide an opportunity for a regular check.  Although the mom-and-pop porn shop Adult World isn’t where she envisioned herself working, the owners are willing to bring her on as a clerk.  Every small victory seems to come with a setback, though.  Shortly thereafter Amy has her car stolen and gets into an argument with her parents over her financial irresponsibility.  She runs away from home with nowhere to go but the place where transvestite acquaintance Rubia (Armando Riesco) is squatting.  She meets Rat Billings (John Cusack), a writer she idolizes, and wears him down into letting her be his assistant even though he has no interest in serving as her mentor.

Unlike AMERICAN IDOL, which derives pleasure in humiliating singers deluded about the level of their abilities, ADULT WORLD doesn’t intend to burst Amy’s bubble but to remove it gradually for her own benefit.  In reading verse aloud as if it were divine wisdom, Roberts plays up the insufferable nature of the self-identifying artiste.  She is funny in maintaining the sincerity of the character’s passion while displaying the clumsiness of her inexperience.  Amy’s hilarious attempted seduction of Rat typifies her actions as the caricatured motions and words of someone whose deepest interactions have been with art than people.

As Rat, Cusack demonstrates no patience for such obliviousness and optimism.  His wry performance carries the fatigue of someone famous who has long since lost any enjoyment in having admirers excitedly bare their souls and repeat favorite passages to him.  Films tend to depict the act of creation with great romance, but Cusack is here to yank those images aside to say that it can be a grind.

ADULT WORLD’s forced quirkiness overwhelms the good effort Roberts and Cusack give it.  Amy’s naiveté would be more credible if she had just finished high school.  The porn shop setting and what can uncharitably be described as a magical transvestite character come off as lazy attempts to try and make the film edgier without actually doing so.  In that way ADULT WORLD is not very different than Amy as it mistakes idiosyncrasy for cleverness and knowledge.

Grade: C