Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ebertfest 2015: Opening Night


Ebertfest holds a special place in my moviegoing life because it was the first film festival I attended. The experience could not have been better. The 2001 festival, it’s third edition, featured an exceptional mix of good to great films, was hosted by a film writer I admired and aspired to be, and was down to earth in a way that felt identifiably Midwestern. This was not an industry event but a populist celebration of cinema in a university town. I was hooked, and It’s why I’ve come to Champaign, Illinois every April for fifteen years now.

It may seem strange to see a movie before going to opening night of the 2015 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, but the Art Theater, a short walk from festival central at the Virginia Theatre, was playing GREY GARDENS, which I hadn’t seen. Ebert mentioned the Art as being important to him , and he certainly encouraged locals at the festival to patronize it those weeks when Ebertfest wasn’t co-opting their moviegoing time. Inside the lobby over the entrance is a mural with the hometown critic sitting in the front row to the side next to Groucho Marx. The seating location isn’t where you were likely to find Ebert when he was at the movies, but it seems right for him to have such a place of prominence, if not the best viewing angle, in a picture featuring stars of the screen. When he attended his own festival, Ebert was always the biggest star in the room no matter what Hollywood performer or filmmaker was present.


Perhaps it was my own reservations about this year’s festival lineup--I’ll explain those feelings on another day--but opening night felt more muted than any other year I can recall. It could be that the lack of a “big” film or guest tamped down some of the excitement in the crowd. Maybe it was that I knew what was coming. To start things off, a 3-D film was being shown for the first time in the festival’s history. Not just any 3-D film, mind you, was beginning the 17th festival but Jean-Luc Godard’s GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE (ADIEU AU LANGAGE). Unlikely as it seems to me, I’d seen it twice before. While I have enjoyed it primarily as an aesthetic experience, GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE struck me as a uniquely terrible choice to start the festival. Late Godard can be hard to penetrate intellectually. Playful as it can be, this rigorous cinematic essay fits the description of a difficult film to a tee. I did not expect GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE to go over well with this audience, which isn’t to say that I doubt their tastes but that this is no one’s idea of a widely appealing film that might ordinarily fill the first slot on the festival schedule.

On viewing GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE a second time I found it extremely helpful to have read David Bordwell’s unpacking of the dense film. Knowing how to watch can make a huge difference in appreciating it. My third viewing didn’t yield any major revelations, but it confirmed that Godard captures images of exceptional beauty. The shot of one hand washing another looks clearer than reality. During a shot of a boat going away from the dock the undulating water looks so blue and welcoming. The doubling and overlapping of images and use and locations of sound make for a thrilling cinematic experience even if I have a hard time making heads or tails of it. To the Ebertfest crowd’s credit, I noticed just a few walkouts from my vantage point in the balcony. Opinions may be voiced more strongly against it while folks wait in line to enter the theater over the next few days, but on this evening my impression is that people wrestled with the challenging work rather than dismissing it outright. Could it be my doubts about the film's reception were unfounded?

Todd Rendleman, Peter Sobczynski, Goodbye to Language's Héloise Godet, and Matt Zoller Seitz
The night’s second session was also something unprecedented at Ebertfest. Instead of showing a film, a Harold Ramis tribute took place. Clips were shown from ANIMAL HOUSE, CADDYSHACK, STRIPES, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, BACK TO SCHOOL, CLUB PARADISE, GHOSTBUSTERS, and GHOSTBUSTERS 2. Ramis’ widow Erica Ramis and producer Trevor Albert then joined Chaz Ebert and critics Glenn Kenny and Susan Wloszczyna to discuss his work from the earlier half of his career. Following the conversation were clips from GROUNDHOG DAY, STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY, ANALYZE THIS, MULTIPLICITY, THE ICE HARVEST, BEDAZZLED, ORANGE COUNTY, AS GOOD AS IT GETS, KNOCKED UP, WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY, and YEAR ONE. This portion was capped by a clip of Ebert and Gene Siskel reviewing GROUNDHOG DAY on their television show. The same people returned to the stage to talk about this part of Ramis’ filmography.

Context-free clips don’t exactly serve the work well, so I could have done without them even though I realize why they were incorporated into the program. I would have been content to listen to those Ramis knew and those who appreciated his talents talk about him. I really enjoyed seeing the Siskel and Ebert clip and would suggest knitting them into the festival when possible. How great would it be to watch the films at Ebertfest and follow them with pertinent reviews from the long-running TV show? Granted, these won’t exist with every film selected, and if there was a disagreement between the critics, some of the reviews might make for uncomfortable situations with a festival guest. Still, if done with care, this seems like a natural way of keeping Ebert’s voice in the festival.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Longest Ride


THE LONGEST RIDE (George Tillman Jr., 2015)

Although Nicholas Sparks film adaptations don’t cross over with one another like superhero movies, they might as well constitute their own cinematic universe populated with men and women resisting and desiring the love that comes into their lives. The male protagonists tend to have prototypically masculine professions, like soldier or oil rigger, while displaying acute emotional sensitivity. Female leads are often strong and independent yet in need of the right relationship to feel whole. Daily life is slower and quieter in these soft focus, sun-dappled romances, but the capricious forces at work usually demand a third act death. Happy endings are tempered with the bittersweet knowledge of the sacrifice necessary to achieve them. THE LONGEST RIDE sticks to the formula but eases up on the melodrama that has smothered some Sparks adaptations.

Wake Forest art major Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson) is two months from graduation and an internship with a Manhattan gallery when she meets professional bull rider Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood). Sophia doesn’t need the distraction of dating someone in North Carolina when she’ll soon be moving, so she ignores his calls and texts for awhile before agreeing to a date. They spend a pleasant night together, but on the way home Luke spots where a car is crashed through a guard rail. He pulls the dazed old man from the burning vehicle. Sophia retrieves the box on the front seat that the driver mumbles about wanting to save. After taking him to the hospital, Sophia elects to stay until the injured man, Ira Levinson (Alan Alda), is stabilized.

While waiting she opens the box to find many old letters that he wrote to his beloved. She reads the first one, composed in 1940, and is deeply moved by the story of a young Ira (Jack Huston) pining for Ruth (Oona Chaplin), whose Jewish family has relocated from Vienna to North Carolina to escape the war in Europe. Sophia offers to read the letters to Ira. No longer able to read them himself, he gladly accepts. Sophia is visiting with him when Luke drops by the hospital to return an old photo of Ira and Ruth that was left behind in his truck. Sophia is glad to see Luke again, and they decide to discover where a relationship might take them in the time she still has in the south. While they fall into an easygoing rhythm, Sophia’s intention to start her career up north and well-founded concerns over his well-being riding bulls threaten to break them apart.

Needing to attend to parallel love stories separated by seventy-some years, THE LONGEST RIDE is unable to develop both equally. Ira and Ruth’s World War II-era courtship and marriage produce the richer storyline, in part because their flashbacks observe a lifetime of experiences that essentially dramatize UP’s tear-jerking Carl and Ellie montage. Trying to draw comparisons between Ira and Ruth’s joys and disappointments with the thrills and challenges Sophia and Luke go through simply isn’t fair to the younger generation. Despite the obstacles to their long-term happiness, Sophia and Luke’s romantic conflict is also too tidily resolved via a plot point that is very much like one in the last Sparks adaptation, THE BEST OF ME.

When used as narration Ira’s letters sound like they were written to someone who has forgotten everything he’s telling her. The seemingly present-set film perceives World War II as being in the more recent past than it is because otherwise Alda’s Ira should likely be in his mid-90s. These are screenwriting nitpicks, though, for a romance that mostly works regardless of such shortcomings. THE LONGEST RIDE allows characters to spend time getting to know one another and build the natural progression of their relationships. The film prefers to savor Sophia and Luke bonding by sharing tales of their vastly different childhoods and Ira and Ruth finding gladness in their fleeting time caring for a boy as their own child than fixating on the lightning bolt of mutual attraction.

Credit goes to director George Tillman Jr. and the cast for investing lightweight characters with humanity without getting soppy. Robertson and Eastwood exhibit the laidback chemistry of people drawn to each other but not obsessed with whether they may match their preconceived ideas of The One. Huston and Chaplin are attuned to the give and take in a couple for whom interests and personalities differ. As Ira recalls the great love of his life, Alda exudes warmth with Robertson, and she meets with compassion free of pity. Certainly THE LONGEST RIDE is a kind of fantasy, but it indulges the longing for a love story with the complexities of life while avoiding piling on needless twists to make it appear more urgent.

Grade: B-

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Guest


THE GUEST (Adam Wingard, 2014)

The Peterson household is still reeling from the death of their enlisted son Caleb when David (Dan Stevens) turns up at their door out of the blue in THE GUEST. He tells Laura (Sheila Kelley) that he and Caleb were good friends. Now that he’s been discharged from the army David is checking on the Petersons to fulfill the request his deceased fellow soldier made. Laura invites David to stay with the family for the time being and allows him to stay in Caleb’s untouched room.

David’s presence in their home becomes therapeutic for each of the family members. Laura’s husband (Leland Orser) can knock back beers with him and rant about how he’s been passed over at work. The Petersons’ 20-year-old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) entertains the notion of him as a mature boyfriend to move onto while their son Luke (Brendan Meyer) finds a protective big brother who will defend him from the bullies at high school. Still, there’s something off about the unfailingly polite and even-tempered David.

Director Adam Wingard uses triangles as a visual motif in THE GUEST, suggesting that there are two people or sides fighting for the same thing. In this case David is defending a family in mourning and possibly all of those who have lost or could lose loved ones in military service, but his specific motivations and who he’s resisting are unclear for a substantial amount of the film. When the primary mystery is dropped, it still leaves more questions than answers. The lack of details is only an issue in terms of the social commentary, which seems integrated in a slapdash manner. Otherwise Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett milk David’s unpredictability and the expectations surrounding his character type from other movies for tension and humor.

With David’s cool exterior, there’s the prevailing anticipation for him to snap. Shots of him alone staring dead-eyed at nothing certainly support the suspicion that all is not as well as he tries to make it seem. Steve Moore’s synthesizer score reflects David’s mental state in its control. The skittering notes suggest a mind in a constant state of calculation while maintaining the appearance of composure. Stevens is playing a familiar outsider role, the tough guy with an unknown background, and Wingard and Barrett have him toy with the preconceptions audiences bring. When David is using a knife around the house and calling out a guy at a party who says he supports the troops, Stevens wears an air of danger about him, perhaps even more when he’s messing with someone. To some extent Stevens is giving a comedic performance. His embodiment of a ruthless killer is often arch. The hilarious thumbs up that he gives, while possibly a reference to TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY, encapsulates the funny sensibility riding shotgun in this thriller.

THE GUEST isn’t entirely satisfying in telling a story but makes up for some narrative shortcomings by virtue of delivering well-crafted genre cinema. The climactic sequence inside and outside of a maze for the Halloween dance mixes anxiety and laughs in nearly equal measures. The exclaimed ending stresses that it is not to be taken too seriously. It may not provide a conventional sense of closure, but THE GUEST strives for good, bloody fun while being sure not to overstay its welcome.

Grade: B-

Friday, March 27, 2015

Home


HOME (Tim Johnson, 2015)

The stout, six-legged, purple alien species Boov excel at running away, and they’re doing it once again as they are being pursued by the planet-demolishing Gorg in HOME. Feckless leader Captain Smek (Steve Martin) relocate the Boov to Earth, where they promptly ship out all humans to congested neighborhoods in Australia dubbed Happy Humanstown. Oh (Jim Parsons), so named because of the groans he is greeted with, is excited for a fresh start, but when he sends his party invitation to the entire galaxy, it’s only a matter of forty hours until the Gorg receive it and attempt to destroy them.

Meanwhile, seventh grader Gratuity Tucci, better known as Tip (Rihanna), is looking for her mother after being missed during the Boov’s relocation phase. She encounters Oh when he’s a fugitive from Boov authorities and strikes an uneasy alliance with him to find her mom. Oh intends to take them to Antarctica, which is the only place on Earth with no Boov, while Tip thinks they are headed to Boov Command Central in Paris to search for her mom in the database.

There’s a subtle, if unelaborated, message about colonialism running through HOME. Oh says, “Boov do not steal and destruct. Boov liberate and befriend.” While Happy Humanstown is a colorful, cartoonish place, there’s no mistaking it for a giant ghetto. HOME doesn’t directly comment on these aspects of the story, which makes their inclusion kind of awkward in the grand scheme of things, especially because the primary theme is about not feeling like one fits in. Tip and her mother are immigrants from Barbados, and the challenges they’ve experienced color how they relate to the Boov.

HOME doesn’t push its theme too insistently, and the relationship between Oh and Tip has an easygoing feel that keeps the mismatched pair from becoming grating. Because Oh talks like THE BIG BANG THEORY’s Sheldon Cooper with traces of Jar-Jar Binks’ patois, the character runs the risk of becoming insufferable. Director Tim Johnson is careful to have Parsons not overdo his alien on the autism spectrum act.

 If studios have identifiable characteristics, HOME is readily noted as a DreamWorks production. It’s irreverent, which can be fun to a point, but it’s also indistinguishable from other bright, loud entertainment for kids.

Grade: B-

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cinderella


CINDERELLA (Kenneth Branagh, 2015)

Kenneth Branagh’s CINDERELLA is a mostly faithful live-action adaptation of Disney’s 1950 animated story of the girl who rises from the ashes to become a princess. Ella (Lily James) is a charming young woman who abides by her deceased mother’s gentle insistence always to have courage and be kind. When her father (Ben Chaplin) eventually remarries, Ella cheerfully accepts her new stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and bratty stepsisters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera). After he dies while away on business, these family members take even greater advantage of her, but she continues to accommodate them while guided by her mother’s words. Her face is often sullied with ashes from needing to sleep by the hearth to keep warm. Stepmother and stepsisters seize on this and dub her Cinderella.

One day while needing an escape from the cruelty she endures, Ella goes to the forest where she meets the prince (Richard Madden). He is enchanted with her but doesn’t get her name. He’s being pressured to make a politically wise marriage but prefers this simple country girl to the elite and powerful invited to his imminent royal ball. To find her again he wins a concession to invite all maidens to attend in the hope that Ella will come. Although her stepmother forbids her to go, Ella’s fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) provides some last minute solutions.

Branagh finds use for some CGI transformations in his version of CINDERELLA, but otherwise he stays true to a solid, old-fashioned vision of this well-known fairy tale. Contemporary interpretations or subversions of the source material are not welcome here, and that is perfectly fine. In fact, the most modern touches, like the morphing of the coach and footmen, look anomalous among the quaint and opulent backdrops.

Branagh made his name in film with Shakespearean adaptations rooted in their period settings. In CINDERELLA he’s particularly adept at staging scenes of castle intrigue in Chris Weitz’s screenplay. With the prince’s father ill and desiring a secure transition of power, the romantic aspect of the royal ball is tested by prudence and strategy. Branagh seems most in his element navigating the negotiations amid the hustle and bustle of the biggest and most important event in all of the land.

The elimination of the songs in this lavish remake represent the most notable deviation from the cartoon. Considering the overwhelming familiarity with the story and the massive success of FROZEN, it’s a curious change not to have this CINDERELLA be a musical. Ella is unerringly true to the principles she was raised to honor. While Ella doesn’t have much agency in her story, James never plays her as though she’s a pushover. It’s also nice to see a protagonist who, when given the opportunity to deliver a comeuppance to her oppressors, chooses to forgive. There’s not a lot of magic in the events of CINDERELLA, but it certainly exists in this touch of grace.

Grade: B-

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Frank


FRANK (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)

Art in general--and rock and roll in particular--fosters the image of the tortured genius, but in the age of the internet it’s now harder for the cult musician to build and maintain an aura of mystique than it was even twenty years ago. Except for the rare few, like the fame-indifferent group in FRANK, unknown and emerging bands establish social media presences to reach the music-obsessed. The art they produce matters, but being savvy about gaining awareness may be as critical to success as good songs. Because anyone with a laptop has the ability to record a single or an album, knowing how to cut through the clutter has become an important skill.

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) desires to be a songwriter, but the best he can muster are fragments of basic compositions with insipid lyrics literally describing what he sees. He catches a break when he comes upon the members of the alphabet soup-named band Soronprfbs watching their keyboardist being taken away by medical personnel after trying to drown himself. Jon’s offhanded mention that he plays the keyboards earns him an invitation from their manager Don (Scoot McNairy) to perform with them at their next gig. He has no idea what to expect, least of all that the avant-garde rock band’s singer Frank (Michael Fassbender) wears a big papier-mâché mask that he never takes off.

Although their concert doesn’t last more than a minute or two because theremin-playing Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) gets into a fight on stage with guitarist Baraque (François Civil), Jon learns that Frank likes him and wants him to join the group. Jon thinks he’s tagging along for a couple shows in Ireland but finds himself moving in with them to a house on an island as Soronprfbs prepare to record an album. Everyone else in this band of misfits regards Frank as brilliant. Don and Frank met in a mental institution, and the others have their own eccentricities. The conventional Jon doesn’t exactly get it but rolls with the situation and tries to assist as he can. He ends up bankrolling their nearly year-long stay away from society, yet his most significant contribution is documenting their process. Jon’s posts, tweets, and videos attract attention online and lead to an invitation to play at South by Southwest.

Jon is a striver who simply may not have what it takes, and FRANK expresses humorous contempt for dilettantes like him who possess more of an aptitude for promotion than artistry. He mistakes experiencing crisis for expanding creativity. Frank stands in as a mascot of sorts for Jon’s conception of the artist, but as more comes to be known about Frank, his weirdness is revealed to be something other than an affectation. The quirks Frank and the other band members exhibit inform their work but can also be the obstacle to completing it.

Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s screenplay has fun poking the music scene, even if it’s tough to let the air out of absurd band names when acts like !!! exist. Frank’s attempt to make his music more accessible yields a hilarious version of a supposedly likable song. Clara’s insistence that she will not take up the ukulele clobbers an easy but merited target in the current state of indie rock. While FRANK takes aim at untalented careerists in the industry, the film’s experimental rock music credibly demonstrates the filmmakers know what they are critiquing

Grade: B-

Focus


FOCUS (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2015)

In FOCUS seasoned con artist Nicky (Will Smith) knows the tricks of the trade so well that he can easily spot the hustle Jess (Margot Robbie) and her partner try to pull on him in a Manhattan restaurant. Seeing an opportunity to better herself, Jess follows Nicky to New Orleans, where she works to convince him to let her join his den of thieves. After capably proving her skills in a packed French Quarter, Nicky takes her on as an intern with his thirty-person team stealing money, valuables, and identities during Super Bowl week there.

The pleasure of a film about con artists resides in how smoothly it can fool you when you’re already on guard for some narrative chicanery. FOCUS co-writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are adept in keeping attention on the scams at hand so that the bigger design isn’t glimpsed or considered. They do a slick job of tying everything together in a satisfying way without spoiling the surprises and retroactively correcting some third act issues.

Ficarra and Requa are also quite clever in how they use The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” as a cue on the soundtrack. When it first pops up, it seems like a lazy selection in terms of the classic rock song’s overuse and direct comment on the action at hand. A little later on, though, the employment of it is shown as being crucial to the scene in a way that’s essentially invisible to the audience the first time. Using such details in ornamental and pivotal ways provides regular gratification in this fizzy film.

As long as Nicky is grifting, Smith channels the suave movie stars of yesteryear. He’s also a good verbal sparrer with Robbie, but the romance and heat that is supposed to exist between Nicky and Jess isn’t especially convincing. Smith displays some of the Cary Grant comedic lightness called for in the part, but he seems too invested in work to get distracted by Robbie’s harder edged Grace Kelly. Robbie gives the more varied performance as she adapts to the situations. It’s a potentially star-making turn in a film that hasn’t enjoyed the kind of success to push her to that level.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Lazarus Effect


THE LAZARUS EFFECT (David Gelb, 2015)

In the opening shot of THE LAZARUS EFFECT we can tell that a medical experiment of some kind is being performed on an animal, but it’s not exactly clear what we’re seeing tightly framed in the viewfinder. That single close-up summarizes the dilemma for the five main characters, who have a sense of what’s happening when their actions yield unintended consequences but can’t explain the results. The first shot also serves as a convenient allegory for the primary problem with this horror film. It identifies what is under thematic examination but doesn’t focus on it.

Project leaders and engaged couple Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) and their assistants Niko (Donald Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters) are working on a serum that can safely bring someone back from death without any physical deterioration or cognitive effects. If they’re successful, it means doctors will have more time to perform life-saving procedures on patients in crisis. They invite documentary filmmaker Eva (Sarah Bolger) to the subbasement to capture their efforts for posterity. As luck would have it, she’s recording when they mark their first major breakthrough by reviving a dog. Remarkably the canine’s cataracts are gone six minutes after being brought back to life. The dog doesn’t want to eat or drink and later displays some hyper-aggressive behavior, but nevertheless, this is a huge development in their study.

Excitement is short-lived, though, as soon thereafter the grant holder shuts down their unsanctioned experiment and confiscates all of their findings. The team wants to be able to prove that they are responsible for this landmark medical discovery, so they sneak back into the lab one night to duplicate the test. When Zoe gets electrocuted in an accident, the plan changes as Frank insists they use the serum on her. They resuscitate her, but she now talks of having been in hell for the hour when she was dead. Zoe feels herself changing, although her co-workers don’t observe any differences.

Rather than dig into the questions the material raises, director David Gelb is content to let THE LAZARUS EFFECT play out as a rote exercise in scary movie conventions. Although the film takes place in a confined space, it contains virtually no tension as members of the team are picked off one by one. THE LAZARUS EFFECT’s sympathies are aligned with Zoe, yet the dramatic logic is confused. She’s treated as victim and villain while not being accountable as either.

THE LAZARUS EFFECT’s unexplored ideas function as a placebo. The screenplay by Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater injects medical ethics, the role of corporations in academic research, and a matter of the soul but produces nothing of value by putting them in the system. For instance, Zoe is established as a Catholic with a recurring bad dream about an incident from childhood, and the character wrestles with the question of if it is ever possible to atone for a mistake or sin. THE LAZARUS EFFECT doesn’t need to dive into advanced theology, but it could make more of an effort to ponder the religious implications of the film’s developments. Everything that could give the film weight has no contemplative value.

Grade: D+