Wednesday, February 25, 2015

McFarland, USA


MCFARLAND, USA (Niki Caro, 2015)

Disney may not have perfected the inspirational sports movie formula, but the studio makes enough films about overachieving underdogs on the field, court, rink, and track for it to seem like they have distilled the essence of these true stories regardless of if the product turns out to be good, bad, or mediocre. MCFARLAND, USA is no different in following a boys’ cross country program that overcomes the odds to become state champions. The plot is like a race on a long straightaway. There aren’t any surprises, just markers along the trail to indicate how much ground has been covered. Director Niki Caro seasons the stock story with an affectionate portrayal of the community and picturesque views of the landscape.

Jim White (Kevin Costner) accepts a job as an assistant football coach and high school physical education and life science teacher in McFarland, California because he has no other options. His temper has earned his dismissal from other schools, so the best he can find is a demoted position in a small town largely populated by Mexican immigrants who make meager livings picking the fields. Jim, his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello), and their two daughters experience something akin to culture shock in relocating to the Fruit Bowl of California, but they can’t afford to live in nearby Bakersfield, which is where the white school employees tend to reside and commute from.

After butting heads with the head football coach, Jim proposes starting a boys’ cross country team. He has noticed that some Hispanic students, particularly Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts), already can run fast over long distances even though they’ve had no training. To form a team Jim just needs to convince seven boys to join. California is holding its first cross country state championship in 1987, so if Jim can succeed in building a winning program despite having no prior experience coaching runners, he may be able to earn a job in a more desirable location.

There’s irony in Costner’s character and the man he’s based on having the last name White. MCFARLAND, USA and films like it run the risk of angling their stories so it appears that a white savior arrives to make things better for minorities. The screenplay points out this unambiguous tension when the cross country runners frequently refer to their coach by his surname. It’s as though they are reminding him that race is important in informing his perspective and experience, which differ from theirs.

Caro stays attuned to the inherent racial implications of a culturally privileged man achieving enlightenment and self-improvement by guiding the disadvantaged. Costner’s performance radiates humility and a growing personal interest in his athletes, which presents the coach more like a talent spotter than the architect of the team’s success. White warrants credit for seeing the skill and channeling the ability in these kids, and the runners deserve their accolades through dedication and effort. The team is the source of the coach’s reflected glory.

While MCFARLAND, USA is sensitive to how it depicts these events, it struggles to round out any characters other than White. Except for the two runners who are mostly known as the brothers of the slowest team member, each boy is reduced to a single quality. Thomas’ storyline receives more attention to the others, but he still fails to register as more than a slightly more prominent part of the whole. It’s also disconcerting that an accomplished actress like Bello isn’t afforded more to do than being the sturdy family center while Jim devotes himself to coaching.

Such shortcomings aside, MCFARLAND, USA succeeds at detailing the challenges in the community and generating empathy with minimal condescension. White understands that families letting their sons compete can mean lost wages. When he volunteers to work in the fields and throws his daughter a quinceañera, it demonstrates that he knows his credibility and families’ willingness to let their boys run requires connecting with these people as more than just a cultural tourist. MCFARLAND, USA is a predictable, heartwarming story of unlikely sports achievement. As the McFarland runners push to win the title, the film can be quite thrilling, yet the greatest uplift comes in the human bonds forged to get to that moment.

Grade: B

The DUFF


THE DUFF (Ari Sandel, 2015)

Nearly every development and stylistic touch in THE DUFF has appeared in at least one other high school comedy, with MEAN GIRLS and EASY A serving as primary influences. Nevertheless, THE DUFF displays enough of its own charm and wisdom to distinguish it from the teen films with which it has much in common. Although it all looks and feels exceedingly familiar, director Ari Sandel and screenwriter Josh A. Cagan handle the material with sensitivity and insight.

Seniors Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) and her two best friends, Jess Harris (Skyler Samuels) and Casey Cordero (Bianca A. Santos), don’t rule Malloy High School but have enough social capital to grant them high-ranking status. Actually, that holds true for Jess and Casey, who are admired for their kindness and toughness, while the undefined Bianca drafts on her prettier friends’ desirability to hang with the cooler kids. About a month before homecoming Bianca is made aware of her function in the social order when Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell), the popular boy next door, informs her that she is what’s known as the DUFF, or Designated Ugly Fat Friend. The DUFF’s role is to remain socially invisible while operating as a gatekeeper to his or her better-looking friends.

Wesley tells Bianca that the term isn’t literal, just that it refers to the least attractive person in the group, as if that takes away the sting. Bianca was unaware that this is how she is perceived and does not take the news well. She gets mad at Jess and Casey and cuts off communication with them, which just isolates her more from her classmates. When Wesley’s failing grades get him suspended from the football team, Bianca strikes a deal to help him pass science in return for him teaching her how to shed her DUFF qualities.

Wesley’s hurtful remarks put events in THE DUFF into motion, but the film resists being cruel. Although Bianca is embarrassed and humiliated at times, she’s never pitied as though she is some hideous girl who requires a magical transformation to be liked and loved. It’s key that THE DUFF does not have a moment in which Bianca lets her hair down or takes off proverbial glasses to reveal her inner hottie. Her fashion preferences for overalls, novelty tees, and flannel shirts may not do her any favors in getting noticed, but she’s comfortable wearing those clothes, which makes Bianca beautiful in a way that suits her.

THE DUFF hits upon an ingenious observation about teenage insecurity that a lot of these films tend to miss when changing their ugly ducklings into swans. Feeling lack of self worth is as much, if not mostly, the result of the messages one tells oneself than what others might think and say. Bianca is right to be offended that Wesley labels her as a DUFF, but her problems begin when she accepts his comments as fact. Previously she’d been at ease with herself, even when she was awkward. Jess and Casey’s words and actions contradict Wesley’s statement. The trio have a genuine friendship instead of a tool for socially engineering more popularity for Jess and Casey, but once Bianca adopts a negative self-image, she views everything through that lens.

THE DUFF’s wish fulfillment elements are generally believable because the screenplay establishes long-standing connections between many of the characters. Bianca and Wesley rank on different levels of the school’s social hierarchy, but they’ve also grown up together. Their budding attraction and casual conversations, including the one that instigates Bianca’s drop in confidence, ring of a certain kind of closeness that comes from knowing someone since childhood than a jock-nerd alliance of convenience. Whitman, perhaps best remembered as the forgettable Ann Veal on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, shines in weathering Bianca’s emotional turbulence. Bianca is the smart, snarky sidekick pushed into the leading role, and Whitman invests her with humor, appealing eccentricity, vulnerability, and strength. Funny and sweet in spirit, THE DUFF shows that surviving high school can feel like running the gauntlet, but it can be a lot easier if you aren’t beating yourself.

Grade: B

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Jupiter Ascending


JUPITER ASCENDING (Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, 2015)

JUPITER ASCENDING looks and feels like it might have been one of the biggest box office hits of 1984 or one of the most expensive flops. The special effects are primarily digital than practical, but otherwise the film’s sensibility stems from the aspiring blockbusters that came in the wake of STAR WARS rather than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Writer-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski populate grand settings and spaceships with characters whose often goofy designs signal child-like imagination at play. JUPITER ASCENDING’s sincerity opens it to mockery, yet its resistance to circumscribed notions of cool makes it more endearing.

Like most heroes in this kind of mythic story, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) comes from a humble background and harbors no idea of the pivotal role she will play in saving humanity. She was born on a shipping container while her mother was illegally immigrating from Russia to the United States. Although family members tell her she’s destined for great things, it’s hard to put much stock in those words when she and her relatives are scrubbing toilets and cleaning houses to make a meager living.

What Jupiter doesn’t know is that she is the key to settling a family squabble out in space. The three Abrasax siblings own planets that they seed and harvest like corporate farms. Earth ranks among the most valuable of such commodities. Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) owns Earth, but his brother Titus (Douglas Booth) and sister Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) have designs on taking possession of it from him with Jupiter’s assistance. Titus hires disgraced legionnaire Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) to find Jupiter before Balem has her killed. Saving Jupiter from bounty hunters does not remove her from danger, though. She is whisked into deep space where she must claim her rightful royal position and survive the scheming Abrasax clan.

Strip away the science fiction and fantasy trappings, and what remains is a fairy tale with some Shakespearean drama and economic criticism thrown in for good measure. Kunis makes for a plucky princess who, while occasionally needing to be rescued by a wolf/human hybrid in gravity-surfing boots, is capable of navigating interstellar bureaucracy and negotiations. The Wachowskis have great fun steering Jupiter through the gears of government as they pay comedic tribute to BRAZIL and bring in Terry Gilliam for a cameo to certify the reference. The Bard-like flourish is found in the privileged Abrasaxes, whose cosmic property battle sets events in motion.

With its view that humans are unaware of the forces controlling their lives and suggestions of pansexuality, JUPITER ASCENDING is readily identifiable as a film by the makers of THE MATRIX trilogy. Whereas that series became bogged down in philosophical queries, this film considers matters of consumption and purpose as seasoning than the meat. The dawn chase across Chicago’s skyline and on its streets is a dazzling setpiece that demonstrates the Wachowskis still know how to stage an action sequence not bound to the laws of physics. Their personal touch is responsible for the hokeyness that might make JUPITER ASCENDING appear quaint and perhaps laughable at times, but that lack of cynicism also allows them to pull off the sillier elements in this fable.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Interview


THE INTERVIEW (Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, 2014)

As THE INTERVIEW neared its Christmas 2014 release, seeing a silly movie with James Franco and Seth Rogen changed from a holiday diversion into a patriotic demonstration. The film’s comedic premise about assassinating the leader of North Korea was suspected of making Sony a target for hackers. Those electronic intruders also threatened to bomb theaters where THE INTERVIEW would play. With national chains electing not to show it, the studio canceled the film’s opening before announcing a last minute plan to put it some independent theaters and simultaneously release it on online platforms. At this point watching THE INTERVIEW transformed into a defiant act against a foreign dictator. That’s a lot to burden any film, let alone one that doesn’t take itself seriously.

Although television producer Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) and host Dave Skylark (Franco) are celebrating ten years and one thousand episodes of their tabloid talk show, Aaron has some regrets that their work is not respected or respectable. To restore his pride Aaron wants to do something serious. The biggest exclusive of his life falls into his lap when he learns that North Korean President Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a fan and would consent to an interview with Dave. Of course, the so-called Supreme Leader insists that he will supply all of the questions, but the opportunity to scoop the worldwide media is irresistible.

Before traveling to the palace in Pyongyang for the big interview Aaron and Dave are visited by the CIA’s Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), who wants them to assassinate President Kim. Aaron just needs to apply a ricin strip to Dave’s palm so that a metabolizing poison will be transferred to Kim when they shake hands. The effects won’t kick in until twelve hours later, which should keep suspicion from falling on them and thus not inhibit their departure Kim’s death is expected to embolden a small faction to revolt. Aaron and Dave reluctantly agree to the mission, although Dave has second thoughts after hanging out and bonding with Kim.

To Park’s credit the dimension he gives Kim Jong-un is THE INTERVIEW’s most surprising aspect. Sure, Kim’s dignity is teased with him portrayed as a Katy Perry fan who worries that liking margaritas calls his sexuality into question, but the current North Korean president is not presented as a caricature as his father, Kim Jong-il, was in TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE. Both depictions intend to humiliate the tyrants, but in THE INTERVIEW Park plays a risible figure whose danger exists in being an overgrown child conditioned to getting his way all the time and lashing out when he doesn’t. The difference between him and a toddler throwing a tantrum is that he has missiles.

THE INTERVIEW has more bite in its satire of media that kowtow to politicians and celebrities for the sake of access. Whether it’s soft or hard news programs, the implication is that the relationship between watchers or gatekeepers and their subjects is too cozy. The truth is stage managed at the pleasure of those in the public eye rather than those with the cameras and microphones. Franco’s Skylark is a smarmy tool of his interviewees, and some of the funniest moments come in his displays of ingratiating ignorance. Franco’s energy and Rogen’s expressions of incredulity can be sufficiently amusing, although THE INTERVIEW never musters enough comedic momentum to be more than just intermittently funny.

Grade: C

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Most Violent Year


A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (J.C. Chandor, 2014)

While teaching his salespeople how to secure contracts for his heating oil company Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) says, “You will never do anything as hard as staring someone straight in the eye and telling the truth.” In A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, set in 1981 New York City, Abel wants to be an honest man in a dirty business in which competitors steal from and kill one another, but his shortcoming is failing to be honest with himself about how his business is able to survive. Still, that willful blindness allows him to take the necessary steps to get by each day. Thus he can believe he is a good man facing persecution for the wickedness of others.

Abel worked as a driver for the Standard Heating Oil Company before he and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) bought it from her father, who is widely recognized as a Brooklyn gangster. Over twenty years Abel has grown the business and attracted unwanted attention because of such success. District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) has been investigating the company for two years and is preparing to file a fourteen-count indictment. Abel’s drivers are being attacked, and thousands of dollars of fuel is being stolen.

These problems are also making it difficult for Abel to line up an investor to help with purchasing a piece of property that will give him a major strategic advantage. With a substantial nonrefundable portion already paid, Abel is desperate to scrounge up another $1.5 million but can’t obtain it from legitimate sources. He doesn’t want to be indebted to crooked men because he envisions himself as an upstanding businessman, but with time running out and pressure mounting, he may have no other choice.

Writer-director J.C. Chandor is interested in studying how power, be it political or financial, is aligned out of sight and what the consequences of this process are for those not benefiting from it. Cinematographer Bradford Young drapes A MOST VIOLENT YEAR in low light so that the action literally takes place in and among the shadows. Abel is comfortable there, even when his back is against the wall, because the shroud is meant to protect people like him. For his drivers threatened by an unknown enemy, even going into hiding is not a safe place. They are the little guys, and they will always be the first to pay because of their low position on the hierarchy.

Hard work and good luck may factor into Abel’s achievements, but determination and effort are not the only traits responsible. Isaac does outstanding work as a compromised man who has the luxury of not knowing how much of his prosperity comes from the grease and grime he hasn’t been required to touch. He shows the depth of Abel’s conviction and righteousness while dwelling in the darkness unaware of his slow descent. Chastain’s fierce performance paints Anna as a kingmaker of sorts. Anna knows her role and carries it out with ruthless efficiency without drawing notice. Through her Chastain manifests a different kind of toughness, the type that isn’t necessarily front and center but quietly acquires dominance through proximity and savvy.

Although the drama is fraught with tension, Chandor finds room in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR for two terrific chase scenes. Both also make tangible the anxiety, terror, and anger pumping through the narrative and remove standards of fair play. To Chandor the nature of business and politics isn’t Darwinian so much as it is a guided by those setting the rules in their favor.

Grade: A-

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Inherent Vice


INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)

The return of an old girlfriend in 1970 kicks of a complicated mystery for private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in INHERENT VICE. Shasta (Katherine Waterston) is now involved with a wealth real estate developer, but she fears for his well-being and wants Doc to look into matters. While on the case he has run-ins with his nemesis, Los Angeles police detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), begins looking for another missing man somehow tied into this all, and is warned of drug smugglers known as the Golden Fang.

In INHERENT VICE the title is explained as something that can’t be avoided. In this instance it’s the 1960s being colonized by the 1970s. Doc’s world of dopers and revolutionaries is gradually giving way to those learning how to wring economic benefits out of a new generation’s political ideals. Often operating in a pot-fueled haze, he seems firmly committed to remaining among the counterculture, but for all of their integrity, he and his fellow misfits on the shore are fated to be washed away by the incoming tide. They haven’t been wiped out yet, but the songs on the soundtrack, including Sam Cooke’s “(What a) Wonderful World”, Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki”, and The Association’s “Never My Love”, suggest a wistfulness for the present and recent past that will soon be gone.

The comedic bohemian mystery points toward Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE crossed with THE BIG LEBOWSKI. In adapting Thomas Pynchon’s novel writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson creates a sense of confusion from the sheer amount of information to sift through and players to keep straight. The complexity of it all is more of the point than being able to explain everyone’s motivations in the end, although upon closer examination it appears to all add up. The humor and resonant emotional turns experienced in this environment are what’s so pleasurable about INHERENT VICE.

Phoenix is a stitch as a drug-addled PI struggling to stay up to speed with the reams of information thrown his direction. As Bigfoot, Brolin is bluntly funny wielding a cop’s laser intensity and lack of regard for everything Doc stands for. Despite their differences Doc and Bigfoot need each other as mismatched informal partners with their fingers on the pulse of separate universes. They are destined to be at eternal odds, but it’s when they collaborate that the larger scheme can come into clearer focus.

Grade: A

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Blackhat


BLACKHAT (Michael Mann, 2015)

The idea that the world today is smaller than before and continues to shrink is not exactly new, but BLACKHAT considers the increasing fluidity with which borders can be breached regardless of the surveillance mechanisms in place. Battles can be waged from a distance and possibly without notice until it is too late. Measures intended to enhance security are also vulnerable to being exploited for the gain of those with the expertise and access, whether approved or ill-gotten. Obviously physical warfronts still exist, but the zones capable of causing quick, anonymous, and massive destruction lie in the connections among computers and those who best know how to travel and control the cyber realm.

When a hacker uses a Remote Access Tool to cause a nuclear reactor failure in China and mess with the soy market in the United States, officials in both countries are eager to locate whoever is responsible. That no one claims credit or makes demands is most distressing to both superpowers. Although the Americans are wary about what information they share with the Chinese, they need to combine forces to find their elusive enemy. FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) and Captain Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) from China’s cyber defense division, accompanied by his computer expert sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei), are working together when Dawai observes that the hacker used old code he wrote with his roommate at MIT. He insists that if they are to find their antagonist, they need to have his old friend, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), on their team.

Getting Hathaway onboard is more difficult than clearing a low administrative hurdle, though. He is currently serving fifteen years as a convicted hacker. For his participation Hathaway demands no less than a commutation of his sentence if he succeeds. Failure will find him back in his cell serving the remainder of his time. Hathaway’s exemplary skill set secures his temporary release, although it comes with a monitoring bracelet and FBI watcher. It isn’t long before he susses out some clues about who they seek, but Hathaway and crew always seem to be slightly behind those they are pursuing, even as their search extends to various spots in Asia.

Director Michael Mann depicts modern skylines like circuit boards with jutting buildings as the internal components of a much larger machine we live and work inside. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh lights this world so that surfaces give little weight to BLACKHAT’s digitally captured images. Through the visual design reality itself seems more ephemeral, like a blurry flow of zeroes and ones. Technology has liberated the camera to go virtually anywhere, and CGI animation can render what the lens may not see, as in the early tracking of a virus through linked computers like the combustion process followed inside the engine in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS films. While BLACKHAT is not alarmist about the ease of movement through the electronic landscape, it examines how the lack of the material fosters amorality. The simple press of a button can wreak untold consequences thousands of miles away whereas greater proximity and more direct involvement breed closer scrutiny.

Morgan Davis Foehl’s screenplay doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand through this global thriller, and the leanly edited film makes every shot purposeful. In that way it is akin to reading lines of code to comprehend how everything connects. Mann shows himself not to be a chilly technician, though, but a craftsman attuned to spotting the sensual within a data overload. When Hathaway is on the tarmac after his prison release, the space stretching around him appears limitless and overwhelming, yet it’s a light touch on the arm that helps him reorient to his surroundings. Ultimately it’s that desire to find one’s grounding amid the noise that BLACKHAT has most in mind.

Grade: B

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mortdecai


MORTDECAI (David Koepp, 2015)

MORTDECAI features a type of comedy that has fallen out of fashion in mainstream American cinema. Although this farce doesn’t lack broad humor and innuendo, it prizes light silliness and suggestion over blunt vulgarity. Recurring jokes rely on the protagonist’s unusual and unreciprocated fondness for his curly facial hair than scatology. In fact, this is the mildest R-rated comedy to hit theaters in who knows how long, and it probably contains less objectionable content than many PG-13 films. Screenwriter Eric Aronson, adapting a Kyril Bonfiglioli comedic novel, seeks laughs through wordplay and the gentrified class’s out of touch behavior. Director David Koepp dresses the film in a Continental style and attitude, linking it more with 1960s comedies than contemporary lowbrow entertainment. While MORTDECAI’s mystery-solving husband and wife don’t work together much on screen, Koepp may also be trying to draw a line from THE THIN MAN films of the 1930s and ‘40s to the loving couple in his movie. If only MORTDECAI were funnier.

Mustachioed, gap-toothed Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) owes £8 million in back taxes and is on the verge of insolvency when a last ditch opportunity to make an enormous sum of money without selling any possessions presents itself. A restorer in Oxford has been murdered, and the Goya painting she was working on has been stolen. Mortdecai’s connections to the seedier side of the art collecting world means that old school chum and MI5 inspector Alistair Martland (Ewan McGregor) must turn to him for assistance in locating the painting. If successful, Mortdecai stands to make a substantial amount for his efforts.

The task comes with its share of danger, as terrorist Emil Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky) is suspected of murder by crossbow and art thievery. While Mortdecai and his manservant Jock (Paul Bettany) bumble their way into trouble and upon various clues, his wife Joanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) conducts her own investigation by exploiting Martland’s lengthy infatuation with her to learn key information. All parties know the missing Goya is valuable, but they come to learn that it could be a long-lost masterpiece also rumored to have a code to Hermann Göring’s Swiss bank account scrawled on the back. If this is indeed the case, it is worth an unimagined fortune.

The preponderance of mustache-related humor represents a severe miscalculation by the filmmakers. Depp looks suitably ridiculous with what rests above his upper lip, but MORTDECAI goes all-in on with numerous jokes about this characteristic as if the defining hairy growth is so inherently hilarious that it merits quips at its expense with clockwork regularity. Mortdecai encountering Los Angeles hipsters with ornate facial hair marks one of the rare occasions when a follicular jab hits an easy target, but it hardly compensates for all the other failed attempts.

Depp, seemingly in Peter Sellers mode, can be amusing playing clueless privilege, as when he mistakes a hotel key card for a credit card, although too often he counts on the mustache to generate comedic delight. He’s more successful revealing the character as an overgrown child, such as the time when he touches a cactus’s spine and exclaims in pain, as if there could be any other outcome. MORTDECAI also needs more sly, witty exchanges like the one in which Joanna asks Martland if he thinks she could keep a secret about having an affair and then dismisses it as pointless when he suggests she could get away with it. MORTDECAI perks up in those moments when given over to its fizzy nature, but returning to those mustache jokes and getting bogged down in plot in the third act flattens what mild charm bubbles to the surface.

Grade: C