Friday, June 17, 2016


FAULTS (Riley Stearns, 2014)

If Dr. Ansel Roth (Leland Orser) hasn’t hit rock bottom as FAULTS begins, he doesn’t have much farther to fall. He gets booted from a hotel restaurant for trying to use an already-redeemed meal voucher he fished out of the trash. Presumably just about everything he owns fits into his compact hatchback, including the boxes of books he schleps to his speaking events in hotel meeting rooms. Ansel is an expert on mind control and cults, but the suicide of a woman he tried to deprogram cost him a television show, his wife, and virtually everything else of value.

He’s so tired of his specialty and the point it has brought him to that he initially declines an opportunity to assist a middle-aged couple (Chris Ellis and Beth Grant) who are desperate to break the grip a cult named Faults has on their 28-year-old daughter. When his agent demands repayment of a large sum of money or else, Ansel reluctantly agrees to perform the expensive deprogramming work. He is upfront with the parents that the success rate is just fifty percent. He and two hired hands abduct Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from a grocery store parking lot. They take her to a motel room where, over five days, Ansel will attempt to weaken and sever the cult’s hold on her.

As Ansel is at wit’s end, he’s not exactly in the best state of mind to be facing off against someone with a newfound sense of inner strength. Naturally Claire is concerned about being snatched in public and kept captive, but it could be argued that she is better suited to withstand the immediate strains in the situation than her counselor. For all of his personal shortcomings, FAULTS shows Ansel to be professionally skilled, if somewhat of a bumbler. Writer-director Riley Stearns makes clear the seriousness of what’s at stake but uses a darkly comedic sensibility to toy with Ansel’s dignity. The scenario seems more fraught with danger because of the doctor’s vulnerability, not the patient’s.

To breed trust, Ansel alternates periods of intense discussion with restful time for Claire to reconnect with her parents. FAULTS also takes pauses so Ansel can address the increasing pressure he’s getting to set things right with his agent. Such moments are important in the process of bringing him even lower, but they don’t function so much as necessary releases from the tension but as interruptions. FAULTS rivets when Ansel and Claire duel in their cat-and-mouse confidence game, not quite knowing which is gaining the upper hand. The other stuff matters but is established well enough that returning to it isn’t essential.

A cult leader strives to strip a person of self-assurance and prior relationships and then take the place of what has been removed. A deprogrammer is essentially doing the same in reverse by attempting to clear away the cult-inspired certainty and connections so as to reestablish healthy foundation. Orser and Winstead’s performances convey the mental forces in opposition, with Ansel trying to weaken Claire’s defenses while her resistance rubs against the spots where he is exposed. Although Ansel is trying to present a rational, empathetic appearance, Orser plays him tightly coiled. The line between his suggestibility and his patient’s is narrow. Orser wears the demeaned nature of the character that can make it funny that Ansel is the one trying to eliminate someone else’s dysfunction.

Winstead brings a serene air to Claire that shows her capable of compliance as the circumstances demand yet not willing to yield her agency to the man aiming to shatter and reform how she views the world. In light of her role in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, which opened two years after FAULTS debuted on the festival circuit, Winstead’s Claire stands as a fascinating variation of the woman held against her will. Both characters generate power in maintaining the impression of assenting to their antagonists’ commands, but watch out when the facade ruptures.

Grade: B-

Friday, June 10, 2016

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, 2016)

Pop sensation Conner4Real (Andy Samberg) is preparing to release his second solo album and has a documentary crew around to capture every moment in POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING. Conner’s ascent started as a member of the Style Boyz with childhood friends Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer), but the rap trio breaks up when Lawrence gets angry about not receiving writing credit for Conner’s guest verse on an award-winning hit. Lawrence drops out of the music industry and becomes a farmer. Meanwhile Conner enjoys even greater success as a solo performer. Owen helps make beats for Conner’s tracks and DJs during his concerts, but for the next album and tour cycle Conner has reduced his contribution to pushing play on an iPod.

Questionable singles, bad reviews, and a backfiring release strategy that automatically pushes Conner’s new material to home appliances begin to erode his popularity. Album sales are suffering and his concerts aren’t selling out, so at the suggestion of his manager Harry (Tim Meadows), he agrees to take on underground hip-hop star Hunter the Hungry (Chris Redd) as an opening act. Ticket sales get a boost, but a string of embarrassing incidents threaten to damage his career even more.

POPSTAR puts a poptimist twist on THIS IS SPINAL TAP. It takes the music and the industry seriously while goofing hard on both. As outlandish as much of the lyrics and behavior can be, the main joke is that a lot of it isn’t far removed from real songs or public artist missteps. The absurdity is certainly turned up, but the humor reflects what life looks like inside and outside the pop bubble. Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone employ a lot of referential jokes but have the good sense not to make the funniness contingent on being able to spot what they’re satirizing. It’s an added bonus if you recognize the film’s analogues to Tyler, The Creator and a Macklemore & Ryan Lewis hit, among many other zingers, but the jokes still land for those who don’t read Pitchfork or Stereogum every day. Considering the broad nature of the jokes, the film tends to relatively subtle, such as how Conner adapts his real last name for showbiz.

As members of The Lonely Island, Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone are pop stars in their own right, and their ties with popular artists surely helped in getting many of them to cameo in POPSTAR. Whether appearing as themselves or playing parts, like Justin Timberlake as Conner’s approval-seeking personal chef, the presence of so many celebrities may take some of the teeth out of the comedy. POPSTAR pokes fun at the music business, but it adopts more of an insider’s perspective. That quality doesn’t make the film less funny, but it does seem like the humor is somewhat soft-pedaled. One of the most savage and funniest bits is reserved for the vultures at a TMZ-like television show, which is indicative of where the film’s sympathies are.

Still, implicit criticism is found in POPSTAR and is identified through the form it takes and the recent slew of pop star documentaries it riffs on. The title calls back to JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER. The style suggests that, at face value, the film is an unvarnished look at an artist, as if Conner or any other pop act, like One Direction, are just humble folks with ordinary origins even as such statements celebrate their excess and inspire envy. POPSTAR slyly draws attention to the fact that social media postings and theatrically-released documentaries for fans as ostensible promotional campaigns are just the current way of managing perception to keep revenue flowing. There’s a reason why artists authorize something unflattering being distributed widely. The joke may seem like it’s on the pop stars, but if we believe it, isn’t it on us?

Grade: B

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Me Before You

ME BEFORE YOU (Thea Sharrock, 2016)

In broad strokes the romantic drama ME BEFORE YOU is a fairy tale of a sort. A sad young man rarely leaves the grounds of the castle where he lives. His parents worry about him to the point where the mother hires an exuberant young woman from the small English town to try and lift his spirit. In time she does. Whether they will continue together happily ever after is quite a bit trickier than it is in storybooks, though.

Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke), or Lou for short, gets knocked down when she loses her job, but she gets up again and is willing to take virtually anything that can help support the parents, sister, and nephew she lives with. Although she’s never assisted a quadriplegic before, Lou is offered a well-paying position and six-month contract to be a caregiver for Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) in the family castle. She’s to be more of a companion than a home health care worker, which in its own way can be a greater challenge as there isn’t a medication or procedure for how she can make him feel better. Before he was hit by someone on a motorcycle, Will was a big mover and shaker in the London business world and highly active in his free time. The two years since he lost almost total use of his limbs and became confined to a wheelchair have not diminished the grief the 31-year-old feels over what his life has become.

Lou’s bubbliness and Will’s prickliness put them in opposition for awhile, but she is undeterred in wanting to make him happy. Eventually her openness and warmth softens Will, and he appears to be happier than he has been in a long time. Lou’s satisfaction with the progress she’s made takes a major hit, though, when she learns that, despite his better mood, Will still intends to go through with his long-planned, doctor-assisted suicide in Switzerland. Rather than quit, Lou is determined to show him all that life has to offer and to make it worth pressing on.

With her sparkly personality and bold wardrobe, Lou epitomizes the film type whose exceedingly whimsical nature is the cure-all for a man in need of reshaping his life. She’s Tinkerbell rather than a 26-year-old woman. At times director Thea Sharrock leads Clarke’s performance past familiar and adorable into shameless mugging. The character often seems to be at battle between being child-like but mature or childish. Her loving but frustrated selflessness with oblivious workout fiend boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis) brings a needed edge to Lou. Clarke fares better when she doesn’t have to be unsustainably perky. For the significant stretch of ME BEFORE YOU when the romantic angle isn’t in play, chemistry builds between Lou and Will during their many conversations. Their evolution from a working relationship to friendship and beyond isn’t rushed and makes sense.

ME BEFORE YOU ventures into iffier territory when dealing with the right to die question. The problem arises because, first and foremost, this is a romance, not an issue film. The love story works because these are beautiful people speaking from their hearts and acting with concern for each other. That also means the most unpleasant aspects of Will’s condition are largely dealt with off-screen, lest they spoil the atmosphere. ME BEFORE YOU doesn’t have to be graphic in depicting the pain and lack of dignity that Will experiences, but the character’s wish is less easily understood when, all things considered, he’s doing well given the circumstances. Because this is Lou’s story, Will’s psychological state remains hidden.

Without fail Lou puts everyone else’s happiness before her own, so per narrative conventions, it is right that in the end she benefits from the sacrifices she makes. The ending thus seems a little unintentionally gross, as though the film’s events are a means to a deserving reward of putting her on the path to self-actualization. ME BEFORE YOU is an effective tearjerker, but dabbling with a controversial topic to yield more sobs cheapens the entire enterprise.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Love & Friendship

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (Whit Stillman, 2016)

The tart comedy LOVE & FRIENDSHIP savors passive-aggressive verbal fencing under the guise of polite conversation. Writer-director Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella LADY SUSAN arms Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) with a devastating rapier-like wit with which she makes ribbon of her counterparts. Beckinsale expertly wields the veiled put-downs and Jedi mind tricks in Lady Susan’s arsenal, using perfect inflections to sound civil while criticizing or manipulating those on the receiving end of her words. At a time when being a widow made women particularly vulnerable, Lady Susan’s facility with language and persuasion is a means to survival.

When suspicion at Langford of her affair with Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin) makes staying there untenable, Lady Susan makes a hasty departure to visit her in-laws’ estate Churchill. The widow’s reputation as a flirt precedes her and is cause for her sister-in-law Lady Catherine Decourcy Vernon’s (Emma Greenwell) concern, as her eligible brother Reginald Decourcy (Xavier Samuel) proves susceptible to Lady Susan’s diabolical charm. With no husband and little of her own to speak of, Lady Susan is calculating how she can ensnare a man to provide for her comfort and security.

She fears that the arrival at Churchill of her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) could potentially shift Reginald’s attention until Frederica’s intended, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), appears there as well. Sir James is a fool and of no interest to Frederica, but as a wealthy landowner, Lady Susan has strategically identified him as an ideal match for her daughter, thus securing their welfare. Nevertheless, Frederica, having promised her mother not to trouble her aunt and uncle with her lack of affection for Sir James, confides in Reginald. Lady Susan adeptly stamps out this potential undoing of all she is putting into motion, but the complications of controlling her daughter, maintaining Reginald’s fascination, and continuing to see Lord Manwaring on the sly are increasing.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP treats matters of the heart in purely practical terms. Beckinsale’s performance does not apologize for Lady Susan’s ruthlessness and, in fact, delights in her devious brilliance. Lady Susan comes across as an effortless conversationalist, which obscures how Beckinsale is often closely observing the cues in social settings and revealing the character’s hyper-awareness in shaping her every utterance. The morality of her guiding principle can be fairly questioned, but the film sympathizes with Lady Susan, as she is attempting to maximize the benefit in a game social structure has rigged against her. The significance of the introductory narration is impossible to comprehend in the moment, but by the end, it becomes clear that the person speaking of Lady Susan’s time at Langford understands the difficult position she inhabits.

Stillman’s remarkable screenplay requires careful parsing of what is being said implicitly. The entire film is best understood by reading between the lines. Many of the most consequential events in LOVE & FRIENDSHIP happen off-screen, yet Stillman leaves no confusion regarding such developments and the motivations behind them. Discretion is of the utmost importance for these characters, yet scenes tend to be framed as though eavesdroppers on the grounds and in the hallways could be privy to what personal information is being shared. Privacy is thus presented as something of a mutually agreed-upon illusion just as forthright opinions are shrouded in well-manned discussions.

Much of the humor derives from cutting remarks, with the hilarious exception of the buffoonish Sir James. Bennett plays the silly suitor like a computer with latency problems. Sir James hears the other side of a conversation and takes noticeably longer than normal to process it and respond. His muddled replies are usually in a stilted cadence indicative that his mental faculties are still lagging. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP exhibits no similar operational defects but rather runs smoothly on Stillman’s aptitude for dissecting the social order and knack with pointed and cultured jokes.

Grade: A

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Nice Guys

THE NICE GUYS (Shane Black, 2016)

A young woman is on the run and hiding from unknown people in 1977 Los Angeles when she pays muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to persuade private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) to stop looking for her in the film noir comedy THE NICE GUYS. Holland is tracking Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) because an old lady has apparently mistaken her for her niece, a porn actress who died days earlier in a car crash. Jackson and Holland don’t make their introduction on the best of terms, what with Jackson breaking Holland’s arm, but they team up to search for Amelia when the professional intimidator realizes that her life is in danger if they don’t find her first.

Both are broken men, although Jackson is dealing with his wife’s demeaning departure better than Holland mourning his spouse’s death. Complicating their search is the undeniable fact that Holland is a drunk, although at least the disadvantages tend to be canceled by the positive effects of his bumbling. Holland’s precocious thirteen-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) tends to disregard his orders to go to a friend’s house for the night when the guys are out investigating, so she she often finds a way to tag along. Holly proves to be helpful, but she’s an additional concern for Jackson and Holland when the setting is no place appropriate for a kid and the bullets are flying.

THE NICE GUYS screenplay by director Shane Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi is peppered with plenty of good jokes, several pertaining to the use of language. For instance, Holland corrects a reference to a “porno actress” as a “porno young lady”, as if that’s a more polite way of talking about the victim, and tries to break his daughter’s habit of adding “and stuff” onto the end of statements when he should probably be more concerned about her bluntness. Black and Bagarozzi make vulgar, funny poetry out of the hard-bitten talk of detective movies and pulp novels. Crowe and Gosling function more like a comedy duo than action heroes, with Crowe playing the gruff straight man to Gosling’s klutz.

As pleasurable as it is to listen to these characters’ terse chatter, the physical comedy is aces too. Gosling gets a showcase bit when Jackson confronts Holland in a bathroom stall. With his pants around his ankles while on the toilet Holland tries to recover the lit cigarette he dropped, prop the stall door opened, handle a gun, and keep his private parts covered with a magazine. His fumbling simultaneous management of these tasks is terrific slapstick. There’s a cartoon-like quality to the physical comedy too. When Holland scrambles to retrieve a bouncing film canister, he chases after it with the single-mindedness of Skrat’s pratfall-riddled pursuit of an acorn in the ICE AGE shorts and films. All that’s missing are animated birds circling the head of an uncooperative bartender when Jackson yanks on the witness’ tie like he’s ringing church bells and cracks his forehead on the bar. Looney Tunes wouldn’t go so far to depict the THE NICE GUYS’ darkly humorous disregard for bystander victimization and situational errors, as in corpse disposal, but both share the anarchic sensibility regarding comedic violence. Black makes clever use of the frame to bring some extra kick to the jokes, whether through the use of a lighter’s flame to reveal what a character hasn’t noticed is next to him or finishing gags with action in the background.

While THE NICE GUYS is a very funny movie, the sadness and cynicism coursing through it maintain the connection with noir. A lot of terrible incidents get shrugged off as just the way things are. Despite the film’s blithe attitude about killing and corruption, Holly, impressively played by Rice as a Veronica Mars in the making, embodies innocence worth shielding from all of the ugliness. Having lost her mother and home--and her father too, implicitly--Holly acts as though she’s seen it all, yet Rice reveals the character’s pure nature when directly confronted with the awful actions of adults. Sometimes all you can do is laugh off all of the rotten things in the world, but sometimes you have an obligation to maintain the moral center. THE NICE GUYS balances jaded amusement and reluctant uprightness exceptionally well.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Angry Birds Movie

THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE (Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly, 2016)

The knee-jerk reaction is to assume bad, frivolous, or less-than-inspired source material automatically means a film adaptation is folly, yet good ideas for movies come from unexpected places all the time. Plenty of popular but critically-derided books have been turned into good films, and several literary classics have been converted to the screen with dismal results. Still, it’s easy to scoff at the notion of movies based on theme park rides, board games, newspaper comic strips, or whatever weird source comes to mind. Positive examples may be rarer, like the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film and Robert Altman’s POPEYE versus THE HAUNTED MANSION, BATTLESHIP, and MARMADUKE, but the problem isn’t with where they originated but how they were realized. Which brings us to THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE, a computer-animated comedy adapted from the mobile game.

Life is happy and carefree for most of the flightless avian residents of Bird Island, but for Red (Jason Sudeikis) pretty much everything is an affront. Red nurtures a grudge about growing up as an orphan and continuing to be teased about his prominent eyebrows. With his home relocated outside the village, Red’s sense of disconnection from his chirpy neighbors increases. Red is quick to anger, and an outburst in court gets him sentenced to anger management counseling where he meets the speedy, prevaricating Chuck (Josh Gad), the literally explosive Bomb (Danny McBride), and silent, imposing Terence (Sean Penn).

The birds are unaware of anyone beyond their perch in the ocean until one day when a ship arrives with green pigs. The ship’s captain Leonard (Bill Hader) comes bearing gifts, and the birds warmly accept the pigs. Red, though, is suspicious of the visitors’ intentions. He persuades Chuck and Bomb to join him in a search for their mythical protector Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage) in the event that they need to drive off the pigs.

THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE isn’t bad so much as it is unfailingly ordinary. This rote execution of the modern big-studio animation formula assembles a constellation of celebrities and comedians to voice the characters, sprinkles in some mildly inappropriate jokes kids won’t get but acknowledge the adults accompanying them, and winds up with a dance scene set to a pop song. No one was expecting THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE to be revolutionary, nor need it be, but the lack of a creative spark is notable. A film as brand extension doesn’t have to be inherently risk-averse. In many respects THE LEGO MOVIE is also a feature-length commercial for toys and games, yet its inventiveness overshadows the unit sales-driving force behind its existence.

A fantasy sequence with Leonard and an egg set to The Carpenters’ “Close to You” is moderately amusing, although the tried-and-true song cue is indicative of the film’s lack of imagination with its pop culture references. (It seems like a missed opportunity that Public Image Ltd.’s “Rise”, with the repeated lyric “Anger is an energy”, is not employed in the film.) Hader brings some smarmy humor to the diabolical pig king. The funniest thing might be Penn’s casting as a surly, fearsome bird, but it’s a meta in-joke that goes virtually unrecognized except for spotting his name in the credits. In general THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE doesn’t strive to be anything more than a mindless time diversion not unlike a game played on a phone while waiting in line. Thirty years ago this might have been a feature film, but its natural form is as a half-hour show playing at 3:30 in the afternoon on a broadcast TV station.

As the audience for THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE is primarily children, there is an implicit expectation that a message, however half-hearted, must be conveyed, even in something that’s the cinematic equivalent of empty calories. Setting aside the possibility of a political reading regarding the warranted fear of outsiders, the moral of the story is curious. THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE suggests that it is right to feel aggrieved because in due time others will come around to appreciate that perspective. Something tells me that won’t be the takeaway of FINDING DORY.

Grade: C-

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Defending Your Life

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (Albert Brooks, 1991)

Having been struck head-on by a bus after going left of center in his new car, Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks) comes to in a place that looks a lot like the western United States but is not on Earth. In DEFENDING YOUR LIFE the Los Angeles advertising man learns that he is dead and has been brought to Judgment City for a four-day review of his life. As all of his life has been recorded, the trial-like setting will feature the prosecution and defense presenting footage of his actions in an attempt to prove to two judges what motivated his actions. If he is determined to have lived with courage, he will proceed to whatever comes next in the universe’s design. If Daniel is found to have lived in fear, he will be returned to Earth to try again.

Daniel is a neurotic sort, so naturally this process, which his defender Bob Diamond (Rip Torn) insists is not a trial, makes him anxious. He can’t fully enjoy what Judgment City has to offer, from the chance to discover one’s past lives to the ability to eat all you want without gaining weight, because he wonders how his life will be assessed. Daniel is somewhat able to take his mind off of this whole ordeal when he meets Julia (Meryl Streep), a woman of the same approximate earthly age. He finds himself quickly falling in love with her, yet he resists to a degree because of his expectation that she will be moving forward while he will be sent back to Earth.

Perhaps the cleverest and funniest conceit of DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is that Daniel has no firmer grasp on how things are supposed to work in Judgment City than any of us do in our mortal lives. He can look for meaning in his surroundings, but without understanding how the place works, it’s all conjecture. Daniel is just as insecure in this way station, worrying about how the number of days being reviewed in his case and the modesty of his accommodations might be indicative of the verdict that awaits him. For this short period he is in a spot where fear should not be a factor, yet it continues to drive his choices and outlook. To make matters worse, everyone assures him that he doesn’t need to fret about anything. As writer, director, and star, Brooks taps into the nagging feeling that everyone knows something that you don’t, especially when they appear unconcerned.

Brooks has fun with the idea of a bureaucratic layover on the spiritual plane. Waiting room coffee table books are all photographs from God’s eye view, even of Judgment City. While the deceased are taken to places that resemble where they are from, there’s something amusing in the thought that mundane urban and suburban architecture would be soothing for souls in transition. Brooks also humorously envisions that even in death one can be made to feel small. Daniel has to sit through a blooper reel of his pratfalls and mistakes. Bob pokes fun at humans like for the low percentage of their brains they utilize compared to Judgment City’s residents like him. Insecurity, it seems, is something to be overcome to progress in the eternal.

While Brooks’ character has a nervous energy about him, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE provides a warm, funny space to consider larger questions of existence. Brooks challenges the notion that courageous and fearful behavior are clear cut from one another. Rather, what can appear cowardly may be a sign of internal strength and what seems brave may just be a survival instinct. Streep bestows a peaceful air upon Julia, who lived less fearfully than Daniel, yet even she is not wholly free of hang-ups. Typically an exploration of self doubt would wrap with a skeptical or ironic tone, but Brooks finds a way to conclude DEFENDING YOUR LIFE that feels hopeful and honest without betraying the protagonist’s cautious nature.

Grade: A-