Friday, December 19, 2014

Annie


ANNIE (Will Gluck, 2014)

Although Annie Bennett (Quvenzhané Wallis) was abandoned at an Italian restaurant at the age of four, the plucky Harlem foster kid remains confident that she’ll be happily reunited with her parents. In ANNIE the ten-year-old waits outside the eatery every Friday night in anticipation that mom and dad will return for her. In the meantime she’s in the care of Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), who provides shelter and little else for Annie and four other girls. Miss Hannigan is still bitter about her failed singing career in the 1990s and spends her alcohol-soaked days lamenting what might have been.

Annie’s prospects improve, at least for the time being, when cell phone mogul Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) crosses her path. Video of him saving her from being hit by a van goes viral and boosts his flagging New York City mayoral campaign. Stacks’ campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) recognizes Annie as a golden opportunity to broaden his candidate’s appeal, so he convinces the billionaire to become her temporary guardian. Instead of moving into the group home Miss Hannigan was threatening to send her to, Annie settles into a penthouse overlooking Manhattan. Beyond the public relations advantages she gives him, Stacks is slow to warm up to Annie, leaving her care to his personal assistant Grace (Rose Byrne).

Director and co-writer Will Gluck’s modernized musical remakes Broadway through what’s popular on the radio. Showtunes are adapted with hip hop beats and AutoTuned vocals that play it exceedingly safe rather than tapping into the innovation in today’s rap, R&B, and DJ culture. The closest this version of ANNIE has to a memorable production number is when “It’s a Hard Knock Life” uses the sounds of straightening up the foster home to add STOMP-like percussion. The singing and dancing are adequate, with Diaz faring best in a scenery-chewing solo and a duet with Cannavale.

What ANNIE lacks in terms of belters and hoofers, it makes up for in personality. Wallis comes across as a sweet, streetwise kid whose hardships haven’t soured her outlook on life. Her Annie is not a precocious foster child, just a quick study when it comes to understanding her place in the system. Foxx avoids becoming maudlin as his career-focused character allows this little girl to soften him up. He’s also funny doing a number of spit-takes, especially when they’re ill-timed on the campaign trail. As a surrogate mother of sorts to Annie, Byrne shares some tender moments Annie make it easy to root for the happy ending for everyone that is sure to come. Diaz and Cannavale are likably unlikable as they scheme to use Annie for their selfish interests, and the celebrity cameos in a fake movie within the movie are an amusing treat.

At times the updated references scream of trying too hard--enough with the hashtags to signal that one is plugged in--but overall ANNIE makes an easy transition from its original Great Depression setting to today. The lack of crassness is the best carryover from ANNIE’s origins. Rather than trying to subvert the pie-eyed optimism of its source, this version dials back the irrepressible enthusiasm to a more prudent level while never feeling as if it needs to be more cynical or vulgar to appeal to a new generation or wider audience.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Babadook


THE BABADOOK (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

In THE BABADOOK Amelia (Essie Davis) still dreams of the traumatic day almost seven years earlier when she lost her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear). The car accident that killed him happened as he was driving a pregnant Amelia to the hospital. Amelia emerged physically unharmed and gave birth to their son, but the loss of Oskar continues to haunt her. Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who is approaching his seventh birthday, is keenly aware of the circumstances of his arrival and the gaping absence at home, although his fears are manifested in obsessions with monsters and magic.

Samuel frequently awakens his mother in the middle of the night to check for creatures possibly lurking in the closet and under the bed. Often he winds up sleeping with her. He also makes weapons to fight the monsters and exhibits violent tendencies. Amelia is exhausted and at wit’s end with how to handle him. The situation gets worse when she reads him a book called MISTER BABADOOK that he pulls from the shelf. The mysterious book about a monster one can’t be rid of triggers a new round of nightmares and daytime anxiety in Samuel. Amelia has already had to remove him from school for his misbehavior. Her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) will no longer watch him or come over to Amelia’s home because of how he acts out. Amelia even begins to believe she hears and sees the Babadook stalking them.

The Babadook is more of a symbolic threat or a psychological rupture made tangible than the sort of monster that skulks around horror films dispatching with vulnerable people. In that regard THE BABADOOK loses some of its ability to frighten, but writer-director Jennifer Kent maintains a creepy environment that reflects the emotional disturbance in the two-person family. Amelia’s house features cold lighting and a gray interior, as if all of the color was drained from her existence when her husband died. Parents may describe children as the lights of the lives, but Samuel is nothing of the sort. He’s a terror to his mother and a searing reminder of the grief that accompanied him into the world.

Davis would likely be hailed more widely for her performance if it were contained in a traditional drama, but the psychological horror genre allows her a broader spectrum for depicting grief and maternal fatigue. The strain of tending to a difficult child for whom she has no solution is etched into her face. Davis gives Amelia the appearance and attitude of someone who has resigned herself to never escaping the black pit into which she’s fallen. She can sense the pity others have for her and the dislike that often accompanies it because Amelia and her son make people uncomfortable.

Kent writes Samuel not as a bad seed but rather as an angry and scared boy who has been raised with the perception that he is being held responsible for his father’s death. Wiseman excels at playing an unsettling kid who is hard for a mother to love because his defenselessness is so readily apparent underneath his lashing out.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Pyramid


THE PYRAMID (Grégory Levasseur, 2014)

THE PYRAMID is not technically another entry in the belabored category of found footage horror, yet it mostly relies on that conceit in its unsuccessful attempt to drum up scares. The overwhelming majority of shots come from cameras the characters wear and carry. Presumably the immediacy of having cameras capture their perspectives is to increase the fright as if it’s a first person experience, but audiences are long past thinking that this sort of film really documents true events. At its worst THE PYRAMID’s creative tactic pulls one out of the action by calling attention to how affected its found footage is.

While revolution is being staged in the streets of Cairo in August 2013, 250 miles south of the city an American father-daughter archaeologist team discovers a new, three-sided pyramid buried in the desert. Princeton professor Dr. Miles Holden (Dennis O’Hare) and Nora (Ashley Hinshaw) are excited about what they might find inside. They’ve already been slowed down from exploring the pyramid because of the blast of toxic air that came from the first opening their workers made near the apex. Now the Egyptian government wants the excavation stopped because of the civil unrest in the country.

While stalling their departure they send a robot into the pyramid so they can at least get some video of the tomb’s interior. When robotics engineer Michael Zahir (Amir K) loses control of the expensive machine on loan from NASA, he, Holden, Nora, documentary host Sunni (Christa Nicola), and cameraman Fitzie (James Buckley) venture into the pyramid to rescue it and take a look for themselves.

THE PYRAMID belongs to the subset of horror films that primarily consist of people yelling at one another in dark places. Certainly the point is to set up the characters so they’re picked off one by one, but how about creating some atmosphere rather than spinning wheels with worthless arguments to accrue running time? Often what they say sounds like they’re reciting Wikipedia articles about pyramids or overexplaining what’s going on because the filmmakers put no trust that viewers will be able to follow the simple narrative.

Except for the shock of a clawed fist bursting through a chest or the film’s jolting cheat by pairing a loud, clanging stinger with someone putting a hand over another’s mouth, as if that’s a natural sound, THE PYRAMID is never particularly scary. When director Grégory Levasseur drops his potential victims into a couple tight spots similar to those in the Indiana Jones films, it feels like there’s an attempt to use the constricted space to his advantage, but those moments are far too few. The dark setting merely serves the purpose of covering up sketchy computer-generated special effects. The predator revealed to be inside the pyramid provides a novel twist, as far as that goes. However loosely THE PYRAMID tries to connect its events with the real violence in Tahrir Square is just tasteless.

Grade: D-

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Whiplash


WHIPLASH (Damien Chazelle, 2014)

Go on the message board of a struggling sports team, and chances are you’ll find an insistent subset of fans clamoring for the coach to crack the proverbial whip. The belief is that verbal abuse and fear can supply the motivational corrections for lack of success. Yelling and intimidation will provide the catalyst for improvement that supersedes all other obstacles to the objective. Legendary coaches are fondly remembered for how tyrannical they were. Because they win tantrum-throwers and bullies like Bobby Knight are humored and tolerated, at least until they create problems for higher-ups. Even then, they keep their share of admirers because of an unwavering faith that being tough brings the best out of others.

In WHIPLASH 19-year-old Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) wants to be one of the great drummers. A first year student in fall semester at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, Andrew dedicates himself to being the best he can be. Influential and feared teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) notices Andrew and invites him to join the Shaffer Conservatory Studio Band. Being in the school’s top jazz orchestra is a major accomplishment, especially considering how young he is, but at the first practice he discovers that Fletcher will use mind games to push him beyond what anyone else might ask of him, assuming he can withstand the pressure.

Bald and clad in black, Fletcher runs the room like a drill sergeant at boot camp. The rehearsals and performances he conducts are no place for those who accept less than perfection. Andrew believes he’s up to the challenge. He practices and plays until his hands develop blisters and bleed, and even then it isn’t enough to get him to stop for long. He preemptively breaks up with a girl he’s seeing because he thinks she will ultimately resent him dedicating every spare moment to drumming. Andrew has a singular goal in mind, and if it requires Fletcher tormenting him, so be it.

Fletcher’s exacting standards are summarized when he tells Andrew, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” If WHIPLASH has enough cultural impact, it’s a line that may be trotted out by those trying to rally their charges to be better while refusing to give an inch to them. Although Simmons is playing the heavy, he’s devilishly appealing as he berates young adults for no good reason other than his misguided sense of how to get them to fulfill their talent. He’s an exacting monster and one whose dark charisma allows him to get away with the kind of behavior that would otherwise be considered impermissible. Simmons adeptly switches between the face he shows the public and colleagues and the one he reserves for those under his stern rule.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle keeps things similar to the sports world by populating the band entirely with male students. The fraternal code means containing what happens within the walls of the rehearsal space rather than risking being perceived as weak. Fletcher flings homophobic, ethnic, and personal insults but notably not racial ones. Like athletes in the locker room, this group of ambitious and skilled musicians normalize outrageous behavior that they disregard as something outsiders wouldn’t understand.

WHIPLASH isn’t a bad teacher movie so much as it’s about the madness in the pursuit for perfection. After all, Fletcher would have less power if Andrew or his fellow players didn’t regard him as an avenue to bigger opportunities or artistic growth. The film’s perspective is attuned to details with a laser focus. From tactile observations of the instruments to every last item in the enclosed environments, even fuzz on the tiled floor, WHIPLASH keeps a vigilant eye that everything is in its place. Beyond the rehearsal space and stage the stakes are not as high as those in them realize, but as Andrew begs to be kept in this cage, it’s as thrilling as if the fate of the world rests upon what transpires there.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Theory of Everything


THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (James Marsh, 2014)

Stephen Hawking’s ideas as a theoretical physicist produce more questions than answers for the layperson because of the complexity of his thoughts. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, a gauzy biopic about his first marriage, also leaves plenty to consider, although not by reason of great intricacy in what it presents. Rather, it can be maddeningly vague in what it leaves unexplained or tastefully hints at. Based on his ex-wife Jane Hawking’s book, the film gives the impression of a story that has been sanitized to secure the subjects’ authorization.

The film opens in 1963 at Cambridge, where Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a doctoral candidate searching for a topic. At a party he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), an arts undergraduate studying French and Spanish. They hit it off that night, and Jane gives Stephen her phone number, which he often examines as though it’s an equation to be solved. Although she belongs to the Church of England and he doesn’t believe in God, the difference doesn’t keep them from being happy together.

To this point Stephen has exhibited some clumsiness that he doesn’t think twice about, but after a nasty spill one day he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease. A doctor informs him that the neurological disorder is gradually weakening his muscles. Eventually he will not be able to control his body. His brain will not be affected, but the average life expectancy for someone with this affliction is two years. Burdened with this news, Stephen avoids Jane and doesn’t tell her about his condition. When she learns the truth, he’s ready to break things off to spare her the pain and allow him to focus on his work. Instead she proclaims her love. They marry, have children, and see him become internationally lauded as his body deteriorates.

In math one must show the work. In THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING a tidy calculation is arrived at while scrubbing away the arithmetic that could support it. Director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten use montages to gloss over important stretches that could make the case for the great love that get Stephen and Jane through difficult times. The film jumps from post-ALS diagnosis to married life with a child, ignoring the transition to a more incapacitated state while he finishes his doctoral paper.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING also makes another leap in which choir director Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox) becomes integrated into the Hawking family as a caretaker. At her mother’s suggestion a stressed Jane takes a brief time to herself by singing at church. Prior to the montage the unspoken attraction between Jane and the widowed Jonathan implies that she may turn to him for comfort in crisis. After the sequence of Jonathan assisting Stephen and becoming like a member of the household, Jane informs their helper that she is pregnant. Because of this elision the audience wonders if they have been intimate--Stephen’s parents certainly suspect it--yet Jane gives a vociferous denial before the two confess their feelings to one another.

Time and again THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING fails to dig into the emotional nuances and challenges, preferring to scurry along to the next key moment. The film collapses time so that the Hawkings’ marriage and Stephen’s professional success appear to endure because of predetermination. For circumstances rife with emotional and physical struggles, it all looks remarkably light on conflict. Redmayne is good at conveying the wit, rambunctiousness, and intellect trapped inside Stephen even as his body betrays him. Jones suffers beautifully as a woman devoted to a man reliant on her. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING stops short of making them both saints, but in smoothing over their conflicts, it does a disservice to the hardships they bore. It’s not that every complication needed to be detailed but that Stephen and Jane’s relationship shouldn’t be simplified to where they become sentimental mascots for vowing to stick with someone through sickness.

Grade: C

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Penguins of Madagascar


PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR (Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith, 2014)

Referring to an animated film rather than a cartoon doesn’t connote the reach for creative validation implicit in the usage of graphic novel versus comic book, yet in both cases reduced mentions of the more juvenile-seeming term have brought more realism often at the expense of the frivolous. Today’s computer-animated offerings certainly still employ lighthearted comedy, but now silly jokes rarely seem to be enough on their own to sustain cinematic entertainment for kids. Something of substance must be conveyed as well, as though there’s a proficiency test all children’s films must prepare small viewers for. Animated characters are guided to put down their anvils for releasing on antagonists’ heads in favor of dropping life lessons. Taking animation more seriously has resulted in quality work receiving recognition that might not have come when it was written off as merely kids’ stuff, but it shouldn’t necessitate squeezing out less nourishing fare. Thankfully, PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR, which sets a course for non-stop zaniness, is a step toward restoring balance. The side characters’ spin-off film isn’t adage-free, but its message is a pill ground up and baked into a piece of cake.

PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR fills in how the four fowls became a unit separated from their colony and then picks up their story after the events of MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED. The appropriately named leader Skipper (Tom McGrath), brains of the group Kowalski (Chris Miller), demolitions expert Rico (Conrad Vernon), and secretary/mascot Private (Christopher Knights) plan to rob Fort Knox, although their sights are set on plundering a vending machine’s stash of discontinued Cheezy Dibbles than raiding the vault. Waiting for them is Dave (John Malkovich), an octopus known in disguise to the general public as Dr. Octavius Brine. Dave captures the penguins and takes them to his lair in Venice.

Dave too was once a featured resident of the Central Park Zoo, but he was shipped out when the penguins arrived and seized the attention of those who used to come to see him perform. Sent from park to park as other penguins continued to steal his thunder, Dave seeks revenge on their kind. He plans to use a serum on all penguins that will make the cute birds significantly less cuddly. This foursome gets rescued by The North Wind, a group of polar animals that help those who can’t help themselves. The North Wind believes the penguins will muck up their efforts to bring Dave to justice and sends them away, but the penguins have other things in mind.

PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR distinguishes itself with a combination of clever setpieces, wordplay, and some inspired celebrity voice casting. A chase through Venice and a sequence of midair plane-hopping deliver fleet and funny action that animation excels at. The penguins are humorous in their lack of self-awareness and inflated but not undeserved pride in tactical maneuvers. The dialogue stands out by verbing the names of actors and actresses into puns. Werner Herzog’s opening narration is an inspired joke, especially given his views on nature’s mercilessness. Malkovich’s delicious interpretation of an evil genius octopus serves as a terrific example of how trading on a well-known actor’s persona can be creatively wise and more than just a way of attaching familiar name to promote the film.

Like the other MADAGASCAR films, PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR isn’t something that sticks as being important or necessarily memorable in the long run, but it’s an enjoyable time that’s as worthwhile in moderation as the empty calories the penguins crave.

Grade: B

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Listen Up Philip


LISTEN UP PHILIP (Alex Ross Perry, 2014)

Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) has every reason to feel important and isn’t shy about letting others know it in LISTEN UP PHILIP. He will soon be releasing his second book, has landed on a list of notable people under the age of 35, and become friends with respected novelist Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Flush with this cultural currency, Philip elects to spend it by being a contemptible person. He decides not to do press for his novel and ditches Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss), his photographer girlfriend of two years, for an open-ended stay at Ike’s country house. It’s all done in the name of his art, but in reality it’s because he’s a certifiable jerk.

Eric Bogosian’s narration and Keegan DeWitt’s jazz-inflected score point toward a more literary and improvisational style. LISTEN UP PHILIP is not just the self-absorbed writer’s film. It also takes extended breaks to check in with Ashley as she comes to terms with her life now that Philip is out of it and Ike as he struggles to recapture the spark that had him cranking out books in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Often filmed in tight close-ups, LISTEN UP PHILIP focuses on the comedy and tragedy of characters who have difficulty seeing beyond their situations. It’s a world of petty grievances and scheming and self-sabotage and delusion. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry is merciless in depicting inward and outward cruelty with astringent humor. Philip’s cachet probably doesn’t extend much beyond certain literary and academic circles, yet he mistakes success as license to be surly, as though creative types owe it to the universe to be difficult in order to be taken seriously. Pricking the sense of superiority developed within highly specialized ecosystems is funny because it rings true. Plus, rotten people behaving without regard are amusing when the dialogue possesses sarcastic wit like Perry’s.

Schwartzman is sharply funny playing Philip as RUSHMORE’s Max Fischer as though he has grown up but kept the chip on his shoulder. Schwartzman uses passive-aggressiveness to deflect the miserable pain Philip can be. This technique also has the benefit of excusing his rudeness to some degree as long as he acknowledges he’s being awful. Philip seems more amused with the thoughts in his head than what others around him are saying. His acerbic outbursts are meant as much for himself as those he’s in conversation with. Pryce serves as a kind of Ghost of Christmas Future for Philip and one the mentee seems happy to become. Pryce sidles up to Philip like a vampire who needs to draw a victim close to steal the life force he has in short supply.

Perry is a perceptive filmmaker who uses the novelistic framework to extend empathy to those touched by Philip’s self-loathing and the incorrigible protagonist himself even as he resists it. LISTEN UP PHILIP doesn’t justify Philip’s awfulness or necessarily offer hope that he’ll learn, but in setting aside time to observe the impact he has on those close to him, it humanizes him beyond the arrogance so evidently on display. Bitterly funny and bittersweet, LISTEN UP PHILIP sheds insight on dissatisfaction driven by the creative impulse.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dumb and Dumber To


DUMB AND DUMBER TO (Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly, 2014)

In DUMB AND DUMBER TO Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) has been institutionalized for two decades, although his infirmity has been a extensive practical joke he’s been pulling on his best friend Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels), who has faithfully visited and changed his diapers every Wednesday. When Harry informs Lloyd that he can’t come any longer because of his own medical condition, the prank is revealed, leaving them to tackle Harry’s issue together.

Harry needs a kidney transplant. Lloyd isn’t keen to give him one of his, but they may have found a solution when they learn Harry is the father of an early twentysomething daughter he never knew he had. The girl’s mother Fraida (Kathleen Turner) gave her up for adoption to a scientist and his wife but does know where she lives. The boys leave Rhode Island to find Penny (Rachel Melvin) only to arrive at her home after she’s departed to make a presentation at a technology conference in El Paso for her ill, Nobel Prize-winning father (Steve Tom). Penny left Dr. Pinchelow’s invention behind, so the two numbskulls are entrusted to deliver it to her as Harry pursues a daughter and donor and Lloyd seeks a bride.

For a film in which a fair amount of the humor involves what goes in and comes out of orifices, DUMB AND DUMBER TO manages to seem inoffensive despite its crudity. The vulgar comedic ingenuity includes a cat’s feathery flatulence and a father’s hilariously inappropriate advice for dealing with menstruation. DUMB AND DUMBER TO serves as a good example of how limitations can work in a comedy’s favor, even one that employs shock value. Although it’s astonishing that the gag with an elderly woman in a nursing home was permitted in a PG-13 film, the rating requires a certain amount of nuance and cleverness that more graphic language and visuals don’t need. The laughs are produced from the tension between what’s suggested and shown. Frankly, it seems like the film gets away with more because it leads the audience to fill in the blanks rather than pounding us over the head with the jokes’ climaxes.

As Lloyd explains to Harry regarding his 20-year prank, some things are funnier the longer the punchline is delayed. Co-writers and directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly smartly execute low humor through constructed gags with several small rewards before the big payoffs. In the case of Harry’s pleasant memory being reproduced on a screen, the funniest aspect isn’t the filthy capper but an aside about shutting the door. DUMB AND DUMBER TO’s greater strength may be in the silly literalness with which its characters interact with the world, though. True to the film’s title the jokes are often dumb, like Lloyd and Harry pedaling their bicycle while it’s mounted on a bus’s rack, and dumber, such as a play on words with a highway named after an actress, but they’re delivered with such brio that it’s hard to resist the stupidity.

The Farrellys and four other credited screenwriters throw plenty of coarse jokes against the wall and many stick, but the film has patchy stretches, especially after Lloyd and Harry reach their destination. The plot merely serves as an excuse to link sketches involving the twosome acting like doofuses and thus doesn’t provide much momentum. Whenever it seems like DUMB AND DUMBER TO may be stalling out, along comes a puerile wisecrack or two to sustain the good will it was starting to lose.

The Farrellys put a good bit of craft in DUMB AND DUMBER TO, even if their film is just an elevated version of kids in the cafeteria trying to crack up their friends. It’s as simple and amusing as watching Carrey wolf down a hot dog as though he’s Homer Simpson and then wiping his mouth with the bun that he throws away.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Pulp Fiction


PULP FICTION (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

PULP FICTION’s violence, non-linear structure, retro soundtrack, pop culture references, and overall hip factor are what have lingered in the collective memory, but revisiting Quentin Tarantino’s film twenty years after its debut is to rediscover a work whose maker is deliriously in love with the cinema and words. Although peppered with allusions to plenty of films and television shows, such verbal and visual citations are seasoning for the main course.

PULP FICTION is built upon monologues and conversations whose profane musicality engages the characters in lingual dances. Discussions revolve around mundane but humorous things as the differences between fast food item names in the United States and Europe, the intimacy of a foot massage, and the cowardice involved in keying a car, but the actors savor the rich language as though performing Shakespeare.

Told out of sequence, the interconnected stories focus on the criminal underworld in Los Angeles. Gangsters Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) procure a suitcase for their boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) but face obstacles delivering it. Boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) wins a fight he promised to throw but risks skipping town safely by returning home to get a cherished keepsake. At his boss’s request Vincent takes Marsellus’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out on the town knowing that a previous acquaintance who got close to her paid a serious price.

Tarantino’s reputation for presenting graphic violence, especially early in his career, exceeded what actually is seen on screen. Perhaps more than anything else, his ability to get a rise out of audiences with what they think they saw, paired with the skill of editor Sally Menke, may be the greatest demonstration of his talent. The notorious scene with the adrenaline shot to the heart never shows the needle being jammed through Mia’s breast plate. The discussion leading up to the act; seven tightening close-ups, including one of the dripping needle; a wide shot of Vincent bringing his arm down; and a thump as Mia jerks awake in close-up give a vivid impression without depicting the forceful injection.

Tarantino’s adeptness with humorous dialogue and mise en scene shouldn’t overshadow his handling of actors. This was Travolta’s comeback role, and he gives a performance that finds him charming and funny, not to mention the delightful moment when PULP FICTION pauses to recall his cinematic past by having him do the twist with Thurman. Jules is probably Jackson’s defining role. He’s playing more than just an intimidating enforcer. Jackson is fearsome when he’s marking his territory and bellowing Jules’ corruption of a verse from Ezekiel. He’s amusing shooting the breeze with a friend and co-worker who he likely thinks he’s a bit smarter than. As the film’s femme fatale Thurman displays her strength with how she lures Vincent into her domain and flirts aggressively without being too obvious for anyone who might be observing them.

PULP FICTION wielded massive influence and imitators, yet watching it again for the first time in years it still seems fresh. Those who tried to duplicate it took all of the wrong lessons.

Grade: A

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Nightcrawler


NIGHTCRAWLER (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

NIGHTCRAWLER shares its title with the name of an X-Men superhero, although its protagonist has more in common with the shape-shifting villain Mystique. Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is desperate to make money, and he doesn’t much care how he earns it. What he’s selling isn’t as important as long as he’s selling. Scrap metal, bicycles, it doesn’t matter to the young man with an assassin’s deadliness in the art of negotiation. Louis also possesses a seemingly unlimited ability to adapt himself according to the situation. When he decides that the freelance newsgathering business is where he wants to focus his energies, he quickly soaks up knowledge about the industry.

Louis develops an exclusive relationship with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a news director on the so-called “vampire shift” for Los Angeles’s lowest rated television station. Having noticed his good eye and lack of compunction, she pays him to get captivating video of crime and accident scenes. Louis is looking for someone as hungry as him but with less business savvy to help grow his news operation, so he hires Rick (Riz Ahmed) as a low-paid intern to listen to the police scanner, navigate, and watch the car while he captures the often horrific images. In no time Louis’s success leads to upgrading his gear and going from driving an old, battered Toyota Tercel to a new cherry red Chrysler SRT. Louis is never complacent, though, and he waits to come upon the story that will boost his power from the little he has as a stringer.

Like its main character NIGHTCRAWLER masks its primary motivation. The ostensible media satire directs NETWORK-like jabs at the sensationalistic aspects of TV news. While writer-director Dan Gilroy makes his points about as subtly as repeated pokes in the ribs, the black humor comes in the recognition that even with wider awareness of this cynical approach to informing the public, viewers continue to reward it. NIGHTCRAWLER’s final shot of broadcast towers on a hill jutting across a full moon in blackest night recalls the spires of a castle in a horror film. As much fear as they might strike in hearts, they are nevertheless alluring.

The fresh criticism aimed at the media has less to do with the content and more with the conditions in which it’s generated. Ratings-chasing news programs are just collateral damage in NIGHTCRAWLER’s mission to fire a scathing yet bleakly comedic critique of the job market and corporate practices. Gilroy unloads on an economic climate that breeds insecurity and instability in the labor force because there’s always someone else out there willing to work harder, faster, and, most importantly, cheaper. An internship system favoring the providers to a lopsided degree takes well-deserved hits . Watching Louis persuade Rick that getting a pittance for his time and efforts is in his best interest stands as one of the film’s timeliest and most wicked jokes.

Gyllenhaal electrifies with a performance that uses politeness to hide a sociopath’s mentality. He’s intimidating because he sounds so assured regurgitating business aphorisms and self-improvement language and doesn’t deviate from following what he has accepted as the one true path. While Louis has designs on being a conqueror leaving destruction in his wake, Gyllenhaal looks more like a scavenging animal as his anti-hero skulks around the wounded and killed to obtain what he needs to further himself. Wearing a haunted look, Gyllenhaal embodies the sick soul of a capitalist doomed never to sleep because there’s always a buck to be made. The scary thing is he’s destined to win.

Grade: B+

Monday, November 03, 2014

St. Vincent


ST. VINCENT (Theodore Melfi, 2014)

Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray) may not be the last person a working mother would choose to babysit her child after school, but he’s surely toward the bottom of the list. Although his overwhelmed new neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) isn’t privy to the information that an often-drunk Vincent is indebted to an unsavory racetrack figure (Terrence Howard) and keeps a weekly home appointment with a pregnant Russian hooker (Naomi Watts), the senior citizen’s surly nature should be sufficient to have her look elsewhere for childcare options. Nevertheless, in ST. VINCENT her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) seems to get along fine with the crusty old man next door who begrudgingly helps after the boy’s classmates steal his possessions from his gym locker.

Maggie is working long hours at a new hospital job and worrying about an impending custody fight with her ex-husband, so she’s thankful that anyone can keep an eye on Oliver. Little does she know that Vincent is teaching him how to fight back against the bullies at St. Patrick’s School, letting him gamble at Belmont Park, and taking him to a bar. Oliver is well aware of the pressures on his mother. He covers up and omits telling her his activities with Vincent, leaving Maggie to find out the truth at the most inopportune time possible.

Writer-director Theodore Melfi’s ST. VINCENT seems cobbled from the independent film cliché handbook. It’s slightly quirkier than a conventional network television sitcom yet beholden to a feel-good imperative that isn’t especially convincing. By picking up and discarding subplots like tissues, this maudlin comedy-drama cycles Murray through a range of situations fit for an awards show reel without lending much emotional heft to them.

Murray’s bad grandpa proxy plays best when permitted to be his crotchety self without explanations or excuses. Vincent’s rough edges are never sanded off completely, and Murray is funnier and more interesting when he’s granted the freedom to be as nasty as he wants to be, at least within the limits of this sentimental film. Clearly Vincent is on a course for a redemptive arc, but offering reasons in shorthand for his hardness make him a less credible character. The war between his internal tenderness and external abrasiveness aren’t reconciled so much as they are dispelled by gooey screenwriting conveniences.

ST. VINCENT’s variation on ABOUT A BOY should find its strength in developing the mutually beneficial relationship between a curmudgeon and pre-teen. In piling on the plot contrivances it doesn’t provide the space to observe why their unlikely friendship comes to gain great meaning for both. Melfi has the film chugging toward a prescribed heartwarming conclusion and Oliver’s effective sanctifying speech while Murray’s performance suggests someone who may be touched that the boy admires him but hasn’t really learned any lessons that will significantly alter his behavior. The final scene, with Vincent sneaking a cigarette and singing along to Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” during the end credits may be meant as a grace note, but it gives the impression of a character that’s broken away from its creator’s intent.

Grade: C

Friday, October 24, 2014

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day


ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY (Miguel Arteta, 2014)

Everyone in the family seems to breeze through life except for Alexander (Ed Oxenbould). According to the third of four Cooper children, every day is a bad day. Whether it’s waking up with gum in his hair or accidentally setting a girl’s lab book on fire, there’s always something that goes wrong for him. It all seems even more unfair because his parents and siblings, armed with positive attitudes, can’t relate in ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY.

To make matters worse, it appears that fate is getting a head start on ruining Alexander’s twelfth birthday. The day before his party he learns that his modest celebration will be competing with a more popular boy’s blowout even though his classmate’s actual birthday isn’t for another week. Alexander’s big day also falls on an eventful one for the rest of his family. It’s opening night for his older sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey), who’s starring in the school’s production of PETER PAN. Older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) has prom and his driver’s test. His dad Ben (Steve Carell) is interviewing with a video game firm, and his mom Kelly (Jennifer Garner) is overseeing a book launch that could lead to a big promotion. Baby brother Trevor (Elise Vargas) doesn’t have anything on the calendar to steal Alexander’s thunder, but he does co-opt more of their parents’ attention.

For his birthday Alexander wishes that his family could understand what kind of days he has. The wish isn’t intended to wreck an important day for everyone else, but when his teflon family experiences a series of comedic disasters, Alexander believes he’s somehow responsible.

ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY serves as Disney’s nicer alternative to the crass DIARY OF A WIMPY KID films. Everyone tends to be pretty pleasant in his immediate circle, and the indignities that exasperate Alexander are mostly small in nature. The film, adapted from Judith Viorst’s children’s book, stresses that Alexander’s problem stems from his perspective rather than being burdened like a pre-teenage Job. While being surrounded by abundant optimism can be wearisome when going through a rough time, Alexander overlooks the stresses the rest of the family is under but pushes through. Making the best of days or situations is a worthy lesson to convey to kids--or adults, for that matter.

Director Miguel Arteta puts the Coopers through the paces of broad family comedy with routine payoffs. At best the labored scenarios are lightly amusing, with Carell and Garner giving enthusiastic performances to compensate for the run-of-the-mill material. At worst the recurring gags fall flat because of how obvious they are from their set-ups. For all of the effort invested in physical comedy, a running joke about a typo discovered at the last minute stands out as the best ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY has to offer.

The film as a whole seems like it posts low stakes and needs to maintain the status quo. Bravo to the Coopers for keeping cool heads under mildly trying times, but such rationality under pressure does not create an optimal environment for humor.

Grade: C

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Best of Me


THE BEST OF ME (Michael Hoffman, 2014)

Former high school sweethearts Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) and Dawson (James Marsden) did not end on good terms when they last saw each other 21 years ago in THE BEST OF ME. (Liana Liberato and Luke Bracey play their younger selves.) A reunion occurs when their old friend Tuck (Gerald McRaney) dies, thus beckoning them back to their Louisiana hometown to spread his ashes and take care of his estate.

Their relationship always seemed like an unlikely coupling. The gregarious Amanda comes from a wealthy family. The socially awkward Dawson was raised among a band of lowlifes who look like they might be at home in Jim Rose’s Circus. Amanda is not much interested in renewing ties with Dawson but respects Tuck’s wishes even if being around her onetime boyfriend reopens old emotional wounds. She’s the mother of two children and has been married for eighteen years while Dawson is on his own working on an oil rig. Amanda and Dawson get on friendlier terms as they remember the good times but are cautious about becoming too comfortable together again.

THE BEST OF ME is shot like a prescription drug television advertisement, so ask your doctor if this Nicholas Sparks adaptation is right for you. Side effects include overdosing on the novelist’s brand of cynical sentimentality that posits the best way to love someone is for the other party to be dead, which is not limited to romantic love. For all of their earnestness, films based on Sparks’ books are often brazen in how they provide characters with satisfaction of the heart through punishment.

Monaghan and Marsden play their roles with admirable restraint. When director Michael Hoffman keeps things loose and lets Amanda and Dawson hang out as their younger and older selves, he works toward building a seriously minded, albeit tepid, romance about reacquainting with a long-lost love. Still, THE BEST OF ME lacks a spark because it hides the major event in Amanda and Dawson’s past that explains what went wrong between them. Obviously the characters are privy to this information, but other than surprising the audience, there’s nothing to be gained in the narrative by withholding it until a third act revelation. Burying the key obstacle between Amanda and Dawson renders their situation less poignant for most of the film for the sake of dropping an emotional bombshell.

In the final act the gears of Sparks’ plotting also undo THE BEST OF ME. After leisurely shifting between their new love affair in 1992 and meeting again in the present day, the story piles up complications at a breakneck pace. The soapier developments are, the more laughable it all becomes.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Oculus


OCULUS (Mike Flanagan, 2013)

Eleven years after tragedy struck the Russell family in OCULUS, siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) reunite to obtain proof that a supernatural force upended their lives. 21-year-old Tim is newly discharged from the psychiatric facility where he’s been since the fateful night in 2002 when he killed their father (Rory Cochrane) in self-defense. He grudgingly indulges his older sister’s notion that a four-centuries-old mirror known as the Lasser Glass was responsible for their mom (Katee Sackhoff) having a psychological breakdown and their dad killing her.

Kaylie has tracked down the mirror and brings it to the old family home with the intention of killing it. She has arranged a dual camera recording set-up and seemingly fail-safe schedule to ensure tapes never run out, she and Time are nourished and hydrated, and someone on the outside checks regularly on her welfare. Kaylie’s even rigged an anchor to a timer and killswitch that will smash the glass if they are incapacitated.

Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan prizes sustaining a disturbing mood and succeeds for the most part. Small in scale, OCULUS can feel like a short film idea stretched beyond its limits, and in fact this story first took shape as a 32-minute short before being expanded by more than an hour for this incarnation. Overall, though, Flanagan builds the atmosphere through suggestion and pays off the tension releases frequently enough so that the film doesn’t drag too much.

OCULUS isn’t all about tone, though. Although the gross-out moments are few, they are memorable. Among the delightfully cringe-worthy part are using a staple remove to pry off a bandage while digging into a finger at the nail and taking a bite out of a light bulb as if it were an apple.

Freely switching between the past and the present, OCULUS tries to approximate a post-traumatic stress experience in which a high amount of uncertainty in memories exists. Toying with whether what we see is real or fantasy could get old quickly, but in this instance Flanagan disorients the viewer without feeling like he’s cheating for cheap scares.

Grade: B-

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Fort Bliss


FORT BLISS (Claudia Myers, 2014)

Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan) enjoys and excels at her job as an Army medic. On the last day of a 15-month deployment in her second tour of Afghanistan she saves a fellow soldier, an action for which she earns a Bronze Star Medal. Coming home to Texas in FORT BLISS should be a happy occasion, but it merely introduces a different set of problems for her to confront. Her ex-husband Richard (Ron Livingston) arrives late to welcome her home and doesn’t bring their son Paul (Oakes Fegley). Not only does the five-year-old boy not want to come and see her, but he also treats Richard’s fiancée Alma (Emmanuelle Chriqui) as his mother.

Although Paul continues to reject Maggie, she insists that he will be living with her now that she’s back. After a day of getting nowhere with the sullen child, Maggie tells him they’ll start over as if they have never met. Gradually Paul warms up to her, but she still deals with sleepless nights and a struggle to readjust to life outside of war zone.

FORT BLISS enriches its portrait of a servicewoman by packing in a lot of tangible details regarding the military way of life. Writer-director Claudia Myers shows how the personal and professional coexist, like the early morning drop-off spot for kids while their parents work on the base, and how the job is something never entirely left behind. Those who serve are hailed for their selflessness, but the noble commitment can often come at the price of family stability and little sympathy for attending to it. Facing a tough decision between work and family, Staff Sergeant Swann tells her commanding officer, “I love my son and I love my country, and I don’t think I should have to choose between them.” With often heartbreaking examples the pushing and pulling between these priorities is captured repeatedly.

Both men and women feel the tension between loyalty to career and obligation to those at home, but FORT BLISS identifies how the choices aren’t really the same. Society expects Maggie to sacrifice personal ambition and satisfaction for the sake of raising her son more than her male colleagues, yet she justifies her reenlistment as a means of providing for him. At a minimum it’s more acceptable for men to demonstrate their support through their jobs. Myers explores the double standard not in an accusatory manner but rather to highlight where equivalency does not exist even though it may be thought to be present.

Monaghan is terrific at playing someone who finds toughness easier to project, in part because it can mean the difference between life and death in her work. Although Maggie displays few maternal instincts, especially in the poignant moments when Paul rebuffs her, she’s not incapable of expressing them but simply in need of the kind of training that she’s devoted herself to in the army. Monaghan reveals Maggie’s inner conflict as she attempts to reconcile her experiences on the warfront that have become second nature and the domestic life that is now something of a culture shock. She attracts empathy because of how much she proves she’s trying to make the best of formidable issues she’s not entirely equipped to handle.

Grade: B

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Love is Strange


LOVE IS STRANGE (Ira Sachs, 2014)

After being together for thirty-nine years the wedding of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) is the happiest moment of their lives, but the big day also leads to the hardship that follows in LOVE IS STRANGE. Ben teaches music at a Catholic school. While his relationship with George has not been a secret, news and photos of their marriage catch the attention of the archdiocese. George is considered to be in violation of the Christian witness statement he signed as terms of employment, so just like that he’s terminated from his job.

George intends to teach private lessons and look for other work, but for now his income and Ben’s pension are not sufficient to afford their Manhattan apartment. They must sell their place and find family and friends who will take them in during the transition. Ben’s niece Mindy (Christina Kirk) has ample space for them in Poughkeepsie, but their lives are oriented around New York City. Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) agrees to house his uncle Ben, although the 71-year-old painter must share a bunk bed with his great-nephew Joey (Charlie Tahan). George ends up staying on a couch with their police officer friends Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Cheyenne Jackson).

Naturally, the arrangements are less than ideal. Ben often interrupts Elliot’s wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) while she tries to work from home. Joey acts as if having Ben around so much is cramping his style. George is staying with a couple whose frequent entertaining and socializing are at odds with his more introverted personality.

The set-up for LOVE IS STRANGE makes it sound as though it will be a message movie about the lack of legal protections for gay men and women in the workplace. Instead the instigating event points toward a study of the challenges in living with those you love, especially when being an outsider in a household also makes things difficult for the hosts. Ben and George try not to be nuisances, nor do they complain about the concessions they’re making, yet they can’t help but notice that they don’t fit in the places they’ve been forced into. They shoulder the burden as best they can and try to see each other when too few opportunities allow.

Frustration touches everyone in LOVE IS STRANGE, but this gentle film resists large emotional outbursts. The blame for tension in these homes points both ways, and director and co-writer Ira Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias spot the humor in the little things people do to annoy one another. Sachs watches how routine things in one place can set off those unaccustomed to them in their domain. What’s normal and implicitly accepted in one living space can drive others crazy, particularly within a family striving to be polite under the circumstances. As George tells a piano student imposing her ideas on a Chopin piece, you can’t make your own rhythm. Everybody is trying to keep in time in LOVE IS STRANGE, but inevitably not all can maintain a beat that isn’t familiar.

Restraint marks the performances in this close-knit circle of family and friends. Molina and Lithgow do tender work as longtime companions so at ease in their home together and so ill-fitting in their replacement environments. They display dignity in a situation that takes swipes at it. When Ben and George get a night on the town, it’s as though the film relaxes with them. They’re free to be themselves without disrupting their hosts. The love they’ve shared for almost four decades has faced interference while they try to be polite guests, but this beautiful scene allows them to express the relief of fully being who they are together. 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7 describes love as patient and kind, among other qualities. Strange isn’t one of those listed characteristics, yet seeing the others demonstrated in this film reveals that something oddly wonderful exists when people try to rise up to such an example.

Grade: B

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Equalizer


THE EQUALIZER (Antoine Fuqua, 2014)

Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) leads what looks to be a simple, quiet life in THE EQUALIZER, but the ordinary appearance of the man known as Bob to co-workers and acquaintances hides the truth of a past he’s trying to leave behind. As far as anyone can tell, Bob is a retiree who picked up a job at a home improvement warehouse to stay busy. He enjoys the work and finds purpose in mentoring Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis), a young colleague who wants to become a security guard. Late at night, when he can’t sleep, he takes a classic novel and a tea bag to a nearby diner to pass the darkest hours.

Teenage prostitute Alina (Chloë Grace Moretz) is also a regular at the eatery in the middle of the night. She and Bob are on friendly terms, perhaps because he displays concern for her well-being while withholding judgment and comments about the occupation she’s been forced into. When Alina isn’t sitting at the counter one evening Bob learns she is in the hospital’s intensive care unit after getting beat up. He pays a visit to her pimp Slavi (David Meunier) and offers $9800 to buy her freedom. When Bob’s money is rejected, he slaughters the roomful of Russians and leaves no trace of his involvement. Clearly there’s a dangerous skill set hidden in the mild-mannered guy who cuts lumber and reads the literary canon. Rather than putting an end to the situation, though, Bob’s actions summon Teddy (Marton Csokas), a Russian secret policeman turned criminal enforcer who aims to get revenge on those responsible for killing the East Coast hub of the Russian mob.

THE EQUALIZER provides Washington with the opportunity to follow Liam Neeson’s success in aging tough guy roles. This potential franchise character could be a superhero suited for the graying population. Opening with a Mark Twain quotation--“The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why”--confirms THE EQUALIZER as an origin story. His brute strength and ingenuity in hand-to-hand combat seem to have no equal. Director Antoine Fuqua borrows visual techniques from the Benedict Cumberbatch-led Sherlock Holmes episodes to depict McCall’s virtually superhuman split-second calculations in key situations.

McCall’s appeal comes from Washington’s charisma as a modern knight clad in impeccable dress shirts in place of armor. Washington wears his movie star cool instead of deriving authority and adoration from a costume, gadgets, and special powers. Without seeming arrogant or threatening he commands respect and an innate understanding that McCall is always the smartest and baddest guy in the room. For as violent as THE EQUALIZER is, Washington’s smooth performance makes him seem most volatile when facing down the villains in conversation.

THE EQUALIZER plays like an expanded version of a CBS procedural, and sure enough, it originated as a television series on the Tiffany Network in the mid-to-late 1980s. The story is both padded out and condensed. Seemingly insignificant subplots bear fruit in the end, but often if feels as though a season’s plotline has been jammed into a film exceeding two hours. The climactic showdown delivers gory satisfaction but lacks the tension that should have been accumulating and releasing for a scene of its magnitude. Washington’s untouchable bearing compensates for such shortcomings, making certain that the THE EQUALIZER finishes with a positive balance.

Grade: B-

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones


A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (Scott Frank, 2014)

In A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES it’s been eight years after Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) was involved in fatal shootings as an off-duty detective for the New York City police, but the former cop still seems haunted by that day in 1991. Although he was honored for his service, Scudder chose to retire from the force and get sober. Now working as an unlicensed private investigator, he’s found no peace in the intervening years but has lost all fear, which comes in handy for his line of work.

His latest job offer comes via fellow Alcoholics Anonymous attendee Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), whose drug-trafficking brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) requires Scudder’s particular set of skills and anonymity. Kenny’s wife was abducted the day before. Her captors demanded a million dollars, a price determined by what she would be worth if her weight translated to the same value of Kenny’s drugs. Kenny tells them that $400-thousand is the best he can do and pays up, but he gets her back in pieces in neatly bundled packages as though she were product. As Scudder looks into the case, he discovers a pattern that indicates some men are killing women with ties to the drug world and won’t be stopping any time soon.

The new millennium looms like storm clouds on the horizon in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES. A newspaper headline warns of increased gun sales in anticipation of societal breakdown when Y2K arrives. Scudder rejects learning new technology. Instead he sticks to pay phones and microfilm as though he expects the world will be abandoning mobile communications and computers just a few short months from now. The film’s brown and gray visual palette casts a funereal air over the city as Scudder dutifully searches for the perpetrators in these heinous crimes. The gloomy lighting suits a character who does not see himself as brave or righteous but rather someone burdened with atoning each day for his own shortcomings.

Neeson has enjoyed renewed success playing unsparing tough guys. Unlike the limbs-snapping enforcers that have become his stock in trade, Scudder soldiers on as a world-weary detective who will plant a knife in someone’s neck if necessary but would rather not if all things are equal. Neeson wears Scudder’s guilt and transgressions as a hair shirt. He brings determination and resigned joylessness to the hard-boiled character adapted from Lawrence Block’s novels. The grim investigation threatens to become more complicated than necessary for a film in which reasons for the killing are largely irrelevant, but Scudder remains a compelling central figure trying to brighten the world a little even if he’s convinced his life remains in the shadows.

Whether accounting for films or television, popular culture has no shortage of entertainment that hinges on villains torturing and murdering women. A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES mostly avoids going into graphic detail and exploiting the horrible crimes exacted on women yet in doing so brings the heinousness of such actions into clearer view. The opening credits sequence

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Drop


THE DROP (Michaёl R. Roskam, 2014)

In THE DROP Cousin Marv’s Bar in Brooklyn looks like any number of neighborhood establishments, but it’s also one of the designated places where crime bosses may choose to have the night’s collected cash dropped off for safe keeping. Marv (James Gandolfini), the owner in name only, and bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) never know when their workplace will be the drop bar. Someone is wise to the system, though, when two masked men with inside information hold up the place on an evening that Cousin Marv’s is appointed to receive all the dirty money. The thieves get away with five thousand dollars.

The Chechen mobsters who really own the bar consider Marv and Bob to be obligated to compensate for the loss if the stolen cash isn’t found. Bob has trouble on other fronts too. Detective Torres (John Ortiz), who is investigating the robbery, suggests he’s keeping tabs on Bob by remarking that he recognizes him from 8 a.m. Mass services and has noticed he never takes Communion. Bob finds some relief in the pit bull puppy he rescues from a garbage can and Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a waitress who warms up to him after seeing his gentleness with the dog. Still, the good comes with the bad, in this case in the form of Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), an unstable thug rumored to have killed someone ten years earlier. He has connections to Nadia and the pit bull and tries to intimidate Bob into leaving both behind or paying Eric to go away.

Hardy does nice work showing Bob choose the path of least resistance through his rough environment while avoiding seeming like a pushover. In the rare sections he narrates his mush-mouthed voiceover echoes Linda Manz in DAYS OF HEAVEN, as though he’s of and outside the mean world he landed in. Bob is a quiet guy who likes to say he just tends the bar as he attempts to maintain a low profile. Patrons at Cousin Marv’s describe him as Sphinx-like. Bob doesn’t consider himself an active player in the criminal doings around him, but he’s embedded in that world regardless of what he contends his role, or lack thereof, to be in it. Hardy softens his voice as Bob and carries himself in a non-threatening manner, yet he transmits a sense that he’s a dangerous guy despite his demeanor. When a severed arm is delivered to the bar, he wraps it up like a butcher packaging a roast and discards it as though it’s meat that’s turned rancid. He doesn’t amplify conflicts with his antagonists but doesn’t seem cowered by such interactions either. Bob has apparently consigned himself to a lifetime of loneliness, although the reasons for his decision aren’t immediately clear.

Screenwriter Dennis Lehane adapts his own short story for THE DROP, cramming the film full of the kind of local color and details one would expect from a crime novelist. Gradually it becomes evident that the community’s flavor and performances are what THE DROP has going for it at the expense of a satisfying story that dribbles along. Somehow the plot feels padded out and yet insubstantial. Watching THE DROP is like getting a diet soda when expecting the sugary version. It approximates the calorie-laden drink while being distinctly off enough to want something richer.

That sense of something missing is most noticeable when THE DROP ties together all of the loose ends. One revelation lands hard, but another misses due to the tangled build-up to its conclusion. The final scene plays at odds with much preceding it, wrapping THE DROP with a happier ending than one that it seemed to be pointing toward and deserved.

Grade: C+

Friday, August 29, 2014

What If


WHAT IF (Michael Dowse, 2013)

In WHAT IF medical school dropout Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is still brooding over the break-up of his last relationship more than a year ago when he meets animator Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party thrown by his college roommate and her cousin Allan (Adam Driver). Wallace and Chantry hit it off immediately, but after accompanying her home and getting her number, he learns that she has a longtime boyfriend. Although Wallace says that he’s happy to be friends, this bit of news kills his desire to contact her again.

After running into each other alone after a movie they talk some more and decide that they can have a relationship without romance entering into the equation. The situation becomes more complicated when Ben (Rafe Spall), her boyfriend of five years, gets a job opportunity that requires him to move from Toronto to Dublin for six months minimum. While Ben is in Ireland, Wallace and Chantry build a closer friendship. Although nothing untoward happens between them to jeopardize what she has with Ben, Chantry’s loneliness and Wallace’s unspoken attraction to her complicate their interactions. Making things even messier, Chantry’s sister Dalia (Megan Park) has her eyes on Wallace.

WHAT IF bears some natural comparisons to WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, but the the issue here is less a question of if men and women can just be friends but how to be friends when romantic love is felt but must be suppressed. Wallace and Chantry are two fundamentally decent and compatible people who, in different circumstances, may have become a happy couple in no time flat. As it stands their timing is inopportune with Chantry committed to her boyfriend and Wallace adamant about not scheming to split them up. Relationships are challenging enough to maintain without contriving excuses to test them. WHAT IF generally resists such romantic comedy machinations, although when it succumbs, the developments and actions appear mostly true to the characters.

Whether Radcliffe and Kazan are spending time together on screen or hashing out their problems separately, they’re a joy to be around. Obviously the film has designs on uniting them in the end, but even if romance is not in the cards, their friendship has a nice, relaxed feel to it in spite of what either one may be dealing with internally. As far as that goes, director Michael Dowse also gets friends and siblings in WHAT IF to treat one another with ease, familiarity, and love. The performances speak of characters who know and care deeply for each other, and this goes a long way in selling their behaviors and decisions.

Kazan gets the best part in WHAT IF because her character has more to process. What Chantry feels evolves according to the conditions she encounters, and Kazan softly but assertively expresses the conflict and loss she feels being suspended in relationship limbo. By finding the happy middle between impossibly sensitive doormat and hormonally raging bro Radcliffe plays the regular guy with charisma. Elan Mastai’s screenplay, based on a play by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, teases out how people can make things more difficult for themselves with a great deal of sympathy. Whether they act on it or not, Wallace and Chantry recognize that they’ve found the complete package in one another. WHAT IF demonstrates that a romantic comedy can have it all too. It’s a funny, moving, and smart film.

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 28, 2014

God Help the Girl


GOD HELP THE GIRL (Stuart Murdoch, 2014)

In “Act of the Apostle”, the song that leads off GOD HELP THE GIRL, Eve (Emily Browning) proclaims a transistor radio to be her Damascan road. On her journey she tunes the receiver to pick up airwaves playing pop music that reveals the design for her life, an experience she likens to the conversion of the Apostle Paul. Eve’s revelation of finding purpose and meaning in the hits of yesterday and today might sound laughable, but wouldn’t it follow that God reaches individuals where they are most likely to be receptive to the message sent?

Eve is in dire need of help, so she would be wise to find answers where she can get them. As the film begins she sneaks out of a psychiatric hospital to see bands play in a Glasgow club. After the show she meets James (Olly Alexander), whose set unceremoniously ended when he and his drummer got into a scuffle on stage. Eve needs some time to get her life a bit more in order, and when she does, James gladly provides a place for her to stay as she continues to work on overcoming her eating disorder and anxiety. Writing songs is therapeutic to Eve, so she forms a pop band with James and new friend Cass (Hannah Murray).

GOD HELP THE GIRL first emerged as a 2009 concept album written and produced by Stuart Murdoch of the Scottish indie pop group Belle and Sebastian. Musically and lyrically the project is similar to the output of his band with the exception of this material being tailored for female singers. Like a spoonful of sugar administered with medicine, the catchy, upbeat music often serves as counterpoint to the soul-searching, fear, and bitterness his twee narrators express. As writer-director of the film Murdoch employs a similar approach--and one reminiscent of Jacques Demy--by hiding this tale of depression inside a frequently colorful and energetic musical.

Murdoch exhibits a tendency to shoot the song performances as literal illustrations of his lyrics. This underlining of the text is reminiscent of early music videos and probably indicative of a first-time filmmaker wrangling an ambitious, decade-in-the-works project, but the musical scenes are consistently delightful despite the obvious visual strategy. As a songwriter Murdoch excels at telling stories in a few minutes, so it’s no surprise that the infectious songs often do a better job of pushing along the loose narrative than the dramatic scenes bridging them. For all of GOD HELP THE GIRL’s earnestness, Murdoch inserts Richard Lester-like playfulness into the action and displays humorous self-awareness about how precious his work can be. Before James and his drummer tussle, they make a point to remove their glasses, which reads as such a spot-on touch for these unthreatening guys. Of course Eve, James, and Cass aren’t just forming a band but “an autumnal recording project”.

Although set in the present day, GOD HELP THE GIRL exists out of time. 1960s flourishes run rampant through the film’s style. Browning’s look recalls French New Wave icon Anna Karina, and the folk-pop echoes another era’s simpler, more direct production. While these editorial choices may just be a reflection of Murdoch’s preoccupations, they complement the emotional distance his characters feel at this time and place. Sometimes turning to the art and passed-down wisdom of the past is the only way to make sense of what’s happening here and now.

Grade: B

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Let's Be Cops


LET’S BE COPS (Luke Greenfield, 2014)

Let’s be honest. It’s unfair for a policeman’s killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests to be in mind while watching LET’S BE COPS despite the studio having the bad luck for the release date to coincide with what’s been happening in Ferguson, Missouri. This broad comedy aspires to capitalize on the success of 21 JUMP STREET and its sequel in having goof-ups bumble through confrontations with bad guys. Current events notwithstanding, it may have been a miscalculation to base jokes on abusing the power of the badge.

After graduating from Purdue longtime friends Ryan (Jake Johnson) and Justin (Damon Wayans Jr.) moved to Los Angeles with dreams of making it big. Now thirty years-old and still floundering they must consider that maybe it’s time to move back home to Columbus, Ohio. Ryan doesn’t seem to do anything in particular other than holding onto the anger that an injury cheated him out of a professional football career. Justin is gainfully employed as an assistant at a video game company, but when his pitch for a policeman game gets dismissed outright, he questions whether his time there is finished.

Attending a college alumni party confirms their feelings of being washed up. To make matters worse, they mistake the masquerade for a costume party and come dressed as police officers. While still in the uniforms as they walk home dejected, Ryan and Justin discover that people think they are real cops. They have some fun for the night pretending to be lawmen and even manage to do some good when interrupting mobsters shaking down the owners of a local restaurant.

What was supposed to be just one night of them playing policemen gives Ryan a tremendous rush and purpose in life. He buys a car and dresses it up to pass for an official law enforcement vehicle. He studies YouTube videos to learn the lingo and becomes obsessed with bringing brutal mob leader Mossi Kasic (James D’Arcy) to justice. Although Justin is reluctant to continue the charade, he goes along with Ryan’s scheme.

NEW GIRL co-stars Johnson and Wayans play variations on their wayward sitcom characters, making Ryan and Justin lovable losers as long as they are busting on each other or demonstrating how out of their element they are as cops. Their best comedic moments utilize the actors’ chemistry and characters’ ineptitude, such as their exaggerated reading of a text conversation with the aim of subduing squabbling sorority sisters. LET’S BE COPS offers likable leads in a middling comedy as long as it sticks to handling nuisances and minor incidents.

The film gets off track rather severely when it begins treating Ryan and Justin as though they are real law enforcers. Ryan becomes fixated on cracking an organized crime ring and gets drunk on the authority he forgets he doesn’t really have, yet LET’S BE COPS treats his conduct as a cute affectation than pathological behavior. The tone flips from silly to serious as the film gets invested in solving the case. The climactic scene takes on the perspective of a first-person shooter game not unlike something Justin wanted to create at his day job. As procedural and action elements overtake LET’S BE COPS, the comedy either becomes a secondary concern or acquires uncomfortable qualities. Someone going on a power trip while donning police blues isn’t harmless in any scenario, but it can be funny when the character is blundering through the situations. LET’S BE COPS loses sight of this crucial distinction.

Grade: C

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Ghostbusters


GHOSTBUSTERS (Ivan Reitman, 1984)

When the university’s Board of Regents shut down their paranormal studies lab in GHOSTBUSTERS, Drs. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) direct their energies into a commercial enterprise. No one in New York City except for these newly unemployed academics can capture supernatural pests and remove them from the premises. They set up shop in a former fire station and wait for the calls to come pouring in.

With supernatural activity increasing across the Eastern Seaboard, the Ghostbusters have gone into business at the ideal time. Some of their clients are merely dealing with spirits making nuisances of themselves. Unusual phenomena, like eggs flying out of the carton and frying on the countertop, spook Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), but finding an ancient god of destruction’s portal to another dimension in her refrigerator indicates she better call in the professionals right away to examine her Central Park West apartment.

Although GHOSTBUSTERS requires a team effort to thwart the bad forces attacking the city, it’s really Murray’s film despite being written by Aykroyd and Ramis. His performance drips with insincerity, and much of the film’s humor flows from how unserious he is about the apparition invasion. Murray gives the sense that Venkman is in this parapsychology racket because it gets him close to highly suggestible women. His flippant attitude cancels whatever threats the ghosts, demons, or government officials might raise.

Each of the other Ghostbusters fails to be developed beyond his defining quality. Aykroyd is the fast-talking enthusiast. Ramis fills the role of the bookish Ghostbuster who designs their tools of the trade. Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddmore brings a religious perspective to the happenings, although with as little as Ray and Egon are showcased, it’s curious that GHOSTBUSTERS needed to add another paranormal investigator to take on the workload.

GHOSTBUSTERS provides a few jolts to confirm that the heroes are facing credible antagonists, but even those moments reside within the playful tone director Ivan Reitman maintains. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man epitomizes the mixture of comedic scares the film strives to achieve. GHOSTBUSTERS’ most enduring image is an absurd comic variation on Godzilla and King Kong. The damage he wreaks is real, yet this cuddly manifestation of evil looks too silly to be anything but funny. The greatest weapon in GHOSTBUSTERS is the ability to shrug off all sorts of supernatural terrors with a few well-placed jokes.

Grade: B

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Get On Up


GET ON UP (Tate Taylor, 2014)

Like many other biopics GET ON UP assembles the highlights from its subject’s life, but in a twist, this film about James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) shuffles the chronology of key events. Screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth keep the story from settling into a predictable rise-and-fall rut, but their structure also resists picking up any dramatic momentum. It’s like a greatest hits CD that’s not sequenced according to when the songs were released or any logical order. It permits making connections across decades that might not have seemed apparent otherwise, but the groove struggles to be sustained from track to track.

GET ON UP tracks the life of the influential singer from his childhood in Augusta, Georgia. First his mother (Viola Davis) abandons him, and then his father (Lennie James) takes off, leaving him at the whorehouse Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) operates. While in prison at age 17 for stealing a suit out of a car, he meets Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who’s performing for the inmates with his gospel group. Bobby’s parents help James get out by giving him an address to call home.

James joins Bobby’s group and gradually takes over as the star attraction of what comes to be known as The Famous Flames. They play on the chitlin’ circuit and attract the interest of a record company in Cincinnati. In their end they really just want James. He tries to keep the rest of the band as salaried employees, but the news doesn’t sit well with them, although Bobby continues to work with James during his lengthy career.

Early in GET ON UP Brown is wielding a shotgun and putting the fear of God in a group meeting at his strip mall in 1988. One of them used his private restroom, and he’s not happy about it one bit. When a woman fesses up to being the guilty party, he tells her, “You did right by yourself. There ain’t no other way to live.” It’s the defining statement in a film that shows Brown always looking out for number one, often to the detriment of the people around him. He fines band members for infractions and does not take kindly to being challenged. He pushes back against the concert promotion system so that he can keep more of the gate. James Brown’s early years did not feature anyone who put him first, which explains why he came to prioritize his interests to a fault as a guiding principle, yet the tragedy of his success by these means also led him to a lonely place even if surrounded by people.

The plentiful musical performance scenes keep the proceedings lively. Boseman brings swagger, charisma, and toughness in a magnetic piece of acting as the soul singer. Playing a well-known individual, especially one with a larger than life personality, runs the risk of mimicry, but Boseman brings the human dimension to the legend, thus avoiding merely imitating his moves and voice like a sketch comedian.

Revisiting such a broad portion of Brown’s life makes it impossible to cover everything. The unseemlier parts of his history and legal tangles are given short shrift, most notably. GET ON UP does a fine job of reminding how influential Brown has been on popular music, but in trying to understand the man it comes across like a radio edit: safe for mass consumption.

Grade: C+

Into the Storm


INTO THE STORM (Steven Quale, 2014)

Considering the legal hedging corporations take to avoid culpability, it is a little surprising that the disaster film INTO THE STORM doesn’t come with a disclaimer that viewers should not try at home what they see on screen. It should be self-evident that running toward a tornado or standing outside watching it approach is not the smartest thing in the world to do. Then again, the film’s heartland residents and five-person documentary team chasing tornadoes certainly know better but don’t exactly exercise much caution.

The film crew led by Pete (Matt Walsh) is feeling the pressure of not coming through with the kind of footage that will keep their project afloat. In fact, it’s been a year since they shot a tornado. After missing another one, which Pete blames on meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), they get their funding pulled. A storm front in the region brings the possibility of capturing video, so they point their support van and armored car toward Silverton, Oklahoma with the hope of salvaging something from all this time on the road.

In Silverton high school vice-principal Gary Morris (Richard Armitage) is focused on getting through the outdoors commencement before the impending storm arrives. His sons Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress) are supposed to be recording video time capsules and the ceremony, but Donnie takes off to help his crush Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey) reshoot her submission for a summer apprenticeship. They’re at an abandoned paper mill when the storm makes its way to town. Meanwhile aspiring viral video stars Donk (Kyle Davis) and Reevis (Jon Reep) chase twisters with no regard for their own safety.

Natural disasters are the true stars of films like INTO THE STORM, and these CGI weather events do not disappoint. To avoid all of the regular but numerous spouts becoming routine, one tornado even catches on fire. From the safety of a theater seat the storm scenes give the experience of enduring these deadly funnels in all their snarling fury. The sound design roars with the winds’ brute force to create a terrifying atmosphere. The amusement park ride nature of the storm scenes is at its best when viewing the tornado from inside a car tossed to the peaceful top of the eye and plummeting to the earth.

Awesome destruction is the attraction of INTO THE STORM, but the film doesn’t ignore the catastrophic results. While on-screen deaths are kept to a minimum, impressive scenes of the aftermath drive home the enormous amount of trauma a tornado can cause in a community, even if it’s just to property. The redneck daredevils work at cross purposes to the fearful respect INTO THE STORM holds for tornadoes, but their injections of comic relief take up a comparatively small amount of time.

As good as the action scenes are, the character-driven moments drag down INTO THE STORM. Too little development takes place for any of their stories during this hellish day to make an impact. The stupidity with which most of them act doesn’t do them any favors either. Being in Tornado Alley, you’d think they might behave more logically than if they were somewhere unaccustomed to such phenomena. INTO THE STORM is ostensibly the film that results from this incident, but instead of the survivors talking about seizing the day, maybe they should have emphasized taking National Weather Service warnings seriously.

Grade: C

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sex Tape


SEX TAPE (Jake Kasdan, 2014)

To spice up a love life that’s been dulled by their focus on work and raising two kids Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) decide to record their most intimate moments in SEX TAPE. Jay sets up his iPad to capture them trying out all of the positions in 1970s manual THE JOY OF SEX. After their three-hour lovemaking session Annie tells Jay to delete the video file, but before he gets around to doing so, an app syncs their dirty home movie to all of his devices.

Jay’s error of procrastination wouldn’t be so problematic if he didn’t hand out his old iPads like Christmas cards. Friends, family, and acquaintances, including the mailman and toy company CEO Hank (Rob Lowe), who’s considering buying Annie’s mommy blog, possess tablet computers with access to their sex tape. When Jay receives an anonymous text commenting on their video, he realizes that it is no longer private. Mortified at the thought of who might see the video, Jay and Annie scramble to collect the iPads and delete the file before the current owners discover it.

SEX TAPE sets out to mine the main couple’s humiliation for laughs and to consider the stresses on a marriage that can lead to a loss of closeness, yet it does neither particularly well. Annie and Jay’s embarrassing predicament seemingly puts them in awkward interpersonal situations, but instead of using cringe comedy to explore how the video changes the dynamics in facing people they know, Segel, Nicholas Stoller, and Kate Angelo’s screenplay gets bogged down in a plot-intensive hunt for the devices. The distractions Annie and Jay concoct and obstacles they encounter while searching for the iPads keep things broad and safe while avoiding the sensitive relationship stuff that is the film’s most logical source of humor. Aside from one scene in which their friends Robby and Tess (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper) fess up to viewing the sex tape, Annie and Jay’s panic is rooted in envisioning what-if scenarios than confronting the consequences of the file being distributed.

Early on SEX TAPE addresses the daily grind that can put distance between a husband and wife, suggesting that it might use humor to say something about how work and parenting obligations in modern life challenge marriages. Unlike NEIGHBORS, which finds comedic potential in new parents’ worries of losing their youthful edge, SEX TAPE introduces its thematic hook and ignores it until a pat resolution about how the experience lets Annie and Jay rediscover one another. Like an insecure adolescent bragging about falsified sexual experiences, the film uses frank vulgarity about adult situations while seeming juvenile.

SEX TAPE requires granting it a lot of latitude regarding the protagonists’ limited technological savvy, especially when taking their dimly illuminated web-based professions into account. Although the film’s idiot plot undermines its credibility, it makes some humorous observations about how today’s computers are treated as mystical objects worthy of being worshiped and feared. Our pockets hold devices capable of answering any vocalized question, no matter how silly, and sowing the seeds of our ruin if misused, whether by accident or ignorance.

Grade: C-