Saturday, June 28, 2014

They Came Together


THEY CAME TOGETHER (David Wain, 2014)

Among film genres the romantic comedy is not alone in relying on conventions, but it may be the most hidebound to them. While horror and action movies have predictable narrative arcs, they differentiate themselves more often through style and directorial voice. Romantic comedies tend to sand down singular qualities to the point that the films seem interchangeable. Settings and character names and occupations vary, although less than you’d think, but an overwhelming majority follow the same formula. Two people meet, fall in love, separate over a usually trivial misunderstanding or disagreement, and reunite via a grand display of affection. THEY CAME TOGETHER isn’t the first spoof to make fun of the genre’s clich├ęs, but rather than torching romantic comedies, it simply and sweetly toasts them like a marshmallow.

Loosely resembling YOU’VE GOT MAIL, which was a remake of THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, THEY CAME TOGETHER pairs up Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler). She runs a cute candy shop in Manhattan that distributes all proceeds to charity. He works as a development executive at Candy Systems and Research, which plans to open a superstore across the street and run her out of business. Their friends intend to introduce the cute, klutzy Molly and newly single, non-threatening Joel at a Halloween party, but they become acquainted when literally bumping into one another on the way there. Both are dressed as Ben Franklin, which suggests they must have plenty in common, but their ungraceful meeting and conflicting jobs endanger a relationship from being established. Luckily for the adorable twosome, Joel apologizes the next day, and they bond over usual first date chatter about Q-tips and communism.

THEY CAME TOGETHER isn’t far removed from something like DATE MOVIE, a supremely lazy 2006 parody film with the same target. The difference is that screenwriter Michael Showalter and co-writer/director David Wain construct jokes rather than using references to popular films as sloppy shorthand. (There may be a joke linked to Werner Herzog’s MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE, but if it’s intended, the number of people who get it has to be infinitesimally small.) Clearly THEY CAME TOGETHER is riffing on romantic comedies like WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, but the humor comes from ribbing overused narrative elements than requiring recognition of specific sources.

Among the things Wain and Showalter call out are how supporting characters’ lives exist completely in relation to how they can help the couple, how coincidences and the protagonists’ awful behavior are taken for granted, and how there’s always time for a ridiculous montage of trying on clothes. The easy laugh lines are clever and consistent enough to supercede the one-note nature of them. Rudd and Poehler are supremely likable and play off each other so well that someone ought to cast them in a romantic comedy that isn’t an ironic roast of them.

Although there’s plenty of obvious humor, like the jars of tennis balls and gumballs on a shelf just waiting to be spilled when Molly and Joel wreck the apartment when making out for the first time, some of the funniest jokes in THEY CAME TOGETHER are hidden in the margins. Joel’s apartment is my favorite. It has the stereotypical set decorations that are always seen in the living spaces of big city dwellers. Joel’s home is decked out with multiple clocks, a vintage Pepsi sign, street signs, reels, a small and enormous desk globe, a guitar, and a pinball machine. The film doesn’t comment on how the apartment looks; it just lets its absurd existence be on display as further evidence of the artificial and prosaic qualities too many romantic comedies settle for.

Grade: B

Friday, June 20, 2014

Night Moves


NIGHT MOVES (Kelly Reichardt, 2013)

Living in secrecy seems like a tall, if not impossible, task these days. One can take steps to reduce fear and suspicion of the National Security Agency monitoring web activity and phone calls, but the people one interacts with will always be potential loose ends regardless of how much trust is placed in them. The three environmentalists plotting to blow up the Green Peter Dam in NIGHT MOVES keep low profiles and cover their tracks, yet throughout the planning each remains leery that one among them will burn them.

Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is a sensitive sort who will stop to pick up a fallen bird’s nest and move a deer struck by a car off the side of the road. He lives in a yurt on the co-op Oregon farm where he works. To passersby this quiet, slightly built young man looks about as unthreatening as possible, but his exterior belies a radical’s intensity and dangerousness. Dena (Dakota Fanning) comes from a wealthy Connecticut family whose lifestyle she’s disavowed to support the cause. She lights up with the passion of the newly converted. Dena gladly puts up her funds to gain greater participation in Josh’s eco-terrorist activities. In this case that means providing ten thousand dollars in cash to purchase the boat named Night Moves that they intend to load with ammonium nitrate fertilizer and detonate by the concrete dam. Josh’s friend Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) lives off the grid, more or less, in a trailer in the countryside, but his reliability is up for debate when it seems he’s not as unknown in the area as thought.

Director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt wrings tension from the rampant paranoia among the trio leading up to their political act and the ratcheting up of suspense as they respond to its aftermath. Innocent questions and unknown cars pulling up to the workplace become worrisome. Headlights in the rearview mirror gain accusatory significance. Even a job application leaves a trace. Josh becomes more withdrawn and skittish to the friends and colleagues who don’t know what he’s been involved in. Neither the physical world nor one’s mind provide totally safe hiding places. NIGHT MOVES gives the sense that communicating with others is ultimately undesirable. In the film’s rare humorous spots, these environmental true believers dismiss the foolishness of those they encounter while trying to go unnoticed.

Despite their unconscionable deed, we feel somehow complicit with Josh, Dena, and Harmon by virtue of watching and following them. Reichardt identifies that abetment in the heart-stopping moment after they’re trying to leave the scene and the first turn of the key fails to start their truck. The viewer’s reaction suggests a wish for them not to be caught regardless of how we judge their actions. By getting that response Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond peer into how one can be seduced into extremism through gradual exposure when otherwise such behavior would seem out of the question to most rational people.

Eisenberg is terrifying because of the mental energy he shows Josh must expend to hold it together while denying normal human emotions. He must always be on guard and wear a mask, although he permits a small smile to himself after hearing the bomb explode in the distance. The character’s beliefs are unsettling, but the manner in which he justifies and compartmentalizes what he does in opposition with an otherwise gentle nature reveals a monster let loose from its cage. Josh fixates on making a statement than achieving results. As NIGHT MOVES shows, once that decision is arrived at, that’s a frightening state of existence.

Grade: A-

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars


THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (Josh Boone, 2014)

A billion or so years from now the sun will expand into a red giant and wipe out any existence of this planet, so what does anything matter in the long run? Feeling like everything is ultimately futile isn’t just the province of teenagers, but a place of existential despair can seem like home to those going through life’s most dramatic changes. If that teenager has terminal cancer, being obsessed with future doom is a natural impulse, although probably not the most mentally healthy preoccupation.

In THE FAULT IN OUR STARS 17-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is one of those unfortunate kids searching for hope in the face of hopelessness. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was thirteen and nearly died. An experimental trial worked for her, but the cancer spread to her lungs. She seems to get by fine day to day, but having stage 4 cancer, there’s no doubt how her story will end.

Her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) thinks Hazel is depressed and encourages her to attend a support group at the local Episcopal church in Indianapolis. There she meets 18-year-old Augustus Water (Ansel Elgort), who lost his right leg just above the knee but seems uncommonly enthusiastic about life. Although Hazel is a little put off by Gus’s aggressive flirting, she finds him intriguing. He wins points with her by agreeing to read her favorite book, a heavy piece of literature about a girl with cancer that isn’t something he would ordinarily bother with. The novel and its reclusive author become things for them to bond over and form a friendship that might lead to romance if Hazel will allow it.

Based on John Green’s popular young adult novel, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS hinges on the performances and tone. Woodley, who has impressed in THE DESCENDANTS and THE SPECTACULAR NOW, does well playing a character who wants to minimize others’ pain often at the expense of bringing her more emotional hurt. She invests Hazel with an independent streak that keeps her from suffering without a fight or giving in to the first cute boy who pays her attention, yet she’s not so tough that she’s closed off. Woodley’s big scene comes with a speech that she delivers at a pre-funeral, yet her best moment may come when she’s again shoving down her feelings and putting on a brave face for others toward the film’s end. Elgort plays Gus with unlimited confidence and eagerness, which can come off as borderline creepy, but his openness makes it understandable why Hazel might find relief with him from her dark thoughts.

Although THE FAULT IN OUR STARS prettifies characters in their health states, it is notable for the frankness with which the teenagers talk about their diseases. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and director Josh Boone leave the specter of death looming while coaxing Hazel and Gus to enjoy the time they will have together, no matter how short it might be. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS provides space for anger and joy to be justified and relished and does so without getting sentimental in a cheaply manipulative way. Boone pulls off a feat in managing to make a first kiss in the Anne Frank House not seem gross, although he undercuts the accomplishment with a weird choice to have the bystanders applaud. As in his first film STUCK IN LOVE Boone relies too much on using an indie soundtrack to emphasize the narrative’s mood. The film hits some uneven sections when it seems to be wandering afield in the Netherlands but finds its stride with a really strong final forty minutes.

Gus desires to be remembered while Hazel wants what exists around her to persist when she’s gone. Both are far too young to carry such weighty concerns, but the journey, viewed from Hazel’s perspective, touches with how she chooses to face it head on. Obsessing over death and preempting relationships to prevent others from feeling the pain of losing her are ways of coping but ones that Hazel discovers help nobody. True, one day this world will no longer be here, but what is important is the connections that make things matter until then.

Grade: B

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

22 Jump Street


22 JUMP STREET (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014)

A glance at Hollywood studios’ release schedules fat with sequels, remakes, and reboots conveys the message that if at first you succeed with something, repeat until you’ve wrung every last cent out of it. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller achieved the unlikely in guiding an adaptation of the late 1980s/early ‘90s TV series 21 JUMP STREET to creative and financial success, making 22 JUMP STREET a given. Like many follow-ups, this one essentially hits all of the same beats that worked before while tweaking the specifics enough to avoid being a complete rehash. The difference in 22 JUMP STREET is that screenwriters Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman call attention to the business of show with meta and comedic commentary on the nature of sequels.

Fresh off their effective undercover work as high school students, Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) graduate to an assignment that sends them to college. Once again Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) tasks them with finding a drug supplier, but when it comes to social navigation, this time the script gets flipped. Schmidt was in his element in high school while Jenko failed to fit into the cool crowd. At Metro City State Jenko blends in easily, buddying up to quarterback and possible campus dealer Zook (Wyatt Russell). Schmidt struggles to make a positive impression on Zook and his fraternity brothers, leaving him to hang out with art majors like Maya (Amber Stevens), who lives with the girl whose former roommate’s death from the drug generated their investigation.

Whether it’s because duplicating the original film’s structure and plot points is the easiest option or the audience is anticipated not to care, 22 JUMP STREET spares no opportunity to point out the crass recycling in sequels. Like Schmidt’s hilarious stab at slam poetry at open mic night, itself a callback to his audition in the first JUMP STREET, the film deconstructs the very thing it’s engaging in. Winking acknowledgements of an unnecessary bigger budget and narrative repetitions avoid being cutesy excuses for screenwriting laziness because the ruthless jokes consistently hit their marks. In its own way 22 JUMP STREET is a work of film criticism that mocks the lack of originality in endeavors like this. When Jenko drills several holes in a small area for hidden cameras, it’s not unlike an industry that time and again mines a diminished number of established properties for box office returns.

Lord and Miller started as directors in animation with the TV series CLONE HIGH and moved on to films with CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS and THE LEGO MOVIE. They bring some of their cartoon sensibility to 22 JUMP STREET. An early action setpiece atop a moving truck turns the heroes into Looney Tunes made flesh, and a drug trip sequence places them side by side in exaggerated scenery for their contrasting experiences. Perhaps their work in animation explains why a significant amount of the humor is visual. Through editing and framing, sometimes in split screen, they compare Jenko and Schmidt’s vastly different physical abilities with amusing results. Jokes in the background, like a hall named after fonts and a sped-up chase in front of the Benjamin Hill Center for Film Studies, are there for viewers to discover than have hammered home. Lord and Miller assume a greater amount of audience perceptiveness than other broad comedies that repeat and explain jokes for the less engaged. Creed’s “Higher” plays during Schmidt’s bad trip, but it’s never pointed out, just left there for the viewer to pick up on the implication that it’s what is playing in hell.

Tatum and Hill have great comedic chemistry as the mismatched stud and schlub, and the performances are again a large part of the film’s appeal. Tatum in particular is endearingly funny playing a big dummy who mangles words like annals and carte blanche and tries on a ridiculous, pinched accent when called upon to follow Schmidt’s lead in a meeting with criminals. The verbal humor comes in flurries and is epitomized when Jillian Bell’s Mercedes works Schmidt like a speed bag with her quips about his age. Despite all of the wisecracks and visual gags, the funniest bit comes in a character-based scene at parents’ weekend. 22 JUMP STREET makes no bones about repeating what worked the first time around and suggests there could be an endless crop of installments. If this film series can continue to deliver more of the same consistent laughs, keep ‘em coming.

Grade: B

Thursday, June 05, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past


X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (Bryan Singer, 2014)

It looks like the mutants’ time is up in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. A sentinel program with a genetic guidance system targets the biologically aberrant heroes and is on the verge of wiping them out if something isn’t done soon. Their only hope is to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to keep Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who experimented on mutants to develop the weapons.

Things aren’t looking so great for mutants decades earlier, though. Wolverine finds the Institute for Gifted Youngsters closed and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) depressed and reliant on a serum that returns function to his legs but suppresses his telepathic abilities. Erik Lehnsherr, otherwise known as Magneto (Michael Fassbender), is imprisoned deep below the Pentagon. After breaking Charles out of his funk and Magneto out of his cell, the team of X-Men, which also includes Beast (Nicholas Hoult), head to the Paris Peace Accords to stop Raven from completing her mission and dooming their future.

The X-MEN films have the biggest cast of characters among comic book adaptations, yet DAYS OF FUTURE PAST never gets bogged down trying to devote sufficient time to each of them. The follow-up to X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is mainly Wolverine, Charles Xavier, and Magneto’s show. Jackman is the anchor, bringing the gruff humor and brute force he’s lent to the role six other times. McAvoy and Fassbender harness the tension between Charles’ idealism and Erik’s cynicism. Still, DAYS OF FUTURE PAST finds showcase moments for other mutants too. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) receives an amusing introduction to the franchise in a funny, slow-motion confrontation that stands as the film’s most memorable scene. Blink (Fan Bingbing) uses portals to enliven the future’s actions sequences, particularly the opening one.

Despite two concurrent time periods and various locations to manage, director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg keep events clear-cut. The path may be a little complicated to follow, but it’s all conveyed in a straightforward manner that doesn’t require audiences to have brushed up on the events of previous films to understand the importance of what’s happening now. The threat and actions needed to overcome it are more firmly defined than the world-at-risk scenario that has become the default blockbuster setting. While DAYS OF FUTURE PAST doesn’t lack for spectacle, such as Magneto ripping RFK Stadium from the ground and dropping it on the front lawn of the White House, it has the good taste not to use anonymous mass casualties as a cheap way of raising the stakes.

DAYS OF FUTURE PAST isn’t lacking seriousness or long-form episodic storytelling that fuels these superhero series, but Singer never loses sight that this should be fun too. Like FIRST CLASS, the ‘70s setting gives a unique look to this one over other X-MEN and comic book entries. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST takes pleasure in showing off the variety of powers its characters’ possess and retains a sense of humor about X-MEN history and the inherent silliness in these adventures.

Grade: B

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Maleficent


MALEFICENT (Robert Stromberg, 2014)

MALEFICENT loves looking at Angelina Jolie embodying the fairy previously familiar as SLEEPING BEAUTY’s villain. Whether shown in shadow, profile, or many loving close-ups, Jolie cuts a striking image as the horned protagonist. Her prominent cheekbones are enhanced to make them seem as sharp as sabres. The stylish, form-fitting headpiece suggests a turbaned Gloria Swanson if she also had antlers. Jolie doesn’t craft a performance from the title character so much as she imprints a presence on the film’s frames. That this seems more like modelling than acting isn’t intended as slight against what Jolie accomplishes here. How she commands attention in MALEFICENT defines star power, which, despite the the number of actors dubbed stars, is a rare trait.

Unfortunately the revisionist fairy tale doesn’t have much else working in its favor. The alternative view of Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY, by way of Broadway’s WICKED, does little more than provide a slight backstory to humanize Maleficent and revise her actions to make them appropriate for the misunderstood and ostensible hero of a family film. Director Robert Stromberg and screenwriter Linda Woolverton hint at darker shades in the narrative--MALEFICENT could be interpreted as a rape revenge story--but redeem the character for general audience acceptability.

The winged, orphan fairy Maleficent lives in a magical kingdom that borders on a human village with which there is sometimes conflict. She is suspicious of outsiders and indeed one day encounters a peasant boy who is attempting to steal from her realm. The two become friends, though, and over time Maleficent and Stefan (Sharlto Copley) become romantically involved until, in his ambition to become closer to the king, he stops coming to see her.

The king fears Maleficent and wants her dead. Although Stefan does not kill his longtime friend, his betrayal wounds her so deeply that when he ascends to the throne and becomes father to a baby girl, she curses the child. Maleficent vows that by the time the sun sets on Aurora’s sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle and fall into an eternal sleep unless she receives true love’s kiss. Stefan orders all spinning wheels to be collected and destroyed and ships Aurora to the country to be cared for by the pixies Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), and Thistletwit (Juno Temple) until the day after the fateful one promised. Maleficent is often nearby to keep tabs on the child, and as Aurora grows into a guileless teenager (Elle Fanning), she regrets the doomed future she has invoked for her.

Unnecessary THE LORD OF THE RINGS-like battles are front- and backloaded on MALEFICENT, as if the studio feared boys would have no interest without them. The CGI storybook visuals derive from other recent fantasy films, particularly Disney’s live-action ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Aside from the three pixies, who look weirdly off-putting in miniature form, the computer-animated effects create a believable fantasy world while seeming less impressive because of the ubiquity of such work in contemporary cinema. MALEFICENT strangely lacks much drama because it is content to gaze upon Jolie. Her bearing is the film’s greatest effect in a land where a castle, wall of thorns, and mystical creatures exist, but a costume and visage are not enough to make this reformulated fairy tale a story worth telling.

Grade: C

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Wet Hot American Summer


WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER (David Wain, 2001)

Hormones and emotions are running high at Camp Firewood on the last day of the summer of 1981. In WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER the teenage counselors and adult administrators are looking for love, especially if it’s been elusive during these muggy months, while their pre-teen charges are sad over the imminent separation from their new best friends.

Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) has her eye on vacationing astrophysics associate professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce). Shy counselor Coop (Michael Showalter) is infatuated with Katie (Marguerite Moreau), but she’s dating resident bad boy Andy (Paul Rudd). Big-talking Victor (Ken Marino) is desperate to score with a ready and willing Abby (Marisa Ryan), but being assigned to take some boys a couple hours away for whitewater rafting may thwart his chance. Susie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Bradley Cooper) are preoccupied with organizing the evening’s talent show. Arts and crafts teacher Gail (Molly Shannon), whose marriage is in shambles, is about as stable as a macaroni art project.

Written by The State’s Showalter and David Wain, who also directs, and featuring other members of the sketch comedy troupe, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER unfolds in short episodes from the final day of the season. It begins as a straightforward spoof of late 1970s and early 1980s camp films, programming seemingly in heavy rotation on pay cable movie channels in the mid-’80s. (MEATBALLS, a clear inspiration for this film, is the most prominent example.)

True to The State’s absurdist style, the film evolves into something much weirder and more unpredictable. The humor is rooted in intentional continuity errors, non sequiturs, and montages riffing on films with no relevance to camp comedies. There’s a distinct hit-and-miss quality to the various ideas they’re playing with, but enough of these strange jokes connect for WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER to succeed. For instance, a pep talk before and team response to a big game subverts expectations. Rudd behaves like a petulant toddler when ordered to clean up the mess he makes in the cafeteria.

The execution and exaggeration of the counselors going on an over-the-top bender during an infrequent opportunity to go into town make the montage sufficiently funny, but what elevates the scene is how it reflects real camp life. The same goes for the talent show scene and its host Alan Shemper (Showalter), a Catskills comedian who hasn’t written a joke too hacky to tell. The gag is that none of what hits the camp stage is funny, but the insular community and campers starved for entertainment eat it up. The outsized reactions serve as the punchlines.

In addition to the actors already mentioned, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER also features Elizabeth Banks, Christopher Meloni, and Michael Ian Black. Like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and DAZED AND CONFUSED, the cast is a remarkable assemblage of future stars. Many are now bigger names than those top-billed during the film’s 2001 release.

With a cast decked out in ringer tees with iron-ons in Cooper Black font, tube socks, puka shell necklaces, muscle shirts, and midriffs, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER evokes warm memories of movies that likely weren’t very good. Oddly, the film plays better when thinking back to it than it necessarily does while watching it. That quality likely owes to the scattershot nature of the humor, but it also indicates that like the best comedies, it improves over time and repeated viewings.

Grade: B-