Friday, February 28, 2014

Adult World

ADULT WORLD (Scott Coffey, 2013)

The glut of talent competition shows on television push the narrative that everyone is a potential superstar.  A glance at AMERICAN IDOL, THE VOICE, SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE, and the like reveals teens and young adults convinced that discovery is the only thing keeping them from fame and fortune.  Even when the judges and viewing public deny them passage to the next round, the aspiring performers often refuse to believe the rejections stem from not being good enough.  Some are surely right that evaluators are failing to recognize their skills, but a great many are incapable of accepting the hard truth that they aren’t as great as they think, especially when their self-esteems have been shielded from challenges.

ADULT WORLD’s would-be poet Amy Anderson (Emma Roberts) is one of those special little flowers.  She sails through Syracuse University with top grades and is told by everyone how terrific her writing is.  The economic prospects for a poet aren’t exactly numerous nowadays, but Amy eagerly submits to as many literary journals and contests as she can find with full confidence that something will come through.  Like many who have earned degrees but aren’t yet making a living, she stays at home with her parents in the suburbs.  They’re supportive of her dream but eventually have to insist that Amy starts bringing in some money in the meantime. She has $90,000 in college loans beginning to come due, and they can’t foot all of her expenses.

Amy’s specialized education and lack of retail experience do not make her an attractive candidate to those doing the hiring, so she’s desperate to find anyone who might provide an opportunity for a regular check.  Although the mom-and-pop porn shop Adult World isn’t where she envisioned herself working, the owners are willing to bring her on as a clerk.  Every small victory seems to come with a setback, though.  Shortly thereafter Amy has her car stolen and gets into an argument with her parents over her financial irresponsibility.  She runs away from home with nowhere to go but the place where transvestite acquaintance Rubia (Armando Riesco) is squatting.  She meets Rat Billings (John Cusack), a writer she idolizes, and wears him down into letting her be his assistant even though he has no interest in serving as her mentor.

Unlike AMERICAN IDOL, which derives pleasure in humiliating singers deluded about the level of their abilities, ADULT WORLD doesn’t intend to burst Amy’s bubble but to remove it gradually for her own benefit.  In reading verse aloud as if it were divine wisdom, Roberts plays up the insufferable nature of the self-identifying artiste.  She is funny in maintaining the sincerity of the character’s passion while displaying the clumsiness of her inexperience.  Amy’s hilarious attempted seduction of Rat typifies her actions as the caricatured motions and words of someone whose deepest interactions have been with art than people.

As Rat, Cusack demonstrates no patience for such obliviousness and optimism.  His wry performance carries the fatigue of someone famous who has long since lost any enjoyment in having admirers excitedly bare their souls and repeat favorite passages to him.  Films tend to depict the act of creation with great romance, but Cusack is here to yank those images aside to say that it can be a grind.

ADULT WORLD’s forced quirkiness overwhelms the good effort Roberts and Cusack give it.  Amy’s naiveté would be more credible if she had just finished high school.  The porn shop setting and what can uncharitably be described as a magical transvestite character come off as lazy attempts to try and make the film edgier without actually doing so.  In that way ADULT WORLD is not very different than Amy as it mistakes idiosyncrasy for cleverness and knowledge.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Cabin Boy

CABIN BOY (Adam Resnick, 1994)

CABIN BOY was a notorious commercial flop and critical failure during its 1994 release, not to mention the butt of jokes by David Letterman, who cameos as a sock monkey-selling old salt.  In retrospect the film’s lack of success should come as no surprise as star Chris Elliott’s comedic sensibilities are strange and often sour.  The weird humor he lent to his appearances on LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN and the sitcom GET A LIFE and continues to bring on The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim oddity EAGLEHEART appeal to a narrow segment.  CABIN BOY was probably destined to be a cult film.  Those immune to its charms twenty years ago are still likely to resist it, yet for those tuned to Elliott’s wavelength, this seafaring comedy holds up well and seems ahead of its time.

Having completed his schooling as a fancy lad, Nathanial Mayweather (Chris Elliott) sets out for Hawaii to take over his father’s hotel chain.  On the way to the seaport the condescending young man irritates his driver so much that he’s left on the side of the road and forced to walk to his awaiting ship.  Nathanial takes a wrong turn that brings him to a village and aboard the fishing boat The FIlthy Whore rather than a luxury ocean liner.  He assumes the grotty accommodations are to part of the vessel’s ironic theme. Out at sea he discovers that he is on the wrong boat and will not be able to get where he wants to be any time soon.

Nathanial tricks cabin boy Kenny (Andy Richter) into changing their course, but the none-too-bright first mate actually redirects them toward Hell’s Bucket.  When Kenny goes overboard, Nathanial is made cabin boy and assigned to do all of the dirty tasks to earn his keep among the five-man crew.

CABIN BOY isn’t especially funny, at least not in the traditional sense.  Instead it finds amusement in surreal silliness and an alternative comedy style that draws from anti-humor.  It tends to be theoretically comical more than ha-ha funny.  Writer-director Adam Resnick and Elliott, who shares a story credit, riff on 1950s and ‘60s fantasy adventure films.  They express delight and laughs in miniatures, the old studio backlot look, and stop-motion animated creatures that recall the work of Ray Harryhausen. CABIN BOY’s respect for nostalgia highlights the inventiveness in a bygone era while also treating it irreverently and taking waggish pleasure in the tackiness.

Elliott’s prissy jerk in knee socks, short pants, and a wig resists softening even as he grows from a boy into a man.  The high, nasal voice Elliott uses can be annoying, and the character’s patronizing demeanor toward all, be it someone of comparable social rank or the scruffy fishermen, ensures that he is not made endearing in the slightest. Nathanial’s blithe indifference to others fuels this acerbically funny performance.  While Nathanial follows an arc from brattiness to maturity, his inherent loathesomeness serves as a rejoinder to any other story in which a loss of privilege leads to humility and personal betterment.  At just 80 minutes CABIN BOY stretches to reach feature length, yet the commitment to sheer weirdness is often enough to keep it afloat through the slow spots.  

Grade: B-

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


ROBOCOP (José Padilha, 2014)

OmniCorp is making a fortune using robotic law enforcement overseas, and CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) can’t wait to deploy it on the streets of the United States.  Sufficient Congressional and public resistance requires finding a solution to persuade the masses that his machines provide a safe method of policing.  The lack of a human element in decision-making is the sticking point for many, so the way to alleviate public fears is to enhance a wounded officer with the latest technological advancements.

With so much riding on the experiment, the perfect candidate is needed to inhabit the suit.  They find him in Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who is just a head, hands, and thorax after being targeted in a car bombing.  His grieving wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) consents to the procedure as a way of keeping him alive but fails to consider that doing so turns him into corporate property.  As Alex’s intellect and emotional capacity prove problematic in testing, leading OmniCorp scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) is instructed to program the human element out of him.

The 1987 ROBOCOP satirized corporate greed and questioned putting trust in technology.  Director José Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer’s ROBOCOP consigns the biting humor to segments with Samuel L. Jackson’s cable news blowhard stumping for the adoption of robotic security forces.  Reflecting the times, the challenge in this version isn’t whether such science should be used for law and order but who is controlling it and to what end.  For instance, in the near future drones are almost certain to become more widely employed, so the question becomes how they are incorporated without infringing on the rights and safety of citizens.  Other thematically relevant information is lobbed into the new ROBOCOP, but overall the film plays as though it lacks a point of view.  It seeks to get credit for providing food for thought without digesting.

The talented cast, which also includes Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earle Haley, add class to what has the potential to be savage material.  Like the new, shiny ROBOCOP with the latest special effects and slick production values, the actors are simply adornments.  Respected actors, snippets of sociopolitical commentary and flashy computer effects are collected badges to claim something vital is present.  It looks good but lacks the personality or depth.  

With more focus placed on the forces manipulating him behind the scenes and the family that misses what he was, it can seem like the RoboCop character is an afterthought in his own film.  Part of the appeal of Peter Weller’s version was seeing a cyborg lawman push around the city’s scumbags in ways a mere man would be incapable of doing.  Through no fault of Kinnaman’s, this RoboCop isn’t cleaning up the city so much as he’s trying to solve his own murder and get his emotions to override his programming.  What Murphy looks like when the suit is removed is a great and disgusting reveal, yet there’s little identification with what remains of the man who’s an unwilling tool of the powerful.

Grade: C

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

About Last Night

ABOUT LAST NIGHT (Steve Pink, 2014)

ABOUT LAST NIGHT strives to rise above romantic comedy clichés, but in its haste to push through every stage in a relationship it fails to let its primary couple just be.  Danny (Michael Ealy) and Debbie (Joy Bryant) experience the ups and downs of being together in moments akin to montages expanded with dialogue.  The course of them growing close and apart are like a collection of Instagram videos rather than full scenes.  These peeks at the dating life are long enough to get the basic idea across but feel rushed and incomplete.  

The remake of the 1986 Brat Pack film, itself an adaptation of a David Mamet play, relocates from Chicago to Los Angeles to follow friends and co-workers Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Danny and the main women in their lives, roommates Joan (Regina Hall) and Debbie.  Bernie and Joan are a combustible couple eager for their low-key friends to find someone special too.  Danny is still nursing his wounds a year after the end of his previous relationship.  Debbie isn’t in any rush either.  They hit it off, though, and while initially cautious about becoming seriously involved, they decide to share a place.  As the seasons change, so too do the temperatures in their connection.  

To its credit, ABOUT LAST NIGHT doesn’t contrive some nonsensical reason or easily resolved misunderstanding to instigate Danny and Debbie’s break-up.  If anything it pokes fun at such movie devices through Bernie and Joan’s manufactured excuses for splitting.  Still, director Steve Pink and screenwriter Leslye Headland are in such a hurry to get to that point that they skim over much of what would advance the main duo’s commitment to one another beyond the first level of intense physical attraction.  This might be understandable if ABOUT LAST NIGHT were commenting on how sexual chemistry can lead people to form deeper ties than they are prepared to accept, but the film seems convinced of their appropriateness for one another even if it fails to convey this.  Having laid a weak foundation for Danny and Debbie’s relationship, the disagreements and separation don’t mean as much when from the outset the mechanics to get them apart are visible.

Ealy and Bryant are never less than appealing as the sensitive and grounded characters, but the prescriptive nature of their arcs isn’t nearly as much fun as the passion and bickering between Hart and Hall.  Their playful and volatile relationship is meant to contrast with the stable one.  Instead it does a much better job of assuring that these are the two people in the film who really mean something to one another, even if sometimes they drive themselves crazy.  Hart is very funny as he vigorously recounts Bernie’s exploits and performs dating arithmetic so he maintains the upper hand.  Hall matches his energy and ruthlessness while holding onto some vulnerability.  Bernie and Joan’s pairing is a caricature, yet they feel like the ones with something at stake.    

ABOUT LAST NIGHT is more frank, especially out of the gate, in its descriptions regarding what goes on in private between men and women than many romantic comedies.  While some of that crudity comes across like it’s there for shock value in this genre, it helps to remind of the animalistic motivations underneath the social rituals. For a film that often doesn’t take the easy way out, it’s unfortunate that the larger share of screen time is devoted to the more conventional but less satisfying relationship.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)

THE WIND RISES (KAZE TACHINU) (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

It is said that Alfred Nobel hoped he might bring about an end to war by inventing dynamite. The explosive would cause mutual destruction and thus deter combat. Nobel’s hypothesis, whether apocryphal or not, was proven grossly incorrect.  The unintended consequences of creation also come into play in THE WIND RISES, writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s fictionalized and animated biography of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed Japan’s Zero fighter.

Airplanes captivate Jiro (Hideaki Anno) so much that he often imagines conversations with Italian plane designer Giovanni Battista Caproni.  Too nearsighted to be a pilot, he sets his focus on becoming an aeronautical engineer.  Jiro is single-minded in his work and becomes a golden boy at the Mitsubishi Internal Combustion Engine Co. between World Wars I and II.  He is given time to let his mind roam and sent to Germany to see the all-metal airframes that the Japanese hope to use as they develop new fighters. Although Jiro experiences setbacks, he continues to dream of the beautiful flying machine that he will bring into reality.

A verse from a Paul Valéry poem--”The wind is rising! We must try to live.”--begins the film, provides its title, and is mentioned regularly throughout.  The quotation describes Jiro’s mindset as he endures his country’s poverty, an earthquake, war, and a tragic romance with Naoko Satomi (Miori Takimoto).  Terrible things happen and are on the horizon, but there is beauty and wonder to behold as well.  Just as the wind can inflict destruction, so too can it spread life.  

For Jiro the plane he is trying to perfect embodies mathematically elegant design that enables sailing among the clouds like in his childhood visions.  In actuality his achievement becomes a killing machine.  THE WIND RISES suggests that Jiro is a dreamer who isn’t ignorant of what he is creating but is susceptible to going about his work with an idealized conception of its purpose.     To Miyazaki the great sorrow is in lovely inventions being perverted into agents of death and ruination.  Technological advances are not inherently moral or immoral.  The enormous challenge, one that is often failed, is to choose to use such discoveries for the good.

THE WIND RISES is purportedly Miyazaki’s final film.  If so, it presents a fitting summary of his loves and concerns.  It celebrates ingenuity and imagination, as when Jiro observes the curve of mackerel bones and applies natural design to make a better frame for his plane.  It bemoans how militarism and economic forces can harm the health of the people and the environment.  No villain exists in THE WIND RISES other than the destructive human instinct.  For all of his enthusiasm about the wonderful things humanity might dream up, Miyazaki worries to what end they will be employed. The bittersweet tone is not intended to discourage progress but to inspire mindfulness in how innovations are implemented.  The verse his film quotes implies that obstacles will always be in the way of happiness, yet it is worth striving to grasp whatever grace exists and resist the forces of doom.   

Grade: A

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Monuments Men

THE MONUMENTS MEN (George Clooney, 2014)

Dismayed at the immense amount of art the Germans are stealing during World War II and the historic sites being damaged in battles, Frank Stokes (George Clooney) gets approval to lead a platoon of art experts to minimize the cultural losses as much as possible.  The seven-man team in THE MONUMENTS MEN hunts for the missing treasures and gives advice to military commanders about significant buildings they hope will be unharmed in combat.  The motley crew of newly minted American soldiers includes New York museum curator James Granger (Matt Damon) and architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) as well as Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), a Brit with a drinking problem, and Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), a Frenchman whose sight and hearing deficiencies prevent him from being a fighter pilot.

Intending to protect and locate as much art as possible, the unit is spread across the European theater.  Jeffries, Campbell, and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) head to Belgium, with the Brit going to Bruges to secure Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child and the other two tasked with protecting the Ghent Altarpiece.  Granger goes to newly liberated France where he tries to pry information from Parisian museum worker Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett).  Although suspected of being a collaborator, she kept a detailed list of the art that passed through a sorting house while the Nazis employed her. Claire is hesitant to share her records because she thinks that, like the Russians, the Americans will keep the pieces rather than return them to their original owners.  Sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Clermont are dispatched to Germany.  The already difficult job of the Monuments Men takes on greater urgency when Hitler orders the destruction of all looted artwork if he dies or Germany falls.

Based on a fascinating true story, THE MONUMENTS MEN strives for grandeur but amounts to something ordinary under Clooney’s execution as director and co-writer with Grant Heslov.  The effort to recover and preserve millions of cultural objects is earnestly recounted.  The nobility of the mission isn’t in question, but relentless reminders of what is at stake feels like a failure to give audiences credit for understanding it.  Although the Monuments Men suffer casualties, precious little about their assignments feels urgent.

Clooney keeps the tone relatively light, almost as if this operation is a fast one that the Allies pull on Hitler, yet he resists indulging the comedically broad or darkly humorous. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS or a wartime OCEAN’S ELEVEN this isn’t.  The human cost of the war rests heavily on the proceedings often enough not to be forgotten.  One of the film’s best scenes comes when a record from home is played over the camp radio.  The touching moment reminds of what is left behind during wartime and how objects have value beyond their components’ worth, yet the melancholy it brings is an awkward fit with the overall weightlessness of the characters’ experiences.  The impulse not to be too jokey is understandable, but Clooney never quite gets a handle on balancing the mission between a lark and life-or-death matter.   

With members of the team working in various part of the continent, THE MONUMENTS MEN often feels scattered.  The individual stories unspool like a jumble of decent anecdotes that add up to less than their sum.  None of the Monuments Men define themselves beyond being slight variations of one another.  The underutilization of this cast stands as the film’s biggest disappointment.  THE MONUMENTS MEN plays well enough as an old-fashioned call to live according to lofty ideals, yet the fulfilling of this pursuit is more humdrum than spirited.

Grade: C+

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Prince Avalanche

PRINCE AVALANCHE (David Gordon Green, 2013)

PRINCE AVALANCHE can easily be assigned a narrative marking it as a return to writer-director David Gordon Green’s roots.  After beginning his career with Terrence Malick-indebted independent films that include GEORGE WASHINGTON and ALL THE REAL GIRLS, Green shifted to making ’80s-reminiscent studio comedies like PINEAPPLE EXPRESS.  The departure from his early work and poor critical reception of THE SITTER and YOUR HIGHNESS fueled the conventional wisdom that Green had lost his way.  Following up those misfires with the small scale drama-comedy PRINCE AVALANCHE would seem to confirm such opinions, but the return to a lyrical style simply provides a better vessel for the weird sense of humor that runs through his work instead of Green’s confession of past creative waywardness.  

The mismatched road crew of Alvin (Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch) spend the summer of 1988 living and working in central Texas’ woods to fix the damage the previous year’s wildfires caused.  The work week requires staying in a tent in the middle of nowhere while performing repetitive tasks such as driving posts and putting stripes and reflectors on the road, but they’re free to make the long drive into town during the weekend.  

Alvin thrives in isolation.  He relishes the opportunity to better himself and to embrace a traditional concept of rugged masculinity that includes supporting his girlfriend and child back in the city.  Alvin carried out the work on his own in the spring and would have been content to keep it that way except he wanted to do his girlfriend a favor by employing her brother.  Lance is less enamored of the solitude, especially with the lack of female company.  When quitting time on Friday arrives, he takes off for civilization while Alvin sets up camp in their next spot.  As far away as they are from anyone, though, they’re still forced to confront their existential fears.  

The Sundance-friendly male bonding story, Tim Orr’s handsome cinematography of a scorched landscape, and Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo’s evocative score signal a serious film.  Alvin acts like he’s making a sacrifice even though he’s really doing what he wants and threatening a relationship he claims to hold dear.  For all of the signposts of solemnity, PRINCE AVALANCHE teases the mythopoetic men’s movement.  Alvin and Lance are outfitted to recall Nintendo’s Mario Bros., and when Lance bellows his co-worker’s name, it’s clearly intended as a reference to Alvin and the Chipmunks.  Like the ashes Lance smears on his face to simulate war paint, Alvin’s inflated pride in his survival skills and maybe even his bushy moustache are funny signifiers of what they think it means to be men.

While Green pokes fun at exaggerated masculine characteristics, PRINCE AVALANCHE still considers a man’s responsibility to others while feeling the tug for independence and adventure.  Rudd registers the confusion and pain of a good, caring person who thinks he needs to live up to a truck commercial’s version of manliness. Hirsch locates the soft spots in a character slowly awakening to the fact that he’s running up against the limitations of carrying on like a younger man.  The modest jousting between Alvin and Lance and the respect that builds gives them the chance to discover what manhood can be without having to save the world or get the woman.

Although Green adds poetic flourishes, like slow motion montages, PRINCE AVALANCHE works best when he focuses on direct, honest talk.  The most touching scene features Alvin’s conversation with a lady (Joyce Payne) sifting through the remains of her home.  Having lost everything she has in the fire, she wonders what evidence will remain of the life she has lived.  The answer for her, or for anyone, is the relationships shared and the memories passed along.  PRINCE AVALANCHE isn’t an inordinately profound film or close to Green’s best, but it integrates his indie origin and recent mainstream sensibilities in a mostly satisfying way.

Grade: B-