Thursday, April 24, 2014

Under the Skin

UNDER THE SKIN (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

UNDER THE SKIN begins with the gradual reveal of a developing eye and language. It is the birth of a sort for Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed character, an alien in human form. Although her motivation for coming to our planet isn’t clearly defined, her task is to lure men into the white van she drives around Glasgow and its surrounding areas. With her curves, mop of black hair, bright red lips, and welcoming personality she wears a pleasing form to males of the species. Such attributes make it easy to entice men into going for a ride to a dingy house where they follow her into full submersion and suspension in a pitch-like substance for storage until harvesting.

As Johansson observes and speaks with the natives, she becomes more sympathetic to them. Her developing emotional capacity opens the visitor to new experiences of this foreign world but also puts her in danger from the men on motorcycles, presumably fellow aliens, and the subjects she is studying.

Jonathan Glazer’s stunning film provides an experience akin to hearing and seeing for the first time. The sound design starts as though it is muffled to convey the sense of one’s ears adjusting to a new environment. Mica Levi’s abrasive and sinister score heightens the physical and psychological uneasiness of navigating the unfamiliar. Even the thick Scottish accents, which require some work for this American viewer to understand, work in service of culture shock’s disorientating effects

Remarkably Glazer grants the audience the opportunity to see humans like extraterrestrials might observe us. Like THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, UNDER THE SKIN functions as an anthropological study. A shot of a wailing child on the beach gives the sensation of watching an animal in a nature documentary. For that instant it’s as if the kid is something other than what we are. Johansson studies the people around her as though tracking the movements of ants and, at least for a time, treating their welfare with no more regard than most would give tiny insects.

UNDER THE SKIN advances visually and sonically from sensory bombardment in the city to a calmer state as Johansson progresses from disaffected onlooker to empathetic participant in human culture. The stark lighting and locations become more natural. The score becomes somewhat more melodic, and the sound design softens from the previous buzz and harshness. The suggestion of potential malevolence remains in what is seen and heard; it merely fades into the background more.

Glazer’s exacting, detached style is the most immediately dazzling aspect of UNDER THE SKIN, but it wouldn’t work as well as it does without Johansson’s spectacular performance. Her acting turns on subtle expressions that show how her character flips from hunter mode to a passive manner she deploys to seduce men. As much as UNDER THE SKIN is about observing humankind, it is also concerned with what it is like in society to be seen as a woman.

Grade: A

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ebertfest 2014: Opening Night

Tonight marked the start of the 16th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival. I’ve attended the previous thirteen years, so there really wasn’t any question I’d be here in Champaign, Illinois to make it fourteen in a row. Put it on the calendar. Make the necessary arrangements. Still, part of me wished I were back home in Columbus at Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs conference quarterfinal series between the Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins. Perhaps if the opening night film were something I’d already seen, I would have skipped my first Ebertfest film and come a day later. I did have a ticket for the hockey game. With the Ebert documentary LIFE ITSELF opening the festival, there was no other decision to make but to be at the movie. There will be more games, but seeing this particular film in these particular conditions won’t happen again.

LIFE ITSELF’s notices coming out of Sundance were positive, but I confess to being a bit skeptical of the gushing tweet reviews. If ever there were a sure thing, a film about a critic that many writers had a direct, personal connection with and many others felt a kinship with is as close as you’ll get to one. I didn’t doubt director Steve James’ talents, and I’m not accusing anyone of reviewing in bad faith. I just wondered if this film might hit so close to home that people wouldn’t be able to see it clearly.

How cavalier of me to think such things, especially as I’m sitting there in the Virginia Theatre at the festival Ebert founded ready to watch a film about him. I’ve come to Ebertfest since 2001 and have been inspired by his professional and personal examples. It’s not like I’m coming to the documentary without a vested interest.

I’m pleased to report that James’ film dodges the pitfall of being worshipful to fault and instead presents an admiring portrait of a man who loved movies and, well, that broader thing laid out in the title. It’s hard to imagine anyone just casually interested in film wanting to take a look at LIFE ITSELF, but if those folks are out there, they’ll see what it means to live with passion, self-knowledge, generosity, and a sense of humor. As the film based on his memoir demonstrates, Ebert lived a life that seemed like one colorful story after another. He certainly had many experiences that make for entertaining fodder for us as viewers, but isn’t the greater lesson that your life tales or mine can also seem grand with the proper telling? Yes, Ebert’s position afforded him opportunities to have adventures and encounters that most won’t be fortunate to receive, yet LIFE ITSELF leaves the impression that a rich time on earth isn’t concerned so much with what it brings us but how we choose to perceive it.

To me the film and the man can be summarized in a small moment. It’s late in 2012, and Ebert is in the hospital. He’s getting out, at least for a bit, to see a film. He gives a little clap at the news. Keep in mind that he’s seen and forgotten a staggering number of films, yet that palpable joy linked to the possibilities a new movie might deliver remains undiminished. Even if films don’t mean that much to you, approaching an interest and the world in general that way makes a lot of sense to me.

I’ve seen or heard Ebert say that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough. It’s a credit to LIFE ITSELF that its two hours flew by. A film two or three times longer than this surely would have been just as entertaining and illuminating. (This version was the same as the one that premiered at Sundance, although a deleted scene about Ebertfest was played prior to the film.) And while it turns out that I missed an incredible hockey game that my preferred team improbably won, it was appropriate for me to be in Ebert’s hometown theater at his festival watching his film with friends and strangers connected in the enthusiasm he shared with us for flickering, projected images. We said goodbye to him at last year’s Ebertfest, but this film and this festival reinforce that, for those touched by his work in some way, he’s still here.

Draft Day

DRAFT DAY (Ivan Reitman, 2014)

With less than thirteen hours before the NFL Draft Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) should be finishing research on whether Ohio State linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) or Florida State running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster) is the likely best use of the seventh pick. Although he seems content to stay put and take either player, team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) impresses upon Sonny that he needs to make a splash. So, when the Seattle Seahawks dangle the top pick, the Browns GM makes the trade even though he gives up a king’s ransom to seal the deal.

In DRAFT DAY the owner, coaching staff, scouts, other front office personnel, and fans expect the team has moved up to select Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan (Josh Pence). The bold decision causes some dissension, though. Coach Penn (Denis Leary) doesn’t think they should be using a valuable pick for a player at a position where he’s satisfied with their starter. The current QB, Brian Drew (Tom Welling), is angry that he may get displaced, especially after working hard to rehabilitate from a season-ending injury. As if the internal disagreements aren’t distracting enough, Sonny is also dealing with the news that his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner), a Browns executive in charge of the salary cap, is pregnant and grieving for his recently deceased father, a coaching legend he fired.

Make no mistake, DRAFT DAY is a feature-length advertisement for the National Football League and its upcoming amateur draft on primetime television. The heavy hands of their legal and marketing teams are evident throughout. Although DRAFT DAY doesn’t portray the league’s employees and incoming players as choirboys, it protects them with a screenplay equivalent to a no-contact practice jersey. The character flaws and controversies look pretty mild compared to what pops up in sports pages. Meanwhile the film bestows superhero-like status upon those in NFL front offices. Director Ivan Reitman uses weaving split-screen like comic book panels and often lets the characters literally break the boundaries of their boxes. (The elements of fantasy also extend to presuming the woeful Browns will make moves that improve the franchise. Only in the movies.)

As much as the DRAFT DAY squad might like to think this fictional tale is a football version of MONEYBALL, its decision makers reinforce the status quo rather than challenge it. Even with hours of game film and pages of combine measurements, GMs try to find an edge in predicting success via secondhand gossip and the Wonderlic Test. The research and evaluative tricks are intended to serve as more evidence for burnishing the reputations of these supposedly brilliant men in front offices when they really point out how desperate the executives are to hedge their bets. The disruption caused by one football war room going against conventional wisdom is comical yet may be the most on-point detail in the film.

DRAFT DAY is smitten with the art of the deal, even if these transactions occur with high predictability and ease. Although the film takes us behind the scenes, Costner maintains the public persona of a sports GM, most of whom are notorious for saying a lot that means very little. As he wheels and deals, Costner provides faith that Sonny knows what he’s doing despite lack of proof that he is any good at his job. Because there’s surprisingly little drama in swapping picks, DRAFT DAY tries to raise the stakes by having Sonny’s private affairs compete for his attention. Costner and Garner exhibit good chemistry in mixing the professional and personal, although their subplot is a non-starter. Garner handles her thankless role nicely, but it feels like her character is there because someone noticed they needed a woman in the movie. A minor storyline about Sonny’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) wanting to go over his father’s will and a letter to him on this of all days rings completely false and takes away time from more pressing matters. Thanks in large part to Costner ‘s charisma DRAFT DAY has a folksy charm that masks the corporate promotional vehicle he’s anchoring, but anyone with a passing knowledge of pro football should be able to see this as the unadulterated myth-making it is.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Space Jam

SPACE JAM (Joe Pytka, 1996)

There’s nothing wrong with possessing warm remembrances about the stuff of our youth, but those memories shouldn’t cloud judgments of what’s good and what’s beloved because it reminds of yesteryear. My generation seems convinced that THE GOONIES is an all-time classic, although I can’t say I was on board with that declaration whenever I last saw the fantasy adventure. ‘90s kids assert that SPACE JAM is also one of the greats. Students at the university where I work expressed surprise that a cinephile like me hadn’t seen it. Without prejudging SPACE JAM I could probably list a thousand films that are bigger gaps in my cinematic education, but I’m willing to humor the request to review it if just to discover what captured a younger audience’s imagination.

SPACE JAM builds on basketball superstar Michael Jordan’s real life decision to retire from the NBA the first time so he can pursue a dream of playing professional baseball. While Jordan struggles in Birmingham with the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, aliens invade the land of Looney Tunes characters. The Nerdlucks plan to take Bugs Bunny and pals as prisoners meant to slave away as the new attractions at outer space amusement park Moron Mountain. Before being whisked to another part of the galaxy Bugs convinces the small creatures that rules dictate that they must compete in a basketball game for their freedom.

Beating the short, inexperienced Nerdlucks looks like an easy task until the aliens steal the talent of NBA stars Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, and Shawn Bradley and transform into the hulking, hooping Monstars. The Looney Tunes literally rope Jordan into being their ringer and best hope from forced servitude, or at least that which isn’t under the control of Warner Bros.

Jordan’s skills on the court could often seem like a cartoon character defying the laws of gravity, so it makes some sense to put him into a setting where there are no physical limitations. SPACE JAM’s first stretch functions as Jordan legend-polishing via self-deprecation as he takes the needling about his futility as a pro baseball player while the basketball sequences aim to put him on his rightful pedestal as basketball’s greatest. Jordan shoots and dunks over animated behemoths, but frankly it’s less impressive than just rolling one of his highlight reels. Except for one instance, director Joe Pytka doesn’t utilize the cartoon world to exaggerate Jordan’s feats, which works at cross purposes for putting him there in the first place.

SPACE JAM might have worked as a novelty short, but as a feature-length film it leaves a lot to be desired. Although Bugs Bunny is listed as a co-headliner, he, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang are really just there to prop up the NBA All-Star. Jordan performs acceptably as himself, or the version that was a highly-sought commercial pitchman, but he’s not predisposed to the kind of zany comedy for which his co-stars are beloved. With an ill-fitting combination of 2D and 3D animation styles, at least to my eyes now, SPACE JAM trudges through a creaky plot without much in the way of visual ingenuity or zippy wordplay. Funny visual gags with Barons publicist Stan (Wayne Knight) in an enormous hole and later getting flattened like a pancake are about the extent of SPACE JAM’s playfulness with the collision of real and cartoon universes. Of the one-liners that connect, the best is a potshot at Walt Disney Pictures and what they chose to name their then-new NHL franchise.

SPACE JAM fills the bill as inoffensive children’s entertainment, but’s it’s unfortunate that it, not LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION, is the live-action/animated hybrid that is fondly remembered. The latter is truer to the spirit of the classic cartoons and characters, not to mention much funnier.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel


War is encroaching on the Republic of Zubrowka, a fictional country on Europe’s farthest eastern boundary, but for the main characters in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL their concerns are being dutiful in their jobs and then saving their own necks as they get entangled in a murder mystery. It is in 1932 at the luxurious mountaintop accommodations where lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) comes to fill an existence as empty as his name. Although lacking in experience, education, and family, concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) takes a shine to the conscientious lad and keeps him on as his protégé. M. Gustave teaches him how to attend to the guests, particularly the needy, old, wealthy, blonde women, and to appreciate the finer things.

M. Gustave’s years of fastidious attention to eightysomething Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) is rewarded when, upon her death, he learns that she has bequeathed a priceless painting to him. Rather than stick around for the rest of her horrid family to contest the will, M. Gustave and Zero depart her mansion in the neighboring state of Lutz with the masterpiece in hand. An accusation of homicide is directed at M. Gustave, and shortly thereafter authorities haul him off to prison. Zero carries on at The Grand Budapest Hotel in his stead while providing assistance from the outside for his escape and their subsequent adventure to clear M. Gustave’s name.

Through ingenious visual design writer-director Wes Anderson shows how everyday life is what happens while the greater course of history develops around us. Anderson uses a lot of shot-reverse shot construction and first-person perspective to maintain a narrower frame on the primary action while bigger events take place outside the protagonists’ view. The 1932 section, which comprises the greatest portion of the film’s running time, is photographed in Academy ratio, a creative choice that mirrors cinema of its day and suggests an inability of M. Gustave and Zero to see beyond their enclosed domain. (The 2.35:1 frame for the scenes in 1968 and 1.85:1 aspect ratio in 1985 and present day not only help to orient the action in time but allow for wider consideration of what happened in the past.) Insidious developments are afoot in the nation, yet the protagonists are practically incapable of seeing them, as when M. Gustave and Zero’s attention is drawn to news of Madame D.’s death in the newspaper than the large-type, above-the-fold headline speculating about war.

For Zero, who recounts his youthful tale to a young writer (Jude Law), the past exists in the brightness and pastels of nostalgic memory and is to be endlessly explored. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was not shot and is not projected in 3D, but the camera scans and probes the frame in every direction, lending surprising dimensionality to the flat surface. The effect is akin to examining microfiche. If one scrutinizes every corner, perhaps what went unobserved and was thought unremarkable at the time will be revealed.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is almost constant as it supports the story in silent cinema fashion. Alternating between jaunty folk music and the rich, booming sounds of an organ, the music pushes the brisk action onward at a breakneck pace. The film editing has a musical quality to it as it bounces between reactions, and Anderson’s visual jokes come quickly too, whether it’s an absurd coat check receipt, the signs switching on a museum’s closing time, or the brief glimpse of a thug holding his shoes to explain how he snuck up on his target. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is packed with details, and Anderson strives to make some of these flourishes as invisible as M. Gustave and Zero attempt to be in their servitude.

Although THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL possesses an elegant Continental demeanor and a confection’s appearance, steely resolve and a tender heart are tucked inside. Zero fondly recalls the days he spent at the hotel, but those memories are also laced with pain. Long after the main action in the past The Grand Budapest Hotel is described as “an enchanting old ruin”. Its former glory may no longer be visible to the naked eye, but the charms the hotel holds for its admirers cannot be erased by remodeling or the march of time.

Grade: A

Wednesday, April 09, 2014


NOAH (Darren Aronofsky, 2014)

At the center of the Biblical story of Noah is the kind of spectacular visual event suited for an effects-driven Hollywood production. A vengeful God floods the entire planet to eliminate all living beings from the land except one family and the pairs of creatures of the ground and air that the patriarch is instructed to collect in an ark. The basis for disaster films resides in the oral and written traditions through which the tale has survived. What’s not included, though, are the characterization, plot details, and dialogue that the feature-length cinematic form needs, leaving writer-director Darren Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel to fill in the gaps in NOAH. Although their version deviates from what is taught in Sunday school, they use artistic license for an often thrilling examination of Noah’s psychological challenges in carrying the burden of such a calling and the construction of a sense of the supernatural more prevalent at the time.

Descended from the line of Seth, Noah (Russell Crowe) is a righteous man living off the rocky land with his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their young sons Ham, Shem, and Japheth. They try to avoid the descendants of Cain, who live in cities where all manner of evil is engaged in. Having received visions of a great flood to come, Noah and his family travel to consult his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) about what is being asked of him. Along the way they add a girl, Ila, to their numbers after finding her as the lone survivor of a slaughtered group.

Noah understands that God is angry with the corrupt humans and plans to drown every person and creature with a great flood. As Noah has found favor with the Creator, he is to build an ark to house his family and the males and females of every kind of animal and bird. After the waters subside, they will repopulate Earth. The Watchers, fallen angels encased in rock and mud, assist Noah and his clan with the years-long task of preparing for the floodwaters to come and protect it from the king Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) and the panicking masses trying to get aboard the ark.

The ancient world of NOAH is more connected to the mystical than contemporary mankind, so glowing stones, a magical snakeskin, and the interpretation of the Nephilim as rock monsters work within the film’s context. Through these enchanted means Aronofsky and Handel tell the allegorical tale in a way that might have seemed logical to early human generations. Although these aspects are likely to be the most contentious departures from the familiar source, creating an air of unreality helps to root NOAH in another time when more active spiritual intervention was assigned responsibility for what was happening. Incorporating fantastical elements also make the antediluvian period feel more real, as it corresponds to how those who followed may have understood the nature of things.

While NOAH excites and amazes by establishing a bygone era through THE LORD OF THE RINGS-like fantasy, it’s greatest power comes in empathizing with the person directed to carry out a divine mission. What is required of Noah is enough to lead one to madness. Crowe invests the character with steadfast faithfulness while also expressing the physical and mental strains of the task at hand. To the doomed Noah behaves like a villain in a horror film. When he seeks wives for his sons he witnesses the depravity in the city that will lead God to wipe all but the chosen few from existence. Noah believes this decision is just and thus must make horrifying choices, yet despite the outcome from his assent to God’s instructions, Noah is also a victim. Shot in close-up inside the ark, Noah listens to the wailing swirl around him as the wicked suffer horrible deaths that he could prevent if told to do otherwise. God is not given an audible voice in NOAH, which makes the protagonist’s struggle to see his job through all the difficult.

Adapting religious texts for popular entertainment will always be a dicey proposition. While there are a sufficient number of creative choices in NOAH to draw the objections of some, Aronofsky’s dynamic rendition of the flood finds room to respect the source while allowing for divergences that help to keep the story relevant.

Grade: B

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Delivery Man

DELIVERY MAN (Ken Scott, 2013)

At a glance David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn) is no one’s idea of someone well-equipped for parenthood. He’s an irresponsible middle-aged man who can’t help but make bad decisions, which explains why he’s deeply in debt to a loan shark and is trying to come up with the cash by growing marijuana with hydroponics in his apartment. David has a steady job driving the delivery truck for the family meat market in Brooklyn, but he’s better at being liked by the clientele than making his drop-offs in a timely manner. His unreliability also affects his relationship with girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders). When he shows up at her place late one night, she informs him that she’s pregnant but isn’t sure she wants him involved with the child.

Although David begins to like the idea of being a dad, in DELIVERY MAN he soon finds out that he’s already the biological father to 533 children. From 1991 to 1994 he made nearly seven hundred donations to a fertility clinic while using the pseudonym Starbuck. His specimens proved to be potent and popular. Now many of the offspring want to know his identity and are filing a class-action suit against the clinic to break the confidentiality agreement.

A packet of his biological kids’ profiles is among the paperwork David receives regarding the case. His friend and lawyer Brett (Chris Pratt) advises against opening the envelope, but David’s curiosity gets the better of him. Reading the profiles become like eating potato chips: he can’t stop at just one. Although David doesn’t want to reveal who he is, he starts tracking down these previously unknown children and helping them as a guardian angel of sorts.

Although DELIVERY MAN director and co-writer Ken Scott is remaking his Canadian film STARBUCK, the material often feels half-formed than overworked. David’s qualities shift depending on how the film insists he is to be viewed rather than from him actually changing. He’s introduced as being a perpetually mistake-prone and inconsiderate man-child until he cottons to the idea of being a dad, yet information later comes to light of generosity and sweetness that his family has always acknowledged. Side characters appear and are dismissed without a second thought. Emma fades into the background until DELIVERY MAN needs an occasional reminder that David is also reproducing in a more traditional way. A subplot about toughs coming to claim the money David owes them is so haphazardly integrated that it might as well be excised. Brett’s situation with a household of four rambunctious little ones could use a bit more clarity, but Pratt’s amusing interactions with the kids distract from questions about his life’s vagueness.

Vaughn hits some nice notes, particularly in scenes with an institutionalized son, as he struggles with his fears for the well-being of all these kids he never knew he had and thrills at their successes. Although the process yields instant answers for David, the nervousness over what fate may hold for his children reflects any parent’s desires that everything will work out. With so many kids sharing his genes David’s brood covers the gamut, yet he learns that loving each one is more important than whether they fulfill his hopes and expectations.

DELIVERY MAN sets up as though it might be a farce yet resists the comedic possibilities in the David’s stalker-like activities to get closer to his unfamiliar children. Instead the film plays as a mostly sentimental portrait of imminent fatherhood. Still, for as much as DELIVERY MAN wishes to confirm that David has the makings of a good father, Scott often undermines such thinking. A poorly conceived scene mines for laughs as David vacillates over whether he should commit a junkie teenage daughter for care or sign for her release from the hospital. She says she can quit if she wants and claims to be starting a department store job the next morning, so she doesn’t need rehab to get her life in order. While the scenario has a happy ending, David’s decision demonstrates he’s far from the level-headed guy the film says he is and always has been.

Grade: C