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-

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Purge: Anarchy

THE PURGE: ANARCHY (James DeMonaco, 2014)

In THE PURGE: ANARCHY America prepares for the sixth annual event in which virtually all crime, including murder, is legal for a twelve-hour period. The New Founding Fathers credit the Purge as a release valve for bringing unemployment below five percent and improving the country, but those who do not wish to participate and are unable to afford sufficient protection spend 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. once a year hoping to survive.

Married couple on the rocks Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) face more pressing problems when their car breaks down as the countdown to the start of the Purge approaches. Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) wishes for a quiet night holed up in her apartment with her daughter Cali (Zoë Soul) and father (John Beasley), but she and Cali are forced into the street when armed men come to take them away. Sergeant (Frank Grillo) intends to use this night of sanctioned killing to get his revenge on the man responsible for his son’s death.

When Sergeant sees Eva and Cali in danger, he decides to come to their rescue. He returns to his car to find Shane and Liz cowering inside. Sergeant doesn’t want to be the protector of four strangers, but with gunfire making his car nonfunctional, he strikes a temporary bargain with them. He will take them to shelter at Eva’s friend’s home as long as she convinces her friend to give Sergeant her car.

THE PURGE: ANARCHY opens up the action more than its predecessor, which took place almost entirely in a single home under attack, yet the sequel is plagued by similar problems in THE PURGE. This thriller lacks suspense and horror, except for the occasional shocking image. Writer-director James DeMonaco establishes a disturbing premise in these films but fails to generate much tension from moment to moment. It’s a strange shortcoming in a film universe in which no one and nowhere is potentially safe.

Built on a federal observance that breeds class warfare, THE PURGE: ANARCHY touches a nerve yet never flirts with getting as dark as the circumstances could present. In words and deeds SNOWPIERCER revealed the actions taken in horrid living conditions while THE PURGE: ANARCHY tends to frame an ironic tableau and move along before things get too unsettling. The nihilistic fury running through THE PURGE: ANARCHY feels particular to the time yet is kept at arm’s length lest it rile up anyone who might latch onto a radical idea or those who would denounce it as artistically irresponsible.

DeMonaco questions how leaders pit the have-nots against each other and how conditions allow the wealthy, depicted here just short of looking like the facially distorted suburbanites in Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” video, to exploit the disadvantaged. While THE PURGE: ANARCHY hints at the delicate fabric holding society together, it doesn’t delve deeper into issues regarding the vulnerability of women and the need for constant politeness when causing offense can be answered with permissible vengeance. Perhaps THE PURGE: ANARCHY would be more potent if it didn’t seem like little more than late night freshman dorm-level philosophizing applied to a middling genre picture. It’s probably for the best that DeMonaco doesn’t go into great detail about the Purge because the whole thing starts to crumble upon closer inspection. THE PURGE: ANARCHY’s illicit rush is as fleeting as its ideas.

Grade: C

Friday, July 18, 2014

Begin Again

BEGIN AGAIN (John Carney, 2013)

When BEGIN AGAIN premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, it was called CAN A SONG SAVE YOUR LIFE? The melodramatic title has been changed to something more ordinary, yet writer-director John Carney still presses viewers to consider the question even if it is no longer the film’s name. The implied answer to the film’s previous title is yes, absolutely yes. While BEGIN AGAIN may come off as naïve and Pollyana-ish regarding the realities of the business side of music, its enthusiasm for the power of a song is hard to deny.

As in Carney’s film ONCE, the two main characters are brought together through music. Gretta (Keira Knightley) and Dan (Mark Ruffalo) are at low points in their lives when their paths cross. She’s fresh off leaving her longtime boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave (Adam Levine), whose first taste of success leads him to cheat on her. Dan is not coping well with the year-long separation from Miriam (Catherine Keener), his wife of eighteen years, and their teenage daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Adding to his troubles, he gets fired from the independent record label he co-founded. Both are at a New York City club’s open mic night when Gretta’s friend Steve (James Corden) pesters her into taking the stage to play one of her songs. While the crowd doesn’t seem especially won over, Dan believes that he hears something special.

Thinking she may be his ticket to getting his job back, Dan approaches Gretta expecting to impress her with his position in the industry. At first she rejects his offer to mold her into another artist in the hit-making machine, but after a night of reflection Gretta decides that she has nothing to lose by auditioning for Dan’s former partner Saul (Mos Def). Although Saul declines to sign her, Dan is undeterred and proposes using a laptop to self-record an album with Gretta performing outside at locations around the city. Gretta values authenticity in music, so the idea of working on a passion project in this manner is irresistible.

BEGIN AGAIN understands the role music can play in daily life. It expresses one’s aggravations and happiness and can be a refuge from a bad day or the mundanity of driving a car for hours. Dan talks about how banal moments become pregnant with meaning when music scores them. The film backs him up when Dan and Gretta stroll through Times Square listening to Frank Sinatra singing “Luck Be a Lady” through a splitter connected to a phone. This ordinary walk through the big city looks and sounds like the most magical thing to do ever. BEGIN AGAIN is foremost about the joy of music, but it makes for a beautiful love letter to New York too. With all apologies to THEY CAME TOGETHER, the city is a character and a charming one at that for Knightley in her simple but cute wardrobe and a fashionably scruffy Ruffalo to explore.

The tuneful songs by Gregg Alexander stick in the ear without seeming so accomplished as to exceed the capability of an undiscovered talent. BEGIN AGAIN’s perception of the industry, even in its weakened state, is less credible. Sure, it’s amusing to note how smarmy label executives can be and how misguided their ideas are for retaining paying customers. Levine makes for a funny sellout whose waywardness can be measured by the amount of facial hair he grows. Maybe Dan’s dismissal of the demos, which more or less sound like today’s pop hits, is meant to show he’s out of touch, although it seems like rockist cheap shots at highly engineered and fussed over songs. Even with Gretta’s standard singer-songwriter fare being jazzed up through its means of production, her music hardly seems like the kind of thing to send shockwaves through the charts or the business. Her assertion that people want authenticity sounds misguided, especially when examining the current bestsellers, and her resistance to a contract and publicity, as if she’s Jandek, defines protesting too much for someone working in the system. BEGIN AGAIN has insiders believing they are outsiders, so it’s better served by celebrating music than critiquing the industry.

Knightley and Ruffalo have a nice, relaxed chemistry suggestive of romantic undercurrents, although Carney doesn’t push the matter too intensely. Their attraction is based more in sharing an emotionally vulnerable time in their lives than physical magnetism. Their potential salvations are meant to come through the songs, not each other, and BEGIN AGAIN hums with the excitement of creative collaboration and the exuberant mystery born out of music and lyrics.

Grade: B

Thursday, July 17, 2014


TAMMY (Ben Falcone, 2014)

In what amounts to hitting the bad day trifecta Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) wrecks her already beat-up automobile, gets fired from the fast food restaurant where she worked, and comes home unexpectedly early to find her husband Greg (Nat Faxon) having an intimate dinner with their neighbor Missy (Toni Collette). No car, no job, no loyal spouse, what do you do? In TAMMY her decision is to leave the Illinois town she’s always called home except she’s not really in a position to be able to afford that. Her own mother (Allison Janney) knows she’s unreliable enough that she won’t loan her a vehicle or cash in this time of need.

Luckily for Tammy her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) wants to get out of her daughter’s house and see Niagara Falls. She supplies the wheels and a big wad of cash to bankroll the trip, so off they go to escape their problems. They make it as far as Kentucky before the plan starts to crumble because of Tammy’s costly recklessness and Pearl’s misbehavior. Paying for the jet ski Tammy destroys eats up a major chunk of their resources. No longer a shut-in, the alcoholic Pearl picks up Earl (Gary Cole) at a barbecue restaurant, causes a scene at a convenience store that leads to her arrest, and stops taking her meds. Occasionally Tammy gets a little help from Earl’s son Bobby (Mark Duplass), but without any money she has to scramble to straighten out the mess she and Pearl are in.

After stealing scenes as a supporting actress and co-headliner, McCarthy gets the chance to anchor a film in TAMMY. Co-writing it with her husband Ben Falcone, who directs, there’s little doubt that TAMMY is the project she wanted to showcase her talents. Although McCarthy gets an occasional good moment to ply her comedic gifts, particularly in her scene sloppily holding up a burger joint, more often than not she’s having scenes swiped from her. Sarah Baker practically does this during the robbery as a less than fully cooperative cashier. Sarandon’s feisty Pearl is unashamed in following where her desires lead her, demonstrating that wildness in one’s younger years doesn’t necessarily diminish in old age. As Tammy’s wealthy lesbian aunt Lenore, Kathy Bates draws laughs as an unconventional role model. Lenore has a taste for blowing things up, suggesting she’s still something of a hick like Tammy at heart, but she’s also worked hard to build satisfying business and personal lives.

TAMMY tries to humanize the comedic slob character McCarthy specializes in. So often overweight, low income roles are easy targets for derision and humor. While Tammy is intended to be funny because of her buffoonish nature, eventually the character is supposed to be revealed as someone to laugh with than at. McCarthy makes a valiant attempt to give this kind of person a well-rounded representation, but she’s not altogether successful. Tammy’s redemption of sorts isn’t especially convincing. Feeling sorry for her isn’t nearly as enjoyable as watching her raise hell.

The primary problem with TAMMY is that it just isn’t very funny. McCarthy and Falcone deserve credit for making something more thoughtful than broad comedies like this tend to be. In an industry with male-dominated films, a feature centered around women that isn’t stereotypically touchy-feely is a nice break from convention too. When all those good intentions result in a mediocre comedy, they’re just a consolation prize.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure)

VENUS IN FUR (Roman Polanski, 2013)

It is a dark and stormy night in VENUS IN FUR when Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives at the theater to audition for Thomas (Mathieu Amalric). After a long day of seeing actresses, none of whom have the maturity he thinks the role demands, Thomas is not inclined to let a latecomer who’s not even on the call list take up his time. Nevertheless Vanda insists until he finally agrees to allow her to read for the part. Although he intends to stop her audition after three pages, she demonstrates a grasp of the character that tantalizes him to keep the tryout going.

Like the David Ives play on which the film is based, Thomas has adapted Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s VENUS IN FURS for his production. The term masochism is derived from the Austrian writer and his novel about finding pleasure through degradation. While a clear demarcation exists when Vanda and Thomas are playing the characters and speaking about themselves, the dynamic between them takes on the qualities of the material they’re acting. As the writer and director Thomas is seemingly in charge but finds himself agreeing to being dominated by the unpredictable actress.

The play within the film toys with the questions of if a work reflects an artist’s desires, particularly those that are sublimated, or if everything can simply be ascribed to creative license. Thomas defends dubious ideas and representations in his writing as faithfulness to the source material, but are those qualities what attracted him to it in the first place? Director Roman Polanski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ives, complicates matters further by casting and costuming Thomas with a striking resemblance to himself and having his wife play Vanda. In addition the debate about power dynamics between men and women and the strong and the submissive extends through Polanski’s body of work and colors perceptions of his past legal problems. Thus VENUS IN FUR transforms from a theoretical argument about how much of an artist is in his art to an intimate and self-critical examination. Thomas strives to make the text ambiguous, but in the end veiling his fantasies and frustrations through fiction serves as an acceptable way of hiding them in broad daylight. Interpretation is left to the individual.

VENUS IN FUR opens with a Steadicam shot entering the theater as though Vanda is a succubus barging into Thomas’s snug retreat to torment and delight him. There’s nothing supernatural in how she controls the mood and the lighting, yet her domination of the scenario is handled as though she possesses such abilities to affect mental and physical states according to her will. The film perches on the knife’s edge separating foreboding and the erotic through verbal intercourse. Vanda and Thomas do not touch often, yet it’s unnecessary as VENUS IN FUR conveys a tactile and fetishistic relationship with words and objects.

Seigner has great fun in her versatile performance, appearing first as a brash, gum-smacking dimwit who morphs into a perceptive interpreter capable of being a compliant underling and terrifying challenger. Vanda tells Thomas that as the director it’s his job to torture actors, yet the creative combustion comes as their relationship becomes one rooted in mutable and mutual rule. Either’s submission means nothing without consent.

Grade: B

Wednesday, July 02, 2014


JOE (David Gordon Green, 2013)

David Gordon Green’s JOE is the flip side of his previous film PRINCE AVALANCHE. Both Texas-set films are concerned with what defines a man. Where the latter pokes fun at the comic duo who venture into the wilderness to work and live off the land to connect with their masculinity, JOE sees it as a refuge that helps to keep the darker and destructive impulses in the male animal at bay.

Each morning Joe (Nicolas Cage) goes to the local grocery to pick up a crew to do a day’s hot, hard work. Equipped with hatchets that inject poison, Joe and his men are killing useless trees so the owner’s property can be cleared for stronger pines to be planted in their place. One day 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) appears in the field seeking a job for him and his dad. Noting the boy’s eagerness and background of manual labor, Joe takes him on not knowing that he’ll become more than an employee.

Gary’s family has drifted into town and taken up residence in a condemned house. His father Wade (Gary Poulter) is an abusive drunk who would rather steal the money his son earns than make an honest living himself. When Wade costs him and Gary their jobs, the boy turns to Joe for a second chance. Joe has sympathy for Gary, who he sees is desperate to escape the man who beats him. While he’s had his own run-ins with the law and troublemakers around town, Joe determines that it’s worth assisting Gary even if it may lead to a confrontation with Wade down the line.

Joe mentions that restraint is what is keeping him alive and out of jail. Cage lets the intensity seep out of his eyes as his character with a fuzzy past strives not to react as he’s inclined when feeling provoked. Cage plays Joe as if he’s engaged in a constant state of mental calculation to regulate the anger and violence he’s liable to lash out with. Although he doesn’t want to stand out, his thick beard functions as a signifier that he’s not to be messed with. He drives a battered, old GMC pick-up that he has no desire to trade in, probably because a new truck would attract more attention. Joe’s workers wear packs that make them resemble Ghostbusters, but he has no such equipment to help him fend off the demons that torment him daily.

Joe bemoans that there’s no longer any frontier, suggesting that he believes at one time a man like him could pick up and go to the untamed places where he might not be a danger to himself and others. For as much as he fears what he is capable of doing, others are drawn to him like strays to a welcoming home. Joe doesn’t intend to be a father figure, yet as he does in his work, he clears what is weak and expendable so that Gary may grow stronger where he is. While there’s a fatalistic sense about Joe’s actions, finding a purpose is where he seems most satisfied.

Green is more interested in mood than plot, so JOE isn’t as effective as a thriller as a more conventionally directed film might be. He maintains the tension through Cage’s performance and a soundtrack that responds according to his temperament. Green likes to soak up the atmosphere, prioritizing listening to guys shooting the breeze. It’s in these moments that he captures the spirits of the men better than direct depiction. Although the film meanders, everything is carefully in its place. The opening and closing scenes rhyme to emphasize the journey Gary has taken through knowing Joe. Because of his lack of discrimination in roles and penchant for playing unhinged characters, Cage can be viewed as something as a joke these days, but in JOE he shows that he can be more than a collection of tics and oddities if given the proper showcase.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Jersey Boys

JERSEY BOYS (Clint Eastwood, 2014)

The final scene of JERSEY BOYS is engineered to rouse viewers from their seats to applaud. At a live show it would certainly accomplish the task. The film’s version of a curtain call overflows with joy and energy and sends the audience home on a high note. The question it raises, though, is why the rest of director Clint Eastwood’s muted adaptation of the Broadway musical fails to possess the same liveliness in everything leading up to it. He takes a gaudy showbiz tale and turns it into something visually and dramatically drab.

The story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons begins in 1951 in Belleville, New Jersey. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) explains that the army, the mob, or fame were the options for getting out of the working class neighborhood at the time. While Tommy has a musical group with his brother Nick (Johnny Cannizzaro) that they hope could lead them down the third path, they seem most likely to succeed through criminal endeavors. Tommy and Nick spend separate stints in prison, but when they regroup, they add a secret weapon to their act in their friend Frankie (John Lloyd Young), whose falsetto voice gives them a unique sound.

Through the years the lineup changes more. Tommy’s brother is out, and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) is in as bassist. There’s dissension in the ranks when it comes time to decide if Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who already has written the hit song “Short Shorts”, should be made a member of the group currently known as The Four Lovers. Bob can write, play, and sing and has business savvy. He wants an equal share in the group. Tommy resists but gives in when Frankie threatens to leave if Bob isn’t accepted on his terms. They shop demos with little success before landing a contract that, to their chagrin, limits them to being backup singers. It’s not until producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) hears them sing “Sherry” that the guys, now known as The Four Seasons, break through on their own.

The vitality of the music and the characters’ youthful vim and vigor call for a treatment less restrained than what Eastwood gives the material. For a film about young guys seeking to make their marks in a competitive industry, JERSEY BOYS summons all the feistiness of a comatose patient. The peppy, timeless songs bridge the slow patches but can’t make up for the film’s lethargy. Eastwood’s master shot approach seems solely functional, as though capturing what’s on the page and the act of reminiscing are sufficient. It’s a film that asks if you remember when and, upon receiving an affirmative answer, stops the conversation thinking that there’s nothing else to say. While JERSEY BOYS depicts another era, the time compression and lack of markers set it adrift in vague nostalgia of the 1950s and ‘60s without any sense of how The Four Seasons fit into the changing world.

Eastwood is an accomplished director in his own right, but his tepid take on JERSEY BOYS makes one wonder what Martin Scorsese might have done instead. There’s no question that the setting, pop music, and tough guys, including an underutilized Christopher Walken as a local mob boss who takes care of problems for the boys when they get in fixes, are well-suited to Scorsese and his filmography. More importantly in this instance, Scorsese still makes films like a whippersnapper even if he isn’t one. Eastwood’s version of JERSEY BOYS is mounted like a respectful but emotionally distant museum piece. It even looks like a black-and-white film that’s been tinted in an attempt to freshen it up.

Grade: C