Friday, August 29, 2014

What If

WHAT IF (Michael Dowse, 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 28, 2014

God Help the Girl

GOD HELP THE GIRL (Stuart Murdoch, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Let's Be Cops

LET’S BE COPS (Luke Greenfield, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


GHOSTBUSTERS (Ivan Reitman, 1984)

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Get On Up

GET ON UP (Tate Taylor, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Into the Storm

INTO THE STORM (Steven Quale, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C