Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Brothers Grimsby

THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY (Louis Leterrier, 2015)

Although it’s been twenty-eight years since he was separated from his little brother, Nobby (Sacha Baron Cohen) continues to hold out hope that they will be reunited. In THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY Nobby is tipped off that Sebastian (Mark Strong) will be at a London charity event, but he’s unaware that his sibling will be in attendance as an MI6 agent intent on taking out an assassin. Nobby’s bumbling greeting of his long-lost brother leads to Sebastian accidentally shooting one of the very people he was supposed to be protecting.

With the nation’s security service in hot pursuit of him, Sebastian reluctantly agrees to let his eager brother hide him at the crowded flat he lives in with his wife Dawn (Rebel Wilson) and nearly a dozen kids. Sebastian’s return to their working class English hometown of Grimsby, sister city to Chernobyl, is short-lived as professional killers follow him there. Before long he and Nobby are traveling to South Africa and elsewhere around the globe to foil an evil mastermind’s plot to terrorize the planet.

Like THE DICTATOR, THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY features Baron Cohen’s antics in a scripted scenario instead of the mix of quasi-documentary and fiction in BORAT and BRUNO. He’s credited as one of three screenwriters on THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY, and it’s the funniest thing he’s made since BORAT, although, as with his other work, your appreciation depends on how high your tolerance is for the outrageous and offensive. Like the hardscrabble buffoons that Nobby lives among, this is a comedy of exceptionally low taste. For instance, one of the most memorable scenes features the brothers hiding in an elephant’s vagina while their host is visited by a line of amorous pachyderms. The extended bit is as filthy and uproarious as one might imagine.

As base and scatological as THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY is, the vulgarity seems cheeky and cheerful in large part to Baron Cohen’s amiable doofus. Perpetually clad in an England soccer jersey and resembling the lead singer of Oasis, Nobby is a genial family man who is willing to endure all sorts of indignities for the sake of being with his brother again. This sweetness is critical in striking a balance with all of the disgusting stuff that, while nasty, doesn’t come across as mean. Some may find that a couple jokes cross the line into racial insensitivity, but for a film that takes big risks for laughs, most don’t seem to come from a cruel place.

Director Louis Leterrier, possibly best known for THE TRANSPORTER and its first sequel, brings credibility to THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY’s action scenes. During the opening credits the first-person POV chase with Sebastian tailing a suspect serves as a good example of the breakneck excitement in such sequences and a funny riff on spy movie setpieces. The action matters in THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY, but ultimately the film strives, like the James Bond and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series, to find its purpose in showing the audience something it can’t believe it’s seeing. In this case that means howling at grotesquely swollen anatomy and an unconventional method for containing the threat of weaponized rockets.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Shotgun Stories

SHOTGUN STORIES (Jeff Nichols, 2007)

Long-held resentments and a feud between two sets of half-brothers is triggered when their father dies in SHOTGUN STORIES. To Son (Michael Shannon), Kid (Barlow Jacobs), and Boy (Douglas Ligon) their father has been dead to them since he abandoned the family and subsequently straightened up and started a new, respectable life. Their dad also produced three boys with his second family, and his preference for them is evident by the fact that they all have proper names.

Son stirs up the bad blood between clans when he crashes the funeral to speak ill of the recently departed. His words provoke a brief confrontation between the antagonistic half-brothers but don’t lead to anything of consequence by the grave. Still, the offense gets Mark Hayes (Travis Smith) and his siblings itching for a fight. Even if they do their best to stay clear of one another in the small, central Arkansas town, a clash seems inevitable.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols excels at capturing the shorthand that families, especially brothers, often communicate in. Terse conversations among Son, Kid, and Boy reflect a common understanding that allows them to discuss emotional matters without having to spill their guts to one another. Each inherently knows what the others are thinking whether things go unsaid or are spoken around. Nichols makes good use of the actors in letting their subtle facial reactions and lack of comments clearly fill in what is going on in the characters’ heads. The affection and protectiveness that Son, Kid, and Boy feel for each other isn’t proclaimed in any grand manner, yet it comes through in their actions and clipped discussions. The spare style, especially as it ties in with masculinity, is perhaps reminiscent of Clint Eastwood.

Nichols also has a strong grasp of location and social conditions in SHOTGUN STORIES. Part of the conflict between the half-brothers comes from the economic disparity between them. The younger Hayes brothers may not be rich, but they live in nice homes and have a family farm to attend to. Meanwhile, Son and Kid scrape by with jobs at a fish farm, and Boy coaches youth basketball when it’s in season. Son has his hopes for more money pinned on learning how to count cards so he can win at the casino. Kid sleeps in a tent outside Son’s house while Boy stays in a conversion van that he parks at the dam because it’s cheaper than getting an apartment. Nichols doesn’t gawk at their poverty or fetishize it but rather depicts it as the reality that the characters know and accept, even if they’d like to be better situated.

As his first film, SHOTGUN STORIES shows Nichols’ promise and his need to develop as a dramatist. The build-up to the showdown between the half-brothers is filled with tension, but the film loses intensity when the grudges boil over into violence. While the spartan nature of the screenplay mirrors how these men remain relatively closed off in their personalities, Nichols draws them in fairly broad strokes. He benefits from Shannon playing Son, as he suggests a complex interior life for the oldest brother. Shortcomings aside, SHOTGUN STORIES tells a Shakespearean tale by way of the American South and points toward better things to come from its talented filmmaker.

Grade: B

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016)

Having left her fiancé, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is not in a good place emotionally as she drives across Louisiana in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE. After being knocked out during a nighttime car accident, she awakens in a bad physical place. She finds herself on a mattress with her right leg chained to the wall of a locked concrete room. Michelle is visited by Howard (John Goodman), who informs her that he saved her life by pulling her out of her wrecked car and bringing her to his bunker while an unspecified attack has rendered outside uninhabitable. He isn’t clear on what specifically has happened. All he knows is that everyone Michelle knows is surely dead.

In time Howard grants her more movement around his well-stocked underground shelter. Also occupying it is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who helped build the bunker and rushed to it for safety when the unknown event happened. Emmett and Michelle don’t fully trust Howard, who comes off as a paranoid survivalist, but with his broken arm and her injured leg, they are limited in their abilities to physically overpower him. The limited information they have about what’s going on above ground also discourages a possible escape. For now they’re better off playing board games, doing puzzles, and enjoying whatever other entertainment options are available while biding what could be a couple years until it’s safe on the surface.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE exists within the same universe as Matt Reeves’ 2008 thriller CLOVERFIELD, although the films stand as separate works that lack overlapping characters. Such knowledge is a tip-off to the mystery about what the trio is burrowed away from, but the greater uncertainty lies in Howard’s motivations. By preparing for a doomsday scenario that seems to have arrived, his suspicious nature is validated. Howard is weird, but the limited evidence also means that he’s correct. Goodman plays Howard as a creep emboldened because his fears have become manifest and thus allow him to exert excessive influence on what Michelle and Emmett can do and say. Goodman is terrific straddling the line of acting like those around him have the freedom to do as they please while never letting them forget that he holds their fates in his hands. Sometimes it’s what he implies, like telling Michelle that she’ll learn to enjoy cooking. In other actions the threat is explicit, such as the fact that Michelle is still locked in that barren room at times. Goodman is often scarier as Howard when he’s putting on the appearance of being nice, which poorly disguises whatever pathology drives him.

Winstead is excellent at showing how Michelle maintains the peace around a volatile personality. She locates the character’s strength by having Michelle play along with whatever placates Howard even as she schemes to find out the truth of the predicament for herself. There’s not much meat to the part, but Winstead brings solid determination to it.

Director Dan Trachtenberg maximizes the tension in close quarters, whether it’s the stifling experience of bunker life or the claustrophobia of crawling through a ventilation shaft. Even if the three people living there were on good terms, at some point it would feel like the walls are closing in on them. Every word and movement is heightened in this tight thriller because upsetting the fragility of the environment can be the difference between life and death.

Grade: B

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2015)

With its title conveyed in the NATO phonetic alphabet, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT hints at the main character’s heedlessness in becoming a war correspondent and astonishment at what she finds to be normal in that environment. Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is tired of spinning her wheels writing lightweight scripts at a cable news channel, so when her employer seeks on-camera talent to cover the war in Afghanistan, she grabs the opportunity even though she’s not prepared for the inherent hardships and danger. She has a boyfriend who is often traveling but no kids, which frees her to accept the initial six-month assignment.

Beginning in 2003 Kim sets up her base in Kabul in a place akin to a ramshackle hostel for international journalists. Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) gives her a crash course in the dynamics of the place, particularly in regard to her high desirability in a spot with few western women and many men. Scottish photojournalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) becomes a friend who would like to get more familiar with Kim. Interpreter Fahim Ahmadzai (Christopher Abbott) tries to be protective of her even as she takes unadvised risks. Kim gets hooked on the thrill of reporting from a war zone while the public back home increasingly is losing interest.

In WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT Fey stays largely true to the persona she’s developed in films and TV shows but adapts it for a setting more serious than audiences are used to seeing her in. Once again she’s a clever, funny, fortysomething single woman with an unfulfilling personal and professional life, but in this situation there’s little time to spend fretting about her disappointments. Kim’s intelligence and sharp wit function as shields, if not weapons, in a hostile land. She is quick with withering remarks and crude rejoinders, in part because it’s what survival in the male-dominated culture demands, yet there’s a limit to how much her verbal assertiveness can protect her. Fey is good at showing how Kim mounts her defenses while remaining aware of her vulnerability. Her funny performance demonstrates that her character can drink and swear like one of the boys but still faces disadvantages because of her gender.

Kim rediscovers herself during her time in Afghanistan, but WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT, based on Kim Barker’s book about her experiences, resists being EAT PRAY LOVE goes to war. The film is Kim’s story of personal growth, but it also depicts the lack of change where she’s reporting from. Robert Carlock’s screenplay observes the absurdity and sadness in war-torn Afghanistan. It’s funny that Kim doesn’t recognize the scam of a boy crying over the broken eggs he was going to sell on the street and heartrending to realize that he’s out there doing it out of necessity. There’s humor in a local mistaking an African-American soldier’s presence as meaning that the Russians are now black, yet it points out the decades-long, unresolved conflict in the region.

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa maintain the tricky harmony of laughing at the strangeness of a war zone without demeaning those who endure bombings, searches, and gun battles. Alfred Molina’s portrayal of an upper Afghan official who drops thinly veiled come-ons to Kim is the one out-of-tune exception to WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT’s tonal balance. Molina’s performance contains menace as he implies receiving sex for secrets, but the threatening aspect of him is overshadowed by his clownish behavior. Otherwise WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT stays clear-eyed while taking an askew view inside the bubble of war.

Grade: B

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Sunshine Superman

SUNSHINE SUPERMAN (Marah Strauch, 2014)

What compels someone to try to find an alternative to skydiving because it starts feeling ordinary? The documentary SUNSHINE SUPERMAN explores the answer in telling the story of Carl Boenish, who is known as the founder of BASE jumping. Boenish worked for an aviation company but was nudged toward his calling when asked to shoot skydiving scenes for the Hollywood film THE GYPSY MOTHS. He decided to focus his work on becoming a cinematographer who documented the aerial pursuit. When skydiving was no longer scratching his itch for excitement in the late 1970s, he and some friends turned to the next challenge: jumping off a cliff in Yosemite National Park.

The Yosemite jumps and the debate about the legality of them led Boenish and company, including his wife Jean, to find other high perches from which they could leap. TV antennas bridges, and high-rise buildings, especially those under construction, became other sites from which they could jump to get their adrenaline rushes. Boenish insisted that they film their jumps so that others could share in the experiences that were so important to them, and doing so meant jumping in daylight and thus heightening the possibility of being arrested. Jumping from high places may or may not have been legal, but trespassing certainly wasn’t.

SUNSHINE SUPERMAN features plenty of archival footage from helmet-mounted cameras and those on the ground. For those of us who would prefer to remain more earthbound than risk death, the film provides an exhilarating perspective of what it is like to freefall from thousands of feet up and then float to safety with the aid of a parachute. Boenish says that he doesn’t intend to inspire others to make these jumps but hopes his actions will give those who see them the courage to do whatever they desire. Boenish’s childlike enthusiasm and seemingly limitless ability to push himself testify to the wonders one can achieve when brave enough to chase a dream that others may think impossible or foolish. In this and its tale of adventure to get up in the air, SUNSHINE SUPERMAN bears a passing resemblance to MAN ON WIRE, the documentary of the high-wire walker who performed between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

The message of believing in oneself is all well and good, but SUNSHINE SUPERMAN introduces an ominous tone to Boenish’s story at the outset. The promise of potentially bad things to come fades as the rise of BASE jumping is traced through Boenish’s footage, reenactments, and interviews. The fateful sense returns in the film’s second half as Boenish and his wife prepare for a world record-setting televised jump in Norway. Director Marah Strauch presents an admiring view of her subject but isn’t so blinkered to ignore that what made Boenish who he was also cost him his life. As someone less impulsive, it’s hard to understand the fearlessness to take such risks and how his wife responds in the aftermath of Boenish’s last jump. Chalking it up to different viewpoints may not be a satisfactory answer, but it seems like a fair way of assessing Jean’s reaction.

Boenish’s own words are peppered throughout SUNSHINE SUPERMAN. It’s apparent what he gets out of jumping from high places but less clear why he does it. The film suggests that a childhood brush with polio may have driven him to appreciate what his body could do when healthy. His technical interests reveal a drive for understanding how things work and may have steered him to reach for the human mind and body’s limits. One anecdote raises the possibility of how his religious beliefs may have guided him, and another calls into question how they played into his final jump. For whatever reason Strauch includes Boenish’s beliefs as a Christian Scientist briefly, yet that would seem to be a key piece of comprehending him.

SUNSHINE SUPERMAN concludes with a spectacular jump that, in a way, fulfills Boenish’s last. Some of us, myself included, don’t have the courage to do what Boenish and other BASE jumpers do, but we can thrill at their remarkable feats.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Eddie the Eagle

EDDIE THE EAGLE (Dexter Fletcher, 2016)

Since he was a boy with a brace on his leg, Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) has dreamed of being an Olympic athlete, but his abilities don’t appear to match his aspirations. In EDDIE THE EAGLE the determined young man hopes to earn a spot on Great Britain’s 1988 Olympic downhill skiing team but fails. The setback doesn’t stop him from pursuing his goal, though. Eddie decides to become a ski jumper because his country hasn’t produced one in more than fifty years. More importantly, he doesn’t have to be great to qualify either. Sticking the landing on a jump from the 70m platform should be sufficient.

Eddie leaves his working class English neighborhood to train in Germany. What he lacks in ski jumping experience and knowledge, he attempts to make up for in enthusiasm. The best ski jumpers often start in early childhood, so observers scoff at the 22-year-old’s efforts with the expectation he’ll break some bones, if not kill himself. Onetime elite United States ski jumper Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman) maintains the slopes and unsuccessfully tries to discourage Eddie. Bronson is now an alcoholic and a crank, but he agrees to become Eddie’s coach because of his protege’s perseverance and the British Olympic Association’s gambit to keep Eddie off the team. After Eddie meets the low bar for qualification, British officials change the rules to a competitive standard they don’t expect him to reach.

Based on a true story, EDDIE THE EAGLE takes a slightly different tack on the underdog sports movie. Typically the underestimated athlete or team in such films rallies to be in a position to win a championship, even if they fall short. Eddie isn’t competing for a gold medal, or even a bronze, but against himself and the presumptions of those who look upon his ambition with disdain. Finishing in last place is acceptable to him as long as he gets the opportunity to participate in the Olympics.

EDDIE THE EAGLE would be less inspirational without the pushback the ski jumper faced. How uplifting would the story be if getting to the Winter Olympics merely required exploiting a loophole? In a weird way the film undersells his achievement, depicting him as a pie in the sky wisher when he still had to do the hard and dangerous training. It’s not like any weekend warrior could try out a few jumps and be Eddie’s equal. The Eddie-eye view of him careening down the slope does a good job of conveying the speed, height, distance, and peril involved in the sport.

In a one hundred eighty degree turn from the cocky, underachieving lad turned spy he played in KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, Egerton makes a sympathetic hero out of this optimistic, teetotaling nerd. With his glasses perpetually sliding down his nose, Egerton overplays Eddie’s naïveté somewhat. One could be excused for thinking Eddie is five to ten years younger than the character actually is. That simplicity is in keeping with the upbeat tone, primary colors, and ebullient synth score director Dexter Fletcher employs. There’s nothing particularly complex about EDDIE THE EAGLE, and the screenplay’s fictions, like the invention of the drunkard coach redeemed by his pupil, lean on clichés. Nevertheless, EDDIE THE EAGLE brims with the joy in pursuing a hard-won dream even if it looks like failure to bystanders.

Grade: B