Friday, April 3, 2015

Madcap FURIOUS 7 Continues Its Franchise's Improbable Acceleration

FURIOUS 7 (directed by James Wan, 2015)

Because what self-respecting "Furious 7" review doesn't open with an Ingmar Bergman quote, lets bust out this old chestnut, "I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between."

"Furious 7," with nary two brain cells to rub together and spark an internal combustion engine, expresses the joy of cinema. Look, this movie is very, very stupid. Cars parachute from planes. A drone terrorizes downtown Los Angeles as the non-present federal government is seemingly caught up in an "NCIS" rerun or whatever. Stupid isn't necessarily a negative. Stupid is a description. It's how a movie uses its stupidity that counts. Contrasting with, for example, the cynical, calculated coldness of a "Transformers" movie, "Furious 7" is just as dim-witted, but ten times more fun - proudly stupid, you might say.

There's an infectious jubilation to this movie, the thrill of a lot of people coming together with a ton of money and making their silly ideas actually happen. Watching it, you get the simple notion that everyone involved had a blast making it, and they want you to have a blast watching it.

Representing what may be the pinnacle of this how-is-it-still-getting-better! franchise, "Furious 7," with its predecessors, could teach Hollywood a few things about proper franchise growth. Blow up your strengths while minimizing your weaknesses (note: mindless mayhem counts as a strength). Embrace diversity without making a big show about it. Respect your core fanbase that got you here while reaching out to new audiences.

On that last bit, "Furious 7" is particularly successful, continuing the series' mutation from exploitative auto racing flicks to some kind of brawny "Mission: Impossible" meets "Ocean's 11" hybrid that happens to require souped up cars. Let us just Tokyo drift over the plot, a screenplay I imagine relies on mostly exclamation points to indicate emotion and ellipses to indicate thought. A computer program called God's Eye that can hack any device into any network in the world falls into the hands of international bad guy Jakande (Djimon Hounsou, an Oscar nominee mostly reduced to screaming, "What!"), forcing FBI or CIA or Black Ops or Whatever agent Frank Petty (Kurt Russell) to recruit international family spokesman Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his team (including Paul Walker) as the official God's Eye recapturers. 

Meanwhile, Dominic and Co. are routinely hounded and attacked by Deckard Shaw (why-is-he-only-now-in-this-franchise Jason Statham), the brother of the villain they dispatched in the previous movie, who has the mysterious ability to pretty much show up anywhere without warning because, I dunno, government training or whatever. 

As with any heist movie, the central target doesn't matter. God's Eye is just a thing there to drive the other things. And my oh my, are there ever other things. Above all else, "Furious 7" is a stupendously entertaining escalation of stuff, piling one damn event after another until you can only chuckle at its goofy opposition to logic, reality, and Sir Isaac Newton. Just think about what a hairpin turn all of this could be into oppressive overkill. All the destruction. All the crashes. All the guns shot and rockets launched. "Furious 7" builds and builds and builds, always threatening to spin completely out of control, but as with the past two installments, what saves it is that exact willingness to spin completely out of control.

If a movie is what it is, that's one thing, but far worse is a movie afraid to be what it is. "Furious 7," written by longtime series scribe Chris Morgan and directed by newcomer James Wan of "The Conjuring," knows no such fear, gleefully diving in with eyes open and nitrous firing. Most movies might be content with cars parachuting from the sky, but "Furious 7" immediately sends them on an electric chase sequence that you initially wonder how long it will go until you never want it to stop. A lesser film might careen Diesel and Walker from the top of one skyscraper to a second in a sports car, but "Furious 7" crashes them to a third because, hey, they had another skyscraper.

You get the feeling that Wan and Morgan created this movie based on dares they set themselves.

That it all comes together as crisply as it does represents itself a minor miracle, given the elephant in the room of Walker's tragic death mid-shooting, and it must be said that "Furious 7" overcomes this handicap about as elegantly and artfully as one could hope. There's at least one key conversation where his character, Brian, oddly lingers in the background, and he's practically a non-entity for the climatic action sequence, shot mostly from behind or in jittery, shadowy motion from distances as Wan utilizes obvious body doubles. Still, as the closing ten minutes rolls around, "Furious 7" takes an almost jolting right angle turn, granting Brian a complete arc that carries genuine emotional resonance, not just for a "F & F" movie, but in general. 

Awful circumstances might have forced them in that position, but the tears are earned, and the gruff street poetry narrated by Diesel over the final images feels honest and heartfelt. Well done.

Longtime fans of the series will no doubt feel that gut punch particularly hard. Even for newcomers, though, "Furious 7" represents superb Hollywood craftsmanship, a gleeful concoction of glistening chrome and glistening buttocks that leaps forward with reckless abandon. Don't feel ashamed to love it. Don't feel guilty to love it.

There's a place for every movie, and "Furious 7" embraces its own, heedless enthusiasm overflowing.

Monday, March 30, 2015

IT FOLLOWS Kindly Asks To Burrow Under Your Skin And Stay There

IT FOLLOWS (directed by David Robert Mitchell, 2015)

A pretty young woman, scantily clad but terrified beyond the point of titillation, storms from her house, running center framed towards the screen. The camera - and by extension, us - swirls a 360 degree pan around her as she desperately searches for a place to flee and neighbors ask if she needs help. As a combination of fear and hopelessness floods her face, she runs back in for the car keys and drives away. We move to her sitting in the dark night by a lake, no feeling of safety about her, as she calls her parents and bids one last weeping, "I love you." Hard cut to her corpse in the daytime, still at the lake, leg snapped open in the air.

Welcome to the world of "It Follows." You will not laugh with your friends after a jump-inducing scare. You will not feel that fun, goofy fear that comes with knowing it's only a movie. You will leave unsettled, disturbed, and wary of your surroundings.

Lets not be stingy with the praise, though. You will also experience the best American horror movie in ages.

Jay (Maika Monroe), college girl in a nondescript Detroit neighborhood where every house could use a remodeling, goes on a date with older boy Hugh (Jake Weary), who seems oddly twitchy and aloof. As horror tropes go, they still have sweaty, awkward sex in the back seat of his car, after which he informs her that in doing so, he's passed a curse along to her, a demonic spirit that can only be seen by those with the same curse.

If she wants to rid herself of it, she must pass it on by having sex with someone else, who then must have sex with someone else, and on down the line. Otherwise it will haunt you until it kills you. The spirit can take the form of any person, be it a stranger or someone you know. It seems more or less bound by physical laws, unable to disappear or walk through walls (while it seems forced to knock on doors, it holds no qualms about breaking windows - chalk that up to random rudeness). It does not hide in closets, nor does it wait to pounce. It never runs, but instead walks, always walking. You can try driving far away, but that will only buy you some time. It will chase you, and it will find you.

After only one previous feature, "The Myth Of The American Sleepover," writer/director David Robert Mitchell establishes himself with "It Follows" as an immensely clever journeyman, agile and capable of dominating whatever genre he chooses. One of his masterstrokes here is crafting a supernatural threat that feels highly specific but also universal, tapping into the fundamental nightmares that plague us from childhood to death. Running but not escaping, Trapped in a dark corner with no way out. Feeling safe nowhere, whether it's at home or out in the open daylight. We know just enough specificities of the curse to be terrified, while things are also vague enough to keep us even more terrified. 

Mitchell takes things one step further, though. Instead of simply presenting us the horror, creating an audience of voyeurs whose fear exists only in the theater, he invites us to be willing participants. Early in the movie, Jay and Hugh play a game. Study everyone in the crowd around you and pick a person you'd like to trade places with. Your friend gets two guesses as to who you chose and why. 

In context, this feels like a fun thing you can try in your own life. Later, when the full scope of the curse emerges, it carries an unmistakable dread. Imagine being out in a sea of people and not knowing who the spirit is, if it's even there at all. Now put yourself in the shoes of the characters doing the same thing. Most horror films flow on peaks and valleys - you can instinctively tell which scenes are set-up as scary setpieces and which will be peaceful. "It Follows" offers no such respites. As with Jay and her friends, every single scene reaches almost unbearable tension as we scan the frame, looking for hints of the spirit approaching.

Rocking the wide angle lens like nobody's business, allowing immense depth of field, Mitchell hones skills as a master widescreen craftsman. Characters are precisely framed to create negative space around them, triggering a jarring reaction when any figure happens to invade it. Deep focus forces us to study the foreground along with the background, where Mitchell sometimes drops the spirit with masterful, omnipresent subtlety. One sequence at a high school as Jay attempts to track down Hugh sports a fluid 360 degree swirl around her as she walks down a crowded hall. Everyone around her is suspect. Anyone could be the curse.

Ultimately, as said, what drives the terror of this movie is something innate and elementary and primal. A slasher jumping from behind a shower curtain inspires the popcorn to go flying, sure. But it's not universal. It's fear by way of brute force. When the curse of "It Follows" manifests itself on screen, it's often as something that would be commonplace otherwise, but chills us to the bone in context because of the unshakable fact that this person walking at this speed in this location is simply not right, especially with the John Carpenter-esque electronic score underneath, filling the theater's surround sound system. Mitchell invites us to keep that fear inside us. Enjoy your walk to the car after the movie ends. Have fun putting your garbage cans out late at night. That fear will be there. It won't leave you. It's in your head, in your bones.

Which raises the final question, what exactly is "It Follows" about? Mitchell wisely eschews obvious answers, although a parable about AIDS (or STDs in general) feels logical, if a bit too easy. Maybe an oddly conservative treatise against premarital sex? Or a "Cabin In The Woods"-style meta commentary on the trope of sex in horror movies? All possible, and certainly no one can say any of that is wrong. But ultimately it feels broader and more general. 

By the movie's end, our teenage heroes are granted a feeling of more or less happiness, along with the maturity that comes with knowing there's darkness around the corner that you can face. But happiness doesn't bring peace. Maturity doesn't bring peace. What's out there is out there, and even if you temporarily overcome it, brace yourself for those long, sleepless nights, lying in bed on your back, wondering if you can handle what still looms on the horizon.

Sometimes you've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above. Because it will follow you.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

What Does GET HARD Find Ickier - Gay Sex Or Funny Jokes?

GET HARD (directed by Etan Cohen, 2015)

What did you do when you woke up this morning? Stretched for a moment, likely made breakfast or at least a cup of coffee? Read the day's newspaper if that's still your thing? Then - don't tell me - desperately wondered why comedies about prison don't include oodles more gay rape jokes?

Wait. You're telling me no one does that? Too bad the news didn't reach "Get Hard," a movie on a mission if I ever did see one. If only that mission were worthy.

It's not that the movie is offensive, though it is. It's not that it's immature, though it is. We're talking a much worse cardinal sin in comedies: It's lazy. It's punishingly, mind-numbingly lazy. According to the calendar, it's the year 2015, and "Get Hard" is not only obsessed with the notion that two men of the same gender might have sex with each other, it thinks that in and of itself is a knee-slapper.

Switch a few gears around, and it might as well be a 1950s sci-fi parable entitled "Gay Panic!" about pod people taking men over and forcing them to do foul things together in bathroom stalls.

Such a shame that the basic framework of "Get Hard" is not without potential. Will Ferrell, embodying white privilege, plays a hedge fund manager wrongfully arrested for fraud and embezzlement and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin after a judge wants to make an example of white collar crime. Terrified of life behind bars, he naturally assumes his car washer (Kevin Hart) has done hard time due to his skin color being black, and employs him to offer tips for prison survival before the sentence begins in 30 days.

Not the worst concept. One can easily picture Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor nailing a similar plot. As with any movie, though, there are ways to do it right and there are ways to do it wrong. There are ways to work in jabs at America's white upper class and the institutional racism and homophobia within. There are ways to satirize our prison system and how stereotypes do or don't clash with reality. 

In other words, there are ways to be smart. There are ways to be funny. And the dictionary of "Get Hard" knows no such adjectives. Once Hart agrees to pretend to be Ferrell's street smart coach, the movie sets some kind of land speed record for gay jokes, hitting them fast and furious. Ferrell will be have shower sex in prison. Ferrell will suck dick in prison. Ferrell will undoubtably become somebody's bitch in prison.

There are literally stretches in "Get Hard" lasting for 5, 15, even 20 minutes that are nothing but gay jokes, gay jokes, gay jokes, like they're being given away at a very weird yard sale. Take a sequence at a restaurant where gay men go for brunch and to meet other guys. In order to overcome his heterosexual inclinations that he'll have to forget in prison, Hart sends Ferrell there pick up the first man he sees (played by Matt Walsh) and offer him oral sex in the bathroom. It's an agonizingly prolonged scene, built around a torturous close-up of Ferrell on his knees, schlong dangling in his face, loudly sobbing as he attempts to wrap his lips around it.

Quick - comedy workshop time! Lets simply accept that this scene is in the movie and there's nothing we can do about it. You've got Ferrell, straight middle aged man, likely never been within five miles of a naked penis in his life, let alone five inches. What do we call this in terms of joke structure? The set-up, right? And from there flows the punchline. From there you build and add the funny.

"Get Hard" never builds. "Get Hard" never expands. "Get Hard" simply lies content that its initial childish concepts are funny enough to stand alone. It's a mountain climber who stands at base camp and believes he's reached the summit.

It's an old comedy axiom that you punch up, never down. You hit the targets in power, never the downtrodden. "Blazing Saddles" works because its wildly incendiary language tackles the racist tropes within westerns. "Tropic Thunder" (cowritten by "Get Hard" director Etan Cohen) features a white man in black face for practically the entire movie, as explosive an image as you could ask for, and yet because its target is clearly pompous actors taking the Method too far, it scores some brilliant jabs. That's how smart comedy works. Using the same offensive tools of your targets to hit them where it hurts.

Making "Get Hard" work, then, basically requires a complete overhaul, first and foremost ditching the conceit that Farrell is a wrongfully accused good guy. Not only does it bog down the movie's back half as he and Hart attempt to prove his innocence, it drastically muddies the waters and renders the targets unclear. Make Hart the unquestioned good guy and Ferrell the unquestioned bad guy who definitely committed his crimes and will definitely go to prison. No doubt this would be a tougher pill to swallow for audiences who expect to root for Ferrell, but it would effectively redirect the movie's rampant racism and homophobia at him and lend a genuine arc through his interactions with Hart.

Secondly, don't pout, "Get Hard." You can keep your gay jokes. No one's taking away your juice box. Just add one simple, magical word, "Why?" These people find the mere existence of gay sex disgusting, but why? Ferrell can't understand a world beyond his own straight, lily white mansion, but why? Push the premise. Roll the stone down the hill and see what moss it gathers. Instead you're just the boys giggling during sex ed. 

It should be said that given what they're given, Ferrell and Hart are nothing if not pro salesmen; it's practically impossible for these two guys to not at least seem funny. And the movie sprinkles little nuggets throughout suggesting what might have been, like a very funny sequence where Ferrell attempts to trash talk and instead reveals some deep-rooted emotional issues of his own.

Just because "Get Hard" lives in a world where gay sex is a thing, though, doesn't mean it has to like it.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Slyly Intelligent AMERICAN SNIPER Offers Rewards To Those Willing To Look

AMERICAN SNIPER (directed by Clint Eastwood, 2014)

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That classic quote from John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" feels so tailor made for "American Sniper," it must be emblazoned on a plaque above director Clint Eastwood's bathroom mirror. But what if the fact of sniper Chris Kyle is more compelling? And what of a movie that tries to print both?

Such is the challenge set by "American Sniper," a movie sometimes corny, often times harrowing, but also with a sly intelligence lurking beneath the surface, perpetually on the cusp of revealing itself. Here is a movie with no easy moralizing, no sermons, no revelations, no a-ha moments. Instead it offers itself, as it is, like it is, and take from it what you will.

How much you take largely depends on what you think the movie's up to in the first place. So man, oh man, lets tread carefully. Poor Seth Rogen just got banned from a steakhouse.

After a brief scene of Kyle (a stunningly transformed Bradley Cooper) eyeing a mother and child in Afghanistan, showcased in all the trailers, we flash back to his childhood, and from there, "American Sniper" is lean and linear as an arrow. Kyle grows into an aimless man in his 20s riding in rodeos. He joins the military to find direction. He falls for Taya (a more than capable Sienna Miller). 9/11 happens and he ships overseas, honing a real talent for sharpshooting that claims more than 100 confirmed kills and the nickname "Legend." Soon his fame spreads throughout insurgant territories and large bounties are placed on his head as he becomes adversaries with a sniper nicknamed Mustafa.

Eastwood's love-it-or-hate-it minimalism comes on full force here. As a filmmaker, he rarely adapts to a screenplay, instead applying his default style to it, letting the chips fall where they may. This leads to some fairly consistent misfires (can you believe this is the same director behind the lackadaisical "Jersey Boys" adaptation only six months ago?). But with screenwriter Jason Hall's work on "American Sniper," it's the kind of marriage where both parties compliment each other's strengths, and even if they don't cancel each other's weaknesses, at least they hide them well. 

Ain't nobody ever gonna call Eastwood a stylist. No coffee table books will ever showcase his trademark shots. If anything sums the Eastwood mantra, it's that of the invisible force of God - form your cast and your script, put them in front of the camera, and get outta the way. So how does that elevate "American Sniper," when I can barely even remember his "Flags Of Our Fathers"? Because it creates throughout the movie a universal truth. As the movie's Chris Kyle (an important distinction versus the real Chris Kyle) volleys between his tours of duty in the Middle East and back home with his wife and children, Eastwood's flat, crisp filmmaking creates nary a distinction between these two worlds. War and home offer little difference for Kyle. The same stress and anguish he feels on the battleground follows him to his family.

What could thus be written off as typical bland choices from Eastwood quietly becomes one of the more harrowing, subjective portrayals of PTSD on film in recent memory. Battle scenes carry the expected tense weight, but something as simple as a drive on an American freeway almost feels like a chase sequence, as every passing car feels like a potential threat. It's a subtle effect, but a potent one, building as the movie progresses without ever rubbing your face in it.

That's confidence as a storyteller.

Chris Kyle in the movie is neither vilified nor deified, simply presented. He's absolutely flawed, calling insurgents "savages" and in the movie's climax, allowing his obsessive machismo to get the better of him and endangering his men in the process. It's the push/pull of his personality that Eastwood and Hall wisely never take a blatant side on, and this lack of a stance seems to turn some people off. Further controversy includes the movie's purported extreme jingoism, treating the American military as the end-all heroes of the world. To that end, if you'll believe the hype, "American Sniper" is either morally bankrupt propaganda cheering the killing of brown people or a noble salute to fallen heroes that sends you home dreaming of raising a flag whose size would put a used car lot to shame.

These two extremes simply refuse to engage the movie for what it is, while criticizing it for being too simple minded, for not delving into the mind of Kyle better, is reasonable, but I feel misses the point. A different movie might have asked tougher questions. What drove Kyle to be a sniper? How does he truly feel about the war and the 100+ people he killed. Is he, in fact, a racist? A different movie, yes. But not necessarily a better one. 

Instead of cracking Kyle open, Eastwood and Hall pull the more subtle effect of allowing him to remain static and then thrusting a world of opposition against him. Kyle in the movie never relents from his belief that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are justified. He never openly views those he killed as anything but savages. But notice the quiver in Cooper's voice when a PTSD therapist asks if he feels he can answer to God for what he did overseas. Notice the flickering, barely-there pain in his eyes when Miller begs him to stay home. It's a highly subjective experience that trusts Cooper to convey a massive amount of emotional weight with barely any indicating dialogue.

Of all people, Steven Spielberg originally agreed to direct "American Sniper," and who knows how his movie would turn out, although a betting man might use the word "sentimental." In the hands of Eastwood, though, it's a fascinating look at a man holding steadfast to a worldview even as that worldview takes a brutal moral toll on him, and the violence that corrodes his soul as he welcomes it with open arms. Notice the movie's climatic kill, which oddly drew cheers from my screening audience, but plays in context as a bleak moment of deflated glory. All the more impressive is how Eastwood never spoon feeds this to us, letting the game his movie's playing lie in plain sight, trusting us to find it.

You are not required to like "American Sniper." You are not required to even see "American Sniper." But to dismiss it either for what you think it is or what you wanted it to be, I feel, does it a great disservice. "Saving Private Ryan" offered a more visceral portrayal of war. "The Hurt Locker" delved better into the moral quandary of needing war to function when homelife just doesn't cut it anymore. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for "American Sniper" too, and that place isn't as the lightning rod for bickering cultural extremes.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

SELMA Cuts With Powerful, Tragic Timelessness

SELMA (directed by Ava DuVernay, 2014)

We've all heard or said variations of the phrase at some point - "Despite great strides, we still have a long way to go." Those fallback words to spout when we want to participate in a conversation about race despite having nothing of value to, you know, add. It helps us seem smart and clued in, a cliche no one can really argue against.

Now Ferguson. Now Staten Island. Now voting rights for minorities at risk in Texas and North Carolina and elsewhere. And now "Selma." Director Ava DuVernay didn't ask for her movie to mingle among these events of 2014, but that's the way things turned out and here we are. Sometimes life has a way of working out, just not in the ways we hoped, and what would already be a fascinating picture becomes an act of conscience and unwavering immediacy. A wounded cry from the past haunting the soul of today.

DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb's masterstroke is stripping away everything we think we know Martin Luther King Jr. and rebuilding from scratch. Like Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," it shuns iconography in favor of the nuts and bolts, telling a sweeping story by focusing on the micro. "Lincoln" had the creation of the 13th Amendment. "Selma" has the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, that helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Gone, then, is the March On Washington. Gone is "I have a dream." Gone are any of the easy markers that we repeated during February in elementary school and would expect from a traditional "greatest hits" biopic. What DuVernay gives us instead is a far greater gift: the intimacy of being in the same room at the same time. I'm 28 years old, born in 1986. The Civil Rights Movement remains less of a series of events that happened and more of a concept - something that happened to materialize during those years.

One of the key epiphanies of "Selma," then (one that feels stunning in its obviousness) is everything surrounding the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, and indeed everything surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, was orchestrated by people. We see King (magnificently played by David Oyelowo) sitting in bed the night before a speech, stressing over last minute word choices. We see him stage rallies and marches specifically for their theatrics, knowing Selma's notoriously corrupt Sheriff Jim Clark will play like a villain allowing for primetime television coverage. And we see him afterward, weighing the guilt of knowing those theatrics led to protestors getting injured and killed. DuVernay expertly stages rallies with an eye for the micro and the macro, often starting a scene with a close-up of King's or someone else's face before slowing panning back to reveal vast crowds, suggesting an even grander story beyond the specific one she's telling.

"Selma" lobs searing support for protest as a force for change, as an act of civil responsibility, like few movies I can think of. It also offers the potent reminder that such events only happen when people get together in some place and will it into existence.

Yet the movie transcends the stiff bounds of something you're "supposed" to see so you can say you did at social gatherings. When I watch typical historical dramas this time of year, be it "The Theory Of Everything" or "The Imitation Game" or whichever of those bland "Dylan McDermott or Durmot Mulroney?" titles is which, I'm watching a museum piece. I'm watching something blatantly orchestrated to elicit maximum emotional impact. You never catch "Selma" quivering with anticipation of class syllabus placement. You never catch it approaching that level of "watch this to feel less guilty" chore.

Instead DuVernay crafted a work teeming with life and honesty, at times unbearably harrowing (few scenes from 2014 left me as shaken as the foggy, tear gas infused attacks of Bloody Sunday). It's a movie of its specific moment, and it's a movie for all. That's why the recent controversy surrounding historical inaccuracies so sorely misses the point. "Selma" presents a President Lyndon Johnson (carefully played by Tom Wilkinson) who doesn't so much oppose voting rights as wanting to delay them, seeing a Voting Rights Act as politically nonviable and serving for the bulk of the movie as a force against King. Yes, in real life, LBJ more actively spearheaded the Act, viewing it as a moral necessity to be pushed through Congress as quickly as possible, and yes, "Selma" somewhat twists his views to create a dramatic arc.

Our conversation, though, should be less an antagonistic "No!" and more a curious "Why?". Lets put aside the fact that "Selma" still ultimately portrays Johnson as a critical friend of civil rights, and no reasonable person will leave this movie with scorn for him (indeed, the audience at my screening burst into applause at his use of, "We shall overcome," during a climatic hero speech). Name on two hands movies about civil rights lacking a white savior. Maybe even one hand. Roger Ebert called movies windows through our boxes of space and time, and "Selma" is the rare mainstream movie that completely channels the Civil Rights Movement through the black experience.

Isn't there value in getting shaken by a viewpoint not entirely our own?

"Selma" suffers minor pacing issues in the first act as we meet critical characters, bookended with an ending that feels maybe slightly rushed. But these are admittedly minor quibbles about an incredibly skilled movie that treads the tightrope between hero worship and "warts and all," giving us a King who wasn't so much flawed as he was human, and who recognized a moment in history that required a tactician just as much as inspiration. 

If the movie brings history alive, it also brings the unfortunate reminder that history tends to repeat itself.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014's Out Of Nowhere Gem: THE BABADOOK

THE BABADOOK (directed by Jennifer Kent, 2014)

Describing what made Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" such a crown jewel of horror, Steven Spielberg once pointed to the classic "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" scene. Shelley Duvall discovers Jack Nicholson's ramblings, shedding page after page from her trembling hands, as the music swells and we instinctively know, thanks to the cliches of horror, that someone's gonna pounce. 

A lesser director, Spielberg said, might go for the easy scare. Jack leaps from around the corner, piano chord crashes, audience's popcorn flies, and we move on. Kubrick instead took the subtler approach, shifting the camera to Jack's perspective as he sneaks behind her and we're right there with him. This robs us of the jolt moment, but it also builds a quieter, more effective terror. The kind of terror that finds a home in our marrow and comes out to taunt us when we're lying alone in bed at night.

That thought stuck with me while watching "The Babadook," writer/director Jennifer Kent's masterful new work of horror. Those hoping for quick jumps in their seats need not enter here. That's not terror. That's the release, and it wears off like a carnival joy buzzer. Kent knows that what burrows under your skin is the build, the anticipation, the knowledge that something is around the corner and you can't do anything about it

She also taps into the primal understanding that having kids can be a scary friggin thing.

"The Babadook" sprouts from a haunt as basic and elemental as The Boogeyman. Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed mother, finds raising her young son Sam (Noah Wiseman) alone to be a touch, shall we say, difficult. He doesn't socialize well with other children. He never behaves. Now he brings home a picture book that reads like Maurice Sendak actively wanting to send kids to therapy - a book about a mysterious creature called The Babadook - and believes this creature to be haunting their house. Amelia naturally assumes this to be Sam typically acting out, until a few incidents slowly force her to reconsider. 

Think "We Need To Talk About Kevin" meets "The Conjuring," and you're on the right track.

To understand what makes "The Babadook" such a singularly effective hair raiser, lets go where even the best horror flicks can stumble: the last act. That point where fun and games are over, and it's time to wrap things up. What this unfortunately means is the suggested often must become literal, and it loses some punch. By the time we see the mother's chair doing silly flips at the end of "The Conjuring," it's kinda tough to be invested. Kent ingeniously bypasses this in "The Babadook" by making the haunting itself entirely suggestion. For every horror setpiece sequence in the movie, she never shows her hand. Each appearance of the Babadook defies easy categorization, cleverly framed and edited by Kent so that it could just as easily be a product of the family's imaginations as the real deal.

Some of the more mixed reviews point to this as a cheat. Once we accept that the Babadook may in fact be imagined by Sam and Amelia, what's there to be afraid of? And yet, isn't that what's to be afraid of most? Maybe the Babadook is real. Maybe it isn't. That's your prerogative. The effects are certainly real, though. The family's resulting screams and panic and breathless dives beneath the covers are all there. Now take that and think about the one base fear that drives everything from hot teenagers getting hacked by Leatherface to the classic dream where someone chases you, but your legs can't move: inability to escape. 

Making the Babadook a real thing makes it something we can theoretically understand, but it also becomes a thing we can theoretically defeat. Keeping it a figment of Sam and Amelia's imaginations, though? There ain't no escape from your own mind.

So strip away the perceived haunting from the surface, and whatta we got? What do the events of "The Babadook" look like from the
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern perspective? Why, something that strikes the heart of the child in all of us: a mother who hates her son and wants him dead. A mother who has had enough, who isn't a source of protection and safety anymore. And, for the parents out there, the idea that your one sacred charge on this earth - protect your offspring at all costs - can be brushed aside in favor of your most horrible instincts. 

If there's one thing scarier than a monster in your house trying to kill you, it's the idea that you can't run to your own mother.

What an exercise in precise control "The Babadook" is. Anchored by two impeccable, intense performances from Davis and Wiseman that never quite let us know where we stand, it's less concerned about what goes bump in the night than the fact that what goes bump ain't going anywhere. And as a filmmaker, Kent allows her scares to build from within, starting with honestly realized characters and growing organically from there. 

Your popcorn won't go flying. You'll remain still in your seat. But good luck conceiving tonight, folks.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best Scene Of 2014: The Finale Of WHIPLASH

(WARNING: Major spoilers ahead for "Whiplash," if that's not quite your tempo)

One of the most obvious, and yet fundamental, questions we must ask when watching a movie is, "What is this about?". What's Robert Altman's purpose in tracking two dozen seemingly random strangers for a few days in "Nashville"? What's Martin Scorsese getting at with this weirdo in "Taxi Driver?" Such a basic question centers us, reframes the movie, and then allows us to judge whether or not it was a success based on the answer.

So what, then, of "Whiplash," one of 2014's most searing works? Is it a maniacal twist on the classic 1980s Tom Cruise formula (young hotshot upstart crosses paths with an aged mentor who pushes him to new heights)? A morality tale of the lengths one must travel to be a great artist - not just good, but great - and whether it's worth wrecking your life over? Or simply, as my friend Isaac Weeks put it, a platonic hetero love story of two insane assholes? 

Maybe you agree with any of those statements. Maybe you think "Whiplash" is a parable for the Kennedy assassination for all I know. My purpose at this free movie blog isn't to say you're wrong - not today. Instead it's to say that "Whiplash" writer Damien Chazelle doesn't think you are either. His movie remains a tense, volatile high wire act throughout, quietly intelligent with nary a speck of braggadocio, and sporting two of the best performances of the year from Miles Teller and JK Simmons. Chazelle, like any artist whose confidence matches his brains, trusts the audience to be on his level and to not require a trail of bread crumbs to follow along. Masterful storytelling from the word go.

Then the finale. My god, the finale. Lets get the surface out of the way - did 2014 yield a tenser, more explosive five minutes of film? For that matter, was it even five? Maybe it was 20. Maybe it was one. I honestly don't know. Time seemed to vanish. By this point, young wannabe jazz drummer Andrew (Teller) has turned his nearly destroyed life upside down to earn the satisfaction and tutelage of famed, vicious music instructor Terence Fletcher (Simmons), who seems to model himself more after R. Lee Ermey than Mr. Holland and his opus. Fletcher, who repeats the story of how Charlie Parker became Bird like he tells it to himself at night to sleep, comes from the notion that any amount of abuse flung toward the young musicians he conducts, be it verbal, physical, or emotional, is worth it if it pushes even a single person to become that one great artist for the ages. 

Fletcher wants to find that one great artist (an earlier scene of him playing piano competently but unremarkably at a jazz club suggests an inner frustration at not being that person himself). Andrew, who sheds blood on his drum skins to the point where you question how he remains conscious, believes himself to be that one great artist. He endures every bit of torment Fletcher hurls his way, all for the chance to prove himself. Now, with Fletcher in need of a substitute drummer for a JVC festival concert at Carnegie Hall, Andrew finally has that chance.

One thing worth nothing, before we go any farther - these two men are major jerks. I don't mean the type that you can understand and even respect for their grander ambitions. I mean they're two extreme, wouldn't-want-to-spend-five-minutes-alone-with-them pieces of shit. Fletcher quite literally ruins lives (it's strongly implied his methods drove at least one former student to suicide). Andrew coldly casts aside everyone who cares about him - father, girlfriend - for the sake of his shot at artistic eternity. 

I make this point because a lesser movie might play the finale, with Andrew finally proving himself a worth drummer to Fletcher, as a stereotypically rousing finish, maybe even complete with that one person Andrew didn't think would make it arriving at the last second. Instead, emotional stakes for both men firmly established, Chazelle stages it like a friggin mushroom cloud. Andrew doesn't so much drum as he seismically erupts, wailing down his sticks like he's piloting the Enola Gay, as the scene goes on...and on...and on...escalating to an armrest gripping degree. 

This isn't an emotional release. This is an emotional assault, one that Chazelle captures in a series of increased close-ups on these two men as the audience and even the other band members on stage vanish from the frame. The background seems to go black behind them. All other noises besides Andrew's drumming and Fletcher's directions dissipate. We know, on the surface, that this final sequence is of Andrew's ascendance to the realm of the greats. But our feeling isn't one of pride or hope or joy. It's sheer, tense terror. Not so much, "Yay, these two men found each other," as, "Oh no, these two men found each other."

Who knew the most agonizing, thrilling sequence of the year would revolve around a young man drumming more than he's supposed to and an older man wanting him to stop until he wants him to keep going? And my earlier point regarding what "Whiplash" is about? Your answer to that informs how you see the finale. But one of the great little cinematic magic tricks this year is that the movie could end on such a deeply satisfying note while at the same time allowing all views to remain valid.

There's so many ways Chazelle coulda ended "Whiplash" well. He picked the one that ended it great.