Sunday, May 24, 2015

TOMORROWLAND Crashes Like A Faulty Jet Pack

TOMORROWLAND (directed by Brad Bird, 2015)

How much you enjoy "Tomorrowland" largely boils down to how much you're willing to lie to yourself.

Here is a movie I'm desperate to like, I'm practically dying to like. Director/co-writer Brad Bird (of "The Incredibles" and "The Iron Giant" fame) has yet to inflict cinematic wrong, and with his latest, he attempts no less than to conjure classic live-action Disney magic of the past, where the movie screen feels like a doorway, beckoning us to a more extraordinary version of ourselves and our world. "Tomorrowland" proudly slaps its heart on its sleeve, then asks us why we aren't doing the same.

And yet...and yet. Do we support a movie for what it's trying to do, or for what it ultimately does? I want to live in a world where "Tomorrowland" kickstarts a new wide-eyed, original franchise. I want to live in a world where it imbues us with that feeling of hope and optimism it so clearly wishes, where kids exit the theater keen on becoming scientists and artists and inventors and thinkers. Sometimes life demands painful admissions we'd rather deny, though, and here's one of them: "Tomorrowland" fails. I support its intent and its spirit and its message with every fiber of my blogger being, but at a point, we must remove the goggles and face the world we've got to live in. Bird stands on the mountaintop and preaches the gospel of wonder. What a damn shame his movie curiously lacks it. 

I take no pleasure in this.

Chief among the movie's faults is the most elemental one of structure. As the movie starts, we meet young inventor Frank Walker in 1964, hitching a bus to the New York World's Fair to show off his new jet pack. Although he fails to impress judge David Nix (Hugh Laurie), he is invited on a ominous fair ride that launches him on a secret tunnel to Tomorrowland, a futuristic, seemingly otherworldly city where anything is possible and dreaming is encouraged. Flash forward to today, where cynicism abounds and a young, idealistic girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) starts having visions of the city, and only an adult Frank (now played by George Clooney), who was mysteriously exiled from Tomorrowland, can take her there. 

As reasonable a pitch for a movie as any. But you don't spend all day cranking a Jack In The Box only to learn there's nothing inside - there are basic rules of pacing and payoff. You set up a world, introduce the players, create the stakes, and take us to the finish line. For a movie clocking in at two solid hours before credits, "Tomorrowland" feels oddly stuck in Act 1, constantly feeding us table scraps of information that only mildly tantalize the story's true scope, creating unreasonable anticipation for where we're heading, until arriving at a bizarrely rushed conclusion.

It's not that "Tomorrowland"'s ultimate destination - that of a basic end-of-the-world scenario - is disappointing (though it is). It's the blatant tease of it all. What we have here is a fundamentally obvious story marred by the promise of something grand, an almost bizarre experiment in how much of a feature length movie you can create using set-up. "Tomorrowland" pulls back curtains only to reveal more curtains.

All the more tragic is what "Tomorrowland" clearly could have been. From the deepest recesses of the celluloid, you can almost hear a passionate work of art screaming to be set free, everything good and noble about Bird as a filmmaker and a storyteller swallowed up in the quicksand of the studio machine. Consider the movie's ultimate message, that our world on the verge of extinction can be saved not through bombs or bullets or domination, but through sheer hope - the unlocking of our best selves. That's a brazenly personal note of optimism to strike when most summer movies climax with buildings crumbling and people fleeing, and it requires a healthy dose of awe to land. 

"Tomorrowland" has no awe. It has no wonder. Where it should have us saying, "Wow," we can only say, "Huh?" Remember the fist pumping passion of Bird's "The Iron Giant" as the machine proclaims, "I am not a gun!"? Or the lovely little aside in "The Incredibles" as Dash, finally given permission to run as fast as he can, chuckles with joy as he races across water? Moments like that make Bird such a vital voice of optimism in film, a masterful weaver of story, character, and action able to strike the exact emotions he wants, when he wants.

This is the first movie in his repertoire where you can see the wheels spinning, where the movie tells us what to think instead of making us think it. If "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles" (and his other Pixar effort, "Ratatouille") felt like genuine, complete encapsulations of hope and possibility, "Tomorrowland" is a corporate seminar on the stuff.

Instead of a whole movie, we just have threads of a movie, many left awkwardly dangling. Who sent the characters played by Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn to capture Casey, and why? How did Tomorrowland crumble into the destitute wasteland it is today? Why did Hugh Laurie's character stick around? And the main draw of the movie, Tomorrowland itself, comes explored frustratingly little in the first two thirds, so when we see its ruins in the end, we have no sense of enchantment to compare to the tragic rubble. 

You can feel the material getting the better of Bird, played with the same awkward, self-serving corporate synergy of Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks" that lacks an intelligent drawing together of its themes. He is absolutely a great filmmaker, and will absolutely be great again. Sometimes earnestness just can't overcome obliqueness.

To paraphrase Cosmo Kramer's take on an unpublished manuscript, it's a story about love, deception, greed, and unbridled enthusiasm - that's what led to the movie's downfall. You see, "Tomorrowland" was a simple country movie, some might say a cockeyed optimist, that got itself mixed up in the high stakes game of Disney sponsorship and artistic passion projects.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD Surges Like A Bullet Filled With Caffeine Shot From A Volcano

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (directed by George Miller, 2015)

Reviewing "Mad Max: Fury Road" presents me with two problems. 1) How can I possibly describe a movie this gloriously gonzo, this triumphant, while using words that sound coherent? 2) How can I resist the urge to write those words in all caps?

Here is a movie that not only inspires hyperbole, it demands hyperbole, that breathless stream of adjectives and adverbs in the lobby sounding like rubbish to everyone but the initiated. Its very essence is a cinematic hyperbole. Got a point to make and a movie to make it with? Why go small when you can go big? Why go timid when you can go ecstatic? Why go subtle when you can go insane?

Why go great when you can go greatest? 

That's precisely what George Miller did, returning to the franchise's director chair for the first time since 1985's "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." It truly feels like, at some point down the road, he asked the simple question, "You know what the action genre could use? A new benchmark." And now we have "Fury Road," setting the bar at a height that even CGI can't create, an incredible cacophony of sound, image, and idea, all coming together for a sweaty rush of pure cinema.

Decades from now, when fresh young filmmakers discuss what inspired them to make movies of their own, this is what they'll point to.

Stripped to the frame and ready to rumble, Miller streamlines his movie with remarkable precision, telling us exactly what we need to know when we need to know it and showing us the rest. Set unknown years after "Beyond Thunderdome," Max (Tom Hardy, replacing a certain sugar tits enthusiast) continues to wander the post-apocalyptic wasteland, no goal in mind except pure survival. Immediately in the opening frames, he's captured by the War Boys, members of a tyrannical cult led by Immortan Joe, who use him to pipe blood to the veins of tumor-infested soldier Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Furiosa (Charlize Theron) drives the armored War Rig to ostensibly collect gasoline for the city, Joe learns she's kidnapped his beloved Five Wives, women used expressly for breeding, and taking them to freedom, causing the War Boy army to chase her down with Max strapped along for the ride.

As a plot, it's pure allegory. Here's the good guys, here's the bad guys, and off we go, rarely letting up for a break. As a cinematic experience, though, it's unparalleled, short of you mixing mushrooms, cough syrup, and Drano until stuff just started happening. Movies, both the good and the bad, can often be any one thing. Maybe the movie wants to be a storytelling device. Maybe a visual experience. Maybe it's a genre like comedy or horror, built to elicit a specific emotion. But sometimes, sometimes a movie can be all the things. 

If "Fury Road" were just the visual extravaganza it is, you'd absolutely be demanded on opening weekend. If it were a mere collection of car chases, you'd still see it at least twice. George Miller, though, makes no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood. "Fury Road" is ultimately the kind of avant garde blockbuster rarely seen before and likely rarely seen again. Ultra-commercial while achingly personal. Relentlessly entertaining while emotionally resonant. R-rated action spectacle and a wounded cry from the heart.

Beneath the eye-popping dazzles and intensely realized dystopian imagery, "Fury Road" covertly delivers a feminist rally cry, all the more remarkable for how seamlessly it's fused. One of the most hollow ways to describe female characters is "strong," because really, what does that even mean? That she's literally muscled? That she's courageous? That she kills the most bad guys? In Furiosa, Theron creates a female action heroine for the ages that comfortably stands alongside Sigourney Weaver's Ripley precisely for those reasons and precisely in spite of them. She's vulnerable. She worries. She's unsure. When she rescues the wives from Immortan Joe, though, it's on her own accord, breaking free from a quite literal patriarchy and harnessing her own agency. Max assists them along the way, but he's not the magic male ingredient that lights the fire. He's an ally who stands beside Furiosa as her equal. 

Still, don't consider "Fury Road" an agenda movie. Miller might have things on his mind, but why force it into your mind when he can invite you into his? During the precious bits of downtime, he doesn't reduce Furiosa and Max to speechifying (each of them maybe gets a couple of hundred words throughout the movie). Instead, he allows his themes to breathe and play out through sheer action, never clubbing you with them, but keeping them lurking just beneath the surface. 

When theorists refer to "pure cinema," this is what they mean. "Fury Road" rules as a remarkable fusion of idea and skill.

And what skill! What audacious, bone-crushing skill! George Miller is a 70-year-old man. Ordinarily that wouldn't rank high among important facts, but just consider where most 70-year-olds' heads lie. Maybe they're content with their life, maybe they're filled with regret, but either way, their legacy is probably set. When you watch "Fury Road," don't forget who made it, because it radiates the passion of a hungry young artist with something to prove. 

Miller approaches the concept of "more" not as a challenge, not as a question, but as an expectation. Of course he has to give us more. Of course each scene has to top itself. Of course each moment has to top itself. This is just the kind of movie he feels compelled to make, and as "Fury Road" hurtles forward, we feel exhausted, but not overwhelmed. Stuff happens in this movie. My god, stuff happens in this movie. Cars flip and crash into other cars. Stunt people vault around on poles. A man strapped to the front of a tanker plays electric flame-shooting guitar because wouldn't you want your chase to have its own live soundtrack? Insane levels of visual detail fill the frame and decorate the fringes. And yet, for a movie with more than 2,000 cuts, we never feel lost, grounded by Miller at all times with a keen sense of geography and physicality. 

Forgoing CGI and green screens in favor of practical effects and stunt work, "Fury Road" ramps up the stakes higher than most lesser action films because the stakes feel higher. When we can see what's happening and we know what's happening and we believe what's happening, that's when our knees start jiggling and our posture leans forward and a little grin sprouts, first of awe and then of joy. That's when movie magic goes down.

Money in the movies can be a heckuva tool or a heckuva crutch. "Fury Road," budgeted at $150 million, exceeds the other "Mad Max" movies by a wide gulf, and yet Miller uses that cash at his disposal to make things harder on himself, to expand his artistic vision accordingly and then heave his vast balls forward to achieve it. Consider this his plea to the filmmaking world, throwing down the gauntlet so hard it shakes the earth's core, hoping he inspires other action filmmakers that this is how much fun we can be, this is how awesome we can be, this is how essential we can be. 

Please, please see it in theaters. Not a pirated bootleg, not streaming, not a DVD. Not on your television, not on your tablet, not on your phone. Make it tower above you and around you, and if your theater offers it on multiple screens, call ahead to ask which is the biggest.

"Fury Road" deserves it, and so do you.

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.