Wednesday, January 27, 2016

THE REVENANT Is At Least Twice As Fun As A Bear Attack

THE REVENANT (directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015)

Like one of those indoor skydiving places, "The Revenant" offers a visceral recreation of something without much satisfaction. The wind blows against your face and it certainly feels exciting, but there's nothing except a few feet of air below you and a comfortable walk to the parking lot.

That's your expectation checker. Now that it's out of the way, how many people really leave an indoor skydiving place disappointed? Movies are the most transportive artistic medium, and like Werner Herzog taking us down the river in "Aguirre, The Wrath Of God" or Alfonso Cuarón floating alongside Bullock and Clooney in "Gravity," "The Revenant" writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu and star Leonardo DiCaprio create a stunning transference of feeling. We're there in the muck. Crawling through the snow. Scrounging for food and water. 

What's the golden rule of screenwriting - show, don't tell? "The Revenant" is all show and no tell. It's one of those movies like "Apocalypse Now" that's also an incredible chronicle of its own making, and when we return home, safely under our electric blanket and surrounded by four walls, we're not only grateful for what we have now, but feeling like we've experienced something we didn't understand before.

It's 1823, and Amazon Prime is years away. A group of trappers hunt for pelts in the Dakotas, still largely unsettled after the Louisiana Purchase. When Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a member of the group with unique knowledge of the terrain, ventures alone into the woods and is viciously mauled by a bear, his companions assume him to be at death's door and leave him with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, only slightly more understandable than in "The Dark Knight Rises) as they venture ahead, lest he die alone. Fitzgerald, never trusting or liking Glass in the first place, steals his supplies and abandons him, but not before murdering Glass' son. Despite the extreme wounds and no food or water or weapons, Glass manages to slowly crawl back to civilization, seeking justice.

If "The Revenant" has a major fault, maybe it's Iñárritu's. A man, near dead in the uncharted wilderness, literally crawls home inch by inch, and if he cares about surviving, it's only because he hasn't found his vengeance yet. There's a juicy pulp story buried here, beneath the grit and grime, but Iñárritu seems preoccupied with the grander capital letter themes of Man vs Nature, the Will To Survive, the Birth and Foundation of America. Even that would be tolerable if I felt a steady hand at the wheel. "The Revenant," however, clocks at a needlessly bulky 156 minutes, and there's only so many long takes of DiCaprio crawling through the snow we can take.

Too often throughout "The Revenant" I felt the movie slip away, clearing its throat and announcing its themes without delivering on any of them. It's an exercise in its own creation, and despite the majesty of this exercise, that's ultimately what it remains - emotionally stunted and underdeveloped.

Viewing the movie through this lens, though, maybe the fault is my own, respecting it while not loving it. Too often while watching movies that don't meet our exact hopes, we get too caught up in the hypotheticals. The director shoulda done this, the writer shoulda done that. We confuse choices with faults, and in judging a movie for what it's not, we don't always enjoy it for what it is.

So lets appreciate "The Revenant" for what it is -  an arduous, dizzying, and occasionally insane work of cinematography and acting, made by people steadfastly committed to the endgame and willing to see it through. If nothing else, even if Iñárritu directed a script written by and starring Tommy Wiseau, the movie is a visual stunner, capturing vistas rarely matched in the movies.

A more traditional filmmaker might indulge in panoramic wide shots, emphasizing landscapes. Iñárritu instead throws those in sporadically, creating with Emmanuel Lubezki the world we're inhabiting, then opts for mostly extreme close-ups. First the place is established, then we're thrown deep in the thick of it. There's no observation, no ease of distance. Whatever the characters are experiencing, we're there with them, sometimes no more than a few inches away. It's a jarring effect, but that's the difference between understanding a moment and feeling it in our bones.

If nothing else, "The Revenant" is a movie to feel deep in your core, and no small credit must be paid to DiCaprio. Truth be told, it's far from his most interesting work. "The Aviator" and "The Wolf Of Wall Street" both had more compelling, three dimensional characters, drawing on his skills as an actor in a complete way; Tom Hardy plays the juicier role here as Glass' adversary. If those movies were his best performances, though, "The Revenant" is his most performance. This is DiCaprio unhinged, primal and volatile, matted hair and chapped lips, hurling himself into the work with the passion of an artist who wants to take his audience somewhere new.

When he wins his now-inevitable Oscar, it will be for the onscreen experience more than the uniqueness of the performance. But you don't see Eddie Redmayne eating raw buffalo liver.

Ultimately "The Revenant" is a gorgeous, epic shaggy dog story, with not a whole lot to say but a real knack in saying it. It's a ravagement of the senses, a case for the widescreen theatrical experience, while sporting a single-take bear attack that makes you understand why Werner Herzog in "Grizzly Man" warned Timothy Treadwell's mother to never, ever listen to the audio of her son's death.

When a movie imposes a vision this powerful, sometimes you're allowed to not look beyond.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The STAR WARS Franchise Is Perfectly All Right Now, It's Fine, It's All Fine Now, Thank You...How Are You?

(directed by J.J. Abrams, 2015)

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. Buzzfeed offers countless listicles for toys we recognize if were grew up in whatever decade. Nickelodeon launched a late night TV block reviving its classic 80s/90s programming. Any Republican running for office is virtually required to win one for the Gipper. Nostalgia blinds our better judgement, bathes us in a warm pool of familiarity, and strokes our hair as it reassures us, "You're not mistaken - things really were better then."

It's a cynical tool, for sure, wielded by those hawking what they want us to buy. But in the right hands, it's also a noble one. Enter "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which preys on fans to a calculating degree, tweaking our impulses and desires and memories like it's scanning a car radio. And it's not only enjoyable, it's kind of inspiring.

I've always thought pop culture plays a crucial role in our lives, more than filling the silence before bedtime. Pop culture serves as a great uniting force, piercing through our veil of differences and giving strangers something to share in our dumb, random lives. Watching "The Force Awakens" with a sold out IMAX crowd at nearly one in the morning drove that home. As a movie - and ultimately that's what it is - the gears of the machine churn exposed. You can sense it laying franchise groundwork here. You can feel it hitting the obvious emotional buttons there. And yes, you can see it essentially remaking the original "Star Wars" all over the place.

But is that a problem? As noted by Matt Zoller Seitz, "The Force Awakens" is the movie writer/director J.J. Abrams was put on this planet to make, and sure enough, it's nimble and sure-footed, whip-fast and brazenly entertaining, modern yet boldly retro, with just the right amount of heart and brimming with confidence, announcing itself from the iconic opening title crawl as a movie that knows what it wants to do and how it wants to do it. Tapping into the power of nostalgia, it doesn't create a new world as much as it plugs new, dynamic characters into the one we fondly remember, and through that, Abrams makes an artistic statement that's both powerful and surprisingly personal. 

He does so by populating "The Force Awakens" with new characters consumed with looking back. Swaggering pilot for the Resistance - the good guys - Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) opens the movie on a quest for the map leading to now vanished Luke Skywalker. Villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), young leader in the First Order - the bad guys - models his look, attitude, and very existence on the legendary Darth Vader. Farmgirl Rey (Daisy Ridley) and stormtrooper-regretting-his-decisions Finn (John Boyega) know the legends of the original trilogy by heart. And then there's Han Solo (Harrison Ford having his most onscreen fun in ages) and Chewbacca returning to the series hunting for their treasured Millennium Falcon, which they lost years prior. 

Look. I get it. Abrams and Disney don't exactly reinvent the wheel in "The Force Awakens." At best, they're like the kid with an old-timey tire and a stick; if the tools aren't new, we still marvel at how well he's spinning it. George Lucas' original "Star Wars" felt radically fresh - throwing everything he loved about samurai pictures, westerns, Saturday morning serials, and California car culture in a blender - while the resulting mishmash served a structure as old as storytelling itself, the hero's journey. He used the new to reframe the old.

For "The Force Awakens," the old is the "Star Wars" series itself. Abrams wields these familiar tropes and beats of the series as a weapon, and without being too cleverly self-referential, he transports us to where we were in our lives when we first fell in love with these movies. Judging "The Force Awakens" for aping other "Star Wars" movies might be valid criticism as far as criticism goes, but that doesn't see the forest for the trees. The very soul of Abrams' script with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt is people chasing faded glory or people whose glory was never realized. People facing aging, failure, lack of purpose. People trying to atone for the past and people hoping there's something better on the other side.

Unlike the "Star Wars" prequels that became consumed with mythology, "The Force Awakens" cuts right to the core. And even when I didn't understand broader missions of the characters, I understood their specific motivations and why they're doing what they're doing now. Sometimes that's all you need from storytelling.

That's why Abrams' much ballyhooed return to (mostly) practical special effects is more than a stunt to draw cheers at ComicCon. Beyond a movie purist's love for the tangible, it signals the technical wizardry in service of an old-fashioned story, and not the other way around. Joy palpitates off the frame with the world "The Force Awakens" creates, and Abrams captures it not with the detached gaze of the prequels, but with a kind of boyish reverence. His camera moves and flows, but it remains steadily fluid, ensuring we soak in everything.

We're not held at arm's length by the cold technical prowess sometimes brought by modern special effects. We're invited to live here for a couple of hours.

"The Force Awakens" rarely zigs when it can zag. Truth be told, you can step out to check your online dating profile and comfortably guess what you missed. What it offers instead is whip-sure confidence. The dialogue crackles with wit and soul, allowing for unique, individual personas. The action sequences create clear stakes so we're invested in them when they arrive. The sets feel aged and lived in, like they existed before the movie started and will exist long after it's done. And it's a testament to the depth of the new characters that I'd pay to see a movie exclusively about them with nary a Han or Luke or Leia cameo in sight.

A little late to the party on this, I know, but "Star Wars" is back. I'm not talking the merchandising or the extended universes. I'm talking that fundamental feeling of seeing a movie you love and talking to others who say they love it too. That power of movies as a time machine, taking you not only to a galaxy far far away, but to that place where a great movie is all that matters.

"The Force Awakens" is what we talk about when we talk about blockbusters.

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.