Friday, May 30, 2014

A Million Ways To Die, But Precious Few Laughs

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST (directed by Seth MacFarlane, 2014)

Seth MacFarlane specializes in Whitman's Samplers of comedy. Keep digging, and sooner or later you'll find a joke you enjoy.

Unfortunately, in the case of "A Million Ways To Die In The West," he plays to an audience of mostly diabetics.

Hot off his smash 2012 directorial debut "Ted," "A Million Ways" sports all the makings of a passion project for MacFarlane - the sort of sprawling, big budget comedy he can make after earning so much money directly out of the gate. Why else cast himself as the leading man, in addition to directing and co-writing, after a 15 year career spent largely behind the scenes? 

Because he can, that's why. Not to knock the guy. That he took this long to step in front of the camera, after spending much of his 30s doing everything else, shows impressive restraint. And he needn't have worried anyway. As a movie star, he brings a completely nonthreatening presence. He doesn't spin gold, but he doesn't embarrass himself either. The same sort of effortless charm you'd expect this deep in a career whose success is rather remarkable considering how many comedy fans fantasize about his head on a stick.

His entire career is really an exercise in conundrums. Does he want to be an old school ENTERTAINER, telling consciously lame one-liners and crooning the standards with utmost sincerity? Does he want to swim in the shallow wading pool of shit and dick jokes? Or possibly be the savior of intellectualism in modern America, blending low and high comedy with aplomb (anyone who's caught him on "Real Time With Bill Maher" knows he ain't no slouch, brains-wise)? 

Such questions extend to "A Million Ways." It's a movie that can't decide quite what it wants to be, so it decides to be nothing. As said, MacFarlane stars as Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer in an upstart 1882 Arizona town whose girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried in a nothing role that exists purely to spark conflict) leaves him after he backs out of a duel. Soon she's in the arms of another man, local mustachioed gentleman Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, twirling his 'stache to utmost evil glee), leaving a distraught Albert to wallow in the misery that is the Old West. All until the mysterious and beautiful Anna (Charlize Theron). She's beautiful. She's an expert gunslinger. She also falls for MacFarlane, because MarFarlane made the movie. 

All this plus she's the wife of feared outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson, tearing into his underwritten role with the menace of a professional actor doing his job). Does Albert get the girl? Does he face his fears and learn to unload a firearm? 

No prizes for guessing. You know how this ends. We all know how this ends. That's not the point. Plot exists as a mere clothesline in a comedy such as this. And the problem isn't that MacFarlane (with cowriters Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) brought nothing to hang. It's that he brought too much. For its ungodly 116 minute running time, "A Million Ways" is one shockingly undisciplined major summer release. Any single ten minute chunk might contain a shot of semen stuck to a prostitute's face, a brassy song-and-dance number that brings the movie to a halt as Harris extols the virtues of mustaches, extended sweeps of frontier vistas that fill the 2.35:1 frame, a spot-on and legitimately witty reference to Stephen Foster, or a man shitting in not one but two hats. It awkwardly bounces between at least three different subplots with zero structure, all of them just sort of happening until the other one happens.

There's no rhyme or reason to "A Million Ways." It boasts all the laser focus of a visually impaired child set loose in the bumper cars for the first time. Given MacFarlane's clear antipathy for the plot, one wonders if he would have preferred to ditch everything and shoot an outright sketch comedy. What's particularly frustrating is the ingredients are here for any number of individual good movies if he just chose a path and stayed on it. 

MacFarlane shows clear intoxication with the idea of making a western, and indeed, he and cinematographer Michael Barrett shoot the everloving mess out of Monument Valley, John Ford's favorite playground. Genuinely well-framed landscape shots. Helicopter sweeps that work overtime. Granted, a great deal of the major seems to be owed to color correction in the editing room, but the pieces remain. As a director, though, MacFarlane tends to linger on these epic elements a bit too long, meaning they oddly clash with the more intimate story he's telling, almost mocking the decidedly un-epic nature of his final product.

Then the gross out gags, which he employs ready and willing. He just doesn't know how to sell them. There's the old rule in comedy best exemplified by the Sideshow Bob rake scene on "The Simpsons" (or, to be more apropos, the campfire in "Blazing Saddles"): If you pull a stupid gag, it starts off stupid, but if you're willing to keep going, the laughs come from sheer "Oh my god, they're still doing this" nerve. You build and build to a moment of perfect desperation, then (this is key) you get out. MacFarlane knows a stupid gag as well as anyone, but he's yet to master the fine art of knowing when to stop. Maybe we'll see a sheep's erect penis and that's the entire joke because, hey, sheep penis. Or on the flip side, a poisoned Neil Patrick Harris will suffer severe diarrhea in a scene that flatly goes on...and on...and then on again. 

Finally, the real tragedy: "A Million Ways To Die In The West" fails to live up to its basic premise. Portraying the Old West as an awful, desolate place full of misery is an inspired concept - not since Warren Beatty failed to open a whorehouse in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" has the western been so devoid of heroism. Too bad MacFarlane continually forgets this, and outside of a hilarious early monologue in a bar and an amusing trip to the county fair, it's a well he visits too few and far between. In fact, for oddly long stretches, he seems to forget he's even making a comedy. Comedy, and I'm pretty sure this is a legal definition, has "jokes." MacFarlane and his writers are often content to coast on their defiantly anachronistic take on the 1800s, rendering "A Million Ways" less a comedy where people do and say funny things and more a comedy of attitude, where people only act funny. 

TV sitcoms like MacFarlane's "Family Guy" and "American Dad" are a volume business. Bits of an episode, or even the entire episode, might flop, but that's OK - there will be more in the season. Feature length comedies aren't so lucky. This is their one chance. They require rigorous, brutal precision and pacing cut to the bone. If it loses its audience for too long, those negative feelings become palpable and the movie must work like hell to earn us back. "A Million Ways To Die In The West" contains moments of inspired lunacy (wait for great gags involving President Lincoln or an unfortunately named shooting gallery and mourn the kind of movie this could have been). But to watch it is to increasingly feel that we're in the hands of a filmmaker who doesn't know where he's going. We don't trust him, and we don't trust the film.

So many better ways, this movie could have gone. If only MacFarlane didn't undercut his better instincts. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Uproarious NEIGHBORS Rises Above Simple "Bros Vs. Hos"

NEIGHBORS (directed by Nicholas Stoller, 2014)

(NOTE: This review originally appeared on Daniel Johnson's blog Film Babble)

Well how 'bout that. Lend it to this silly battle of Seth Rogen versus Zac Efron to produce the unofficial State Of The American Comedy. Raucously funny, tightly paced, and oddly thoughtful without being oppressively so, "Neighbors" is one of those comedies where so much of what matters clicks, you're even willing to forgive the few parts that don't.

If it carries with it any sort of dread, it's only the countdown to the inevitable horrible sequel that doesn't understand any part of what made the original special.

An oddly omnipresent theme in recent comedies, particularly those produced or directed by Judd Apatow, is the need for adolescent males to leave their childish habits behind. The 40-year-old virgin accepted that he could no longer substitute action figures for companionship. Rogen in "Knocked Up" didn't shirk the lifetime of responsibilities from his one-night stand. Instead of moping over his break-up in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (also, like "Neighbors," directed by Nicholas Stoller), Jason Segel focuses his energy into his dream project about puppet vampires. 

It's a simple concept, getting surprising mileage because each of these respective movies seems to genuinely believe what it's preaching. And it's not without lineage. If, as everyone suggests, Apatow is the closest we have to a Harold Ramis heir, then his movies are a direct continuation of Ramis' "snobs vs. slobs" classics ("Stripes," "Animal House," etc). Not an exact echo, mind you. Just carrying the torch further down the road - Apatow's movies relish the sight of grown men getting into mischief, but they invariably arrive at the point in the third act when enough is enough and it's time to grow up.

So where does that leave "Neighbors" here in 2014? On the surface, you have a classic Ramis battle. A rowdy frat house (led by a shockingly adept Efron), whose bongs puff smoke with the same thoroughness as their stereos blast loud music, move in to the house next to a young newlywed couple (Rogen and Rose Byrne). The bros dreams of partytime antics so legendary, they can land on their frat's wall of fame. The young couple wants nothing more than blissful, suburban peace for themselves and their infant daughter. Snobs and slobs, enter the ring!

Wait a sec, though. Stoller immediately subverts expectations by casting Rogen not as the stoner party animal, but as half of the husband/wife team. That's right. Seth Rogen, once among the freakiest of the "Freaks And Geeks," now convincingly stands as a movie's bastion of adulthood. Essentially, Stoller and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien take their standard Ramis frame, plug in Apatow's favorite Boy Who Must Grow Up into the role of Boy Who Already IS Grown Up, and make that character and his wife the audience surrogate. And are the couple's demands really that extreme? They're not against partying. Hell, the movie opens with them brazenly having sex in the living room while their wide-eyed child gazes on. They're just trying to create a normal life for themselves in the process.

Ultimately this results in neither a Ramis cautionary tale of excess partying (where there are no consequences) or an Apatow cautionary tale of excess adolescence (where there are no consequences for a while, until there are), but an impressive summation of both. There is where American comedy was. "Neighbors" shows you where it leads. 

All the more impressive is that Stoller doesn't club you over the head with this either. With each passing movie he grows more skilled as a true director of comedy. Not a mere assembler of scenes, but a director. A director makes the hard choices. He knows when to let his talented performers riff, and more importantly, he knows when to judiciously bring the editing blade down. The movie contains a few fantastic examples of actors running with a concept (witness Efron and frat brother Dave Franco's bit on bros vs. hos), but it still runs a tight 96 minutes and damn well means it. Apart from any scholarly examination you or I might bring to the table, this is fundamentally a movie that sprouts from a solid concept, embodies it with distinct characterizations, then honestly follows those characters and that concept as far as they go.

A comedy that decided what it wanted to be and made choices along the way to make that happen.

And by the end, Stoller and his team prove themselves adept at the fine art of having their cake and eating it too. After two acts that take great relish in the joy of watching mischief, an uneasy feeling began a-boiling in my stomach. Stoller and his writers overall did a nice job of adding layers to their characters along the way - Efron fears graduating college and entering a world where he doesn't matter, while Rogen and Byrne worry that becoming a couple who just wants a night of peace with their kid means their youth is effectively killed. All this works nicely as background to the action. But will "Neighbors" unfortunately remember that a story requires an end, and then fall into the trap of blatantly Imparting A Lesson? 

What makes "Neighbors" so impressive is as it arrives at the finish line, it manages to simultaneously hit the gas while leaning on the brakes. The bawdy, lets-have-a-good-time nature of the movie never lets up. If anything, it only escalates. But Stoller ultimately never sides with anyone, and he takes a step back with these characters, by now so well established, and allows us to see things from everyone's point of view. 

When Rogen and Byrne finally lie in bed in the end and lovingly coo over such boring things as the smell of freshly ground coffee, it plays not as a joke. "Neighbors" means it. But when Efron gazes at the extremest of the extreme party he hath wrought as a source of genuine pride and accomplishment, it plays not as a moment of pity. "Neighbors" means that too. Stoller never actively judges nor supports any one character. Instead he has the temerity to suggest they might both be right, a concept he subtly weaves between the laughs. There's a place for partying, there's a place for adulthood, and they both matter.

One hell of a juggling act, this movie is. It's a high concept comedy that never becomes overwhelmed by the concept. It's a loving embodiment of both the Ramis and Apatow schools of comedy while simultaneously tweaking the formulas in both small and meaningful ways (lets not gloss over the fact that instead of a shrill nag, the lead female is Rogen's equal partner in crime). And it's a movie that will make you cackle to the point of missing lines.

All "Neighbors" had to do was make us laugh. How nice that it decided to do more.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 Proves Leftovers Can Taste Decent When You Pretend

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (directed by Marc Webb, 2014)

"That's good. That's like a 40-degree day. Ain't nobody got nothing to say about a 40-degree day. Fifty. Bring a smile to your face. Sixty, shit, ni**as is damn near barbecuing on that motherfucker. Go down to 20, ni**as get their bitch on. Get their blood complaining. But forty? Nobody give a fuck about 40. Nobody remember 40, and y'all ni**as is giving me way too many 40-degree days! What the fuck?" 
--Stringer Bell, "The Wire"

May's warm climates might be descending upon us, but make no mistake. Theaters showing "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" stand at a firm 40 degrees. 

Coldly calculated to neither delight nor disgust, this second installment in director Marc Webb's Spidey series hits a drive straight down the middle. You can almost feel the cynical pencil strokes of Sony executives checking off target audiences to appeal to, requisite superhero beats to hit, and brief references to other Spider-Man characters/villains as they blatantly begin to build their own world.

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" doesn't kick start the summer movie season as much as it politely knocks on the door.

And yet there's such goofy, amiable charm to this thing, a mix of sound, fury, and punchiness that can't entirely be denied, no matter how hard you try. It's like the high school jock who turns out to be a pretty nice guy. You want to hate him. He's everything you aren't. But then he smiles at you and remembers your name, and oh well, you'll let him cut in front of you in the cafeteria one more time. 

Webb and his series' biggest hurdle, one they haven't quite surmounted yet, is the simple question of "Why?" Why reboot the character when Sam Raimi's and Tobey Maguire's trilogy barely stopped twitching in the ground? OK - the obvious hard truth is money. But lets for a moment pretend we live in a world where summer tentpoles aren't entirely business transactions and move on. When Webb's first "Amazing Spider-Man" hit in 2012, it had so much going for it, you were willing to forgive what it lacked. It was sunny. It was funny in an easygoing way. And its secret weapon hidden in plain sight, the natural chemistry between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.  

Not exactly stuff to reinvent the wheel. But stuff to lay the foundation. 

Now here we are, the first sequel. Heavy lifting's done, and it's time to put up or shut up. Anticipation is high, especially when you recall the delirious dazzlements Raimi brought to his "Spider-Man 2" when his shackles were off and he could run free. The problem with Webb's movie isn't that it regresses. It's that it stalls. It doesn't want to risk whatever minor successes it already accomplished in the first one.

This doesn't make it a bad movie, per se. Just an irritatingly safe one. Individual moments do pop, such as a dizzying opening action sequence where Spider-Man chases down a van carrying stolen plutonium through the streets of New York. But nothing matching such sublime moments from Raimi's part 2 as Peter Parker skipping to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" or Spider-Man, mask removed, stopping a runaway subway car as it nearly careens off the track.

To illustrate what makes "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" so frustrating, lets return to that aforementioned opening sequence, which is so pitch-perfect, you want to give yourself to the movie from then on. Webb's confident staging of action and Peter Parker's sheer joy in being Spider-Man, offering wiseass banter as he taunts the bad guys, converge in a way that feels perfectly suited to what Webb's vision for the series seems to be - light-on-its-feet charm embodying how cool it would be to be young and have superpowers.

Indeed this sequence is the epitome of Webb's abilities, and if it's a tone in search of a purpose, what follows is a purpose in search of a movie. Seeing what Webb is capable of makes it all the more sad to see him handcuffed from then on. His screenwriters, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci cowrote, among other things, last summer's "Star Trek Into Darkness," and for all that movie's detractors, one thing you can not accuse it of is playing it safe. Ballsy and at times downright weird, it represented at least a new way to build on the goodwill established in a successful franchise reboot. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" takes no such risks, not when there's checks to cash. Orci, Kurtzman, and Webb (along with writer Jeff Pinkner) tell less of a story and more of a series of events. Electro (played by Jamie Foxx) never registers as a villain, instead representing but one more obstacle in Peter Parker's quest to the end credits. Moments don't lead to moments and dialogue doesn't lead to dialogue; instead coincidences lead to other coincidences. This happened because this needs to happen because this needs to happen because this is the studio's plan for their franchise.

It's as if everyone lost their shooting script and instead worked with a third draft outline completed with the aid of a teacher from a screenwriting seminar.

And yet here we are - for all the mechanical faults in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," it's a movie I enjoyed both in spite of what it is and because of what it is. Lets face facts. Superhero movies are an immovable force, made for gazillions of dollars because they make gazillions of dollars back. Even the most reputable reviewer is reduced to a figure shaking his fist at the rain.

If you want to see the movie, you likely will. I can't stop what's coming. All I can do is throw my hands in the air and ask if my life is ultimately worse for having seen it. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is a movie built in a lab, basically one big commercial for upcoming movies set in the Spider-Man universe. Yet the overall giddiness and enthusiasm just barely makes me not regret my time spent.

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is grammatically correct. The "Amazing" Spider-Man 2 is more appropriate. But no need to get sarcastic. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ambitious NOAH Proves The Bible Shouldn't Be Treated As Gospel

NOAH (directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2014)

Before anything, let us pause and be grateful a movie like "Noah" exists.

Equal parts sermon and spectacle, intimate drama and epic, Darren Aronofsky's latest (and what a treat to say those words at all) throws down the gauntlet as a movie that wants to be everything and partially fails if only because it winds up being a lot of things. 

Perhaps Aronofsky's perusal of The Bible would have served him better by skimming the parable of the man who spread his seed too wildly. And yet despite its shortcomings, this is such a deliriously singular movie. Capable of individual moments of inspiration, passion, and spine-crushing beauty, this is not a movie to be written off. Its greatest sin may be its ambition. But is that such a sin?

This is a standard issue disaster movie, complete with dark images of rain, brawny men, and CGI landscapes crumbling, yes, but it's a disaster movie run on nightmare fuel, told from the inside out, through one man's crazed desires to carry out what he feels he was put on this planet to do. In short, this might be the story of Genesis you dutifully studied in Sunday school and maybe enjoyed because it's a nice way to explain rainbows before you learn how reflection and refraction work. But rest assured, this is still Aronofsky's interpretation of Genesis. And he's made a few...changes. OK. A lot of changes. 

This is like a rewrite of Genesis after it gets thrown out of every publishing house in town because it won't sell.

Lets start with Noah himself, played by Russell Crowe in some of his most interesting work in years. He's still the centerpiece of our story. He still believes the world to end through a flood, as punishment from God for our wickedness. He still builds an ark to stow his family and two of every animal. This is the basic spine of "Noah." It also represents all the overlap between the movie and the source material. Aronofsky's biggest and perhaps most radical departure is to treat Noah as the world's first antihero, like the twisted lead of a cable drama who does what no one else has the balls to do. If Noah of Genesis openly welcomed anyone who wanted to join, Aronofsky's Noah firmly believes his mission from God is to bring mankind to an end, surrendering Earth to the innocent animals, with he and his family surviving on the ark only to bring this mission to a close. 

As a major alteration to the supposed word of God, this is bold. As the dramatic structure to a movie, it's at least fascinating, if only because "Noah" remains rather coy about what it truly thinks of its main character. Where does its, and by extent our, allegiance lie? Key to the movie's ultimate antihero casting of Noah is its initial build up. We meet Noah as we've always known him - the last decent man left on this planet. He loves and protects his family. He helps those less fortunate. And yet when he receives warning of Earth's impending doom - from a being pointedly referred to as "the Creator," never God - it's treated not as a booming voice from on high, but a surreal fever dream. 

We know the flood ultimately ain't no bluff and that Noah will ultimately be responsible for the continuation of our species. But here's the thing - as viewers of "Noah" the movie, we don't. Roger Ebert taught us to never bring to a movie any more than it offers, and Aronofsky enjoys toying with our expectations of who we think Noah is. By the time the flood waters inevitably strike and Noah transforms into action hero mode, we stand with him insomuch as we stand with one of The Bible's more noble characters. But that doesn't negate the nagging tidbit we already know: Noah's success in boarding and sealing the ark also means the end of mankind, as he intends for he and his family to die as the last humans ever to walk this land. It's a jarring transition in both character and tone to the final act of the movie and one I don't feel it completely earns, as Noah's wife and family learn of his ulterior motives and he transitions again from action hero to a figure not unlike Jack Torrance patrolling the Overlook Hotel with an ax, with Crowe tapping into some genuine menace. 

Still, in the pantheon of Aronofsky leads, Noah acquits himself rather comfortably. From Sara Goldfarb, struggling to fit into her red dress, to Nina Sayers, starring as the Swan Queen at all costs, we meet Aronofsky's heroes at the point in their lives when their desperation outpaces their ability and their dreams are something to be met come hell or high water.

Noah by way of Fitzcarraldo.

That's actually a rather apt way to describe this movie, which tells an epic story through a personal filter. No doubt this is an epic. It has the battle scenes to prove it. But Arronofky isn't playing in the world of Peter Jackson's vast helicopter swoops. When he busts out a wide shot, it isn't one of sweeping beauty, but one of empty, desolate hell. Conversely, he films the major action sequences in the middle of the movie largely in medium and tight shots, rarely allowing us the luxury of cinematic fun, until the movie finally disappears entirely in the ark and it feels like the world tightening in on itself. 

All appropriate to the end of "Noah," where our characters have won their victory, but it's of the hard-earned type, where they're left to wonder if it was even all worth it. If there's one undisputed positive I can say about "Noah," it's that it truly makes you experience the abject horror of this biblical story, what it's like to see firsthand the near extermination of our entire planet and be left with the worst case ever of survivor's guilt, wondering how this could indeed be an act of mercy. 

So where does that leave Aronofsky's intimate epic, his tale of two tones (and then a few tones more)? Difficult to say, and a nagging suspicion lingers that perhaps this still isn't the man's final cut, that one day we'll see a two or three disc DVD definitive edition that whittles his outpouring of imagination down to a finely toned stream. And there really are staggering moments of imagination in this movie, including a magnificent standalone sequence on the ark that could fit smoothly in an episode of "Cosmos," where Noah tells the story of Creation to his children, clearly marking each of the six days not as a 24 hour period, but as an indefinable era. And if the power of movies are their journey to places we've never been, we've truly never experienced anything like the surrealist horror that is Aronofsky's Bible.

In the end, imagination wins. Ambition wins. In fusing a parable of mercy being something you choose to grant (as opposed to simply received) with a Mad Max-style epic with a dark, stark drama of a father possibly going mad, Aronofsky doesn't quite succeed. But the mere fact he even attempted is something remarkable.

Friday, April 4, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER Offers A Little Brooding, A Lot Of Pizzazz

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, 2014)

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is I need not follow up, "It's pretty good..." with, "...if you're into that sort of thing."

With rare exceptions ("The Avengers," "The Dark Knight") comic book movies face the same basic problem: If the audience can't sing along to the hymns, they just better hope the music's good. Now "The Winter Soldier" joins that flock as a movie made for both super and casual fan, devotee and novice. Those (unlike me) who know these stories will likely eat up this movie's expansion of the Marvel universe, as forthcoming characters, plots, and general sequel hopes are laid with aplomb. And the rest of us plebeians? We're still greeted with a relentlessly entertaining flick, one that largely eschews the Jason Bourne quick-cutting trough in favor of clean action sequences, deftly blending the preordained Marvel mayhem with a parable of political paranoia not far removed from 1970s thrillers built around the public's inherent distrust in the government because C'MON.

Look, no one's gonna mistake it for a lost work of John le Carre - "Tinker Tailor Soldier S.H.I.E.L.D." The subtext ain't exactly subtle. Simply having subtext in a movie such as this, though, is a cause for mild rejoicing. We're talking about a comic book movie; as with online dating, expectations are meant to be adjusted. "Not exactly smart" doesn't automatically rule out "not exactly dumb."

Two years removed from the events of "The Avengers," this sequel finds Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, nailing the Captain's square charm) living in Washington, D.C. and still working for S.H.I.E.L.D. After a successful mission rescuing hostages on board one of their vessels, Rogers nonetheless feels troubled about a mysterious side mission conducted by fellow agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). His digging into the matter leads him down a rabbit hole of enormous helicarriers designed to preemptively eliminate threats, the shady intrigue of senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, providing a direct link between this movie and "Three Days Of The Condor"), and HYDRA, a secret organization playing to the classic theme of creating chaos to maintain peace.

If there's one strength and weakness to be said of "The Winter Soldier," it's that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, with directors Joe and Anthony Russo (helmers of some classic episodes of "Community" and "Arrested Development") almost forget they're making a Marvel movie...until they don't. If you believe in auteur theory, Marvel sides more with "auteur for hire" theory. Got your own vision? Want to bring your unique touch? Marvel welcomes you with open arms! Just don't forget, buddy - it's their world. You're just laying a few of the bricks.

Now firmly in Phase 2 of their cinematic plan, Marvel clearly doesn't intend to regress in this universe created by their hand, and you can sometimes feel the gears creaking around "The Winter Soldier" as the Russos, for all the creative freedom granted by a mega non-sitcom budget, must adhere to the Master Plan.

Still, as textbook film-as-product goes, you can't get much more textbook awesome. Not outside "The Avengers" has a Marvel movie popped with as much joy to be on over 3000 multiplex screens. You know the drill by now. Opening action scene to set the mood. Witty banter. Friends or foes who might not be who they seem. Seemingly insurmountable setbacks. Massive "chaos supreme" closing action sequence where you picture the city's poor maintenance crew tomorrow, gazing upon the carnage as their lip quivers. 

It's a chain restaurant concoction. But who among us doesn't sometimes crave Chili's? Their shrimp tacos are underrated. 

The greatest trick pulled by "The Winter Soldier" and the Russos is making it all feel seamless. If "The Dark Knight" was commonly known as a Michael Mann crime story about men in capes and make-up, "The Winter Soldier" does the same with 70s spy thrillers, and yet it plays admirably coy about it. Stephen King wrote that if your subtext is any good, you shouldn't try to make it happen; it should just be there. "The Winter Soldier" tries exactly as hard as it should. 

As directors creating two competing tones - political paranoia and ass kickery - the Russos expertly weave them through each other. You never catch the movie saying, "There's our lesson for the day, now how 'bout these pyrotechnics?" The story emerges convincingly from the action and, even more impressive, the action emerges convincingly from the story.

How ultimately fitting that Marvel saved this story of distrust in government for Captain America. Despite this movie's obvious tonal parallels to "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan operated in full "This is our world as it is" mode. No games, no gloss. "The Winter Soldier" skates close to that territory before returning to "This is our world as we'd like it to be" - Captain America might brood, but not for long. He begins as a hero who operates with complete boyish trust in the powers that be because they're the powers that be, and when he learns his initial mission on the freighter might have secret motives, his main shock is he wasn't told. 

That's what makes him and "The Winter Soldier" so oddly compelling. Batman can't be surprised and he can't be corrupted. When Captain America becomes disillusioned with the modern state of his country, though, we believe it. And through his eyes, the movie sells the theme of paranoia that might otherwise come off as trite.

When I sat through the closing credits, it wasn't merely to pretend like I understand whatever inexplicable teaser they attach. It was out of respect.

Monday, March 31, 2014

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Leaves Mints And Joy On Your Pillow

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (directed by Wes Anderson, 2014)

Driving home from "The Grand Budapest Hotel," I felt the sneaking suspicion I had just seen Wes Anderson's best film.

Not his most meaningful, mind you, or his most profound, or his most groundbreaking, or even his best. Just his "best." A singular, jubilant distillation of everything that makes him relevant as an artist - the one he's been building to after seven other features. He's long since passed the point in his career where an audience must be wooed to see his movies. You know what an Anderson movie will be. You know if you'll like it. You know if you'll find it insufferable (to those in that camp, I respect you and pity you in equal measure...maybe more like 40/60.)

For us converted, Anderson remains a triumphant from-bottom-to-top filmmaker. Many great directors have a signature style. But for how many can you turn on any random ten-second snippet from a movie and know without a doubt who made it? A Wes Anderson world is a precise, sublime creation, built brick by brick, prop by prop, into a museum housing all his treasured obsessions. 

"Obsessions" is an especially apt word to describe his work on "Budapest." From the towering title building exteriors to the individual rooms inside, everything feels gloriously overstuffed, meticulously decorated with signs and objects and people that seem to all merit their own back stories. And surrounding it all, a movie that is somehow all at once a murder mystery, a heist, a prison break, a love story, an at-times gut busting farce, and ultimately a tender mediation on a time long-gone where grace among humanity was the norm, not the exception.

Each of these ideas alone could support an entire film. Together, they threaten to topple the birthday cake. In Anderson's master hands, they're woven seamlessly, creating a giddy, bracingly paced zipline of a movie.

True, "Budapest" and its lead character Gustave (played with committed dapperness by Ralph Fiennes) never quite pierces the cartoon shell it envelopes itself in, as "The Royal Tenenbaums" created a towering eccentricity with Gene Hackman before ultimately revealing him as someone with honest human drives pounding beneath. If the surface of an Anderson movie feels unbearably twee to the untrained eye, he effectively counterbalances that with real, lingering melancholy. "Budapest" often finds itself a little too enamored with the bric-a-brac, resting most of the responsibility for poignancy on the shoulders of a bona fide supporting character played by F. Murray Abraham.

But god, as bric-a-brac goes, can you do much better? Each shot reflects such loving care, each line of dialogue bubbles with such hilarious specificity. Anderson structures "Budapest" like a Russian doll, multiples layers of storytelling buried within. We open with a teenage girl in the present day reading a memoir penned by someone known only as The Author (Jude Law), who tells of visiting the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 as it falls on hard times and meeting its owner Zero (Abraham) who then relays how he came to own the hotel in 1932 as a lowly lobby boy under the tutelage of Gustave, the concierge. Anderson shoots each of these periods in a different aspect ratio, while at the same time employing an unprecedented (for him) level of artifice in creating his world (the hotel's exterior in particular looks so blatantly like a model to the point of drawing chuckles). 

Such moves initially come as oddly show-offy. Remember the unnecessary animation in "Life Aquatic"? As "Budapest" progresses, though, there reveals method in the madness. If Anderson's movies come chock full of whimsy, it's whimsy without the cream and sugar. Whimsy designed to mask an undercurrent of sadness. "Budapest" deals with people constantly looking back, nostalgic for times that have either gone away or never existed. Sometimes we accept that the world we live in is different from the world we desire. Other times we lie to ourselves. Zero remembers Gustave as a man of impeccable tact, yet in the flashbacks, we see lurking shades of a philanderer and an opportunist. 

That is why the blatant artifice of "Budapest" (and Anderson's work in general) becomes so important. Just because we recognize the sadness around us doesn't mean we have to accept it. Isn't it more fun to create our own fantasy version of the truth, if only for a little while? 

This throughline of Anderson's filmography culminates in "Budapest," a movie that only appears to approach the brink of overindulgence. At this point in his already remarkable career, Anderson arrives in full command of his craft, wielding the tools of filmmaking itself like a wizard uses his wand. 

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is the lightest, fluffiest, goofiest movie in his catalog (hello matte drawings, how I've missed you). It's also a gem. Thanks to Anderson for proving those two things need not be mutually exclusive.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE Excels In Bloodlust Minus The Blood

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (directed by Francis Lawrence, 2013)

Early in the surprisingly involving 146 minutes of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" comes a scene that's quite telling. We're gearing up for the next round of Hunger Games, having been dumped back in this world almost immediately after the first movie ends. Our hero, the iron-slinging Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence in full "I know I'm awesome but lets be cool about it" movie star mode) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) emerged as victors from the last games but severely shook the dystopian districts of Panem, almost causing Donald Sutherland to raise his voice. In a blatant ploy to terminate them and squash any rebellion that casts Katniss and Peeta as its idols, President Snow (Sutherland) announces this year's 75th Hunger Games will pit surviving victors against each other. 

Naturally this doesn't sit well with that elite, lucky group who thought their televised combat days over. Most remain publicly polite, playing politics as best they can. Then fiery Johanna steps up to be interviewed by Panem's resident slimy talk show host (Stanley Tucci) and when asked how she feels about participating in the games again, replies to the effect of, "Fuck this and fuck you all too!" All done with requisite bleeps, because it's framed as a television show, after all.

And therein lies "Catching Fire" in a nutshell. Even in a time where vicious executions are devoured on live TV...god help you if you utter one of George Carlin's seven naughty words. For all its famed depictions of kids killing kids, for all its harsh visions of the future where architects and fashion designers appear to have collectively decided, "You know what, gray doesn't get its due," this is an oddly tame movie, all things considered - teetering right to the edge, but then leaping back to hug the wall.

But here's the thing: That's not a problem. "Catching Fire" represents the rare case of a beast wanting to swing both ways and actually succeeding. Sure, its parable of a totalitarian future that really represents our society has been done in other, better movies. Sure, its main attraction of hot people fighting in the woods plays like some ham-handed parody of "Survivor: All Stars," satire with training wheels on. Key to enjoying "Catching Fire" is to embrace the counterintuitive notion that a good movie must be original. 

"Catching Fire" is not wholly original. The series is not wholly original. What it is is exceedingly well-made, brimming with confidence and pure-pop fun and oddly high emotional involvement. Enjoy it on your own, legitimately, as an adult. You need not find a random preteen girl to accompany you as your ticket in. Actually, Filmvielle officially advises against that.

It's no secret - and a bizarre bit of irony - that the actual Hunger Games tend to be the least interesting parts of the "Hunger Games" series. In the last movie they hit with a downright thud, with the drama and moral complexity of the first half stripped away, putting the bow in Katniss' hands among a group of clearly defined villains and reducing the movie to, "Kill or be killed." As a straightforward survivor tale coupled with dystopian satire, it felt oddly clunky, and "Catching Fire" doesn't quite solve that problem.

Instead it basically just asks for a do-over. Artificially returning Katniss and Peeta to the arena is admittedly a bit of a cheat, allowing "Catching Fire" to mimic the structure of the first one as if "Home Alone 2" was a way to apologize for its predecessor. In a plot-driven novel, these similarities might seem more glaring. On screen, however, it rolls off our backs. Director Francis Lawrence (taking over for the previous installment's Gary Ross) shoots with more confidence and with a crisper sense of place, suggesting a world that feels genuinely lived in and not simply created. 

Some of this is no doubt just liberation of not being the guy who has to introduce everything. But "Catching Fire" simply feels tauter and more immediate than the last movie, which at times felt frazzled to teach us what we needed to know as fast as possible. "Catching Fire" springs forward with the sureness of a movie that knows where it's going and knows how to get there. As the first half of the movie remains invariably more interesting, writers Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy focus squarely on the relative oddness of reality TV culture and how, as a fake couple trotted around for our amusement, Katniss and Peeta are essentially winners of "The Bachelorette" as much as of a battle royale in the jungle. Through this, "Catching Fire" even lands some sneaky observations about distraction used to pacify the increasingly angry masses.

Then we have our central love triangle. Playing Katniss, Lawrence radiates a fierce vulnerability (if that's even a thing) but the fact that she excels is no surprise. In fact, this is that part of a Jennifer Lawrence review where you're required by law to say she excels. Sadly she is not surrounded by two characters her equal - I needed a full ten minutes to remember that Peeta isn't the little sister. The fault lies not in Hutcherson or Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Katniss' secret lover in her home district. They do fine with what's given. They just aren't given much.

No doubt that shippers of the movies and novels are lumped into the old standbys Team Peeta and Team Gale. Is there such a thing as Team Whatever, Honey?

And yet even this is oddly admirable. Obviously "The Hunger Games" is not the first YA series to spin a central female protagonist into a love triangle with two chiseled suitors. What sets "Catching Fire" apart from the pack, with Lawrence as its lead, is its suggestion that the "Which fella?" game doesn't amount to a hill of dystopian beans. Katniss' worth as a person and as the hero of our story doesn't reside in the man she engages in PG-13 hanky panky with. Hell, she should really pick Woody Harrelson as Haymitch if she cares about quality. Instead she shoves romantic entanglements aside for the greater good, adding shocking dramatic weight to a movie where I didn't expect to find it.

A hero of a tentpole franchise making the dynamic choice that silly flirtations aren't as relevant as the world around her? Sign me up. Even Thor couldn't shut up about Natalie Portman.

Katniss is a heroine navigating a world with no easy choices, where even doing the right thing will inevitably result in sorrow and rejection and suffering, and "Catching Fire" represents a series ready to live up to that complexity.

I was all set to snidely close this review by comparing "Catching Fire" to a gateway drug, one its target audience can experiment with on their way to better fare. But lets not get so condescending. Here is a worthy movie by any stretch of the imagination, effective pop entertainment, and if it has limits to what it can show, at least it doesn't shy away from the reality of what it's showing.