Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014's Out Of Nowhere Gem: THE BABADOOK

THE BABADOOK (directed by Jennifer Kent, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best Scene Of 2014: The Finale Of WHIPLASH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING Gives A Tortured Genius A Tortured Movie

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (directed by James Marsh, 2014)

Stephen Hawking is an exceedingly layered, fascinating figure. Given two years to live after his ALS diagnosis in 1963, he survives to this day. His bold, innovative mind took impenetrable concepts and made them palatable to the masses. Despite a deteriorating body that eventually rendered him unable to move more than a few fingers, he accomplished more than most of us ever will standing on our two feet. He guest starred on "The Simpsons."

Or, as "The Theory Of Everything" has it, he did vaguely science-y stuff and was married for a while until he wasn't.

So toothless that it couldn't chew applesauce, this is the bland epitome of why some people can't abide biopics. Genius who changed the world? Check. Physical adversity to overcome? Major check. Love-conquers-all angle to inspire hope? Eh...close enough check.

What's frustrating is how much more the movie could be, with director James Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten instead answering every "choose your own adventure" option by simply cowering in fear. Spanning roughly 30 years of Hawking's life, it plays like a greatest hits collection. We meet him (played by Eddie Redmayne) as a young student at Cambridge, romancing literature student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). Soon after, the diagnosis of ALS strikes and his eventual marriage with Jane functions as his anchor as he pursues an all-encompassing theory to explain the universe. As his physical condition worsens and takes a toll on their relationship, we follow the couple until their eventual separation in 1990. 

Inside "The Theory Of Everything" lies at least a half dozen more compelling movies, all itching to burst. Considering it focuses so prominently on the Hawking marriage, perhaps a searing domestic drama about how a seemingly unshakable love can still be pecked away by outside forces. How about more of the nitty gritty of how ALS ravages the body and how a person functions with it decades past his termination date (an astonishing fact that barely registers in the movie). Or don't forget we're dealing with Stephen Hawking here - maybe an abstract dive inside his still functioning and fertile mind and how he arrived at his scientific advances. 

Lets not rush past that last bit. "The Theory Of Everything" is ostensibly about Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking. A highly specific man with a highly specific story. As in the hands of Marsh and McCarten, though, it's nothing more than a generic bit of uplift that conveniently happens to be about a name we all know, offering no greater insight into his character or his marriage as it clears a place on the mantle for all the inevitable awards.

"The Theory Of Everything" teases a look into the fire so many times, then quickly turns from the flames and titters away.

Through this lack of committal to any one tone or angle, Marsh dulls the movie's drive, and scenes that should register as emotional high points land with an odd thud. Take the scene when Stephen and Jane decide to separate (we're dealing with plot points of public knowledge, so spoilers be damned). This is the climax of the movie. Up until now, Marsh adopts a theme not unlike "A Beautiful Mind" of love beating the odds. Now that same marriage is falling apart. How will Marsh handle this kink in his otherwise inspirational tale? Will he dive into the complexity of love and human emotion, facing how a marriage can somehow provide strength and wither simultaneously? Craft a mature, layered take on how people who seem destined for each other can also move away from each other?

Such moves would require a more cohesive grasp on story and character. Despite hints peppering the movie that the Hawking marriage was less than perfect, it's never granted deeper attention, and the moment where they separate weirdly just happens, and the movie moves on. It's as if Marsh saw this moment as less of a climax and more of an inconvenience, a real-life moment he must unfortunately face and get past so his movie can return to being a tear-jerker.

Never say the cast doesn't rise to the challenge, though, as Redmayne and Jones single-handedly make it worthy of at least a matinee ticket. Both actors take flat roles (on the page) and invest in them all the legitimacy they can summon. Early scenes of their courtship crackle with life, and Marsh shoots them with a lush passion the tedious back half of the movie can't muster. 

Consider how uniquely difficult their challenges are. As a character, Jane holds the more dynamic arc, but her conflict takes place largely in the background, weighing her loyalty to her husband with the desire to be with another man who can be there for her, and Jones tries her hardest to render this half-written drama compelling.

As for Redmayne, never say he can't do a compelling Stephen Hawking impression. That much is clear. He rises above mere mimicry, however, and utterly transforms. Not only is he required to portray a man with a physical disease, he must gradually convey physical decay, creating subtle, different nuances in Hawking's body language as the movie progresses. By the end, when Hawking loses both the ability to walk and speak, Marsh relies almost entirely on Redmayne's face to tell the story; it's an incredible amount of trust to place in an actor, to require him to embody everything the lead character can't say, and Redmayne absolutely returns the investment.

If only the rest of the movie were as sure-footed, if only it faced challenges instead of tip-toeing around them. Although the universe may or may not be turtles all the way down, one thing's for sure: "The Theory Of Everything" is Oscar bait, all the way down, through and through.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The 20 Year Wait For DUMB AND DUMBER TO Isn't As Hard As The Movie

DUMB AND DUMBER TO (directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly)

We don't fully understand why a dog yawns. Maybe it's in anticipation of something. Maybe it's nervousness. Maybe it's the same as in humans - a sign it's been too long since its last nap. Or maybe it's simply mimicking a behavior of its owner without the faintest clue why. 

"Dumb And Dumber To" is a yawning dog of a movie. For a moment it can be diverting, maybe even entertaining. But then that moment passes and ultimately it's a behavioral oddity with no reason for existing other than fatigue, boredom, or blindly copying what's been done by others.

If nothing else, and this is no small feat, "Dumb And Dumber To" kills nostalgia. We casually enjoy Buzzfeed listicles (48 Things Only A 90s Kid Will Understand, etc) for the base, instant gratification of, "Hey, there's a thing I remember that other people remember too!" And if the listicle connects us to the positive feelings those things inspire, it's because we don't have to face they reality of them head-on, only the version in our minds. Hi-C Ecto Coolers likely tasted of cat urine, but I'll never remember for sure, and when I see pictures of them online, I smile.

Consider the cat urine flung in our faces. Now, today, one full score after the release of the 1994 classic (a word I use sincerely), we have this rehash, made for anyone who thinks Buzzfeed serves a legitimate journalistic purpose. Maybe it's not the movie they dreamed of, but when your eyes are on the rear view mirror, there are gonna be crashes.

Not to go so far to say this new movie is so bad it tarnishes our memory of the first one. That can't happen. We'll always have Aspen. It's that, despite the directorial return of the Farrelly brothers and Jim Carrey/Jeff Daniels giving it their all, "Dumb And Dumber To" appears clueless to what made the original special, leaving the taste of forced mediocrity in our mouths that's death to comedy. 

Things start promisingly enough, as Harry (Daniels) visits Lloyd (Carrey) in the mental hospital he's apparently lived in the past 20 years, culminating in a funny, bold opening salvo that suggests the Farrellys showed up to play, ready to toss pesky things like logic and reason out the window.

Then the guys run into Billy, the blind kid from the original, and quietly sneak up to scare him. Then they push each other in the bushes solely to point and laugh. Then they scream, "Show us your tits!" at a woman speaking on stage.

Unfunny, yes, but more than that. There's an odd, rather uncomfortable meanness coursing through "Dumb And Dumber To" not present in the original. For all the gross-out labels slapped on the Farrelly brothers, one thing keeping their best work from tipping into unremarkable filth is their palpable fondness for their characters. The joke in "There's Something About Mary" wasn't that Ben Stiller caught his balls in the zipper - it's that he didn't deserve to get his balls in the zipper. The joke in "Dumb And Dumber" wasn't, "Aren't these guys pricks?" - it's that they're children dumped into the real world of adults, and the adults act accordingly. 

You need that innocence in the main characters just as you need that realism to erect a wall and push back. Otherwise you just have unrepentant chaos. To put it a different way, Harry and Lloyd in the original movie could accidentally poison a guy with rat poison as a prank. Harry and Lloyd in this new movie would simply poison him because the bottle said "rat poison."

Let us count the ways "Dumb And Dumber To" coulda been different (and better). Maybe follow through on the promise of the opening scene and play it as absurdist farce with no connection to continuity, canon, or the world as we know it. Maybe take the lead of the uproarious gag involving the Mutts Cutts van and offer some kind of meta commentary on unnecessary sequels itself. Maybe, in the very least, force Harry and Lloyd to live as actual people in the current day instead of feeling perpetually stuck in 1994 (for all the flack thrown at "Anchorman 2," it pushed its characters to new, different terrain). 

Carrey and Daniels struggle valiantly, and the mere sight of them in the requisite haircuts is enough to trigger pangs of happiness. Too bad they're stuck like two characters in Luis Buñuel's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," standing before a potentially delicious dinner party, but frustratingly unable to attend.

Friday, October 31, 2014

I Don't Know Where You Magic Birdmen Came From, But I Like Your BIRDMAN Drink!

BIRDMAN (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

Great movies, before they end, carry a few milestones for the audience. First comes the realization and immediate rush that you're watching one - this is really happening, and it's happening now. Next comes the inevitable anticipation of the crash. Life is but a bounty of disappointments, so why should this movie be any different? Finally, the moment when it either fails to stick the landing or, like some kind of intervention from God, sees its own potential through.

To watch "Birdman" is to witness the rare and elusive spectacle of something actually pulling it off, something setting a ridiculously ambitious bar for itself and clearing it. A virtuoso act of technical mastery and performance, of ridiculous confidence and ease, "Birdman" isn't just a movie you're happy to see. You're practically grateful. 

This is the sort of work that inspires immediate, breathless Twitter updates in the parking lot.

In a masterstroke of casting, Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, who ruled Hollywood when he played comic book hero Birdman 20 years ago (sound familiar?), now trying to revive his career by staging an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" on Broadway. After a falling stage light injures a costar the day before previews begin, Thomson replaces him with noted New York thespian Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton, known as an actor who brings it, but also drives casts and crews crazy with his temperament and methods (again, sound familiar?).

Meanwhile, his daughter and personal assistant (Emma Stone) pesters him to build a social media presence, his producer (Zach Galifianakis) hounds him about budgets, and he hears increasingly confrontational voices in his head that may or may not be the iconic superhero he once played.

As a piece of writing from director/cowriter Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel," 21 Grams") "Birdman" is wicked and incisive, offering dark belly laughs as it exploits show business conventions and its cast's public images. As a piece of filmmaking, though, oooh boy. Spanning the period of roughly a week, Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shoot "Birdman" as a series of extended scenes manipulated to resemble one fluid, unbroken take. Unlike one obvious ancestor, Hitchcock's "Rope," which sported editing tricks between shots to create the illusion of a single real-time take, "Birdman" makes no such pretense that this is really one shot. Sometimes a scene cuts when characters walk through shadows or the camera whips. Often it's invisible. I only spotted a few.

Here's the thing, though - I stopped trying to count. Iñárritu isn't dressing a shallow movie with flashy showmanship, designed to call attention to itself. Instead he hides this technique in plain sight, as if it happened from the inside out and blends right in. His camera doesn't simply observe. It doesn't simply follow. It interacts. It invites and caresses and invades. Individual scenes can last as long as five or ten minutes, but Iñárritu precisely frames each moment, even as his camera circles the actors or the actors circle it, with characters often shot in extreme, oddly canted close-up, as if they're ready to burst through the screen. One can only imagine the rigorous rehearsals as actors learned their exact blocking, everyone no doubt terrified of standing in the wrong spot or moving at the wrong time and blowing it all.

To conceive of such a thing reflects stunning ambition. To achieve it is an act of technical wizardry. To stop the audience from noticing is a gotdang miracle.

But to what end? Not for nothing does Riggan adapt Raymond Carver, of all people. Few authors are as good as Carver at diving into the lives of characters at the exact moment their plans stop working. And by the end, beyond its high wire tricks, "Birdman" reveals itself as a searingly human work about a man ready to collapse under the pressure of his failed hopes. We've all had that point, whether it's lying in bed at night or browsing a high school classmate's Facebook page, where we face the sum of who we are and worry if it adds up to much. Our blown opportunities. Our lost successes. "Birdman" takes us right to this edge, where our rapidly fading potential comes crashing down and we must decide whether or not to resign ourselves to it.

You could argue that Iñárritu's purpose behind the single faked, fluid take is to recreate the immediacy of live theater, given the movie's Broadway setting. You wouldn't be wrong. But that's not the whole story. By imbuing this world with such a sense of madcap urgency, Iñárritu holds our eyes open and forces us to reconcile this moment, right now, for these people. We're not standing outside of it. We're plunged deep in the middle. There's no safety of the camera cutting away when things get too personal or uncomfortable. And eventually, like Riggan and his dreams of career reinvention, we wonder if there's a way out.

Basically it's a convincing replica of live theater, filtered through decidedly cinematic conventions, all with a literary understanding of human suffering. Never say "Birdman" doesn't try.

There is nothing timid about this movie. No moment where it plays things safe. Featuring a towering performance from Keaton that not only rebuilds his career, but redefines it, "Birdman" isn't quite like anything you've seen this year. Isn't that what we go to the movies for?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Full Of Gore And FURY, Signifying Slightly More Than Nothing

FURY (directed by David Ayer, 2014)

Either your respect for "Fury" keeps growing after you see it or it keeps falling. Here is a movie with fairly little to say but strikingly well made in saying it, whose blatant lack of encompassing statements some might see as profundity. As Staff Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) says halfway into the film, "Ideals are peaceful. History is violent." Such is the crux of "Fury." Such is also the crutch.

Director David Ayer, working from his own script, constructs "Fury" like a shaggy dog story, in no hurry to arrive nowhere. Collier commands a tank staffed by men with colorful nicknames and less colorful personalities through Germany as the European theater of World War II draws to a close. Episodic mayhem ensues along the way. Far more time for contemplation in between. In this, we meet our only real arc and "Fury"'s real protagonist - a young private named Norman (Logan Lerman) who, despite joining the Army a mere eight weeks earlier, is assigned to Collier's tank. And yes, oh yes, innocence is absolutely lost.

It is not unheard of to make a movie that can be defended or derided with neither side necessarily "wrong." Lars Von Trier specializes in such works. What makes "Fury" such a rare exception is its supporters and critics seem to follow the same arguments. Impressed by Ayer's resistance to easy morality, as he portrays war one big grey area that simply continues until it doesn't? Boom - you're in the target audience. 

Or do you feel that, "History is violent," in trying not to be an easy cop-out, is itself a cop-out? Maybe you think that portraying morality in war as grey instead of black/white is only a different kind of absolute unless you also demonstrate how we're lead to this mindset, and maybe even its effect on the human soul? You're obviously in the other camp.

"Fury" is almost a fascinating case study. How one audience can watch one movie but arrive at two different conclusions using the same road map.

What's particularly frustrating is you can almost feel "Fury" wanting to push further, and at this point, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: "Fury" is not an out-and-out bad movie. Bad movies waste your time. "Fury" does not waste your time. It just could have filled it in a more satisfying way. Lets take what is by far the stand-out sequence in the movie. Collier and his men have successfully overtaken a small German village and pause for a night of rest and relaxation. Some of the men drink. Others find local German women to screw. Collier and Norman spot a couple of young ladies in the window of one of the town's few surviving buildings and invite themselves up. Eventually they're joined by the rest of their tank comrades, and everyone sits down for a meal of fried eggs.

By now, we've spent a solid 60 or 70 minutes of screen time with these men. We know how they feel towards each other. We know how they feel towards Norman. We know how they feel towards Germans. Now here they all sit around the dinner table, with nary a gunshot to distract them, discussing the carnage they have faced and the justification in it (or lack thereof), and we tensely sit perched in our seats, waiting to see what sparks will fly.

It's an exceedingly effective scene, perfectly placed halfway in the film, earning its obvious comparisons to the famed French plantation sequence cut from the theatrical edition of "Apocalypse Now." And yet it also highlights everything wrong with the rest of "Fury." Ayer has said that he envisioned the movie as an examination of a make-shift family unit - what drives a family together and what drives them apart - and you can sense this dinner sequence as emblematic of that thesis. When he doesn't push the idea further, though, instead settling for a brazen lack of conclusion, it serves only to frustrate. 

Still, I said earlier that "Fury" doesn't waste your time. That ain't no lie. Ayer shoots combat with a kind of glorious, expertly choreographed chaos. Defiantly sticking with 35mm film after digital tests reportedly didn't satisfy, he balances the modern philosophical messiness of his script with old-fashioned Hollywood showmanship. If the Normandy sequence of "Saving Private Ryan" seemed purposefully spontaneous, as if the crew struggled to keep up with the action, the carnage in "Fury" feels consciously staged. This is not an insult, Ayer blends this deliberate framing with gritty, rough violence that prevents us from feeling too much awe as people die.

Even this reaches frustrating ends in the last act, however, as "Fury" attempts its only real "plot" and it becomes Collier's tank against more or less the entire German army. What was once a fairly realistic, almost clinical portrayal of violence becomes bro-tastic "Fuck yeah!" antics, with us meant to cheer as our team of merry men mow down swarms of Germans in ridiculously over-the-top fashion.

I understand the inherent satisfaction in war action scenes. But do we really need timid young Norman shouting, "Motherfucking Nazis!"?   

Still, are you just a fan of war movies wondering if "Fury" is worth your time? Go for it - if nothing else, the movie is immaculately paced. The subgenre of WWII pictures isn't exactly gasping for additions, though, and in its lazy stab at hazy morality, "Fury" can't quite justify itself.

Mostly it seems meant for those who saw Pitt's own "Inglourious Basterds" and thought, "That was nice...but did it have to be so much fun?"

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

THE SKELETON TWINS Becomes Overly Indie, Whatever That Means

THE SKELETON TWINS (directed by Craig Johnson, 2014)

"Indie," like "hipster" or "dudebro," is one of those Rorschach Tests of words. Maybe it once had a clear definition, but now it means whatever you want it to mean. It's an easy, even shallow, way to categorize someone or something, and with just a modicum more effort, we could dig beneath the surface and discover the hidden complexities.

That being said, man, is "The Skeleton Twins" ever an indie movie. From sad sacks staring blankly out a moving car window to sad sacks screaming obscenities to themselves after making particularly grueling mistakes to sad sacks lying morosely in bathtubs, director and cowriter Craig Johnson never breaks the surly bonds of his Guide To Getting Picked Up At Sundance, eschewing genuine human moments for the limply dour.

Remember "The Savages," that lovely 2007 dramedy of adult sibling rivalry with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney? There's a movie that found time for honesty, thoughtfulness, and even a few moments of levity between. "The Skeleton Twins" instead never met a cliche it couldn't mistake for a breakthrough.

When we meet Milo (Bill Hader), a struggling, gay actor in Los Angeles, he's alone at home, slashing his wrists in a bathtub. Smash cut to Maggie (Kristen Wiig), his twin sister living in New York, on the verge of swallowing an overdose of pills, but something's holding her back (a lazy attempt at twin telepathy or something, I guess) when she gets the phone call about her brother. Milo comes to stay with her and her amiable doofus husband Lance (Luke Wilson), allowing for the twins to reconnect for the first time in ten years and open festering wounds.

Lets talk about Hader and Wiig. God knows they deserve it. If anyone can convince us "The Skeleton Twins" is anything more than a limp exercise, that there's a forest in them thar trees, it's these two. Casting them is almost a cheat on Johnson's part, cashing in on their public relationship as SNL cast members and filling holes in the writing with their pre-established chemistry. But hey - if it works, it works.

Where lesser actors might not see past the flat characterizations and few easy traits, these two find the infinite. They create rounded, realized individuals from the ground up, allowing Milo and Maggie to grow beyond symbols of Johnson's typewriter into distinct people we feel like we know. They singlehandedly make "The Skeleton Twins" worthwhile. 

That's not just good acting. That's heroic acting. 

One scene between them in particular arrives halfway through the picture. We know Maggie cheats on Lance and has done it again. Hating herself and the lies she inflicts on her undeserving husband, she heaps all her anger onto Milo. But her brother doesn't flinch, seeing his sister is hurting, and instead walks to the stereo, playing Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." Suddenly Milo comes alive, lip syncing to the song with all the force and passion of someone who's going to cheer up the person he loves now. Maggie resists as long as she can, but even she can't hold out, and soon they're putting on a lip sync concert in their living room.

It's an exuberant, downright life affirming moment, played with heart pounding gusto by Hader and Wiig. Even the most jaded member of the audience would have trouble feeling anything but temporary, unbridled happiness. It also illustrates everything wrong with the movie around it. For a few shining, fleeting minutes, "The Skeleton Twins" forgot it was about blank slates and instead became about these two people right here. 

Too bad it reverts almost immediately back from the color to the grey. Johnson has two potentially sublime characters here, each with their own quirks and faults and hopes and broken promises, yet he hampers them with a screenplay that relies too much on convenience and plot contrivance. Sibling enjoying an illicit relationship with someone they shouldn't? Of course the sibling leaves their cell phone out for caller ID to be visible. 

These aren't people making choices. This is a screenwriter shuffling around the pieces. The final scene, in particular, relies on a character knowing something he or she absolutely should not know, only because Johnson is trapped and needs it to happen.

"The Skeleton Twins" is a dour movie about dour subjects, no question about it. Depression, suicide, homophobia, pedophilia, infidelity, absent parents, and alcohol abuse are just a few items on the checklist. There's a difference between a depressing movie and a just plain lifeless one, though, and it's not something you fix simply by adding more jokes - no one's looking to the "Irreversible" DVD for a deleted pie fight. All you need is passion for the story you're telling. 

Johnson pulls off a few genuinely lyrical shots, and between the indie clap trap, there exists some genuinely cutting conversations about depression and how adult siblings reconcile who they were as kids versus who they grew up to be. But ultimately, "The Skeleton Twins" lies like the dead fish Wiig brings home that play an all-too-obvious symbol.

Monday, September 29, 2014


A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (directed by Scott Frank, 2014)

 In the first five minutes of "A Walk Among The Tombstones," Liam Neeson hurls a choice racial epithet, orders a shot of whiskey with his coffee, orders a second shot, adjusts his coat to reveal a gun, then as the pièce de résistance, whips out a badge. A few thugs rob the bar he's occupying, killing the owner, and, paying this victim barely a moment's notice, he follows them outside and shoots each with the blatant attempt to kill. With that, we have met our protagonist, Matthew Scudder. This is not a movie that is shy about the details.

Good thing, too, because it's in the details that this movie thrives. Much has been ballyhooed regarding Neeson's improbable late career reinvention as an action star, but that only tells half the story. No one's asking him to star in "Transformers 5: Beyond The Shadow Of The Moon's Extinction Or Whatever." Neeson isn't just the king of mature action movies. He's the king of January or September mature action movies - those wondrous two months when people don't see movies because they're good so much as because they're there.

Lowered expectations can work in one's favor, though; there's a reason people seem to like me on OkCupid. Plop down "Tombstones" in Oscar season or the height of summer, and it's dead on arrival. Key to the movie's success is that it knows what it does well, and with one minor exception to be addressed later, it knows what it doesn't do well. There's something to be said for a competent adult story, told competently, for competent adults. 

Here is a movie that moves with the leisurely pace that only comes with being sure of oneself.

Adapted from a series of novels by Lawrence Block, the plot is classic potboiler. Scudder harbors a dark, alcohol soaked past. He works as a private (albeit unlicensed) investigator; as he discreetly says, he does favors for people who show gratitude in return. A new client, who he knows better to take on, brings a story of woe and a murdered wife, plummeting Scudder into a dark, seedy underworld bigger than he anticipated. Loads of wide shots of Neeson walking in front of dirty brick walls.

As said, "Tombstones" lives in the fringes. Characters drift in and out of his life and the plot. Scudder befriends a homeless black teenager in a recurring bit that feels lifted from "What's Happening!!" instead of "The Maltese Falcon." Instead of derailing the movie, though, it's a humorous aside that writer/director Scott Frank discards and returns to at will. On the other hand, we have a scene on a rooftop between Neeson and a splendid actor named Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, playing a cemetery groundskeeper, that's so well-written and performed, it's almost chilling.

Such is the expert juggling act of "Tombstones." Rarely blatantly humorous, but not unrelentingly bleak either. It has just enough self-awareness to recognize the film noir tropes it's playing with, but at the same time, it genuinely enjoys playing with them. Thoroughly well-crafted pulp.

Perhaps it's fate (or more likely coincidence) that "Tombstones" arrives in theaters the same month as "The Equalizer" with Denzel Washington. Both movies center on sullen, detached older men who are all too skilled in killing. Both movies feature shocking outbursts of violence. But whereas "The Equalizer" postures as an adult thriller until eventually crumbling into its true, immature self, "Tombstones" is surer and more methodical in its approach. 

Frank doesn't relish in portraying violence, and in fact, he seems practically unwilling to do so, saving it for when it counts. Neeson's Scudder is instead a man who would much rather avoid hurting people - he simply wants to learn the story and doesn't much like being lied to. Frank's intent isn't that of a horny teenage boy who wants to see the blood splatter. He's far more interested in the effect, the consequences. What does it mean when someone is killed, and what happens next? When people actually do die in "Tombstones," then, it stings. 

Everything about "Tombstones," in fact, is measured and assured. Frank doesn't hurtle the movie forward like a train, but it's never boring either. He occupies the screen with fascinating moment after moment, rarely cutting too much within a scene and allowing these moments to linger. One key scene, for instance, in a basement features one character walking down the stairs with another character waiting to pounce. A lesser filmmaker would lean on edits, alternating between closeups of the one clueless person and the other hiding in the shadows, maybe earning a cheap jolt when the latter finally makes his move. Instead, Scott shoots this set-up through a single stationary shot, never forcing the confrontation, allowing us to get a feel for where everyone is and what's about to happen before the strike.

This is a movie that, by and large, knows what it's doing, which makes it all the more frustrating when it falters slightly. Although Block's novel takes place in 1992 New York, Scott updates it to 1999. Apart from the easy Y2K jokes (Remember that? Because the movie sure does!), why does Scott make this move? If it wasn't clear before, the final shot, with a sudden appearance of the Twin Towers that recalls Spielberg's "Munich," drives it home in a way that feels rather forced and unearned.

As one character comments, people are afraid of the wrong things. But in trying to connect this seedy, violent world with the post 9/11 society of today, "Tombstones" bites off a bit more than it can chew.

Still, this is an exceedingly well-constructed piece of work, granting Neeson his best role since "The Grey." We all want movies to be great. Can't we also be happy when they simply make theaters in September livable?

All Things Being EQUALIZER, I'd Rather Be In A Better Movie

THE EQUALIZER (directed by Antoine Fuqua, 2014)

There are bad movies that know they're bad movies, bad movies that believe they're good movies, and - a far more damnable variety - bad movies that fool us into thinking they're good movies. These are the pathological liars of cinema. The con men. The ones that build up our hopes only to dash them to the same smithereens that the final few reels belong.

Sadly, this is where "The Equalizer" lies. Walking in, my expectations were admittedly mild, and a funny thing happened: The movie started not half bad. Not reinventing the wheel, mind you. But smooth, stylish, and moving with a confident slow burn signaling the full, mysterious scope of its plot, with us trusting it to reveal everything at its own pace. So I did. And what started as me leaning forward in my seat reverted to upright posture, then a mild slouch. 

By the time we reached the bizarre climax which plays like, no joke, "Home Alone" in Home Depot, I was sitting as low as the same standards to which the filmmaking team appeared to hold themselves.

Such a shame. "The Equalizer" is not only dumb, it's willfully dumb, made by people who should know better. The dumb that casts Denzel Washington as some kind of exceptional genius, then demonstrates his brains largely through reading novels in public and arranging his silverware in straight lines. The kind of dumb that puts its lead in dangerous situations with zero suspense, because we become conditioned to know he'll kill everyone, no problem. The dumb that spends the first half coyly alluding to his tortured past, then basically writes it off as, "He was a spy and maybe killed some people and his wife died or whatever."

Reteaming Washington with "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua (joining The John Singleton Club of people who made one great movie and decided that was enough), "The Equalizer" offers potential even before the opening credits roll. And yes, things begin promisingly enough. We meet Robert McCall (Washington), a clearly overqualified employee of a big box hardware store in Boston. He lives alone and spends most nights sucking down hot tea in his favorite corner booth at a neighborhood diner. When a young prostitute (Chloë Grace Moretz) he befriends at the restaurant is brutally beaten by her employers, he seeks vengeance and his true self emerges, unleashing skills he likely hasn't used in some time as he finds himself deep among a Russian crime syndicate.

Lets talk about Denzel Washington for a second. Could any 60ish-year-old actor play this character as well? A good actor should be able to play good material, yes. But a good movie star should also elevate the bad. He or she should fool us into thinking that even a sucky movie designed solely to win opening weekend is still worth watching. And make no mistake - Washington is one of our most magnetic movie stars and actors (how many people with such a ridiculously symmetrical face could consistently play the "everyman"?). He imbues nothing with something

Lord stand by his side, for he must conjure his deepest, most magical talents to pull this one off. As written, McCall is meant to be a cypher. An enigma. His very lack of back story is his back story. All this works well enough in theory. A mysterious, troubled soul wanders the streets, solvin' problems. There's a distinct difference, though, between "concept" and "person," and without any deepening of the character, he can't advance beyond person we're supposed to root for to person we do root for. In this, Washington proves invaluable. The McCall character (and "The Equalizer" as a whole) is a blank stare brought to life, but Washington suggests history, legitimizes every bit of bland dialogue, and single handedly convinces us there's some serious shit on display. 

Maybe a skosh too serious, actually. I'm not big on comic relief for comic relief's sake. Sometimes the gall not to undercut darkness with laughs takes true conviction. But still, good grief. At the risk of sounding like a cliched dude scolding a strange woman on the street, why don't you show me a smile, "The Equalizer"? In being so somber, so dire, it plays like an overly dark superhero movie that confuses a lack of levity with depth. It even sports the origin story of a superpower - in Washington's case, that magical movie ability to never be killed by the bad guys.

What a ponderous, portentous slog of a movie. What a load of excessive violence that lacks both the verve to be silly fun or the intelligence to earn the gore. At my screening, the projectionist appeared to organize the cues wrong and the house lights partially came up with 15 minutes remaining. Not only did this clarify how darkly, poorly lit the movie is, it also fooled us that we reached the end. Cruel fate, how you tease us.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Heroes And A Half Star, Turtle Power!

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (directed by Jonathan Liebesman, 2014)

Anyone out there riding high on a nostalgia kick and hoping to reconnect with the joys of their youth, with any remaining desire to see "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," would be wise to remember the fable of The Scorpion And The Frog. A scorpion needing a ride across a stream meets a frog. He asks the frog for a ride, but the frog wisely retorts that he'll be stung. The scorpion assures the frog he can be trusted and wins his ride. Fate being fate, he stings the frog anyway, and with his dying breath, the frog simply asks why.

"What'd you expect, something original?," the scorpion replies. "This is the summer movie season, and there's franchises to be milked. Five dollar surcharge for those 3D glasses, by the way."

Dour, tone-deaf, and astonishingly dimwitted, this latest attempt at a Turtles reboot cynically preys on our rose-tinted fondness for that which we thought we used to love. That it's dumb should come as no surprise. We are talking about sewer dwelling mutants named for Renaissance artists who fight crime and chow on pizza. But did it have to be so, I dunno...dumb about being dumb?

At the core of the movie's troubles is an almost dizzying unsureness about itself. On the one hand, director Jonathan Liebesman and producer Michael Bay can worship at the altar of Christopher Nolan and his Batman franchise, trudging along with heavy duty mythology building. On the other hand, jokes about the turtles moonlighting as a rap group! They can reflect a rather grim worldview, confusing "grey" and "serious," with action sequences shot using the requisite gritty, handheld zooms. On the other hand, eating pizza leads to flatulence! By the time a villain says, "Activate the toxin release procedure," it's actually tough to know if they're joking.

Lets lay our cards on the table. Does anyone truly care about the Turtles? I don't mean people like me who watched it as kids, and I don't mean casual fans who might keep the animated series on in the background. I mean truly care, with the fervor of Batman followers who created vicious petitions when Ben Affleck stepped in to fill the cape of their beloved crusader. "Turtles" fatally miscalculates why we respond to different comic book lore, and while Liebesman seems to recognize the inherent silliness in this origin story, he's also unfortunately timid in offending any potential True Believers out there. This creates a tiresome level of self-aware "wink wink, nudge nudge, ain't this dumb" jokes while at the same time never fully committing to that notion.

You dance with the one that brung ya, and if "Turtles" is going to be terrible, the least it could do is stick with a reason for being terrible. Instead we have this stumbling hogwash that clumsily mixes stone faced respect with levity, resulting in a screenplay from three credited writers that doesn't know where it's going and takes forever to get there. Pay for a movie about four turtles who are teenage and mutant and ninjas (you'd be forgiven for doing so)? Too bad, chump! Strap in for a movie largely centered on plucky young reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox, who never met a human emotion she couldn't aspire to).

That's right. Although "Turtles" comes advertised as being primarily about the, you know, turtles, they're relegated to virtual sidemen in their own movie, with the focus smack on April's ascendance in the journalism world from frivolous eye candy to respected reporter. And, given that we've got a franchise to build, dagnabbit, everything about the turtles and their creation and the villainous plot to release some toxin upon New York can somehow all be connected to her.

It's convenient, hammy storytelling, and if it's punctuated with admittedly effective motion capture technology for the turtles, to what end? No one shows up with a clear idea of what movie they wanted to make or why. None of these movies will ever be masterpieces. Watching the original 1990 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie recently on cable, though, it still offered a firm grasp on its story, its world, and the four individual personalities of its leads. It knew what movie it wanted to be and who it wanted to be for.

This "Turtles" feels tailor made for hate watching, but not for people who hate the movie. This is hate watching for people who hate themselves.

NOTE: This review's headline is directly lifted from a joke made about the 2007 franchise reboot "TMNT" by my college dorm mate John Musci. Wherever you are in the world, my friend, if you're googling yourself, God bless.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

BOYHOOD Revels In The Immensity Of The Everyday

BOYHOOD (directed by Richard Linklater, 2014)

When an artist completes a masterpiece, it's not uncommon to call it the work he's been building to his entire career, but rarely is that as literal as with "Boyhood," the movie that writer/director Richard Linklater famously shot off and on between 2002 and 2013. We meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as the 6 year old product of divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). We leave him as an 18 year old freshman at college. And we marvel at something as blatant and obvious as the passage of time.

Defiantly plotless, "Boyhood" resists easy arcs or lessons, despite covering a 12 year time frame, offering less a story than a series of events. People grow in small increments (both physically and emotionally). Characters who seem important drift in and out of focus. The soundtrack appropriately evolves with the times.

Linklater has said that he wanted to portray a young man's coming of age story, but frustrated with the limitations of a single shooting period, turned to this monumental technique instead. But to what end? Despite overwhelming praise (even Pixar would weep with envy at this movie's Rotten Tomatoes score), there are factions of critics who say the movie fascinates more as an experiment than a final product. That if you remove its famed production method, "Boyhood" offers little more than well performed nothingness. 

So what of it? Is it fair to love "Boyhood" as much for how it was made as what was made? Does that extend to any work of art? It reminds me of the 2007 documentary "My Kid Could Paint That," which began as the chronicle of child prodigy artist Marla Olmstead until it became suggested that maybe her father either assisted with or outright completed her paintings. But should that even matter? If people paid a pretty penny for Marla's paintings thinking they were entirely her creations, then on some level, you'd hope they simply liked the works. It's still art. The importance of how it was created should only go so far.

All of which to say, yes, if Linklater made the same "Boyhood" in a more traditional way, recasting Mason as he aged, the result might seem more bland. But he didn't, we know he didn't, and this becomes inextricably tied to our experience of the movie. Best to accept this and marvel at the "how" and the "what," because it all fuses to create a singularly, transcendentally moving experience.

What Linklater and his troupe of actors (who also contributed to the screenplay as the years progressed) made is a sort of intimate epic, whose superficial mundanity becomes all the more powerful for its mundanity. If Linklater did indeed make a coming of age story, it's not the type where someone grows through one specific experience. It's the type where a kid ages from 6 to 18 without dying in between.

You know. Kinda like life.

Linklater as a filmmaker remains steadfastly committed to this intimacy. He rarely allows wider master shots until toward the end, when Mason ventures on his own and his life leaves our focus. Before then, Linklater opts for almost exclusively plain medium shots. Nothing that calls attention to itself. Nothing flashy. Even in the opening scene, our introduction to Mason is him lying on his back in the grass, but Linklater noticeably refuses to offer a panorama of the sky from his perspective. And as we jump from year to year, there are no clear transitions or establishing shots - we're just expected to keep up.

Linklater seems to focus exclusively on the trees with our awareness that the forest is out there. Mason's mother marries her professor, who reveals himself to be an abusive alcoholic, but they leave him and his character is never seen again. As he grows older, Mason experiments with drugs, but it's presented as neither life changing nor life ending. He also asks his father about girls, they discuss politics and pop culture, and his sister bugs him throughout. All of which happens during a 3 hour running time that flies with the ease of swapping stories with old friends.

None of this is presented as particularly "important." None of it has to be. "Boyhood" has the audacity to suggest that a life lived is an epic one simply because it happened to you. All of the larger arcs in "Boyhood" seem to happen on the fringes, suggested rather than portrayed. Arquette finishes graduate school and eventually teaches at a university herself. Hawke, initially portrayed as a well-meaning slacker, remarries and settles down with a new family, accepting his responsibilities as a father. Meanwhile, nothing much happens to Mason besides the same stuff that happened to all of us every day when we his age.

It's a popular theme (or cliche) of fiction, probably because it's one we universally face, to realize we're the star of our own story and the supporting player in everybody else's. If our actions seem of vital importance to the world, it's only because we're the ones doing them, day in and day out. The truth is we really don't matter, at least not in the grander scope. We each stand here as the result of coincidence, chance, and, lets face it, pure ungodly accident. 

But that doesn't mean we have to act like it. I'm 28 years old, you're however old you are, and we're lucky enough to have the full weight of those years behind us. "Boyhood," presenting an everyday life with the minutia of time lapse photography, brings that intensely moving fact crashing home. Your life is your life, and the mere fact that it's happening is kind of extraordinary.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

LIFE ITSELF, Much Like Its Subject, Is An Honest Inspiration

LIFE ITSELF (directed by Steve James, 2014)

Your excuse is invalid.

That's what I take from "Life Itself," the celebratory documentary chronicling Roger Ebert's rise to superstardom (by film critic standards) through his succumbing to cancer in 2013: Your excuse is invalid.

Or wait. Lets back that up a bit. I was all set to launch a full-on, bowing-on-my-knees lovefest for this man I feel like I know in all ways except in the real world. How, as the movie shows in unblinking detail, he spent all too many of his final days in hospitals, essentially living as a revolving door patient. How cancer robbed him of his lower jaw, his voice, and yet this period produced the best writing of his career. How Roger Ebert is better than all of us.

But that's not how Roger Ebert wanted to go down. That's not how "Life Itself," from "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James, lets him go down. He's not our messianic figure from the balcony. He's not the mere inspirational figure who overcame the odds. That's the easy answer. And "Life Itself" offers no easy answers. Unsatisfied with the typical laudatory cliches reserved for the dead, the movie instead keeps its eyes open and the camera rolling, offering a warts-and-all portrait of an imperfect man who recognized his own imperfections, accepting them to the point of becoming a better person for it.

Roger Ebert did indeed spend those final years creating the best work of his career, embracing modern communication with his blog and Twitter account, connecting with a new generation of fans, all with the support of loving wife Chaz. But as we see in unflinching detail that's almost too personal to watch, he's also the man who nearly let alcoholism consume him until the late 1970s. The man who once stole a cab from a pregnant woman (Gene Siskel's wife, who in all fairness relays the story with gentle humor). The man who, robbed of his vocal chords, passed a note to his wife with the simple request, "Kill me." 

Maybe that's what I ultimately take from "Life Itself." It's not that your excuse is invalid. Your excuse is perfectly valid. Spend some quality time with self-pity if you like. But through some positive force in your life, whether it be your own talents, the support of a loved one, the redemptive power of art, or otherwise, that very thing holding you back can also be what propels you forward. 

That's what I took from "Life Itself," and I found it profoundly moving. But it's also telling that here I am, seven paragraphs deep, and I've talked incessantly about what the movie did for me while barely scratching at the movie itself. Perhaps that's my own youthful weakness as an aspiring critic. Or maybe that's inevitable. Ebert, as much as any other film critic, joined the subjective and objective, removing the stigma of "I." Who he was sometimes affected how he saw a movie; if he had a personal reaction to something he saw, he told us. 

And try as I might, I'm finding it difficult to separate my own personal bias as a fervent Ebert disciple from the movie itself. That doesn't mean I'm blind to its minor defects, mostly structural. Obviously any documentary about Ebert's life must also touch on Gene Siskel's. Together they changed movie criticism, for better or worse, and to many in the public, their names remain forever intertwined. Still, "Life Itself" occasionally feels more like the "Siskel & Ebert Clip Show," as if James felt too enamored with classic footage of the two men bickering to look away. Much of it admittedly is classic (in no other context would "Benji The Hunted" inspire such a vigorous debate about, well, anything). And who wouldn't want to watch these outtakes on an endless loop? 

That doesn't change the fact that "Life Itself" runs a tight two hours, which when attempting to cover a man's entire life, needs all the focus it can get, and other topics disappointingly get the shaft. Who was Roger Ebert, the wunderkind who talked his way into a full staff writer gig for the local paper while still in high school? Who was Roger Ebert, the freshly hired Chicago Sun-Times reporter who essentially had the position of film critic forced upon him and won a Pulitzer for it less than a decade later? And what of his famous spat with Time Magazine film critic Richard Corliss, who proclaimed the work of Siskel and Ebert to be more like consumer advice than professional criticism? James reduces Corliss to a mere talking head in "Life Itself," allowing little more than a short remembrance before moving on.

It's not that I don't understand the bind James was undoubtedly in, trying to hit all those points. I just wanted more.

Maybe that makes "Life Itself" a little messy, a little imperfect as it heads to its triumphant finish line. How ultimately fitting for a movie about Roger Ebert, a man whose flaws were vast in a life that nevertheless contained multitudes. And what multitudes this movie captures! We choke up at Martin Scorsese confessing he carried in his pocket for years a clipping of Ebert's positive review of his debut film "Who's That Knocking At My Door." We wince at but ultimately embrace footage of nurses using a suction tube to clean the large hanging flap of skin where his jaw used to be. And we just laugh at the story involving Ebert, Siskel, and an airline pilot.

Like James' classic documentary "Hoop Dreams," which Ebert famously championed, "Life Itself" transcends its very subject, becoming less about a man who harnessed the power of a thumb and more about basic human will. Death looms unmistakably and unavoidably over this movie, but not shying away renders it all the more powerful. 

One hysterical flashback clip from their show features Siskel loudly wishing for more people today with blood boiling in their veins. He's getting a solid dig at Protestants (as opposed to Jews and Catholics). But at least he had the man sitting next to him. And, if only for the movie's running time, "Life Itself" made me want to be someone with blood boiling in my veins too.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Is A Triumphant Example Of Hollywood Getting It Right

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (directed by Matt Reeves, 2014)

First things first: "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" is an inappropriate title. The previous movie was called "RISE Of The Planet Of The Apes." You can technically rise before the dawn. But why would you? Nope. It makes no sense. Flip it.

Thankfully this is my only major complaint. While the first (exceptional) installment from 2011 in this newly dusted off series rose to its lack of occasion, this one soars past its already major occasion, topping its predecessor in every conceivable way. Not only is a great summer blockbuster (which is a patronizing way of saying it's good, but c'mon), but it's just a triumphant movie, full on, no exceptions. 

A superb blend of visual wizardry, economical storytelling, straightforward action, and parable, it calls into question what the hell other mainstream movies think they're doing.

Some critics seem keen to label "Dawn," with apes and humans laying claim to their own pieces of the word and no one willing to concede, as a redressing of Israel versus Palestine. And that's fine. You can certainly make that argument. I think a more general take feels appropriate - the idea of two parties convinced of their rightness even as violence escalates isn't exactly specific to one time or place. But therein lies what makes "Dawn" special. It is whatever you want it to be. Read between the lines if your heart desires; director Matt Reeves and screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver probably welcome it. Or pour a tub of artificially flavored popcorn and stay for the spectacle of apes riding on horseback while brandishing firearms.

This is a multilayered movie where you can't see the layers, all seamlessly integrated with temerity and fierce intelligence. And it's the perfect kind of intelligence, if that makes any sense. It's smart in the way that, for example, "The Dark Knight" is smart, or any great piece of pop art is smart. It's got big-tent brains, with a conceit clear enough that anyone who's willing can get in on the conversation, but not so overbearing that it ever feels like a chore.

For all the ape-on-human and ape-on-ape carnage promised in the trailers, "Dawn" is a surprisingly thoughtful movie and a patient one at that, revealing itself gradually and subtlety volleying our alliances until we accept the immutable fact that both sides in any conflict can be as right as they are wrong. As the movie opens with a swift recap of the ten years separating the previous movie and this one, mankind is rendered all but obsolete, and indeed we spend the first 15 minutes entirely with the apes, occupying a section of forest outside the San Francisco bay which feels positively Edenesque. This is our world. These are our protagonists. When humans first enter the picture, it's positively jarring - a rupture in what we've come to expect.

It's the first instance in the movie where Reeves switches viewpoints, but it won't be the last, and just as surely as "Dawn" juggles spectacle and meditation, so does it juggle our allegiances. Reeves and his writers rarely feel content to peg anyone into de facto roles of hero and villain. Everyone kind of has a point. Led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, once again topping himself in a motion captured performance), the apes don't want to exterminate mankind so much as lay rightful claim to what's their's after a lifetime of servitude. And the humans, even when they push back, react less with malice and more with the instinctual desire to protect their species' very existence. 

There are no easy answers. There are no easy solutions. And when the movie arrives at its triumphant final shot, it's with the rare ellipses not designed to shamelessly set up a sequel, but with the honest inevitability of the ongoing. Sometimes all we have, ape and human alike, are the individual choices we make now which lead us into whatever comes next.

And all this comes couched in such a visceral experience! Armed with a tactile sense for the visual, Reeves tells his story with a sort of sensitive aggressiveness, pausing to observe even as he plows on through, with a motto that shuns "Here it is" in favor of "Here you are" (wait for the killer single over-the-shoulder take of an ape as it captains a tank). This world doesn't feel created. It feels lived in. It feels dirty. It feels like the result of all that came before. And this also owes no small thanks to Serkis who, along with the visual effects team, infuses a talking ape with, how else to put it, a soul.

If there's any mild disappoint in the climax, which favors summer movies' usual "epic fight makes things crash down" pattern, that's only due to its own expectations. "Dawn" merely works because it's wickedly exciting and visually sweeping. It resonates because behind it all lies a conscience.

Monday, July 28, 2014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Has Just The Right Amount Of Everything

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (directed by James Gunn, 2014)

To paraphrase "The Simpsons," there's only one thing for "Guardians Of The Galaxy" to do at a moment like this. Strut.

Confident without being cocky, heartfelt without being cloying, and fun without being mechanical, this work from director and cowriter James Gunn effectively kicks open the door to the Marvel machine and becomes the life of the party, oozing honest-to-god swagger.

Maybe it's the best yet from Marvel Studios. Maybe it isn't. But it's their one above all whose universe I can't wait to return to. This is the kind of movie you want to hang out with.

What's damn near miraculous about "Guardians" is you feel by the end that it's exactly the kind of movie it set out to be. Think about what a gargantuan effort your average $100+ million comic book movie is. The multiple scriptwriters ensuring everything fits the studio's grander vision. The massive sets requiring attention now or the massive green screens requiring CGI later. The marketing blitz to ensure you think the movie is a required event even if you secretly don't care. 

You need not know how sausage is made to slice one open and see it ain't natural.

And yet "Guardians" seems less like the product of its parts than the result of a vision (in this case Gunn's). No visibly moving cogs. Just the kind of crisp, clean work you get when one creative center sits his team down and says, "You know what movies don't do enough? Get things right. Lets get everything right."

Crisp and clean. That's how I described "Guardians." But now also consider how friggin' dense this world is. This is not a timid movie when it comes to imagination. Gunn and his team created a world you want to play around in. Explore. Return to over and over to catch what you missed the first time. 

And yet it all feels completely organic. Consider, for example, the "Star Wars" prequels (easy movies to take random shots at, my apologies). George Lucas absolutely crammed detail into the backgrounds of those movies like he could only buy visual effects in bulk from Costco. Any one shot, you could delve into with a magnifying glass. But to what end? Just because you can throw things on screen doesn't mean you should.

"Guardians" understands this and starts with a universe that feels like it already exists, working from the inside out as it brings everything to life. Sweeping, panoramic shots of these creations don't feel gratuitous or show-offy. They feel earned. To call "Guardians" beautiful isn't quite correct. It's specifically beautiful.

That's the setting. Now lets move on to what's in it. We've seen Marvel movies and know the broad strokes (evil villain, MacGuffin setting everything in motion, unwilling heroes that eventually accept their fate, colossal climax with I guess the fate of everything at stake). That's the window dressing. That's not the point. When we talk about "Guardians," we talk about attitude. Ultimately here is a movie giddy with its own existence, a movie that not only portrays characters with charming swagger but joins in and mirrors them.

By the time the usual explosive battle for the universe or whatever arrives, Gunn waves these major stakes aside with casual, even ballsy, indifference. "Guardians" cares not for such trivial things. Here is the rare third act in a comic book movie where everything big goes more or less according to plan, and what really matters boils down to character.

So where does that leave us? Five core characters whose basic elements and interactions you can likely glean from the trailers - brash, wannabe Han Solo-type Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, becoming a movie star before your eyes), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the potentially lethal but bound by righteousness alien, the humorously literal Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper), who fancies himself a badass despite majorly overcompensating, and a tree (Vin Diesel) whose name is Groot and has no qualms about reminding you of this. Creating five unique characters is one thing. Creating five unique characters who at first seem to only be types is something else entirely.

All five of these misfits embody a specific trait designed to sell easily in a preview, but Gunn isn't content to let these traits be the endpoint. Instead it's a stepping stone, leading us to what they're hiding beneath. Gunn doesn't allow anyone to remain their own bullet point. He starts with the basics, fleshes them out, and by the time we reach a roundtable scene marking the end of Act II where they discuss an impending battle plan, it's staged with the joy of five carefully drawn individuals repeatedly stealing the scene from each other.

Ultimately I'm just so happy this movie exists. I really am. I'm happy it's so funny, bring much needed levity to a genre that forgets it's about men in costume running away from green screens. I'm happy Chris Pratt now has a movie career that can last as long as he wants. I'm happy we have a summer blockbuster with such a freewheeling sense of fun that's infectious instead of forced. 

"Guardians Of The Galaxy" throws down the gauntlet. Here's where the Marvel Cinematic Universe can go, folks. No turning back now.