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.