Thursday, August 29, 2013

SHORT TERM 12 Is a Heartbreaking, Uplifting, Must-See Indie

SHORT TERM 12 Review:

- Short Term 12 is a small story, but in its own way, its themes are almost staggeringly big in scope. This is a movie about how we as humans can end cycles of abuse and trauma. How we can help each other to overcome and move on. This is a story about finding humanity in a world that is often ugly and evil. This is also an intensely personal story. Writer/director Destin Cretton fills the film with so much lived-in detail, so much nuance, and such a feeling of authenticity that there can be no doubt that it's based on his own personal experiences. The fact that he brings those experiences to life in such a vibrant, heartfelt, and affecting manner is pretty remarkable. The end result is that Short Term 12 is an indie well worth checking out, and, surely, one of the must-see movies of 2013.

The film deals with a home for at-risk youth, depicting the lives of the teens who live there and the twenty-somethings who take care of them. One of those staff members, Grace (an amazing Brie Larson), can relate all too well to the kids she works with - she grew up in an abusive household, and still has her own lingering issues to work out. Her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), works with her in the home, and himself is a former foster child. For each, the work day is filled with both fun and laughter, but also episodes that put them through the emotional grinder. The kids they work with can be difficult, unresponsive, or - worst case scenario - a danger to themselves or others. Grace, Mason, and the rest of the staff are there to supervise, guide, and to give the kids friendship and mentorship that they may have lacked on the outside. For Grace, it's an intensely personal job - the successes hit hard, and the failures hit harder. Things get even more personal for Grace when she begins working with a new teen, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever of Justified), whose situation starkly mirrors Grace's own teenage struggles. Jayden's ongoing struggles open up old wounds for Grace - right at a time when she's looking to fully move on and start a new life with Mason.

It's been a while for me, but I spent five years working as a camp counselor, often dealing with kids with emotional and other issues. I also spent time as a teacher's aide at a Hebrew school in Boston, mostly as a one-on-one aide with kids with learning disabilities. Obviously it's not apples to apples as compared to the situations depicted in Short Term 12, but I will say that Cretton perfectly, 100% captures a certain atmosphere that you get when you put a bunch of twenty-somethings together, with kids, in an environment that's high-stress and emotionally-exhausting, but also, in its own way, fun and sort of crazy. A lot of the descriptions of Short Term 12 make it sound like a very heavy, serious film. And at times, it is. But what should also be noted is just how breezy and even funny the movie can be. Not in an over-the-top or overt manner, but in a very understated, naturalistic way. The movie brilliantly captures the kind of oddball, funny conversations that happen when a bunch of twenty-somethings are hanging out during a work-break. At the same time, it also has a sense of emotional rawness and intimacy that you rarely see at the movies. The quiet scenes of Grace and Mason together, at home, bristle with a realness and honesty that feels almost voyeuristic. Similarly, the scenes with the kids are oftentimes remarkable - a mixture of funny, heartbreaking, and startling.

I think it's telling that Cretton has a background with documentary filmmaking. His style is precise yet also surprisingly cinematic, in its own way. It's never overly showy, and that makes the emotionally-charged scenes in the film that much more striking, because they feel so real.

A great example involves the character of Marcus, played brilliantly by Keith Stanfield. Marcus is one of the oldest kids at the home. He's about to turn 18, which means he can't stay there for much longer. He's an African American teen who comes from a broken home. And the prospect of having to go back to that, after the relative comfort of his current digs, is weighing on him. Outwardly, he seems quiet and sullen. But you can tell there's a lot of inner rage, sadness, confusion, and emotion bubbling up on the inside. In one of the movie's most memorable scenes, Marcus shares a rap he's working on with Mason. As Mason plays a beat on a bongo drum, Marcus raps lyrics he's jotted down in a notebook. As tears well in his eyes, he unleashes a profane, profound storm of feelings, colored by resentment and anger. It's an incredible scene - funny, sad, mesmerizing, and moving all at once. The way Cretton captures it all - with a subtle, documentarian's eye - is what sells it. What could have been cheesy in any other film is, here, completely gutting.

Stanfield is fantastic in the film, as is Dever, as is the entire cast of kids. Each kid feels fully-formed, even the ones that don't get a ton of screentime. But Cretton has a way of giving them each a full inner life, through visual details in the rooms they live in, quick glimpses of their facial expressions, or even a sparse bit of dialogue that says volumes about who these characters are.

All that said, the breakout star of the movie has got to be Brie Larson. This is a phenomenal performance from a young actress who I was only vaguely familiar with going in. Larson is so good, so naturalistic as Grace - it's unbelievable. She crafts a character who you can't help but form a connection with. It's devastating when she falls back on old habits, and life-affirmingly satisfying when she has her breakthrough moments. Part of the resonance is that Grace is a character with a horrifyingly traumatic past that I can't even begin to relate to - but on some level, her struggle is everyone's struggle. Everyone wants to be able to reinvent themselves to become a better and stronger person than circumstances might otherwise dictate. And so Grace's small story of moving past personal trauma becomes this big - in-its-own-way-epic - story about overcoming adversity, and about learning from the mistakes of the old generation to help the new one.

Much of Short Term 12 is a collection of moments in the lives of Grace, Mason, and the kids they work with. Like I said, there is a lot of humor. John Gallagher Jr.does a great job of making Mason this sort of goofy, good-natured guy who helps keep Grace sane and functioning. And I got a kick out of Nate, the dorky newbie staffer at the home, who keeps doing and saying the wrong thing, despite good intentions.

There are some instances, however, where perhaps, Cretton strays from his own go-to aesthetic a bit, and gives in to the temptation to go for the big, sweeping uber-cinematic moment. So much of the movie feels naturalistic and authentic, that a key plot point in the third act feels like a bit much. It's dramatic, sure, but it feels more like a "movie moment" than a real-life one. Overall, the biggest strength of the movie is not in its couple of big, go-for-broke scenes, but in the quieter and more low-key ones.

To that end, I also really liked how art and creativity is such a big part of the film in general. Cretton keeps coming back to the idea of art-as-nutritious-for-the-soul. So much about each character in the movie is revealed through drawings they made, song lyrics they wrote, stories they composed, or food they baked. There's a creative spirit that runs through the movie that makes you want to go and just draw a picture or write a poem.

And that's why Short Term 12 proves to be such an uplifting movie, despite its at-times heavy subject matter. While there are setbacks and scary moments, this is ultimately a movie about the ability to turn pain into creativity and positivity, about decent people trying, and often succeeding, in making a difference in kids' lives. Anyone who's ever worked with kids, or mentored them, or who has kids, will, I think, find a lot of positivity to be gleaned from this film. Grace and Mason are the gatekeepers, the life-rafts that keep these troubled kids from going over the edge. They are, like I said, taking their own pain and channeling it into the enactment of positive change. It's not too far removed from the superhero ideal, in a weird way. Except that these aren't superheroes, just every day ones. And Short Term 12 does a wonderful job of celebrating them and telling their stories.

My Grade: A-

Monday, August 26, 2013

YOU'RE NEXT Is Smart, Shocking Horror-Comedy Fun


- I'm often hesitant to list horror among my favorite movie genres, because, to be honest, a lot of standard-issue horror movies don't do it for me. I don't like gore for gore's sake, and I don't love movies that function solely to move you, roller-coaster-ride-style, from one jump-scare to the next (unless it's done very, very cleverly - a la Paranormal Activity). But what I do love about the best horror movies is how they can push story and characters and action to the absolute extreme, and get away with it. The horror genre can give you the license to get weird, crazy, and to just be totally subversive and insane. And that subversive sense of glee - that anything-can-happen feeling - is exactly what makes YOU'RE NEXT so fun.

Let me first say a couple of things about this movie. One is - READ AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE ABOUT IT beforehand. I'm going to try to be very spoiler-free in this review. This is a movie you want to go into relatively cold. That said ... don't believe the trailers and ads for the movie! For whatever reason, the movie seems to have been marketed as a very straightforward, run-of-the-mill, home-invasion horror flick. But I would say that the movie is anything *but* run-of-the-mill. Here's what you SHOULD know going in: this movie is crazy and insane. It's very satirical and over-the-top. It most definitely falls into the "horror-comedy" genre, somewhere between the self-aware Scream movies and the over-the-top insanity of Evil Dead. Director Adam Wingard doesn't go for overt laughs, per se, but most of the movie is done with a tongue-in-cheek style and a grindhouse sensibility that will leave you alternatively laughing, wincing, and screaming "holy $#%&!"

Yep, YOU'RE NEXT has some of the craziest, most jaw-dropping, most "WTF just happened?" moments of any horror movie in years. Some of that is due to the sheer insanity of some of the movie's events. But a lot of it also stems from a smart, clever script that very cannily throws twist after twist at you. The movie this becomes is most definitely not the movie you originally thought you were getting into. But what's sort of brilliant is how the movie flips the script in a way that feels organic, yet still produces plenty of shocking moments.

Here's the basic premise of the film: a wealthy, middle-aged couple is celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary by inviting their grown children and their respective significant others to stay for the weekend at their isolated summer home. From moment one, there's tension and infighting among the various siblings. But things get *really* bad when a group of animal mask-clad killers descend upon the family's home, seemingly intent on picking off the family members one by one, for reasons that are, initially, unknown.

But rest assured, that's just the beginning.

Like I said though, the script is what really sets this one apart. The characters are all set up in a highly effective manner, and we keep learning new things about them and their relationships with each other as the movie progresses. There's a lot of dark humor in the dialogue, and there are a lot of highly-quotable lines - many of which I think will live in horror movie infamy for a long while. Give credit to writer Simon Barrett for on one hand, grounding the movie with great characters, and on the other hand, taking them to extreme places in memorable fashion.

I've also got to give credit to Wingard for some really inventive direction. The movie's low budget shows, at times, but man ... Wingard makes up for it with sheer go-for-broke craftiness. He also isn't afraid to give the movie a slow build. The movie takes its time establishing the characters, setting a mood, and building up tension for what is to come. And it shows its hands very carefully, doling out information at a deliberate pace. But when the action does ramp up, it explodes in ways that are guaranteed to leave jaws on floors. I've also got to mention the movie's incredibly badass score - Carpenter-style synth that sets the perfect retro-cool tone for the movie.

The cast of mostly unknowns (save for horror icon Barbara Crampton, who plays the family matriarch) is quite good. And the fact that they are not familiar faces adds to the movie's feeling of unpredictability. But I will say this: Sharni Vinson owns this movie. I won't say how, or why, but only that when the movie is over, you'll  likely be a member of her fan club. Vinson and other cast members were, by happenstance, sitting behind me in the theater when I saw the film, and I felt genuinely psyched for them as I watched. She and the rest of the cast kick some serious ass.

YOU'RE NEXT just keeps getting crazier as it goes, culminating in an instant-classic finale that hits like a sledgehammer. When it was over, I walked out of the theater giddily happy and ultra-hyped - I was on a total cinematic high. You'll want to watch this one with friends, or, ideally, with a big audience in a packed theater. This is a movie that elicits major crowd reactions, and that's half the fun. So many horror films go for those same kinds of reactions, but most do so with standard-issue jump scares. But YOU'RE NEXT isn't just about scaring you with loud noises or things popping out at you. It's about creating genuinely-earned moments of real shock, horror, and laugh-out-loud insanity through sheer cleverness and inventiveness and surprise. All of this adds up to one of the most fun and surprising horror movies in a long, long time.

My Grade: A-

THE WORLD'S END Is a World-Conquering Capper to Wright, Pegg, and Frost's Modern-Classic Trilogy


- Shaun of the Dead. Hot Fuzz. Two modern action/comedy classics from director Edgar Wright and lead actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Well, add one more to the list. THE WORLD'S END is right up there with the other two entries in Wright's thematically-linked "Cornetto Trilogy." In fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that it might just be the best film of the three - a perfect finale to the series that mixes laugh-out-loud comedy, sci-fi insanity, and genuine pathos. One of the best, funniest, and craziest movies of the year, The World's End is also one of the smartest and most emotionally rich. How many movies can both give you a feeling of "this is awesome" in the moment, yet also give you plenty to chew on after leaving the theater? And how many of those will also cause you to laugh your ass off? It's that potent combo that puts the movies of Edgar Wright in a class of their own.

While the first two entries in the Cornetto trilogy were overt genre-spoofs right from the get-go, THE WORLD'S END takes its time to get to the sci-fi weirdness. But all of that build-up is worth it, and the result is a movie that, honestly, could have worked even without the sci-fi (though let's face it, the sci-fi stuff makes it all the sweeter). Wright takes so much time establishing these characters though that there is a real, sincere humanity to the film. And a lot of that centers around Pegg's Gary King.

In his teenage years, Gary took his last name literally. He fancied himself king of the world - a black-clad punk who, along with his posse of young hooligans, raised both middle fingers to the world and felt poised to take it over. Flash-forward to twenty years later, and Gary is still the exact same Gary King he was in high school. Problem is, at age 40, that makes him a pretty pathetic loser - an irresponsible, self-destructive drunk - still living in the past and unable to grow up or mature. Gary tends to look back, not forward, and so he gets in in his head to revisit the most fondly-remembered - yet woefully uncompleted - adventure from his teen years - the Golden Mile pub crawl that he and his mates attempted as teens, back in their hometown of Newton Haven. The crawl was to have seen the gang get a pint each at twelve local pubs, culminating in a final drink at the pub known as The World's End. But alas, the Golden Mile was never finished, and now, decades later, Gary sees finishing the crawl as a way to recapture his lost youth.

It is also, of course, a way for Gary to reconnect with the old gang. While Gary King refused to grow up, his old pals have, perhaps, grown up too much. Martin Freeman's Oliver Chamberlain (aka "The O-Man") became a blue-tooth headset, suit-clad bore. Eddie Marsan's Peter Page became a meek introvert, still haunted by teenage traumas. Paddy Considine's Steven Prince became a douchey car salesman, divorced and dating a young trophy girlfriend while still harboring feelings for his high school crush, Oliver's sister Sam (Rosamund Pike). And then there's Nick Frost's Andy Knightley (see any theme with these character names?), who was once Gary's partner in crime and best friend. Andy, once a party animal who never met a pint he didn't like, is now stone-cold sober. Working in a corporate office, he's a different man than the teenage troublemaker that Gary once knew. What's more, Andy has deep-seated resentment for his old friend Gary after a long-past incident that caused a rift between the two. Suffice it to say, Gary hasn't talked to or seen most of the old gang in years, and so rounding them up to once again tackle the Golden Mile won't be easy.

But somehow, he convinces them. The old gang reunites for a trip to Newton Haven. All but Gary are reluctant. All but Gary realize that you truly can't go home again. All but Gary think this is a pretty terrible idea. But as drinks are had and old wounds are laid bare, Gary realizes that something is amiss in his home town.

All of Gary's fears - and all the fears of anyone who was once a cool kid but is now aging - seem to be coming to literal life. Fear that local haunts are becoming homogenized and gentrified. Fear that no one remembers your name or who you were - that you've faded into obscurity. Fear that today's youth doesn't appreciate all the cool stuff that you grew up with. Fear that your once-fun friends are being replaced by suit-and-tie-wearing pod people who've been sapped of their souls by the corporate machine.

Well, turns out, there might be more to Gary's fears than the everyday anxieties of an aging dude approaching middle age. It turns out there may be some *really* crazy $#%& going on in Newton Haven, and it just may be that Gary and his mates are about to witness the literal World's End even as they make their way to the fabled pub of the same name.

When THE WORLD'S END goes full-on sci-fi nuts in its second half ... man, it's glorious. Edgar Wright - as we know from Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - can direct madcap, insane action with stylistic aplomb. He's got a knack for crafting absolutely applause-worthy, hilarious, crazy-ass action that's pretty much unmatched. Most of his movies don't have the slick f/x or high budgets of big Hollywood summer tentpoles, and so there's a manic, hand-crafted, "what the hell, why *not* do this?" aspect to the action that only adds to the sense of fun. But it all starts with the characters. Even as Gary King learns to be there for his friends and not always duck out when there's trouble, the rest of the guys learn to loosen up a bit and find some of their old, youthful fire. Seeing Nick Frost's Andy get progressively drunker and crazier as the movie goes on - fighting like a man possessed (even utilizing many classic WWE-style wrestling moves in the process) - my god, it's a thing of beauty.

Here's the thing though ... it would have been very easy for Wright to make this a simple comedy about old friends getting hammered and happy and working out all their problems. But this is a much more complex and nuanced movie than that. Wright throws in plenty of fantastic, "hell yeah!" sorts of moments that will keep you grinning throughout. But he also never gives in to the temptation to make the film simply a celebration of beer and never growing old. In fact, Gary is the movie's most misguided and troubled character. And for much of the movie, *he* is the asshole. Sure, his friends are a bit uptight. But while they might have a little to learn from Gary, Gary has *a lot* to learn from them. In particular, Andy, whose seemingly boring life is actually a fulfilling one for him, and one that took a lot of guts to create and uphold. Wright smartly doesn't make this movie about proving that either Gary or Andy's life choices were "right." Wright shows us that there's something to be said for Gary's unwillingness to conform, just as there's also something to be said for Andy's maturity, sobriety, and dedication to his family.

At this point, let me stop for a moment to just heap praise upon Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. I think this movie cements them as one of the great comedic duos. The fact that they have so much real-life, genuine affection for one another makes their on-screen chemistry that much more natural and hilarious. And that much more heartbreaking when we see their characters at odds. The World's End rather brilliantly subverts the usual Pegg-Frost relationship, tearing it down only to build it back up again as the movie goes.

The rest of the supporting cast is also quite good. Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine, and Rosamund Pike are all excellent, and work great together and with Pegg and Frost. And there are a ton of great bit parts and cameos littered throughout the movie. My favorite? A dapper Pierce Brosnan as an old teacher of Gary and Andy's, who proves to be not quite what he seems.

The World's End is, in fact, one of the most dense movies you're likely to see. Not only is each scene packed with dialogue-driven gems and blink-and-you'll-miss-'em visual gags, but there is, like I said, a ton of thematic meat to chew on. I suspect that the movie's epilogue, for example, is going to be discussed and debated among film geeks for many years to come - what does it all mean? How do the strange circumstances that Gary and Andy find themselves in reflect back on the overarching themes of the film? There is that level of food-for-thought to be found here, but there's also another level of just pure hilarity. All I'll say is that the climactic scene of Gary and Andy confronting the movie's Big Bad is a classic - drop-dead funny and raise-your-fist-high awesome.

There is a bit of a feeling of melancholy here. The World's End feels like a definite end to this era of Edgar Wright's career. And you have to wonder: is he too grappling with the same extremes embodied by Gary and Andy in the film? Does he continue to do these scrappy, indie, anything-goes genre mash-ups? Or does he go corporate and "grow up?" I think what makes this movie so resonant is that in some way, we all ask ourselves this same question. And the movie's epilogue sort of says, in a way, that the movies and fantasy and sci-fi present this compelling third option - imagined worlds where epic adventure and thrilling battles go hand-in-hand with the act of becoming a grown-man or grown-woman. It's like Wright and co-writer Pegg end up admitting that they aren't fully satisfied that with either the Gary or Andy way of life, and so hey, here's this other way, and "wouldn't it be great if ..?".

And it's on that note that I think THE WORLD'S END just might be its own sort of masterpiece. And purely as a fan, I have to say a hearty thank you to Wright, Pegg, and Frost for fighting the good fight and making movies that are hilarious, badass, and heartfelt all the same. If this is indeed the end, it's been a hell of a ride.

My Grade: A

Friday, August 23, 2013

Hunting For Goodwill When Ben Affleck Is Batman


- The internets collectively exploded late yesterday, as news broke that Warner Bros. had cast none other than Ben Affleck as Batman in the new Batman vs. Superman movie. There was shock. There was disbelief. There was nerdrage. 

I'll say for the record: I don't like this casting. But let's look at this point by point here:

"But Ben Affleck was Daredevil, and Daredevil sucked!"

- You know what, I don't even care about this. Daredevil was pretty bad, but the casting in it was basically fine. I blame this movie's general mediocrity on the script and director and the studio. Plus, I don't even think Daredevil was *that* bad. 

"Ben Affleck is actually a great actor. Just watch him in __________!"

- Guys, Ben Affleck is a pretty good actor, in certain types of roles. But a great one? Not convinced. Here's the thing: Ben Affleck does a couple of things quite well. For one, he's good and actually underrated at comedy, in my opinion. I actually was a big Affleck fan back in the day through Kevin Smith movies alone. More so, he excels when playing variations on the "regular guy" trope. In his best dramatic movies: Good Will Hunting, The Town, Hollywoodland - he is a variation on the regular-Joe, local-kid archetype. In Hollywoodland, he plays a celebrity who is essentially a guy overwhelmed by his abnormal lifestyle and success. Even in Argo, he does well as essentially a Joe Schmo who happens to work in a pretty dangerous and crazy line of work. Think about the scene in Argo where Affleck is brought in to pitch his fake-movie idea to a room full of government officials. Affleck is the jeans-and-flannel guy in a room full of suits. Affleck is good as the jeans-and-flannel guy. Well, guess what people ...


Now, look at Affleck in his more "movie-star" esque roles, where he plays the action hero even though we've now learned it doesn't really suit him. Have any of those action-hero, blockbuster turns from Affleck been praiseworthy? No, not a one. It's frustrating, because Affleck really has been on a hot streak with the double-whammy of The Town and Argo. Both fantastic films that he directed, both featuring two of his best acting performances to date. These star turns show Affleck in low-key mode. He's still doing a variation on jeans-and-flannel guy, but he is able to reign himself in and perform in a more nuanced, subtle, and refined way than in his earlier career.

Those directorial efforts seemed to be the start of a new era in Ben Affleck's career. An era in which he stopped taking roles offered to him because of star-wattage alone, and instead took roles that suited him, that played to his specific strengths, that were perhaps less glamorous, but ultimately had much more merit. As a director, Affleck's been knocking it out of the park. The days of Ben Affleck: star of Pearl Harbor and Armageddon, seemed like a distant memory.

Until this. Until Batman. Let's be honest: in order to be a great Batman, BEN AFFLECK IS GOING TO HAVE TO TURN IN, LITERALLY, THE PERFORMANCE OF A LIFETIME.

Why do I say that? Because Ben Affleck is not, naturally, Batman. Batman is tough, gritty, grizzled, and full of pain, rage, and angst. He's a badass. He thrives on fear and pain. He is, always, the smartest man in the room. He's a genius, a scientist, a detective, and a hero. Does that sound like Ben Affleck? Does that sound remotely in the vicinity of any role that Affleck has ever (successfully) played? 

For Batman, you need someone who has that darkness and rage and slight bit of madness in their eyes. Bale had it. Michael Keaton had it. Hell, Kevin Conroy's voice has everything you need to know about Batman in its inflection alone. But Affleck? Affleck is the 'bro next door. Even at his most grizzled and gritty, in, say, The Town, he's still a 'bro, jeans-n'-flannel (or in that movie's case, track-suit). 

Let's talk about Michael Keaton for a second. His name is being tossed around a lot as justification to use a wait-and-see approach. Sorry, but no. Keaton's casting was out-of-the-box, but it was also oddly appropriate. Keaton was a comic actor who had a certain undeniable darkness in his performances, and a Batman-esque madness in his eyes. He was weird. And Tim Burton's Batman was a weird and gothic movie that needed an appropriately offbeat lead. Keaton worked. 

In some ways, Affleck is a natural to play a superhero. He's a big dude with a square jaw. He might even make sense in, say, the Marvel-verse, where so many characters are regular joes who happen to have extraordinary powers. He'd fit in well with guys like Mark Ruffallo and RDJ, cracking wise and smirking and snarking his way through a world-conquering threat. But Batman is anything BUT a regular joe. And that's why you need someone to play him who's slightly off, slightly menacing, just a little bit dangerous. Is Ben Affleck any of those things? Not really. And is he enough of a chamelion-like actor that he could believably *become* those things? Not that I'm aware of. Like I said, he will literally have to put in the performance of a lifetime - and go to places and depths (physically, mentally, emotionally) that we've never seen from him yet on-screen - to pull it off.

Some reports indicate that Warners was intent on casting Batman with an eye towards someone with a Robert Downey Jr.-esque cult of personality. But why? Iron Man was a second-tier property that needed an injection of star-power and charisma to take-off, and RDJ was the perfect fit. He basically was Tony Stark. It was a match made in heaven. In contrast, if ANY movie sells itself, it's Batman Vs. Superman. So why the need to cast a marquee "name" ...? 

On that ... let's look at this in comparison to other divisive comic book casting. When Michael Keaton was cast as Batman, there was absolutely no element of box-office draw to that decision. The draw was Jack Nicholson as The Joker. Keaton was a left-field pick, but at the least you could assume that Tim Burton saw something in him that convinced him this was the way to go for his vision. When Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker in The Dark Knight, yes, he was a draw for the female audience, and he had a following. But this was a quasi-teen idol cast as a make-up covered homicidal villain. There was certainly no element of "safe" about that choice. Again, you had to believe that Christopher Nolan saw something unique in Ledger - and as it turned out, Ledger nailed it. Chris Evans as Captain America is the other one that felt really left-field to me. But Evans was not a big enough star to make his casting a purely box-office-driven decision. Again, you had to think that Marvel screen-tested him and saw something special. And again, they were right, and Marvel's track record in casting remains pretty damn good. They've earned our trust.

But WB and DC ... who knows what's going on there. They struck gold, I think, in Henry Cavill as Superman. In fact, the whole of MAN OF STEEL was seemingly perfectly-cast. Whatever reservations you might have had about the film, you've got to cop to that. But this Affleck casting reeks of a purely corporate-driven decision. I hope I'm wrong. I hope that Chris Nolan and Zack Snyder have a Ben Affleck screen-test that's mind-blowingly awesome. I hope that this is, somehow, a role that Affleck will play by reaching deep down and showing us something we never thought we'd get from him. But the first instinct is naturally to be cynical, and look at how this house has been out-of-order for a long time now.

And why not be cynical? Already, sites like Deadline are waxing about what a brilliant business move this was for WB. Affleck's casting generates buzz, ropes in the tabloid-crowd who might not ordinarily see the film, and hey, all those dorky fanboys are just going to see the movie anyways, right? The abundance of these types of editorials make me even more cynical. As often happens, creative concerns are intermixed and confused with discussion about box-office potential. But a casting decision made primarily for box office is a cynical one, and cynical decisions often lead to underwhelming movies. Again - look at Marvel as Exhibit A of smart casting in which the name on the marquee was never more important than the CHARACTER. And they've done pretty okay, I think.

I'm a DC fanboy to the core. I'll defend MAN OF STEEL until I'm blue in the face. And I want nothing more than for Batman Vs. Superman to kick ass. But so much of what's going on right now feels utterly reactionary and short-sighted. I wonder if Zack Snyder is upset about this. I mean, Snyder seems to have an eye for good casting. Look at Man of Steel. In 300, he gave Gerard Butler a break-out role (and man, HE could have been a good Batman) and Lena Heady as well. In Sucker Punch - even if you hate it, how could you not love the casting of Emily Browning, Abby Cornish, etc? Watchmen even had some really interesting casting, a lot of it out-of-the-box - a lot of risks that, mostly, I think, paid-off (Jackie Earl Haley, anyone?). Snyder, if nothing else, knows badass. And so you've got to wonder about his reaction here. And that of Nolan, whose casting of the great Christian Bale helped wipe away horrible memories of the Val Kilmer and George Clooney years. Was Bale perfect as Batman? No, but man, he was pretty damn good. I never did like his Batman voice. But Bale pulled off the emotional and psychological beats of those films to perfection. Bale is exactly the sort of actor you want as Batman.

And that's the capper ... even if, IF, Affleck shows us psychological range that he's never-before displayed on-screen ... he'll still be Ben Affleck. And again, I like Ben Affleck. But the voice, the look, the smirk, the demeanor, the persona ... every bit of him screams "chill dude to have a beer with," and not " tortured soul / relentless genius / guy who scares the crap out of you."

We shall see.

And what kills me is that somewhere out there is some up-and-coming actor who was basically born to play Batman. 

So yeah, what only a few weeks ago seemed like a can't-miss movie event now feels like a potential disaster-in-the-making. I hope I'm wrong. But yeah, we shall see.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Screw the Critics, Kick-Ass 2 Kicks Some Ass

KICK-ASS 2 Review:

- Critics are being way too harsh on Kick-Ass 2. On one end of the spectrum, you've got the same stodgy old-folks who didn't get Kick-Ass 1, swiftly condemning its sequel. On the other end of the spectrum, you've got the geek reviewers who appreciated the first movie as a cult-ish, vulgar oddity, but are now too cool to sing the praises of its sequel. Well, I'm here to tell you to forget the critics and listen up, fanboys and fangirls and appreciators of fun: KICK-ASS 2 is actually pretty freakin' kick-ass, one of the most fun films of the summer of 2013, and a must-see for anyone jonesing for a rock n' roll action flick that pulls no punches.

I know I'm not the only one out there who thinks this way - I've seen the odd review on the web that speaks my language, acknowledging the pure entertainment value to be found in this unlikely sequel. And in talking to friends, it feels like most, if not all, of my like-minded movie-going pals have similarly high praise for the film. So where's all this hate coming from? I think it stems from a variety of things: increasing pressure to dismiss violent and/or subversive action films, weariness with the creative output - as well as with some ill-advised public comments - of Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar, and general fatigue with summer action films at this late point in the season. But, hey, whatever - for me, Kick-Ass 2 is the kind of gleefully absurd movie that you've got to love. Not an Oscar winner, not a box-office champion. But a movie that just plain hits that sweet spot of action, comedy, and character that so many movies miss entirely.

In KICK-ASS 2, everyone's favorite green-and-yellow-suited not-quite-hero - aka Kick-Ass, aka Dave Lizewski - is back, and ready to take his superhero career to the next level. He decides to join a newly-formed superhero team - Justice Forever - a ragtag group of real-world vigilantes led by the square-jawed, straight-laced (but possibly-deranged) patriot known as Colonel Stars and Stripes. Kick-Ass has been training with teen ass-kicker Hit-Girl, and looking to improve his fighting skills. But Hit-Girl soon decides to give up superheroing, in order to honor the wishes of her guardian - police detective Marcus Williams - and those of her late dad. As Dave finds a new family - and a new romance (with the scantily-clad and hilariously-named female hero Night Bitch) - Hit-Girl embarks on her most perilous mission to date: attempting to fit in with the cool girls in her new high school. Meanwhile, hero-turned-super-villain Red Mist lurks in the background, gathering an army of pissed-off, evil-inclined followers and rechristening himself as The Mother$%@#er. Yep, you heard me. In his new guise, now decked-out in pseudo-bondage gear, Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl's dorky-yet-dangerous nemesis plots revenge on Kick-Ass for offing his mafioso father in the first film.

Let's put this out there first: Chloe Moretz stole the show in the first movie, and she does so again here. Her performance as Hit-Girl is sort of phenomenal, in its own way. Sure, now that she's in her teens, the character loses some of its initial shock-value. But Moretz makes up for it with another totally fearless, completely fantastic turn. In some ways, I almost like teen Hit-Girl better, because it gives the character a certain punk-rock, teen-angst edge that she didn't have before. And Moretz is able to go from foul-mouthed avenger to sweetly-naive high school outcast in a way that few, if any, other young actresses could hope to replicate. Bottom line: Moretz positively kicks ass as Hit-Girl, and it's the kind of actor/character match-made-in-heaven performance that I don't think I could ever tire of. If there's any justice in the world, we'd be able to check in with Hit-Girl every couple of years and see her transition to badass college student, ass-kicking young professional, deadly super-mom, and eventually, retiree with an axe to grind.

As for the rest of the cast, they are universally a lot of fun. Aaron Johnson manages to play Dave as still-a-dork, but also a more experienced hero who is coming into his own as Kick-Ass and in general. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is just a hilarious ball of evil nerd-rage as The Mother$%&#er. He consistently cracked me up during the movie. Some have criticized his character's vulgarity and political incorrectness - but, come on, that's why the character is so great. It's a hopeless loser's vision of what a villainous badass is supposed to be like, and the discrepancy between the image he wants to give off, versus how he actually does come off, is pretty damn funny, if you ask me. I'll also mention Jim Carrey, who really nails Colonel Stars & Stripes. Carrey plays him as that sorta-cool uncle who you suspect might also have some mental issues lurking behind his upbeat exterior. The Colonel positions himself as a squeeky-clean do-gooder, but clearly, there's an element of sadistic thrill behind why he does what he does. It's a shame that Carrey disassociated himself from the movie's PR campaign. He should be proud of the character work he does in this one.

Where Kick-Ass 2 suffers a bit in comparison to the first film is in the directorial department. Director Jeff Wadlow (who also adapted the screenplay from Mark Millar's comic book) pulls out a couple of neat tricks over the course of the movie, but he doesn't give you quite the same level of awesome that Matthew Vaughn brought to Part 1. Unfortunately, a couple of the movie's big action scenes feel a tiny bit low-rent - like Hit-Girl's moving-car battle that feels slightly disjointed. But to Wadlow's credit, what he lacks in wow-factor, he makes up for with sheer competency. At the least, the action in Kick-Ass 2 is refreshingly straightforward, with a couple of stylistic flourishes thrown in on occasion. But mostly, there's a nice simplicity to the movie that, I think, suits it.

Plus, the surprisingly un-flashy direction is bolstered by a pretty excellent script. Having read all of Mark Millar's Kick-Ass comics, I actually really like what Wadlow did here. Millar is a writer whose work I'm always interested in, because he's a writer who rarely goes to the same story well twice, and is always trying outside-the-box ideas. But Millar's biggest flaw may be that his writing sometimes feels more like the work of a carnival barker or a showman than of a guy who just wants to tell the best possible story. Meaning: Millar will sometimes go for shock value at the expense of his story. And said shock value often leaves to jarring and uncomfortable tonal inconsistency. Case in point: Millar's version of Kick-Ass 2 has some scenes that I found to be far too dark and disturbing for what is, mostly, a more satirical and over-the-top book. But in the film version, Wadlow softens a lot of Millar's rough edges. He gives Hit-Girl more heart, and crafts a surprisingly touching relationship between her and Kick-Ass than what we've yet seen in the comics. And he wisely tones down just a bit of the shock value to create a more tonally consistent movie. Wadlow's Kick-Ass still has tons of great gags, gross-outs, cartoon-violence, and over-the-top characters. It's still packed with grin-inducing "holy-$#@%" moments. But whereas Millar's version feels stuck in a sort of adolescent darkness-for-darkness' sake, this version embraces the light: balancing some legitimately dark moments with scenes of overt humor and levity, knowing playfulness, and yes, heart. Reading the comics, it was more with a mindset of "what crazy thing is going to happen next?" I still got that same subversive rush with this film, but I also genuinely cared about the characters in a way that, to me, elevates the movie above and beyond the source material.

KICK-ASS 2 is one of the most straight-up entertaining films of the year so far - full of memorable characters and over-the-top humor. I think a lot of the criticism comes from a place that's inconsistent with what these movies are trying to do. Upset that the movie purports to be about real-world superheroes, but is actually super over-the-top and comic-booky? Umm, I think that's sort of the point. Embrace the candy-colored craziness of it all. One of the oh-so-refined, hipster-geek critics who on one hand calls the movie tame, but on the other picks apart certain scenes for any sign of offensiveness? Dude, imagine if that methodology had been applied to the great over-the-top cult films from back in the day, from Evil Dead to They Live, from Dead Alive to Battle Royale? We need more, not less, movies that dare to be a little rock n' roll, and hell, maybe even a little bit offensive. Nothing wrong with that. The fact that Kick-Ass 2 manages to be vulgar and perverse and semi-insane, while still having heart, and still managing to be uber-likable and infectiously fun? Man, that to me is pretty remarkable and praiseworthy. Dare I say it? I do: sure, this may not be a masterpiece or a new classic, per se, but Kick-Ass 2 does, indeed, kick some ass.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

IN A WORLD Where Lake Bell is a New Must-Watch Woman of Comedy ...

IN A WORLD Review:

- Amazing ... I remember being introduced to Lake Bell back when she was the star of NBC's ill-fated LOST competitor, Surface. After that show's quick cancellation, she sort of fell off my radar, but re-surfaced (no pun intended) as part of a talented ensemble of comic actors on Adult Swim's hilarious Children's Hospital. Children's Hospital was and is one of the absolute funniest shows on TV, and is a showcase for some of the funniest female performances on TV. Going in, I never would have expected that the likes of Bell, Malin Ackermann, and Erin Hayes would make me laugh as much as perennial favorites like Rob Cordry, Rob Huebal, and Ken Marino, but they do. The women of Children's Hospital are each absolutely hilarious on the show. And now, clearly, Lake Bell has learned well from her comedic colleagues. She wrote and directed IN A WORLD, filled it with funny actors, and herself puts in a winning leading performance. So yeah, back in the Surface days, never would I have imagined that I'd one day become a devotee of Lake Bell: writer/director/funny-woman. But here I am, convinced that Bell is one of the must-watch women of comedy here in 2013, and I'm psyched to see what she does next. And IN A WORLD is one of the year's must-see indie comedies. If you like funny things, I'd urge you to go watch it immediately.

IN A WORLD follows Bell as Carol, a woman who specializes in voice-overs, and who pays the bills as a voice-coach to Hollywood actors (her current gig: teaching Eva Longoria to master a cockney British accent). Carol's father Sam (a hilarious Fred Melamed) is a legendary movie-trailer voiceover guy - and Carol at once respects him and wants to follow in his footsteps, but also resents his inflated ego, and stubborn insistence that no woman could ever inherit the mantle of go-to movie voiceover person. The rift between them is made worse when it becomes known that a new, Hunger Games-style movie franchise is looking to bring back the classic "In a World ..." tagline for its first trailer. The studio is searching for someone new to give voice to the iconic copy, and Carol decides to throw her hat in the ring. But she ends up competing against her father's hand-picked protege, Gustav (Ken Marino), and against Sam himself - his ego gets the better of him, and he decides that he should be the one to bring back "In a World ...".

On one hand, the movie's quirky spoofing of the world of movie-trailer voice-overs is pretty hilarious, and makes for some great Best In Show-style moments of humor. On the other hand, the voice-over world is really just a backdrop for Bell to explore Carol's life - her relationship with her father, her dating life, and her struggle as a woman to break the glass ceiling of a male-dominated industry.

If all of that seems a little heady, don't worry. IN A WORLD is chock full of over-the-top humor that falls somewhere between Children's Hospital's anything goes absurdism and the darker, more low-key indie comedy of the Duplass Brothers and their ilk. What's interesting about the movie is that it isn't afraid to be absurdist and broad, but at the same time, it's got some more serious things to say about family and relationships. Plus, there's plenty of Hollywood satire and pop-culture parody thrown in for good measure. This gives the movie an at-times messy and tonally all-over-the-place feel. It can be jarring at times - especially when the film focuses on the strained relationship between Carol's sister (Michaela Watkins) and her husband ( Rob Cordry). Those scenes are interesting, but they take on a much darker, serious tone than most other aspects of the film. But Bell somehow makes it work. Bell the actress seems to glide pretty effortlessly between the film's more comedic and more dramatic moments. Ultimately, she and the movie prove so endearing that it's hard to fault it for its everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach.

What makes it all somehow gel into a cohesive movie is that Bell populates In a World with the kind of great comedic actors who, like her, can do a little bit of everything. I talked about Bell herself, but Rob Cordry and Michaela Watkins really do help make the movie work with their mix of comedic and dramatic chops. Demitri Martin - as a shy co-worker of Carol's who harbors a crush on her - is another standout in the film - he's a guy who can nail both a broad, goofy gag and a sincere, emotional scene. He gives the funny scenes sincerity and the serious scenes levity. And of course, Ken Marino kills it as usual as Gustav. Bell herself is excellent in the lead role. She's funny and likable, but in a way that stems organically from the character. What I mean is, this isn't just Bell mugging her way through the movie. The script is there to support her and help her craft a character that is both funny and real-feeling. That said, since she started on Children's Hospital, Bell has become a super-adept comedic performer. Her comic timing, her reactions, her ability to sell a joke are now seriously top-notch. The woman is good. Very good.

I'll also mention Fred Melamed. He's one of those guys who is always memorable (he might be the funniest part of the Coen Bros.' masterful A Serious Man). And he kills it here as Bell's father. He's naggy, obnoxious, boastful, and totally shameless. And Melamed's performance is pretty fearless. To see this middle-aged, portly, distinguished-looking guy say and do some of the things he says and does in this film - it's pretty shocking at times, but also, often, downright hilarious. Bell also rounds out her cast with a veritable who's who of funny people. Nick Offerman pops up in a small role as another co-worker of Carol's. Tig Notaro is a scene-stealer as another office mate. Even the great Geena Davis appears, as a movie studio exec who delivers a killer speech to Bell.

The film can be a bit rough around the edges, and it could have probably used some polishing. There are at times lulls between the jokes that really hit. But when the jokes and gags do work, they're really effective. And as for the tonal issues - while the shifts can be jarring, the net effect is the rare broad comedy that's also got some real heart and humanity to it. As the film builds, the disparate elements come together surprisingly well, culminating in a fantastic grand finale.

Overall, I seriously dug IN A WORLD. It felt like both the emergence of a fresh new voice, and like a continuation of the kind of weird, smart comedy that I love and actively seek out. If you like stuff like The State, Wet Hot American Summer, and Children's Hospital, you'll probably like this. At the same time, IN A WORLD is a different beast from those other things, as it brings a sincerity and heart to the table to compliment the crazy humor. The movie even makes you think a little about gender politics - in a smart, thoughtful way - even as it's making you laugh. Not bad - it's a pretty winning combo. Lake Bell: more, please.

My Grade: A-

Monday, August 19, 2013

ELYSIUM Is Good, But Not In District 9's League


- Neill Blomkamp's first feature film was the monumental District 9 - and, man, that's a tough first act to follow. District 9 was like a sci-fi thunderbolt a few years back - a movie that seemed to come out of nowhere, leapfrogging over the more-hyped, bigger-budgeted summer movie competition and becoming not just *the* movie of that summer, but an Oscar-nominated instant classic. Hate if you will, but District 9 mixed social satire science fiction with adrenaline-pumping, balls-to-the-wall action like few other genre films ever have. Suffice it to say, as soon as the film was over, I was primed and ready for whatever it was that Blomkamp had up his sleeve for his next trick.

Now, after a seemingly interminable wait, we finally have the director's sophomore effort, ELYSIUM. And yes, going in, expectations were high. Blomkamp's debut was so stellar and meteoric that you had to question what he could possibly do to top it. And you had to wonder if this movie would cement him as the next great blockbuster director, or if it would relegate him to one-hit-wonder status.

The semi-frustrating fact is that, post-Elysium, it's still hard to say. Elysium has moments that call to mind the visual electricity and high-concept shock-and-awe of District 9. But it also is not in the same league, overall, as that film. I remain confident that Blomkamp has it in him to make many more great films. But I also think that, to do so, he'll have to learn from the mistakes of what has to be considered a bit of a sophomore slump.

It's funny, because District 9 managed to amaze by starting small and then pulling back the lens to reveal a much larger scope and scale than was originally anticipated. Elysium, on the other hand, starts big, but becomes increasingly insular as it goes. But I will say: the opening scenes of the film paint a breathtaking picture of a future-world dystopia. In a well-done bit of world-building, we're introduced to an earth that is now an ugly, rubble-filled wasteland in which money, resources, and hope are scarce. All of the planet's well-off citizens have fled to Elysium, a utopian space station that hovers above earth's orbit. Those stuck on earth work in poor conditions in giant factories, manufacturing goods and tech used by the Elysians, but hoarded and kept away from earth. The factory that our main character, Max, works in produces robots that are used as police on earth, and as servants and guards on Elysium. Meanwhile, the most precious piece of tech on Elysium are the medical bays that, almost magically, can heal nearly all wounds and sickness. Frequently, bands of desperate, ailing earth denizens try to smuggle themselves to Elysium in order to make a mad border dash for the healing bays. Most find themselves greeted with deadly force by an unsympathetic government.

And so, Elysium positions itself as one hell of a 1% vs. 99% sci-fi parable. I was on the edge of my seat for the movie's opening scenes, totally caught up in this world - both the striking dystopian/utopian visuals, and the possibilities for social commentary that such a world allowed for. I'll talk more about the visuals for a second, and just say that Blomkamp is clearly one of the best there is at sci-fi world-building from a visual standpoint. The budget upgrade from District 9 allows him to give us the big, wide shots that show top-down views of these two contrasting places: the ruined buildings, slums, and poverty of earth, and the sleek, green, ultra-modern eden that is Elysium. Blomkamp has a way of casually shooting sci-fi: i.e. giving these worlds a lived-in quality, showing us the far-out as mundane, that is unique. Like the way that police robots patrol earth and deal with citizen misconduct. There's a thrilling, Star Wars-esque quality to the way that Blomkamp shoots stuff like this.

But where Blomkamp falters in ELYSIUM is, shockingly, the big action scenes. Pick any still frame of the big set pieces, and they'll probably look awesome. But somehow, for his second film, Blomkampf has largely abandoned the cleaner, more old-school action style of District 9, in favor of a whole lot of shaky cam and Michael Bay-style rapid-fire cuts. It's funny, because District 9 felt like such an antithesis to movies like Transformers when it came out. But here, Blomkamp undermines his own action scenes by cutting them all to hell. It's a shame, because if nothing else, the guy has a sense for putting stuff into his movies that's just inherently cool. In District 9, we got the mech. In Elysium, it's the laser-shield that Sharlto Copley's character wields. And it's the aforementioned police robots going robo-crazy and kicking ass. There are action sequences in Elysium that are pretty damn badass on a conceptual level. But for some reason, a lot of them are shot close-in and rapid-fire - taking away some of the awe and wonder and fun.

The action scenes aren't the only thing that feel more bland and generic as opposed to District 9. Even more importantly, the characters of the film just don't pop, for the most part, like they should. Chiefly, Matt Damon's Max is pretty vanilla. Max is a worker on earth who was once a low-level criminal, but who is now trying to go straight by making an honest living in a robot factory. However, when Max's pushy boss forces him to make a potentially dangerous repair to fix a system malfunction, Max gets trapped in a hazardous area and is doused with deadly radiation. Max finds out that he's now only got five days to live. Desperate and angry, he tracks down his old criminal buddies, and convinces them to help him get to Elysium. His hope is to get to a healing chamber and cure his condition. The gang agrees to help, if Max agrees to help them rob a top-level Elysium fat cat. They outfit Max with a souped-up exoskeleton armor suit, and away they go.

Here's the thing: Max's arc is supposed to be that he's initially just trying to live and survive, but, eventually, he takes on a deeper sense of purpose and becomes a sort of messianic figure. Okay, good in theory - but it's touched on in only the most fleeting ways in the film. What should have been an epic character arc ends up feeling limp and by-the-numbers. For most of the film, Max just feels like Matt Damon playing an everyman, and there's never any real doubt as to where this is all heading. Everything about Max feels half-baked and not-that-interesting. The flashbacks to his childhood raised by nuns? Just sort of there. His relationship with Frey, a childhood friend and potential love interest? No real spark. I really had no feeling one way or the other as to whether or not they should end up together. Max in this movie is, frankly, just sort of a boring dude. The script doesn't particularly serve the character well or make him all that interesting, and Damon also doesn't really provide enough gravitas or emotion to make him all that epic or awesome (for some reason, I kept thinking of a 70's version of this film starring Charlton Heston, and how badass that might have been).

Overall, there is a sense of Elysium being a movie that isn't fully sketched in. Max as a character feels loosely-drawn and sort of vague. And the same is true for the whole movie. That feeling starts with the characters. Jodie Foster's Delacourt - Elysium's unfeeling Secretary of Defense - is okay as a sinister corporate villain type, but we never *really* get into the psychology of why she is the way she is. Elysium as a whole, for that matter. How did it evolve to be the way it is? How did this segregation start? Why is tech like the healing chambers kept from those on earth? And how did Elysium's uncaring, totalitarian-esque government come to be? I'm not saying I need all the details. But I want to feel like all of those details have been fully thought through. I wanted to feel like this world fully makes sense, even if we aren't explicitly told all the details.

And that's where the holes in ELYSIUM begin to show. Because on some level, this feels like a movie with a great premise, but like a movie in which the premise ultimately gives way to Blomkamp's desire for cool action scenes and videogame-esque pyrotechnics. I think about Sharlto Copley's role as Kruger, a wild-man hired gun who does Delacourt's bidding on earth. Copley is incredibly fun here. He goes for broke, and turns in a totally off-the-rails, unhinged performance. It's a great, memorably villainous turn. The problem is that Kruger is cool and badass in and of himself, but it really makes no sense that he gets so much screentime given the story that the movie sets out to tell. It's like if Bobba Fett ended up becoming the big bad of Star Wars just by virtue of his coolness. Someone needed to remind Blomkamp that like Star Wars, Elysium is a story about rebels vs. the evil empire. And as such, the movie should build to a confrontation with said empire. But Blomkamp seems to fall in love with Kruger and his kewl laser-shield, at the expense of his own story. It also feels like there was a missed opportunity with William Fichtner's awesomely sinister corporate overlord character, John Carlyle. Carlyle feels like the natural villain of the film, and Fichtner is great in the part, as always. But Carlyle is taken off the board pretty early, even though he's the one who seems to represent all that is wrong with Elysium and who, other than Delacourt, is most interested in protecting its exclusive way of life. By the time the movie reaches its climax, it's more about a bunch of guys fighting *just because*, and not much more. That's the inherent problem with Elysium as it goes on - for a movie that is purportedly *about* stuff, many scenes feel sort of devoid of thematic resonance or relevance.

To the movie's credit and to its detriment, it seriously seems to emulate the structure of a videogame. The plot progression feels less about organic character arcs and well-timed twists, and more about Max simply progressing from one "level" to the next. What this means is that there's an inevitability to the plot and how it unfolds that zaps the movie of a lot of tension. The ending feels like a foregone conclusion long before it happens. Rather than toy with our expectations, the movie pretty much just follows them from Point A to Point B. This means that the film - though action-packed - feels oddly slow at times.

And yet, there are still those moments where we are reminded that Blomkamp knows how to crank things up a notch and just bring the awesome. His knack for character and creature design is pretty amazing. The robots in this movie look phenomenal. The vehicles and landscapes as well. And what I like about Blomkamp is that he never seems to tone things down for the mass audience. In Elysium, the scene where Damon gets the exoskeleton grafted to him is just absolutely, awesomely brutal. Later on, a scene in which a mutilated Kruger attempts to use a healing bay to stay alive - it's just classic, old-school gore (the f/x used even look practical - right out of an old John Carpenter flick). Speaking of which, the movie uses a lot of practical sets and f/x, and it really shows. It helps add to that feeling of lived-in grittiness.

Other than Fichtner's Carlyle, my favorite character in the film was Wagner Moura's Spider - the leader of the band of criminals/rebels who give support to Max. Moura cranks things up to eleven, and is just totally over-the-top in the role. But it's a kind of over-the-top that fits, because unlike Damon, Moura conveys the rage and frustration of the earth people, and that rage gives the movie a spark that Max alone does not. On the flip side of things, Diego Luna is pretty meh as Julio, Spider's associate and Max's best friend. Same goes for Alice Braga as Frey. A weak character that Braga is unable to elevate.

ELYSIUM maintains some of District 9's edginess. The R-rating allows for a level of grittiness that you don't always associate with big-budget genre fare. At the same time, there is that sort of sense that mo' money created mo' problems for Blomkamp and team. District 9 was so scrappy and rock n' roll ... some of that is still evident in Elysium, but there's also a sense that there was pressure on Blomkamp to go back to the same well he'd had success with once, even if he'd already said what he needed to say about segregation and discrimination with his first film. Maybe he needs to work with some other writers. Maybe he just needs to tackle a wholly different genre or theme. But whatever the case may be, you can't help but feel like Elysium is the warmed-over leftovers to District 9's main course. It's sleeker and filled with bigger stars, but the heart and soul and wow-factor just isn't there. Look, Blomkamp can do kick-ass sci-fi in his sleep, and I am still firmly onboard the Blomkamp bandwagon. But Elysium is a bump in the road on the path to legendary status. Let's see what the guy can do with his next film.

My Grade: B

2 GUNS Not Fully Loaded

2 GUNS Review:

- Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg are two of the reigning kings of tough-guy movie banter. Put them together, and by god, you'll get a movie filled with sharp back-and-forth exchanges the likes of which only exist in Hollywood action movies. And that's fine. In this post-Bourne age of stark, gritty, minimalist action flicks, it can be refreshing to see a good old-fashioned shoot-'em-up in the Lethal Weapon mode. 2 Guns succeeds on that base level - it's got two legitimate stars acting star-like and basically carrying the movie by sheer force of will and charisma. But aside from the likability of its leads and a couple of other fun turns from fan-favorite actors, 2 Guns has little else going for it. It's a case study in how fun casting alone does not a good movie make.

The plot is one of those action movie staples - the identity double-switch. On the surface, Bobby Trench (Washington) and Michael Stigman (Wahlberg) are a criminal duo with a knack for high-stakes bank robberies and drug-running. They have an uneasy friendship made complicated by the fact that each of them harbors a secret that the other doesn't know about. As it turns out, Trench is actually an undercover DEA agent who thinks he's using Stigman to help take down a major drug operation from the inside. At the same time, Stigman is actually an undercover Naval Intelligence agent who thinks he's using Trench to find a cache of stolen money. What? TWO undercover agents working together - each thinking that the other is legitimately a crook?! Imagine the shenanigans.

Because, hey, all of this is perfectly good fodder for a classic 80's action comedy. I referenced Lethal Weapon previously, and that's really the perfect template for how to do a movie like this right. But 2 Guns has a sort of nu-metal sheen where it wants to be bro-tastically funny, but not goofy-funny in the way that the best cheesy 80's action comedies unabashedly were. I lay a lot of blame on director Baltasar Kormákur. His first film, Contraband (also starring Wahlberg) had a very generic, humorless feel. And that same feeling is prevalent in 2 Guns. Washington and Wahlberg do a lot of heavy lifting to give the movie personality, but they can only do so much. As the movie ambles on, and their characters still mostly feel like empty shells who each have one distinguishing personality trait (Washington's Trench is world-weary and irritable, Wahlberg's Stigman is peppy and child-like), the fuel that powers the movie starts to really run dry.

It doesn't help that so many of the other great actors in the film feel mostly wasted. The gorgeous and talented Paula Patton has leading lady written all over her, but she's pure window dressing here - the latest in a long line of semi-creepily young actresses who are in a Denzel Washington movie just to be his arm candy and/or a walking plot twist. Meanwhile, the great Edward James Olmos pops up as a grizzled drug lord. Olmos has some moments of true badassery in the movie, and is a highlight overall - but it's a relatively minor role. I also thought it was surprising that James Marsden's role as a corrupt naval captain was so underwritten. I kept waiting to better understand the character's motivations, but that explanation never came. Really, the one villain who really gets to shine is Bill Paxton as a ruthless and sadistic heavy. Paxton gets some meaty scenes of over-the-top evil, that add some much-needed colorfulness to the film. But even Paxton's character, like so many others in the movie, seems to exist just for the purpose of a couple of cool scenes - never feeling much like a fully-formed character. The problems often feel compounded when the movie introduces any of its many plot-twists. As characters reveal themselves to be something other than what we originally thought, their motivations, methods, and M.O.'s become even more muddled.

It's frustrating, because as the movie's plot reveals itself, it seems like it might want to say something about the corrupting influence of power and money, or ... something. But the movie literally says nothing, at the end of the day, about any of its characters. Did Trench or Stigman *like* being criminals? Part of the plot arc of the movie is about how any number of figures working for supposedly benevolent institutions turn out to be as if not more corrupt than the criminals they're at odds with. But beyond using this fact as a means for plot twists, the film really does nothing else with it. I guess the film is going for a sort of anarchic, "let 'em burn" sort of attitude. But even that - there's nothing really to it. I know, this is an action movie. But it's an action movie that seems to honestly care little about its own plot. Or its characters, really, beyond, "hey, check it, Denzel and Marky Mark are gettin' all bromantic - ain't that hilarious?"

There's enough fun to be had with Denzel, Wahlberg, Olmos, and Paxton to make this a decently entertaining flick. It's a fun excuse to see Olmos and Paxton as scenery-chewing villains. And for the guys, well, the movie pretty blatantly exploits Patton's assets in such a way as to ensure this movie is Google-searched for all of infinity. Beyond that though, it's pretty meh. It's high time for Denzel Washington to be in a truly great film again (and no, I don't count Flight). No more of these "Denzel and random other actor as adversarial badasses" action movies. Okay, maybe one more, if it's awesome. But seriously, where's the guy who did Malcolm X? As for 2 Guns, there are better movies out there to see.

My Grade: C

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

BLUE JASMINE Is Woody Allen at The Top of His Game


- I've enjoyed Woody Allen's spate of recent films, but man, Blue Jasmine reminds us why Allen isn't just some eccentric uncle who makes amusingly nostalgic romps, but a still-vital filmmaker with real bite. Personally, I think Blue Jasmine is Allen's best film in years. It's very funny at times, but also has some real profundity, some real darkness, and some real, well ... "realness." Look, Woody Allen is a creative voice who's always had and always will have his eccentricities. But Blue Jasmine is his first film in ages that feels like it takes place not just in Woody's world, but in the here and now. It's saying something about the moment we live in - giving it a vitality that I think eluded even Woody's more well-received recent movies, like Midnight In Paris. At the same time, the movie is absolutely stacked with fantastic performances, including a leading-actress turn from Cate Blanchett that's likely the best of the year so far. This one caught me off-guard - it's not just one of the best Woody Allen films of the last decade, or two - but one heck of a movie in general.

BLUE JASMINE centers around Blanchett's Jasmine, a woman who, for a long time, lived a very calculated life of upper-crust privilege. I say calculated because Jasmine very deliberately went about molding herself into this high society woman - marrying a wealthy investor Hal (Alec Baldwin), firmly entrenching herself among the New York elites, and crafting an image of herself - from her clothes, to her way of speaking, to her name (Jasmine isn't the name she was born with) - that exudes upper class 1 percent-ism. The catch is that maintaining her perch atop high society meant being willfully ignorant of what was going on right in front of her eyes. Hal pampered and spoiled Jasmine, but he was also up to plenty of no-good. He was raking in money via a Ponzi-like scheme, scamming people into investments that didn't add up. Meanwhile, he was sleeping with seemingly every woman in sight, from his fitness instructor to Jasmine's friends. And Jasmine, terrified of losing it all, turns a blind eye. That is, until things reach a breaking point. Ultimately, Hal is exposed as a fraud and a cheat, goes to jail, and Jasmine loses everything. All of a sudden, her modern-day Blanche Dubois is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Well, not strangers, exactly. While Jasmine was climbing the ladder of class and wealth in New York, her sister (not by blood - both were adopted), Ginger (Sally Hawkins), was busy living a humble blue-collar life. At first, she was married to the slovenly Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). But after his investment in Hal's Ponzi scheme went south, Augie parted ways with Ginger. Now, she's with Chili (Bobby Canavale), a slightly volatile grease-monkey cut from a similar cloth. The two live in San Francisco, where Ginger lives in a humble apartment with her two sons. And that's where Jasmine, penniless and aimless (though still sporting designer clothes and luggage) ends up - with nowhere else to go, and no one else to turn to except the sister who she long neglected.

When I called the film biting, I did so because it's both a takedown of upper-class privilege, but also a cautionary tale about settling for less when one probably deserves better. Basically, Allen sort of brilliantly looks at both upper and lower class lifestyles, and bravely points out that, in reality, neither is quite so great or admirable if built on a foundation of malaise and self-denial. Jasmine is, for a while, totally lost once she has to fend for herself and carve her own path. Ginger, meanwhile, staunchly defends her less glamorous, more carefree lifestyle - even as she falls in with men who are, in many ways, losers. Jasmine's taste in men isn't much better. She stayed with Hal for years despite his moral bankruptcy, and later, she latches on to Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a snobbish upper-cruster who sees Jasmine less as a fully-formed woman, and more as a would-be-wife who will help further his political aspirations.

None of this is black-and-white or cut-and-dried. As Jasmine and Ginger circle each other and analyze each other's lives, both have moments where they seem to speak truth, and both have moments where they seem hopelessly and even comically misguided. Even Jasmine's somewhat-valid criticisms of her sister are often undermined by Jasmine's instability - she's suffering a prolonged nervous breakdown, and has frequent moments of pill-popping hyper-anxiety. She talks to herself, carrying out extended conversations with no one in particular. She makes plans that don't quite make sense. And she is a habitual liar, unable to admit to others or to herself the truth about her life or who she was and is.

All of this is brought to life in a stunning performance from Cate Blanchett, who is just a whirlwind of raw emotion, just-barely-holding-it-together anxiety, and desperate determination to somehow course-correct and make things right. Blanchett's performance is amazing in that it veers effortlessly between comedy and tragedy. She picks her spots of when to let Jasmine's over-the-top obliviousness get played for laughs, and when to mine her mental anguish for genuine pathos. This is a big, over-the-top performance, but it's also riddled with nuance - little moments that make this just an incredibly fully-formed character, wholly inhabited by Blanchett. It's one of the singular performances in an already iconic career.

Sally Hawkins is also quite good, bringing city-girl spunk to Ginger and making her incredibly likable, if not tragically naive. But man, BLUE JASMINE is just filled with terrific supporting turns. One of the standouts has got to be Andrew Dice Clay as Auggie. I haven't seen Clay in many acting roles previously, but the guy pours his heart into this one. The notorious comedian seems to channel his real-life frustrations and world-weariness right into Augie, creating an incredibly authentic-feeling character. The trick that Clay pulls is that when we first meet Augie, he's a funny but off-putting schlub - a gruff, thickly-accented New Yawker who seems like bad news. But somehow, rough-and-tumble Clay becomes, in a strange way, the movie's moral conscious. He's the one guy in the movie who is content to just work hard and do what he can to make something of himself, without any shortcuts. It's telling that Augie and Ginger's ill-fated investment with Hal came about because they won some money in the lottery. One of the biggest morals of Blue Jasmine is to not trust that which comes without having been truly earned.

Louis CK also pops up in a really interesting supporting role, as a seemingly well-meaning nice-guy who tries to court Ginger. CK plays the part to perfection, and there are some great moments between him and Sally Hawkins. There's also a great role in the movie for one of my favorite actors, Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays a dentist who offers Jasmine a job as his receptionist. I won't spoil how their professional relationship plays out, but I will say that Stuhlbarg again shows his knack for awkward humor with this part. Meanwhile, Stuhlbarg's Boardwalk Empire cast-mate Bobby Cannavale (who was awesome on the show this past season), is also quite good here as another unstable alpha-male type. He's oddly still sporting his 1920's-style haircut from Boardwalk in the film, but I guess it sort of fits Chili's role as a sort of throwback man's-man type who likes beer, boxing, and hitting the town with his group of comically thuggish friends. Alec Baldwin is also excellent as Hal - he does sort of a less-comic version of 30 Rock's uber-confident Jack Donaghy - he plays Hal as a guy who seems to have it all figured out, but with hints that the cracks in his master plan are starting to show. My one question mark was honestly with Peter Sarsgaard. It might just be me, but I found his character to be almost cartoonishly snooty and annoying, even though the movie treats him pretty seriously, and Sarsgaard never really seems to act in a way that's at all comic or self-aware. He just felt to me less like a character I should be taking seriously, and more like a guy who should have been the villain in an 80's John Hughes teen movie, were he a few decades younger. I think there's a weird discrepancy here, where Sarsgaard has a John Malkovich-like over-the-topness about him - which makes him great for playing super-villains and whatnot, but less suited for more straightforward characters.

Sarsgaard's character is, luckily, one of the few traces in Blue Jasmine of the sort of weird Woody-isms that tend to pop up in Allen's latter-day films. Perhaps it's a symptom of getting older, but Allen's more recent films take place in modern times, but have a lot of weird anachronisms. It's like Allen flirts with trying to make things current, but then just says "to hell with it." And so we get Sarsgaard's straight-from-the-80's character, or a key plot point about how Jasmine needs to enroll in a computer class, just so she can enroll in an online course. Even though these are minor points in the grand scheme of things, I find it frustrating when everything else feels so timely and relevant, and clicks so well, and then these weird quirks come along and take you out of the movie a bit.

Semi-intrusive Woody-isms aside, BLUE JASMINE really is sort of a remarkable film in the Allen cannon. It's his 48th (!) film, but markedly different from anything he's done before - weaving expertly between comedy and drama, functioning as both smartly-observed social satire and heartrending character study. Woody tells this story with style and texture. He smartly uses flashbacks to show us key chapters from Jasmine's old life with Hal, and uses said flashbacks to emphasize her fractured state of mind in the present. Cate Blanchett, for her part, knocks it out of the park. And the movie is filled with applause-worthy performances, both from expected, always-reliable actors (Stuhlbarg, Louis CK, Baldwin), and unexpected surprises (Dice Clay). There's a fire here, an underbelly of emotion and intensity, that's totally gripping. At the same time, there are funny moments that show us the absurdity of these characters and the lives they've crafted for themselves. Sometimes, a new Woody Allen film comes out, and it serves as a nice reminder that the guy's still kicking, but not much more. This time, it's much more than that. This is a reminder that Woody was, and still, sometimes, is, one of the best filmmakers working today.

My Grade: A-

Monday, August 5, 2013

THE CONJURING Is a Frightfully Effective Horror Film


- Rare is the scary movie that's also got great characters. And rare, especially these days, is the horror movie that takes the time to do a nice, slow build so that when the real crazy stuff goes down, we're seeing a satisfying payoff to all that has come before. THE CONJURING is that rare breed of horror flick, and, perhaps surprisingly, it comes to us from Saw director James Wan. Wan doesn't fully abandon a lot of the conventions of modern horror for his latest film, but he does take great care to make this an entirely different breed of horror film as compared to Saw and its ilk. The Conjuring is set in the early 70's, and there's a definite 70's horror vibe to the movie, from the muted-color palate to the more methodical pacing of the first two acts ... the film aims to channel the classics, from Rosemary's Baby to The Exorcist (and some Poltergeist thrown in for good measure). I wouldn't exactly call The Conjuring a new classic, but it is one of the first horror movies in a while that got me genuinely invested in the characters, and made me think that, hey, I wouldn't mind seeing their further adventures.

THE CONJURING has an added layer of mystique in that it's "based on a true story," and it's protagonists - Ed and Lorraine Warren - are based on the real-life Warrens, a well-known husband-and-wife duo of paranormal investigators. Ed passed away a few years ago, but Lorraine is still alive and not at all averse to talking about she and her husband's supernatural encounters. In fact, their home in Connecticut houses a museum in which various haunted / mystical artifacts are kept as keepsakes. Better to be kept under the Warrens' watchful eyes than out in the wild, was the thinking. The Conjuring heavily features the Warren's house and said collection, and overall, it really builds up the Warrens as eccentric but likable challengers of the unknown. On some level, the part of me that's a skeptic wonders if it's right to turn the Warrens - who may be genuine, or who may be self-promoting scam artists - into horror movie heroes( I don't lean one way or the other, but read up on their famous Amityville Horror case for some interesting perspectives). But as played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, you can't help but root for and take a liking to the fictional versions of the husband-and-wife ghost hunters. Wilson gives Ed Warren a blue-collar pragmatism that makes his steadfast belief in the paranormal a bit easier to swallow. Farmiga is also pretty fantastic as Lorraine - a clairvoyant who is haunted by her psychic visions, but also eager to use her gifts to help others. Farmiga has really become a favorite actress of mine of late, largely thanks to her turn as Norma Bates on the TV show Bates Motel. She's got a natural gift for playing slightly left-of-center, for making the weird feel normal. Wilson and Farmiga also have a natural, believable chemistry. And there's something refreshing about seeing a husband-and-wife team of heroes who really are partners in every sense of the word. Bonded by a shared belief that they were put together by fate for a higher purpose, the movie's Warrens are slightly kooky, sure, but they also are full of humanity. Wilson and Farmiga make them at once relatable yet iconic.

The movie very smartly divides its time about evenly between the Warrens and the family who they've devoted themselves to helping - the Perrons. The Perrons have recently moved to a semi-remote New England farmhouse, and very quickly, found themselves in the presence of some particularly unpleasant paranormal activity. At first, it was the youngest of the Perron's five daughters who began to suspect that something wicked might be afoot. But soon enough, the Perron patriarch Roger (Ron Livingston) and his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) are similarly spooked. Eventually, they attend a talk given by the Warrens and desperately seek out their help and advisement. The Warrens, sensing that this may be a legitimate case of a haunting (as it turns out, most of their cases turn out to have simple, logical explanations), agree to investigate.

Livingston and Taylor make the Perrons into compelling characters in their own right. Lili Taylor in particular is pretty fantastic in the film. Her growing sense of dread - and her maternal instincts to protect her daughters from whatever is haunting their home - is conveyed expertly by Taylor. Livingston brings his usual easygoing likability to Roger. He and Patrick Wilson's blue-collar bromance can get a bit goofy sometimes, but overall, Livingston does a nice job of helping to ground the movie's more out-there aspects. The kid actors are all also really good, with each of the girls playing the various Perron daughters doing a nice job, and really selling some of the scares effectively.

Wan, for his part, does a nice job of establishing the world of the Warrens. The movie actually starts with an intro showing them on another case. It's an opportunity for Wan to introduce a creepy-as-hell evil doll, but it's also a great way to show us what life is like for The Warrens. We see them out in the field, we see them giving university lectures to packed halls of paranormal enthusiasts, and we see them at home - where they have a young daughter of their own, often under the care of her grandmother while her parents are out on their adventures. Again, the fact that Want takes the time to create these fully-realized characters - who seem to exist beyond just the scope of the movie's main plotline - feels like good franchise building, but also like something beyond what we usually see in many horror films, where paper-thin characters are often a given. In the context of the movie, we also see how The Warrens have an alternative to their current life of placing themselves in danger. They've got a daughter at home, and cushy university lecturing gigs as a way to make an income. That feeling of risk, vs. the need to help others, helps create some of the film's central character-based conflict. There's also the fear that the Warren's investigations could come back to haunt them (literally and figuratively) in their home, and even place their daughter in danger.

Honestly, in some ways I found the movie's characters more compelling than its scares. I loved all the build-up in the film - the character stuff, the atmospherics, the sense of eeriness and creeping dread. The actual scares themselves are effective, but I personally still found that the movie relied too heavily on jump-scares. Look, horror movies are always going to look to shock and disturb us, but why does *every* single modern horror movie need to employ the "look, I made you jump!" style of scariness? In a movie like this one, where the slower, creepier parts are so effective, it seems especially jarring when everything just reverts to the sort of "lots of loud noises and things popping out of you" aesthetic, popularized of late by the Paranormal Activity movies. Don't get me wrong, as far as jump-scares go, the movie's got some good ones - and there's some really creepy imagery that accompanies many of them. I just feel like it can be a major cheat to produce scares with loud music cues or things popping out of the shadows all-of-a-sudden, especially when it's done in a way that disrupts the overall flow of the film. Tonal inconsistency, in general, is something that pops up occasionally in The Conjuring. For the most part, these are smart, well-written characters. But sometimes, the movie can't seem to resist having them follow "horror movie logic" instead of normal logic. And that means some moments of head-smacking "why would they do that ...?" in the midst of what is, for the most part, a really smartly-written and nuanced script.

To that end, I'll mention that another area where the script is really interesting and well-done is in the way it handles the Warrens' relationship with the Church. I (and many others, I suspect) have always been fascinated with the way in which the Catholic Church sanctions and oversees exorcisms, and just with the way the religion has as a part of its doctrine this whole supernatural aspect of demons, spirits, and devils. The Conjuring thoughtfully looks at the dichotomy of the modern church having to deal with these pretty out-there scenarios, and has some interesting scenes of the Warrens bringing their evidence to the Church in hopes of having a priest commissioned to perform an exorcism on the Perron's home. It's pretty interesting - the movie ends with an actual quote from Ed Warren talking about how God and the Devil are real. It sheds a sort of religious light on a movie that I wouldn't have called religious, per se, until that moment made me view it in that context. Again, there's sort of a weird meta thing going on, where you wonder to what extent the movie is "endorsing" the Warrens and the Church and almost serving as a bit of "yep, it's all real - so you'd better start a-prayin'!" propaganda. I don't think that's what Wan intended, exactly ... but I'll admit that the movie's roots in real people and events - and the way it, in retrospect, seemed to want to legitimately give some credence to those people and events and to the Church itself - left me feeling just a bit uneasy as the credits rolled. I'm a fan of the "based on true events" horror movie conceit, and know to take it with a pretty large grain of salt. But I didn't love that, even if just in some small way, the movie took on some slightly propaganda-ish overtones by it's end. Not a huge deal, but worth noting, I think.

Overall though, I really dug THE CONJURING, and would put it up there as one of the better horror films I've seen over the last year. With this film under his belt, James Wan has shown himself to be a versatile director, able to make horror movies that emphasize character and mood as much as shock-value and gore. It's to the movie's credit that it got an "R" rating without being overly explicit. Wan crafts a legitimately creepy, scary, unsettling film that generates plenty of great fright-night fun, but does so in large part thanks to characters we care about, whose fates we are invested in. I definitely want more of Farmiga and Wilson as the Warrens, and I can't help but find the promise of exploring more of the stories behind the artifacts in that museum of theirs to be pretty tantalizing.

My Grade: B+

Friday, August 2, 2013

ONLY GOD FORGIVES Is a Beautiful Mess of a Movie


- Drive was my favorite film of last year. To me, it was a stunning, ultra-cinematic tour de force. In an age in which CGI and digital noise often take the place of true cinematic style, I was blown away by filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn's instantly-iconic movie - which was bursting with stylistic flair and dripping with neo-noir atmosphere. With Drive still fresh in my memory, I was eager to see Refn and star Ryan Gosling's follow-up, ONLY GOD FORGIVES. The trailers promised an eye and ear-melting foray into moody action on par with Drive. However, Only God Forgives is another beast entirely. With this film, Refn has stepped away from conventional narrative, and instead created a piece of hardcore, extreme cinema that mixes exploitation sleaze with David Lynch-esque narrative abstraction. This is a film that deals heavily in symbolism and metaphor, much more concerned with evocative imagery and jaw-dropping, thought-provoking "moments" than with any sort of conventional characters or narrative. This is a movie that is and will remain ultra-divisive. If you have no patience for non-conventional narratives, this film will frustrate. Even those who are open to a film that deals so much in the abstract will likely come away with many questions, and likely some degree of confusion.

In all honesty, I watched ONLY GOD FORGIVES transfixed by the imagery and enthralled by certain scenes - but I walked out of the theater largely baffled by what I had just seen. Only after combing through other reviews and articles did I begin to piece together the intended themes of the film. Ultimately, the film looks incredible, it's got moments that are memorable and shocking and visually stunning. But personally, I just don't know that it all comes together in a way that drives home the themes that Refn was hoping to convey. For some, this will be an all-time cult classic. For me, I see it as a fascinating but flawed misfire in the catalog of one of today's most talented and interesting filmmakers.

What is Only God Forgives about? Let me start with the actual narrative, and I'll get into the larger themes a bit later. On the surface, this is a movie about Ryan Gosling as Julian, a drug-smuggler living in Bangkok with his brother, Billy. Both brothers are rough customers, but Billy is a whole other level of crazy. After getting into an argument with a local pimp, Billy tracks down and kills the pimp's young daughter. Billy then becomes the target of the local police, led by the sword-wielding Chang. Chang - an enigmatic middle-aged man, is a trained fighter and killer. He's a ruthless and sadistic guy, whose bloodlust is counterbalanced by a preternaturally calm demeanor, and a love for singing cheesy karaoke songs. Chang is a mysterious figure throughout the movie - we're told he's a cop, but he also doesn't seem to be just any old cop. He leads squads of policemen, but is never shown wearing a uniform or badge, and seems to operate on his own authority and no one else's. In any case, Chang is big on biblical-style vengeance and wrath, and helps lead the pimp back to Billy, so that the pimp can kill him to avenge his daughter. Billy's death, however, makes Chang and his men a target for Julian. We soon learn though that Julian is less of a leader, and more of an unwitting puppet. The one pulling the strings is Julian's hateful, conniving, devious mother, Crystal - played by a positively demonic Kristin Scott Thomas. Enraged by her favorite son's death (and uncaring that Billy was an evil psychopath), Crystal journeys to Bangkok to help destroy anyone who had a hand in his fall. This puts her and her criminal empire at war with Chang and his men - with Julian, steadily growing tired of being marginalized, spat on, and emasculated, caught in the middle of these two almost godlike forces.

It's funny, because writing that down now, it all seems to make a strange sort of sense. But while actually watching the film, a lot of things - even the most basic info about these characters' identities - seemed unclear to me. Refn gives us a lot of very broad strokes, but not many details. This is a movie that - perhaps intentionally, perhaps not - feels consistently vague and elusive.

A lot of criticism of the movie is likely to be directed at Gosling - or at the least, with Gosling's character and the way he's portrayed. In Drive, Gosling's Driver was stoic and a man of few words, sure. But beneath the surface, there seemed to be a lot going on. And part of the point of the movie was to have Gosling be this larger-than-life, iconic character. Here though,  it's frustrating because the events of the film seem to indicate that Julian is a tortured, pained, deeply disturbed and psychologically-scarred character. But time and time again, Gosling's expression is so blank that we can't read *anything* into it or into his character. I don't blame Gosling, per se, because I think this is what Refn wanted from him. But I also think Refn makes a miscalculation in having Julian be *this* blank of a slate. Because it means that Gosling will do or say things that just come off as completely lacking any context. An example: late in the film, Julian approaches Chang - finally coming face-to-face with his adversary after playing cat-and-mouse for much of the film. You would expect a moment of heated emotion, of brimming tension. But instead, Julian blankly looks at Chang and nonchalantly asks: "wanna fight?" Cut to a long but almost entirely-devoid-of-emotion boxing-match between the two, in which Julian is soundly beaten to a pulp.

I get that Refn is going for a Lynchian vibe here, and I get that he's showing us the movie's events in a dreamlike fashion, and at an emotional and narrative remove. But I also thought about the great Lynch movies like Mulholland Drive, that still managed to elicit genuine emotion and feeling from me, even in spite of their abstract imagery and dream/nightmare-like aesthetics.

To his credit, Refn crafts numerous scenes that are just visually spectacular. His use of color is amazing. His Bangkok feels like hell-on-earth. From the blinking-neon streets to the blood-red interiors of the hotel at which Julian stays - there's no question that Refn is quite simply a visual stylist who's in a league of his own. He also uses music almost as effectively as in Drive, syncing scenes with haunting electro tunes that give the whole movie a feeling of slow-burn dread mixed with pulsing electric danger.

Now, the scene-stealer of the film is hands-down Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal. Whatever criticisms I may have of the film, there's no doubt that every scene she's in simply crackles with energy. Her character is just jaw-droppingly cruel, blunt, and manipulative. One minute she's creating all-kinds-of-wrong sexual tension with her son, the next she's eviscerating him in front of his female companion with acid-tongued insults that no mother should ever speak. I'll go so far as to say that Crystal is one of the most memorable cinematic villains in recent memory - a hellish witch of pure hatred and horribleness, a perverse femme fatale like none we've ever seen before.

Crystal's scenes are almost all barn-burners, but like many of the film's most interesting scenes, they seem to exist in a sort of narrative and thematic vacuum. I've now read numerous interpretations of the film and its characters. Many writers have pointed out the film's clear references to Oedipus Rex, and it's hero-who-screws-his-mom-and-kills-his-dad iconography. Many have also called out Chang as an avenging angel of death, and noticed Crystal's devilish / Satanic similarities. Some have wondered if Gosling's Julian exists in some kind of purgatory-on-earth, where his moral choices and allegiances will end up either damning him to hell, or else sparing him - at least in part - from the angel of death's full wrath. Certainly, the movie has a lot of psycho-sexual imagery, with Julian portrayed as a somewhat impotent figure - his mother has rendered him essentially unable to find comfort or to have normal relations with any other woman. I've even heard that the film is in some ways a metaphor for film itself - that the constant recurring image of characters bound and strapped to a seat represents the way we as film-watchers restrain ourselves in our chair in order to be served up a filmmaker's vision.

All of this is interesting food for thought - but here's the thing: to me, a lot of these ideas just aren't present in the movie in any truly satisfying manner. The attempts at symbolism are clearly there (i.e. all the Oedipal stuff). But what does it mean? What is the *point* of this story? It's not enough just to craft a film where a equals b and x equals y. The filmmaker has got to be relaying a vision that takes that metaphor and symbolism and molds it into some kind of profound statement. I left ONLY GOD FORGIVES feeling about as blankly unmoved as Gosling appears to be throughout the film. I mean, sure, a couple of individual scenes wowed me, but ... what was the ultimate takeaway supposed to be? I think again to Mulholland Drive, which is one of those movies where every scene ultimately - brilliantly - adds up to a stunning, unforgettable statement about dreams and artifice vs. reality, and the world of Hollywood dreams and fakery vs. the world that we actually live in. The fact is: Refn doesn't nail the thematic aspect of this film. He nails the visuals - the colors, the cinematography, the aesthetics ... but I think that attention to aesthetic brilliance may have come at the expense of everything else. With Drive, Refn found the perfect narrative vehicle for his amazing aesthetic and stylistic sensibilities, crafting a simple piece of pulp-fiction that just worked on every level. Here, he really stumbles by getting away from more straightforward characters, narrative, and theme.

The end result is a movie both fascinating and frustrating. Again, I found ONLY GOD FORGIVES to be positively hypnotic in stretches, and Kristin Scott Thomas and her character took the film to another level whenever she was on-screen. Maybe repeat viewings would sway me differently, but to me there was just that nagging, persistent feeling that what Refn was *trying* to do here wasn't being reflected in what was actually on-screen. That's tough, because man, the guy is really aiming to give us bold, original, uncompromising, and challenging films here, and that's something we need more of. Nicholas Winding Refn remains one of the most unique voices in film, and can't wait to see what he does next. But this is one of those films that is sort of a glorious mess - moments of awesome, moments that misfire, and moments that are quite simply WTF-worthy. It's well worth seeing and talking about, even if it doesn't realize the potential of its seemingly lofty ambitions.

My Grade: B