Friday, May 16, 2014

BLUE RUIN Is a Lean, Mean Revenge Movie


- In the season of mega-blockbusters, it's always nice to mix things up a bit with a movie that feels wholly tangible, down n' dirty, and back-to-basics. That's what BLUE RUIN is - a low-budget indie flick that relies on good, old-fashioned tension-building to immerse you in its revenge-fueled drama. The mix of bleak, Southern-gothic atmospherics with darkly-funny moments of humanity calls to mind - as some have pointed out - early Coen Bros. works like Blood Simple. I don't think that Blue Ruin is quite at that level. Whereas the Coens delve deep into the subtextual underbelly of their story and characters, Blue Ruin is more a surface-level pleasure - a movie that thrives in the immediacy of the moment. But for what it is, this is an accomplished film. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier has some serious chops, and I'm more than curious to see what he does next.

Blue Ruin deserves credit for letting up piece together the details of its story. It smartly doles out information via well-placed clues and slowly-revealed nuggets of back-story, rather than force-feed you everything in the clunky matter we see so often. To sum up, Blue Ruin tells the tale of Dwight (Macon Blair), a guy who's been seriously adrift since his parents were murdered. He's been living out of his car, living in quiet, depressing isolation, living the life of a vagrant. But Dwight is given a new sense of purpose when he finds out that the man who killed his parents has been released from prison. Dwight is possessed by a single-minded determination to find and kill this man. He sets out to do the deed, but - and here's the fascinating thing - that confrontation occurs in the first act of the film. Tracking down his parents' killer is only the start of a quickly-escalating cycle of violence that Dwight helps to reignite. Soon, Dwight finds himself caught in the middle of a brutal family feud that leads to more and more bloodshed.

While this is a very cinematic film, Dwight is no larger-than-life hero. As played by Macon Blair, Dwight is a wound-too-tight, slightly bumbling sad-sack who doesn't truly possess the cunning or cold-blooded nature to be a killer. Ironically, Dwight only seems more dweeby the more danger he finds himself in. As the movie opens, he looks the part of a guy with little to lose: he sports a tattered T-shirt, a bushy beard, and unkempt hair that highlights the dark bags beneath his eyes. But ironically, as his hunt for his parent's killer forces him to step back into the world, the more Dwight seems to look and feel like a guy who does have something to lose. He cuts his hair and shaves his beard, and adopts a mild-mannered uniform of khakis and button-down shirt. His journey also leads him to reconnect with his sister, who leads a comfortable middle class life and has a young daughter. And yet, Dwight remains intent on revenge above all else.

Blair's brimming-with-misguided-intensity performance really helps to anchor the film. From moment one, he seems like a guy in way over his head. Even his self-imposed life as a vagrant at the film's start seems more like a guy playing a part than a legitimate and necessary way of life. Some of the movie's dark humor comes from seeing Dwight get increasingly out-of-his-element. He seeks out his old high-school friend for help in learning to shoot a gun, and his friend - who keeps a giant gun cabinet and seems legitimately unhinged - immediately puts Dwight's relative meekness in perspective. The same is true of the thuggish family that Dwight seeks revenge on and inadvertently starts a war with. These guys are criminals and killers, and Dwight is just a guy.

It's a compelling premise and, certainly, the movie has a lot on its mind. At the same time, I'm not sure that the really meaty stuff here is ever truly explored in a meaningful or impactful way. That's where the Coen Bros. comparisons may hurt the film: BLUE RUIN is lean, mean, and suitably intense - but it's not nearly as clever or witty or thematically rich as the similar works of the Coens. I give the movie a lot of credit for its thematic ambitions, but ultimately, it felt just a little bit lightweight to me. It never had that one line of dialogue or that one huge moment that brought everything home and flat-out floored me. The ending sequence comes close (and features a career-redefining, uber-badass turn from Eve Plumb, aka Jan Brady from The Brady Bunch) ... but it still felt a little removed from what we'd seen previously in the film.

BLUE RUIN is one of those exciting films that, while not perfect, instantly signals the arrival of a new filmmaker that is worth keeping an eye on. Jeremy Saulnier is a director of note, and I have a feeling we'll be seeing some truly great movies from him down the line. With this film, he shows an understanding of how to set a mood and tone, how to work within a genre and subvert that genre, and how to crank up the intensity of his storytelling to nail-biting levels. As it stands, BLUE RUIN is not quite a great film, but it is one hell of a genre exercise.

My Grade: B+

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

NEIGHBORS Is More Than Just Frat House Humor


- Director Nicholas Stoller outdoes himself with Neighbors - a movie so effortlessly funny and so economically made that it's not just eminently watchable, but totally re-watchable as well. I actually saw the movie in theaters twice (something I almost never do), and it was just as good the second time around (cue the "Step By Step" theme song). The writing is sharp, the cast is at their best, and there's something here for everyone. The movie zips by, and the humor rarely lets up. Even better, this is a smart movie, and there's more to it than just frat-bro humor. Rarely in a comedy is each and every character multifaceted. But somehow, Neighbors has no real villains. It equally sympathizes with its frat-boys and with the new parents they torment.

NEIGHBORS stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as the aforementioned new parents. They've just moved into a new house, and are looking forward to starting their adult lives with their new baby. But then, a frat house, led by Zac Efron and his right hand man Dave Franco, moves in next door. Suddenly, the fun young couple has to be the no-fun narcs who've got to ask Efron and his crew to, you know, keep it down. But Efron - as frat leader Teddy - appeals to the part of Rogen and Byrne that still think of themselves as cool, down-for-whatever young 'uns. He invites them into the frat house and lets them join the party. Wanting to be the cool neighbors, the couple agrees. But soon, the noise and craziness of the frat prove too much. Cops are called, tempers flare, and Rogen and Byrne find themselves at war with the frat brothers that just keeps escalating, to great comic effect.

We know Rogen is funny, and that few do deadpan stoner humor like he does. But the real breakout here has got to be Rose Byrne. She's hilarious. Her comic timing is second to none, and what's more, her character sort of steals the movie. A lot has been written about how rarely female characters in this sort of comedy seem like fully fleshed-out people. And how it's even more rare for the women in these films to get any of the really good jokes. But Byrne gets a lot of the movie's funniest lines, and she makes the most of it. Plus, her character is just fun. The film could have easily cast her as the usual nagging wife, but refreshingly, she's just as goofy and prone to do stupid stuff as Rogen.

Meanwhile, Efron is surprisingly game for all of the over-the-top stuff that the movie throws at him. He's not afraid to be the butt of many jokes, and he has some really funny moments. Again, his character is helped by the fact that he's not just one-dimensional. Sure, he's a hard-partying frat-boy, but he's also got some issues that may explain why he's so determined to throw the ultimate, history-making party to end all parties. In addition, there's some really funny stuff between Efron and Dave Franco, with Franco as the wise one who sees the light at the end of the collegiate tunnel.

Another real show-stealer though is Ike Barinholtz, as Rogen's friend Jimmy. Barinholtz has some amazingly funny lines and is another big breakout. Some other welcome turns from Lisa Kudrow and Chritopher Mintz-Plasse (who utters one of the funniest utterances of "Yolo!" ever spoken) help to fill out the cast. Oh, and there's a great, extended montage of great moments in the history of frat-culture in which each era's flashback is acted out by a different comedy troupe. I won't spoil who shows up, but there are some awesome cameos.

The movie is anchored by some excellent comedic performances, and overall, it's just an incredibly tightly-made film. The script is sharp and filled with both great dialogue and moments of really funny physical comedy (the Rogen vs. Efron dance-off is, truly, one for the ages). And Stoller shoots the film with a ton of style and energy. The big, showpiece frat-party scenes are neon-lit spectacles, with a sort of into-the-mouth-of-hell trippiness that gives them a mesmerizing, psychedelic vibe. Overall, the movie just has a great energy. There are no dull or wasted moments.

And hey, amidst all of the crazy humor and prank-war shenanigans, the movie actually does a pretty nice job of sort of commenting on things like accepting one's adulthood, and the futility of trying to cling to eternal adolescence.

Don't worry though, NEIGHBORS doesn't lay anything on too thick. Mostly, it's just funny as hell. This is a no-wasted-motion comedy that straight-up delivers the laughs. Rogen and Byrne nail it. And Stoller again proves that he is one of the best comedy directors working today. So go watch it. And re-watch it. You may not be able to relive your wild n' crazy youth, but this is a movie well worth revisiting.

My Grade: A-

Friday, May 9, 2014

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2's Great Cast Can't Quite Overcome Its Tangled Web of a Script


- There's a lot of rage out there being directed towards THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2. On one level, I get it: the movie is, in many ways, emblematic of everything that is frustrating with the current blockbuster movie landscape. On one hand, you have the mighty Marvel Studios seemingly doing just about everything right. On the other hand, the other studios - especially when it comes to beloved Marvel characters - well, not so much. Everyone wants to see Spider-Man revert to Marvel Studios, star in the next Avengers movie, and just generally be in movies as awesome as, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And then there's the other thing that Spider-Man 2 represents, which is an increasing frustration with empty-feeling blockbusters that seem to feel less like a coherent story and more like a collection of marketing-friendly moments. It's likely no coincidence that a lot of the recent big movies that felt the brunt of this type of criticism were written by the Kurtzman-Orci team. In the past, I've defended some of the movies that they've written. Star Trek: Into Darkness was one where, whatever failings the plot had, the crackerjack direction of JJ Abrams mostly made up for it. But THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 has some of Kurtzman and Orci's most glaring, most perplexing plot-holes yet. And when you combine those very noticeable logic-gaps with the perception that these films exist largely as a way to keep rights from reverting to Marvel ... a real dark cloud of cynicism begins to creep in.

With all that said, I enjoyed the movie. I like director Marc Webb a lot, and he really nails the look and feel of Spider-Man. The majority of the action scenes look fantastic, and the physical/visceral essence of Spider-Man is captured better than it's ever been. What's more, the cast is, again, excellent. I liked Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the original Sam Raimi trilogy, but I also always felt that there was something a little off about them. Maguire was always too dopey for me - he never seemed like the wise-crackin' Spider-Man of the comics and cartoons. But Andrew Garfield - to me, he's the definitive Peter Parker and the definitive Spider-Man. What the movie - and Garfield - get totally right is the way in which Garfield's Spider-Man does his superhero thing: swinging into battle with fluidity and grace, all the while kicking ass while never failing to accompany each strike with a well-timed quip. Spidey feels like Spidey. And Spidey - and Peter's - relationship with Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy is superb. Say what you want about this film, but you can't deny that the scenes between Garfield and Stone sparkle with a chemistry and likability that was never really there with Maguire and Dunst's Mary Jane Watson in the originals. Chalk it up to the real-life relationship between the two actors, sure. But I do think that you've got to give some credit to both the script and to Webb (who made his mark with the charming rom-com 500 Days of Summer) for the equally-charming banter and evolving relationship between the two leads. And there's the rub: aside from a couple of fun action scenes, what THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 does best, by a country mile, is the teen romance stuff.

But what's super-weird about the movie is that the Peter-Gwen scenes, as in the first film, feel pretty naturalistic - almost like something out of Webb's 500 Days - and yet, many other scenes in the film are seemingly from an entirely different movie. A superhero film from the dark days of the mid-90's, when Joel Schumaker gave us Batman villains that would make you laugh at their ridiculousness, if you weren't too busy cringing from their awfulness. Suffice it to say, the tonal shifts in this sequel come often and come hard. Relative to the first Amazing Spider-Man, it's sort of jarring. That whole film seemed to be going for a bit of a darker, edgier vibe than the Raimi trilogy. Here, the Peter-Gwen stuff, mostly, retains the tone of the first film. But the scenes introducing the new villains - in particular Jamie Foxx's over-the-top-to-the-extreme Electro - reminded me less of anything in the first ASM, and more of stuff I had semi-blocked out of my memory from the infamous likes of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.

If there's one major disaster in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, it's Electro. And oddly, the character of Max Dillon starts out as sort of interesting, but soon completely devolves into a guy who just wants to destroy stuff and kill Spider-Man for no real reason. From the first moment we meet Max, something, to me, felt off. Foxx seemed to be playing him too broad, too cartoonish and silly for the movie that he's in. Still, the movie seemed to be going for something interesting by making Max a truly tragic villain - a well-meaning if slightly-strange guy who can't seem to catch a break. A low-level technician at OsCorp who is sort of a punching bag, the Spider-Man-obsessed sad-sack gets a life-changing shock when an on-the-job accident transforms him into the bright-blue, electricity-charged Electro. But as soon as Max makes the transition to supervillainy, he inexplicably seems to lose all traces of humanity. And Spider-Man, despite knowing Max's tragic origins, seems to have little regard for the once-amiable dude's well-being. Whatever potential Max had to be a very different sort of villain very quickly evaporates. In short order, he's just some low-rent Dr. Manhattan-looking antagonist who wants to fight.

The generic nature of Spider-Man's fights with Electro highlights another major oddity about the film in general: Peter Parker is sort of a jerk. It's not something that's there, overtly, in the script. But time and again, Peter doesn't seem to have much in the way of compassion. He promptly stops caring about Electro's tragic origins. And when his childhood friend, Harry Osborn, asks Peter to help him secure some of Spider-Man's blood - which Harry believes might be the key to curing the degenerative disease that's killing him - Peter flatly refuses. In reality, the problem is not so much with any obvious agenda on the movie's part to make Peter a jerk. It all stems back to the script's jumpiness. 1+1 doesn't equal 2 in this movie. Electro is a tragic villain, and then not. Harry finds out that his middle-aged dad is dying from a slow-burn degenerative disease, finds out that he has the same ailment, and then for some reason is sure that he has only a matter of weeks to live. Peter refuses to give Harry any of his Spider-enhanced blood, but as far as we can tell, there's no good reason why he wouldn't. Basically, Peter - as far as he knows - could save the life of his friend with a quick blood sample - but refuses for reasons that aren't quite clear to us. Only later does Peter actually find out that the radioactive spider that bit him, that made him Spider-Man, was genetically-engineered by Peter's scientist dad to work only on members of the Parker family. Unnecessary changes to the mythos aside, this is a clear case where clearly Plot Point A is coming to light after Plot Point B, when the reverse should have been true.

This is just one example (and you can find many exhaustive articles online calling out many more) of why THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 has, regrettably, one of the most poorly-structured plots of any recent big blockbuster movie I can think of. Countless plot points seem conspicuously omitted, only to resurface after the fact. Character motivations surface up out of thin air, making characters feel two-dimensional and silly.

Harry Osborn's transition to the Green Goblin is another example of this. In Raimi's original trilogy, Harry slowly but surely turned against Peter and Spider-Man. Here, Dane DeHaan's Harry is set up from his first scene as having a dark side. But he goes from merely dark and brooding to evil and murderous with the flip of a switch. The whole thing feels rushed. It's a shame because a.) DeHaan is a great actor and does gradual villainy well (see: Chronicle), and b.) Harry Osborn is by far the more compelling of the movie's two villains, but what could have been a gripping, movie-spanning turn to the dark side is instead a total rush-job. When Harry eventually becomes the spiky-haired, green-skinned, sharp-toothed, stark-raving-mad Goblin, it's sadly pretty laughable. Just as Electro is set up to be the tragic villain, only to become a generic criminal, so too does Harry go from multidimensional adversary to random rogue who just wants to blow stuff up and kill people. Strangely, the goofiness of the villains is only amplified by their costumes and character-design. As much as Spider-Man looks exactly right, the bad guys look like conceptual design-work gone very-wrong.

The movie seems to just give up on trying to tie any of this together thematically. Peter and Gwen's romantic storyline is completely separate from the story of the two villains. And the two villains' plotlines are also completely separate from each other - eventually coming together in the same way that a kid might mash two random action figures together - just because.  What this means is that when the big finale brings Peter, Gwen, Electro, and the Goblin together for the big final showdown, it all feels very random, and there's little emotional weight to it all. In a different Spider-Man movie, that could have been not-that-big-a-deal. But, without spoiling anything, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is *trying* for a big, huge, emotional moment in its final act. And that moment, which should have been absolutely devastating, is instead only marginally affecting. Why? Because it's so forced in the context of the story, and so removed tonally and plot-wise from anything that's come before.

Going back to Kurtzman and Orci, lack of structural integrity in their films has been the biggest knock against them for years. They tend to do well with the witty banter and they tend to have a knack for setting up imaginative set-piece sequences that translate well from page to screen. But for some reason, plot always takes a huge back seat. Now, historically, blockbuster action movies don't always have the tightest of plots - and there's many a big blockbuster that is ripe to be picked apart by those looking for logic gaps and plot holes. But THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 does feel particularly problematic. Maybe it's because the movie is so good in other ways, from the eye-popping visuals to the great chemistry between its leads. Maybe it's that the gaps here are ones so central not just to the plot, but to the core characterizations of the main players, that you can't just separate them out in your mind. I mean, look, in Star Trek: Into Darkness, it annoyed me that Spock only learns about the extent of Khan's evil through a Spock Prime-provided info-dump. But at least in that case, the structural laziness was solely an issue with the plotting, and didn't really affect characterization. Here, the issues are much more interconnected, and less easy to isolate. Peter not helping Harry by giving his blood isn't just a plot hole, but, like I said, it makes Peter look like an irrational jerk. Harry and Max's villainous meltdowns aren't just examples of bad plotting - their sudden transformations into uber-badguys completely undermines the characterization that had been used to establish who they were as people. It was only recently that Captain America: The Winter Soldier gave us a superhero film that smartly delivered a plot about a hero having to fight against his former best friend. In that film, the Cap vs. Winter Soldier conflict was not just the film's plot, but the center of its entire emotional core. Here, Harry vs. Peter is just a rushed set-piece. The emotional core that should be there - two lifelong best friends tragically having to fight to the death - is almost entirely absent.

At some point too, you can't just blame Kurtzman and Orci for this. As director, Marc Webb has to tie each scene together, and has to find that connective tissue, that emotional core, at the heart of his film. But because scenes feel randomly-assembled, and character motivations seem to come and go on a whim, all of the movie's big emotional beats hit only at the surface level. There are a lot of moments that feel like they are, perhaps, *supposed* to be emotionally resonant, but that simply feel cold and unaffecting. We know that Webb is capable of better. I'll still defend the first Amazing Spider-Man as a very solid, well-done superhero flick that was, overall, a lot more effective and affecting than its sequel. Now, the first film had a different set of writers (some of whom worked on Raimi's trilogy), and more leeway to breathe and just sort of establish this new take on Spider-Man. The second film seems to be boxed in by all kinds of studio pressure. I don't know the full-story, but this, again, feels like a throwback to the 90's when it was all about more=better. Two villains are better than one. Twelve subplots are better than three (and indeed, this film is overloaded with mostly-useless subplots - from Aunt May's training as a nurse to the secret history of Peter's dad and Norman Osborn). Ultimately, the film seems to be building to some vaguely-outlined Sinister Six movie that, again, feels less like a natural extension of the story, and more like a studio-mandated directorate to give Spiderman his own connected movie universe - just like what's happening over at Marvel Studios. There's really no solid narrative through-line that takes us from this film to Sinister Six. It's just "oh hey, remember those villains from this film? Well, there's a bunch more that we haven't shown you yet, and soon they may just decide to team up!" So you've got to wonder: did Kurtzman and Orci's tendency to place minimal importance on structure, combine with the studio's insistence that various stuff be unnaturally shoehorned into the film, to create a perfect storm of superhero schlock? Doesn't seem too far-fetched.

And yet ... the movie generates enough goodwill - through Peter and Gwen's charm, through the cool visuals, through the fantastic score, and through the odd individual scene that really works well - to help sort of cover-up all of the gaping holes. I mean, man, the movie's first big Spider-Man set-piece (following a slightly meh flashback opening to Peter's dad's final days), is pretty awesome. We see Spidey take on Paul Giamatti's low-rent criminal Rhino in a pretty glorious sequence that nails Spider-Man to a T (Giamatti is mostly wasted, but that's besides the point here). Everything I said before about Spider-Man feeling 100% spot-on in this film - from the look of the costume to the wise-cracks to the way he fights - is all there in this sequence. The scene is all Webb, and it's Webb at his best. I don't know if anyone has directed better Spider-Man action sequences, ever, and that's a credit to the director's talent and feel for the character.

For those moments where THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 so perfectly nails ol' web-head, I think that it is well-worth checking out, despite its flaws. Certain moments will bring a smile to the face of new and longtime Spidey fans alike. And for those who are able to tune out all the sound and fury of the villains and larger plot, what you're left with is a very charming and likable love story between two goofy-yet-lovable kids named Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. At the same time, this is a long movie, and one that's jam-packed with characters and plot. And at some point, the plot holes and weird characterizations and goofiness of the villains begin to weigh down the movie. And ultimately, the weight causes the movie - held up by the flimsiest of structures - to collapse, and sink. This is a film that's heavy with plot, and the plot simply doesn't hold up - and what's more, it actively undermines the film's broader emotional and thematic intentions.

I think that this director and this cast are more than capable of giving us a classic Spider-Man movie. They already gave us a really solid one with the first film. But here, things begin to unravel a bit, and now I am slightly worried for the health of this franchise. This sequel certainly has its moments. Like I said, I enjoyed it, overall. But it's also a prime example of how a big franchise film can start to go off the rails, by worrying so much about being a big franchise film that it forgets the basics of good storytelling. The first ASM defied the odds and successfully re-booted Spider-Man. But hey, Spider-Man himself said it: with great power comes great responsibility. And filmmakers should have faith that if you prioritize first the responsibility to tell a good story, then good things will follow.

My Grade: B-