Thursday, July 31, 2014

12 Years of Life: Special, deeply felt "Boyhood" jogs the memory again and again

Boyhood (2014)
164 min., rated R.

Life really does pass us by, as it is basically a compilation of small, ordinary moments that we can only experience once. Writer-director Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" understands this universal notion more than any other American release, whilst showcasing a daring evolution and milestone in the filmmaking form. Anyone familiar with Linklater and his "Before Sunrise"/"Before Sunset"/"Before Midnight" pictures knows that he is committed as committed gets when it comes to filmmaking. With his latest passion project—the ne plus ultra of a long-gestating passion project—he made quite the gamble by shooting in three-day increments for thirty-nine days over a span of twelve years from 2001 to 2013, with the same set of actors, and, boy, his leap of faith paid off big time. Taking biographical journeys and cinema to the next level, "Boyhood" goes beyond an inspired, unprecedented stunt, gimmick, or experiment and comes out a visionary, all-encompassing time capsule made up of moments that, without a single falsehood, feel real and full. As one watches, it offers timeless, eye-opening insight into the human experience and inspires to reflect upon the moments in his or her own life.

From a first-grader to a college freshman in Texas, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) experiences life and we get to see the whole transformation. When we first meet him, he's at the most comfortable time in his life, lying on the grass at his elementary school and looking up at the clouds as he waits for his divorced, single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette). She raises 7-year-old Mason and 8-year-old Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) without the help of their absentee father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a cool, struggling musician who's been trying to find work in Alaska but returns and tries making frequent appearances in his kids' lives. Once Olivia decides to go back to school for psychology, she packs up her kids and makes the move to Houston to temporarily live with her mom. Mason and Samantha experience new schools, new friends and new homes, and then they adopt a couple of new stepfathers along the way. Eventually over the years, Mason finds his true passion in photography and art, and then at 19, he gets the chance to experience first love and heartbreak. C'est la vie. 

A bittersweet, inclusive visitation with a family whose lives we are completely invested in and grow up with for two-and-a-half-plus hours, "Boyhood" is about nothing and everything. To clarify, there is no plot in the traditional sense (even for a coming-of-ager), no precise structure or plot points to knock off, just the progress of growing up as if we are eavesdropping on someone's actual life. It would seem like a lot of ground to cover, even with cherry-picking certain life events, but the film chronicles boyhoodas well as motherhood, fatherhood, and "teenagehood"and feels enriched by Linklater's attunement to veritable truth, sensitivity, and recognizably human characters. Beyond the physical changes of inevitable aging, we see a great metamorphosis in everyone, particularly Mason, and the storytelling never feels overly meandering like an unfocused child's "and-then-this-happened" story. All of the rites of passage as a daydreaming child and a rebellious teenager are on display here, from moving out of town without saying bye to friends, to despising a bad haircut, to saying the pledge of allegiance in elementary school, to attending a midnight "Harry Potter" book release, to experiencing the passing of a love note in class, to cringing as your father gives you the contraception talk. Viewers conditioned to Hollywoodized family dramas will expect an upcoming tragedy or a series of unfortunate events filled with melodramatic theatrics, but no one has really seen a film like this before. The best kinds of films have the telling details without actually beating us over the head, and "Boyhood" is full of the telling details. Without a single time card or voice-over narration announcing to us how much time has passed, Linklater subtly weaves in time-appropriate musical cues, from a joyous opening cued to Coldplay's "Yellow" and then other samplings from Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun" to The Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize?" to Soulja Boy's "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" to Phoenix's "1901" and Family of the Year's "Hero." Technical aesthetics are unshowy but faultless, going in step with the film's verisimilitude.

Back in 2002, Linklater's hopes to keep the same cast of actors for a whole decade must have seemed like a risky proposition, but luckily, no one went back on their commitment. Everyone is so immensely lived-in, it's as if no one is even Acting; that and the casting fits like a glove (the younger actors look like real-life siblings). Natural and identifiable during all ages in playing Mason, Ellar Coltrane exhibits pure growth in maturity from a little boy to a young man. Lorelai Linklater (Richard's daughter) hits every note dead-on as Mason's slightly older sister Samantha. Emanating humor and naturalism without ever feeling overly precocious or affected, she begins as a little brat, tormenting and waking up her brother by singing Britney Spears' "Oops!…I Did It Again" with her own dance moves, and then tries to find herself as a teenager. One can only hope she will continue acting as she really made an impression for a 12-year phase in her life. A long collaborator with Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke is exceptional, diversifying a written role that already feels clear of deadbeat-dad clichés. Mason Sr. is trying his best, picking his kids up in his Pontiac GTO and taking them to the bowling alley or a Houston Astros baseball game, and then ends up starting his own family, while still keeping Mason and Samantha well in his life. Lest we forget (though it'd be impossible), Patricia Arquette pours her heart and soul into the role of mother Olivia and, as a result, turns in the most beautifully nuanced work of her career. Her poignant moment of realization comes when sitting in a new apartment and watching Mason packing up for college after rearing two kids, steadily working towards her career as a university professor and then suffering through two failed marriages; she finally breaks down and says, "I just thought there would be more."

By being twelve years in the making, "Boyhood" is an achievement that deserves to be celebrated in a class all by itself. It not only has a fascinating behind-the-scenes story to tell, but the finished film is immeasurably graceful, moving, introspective, and special. The whole of the film is encapsulated by the reverse quote of "seizing the moment"—"the moment seizes us"—and the cumulative power doesn't hit until the very end. It also feels like one of writer-director Linklater's most personal films, one that he never gave up on and seems to bring a larger context to his collection of work with common threads and similarly relaxed pacing recalling 1991's "Slacker," 1993's "Dazed and Confused," and even the "Before" trilogy. Without inflating or underselling its groundbreaking worth, Linklater's film is just extraordinarily executed, a very accomplished, one-of-a-kind work of art. To watch twelve years unfold in two hours and forty-four minutes is a sublime, rewarding experience.


Gender Games: "Venus in Fur" works as wickedly playful on-screen theater

Venus in Fur (2014)
96 min., not rated (equivalent to an R). 

Director Roman Polanski gives translating stage play to screen another go after 2011's "Carnage." Despite the varying success of airing out contrivance from its setup of holding four prideful characters in one bourgeois Brooklyn apartment, the auteur was more than able to use talky, toothy material to get excellently unshackled performances out of his high-caliber actors and make the one location quite constricting and palpably claustrophobic. With "Venus in Fur," a real-time two-hander from David Ives' play that first opened off-Broadway in 2010 and then took to The Great White Way, Polanski has an easier time making a power struggle transpiring in an empty theater (mostly on-stage) more believable at the start, but he still has his work cut out for him in executing a film—not just a play on film—and keeping every word and movement enthralling. Luckily, his two commanding actors are more than willing to take control and tear into Polanski's juicy, daring French translation with wit, electric kink, and a wicked playfulness.

Playwright and theater director Thomas Novacheck (Mathieu Amalric) is about to call it a night after a hopeless day of abysmal casting auditions for his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 masochism-inspiring novel "Venus in Furs" in a rickety Parisian theater. Then, during a heavy storm, a drenched, bedraggled, gum-chewing woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) with a trampy dog collar and tattoo comes knocking, apologizing for being so late but pleading to audition. She says her name is Vanda, the same name as the character she's auditioning to play, but Thomas can't find her on his call schedule and deems her all wrong for the part. Vanda persists to be given a chance, stripping down to her S&M gear but also bringing along a more period-appropriate frock, and even adjusts the lighting before she takes the stage and Thomas reads and goes through the blocking with her. Once Vanda seems to know the text by heart and be able to slip in and out of character, she soon proves to her director that she isn't as scatterbrained as she first let on but could be the goddess he was seeking all this time. That's where Thomas' role-playing reality and his play about man's enslavement to a woman become blurred and inextricable. 

A bitingly verbose, impeccably performed and assuredly crafted French battle-of-the-sexes dark comedy and chamber piece, "Venus in Fur" doesn't merely amount to a lot of blabbing and screeching. Through the lips of these slippery characters, the film has a lot to say about creation and criticism (perhaps Polanski's reponse to his own critics), sexism, subjugation and submission. As the play and reality become muddled, the power shifts from Thomas to Vanda, and one can just feel Polanski in the walls. There's a personal touch to "Venus in Fur," not the least of which comes from the casting of the director's 47-year-old missus (this being their fourth pairing) and a dead ringer for himself forty years ago, but also in thematic hints of his previous works. Emmanuelle Seigner is terrific, deliciously navigating her way between vulgar bimbo, tortured actress, and cagey, caustic dominatrix. Vanda continues to confuse the word "ambiguity" with "ambivalence" and judge the point of Thomas' adapted play by reductively calling it S&M porn. Whether she's making a clueless look, seducing her screen/stage partner, or humiliating him, she's a thrill to watch as "Vanda." Mathieu Amalric, a spitting image of a younger Polanski, is equally good opposite his "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" co-star as Thomas Novacheck, initially in charge and then still keeping up.

Opening and closing with Alexandre Desplat's jaunty, mischievous score as Pawel Edelman's fluidly roving camera dollies through the stormy streets of Paris and pushes through the theater doors, "Venus in Fur" might have come off stagy in different hands. Though it never leaves the single space or its two characters, the film feels tight but cinematic, with more breathing room than "Carnage." It keeps moving and remains unpredictable, at least before the telegraphed sight of a phallic cactus (a prop from a previous stage performance of "Stagecoach"). Before the film's final moments that might not be able to be taken seriously (or maybe it's supposed to be pitched to a level of over-the-top hysteria), the verbal volleying is tense, literate, and funny. With so many films accused of being misogynistic, "Venus in Fur" is intentionally misandristic and does it with perverse pleasure.


Friday, July 25, 2014

Your Brain on Scarlett: Loopy, flashy "Lucy" has fun first, thinks second

Lucy (2014) 
90 min., rated R.                    

From the advertisements promising Scarlett Johansson as an intellectually endowed sort-of mutant with a gun, "Lucy" could have fared less well as a frilly, junky actioner with no delusions of grandeur. Instead, French writer-director Luc Busson (2013's "The Family") decided to make a more ambitious picture that could be taken as an infinitely better version of this year's poorly executed "Transcendence" with a recalling of the 2011 Bradley Cooper-starrer "Limitless." With a pouch of "Crank," the ticking-clock energy of "Run Lola Run," the mind-blowing screen-saver origami of "Inception," and the cosmic scope of "The Tree of Life," too, "Lucy" even goes so far as to marry the alternately challenging and accessible sensibilities of Johansson's recent career moves ("Her" and "Under the Skin" being the particular connective tissue) with Besson's like-minded "La Femme Nikita." It's flashy and fanciful, trim and slick, and of little substance, but the viewer can either accept the delirious ridiculousness of it all and have fun, or reject it and be a fun sponge.

Living in Taipei, regular 25-year-old American girl Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) finds herself roped into a shady deal gone wrong when her week-long boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbaek) handcuffs her to a briefcase and makes her deliver it to a gangster named Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik, the original "Oldboy"). As it turns out, Lucy is the lone woman of other drug mules needed to unwittingly smuggle powerful new drug CPH4 out of the country. The thing is, a package of the blue, powdery drug has been surgically inserted into her stomach, and that means Lucy is about to access the unprecedented other 90% of her brain capacity. Evading Mr. Jang and his henchmen after the CPH4 has kicked in and the normal 10% of her capacity has started to expand, Lucy increasingly gains abilities, like fast-learning and remembering little details from when she was an infant and psychic/telekinetic/shape-shifting powers. Meanwhile, in France, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), who has been working on a theory about cerebral zones based purely on hypotheses, comes into the picture to help consult the omnipotent Lucy, but it's not like she needs anyone's help. 

Before entering the realm of science fiction and continuously riding the line of awesome and ludicrous, "Lucy" gets off to a sharp beginning. Luc Besson wastes no time throwing us into Lucy's perilous situation and punctuating the urgency by intercutting her confrontation with Mr. Jang with nature footage of cheetahs hunting a gazelle or a mouse going for the cheese in a trap. Some will find this metaphor too heavy-handed, but it's an unusually potent touch. Specializing in hyperkinetic, Euro-schlocky action pictures, Besson creates visual panache and energy to spare with a propulsive techno score, and he's skilled enough to know to keep the shoot-out action fast, clean and exciting instead of hacksawing it into a bumbling, exhausting mess. Dizzy-brained but absolutely never dull, "Lucy" is like an outlandishly over-the-top cartoon with high-minded ideas, and as Lucy is able to access her brain all the way to 99%, it grows loopier and loopier. Just to clarify, there is a dinosaur in here at one point—spoiler!—and the most bonkers "face dissolve" on an airplane that could rival the icky "face peeling" scene from "Poltergeist." Though it might not be as philosophically ruminative as it pretends to be, the film is still exactly as clever as it thinks it is and not just a no-brainer all the time. 

This outstanding year for the tireless Scarlett Johansson has been an impressively varied one, starting with her similarly trancelike work in the mesmerizing humdinger "Under the Skin" and then further proof of her physical prowess in the political yet commercially entertaining "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Here, as the eponymous heroine, she is able to carry one's worry and rooting interest throughout. As regular Lucy, she pulls out the character's palpable humanity with a scared helplessness, especially during an emotional call to her mother, while going through the physical and emotional wringer. At the start, when Lucy checks in with a front-desk hotel clerk who asks for her name, she says, "It's just Lucy." While we glean that she is a student taking exams mentioned in a throwaway line of dialogue, she's just an ordinary woman who may have had a life off the page, but there's no turning back after being thrown into such an unlikely predicament. When she becomes less human without desire, fear or pain, Lucy is a badass specimen with glimmers of humanity still shining through. As for Morgan Freeman, he fulfills his function of setting up the premise at one of Professor Norman's lectures, mouthing exposition and making it digestible for the rest of us.

Ideally getting in and getting out at a breezily paced 90 minutes, "Lucy" is a supremely goofy and grandiose entertainment machine through and through. While science-proving nuts will find it too addlebrained and mainstream audiences hoping for just a female version of "The Transporter" may tune out early from its strange, experimental touches, both camps will be able to meet in the middle by agreeing on the following. It uses its brain by rarely stopping long enough to ponder the inconsequentiality of the bad guys or all of the spatial logistics with time and space. It also might be hogwash, but at least it's fun, cool, stylish hogwash.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mumbling Grown-Ups: "Happy Christmas" plays more like mundane life than interesting cinema

Happy Christmas (2014) 
78 min., rated R.

By now, the term "mumblecore" is almost as extinct as the dinosaurs, but director Joe Swanberg now has more than enough clout for being a prolific (and very busy) figure in that movement of heavily improvised, micro-budget films riding on naturalism. Though keeping with the fly-on-the-wall aesthetic, he showed a great deal of maturity with last year's "Drinking Buddies," a life-like, appealingly low-key romantic dramedy about friendship boundaries and drinking that never once felt artificial with recognizable actors but was always interesting to watch. Swanberg's latest, however, walks and talks like mumblecore. That isn't meant to be completely derogatory or reductive, as such a teensy film favorably holds characters and their relationships over pushy plotting, but "Happy Christmas" falls into the trap of what this reviewer was afraid would eventually happen. Reliably observant and unforced as it is, the film is also a frustrating paradox: it begins agreeably, eventually grows tedious and then ends pointlessly. Maybe that's just like life, but we are still watching a movie.

Chicago couple Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are mostly content with their 2-year-old son Jude (Jude Swanberg). He tries bringing home the bacon, working for a small film production company, while she put her writing career on hold to make "stay-at-home mom" her full-time job. Around the holiday season, Jeff's 27-year-old sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), reeling from a break-up, flies to the Windy City to live indefinitely in her older brother and his wife's basement until she gets back on her feet. On her first night with Jeff and Kelly, Jenny goes out with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) and gets drunk at a party. She ends up passing out at the party host's apartment, leaving Carson to have to call Jeff. As Jenny gets involved with pot-dealing musician Kevin (Mark Webber), who babysits Jude the morning a hungover Jenny was supposed to, how long will it be before she can get her act together? Can the houseguest bring balance to Jeff and Kelly's life, too?

To call "Happy Christmas" plotless would be unfair to what Joe Swanberg's filmmaking style represents and sets out to do. Directed by Swanberg but sketched in by his actors improvising on the fly, the film is a casual, gentle, albeit uncoddled, snapshot of human lives and interactions that (at least) wants to be a complimentary study of an irresponsible and immature twentysomething, siblings and young parenthood. In doing so, it does penetrate some truths, but it feels less like a movie and more like a rough treatment of one Lena Dunham's "Tiny Furniture" and Noah Baumbach's Greta Gerwig-fronted "Frances Ha" more easily got over this hump. Too bad the viewer walks away not really learning too much and being handed little more than a shrug to take away. Because "Happy Christmas" feels so loose, unglossy and raggedly real (read: unpolished as 78 minutes' worth of first takes) does not automatically make it a good movie. Even on a technical level, it seems like Swanberg has taken a step backwards from "Drinking Buddies," which felt shaggy but polished. Here, being shot digitally on grainy 16 mm and there being a very, very loose structure in terms of editing, jump cuts are still less than smooth during long takes and some scenes just jump to the next.

Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey are both given lead duties. Even in playing Jenny as a flaky screw-up, Kendrick brings her star-quality twinkle to the role, but one wishes there were more on the page for her to work from, as the character of Jenny can be boiled down to self-obsessed and unreliable with an affinity for getting drunk and/or high. Lynskey (able to use her native New Zealand accent) is wonderfully likable as pajama-wearing housewife and mother Kelly, who wants no other Christmas gift than alone time to get some writing done. It's not shocking to discover that Lena Dunham seems the most comfortable in navigating a scene with her words and taking it somewhere, and that's most evident in a conversational scene about women's roles where Carson and Jenny have a beer with Kelly in her basement. Swanberg, himself, and Mark Webber also acquit themselves just fine, but it's the director real-life son, Jude, who adorably steals the show with his literal mumbling. 

"I feel like time is going by so slow!" utters Jenny at one point. Like a person who takes forever to get to their point, filled with entirely too much inarticulateness (pauses, "uhs," "ums" and "likes," etc.), the film is more of a mundane slice of life than interesting cinema. Between Jeff and Kelly's domestic life and Jenny's twentysomething aimlessness, there is a relatability to each character and their subtle body language is able to speak volumes without a word. Not that there needed to be much finality, there just isn't much catharsis. By the end, Kelly is nearly finished with a quick-buck, Danielle Steel-esque romance novel spitballed by both Jenny and Carson. Jenny, though, is barely a work in progress. She doesn't seem to learn from her mistakes, show sincerity, or feel apologetic for nearly burning down Jeff and Kelly's house that spending time with such a self-centered person becomes annoying. While there will always a marketplace for a lo-fi film that's driven by its characters, it is unfortunate to find an indie rendered insignificant from its major assetunscripted authenticitybecoming a major liability. And brevity is good, but the film just kind of stops at a too-short 78 minutes. The genial "Happy Christmas" is, dare it be said, that rare case where more might have actually been more.


As Bad As It Gets: Flat, charmless "And So It Goes" does its actors zero favors

And So It Goes (2014)
94 min., rated PG-13.

There was a time when director Rob Reiner (2012's "The Magic of Belle Isle") used to make wonderful films like "This Is Spinal Tap," "Stand by Me," "The Princess Bride," "When Harry Met Sally…," "Misery" (and say what you will about "The Bucket List" but "The Bucket List"), but it is just depressing and cringe-inducing at this point. And so it goes with "And So It Goes," which was clearly meant to be a romantic comedy with dramatic pathos about second chances, but resulted in flat-footed, cookie-cutter, infuriatingly unworkable crumminess. The never-before-worked-together Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton sharing the same space and breathing the same air on screen sounds lovely on paper, but elevation from two old pros makes no difference in what an aimless, terminally bland misfire came out of shooting from an awkward, flavorless screenplay by Mark Andrus (2007's "Georgia Rule") and then presenting the finished product to ticket-buyers as a would-be romance between charismatic sextenarians. Everyone need not bother because "Something's Gotta Give," this certainly is not.

Since losing his wife, misanthropic realtor Oren Little (Michael Douglas, in crotchety Jack Nicholson mode) just wants to sell his family mansion and retire. In the meantime, he owns a fourplex building with close-knit neighbors who can barely tolerate him, including compassionate widow Leah (Diane Keaton). Oren gets thrown for a loop when his estranged son Luke (Scott Shepherd), now clean from a heroin addiction, shows up and asks Dad if he can watch his 9-year-old daughter, Sarah (Sterling Jerins), while he gets sentenced to prison for nine months. Instead of taking Sarah in, Oren pawns her off to Leah, who would rather watch the little girl than see her be neglected by her grandfather. Of course—and there is a lot of "of course" going on here—Oren and Leah become makeshift grandparents who open their heart, not only to Sarah but to each other. Who knew that all Leah and the seemingly heartless Oren needed was a quick fix in the sack together?

With a premise so stale and contrived, there might have been hope in how Reiner carried it all out with his two stars and a witty script, but "And So It Goes" is torpedoed by its very own protagonist whom we should be pulling for and find rakishly lovable. No such luck with the irreparably off-putting Oren Little whom one would never want to meet in real life. Why Oren remains such an insufferable, irredeemable prick is beyond flimsy. He misses his wife, but complains upon climbing up a tiny hill to visit her gravestone. As a realtor, Oren is patronizing and casually racist to potential homebuyers, putting up picture frames of a Chinese family when showing it to a Vietnamese family or assuming a Hispanic couple cannot speak a lick of English. To prevent a Rottweiler from squatting on his lawn, he shoots it with a paintball gun. When his adult son comes back into his life, Oren refuses to watch the granddaughter he never knew he had. To the 9-year-old Sarah, he warns her to stay away from his neighbor's son's penis. To clarify, Oren does not need to be rewarded forgiveness or even a warm mojito, just a swift kick into the trunk of his car. Instead of eventually making whoopee with Oren, Leah should have just suffocated her obnoxiously ornery and insincere neighbor with a pillow.

Marginally supported by a slick, sunny disposition and inviting, postcard-pretty Connecticut locations that Nancy Meyers need not grow envious of, the film still comes with a host of other problems. Most of the jokes are strained and desperately lame. The tone is unusually atonal, at one point lurching from Sarah meeting her biological heroine-addict mother to one of those tired, last-resort humping-dog visual gags. The pacing is lackadaisical, scenes of Oren and Leah conversing on their porches particularly deadening. Not immune to playing unlikable characters in the past, Michael Douglas plays up Oren's unctuousness so much as if to see how hard he has to work to make the viewer like him back. To no avail, it's just a hopelessly charmless, one-note performance and, needless to say, not one of Douglas' finest hours. Luckily, at least when the script doesn't have the actress resorting Leah to turn into a blubbering, hysterical mess (a passé character trait the actress has patented), Diane Keaton is as effortlessly radiant and unassumingly charming at 68 as she was in her thirties. Leah is easier to be invested in, as she still follows her dream to be a lounge singer at such a mature age (the actress' chance to sing) but can barely manage to get through a set without telling a story of her late husband and melting into a puddle. Her nice one-on-one scenes with Sterling Jerins, who has a sweet, unprecocious presence as Sarah, are the only cause for seeing a light at the end of this film's dreary tunnel. In addition, being typecast as the salty spitfire forever, Frances Sternhagen is just okay as Oren's realty office secretary Claire, who seems to live at her work desk with a cigarette always in between her fingers. And merely for name value, Frankie Valli pops up in one scene as a club owner.

Even if it were aiming to be pleasant comfort food, the generically titled "And So It Goes" goes down as easily as a rock down a garbage disposal. Sometimes, the journey is enough to be worth the effort, but here, neither the journey nor the destination are worthwhile. It's impossible to warm up to, particularly when Oren keeps ruining any scene with Leah and Sarah, and the ending not only manages to be predictable and unromantic, but it's a synthetically gooey, tacked-on slap in the face. Very little of it can be bought for a second, and the less said about Oren's asinine, ham-handed redemptive scene where he delivers a neighbor's baby on his own couch, the better. The final impression of "And So It Goes" could be summed up by the supposed hilarity of Leah's doting, toupeed piano player Artie (played by Rob Reiner) foolishly slipping on a Slip 'n Slide, falling right down on his rump and failing to keep his suit dry. This movie constantly slips and never gets up. 


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Virgin Summer: Familiar "Very Good Girls" aided by Fanning and Olsen

Very Good Girls (2014)
91 min., rated R.

The directorial debut of screenwriter Naomi Foner (Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal's mother), "Very Good Girls" does not surprise with its ironic title when opening with its two female characters, Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen), daring each other to go streaking across a public beach and into the water. It's a defining moment for both girls who are about to undergo a sexual awakening with the opposite sex. For being a naturalistic indie dramedy, the film is better when it's focusing on simple human interaction and the pains of pre-adulthood over the summer and less so when its transparent plot starts spinning into a semi-love triangle that, frankly, strikes as blasé and cursory. Overall, "Very Good Girls" is pleasant but tough to get overly excited about when it doesn't add up to very much in the end. Fanning and Olsen are very good, though.

Headstrong and Yale-bound, Lilly Berger (Fanning) has just graduated high school and has yet to lose her virginity. It's hard living under the same roof where her shrink parents, Norma (Ellen Barkin) and Edward (Clark Gregg), see their patients in-house, especially when Dad is having an affair with one of them. As summer gets underway, Lilly continues working as a N.Y.C. ferry tour guide and avoiding her creepy, overly friendly boss (Peter Sarsgaard). She and hippie best friend Gerry (Olsen) make a pact to get rid of their V-cards, and an opportunity opens up when they both run into ice cream vendor/photographer/graffiti artist David (Boyd Holbrook). Gerry first takes an interest in David, inviting him to one of her music gigs, but Lilly and David already have something, so that makes Lilly the other woman. Can these best friends stay friends or will they allow a hunky older boy to get in between them?

"Very Good Girls" doesn't sound like it would pass the Bechdel test, and for a while, it flunks. Lilly and Gerry define their summer by pursuing the same guy. This all may sound like a total contrivance (and that's because it is), but under an easy-going mood of summery warmth (along with Jennifer Lewis' omnipresent, if never obtrusive, music score) that comes with writer-director Foner's unpushy, low-key visual style, it's a bit easier to swallow than not. In the right sense, Foner does not coddle her two female characters, often depicting them as whiny, selfish, and entitled in calling their parents by their first names, but never vilifying them or putting us off too much. When Lilly believes David to have spent an intimate night with Gerry, she goes off to possibly give her boss what he's wanted. And, there comes a point where the viewer just waits for the other shoe to drop and the truth to come out. Unless they know each other's schedules or have one another on tracking devices, characters show up at opportune (or inopportune) times a few too many times. Lilly will walk in on her father sleeping with his patient. David will appear outside Lilly's house just as she's running out from having an argument with her mother. Gerry will be standing on a street corner to see something that will put a rift in her friendship with Lilly.

Older viewers will really feel their age in watching 20-year-old Dakota Fanning, once the little, wise-beyond-her-years talent who held her own against acting heavyweights like Sean Penn in "I Am Sam" and Denzel Washington in "Man on Fire," fearlessly playing her first adult role as Cherie Curie in "The Runaways" and now a teen who's taking hold of her own sexuality. Lilly is drawn with complexity, and thank goodness for that, because it gives Fanning the chance to imbue the role with her own maturity and experience. As for Elizabeth Olsen, the character of Gerry is less fully written, but the vibrant actress gives her a loose, relaxed, fun-loving spirit. No fault of the performance by Boyd Holbrook (a 32-year-old actor, believe it or not), but we never quite understand both David and Lilly's interest in the other. With only two scenes of speaking dialogue apiece, Richard Dreyfuss and Demi Moore, as Gerry's lefty parents, are nice to see even if they aren't allowed much time to carve out memorable moments. From the first frame to the last, it's not hard to predict how everything will progress for Lilly and Gerry. Mostly though, it is the empathetic, mostly appealing performances by Elizabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning and their touching camaraderie that give "Very Good Girls" its fair luster.

Grade: C +

Monday, July 21, 2014

DVD/Blu-ray: Terrific cast flails in tonally confused "Angriest Man in Brooklyn"

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (2014)
84 min., rated R.

"The Angriest Man in Brooklyn" seems to exist only in wild extremes. One minute, it's a silly, farcical sitcom, and next, the phony drama demands tears. Either caustic, strenuous, or maudlin and never anything in between, this annoying, artificial screwball farce with dramatic and tragic undertones tries to waver every which way and strikes as too ineffective in all directions. There's nothing really wrong with the redemption story of a dying man making up for years of anger and regret, and walking a tonal tightrope can be done, but director Phil Alden Robinson (who, if you can remember, made 1989's "Field of Dreams" and 1992's "Sneakers") and screenwriter Daniel Taplitz, whose script is based on Assi Dayan's of a 1997 Israeli film "The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum," must have gone tone-deaf by the results of this unmanageable misfire. And it even pulls a great cast down with it.

Henry Altmann (Robin Williams) is having a bad day. He's always in a fit of rage, but on one particular day, his car gets hit by a cab and then he gets into a fuming argument with the cab driver. At his doctor's appointment, the doctor (Louis C.K.) he usually sees is out, so a substitute, the young Dr. Sharon Gill (Mila Kunis), sees him. Sharon, who's having a bad day herself due to her beloved cat jumping out the window and resorts to pill-popping, breaks the news to Henry that he has a brain aneurysm. She gets tired of Henry yelling at her, so she makes up that his life expectancy is limited to 90 minutes. Having made a mess of his relationships with his brother Aaron (Peter Dinklage), his estranged wife Bette (Melissa Leo), and his son Tommy (Hamish Linklater) after his other son died, Henry decides to try and reconcile. Meanwhile, Sharon feels guilty, so she goes on a wild goose chase to find Henry and get him in for treatment.

If the terrific ensemble cast could make up for the uneven direction, it's not that any of them are slacking, but the performances are also oddly screechy and often confused. Robin Williams can certainly play a bitter asshole well, but every supposedly redemptive moment succeeding his unhinged anger doesn't feel the least bit earned. In fact, the fake 90 minutes Sharon has given Henry seems too long for a man this miserable when we don't really care what happens to him. We only see flashbacks of Henry as a good father, who used to support his son Tommy's interest in ballroom dancing but now doesn't since he lost his other son and Tommy wouldn't join Henry's law firm. Hamish Linklater shares a few sincere moments with Williams, having worked with him on CBS's "The Crazy Ones." Mila Kunis is spunky as Sharon, but begins to suffer with the unconvincing material. One can almost see the embarrassed look on the indefatigable Melissa Leo's face, as she gets nothing to work with that isn't stock. James Earl Jones (as a stuttering shopkeeper), Richard Kind (in a fat suit), and Isiah Whitlock Jr. also have bit roles, and Broadway darling Sutton Foster has a thankless role as Tommy's girlfriend. Out of anyone, it might be Peter Dinklage who emerges the most unscathed as Henry's calmer brother.

Everyone is trying hard and yet flailing hopelessly in "The Angriest Man in Brooklyn" that some breathing room might have improved thingsmaybebut almost nothing works as it is. Is anyone supposed to feel like a real, functioning person? A novelistic, third-person voice-over narration device by both Williams and Kunis overstates everything the characters are thinking and feeling. The comedic moments go clunk, from wacky cab rides to Henry berating a foreign cabbie. The telling-us-to-feel-sad musical cues are cloying and manipulative, as if poignancy couldn't be drawn from the simplicity of the writing and performances. Henry Altmann should be grieving instead of being so angry because the one that ends up earning the reason to be angry is the viewer.

Grade: C - 

Story Crashes: Meaningless "Third Person" isn't fooling anybody

Third Person (2014)
137 min., rated R.

The only thing worse than a lazy film is one that thinks it's smarter, weightier, more thought-provoking and revelatory than it really is. Say what you will about writer-director Paul Haggis (2010's "The Next Three Days") and his 2005 Oscar-winning "Crash," a powerfully searing multi-strand drama of interweaving stories; despite pieces of it pushing too hard to make its thematic points, at least the film challenged and left a haunting cumulative impact. Haggis seems to find pleasure in pushing stories around like index cards on a presentation board and moving characters around like chess pieces even more so in "Third Person," pretentious hooey masquerading itself as a Significant Drama. It might have drawn a sprawling ensemble to an ambitious concept, but the film stretches itself to the breaking point of no return and goes around and around and around for an ungodly 137 minutes. Is it an exploration of loss and writerly creation? Or, is Haggis trying to remake "The Words" (2012's like-minded, writing-based drama that was also too gimmicky and co-starred Olivia Wilde)? It's hard to tell, but for sure, "Third Person" is facile and heavy-handed to the point of aggravation.

Nestled in a hotel room in Paris away from his estranged wife (Kim Basinger), Pulitzer-Prize writing author Michael (Liam Neeson) pays for journalist lover Anna (Olivia Wilde) to come stay on the floor above him as he tries finishing writing a manuscript. Over in Rome, business-suited Scott (Adrien Brody) can't keep his eyes off of sultry mystery woman Monika (Moran Atias) in a bar. When she leaves a bag of $500 Euros to get her alleged daughter off a boat, it gets into the wrong hands. Is Scott scamming her or is it the other way around? In New York, ex-soap actress Julia (Mila Kunis) is facing the hard consequences of being charged for nearly suffocating her young son, who is now in the custody of his painter father Rick (James Franco). She's lucky enough to land a job as a maid at a luxury hotel and has a shot at getting shared custody with a tough lawyer (Maria Bello) on her case, but if Julia doesn't adopt more responsibility, she will lose visitation rights to see her precious little boy. What could it possibly all mean? So what?

There still might be a good motion picture aiming to pull off what "Third Person" sets out to do, but it didn't make it to the screen this time. Supposedly taking a semiautobiographical approach with the material, writer-director Paul Haggis uses only the barest form of cohesion to spin this convoluted, ultimately muddled mess of so many plural threads. He hopscotches between the lushly shot New York and Paris and Rome, cuts from one character to another, throws in some symbolism, but "Third Person" begins to feel overly gridlocked and in need of a traffic cop, not an unreliable narrator at the helm. Would any of these stories be worth telling on their own? Perhaps, but Haggis ends up betraying his web of characters, underestimating the viewer, and leaving one caring about nothing. The first "a-ha" moment makes some sense in terms of why a certain character behaves a certain way, but it's just mishandled and ludicrously conveyed as an ickily bonkers shock, and the second revelation is more problematic than surprising. It's so maddening because the film baits the viewer in connecting the dots and then thinks it's pulling the rug out from underneath us. Once Haggis thinks he has snapped every piece into place, it hardly makes up for how overlong, meretricious and head-scratching it all feels. 

With Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis attached, the cast of A-listers probably thought they were making something noble and meaningful, but it isn't for lack of trying. They all commit, and even a few memorable performances emerge from the rubble. Olivia Wilde does wonders lending so many shadings to Anna, a flirty, overly confident, nakedly vulnerable, fearful, emotionally cool woman that one almost suspects she's certifiable. Mila Kunis acts the hell out of her part as crisis-laden Julia, coming off sympathetic for how fallible she is, although the script seems to want to punish her over and over. Moran Atias is eye-catching as the enigmatic Monika, while Adrien Brody holds interest in simmering emotions beneath the surface as the equally enigmatic Scott. Finally, Maria Bello is always stirringly readable with a face that says everything, but aside from her strengths to cry, her character is mostly a pawn in the bigger picture.

"Third Person" is the sort of film that loses from shooting high and then shooting itself in the foot. It's the sort of film that's about as graceful as someone whipping their arms around a hotel room full of flower-filled glass vases and breaking every last one of them. Too bat-shit crazy to take seriously, there's also a laughably melodramatic scene where, in slow-motion with an overwrought score taking over for the audio, a character who's holding onto her child's stuffed monkey is pulled across a room by her legs over a rug and then doesn't let go of the rug. Just a pinch of subtlety might have helped. The only reason it almost remains fascinating as a glorious mess is how it keeps the viewer wondering in between sighs where it's going, if anywhere, and what point Haggis wants to make, if any. In the end, there's really nothing to take away, except to wonder how an interesting conceit and talented people on both sides of the camera could so terribly miss the mark.

Grade: C -

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Rich vs. Poor: "Purge: Anarchy" angrier and more fully realized

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)
104 min., rated R.

2013's "The Purge" was a box-office topper during its opening weekend, but it surely had its naysayers. Writer-director James DeMonaco's film had an extreme corker of a hook, but while amounting to a down-and-dirty, pretty efficient home-invasion slasher with a novel backdrop that faced moral quandaries head-on and never guaranteed our heroes to all remain standing, it didn't exactly realize its full potential. DeMonaco must have taken the first film's flaws to heart or is just now getting the chance to make the movie he wanted to make with three times the budget because his sequel, "The Purge: Anarchy," gets a more fully realized treatment of the near-future world the original film envisioned. The politically loaded point has been sharpened and communicated at the loudest volume possible, and the setting is no longer confined to a claustrophobic bubble, opening itself up to the Downtown Los Angeles streets. Picking up a year after the first film, it's completely the same premise, albeit magnified and better all around, to the point that this follow-up one-ups its forefather.

Two hours before commencement of the 6th Annual Purge, sanctioned by the "New Founding Fathers" who legalize crime for 12 hours from dusk to dawn, a group of regular people are just trying to survive the night of March 21, 2023. Shane (Zach Gilford) and wife Liz (Kiele Sanchez, Gilford's real-life wife) are about to separate, but while driving into the city to Shane's sister's house, their car stalls and leaves them helplessly running for safety in Downtown L.A. as everyone else is either trying to hunker down in their homes or sharpening their machetes to "release the beast." The rugged, tough-as-nails Sergeant (Frank Grillo) has a revenge mission on his purge night and begins by cruising the streets. Before lockdown, diner waitress Eva (Carmen Ejogo) goes home—"Stay safe!" taking the place of "Happy Holidays!"—to her apartment in the projects with her dying father (John Beasley) and her strong-minded daughter Cali (Zoë Soul), who glues her eyes to radical anti-Purge videos made by firebrand activist Carmelo (Michael K. Williams). Their plans for a peaceful night are shattered when a S.W.A.T. team pulls them from their apartment and hands them over to Big Daddy (Jack Conley), an apron-wearing nut driving around with an automatic weapon in the back of a transport truck. In the nick of time, the Sergeant decides to save Eva and Cali, just as Shane and Liz hide out in the back of his car, but he will only stay with them as long as they make it to the family home of Eva's waitress friend (Justina Machado) and take her car. Will the five strangers make it out without a scratch on their heads before the sun comes up?

Angrier and more nihilistic, but not as gratuitous or exploitative as expected, "The Purge: Anarchy" is a gritty survivalist B-movie made with gristle, closer in appearance to 1979's "The Warriors" and 1981's "Escape from New York" than a horror film. There's still plenty to be unnerved about, not the least being the idea of the wealthy getting their soul-cleansing purge on by killing the poor. At the same time, Wall Street yuppie scum (in the words of "American Psycho") are bloodily chained above the doors of a brokerage. Shane and Liz's early confrontation with masked bikers and skateboarding thugs with "GOD" written on their white faces is creepy, and all of the running the film's survivors do from screaming "Mad Max"-like psychos and Big Daddy lights urgency under the viewer. A shift from a breather to a palpably tense disturbance also runs hot when our surviving five find a safe haven that turns out to be just as chaotic as the outside. Director DeMonaco may approach his critique on class warfare with an in-your-face, point-blank sledgehammer, especially with the use of the mad-as-hell, rabble-rousing Carmelo character, but he keeps the plates spinning credibly and then takes his provocative haves-vs.-have-nots premise one step further into "Hostel" territory with a memorably satirical climax at an auction and then a hunting ground for the rich. 

Rectifying the issues of its predecessor, this sequel is more evenly acted, gives us a new set of characters we can instantly care about, and effectively plays on our fears of where society could go and man's inhumanity to man if given the chance. And, with an almost-junky, drive-in aesthetic, the film sports a kinetic, rough-and-tumble shooting style, just right for a nocturnal urban nightmare. For all intents and purposes, Frank Grillo is the no-nonsense leader and he's a strong enough actor as he is a muscular action hero in the making. Even though Sergeant's backstory is gradually revealed and he wants to participate in the purge for understandable reasons, we trust him and feel his grappling of angry impulse and morality. Of the other characters who are fleshed out as more than just squatting clichés made of cardboard, Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul are grounded and sympathetic as mother Eva and daughter Cali. Though there is not one "purger" that stands out from the rest like Rhys Wakefield's grinning preppy stranger did in the first film, aged soap actress Judith McConnell is a chilling sight and then just as easily pathetic as a smiling high-society woman when the alleged have-nots turn the tables.

Blumhouse Productions most likely sees a non-supernatural franchise giant here to rival the defunct "Saw" and the ready-for-burial "Paranormal Activity" movies, and there are no complaints here. Questions are still raised, like how anyone can just pick up with their lives the next day or why everyone chooses murder over any other crime, but the premise is more satisfyingly explored this time. From time to time, the film fumbles with a few lines of unsophisticated dialogue that state the obvious and resorts to a convenient, last-minute deus ex machina where the right people come at the right time. Even so, writer-director DeMonaco and his cast make it all work, including a resolution that could have seemed overly pat, and "The Purge: Anarchy" releases a political-minded beast that also works as thrill entertainment.