Saturday, August 30, 2014

It's a Dead, Gloomy World: "Jamie Marks Is Dead" flawed but thick with tragic, chilly mood

Jamie Marks Is Dead (2014) 
100 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

A somber, harshly grim supernatural twist on the coming-of-age tale, "Jamie Marks Is Dead" is never as fully realized as desired, but there is something about it that stirs in the mind. Adapted from Christopher Barzak's 2007 young adult novel "One for Sorrow" by writer-director Carter Smith (2008's skin-crawling bodily/botanic horror-thriller "The Ruins"), the film encapsulates a chilly, mournful mood with broken specters throughout that reverberates afterward without ever becoming a dreary trudge. Even with hushed suggestion and metaphor, Smith never once flinches at death, youthful alienation or longing between two young men, one alive and one dead. That such a boldly disturbing film can be made well without striking the wrong tone and actually came to fruition at all is what matters most. Discussion will most likely be opened up between readers, queer-cinema historians and horror scholars.

The half-naked, pale-blue body of bullied teenage outcast Jamie Marks (Noah Silver) is found on a creek bed by local girl Gracie (Morgan Saylor) when looking for rocks to add to her collection. When track-and-field athlete Adam McCormick (Cameron Monaghan), a classmate of Jamie's who never joined in on the bullying but never stopped it, visits Jamie's bridge-side memorial, that's where he meets Gracie. The two teens start hanging out and become the only two people who can see the spirit of Jamie when they find him shivering and standing by the woods outside Gracie's bedroom window. Meanwhile, Adam has trouble with his own trailer home life, single mother Linda (Liv Tyler) wheelchair-bound after being hit by a drunk driver and grade-A asshole older brother Aaron (Ryan Munzert) always giving him a hard time. With Jamie existing in limbo, reappearing in closets and requesting help, Adam now gives the lonely ghost what he always wanted, and maybe vice versa.

Eternally grey and clammy, "Jamie Marks Is Dead" has been created with a straight-faced mood and resonant sensitivity. It's a metaphor-heavy horror drama that stands for something else, a supernatural haunting exemplifying closeted homosexuality, and for that reason, the film never falls into hokiness as it easily could have. Before Adam gives him clothes to wear, Jamie walks around in his tighty whities and cracked glasses; the imagery is more eerily unsettling than anything. The tone is further solidified by Darren Law's wintry, evocative lensing and rural locations in upstate New York, with the image of a dead deer carcass hanging from a basketball hoop never being brought attention to but only adding to the overall sense of gloom and tragedy. Whereas the film excels more as a mood piece, it often keeps the viewer at arm's length. Was Jamie ever more than a locker-room victim? Did he have any hobbies? Narratively, Carter Smith's screenplay has a few too many nagging gaps. The particulars of why only Adam and Gracie can see Jamie (and, in the former's case, other dead people) are glossed over, but one just accepts it. Dangling subplotsone with angry ghost Frances Wilkinson (Madisen Beaty) reliving the same day she murdered her abusive parents and then took her own life, and the other involving Adam's mom's budding friendship with needy, alcoholic neighbor Lucy (Judy Greer) who put Linda in the wheelchairare not satisfactorily developed enough to understand why they exist. Moments where Jamie requests Adam to whisper words (e.g. "murder," "sorrow," "love") in his ear and, later on, mouth probably read better on the page, too.

Cameron Monaghan (TV's "Shameless") is low-key in his portrayal of Adam, making him empathetic but not flawless. As the dead, bespectacled Jamie Marks, Noah Silver (TV's "Tyrant") is heart-shatteringly fragile that he's expected to leave a lasting imprint on the viewer. In the role of the offbeat and sexually experienced Gracie, who can be a hard one to figure out, Morgan Saylor (TV's "Homeland") is pretty captivating with every nuance she reveals to the camera. Aside from the younger TV actors, more seasoned performers Liv Tyler and Judy Greer are too often marginalized in go-nowhere parts. Not extremely marketable to appeal to a YA demographic but far more maturely handled than expected, "Jamie Marks Is Dead" makes up for the times it overplays its hand with a quiet, melancholy power. 

Grade: B -

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Undying Love: Plaza and DeHaan a touching pair in "Life After Beth"

Life After Beth (2014)
91 min., rated R.

Just when you were ready to put the zombie subgenre to bed once and for all, "Life After Beth" comes along and has its own inspired, twistedly romantic slant to offer. Even after last year's surprisingly sweet "Warm Bodies," there's still a little life left here. "I Huckabees" screenwriter Jeff Baena's writing-directing debut, the film is tonally off-kilter, expectedly amusing and just fun asin the words of star Aubrey Plaza from promotional interviewsa "zom-com-rom-dram" but it's unexpectedly tragic, too. While some may remain uncertain about the tone, Baena smartly avoids winks and nudges or silliness and plays the situation straight with doses of droll, quirky humor. "Life After Beth" doesn't go quite as far with its promising premise as it could have to instantaneously make cult-classic status, but its players are delights, and the film that actually made the cut is just too sensitively drawn to not adore.

21-year-old Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) dies from a snakebite after going for a hike alone. This leaves her recently dumped boyfriend, Zach (Dane DeHaan), in a painfully deep state of mourning. He wears her colorful scarf in the summer heat and spends a lot of time visiting Beth's grieving parents, Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), whom he can relate to more than his real family, parents Judy (Cheryl Hines) and Noah (Paul Reiser) and his security guard brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler). When Zach tries coming to the Slocum household again, he swears he spots Beth from a window, and it's true. His sweet Beth is very much alive, or just back from the grave, while her parents see her inscrutable return as a resurrection but keep her cooped up in the house until night falls. Beth gets right back to loving Zach, as does he, but she likes hanging out in the attic and starts getting welts on her face and displaying wild mood swings and memory loss. It's nice to have Beth back, but can Zach put up with her inhuman strength and flesh-eating habits?

A superior version of 1993's tongue-in-cheek "My Boyfriend's Back" with risks taken in tonality like 2009's "Jennifer's Body," "Life After Beth" is quite a different animal. It may be about a boy and his zombified girlfriend, but at its heart is a through-line about loss and how human relationships can be the most fragile as life itself, growing all the more resonant the longer one thinks about it. Sometimes, the love of your life can just slip away, and just sometimes they can come back when we least expect and eat the interior of your car like a rabid animal. At the start, when we briefly meet Beth hiking through Los Angeles' Griffith Park, there is menace early on, aided by a grunge rock score composed by band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The film oddly begins with Beth dead in the next scene and Zach looking for black napkins at a supermarket to bring to Beth's wake. Little groundwork has been built, so we have little context or idea what Zach and Beth's relationship has really been like up to the present. Beyond this underdeveloped hump, though, there are still pangs of sadness. Such horror-tinged atmosphere in the opening is then juxtaposed with the smooth jazz music that can comfort Beth's ears and get her in the lusty mood (one of the film's slyer laughs). The blood-thin material verges on being a premise rather than a story, but Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza take it far with their dedication and are well-supported by comedic talent.

In a reactive performance of brooding relatability, unflagging young actor Dane DeHaan admirably underplays his role of the heartsick Zach. He grounds the film, making his mixture of feelings palpably sad, and might be one of the reasons why the material straddles a tricky tone of mourning and heightened reality so well. Then there's Aubrey Plaza, who throws herself into the role of Beth. The deadpan cut-up who was born to play Daria Morgendorffer is nowhere to be found here; instead, she displays a wide range of notes from confusion to arousal to moodiness to psychosis. It's a chewy performance with primal, physical challenges, and Plaza knows when to dial it back and when to turn herself into a lunatic. Playing Beth's loving parents who cling to the pleasant memories of their daughter and then make up for lost time by snapping photos, the equally invaluable John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon enliven straight-faced roles that could have been one-note or left them to just yuk it up. As Erica Wexler, the daughter of Zach's mom's friend, Anna Kendrick brings a ditsy sweetness to a supporting role that comes in handy by the end. Finally, the very funny Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser aren't given a whole lot to do and, thus, struggle to bring any dimension to Zach's self-absorbed, emotionally robotic parents who haven't been written as real, feeling people, while Matthew Gray Gubler is too much of a broad cartoon as his idiotic, paranoid brother.

Amidst the horrific trappings and even humor of an undead romance, there is a simple, heartbreaking melancholy at the foot of "Life After Beth" (a clever title, by the way). When it tries to be more and work in a larger zombie apocalypse taking over for the third act, the film can't quite make up its mind on where it wants to go. Nevertheless, the character interactions, especially those between Zach and Beth, are touching and eclipse the sketchier plotting. If a growling, tongue-wagging Beth being strapped to an oven doesn't subjectively make for a hilarious sight gag (though it is), then the gutsy, sorrowful final image with the young lovers going on a hike sticks around longer than one would ever expect. Love is a tricky emotion when one of you keeps decomposing.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Stepford Retreat: "The One I Love" a smart look at relationships with a magical bent

The One I Love (2014)
91 min., rated R.

Relationships can be hard work. We all make mistakes, but if one partner does something to lose the other partner's trust, it can be an uphill battle to regain that trust again. We all have high expectations for our partners, too. Author Charlie McDowell understands these notions in "The One I Love," marking his directorial debut, which is so deftly executed one wouldn't expect it to come from a first-timer. It is essentially a two-hander (or would it be a four-hander?), plus one TV's "Cheers" veteran as the catalyst, on the same wavelength as Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman with its touch of "Being John Malkovich." An incisive, cleverly fresh and provocative take on marital relationships and embracing the flaws in our significant others rather than hoping for an idealized version, "The One I Love" is one low-budget indie that might be best seen without knowing a clue. In concentrating more on characters than plot gimmicks, it proves smart, engaging ideas and nuanced performances are better than anything money can buy. 

Holding onto happy memories of when they first met, married couple Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) have lost the magic and are out of sync. At a therapy session, their marriage counselor (Ted Danson) recommends they go on a weekend retreat in a bucolic, secluded vacation home, where other couples have all returned home "renewed." Ethan and Sophie give it a go, and once they have settled in, made and eaten dinner and shared a joint, Sophie walks over to the guesthouse, only to soon be joined by Ethan and then the two make love. But when Sophie decides they should sleep over in the guesthouse, she goes back to the main house and finds Ethan already asleep on the couch. What could be going on? Divulging more would spoil some of the fun that's more gratifying for the viewer to discover on their own.

Written by Justin Lader and directed by Charlie McDowell, "The One I Love" has an inspired conceit that depends all on the element of surprise and its insight into interpersonal relationships. For a dramedy with a fantastical bent, director McDowell does show a subtle hand without too much whimsy or creepiness but a wonderful middle ground with heightened amusement, generous observation and an underlying menace. "Some weird 'Twilight Zone' shit is happening," a befuddled Ethan says to his wife, and that's all can be tipped off about what the couple finds in that charming guesthouse. The curious scenario at the core of the film is left as an inscrutable mystery, and it's just as well, since the screenplay could have bogged itself down in laborious explanation. Instead, it drops a few hints and leaves it at that, which might dissatisfy a certain percentage of viewers, but too many answers might have diluted the film's purpose. After all, this is less of a film about rules than relationships.

Both relatable and appealing in their own right, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss (TV's "Mad Men") click terrifically as Ethan and Sophie, spouses who haven't clicked in a while. Their assignments are challenging and they both pull off distinct variations on their characters, being able to go warm and cold. Neither strains for sympathy, and yet they both earn it. Sly, little physical and behavioral changes are made important, like Ethan's messy hair and Sophie's pinned-up hair and sunny, submissive disposition, as well as her sudden will to cook Ethan bacon. Doug Emmett's cinematography also warrants mention, grounding this surreal situation more so by lending an idyllic, naturally magical glow, as do composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans' ("Enemy") whimsical music score. Even the visual effects are seamless for such a small-scaled production.

With improvisation being encouraged on set, "The One I Love" still feels tightly scripted. Even when the film raises more questions than answers about Ethan and Sophie's therapist's ways, it more importantly analyzes some uncomfortably prickly truths in all of us. What if everything you loved about your partner when you first met them was now gone? Would you do anything to get that magic back? For Ethan and Sophie's sake, the viewer hopes they can work it out and resist the temptations that the guesthouse presents to them. Go into this little film blind and you will be completely thrown for a loop.

Grade: B +

Sunday, August 24, 2014

More City Crime: "Dame to Kill For" still dazzling but with less kick this time

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)
102 min., rated R.

If any movie was able to make green screens look breathtaking, it was 2005's unparalleled "Sin City," a vividly violent, darkly intoxicating, insanely entertaining piece of pulpy cinema heaven that blazed a trail for graphic novels coming to life as the neo-film noir to end all neo-film noirs. It was a familiar, shadowy world but distinctly and audaciously visualized like no other. That was nine years ago, though, and now we're just getting the long-awaited follow-up, "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For." Directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, adapting from his Dark Horse graphic novels, return and sumptuously emulate Miller's artwork, but whereas that first adaptation felt like a cutting-edge motion picture, this companion piece is merely a hyper-stylized technical exercise with high style that won't quit but only the sporadic offering of pleasurable sin. Less alive than moribund, "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" may be more of the same, but this time, the tenuously intertwined stories are disjointedly paced and not as interesting. This dame has less kick and just never coalesces into a cohesive, satisfying whole.

Like in "Sin City," a handful of vignettes are knitted together by being set in Basin City, a seedy, rotten metropolis of serial killers, whores and corrupt creeps. In "Just Another Saturday Night," world-weary, facially disfigured brute Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes up on a highway to retrace his steps of how he got there and killed a group of frat boys. In "The Long Bad Night"one of the two original pieces written exclusively for the film—cocky young gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) rides into town, hitting the jackpot on slot machines and then taking on kingpin Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe) in a backroom poker game that brings him bad luck. The third story, a prelude to the first film, is the centerpiece as it involves "a dame to kill for" in the form of femme fatale Ava Lord (Eva Green). P.I. Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) becomes the real victim when killing an innocent man, mistress Ava's rich husband, which was all part of her master plan. Now, Dwight is coming back with a vengeance and he's gaining an assist from Marv, Old Town's head dominatrix/prostitute Gail (Rosario Dawson), and samurai-sword-swiping assassin Miho (Jamie Chung). Finally, in "Nancy's Last Dance," Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), now adding heavy drinking to her dance routine at Kadie's Club Pecos after the death of knight John Hartigan (Bruce Willis, popping up in mirrors as a ghost), finishes off her downward spiral with her revenge on Senator Roarke.

Popping with smoke, blood and bare breasts, "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" is over-the-top in its pulpy, nihilistic, hard-boiled vision and tone, and knows it. How could it not? When Ava slinks out of a pool after a nude swim, Dwight notes in voice-over that she always puts on a piece of theater, "or maybe it was retail." "You can't make a sale without showing the goods," he adds. The visual style is still stark and dazzlingly composed as black and white with splashes of color, and the whole filmmaking process is still impressive, as actors are blended into computer-generated backgrounds. On an aesthetic level, it will be hard to find a pretty frame that doesn't look like a stylish panel come to life. Unfortunately, at the same time, the novelty of such a cool, monochromatic world has worn off, so once we get past that, the artificiality stands out and more time is allowed to focus on the writing. The ugly truth is that there isn't a soul to care about, these sleazed-up characters mere archetypal vigilantes and sirens, and the anthological storytelling lumbers along instead of moving and making seamless transitions. So when the viewer feels blasé about the trajectory of each yarn, what's the point? 

For his second go as Marv, Mickey Rourke (and his ugly mug) was born to play the gravelly-voiced animal-with-a-heart-of-gold with the most humanity. Joseph Gordon-Levitt fits the bill as the slick Johnny, but the most interest-grabbing aspect of that thread is really Powers Boothe's effectively repellent Roarke. Josh Brolin is an acceptably commanding replacement for Clive Owen as Dwight. (And, while we're on the topic of replacements, Jamie Chung and Dennis Haysbert are recast, respectively, as Miho and brick-shithouse bodyguard Manute, taking over for Devon Aoki and the late Michael Clarke Duncan.) An emerald-eyed, ruby-lipped Eva Green embraces the tone the filmmakers were going for and burns the screen as the voluptuous, man-eating Ava Lord, adding her delectable (and regularly nude) femme fatale to her growing catalogue of strong characters. Though protected with a no-nudity clause by playing a stripper who rarely strips, Jessica Alba gets to show a darker rawness (and some badass, self-inflicted scars) than she has ever before as Nancy, who drinks from a vodka bottle before, after, and during her time on stageoh, and she gyrates a lot. 

With all the A-list talent procured, it is fun to see a select few of additional cast members perform on a campy, deadly serious level, like Christopher Meloni and Jeremy Piven, as detective partners Mort and Bob, and Lady Gaga, who actually fits right in with the surroundings in one scene as a sympathetic waitress. At the mercy of the script and its figuratively black-and-white nature, though, others are unable to make a worthwhile mark, including Ray Liotta, as a philandering businessman; Juno Temple and Julia Garner both playing arm-candy hookers Sally and Marcie in separate stories; Christopher Lloyd, as Dr. Kroenig who treats Johnny's gnarly broken hand; and Stacey Keach, covered under loads of blobby make-up as mob boss Wallensquist. 

Even with "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" underperforming as an actual living, breathing film beyond very pretty cosmetics, this disheartening news does not mean there isn't some nasty, cold-hearted fun to be had around the fringes. But, in the long run, take away the style and what do we really have? Gratuitous female nudity, leaden blows to the head, and so many decapitations that you will lose track, yes, but that's why the first "Sin City" exists. Sure, it might have had more style than enduring substance, however, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller were still on to something groundbreaking and thrilling, akin to lightning in a bottle, that can't really be reheated. Besides, nine years is too long to wait and then be unsatisfied with slick-looking, occasionally boring emptiness.

Grade: C +

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Heaven or Love?: Moretz is wonderful, even if "If I Stay" manipulates tear ducts

If I Stay (2014)
107 min., rated PG-13.

Swap out cancer for a coma and "If I Stay" could have been another good example of a dewy-eyed teen weeper with a talented star like "The Fault in Our Stars." An adaptation of Gayle Forman's 2009 YA novelthe first of two, if that's considered a spoiler—the film could not be more luminously gauzy and earnestly acted. The lovely Chloë Grace Moretz, only 17 years old, is one of the few shining constants elevating this treacle, resisting any false, inauthentic notes and keeping the good will going for a while before the mawkish theatrics take over. A tearjerker can be skillfully carried out without spotting the filmmaker's strings, but "If I Stay" often falls into the trap of using too many desperate ploys designed to get us to cry buckets.

Awaiting a letter from Julliard on a snow day in Portland, Ore., impressionable, cello-playing 17-year-old Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) goes for a drive with her family, former rocker parents Kat (Mireille Enos) and Denny (Joshua Leonard) and younger brother Teddy (Jakob Davies). All of the teenager's talents could be taken from her in an instant when a truck runs them on the road. Mia wakes up in the snow barefoot, caught in limbo and watching as paramedics surround her own body and putting her in an ambulance, but there are no signs of her parents and brother. The real Mia is unconscious, while the out-of-her-body Mia must watch her friends and family members sit and hope she wakes up. The film then flashes back to happier times when Mia first met Adam (Jamie Blackley), a dreamy high schooler who took an interest in her while walking past the music classroom and watching her lose herself in the music she strums with the cello. They don't immediately have much in common; she is an accomplished cellist and likes listening to classical music (and her school locker is littered with stickers of prodigious cellist Yo-Yo Ma), and he's the frontman for a rock group, performing in dive bars and expanding its popularity in the Pacific Northwest. From their meet-cute to their falling-outs, Mia and Adam are still meant to be, so will she stay and live with her love or does the good really die young?

Director R.J. Cutler (the 2009 Anna Wintour documentary "The September Issue") displays a clear vision, never losing sight of the story's tragic core. Mia may never see her family or Adam again. Decisions to stay with Adam or to go off to Julliard to pursue her dream as a cellist might no longer be options. She now needs to fight to wake up, but even if she does, will her relationship with Adam still be worth it? It's hard to say whether it's due to the source material of Gayle Forman's text or the screenplay by Shauna Cross (who wrote 2009's under-loved "Whip It" and 2012's mediocre "What to Expect When You're Expecting"), but here on screen, the time-flipping structure renders the storytelling uneven. Often awkwardly staged, the present scenes of "Spirit Mia" taking a while to understand why no one is answering her and then running down hospital wings verge on hokey at times. There is also the out-of-the-blue handling of a compassionate nurse (Aisha Hinds) and Willow (Lauren Lee Smith), a hospital-working family friend, who feel undernourished. This isn't to say that there aren't moving moments filled in by the actors, but at a point, the film becomes overkill, even as shamelessly overt emotional manipulation goes. Mia's voice-over narration spells out every thought and emotion in wordy, overstated fashion, and Adam's sweet nothings may earn as many eye rolls as swoons. A few of the directorial choices—for one, Moretz is positioned to walk toward a literal white light as if she has made her final decisionundercut any subtlety or poignancy the film might have had to the point that piercingly grim revelations are treated and felt as non-events. Facing such subject matter head-on is chancy, but it's actually dramatically inert.

With undeniable charisma, grace, sensitivity, truth and an innate intelligence in essaying the angelic and mature Mia, Chloë Grace Moretz keeps proving she is a gifted young actress here to stay. Mia might be a slight outsider in her own family by never breaking the rules and having her goals all set, but it does make sense why her choice of staying or going on to the afterlife would be so difficult. Moretz manages to take mushy material and make certain scenes look more powerful and grounded than they should be; that's just how good she is. She and Jamie Blackley, a magnetic actor in his own right and more than just a handsome face as the initially ideal Adam, even make for an appealing couple whose chemistry may not be intensely burning, but they are quite sweet together and give us enough reason to care. Mia and Adam's relationship seems like one with its ups and downs that exist naturally beyond the plot, even if the car accident seems to come at the wrong time when both teens have just had a falling-out over her Julliard audition and his time on the road with his band. Playing the epitome of cool, fun-loving, but still sagacious parents who used to sow their wild oats before they had Mia, the eternally solid Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard leave memorably affecting imprints. Stacy Keach has a couple of nice scenes as Mia's Gramps, so it's all his doing that he can deliver a touching bedside monologue, and Liana Liberato also brings levity as Mia's best friend Kim.

Music is an integral component to this romantic/tragic drama. Mia tries to impress Adam by dressing up for Halloween as Debbie Harry and he as Ludwig van Beethoven. Ane Brun and Linnéa Olsson's cover of Beyoncé's "Halo" is beautifully fragile, and Blackley leads Mia in a rousing, stripped-down cover of The Smashing Pumpkins' "Today" during a fireside family gathering. Otherwise, the generic music score by Heitor Pereira wades in the schmaltz as if to jump down our throats and force us to feel something. Capped off with an infuriatingly abrupt, anticlimactic cut to black, a film that wants to tackle the choice between life and death should dig deeper and sting like a bee. "If I Stay" may be a dream come true to its target demographic who has always wanted a supernatural twist on a Nicholas Sparks-ish romance after the Zac Efron-headliner "Charlie St. Cloud" and doesn't mind being manipulated for a good cry. For everyone else, it mostly earns crocodile tears, despite wonderful performances.

Grade: C +

Face the Music: "Frank" an oddball original that eventually wins one over

Frank (2014)
95 min., rated R.

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson's "Frank" marches to a different drummer. That much is objectively true. Subjectively, it is a film whose original charms gradually grow on the viewer, but it's probably only going to engage those with open, unusual tastes for the initially creepy hook of the ruggedly handsome Michael Fassbender wearing a fake, globe-sized head with painted-on features that of a cartoon. Taken from a memoir by "The Men Who Stare at Goats" author Jon Ronson and written by Ronson and Peter Straughan ("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), the film is an odd duck, wholly offbeat, often strangely wonderful and sneakily heartbreaking, loosely based on cult comic/musician Chris Sievey, the frontman for punk-rock band The Freshies who might be better remembered as Frank Sidebottom. In the wrong hands, a film named after such an oddball character could turn him into a disconnected, literally faceless joke, but there are actual shadings of melancholy here that make "Frank" as unique and conspicuously unconventional as the music Frank and his band members create.

Before we even meet Frank, the viewer follows Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). He's a bored nine-to-fiver and aspiring songwriter who perpetually uses social media to announce every banal activity, including when he gets an idea for a song. One day, Jon happens to run into The Soronprfbs, an avant-garde band, on the beach when their mentally ill keyboardist tries drowning himself. The loner thinks he just might have found his first big break when he takes a gig from the band's manager, Don (Scoot McNairy), to be their replacement keyboard player. After experiencing the tortured soul of Frank (Michael Fassbender), the affable frontman who refuses to take off his papier-mâché head mask, and his on-stage shenanigans that cut the show early, Jon is invited to go off and stay in a lakeside Irish cottage to record an album with his new band. While standoffish, off-putting theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) doesn't want the band to be publically noticed and is overprotective of Frank, as are drummer Nana (Carla Azar) and French bassist Baraque (Francois Civil), Jon secretly posts videos of them on YouTube in hopes of getting a bigger gig at South by Southwest. Little by little, the former outsider is still on the outside with The Soronprfbs, but not Frank, who has a lot going on inside that inner head. Will the band rise or will they sell out?

Despite the title, "Frank" is really Jon's journey, and what a unique journey it is, even if the film is never in a rush to get where it wants to go. Having proven his star quality in "About Time," Domhnall Gleeson provides a charming, soulful everyman stance to the part of Jon, the real protagonist. The character's initial naiveté would seem to frustrate some, but as we remain on the outside with Jon, the viewer gains more of an understanding of where he's coming from. There is also a warmth between Jon's burgeoning friendship with Frank that would be hard to miss. Let's not ignore the elephant in the room, though. Michael Fassbender might give one of the year's most bravely inspired and delicately moving performances, all because he plays a character with a big, papier-mâché head on top of his real head. Even without a real face, the actor conveys the character's fragility and nervous tics, dubious temperament and a sense of comfort and protection from the world with his makeshift head; it even prevents any chance of the actor ever mugging, not that a chameleonic actor of Fassbender's stature would ever resort to such desperation. In support, Scoot McNairy is unexpectedly touching as entourage manager Don, and Maggie Gyllenhaal nearly invents deadpan volatility with her drolly acerbic delivery as the blistering Clara. 

At face value, "Frank" is the sort of film that would be adored at festivalsit was a hit when it premiered at Sundance this yearor written off for being too in love with its own quirky badge of "I'm Different." Consider the film a gem, then, when something so incredibly weird and absurdist can take chances, be hard to categorize, and still affect the viewer's core in some way or another. Director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriters Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan have something to say about the lines of art and commerce, as well as genius and insanity, and wrap both comments into a bizarro road picture that carves its own tonally controlled route with dark, sometimes broad humor and dark, sad character layers. Even the original music by Stephen Rennicks and performed by "The Soronprfbs" is perfect for niche audiences into performance art. The film might be wrong to suggest that mental illness can be such a wacky, eccentric pretension, but it soon evades those surface trappings. Like how the masked Frank starts describing his facial expressions to Jon, "Frank" offers smiles, sad faces, and sometimes even a delighted look.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Not Just Friends: "What If" buoyed by Radcliffe and Kazan

What If (2014)
98 min., rated PG-13.

What if a romantic comedy actually showed some effort in being fresh without completely diverging from formula at all? Formerly titled "The F Word" (as in "friends") at last year's Toronto Film Festival, "What If" is closer in sensibility to "(500) Days of Summer" than "You've Got Mail" in that it wants to subvert genre tropes rather than fully embrace them. Naturally, it succumbs to those dear tropes. As adapted by Elan Mastai (whose scribe work for 2005's "Alone in the Dark" must have been one of his darkest days) from the play "Toothpaste and Cigars" and directed by Michael Dowse (2012's "Goon"), the film poses that age-old burning question that "When Harry Met Sally…" proved could not work that well. The jury is still out if men and women can just be friends without the sex part getting in the way, but this Toronto-set romantic comedy isn't out to rewrite the playbook at all or explore any untrodden, boundary-breaking terrain. Coming at a time when the tired, much-maligned genre has just recently been skewered in "They Came Together," it's rather traditional but nearer a likable, recommendable status than the opposite.

In Toronto, British office drone Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) is a medical dropout who has just recently dumped his girlfriend for cheating on him. With the heartbreak still too fresh, he then meets vivacious animator Chantry (Zoe Kazan), the cousin to Wallace's college roomie and friend Allan (Adam Driver), at a party. They instantly form a bond, even though Chantry is up front about having a live-in boyfriend whom she's been with for five years. Wallace and Chantry run into each other at a retro screening of "The Princess Bride" and start a friendship as if they're old friends, and the time finally comes for him to meet her diplomatic boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall), as well as her desperate-to-rebound-date sister Dalia (Megan Park). Wallace would rather be friends with Chantry than nothing at all, but it will be hard to remain platonic when Ben moves to Ireland for six months and Chantry feels lonely. Complications ensue when Wallace can't fight this feeling anymore.

"What If" is formula through and through, but like most romantic comedies that need not reinvent the wheel or always be dependent on the element of surprise, it's all in how the story is carried out with its characters, dialogue and tone. This one's execution is breezily diverting and cute, maybe sometimes too cute. It certainly gets off to an unctuous start, the repartee being overly smitten with itself and coming off less witty and cleverly hip than it believes itself to be. Still, the majority of the dialogue is sharper than usual, as articulate characters speak in a glibly heightened, snarky fashion. Then on occasion, there is a verbal fixation on excrement and a strained, irritating wackiness creeping in without really furthering the story or helping it seem authentic. When supporting characters aren't talking about bowel movements, the film stays on point and maintains an appealing buoyancy. It's the little moments that shine, like Chantry insisting she's a size "2" and then asking Wallace for help out of the dress in a store fitting room, or Wallace and Chantry going skinny-dipping and then being left on the beach without clothes to share one sleeping bag. Michael Dowse's simple direction is complemented by animated-sketch flights of fancy, which is just one more attempt to add whimsy, while Elan Mastai's screenplay brings fridge-magnet words, alternative names for Cool Whip and a "Fool's Gold Loaf" sandwich as a romantic gesture to the table. Also, how refreshing to see the Canadian city playing itself and not standing in for another location.

The film hinges all on whether or not you care about Wallace and Chantry, their connection buoyed all the more by the young actors playing them. Distancing himself from the "Harry Potter" franchise he grew up making for an entire decade of his life, Daniel Radcliffe is charming enough as the initially heartbroken Wallace, who wouldn't dare break up Chantry's relationship. More than playing just the so-called "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" from "Ruby Sparks," Zoe Kazan is an unfailingly adorable delight as Chantry. The absolute scene-stealers' names are Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis (one of the best things in "That Awkward Moment"), both loose and comedically nimble as randy, spontaneous friends Allan and Nicole who round off a slew of "I wants" when licking each other's faces off. Rafe Spall might have been pigeonholed in the tough role of Chantry's boyfriend Ben, who threatens Wallace with a smile if his plans were to take his girlfriend away, but he finds a way to keep the character more sympathetic than most actors could. Megan Park is also a hoot as Chantry's sister Dalia, who tries forcing herself onto Wallace. Finally, Lucius Hoyos and Jemina Rooper are sweetly amusing, albeit underused, as Wallace's nephew and sister, the latter turning the eating of a sandwich and the need for the Heimlich maneuver into a sly bit of slapstick. 

As long as one can get over the characters' slight air of navel-gazing, "What If" will more than suffice as a pleasant, smarter-than-you're-expecting relationship comedy for the Lena Dunham generation. It still follows a conventional template with several "of course" beats that bring along a few falling-outs for our focal couple. Will Chantry find herself split between two men and a promotion for her career? Of course. Will Wallace eventually confront his deeper connection with Chantry? Of course. Then again, the film doesn't always seem predetermined that these two twentysomethings will end up together. Of course, they do, and that's why this sort of film is more special and harder to resist in the getting-there than a destination that might as well come with a smiley emoticon. When Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan are your leads, you'll have what they're having.

Grade: B -

Monday, August 18, 2014

Too Old for This Spit: "Expendables 3" no great shakes

The Expendables 3 (2014) 
126 min., rated PG-13.

The novelty of expanding upon the roster of iconic, manly-man action stars of the '80s and '90s with younger, emerging ones has grown more than a little arthritic. If 2010's "The Expendables" was more fun in theory and 2012's "The Expendables 2" topped its predecessor by embracing its mindless existence with a knowing, pretension-free sense of humor, then "The Expendables 3" has less of the first one's self-seriousness and less of the sequel's winking cheekiness. Even by the lax standards of an explosive, old-school action shoot-'em-up with so many kick-ass has-beens, it's too generic and not very fun to see what the hurry and fuss were all about in making another. Anyone knowing what to expect from the seventeen names on the poster will still be wishing "The Expendables 3" were better when the finished product is over. Though this critic-proof junk has no business to work a third time, the viewer already knows whether he or she is in or out, like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Step Up All In" (okay, any of the "Step Up" movies really). 

First order of business, head mercenary Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) leads his band of Expendables—Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews)—to infiltrate an armored prison train. They break out Doc (Wesley Snipes), a self-described "medical genius" with an Expendables tattoo who has been incarcerated for 8 years. Onto the crew's next mission in Somalia, Barney discovers arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson) was only thought to be dead, as he's very much alive and has gone "dark." When one of the Expendables is shot and nearly killed, it's at the hospital where Barney is told by CIA officer Max Drummer (Harrison Ford) that Stonebanks needs to be taken down. Deciding to retire the old-timers, he finds help from retired Expendable Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) to recruit a new team of youngsters across the states.

Looking more weathered with each movie on-screen as team leader Barney, Sylvester Stallone lets director Patrick Hughes take a swing. Delivering on the bread and butter of the action genre, "The Expendables 3" entertains once in a while on a junky, brain-dead level, but the rest of the time, it's wearisome and you'll be checking your watch. It's almost mind-boggling how much time is spent on the characters (a term to be used lightly here) having downtime and explaining their feelings, and then they get back to firing their weapons and exploding off of docks away from a bomb, always being within an inch of their lives. It's a given, but plot and character are not exactly the order of the day, considering the former and latter are reduced to a bunch of ho-hum globe-trotting missions and a gym-class roll call of names right out of the Muppets. When Barney lets his old team go, the film actually hits the beats of a romantic comedy's temporary break-up probably without any irony that one almost expects Nazareth's "Love Hurts" to chime in. For dialogue, every line is a sarcastic "witticism" that couldn't be lamer if it tried, and yet the screenplay took Stallone, Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt (2013's "Olympus Has Fallen") to come up with. 

There's really no reason to break down any of the performances. Each of them get a line or a punch to call their own, but the entire unit feels uninspired in these perfunctory roles flattened to token has-beens. As one of the youngsters points out, they all look like "a bunch of has-beens just trying to be hard." Stallone tries to convey a friendship with Jason Statham, as Lee Christmas, based on wisecracks. Arnold Schwarzenegger, puffing on a cigar as always, and Jet Li make worthless returns as Trench and Yin Yang (seriously), as there's never enough of them. It is nice to see Wesley Snipes being relevant again, snapping a joke about tax evasion, and having not lost his moves (at least seemingly when a stunt double doesn't take his place), but his time on screen gets sidelined after his prison rescue. Harrison Ford does his thing, trying to convince us that we're having a better time than we are with, "That's the most fun I've had in years," but you won't stand for it. Mel Gibson might be having the most fun as the despicable, threatening heavy Conrad Stonebanks, and same goes for a caffeinated Antonio Banderas who instills the film with a manic, youthful (yes, youthful) energy as an excitable crew member. As for the younger additions, there's Glen Powell, as thrill-seeking mountain climber/computer hacker Thorn; pro boxer Victor Ortiz, as boxer Mars; MMA fighter Ronda Rousey as tough bouncer Luna; and Kellan Lutz as authority-hating fighter/biker Smilee. None of the newbies are allowed the time to make much of an impression, except for maybe Rousey in the worst way. She can scowl with attitude and kick the spit out of any man, but when she has to actually, you know, act and emote (which is rare), it's hard to watch.

For a $90-million Hollywood movie, "The Expendables 3" was not worth it. Between each overblown action set-piece and CG'ed explosions that don't evoke much of a visceral thrill, establishing shots are made up of obvious, grainy stock footage of a hospital or shipyard, and one scene with rear projection is bargain-basement level filmmaking. Opting for a PG-13 rating after both R-rated predecessors, producer Stallone reportedly wanted to appeal to a broader audience, so a few trimmings in the violence were in order. What good is a PG-13 "Expendables" movie anyway? That's one of the problems right there. The film should have been the most unapologetic it could be by appealing to its target audience and just going for it in lieu of attempting to find crossover appeal and being chopped at the knees with a watered-down PG-13. As so, "The Expendables 3" feels like a warmed-over nonstarter, and before we even get to the big climactic showdown between Barney and Stonebanks, the experience is already numbing and noticeably overlong. It should be a blast, but the reality of it is like blasting away all potential opportunities.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

He Was Divergent First: "The Giver" more thematically loaded than some repackaging

The Giver (2014)
97 min., rated PG-13.

With "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent," one cannot be blamed to wonder if every utopian/dystopian sci-fi yarn geared to the YA set is run through a "Mad Libs" exercise. But before either of those trilogies saw a publisher, Lois Lowry's 1993 Newbery Medal-winning book "The Giver" beat them to the punch in tackling similarly provocative themes. This fine big-screen rendering might recall too many memories derivative of its like-minded brethren since it's coming a couple decades after the source material, but once the story takes shape and everything balances out, it's an absorbing, visually arresting stand-alone film. Director Phillip Noyce (2010's "Salt"), screenwriter Michael Mitnick, and a reliable ensemble believe the story they are telling and tell it with welcome degrees of warmth and individuality, which is admirable for a film set in a Stepfordized world devoid of both. In the end, "The Giver" might not be as dramatically profound as it wants to be, but it certainly pulls off a tricky feat in portraying a slick, clinical world without the film itself coming off too slick or clinical.

After "The Ruin," if you will, a majestic new utopian society has been established where war, illness, pain, strife, color, religion, race, emotion, and memories have all been eliminated. The well-secured community lives by a system called Sameness, so there's equality. No one lies, but no one loves. Everyone takes their morning injections to ensure no one feels much and can go on about their day, no questions asked. Every year, the eldery is sent to a place called Elsewhere, while 17-year-old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) and friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) prepare for their transition from childhood to adulthood. They, along with all of their peers, attend the Assignment Ceremony to be assigned their new life positions. "Thank you for your childhood," delivers the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) in hologram form. Everyone is selected a place, while Jonas is singled out for possessing all four attributes Intelligence, Integrity, Courage and The Capacity to See Beyond. He has already been chosen as the community's next "Receiver of Memory," following "The Giver" (Jeff Bridges), a wizened man who lives alone in his house on a cliff. Once Jonas begins attending training at the old man's home, he experiences dreams of joy and love—and war—that he has never felt or seen before because it has been forbidden. Jonas will no longer submit to this rigidly controlled dystopia. No, he won't.

Exposition-heavy from the start, "The Giver" has a lot of groundwork to lay in how the society works. Instead of letting the details trickle progressively, director Noyce and screenwriter Mitnick hit the ground running, racing so quickly through world-building and exposition by both showing with imagery and flashing key words and telling with Brenton Thwaites' voice-over narration. It's a little overwhelming for the senses sans being insulting, but the film slows its roll and soon catches its breath. What ultimately sets "The Giver" out from the trendy crowd is how it provokes actual thought. Does sucking the joy, love, and pain out of life actually make it any safer? Where should the line between safety and freedom to experience be drawn? It's also quite engaging on an aesthetic level, with unblemished technical specs across the board. The film is crisp and handsomely shot before and after it makes its B&W-to-color shift á la "The Wizard of Oz" and "Pleasantville" (the latter film also sharing similiar themes of revolting against conformity). Director Noyce keeps everything tight and brisk at 97 minutes and makes enough right directorial decisions, except for there being maybe too much slow-motion during Jonas' memory flashbacks.

The actors, it should be noted, carry on a stoic speech rhythm that's intentional for the world of the film, and most of the actors make it work. As Jonas, emerging actor Brenton Thwaites does a capable job of carrying the weight of the film with tenacity and vulnerability. Though the character was only 12 in the book, it makes more sense that Thwaites plays a 17-year-old trying to shake up the status quo. Jeff Bridges (who was originally attached to direct this with his father Lloyd as the lead) is ideally cast as The Giver, a man whose sole purpose in the society is to keep all of humanity's recollections to himself and live a lonely existence. Meryl Streep is effective, bringing prestige, poise and a credibly stony coolness as the order-bringing, pro-conformity Chief Elder, even if she's only able to show hints of shadings with a one-note role in return. Thankfully, she doesn't take the part to hissable villain status, but less care has been brought to actualizing just what makes the Chief Elder tick or how she came into command. A cleverly cast Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård are allowed little breathing room from being shackled by the script, but they both serve their purpose as Jonas' brainwashed, unfeeling Mother and Father who disapprove when their son does not comply with the Elders. Odeya Rush has a lovely presence and conveys inner conflict well as Fiona, while Taylor Swift might be too recognizable in a brief but key role, although she's not on screen long enough for it to become too much of a distracting marketing coup. 

Aside from a few stilted, overripe (intentionally or not) line readings sneaking through, "The Giver" imagines its world creepily well from the page to the screen. Whenever a character verbally forbids the society's rules, someone will bark back with, "Precision of language!" Many will apologize, too. At the Assignment Ceremony, members of the congregation clap on their laps in unison. They have all been conditioned a certain way, so none of them know any different. Topics like euthanasia are treated with maturity and a chilling malevolence. Also, for once, the resolution feels more interpretative than a "to-be-continued" cliffhanger or book-mark placer. As comparisons can be made to "Logan's Run," "The Island," and nearly everything involving alternate realities with sinister underbellies and special teenagers (there is even an allusion to "Citizen Kane" with the memory of a sled), "The Giver" always finds a timelessness reflective of our own society and humanity's complexity. The whole package makes up for its familiarity and minor nitpicks with an overall professionalism to keep it from being a rehash or an also-ran in the alleged YA column. No need to apologize for this one.