Sunday, March 30, 2014

If You Build It, They Will Come: Great vision lost at sea in bloated "Noah"

Noah (2014)
138 min., rated PG-13.

Careful not to offend or alienate Christian audiences, Paramount Pictures put out a disclaimer that bold auteur filmmaker Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" was merely "inspired" by the short biblical story of Noah's Ark in the Book of Genesis. As if that weren't enough, fundamentalist groups were already up in arms about the atheist director of "Pi," "Requiem for a Dream," "The Wrestler," and "Black Swan" taking artistic license to tackle his interpretation of the Old Testament's text, even before seeing the film itself. Like it even needed to be spelled out, "Noah" was never going to be a work of subtlety or a by-the-book literalization for the Sunday School kids. Converging art-house and mainstream studio sensibilities, the whole of the final product—a monumental, nearly two-and-a-half-hour epic with a blockbuster-sized budget from a brief story—comes nowhere near its glimmers of audacity and daring. But between the film's big ideas and bigger spectacle, its maker at least went for it.

A descendant of Adam and Eve's son Seth, Noah (Russell Crowe) has a dream of evolution and the drowning of all of humanity (even snakes). As the beginning of a mission sent (but not heard) from The Creator, Noah senses the annihilation of all mankind is approaching. First, he seeks guidance from his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), from a mystical tea that gives him a vision — build an ark to house every innocent animal species, two by two, as a catastrophic flood will purify the wickedness of humanity. Noah, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), their three biological sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japtheth (Leo McHugh Caroll), and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), whom they saved from destruction and a fever when she was young, are then assisted by "The Watchers" (fallen angels who were cast out of Heaven and turned into giant rock creatures by God) to construct the ark. Before the flood comes, the savage Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), with his men in tow, makes it his mission to kill Noah and take over the ark. Heeding his mission that has been bestowed upon him by their Creator, will Noah save the world from drowning in sin, or has he misinterpreted everything?

A collaborative effort by Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, "Noah" is ambitious enough to fill in the blanks of the basic allegorical tale and then goes even further with pro-environmentalism, magical snake skin, and echoes of Abraham and Isaac. The film is actually most interesting when it seems carved from Aronofsky's creative mind. Regardless of subverting purists and anyone's expectations, it is not until Noah's faith starts to border on disturbed psychosis that the film creates more drama and tension. The earmarks of dark psychological horror and obsessive delirium, not unlike most entries in the director's body of work, are welcomely strange and batty compared to everything else that largely feels clunky, dreary and plodding. Working on a much larger canvas than the filmmaker is used to (aside from "The Fountain"), "Noah" is immense in scale, but Aronofsky's creative decisions do range from visionary to baffling. Aided by Clint Mansell's booming score, the opening-and-then-recurring sequence of Creation, with the serpent slithering through the grass and the forbidden fruit, is striking and primitively designed with rapid cutting. There is also a bleak hallucination, in which Noah envisions live animals being ripped apart and eaten by an angry mob in a marketplace, that is positively nightmarish and unexpectedly unsparing. The sweeping sights of a vast, dusty post-apocalyptic wasteland, shot on-location in Iceland by Aronofsky's cinematographer Matthew Libatique, produce a sense of awe and the shots of silhouetted characters against the colorful night skies are beautifully realized. And when the inevitable flood comes, it is spectacular to behold. The biggest miscalculation is the addition of "The Watchers," lumbering, stone-covered angels that may exist in The Book of Enoch but look like a silly cross between Michael Bay's Transformers, Peter Jackson's Ents, and Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion creations. (They also talk but are unintelligibly voiced by Frank Langella, Nick Nolte and Mark Margolis.) Whenever these protectors (and, for one of the sons, playgrounds) are on screen, the film grinds to a halt. Also, the animals get the shaft. As variably convincing CG creations, two of every animal board the ark and are then sedated by man-made incense (one inventive detail that makes sense as a taming method).

Russell Crowe is given his due in the role of Noah, capable of conveying earthiness, full devotion to his duty, but also a little madness. He shows commitment and an eventual intensity once Noah's task becomes a burden and he, himself, becomes a rigid, self-righteous megalomaniac who insists on sealing man's fate. Instead of being heroically portrayed as a purely good, white-bearded man with a staff, Crowe gives the part the shading it needs. Jennifer Connelly, Crowe's "A Beautiful Mind" co-star, fleshes out the role of Naameh with soul and gravitas, especially in one of the film's more affecting scenes when she confronts her husband who misinterprets their Creator on what is just. As Shem and Japtheth, Douglas Booth and newcomer Leo McHugh Carroll playing Noah and Naameh's oldest and youngest sons do, indeed, play characters with those names, as that is all that can be said for them. Logan Lerman gets a little more to do as lonely middle son Ham once he feels betrayed by his father. Doing more than fulfilling her page-to-screen duties, though, Emma Watson gives the most wrenching performance as a young woman whose stomach scar would render her barren before a miracle happens. Anthony Hopkins provides the film's few flashes of humor as Noah's berry-eating grandfather, Methuselah. And, though Noah isn't always presented as a flawless hero, the real antagonistic role goes to a glowering Ray Winstone who attacks the part of Tubal-cain with relish.

"Noah" is just about as uneven as a movie can get. Stirring, overwhelming moments and some thoughtful takeaway about divine obedience vs. free will and earth-bound love become lost in a bloated running time, already hampered by torpid pacing that gives in to occasional sedation. When the film works, it really works, but when it doesn't, it's a heavy-handed slog. Such a risky undertaking is admirable, but the actual execution should have soared on the indelible levels of another Aronofsky masterpiece or something by Terrence Malick. This time, even without studio interference, the cinematic creator has given us a "Waterworld" of biblical proportions.

Grade:  C +

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Brotherly Conflict: "Blood Ties" runs deep with terrific cast, '70s flavor

Blood Ties (2014)
127 min., rated R.

"Blood Ties" is one of those skillfully crafted "adult" crime thrillers that would have been made by Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin back in the 1970s/early-1980s. The story trods familiar ground, but it's about the characters and their relationships first and the plot second. With some contemporary American films, the priorities are backwards, so to find one with its head on straight is refreshing and decidedly European. Remaking the 2006 French film, "Les liens du sang" ("Rivals"), and adapting the novel, "Deux freres, un flic, un truand," director Guillaume Canet (who actually starred in this film's foreign counterpart) and screenwriter James Gray are out to make more than a generic, sensationalistic genre exercise in the ways they color their characters and hit on themes of redemption, forgiveness, and brotherhood. In certain areas, the film feels compressed even at 127 minutes, and while not everything pays off in the filmmakers' ambitious eyes, "Blood Ties" is still quite involving.

Brooklyn, 1974: Chris (Clive Owen) and Frank (Billy Crudup) are brothers on opposite sides of the law. Chris has just served nine years in prison for murder and, after he gets parole, he wants to get back on his feet. Frank, the younger of the two, is a straight-and-arrow police officer who agrees to let Chris live with him aod does him a few more favors. He takes Chris to reunite with his two children (Charlie Tahan, Daisy Tahan) and bitter junkie ex-wife Monica (Marion Cotillard), who turned to prostitution while he was away in prison and requests child support, and gets him a janitorial job at a used-car lot. Meanwhile, Natalie (Mila Kunis), a clerk at his work, soon takes an interest in Chris, allowing him to turn his life around. Frank keeps following Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), the wife of a criminal (Matthias Schoenaerts) whom Frank rececently put away. They used to have a relationship before Vanessa accused Frank of being ashamed of her because of her race, but now he wants to take care of her and her daughter. Once Chris takes a job to take care of some gangsters, Chris finds himself back to his criminal ways, where he passes the point of no return and can't look back. Will Frank be able to bring himself to arrest his own brother?

It would be enough that the cast assembled is so impressive, but they're also given enough breathing room, enabling them to bring depth and actualize their characters' working-class lives. None of the characters are shaded in blacks and whites, but are flawed and complicated people. Frank is morally conflicted with that thin blue line, being dedicated to his blood and lawful principle, but he can't keep covering for his brother or he'll have to give up his badge. While Chris gets his life together by spending holidays at home with their ailing father, Leon (James Caan), and then getting married to Natalie, he is back exactly where he left off and maybe even worse off. Billy Crudup has the quieter role as Frank, but he's one of those under-appreciated actors who can deliver everything in his eyes. Clive Owen also seamlessly inhabits the role of Chris, knowing when to be calm, cool, and snakily charming and when to blow his top. Together, they bring weight to a believably tempestuous sibling relationship.

Initially, it seems like there will be no small parts, and then, besides standing by their men or fighting with them, a few of the females have less to do as the story carries on. As Vanessa, an excellent Zoe Saldana does a lot with a little, projecting with a palpable pain the emotions of being caught between the man she might still love and the man who might be too dangerous to stay with. Aside from looking too distractingly contemporary and her Brooklyn accent coming on a little too strong to be taken seriously, Mila Kunis' performance isn't bad as Natalie, but her relationship with Chris is developmentally truncated. Harboring Daddy Issues, Natalie tells Chris to always be honest with her, but somehow, none of his crimes are visible to her. Otherwise, Marion Cotillard hits some emotional notes as the incensed and multilingual Monica, who figures more into the proceedings once she opens her own brothel with Chris' help. Lili Taylor, as Chris and Frank's warm, domestic sister Marie; legendary tattoo artist Mark Mahoney, getting his second screen credit as a bar manager and Chris' raspy-voiced handler; a coldly intimidating Matthias Schoenaerts, as Vanessa's criminal husband Anthony; and Noah Emmerich, as Frank's sympathetic superior, round out the cast.

Director Canet is definitely working from an older school of filmmaking, letting his characters move the story along rather than the other way around and getting uniformly fine performances out of his entire troupe. "Blood Ties" settles its characters into their lived-in milieu and works up more narrative thrust in its final hour, and amidst its slow-burn pacing are occasional bursts of ruthlessly gripping violencea shoot-out starts things out; Chris spares no one during his first job in a neighborhood tavern; and an armored-car robbery is key. The filmmaking is sometimes of the point-and-shoot variety, but there's an authentic, non-kitschy period flavor to all of the locations. Period music choices are also well-chosen and feel of a piece with Martin Scorsese, from Ace Frehley's "New York Groove," Tommy James & The Shondelles' "Crimson and Clover," and particularly The Crystals' "(And) Then He Kissed Me." Once everything clicks into place and both brothers' stories intersect in a deus ex machina, Owen and Crudup are able to sell the film's unexpectedly affecting conclusion with mere looks. They're the Cain and Abel of cops and criminals.


You Want Pain?: Darker "Nymph()maniac: Vol. II" rubs our noses in the muck

Nymph()maniac: Volume II (2014)  
123 min., not rated (but equivalent to NC-17).

Lars von Trier is truly one of a kind. He is either a brilliant artist or so pretentious that he thinks shocking and alienating his audience will start a conversation. Truth is, he has even less to say this time around, except maybe, "love sucks" and "addiction warrants punishment." Taken as its own film, "Nymphomaniac: Volume II" might come full circle, bringing more shape, darkness, and context to Joe's "sinful" sexual journey than "Volume I." However, despite the filmmaker's will to disturb and provoke discussion about female sexuality, his film is still a gruelingly downbeat, emotionally impenetrable wallow of clinical remove and newly added bondage to ensure that none of this will arouse. It might even turn everyone off from sex altogether. 

Last time on "Nymphomaniac"… Impure, self-hating nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) still sits in bed, sipping tea and telling her piece to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who found her beaten in an alleyway and lets her rest in his flat. When we last found Joe (continued to be played by Stacy Martin), she felt nothing in the bedroom with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) with whom she ended up having a child with. By day, she would pretend to go to work as a piano teacher when she'd start up her cycle of man-eating. As Joe ages (this is where Martin hands the baton to Gainsbourg), she storms out of a 12-step meeting for sex addicts, the leader rejecting the term "nymphomaniac," and takes up working as a "debt collector" for the unscrupulous L (Willem Dafoe). The desperate Joe even sends a translator across the street from her apartment to invite two black brothers for a threesome. At night, instead of watching her child, Joe would sneak off to be "cured" by receiving masochistic spankings from aggressive sadist K (an effectively stone-cold Jamie Bell, no longer Billy Elliot), who would call her "Fido." Her journey of self-destruction never ends and, although she calls herself a "bad human being," Joe meets a few worse people.

For better or for worse, "Nymphomaniac," in both of its parts, feels like a full-bore Lars von Trier movie. The film is a frank and purposefully cold deconstruction of addiction, but there's little heartbreak to Joe's damaged tale. If "Volume I" was by turns compulsively compelling and pretentious, and it had welcome moments of power and levity (primarily Uma Thurman's fiery performance and Seligman's absurd connections to sex), "Volume II" is punishing and unpleasantly grim, placing a distance between the audience and what's up on the screen. Everyone is a cog in von Trier's hopeless, awful-from-their-head-to-their-toes wheel, including P (Mia Goth), a young woman who becomes Joe's lover for a short while. The bookending framework is still claustrophobically confined to Seligman's flat, although we do learn something about Seligman, and those quantitative thrusts (3+5) do return when we come to see how Joe ended up in that alleyway. The lightest moment comes fast and early in a fancy restaurant (with their waiter being played by Udo Kier), where Joe follows through on Jerôme's dare to fit as many spoons as she can between her legs underneath the table cloth. When they get up to leave, each drop clangs to the floor, and they rush out giggling. Otherwise, the BDSM scenes with Joe and K are unflinching and painful, rubbing our noses in the smut and Joe's bleeding behind as if this were "The Passion of the Nympho."

The performers put themselves out there, again, especially Gainsbourg. She bares it all, physically and emotionally, but Joe is still such a hard, closed-off character to pin down. That is most likely the filmmaker's point, but such detachment doesn't help us little people watching. Though exceedingly well shot by cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, "Nymphomaniac" has none of von Trier's striking, painterly tableaux, especially that of "Melancholia." The film also recalls his own opening scene from "Antichrist," where a child climbs and may or may not fall to his death to the musical compositions of Georg Friedrich Handel's operatic aria "Rinaldo."

As the Danish bad boy has made many films that abuse and push his female protagonists through the slime of life, many have criticized him for being misogynistic. "Nymphomaniac" might not be misogynistic as much as it might be a sly feminist manifesto. It could be dismissed as being a pornographic skin flick, but again, it's not the least erotic. The explicit scenes are there to inform who Joe is, but we keep being informed of what we already know. Ultimately, it's just an unproductive put-on. If "Volume I" wasn't your cup of kaffe, "Volume II" deserves an even wider berth, going down like black tar. As this exhausting opus reaches its cynical, feel-bad denouement, it seems the joke was on us all along, so there's a good chance the viewer, like Joe, will feel nothing. Lars, this concludes your "Trilogy of Depression."

Grade: C - 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Ten Little Jerks: "Sabotage" a hard-R actioner that's also ugly and stupid

Sabotage (2014)
109 min., rated R.

"Training Day" screenwriter David Ayer's claim to fame has been his stream of gritty, hard-boiled police-corruption yarns "Dark Blue," "Harsh Times," "Street Kings" and "End of Watch." Co-penning the script with Skip Woods (2013's "A Good Day to Die Hard"), Ayer knows this material well, but "Sabotage" is proof that he's losing a large chunk of the credibility he started with. His latest fuses a "Ten Little Indians" mystery with a lot of bullets and some left-over prosthetic gore from the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies. Sure, it occasionally flirts with entertainment value and buzzes with the intensity and realism of the Drug Enforcement world, but "Sabotage" ends up being a bloody mess, quite literally, without being much fun. Some brains might have helped, too. No, the ample amounts of brain matter splattered all over the walls do not count.

A cigar-chomping, weight-lifting Arnold Schwarzenegger gets back into the game (last seen in 2013's "Escape Plan"), here playing grief-stricken Atlanta DEA task force commander John 'Breacher' Wharton. Eight months after seeing the footage of his wife and son being tortured and killed by a Mexican drug cartel, he leads a covert team of adrenaline-fueled, hard-partying agents to bust a drug lord's mansion. Among the crew members, there is James 'Monster' Murray (Sam Worthington) and his drug-addicted wife Lizzy (Mireille Enos), Julius 'Sugar' Edmonds (Terrence Howard), Joe 'Grinder' Phillips (Joe Manganiello), Eddie 'Neck' Jordan (Josh Holloway), Tom 'Pyro' Roberts (Max Martini), and Bryce 'Tripod' McNeely (Kevin Vance). (And judging by all their nicknames, if you look closely, you can probably spot Animal and Beaker making walk-ons.) Once they successfully raid the cartel's safe house, skim $10 million for themselves by hiding it in the sewers, and burn the rest of the money, they go to recover their loot, but it turns out someone else found it first. With the team under suspicion by the FBI, Breacher and his operatives are under investigation. Six months pass and their boss (Martin Donovan) gives them back their badges. Soon enough, the hunters become the hunted, getting taken out one by one. Is it the cartel doing the grisly doings, or could the "saboteur" be coming from inside the tight-knit DEA family?

Armed with a hard R-rating and nastier sensibilities than the average slasher movie, "Sabotage" is brutal and vicious, making no apologies for its ruthless disregard for human life. It's jacked up on gruesomely violent exploitation from the word go, as we watch footage of Breacher's whimpering wife being tortured that he, himself, is watching. Gore and carnage have a place in movies, but it's treated here as equally savage and over-the-top that you can just picture director Ayer yelling, "More blood! More viscera!" to the make-up effects department. Sorry for the spoilers, but… A body is found gutted and nailed to the ceiling, its entrails hanging and leaving beneath a floor of blood that warrants a "Slippery When Wet" sign. The camera holds on a dying woman having her head blown off. Another body is even stuffed into a refrigerator with a pool of blood spilling out once that door opens. Though some of the guts resemble sausages, Ayer lingers on all of these gratuitous moments as if we were watching Forensic Porn. At times, the film is just trashy and gripping enough to hold our interest, but there's a consistent stench of jokey, off-putting scuzziness that keeps it all from ever jelling. Never does the film lionize the DEA team or not let them off the hook for their profane, crooked behavior, but it's hard to tell if Ayer and co-writer Woods really wanted us to like any of these unappealing, unsympathetic hardasses or not. It'd be easier to be more forgiving had the characters been interestingly drawn as more than hard-edged types and sketches who all talk in macho locker-room wisecracks and are no less the scum of the earth than the cartel members. Instead, the audience surrogate is Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams), the take-no-crap homicide detective on the case following the first death. The dependable English actress has some trouble holding onto her Southern drawl, but Williams is tough-as-nails and as amusingly loose as she's ever been in a while, elevating everything around her as best as she can. 

Though partially a vehicle for Ah-nuld (whose character gets the only backstory and actually tells off a cop for having "48 percent body fat"), the randomly assembled cast is done few favors, minus a few exceptions. An unrecognizable Sam Worthington is less wooden than usual with a beaded goatee and shaved head. Cornrowed, hairy and tatted as a biker who could eat the Hells Angels for breakfast, Joe Manganiello is machismo incarnate. Every last one of them is blustery, but Josh Holloway and Max Martini are indistinguishable, and Terrence Howard barely gets a chance to register. On the other hand, if you were mad Mireille Enos had zilch to do in "World War Z," don't be fooled by her Lizzy being the lone female of the drug-busting unit. Enos is the major standout and plays Lizzy with a crazier-than-a-shithouse-rat glee. Damaged, adaptable, and as coarse as the guys, her Lizzy is such a complete junkie mess, giggling and tasting a drop of meth during a bust, but she also kicks some ass. 

Part action movie, part body-count whodunit, "Sabotage" isn't all bad, with one tense scene in a Winnebago parked on the train tracks and the fleetingly clever use of a GoPro attached to a gun. Some audience-tricking parallel editing also has a "The Silence of the Lambs" vibe, where a murder and the later investigation are intercut as if occurring simultaneously. Even so, once it's revealed who's behind the cash theft and the body count, the answers to the crimes are senselessly thrown to the wind. The dialogue is either awkwardly delivered, crassly unfunny and obnoxious—a couple of the guys joke about farting and penis tattoos more than once, and two stake-out cops talk about pissing into a bottle—or just terrible ("We had to go fingering the Devil's pussy!"). We won't even get into an unconvincing and forehead-smackingly strange, but thankfully only-implied, sex scene that comes out of nowhere. Finally, the "revenge" coda, where Mexican men and women all get blasted in a bar, is joyless and morally repellent when it should extract some sort of satisfaction. "Sabotage" is hardly ever boring, but if one had to answer with a gun to their head if it's actually worth seeing, try the shorter answer. There's no defending it as a guilty pleasure or even great trash. No buts about it: this is just ugly and stupid.

Grade: D +

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Check into the Dollhouse: Despite some vacancy, "Grand Budapest Hotel" a velvety delight

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
100 min., rated R.

"Twee," "quirky," and "precious" have been used to disparagingly describe filmmaker Wes Anderson's specifically stylized live-action (or, in the case of "Fantastic Mr. Fox," stop-motion) dioramas. Given his one-of-a-kind aesthetic of turning artificial sets into pop-up storybook worlds, the filmmaker is unmistakably gifted. So meticulously detailed and faultlessly costumed and set-dressed, his films can verge on breathtaking, fussily designed dollhouses with no one home. Take his one-two punch of the annoyingly obtuse, emotionally empty "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and "The Darjeeling Limited," both of which were marvelous to look at, but like wax fruit, there wasn't much there in terms of heart or much life. By now, his films are for those already on-board with his signature style. Though lacking the nuances of his other gems, Anderson's eighth and latest, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," is an inspired, velvety truffle that exhilarates with a delightful vibrancy, an enchanting sense of wonder, and zany amusement.

Resembling the sprawling structure of Russian nesting dolls, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" begins with a young woman visiting the monument of a writer of the book, "The Grand Budapest Hotel." In 1985, that writer (Tom Wilkinson) addresses us directly about his book. Flashing back to 1968, his younger self (Jude Law) is told the story of the luxurious, once-celebrated Grand Budapest, a hotel topped on a mountain in the fictitious European country of Zubrowka, by its final owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). In war-torn 1932, the heyday of the hotel, Moustafa worked as a lobby boy named Zero (played by newcomer Tony Revolori) and sidekick to the hotel's concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). He was a genteely groomed, heavily perfumed, and sexually ambiguous dandy who had a taste for rich, old, blonde women. The inner story gets underway after the death of one of Gustave's rich, old blondes, Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton in old-age make-up). In her will, she left him a priceless Renaissance painting, called "Boy With Apple," much to the chagrin of her heirs, greedily incensed son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his evil henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe), leading to Gustave being framed for Madame D.'s death and arrested for murder. With the help of Zero and his young love, Irish pastry baker Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Gustave would eventually escape prison.

A screwball European-style murder-mystery farce, inspired by the writings of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, "The Grand Budapest Motel" is drolly arch and whimsical in ways only a filmmaker like Wes Anderson can get away with. It's so light and playful and unpredictable, speeding along at a breathless pace, that even the abrupt murder of a pussycat and the severing of fingers are deftly treated as guffaw-inducing absurdities. Played as a caricature but with bursts of anger and plenty of savoir faire, Fiennes is an often brilliantly funny treat to watch as the well-to-do Gustave, and his "sacred bond" with newcomer Revolori, as Zero, adds a much-needed sweetness. A mustachioed Brody is hilariously harsh as Dmitri and a vampiric Dafoe menacing as Jopling. Otherwise, the characters are slighted as colorful constructs, even if the film is filled to the gills like a Muppets movie by notable faces (Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, Mathieu Amalric, Léa Seydoux, and Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman). Some of them are practically unbilled walk-ons, but it's a joy to see so many guests check in. 

The Wes Anderson stamp is always evident. Every boxy, head-on frame is exquisitely composed with a symmetry and rhythm, right down to his fluid pans and trucking shots to the shifting aspect ratios in each plot nesting. Anderson has such a loving, just-so eye for fastidious detail and a majestic mise-en-scène, to which production designer Adam Stockhausen ("Moonrise Kingdom"), the art directors, and Anderson's longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman all deserve a great deal of praise. Here, the creative decisions never take time getting used to; instead, they're an intoxicating delight. There is even an unexpected thrill to the mystery-thriller elements, particularly one murderous sequence involving Jopling stalking a lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) in and around an art museum, as well as a madcap chase on skis that blends stop-motion animation and miniatures with live-action slapstick. 

Though there is a subtle hint of melancholy and "out of time" meaning to the whole story, the film doesn't quite resonate on a deeper level of human feeling like Anderson's special previous outing, "Moonrise Kingdom." Still, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is great fun and stands as a satisfying experience, one akin to devouring a rich confection so quickly that you'll actually want that second piece. It won't convert the "twee"-, "quirky"-, "precious"- labeling camp, but give this to Anderson: his films are distinctly his, as if we're peering into his imaginative brain.

Grade: B +

Sunday, March 23, 2014

M-E-A-N: "Bad Words" hilariously rude on the ears, underwritten on the page

Bad Words (2014) 
89 min., rated R.

The directorial debut of actor Jason Bateman, "Bad Words" is unapologetically rude and mean-spirited and cruelly funny, but that's about it. Described as "'Bad Santa' with spelling bees" by Bateman himself, this black-hearted R-rated comedy surely delivers all the offensive barbs it shoots for, based on its title, however, the thing about a comedy feature is that characterization, logic, and story are usually still necessary to make the laughs matter. It's gleefully anarchic without being as subversive as it wants to be, but the real detriment is, whereas 2003's deliciously caustic "Bad Santa" snuck in some heart in an organic, albeit still-bawdy, way, "Bad Words" has no emotional core. Unfortunately, bad behavior does not always a good comedy make.

Bateman, this time, plays the smartest and meanest guy in the room. 40-year-old proofreader Guy Trilby is a misanthropic, insult-ready S.O.B. who has a smug disdain for everyone. In media res, he breezes through a regional spelling bee competition for elementary school kids in Columbus, Ohio. You see, Guy has found a loophole in the systemregardless of age, he never passed the 8th gradeand crashes onto the stage line-up to qualify for the national finals. Sponsored by a national media outlet, Guy won't tell anyone why he's so driven to compete, not even his own sponsor, Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), a journalist who's bankrolled by her news website The Click and Scroll to write Guy's story and pay his way. (Evidently, it's in her contract to sleep with him, too). Then, on his way to the Golden Quill Spelling Bee in L.A., the ruthless, disgruntled Guy meets an Indian-American 10-year-old named Chaitanya (Rohan Chand): he's intelligent and relentlessly positive but lonely with no friends besides a binder of words. Guy takes to the little moppet, but no puerile antic is beneath himyou know, like conning an Asian boy into thinking Jenny's underwear is his mother's and then convincing a chubby girl that her "Aunt Flo" has arrived right before she's about to spell. What could possibly be motivating Guy to crush the dreams of ambitious 6th graders? 

Directed by Bateman, who works from a thin screenplay by first-timer Andrew Dodge, "Bad Words" never seems to reach its fullest potential, aside from satirical live-TV coverage of the spelling bee and what exits the protagonist's mouth. The film's source of humor is dependent on acidic insults as punchlines, and while they are hilariously scathing and unfiltered, they mostly exist for shock's sake. There's even a gut-bustingly unhinged montage of Guy and Chaitainya going out for a night on the town of drinking, pranks, and a peek-a-boo with a prostitute. Guy and Chaitanya's efforts to sabotage one another also invite parallels to Wes Anderson's "Rushmore." Once Guy's motive for entering the spelling bee is finally unveiled, it seems like a meager reason and a case of too little, too late to garner any sympathy. His emotional pain might have resonated had the script not tried hiding it for so long or developed Guy into more than a one-note, consistently unlikable dirtbag. What remains fuzzy, too, is how Guy is an impeccable speller of such hundred-dollar words as "floccinaucinihilipilification" without any need for the definition, part of speech, or roots. He's established to be a genius with a photographic memory, but this is the most logical plan to settle a score? After he completes his goal, will Guy be a better man for it? Will getting to the root of his problems make him a real, functioning adult? No, no, and no.

Comfortably in his element as Guy, Bateman proves again why he's such a likably acerbic, verbally nimble comedian, keeping a deadpan face while letting out every reprehensible putdown with gusto, no matter one's gender, age, or race. It's not hard to love hating him, but caring about the unrepentantly awful Guy is nearly impossible. Funny, understandable a-holes are fine, but arbitrary, underwritten a-holes not so much. On the other hand, the director and star gave himself a sidekick who more than holds his own. Rohan Chand is a real discovery, an adorably sweet and naturally funny trip who can be precocious without stepping over the line into annoying. His smile never ceases, even when Guy calls him "Slumdog" and tells him to shut his "curry hole" before he threatens to tell the pilot his suitcase is ticking. One can't help but feel for Chaitanya, whose father makes him fly alone and stay in a different hotel. It's such a pity Bateman hasn't given the rest of his players more to do. Kathryn Hahn, who can be so absurdly funny, has one joke in the bedroom ("Don't look at me!"), but her character makes no sense, except to be the one person who first discovers Guy's secret. National treasure Allison Janney is criminally misused, as the tournament's uptight administrator hell-bent on getting Guy out, that all you can think of is what she could be doing instead. Philip Baker Hall amounts to a plot point as the bee's president Dr. Bowman, who commentates with Ben Falcone, but Rachael Harris lends some energy as an enraged mother who confronts Guy and gets slain by his vulgar words.

Fortunately, "Bad Words" does not completely force Guy to turn over a new leaf and become a classy, heartwarming guy. Before the end, he is still irresponsible, but the film treats his journey as such a rushed, preordained arc. The film is a worthy vehicle for Bateman's talents, and he shows promise behind the camera, but as soon as the credits roll, the viewer will be correct in their knee-jerk response, wondering "is that it?"

Grade: C +

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Not Easy Being a Sequel: "Muppets Most Wanted" puts on a less magical show

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
112 min., rated PG.

Any Muppets sequel starring Jim Henson's fuzziest and most lovable puppet creations knows that, even if the film in question does not score high in its canon, it's still going to have its pleasures. The first theatrical release in twelve years for the gang, 2011's "The Muppets" was an infectiously witty and affectionately nostalgic reinvigoration that could only have been made by dear fans. Director James Bobin returns, co-writing the script with returnee Nicholas Stoller (but no writer/co-star Jason Segel), for "Muppets Most Wanted," a lackluster sequel so self-aware of itself that it jests not being quite as good as its predecessor. "Sequelitis" is the joke, but what follows is predominantly a mixed bag, ironically proving a self-fulfilling prophecy. If there wasn't much to complain about the film from three years ago, "Muppets Most Wanted" is more squarely happy than consistently funny, as it could have used a few more gags per minute and more meta fourth-wall breaking. 

"Muppets Most Wanted" begins immediately where "The Muppets" wraps, complete with "The End" in the sky and the stand-in backs for Jason Segel and Amy Adams (who are now long gone). From that moment, the viewer realizes they're in safe hands, the Muppets kicking off with the self-referential joke, "They've ordered a sequel!" and as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew truthfully points out, this is really their seventh sequel. That calls for a catchy opening production number, "We're Doing a Sequel," in grand, splashy Old Hollywood style. The Muppets are soon approached by manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais)it's French and pronounced Bad-gee—who offers to take their variety show on a global tour, selling out theaters in Berlin, Dublin, and Madrid. Of course, Badguy is up to no good and, as it turns out, he's in cahoots with Constantine (voiced by Matt Vogel), the world's number one dangerous frog and an amphibious doppelgänger for Kermit (voiced by Steve Whitmire). The nefarious plan goes off without a hitch in Berlin, swapping Kermit for Constantine, so the "evil froggen" and Badguy can use the Muppets' tour as a cover for their heist to steal the crown jewels. Meanwhile, as the Russian-accented Constantine doesn't do a Kermit impression justice but still gains the troupe's trust (including Miss Piggy), the real Kermit is thrown into the Siberian prison of Gulag. It doesn't take long for the prisoners and warden Nadya (Tina Fey) to believe the polite Kermit is not Constantine, but his true identity doesn't give him a release, at least not before he directs the prison talent show.

There's quite a bit of plot here, mixing mistaken identity, heist caper, police investigation, let's-put-on-a-show interludes and a prison romance into an 112-minute feature, that a few threads could have either been pruned or saved for another sequel. High-spirited and eager to please, "Muppets Most Wanted" is also overlong and suffers from a few too many flat, saggy spots. In between, though, when young kids in the audience aren't dancing in the aisles to the songs, adult cinephiles will enjoy picking up on a slyly funny reference to Ingmar Bergman with the Swedish Chef or the old "mirror routine" between both frogs. The running joke that nobody in Kermit's troupe notices Constantine is an impostor is also pretty amusing (Constantine slaps a fake mole on the real Kermit with glue and covers his own mole with green makeup). 

This time, the Muppets themselves are more front and center, including the last film's newcomer, Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), and all of them get a moment here and there. Ricky Gervais is surprisingly tame but always game, especially as Constantine's "number two" in their tap-dancing duet of "I'm Number One." Tina Fey is a hammy delight as forlorn Gulag warden Nadya with her goofy Boris and Natasha-style Russian accent. A mustached Ty Burrell is also clearly having a ball, riffing on Inspector Clouseau as French Interpol inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon who ends up working with FBI agent Sam Eagle but often leaves his investigation for six-hour lunch breaks and extended family vacations. This being a Muppets movie, you bet it's crammed with plenty of blink-and-you'll-miss-'em cameo guest stars. Hey, look, it's Usher playing an usher! Or, there's Christoph Waltz playing himself and performing an actual waltz. Not everyone is given a chance to show their comic chops, but Sean "Diddy" Combs, Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, Salma Hayek, Tom Hiddleston, Chloë Grace Moretz, Saoirse Ronan, Josh Groban, and others all stop by to get in on the fun.

All of the musical numbers are fine, with the previous film's Oscar-winning Bret McKenzie writing the songs, but only a couple really stand out, particularly Fey leading the cute doo-wop ditty "The Big House" when Kermit gets dragged to Gulag, and Miss Piggy's duet, "Something So Right," with Celine Dion is sweet and surprisingly tender as she envisions her future and interspecies children with Kermy. Also, where else are you going to find the one-time sight of Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo playing musical jailbirds? Whereas "The Muppets" was almost always clever and felt effortless, "Muppets Most Wanted" gets propped up by good will, but then starts to feel more obligatory than inspired, running on desperation rather than flowing with creative juices. The punny wit is sorely lacking, as if everyone is just going through the goofy motions. When all is said and done, though, it's still a Muppets movie, so if you're not laughing as often as you'd like, you're most certainly smiling through chunks of this disappointing if mirthfully silly affair.

Grade: C +

Thursday, March 20, 2014

So You Think You Can Think Freely? - "Divergent" not divergent enough, but Woodley anchors it

Divergent (2014) 
143 min., rated PG-13.

"Divergent," based on Veronica Roth's trilogy of books, arrives a little late to the party when there has already been an oversaturation of heroine-leading screen adaptations targeted at the YA demographic. It shares a passing resemblance to the utopian world of "The Host," the segregated society, training and physical tests from "The Hunger Games," the group sorting from "Harry Potter," and the special "chosen one" from "Star Wars," "The Matrix," "Ender's Game," you name it. A stew of nearly plagiaristic ideas, the film risks not defying categorization or standing apart from the pack with a distinct identity. For a while, though, "Divergent" comes into its own with a compelling heroine, a couple exciting set-pieces, and the universality of what it says about human individuality in a conformist world.

In the dystopian future of a fenced-in Chicago, post-war society has been divided into five virtue-based factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), and Erudite (the intelligent). As the faction system goes, every teen must take a test to decide where they belong in society, leaving their families behind ("Faction before blood" is society's mantra), but ultimately, one makes their own choice. If you test to fit into more than one faction, you are considered a "divergent," and divergents are deemed as not only free-thinking individuals but enemies of the state. 16-year-old Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) currently lives in Abnegation with her kind parents (Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn) and brother (Ansel Elgort), but she doesn't feel like she belongs. She has always dreamt about the fearless, thrill-seeking life of Dauntless, witnessing the soldier-like members parkouring up buildings and jumping on and off of moving trains. After sitting nervously in a chair to take her aptitude test, Beatrice receives inconclusive results and discovers she is rare — divergent. Tori (Maggie Q), the one administering her test, tells her to keep it hush-hush or she will be eradicated. On Choosing Day, an even more-nervous Beatrice decides to leave her parents and join Dauntless. Renaming herself "Tris," she reluctantly undergoes a number of initiation tasks, requiring all transfers to push their bodies to the breaking point under the training of the stolid Four (Theo James) and brutish leader Eric (Jai Courtney). Tris is able to show no fear in her simulation tests, but if she doesn't move up in the ranks, she will be kicked out of Dauntless and left "factionless" (impoverished and the lowest on the totem pole). And if someone finds out that Tris is divergent, she's dead.

Director Neil Burger (2011's "Limitless") and screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor economically set up the potentially convoluted rules and world-building of the source material's premise. They hit on some fascinating details, like how those in Abnegation are only given so many seconds to look in a mirror as to reject vanity. The viewer might wait patiently for the story to move beyond physical challenges (knife-throwing, one-on-one fighting, and a "Capture the Flag"-type game) and get down to Tris being figured out, but the film is never less than involving as it centers on Tris. Fortunately, "Divergent" is about more than a teenaged girl finding herself a love interest, and there's no love triangle to speak of. To the Erudites, primarily leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), conformity will help secure harmony in Chicago, whereas human nature is seen as weakness. Tris frees herself by not following in her parents' footsteps and going where she wants to belong. She's the most human because she's her own person and defies being defined by one virtue. The romance between Tris and Four is easy enough to digest and doesn't come out of nowhere, but still seems to exist more out of adolescent-pleasing obligation than a deep, natural connection.

At the film's start, Beatrice (before she becomes Tris) doesn't seem capable to be Dauntless material, and, physically, Woodley doesn't seem convincing to be a fearlessly athletic fit for that faction as Jennifer Lawrence was as Katniss in "The Hunger Games" movies. However, Woodley has such a mental strength and that is what is so integral to her arc from selfless caregiver to physical warrior. Readable and grounded, Woodley retains a spunky resolve and innate intelligence as Tris. She's so emotionally open and instantly appealing, bringing the film a rooting interest and much-needed emotional resonance. There's one scene, however, in which Jeanine asks Tris if she knows of any Divergents in the Abnegation faction and it seems like a weaker take; Woodley is almost too open when she should be keeping her emotions closer to the vest. As Fouryes, like the number, though on occasion, it distractingly sounds like "Thor"—Theo James comes across as another pouty-lipped hunk-of-the-month at first but, with a cool, brooding charisma and smoldering intensity, evolves a bit once he shows shades of uncertainty and vulnerability.

The way the rest of the impressive ensemble is used is pretty uneven. Of the coed initiates, Zoë Kravitz only makes a real impression as Tris' likably plainspoken friend Christina, and Miles Teller collects several laughs with his wicked personality as Peter, a former Candor who bullies Tris, or, as he dubs her, "Stiff" (a diametric position from his romance with Woodley in "The Spectacular Now"). As Tris' parents, Judd is warm and affecting, but Goldwyn is underutilized. A fierce Maggie Q utters exposition without making it seem like that's her sole purpose as tattoo artist and Dauntless member Tori, but as brutal Dauntless leader Eric, the brawny Courtney veers between intimidating and ridiculously one-note, his all-black wardrobe threatening to make him look like an emo Hot Topic employee. Finally, in the prime antagonistic role of the enigmatic, "peacekeeping" Jeanine, Winslet is slyly suspicious and understated without playing it for camp. The actress alternately keeps the snarling to a minimum and yet, in what can be attributed more to the writing, there's little more beneath her surface menace and icy poise.

A steadily paced 143 minutes without feeling interminable, "Divergent" has a solid setup and an engaging journey, only to rush to a more generic, anticlimactic payoff, despite a crowd-cheering knife throw. When certain characters die, there isn't a palpable sense of loss due to their interchangeability, although there is one exception, sold by Woodley's reaction of shakingly raw emotion. When Tris goes under for her simulation tests and enters her own fear landscape, director Burger executes such scenes with nightmarish danger. They aren't quite to the degree of Wes Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street," but one can't help but be reminded of those dreamscapes when our heroine evades a swarm of crows by rolling into a puddle of water that turns into an ocean and then a glass tank filling up with water. There is also some palm-sweating fun when Tris zip-lines from the John Hancock Center and across the city, flying like a bird but coming thisclose to hitting other buildings on the way down. Given Burger's modestly sleek vision, the production design and costuming are rather simple (i.e. gray and baggy for Abnegation, black and close-fitting for Dauntless, and pantsuit uniforms for Erudite) but still differentiate each faction. Of its heroine-against-society ilk, "Divergent" may be more diverting than divergent, but it's also more mature than juvenile. It fits the bill, so that's a step in the right direction before "Insurgent" and "Allegiant" come around.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Relax, Don't Do It: "Interior. Leather Bar." a stunt that still provokes

Interior. Leather Bar. (2014)
60 min., not rated. 

Controversial with the MPAA ratings board before its 1980 release, William Friedkin's film "Cruising" starred Al Pacino as a straight cop going undercover in the underground NYC gay leather bar scene to investigate a series of unsolved murders. Plagued with protests from the gay community who claimed the film was homophobic and even death threats, Friedkin was forced to cut 40 minutes of footage, primarily gay S&M sex, to secure an R rating and avoid an X. That is the basis for the docu-fiction effort "Interior. Leather Bar.," and the mission statement for its makers, actor-director James Franco and documentary filmmaker Travis Mathews, was to interpret and recreate the aforesaid sexually graphic lost footage. "Is this something that we, as the artists working on it, are going to manipulate to make a certain point or do you just want it to be what is?" inquires actor Val Lauren, who reluctantly signed on to play the Pacino character. And right there, he hits the nail on the head. Is "Interior. Leather Bar" just a pretentious "art" stunt or is it actually saying something? Perhaps it's a little bit of both because, like all art, it's very subjective.

Knowing Franco for fifteen years, Val Lauren trusts him, but also questions why he's doing the project in the first place. His buddy thinks he's crazy and his wife isn't thrilled about it, but she mostly cares about him returning home for dinner on time. Lauren is uncomfortable and has his limits, but never offends anyone, either. Meanwhile, the gay and straight actors cast to play the gay leather clubbers who are looking for action are just as confused, but they leapt at the chance to work with Franco. With this project, Franco hopes to normalize the queer lifestyle as a case study in cultural assimilation to examine artistic expression, mainstream narrow-mindedness, and the testing of limits and taboos in the filmic medium. Franco conveys to Lauren his passionate ideas about how non-fetishized sex should be placed into the mainstream as a powerful storytelling tool instead of titillation, and he has a point. He wants to say what he wants to say and he follows through.

Barely a full hour with credits, "Interior. Leather Bar" is a fascinating, if slender, idea for a film-theory discussion with enough room for some feature "padding." Thought-provoking and often hypnotic, this project does enough right, blurring the line between documentary and film-within-a-film and opening a window into this less-than-mainstream world of leather bars, but it's still a staged experiment with explicit (and, as can be assumed, real) fellatio by a pair of real gay lovers who are called onto the set. Although it addresses some intelligent points to take away, the film mostly elicits a shrug without achieving what it fully sets out to do. Val Lauren may be a changed person after the experience than how he started, like the Pacino character, but it might not alter the point-of-view of those watching. Still, Franco begins the conversation, whether or not you're open to dicussing it further. Leave it to the multi-tasking star to think outside of the box and challenge himself, his cast and crew, and audiences with yet another side project that isn't Disney's "Oz the Great and Powerful."

Grade: B -