Tuesday, December 31, 2013

David O. Russell Once Again Spins Convention Into Originality with “American Hustle”

American Hustle is actually a really funny film.
American Hustle is typical David O. Russell.

It is a film with little narrative surprises—one that does all of the predictable things one might expect from its genre, and yet, somehow it has emerged as one of the year’s best films just as his Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter did in recent years.

The reason is simple. As with those films, Russell is playing connect the dots but refusing to draw straight lines. He’s working within the confines of convention, and yet his script is so zippy and filled with grace notes that there’s a real specificity to what he’s doing. It’s rare that Russell tries to wow with some story innovation; instead, he concentrates on character, putting effort not on this or that plot mechanic but on a palpable sense of depth, heart and humanity.

Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 1970s, American Hustle focuses on Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a pair of lovers/con artists who are forced by an FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) into an elaborate sting operation to entrap corrupt politicians, including Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. A variety of different issues arise to complicate the job and the central romance, including the involvement of Rosenfeld’s manic-depressive wife (Jennifer Lawrence), his growing friendship with Polito, and the desperate ambition of DiMaso, which ultimately puts the leads in the crosshairs of some dangerous mafia members.

The plot could make for a serious drama, but Russell keeps the tone light and there are several big laughs, many of which are courtesy of the deadpan genius of Louis C.K. as DiMaso’s boss at the FBI. Ocean’s 11 and The Sting are good comparison points, and Russell intentionally echoes classic Scorsese pictures like Goodfellas. However, the film I was most reminded of was Argo, another ’70s set capper film about a hard-to-believe, government-funded operation. However, whereas last year's Best Picture winner had a major problem fleshing out its characters (as outlined in my review), American Hustle, like all Russell films, excels at turning almost every pivotal character into a living, breathing person.

Oscars for costume design and makeup and hair-styling are
most likely in the bag.
It helps that Russell has a deep bench of fantastic actors, a great deal of whom he cultivated on his last two films. Bale and Adams top the excellent work they did in The Fighter, presenting the type of understanding partnership most would envy. When running a successful con, Rosenfeld’s motto is to do it from the feet up, and that expression might as well be used to describe the multilayered work they do here. Both actors deserve to be classified as two of the best of their generation, and the range they show in this film is another testament to that fact.

After reaching career heights with Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper and Lawrence are once again tasked with playing frantic and unstable characters, but this time they get to be unlikeable so no punches are pulled. Meanwhile, Renner emerges as the stealth weapon of the film, grounding the whole thing with his portrayal of a decent man undone by his overzealous desire to serve his constituents. His role is the least showy of the bunch, but, especially when considering how starkly in contrasts with his two Oscar-nominated performances, it’s hard to ignore.

American Hustle has been positioned as a year-end awards player, but it’s gotten some kickback as too lightweight for the Academy. It’s not a perfect film -- the script confusingly glosses over the finer details of most of the cons, many of which don’t make complete sense upon reflection -- but I’d argue against the notion that this is just some entertaining piece of fluff.

It’s a meditation on dissatisfaction, insecurity, desperation, reinvention, and the lengths people will go to improve their lot in life. It’s a hubristic tragedy, a crackerjack capper and a complicated love story all rolled into one. It’s one of the best films of the year. A

Friday, December 27, 2013

Challenging "Upstream Color" Requires Work From Viewers

Upstream Color is not an easy film-watching experience.
Upstream Color, writer/director Shane Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up to Primer, has worked its way into a number of year-end bests lists. It won’t wind up in mine. Although my personal tastes have begun drifting further and further from convention, the story is too esoteric to rate that highly with me. But I will say this – the film is beautifully composed, undeniably unique and extremely interesting.

The plot is jarringly dense, as it focuses on a worm-pig-orchid cycle that our heroine Kris (powerfully played by Amy Seimetz) gets caught up in. Carruth doesn’t spoon feed anything, so it’s not exactly an easy viewing experience. There a numerous stretches with very little dialogue, and you need to figure out certain things on your own. You can’t coast while watching this movie – it’s too different for that. But, for those willing to stick with it, the basic story beat is readily apparent.

 In a nutshell, a thief (Thiago Martins) forces his victims to ingest a worm obtained from the potting soil of blue plants, thus allowing him to utilize a complex form of mind control involving stall tactics like orgimai chains and transcribing Henry David Thoreau’s Walden so that he can rob his victims blind.

Once the thief has his loot, a man credited as “the Sampler” (Andrew Sensenig) summons the victims (or the worm inside) by playing an amplified sound through humongous speakers aimed at the ground. The Sampler extracts the worms from the victims and puts them into pigs, creating strong psychic connections between the corresponding humans and pigs. He then drops the victims back into their lives, unaware of what happened and in financial ruin. However, The Sampler is able to observe (or sample) the lives of the victims by touching their pigs; inspired by what he experiences, the Sampler records (samples) an array of sounds, which he then sells through his record company.

Ultimately, the Sampler disposes of his pigs by bagging them up and throwing them in a stream. They float down to an embankment where they decay causing the essence of the worms to seep into orchids and turn them blue. These blue orchids are picked by two orchid farmers who then sell their flowers (along with infected worms in the potting soil) to the thief.

Got all that?

We see Kris go through this process as a victim, and later she connects with Jeff (Carruth), a man who seems to have experienced something similar. The two are drawn together because of the connection forged by their respective pigs, and this transference leads to a courtship. Ultimately the two learn some of what happened to them and the plot goes on from there, but to say more would spoil the film.

"The Sampler" drops in and out of the lives of people connected
to his pigs.
I’ll quickly mention that it’s never implied that the thief, Sampler and orchid farmers are actively in cahoots. The thief is clearly a bad guy taking advantage of this cycle, while the orchid farmers seem totally oblivious. The Sampler would seem to have the most information, but he isn’t overtly bad – he’s more of a deistic god figure.

All sorts of allegorical interpretations and themes can be grafted onto the story. Google has led me to various reviews that have brought up capitalism, religion and a slew of other things. Caleb Crain’s analysis in The New Yorker really dives into the Thoreau connection, while this review by Jeffrey Wells does a nice job of explaining how the film is mostly about what you want it to be about.

I tend to agree with the Rorschach test approach, but regardless of the specifics, I do think there is a pretty definable point being made here about individuality and identity. This is a film about the various forces that control us – religion, culture, biological instinct, or any type of destructive cycle (racism, sexism, abuse, violence, whatever).  The film seems to be suggesting that we should break free of these treacherous systems that bind us and take control of our lives. In that way it has thematic similarities to works as diverse as The Wire or The Matrix.

Carruth, who also scored the film, is an extremely independent filmmaker, so it’s unsurprising he would create something like this. One could even make the argument that by making a film that’s so specifically obtuse and anti formula, he is arguing against the Hollywood system, which, in its own way, binds and controls us in the same way the worm-pig-orchid cycle controls the characters in the film.  

With Upstream Color, Carruth is daring us to embrace something different and more organic than the processed crap Hollywood is prone to produce. Even more than that, he seems to be suggesting that we really should question all of our thoughts, desires and attitudes. Do we really think this or want that, or are we just influenced by external factors in the same way Kris and Jeff have been influenced by the relationship of two pigs?

Upstream Color is not all that different from the challenging classics that students read in English literature classes across the world. If you’re willing to discuss, theorize, and research, the film can be a rewarding experience. But it does take work, and, for most people, movies are about taking time off.

Ultimately, I prefer something in the middle – I like a challenging film, but I also require a bit more entertainment. Nevertheless, Upstream Color is worthwhile viewing for anyone willing to expend the effort. B-

Monday, December 23, 2013

David Gordon Green Finds Tonal Harmony in "Prince Avalanche"

Prince Avalanche offers a winning, low-key sense of humor.
At first glance, Prince Avalanche doesn’t seem like much. 

It’s a modest ’80s-set indie about two mismatched road workers who are conducting maintenance on a highway through an area that was recently ravaged by wildfire. They spend the bulk of their days painting traffic lines and hammering in reflector posts, and at night they sleep side by side in a tent. They also spend an awful lot of time bickering and bonding too, but that’s pretty much the extent of it.

It’s a movie I expect some would label as boring, but one I haven’t been able to shake. It feels an awful lot like a stage play that Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter might write if they were in a goofy mood, except it relies heavily on its expansive locale (it was filmed in Bastrop County, Texas shortly after the massive wildfire there in 2011) and is actually a remake of an Icelandic comedy called Either Way.

The film has been written and directed by David Gordon Green, an enigma of a filmmaker who first made a name for himself with dramatic indie darlings like All the Real Girls and Snow Angels before taking a hard left turn into big studio bro comedies like Pineapple Express and Your Highness. With Prince Avalanche, he seems to have married these two sensibilities, crafting a film that is somehow contemplative, lyrical and silly all at once. 

This is a movie about the illusions people can have about who they are and what happens when those illusions are tested. It stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as Alvin and Lance, two self-regarding chumps with different takes on masculinity. Alvin fancies himself a true man, the kind of guy who has mastery over life skills (i.e. gutting a fish, tying a knot), enjoys the serenity of nature and has sacrificed time with the woman he loves (Lance’s sister Madison) to go out into the wild and make money so they can run away together. Meanwhile, Lance thinks of himself as a stud with great dance skills and is exclusively concerned with getting back into town so he can “get the little man squeezed.” 

Looking awfully Mario-like.
Of course, most of that is bullshit. Lance can’t dance and he’s pretty much a clueless rube, while Alvin isn’t the noble figure he imagines. A key scene in which he finds himself alone on a burnt out property and mimes his version of domestic bliss is telling. Even then Alvin doesn’t interact with his girlfriend; instead she’s on the phone, and so he goes downstairs and sits on a rocker, happily in silence.

Costuming plays a key role in hinting both characters aren’t the men they think they are. It’s hard to believe a man’s man or a ladies’ man would be caught dead in the bright Mario Bros-like overalls* these guys spend the bulk of the film wearing. However, there are plenty of other details along the way – things like Alvin wearing his tool belt backwards – that also show the cracks in the façade.
* In addition to the overalls, Rudd sports a mustache in the film, which only works to further enhance the Mario connection. But for anyone who’s played a Mario game over the last decade or so, what puts the joke over the top is Alvin’s answer to the question of what skill he would perform if he were in a Ms. America-type pageant – the triple jump.

Hirsch reminds why he was such a hot up-and-comer a few years ago, injecting this dummy with a real groundswell of emotion. He has a five or six page monologue in this thing that’s so funny and so sad all at once, and his ace delivery makes one hope he gets better opportunities than shitty TV remakes of Bonnie and Clyde moving forward. 

However, this is Rudd’s show, and he gets a chance to flex acting muscles he doesn’t normally use. Despite his success in mainstream comedy, Rudd’s a classically trained actor who has shown his stage-honed skills on film before – notably in Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things. Here, he excels at portraying a man who views himself in terms he can’t live up to. 
Joyce Payne adds a palpable sense of loss to her section of the film.
Beyond the two leads, there isn’t much in the way of a cast here. The late Lance LeGault plays a truck driver who stops in on the duo from time to time, offering some sort of homemade moonshine along with odd advice. And then there’s Joyce Payne, a real-life victim of the Bastrop County wildfires who Green put in the film on a whim after meeting her and hearing her story. Alvin stumbles upon her burnt out house during a weekend alone and the scene that follows is powerhouse of emotion and pain. Her appearances later in the film hint she may be a ghost, which seems sort of out of place, but also sort of not. 

The soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky adds a great deal to the film, as does the landscape. Fortunately the film was shot in order, so Green is able to document a slight rejuvenation in nature that reflects that of the characters.

Overall, Prince Avalanche is a total triumph of tone. It’s a key film in the evolution of Green’s contrasting sensibilities, and it’s easy to believe that if ever there was a director who could pull off the long-in-development adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, it’s Green (he was at one time linked to it). It’s far more likely his future projects will be totally out of left field, and that’s pretty cool too. A-

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

“The Bling Ring” Shines an Unflattering Light on Fame-Obsessed Teens

Yes, it's another look at teens as materialistic jerks.
More than a few people have drawn a line between The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers (click here for my review), and there’s certainly something to that. Both are teen crime dramas that tread similar thematic ground involving the materialistic vanity and icy ambivalence of a generation brought up on social media and reality television. Both come from the A24 Films and feature former child stars breaking bad. Hell, both even contain show-stopping, single-take robberies from an exterior vantage point.

However, while the two make for interesting companion pieces, they are far from the same film. Spring Breakers, as James Franco put it in his trolling review over at Vice “is all subtext, bitches.” It’s a lot less concerned with story than it is with making its critiques and creating a surrealistic experience. As such, it’s not for everybody. And by everybody, I mean most people.

The Bling Ring isn’t for everybody either, but it’s certainly more accessible than Spring Breakers. It’s based on real events, and so there’s more of a story to tell. It revolves around a group of privileged So-Cal kids who manage to steal over $3 million worth of property from the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Audrina Partridge and Lindsay Lohan before getting caught, simply by having the balls to walk up and check if the doors are unlocked.

The Bling Ring has a mansion robbery in which all the action
happens while the camera holds this shot.
“I think we just wanted to be part of the lifestyle – the lifestyle that everybody kind of wants,” explains Marc (Israel Broussard), a gay kid with self-confidence issues who happens to be the lone guy in the titular Bling Ring. The group also consists of chilly ringleader Rebecca (Katie Chang), wild child Chloe (Claire Julien) and fame-obsessed sisters Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga).

Acting across the board is uniformly solid, but best in show is Watson, who, unlike Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in Spring Breakers, stakes a strong claim for herself as a serious actress. This is about as far away from Hermione Granger as one can get, and Watson all but disappears into the role, totally nailing the cadences and mannerisms of Alexis Neiers, her character’s real-life counterpart who eventually capitalized on the fame of the robberies and became a reality TV star. If you jointly consider her work here and in This Is The End, Watson may have somehow managed to be the most amusing woman in film this year.

Very little effort is put into explaining the members of the Bling Ring or even in developing them much as characters, but that’s intentionally done as a way to hold viewers at a distance. One can imagine a movie that gives these kids more shading, painting them as victims of the oppressive consumerism that people like Hilton and Lohan help perpetuate, but it’s hard to believe Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, Somewhere), a writer/director with a Luis Vuitton line bearing her name, would hold the fashion industry accountable like that.

The film hints at an intriguing generational divide when it
comes to celebrity preoccupations.
The script does make room to sympathize with Marc, and that has intriguing gender implications for sure, but, for the most part, these characters are a vapid lot focused almost exclusively on self promotion and social standing. They spend an awful lot of time taking selfies and posting them to Facebook to achieve a sort of validation for their experiences, and it’s interesting that the emotional climax of the movie comes in a moment when Marc realizes Rebecca has defriended him. It’s the devastating flip-side of the last scene from The Social Network.

Other than self-actualization through social media, obsession with celebrity lifestyle is the main focus here, and that’s unsurprising given Coppola’s oeuvre. Perhaps in part due to her standing as Hollywood royalty, Coppola has long made an auteur go of dissecting the concept of celebrity from various angles.

Interestingly enough, despite their fixation on trash culture, the characters in The Bling Ring don’t do much celebrity worshipping. That – the movie suggests – is how the former generation responded to famous people.  In one scene, Nicki’s mom (Leslie Mann) annoys her daughters with a vision board dedicated to Angelina Jolie. When she asks them what they admire about Jolie, the quick retort is “her husband,” which indicates exactly where these girls’ heads are at – not on what makes Jolie a celebrity, but on the spoils that celebrity brings. The film ultimately suggests societal preoccupations are being warped, and we now have an entitled and vacuous generation that is far more concerned with recognition than achievement. B+

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Oblivion Plays Like a Decent Enough Mash-up of Other, Better Sci-Fi Films

There's some pretty remarkable sets in this film.
Note: This review has heavy spoilers.

There are several things I like about Oblivion, the Tom Cruise sci-fi movie from earlier this year that focuses on a pair of humans charged with mop-up duty on Earth in the aftermath of a major alien war. But there’s also a lot of cliché riddled crap and shortcut taking that makes the film play like an inferior mash-up of a dozen better examples from the genre, particularly The Matrix, Wall-E and Moon.

On the plus side, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Writer/director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) has a background in architecture, and he puts it to good use here, crafting sleek visuals and eye popping production designs that do a great job of rooting the film in a specific aesthetic.

It also plays with some interesting ideas related to the nature of identity and how concepts like cloning and memory play into that. Is there something tangible about our unique individuality or are we just a collection of our thoughts and memories? This stuff is nothing new, but the film takes an interesting stance that reminded me of my favorite line from Danny Boyle’s Trance (my review here) – “To be yourself you have to constantly remember yourself.”

I was particularly intrigued by the notion that Cruise’s Tech 49 Jack feels a pull toward his previous life, while Tech 49 Victoria (Andrea Risborough) is totally content to be oblivious. T49 Jack dreams of the real Jack’s experiences with wife Julia (Olga Kurylenko) and says it feels more like memories, but it is implied that T49 Victoria is living out the dream of the original Victoria (who makes eyes at the real Jack during a late-in-the-game flashback).

Oblivion wastes a couple of good actors in nothing parts.
But, despite these elements, there are times when the whole enterprise is just too lazily derivative. While I can live with working with the same central themes and even plot points of countless other science fiction movies – most specifically Moon, which also involved a series of clones who were duped into doing a maintenance job for an off-planet entity – there’s a throw paint at the walls approach to this thing that make it ultimately feel trite and unimaginative.

Take, for instance, the rebel forces led by Morgan Freeman’s Beech. When you’re already evoking The Matrix by including an underground rebel force fighting against an alien enemy that’s basically feeding off our planet, is it really necessary to make the leader look like a Morpheus doppleganger? And if you’re going to go down this road with these rebel forces, couldn’t you do anything to flesh them out if even just a little bit?

As great as he is on Game of Thrones, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is utterly wasted here as Beech's second-in-command. He may have more than three or four lines of dialogue, but it doesn't feel like it. Bob, the bobble head figurine glued to the instrument panel in T49 Jack's bubble ship, seems a more fully rounded character. Freeman doesn't get it much better, but he does get more characterization than Bob, so that's something.

The bonus features show a deleted scene in which Beech tells T49 Jack that the real Jack (who was an astronaut) was his hero as a boy, which made me realize there could’ve been some interesting grace notes about how it psychologically played on the human race to have an American hero become the face of their oppressor for 60 years. But nope; not even that one scene makes it in the film, let alone an expansion of its potential implications.

I’m also at the breaking point when it comes to climaxes like this. Why do so many world bad guys have infrastructures that can be totally wiped out by attacking one central location? As in Independence Day and Stars Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, this movie has the hero destroy something, which then renders all the subordinate drones useless. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. And this overused trope is made worse by two, hard-to-ignore annoyances – 1) Why do the aliens even let T49 Jack in with the cargo when they know he’s gone kind of rouge, and 2) Why does exploding a little drone demolish a gigantic alien space shape?

Cruise transcends the script, providing a character
worth caring about.
Thankfully, the film has a dynamic lead in Cruise, whose grounded intensity and a committed physicality does a lot to smooth over the rough spots. He overcomes a thin script to give us a character worth caring about through sheer force of presence alone.

Thinking on the film now, my main thoughts drift mostly to Cruise in favor of the actual film. I’m sometimes a little sad about the trajectory Cruise’s career has taken since all that couch jumping crap eight years ago.  Up until that point, he had proven undeniably adept at humanizing pricks. Sure, there was the occasional Ethan Hunt, but more often than not, he was flawed and complicated like Charlie Babbit, Jerry Maguire or Frank Mackey. Cruise was always a pretty boy, but he brought a real edge to his roles, and his willingness to be borderline unlikeable despite being the biggest star on the planet was always the biggest draw for me.

Lately, Cruise has shied away from these types of characters. Outside of the occasional eccentric supporting performance (the great Tropic Thunder, the horrible Rock of Ages), he’s basically opted to play the genial inoffensive hero in a plethora of action movies. In other words he’s become Will Smith, going for safe pop corn flick after safe popcorn flick. It seems an atpyical thing for a movie star of his stature to do as he delves deeper into his 40s and 50s, particularly in today’s movie landscape. Most (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Hanks) tend to stretch and tackle more interesting fare, but Cruise has instead opted to go all Liam Neeson.

Coming out of the 90s, if you would’ve told me Cruise still wouldn’t have an Oscar by 2014, I’d have been shocked. His star power was too big and the net he cast when working with all-time great directors was too wide to think he wouldn’t have gotten that recognition by now. But, 2014 is upon us and Cruise hasn’t even given a performance worthy of such consideration since Collateral, which was nearly a decade ago. And he’s not likely to do so any time soon given his next five movies are all firmly planted in the popcorn realm.

Cruise always brings his A-game, so it’s hard to fault him for doing something he does well, but it does sometimes feel like this is an adult playing kids games. Still, despite the rant, he’s a definite asset to this film, which, for all its faults, is a pretty solid entertainment. B-

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Gerwig Gets Magical in the Gen Y Critique "Frances Ha"

Co-writer/star Greta Gerwig brings complexity to the role of Frances.

It’s easy to imagine most people reacting one of two ways to Frances Ha. Some will probably find it to be a frustrating and boring look at the inconsequential meanderings of a privileged and aimless bohemian. Others will undoubtedly identify with the character’s idiosyncratic dreams and post grad anxieties.

Most of it may come down to where the viewer falls along the generational spectrum. After all, the film, like Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls, has been labeled as generationally defining, and, really that’s a hard point to argue. 

Generation Y is a dreamer generation. Our parents, teachers and mentors – many of whom, we must keep in mind, could’ve really been somebody if they had gotten the opportunity – sold us on the concept that we could do whatever we wanted, that if we went to college and followed the script, we could achieve our dreams.

But then we get out into the world and came face to face with the reality that this type of success is hard. That it takes work and sacrifice. And even then, even then, only a few people really make it. Not everybody who “goes for it” becomes the next great actor, or novelist, or, in the case of Frances Ha, the next great dancer. 

Yes, this is a movie that touches on a generational problem of privileged Americans, but, to sell it as only that would be a mistake. There’s something universal and timeless about failing to achieve a dream and then having to redefine expectations and goals. And I think what’s so fascinating about this movie is that it somehow pokes fun at and empathizes with one woman in the process of realizing things aren’t going to go the way she thought they would. 

Frances (co-writer Greta Gerwig) is a 27-year-old struggling to achieve her dreams of becoming a world-class dancer. She’s still just an apprentice at her New York dance studio, but she’s convinced herself that an opportunity to take on a more prominent role is coming soon.

In the meantime, she spends much of her time eating, drinking, play fighting, and often crashing in the same bed with her best pal and roommate Sophie (Sting’s daughter, Mickey Sumner). It’s a dependent relationship, one that is dictating Frances' romantic life, as evidenced by a refusal to move in with a boyfriend because she just couldn’t do that to Sophie. At separate instances in the narrative, Frances comments that they are “like a lesbian couple who don’t have sex anymore” and “the same person with different hair.”
Frances Ha is the rare movie that focuses on female friendship.
Frances’ existence is thrown for a loop when Sophie announces she is going to move out of the Brooklyn apartment they share. Unable to afford the rent on her own, Frances enters a nomadic period, bouncing from place to place as she continues to get worse and worse news about work and grow further and further apart from Sophie, who seems to be consciously fighting against the arrested development that has consumed Frances. 

Their relationship devolves to the point that Frances hears through a third party that Sophie is moving to Japan with recent fiancé Patch (Patrick Heusinger), a finance douchebag who both girls previously made fun of as “the kind of guy who buys a black leather couch and is like, ‘I love it.’” Guys like Patch may be successful and grounded, but they aren’t “magical,” a word that Frances repeatedly uses and a feeling she constantly searches for. The movie slyly indicates that Patch is actually a good guy, but to Frances, he’s the Other. Not only is he the man stealing away her best friend; he also has his shit together. 

The intense focus on a realistic female friendship is welcome in an age of so many cinematic bromances. More often than not, female friends exist in movies primarily as a sound board for the romantic misadventures of our female lead, but Frances Ha is a movie that would easily ace the Bechdel Test.

This is all good stuff, but the film wouldn’t work without Gerwig’s exceptional lead performance. Frances is obnoxious and hopeless, the kind of character you just want to slap, and yet, in Gerwig’s hands, she is also charming, optimistic, and a woman to root for. I’m assuming the role isn’t a tremendous stretch for the actress, but that hardly takes away from the fact that this is a wonderfully immersive and fully-rounded performance. It’s easily my favorite by a female since Jessica Chastain blew the doors off in Zero Dark Thirty

Director/co-writer Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg) normally works with caustic and cynical characters, but he does well in this more whimsical territory. He pays homage to French cinema and the works of Woody Allen, sampling ideas, tones and stylistic flourishes, not to mention full on scenes.  A jogging sequence set to David Bowie’s Modern Love nods to Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sand (full confession: I haven't seen the movie; only the scene... on a blog... about this very topic), and a bit in which Frances tries to get a new roommate to play-fight with her is a direct descendant of the lobster interactions from Annie Hall.
There’s something impressive in the way that Baumbach and Gerwig create a narrative that is authentic and seemingly improvisational and yet still controlled enough to circle back and hit home so many of the film’s themes. Refreshingly, the film avoids the temptation to fix Frances by pairing her off with a love interest as so many other films have done. There is a potential beau in Benji (Michael Zegen), a hipster artist who affectionately deems Frances as “undateable,” but the film wisely leaves that thread dangling.

Instead, the climax offers us a resurgent Frances, one who lives on her own, has taken an olive branch from her studio owner to work in the office and has begun pursuing a new dream in choreography. It all feels earned, especially the moment we see her realize that although her relationship with Sophie is forever changed, it’s still somehow the relationship she was longing for.

At one point in the film, Frances proclaims “I’m sorry. I’m not a real person yet.” It’s played for a joke, but it’s also a defining line for the character. The kicker at the end of the film plays off this comment in a way that is both funny and thematically potent. I won’t spoil the joke here, but I will say it explains the title while offering the suggestion that settling into a somewhat grounded reality is not only a possible outcome, but a magical one as well. A

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Catching Fire" Takes "The Hunger Games" Series to the Next Level

No that's not a scene from Black Swan. It's the latest Hunger Games.
Notice the guy in the corner with the purple hair?
In my review of The Hunger Games I called it “a solid double that, with exposition largely dispatched with, paves the way for an even better second outing.” The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the latest entry in the series, lives up to that prediction, deepening and improving what the first film did well, while simultaneously correcting its most problematic elements.

The film picks up with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back in district 12, living in the Victor’s Village alongside drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). She’s dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and she barely even looks Peeta’s way following the events of the first film, but things are mostly going OK – her mom and sister are safe and living in luxury with her, and she’s getting pretty cozy with long-time friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

But, her defiant gestures from her time in the arena have bred hope of uprising within many of the districts. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) isn’t happy with her, and now she has to go on her victor’s tour during which she’ll have to confront the emotional fallout of her time in the arena with Peeta. Even worse, Snow threatens the lives of Katniss’s loved ones, implying he’ll do some pretty nasty things unless she sells the love story rouse believably enough to discredits herself as an instigator and symbol of rebellion.

Needless to say, that doesn’t go over well, causing President Snow to be all “I’m going to kill this chick.” But “Hey, not so fast,” says Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, brining the same icy calm and confidence he displayed in Mission Impossible 3), the man who took over as Gamesmaker after the last one was killed for getting Snow into this predicament in the first place. Heavensbee argues killing her outright would only make Katniss a martyr; instead, he suggests a plot that would have her return to the arena in a sort of Hunger Games: All-Stars Edition, pitting her against 23 former winners. He promises her death in a way that will invalidate her as symbol, while also offering the added bonus of eliminating 22 other victors, all of whom now pose a threat due to the hope they instill within the districts of Panem.

There’s plenty of interesting metaphorical subtext in all of this, particularly related to the way our society disenfranchises the lower class while placating them with false hopes and trivial preoccupations. I get that it’s easy to label all sorts of movies as allegories for the Occupy Movement, especially those with dystopian futures (Elysium, In Time, etc.) but there’s something that feels almost fresh about the way this series focuses specifically on “hope” as a weapon used for both oppression and revolution. 

Katniss's defiance has inspired revolt throughout the other districts.
Twilight has been an obvious comparison for this series since it was first announced, but as The Hunger Games continues to distinguish itself as one of the higher quality franchises of the moment, it seems clear that the more apt comparison may be the Harry Potter films. As with Potter, The Hunger Games is working from legitimately solid source material, and it is being treated with dignity by its filmmakers who have put a premium on talent and quality. Superb actor after superb actor populates these films (and will continue to do so as  Julianne Moore is set to join the final two installments), and the behind-the-scenes players are impressive across the board. Look no further than the screenwriters for proof – this episode has been adapted by Oscar winners Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours).

As with Harry Potter’s Christopher Columbus before him, writer-director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) has been unfairly maligned for his stewardship of the franchise’s first film, with most detractors focusing on the negatives (most specifically, his decision to go all shaky cam). But, it’s worth noting that launching a franchise like this is nearly impossible. Occasionally a bad one succeeds (Twilight) or a promising one fails (The Golden Compass), but young adult literature adaptations usually tend to be gross miscalculations along the lines of Eragon, I Am Number Four and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.

The fact that Ross delivered a hit, clearly established the world in an accessible manner and nailed the tone and casting is a pretty spectacular feat, and accomplishing all of that did a great deal of the heavy lifting for this second outing. For my Phillies fans out there, he’s basically what Ed Wade was to the 2008 championship – hamstrung by budgetary concerns and remembered for his miscues, despite planting the seeds for greater achievement.

But just as Pat Gillick deserves a great deal of credit for bringing a World Series trophy to Philadelphia, Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I am Legend) deserves his fair share for Catching Fire. A singular success along the lines of the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is rare enough, but even rarer is a franchise like Harry Potter – one that not only maintains a level of quality but continues to improve. Regardless of what you think of his previous output overall, Lawrence is experienced with the genre and a far more established visual stylist than Ross, and I think that makes a world of difference. He wisely abandons the shaky cam, opting instead for longer takes that make geographical sense of what’s happening while also allowing the camera to linger on actor reactions and the improved aesthetic of Panem.

Having most of the exposition out of the way is, as predicted, a major boon for the film. With the world established, screen time can instead be devoted to defining character moments. By necessity, the first film is laser-focused on establishing Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and the rules of the Games. The rest of cast did nice work, but all in support of establishing the lead. Here, they are far more prominent.

To be clear, Katniss is still the undisputed focus of the picture, and, Jennifer Lawrence remains the greatest asset this franchise has going. As Katniss, she manages to be difficult, uncompromising and closed-off, while still coming across as relatable, likable and desirable. It’s a great role and an even more impressive performance, and at this point in her career, Jennifer Lawrence is Hollywood’s Girl On Fire.

The bond between Katniss and Peeta is way better realized this time out.
But the world around Katniss begins to open up in Catching Fire, resulting in a greater sense that the supporting characters are living their own lives and that there’s vastly more at stake than the fate of 24 tributes. Returning costars like Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson are given more notes to play, and they make the most of them. Meanwhile, new cast members like Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, and Sam Clafin all get a chance to make an impression. 

However, Hutcherson is probably the greatest beneficiary amongst the supporting cast. Dude’s practically playing a saint in these films, and that could become awfully annoying, but the script invests great effort into Peeta, and Hutcherson sells the character’s inherent decency and wealth of emotions. As opposed to the first film, which botched the presentation of the bond between Peeta and Katniss, this one gets it right by highlighting several moments that emphasize why this woman might fall for the meek, unassuming baker’s boy when she has a big, brooding coal miner/hunter waiting at home for her.

Twilight has shown this “Who will the girl choose?” crap can be the worst, but this is a very thoughtful take on love triangles, one in which obligation, affection and empathy take the place of sneering and petty possessiveness. Peeta’s not the type a movie of this magnitude would normally pair with its heroine (as The Onion hilariously explored and NPR thoughtfully analyzed), but he has the capacity to comfort and understand her, and, perhaps more importantly, to surprise her. One particular moment of inspiration – having Katniss (and thus the viewer) actually see the picture Peeta painted of Rue, and not just hear about it later on as she did in the novel.

As far as other changes between the book and the film, I’d say the filmmakers make a lot of smart decisions here. It’s a shame to lose out on the stuff related to Haymitch’s victory in the 50th Hunger Games and the early scenes with Twill and Bonnie, two runaways that hint at District 13 still existing as a place of refuge, but neither was all that necessary.

Just like in the first film, the biggest alteration involves repeated cutaways to Snow and his Gamemaker. Adding a granddaughter for Snow is a simple way to humanize the guy and further establish the fragile system he operates, but more important are the scenes showing Heavensbee convincing Snow to keep Katniss alive until the time is right to kill her.

One of my biggest problems with the book was the hard-to-shake feeling that Snow’s plan seemed a little over complicated, that a guy like him would probably just kill her, or, at the very least, her family. This is especially true given the way he treats others in Panem and the way Haymitch’s loved ones were dispatched with after his victory in the Games. These scenes do a nice job offering explanation for this decision, while also providing a bit more insight into the twist involving the rebellion’s daring plan to extract Katniss from the arena unbeknownst to her (another thing that annoyed me in the book, but that makes sense here).

Donald Sutherland and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are both so good
at acting.
Although I like that, and enjoy how the film shows Heavensbee conning Snow with misdirection, the twist is a great deal more confusing on film. In the book, the ultimate implication is that Heavensbee volunteers as Gamemaker to help carry out the plot to save Katniss after Snow has already decided to do Hunger Games All-Stars. The goal seemed to be saving the symbol of freedom at all cost, so as to save the revolution.

In the film, Heavensbee is shown to be a master puppet master, pulling strings from the very beginning with designs to embarrass Snow on live television and thus further spark rebellion. He’s the one who comes up with the idea of doing a Hunger Games with past victors, and although you could argue he only does that to buy Katniss time, I think there’s a lot more to it than that (after all, the rebels could’ve just picked her up earlier in the film if they were worried Snow would kill her).

Part of me likes this aspect – it implies that even the good guys are ruthless in pursuit of their goals since they are willing to put previous victors in harm’s way to galvanize the public – but part of me hates it because of how densely elaborate the con turns out to be. It’s hard to believe anyone could ever convince Snow to do all these things in this way, at least not if we're supposed to believe Snow is a cunning and worthy adversary.

Additionally, I imagine nonreaders were very confused by the way the end is handled, specifically related to what the plan actually involved. Obviously confusion is part of the point during the events within the arena, but I think more work could’ve been put into explaining what exactly happened once the film transitions to its denouement. A full on, Ocean’s 11 style reveal isn't necessary, but a few throwaway lines when Katniss busts in on Heavensbee, Finnick and Haymitch would’ve gone a long way toward providing clarification for the uninitiated.

Despite these hiccups, Catching Fire is a great time at the movies. It’s long, but it moves; it’s big budget popcorn, but it has some substance to it. I’m skeptical about splitting Mockingjay, the final book in the series, into two films, but the filmmakers have earned some good faith.  I’m genuinely excited to see the next entry, and in a world where so many sequels seem like inevitable chores, that’s something. B+

Friday, November 22, 2013

Roland Emmerich Does His Thing with the Ridiculous "White House Down"

He uses this gun to kill one guy. One.
It’s been almost three months since I’ve posted on here. That was by design – with graduation on the horizon, I’ve been focusing most of my spare time on nursing studies. However, now that my schedule is easing up, I’m itching to get back to writing reviews.

Since I’ve been gone so long, it might seem that I’d jump at the opportunity to review one of the good movies I saw during the time off. However, to get back in the swing of things, I figure I’ll go for the softball instead. Gravity can wait. Let’s talk some White House Down, which, to be clear, is the assault on the presidential residence movie starring Magic Mike and Django, not the one with King Leonidas and Two Face.

White House Down is slickly made product that’s populated with a slew of great actors and features some impressive scenes of visual destruction. It’s got two talented leads in Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, and they have an appealing buddy chemistry that’s bound to entertain most people. Of course, it’s also a loud, dumb and cliché spectacle of the variety that can only be delivered by the likes of Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012).

Basically, this thing is a McDonald’s Big Mac. It’s processed crap for sure, but it’s kind of tasty and, they’ve thrown on all that lettuce, some salty pickles and that Thousand Island sauce. Is it better than something like The King’s Speech? Well, no. But a Big Mac isn’t better than king crab legs, and I’m still a lot more likely to eat a Big Mac.

Like Independence Day before it, White House Down has some clunker moments that somehow manage to make it that much more enjoyable. One great example: Early on there’s a scene where we find out Tatum’s John Cale missed his daughter’s color guard recital (or something), and, of course, in the climatic moments of the film he gets to watch as she courageously bandies the presidential flag about on the White House lawn to convince incoming fighter pilots not to blow up the building.

That's pretty much all I got. However, I will say that once, just once, I'd love to see a movie where a character escapes death by a bullet courtesy of an everyday object in his or her pocket (a bible, a pocket watch, whatever) only to be killed moments later. Or, in lieu of that, maybe a comedy where cops or soldiers are issued everyday items with the stated purpose that it could one day take a bullet for them. C

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fearless Franco Delivers in Subversive and Surreal 'Spring Breakers'

Mid-movie, the cast has a sing-along to Britney Spears' Everytime.
Spring Breakers isn’t a movie you watch so much as a film you experience. It’s an art film, but not in an urbane way. After all, the film does feature scenes that could be pulled straight from Cops, Girls Gone Wild and Grand Theft Auto, as well as James Franco playing a corn-rowed, tatted and gold-toothed drug-dealer named Alien who leads a cast sing-along to Britney Spears’ Everytime and simulates fellatio on a gun.

That makes the film sound like a campy comedy, but it’s really quite more than that. Although it’s darkly bonkers and emphatically provocative, at its heart, Spring Breakers is a melancholic message movie. It’s an indictment of an entire way of life embraced by a whole sect of shallow and desensitized youths – the spring break state of mind.

The bare-bones plot involves four college girls who rob a diner for the money to attend spring break in Florida, where they eventually befriend Alien and get mixed up in his decadent lifestyle and drug turf war. But really the story itself is of secondary concern – much more important is the way it’s told.

Writer/director Harmony Korine makes some interesting stylistic choices to create a surreal daze of a film. The most effective of these is the use of repetition, with some lines and even full on monologues being repeated multiple times. However, the varying color saturations, dissonant musical cues, hypnotic editing, and, hell, even the scene blocking, are all worth mentioning.
For his central quartet, writer-director Harmony Korine casts
three former Disney stars alongside his real-life wife.

The film’s casting is also noteworthy. Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson, all former child stars who made their names under the Disney banner, join Korine’s real-life wife Rachel to form the film’s central quartet.

Although the roles are intentionally underdeveloped, the against-type casting works to emphasize Korine’s genre subversion. One can easily imagine a glossy coming-of-age comedy starring these same actresses with this same exact title – Sisters of the Traveling Pants with a touch of Sex and the City thrown in. Korine knows this, and he exploits it to make a point about a party lifestyle that is simultaneously alluring and abhorrent.

As for Franco, well, it’s not a stretch to say pairing him with Korine could’ve been a real disaster since both have come to be known for a certain level of pretentiousness. However, the teaming proves to be a fruitful one. In Alien, they’ve created a uniquely contradictory, and perhaps even iconic, character. 

Although he’s glimpsed earlier in the film during a rap number (oh did I not mention he’s also a low-level rapper?), we first meet Alien when he bails the girls out of jail. It’s easy to think a character like this would trap these girls under his thumb and corrupt them via manipulation or force, but Alien is genial, uncontrolling and ultimately submissive to them. A man who came from nothing and has no family, Alien holds status and material things in the highest regard. He’s repulsively garish, and yet he’s also endearingly fragile and magnetically honest.

Although this could've been a Showgirls type of embarrassment,
Franco successfully navigates his way to a mesmerizing performance.
In some ways, he is a spiritual kin of Jay Gatsby (whose own movie treatment I reviewed earlier this year). There’s even a scene to mirror the one in which Gatsby proudly shows Daisy his lavish collection of clothing. Here, Alien proudly proclaims “look at my sheeyit” while pointing out his things, which include numerous automatic weapons, designer clothes, nun-chucks, and, best of all, a flat screen playing round-the-clock Scarface.

It’s a testament to Franco’s skills that he can take a ludicrous caricature like Alien and make him feel like a real human being. He’s turned this trick before of course – making Saul, the drug dealer from Pineapple Express, into far more of dynamic character than he had any right to be – but he’s working on a totally different level here. Alien could've proven an embarrassing undertaking, but Franco fearlessly puts his all into the role, coming across equal parts ridiculous and sincere. The end result is probably his best work to date.

Regardless of how one views the content of the film, it’s hard to argue against the craftsmanship on display. In a just world, the film would be a major player for end of the year awards in cinematography, editing, and directing. However, since Franco’s chances of a supporting nom are slim at best, I wouldn’t hold my breath on kudos for anything else.

It’s been weeks since I viewed this film, and, still, it lingers with me. Despite its experimental nature, Spring Breakers is an accessible film. It never approaches the frustrating ponderousness of something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Synecdoche, New York or The Fountain. Whereas those films are undone by their sweeping ambition and opaque curiosities, Spring Breakers succeeds on the strength of a brisk pace and focused scope. With a run-time of 94 minutes, there’s very little fat on the film, and it manages to get in, captivate and get out before fatigue sets in. A-