Wednesday, December 16, 2015

“Creed” Recaptures the Rousing Magic of the Original “Rocky”

Sylvester Stallone hands the franchise off to an up-and-comer in Creed.
The Rocky and Star Wars franchises are very different beasts, but it's amazing how, nearly 40 years into their lifespans, they seem to be riding along the same trajectory. Both started as passion projects for their creators before emerging as undisputable cultural touchstones. And, after devolving into mediocrity, both series have reemerged here in 2015 with original cast members passing the baton to new stars. Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed are each the seventh film in their respective franchises, and yet, oddly enough, both films are the first in their series in which the driving force isn't the original creator but instead a total unabashed fanboy.

Expectations are sky high for J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the stakes are clearly a lot bigger for him than they were for Ryan Coogler, writer-director of Creed. But if Force Awakens can even sort of do for Star Wars what Creed does for Rocky, well, Abrams and most film fans on the planet will be tremendously happy.

 Like Abrams' own Star Trek films or Noah Hawley's Fargo series, Creed is somehow both a loving piece or fan fiction and a great piece of entertainment in its own right. The plot intentionally mirrors that of the original Rocky -- a longshot underdog given an out-of-nowhere shot at the title based solely on his name is coached up by a reluctant old-timer and romances a local cutie -- while offering numerous nods to its increasingly bombastic sequels. A naysayer could say it's a mere retread mixed with elements of The Color of Money, but Coogler simultaneously embraces and subverts cliché, bringing a fresh feel to a familiar self-worth narrative.

Observe his clever spin on the training montage or the way he viscerally films each boxing sequence (one in a single take, another with multiple behind-the-head-shots that evoke a video game), and that becomes obvious. But it really helps that he's created a hell of a role for his Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan, who undergoes a startling body transformation to portray boxing hopeful Adonis Johnson, the bastard son of Rocky nemesis-turned-friend Apollo Creed. Adonis is a rarity in a Hollywood film -- a young, complex black man. He's cocky and timid, charming and infuriating, weak and strong. It's the type of role that Tom Cruise played when he was younger and that almost nobody gets to play now, and it just really works within the Rocky construct.

Having never met his father -- he died in the ring before the boy was even born -- Adonis feels compelled to follow in his footsteps. This is despite the fact that he's an educated man with choices thanks to Apollo's widow Mary Ann (Phylicia Rashad), who plucked him out of the foster system after his mother died to raise him as her own. Mary Ann obviously doesn't condone his desire, and neither does the LA boxing community, forcing the self-taught Adonis to travel south of the border to engage in back-room bouts to get his fix. When that's no longer enough, he heads for Philly to track down Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stall
one) and get some professional training.

From there, the movie feeds you a lot of what you'd expect from a Rocky movie -- training montages, heart-on-sleeve monologues, health scares, inspirational music -- but it also lands some unexpected haymakers. There's the affecting romance with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a deaf musician who is refreshingly living her own, three-dimensional life beyond the life of her beau.

But the biggest one comes courtesy of humbly powerful performance from Stallone, an actor who was compared to Brando when he arrived in the original Rocky but is mostly, deservedly, a punch-line. His performance here ranks with the best he's ever given -- right alongside the original Rocky and Cop Land -- and the Oscar talk swirling around him is well-founded. Stallone has allowed his iconic presence to do most of the heavy lifting over the last few decades, but here, he and Coogler wield that status like a surgical knife, using it to elevate the performance while also layering in the kind of gravitas, feeling and honesty you can only bring to a role when it has bled so fully into your own life and vice versa.

Creed is formulaic and manipulative, but satisfyingly so. Like last year's Guardians of the Galaxy, Creed is the type of film that is just so enthusiastically hitting all the right notes, that none of that stuff registers as a detraction. Coogler deftly handles everything, getting us to care about these people, and then getting us to root for them. Anyone who knows good Rocky movies from mediocre Rocky movies knows how things will end, but it doesn't matter. In the final round, when Coogler follows the film's best dramatic moment by finally allowing a few bars of Bill Conti's famous theme to play, it's just utter perfection, the kind of movie magic that every film yearns for but so few achieve. A

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Fun, Inventive "Ant-Man" Makes A Compelling Case for Ant-Man

Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas star as Ant-Man, past and present.
In the past, Marvel Studios has found a way to get modern audiences to embrace possibly laughable scenarios involving warring Norse gods or gun-toting raccoons with alien tree sidekicks, but with Ant-Man they’ve managed something even trickier. They’ve found a way to make a seemingly lame super hero incredibly awesome.

For those unfamiliar, Ant-Man revolves around a super hero who can shrink down to the size of an ant and command ants to do his bidding. He may not be the lamest sounding super hero – Aquaman takes the cake there, as exemplified by shows as diverse as Family Guy and Big Bang Theory – but he's not far off.

However, via a series of inventive fight scenes, including a one-on-one battle with Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man makes an excellent case for why Ant-Man deserves a place at the Avengers' table. It's exciting to imagine the havoc the little guy could wreck when playing alongside the big boys.

Like nearly every film Marvel Studios has made over the last seven years, Ant-Man struggles with a weak villain and repeats the same basic story about keeping a powerful McGuffin from falling into the wrong hands. And, although it was long-billed as a heist movie, the central heist of the film is underwhelmingly derivative.

Despite all that, the film is a blast. Structurally, it hits many of the same beats as Iron Man with a disgruntled second-in-command and a strong redemption angle to boot. The film offers an interesting retcon of the MCU thus far, positing that Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) was another player in the fight against Hydra, much like Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Howard Stark (John Slattery).

Some super impressive CGI is used to de-age Douglas for a flashback that establishes Pym developed a suit that allowed shrinking to the size of an ant via the use of Pym Particles. Although Pym used his tech to fight America's enemies as The Ant-Man, he refused to share his formula, fearful it would fall into untrustworthy hands (smart move given Hydra had infiltrated Shield by that point even if they remained hidden until the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Years later we see him struggling with the notion that his former protégée Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is on the precipice of cracking the formula and preparing to sell it to Hydra (who else?).

Enter Scott Lang (Rudd), a wronged-engineer who struck back at the fat cats as a Robin Hood-like cat-burglar and wound up in prison. At the outset of the film, he is released from jail, and we see the struggle he has getting his life back together so he can reconnect with his beloved daughter Cassie. Pym, who has a troubled relationship with his own daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily), targets Lang as the ideal candidate to use his suit in an effort to stop Cross.

This is the first post-Avengers film to really address why other heroes aren't lending a hand, and best of all, the reason is rooted in character. Immediately after hearing Pym's pitch, Lang says, "I think we should call the Avengers," and it's refreshing as hell to hear. But Pym had a strained relationship with Howard Stark, and so he refuses to seek the help of his son, whose Iron-Man suit he dismisses as "cute tech" when compared to the Ant-Man one.

Thematically, the film does a lot with fatherhood, exploring the notion of earning the adoration our children naturally give us. The film is borderline cloying at times, but the coupling of the off-center tone and a game cast keeps everything together. This is far-and-away the jokiest Marvel film to date, and all of it lands perfectly. The film gets a lot of mileage out of size-related humor and Douglas, Rudd and Lily charm in the lead roles. However, despite filling the second most generic major role in the film (first goes to Judy Greer's no-fun mom, a role she recently played in Jurassic World), Michael Pena practically walks away with the movie on the strength of his unfettered energy and a great running gag.

Few would argue Peyton Reed is as strong a filmmaker as Edgar Wright (who shepherded the project for years but then left right before production due the creative differences), but, as a big fan of the character, Reed was a good choice to take the project across the finish line. Ant-Man is a real winner for Marvel, and another testament to their ability to turn outlandish properties into four-quadrant entertainments. Jury’s out on if they can continue that trend with next year's Dr. Strange, but I wouldn’t bet against them. B+

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Cruise Leads All Star Team In "Mission: Impossible -- Rouge Nation"

Rebecca Ferguson provides an excellent sparing partner for Tom Cruise.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say it: Tom Cruise is the greatest action star of all time.

For some people, that statement is craziness, mostly because Cruise doesn’t have the physicality of Schawarzenegger or the innate toughness of Eastwood.

But just look at the films and tell me which other actor has a better body of work within the genre. I’d put the threesome of Collateral, Minority Report and Edge of Tomorrow (my review here) up against pretty much anything. Hell, even Cruise’s lower tier stuff – Jack Reacher, Oblivion (my review here), Knight and Day – would wipe the floor with the best many other action stars have to offer. And, I’ve said all of this without even including the trump card that would be the Mission: Impossible series, which recently became even more impressive with the release of the wonderful Mission: Impossible – Rouge Nation.

Right off the bat, Rouge Nation calls on Cruise’s greatest appeal as an action star – his reckless commitment. The focus of the film’s ad campaign has been the scene where Cruise hangs off of an Airbus A400M, and yet the stunt occurs minutes into the film, a little appetizer to jack up the audience. You could argue it's a superfluous scene, but really it's quite meaningful in how it sets up the film's meta narrative.

Just as Skyfall explored the relevance of James Bond and the MI6 in today's world, Rouge Nation questions the need for Ethan Hunt and the IMF. Early in the film, Alec Baldwin's CIA director insists Hunt is a reckless gambler and that the IMF is an extravagant, outdated organization that should be dissolved, but eventually he gets on board, saying "Ethan Hunt is the living embodiment of destiny."

That all might as well be a commentary on Cruise, a big-money superstar who is largely a remnant of a bygone era when movie stars were sustainably bankable. It's a different world now, but Cruise is still chugging along, wowing us with the real-world peril he puts himself in to sell these confections to audiences. There's a few cracks here and there, but he's mostly an ageless marvel, and he carries it all off with such precision, dedication and good humor.

The plot has something to do with The Syndicate, a rouge spy organization pulled right from the old TV show, but the specifics are pretty irrelevant. Like all Mission flicks, Rouge Nation simply revolves around Cruise needing to get some item (usually a list, code, or both) that's impossible to get. Differentiation comes down to the director at the helm, the team of cohorts working alongside Cruise, and the set pieces that prop the film up.

Christopher McQuarrie isn't nearly as definitive as the other directors to take a turn on this series, but I like what he does here, combining Brad Bird's jaunty tone (Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol) with Brian DePalma's Hitchcockian tension (Mission: Impossible). Like it's immediate predecessor, Rouge Nation continues the hard-right turn into romp territory, and, I'll just say that it's amazing how much comedy these last two movies have gotten out of Cruise's minimalism. Guy does so much with a shrug or a glance. Meanwhile, The set pieces live up to the high bar set by previous entries in the series. I have an affinity for the staging of the tense opera sequence, but the water scene at the center of the film is a doozy, up there with the very best the series has done.

But Rouge Nation really excels when it comes to the team, a veritable who's who of the series' bests. After sitting most of the last entry out, long-time sidekick Luther Stickel (Ving Rhames) is back in action, along with Benji (Simon Pegg) and Brandt (Jermey Renner). Renner gets less to do this time out (he's mostly comic relief alongside Baldwin or Rhames), but Pegg shines here as he takes another step toward basically becoming a co-lead in the series.

Paula Patton is the only main player from Ghost Protocol who isn't back because, you know, sexism. Fortunately, the trade off means we get a large dose of Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, an agent who may or may not be a loyal member of The Syndicate. Ferguson combines vulnerability and nerve into a fascinating package, giving the type of performance that makes you sit up and ask, "Who is this actor, and why aren't they in everything?" The relationship doesn't get full-on romantic (after that last scene in Ghost Protocol, it's still unclear where Hunt stands with his wife), but the actors have oodles of chemistry. At the film's end you're dying to see more of Ilsa, and I hope Cruise and his collaborators don't jettison Ferguson once they start breaking the story for the inevitable sixth entry in the series.

For what it's worth, Rouge Nation nestles right in at two on my list of favorite Mission flicks, right in between Ghost Protocol and the original. Honestly, it's hard for me to rank all but but the second film, which is decent enough, but definitely rates last. That's because these films are such finely-tuned entertainments. It's barely greenlit, and I'm already excited for the next one. A-

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Selma" Offers a Captivating Story and Worthwhile Commentary on Present Day Race Relations

Critics argue Selma grossly misplays the dynamic between MLK and LBJ.
While watching Ava DuVernay’s Selma, I was reminded of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (reviewed here). Both films focus on iconic moments in the American civil rights movement, while managing the tricky tasks of humanizing the larger-than-life icons involved. More intriguingly, both also illustrate the forceful guile and cunning strategy required to make such sweeping change.

Yes, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. stood on high ground ideologically and morally, but they also were willing to poke, prod and even play a little dirty to ensure success. These aren’t just stories of saints standing on the side of justice until society came around to their way of thinking – these are tales of men pulling strings to manipulate America into bettering itself.

There’s something I find so incredibly interesting about all of that, about the notion that King (commandingly played by David Oyelowo) and his compatriots in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) specifically targeted Selma because the sheriff there was a hotheaded racist who could easily be baited into doing something oppressive to nonviolent protesters. The film suggests the SCLC wasn’t concerned with long-range grass rooting – they left that to other groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. No, what they wanted were headlines that would put pressure on Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a president who supported black voting rights, but who had a difference of opinion about the timing of further legislation. “We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist,” King says in one key scene. “We raise white consciousness. And in particular, the consciousness of whichever white man happens to be sitting in the Oval Office.”

The film has come under fire in some corners for its inaccuracies, particularly related to its portrayal of Johnson as an antagonist to King. The idea that people could watch this movie and come away incensed at the treatment of a white person is pretty mind-boggling, but what makes the whole thing especially odd is that the film delivers a mostly nuanced take on the King-Johnson relationship.

Johnson isn't really the bad guy; he supports change, but doesn't agree with King's time frame. He certainly stands in stark contrast to the film's actual villains, even considering his attempts to slow King down by using wiretap information to expose the good doctor's extramarital dalliances to his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). Not only does he surround himself with fair-minded advisers like Lee White (Giovanni Ribisi), but he also rebuffs a suggestion by J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to shut down King "permanently and unequivocally" and chastises George Wallace (Tim Roth) by saying "I'll be damned to let history put me in the same place as the likes of you."

Is this exactly how it happened? Probably not, but it makes thematic and dramatic sense, and it seems a lot more logical than the assertion that Johnson masterminded the whole march or that he was totally innocent of wiretapping King (I think it's an injustice to show Johnson taking aim at King's marriage, but the dude was president of the United States, for god's sake; he damn well knew about those wiretaps). The New York Times and Washington Post have done fairly good assessments of the entire controversy for those interested in reading more on the topic, but as far as opinions go, I tend to agree with this take in Slate.

The film posits that MLK's mission in Selma was to change the discourse among the inherently good but generally apathetic multitudes within white America, to impress upon them the immediacy of the situation. Johnson becomes the major stand-in there, and the film argues that the work put in by King and his brethren eventually allows Johnson (and a large contingent of whites) to see the light, to transition from sympathy to empathy, as evinced by his words, “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”

This message is one that's still incredibly relevant today, given all the present day upheaval surrounding unjust treatment of blacks by law enforcement and the recent church slayings in South Carolina. Watch the scenes that depict the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing or the beating of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) and tell me they don't seem eerily familiar. It's easy to rationalize, explain or condemn certain situations on an individual basis while pretending there is no larger race problem in America, but on aggregate such justifications don't fly any better now than they did 50 years ago. Is black life better in America now than it was in 1965 when MLK led the march to Selma? Yes, certainly, it is, just like it was better in 1965 than it was in 1865 when Lincoln was trying to abolish slavery. But it isn't where it should be, and that's an American problem.

DuVernay gets that, and Selma encapsulates it, perhaps at the risk of smudging the role of Lyndon B. Johnson. But, I found myself cheering for the man when he put Wallace in his place and later when he spoke so passionately when presenting his bill. I believe that was the film's intent, so it's hard for me to say the film is casting Johnson in a negative light. It's much more accurate to say the film is turning him into a metaphorical beacon.

Is it incongruous that I'm defending artistic license here when I took a movie like Saving Mr. Banks to task for playing loose with history? Maybe. Maybe, I'm just blinded by my ideological persuasions in both cases. But, I have to call it the way I see it, and while I see a relevant thematic purpose in this instance, I only saw corporate propaganda in the former.

Selma is not a perfect history lesson, but if it encourages people to "interrogate history" as DuVernay suggests, and if it makes people a bit more empathetic in their considerations of race relations today, then it's a movie that offers a whole lot of value. When you toss on top of that the notion that it is a well-made and captivating story on the micro level, well that's really something.  A-

Monday, June 15, 2015

Soporific "Fifty Shades of Grey" Makes BDSM Seem About As Exciting As Waiting in Traffic

Clearly one of the most iconic images in cinematic history.
Fifty Shades of Grey plays like a neutered version of 9 ½ Weeks. Well, wait, no. Although that Mickey Rourke/Kim Basinger flick has been a punching bag for the last 30 years, it does have some depth to it – interesting psychosexual exploration, discernible character arcs and, most pertinently, actual eroticism. So on reflection, neutered is probably too kind of a descriptor. It would be more apt to say “Fifty Shades of Grey plays like the castrated version of 9 ½ Weeks."

Boom! Put that on a movie poster.

In all seriousness, I’m not trying to be harsh here. Well, that’s not true, I am trying, but I don’t really want to be harsh. Although I recognize my man card would be on the line if a review of this film wasn’t a slam, I would love to be attempting to convince readers why a smutty chick flick has cinematic merit. My ringing endorsement of Magic Mike is proof of that.

But, damn this movie sucks. The dialogue is wretched, the acting is stiff and almost nothing happens. Seriously, I can’t comprehend how this film clocks in over two hours – it makes the last few Twilight films look like intricate labyrinths of dense plotting.

Speaking of Twilight, my wife tells me Fifty Shades of Grey actually started as Twilight fan fiction, and having only experienced these stories via film, I can totally see that. Take the Underworld out of Twilight and blow past the sexual tension by just getting to the sex, and you’d basically have Fifty Shades of Grey. After all, both stories have the same essential misogynistic takeaway – women are weak, male-obsessed creatures of no substance that just want to be swept up and then knocked down by a well-off, strong man. I honestly can’t believe Bella Swan and Anatasia Steele are the pop cultural heroines of our age, nor can I believe they were created by female writers and not dirty old men. Thank God that Katniss Everdeen exists and that our books and movies are offering at least one strong, positive role model for young women (and that's in addition to a way better story -- #TeamHungerGames).

All this sexism is my biggest issue with this brand of fantasy, but I might be able to look past it if Fifty Shades of Grey had a couple I could believe in. Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are both fine physical specimens, but unfortunately they have no chemistry. In fact, I’d argue they somehow have negative chemistry. I wasn’t expecting Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslet level heat, or even Ryan Gosling-Rachel McAdams energy, but this is a joke. I swear there’s a scene or two in this thing in which Johnson and Dornan look so bored that they might actually fall asleep. I guess, in that way, their both stand-ins for the audience.

And that’s the most unforgivable thing of all –  the movie is mind-numbingly dull. Thinking about it now, I'm reminded of a skit from a recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. While railing against the inequality and injustice of the American bail system, Oliver showed “Pretrial Services,” a parody segment of reality shows like Dog the Bounty Hunter that focused on humdrum and unexciting office work. I mention this because Fifty Shades of Grey is the erotic thriller equivalent of “Pretrial Services.” It has scene after scene in which the leads discuss an in-depth non-disclosure agreement, and it features the least taboo sexual fetishes imaginable – blindfolds, ice, and spanking, oh my. D-

Friday, June 5, 2015

Julianne Moore Earns that Oscar in "Still Alice"

Julianne Moore totally inhabits this character.  
Full disclosure: Over the past half-decade or so, I have watched my grandmother descend further and further into dementia to the point that she is now a safety risk, incapable of being left alone. I'm not sure if that clouds my evaluation of a film like Still Alice, which tells the story of a linguistic professor's bout with Alzheimer's and the affect her mental deterioration has on her and her family. Did my investment come easier, my tears more readily because this film hit a little close to the bone? I can't really be sure, but at least now you know where I'm coming from.

Based on the novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice is a harrowing depiction of the personal destruction that accompanies Alzheimer's. It's pretty straightforward and so it does have a Lifetime movie of the week vibe to it, but the movie is elevated by a brilliant central performance and a restrained script that’s chock-full of insight and authenticity.

Julianne Moore took home the Oscar for her work as the titular character, and it's a long overdue victory. Moore is one of the greatest actors of her generation, so I was behind her win before even seeing the movie, but, now that I have, I can say this is one of those rare cases where a past-due actor is deservedly honored for the performance in question as well as for overall career achievement.

I’m not sure I’d say this is Moore’s best performance, but it’s certainly up there. What’s so impressive about how Moore slowly peels layer upon layer away from Alice’s identity is just how little you notice the acting. The character’s decline is rapid, but the performance is seamless. This is a full on clinic in subtle submersion.

Although Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin) and three children (Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart, and Hunter Parrish) factor in to the narrative, the film intentionally keeps them on the margins. Generally, this works fine. The supporting actors all do fine work, and the reality is that the film is trying to capture Alice’s experience (as opposed to Away From Her, a film focused more on how a dementia touches those closest to the afflicted).

Still, even given that defense, it does feel like a bit of a cheat at times, especially concerning the Bosworth character. Alice is dealing with a genetic form of the disease and a blood test reveals that the Bosworth character has the gene and will therefore go through this exact trauma in about 20 years, and yet, outside of one clipped phone conversation, this developing is never really addressed with any sort of substance. It’s a dangling narrative thread that is jarringly pushed aside.

That gripe aside, Still Alice is a worthwhile film with a powerhouse performance from one of our greatest working actors. At one point, Alice pines “I wish I had cancer. I wouldn’t feel so ashamed. People put on pink ribbons if you have cancer.” It’s a salient point, one that highlights that Still Alice is the rare film that makes us both think and feel, all while never giving in to mawkishness. Its strength is in its matter-of-fact depiction of the shattering realities that accompany this terrible disease and in the grace that can occasionally shine through during such a devastating eradication of self. B+

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Lost David O. Russell Film Surfaces As "Accidental Love" And Underwhelms

Those expressions sum up my response to Nailed Accidental Love.
Nowadays, David O. Russell is big shit in Hollywood. Releasing three straight films that collectively amass 25 Oscar nominations and $375 million will do that for you.

It's a pretty impressive turnaround when you consider where the writer-director's career was when Mark Wahlberg decided to bring him aboard The Fighter six years ago. At that time, he'd released just one film in the past 10 years (2004's poorly received I Heart Huckabees) and had garnered quite a reputation for his on-set feuds with the likes of George Clooney and Lily Tomlin.

Perceived as a bullying hothead, Russell's options became limited after the financial failure of Huckabees (which, to be fair, is a pretty fun, underrated flick). He was clearly talented -- Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings were proof of that -- but his films didn't make money and he was a pain in the ass.

It was in this time-frame that Russell began working on Nailed, a pre-Obamacare satire about public healthcare staring Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal. The production included another on-set disagreement with an actor, this time the legendary James Cann who actually left mid-production due to "creative differences." The film also had some dubious financiers and shut down production multiple times in 2008, ultimately halting permanently before filming was complete.

For years, Nailed held a certain allure, the lost Russell picture that never was. The filmmaker officially washed his hands of the film in 2010, and yet you'd still hear about it every now and then with word of a test screening here or submission to the MPAA there. Hoping to recoup something on their investment, the producers threw together an unapproved cut and got the film released on video earlier this year, albeit with Russell's name off the film and a title change to Accidental Love.

As evidenced by my effusive praise for American Hustle, I'm a big fan of Russell's work, so I rented Accidental Love the other day mostly as a form of completism. Given all I'd read over the years, I expected a half-assed, maybe even incoherent curiosity, but I also hoped to catch glimmers of inspiration hiding in the margins.

Unfortunately, there's really nothing to see here. Although I do think there's something to the notion that Russell's films really find their footing in the editing bay, the raw product here seems generally complete and it's all so goddamn pedestrian that it's hard to imagine how any sort of decent film could've been assembled from any of this.

I never expected the film to compare to Russell's other works, but the whole thing -- the writing, the character development, the pacing, the musical cues, the cinematography -- is on par with one of those straight-to-video National Lampoon comedies. It's that bad.

The film focuses on Alice (Biel), a waitress who is shot in the head by a nail gun, but is unable to have the nail removed because she doesn't have insurance. As a result of her newfound emotional volatility, wild thoughts and random diversions into speaking Portuguese, Alice is fired from her job and dumped by her plays-the-odds fiancé (a best-in-show James Marsden).

In an effort to have the nail removed and get her life back, Alice journeys to Washington, D.C. with two bizarrely injured sidekicks (Kurt Fuller, Tracy Morgan) in the hopes of convincing their weasley Congressman (Gyllenhaal) to push a bill that would provide health coverage for people with accidental injuries. Zany political bickering, slapstick hijinks and an unconvincing love triangle ensue.

The film is meant to be a farce with increasing levels of absurdity, but it feels like a slapdash piece of work put together by a snarky teenager. It's tempting to blame that on the unfinished nature of the endeavor, but given how much material is actually here, it's much more likely to be a script problem. The film aspires to the tone of something like 30 Rock, but despite the presence of Morgan (who seems like he's acting in another movie altogether), the film doesn't even come close to having that kind of comedic bite or control.

Watching the film, I was reminded of Mike Judge's Idiocracy, another zany satire that's not nearly as funny as it could be. But, the key difference is that Idiocracy works, while Accidental Love just doesn't. A lot of that has to do with how the films treat their topics and characters -- Idiocracy corrals that dumb sharpness that Judge is a master of, and, for all it's lunacy, makes its characters feel organic to the plot and somewhat dimensional. Meanwhile Accidental Love feels like it's not even trying at all, with whole characters, scenes and arcs seemingly grafted onto the film because, well, why not?

In my review of American Hustle, I wrote abut Russell's general approach, saying "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."

Unfortunately with Accidental Love, it seems the dots were randomly placed and that the broadness of the project was so unwieldy that Russell just decided to scribble on top of the whole thing. D

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Disney Takes a Step Backward with the Nevertheless Adorable "Big Hero 6"

Big Hero 6 is about a kid coping with the death of his brother via
the help of a robot said brother invented.
In my review of Frozen, I mentioned how far Walt Disney Animation Studios has come over the last decade, steadily improving its output to the point that it arguably has become the premier animation house in Hollywood.

I still feel that way after having seen Big Hero 6, but on the heels of the studio's recent successes, Disney's adaptation of this obscure Marvel property is a bit of a let down. It's solid and occasionally inspired entertainment, but it's a lot more Meet the Robinsons or Bolt than Wreck-It Ralph or Frozen.

That's totally fine -- not every attempt needs to be a classic, which is something I've discussed at length in my coverage of Pixar's output over the years. I'd never argue Big Hero 6 is a bad film -- it's a cute, eye-popping heart-tugger that deftly addresses coping with tragedy and features an absolutely adorable break-out character (that would be Baymax, the inflatable health care robot voiced by 30 Rock's Scott Adsit).

But it's also pretty pedestrian in the way it plays like a vastly inferior version of the similar Guardians of the Galaxy (my review here). Both are obscure Marvel properties focused on a hero with a tragic past who leads a group a misfits in battling a vengeance-seeking villain. But whereas Guardians had a lot of flavor and personality, especially among it's deep supporting cast, Big Hero 6 is woefully undefined. The four teens who make up the back two-thirds of the superhero team are basically window dressing and the villain's descent into callous violence carries little weight and makes even less sense.

Thank goodness then for Baymax, who's as cute as Wall-E or Groot, but about 10 times more huggable and 100 times more articulate. His awkward physicality and matter-of-fact pronouncements are the undisputed highlight of the film, which is ultimately a solid, if unspectacular, offering from Disney. B

This is adorable.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

McDonagh and Gleeson Reteam for the Bleak but Moving "Calvary"

Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson have conversations in Calvary.
It’s easy to wonder how anyone still could believe in a caring and just God. There’s so much knowledge and science, not to mention all the disillusioning depravity and hypocrisy. And yet some continue to believe, not entirely unshaken in their faith but still doddering on.

Questions about the futility of faith are at the forefront of Calvary, writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s sophomore follow-up to The Guard. Here, he reteams with star Brendan Gleeson to tell a different sort of story – one that pulls no punches and evinces that patented McDonagh family wit (see also, brother Martin’s phenomenal In Bruges), but that pivots from dark comedy to deliver a poetic and sincere meditation on what it is to be a lonely believer amid a sea of hedonistic heretics.

Calvary is the type of movie that reminds me why I watch movies. It’s beautifully shot, thoughtfully written and naturally acted. It’s funny and profound, surprisingly idiosyncratic in its cadences and yet satisfyingly inevitable in its conclusions.

The film's opening words set the tone. "I first tasted semen when I was seven years old." The line is spoken by an unknown parishioner to Father James (Gleeson), a salt-of-the-earth type who maintains his composure enough to dryly retort, "It's certainly a startling opening line." What comes next is tougher to take in stride. The confessor explains he was raped as a boy by a now-dead priest, and that he has decided to kill a good priest – this particular good priest – as retribution, because, well, it would be more shocking than killing a bad one. But at least he's considerate – he offers Father James a week to get his life in order, claiming he'll meet him on the beach the following Sunday.

The rest of the film plays like a guess-the-would-be-killer for the audience, but not for Father James since he knows exactly who he was speaking with in the confessional. For him, the week is less about finding a way to salvage his life than it is about finding a way to salvage his faith. The cynical locals (played by the likes of Aiden Gillen, Chris O'Dowd and Dylan Moran) don't make that easy on him, as each one is a conceivable potential murderer. Neither do his own demons (alcoholism) or the appearance of the daughter (Kelly Reilly) he had before entering the priesthood.

Gleeson always brings his A-game, but this is the best I've ever seen him. His work as Father James is towering yet understated, the type of complex and nuanced performance that deserves to win an Oscar, but miraculously doesn't even get nominated. He's constantly jostling between strength and vulnerability, hope and despair and levity and seriousness, sometimes within the turn of a single phrase or a flicker of the eyes. And that doesn't even cover just how perfectly simpatico Gleeson is with the McDonagh language (for a more populous American analog, think Samuel L. Jackson speaking the words of Quentin Tarantino).

At one point, Father James suggests there's too much talk of sins, and not enough talk of virtues, calling particular attention to forgiveness. Anyone who knows diddly about Jesus's death should know what the title of the film is alluding to, and, given that, should also be able to predict where things are headed. Father James considers running away, but ultimately opts to answer for the sins of others like his God before him.

However, the final scene of the film powerfully hints at the notion that forgiveness doesn't require a sacrificial lamb, just the fortitude and willingness to tap into the virtue within. This is a bleak and bitter film, but there's enough in its ending to restore faith, maybe not in God, but definitely in humanity, which is more than enough given all the soul-crushing brutality in the world. A

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"Foxcatcher" Doesn't Measure Up to Bennett Miller's Previous Output

Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum shine, but Foxcatcher is an airless effort.
With Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) has crafted yet another pensively restrained, immaculately composed and expertly acted examination of unbridled obsession and determination and held it at arms length. However, this time out, the distanced and disciplined approach that worked so well in the director's earlier films make Foxcatcher feel kind of inert and airless.

Foxcatcher focuses on the relationship between Olympic wrestling brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and John Du Pont (Steve Carrell), the creepy millionaire who served as their benefactor. Both Mark and Dave are former Olympic champs, but Mark lives firmly in the shadow of his older brother, which makes him ideal prey for the resentful and self-important Du Pont, a man who knows a thing or two about living in the shadows of family (in his case, his mother).

There's not much point in saying any more about the film's plot. A tragedy involving these men attained headline-grabbing true crime infamy, but the particulars of that incident are opaque, poorly defined, and relegated to the film's final moments. Foxcatcher is much more concerned with ruminating on its long list of themes, including isolation and repression, class disparity and subjugation, unchecked entitlement and compromised integrity, and, if all that isn't enough, the fractured male psyche and distorted American values. There's so much going on here, and yet it feels like almost nothing happens.

The film is technically accomplished, and the actors all do nice work. Ruffalo, who has made a career of breathing life and dimensionality into thinly written parts, is especially affecting as the warm-hearted, at-ease-with-himself Dave, and Tatum continues to impress with the emotional brute routine. Both actors bring an ape-like physicality to their roles, while doing a good job of communicating an innate brotherly bond.

Meanwhile, Carrell is buried under prosthetics and definitely a world away from his typical roles. He's pretty solid throughout, and great in isolated moments, but his acting calls a lot of attention to itself and not in a good way. His approach stands in stark contrast to his more natural costars, and the fake nose threatens to overpower his performance. I'd say there's more good than bad in the portrayal, but there's definitely something off-key about it.

Foxcatcher is a major comedown for Miller, which maybe isn't fair given just how good Capote and Moneyball were, but the film isn't some major catastrophe. It's certainly worth catching -- Ruffalo's performance alone is worth the time, and there is a ton of other stuff to admire about the film besides. The thing just feels a little empty to me, and ultimately this is one of those films that I'm bummed I didn't like more. B-

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Linklater Pulls Off Passion Project With Beautiful, Resonant "Boyhood"

Boyhood chronicles 12 years in the life of a family of four, including
a loving but absent dad and a quiet and relaxed son.
Boyhood deserves to win Best Picture and Best Director at this year's Oscar telecast.

I say that, having seen almost none of the nominated films. While I pride myself in my opinion on film, and I usually stay pretty well versed in the Oscar coverage and discussion, fatherhood has drastically altered my regular viewing and reading habits. I have only seen two (Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel) of the eight Best Picture nominees, three of the 20 nominated acting performances, and, well, you get the idea.

All that being said, I still feel comfortable making such a lofty claim about Richard Linklater's examination of life in process. Although it's entirely possible that a film like Foxcatcher or Birdman could leapfrog Boyhood as my favorite film of 2014, the enormity of what has been achieved with Boyhood flat out needs to be recognized. The film, which chronicles 12 years in the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister (Lorelei Linklater), and their parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette at the top of their games) is not as novel as some might think (Michael Apted has been doing something similar with his Up series of documentaries for half a century), but it is still a monumental accomplishment.

Will Boyhood actually win? I'm doubtful. Birdman seems deserving and has a leg up on the top prize, and while director is, by most accounts, a tighter race, Linklater doesn't have the showy style of Alejandro González Iñárritu. I would celebrate a win for an artist like Iñárritu, but I think the time is right to give Linklater his due. The guy has spent a great deal of his career exploring aging, the maturation process and the passage of time -- charting growth and relationships over two decades with his Before trilogy (reviewed by yours truly here) -- but Boyhood is something extra. Conceived as a whole and shot and edited bit by bit over a twelve year period, it required unwavering discipline, incredible patience and, let's be honest, some real cajones.

It's just so crazy to consider that over the past dozen years, while Linklater was churning out a consistent stream of films, including several that are outright dynamite (School of Rock, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), he had this project just simmering on the backburner. There was so much here that could've gone wrong, but Boyhood is so damn perceptive and tonally consistent because of the clarity of Linklater's vision mixed with his patented ability to go with the flow and make small moments so damn engaging.

Even if there was some sort of rudimentary outline here, Linklater took a real risk staking such an ambitious project on an unknown actor that could've grown into just about any type of person. To a large extent, the development of Coltrane was driving the narrative here, and while he wound up fitting the mold of Linklater's prototypical sensitive artist type (a few tweaks and this could easily be a prequel about Jesse from the Before series), he easily could've grown into something else entirely. I suspect Linklater would've made any outcome work, because he's just so damn light on his toes, and I'm a firm believer in rewarding humanist filmmaking of this scope and caliber.

It's worth stating explicitly that the film is pretty damn good aside from all that background -- it's a subtly resonant, gently profound and authentically naturalistic coming of age story, aided enormously by some dynamite lived-in acting and its director's keen ear for honest interactions and dialogue. The film doesn't revel in the typical "big moments" of boyhood -- instead it focuses on the more mundane lead-ups and aftermaths, which works as a sly comment on how we spend far more time anticipating and reacting to the big experiences than we do inside of them.

Having said that, the film is still fascinatingly gripping, mostly because you get sucked into caring about what's happening and come away feeling like you know these people. There's just a tremendous satisfaction to watching these lives play out.

Late in the film, Hawke has a scene with Coltrane in which he touches on that notion, providing the perfect reason for why Boyhood is such a beautiful piece of art. He says,"What's the point? I mean, I sure as shit don't know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We're all just winging it, you know? The good news is you're feeling stuff. And you've got to hold onto that."

There's no doubt Linklater winged quite a bit during the making of this film, and that the end result makes the audience feel stuff. And that makes Boyhood a film worth holding on to. A

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" Proves More Than Your Typical Liam Neeson Actioner

Liam Neeson gets to do more than just snarl his way through this one.
Since the runaway success of the original Taken six years ago, Liam Neeson has appeared as a stoic tough guy in anywhere between eight and a dozen movies depending on how you view the likes of Clash of the Titans, The Lego Movie and A Million Ways to Die in the West.

Considering that, it would be easy to shrug off A Walk Among the Tombstones as another in a long line of stock actioners meant to capitalize on audience fondness for Bryan Mills and his extremely abductable family.

However, while Neeson is still playing an intimidating ass kicker, A Walk Among the Tombstones is very different from Taken, Non-Stop and all the other cookie cutter crap he's been churning out the last few years. As far as this action phase of his goes, this one fits most comfortably alongside The Grey, another film that took this hardass archetype and actually ventured into thoughtful reflection and interesting characterization.

Based on one of the books from Lawrence Block's popular detective series, A Walk Among the Tombstones isn't even much of an action movie -- it's a dark, slow-burn character piece. Box Office Mojo compares it to Prisoners, and while I don't think it's quite in the same league as that film, the comparison is apt. Another analog would be The Lookout, the only other film ace screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, Out of Sight) had directed before this one.

Plotwise, the film sounds like a movie you've seen before. It follows Matthew Scudder (Neeson), a disgraced former police officer who works as a non-licensed detective when he's not attending AA meetings, as he investigates the murder of a drug kingpin's wife. Combined with his taking a street kid under his wing, the case ultimately provides Scudder a chance at redemption.

But a film like this isn't so much about plot as it is about mood and tone, and Frank and Neeson get all of that right (besides a voiceover during the conclusion that ham-fistedly ties in the 12 steps of AA). Neeson still gets to be the grizzled badass here, but there's a humanity to the guy that really plays. And in a film of this ilk, that can go a long way. B

Friday, January 30, 2015

It May Not Live Up to the Hype, But "The Interview" is Still Hilarious

The chemistry of James Franco and Seth Rogen carries The Interview.
With all the buildup from the Guardians of Peace brouhaha, The Interview was never going to live up to the hype. Even though it has some worthwhile points to make about the descent of journalism, it's mostly just a juvenile, bro-comedy -- the type of movie that shouldn't have to carry a torch for free speech.

Still, there's no denying The Interview is an enjoyable film. It's not quite as good as what Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg gave us with This is The End and Pineapple Express, but it's in the ballpark. It definitely has the same anarchic sense of humor, and, like those films, it goes over-the-top in some gut-busting ways.

Generally speaking, I'd say the film is decent enough during its first 20 minutes, gets really hilarious for about an hour, and then ends with a so-so action-infused blowout that's made significantly funnier by the fact that it plays out exactly as idiot talk show host Dave Skylark (James Franco) dreamed it would when he and his producer (Rogen) were first approached by a CIA operative (Lizzy Caplan) to assassinate Kim Jong-un (Randall Park).

There is a lot to enjoy here, as the film nicely employs what I guess you'd call smartly juvenile humor. One of the funniest running themes in the movie involves "honeypotting" or "honeydicking," a concept that critiques the methods a monster like Jong-un uses to keep control over his citizens (urban dictionary explains).

Acting wise, Diana Bang steals scenes as North Korea's sexy communication director, while Caplan, despite being the straight woman in some of the funniest scenes, is pretty much wasted. Meanwhile, Park (best known for his humorous work on Veep) has an inspired take on Jong-un, playing him as a sheepishly chill dude who just happens to be a megalomaniac with daddy issues. Although this interpretation of the notorious dictator wouldn't be out of place on SNL, Park's Jong-un is a well-calibrated bad guy that's actually better developed than about eight out of ten action movie villains.

But, unsurprisingly, The Interview's success rests on the comedic chemistry between its likable leads. Rogen freaking out is never not funny, and, as with their previous collaborations, the writer-director generously gifts Franco all the funniest lines. Franco is a talented performer, but can, at times, come across as stiff or distracted (which is unsurprising given all the balls he has up in the air at any one time). However, when he's working with Rogen, the actor taps into a surreal, overly-committed wave length that's just a blast to behold.

While I'd say The Interview definitely wasn't worth all the fuss, it provides a decent amount of fun, while still working in a nice under-riding theme that, oddly enough, seems even more compellingly relevant given the unscrupulous way the media handled the reporting of the Sony hack. It's weird, silly and fun with a little something to say too -- sounds pretty good to me. B

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Reitman Delivers a Misfire With "Men, Women & Children"

Roy from The Office shows up for this one scene. Don't even think
he speaks. Very weird.
After the increasing success of his first three films (Thank You For Smoking, Juno and Up in the Air), Jason Reitman has gotten himself on to a bit of a cold streak. Young Adult scored with critics but bombed with audiences and Oscar voters, and then Labor Day mustered little support of any kind. The writer-director has tumbled even further from grace with Men, Women & Children, the biggest critical and commercial flop of his career.

The film, which employs an interconnected ensemble in an attempt to explore the alienating forces of technology, found its way onto its share of 2014 worst of lists, but it's not that bad. There are some good characters here, and the film circles a topic worthy of continued exploration, even in the wake of Spike Jonze's brilliant Her. However, the film's positives are outweighed by an overbearing, self-important approach that really has very little to add to the conversation of how technology is changing modern life.

The film focuses on five family units in a small Texas community. Here's the rundown:
  1. Chris (Travis Tope), a football player who has become so desensitized by internet porn that he can't get excited for real sex (this concept was handled with much more nuance and humor in Don Jon) and his unsatisfied parents (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt doing the best they can) who seek extramarital affairs via the internet.
  2. Cheerleader Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), an aspiring starlet who posts inappropriate photos to a web site with the help of her misguided mom Joan (Judy Greer) in the hopes of jump starting an acting career. 
  3. Tim (Ansel Elgort), a football star who quits the team after his mom abandons him and his father Kent (Dean Norris, so damn good) for life with a new man across the country. Tim spends most of his time playing an online role playing game and openly discusses the insignificance of life in the context of our massive universe. 
  4. Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), an emo sort whose overprotective mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) obsessively monitors her every move via regular social media reviews, GPS tracking and a whole slew of other intrusions. 
  5. Allison (Elena Kampouris), a cheerleader with an eating disorder who hooks up with the callous jock who teased her before she lost weight. 
Clearly, there's a lot going on, and that's before we talk about the story overlaps -- Tim and Brandy, Chris and Hannah, and Kent and Patricia are all paired off romantically. The only odd fit is Allison's story, which is bluntly drawn and entirely unconnected to the rest of the narrative. There's very little technological hook to this one (beyond a chat room of other users giving tips on how to avoid eating food), and it plays like a tacked on thread considering she's the only kid who doesn't have a prominently featured parent (J.K. Simmons is wasted as her father).

Overall, the film suffers as a message movie (all the technology connections are pretty much just window dressing) and works best as a community melodrama, but even then, it's extremely flawed (it's like a vastly less successful Little Children or The Ice Storm).

The problem is that the bulk of these characters are basically just representing different ideas, so they end up with almost no dimension. The exceptions to that rule are Tim, Brandy, Kent and Joan. There's a good movie here about a father and a son dealing with abandonment with the help of two romantic interests dealing with their own shit, but it's muted by all the other fluff filling up the bulk of the run time.

When Elgort, Dever, Greer, and Norris are onscreen, especially in combination, the film really shines. Otherwise, Men, Women & Children offers a bunch of junk-time for unengaged audience members to scroll through their phones. C

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" Improves Upon Very Good Predecessor

Caesar brandishes a gun in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
I posted a tentative list of my top 10 films of 2014 on New Year’s Eve knowing that as I continued to see more and more 2014 releases, it would drastically change.

We’re barely two weeks into 2015, and the list is already out of date, and it's not because I saw one of the many acclaimed films (Selma, Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, Birdman, Boyhood, and The Imitation Game to name a few). Instead, the change comes courtesy of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a film I was highly anticipating but did not realize would be nearly this damn good.

Dawn deepens and expands upon the highly enjoyable and affecting Rise of the Planet of the Apes, taking the narrative further down the bleak path that’s all but necessary if these prequels are seriously meant to align with the iconic Charlton Heston film.

The film picks up roughly a decade after the first film, with most of humanity having been killed off by the simian flu (all the major ape characters from the previous film return, while all the major human characters are long dead). The surviving humans are seemingly immune to the virus, and have etched out an existence in a rundown San Francisco under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcom (Jason Clarke). In dire need of a power, these survivors aim to restore a nearby dam, but in so doing, they encroach on the developing ape community that Caesar founded in the Muir Woods at the end of the first film. In an effort to avoid war, Malcom and Caesar attempt to forge diplomatic relations, but pressures from untrusting extremists in each group make that very difficult.

That’s all I’ll say for the plot. As was the case with Rise, the humans comprise the weaker part of the story, but the script takes time to give almost every character of consequence, be they ape or human, some level of dimensionality. Like most science fiction, the Planet of the Apes series has always been bluntly allegoric, and that hasn’t changed here. The inevitability of war, the folly of racial hatred, and anti-gun sentiment are just a few of the ideas jostling around in this thing.

Thematics aside, this is one hell of an action film. The pace is pretty relentless, and the special effects and action set pieces are downright dynamite. A sequence in which the apes make an assault on the human fortress is one of the most jawdropping action scenes I've ever seen – even better than the great bridge battle that ended the last film. Not only does it look great, but it’s just so damn innovative in its choreography.

But, on top of all that, this is also a rock solid character piece. Combined with Rise, this is basically a clinic on how to do a prequel origin story. One need only look at how successful Caesar has been fleshed out here to realize just how awful a ball drop those Star Wars prequels were. Prior to this series, Caesar was probably one of the most iconic antagonist in film history – but now, courtesy of Serkis and some great work from the effects team, he’s also one of the most well-developed, empathetic and relatable heroes your likely to come across. And, Star Wars isn’t the only touchstone the film brings to mind – the narrative is extremely Shakespearean, and Julius Caesar is an obvious point of reference in the central relationship between the magnanimous Caesar and the vengeance-seeking Koba (Toby Kebbell).

Frankly, It's a shame this film didn't receive more end-of-year love. I know it’s a science fiction film, but so is Snowpiercer and that’s showing up on all sorts of top 10s. As far as the Oscars go, the film got a well-deserved special effects nomination today, but it would've been deserving in a few more places. I understand it's a reach to assume at this point that Serkis could've cracked the very crowded best actor field, but would this not be the perfect year to give the guy an honorary Oscar? He's given his best ever motion capture performance here, and the technology is being increasingly embraced in the industry, with big name actors like Vin Diesel now embracing the form as a way to move outside the box their actual screen persona puts them in.

 Regardless of the year-in-review recognition it's getting, I’ll bang the drum for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Although there's a great chance Dawn will ultimately fall out of my top ten, it's in there right now. This is a total must-see, and one of the best films of 2014. A-

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Former SNL Players Deliver the Goods in "Skeleton Twins" and "Obvious Child"

Skeleton Twins utilizes the time-honed chemistry of its leads.
From Bill Murray to Will Forte, there’s a long tradition of SNL performers who have made a successful transition to dramatically-tinged films. The other night, I took in two of the latest movies to give former not-ready-for-prime-time players such a spotlight – Skeleton Twins and Obvious Child – and I came away very impressed with the results.

In Skeleton Twins, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as Maggie and Milo, two mid-thirties twins who have been estranged for a decade. After Milo botches a suicide attempt, the siblings become reacquainted, with Maggie offering Milo the chance to move from California back to New York where he can stay with her in their hometown while he recovers.

To most onlookers, Milo would be the clear black sheep of the family. He’s a suicidal, failed actor – “another tragic gay cliché” as he says – while she seemingly has everything – steady job, nice house, and an affable and eager husband (Luke Wilson in his best performance outside a Wes Anderson film) with whom she’s trying to conceive a child.

But things aren’t really that rosy for Maggie, which is something that’s hinted at when we first meet her (she’s contemplating swallowing a handful of pills when she gets interrupted by a phone call about Milo’s attempted suicide), and that becomes increasingly clear as we learn more and more about her self-sabotaging behaviors.  Both Maggie and Milo are living lives filled with crippling isolation and regret, and they need to come back together if they have any chance of healing.

That all reads pretty heavy on its own, and it doesn’t even account for Maggie and Milo’s screwed up upbringing, which is highlighted by their father’s suicide, a sex scandal involving a pedophiliac teacher, and abandonment by a new age mother.

Although the laundry list of family issues may seem like one or two too many skeletons in the closet, the film handles it all well enough, and, mercifully, this isn’t one of those direly dark films comedic actors sometimes make to prove dramatic bonafides. While Wiig and Hader carry the dramatic material with aplomb, Skeleton Twins is also a very funny film, chiefly due to the time-honed chemistry between the two costars. There’s an intuitive connection there, and I’d be shocked if several of their scenes – particularly one set in a dentist office – weren’t at least partially improvised. 

In a lot of ways, the film plays like an adaptation of a book (I could easily imagine Skeleton Twins as one of those every-other-chapter-narrator novels that jostles back and forth between two points of view). This is a layered film with a lot of depth, but I won’t lie: things do fall off a bit as the film reaches its conclusion.  Although momentum builds tremendously toward a wrenching and raw blowout between the leads, everything is then quickly tied up in an unbelievable climax.

Still, there’s a something great about watching Wiig and Hader inhabit these characters together, and both deliver in ways they haven’t before. Wiig, for all her greatness, has never seemed this real on film, while Hader does revelatory work as the sardonic misanthrope who is simultaneously goofy, vulnerable and relatable. He’s long been a scene-stealer, but Skeleton Twins doesn’t just mark his first dramatic role – it marks his first role of real substance period. With this role, Hader proves that as great as he is at hitting one note jokes, he’s more than capable of handling three-dimensionality.

Jenny Slate is both hilarious and touching in Obvious Child.
Jenny Slate accomplishes that same feat in Obvious Child, the debut film from writer/director Gillian Robespierre. Unlike Wiig and Hader, Slate isn’t an SNL icon. Her stint lasted only one season, and she’s probably best remembered for accidentally saying the F-word during her first on-air appearance.

Nevertheless, Slate has made numerous recurring appearances on the likes of Parks and Recreation and Bob’s Burgers (my two favorites!) since leaving SNL, killing it in the type of comically broad roles that wouldn’t be out of place on the late-night sketch show. But with Obvious Child, she’s been given the chance to play something far more nuanced.

Slate plays Donna, a late 20s book store employee who moonlights as a stand-up comic. After her boyfriend dumps her and she loses her job, Donna has a one-night stand with an earnest nice guy (Jake Lacey, who people might recognize as Jim 2.0 from the later seasons of The Office). The experience causes Donna to get pregnant and she decides to get an abortion, all the while the guy keeps trying to hang out with her.

The film has become known as the abortion comedy, and that is and isn’t an apt description. Yes it contains an abortion, but few people would call Fast Times at Ridgemont High a movie about abortion, and it's the same here.

Obvious Child takes no stance – political, moral or otherwise – on topic; it just so happens to be about a woman who, finding herself unfit to be a parent, decides to have an abortion, grows a little from the experience, and then begins a relationship with the man who inseminated her. It's like a Woody Allenesque take on the romantic beats of Juno... except with adults... and an abortion.

Slate is a revelation as Donna, carrying the film on her small shoulders while embodying a whole series of contradictions (adorable and crude, aloof and neurotic, vulnerable and strong). Like any good comedian, Donna is daring on stage, with barely any filter, sharing everything up there, including intimate details of her personal life (and the lives of those closest to her). This movie is about how she learns to share and open up when she's not on stage.

Obvious Child is a really funny, almost feel-good film, which is odd to say given the narrative, but there it is. It's a top film of 2015 for me, even though I do have some reservations about the overly rosy finale -- everything resolves so unbelievably perfectly for the lead that it began reminding me a bit of Pretty Woman.

That said, the movie earns a lot of good will, and the final scene is a perfect way to close out the particular story their telling here. This isn't really about abortion, just like Pretty Woman wasn't really about prostitution. A proper tonal and thematic comparison would be something like Frances Ha or Girls, since Obvious Child is actually exploring the process of a young woman trying to find her footing in the world.

Skeleton Twins B, Obvious Child B+