Wednesday, August 31, 2011
The Interrupters (2011)
Dir. Steve James
4.5 out of 5
There's a fact dropped very casually at the beginning of The Interrupters, from the voice of an unseen news anchor, that the annual number of murder victims in Chicago has surpassed the annual number of American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. "War zone" is often a reductive way of describing America's most beleaguered urban communities, but it almost fits the South Side neighborhoods examined by accomplished documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams). Into the breach step the members of CeaseFire, the specialized "violence interrupters" that give the film its title. Putting themselves in harm's way on a daily basis, they embody what the government and many of their neighbors seem unable or unwilling to comprehend - sacrifice.
Of course, to the three interrupters profiled by James over the course of a year, sacrifice is as familiar as a brother or sister. All of them carry the burden of a past that involves gang membership, or drug dealing, or unspeakable acts of violence. CeaseFire allows them to turn this burden into a tool for change. The organization is built on the theory that the spread of violence exhibits a pattern similar to that of an infectious disease. The interrupters are the patient zeroes of a potential cure, individuals who found a way within themselves to inhibit the causes of violent behavior and who struggle to translate it for a world that enables the whims of the slighted and the vengeful. Hope is a powerful motivator, but so is guilt. The film's often-glimpsed subtext is how violence intervention is as effective in building up the interrupter as it is in assuaging the interrupted.
The Interrupters is not as bleak as you might imagine. There is great affirmation in the relationships built between the film's main subjects and the people who need their help. One mediator, a tough-as-nails activist, mother, and progeny of noted Chicago crime lord Jeff Fort, is pushed to her limits by a teenage girl who alternates between red-hot aggression and heartbreaking vulnerability. Another copes with his gangbanging past by reaching out to elementary school children - those who were born witness to a world of violence, and who are on the cusp of entering it themselves - with art therapy. He desperately wants to apologize directly to the families of those he has hurt, but fears their potential reaction. How proud he would be to see CeaseFire's influence reflected in a 17-year-old boy who does just that to his past robbery victims, standing humbled against their torrent of justifiable anguish.
Though it's ultimately affirming, The Interrupters is also exhausting. James offers plenty of telling details about how such an epidemic goes unrecognized in an era of 24-hour news coverage. He captures some of the media furor that ensues when the murder of Derrion Albert is captured on cameraphones and goes viral. For a few days, an indignant nation watches as government officials pledge anew to stop the violence in Chicago. (Several months later, some misguided souls in the Illinois legislature suggest deploying the National Guard in Chicago as a sinecure. An emotionally-charged community meeting quashes that boneheaded idea.) But neither James nor the interrupters are naive enough to expect that this will be a turning point. They, like the film, are dedicated to the long haul. The Interrupters does right by its subjects by pulling them into the limelight, even if they are all too aware that they'll quickly fade back into the shadows. It's a massively overwhelming job, but it's necessary and effective. As one client theorizes, an interrupter is like a fly that keeps landing on his face while he tries to nap. You can try to ignore it, he says, "but eventually you got to tend to that fly."
Monday, August 29, 2011
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
Dir. Barry Levinson
2.5 out of 5
Alarmingly stern titles bookend the otherwise lightweight Young Sherlock Holmes, reminding us that the film is taking considerable liberties with the printed canon of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - an "affectionate speculation" that wonders what it would have been like if Holmes and John Watson had met as schoolboys. They're weird bits of legalese and sycophancy that contradict the more fantastical aspects of the movie and made me wonder if I was seeing a bowdlerized version of what was once a much wilder and imaginative idea.
That said, Young Sherlock Holmes is already plenty weird, yet rarely feels more substantive than a typical kiddie mystery goosed by staccato action sequences that blend puppetry, animatronics, and nascent computer-generated effects. (Holmes is famous as the first film to use a fully CGI effect, a stained-glass knight that comes to life and menaces a priest for approximately 10 seconds. It was created by Pixar, back when the company was a branch of George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic.) Narrated by an aged Watson - portrayed in his youth by Alan Cox, looking for all the world like a boy dressed as an accountant for Halloween - the movie tracks the development of the teenage Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) and his uncanny gift for deduction. After some very Encyclopedia Brown-style hijinks, Rowe catches his first adult case when he suspects that an Egyptian death cult is responsible for the murders of several wizened London educators. The blatant similarities to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, released just a year prior, would seem highly transgressive were Holmes not produced and "presented" by Steven Spielberg himself.
The young cast acquits itself well, even if it doesn't have the best material. Cox is amusing as history's frumpiest 13-year-old, standing a foot and a half shorter than Rowe and acting as his intellectual punching bag. Rowe does even better work as Cox's fellow outcast, a playfully precocious savant who's nonetheless an arrogant prick - an intriguing prologue for a character as famously frigid as the great detective. The film even dares to give Rowe a love interest, Elizabeth (Sophie Ward), who lends him pathos in ways that are, if not the most original, strangely affecting. Unfortunately, we don't learn much more about them once the investigation gets under way and Levinson - an odd choice to direct - fixates on the sequences designed to show off all the expensive effects and stunt work.
I don't want to discount the work of the technical professionals. It is very good for the genre and the era, and carries some of the dated charm of the horrors from the Nightmare on Elm Street series. (The 'animatronics supervisor' is Stephen Norrington, who would go on to direct similarly speculative Victorian mayhem in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) But technical wizardry is not an effective substitute for a compelling narrative. The script, penned by Chris Columbus, has a certain moppets-solving-mysteries vibe later glimpsed in his Harry Potter adaptations but can't sustain the appropriate level of wonder, much less excitement. Though a stellar deliverer of endearingly quirky, low-octane thrills (and perhaps pre-pubescent nightmares), Young Sherlock Holmes is a disappointingly grounded work of speculative fiction. In fretting over its potential to upset hardcore fans or tarnish a legacy, the film largely fails to create either of its own.
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Hall Pass (2011)
Dir. Bobby and Peter Farrelly
2 out of 5
Purveyors of comic scatology and sentimentality alike, the Farrelly Brothers haven't changed much since their feature debut seventeen(!) years ago. Hall Pass is the latest reminder that, in a post-Apatow world, it's just not enough to string together poop jokes and cringe-inducing slapstick and call it a comedy. The film seems to exist in a vacuum where Epic/Date/Disaster Movie never happened.
But before I make a comparison that I'll regret, I should point out that Hall Pass makes an attempt at a coherent narrative: two married men with wandering eyes (Owen Wilson; Jason Sudekis) are given permission - for reasons involving the dubious advice of Joy Behar1 - by their wives (Jenna Fischer; Christina Applegate) to take a one-week vacation from their marriages. The idea is that, softened by domesticity, Sudekis and Wilson will be utterly embarrassed in attempting to sow their wild oats.2 And while they are predictably inept when it comes to carousing - their first idea of a hot pickup spot is Applebee's - they are undaunted. Really, they can't afford to be. One week isn't a particularly long time.
It does, however, feel like an eternity when the movie so eagerly scrapes the bottom of the comedy barrel and gropes for laughs with a script that was probably once a thesis titled "Men Are This, But Women Are Like This." The problems are compounded by the Farrellys' puzzling inclusion of several non-sequitur gags and scenes that tax the audience's tolerance for poorly-conceived crudity. A good dirty joke is emphatic and purposeful, but Hall Pass prefers to scatter them about in the most discomforting fashion. Even scenes that exist for the simplest purposes, like bringing together Wilson and his potential conquest, an attractive Australian barista (Nicky Whelan), at the gym veer in desperate and unflattering directions.
Of course, Hall Pass never strays too far from the notion that Wilson and Sudekis are just goofy, harmless guys who, unlike their lothario friend (a baffling Richard Jenkins), have no idea what to do with their temporary sexual permissiveness. The result is affable boredom, characterized best in the casting of Wilson and Fischer as a married couple. They regard each other across a gulf of mutual vacancy. Sudekis fares better, much more believable as a horndog here than in Horrible Bosses, simply because the Farrellys refuse him much dignity. But, if the wildly devolved approach on display in Hall Pass is any indication, they should have saved some for themselves.
1 Behar’s performance is distractingly awkward, like she is fighting the impulse to look directly into the camera. She is summarily out-acted by everyone in the film, including extras and former Boston Red Sox outfielder Dwight Evans.
2 Because who needs stupid counseling when you can release your husbands into the loving embrace of adultery?
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Dir. Evan Glodell
2.5 out of 5
Bellflower, the only film I know of that beings with an epigraph from The Road Warrior, is a curiously homegrown creation of great mystery, great ambition, and great disappointment. It's something ramshackle and hideous and alive, and it doesn't get that way for a good forty-five minutes into the film. In extended preamble, it's a lo-fi indie romance about shy tinkerer Woodrow (Evan Glodell, who also wrote, directed, and custom-built the cameras that were used to shoot the film) and his doomed fixation on the hard-nosed, free-spirited Milly (Jessie Wiseman). Theirs is not a classic courtship. They meet in a lusciously-filmed cricket eating contest. Soon enough Glodell indirectly asks Wiseman to be his girlfriend. She is less than enthused, claiming that she'll hurt Glodell, who moons over her anyway. I'll admit that this is a groan-enducer. But it becomes very important. You can't say she didn't warn him.
Glodell also happens to be obsessed with custom-built machines of great violence and little practicality. He and best friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson) pine for the post-apocalyptic wasteland suggested by George Miller's Mad Max trilogy, specifically the fearsome Lord Humungus, leader of a marauding gang of auto pirates who rumble across the country in modified combat-ready muscle cars and motorbikes. This is their inspiration for 'Mother Medusa' - their own flame-spewing renegade ride. They are convinced the world is creeping ever closer to indulging the prophecies embedded in 1980s Australian sci-fi cinema. As you might expect, they are not the most well-adjusted of men, and woefully unequipped to handle real-life disaster.
Bellflower takes a while to get going, then becomes enamored with a near-constant distortion of the movie's timeline. The non-linear portions are the most noteworthy, but also the most irritating, as if Glodell can't do a good enough patch job to cover for the large swaths of less interesting narrative. What is fascinating is how Bellflower uses its temporal distortion and suspension of logic to suggest Glodell's long, steep slide into a personal Hell. The apocalypse has come to him at last, just in the form of problems that can't all be solved with flamethrowers. Not that Glodell doesn't try. Unfortunately, he only succeeds in proving correct that old axiom about fighting fire with fire.
A few more things to note. First, the disjointed structure makes Bellflower seem twice as long as it actually is. This doesn't affect the movie in any perceptible way, except to recommend that you don't watch it at the end of an especially long and taxing day. Second, alcohol (and by extension, alcoholism) is a primary yet largely ignored agent in the film. Glodell and Dawson imbibe spirits the way others do caffeine. This could be very revealing in terms of character and intent, or it could mean that the actors like to get a good buzz going. Third, Dawson emerges as the mostly unsung hero of the film. While Glodell broods and rages and gets in all kinds of stupid trouble, Dawson gets shit done. He is the only one doing anything to combat the moral decay and death wish of his fellow castmates, yet I'm not sure if this is what Bellflower intends for us to see in him. In one breath, he encourages the gradual awakening of Glodell's adult self. In the next, he still seems pretty serious about all this Road Warrior stuff. Alas, Bellflower is never as arresting as when it turns, however sporadically, an accusatory eye at the ugliness that permeates its world. For a film with such Biblical overtures, it certainly loves the sinner yet is oddly reluctant to hate the sin.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Fright Night (2011)
Dir. Craig Gillespie
3.5 out of 5
Evil is afoot in the Las Vegas suburbs of Fright Night, where teenage social climber Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) imprudently rejects the supposition posed by his geeky estranged friend (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) that his intense next door neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), is not a human but a full-fledged creature of the night. As Yelchin uncovers Farrell's true identity (with some unfortunate consequences for Mintz-Plasse; no good deed goes unpunished), he turns to magician and self-proclaimed vampire expert Peter Vincent (David Tennant) for his help in vanquishing the monster hiding in plain sight.
Here's the rub: compared to the conventions of current vamp media, Farrell is a vicious throwback to the days when vampires were mostly interested in humans as a source of food, not as sources of sympathy and understanding. He's essentially a superpowered, amoral eating machine. Mintz-Plasse aptly compares him to "the shark from Jaws." So praise be to Fright Night for reviving the venal, irredeemable creature that lives to scare the shit out of us. Even when he's not (unconvincingly) pretending to be living flesh, Farrell gives a memorable performance that's several dozen degrees off center. He's a rather obvious villain, but one so cunning and creepily mannered that he projects a real and constant menace.
Fright Night definitely needs all the unpredictability that Farrell brings, as it's nearly squandered when the film veers in his direction far too quickly. The script was penned by Marti Noxon, a veteran of TV's Buffy and Angel, which may explain its arrhythmic pacing and textbook stalling tactics. Though the rapidly escalating conflict gives us a few nifty scenes, it also threatens to turn the movie into a banal exercise in horror movie endurance (let's just say that people still haven't learned not to go upstairs when cornered). But what Noxon lacks in structure she makes up for in witty, quotable dialogue. She has a perfect mouthpiece in the dryly exasperated Tennant, who reinvigorates the film when he wrests it away from Farrell in the third act.
Fright Night is presented in 3D, but it shouldn't be. The audience must endure a bombardment of hokey visual gags, an annoyance compounded by the generally poor quality of the movie's CGI (it draws very unkind G.I. Joe comparisons). Thankfully, the story and performances are sturdy enough to stand on their own. The same goes for the film as a remake (though I confess that I haven't seen the 1985 original), a bloody fun time at the movies and a nasty rejoinder to all those who would try to defang Dracula's descendants.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)
Dir. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
3 out of 5
Crazy, Stupid, Love is a star-driven romantic comedy that prefers its passion served up coy and genteel. You know how some films seem hell-bent on breaking the record for utterances of the F-word? This one has a similar goal in mind, except with the euphemism "sleep with." Sex is the love that dare not speak its name. For all of Love's obsession with soulmates and overwhelming romantic desires, you wonder why these poor people just can't say what's on their minds.
That's a minor complaint. Most of Love is thoroughly enjoyable, well-acted, and nice to look at. It tells the story of Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily Weaver (Julianne Moore) and their divorce. It is a shock to the family's system, particularly to the couple's grandiose and lovesick son (Jonah Bobo) who's harboring a crush on his babysitter (Analeigh Tipton), and who cannot accept this crack in his platonic ideal of a loving relationship. Yet, it's Carell who is the most broken, turning to the resident womanizer at a local bar (Ryan Gosling) for advice in sowing his wild oats post hoc.
Love subscribes to a brand of cathartic comedy that squeezes awkward, knowing laughs from the pain of a broken home and the broken hearts that come with it. The approach works thanks to last piece of the puzzle, a down-to-earth dreamgirl (Emma Stone) who manages to puncture Gosling's machismo. The film smartly utilizes Stone's status as a audience darling to throw jabs at the transform-your-man romantic formula, even as the script asks us to acquiesce to these very familiar characters and themes. Sometimes a little tweaking is all it takes. Stone's evisceration of Gosling's strategies for sealing the deal (as well as the Brookstone-meets-Wynn Hotels eyesore of his bachelor pad) is what sticks in the mind. The fact that she then chooses to be with him is secondary and still somewhat satisfying.
In Love, the concept of love itself is limited to the opposite ends of a match - you get either the spark or fizzle and none of the slow burn in between. Perhaps this is because the movie has a lot of unnecessary ground to cover. It lingers too lovingly on Gosling's alpha male dominance before (partially) knocking him off his pedestal, and the babysitter arc quickly slides into child services territory. They're hyper-mature "kids" that don't really act their age (as kids in movies are wont to do); nonetheless I kept wondering if I should call the cops. But what's a little bit of narrative bloat in a movie that calls itself on its own bullshit while it endearingly sticks to its core principles? Love is ultimately a welcome confection, genuinely surprising and comfortably familiar in its way.
Saturday, August 13, 2011
The Prost-Senna rivalry is but the incubator of an eventful career peppered with incidents that carry more than a whiff of conspiracy, illuminated by some incredibly damning footage. In one breathtaking pre-race sequence, Senna leads his jumpsuited colleagues in lobbying his other great professional nemesis, former F1 president Jean-Marie Balestre, in making changes to improve the safety of a German grand prix course. The look of satisfaction on Senna's face reveals so much. No secondhand account of this story could ever match watching the drama unfold in real time.
Some eyebrows might rise at the whitewashing of Senna's mercenary tendency to jump to whichever team occupied F1's financial and technological apex, especially when the film goes to lengths establishing Senna as the antithesis of the less-skilled driver made great by his team owner's deep pockets. Kapadia also engages in clunky hero-worship here and there, but it's discomfiting inasmuch as it is completely unnecessary. There's plenty in the film already that would support Senna as a highly sympathetic figure. But then Senna is something of a legacy project that remembers the great sportsman as something more a bright light that burned out all too quickly. It's only fair. People seemed to dislike Senna simply because he refused to give anything less than his best, even as he blew away his competition. Senna does him a great service by boldly stating its case to join the rarefied company of the best sports documentaries ever made.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Another Earth (2011)
Thursday, August 4, 2011
Cowboys and Aliens (2011)
Dir. Jon Favreau
2 out of 5
Cowboys and Aliens reaches a new apex for truth in advertising. It doesn’t have to deliver a lot to make good on the promises in its title, nor can it be accused of capriciously shifting gears to accommodate some preposterous new plot element. The genre whiplash is supposed to be the fun part. Unfortunately, Cowboys and Aliens doesn’t quite get the physics right. It aspires to be a tricked-out rollercoaster but rides more like a log flume, with only a handful of exhilarating dips and turns along its mostly straightforward, rigidly-defined path.
The film begins moodily, with a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert with a fresh wound in his side, a mysterious metal bracelet clamped around his wrist, and no recollection of how he obtained either. He’s accosted by a group of rough riders – human scalps hanging ominously from their saddles – on their way to a town named Absolution. So far, so good. Then Craig goes full Bourne on the ruffians, and it dawns on you that you are watching a western designed primarily for an audience that has only a vague idea of what a western looks like. The broad archetypes found in Absolution – the crusty rancher’s (Harrison Ford) entitled brat of a son (Paul Dano); the businessman afraid to get his hands dirty (Sam Rockwell); the weary, embattled sheriff (Keith Carradine) – are lazy shorthand for a lazy prologue. Then, mercifully, the aliens land.
Reports of snickering theatergoers surfaced when the first trailers of Cowboys and Aliens began running in multiplexes, but Favreau has made the right choice in playing it straight. Don’t we accept the far-fetched notion of an extraterrestrial invasion in numerous films every year? Why does it matter where or when they land? They are classic alien marauders (one of their first onscreen acts of violence is some good old-fashioned cattle mutilation) in search of the earthly resources necessary to power their machines. I won’t reveal what they’re after, but the setting should eliminate some more obvious, oft-repeated possibilities. They’re also into human abduction for reasons unknown, storing the bodies inside their skyscraper-like vessel camouflaged to look like a rock formation. In a genuinely creepy sequence, Craig and his mercurial female stalker (Olivia Wilde) come across the scores of recently disappeared townsfolk, held captive in a state of prolonged hypnosis by a giant pulsating sac of fluorescent blue…something.
That’s not a bad metaphor for the experience of watching this film. The action is thrilling, the leads are game, and some stuff blows up real nice, but it’s arresting in a hollow way. A rising tide does not lift all genre boats if you are as reliant on clichés as Cowboys and Aliens. The movie’s few indelible moments are largely borrowed from other films, overwhelmingly on the sci-fi side (a steamboat stranded in the middle of the desert that’s straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for instance). It’s ultimately a crummy western grafted to a mediocre alien shoot ‘em up, held back from its full potential by a surprising lack of imagination.
Monday, August 1, 2011
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Dir. Joe Johnston
3.5 out of 5
Like Marvel Studios' other summer blockbuster that pleased (almost) everyone, Captain America: The First Avenger sticks to the well-established Marvel storytelling recipe and lands in the sweet spot of brain-optional Hollywood entertainments. The instructions are simple and finite. First, saddle the hero with traits that make him an easy target for social ostracism - for Tony Stark, snark; for Peter Parker, glasses; for Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the body of the proverbial 90-pound weakling. Second, give the movie some stakes, but don't get too serious. Third, flick the adrenaline switch every 20 minutes and sprinkle in plenty of breadcrumbs for the comic geeks. Pair with a director typically known for delivering the upmarket version of what you're aiming for and chill for a couple of hours.
But like most of these films, the appeal of Captain America can't be reduced to its mere structural elements. Like X-Men: First Class it's a superhero period piece, albeit one that's executed more naturally than other films of its ilk. It's several months after the United States enters World War II, and Evans begins the movie lamenting the 4F draft status that feels like a government-sanctioned metaphor of the world's constant rejection. If he can't help his country in its greatest time of need, well, when is he ever going to be able to help? Evans flippantly dismisses a role in domestic industries, but he's a lionheart who believes he belongs in the fight. His attitude catches the eye of a German defector (Stanley Tucci) who has developed a stimulant potion for creating super-soldiers and needs an ideal test subject - a true patriot with the judicious mind to complement the artificially-powered body. The newly-minted 'Captain America' is unhappily confined to peddling war bonds on the USO circuit until he proves himself during a visit to the European front.
In the meantime, one of Tucci's former employers, Nazi researcher Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) consolidates his power while searching for a relic from Norse mythology that will fuel the creation of terrific new weapons with minimal R&D costs. He's the kind of madman who considers himself bigger than the Reich and the war, bent on usurping the Fuhrer until the Captain performs a successful raid on his alpine fortress.1 Such hair-raising, truth-bending adventures reminded me of Inglorious Basterds, but with the style and symbolism appropriate for an audience of 9-year-old boys. Retro-futurism trumps grim realism. When you're dealing with any comic book hero besides Batman, that is a winning method.
Captain America moves quickly even at a running time of two hours, though they might have managed to trim an action sequence or two. And while Johnston's dedication to creating the most earnest incarnation of the Captain mostly works in his favor, there's something unsettling about Evans' extreme enthusiasm for war. His eagerness to fight is coded as noble, but comes off as an archaic desire to "test his mettle" or even as a death wish. When Evans jumps on a grenade - revealed to be a dud - in training, it's seen as a sign of his heroism instead of the potential waste of a young man's life. Also, the subplot with Evans' love interest, a British special agent (Hayley Atwell, whose icy determination and gorgeous features were some of the few salvageable pieces of that awful remake of The Prisoner), feels underdeveloped, tacked-on, and more than a little cruel. Given Cap's commitment to present-day adventuring in the upcoming Avengers movie, perhaps the filmmakers could have spared Atwell's character the ignominy of being stood up for a 70-year deep freeze.