Sunday, December 30, 2012

Les Misérables (2012)

Les Misérables (2012)
Dir. Tom Hooper 

4 out of 5 

Familiarity is both an asset and an obstacle for Les Misérables, Oscar winner Tom Hooper's adaptation of the beloved, long-running stage musical based on Victor Hugo's novel about the underclass of post-Napoleonic France.  Rumblings regarding a film version began shortly after its 1987 Broadway debut and continued as the show's sweeping anthems seeped their way into pop culture through appropriation and parody in places as unexpected as South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.  All that time in development hell, however, has allowed for a certain amount of product saturation to set in among its target demographic:  the rabid and organically expanding fanbase that has devoured the cast recordings, the anniversary concerts, and the national tours, not to mention the original's impressive 16-year run on Broadway.  

I am one of what feels like the last few remaining people on Earth who had never heard or seen anything Les Mis-related before Hooper's film. And though I'd like to think my relative innocence gives me a unique perspective, it really only means I may only judge its success as a movie and not as an adaptation, much less a "musical phenomenon."  And you know what?  I liked what I saw in Les Misérables.  Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a principled man sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  The lawman Javert (Russell Crowe) releases Valjean but vows to hunt him down when he breaks parole, beginning a decades-spanning game of cat-and-mouse.  Along the way, Valjean becomes the adoptive father of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the illegitimate daughter of factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and gets swept up in the patriotic fervor of student revolutionaries Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit).

For anyone familiar with the stage version, the plot will undoubtedly be their strongest bearing as they adjust to the unorthodox choices made in this story's translation to the screen.  Hooper ditches the conventions of the proscenium-bound stage and attacks Les Mis with a style best described as "aggressively cinematic."  Shooting his actors among cramped quarters with long, unbroken close-ups, the vibe is closer to that of a grubby period drama than a lavish, decadent musical (a choice I found appropriate, given the tone of the source material).  In what is perhaps Hooper's lone concession to Les Mis' stage roots, he recorded the cast's vocals live on set rather than having them lip-synch to a studio recording.  It admittedly takes some getting used to - it sounds tinny at first, and not every performer is up to the challenge vocally - but eventually pays off with highlights like Hathaway's powerhouse rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" and the showstopping double climax of "One Day More" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?"

Maybe we'll never fully understand how a dense pop opera that hinges upon an obscure republican revolution in 19th century France morphed into the quintessence of modern musical theater, but I'll be damned if Les Misérables doesn't give its audience a good sense of the alchemy going on here.  Not all of the choices are sound (Crowe is a conspicuous outlier in terms of singing ability, but I'd argue that the role requires someone with his strong acting chops) and, like many musical plots, it relies on a variety of quickly-developed contrivances and lapses in rational thought.  And even without an intermission, it feels every bit as long as its 150-minute running time promises.  At the end of the day, the brilliant score and dynamic lyricism of creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (who co-scripted the film with William Nicholson and Herbert Kretzmer) supersedes most of the film's weaknesses.  Les Misérables is a stirring triumph that combines classic songwriting with ambitious direction, a film that appropriately breaks from the conventions of a theatrical production while preserving its emotional essence and a film that connected with me in spite of my skepticism.  It felt like discovering the warm, satisfying comforts of home, hearth, family, and friendship after a long night journey - ultimately, isn't that what Les Mis is all about?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

John Dies at the End (2012)

John Dies at the End (2012)
Dir. Don Coscarelli

4 out of 5

The sharpest criticism I can give John Dies at the End, a new horror-comedy from cult favorite Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep, the Phantasm series), is also, I suspect, the greatest compliment - it’s spectacularly disorganized.  Chaotic in the best possible way, the occult buddy flick is a raucously weird trip through a wonderfully askew universe reminiscent of Buckaroo Banzai that constantly has the audience guessing where it’ll go next.  And much like Banzai, it revolves around a Caucasian hero with a curiously Asian name:  David Wong (Chase Williamson), a twentysomething Everyman whose glib buddy John (Rob Mayes) goads him into trying a new mind-expanding drug called “Soy Sauce,” unaware that it’s known to suddenly bestow precognitive abilities on certain users.  Soon after receiving his new psychic awareness, David is reluctantly drawn into defending our world from an invasion by the hellish beings of an alternate dimension.

That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the movie’s nuttiness, all stemming from a non-linear construction that also includes a frame story of David telling his tale to a skeptical journalist (Paul Giamatti, who also produced) and glimpses of John and David’s future as low-rent monster hunters.  (The title is just another way of cheekily flouting convention and is assuredly not a spoiler, though the fact of John’s existence remains a moving target.)  Apart from the easy chemistry between Williamson and Mayes, John sketches a deep and inscrutable mythology through supporting turns from cultishly-adored actors such as Doug Jones, Glynn Turman, and Clancy Brown.  Everybody but David, a classic audience surrogate, seems to have privileged information about what’s going on, especially Brown, a celebrity magician who literally vanquishes monsters over the phone.  But the farther afield it gets, the more fun is found in simply sitting back and watching the mayhem unfold.

Some might see the story's tricky structure - from the eponymous novel by the “real” David Wong that weaves a demonic folklore throughout its drop-ins on the two heroes’ lives - as an encumbrance.  While it’s possible to lose the thread of the film’s time-skipping narrative, credit is due to Coscarelli for infusing it with his typical anything-goes enthusiasm and devising imaginative ways to depict the book’s woolly, off-kilter style in appropriately cinematic ways, including a brief animated interlude.  It is plainly obvious from the tacky CGI and nondescript locations that Coscarelli doesn’t quite have the budget he needs to give the film a full polish, something he knows all too well as an independent film lifer, though it should be noted that the movie's physical creature creations are still top-notch.  However, I doubt that it will matter to genre fans who will happily trade glossy production value for a unique directorial vision applied to a ripping yarn.  In many ways, John Dies at the End is representative of the Coscarelli filmmaking philosophy, a quirky delight pitched directly to moviegoers that don't mind setting out without a roadmap or even a destination, so long as they are surprised and delighted by the journey.

Monday, December 24, 2012

West of Memphis (2012)

West of Memphis (2012)
Dir. Amy Berg

4 out of 5

The case of the “West Memphis Three” is well-trodground.  Not only was it exhaustivelyexamined by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in their Paradise Now trilogy, but it’s also the subject of a newdocumentary, West of Memphis,directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) and co-produced by Hollywood mogul Peter Jackson.  But unlike Berlinger and Sinofsky’slongitudinal study – which encompasses three separate films that aired on HBOover the past 15 years – West of Memphisis a testament to the influence that outside parties have had over theevolution of the case from local miscarriage of justice to international causecélèbre attracting the attention of advocates like like Pearl Jam frontmanEddie Vedder, punk icon Henry Rollins, and Jackson and his spouse, FranWalsh. 

West ofMemphis begins with a necessary rehashing of the facts.  Sometime on a spring evening in 1993, threeeight-year-old boys were murdered in the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis,Arkansas.  Their naked bodies were foundsubmerged in a drainage ditch, their hands and feet bound with their ownshoelaces.  Claiming that the bodies alsoshowed signs of sexual mutilation, the authorities quickly and somewhatbafflingly came to the conclusion that the murders were part of a satanicritual.  Three local teenagers – DamienEchols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin – were convicted of the crime andsentenced to life in prison, save Echols, who was sentenced to death for hisalleged role as “mastermind” and leader of a secret devil-worshipping cabal.

The police’s jump to Satanism as motive resemblesa twisted version of that Sherlock Holmes axiom: When you have eliminated theimpossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.  Except, argues Berg, when you fail to exhaustall probable explanations.  West of Memphis doesn’t dwell so much onwhy these three particular people were railroaded beyond being poor outcasts inthe middle of the Bible Belt with dark tastes in music and fiction.  Instead, it focuses on mistakes made in thecriminal investigation and the state’s willful ignorance of evidence thatpoints to a different perpetrator – Terry Moore, the stepfather of one of themurdered boys.  Though he was neverformally considered a suspect by the state, the filmmakers dig up manyacquaintances who attest to past instances of Moore’s violent and abusivebehavior.  

Besides strongly suggesting Moore’s guilt, thefilm also includes well-researched refutations of the evidence used to convictthe Three; for example, a trip to a turtle farm shows how the supposedlysatanic mutilations were likely caused by animals scavenging the bodiespost-mortem.  If there’s a weak link,it’s in the emphasis on the case as a slow-burning cultural phenomenon.  Berg and Jackson completely miss the irony ofaccused “cult leader” Echols using his considerable charisma to attract celebrityattention to his cause, his letters from prison read at benefit rallies by thelikes of Vedder and Johnny Depp.  Thoughthe film’s main agenda is exoneration, it’s also about the lionization ofEchols (who nabs a co-producer credit), which seems inappropriate given the minimalinformation presented about the othertwo men who have also languished behind bars for over 18 years.  Still, Westof Memphis is a rousing call-to-arms that convincingly presents its doubtsabout the case without wringing its hands about the efficacy of the entirejustice system, so long as there are people willing to fight for what is right.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (2012)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino

5 out of 5

Three years after crafting the ultimate revenge fantasia in the bloody revisionist masterpiece Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino tops himself with Django Unchained, a spaghetti western that finds the freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) wandering the antebellum South alongside German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in search of his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  And while there was no shakier proposition than a bawdy response to the stolid traditions and victimhood of Holocaust dramas, Django immediately feels like a film that’s right in Tarantino’s wheelhouse.  The western genre already has a long history of violent, outré films made by maverick auteurs (a legacy that Django freely references, beginning with naming its protagonist after the archetypical hero of countless spaghetti westerns) and the director has made a career out of examining how codes of justice clash within lawless systems.  Still, it’s exhilarating to see how easily Tarantino knocks it out of the park while using one of the ugliest eras in American history as a sandbox for his brand of kinetic postmodern filmmaking.

Perhaps that’s simply the mark of a master storyteller, as Django Unchained is truly the stuff of legend.  The film makes its case as a brilliant inversion of the Old South’s chivalrous self-mythologizing, featuring an abolitionist outsider mentoring a black hero as he develops the skill and courage to rescue his damsel in distress.  Django’s quest is further juxtaposed with the odious prejudices and shameful cruelties of southern slaveholding society, witnessed in full force at the plantation of sadistic planter Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, at his finest).  His estate – ironically dubbed “Candyland” – is infiltrated by Django and Schultz when they discover that Broomhilda is a captive there, leading to a shootout that recalls Scarface as much as Sergio Leone.  But there’s no doubt that Django earns its bloodshed.  Tarantino’s script builds up to it masterfully and contains about as many verbal confrontations as physical ones – the former courtesy of Waltz, once again displaying his gift for delivering the famously verbose filmmaker’s magnificent dialogue.

Django Unchained is a testament to the artfulness tucked away inside forbidden pleasures: the thinking person’s exploitation film.  It suggests that Tarantino, the ultimate fanboy, has continued his maturation into a thoughtful and discriminating professional.  Without losing the shit-kicking verve and obsession with repurposing cultural junk that made him famous, he uses the catharsis of fiction in Django to illuminate a bleak historical fact and amortize the emotions that weren’t fully captured in the written record.  This also allows the film to portray extreme racism and misogyny as part of its historical context, but that’s more of an observation than a criticism.  As Django comes to realize, revenge itself is the dirtiest business of all – a complex, encompassing hatred directed at the morality-deficient, regardless of color (which includes Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s callous head house slave).  As it turns out, Django Unchained is both the most moral film Tarantino has ever made and the most American movie of 2012, a two-fisted tour de force that revels in its destruction and creation of recklessly bold, blustery myths.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Impossible (2012)

The Impossible (2012)
Dir. Juan Antonio Bayona

4 out of 5

The overwhelming natural forces that separate a family are no match for the emotional forces that keep their hopes of reconciliation alive in The Impossible, a harrowing survival tale based on the true story of a beleaguered Spanish family during the devastating 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia.  Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor) and wife Maria (Naomi Watts) decamp to a beachfront resort in Thailand with their three boys for a brief Christmas holiday, far away from the stress of Henry’s high-powered corporate job in Japan.  On December 26, a massive wave smashes into the coast and washes Maria and eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) miles inland.  Meanwhile, Henry helps the two younger children, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), survive the onslaught at the resort, then starts a frantic search for his missing loved ones.

While the basic structure of The Impossible is meant to keep audiences primed for its big tear-jerking moments, director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage) cleverly paces the film so that each emotional crescendo feels fully earned.  The entire first half is a visceral rollercoaster, employing impressive special effects to depict the uncanny terror of an ocean suddenly appearing where it should not be.  Maria emerges from the ordeal alive but grievously injured, and at first seems capable of consoling Lucas and leading him to safety.  But the dynamic shifts as her injuries worsen, and we see the transference of strength from mother to son. 

Holland is especially good at the heavy lifting once Watts’ character becomes bedridden and sporadically communicative, and is able to convey equal parts fear and fortitude when his post-disaster mission to help others find their missing family members inadvertently launches him into a new phase of survival mode.  Even when the focus shifts to Henry’s somewhat tedious search for the rest of his family, Bayona keeps tossing gentle curveballs to fight any complacency developing alongside expectations for a big, emotional reunion.  It also helps that Bayona and his crew shoot the film with a refreshing dynamism, turning what could be contrived moments of uplift and heartache into truly thrilling drama.  Still, Bayona can’t resist including some twinkly touches, such as when Geraldine Chaplin briefly drops in to gaze at the stars with the film’s two adorable moppets.

The Impossible is all about the nitty-gritty, though, especially in the medical sense (consider this a warning to the squeamish - compound fractures ain't pretty).  Montages are kept to a minimum and it’s well-acted throughout, with special attention paid to realistic interactions between strangers during the most trying of times.  While some people are empathetic – like the man who risks draining his cell phone battery when McGregor struggles to speak to his out-of-country relatives without breaking down – others are prickly or soberly honest about the limits of their assistance.  And while Bayona avoids sensational melodrama, he doesn’t shy away from the grim realities confronting the families that aren’t as lucky.  That makes the strength of the Bennetts’ familial bonds especially affecting in this poignant, patient film assuring us that, somewhere in the tempest, there’s still a sliver of sunlight.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Dir. Peter Jackson

3 out of 5

It was easy to forget that between the inter-species politics, breathtaking scenery, and pathological obsession with detail, the Lord of the Rings movies were remarkably down-the-middle action flicks.  Downplaying the exhaustive lineages and clannish concerns of fairy tale creatures, Peter Jackson built a cinematic juggernaut on the oldest of movie business principles: show, don't tell.  There was plenty of backstory there if you were interested, but Jackson perfectly captured a natural, novelistic flow onscreen that the stopping points between each film in the trilogy almost seemed arbitrary.  

That last sensation is again present in a new film trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings predecessor The Hobbit, but not in an altogether positive way.  The first of these films, An Unexpected Journey, admirably sets the table for an epic dinner party that's several guests short.  The humble Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) lives a idyllic life among his fellow hobbits until the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) recruits him for an adventure.  A daring band of dwarves intends to reclaim their ancestral home from Smaug, the greedy, genocidal dragon who scattered their community across Middle-earth in a vast diaspora.  Bilbo is convinced to sign on as the expedition's "burglar" under the theory that hobbits, being exceedingly diminutive and unassuming creatures, are able to skirt danger better than anyone else.  Fighting his way past trolls, goblins, and orcs, Bilbo must also win the trust of the dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage), an exiled prince already worried about the prowess of the motley cohort he's cobbled together.

Whereas the fussy, fraidy-cat hobbits were often the subjects of the least-compelling portions of the Rings trilogy, Freeman's Bilbo is definitely the strongest element of The Hobbit.  He's wry, witty, resourceful, and almost completely unlike his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), who appears in a largely pointless cameo at the beginning of his uncle's story.  Jackson's ill-advised decision to stretch the standalone novel into another three-film behemoth means that several other familiar faces make awkward guest appearances in clipped, confusing scenes that are pitched exclusively at LOTR superfans.  At least there's plenty of meaty material with the ones who actually appear in the book, such as power-addled crack baby Gollum (Andy Serkis), who shares the movie's best scene with Bilbo as the two parry each other in a game of riddles.

The Hobbit mostly leaves the inescapable impression that we've seen this all before.  And indeed, we have:  Jackson recycles many images and set-ups from his previous journey to Middle-earth (the final shot is a dead-ringer for the one from Fellowship of the Ring).  He stubbornly maintains his focus on cacophonous action sequences and assumes that audiences won't warm up to these new characters unless they're presented as analogues to characters from the Rings trilogy - Armitage is practically a Viggo Mortensen surrogate in a role that's disproportionately emphasized as equal to Freeman's Bilbo.  

The sweeping dictatorial tendencies that were absolutely necessary to produce a multiplex-swallowing phenomenon like The Lord of the Rings do not translate as well to Tolkien's leaner, quirkier, character study.  Instead of changing his style to suit the material, Jackson does the opposite, symbolized in his insistence on shooting the film in a zippy 48 frames per second, double the industry standard.  The resulting images look dazzlingly clear but also frighteningly uncanny and artificial, especially when CGI is superimposed on the beautiful natural landscapes of Jackson's native New Zealand.  Much like its benevolently despotic auteur, An Unexpected Journey believes it knows what the audience wants better than the audience itself, but most of its successes are disappointingly perfunctory or coincidental.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

This Is 40 (2012)

This Is 40 (2012)
Dir. Judd Apatow

2 out of 5

The axiom about absence making the heart grow fonder is put to the test in This Is 40, comedy impresario Judd Apatow’s “sort-of sequel” to his 2007 film Knocked Up, which introduced audiences to married couple Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), the counterweight to that film’s schlubbly protagonist lurching his way toward fatherhood.  These characters were refreshingly blunt about how sometimes the most difficult part of being a parent isn’t necessarily raising your child, but tolerating the person you chose to mate with.  They were funny, but in somewhat stereotypical ways that you didn’t mind in small doses – Debbie the joyless nag and Pete the lackadaisical galoot.  Who, then, wouldn’t want to see these two sarcastic, potty-mouthed meanies in their own adventure about discovering the sobering realities of middle age?

You have to admire Apatow’s bravery in refusing to sugarcoat the pain and insecurities that he alchemizes into raunchy, crowd-pleasing humor.  However, This Is 40 takes this mission too seriously, an extended sequestration with a rude, self-absorbed couple and their long-suffering children, Sadie and Charlotte (played by the director’s real-life daughters, Maude and Iris Apatow).  Pete and Debbie’s anxieties about hitting the big 4-0 are compounded by professional setbacks and familial drama.  Pete’s independent record label is struggling financially, but that doesn’t stop him from lending money to his lazy, emotionally manipulative father (a hilarious Albert Brooks).  Meanwhile, Debbie tries to reconnect with her estranged father (John Lithgow), while she suspects a young, flighty employee (Megan Fox) of stealing inventory from her clothing boutique.

That’s a lot of baggage to bring to a movie that’s already as crowded as an airport carousel.  Pete and Debbie are linked by their mutual dark streak; when they click, so does the movie, such as during a brief resort getaway that’s enhanced by a marijuana cookie (few actors play stoned for laughs as well as Rudd).   But their imperfections, meant to make them seem relatable and human, just become grating over two-plus hours of needless stalling on big decisions and necessary confrontations.  The pacing can be politely described as “convenient.”  Pete and Debbie’s birthdays are apparently only a week apart, but it seems like several months elapse while familiar faces from Apatow’s stable of writers and performers – Jason Segel, Annie Mumolo, Chris O’Dowd, Lena Dunham – float in and out of the story, dispensing profane and playful one-liners.

The meandering vibe of the project suggests Apatow attempting to make another of his patented “hangout” movies, but the problem is that you probably wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon with its protagonists.  This Is 40 gives you a front row seat to Pete and Debbie’s marital discord, an uncomfortable slog that completely overshadows most of the film’s bright spots.  In fact, the only subplot of note – featuring Melissa McCarthy as a righteously angry parent of one of Sadie’s classmates – points out the movie’s major flaw.  Calling the pair a “bank commercial couple,” she nails the incongruity of Paul and Debbie’s whiny, off-putting angst and their obvious attractiveness and affluence.  Rich, beautiful people can have problems too, but Apatow fails to realize that adding half-baked melodrama and a cloying indie rock soundtrack doesn’t make them more sympathetic.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)
Dir. Roger Michell

2.5 out of 5

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.  He wasn’t speaking specifically about Hyde Park on Hudson, but he’d probably come to the same conclusion about a film that traces the origins of a strategic alliance between Great Britain and the United States back to a wooly weekend of extramarital shenanigans and the most controversial hot dog of all time.  It’s 1939, and as Europe sits on the brink of war, King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) – Elizabeth II’s parents – are the first sitting British monarchs to visit the United States.  The culmination of their tour is an all-important trip to Hyde Park, New York, the hometown of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray), where the royals attempt to curry diplomatic favor with the American head of state.  Watching all this unfold is Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), a distant cousin of FDR summoned to Hyde Park to “lift his spirits” as he toils away on delicate matters of statecraft.  She is quickly taken by the president’s charms and they begin an affair, despite the presence of their highborn guests and Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor (Olivia Williams). 

Their sexual peccadilloes are just one of the many cultural and personal differences presented by director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) as potentially disastrous for the health of Anglo-American relations.  While the film aims to demystify its noble subjects, it mostly traffics in frivolity with comedy that’s staunchly middlebrow and disappointingly broad.  That’s especially true when it comes to Colman’s Elizabeth, a strident, shrewish caricature who’s constantly whining about the Roosevelts’ hidden agenda in forcing her husband to eat undignified logs of ground meat.  “It doesn’t mean anything!  It’s just a hot dog!” bellows the king, but you could have fooled me with the way the film fixates on the offending wieners.

Michell and writer Richard Nelson’s obviously overwhelming affection for FDR saves Hyde Park on Hudson from feeling completely formless.  But even that is a double-edged sword.  Margaret, the film’s narrator and ostensible protagonist, is hurt when she learns of the president’s many concurrent affairs, yet every betrayal somehow turns her into an even bigger apologist.  It’s not a good look for Linney, who does the best she can with her underwritten character.  Meanwhile, Murray’s generically genial spin on FDR is fine but slightly puzzling, like a grandfather enthusiastically dressing up for Halloween.  (In the gallery of Murray’s larks, this one belongs closer to Garfield than to Zombieland.)

Hyde Park on Hudson undoubtedly suffers most from poor timing.  Even though he gives arguably the film’s best performance, West is left holding the bag as the guy following Colin Firth’s inspirational Oscar-winning turn as George VI in The King’s Speech.  Also, the decision to tell the story from the perspective of Margaret, a minor character who remains tangential to the film’s main themes, echoes last year’s My Week with Marilyn.  Combining those two oh-so-tasteful reference points results only in a flat concoction that would much rather appear refined than be considered interesting.  In other words, it could have used more hot dogs.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Dir. David O. Russell

4.5 out of 5

Movies about mental illness tend to take liberties with their protagonists’ conditions in order to keep their likability intact.  Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), the hero of Silver Linings Playbook, may benefit a little from this treatment, but it’s clear early on that his journey will not be a mawkish one.  A former schoolteacher diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Pat’s just been released from the Baltimore mental hospital where he was sent after brutally beating a fellow teacher he caught in flagrante with his wife.  Believing he can manage his condition without drugs, he vows to lead a life of positivity and productivity – “Excelsior” is his new motto – that will reunite him with ex-wife Nikki (Brea Bee), who has filed a restraining order against Pat in the wake of his violent episode. 

He doesn’t get very far.  Within a couple days, he’s tossing a copy of Farewell to Arms out the window and waking up his parents to complain about the book’s downer ending.  In fact, Pat almost immediately rejects anything that offends his worldview, including the attractive young widow Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) he meets at a friend’s dinner party.  She’s battling her own depression in the wake her husband’s death, which has sent her into a spiral of despondent rudeness and sex addiction.  When Tiffany propositions Pat, he insists that he’s still married but takes her on a date anyway.  Of course, it ends in a barrage of mutual insults as Pat struggles to prevent his growing feelings for Tiffany from triggering the worst symptoms of his condition.

It is not your average romance, but Silver Linings Playbook is not your average romantic comedy.  While writer-director David O. Russell (The Fighter), adapting from Michael Quick’s serio-comic novel, is only willing to go so dark in a movie with obvious Oscar aspirations, he finds a winning humor in the flammable chemistry of his leads.  Sassy and sharp, dirty and vulnerable, Lawrence gives as good as she gets from Cooper, who makes a statement against his typecasting as a smug alpha-male by thoroughly deconstructing it via his emotionally-arrested, lovesick mook.  Even as they bicker and bait each other, it’s undeniable that having someone that can relate to their mental condition is helping them both get well. 

The film shifts into a more conventional gear once Tiffany strikes a deal with Pat to pass messages to his estranged spouse in exchange for partnering with her in a dance competition.  Russell keeps the psychological conflict in the foreground via Pat’s father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), a superstitious Philadelphia Eagles fan who believes that his son has a major influence on his team’s all-important “juju.”  In one fell swoop, the film not only suggests that the Solitanos’ neuroses are generational, but also that other compulsions, despite beings socially acceptable, are no less destructive.  (The film’s cultural milieu – the self-loathing cauldron of Philadelphia sports fandom – makes it easy for Russell to drive this point home.) 

Silver Linings Playbook requires the viewer to forgive a lot of behavior that’s questionable at best, with the valleys of Pat’s condition positioned for maximum dramatic effect (though nobody’s going to mistake this movie for a documentary).  However, the film is democratic in distributing its characters’ hang-ups –Pat’s mom (Jacki Weaver) is a pro at sublimating her anxiety into homemade snacks – and puts them to good use in a satisfying climax that ties together all of the romantic and psychological stakes.  As difficult as it can be for the enigmatic coupling of Silver Linings Playbook to acknowledge and accept their vulnerabilities, theirs is not necessarily a story of redemption – it’s about finding some measure of satisfaction once you realize it’s impossible to stop being yourself.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi (2012)
Dir. Ang Lee

4 out of 5

Despite the production and marketing challenges of supposedly “unfilmable” books, they are all the rage in Hollywood, from the narrative Rubik’s Cube that is Cloud Atlas to the ‘how-do-you-dare-film-this?’ adolescent violence of The Hunger Games.  The trend continues with the visually breathtaking Life of Pi, based on the Yann Martel bestseller about a shipwrecked Indian teen who survives for months on the open ocean in a lifeboat with a hungry Bengal tiger.  The obvious difficulty here isn’t the subject matter – a quirky coming-of-age story that morphs into a gripping survival tale – but the necessity of creating animal actors that can hit precise cues and perform dangerous stunts.  It almost goes without saying that the visual effects in Pi steal the show, and are all the more impressive for their seamless integration of computer-generated images with flesh-and-blood actors.  (“The next Avatar!” screams the promotional copy.)

Oddly enough, it’s the early portion of the story concerning the childhood of Piscine “Pi” Patel that poses the greatest challenge to a successful cinematic interpretation of Martel’s heavily philosophical novel.  As the spiritually inquisitive younger son of the family that owns the municipal zoo in Pondicherry, India, Pi’s upbringing resembles something like a multicultural Venn diagram: an Indian kid with a French name dabbling in Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam before his rationalist father scolds him for blindly accepting others’ truths.  Pi’s pre-pubescent soul-searching is an especially writerly flourish, one that does not register as strongly on the screen as it does on the page.  Toss in the framing device of an adult Pi (Irfan Khan) recounting his life story to an author (Rafe Spall) in a quiet Montreal neighborhood, and it’s difficult to imagine that this is the film setting a new benchmark for 3D cinematic spectacle.

But Life of Pi gets much better once it drops its spiritual pretensions and gets down to the business of survival.  The touchy-feely nature of the prologue quickly becomes disconnected from the rest of the film once the family sets out for a new life in North America on a cargo ship carrying their entire menagerie.  A violent storm unexpectedly sinks the vessel, stranding Pi (played as a teenager by newcomer Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with Richard Parker, an adult tiger whose territorial instincts make it especially challenging for the boy to utilize the lifeboat’s supplies and seek rescue.  It’s a bracing, savage interlude that belies the story’s gentle beginnings.

Though director Ang Lee is best known for character-driven prestige dramas, anyone familiar with his wire-fu epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon also knows he’s no stranger to pushing the visual envelope.  And there are many jaw-dropping images in Life of Pi, including a sea full of phosphorescent fish and an island oasis teeming with thousands of meerkats.  All that digital whiz-bang is doubly necessary given the novel’s knotty narrative conclusion, which threatens to alienate audiences expecting a technically-impressive crowd pleaser in the vein of Cast Away.  Ultimately, Life of Pi’s boldest statement isn't in its revolutionary visuals and captivating sense of wonder, but in its message about how we prefer stories that use symbolism to make our existential dread easier to swallow.  Pessimists will complain that this technically makes the entire film one big cop out based on bogus pan-religious principles.  They might be partially correct, but you don’t have to buy into Pi’s philosophy to appreciate its rare combination of intelligence and top-notch spectacle.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)

The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)
Dir. The RZA

4 out of 5

Of all the movies that have been released under the “Quentin Tarantino Presents” banner, none have felt as indebted to their loquacious benefactor as The Man with the Iron Fists.  Then again, maybe that’s just because nobody else in the industry approaches kung fu movies with the same fanboy-on-steroids fervor as the RZA, the Wu Tang Clan rapper-turned-bit actor-turned feature film writer and director.  Fists is arguably the year’s greatest labor of love, a kinetic valentine to the grindhouse martial arts aesthetic that shaped its creator’s artistic sensibilities.  

It’s RZA’s movie through and through, especially since he also stars as the blacksmith Thaddeus in this tall tale about the lawless outpost of Jungle Village, so named for its many animal-themed clans who are constantly at war with one another.  He reluctantly makes a living crafting tools of dismemberment for these ruthless thugs, but his nights are warmed by his lover Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), a prostitute at the brothel run by the savvy Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu).  Business picks up for both of them when word gets out about an imperial convoy with passing through Jungle Village a fortune in gold.  Soon the village is overrun with criminals who will stop at nothing to steal the money, drawing a hesitant Thaddeus into the fray alongside the other warriors pledged to defend the community.

This is the type of film that raises many questions with its premise.  Does the gold really need to be sent through this notoriously crime-ridden village?  Why does the cathouse appear to be the largest building in town?  And how does a black man wind up as an expert blacksmith in 19th-century China?  (That last question is one of the few for which a satisfactory explanation is proffered.)  But it’s also the type of film where the answers don’t really matter as long as it keeps delivering madcap, inventive martial arts brawls at a steady clip.  By that standard, Fists is a rousing success.  The story is merely a license for licentiousness, an imperative enhanced by deliciously hammy performances from Byron Mann as the callous Silver Lion (complete with resplendent mane) and Russell Crowe as Jack Knife, a gentleman assassin with a vicious mean streak roiling just beneath his cheerfully perverse exterior. 

Though its creator is no stranger to Hollywood, The Man with the Iron Fists has the nervy feel of outsider art.  That’s not to suggest it’s unpolished – the stuntwork shines through frenetic editing, and the costuming and hairstyling is award-worthy – but it has a blind confidence in the RZA’s and co-writer Eli Roth's wild imaginations.  The pair tosses several movies’ worth of ideas at the screen, with enough of them sticking to justify the whole kitschy-kitchen sink enterprise.  And although Fists won’t make a leading man out of the RZA, it’s an impressive all-around debut that reveals his potential as a visual stylist – he and director of photography Chi Ying Chan choreograph several striking sequences, including a balletic scrum between Silver Lion’s henchmen and Taoist warrior twins that playfully references the symbols of the latter pair’s philosophical beliefs.  It’s just one of many pleasing flourishes in a film that finds an avid fan and filmmaker relying on both his acquired knowledge of kung fu films and his unbridled imagination to leave his own indelible mark on the genre.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Jump Cuts: Better Dead Than Red Edition

MGM’s long-shelved remake of Red Dawn will finally see the light of day today, the culmination of a four-year journey interrupted by the studio’s recent financial troubles.   The new film trades in the1984 original’s Brat Pack cast (Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey) and Soviet antagonists for fresh-faced action heroes (Thor’s Chris Hemsworth, The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson, G.I. Joe’s Adrianne Palicki) and today’s biggest threat to America’s global hegemony, a most powerful Asian adversary that keeps politicians awake at night with its ever-increasing economic and military might – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Ok, so the Cold War ain’t what it used to be.  But even for 1984, Red Dawn was a puerile slice of anti-Communist hysteria, a generalized them vs. us narrative that wraps itself in jingoism and ignores the actually frightening stuff like nuclear proliferation.  (I’ll take WarGames over Dawn any day.)  Plus there’s the fact that the remake did portray the Chinese as the villains until questions arose about the film’s international box office potential.

However, though China and the U.S. mirror the old Anglo-Soviet dynamic in proxy conflicts – witness the two superpowers’ investment in capturing the most medals at this year’s Summer Olympics – anything more contentious just isn’t in either nation’s best interests.  It’s simply easier to pile on a global pariah like North Korea than it is to convince people that an opposing political ideology is inherently bad.  Red-baiting just isn’t practical anymore, especially not if you want to make your money back on foreign shores.

 But were the winds of change blowing earlier than expected?  It sure seems that way in the first half of Reds (1981), Warren Beatty’s epic about John Reed, the early 20th-century journalist and political activist whose Ten Days that Shook the World provided a vital account of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and eventually led to his notoriety as the only American to be buried in the Kremlin.  Embracing his offscreen reputation as a noted “Hollywood liberal,” Beatty directed, produced, co-wrote, and starred in this love letter to the foment of leftist politics in the years surrounding the First World War.  But the movie truly belongs to its large cast of “witnesses” – acquaintances and contemporaries of Reed who appear throughout the film in talking-head interviews, providing the first-hand historic context for the events dramatized by Beatty.  Every era has its rebels, and the elderly firebrands featured in Reds keep things lively during the film’s dutifully formulaic but passionate exaltation of dissent.

 The year of Reds’ release also saw the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, ushering in a new birth of American conservatism that was especially conspicuous in its opposition to the Soviet Union.  This hawkish attitude was reflected in the action movies of the 1980s and the stone-faced socialist automatons that often played the villains.  Bucking this trend with its heroic portrayal of a Soviet state policeman, the otherwise forgettable Red Heat (1988) is as intriguing as a Jim Belushi-Arnold Schwarzenegger buddy cop thriller could possibly be.  Belushi’s loose-cannon Chicago cop and Schwarzenegger’s glowering militiaman must put aside their differences to apprehend a rogue Georgian drug lord (Ed O’Ross) who wants to be the USSR’s first major cocaine supplier.  Say what you want about the socialist state, but it apparently succeeded in keeping nose candy out of the Motherland during its entire ‘70s and ’80s heyday.  It’s a disappointingly dull rip-off of the Beverly Hills Cop/Lethal Weapon comedy-thriller formula, despite appearances from Peter Boyle, Laurence Fishburne, and a young Gina Gershon as O’Ross’ paramour.  But at least it reflected the new spirit of optimism in the era of glasnost – Belushi proudly demonstrates his knowledge of Russian tea culture when he instructs a waitress how to prepare Arnie’s brew, explaining to his amused colleague that he saw it in Doctor Zhivago.

By the 1990s, the scales had tipped so far in capitalism’s favor that the producers of The Hunt for Red October (1990) were quick to point out that their story took place in the recent past, when the U.S. and USSR were still neck-and-neck in the arms race.  The unforgettable opening scene ably communicates the threat of the Soviet leviathan, pulling back from a conversation between a Lithuanian submarine captain (Sean Connery) and his first officer (Sam Neill) to reveal a nuclear vessel the size of an aircraft carrier lurking in the dark.  This adaptation of Tom Clancy’s techno-thriller skillfully juggles several plotlines before tying them together with a brilliant triple climax onboard the titular sub.  The script by Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart (and an uncredited John Milius) makes cracking entertainment out of pages of naval jargon, and the cast features top-notch talent (Tim Curry, Scott Glenn, Stellan Skarsgard) filling out its supporting roles.  So compelling was Red October that it launched a Clancy mini-franchise despite the lack of its original star, Alec Baldwin, and its director, John McTiernan, a capable helmer of paradigmatic action films like Predator and Die Hard before a few misfires and a 2007 conviction for lying to the FBI effectively put his career on ice.

That’s nothing compared to the intrigue in Red Corner (1997), the Richard Gere courtroom thriller that finds the Free Tibet advocate as an American businessman attempting to open up the lucrative Chinese market for his satellite communications company.  After an unplanned tryst with a runway model ends in the woman’s mysterious death, Gere is accused of murder and must take his chances with the Chinese legal system.  It’s a fairly generic conspiracy potboiler that plays like an extra-xenophobic episode of Locked Up Abroad.  As the comely defense attorney assigned to represent Gere (Bai Ling) histrionically notes, a guilty verdict surely means the state will execute him and bill his family for the cost of the bullet.  Aside from the requisite airing-of-cultural-differences shouting match between Gere and Ling, the film makes little attempt to address the political complexities of Communist China, and alternately portrays its leaders as cold, corrupt authoritarians or overeager consumers of high fashion and schlocky TV.  In trying to communicate its message about the legal backwardness and lack of justice in a powerful Marxist state, Red Corner ends up saying far more about the West’s need to assuage its own insecurities.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall (2012)
Dir. Sam Mendes

4.5 out of 5

As much as the James Bond series is heralded as the quintessence of big-screen action, it’s been equally concerned with reaction.  For all the recurring iconography – the cars, the gadgets, the women – its individual iterations have featured their own malleable interpretations of the character.  When
Casino Royale rebooted Bond for a post-9/11 world of conflicted Jason Bourne-like heroes, it was the latest instance of a marketplace-motivated reinvention.  An unprecedented 50-year cinematic run proves that this is a successful model:  Bond, the man for all time. 

But Bond is also a man of his time.  And this is a time of paranoia, of grim responsibility, of fearing the enemy within.  So it comes as little surprise that Skyfall channels the spirit of dense, dark contemporary action films – most notably Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  But instead of just doubling down on gravitas, Skyfall retains 007’s droll wit and deft touch to create a Bond film that not only manages to rise above most of its predecessors, but also stands as the rare entry that successfully trumps the films from which it borrows.

The film begins its plunge into gloom early, when Bond (Daniel Craig) is presumed dead after a botched attempt to recover a top-secret list of NATO agents embedded in terrorist organizations.  Then a bomb rocks MI6 headquarters in London, pushing the organization into makeshift digs in an underground bunker and rattling M (Judi Dench), who appears to be the target of an unseen adversary.  The trail of evidence leads a rejuvenated Bond – after a brief beachfront retirement – to China where former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) is pulling the strings of a sophisticated techno-terrorist plot to exact revenge on his former employer.

It helps that, with Silva, Skyfall eschews the type of world-domination megalomania usually endemic to Bond villains.  As a crazy man with a simple goal, Javier Bardem gives another brilliantly unnerving performance that would trigger an avalanche of Oscar buzz if it wasn't smack in the middle of a populist popcorn flick.  He’s a terrific foil for the icy calm of Daniel Craig’s 007, whose haunted eyes barely conceal that’s he’s similarly motivated by a subterranean anger and a thirst for vengeance – emotions that are kept in check by professional safety valves such as his junior field colleague Eve (Naomie Harris) and a reintroduced Q (Ben Whishaw), a cocky, boyish techie whose idea of nifty gadgetry is quaint and dignified.  (“We don’t go in for that sort of thing” is his response to the anathema of an exploding pen.)

For a film that’s essentially a variation on the “this time it’s personal” thriller template, Skyfall is genuinely engaging, blitzing through a robust 140-minutes with sly humor, compelling conflicts, and cleverly-placed callbacks to the Bond legacy.  That legacy, though sometimes laced with silliness, is the main advantage that director Sam Mendes has over the many contemporary action films that are obsessed with playing it completely straight.  This Bond’s flaws may be more apparent, but that stiff upper lip remains wryly in place as he defends queen and country and quite a bit more in his final confrontation with Silva.  Befitting a film that satisfyingly blends elements of blockbusters past and present, Skyfall’s old-fashioned heroics are an ideal, no-nonsense précis for a brave new world of action epics.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Holy Motors (2012)

Holy Motors (2012)
Dir. Leos Carax

4.5 out of 5

In Martin Scorsese’s family-friendly adventure Hugo, the early silent filmmaker Georges Méliès asks an adorable moppet if he’s ever wondered where his dreams come from.  He might as well be asking the audience.  The idea of cinema as dream factory is nearly as old as cinema itself, which is helpful to keep in mind when approaching Holy Motors, a puzzling provocation from another French mastermind, Leos Carax.  The film follows Mr. Oscar (Denis Levant) as he treks across Paris to act out nine bizarre scenarios at the behest of his mysterious employer.  As he rides along in a white stretch limousine that doubles as a dressing room, Oscar dutifully applies the makeup and prosthetics that transform him into an old female beggar; or a feral, ravenous leprechaun; or whatever character the job demands. These are not just dreams, but everything else in the kitchen sink of the subconscious, all brought to life with the go-for-broke gusto of a grand showman and the maddening obfuscation of a serious artist.  It’s the weirdest and possibly the most wonderful thing I’ve seen all year.

Even though Oscar displays a sense of resignation about his duties – something he discusses throughout the day with his chauffeur, Céline (Édith Scob) – the film pulses with possibility.  Each of his assignments attest to the formulas embedded in even the most experimental of stories.  Over the course his workday, Oscar stars in a motion-captured fantasy epic, a gritty crime drama, and a musical tragedy (co-starring Kylie Minogue!), among others.  Levant is phenomenal in the trickiest of roles, skillfully slipping into various personae while maintaining an empathetic version of the weary workingman that exists behind the disguises.  Because the “stories” he creates are not necessarily captivating in and of themselves – some of these gigs seem like mercy, but others are just mean-spirited or alienating – it’s these glimpses of the journeyman Oscar that resonate.  Is he an actor or an angel?  Or is he something else entirely?

Holy Motors is a wild trip through the headspace of a creative professional trying to find absolute truth – if such a thing exists – in the business of make-believe.  It’s also a mind-bending commentary on the messy collision of digital technology and practical artistry in the modern film industry.  Carax laments the loss of visible machinery; he clearly misses the flicker of the projector bulb and, somewhat surprisingly, the inviolability of the fourth wall.  It’s as if he feels powerless against the public demand for a fluid reality, and a day with Oscar is like getting at peek at the absurd lengths that filmmakers must go to preserve that illusion.  Holy Motors almost goes out of his way to defy comprehension.  Trying to read between its lines is like staring for too long at an abstract painting.  But by turning cinema on its ear and fooling around with everything that comes tumbling out, Carax creates something truly unforgettable – a lucid dream of a film that’s more than likely to inspire some dreams (or nightmares) of its very own.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

3.5 out of 5

Abraham Lincoln is, to Hollywood at least, a Great American Mascot – a metaphor for the aspirational ideals of an entire nation.  The difficulty of retelling the Lincoln story is not in locating a new angle but the challenge of mining nuggets of intimacy from the bedrock of legend.  The opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln illustrates this well, as two star-struck Union soldiers breathlessly recite the Gettysburg Address back to the man who wrote it.  President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) looks on politely as they struggle to recall the ending, until an African-American soldier purposefully and dramatically completes it for them.  That’s Lincoln in a nutshell:  a film that struggles to balance its obligations as a crowd-pleasing biopic of arguably the most popular and iconic president in American history and its Lincoln-like ambition to break an impossibly complex and politically loaded scenario down to its basic human elements.

So how does a film divided against itself stand?  Pretty well, as it turns out.  After its shaky introduction, Lincoln improves markedly as it goes along.  Spielberg’s wisest decision is to narrow the scope of the film to a single month in Lincoln’s life.  In January 1865, the president is working to secure passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in the United States.  Meanwhile, Confederate representatives are on their way to the capitol to discuss a negotiated end to the Civil War – a goal many are eager to accomplish with or without the abolition of slavery.  It’s a situation that’s perfect for spelling out Lincoln’s political genius, portrayed by Day-Lewis as an unassailable sangfroid withstanding a never-ending assault of competing agendas.  The two-time Oscar winner’s turn as the Great Emancipator is an intriguing variation of his trademark Method intensity, calmer and quieter but no less committed.

It’s a shame, then, that Lincoln is content to allow a cloud of inscrutability to partially obscure Day-Lewis’ nuanced performance.  The film doubles down on the president’s trademark homespun anecdotes, lending him a sphinx-like quality.  Perhaps in concession to the difficulty of making an epic about a figure famous for plainspoken brevity, Lincoln is dominated by its strong bench of colorful supporting characters.  There’s the pragmatic Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and the volcanic Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), trusted advisors with opposite approaches to preserving the Union; the abolitionist battleaxe Thaddeus Stevens – played with a crusty brilliance by Tommy Lee Jones – who controls a crucial Republican faction in Congress; and Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), a tempest of migraine headaches and melancholic fits.  This immensely qualified cast does justice to the florid, vividly theatrical dialogue of the script penned by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America).   

Ultimately, Lincoln is more of a historical epic and a love letter to American politics than a straight-up biopic.  Spielberg attempts to portray Lincoln as both saint and schemer, a family man and political operator whose well-intentioned ideas were only accomplished through a great deal of compromise and lawyerly machinations.  But, perhaps sensing how far he might stray from his successfully sentimental formula, Spielberg falls back into boisterous crowd-pleasing mode with haloed monologues from Day-Lewis and Jones, as well as a surprising abundance of humor (mostly concerning a trio of proto-lobbyists played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson).  Though it takes a while to find its balance, Lincoln is a worthwhile addition to the presidential filmography, not a revolutionary vision of the meaning of Abraham Lincoln but an evolutionary step towards separating the man from the myth.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Comedy (2012)

The Comedy (2012)
Dir. Rick Alverson

4 out of 5

There’s a British colloquialism I like, “taking the piss,” which refers to a type of unreasonable antagonism that’s usually intended to provoke an emotional reaction.  The Comedy is basically a 90-minute workshop on this concept, an acerbic character study starring Tim Heidecker (TV’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job) as Swanson, an aimless scion of a privileged family whose patriarch is slowly dying in a New York City hospital bed.  Swanson passes his time by attempting to transgress as many social boundaries as possible.  Along with his like-minded buddies – including Awesome Show cohort Eric Wareheim and LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy – he pursues a deadpan agenda of expressing unpleasant emotions like shock, confusion, and grief by provoking them in others.  He’s a certifiable asshole to the world at large, mocking its sincerity and making ludicrous demands.  But it’s clear that every minute of his alcohol-soaked existence that his actions are clothed in an immense inner pain.

The loose, shambling plot concerns the attempts of Swanson’s sister-in-law (Liza Kate) to force him to recognize the gravity of the situation.  Documents are waved in his face, but money doesn’t seem to be an issue.  Swanson has plenty of resources for his roaming freak-outs – with or without his merry pranksters – and is perfectly content to conduct his life as irreverent performance art, trying his best to make others uncomfortable by impersonating gardeners or musing about the untapped potential of eugenics.  Even at his most offensive, though, Swanson has an odd charm about him.  Or rather, a remarkable chutzpah.  Moxie of Swanson’s caliber – on display when he goes to a bar in an black neighborhood to “represent” – is a rare gift, even if it comes with its share of harmful side effects.

The same could be said of the film itself.  Writer-director Rick Alverson and co-writers Robert Donne and Colm O’Leary have the right idea to ride the line with Swanson’s stormy moods with humor so dark it tilts toward the absurd.  Heidecker is more than up to the task as an unlikely but talented leading man, drawing on the sinister undercurrents of his previous work in alternative comedy (see: Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie).  Casting the moon-faced comedy provocateur also helps Alverson cultivate the ambiguity he desires.  When Swanson finally lands a job as a dishwasher (he obsession with obtaining employment is the movie’s most unexpected leitmotif), it’s hard to tell how much of his persona is a put-on.  Is he sincerely seeking an additional distraction from his emotions?  Or is it just another way to transfer his misery onto others? 

Never an easy film to watch, The Comedy doesn’t deign to answer such questions explicitly.  Nor, thankfully, does it wish to traffic in obvious labels.  The “h” word looms over Swanson and his Williamsburg-dwelling, PBR-swilling clique, but even within this group there’s a difference between the harmless eccentrics and their frustrated friend play-acting his way through complex, painful emotions.  Once you strip away the protective layers of irony, The Comedy stands as a surprisingly moral film despite its apparent sympathy for the devil.  It’s an impressively-acted cautionary tale that balances its puerile outrageousness with the crushing knowledge that when it comes to jokes with cruel punchlines, none are crueler than life itself.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Dir. Rich Moore

4.5 out of 5

It's easy and accurate to draw comparisons between Toy Story and the newest addition to the Disney animated canon, Wreck-It Ralph.  That's not just because both are witty, detail-packed films revolving around the inner lives of supposedly inanimate objects, but also because they both use this premise to comment on the universal fear of obsolescence and the useful delusion of heroism.  We meet Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), the heavy of the Donkey Kong-inspired Fix-It Felix Jr., in a support group for video game villains (sample affirmation: "I'll never be good, and that's not bad").  He yearns to be the good guy so he can win a medal like his in-game adversary, Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer).  One day, finally fed up with his one-dimensional role, Ralph abandons Fix-It Felix and goes "game-jumping" in search of a bauble that will grant him the love and respect he craves.  It's a massive risk for his colleagues, however, as Fix-It Felix can't function without a villain.  Unless Ralph returns to the game, the cabinet will be unplugged, thus stranding all its characters in arcade limbo with other sad, forgotten icons of its quarter-munching past.

Not unlike a classic arcade game, Wreck-It Ralph is addictive entertainment that contains a multitude of cleverly-conceived structural layers underneath a simplistic exterior.  Ralph's journey through the arcade makes a great excuse for tons of in-jokes and cameos featuring characters recognizable to gamers of all generations.  But director Rich Moore and his team aren't just content to pay homage to their favorite video games.  The film takes its spot-the-reference appeal one step further with the games Ralph "jumps" into:  the hyper-futuristic first-person shooter Hero's Duty and the cutesy, candy-coated kart racer Sugar Rush.  These fully-realized worlds recall the classic Disney/Pixar tradition of looking at a familiar environment with a connoisseur's eye, imbuing it with obsessive detail, a playful sense of nostalgia, and gob-smackingly gorgeous visuals.  

The goodie box approach to Ralph's setting also defines its lively plot, where new surprises and complications are constantly being revealed like the many layers of a nesting doll.  Screenwriters Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee introduce many subtle twists throughout the script that continually heighten the stakes while saving time for funny side trips like the romance between Felix Jr. and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the take-charge heroine of Hero's Duty who pursues Ralph across the arcade.  Moore, a veteran of The Simpsons and Futurama, inspires a looseness in his cast that adds to the film's amiable, pals-playing-Xbox-in-the-basement vibe.  In a highly unorthodox move for an animated film, Moore encourages improvisation, a gamble that pays off hilariously with some of the most offbeat dialogue and non-sequiturs ever uttered in a Disney film.  Reilly, McBrayer, and Lynch are all established funny persons, but comedienne Sarah Silverman steals the movie as Vanellope von Schweetz, a "glitch" in Sugar Rush who cultivates a meaningful friendship with Ralph and whose murky status within her game is the key to a mystery that carries arcade-wide repercussions.  Each character is a hero in his or her own way as Wreck-It Ralph gently makes its point about how staying true to one's self doesn't have to mean accepting the labels that others ascribe.  A funny, fresh, and inventive movie that lovingly borrows its cues from retro video games and classic animated films, Wreck-It Ralph instantly becomes a classic in its own right.