Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012)

Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012)
Dir. Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace

3.5 out of 5

“If it’s a funeral, let’s have the best funeral ever” – so reads the epitaph that accompanies Shut Up and Play the Hits, a documentary chronicling the final concert of the New York dance-punk outfit LCD Soundsystem. Yet the proceedings at a sold-out Madison Square Garden
in April 2011 are like an Irish wake or, more accurately, a tent revival. It’s a religious experience for the true believers, a rapturous rock roadshow incongruously held at a famous athletic battleground – “a boxing arena” in the words of LCD’s frontman and dictator-for-life, James Murphy. The funereal vibe arrives the next day, with cameras observing Murphy puttering about town as the finality of the event sinks in. Co-directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace intercut this candid footage with raucous performances from the MSG show (featuring a few surprise guests, Last Waltz-style) and snippets of Murphy’s pre-concert interview with music journalist Chuck Klosterman.

Onstage and backstage, Murphy is a maestro of micromanagement, twiddling knobs and doling out wristbands. Offstage, he almost sounds unprepared for Klosterman’s aggressive questioning, as if he hadn’t anticipated people demanding an explanation for breaking up one of the most critically and artistically successful acts of the decade. That same uncertainty, the film suggests, may be at the heart of Murphy’s decision. He doesn’t believe he was born to play the rock star (despite being very good at it), and pinpoints the moment when he realized that his own musical heroes were also just regular folks with errands to run and obligations to meet. Like a grown-up hipster Thoreau, there’s a part of him that sees having the coolest band in America as a grueling workaday responsibility cultivating a quiet desperation for a simpler life. The film’s emphasis of this theme – with boring, uncinematic interludes of Murphy shaving or cleaning an espresso machine – is a little too on-the-nose. More subtly satisfying is the hint of weariness captured in Murphy’s terse day-after conversations with his manager, Keith Woods, a leonine music biz lifer.

Devoting a healthy chunk of its running time (more than a third) to non-performance footage, Shut Up and Play the Hits has the tenor of a vanity project. Southern and Lovelace don’t get to the first song until at least 10 minutes in and constantly interrupt the flow of the performance with Murphy’s verbal digressions – decisions that may inspire audience to grumble the film’s title unironically. But Murphy is clearly the brains of the operation, and Shut Up is a documentary that reflects its subject well. Ping-ponging between exuberance, restlessness, and remorse, it’s a tonally frustrating film that is nonetheless true to the artist’s essence – a club DJ who not only wrote songs about Daft Punk playing at his house but also the about regrets of an aging scenester worried that humbler pleasures have passed him by. “To tell the truth/This could be the last time,” sings a triumphant Murphy at the Garden. But after just one day, when those words really settle and Murphy surveys the band’s gear one last time, he’s breaking down in tears. Mortality can hit any of us like a ton of bricks. It probably hurts more when those bricks are the rubble of the house you just tore down.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises
Dir. Christopher Nolan

4 out of 5

The perpetually gloomy Gotham City is missing its champion in The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It’s been eight years anyone last saw Batman or, for that matter, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who’s taken to living in Howard Hughes-like seclusion after the death of crusading attorney Harvey Dent. Then again, sweeping legislation passed in the wake of Dent’s passing has nearly eradicated all serious crime from Gotham. The only criminals left are the ones who are too good to be caught – like cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), whose theft of Wayne’s fingerprints are the first ripple in a nefarious plot to destabilize the city and send it careening back into chaos. Meanwhile, the masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy) has quietly built an army of the disenfranchised in Gotham’s sewers. He baits Batman into returning and quickly overwhelms him, then isolates the city by threatening to detonate a nuclear device should anyone try to invade or escape.

It’s fitting that a series obsessed with the consequences of unchecked corruption and the eroding sense of social responsibility would up the ante so generously in its final installment. You don’t need to look far for a sign-of-the-times subtext in the first steps of Bane’s master plan, which resembles an anarchic perversion of the Occupy movement in the way it forcibly levels the playing field on behalf of the 99 percent. Even Wayne Enterprises is not immune, leading to some fantastic scenes that harken back to the training sequences in Batman Begins. A broke and battered Bruce Wayne is imprisoned at the bottom of an insurmountable pit while his newest allies—angel investor Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and young police detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)—join forces with Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and try their best to maintain a semblance of order within the lawless Gotham city-state. Wayne’s eventual resurrection as Batman is as affecting as superhero films get, pitching it as a quintessential expression of bravery and sacrifice.

Nolan turns the page from The Dark Knight’s bleak tale of moral equivocation to the determined quest for goodness in a world without grace and chances upon a Batman film with surprisingly old-fashioned values. Thieves have hearts of gold. Cops protect orphaned children. Threatening men wear masks and hang out in subterranean lairs. (Hey, wait a minute!) Nolan’s films have typically invited the audience to question Batman’s tortured sense of justice—to see the shades of gray in a man who would use his superior resources and intellect to impose his will upon millions of people. Yet despite being the longest film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t spend much time addressing these complexities. There are just too many characters and plots to juggle (which Nolan accomplishes with skill), and its brawny setpieces are more impressive for their sheer size than their depth or deftness. Still, you can’t blame the director for brightening the series’ funereal tone during his victory lap. After setting a new standard for smart summer blockbusters, his straightforward depiction of heroism conquering fear is the satisfying conclusion that this saga deserves.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

The Queen of Versailles
Dir. Lauren Greenfield

4.5 out of 5

The mortgage debt crisis of 2008 and the subsequent global recession revealed a terrible secret about the wealthy—they could be as bad at managing their money as the rest of us. And while many of the 1 percent managed to scrape by with the help of massive government bailouts, Florida timeshare mogul David Siegel and his third wife, Jackie, weren’t so lucky. Their riches-to-rags story is chronicled in The Queen of Versailles, a fascinating case study of greed and hubris, and a sobering reminder that you’re never too rich to have financial woes. There’s a measure of poetic justice as the Siegels struggle to avoid bankrupting an empire built on convincing middle-class Americans to shell out for vacations they couldn’t really afford. But giddy schadenfreude quickly gives way to the ugly toll that the constant financial stress takes on the family’s emotional well-being.

The Siegels’ hardship is largely the consequence of two epic boondoggles. The first is their quest to construct the largest single-family home in the United States: a 90,000-square foot monstrosity inspired by the famous chateau of Louis XIV. The second is a pair of condominium towers in Las Vegas where one of David’s sons preaches the gospel of leisure like he’s running a tent revival, claiming that vacations “save lives” and comparing his sales staff to firefighters. The subprime crisis wreaks havoc on both projects, but David and Jackie try their best to keep up appearances. Director Lauren Greenfield finds a particularly fascinating subject in Jackie, a former model and beauty queen who keeps spending like she’s still a billionaire. Her unconscionable excess and consistent denial in the face of financial ruin lends the film a Grey Gardens-like quality. After the much of the household staff is laid off to save money, there’s a swift decline in cleanliness at the Siegel residence, and a home that once feted all 50 Miss America contestants becomes a minefield of dried dog feces.

Yet for all her perceived ditziness, Jackie at least tries to take a positive approach to coping with this major life-altering crisis. The mother of eight who speaks of “visiting” her children during a walkthrough of her half-completed dream home uses the catastrophe to re-evaluate her commitment to her family. She exudes enough bootstrap-pulling enthusiasm to make some of the film’s wry observations seem like cheap shots (when Jackie buys one of the kids a new bicycle for Christmas, Greenfield impishly pans over a dozen unused bikes sitting in a garage). That’s more than can be said for David, whose impotent rage accumulates over his two-year battle to stave off bankruptcy. His progressively weary and mean-spirited interviews reveal deeper flaws than financial mismanagement; his stubbornness and startling lack of communication have stranded him on an emotional island, however well-apportioned it may be. Far more than a humorous catalog of the indulgences of shortsighted rich people, The Queen of Versailles is an engrossing wide-angle critique of the unsustainable behaviors that turn American dreams into American nightmares.

This LA Film Festival review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ted (2012)

Dir. Seth MacFarlane

3 out of 5

One of the most enduring childhood daydreams is the fantasy in which one’s toys come to life. As Pixar’s trilogy of Toy Story films attests (not to mention everything from Babes in Toyland to Small Soldiers), imagining the rich inner lives of inanimate objects is a common and celebrated pastime. It’s a way that kids learn to process emotions and practice empathy before they have to do it for real. Ted, the first feature-length film from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, turns this whimsical exercise on its ear by extending it all the way to adulthood, where a teddy bear brought to life by a magical Christmas wish has aged into an underachieving wastrel.

Ted (voiced and motioned-captured by Seth MacFarlane) is a profane, pot-smoking plushie whose 15 minutes of fame as a sentient teddy bear are well behind him, and is now living with his grown-up owner/buddy John (Mark Wahlberg). Their adolescent co-dependency irks Lori (Mila Kunis), John’s long-term girlfriend who tolerates Ted’s presence even as she watches her mate stumble his way through a boring job at a rental car agency. Lori finally reaches the end of her rope in a scenario involving Ted, four prostitutes, and the loose interpretation of proper bathroom facilities. She kicks Ted out of the apartment and suggests to John that he'll have more room to grow without Ted’s negative influence in his life.

There’s nothing original in Ted’s bromance vs. romance set-up, but Wahlberg and Kunis are skillful comic performers, and they’re bolstered by ace scene-stealers like Patrick Warburton and Joel McHale. The humor is typical MacFarlane, which is to say that it sometimes teeters on the edge of insufferability. But while he goes overboard on vulgarity, he shows remarkable restraint with pop culture-based gags. It’s a welcome change from a writer whose material often comes stamped with a sell-by date. Instead of settling for a passel of quick Family Guy-style cutaways, MacFarlane spins his nostalgic obsession with the kitschy film adaptation of Flash Gordon into a wonderfully screwy party sequence involving Flash himself – ‘80s beefcake icon Sam J. Jones – chewing the scenery as a blonde-coiffed, hard-partying caricature of a movie star.

Ted isn’t anything more than it purports to be: a potty-mouthed slacker comedy that makes good use of its R rating. In fact, the conceit of Ted being a stuffed animal that acts like a person has little bearing on most of the film. Apart from a wedged-in subplot that features a sublimely weird Giovanni Ribisi abducting Ted as a prize for his sadistic son, it may as well be MacFarlane’s human self in the role. (As for Ribisi, he must be getting tired of playing scuzzy family men with silly accents who kidnap someone close to Wahlberg.) Maybe Ted is supposed to be a metaphor – a projection of John’s unhinged id and a mirror of his failures – but that’s getting a bit heady for a film that takes pride in explaining the mechanics of teddy-on-human sex. Nonetheless, Ted has a wistful little heart, lamenting the way that the magic and mysteries of childhood inevitably disappear within the complacency and conformity of the adult world. Apparently there is a squishy-soft center underneath that boorish exterior.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The Amazing Spider-Man
Dir. Marc Webb

2.5 out of 5
Rebooting a well-known blockbuster franchise only five years after its most recent installment is like working a jigsaw puzzle twice and expecting different results. Yet that is exactly what The Amazing Spider-Man feels like as it remixes the elements of Spidey’s origin story in a way that can’t help but invite comparison to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, even as it attempts to work in direct opposition to those three films. Gone are the candy-colored hues and operatic emotions. In their place are cool, ominous shadows and free-floating angst. It's a more serious spin on the wisecracking wall-crawler, though for a while you kind of wonder what all the fuss is about. This Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is lanky, lithe, and twitchy – and a handsome science prodigy. He already has the shell of a superhero and spends the first half-hour of the film patiently waiting to receive his powers. He also has an instantaneous chemistry with the object of his affection, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), the police captain’s daughter who seems smarter and funnier than he is.

A prologue reveals that Peter’s father was a prominent scientist before disappearing one rainy night, leaving the young boy in the care of his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). They go on raising Peter as their own until he finds his father’s old briefcase in the basement. It contains the name of an old colleague, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), whom Peter impresses by passing along a long-missing piece of his father’s animal genetics research. Connors is under pressure to develop a miracle cure for his (unseen) terminally ill employer and could use the kid’s help. Peter’s not on the job long when he attracts the bite of a genetically altered spider and humorously copes with the ensuing transformation – at least until his carelessness causes a tragic turn in his home life.

The everything-old-is-new-again approach employed by director Marc Webb puts a damper on the film’s creativity. The film assumes a familiarity with the characters and the basic plot points (which aren’t too complicated to begin with) that precludes the need to do anything interesting with them. Webb then overcompensates with florid symbolism and cheesy attempts at visual poetry. (There’s a head-scratching sequence where Peter triumphantly skateboards to a Coldplay song.) The film gains momentum in its second half once Peter begins to define the Spider-Man persona, evolving from a selfish, vengeful vigilante to community-oriented do-gooder. It’s a strong storyline that overshadows his conflict with Connors, an undersold villain who gains a megalomaniacal streak after injecting himself with a cell-regenerating serum made from reptile DNA. With a talented ensemble cast and a handful of thrilling action sequences, The Amazing Spider-Man at least makes a worthy introduction for the uninitiated. For everyone else, it’s an uncanny palimpsest, recycling the sturdiest bits of the superhero mythos and dressing them up with hit-or-miss accouterments.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Magic Mike (2012)

Magic Mike
Dir. Steven Soderbergh

3.5 out of 5

Channing Tatum’s rapid ascent to the Hollywood A-list over the past 9 months epitomizes the fickle nature of success, equal parts hard work and plain old luck. That’s also a theme emphasized by Magic Mike – the latest offering in the Year of the Tatum – a film based on his experiences as a 19-year-old stripper in Tampa, Florida. And while the subject easily lends itself to prurient spectacle (and I promise you, there’s plenty of that in Magic Mike), there is a sincere effort to engage the audience with a certain amount of verisimilitude. The Full Monty this ain’t. Like any strip show, Magic Mike promises more than it can ultimately deliver, but it dutifully mines this world of exhilarating highs and desperate lows for something to say about the way life can break in ways you never intended.

The film’s inquisitiveness has a lot to do with its director, Steven Soderbergh, for whom Magic Mike is his second genre exercise of 2012 - this time, a lurid backstage drama. Adam (Alex Pettyfer) is a college dropout living on his sister’s couch when he meets Mike Lane (Tatum), a construction worker whose truck, clothes, and apartment suggest a healthy supplemental income. It’s all courtesy of “Magic” Mike, his stripping alter ego at Club Xquisite, an all-male dance revue with elaborate routines that invariably culminate in the dry-humping of some intrepid audience member. He recruits Adam to join the baby-oiled ranks of dancers managed by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, repeating the word “alright” at world-record pace), the club owner with a plan to move the show to Miami and a promise to reward the loyal Mike with a partial ownership stake.

Though there is potential for a nightmarish Boogie Nights-style turn – Adam even lays a Reed Rothchild-like “We should be best friends” on Mike during the fun, flighty first chapter of their relationship – it’s a decidedly heroic twist on Tatum’s own origin story. Mike’s predictable eyes-wide-open epiphanies and wearying flirtation with Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam’s aforementioned sister, quickly overshadow Magic Mike’s darker aspects. But Soderbergh seems genuinely interested in these characters as human beings. There’s an unexpected intimacy in the way he shoots scenes outside the club. His quasi-improvisational approach leads to some wonderfully unguarded moments from Tatum and McConaughey, even if this philosophy exposes the cast’s painfully limited comedic range.

Range is also an issue when the film takes a sharper turn into melodrama in the last half hour. Tatum does his best to carry the weight, but the script glosses over the consequences of its characters’ unchecked debauchery. The rest of the strippers don’t amount to much more than eye candy and have little bearing on the plot – though the sight of a man named Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) wearing granny glasses while mending his gold thong is a flourish to savor. Magic Mike’s increasingly tepid attempts to play it straight don’t have any bearing on Tatum’s virtuosic strip routines or McConaughey’s deviously self-aware performance; in the end, it’s all about having a good time. It’s nice to acknowledge some of the drawbacks to disrobing for cash, but why ruin all the fun?

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Invisible War (2012)

The Invisible War (2012)
Dir. Kirby Dick

4.5 out of 5

A thorough examination of sexual assault in the United States military, Kirby Dick’s documentary The Invisible War is a scathing critique of the armed forces and its tight-lipped response to its well-documented problem of systemic sexual abuse and rape. Though the issue has political dimensions, this is not a political film. It is a film about the denial of justice and of basic human dignity, at the crux of which is a difficult question: How much can we trust our institutions when they fail to protect the people who protect us?

The Invisible War begins with a disclaimer that all statistics reported in the film come from official Department of Defense documents. The numbers are damning. Of the thousands of cases that are reported annually, only a small percentage of them result in any sort of conviction (with punishments sometimes as light as a fine and an extra work detail). Of course, there are a great many additional cases that go unreported or ignored. Why bother, the victims say, when the principal investigators are their direct superiors and often friends of the perpetrators, and are liable to threaten the victim with a court martial for lying. It is immeasurably sad to see these servicewomen (and one serviceman) describe how the military – which all of them, as volunteers, once held in such high esteem – has let them down. In these interviews, it’s clear that the current failure to redress this issue immeasurably weakens the military as a whole. Mistakes as big as these reverberate across generations. When Dick raises the question of whether any of the victims would permit their daughters to enlist someday, the answer is a unanimous “no.”

The film excels in extracting the raw emotions from a topic that military brass is eager to couch in bureaucratic legalese. Though Dick elicits blood-boiling stories from victims across all branches of the military, he locates a strong narrative thread in Kori Cioca, a discharged Coast Guard vet struggling to secure medical benefits for injuries she sustained the night one of her superiors assaulted her. The nerves in her face are damaged so severely that she cannot go outside on a particularly cold day. A real spitfire, Cioca joins a class action suit of several female veterans against the military and tells her story to appalled legislators in Washington, D.C.

Dick’s only misstep is treating the military viewpoint like a straw man from time to time. His interview with Dr. Kaye Whitley, the director of the military’s sexual assault prevention initiative, is cut up into segments of dodged questions and vague answers juxtaposed with admittedly laughable snippets from current training videos. Still, The Invisible War is an impeccably researched film and it carries a strong emotional charge. As in his films scrutinizing the MPAA (This Film Is Not Yet Rated) and the Catholic Church (Twist of Faith), Dick is at his best when taking aim at closed systems that are antithetical to American ideals of transparency and equality under the law. He’s well on his way to changing hearts and minds – U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently cited The Invisible War when making changes to the way the military handles sexual assault cases. Though there’s still work to be done, that can only give hope to the heroes who have been maligned simply for exhibiting the courage that made them so valuable to the military in the first place.