Friday, May 31, 2013

The East

The East (2013)
Dir. Zaj Batmanglij

3 out of 5

If there’s a big takeaway from The East, an eco-thriller from director Zaj Batmanglij and co-writer/star Brit Marling, it’s that the filmmakers have been reading the papers a lot recently.  Taking the “skeptical outsider infiltrates mysterious cult” angle of their previous collaboration, the excellent Sound of My Voice, and infusing it with a journalistic immediacy, The East is chockablock with material familiar to consumers of the 24-hour news cycle - corporate malfeasance, domestic surveillance, terrorism - and, more intriguingly, the readers of magazine trend pieces on intentional communities and the new anti-consumerism.  When Marling drops terms like “freegan” without the condescending need to explain what they mean, it’s clear that she’s done enough homework to resent having to regurgitate it for the audience’s benefit.

This is a good thing.  The East has an air of credibility that convinces us to go along with Sarah Moss (Marling), an operative at an espionage-for-hire firm, as she infiltrates the titular organization, a band of anarchists whose efforts to expose corporate wrongdoers become increasingly militant.  She locates the group just as they are preparing for a trilogy of major stunts - or “jams,” in their parlance - orchestrated by their handsome, charismatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgard).  Sarah begins to question the morality of her mission - and her fidelity to her nice-guy beau (Jason Ritter) - when she witnesses how Benji has organized various misfits and damaged souls into a type of surrogate family.  But she can’t ignore the darker side of his eco-friendly manipulation, compromising both the goals of her sternly maternal employer (a terrific Patricia Clarkson) and her new cult-y crush object.

The East embodies a similar quandary, applying a Hollywood thriller sheen to an offbeat project that sympathizes with the folks willing to bypass criminal justice and poison people to prove a point.  While the movie addresses certain issues embedded in its premise - Sarah rouses early suspicion for her, ahem, hygienic appearance - it is too reliant on dramatic convenience.  The East’s “jams” are constructed with a clever sense of irony that quickly curdles into pat moralizing, exacerbating the inconsistent character motivations in subplots featuring a doctor (Toby Kebbell) rebelling against the pharmaceutical company whose drugs gave him a permanent hand tremor (which still hasn’t stopped him from practicing medicine), and a prodigal daughter (Ellen Page) whose ping-ponging emotions contribute greatly to the film’s collapsing sense of verisimilitude.  

The missteps extend to an epilogue that should have been left on the cutting room floor, a sequence that tries to provide the tidy - and frankly, far-fetched - answers that Sound of My Voice shrewdly avoided.  Batmanglij and Marling’s sincerity saves The East from appearing as a work of cultural tourism (the inspiration for the script reportedly came from the duo’s two-month stint as activists in the “Buy Nothing” movement), but as a dramatic interpretation, it’s still somewhat lacking.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Upstream Color

Upstream Color (2013)
Dir. Shane Carruth

4 out of 5

If I want to start unpacking Upstream Color, the new experimental romance from reclusive writer-director Shane Carruth, I probably shouldn't start with the pig farm.  I shouldn’t think how about the heroine, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is abducted by some sort of mad botanist/hypnotist and subjected to increasingly strange psychological experiments.  I shouldn’t wonder why she is suddenly serving as the donor of some type of organic material to an equally confused swine.  And I shouldn’t talk about how this is probably only the third or fourth most puzzling development in Upstream Color, and how it chugs along without a discernible sense of direction but, somehow, doesn’t traffic in misdirection either.  Carruth has borrowed the genetic material of several very different films and spliced them together accidentally on purpose, working from a blueprint that we are never allowed to see, but whose existence we feel wholeheartedly.

All of which is to say that Upstream Color - Carruth's first film since his micro-budget sci-fi mindbender Primer took Sundance by storm nine years ago - seems to nest in the audience’s mind as a perpetual series of awakenings, as if we were all like Kris next to that pig on that operating table, groggy and disoriented and transfixed by a single thought: What is happening to me here?  The one person who may have a clue is Jeff (Carruth), who finds himself drawn to a now-dejected Kris, and the film’s cycle of loosely yet deeply interconnected internal logic begins anew.  If you were to plot Upstream Color on a graph, it might resemble an upside-down bell curve, with the tipping point being the first moment Carruth cuts back to the pig farm to show us what could be interpreted as Jeff and Kris’ imagined domestic life as experienced by two livestock.

Often, a movie will be too transparent in its intentions and reveal that it has little or nothing to say.  That’s never an issue in Upstream Color.  Carruth definitely has something - indeed, many things - on his mind, but the way he tries to get these ideas across is just as important.  Carruth’s unexplained plot threads, elliptical editing style, and intensely visceral musical score establishes him as a disciple of Terrence Malick, making him part of a rapidly growing posse of American avant-garde directors entranced by Malick’s powerful use of intimation.  

Yet unlike, say, Harmony Korine (whose Spring Breakers is still 2013’s most powerful example of pure experiential cinema) and others who use the style to demand attention, Carruth’s approach is decidedly low-key and focused on an unspoken area of human relationships.  He suggests that his characters are swapping parts of their consciousness as they share curiously identical memories and extemporaneously trade sentences from Walden, the same way that the film metes out information that doesn’t immediately fit into the bigger picture.  Make no mistake, Upstream Color is a thought exercise solidly in the vein of Malick's audience-polarizing The Tree of Life, but to those who enjoy a movie presented in the form of a bunch of ideas rather than the another, conventional way around, it’s humane and enthralling - an oddly touching ode to love and nature, those two equally wondrous and terrifying things.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby (2013)
Dir. Baz Luhrmann

2 out of 5

What makes a director a “visionary” anyway?  It’s a question to ponder after watching Baz Luhrmann’s boldly theatrical take on The Great Gatsby, a film that takes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s respected tome and molds its particulars to fit within the confines of Luhrmann’s cinematic hyper-reality.  And while the novel’s backdrop of material and emotional excess suits his mission - to make Gatsby a never-ending series of sensory highs to justify the “visionary” tag featured in the movie’s advertising - Luhrmann struggles to pick up on the more substantive concerns of Fitzgerald’s elegiac critique of the American Dream.  This Gatsby is executed with a glamour that never acknowledges the bitter irony underneath, dazzling us with the brilliant pop of a camera flashbulb while expecting us to ignore the blinding headache that follows.

A good example of The Great Gatsby’s many overwrought misfires appears right from the start, in an unnecessary framing device that sees the humble Midwestern narrator/observer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) confined to a grim sanitarium as a result of his experiences from a single summer with New York’s idle rich.  His therapist encourages him to journal about his recent trauma, which stems from his role in an affair between former classmate and depressed trophy wife Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and his enigmatic, fabulously wealthy next-door neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).  Maguire’s ever-widening eyes capture the bemusement that Lurhmann is seeking in his cacophonous re-creation of the Jazz Age for the Tumblr era, but the anachronistic soundtrack - which makes great use of Lana Del Rey’s haunting “Young and Beautiful” while remaining embarrassingly non-sequitur at all other times, like cuing up Jay-Z whenever an African-American appears onscreen  - along with the cartoonish tone and hideous CGI effects undermine the more complex moral issues at play.

Several individual performances stand out among the ruckus, including newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as the wan, gossipy Jordan Baker and Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s philandering husband, Tom Buchanan, perfectly imagined as a violent, racist, condescending prick who’s nonetheless the movie’s smartest character, and the breakneck pace pays off in some unique sequences that recall the madcap genius of the Wachowski siblings' Speed Racer.  It’s telling, however, that most of Luhrmann’s successes are really Fitzgerald’s, a debt that dilutes The Great Gatsby’s “visionary” raison d’etre.  Not only do Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce heavily sample Carraway’s voiceover directly from the novel, they also toss the words up on the screen as he’s tapping out his narration on a typewriter, literally translating Luhrmann’s stunning directorial vision into the experience of...reading the book.  It’s the wrong way to approach such a wonderfully-rendered tragedy - turning a literary benchmark into a vapid spectacle of overemphasis, always using an exclamation point when a period will do. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Frances Ha

Frances Ha (2013)
Dir. Noah Baumbach

4 out of 5

The cultural zeitgeist is, by definition, ethereal.  Successfully channeling it requires the luck to be in the right place at the right time, both in the geographic and demographic sense.  Frances Ha, the latest film from writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), takes a bifurcated approach to this challenge in its story of Frances (Greta Gerwig), an underemployed dancer stumbling across New York City from one unfulfilling experience to the next.  The film combines Baumbach’s familiarity with the ennui of youthful, creative urbanites and the sympathetic - and age-appropriate - voice of Gerwig, his star and co-writer, to create a cross between the snappy socialization of Lena Dunham’s Girls and the neurotic ramblings of Woody Allen.

Fans of Dunham’s work in particular will find plenty of Frances Ha familiar, from the way Frances orbits her self-actualized roommate/BFF Sophie (Mickey Sumner) to the excellent work of Adam Driver as an oddball Lothario who welcomes Frances into his lease (but not his bed) once Sophie decides to move to a more expensive apartment.  But Baumbach also uses these reference points as a springboard for a more expansive portrait of a quarter-life crisis, acknowledging the world beyond the bastion of big city hipsterdom.  The attitudes and argot on display may be intensely personal but the film’s broader thematic underpinnings - the passive competition in close friendships, the never-ending difficulty of fitting in, the gentle skewering of middle class conceptions of poverty (when Frances whines about her lack of money, a friend playfully points out that she’s offending actual poor people) - are universal, especially to anyone who’s ever discovered that being yourself is still pretty tough once you’re on your own.

While Frances Ha has the same issues as any navel-gazing treatise on young city dwellers, Baumbach manages to invest it with a real sense of romance, making it his most whimsical film to date.  The gorgeous black and white photography helps in this regard, turning some grimier areas of New York into a playground of possibility as Frances twirls down the sidewalks to the sounds of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.”  The director can also bank on the immense charm of his leading lady, who gives an enchanting performance while remaining a convincing (and, in the words of another character, “un-dateable!”) adult-in-progress.  Like the film itself, Gerwig slowly but surely ingratiates herself with the audience as she shuffles toward maturity - and not a moment too soon.  “Take your time,” says the director of Frances’ dance company after delivering a bit of disappointing news, one of several setbacks on her road to independence.  “I will,” she replies, “I can’t help it."

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness
Dir. J.J. Abrams

3 out of 5

J.J. Abrams’ breathless fusion of sci-fi and action in 2009’s Star Trek was a “reboot” in the truest sense of the word, taking an occasionally fusty, often cerebral (by pop culture standards) franchise and turning it into a shiny, slick modern blockbuster, for better or for worse.  Abrams doesn’t have anything so radical in store for his much-anticipated sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness; in fact, he offers much more of the same.  And while it’s certainly wise to refrain from fixing what isn’t broken - the consistency in Abrams’ direction and the cast’s performances help to construct a fully-realized version of the Trek universe that’s more welcoming to new fans - there’s also something to be said for taking a risk or two.

For one thing, there’s homage, and then there’s repetition.  The film’s script, penned by Transformers scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman along with fanboy flashpoint Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus), has trouble splitting the difference, at many times content to simply re-hash whatever worked in the previous movie.  After uber-straight arrow Spock (Zachary Quinto) inadvertently rats out co-worker Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) for breaking the rules and allowing a primitive alien civilization to get a glimpse of the Enterprise, their tenuous friendship is tested when the captain gets busted down a rank.  But there’s little time for discord after a terrorist with mysterious motives (Benedict Cumberbatch) declares a one-man war on Starfleet, launching Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the U.S.S. Enterprise crew into another galaxy-spanning adventure.

Star Trek Into Darkness zips along from setpiece to setpiece with Abrams’ usual flair (and flares).  He takes care to re-establish each key cast member and even introducing new ones - notably, science officer Alice Eve and Starfleet battleaxe Peter Weller - without overwhelming the audience.  Sprinkled throughout the nifty CGI-driven action are many clever small touches included for Trek fans and attentive moviegoers, and it’s heartening that the big opening sequence isn’t just for show and has emotional repercussions that unravel throughout the film.  

Yet all the quirky character beats can’t obscure the fact that this Trek is a conventional summer blockbuster through and through, albeit one with a confused sense of purpose.  It’s impeccably constructed to reach the same broad audience as the first film, yet inexplicably and unnecessarily narrows its appeal about halfway through in something of an extended metatextual riff on Star Trek lore.  It’s difficult to discuss without spoiling the plot, but suffice to say it’s disappointing that the filmmakers seem unwilling to trust their own unique vision and retreat into the safety of nostalgia and brand recognition.  Star Trek Into Darkness is ultimately a fun, engaging thrill ride of a movie that will amuse Trekkies and non-fans alike.  But like a second ride on the same rollercoaster, it’s less exciting when you already have a good idea of what’s going to happen next.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


42 (2013)
Dir. Brian Hegeland

3 out of 5

There’s definitely a complex, compelling movie to be made from Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line, suiting up for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as the first African-American in the major leagues.  Remember: this is one year before President Truman desegregated the U.S. military, eight years before Brown v. The Board of Education, 16 years before the “I Have a Dream” speech.  In a certain sense, Robinson was the first leaf on the wind of change.  And while the hagiographic drama of 42 does justice to Robinson’s personal experience, it cries out for a larger context, or at least more commentary on why some people were so afraid of a black man proving himself in a white arena of competition.  It’s not even a history lecture - it’s a Sunday school lesson.

Make that a slickly-made, well-acted, emotionally-rousing Sunday school lesson.  Stories that depict the fight against prejudice and bigotry with intelligence and empathy will always be necessary, and 42 nails its mark.  Chadwick Boseman stars as Robinson, tracking his journey from college-educated, politically conscious Negro Leagues all-star to Dodgers rookie and civil rights pioneer.  The movie employs sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) as a device to literally chronicle Robinson’s triumphs and challenges on the road to the big leagues.  While this results in a highlight reel of ugly incidents juxtaposed with flashes of Robinson's transcendent talent, 42 cobbles together a deep bench of memorable supporting characters, from Nicole Behari as Robinson’s supportive wife to Christopher Meloni as colorful Dodgers manager Leo Durocher to Alan Tudyk as the virulently racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman.  There’s even a strong sense of the melting pot amongst Robinson’s teammates: if there’s a faint subtext to 42, it’s about baseball’s reflection of the general postwar upheaval in America’s ethnic identity and social mores.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Hegeland (L.A. Confidential) directs with his eye on the bleacher seats, spelling out not just his script's binary morality but also some of the baseball nuts and bolts (the balk rule is explained in the most awkward way imaginable) to make the film’s appeal as broad as possible.  42’s one hint of nuance comes in the form of Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey (a lively Harrison Ford), a wonderfully Machiavellian figure and iconoclast deserving of his own biopic.  He jokes about the financial motivation behind his controversial gambit, leaning on Robinson to produce results despite the unfathomable abuse from fans and peers while simultaneously dressing down (in private) any member of the organization who fails to fall in line.  Hegeland, though, has no such trouble, as all the pieces of 42 - from its beautiful CGI re-creations of midcentury ballparks to its on-the-nose dialogue - snap neatly and predictably into place.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 (2013)
Dir. Shane Black

4.5 out of 5

"Ever since that guy with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety's kind of had its day," crows one of the villains in Iron Man 3, referring to Thor and creating another fold in the expanding accordion of Marvel Films' cinematic universe.  He might as well be talking about the state of the superhero movie.  Last summer's mega-blockbuster The Avengers put a lot of pressure on subsequent films to continue its "more is more" ethos, so it's heartening to see Iron Man 3 continue the promised spectacle without sacrificing any of its idiosyncratic wit, delivering a film that's by far the best in its series -  and arguably the best film in the Marvel canon to date.

Directed and co-written by one-time high concept wunderkind Shane Black - the mind that gave us Lethal Weapon and inspired the half of 1990s action films that weren't Die Hard rip-offs - Iron Man 3 uses quippy characterizations to drive its live wire action to a degree not seen since Black's spec script heyday.  Billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a full-time tinkerer after handing control of his company to long-time assistant and paramour Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).  His hobby comes in handy as a mysterious terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) carries out bombings that might be utilizing the genetics research of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist who has created a regenerative virus with potentially dangerous applications.

Iron Man 3 hits many of the same beats as its predecessors, including its emphasis on corporate manipulation and the sight of Stark laid low by a combination of formidable opponents and his own demons before he claws his way back from the brink.  But whereas the first two Iron Man movies were like lumbering jumbo jets - functionally large and dependable machines - this one screams by like an F-15, complete with its bitchin' flying ace in Black.  He's not afraid to let loose with sight gags and throwaway lines, a gamble that risks undermining the carefully-constructed flow of his and Drew Pearce's script but lends a memorable element to the de rigueur superhero action sequences.  It's a film that manages to be consistently funny without being an "action comedy," integrating humor into the plot instead of splitting its off into its own sealed tonal compartment.

Not everything in Iron Man 3 is a home run - Black introduces a subplot about Stark's anxiety attacks that goes nowhere and he struggles to completely flesh out a few folks in his ever-expanding cast of characters.  Still, Black's brash old-school sensibility mingles satisfyingly with Downey's motor-mouth tendencies and the hard-hitting battles between hunks of heavy metal.  In Black's hands, Stark finally feels like the maverick he's made out to be, an extension of the rugged free-market individualism of '90 pop culture.  (The baddies' references to "regulating" may or not be an awesome reminder of this.)  Tony Stark has always considered himself the alpha dog of the capes-and-tights hierarchy - Iron Man 3 finally puts his movie where his mouth is.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Iceman

The Iceman (2013)
Dir. Ariel Vroman

2.5 out of 5

Making a Mafia movie requires a skillful managing of expectations.  Fair or not, these gangster tales inevitably face impossible comparisons with films that not only rank as the best of their genre, but the finest in all of cinema.  For its first 15 minutes, it seems as though The Iceman, written and directed by Ariel Vroman, is successfully mapping a path around the Godfather/GoodFellas monolith and through less-traveled territory.  The focus is not on an Italian up-and-comer, but a hulking Polish-American named Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), a real-life mob hitman who was believed to have murdered more than 100 people from the mid-1950s until his arrest in 1986.  What’s more, he takes to his dirty work not because of familial or cultural ties, but because he’s a stone-cold psychopath -  as he casually slits the throat of a man who insults his fiancĂ© (Winona Ryder), we’re aware that he’s been indulging a remorseless bloodlust well before he's paid to do it.

However, The Iceman struggles to separate itself from the pack as it goes on, becoming a rote story of Kuklinski’s double life as a ruthless contract killer and a family man in the Jersey suburbs who claims to make his living in “currency exchange.”  That's a decent template for a Sopranos-lite drama.  But it’s a set-up that relies on the gullibility of many individuals, something that Vroman fails to communicate adequately (he’s much more interested in the “murdering psycho” side of Kuklinski than the “devoted husband and father” side).  The result is a film that lives up to only half its billing, and one that cultivates a hokiness that’s mirrored in the way it skips across eras with hoary signifiers such as Shannon’s ever-evolving facial hair and an obligatory disco scene that’s scored to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass."

Indeed, The Iceman has the persistent feeling of a pre-packaged, shrink-wrapped nostalgia.  Things perk up when Chris Evans - failing to hide his beefy Captain America physique under shaggy, shoulder-length hair and ‘70s computer nerd glasses - swaggers into the picture as a fellow hitman operating out of an ice cream truck who takes Kuklinski as a partner when his mob connections sour on him.  It’s an entertaining development that also unfortunately highlights the movie’s wildly uneven tone - sober one minute, zany the next - served with distracting cameos from James Franco as one’s of Kuklinski’s sleazy targets and David Schwimmer as a ponytail-sporting lieutenant and surrogate son to Ray Liotta’s crime boss.

Liotta’s presence here only reminds the audience that The Iceman is the anti-GoodFellas, a stunted and bizarrely unconvincing exercise in exploring the world of organized crime through the perspective of one of its fringe players.  Still, there are the shreds of a minor epic here.  Vroman may lack chops but not ambition, and several individual scenes - such as a tense confrontation between Shannon and Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski's imprisoned brother, foreshadowing his sibling's fate - hit the right emotional notes.  It's just unfortunate that these moments are so few and far between.  Shannon rages appropriately, but The Iceman simply re-creates Kuklinski's default blankness to the point where the character's reaction to the protestations of one of his soon-to-be victims - "I don't feel nothing...not a thing" - starts to feel like a decent tagline.