Friday, August 30, 2013

Jump Cuts: Exhuming the Hollywood Action Hero

Jump Cuts is the place where I zoom in on a handful of films linked by certain elements (cast, genre, director), discovering recurring motifs, mining important themes, and comparing different approaches to filmmaking.  Next up: the state of the Hollywood action star, circa 2013.

Where have all the action heroes gone?

That’s actually an easy question to answer.  Today's action heroes are typically action superheroes, ripped from the pages of comic books both popular and obscure.  Pumped up with fantastical powers, they do battle with larger-than-life villains, with entire cities and sometimes entire planets watching their every move.  And you could even call these movies fundamentally character-driven, in the sense that you can replace the man behind the mask (Tobey Maguire, meet Andrew Garfield) and still keep the franchise going.

That's a far cry from the halcyon days of star-driven Hollywood action cinema, where the name above the title was the most important element, the person standing for the physical and moral (and almost always masculine) ideal of the times.  Think Sean Connery and Steve McQueen's sophisticated sangfroid in a rapidly globalizing world; Sylvester Stallone's Carter-era American underdog morphing into the steroidal Cold Warrior of Reagan's dreams; Arnold Schwarzenegger going from imposing slab of Austrian beef to playfully self-aware pop culture icon of the go-go '90s.

It's this latter breed of action hero that is on the brink of irrelevance in 2013.  With the summer season dominated by heroes of the super variety, old-school action flicks have sought refuge in the mid-winter dumping ground, where the competition is lighter and the expectations lower.  It's one of the few ways that a meat-and-potatoes thriller like Contraband can become a modest hit.  It's also an increasingly dubious business model, given that medium-size budgets and stars that can reliably open a movie are two more things that are nearly extinct in Hollywood.  But studios keep trying, driven largely by nostalgia and the promise of a quick buck during a traditionally fallow period for new releases.

Schwarzenegger was the first out of the gate in January with The Last Stand, the American debut of cult Korean director Kim Ji-woon.  It's an underrated achievement in which Kim finds a comfy home for his quirky humor in the center of a preposterously dumb and exuberantly violent chase movie that gives equal billing to a grating Johnny Knoxville and a slumming Forrest Whitaker.  But it represents a curious choice for Schwarzenegger, who stars as the sheriff of a tiny Arizona border town that represents the last line of defense against an escaped cartel kingpin speeding to Mexico in a souped-up sports car.

Given the chance to re-establish himself among audiences as the heavily accented quip machine tweaking the macho pretensions of the action genre, Schwarzenegger traps himself in a bland, shapeless role where his only glimmer of individuality comes in telling the drug lord that he's making his fellow immigrants look bad.  Ironically, everything else in The Last Stand is pitched to the memorably goofy, devil-may-care spirit of classic Schwarzenegger heroes, but the star's natural charisma seems dulled by his long political sojourn and his once-sharp onscreen timing rusty from lack of maintenance.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Schwarzenegger - who, given his age and his detours into politics, is essentially now a part-time actor - is the veritable Iron Horse of action cinema:  Jason Statham.  Hardly a winter passes without Statham scowling at and creatively punching baddies in a straightforward beat-em-up while waiting for the next Expendables summons from Stallone.  The Taylor Hackford-directed Parker, however, is the exception that proves the rule.  It's Statham trying on the clothes of a character who's not just "Jason Statham," but rather the eponymous criminal with a code appearing a series of novels by the author Donald E. Westlake.

While the basic outline of the character resembles Statham's type (there's nobody better at playing the chivalrous crook rattling off his list of "rules"), the movie itself is a wannabe-Elmore Leonard potboiler, a Florida-set heist flick pitting Parker against the thugs who betrayed him on his last job, with grafted-on elements of screwball romance courtesy of an opportunistic realtor played by Jennifer Lopez.  (Except Parker already has a girlfriend, who apparently pops up to do his laundry when he's on the lam.)  Unfortunately, the famously intense Statham just isn't suited to the tonal juggling act that Parker requires, and the way he undersells his reaction to everything doesn't quite work in a film that wants to take itself more seriously than, say, the Transporter series.  It also doesn't help that his adversaries are the less-than-hard bodies of guys like Michael Chiklis and Wendell Pierce.  Statham himself looks unconvinced of the potential danger, and it's easy for the audience to feel the same.

The Sylvester Stallone vehicle Bullet to the Head is about as paint-by-numbers as it gets, but at least it does well to populate the criminal underbelly of New Orleans with actual tough guys.  Stallone, still possessing the solidity of a concrete pillar in his mid-60s, stars as Jimmy Bobo, a hitman who teams up with an out-of-town cop (Sung Kang, the unsung hero of the Fast & Furious ensemble) to seek vengeance against his double-crossing employer.  Along the way, he literally butts heads with the hulking Jason Momoa - best known as Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones - as the reluctant partners gradually reveal the extent of far-reaching economic and political corruption within the Crescent City.

Stallone and Walter Hill, the veteran director of The Warriors and 48 Hrs., do right by their target audience and turn in a lean, propulsive adaptation of Alexis Nolent’s graphic novel.  There’s nothing groundbreaking here - just a couple of old pros reliving the glory days of balsa wood bathroom stalls and remarkably contained explosions.  It would all be rather ho-hum if not for the new blood.  Kang is a welcome presence, although he’s mostly wasted as a goody-goody dartboard for Stallone’s stereotypical barbs.  Momoa, however, delivers a very interesting performance as the film’s main heavy, internalizing the macho codes of ‘80s action cinema and spitting them out in a nightmare inversion of Stallone’s iconic heroes.  He fights simply for the sake of fighting, a blessedly inelegant motivation that stands out amongst Bullet to the Head’s contented mediocrity.  

It's actually a stretch to classify Ric Roman Waugh's Snitch as an "action" film, considering that Dwayne Johnson spends so much of his screentime cowed by the drug smugglers and murderers that he's voluntarily aligned himself with.  It's actually a bold move for the imposing former wrestler, letting his character’s elevated social status and bourgeois mannerisms tell the story: Johnson plays a well-to-do owner of a shipping company who agrees to help the feds arrest dope smugglers in a deal to free his teenage son from prison.  He's extremely vulnerable yet unshakably determined in an action Everyman tradition crystallized in the original Die Hard.

And with Snitch, Johnson takes another step towards claiming Bruce Willis' mantle as America's most bankable seriocomic action hero.  (Though here is where I note that the execrable A Good Day to Die Hard quadrupled the box office take of these four films combined.)  The key here is not being a cut-up - though he can certainly handle humor - but forcing a disconnect between his physical musculature and his mental acuity.  Next to Johnson, bad guys like Michael Kenneth Williams and Benjamin Bratt are positively scrawny, but they're the ones with the cunning and guts to violently remove the obstacles in their paths.  Johnson, meanwhile, mostly relies on his wits to escape his precarious position; when he finally does get the chance to physically dominate his enemies, it's an earned moment of triumph in his character arc.  Snitch is completely unbelievable and wildly compelling...and yes, even a bit funny in the reconciliation of its dad-becomes-drug dealer plot with its heavy-handed message about mandatory minimum drug sentencing.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The World's End

The World's End (2013)
Dir. Edgar Wright

5 out of 5

Nobody maximizes the value of a single movie ticket quite like Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the madcap masterminds behind The World's End, their latest exercise in witty genre deconstruction after the rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead and the buddy cop parody Hot Fuzz.  Yet in this, the duo's richest and most mature collaboration yet, categorization is almost impossible.  Starting off as a "lad's holiday" comedy about a group of friends attempting to relive one of the wildest nights of their youth that morphs into a sci-fi invasion thriller, The World's End winds up as an unlikely delivery system for messages about conformity, broken friendships, and the resilience of the human spirit. 

The film's lynchpin is Gary King (Pegg), a peacocking rascal still clinging to the hard-partying lifestyle he enjoyed as a teenager.  Despite his reputation as a mooch, a liar, and a generally selfish bastard, he smooth-talks four of his old high school buddies - meek Peter (Eddie Marsan), sharkish Oliver (Martin Freeman), earnest Steven (Paddy Considine), and chief skeptic Andy (Nick Frost) - into taking a second crack at completing a legendary pub crawl in their sleepy hometown.  However, as the night unfolds, the men uncover a sinister secret about their unremarkable village - an extraterrestrial plan to replace the residents with genetically identical automatons and lull the rest of humankind into docile obedience.  

To say more would spoil the pleasure of absorbing the movie's carefully crafted setups and marveling at their elegant, uproarious, and totally unexpected resolutions.  Wright is a magician in the truest sense of the word, a master of misdirection who nonetheless hides plot clues in plain sight to reward attentive viewers.  Like his other films, The World's End embodies a style of "total filmmaking" that uses every weapon in a director's arsenal - visual design, soundtrack cues, editing, dialogue - to ensure that no moment is without meaning.  And swapping the typical Pegg-Frost character dynamic is an excellent choice in a movie that doubles as a cautionary tale about living in the past, as Gary and Andy struggle to salvage a relationship that has destroyed them and defined them.

The World's End is an appropriately nostalgic "conclusion" to Wright and Pegg's Three Flavours Cornetto faux-trilogy.  It's also the crowning achievement that establishes Wright as the most important popular filmmaker of his generation.  Combining a penchant for impossibly layered storytelling and geeky predilections with the same indefatigable sense of wonder, go-for-broke technical chops, and obsession with suburban alienation found in Steven Spielberg's earlier work, Wright's features have progressively raised their emotional intelligence while never losing their pure entertainment value.  The World's End may be his farewell to youth, but hopefully the best is still yet to come.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Short Term 12

Short Term 12 (2013)
Dir. Destin Cretton

4.5 out of 5

Destin Cretton leaves quite an impression with the devastating Short Term 12, a movie that should also qualify him as a cardiologist for all its heart-rending drama.  Based on Cretton's experiences working in a group foster care facility, it's the type of film that puts you back together only after smashing you into pieces a good three or four times.  The heroine is Grace (a magnificent Brie Larson), who supervises the day-to-day activities of a diverse group of foster kids alongside her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.).  Their relationship remains surreptitious, however, as their jobs require them to project a level of hard-earned authority that's only complicated if they allow their vulnerabilities too far out in the open: "You kind of have to be an asshole before you can be their friend," Grace instructs a new employee.  You can see how these relationships are fraught with emotional complexity.  Grace is not technically a foster parent, but for all the time she spends with these kids, she's also more than a case worker.

Short Term 12 unfolds in bursts of blazing emotion, a tapestry of heartache and humor, of small victories and major setbacks.  The character-driven action wouldn't work without the committed, courageous cast assembled by Cretton to play the foster children.  His attention settles on a pair of the most troubled kids: Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a poetic African-American teen with anger issues, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a cutter who wears sarcasm as a suit of armor.  Each of the characters is observed with deep understanding and rarely stumble into cliché or stereotype, the major exception being the foster care administration that stands as a one-dimensional obstacle in a movie that already sets up plenty of challenges.  That being said, Short Term 12 is far from an educational tract.  It's an experiential drama, and one that's directed with the comforting assurance of its creator's convictions.

What's truly surprising is how funny Short Term 12 is.  Cretton can send the movie soaring seemingly at will, a testament to how expertly the writer-director mixes humor with pathos.  Carried by a moving performance from Larson, the movie clearly wears the "tearjerker" label as a badge of honor, though it's also more nuanced than that term implies.  The way Grace and Mason juggle multiple crises at work - as well as developments in their personal lives - raises questions about how their lives came to be defined by their ersatz parenthood, a through-line that has a major impact on the fates of their foster children.  It also parallels the film's message about the necessity of living an examined life and how accepting help is often a prerequisite for helping others.  Cretton manages all this with a winning sincerity.  He's crafted an emotionally potent and satisfying film that grounds its biggest moments in the most ordinary kindnesses, suggesting that there's nothing more noble than caring for another human being.

This review originally appeared on Screen Invasion.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Elysium (2013)
Dir. Neill Blomkamp

2.5 out of 5

Elysium is the rare mainstream science fiction movie that actually has an agenda or three - not surprising, considering it's written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, whose excellent debut District 9 distilled decades' worth of racial politics into a gripping narrative about displaced E.T.s and the paternal abuse of the bureaucracy tasked with protecting them.  No, the most shocking thing about Elysium is that the bad guys score the most cogent points.  "I always wanted a wife" muses the film's most despicable baddie, a gleefully sadistic war criminal played by Sharlto Copley; it's the clearest statement of purpose in this admirable but jumbled sophomore thesis on social inequity and the benign neglect of the working classes.  Full of ham-fisted talking points delivered via clunky dialogue, it's a movie that often seems to be speaking at, not to, its audience.

Matt Damon stars as the questionably-named Max Da Costa, a resident of Los Angeles in the 22nd century, when the entire surface of the Earth is one big polluted, crime-ridden ghetto.  Those with means live on Elysium, an orbiting space station teeming with parks, robot servants, and magical MRI machines that can heal just about any physical aliment in the time it takes to order a coffee.  After Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at work, he joins a group of criminals who use him as a vessel to steal valuable information from the brain of a one-dimensional corporate scalawag played by William Fitchner in exchange for a one-way ticket to the bourgeois paradise.  Unfortunately for Max’s travel plans, the mental download includes plans for a political coup headed by Elysium's scheming defense secretary (Jodie Foster), who will use any extralegal means to secure the data residing in his head.

Clearly, a lot of time and effort went into creating the world of Elysium.  From the literal distancing of the haves and the have-nots to the gradual merging of man and machine (Max's sacrifice to the cause includes having a powered exoskeleton fused onto his body), the forward-thinking Blomkamp attempts to unpack several movies’ worth of intriguing ideas - too many ideas, in fact, meaning that few of them receive a proper explanation.   The action - admittedly exciting in a janky, unpredictable way - overwhelms the message in the film’s second half, but by then the narrative itself has become so confused that a retreat to broad storytelling convention is a respite.  Despite its heady aspirations, Elysium is equal parts stentorian lecture and brainless summer blockbuster, a murky approximation of a trenchant allegory that at least speaks powerfully through its visuals, if not its lackluster drama.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Catch-Up: Summer 2013, Part 2

I try to see as many movies as possible, so sometimes I need to empty the queue.  Last month I looked at some of the summer's notable indie releases.  Here are more diversions for the dog days including character-building jobs at the shore and in the Texas countryside, a carefully-curated museum exhibit detailing the nascent days of the computer revolution, and a visit to the killing grounds of Indonesia's 1960s anti-communist purge.

Dir. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

3 out of 5

Most coming of age movies featuring painfully awkward teenagers are afraid to be just that: painful and awkward.  Not so in The Way, Way Back - Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s follow-up to their Oscar-winning script for The Descendants - which subjects its protagonist, the shy, moody Duncan (Liam James), to a laundry list of humiliations when his mom (Toni Collette) drags him to the beach house owned by her new boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), for the summer.  Trent’s callous appraisal of Duncan’s general attractiveness and charisma (he rates Duncan a “3” on a scale of 1 to 10) sets the tone for the movie’s first half as Duncan shuffles dejectedly among the party-hearty locals, including boozy next door neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) and wisecracking water park operator Owen (Sam Rockwell).

After a lengthy, monotonous set-up where James is given little to do but sulk and brood, The Way, Way Back finally picks up once Rockwell begins stealing scenes as his confidence mentor, offering the kid a job at his "Water Wizz" amusement park as an escape from his dreary home life.  And while the film initially suggests that Duncan is merely trading one form of immaturity for another, there's more to Owen behind his carefree demeanor, an soulfulness that's contrasted well with Trent's duplicitous ways without descending into cliché.  (A more obvious film would no doubt contrive a way for these dueling father figures to fistfight.)  The Way, Way Back's agenda gets jumbled at times - is it a recollection of summer memories or a postmortem on child-of-divorce traumas? - but it reveals its inclinations in the climax, an epic winning streak for Duncan that places the film firmly in the tradition of "summer makeover" movies, where all loose ends are tied, all crushes are kissed, and all moral victories are won before Labor Day.  Rash and Faxon are a little more nuanced than that, acknowledging that Duncan still has obstacles to overcome outside of his beachside bubble.  But, boy, did he have one productive summer.

Dir. David Gordon Green

2.5 out of 5

David Gordon Green's recent filmography has the look of a delayed enfant terrible phase.  After launching his career with several finely-observed indie dramas, he jumped onboard the Apatow comedy train with Pineapple Express and explored his cruder mercenary impulses - to diminishing returns - in Your Highness and The Sitter.  Green's latest, Prince Avalance, marks a return to an intimate scale and a quieter, more nuanced sensibility, at least from a directorial standpoint.  Story-wise, however, it's still about two men avoiding responsibility while they indulge their juvenile impulses, resisting the forces knocking them from their perch at the center of their self-made universe.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

An adaptation of the 2011 Icelandic film Either Way, the two-hander stars Paul Rudd as Alvin, a Texas state road worker, and Emile Hirsch as Lance, his reluctant apprentice and brother to Alvin's girlfriend, as they re-paint miles of traffic lines after a devastating wildfire.  They consistently bicker about everything - music, work ethic, and especially women.  Alvin dreams of earning enough money for a planned move to Germany with Lance's sister, not realizing that his absence during the long-term project says more than the checks he mails home; meanwhile, the caddish Lance actually returns home on the weekends but, via the myopia of youth, claims he's "getting old" and complains about his diminishing seduction prowess.  

Apart from periodic interactions with a salty old truck driver (Lance LeGault) and a former homeowner (Joyce Payne) searching through the burned landscape for her belongings, it's strictly Rudd and Hirsch hitting the same familiar beats on the road to conscious self-evaluation.  The two stars provide amiable variations on past roles (see Killer Joe for Hirsch and Knocked Up for Rudd), and film's late 1980s period setting lends itself to minor visual gags (the movie really nails the wardrobe, particularly Alvin's "thirtysomething dad on camping vacation" duds).  But Prince Avalanche also comes with a strong sense of deja vu that has nothing to do with its retro affectations and everything to do with its resigned sense of complacency as yet another solid but unspectacular boys-becoming-men dramedy.

Dir. Andrew Bujalski

3.5 out of 5

In an age where toddlers can play with their parents' iPhones before they are potty-trained, the early days of personal computing feel especially remote and alien.  Andrew Bujalski's contrarian comedy Computer Chess does its damndest to re-humanize that epoch of technological history.  It's a documentary-style chronicle of an early 1980s programming competition where bespectacled and flop-sweating men (and one woman, whose anomalous presence is awkwardly noted by the event's MC) pit their smartest chess-playing terminals against one another in a dumpy hotel ballroom.  It's somewhat ironic that Bujalski, a pioneer of the low-fi, no-fuss "mumblecore" movement in film, is paying tribute to an era where computer proficiency was a high-tech skill requiring specialized knowledge of programming languages and mathematical logic.  But his sincerity is apparent in his painstaking attention to detail, from the grainy video of the black and white Portapak cameras used to shoot the film to the interjections of technical dialogue to the quaint speculation on the applications of newer, faster computer technology.  (By 1986, a computer should be able to defeat a human at chess!)

Bujalski, however, is not trying to be Shane Carruth.  Computer Chess is populated with oddball characters from the new technological frontier - notably a young graduate student (Patrick Riester) investigating rumors that his team's entry was deliberately programmed to fail - and, as it progresses, begins to resemble a fish-out-of-water comedy when the programmers interact with an analog world that has yet to grasp the potential of these bulky metal boxes.  Bujalski's direction occasionally frustrates with its confusing, discursive narrative style and blasé approach to linking scenes together, but he coaxes some truly funny performances out of his non-professional cast of fellow filmmakers and real-life computer scientists.  Computer Chess is built to be re-evaluated from moment to moment, a sort of historical debugging exercise that allows us to laugh freely at the still-staggering gulf between artificial and emotional intelligence.  

The Act of Killing
Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer

4.5 out of 5

Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing has one of the most bizarre - and effective - conceits of any documentary in recent memory.  In Indonesia, the leaders of paramilitary death squads and criminal gangs who murdered thousands of Communists, union members, and liberal sympathizers after a 1965 military coup are extolled as political heroes and get to live long, happy lives.  Oppenheimer connects with some of these men and provides them with a film crew (many of them credited as "Anonymous") to re-enact the killings in a mixture of genre tableaux that references their favorite Hollywood films.  The result is a historical document that's hilarious and horrifying, an essential chronicle of a dichotomous century defined by both the most heinous atrocities in human history and the golden age of mass entertainment.

With its focus on giving aged war criminals their 15 minutes of fame, The Act of Killing leaves almost no taboo unbroken.  Yet the film is far from a celebration of the wicked, and acknowledges that the reality of the situation in Indonesia - where, it's noted repeatedly, the word for "gangster" is derived from the term for "free man" - is not so cut and dried.  The most disturbing parts of the film involve the killers who are not affected by the emotional intensity of the re-enactments:  one of them dispassionately mentions stabbing his Chinese girlfriend's father in the 1960s, simply because the ruling powers instructed the paramilitaries to attack any ethnic Chinese.  The Act of Killing is less like the single-issue doc it appears to be - though it includes plenty of information about this forgotten dark period of Indonesian history - and more of a broad commentary on human nature, selective memory, and the proper pursuit of justice.  It's easy to get mad at these people getting let off the hook half a world away.  But where's the sustained outrage when we allow some of our criminals to hide in plain sight?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now (2013)
Dir. James Ponsoldt

2.5 out of 5

The soft focus of nostalgia always smooths out the rough edges of a bygone romance.  That goes double for teen romances like the one in The Spectacular Now, between popular party animal Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) and his sheltered classmate Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley).  Even though it takes place in the present day, director James Ponsoldt (Smashed) and co-writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber adapt Tim Tharp's novel in a way that suggests grown men attempting to iron out the wrinkles of the past - it's certainly not devoid of heartbreak, but it has an unfussy vibe that bends it closer to fantasy than a realistic examination of the challenges confronted by a messy, mismatched couple.

The spirit of Cameron Crowe permeates The Spectacular Now, which locates new sources of sweetness in the bad boy/nice girl love story trope.  Sutter is eighteen years old and already a maintenance drinker, packing a flask everywhere he goes, pouring it into giant 32-oz. cups of soda to keep his buzz going.  He's "100 percent serious about not being serious" and tries to inculcate Aimee with his live-in-the-now ethos.  While they rub off on each other in both positive and negative ways - Aimee quickly develops an affinity for the sauce - it's Aimee who takes the vapors of Sutter's blissful slackerdom and translates them into purposeful action, bringing his entire hakuna matata philosophy into question.

The Spectacular Now has enough charm to allow us to suspend disbelief to a point, like its claim that the luminous Woodley is invisible to boys.  However, the lack of verisimilitude becomes an issue once Sutter tracks down his deadbeat father (Kyle Chandler, playing marvelously against type) and begins a downward spiral that threatens to cost him everything.  Aimee in particular has the patience of Job; again, it's acceptable to a point for a shy girl in the initial ecstasies of True Love, but the film takes it too far into a gray area between understanding and abuse. 

There's still plenty to admire about The Spectacular Now, which is a great credit to its cast and Ponsoldt's ability to replicate the improbably dreamy tone of Crowe's films (Say Anything... is the touchstone here).  Teller has an easy charisma about him and effortlessly pulls off a character who's loved by everyone and yet is close to no one: "You'll always be my favorite ex-boyfriend," remarks Cassidy (Brie Larson), his previous partner.  Unfortunately, Ponsoldt assumes too casually that Sutter will be our favorite rascal as well, and waits too long to give us a reason to believe in his redemption.