Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Catch-Up: Late Spring/Early Summer 2014

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: smaller movies trying to stand out against the big studio tentpoles.

Obvious Child
Dir. Gillian Robespierre

3.5 out of 5

Though it's admittedly reductive to say so, it's hard not to see Obvious Child as one big "take that!" to the concept of the cinematic Meet Cute.  When the film's recently-dumped protagonist, part time bookstore clerk and stand-up comedian Donna (SNL alum Jenny Slate), falls into bed with a nebbishly handsome WASP named Max (Jake Lacy), the revelation of their one night stand is not some comically stark but ultimately meaningless incompatibility.  Instead, there are slightly different results: Donna is pregnant!  By a guy she barely knows, and might not even like!  And once she examines her dire financial prospects and her generally shambolic lifestyle, she comes to a quick, firm decision: she's getting an abortion.  Unfortunately, she keeps bumping into Max, who wants to pursue a more "serious" relationship but has no idea exactly how serious things really are.

Taking a premise from her 2009 short film of the same name, writer-director Gillian Robespierre has made a movie about the alchemy of turning pain and tragedy into comedy in a very literal way, as Donna's on-stage monologues begin drifting from the candidly observational to the recklessly confessional.  It's never overbearing, however, thanks to the clear-eyed script and the talented Slate, whose repertoire of facial expressions alone (in Donna's stand-up, she says her kisser looks "like a menorah had sex with Natalie Imbruglia") makes you wonder how she doesn't already have a cable sitcom.  And though Obvious Child can feel like slight and under-dramatized - Donna has privileged, supportive parents (Richard Kind and Polly Draper) to fall back on, and a loyal best friend (Gaby Hoffman) - it successfully maintains an intimate authenticity that makes her easy to love, never forcing her to represent anything bigger than the one funny, flawed, and spirited human being that she is.

Dir. Jon Favreau

2 out of 5

Jon Favreau jumps out of the frying pan of big-budget blockbuster misfires and into the kitchen with Chef, writing, directing, and starring as Carl Casper, a stressed-out, thin-skinned head chef at a Los Angeles hotspot who finds himself again with the help of food trucks and social media.  Though he's exploding with culinary creativity, Carl's boss (Dustin Hoffman) who puts a clamp on his artistry by forcing him to stick with a pedestrian menu of crowd-pleasing favorites.  When said menu is sampled and savaged by a smarmy online food critic (Oliver Platt), Carl's nuclear reaction becomes a viral video hit.  The ensuing embarrassment forces him to rebuild his career from the ground up as Carl embarks on a dual crusade to rekindle his passion for cooking and repair his relationship with his 10-year-old son (EmJay Anthony).

The ironies here are thicker than Hollandaise sauce.  Carl explodes when his cooking is called "cloying" and "needy," which are the two adjectives that best describe Chef.  It's also retrograde, dull, and unforgivably sappy, sometimes all at once.  It has a strange obsession with the mystical powers of the Internet, treating us to a scintillating scene where Carl learns how to use Twitter.  At the same time, Chef desperately tries to convince its audience of its hipness and authenticity, associating itself with the street food revolution in Carl's route back to personal and professional bliss.  Amazingly, Chef is often quite nice to look at, especially for fans of foodporn.  However, it's not nearly enough to make up for the movie's many weaknesses, which range from a lack of compelling scenes or convincing dialogue to the flimsy parts for Favreau's A-list friends (Scarlett Johansson; Robert Downey Jr.).  For a movie pitched as a feel-good love letter to foodies, Chef serves up little more than leftovers.

The Sacrament
Dir. Ti West

2.5 out of 5

In House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, a couple of the freshest horror films in recent memory, writer-director Ti West established on appealing style based on two elements: relentlessly slow-burning action laying a subtle breadcrumb trail to a bone-chilling payoff; and a refreshingly empathetic stance toward his doomed characters.  I wondered where that filmmaker went throughout The Sacrament, a predictable potboiler with a gimmicky found-footage twist.

When a fashion photographer (Kentucker Audley) receives a letter from his estranged sister (Amy Seimetz), a member of a group preaching a back-to-nature lifestyle free of economic and technological encumbrances, a VICE news reporter (AJ Bowen) and cameraman (Joe Swanberg) join him to investigate the group's secluded jungle compound located in an unnamed tropical country.  When the men arrive, they're creeped out by the commune's unquestioning devotion to their leader (Gene Jones) - addressed only as "Father" - and begin to witness even more unsettling events over the course of their one-night stay.

Anyone familiar with the popular history of cults and fringe religious movements will not be surprised by the eventual direction of The Sacrament - it hews so closely to its main inspiration, in fact, that it would likely be a spoiler to identify it by name.  But the main issue isn't the familiarity of the story.  Rather, it's the way West needlessly sensationalizes it beyond the bounds of his typically stark yet humanistic horror and pushes it way over the top.  At least Jones gives a fantastic performance, oozing oily charisma through gold-tinted aviator shades and delivering anti-capitalist harangues in his buttery Southern drawl.  In these moments, The Sacrament shows flashes of promise, but it mostly lives up to the less desirable parts of Father's catchall critique: flat, decadent, and uninspired.

The Immigrant
Dir. James Gray

4 out of 5

Polish Catholic immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) faces multiple dilemmas upon arriving at Ellis Island in 1921.  Her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), is sick with tuberculosis and immediately gets whisked away to a quarantine unit, facing eventual deportation if her condition does not improve.  Before Ewa can protest, she lands in trouble of her own: some of her shipmates accused her of being a "woman of low morals" and her family members in Brooklyn appear to have vanished, leaving her alone, destitute, and in line for deportation herself.  In jumps the concerned Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who bribes the right officials to release Ewa into his care - only to force her into the ranks of his bawdy burlesque showgirls who he also pimps out on the side.

With its gaze fixed on the dark corners of urban life and its rollercoaster of worm-turning melodrama, The Immigrant feels like an adaptation of a lost Upton Sinclar or Theodore Dreiser novel.  Ewa and Bruno's relationship becomes more complicated as the latter begins to develop a romantic attachment.  Joining in the sentiment is Bruno's illusionist cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner), the white knight of this scenario who pledges to rescue Ewa from the clutches of a nefarious pimp and two-bit hustler.

But there are many narrative curveballs before the men's inevitable conflict boils over, and much more for Ewa to assert than the typical damsel in distress.  The film takes its time establishing a unique emotional texture - a kind of faded rococo melancholy that matches the keenly-observed details in the period surroundings of early 20th century New York City.  It's a triumph for director James Gray, whose obsessions with immigrant communities (The Immigrant was reportedly inspired by firsthand accounts of Gray's own relatives) and the self-destructive behavior of individuals are ideally realized here.  And though Gray still has a tendency to elide character motivations that lead to sudden changes of heart, he can fall back on the offbeat machismo of Renner and Phoenix, as well as Cotillard's magnificent tour de force.  Even couched in the euphemism of a different and more discreet era, The Immigrant pulses with raw, confused human passion.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

22 Jump Street

22 Jump Street
Dirs. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

3.5 out of 5

What a fine racket Phil Lord and Chris Miller have going.  With The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street, and now 22 Jump Street - a sequel as riotously self-referential as the original - the directing team has established a basic formula for success: start with a familiar collection of genre tropes, then draw attention to said tropes as a meta-joke while still constructing the film around their inevitable payoffs.  It's like a spoof, but not quite: a self-affirming self-parody that not only anticipates the audience's incredulity, but also validates and rewards it.

It's a clever and extremely audience-flattering approach to storytelling, which is why I hardly even noticed the similarities between 22 Jump Street and its predecessor at first glance.  Yes, buddy cops Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) once again screw up a narcotics bust and wind up in an undercover unit headed by the casually apoplectic Capt. Dickson (Ice Cube).  And once again they are sent to investigate the spread of a new designer hallucinogen at an academic institution, posing as students to infiltrate the drug's supply chain.  But this time, the filmmakers are so upfront about blatantly repeating themselves - the deputy police chief (Nick Offerman) sternly instructs them to "do the same thing" since the department has spent a fortune "to make sure Jump Street keeps going" - they immediately disarm the most obvious criticisms aimed at big summer sequels.

But is Jump Street doing itself a disservice by constantly making light of itself?  It seems like the film's main agenda is to acknowledge the cleverness of its one Big Joke, without directly acknowledging that there are viable ways to take sequels in a fresh and exciting direction.  Instead, story beats are carbon-copied:  Schmidt again awkwardly romances a girl (Amber Stevens) who's out of his league, and Jenko starts drifting from his partner after finding acceptance within a new social circle.  But the film's main agenda is to repeat its strategy of flattering audiences with inside jokes that play on our basic recognition of cinematic language and storytelling - even if it leads toward ridiculing the principles that undergird our enjoyment of most narrative artforms, namely the suspension of disbelief.

Ah, but let's not get too carried away.  22 Jump Street isn't a seminal critique of film theory - it's a delivery system for jokes about dumb jocks and ineffectual nerds.  Moment to moment, the movie is unquestionably funny, a testament to its terrific chemistry, strong comedic vision, and solidly superior schtick that's just as amusing the second time around.  That's a fine accomplishment in and of itself, and I don't blame the filmmakers for running back the formula that got them here.  In fact, it's quite democratic.  Because in the end, not only does 22 Jump Street give us what we expect, but also obliquely raises the question of why we want it in the first place, and you're free to enjoy it whichever way you want.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow
Dir. Doug Liman

3.5 out of 5

It'd be disingenuous to call Edge of Tomorrow our finest video game adaptation to date - for starters, it's based on the graphic novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka - but it's hard to resist when the movie so cleverly emulates that artform in structure and function and affect, if not in source material.  Tom Cruise stars as Major William Cage, a military officer in a future where each nation on Earth is united in a war against invading alien lifeforms called "Mimics" that have conquered nearly all of Europe.  Far from a warrior, Cage is a slippery PR man whose patriotic duty is to sell the soldiering life as a glorious endeavor, driving up recruitment numbers to replace the mounting human casualties.  When he balks at a general's (Brendan Gleeson) order to personally cover the combat from the front lines, however, he's railroaded into service as a lowly private with little chance of surviving the humans' all-out amphibious invasion of northern France.

But a funny thing happens on the way to Omaha Beach.  The Mimics have anticipated the attack and draw the human forces into a horrific and costly ambush.  Inexperienced with the mechanized bodysuit equipment that enhances the combat abilities of each individual solider, a terrified Cage survives long enough to take out a rare species of Mimic - called an 'alpha' - and gets doused with its blood.  This xeno-fluid swap endows Cage with the ability to warp back to his past consciousness whenever he dies, forever resetting time back to the day before the botched invasion.  From here, it's Groundhog Day meets the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan as Cage constantly repeats the day's events until he learns how to turn the tide of the war.  

It would be easy for a film like this to use such a gimmick as a way to dress up yet another tedious and repetitive action blockbuster. On the contrary, Edge of Tomorrow happily embraces the energetic nonsense of its premise, enhancing it with unexpected bursts of humor while still maintaining an aura of mystery.  Its addictive qualities emerge as Cage enlists the help of Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a tough-as-nails combat veteran whose legendary exploits were achieved with the same time-resetting abilities that he now possesses.  Rita transforms Cage from an awkward, flailing recruit (she has no qualms about putting a bullet in his head whenever he suffers grievous bodily harm during the intense training regimen) into a weapon that could single-handedly win the war; every day he gets a little bit stronger, smarter, and farther along in his quest, a gradual-reward structure that parallels the irresistible dopamine kick that audiences get from their favorite smartphone time-wasters. 

Of course, a movie should be more storytelling apparatus than objective checklist.  While the script by Christopher McQuarrie and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth provides a decent framework for the impressively taut action, Edge of Tomorrow is unmistakably formulaic, derivative not only of Groundhog Day but also movies like Source Code, sharing similar logical quagmires and even certain ending beats with the latter.  Fortunately, director Doug Liman is a visual slickster who keeps the film frothy and flashy without sacrificing tension, providing the appropriate jolts whenever it threatens to get too repetitive.  (In fact, he might have gone too far for the studio's liking - there is a conspicuous amount of offscreen violence in this PG-13 war movie.)  In video game terms, he's borrowed a great engine: Edge of Tomorrow provides an entertaining riff on a familiar time-jumping mechanic without fundamentally changing it and, like its protagonist, learns that mimicry, when executed well, can be mighty effective.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Trust Me

Trust Me
Dir. Clark Gregg

3 out of 5

“Do what you need to do” is the double-edged mantra that recurs throughout the dark showbiz satire Trust Me, underlining the ethos of self-preservation and self-interest in the cutthroat motion picture industry.  On the other hand, it’s also used as sarcastic encouragement for someone who’s about to make a huge mistake.  Both definitions of the phrase are applicable to struggling talent agent Howard Holloway (Clark Gregg), a former child actor who makes his living by representing young performers.  At another disastrous audition for one of his clients, Howard stumbles upon Lydia (Saxon Sharbino), a raw but talented teenage ingenue with a surly alcoholic father (Paul Sparks).  Sensing something special about Howard’s straight-arrow pragmatism, Lydia hires him to negotiate the big three-picture franchise deal she just scored, in what proves to be a pivotal career moment for  both wannabe Hollywood players.

Trust Me is ostensibly a comedy, and while it has its lighter moments – often in the predictable beats of Howard’s attempts to romance a single mom played by Amanda Peet – most of the humor is subtle and tempered by the fact that it genuinely attempts to take Howard’s profession seriously.  Often displaying rare insight for a Hollywood satire, Trust Me portrays the industry as a collection of fragile and flawed individuals that are, in most cases, fully-realized human beings capable of helping or harming each other, instead of one-dimensional, overambitious cretins.

The credit for the film’s humanist sympathies lies with Gregg, both as an actor and a filmmaker.  In the years since his 2008 feature writing and directing debut, Choke, Gregg’s profile has skyrocketed, mostly due to his recurring role as the beloved Agent Phil Coulson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series.  His natural warmth and amiability fit Howard perfectly as he strives to act as a father figure for the troubled young actress who’s more or less left in his care – so perfect, in fact, that any attempts to hint at Howard’s seamier side inevitably fall flat.  Gregg’s persona makes it easy to buy into Trust Me‘s positioning of Howard as one of the few nice guys in the business – one who still knows all the tricks that make Hollywood power brokering a credibly entertaining spectator sport.

For all its low-key pleasures, however, Trust Me is tonally uneven.  It’s often of two minds about its milieu: is it the wacky, sensational place where pint-sized stars lord over businesspeople three times their age, or is it the treacherous emotional minefield that requires an agent who’s equal parts acting coach, mentor, and therapist?  Gregg is often guilty of over-correcting for every element supporting the former - Sam Rockwell’s flamboyant ascot-rocking rival agent, for example – which culminates with a late swerve into exploitation territory that’s actually teased in the film’s opening seconds.  Unfortunately, Trust Me does such a magnificent job pretending it’s an entirely different type of story that circling back to its far-fetched climax brings more disappointment than catharsis, putting a spurious punctuation mark on an otherwise enjoyable and knowing film.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Dir. Bryan Singer

3.5 out of 5

In comics, elastic continuity is one of the medium's fundamental strengths, allowing for nearly endless permutations of characters and scenarios.  If things get too complicated in one universe, simply open up a new one.  In the movies, with a much larger and generally less invested audience, this is tougher to pull off without engendering confusion or disappointment (just ask anyone involved in the Amazing Spider-Man saga).  The time-bending sequel X-Men: Days of Future Past is the latest test of that continuity comfort zone.  X-Men and X2 director Bryan Singer returns to adapt one of the comic's iconic plotlines with a noticeably careful and ultimately gratifying approach to the film's tricky placement within the X-Men's cinematic canon.  Set in a dystopian future where mutants and their allies are ruthlessly hunted by giant robot drones called Sentinels, the last few remaining X-Men unveil a last-ditch gambit: using the matter 'phasing' powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), they will send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back into his younger body circa 1973 to stop the events that lead to this bleak holocaust.  

All things considered, Days of Future Past is a rather elegant cinematic interpretation of comic book-y concepts, weaving mini-arcs and brief team-ups into the fabric of its larger time-jumping narrative.  Lacking a central protagonist, the film sequences its screentime in a manner that resembles the month-to-month (or even page-to-page) flow of a comic series.  Plenty of other comic book movies do this as well, but few of them do it with as keen a sense of timing, where restraint can be as fulfilling as release.  The psychic meeting between the young and old versions of Charles "Professor X" Xavier (James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart), for example, is astonishingly brief but meaningful in jolting the youthful professor out of his depressive doldrums.

This being a time-travel movie, it's full of unexplained paradoxes.  The only one that matters, though, is experiential.  A strong feeling of deja vu permeates DOFP, whether it's an uneasy alliance with the vengeful Magneto (Michael Fassbender/Ian McKellen), a cynical Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) taking out her frustrations on a cruel and unforgiving world as a shape-shifting spy, or a panicked government indulging a demagogue warning of a mutant threat.  In this version, the latter position is held by Bolivar Trask (an underutilized Peter Dinklage), the scientist responsible for inventing the Sentinels who repeats the evergreen anecdote about what happened to the Neanderthals when they failed to understand the danger posed by their more evolved cousins, homo sapiens.

The film may be familiar at times, but it has many unique pleasures as well, beginning with its kinetic action sequences.  Singer skillfully handles the integration of brand-new mutant characters, starting with a propulsive and fluid chase scene that highlights their complimentary abilities.  Rarely has gratuitous slow-mo seemed so justified, which is doubly true for the introduction of Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a snarky teen speedster who contributes the film's biggest spark of energy during an ingeniously conceived prison raid.  It's an exuberant digression - a scene literally stops in its tracks for Quicksilver to micromanage it - and one that's welcome in a film so crowded that Richard Nixon becomes as important a character as, say, Storm (Halle Berry).  An entertaining but safe mix of futureshock, funky nostalgia, and fan service, Days of Future Past doesn't quite have the real-world resonance of Singer's previous films.  Nor does the repetition of familiar elements provoke any particularly intriguing thematic questions about do-overs or cycles of history.  What it does have is a shrewd recognition of the versatility of those elements in crafting endless iterations of escapist fantasy.  Yes, we have done this before, the movie basically concedes.  But this time, let's try it a different way and see if we don't have more fun.

Monday, June 2, 2014


Maleficent (2014)
Dir. Robert Stromberg

3 out of 5

The booming sub-genre of fairy tale mythbusting gets its most lavish treatment to date in Maleficent, Disney's ostentatious retconning of the Sleeping Beauty tale.  It's also a 90-minute affirmation of corporate confidence.  After years of being pilloried for scrubbing the grit and grime from famous folk tales in order to make them more suitable to modern families, Maleficent is Disney's embrace of that reputation, a made-up sympathy card for one of the most unabashedly evil villains in its animated canon.  But while the film tries to mask postmodern posturing as moral nuance, there's still magic going on in the margins.

A major part of that magic is Angelina Jolie, making the type of honest-to-goodness star turn that's rarely seen in summer blockbusters these days.  As the fairy Maleficent, she is protector of the Moors, a supernatural domain filled with strange, earthy elemental creatures and viewed with covetous suspicion by a neighboring kingdom of humans.  In a long prologue sequence, she falls in and out of love with a human, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), while protecting her home from the forces of the paranoid King Henry (Kenneth Cranham).  After failing to vanquish the armies of magic, the vengeful king issues a deathbed proclamation - the man who slays Maleficent will become successor to the throne.  It's a tempting offer for the vain, ambitious Stefan, now a trusted royal servant, whose pangs of conscience disrupt his attempt to murder his childhood sweetheart; he instead settles for deep emotional betrayal and bodily mutilation, removing Maleficent's beloved fairy wings and leading King Henry to believe that his nemesis is no more.

While the set-up is supposed to generate pathos for Jolie's character, her performance does something different - and arguably better.  Post-betrayal, Maleficent becomes an amoral shit-stirrer, dropping in on the christening of now-King Stefan's first daughter to place a death curse on the child.  Not that she wants the child to actually die, mind you - she quickly becomes a better guardian than the three bumbling fairies (Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple) charged with the infant Aurora's care.  By the time the teenaged Aurora (a radiant Elle Fanning) reveals that she's been aware of her "fairy godmother" all along, Maleficent is more like a lovable anti-heroine, throwing massive amounts of shade like she's auditioning for The Real Housewives of Medieval Fantasy.

Maleficent is at its weakest whenever it reaches for four-quadrant appeal, ladling wacky comedy and effects-heavy action onto a surprisingly affecting story about filial duty and self-determination.  At least director Robert Stromberg - who won two Academy Awards for his production design work on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland - compensates for the film's simplicity by lending an epic grace and fluidity to the visuals.  There's also something admirable about how Linda Woolverton's script recasts a tale of female jealousy as one of female bonding in a way that will undoubtedly draw comparisons (favorable and otherwise, though the latter is more likely) to Frozen, Disney's other recent lady-centric fairy tale.  Maleficent is not a complex film, but it's definitely an entertaining one, and better as it goes along, with Jolie shedding her recluse's armor to stand up to an increasingly unhinged Copley, an actor who always makes a meal out of madness.  Their stellar performances provide just enough weight to keep an otherwise lightweight tale from too closely resembling the patterns of hundreds of other happily-ever-afters that it's ostensibly trying to break.