Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Giver

The Giver
Dir. Phillip Noyce

2.5 out of 5

The Giver takes place in a nondescript futuristic world where an unnamed cataclysm has inspired a community to retreat into predictable “Sameness” - every individual lives in the same modest dwelling, wears the same modest clothes, and holds the same modest dream of continuing the status quo.  Conflict is unknown.  People aren’t made to hide their emotions, but are instead compelled to describe their feelings in such precise language that their effects become easily managed (and even then they submit to mandatory injections that stabilize their moods).  Aside from their professions, which are assigned to each citizen by the community’s lead elder (Meryl Streep) when they come of age, everyone is a perfectly functional copy of each other.  It’s an all-too-apt analogy for the film itself, unfortunately, which takes Lois Lowry’s Newberry Medal-winning 1993 novel and turns it into an agreeable but bland facsimile of its more recent contemporaries - another entry in the YA adaptation-of-the-month club.

Director Phillip Noyce devotes nearly all of his attention to the moral dilemma of Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), an 18-year-old selected as the community's steward of past memories.  His training involves receiving those memories from the Giver (Jeff Bridges), memories of love and joy and color, but also those of pain and violence and loss.  When death ceases to be an abstraction, Jonas begins to question the underpinnings of the community's social order and its rules of emotional abnegation.  He becomes tender with a sickly infant that his family unit has temporarily adopted and tries to get his first crush, Fiona (Odeya Rush), to understand what attraction feels like.  For the most part, The Giver understands that these.

If only the film could successfully project that confidence.  Despite its attempts to convey Jonas's awakening by gradually expanding its palette from black-and-white to rich color, The Giver's visuals can't help but feel antiseptic and derivative.  This restraint makes narrative sense, but the design's aspirations to evoke films like The Hunger Games goes so far to be nakedly derivative.  That also applies to the script, which is even more disappointing.  Jonas's stilted interactions with his friends seem like an unconvincing attempt at a love triangle, and a tacked-on action climax and chase sequence runs counter to the spirit of the material.  (And the less said about the pandering inclusion of Taylor Swift as a piano-playing hologram, the better.)

That's too bad, considering The Giver has long been a passion project for Bridges, who originally envisioned his father Lloyd in the title role.  The younger Bridges is fantastic as it is - the movie's best sequences take place with the Giver in his cliffside bungalow, an organic and unpredictable contrast to the artificially stable world that he serves - and it's unfortunate to see the final product give in to larger commercial realities that finally got it greenlit.  Alas, the movie does exactly the opposite of what his character would want:  it elides risk, turning from what makes it unique to rest in the comfort of conformity.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Dirs. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

3 out of 5

There was nothing that looked quite like Sin City when it hit theaters in 2005.  The angular black-and-whites and pulpy subject matter of Frank Miller's neo-noir comics were a perfect match for over-the-top aesthetic of Robert Rodriguez's brand of home-brewed filmmaking.  Together they heaped hard-boiled narration and gratuitous violence over strikingly stylized images that consciously recalled comic book panels in a way that no other mainstream movies had ever attempted.

Nine years later, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For tries to fit in with an entirely new generation of comic book movies.  Another omnibus of stories from the seedy underworld of Basin City, the film serves as both sequel and prequel to its predecessor.  And while it certainly still looks different than your typical Marvel or DC movie, the appeal to novelty is gone.  This Sin City feels more like a copy of itself than its actual copies.  That's not entirely a bad thing - some of the characters, particularly Mickey Rourke's square-headed brawler Marv, are worth revisiting - but it leaves the audience feeling caught in a dark downward spiral of the same type that consumes the film's various criminals, call girls, and rogues.

That's even more appropriate considering that A Dame to Kill For is clearly more interested in establishing its moody, noir-ish atmosphere than in defining a coherent timeline.  The body count of the original Sin City prevents any repetition of that film's bold structure of interlocking stories - or at least any version that makes sense.  There's less precision in the second go-around, which devotes a good chunk of its running time to a story about vengeful vigilante Dwight (Josh Brolin, taking over for Clive Owen) being duped by his duplicitous former lover Ava (Eva Green), a sequence that drags on too long despite the latter's fantastic green screen-chewing performance.  (Green is now 2-for-2 in salvaging tardy sequels to groundbreaking graphic novel adaptations.)  Miller also contributes two brand new stories to the mixed bag of a script: a good one about a cocky young gambler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that doubles as a fairly interesting meditation on power and those who truly wield it, and a not-so-good one about Sin City lynchpin Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) transforming herself from a pouty stripper into a pouty assassin.

It's fortunate that A Dame to Kill For has style to burn.  A prologue with the aforementioned Marv is a perfect example of what Sin City is capable of when it's running on all cylinders: a nightmarish refraction of old school cops-and-robbers yarns with the visceral kick of modern action cinema.  Unfortunately, these moments are sprinkled unevenly throughout the rest of the film.  There's also the sense that behind every kinetic action sequence or intriguing character lurks a silly plot twist or inscrutable backstory.  It's the filmmakers trying hard to make their movie feel as fresh and bold as the one that came before it.  But the line between innovation and imitation is often a fine one.  Sometimes the innovators themselves are the last ones to know when they've crossed it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Catch-Up: Summer 2014

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: films seen in between summer vacations.

Happy Christmas
Dir. Joe Swanberg

3 out of 5

When twentysomething party girl Jenny (Anna Kendrick) moves into the suburban Chicago home of thirtysomething mother Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), it's difficult for the latter to observe the former without feeling a creeping regret, even in times of disapproval.  Sure, Kelly has a loving husband in Jenny's older brother, Jeff (writer-director Joe Swanberg), as well as an adorable toddler and a cozy home with a retro-kitschy tiki bar in the basement.  But she's also a former novelist who feels her dream slipping away - even more so now that the unmoored Jenny, with seemingly no expectations or aspirations in life, has crashed her nuclear family fantasy.  It's a dynamic that's beautifully rendered by Kendrick and Lynskey, who absolutely nail the awkward distance between two women not quite close enough to be sisters and too contemporary to play mother-daughter.

But that's only half the story with Happy Christmas.  The other half is the misadventures of Jenny, a shambling, episodic tale of an indecisive quarter-lifer that's more than a little reminiscent of Frances Ha.  While Happy Christmas shares an inviting, low-key comedic vibe with Noah Baumbach's film, it doesn't have the same dramatic conviction.  The movie's high point is a boozy conversation between Jenny, her friend Carson (Lena Dunham), and a reluctant Kelly, who eventually admits that she's not exactly happy about sacrificing her writing career to raise a family.  However, Swanberg unwisely switches gears to Jenny's halting attempts at personal development, turning the film into a predictable bell curve of maturation and emotional regression (with a disappointingly abrupt ending).  And I'm a little baffled by Kelly's arc, which seems to go off-message as she acquiesces to Jenny's terrible advice and rehabilitates her creative muscles by writing a trashy romance novel.  Happy Christmas has all the pieces of a sensitive, superior indie drama, yet its adult sensibilities can't hide the fact that it's still seeking a sense of purpose.

Dir. Luc Besson

3.5 out of 5

Only Luc Besson would dare to make an 80-minute Hong Kong-Hollywood action movie hybrid that begins like Midnight Express and ends like 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Lucy is a reliably bonkers outing for the prolific French filmmaker, juxtaposing scientific seriousness and adolescent silliness in its tale of a young American woman (Scarlett Johannson) in Taiwan forced to be a drug mule for the Korean mafia, with a bag of the goods sewn into her tummy for transport to the West.  The substance in question is a new synthetic that, in large doses, unlocks the full capacity of the human brain, allowing for a massive boost in the user's intelligence (which seems like the exact opposite of what a club drug usually does).  When the bag begins to leak, Lucy starts to rapidly use more and more of her "true" intellect - a development that eventually gifts her with telekinetic powers and the ability to manipulate space and time.

The gag here is actually quite inspired.  Johannson portrays an action hero who doesn't do much muscle work once she gets on the Mensa escalator.  A simple flick of the wrist is all it takes to incapacitate these foolish men and their guns.  Her affectless, robot-like performance stands in stark and hilarious contrast to the usual Besson tomfoolery going on around her, particularly an artillery-laden shootout between French police and Korean gangsters in a university corridor.  What you think of the ending and its unexpected dive into Tree of Life territory depends on how seriously you've been taking the pseudoscience sprinkled throughout the preceding hour.  Still, this is the pulpy neuroscience - slick and satisfying - that Transcendence could never be.  Lucy might be shallow, but it contains multitudes.

Dir. Brett Ratner

2.5 out of 5

At the lowest point of the titular character's struggle against adversity in Hercules, a wily old soothsayer (Ian McShane) encourages the hero to persevere by finding "the truth behind the legend."  Considering how confused and manipulative the film get about facts, embellishments, and flat-out lies, it's difficult to know what that even means.  And it's too bad, because Hercules really tries to work a clever angle on the familiar myth, positing Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) as the leader of a band of Aegean mercenaries that ropes in clients with exaggerated tales of his exploits.

Director Brett Ratner finds this conceit only intermittently interesting.  The movie succumbs to a paint-by-numbers backstory involving the hero's dead family members, and populates its conflict with too many flat characters on both sides.  Structurally, the script is actually trying to do something unorthodox in the context of a modern (read: simplified) sword-and-sandals saga; and Hercules can also satisfy in conventional ways with well-choreographed action and jaunty supporting performances from the likes of Rufus Sewell and McShane.  It's a pity, though, that the movie in unclear on what is real and what is myth - and even less compelling in regards to why the audience should care.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Let's Be Cops

Let's Be Cops
Dir. Luke Greenfield

2 out of 5

Most kids want to be something when they grow up.  Some of them never stop believing in these dreams.  And still others never stop behaving like children.  In Let's Be Cops, sweet and straight-laced Justin Miller (Damon Wayans Jr.) toils as an assistant at a video game company whose decision-makers rudely dismiss his pet project, a realistic law enforcement simulator.  His best friend and roommate Ryan O'Malley (Jake Johnson), a former college jock and current party animal, wants to...well, it isn't exactly clear.  But Ryan's purpose snaps into focus the night that the two buddies slip into cop costumes (for reasons far too silly to explain) and realize that they are able to fool the public into thinking that they are the true-blue arm of the law.  They're buffoons, of course, overmatched and acting well beyond their individual intellectual and moral capacities.  But Let's Be Cops goes to great lengths to convince us they are awesome buffoons deserving of our sympathy - a dubious goal that ultimately makes the film just as deluded as its protagonists.

I will admit that after a surprisingly dour prologue, it's actually kind of fun to watch these guys get their sophomoric kicks when first donning the blues.  It's only when Let's Be Cops tries to embrace the pretext of an actual cop movie - without really acknowledging its own cinematic vigilantism - that it begins to falter.  After messing with the goons who have come to collect protection money on their favorite diner, Justin and Ryan invoke the wrath of a vicious mobster (James D'Arcy) operating the world's most obvious criminal syndicate in downtown Los Angeles.  They begin a rogue investigation of the kingpin (Ryan is the far more enthusiastic participant, gleefully embracing his inner Serpico) but the film mistakes foolishness and ignorance for gumption and wit.  Let's Be Cops inverts a perfectly fine fish-out-of-water concept into a troubling affirmation of indulgence.

There's a funny movie to be made about the impotent rage and frustration of people who stall on the career ladder, only to be arbitrarily validated by their decision to affect an over-the-top attitude.  (I believe it was called The Other Guys.)  Yet director Luke Greenfield and his co-writer Nicholas Thomas fail to establish any appealing thematic through-line, other than affirming that power and authority easily turns human beings into bullies and exploiters.  This, in fact, is what the movie celebrates, judging by which of its two protagonists it deems in need of a personality overhaul.  Let's Be Cops also does not make its female characters look particularly smart.  Justin's love interest, waitress/aspiring makeup artist Josie (Nina Dobrev), consistently fails to see these jokers for who they are, and the only other important female character happens to be a horny, drug-addled weirdo (Natasha Leggero) who's simultaneously an object of disgust and a sexual trophy.  These actors deserve better - particularly Wayans Jr. and Johnson, who do their best to salvage characters that would otherwise come across as very, very sad.  Still, the fleeting delights of Wayans' fussiness and Johnson's cockiness also affirms how pure charisma can make problematic characters seem likable or interesting.  It's not their fault though.  They're just doing the job.  It's the system around them that's rotten at its core.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy
Dir. James Gunn

4 out of 5

Go ahead and laugh at Guardians of the Galaxy.  That's exactly what Marvel is going for in its latest film, an offshoot of its sprawling cinematic universe that stands as a wild and woolly re-purposing of space opera as well as a refreshing break from the studio's monolithic, continuity-driven breadcrumbs for future Avengers movies.  And while the reductive "Isn't this crazy?" aspect hovers ominously over Guardians, the film isn't nearly as cavalier as its sense of humor would suggest.  Yes, it's easy to chuckle at the antics of rakish thief Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) - who'd prefer you call him by his self-selected nom de guerre "Star-Lord" - as he reluctantly assembles the raggiest-taggiest crew of misfits ever to chase a MacGuffin across the galaxy.  But Guardians is a much sturdier story than its youthful insouciance suggests, drawing on classic genre tropes and characterizations and imbuing them with purpose, passion, and heart to create a film bursting with empathy.

Consider the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy could locate its emotional axis in any one of its main characters.  Screenwriters James Gunn and Nicole Perlman wisely build the film around the wisecracking Quill, shown in a prologue as a young boy who loses his mother to cancer and is promptly abducted by aliens.  As a grown man, he celebrates his emotional detachment with wry humor, though his prized possession - a Walkman loaded with a mixtape of his mom's beloved 1970s AM radio hits - reveals that he hasn't discarded everything from his past.  Departed loved ones also hang heavy over the turncoat assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who begins the film working for genocidal alien baddie Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded meathead with a personal vendetta against Ronan.  And then there's the bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a victim of genetic experiments that transformed him from a harmless woodland creature into an ornery ball of rage and frustration, coupled with an ineffable loneliness that comes from being truly one of a kind.  Rocket's bravado is countermanded by his partner in crime, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a sentient tree creature that oscillates between childish naiveté and terrifying displays of brute force.

It is tempting to say that the plot doesn't matter in a movie like this - it certainly does, and the film tries not to get bogged down in the details while finding time to revel in top-notch world-building and bizarre flourishes like Benicio del Toro's Liberace-meets-Howard Hughes turn as a collector of rare cosmic artifacts.  Still, without the name recognition of a Captain America or an Iron Man, it's amazing how Guardians is chockablock with so many memorable characters, and it's enthralling to watch them gradually align into something like a family unit.  Sure, it's not the most original effort in the world - this is classic Star WarsIndiana JonesGhostbusters stuff; at some level it's a shameless appeal to the nostalgia of the generations that grew up on those films.  However, the rigorous execution here is key.  Gunn and his team understand that it's not only style and tone that made those movies classics, but also the fine-tuned mechanics of their storytelling.

What a nicely-constructed film this is, particularly on a thematic level.  These Guardians are the anti-Avengers, and they barely resemble traditional superheroes - which is precisely the point.  Instead of obsessing about the weighty responsibility of heroism or fussing over pre-existing mythology, Guardians of the Galaxy uses the impossibly epic scope of its intergalactic conflict to explore how and why individuals form mutual understandings and use teamwork to achieve common goals, even if this sometimes requires compromise or sacrifice.  By portraying every bit of this process as a gauntlet of difficult choices, each motivated by the characters' struggle to balance their individual self-interest with their moral obligation to each other, the movie makes sure that its outcomes are earned.  Indeed, when you can utilize a sideline of the obligatory climatic battle to weave in another message the power of unity, you're working on a different level.  And when you can convincingly drive your themes home as your heroes find a greater confidence in one another, you don't mind a few laughs at their expense.