Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bird People

Bird People
Dir. Pascale Ferran

3 out of 5

Movies can take us to unknown places, but they can also make familiar ones seem mysterious and powerful.  Bird People, which takes place in and around a hotel at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, attempts to do the latter.  Gary Newman (Josh Charles) is an executive for a Silicon Valley firm in town for a meeting about a project he's scheduled to oversee in Dubai.  Audrey Camuzet (Anais Demoustier) is a young, lonely, and overworked maid at the Hilton where Gary is staying.  In real life, their relationship would be transitory or, at best, a transaction.  ("When was the last time you chatted up a maid?" snaps Audrey, after her father asks if she's meeting people at work.)  But in this film, the hotel has powers - some of them subtle and psychological, some decidedly shamanistic - that bring Gary and Audrey's lives into alignment in very unusual ways.
If I'm being too cagey, well, blame it on the film.  Its beguiling opening scene is an extended introduction to the workaday world of ordinary Parisians; director Pascale Ferran lingers on the internal monologues and conversational snippets of random individuals, as if she originally set out to make a documentary about rail commuters.  After briefly establishing the current state of their protagonists, Ferran and co-screenwriter Guillaume Bréaud split the film into two discrete halves: one focused on Gary's decision to ditch his responsibilities and start a new life overseas, the other revolving around Audrey's frustration with her socioeconomic limitations and her own desire for adventure.  However, their paths do not converge in the way that you'd expect.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  While Gary's story is conveyed with a strict - and sometimes plodding - realism that borders on the theatrical, most viewers probably couldn't guess what happens to Audrey and how it crystallizes her understanding of their shared aspirations.
Bird People is difficult to discuss without revealing the twist in Audrey's portion that changes the movie's perspective considerably, but it'll suffice to say that the experience improves considerably once it occurs.  Gary is not a particularly interesting or likable character on his own.  That's no fault of Charles, who delivers a fine, controlled performance, but rather Ferran and Bréaud, who take a rather sympathetic view of a mid-life crisis that leaves both his co-workers and his family out to dry.  To their credit, the filmmakers do spend the bulk of Gary's story showing him dealing with the fallout of his sudden course correction - featuring an intense and interminable Skype session with his wounded wife (Radha Mitchell) - though they also ensure that we know Gary is landing firmly on his feet, stock options in hand and ready for a long (perhaps indefinite) European vacation.
Unlike most dramas that feature characters with interlocking destinies, Bird People suffers from too little interaction between its principal stars.  There's no doubt that Gary and Audrey are connected in some meaningful, albeit vague, way.  But Audrey is asked to do all the heavy lifting, and her story expands in a way that makes Gary's seem almost inconsequential in a structural sense.  However, the themes illustrated in Audrey's half - about the yearning for freedom and the struggle for belonging - are too strong and too beautifully realized in quasi-nature documentary style for me to totally discount Bird People.  Ferran has mixed success in getting us to buy the movie's sense of cosmic kismet, but by focusing largely on quiet epiphanies, she's at least able to make her major curveball something more daring and even greater to behold.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Friday, September 19, 2014


Dir. Kevin Smith

3.5 out of 5

Kevin Smith’s films have always been vulgar, both in their inclusion of juvenile humor and in their general disinterest toward cinematic craft beyond deeply-embedded pop culture references.  In essence, Smith has been a major purveyor of cinematic hamburger for his fanbase; his films are the equivalent of a fast food comfort meal for those who share his views and tastes.  By Smith's standards, then, the horror film Tusk is practically a gourmet meal.  Undoubtedly his best movie since his 1990s heyday, Tusk marks the first time in a long time that the filmmaker has seemed truly committed to realizing one of his ideas, no matter how silly it sounds.  

Tusk concerns Wallace (Justin Long), the snarky host of a zoo crew-esque podcast devoted to scatological comedy routines and ridiculing the internet's flavors-of-the-month.  (Smith, perhaps savvier than his critics will admit, has never stopped writing what he knows.)  When Wallace travels from LA to Manitoba to prod one of these unfortunate souls for further humiliation, he instead responds to a mysterious ad written by a self-described adventurer seeking companionship and an audience for his stories.  However, Wallace quickly learns that the ad's author - an elderly ex-sailor named Howard Howe (Michael Parks) - is not the harmless eccentric he seems to be.

Have I buried the lede far enough?  Tusk is about a serial killer who turns people into walruses.  It's a semi-serious take on the thriller genre - complete with spurious "based on a true story" tagline - that gradually atomizes into a fine mist of body horror and screwball comedy with a generous whiff of camp.  And while the movie decidedly enjoys his own schlocky fragrance, it's also rather canny in the way it slowly increases tension before its inevitable reveals.  

For a while, Tusk pretends to be a psychological chamber piece, with Howe as a surprisingly well-drawn villain.  He's both an unhinged maniac and a broken human being, his criminal psyche shaped by childhood abuse and a near-fatal shipwreck that he survived thanks to the inter-species care of a walrus.  Meanwhile, Wallace not only represents Howe's worst assumptions about a cruel, unloving world; it's also Smith acknowledging the dissonance of being both a grown-up and a committed vulgarian.  Tusk sifts through many of Smith's weird fetishes and deeply-held obsessions - stupid puns, monster movies, Canadians - while feeling more focused and personal than almost any of his frustratingly insular "View Askewniverse" films.

Still, several of Smith's oft-cited weaknesses resurface in Tusk.  It's a visually inert film, save for Howe's dusty manse and the thoroughly disgusting human-walrus hybrid.  Some characters, namely Wallace's podcast co-host (Haley Joel Osment) and girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez), are stuck with weak characterizations or reams of unnatural-sounding dialogue.  And it's enamored with absurd flourishes like a loopy Quebecois detective (an incognito Johnny Depp) who overstays his onscreen welcome.  Sometimes you can sense the film trying to stifle its own giggles.  But I admire Smith's conviction in seeing this crazy idea through, never backing down from the monomania of putting so many disparate elements in one unapologetically deranged film.  Tusk may revolve around a crime against nature, but as an artistic statement it's a tantalizing glimpse of true evolution.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

No Good Deed

No Good Deed
Dir. Sam Miller

2.5 out of 5

No Good Deed presents us with two characters that almost always seem to meet in high-concept thrillers.  First, there is Colin (Idris Elba), who begins the film being denied parole for his manslaughter conviction on the grounds that he is a "malignant narcissist" only capable of pretending like he has control over his violent emotions.  He manages to escape while being returned to the penitentiary and winds up at the house of Terri (Taraji P. Henson), a former district attorney who's now a stay-at-home mom with a young daughter and infant son.  She is smart, capable, and skeptical of the stranger on her doorstep; he is equally intelligent and convincing enough with his initial pleasantries to gain entry into Terri's house, though gradually his true nature is revealed.  Already Colin has killed three people onscreen - two prison guards and the ex-girlfriend (Kate del Castillo) who wisely moved on once he was incarcerated - and seems liable to continue his spree.

It takes more than such basic parts to build a better mousetrap, but that doesn't stop No Good Deed from trying.  The movie tries to avoid the more obvious paths by defining Colin as a villain whose disingenuous words are often more threatening than his physical presence.  It helps that he's played by Elba, an actor that eschews flamboyance for an understated charisma that makes Colin's inevitable violent outbursts even more terrifying.  However, as Terri's suspicion comes to a head and Colin starts terrorizing her in earnest, No Good Deed falls back on the tried and true.  Not necessarily because it wants to - the film's almost apologetic in its employment of home-invasion tropes - but because it's too tentative to try anything else.

No Good Deed once again proves that Elba and Henson are fantastic actors.  They take material that's clearly beneath them and invest it with more honesty than you'd expect.  But expectations are ultimately what hold the move back from achieving more than a baseline of competency.  Director Sam Miller, who also worked with Elba on the critically-acclaimed British series Luther, squeezes as much menace and tension as he can from stock characters and situations.

You wonder what would be possible if the film could fully embrace a compelling alternative.  Maybe if you squint hard enough you'll see a commentary on male entitlement and a pervasive misogyny that hides in plain sight.  There's also a late-game twist that's more shrewd than clever, but efficiently lends perspective to Colin's actions and obliquely refutes general complaints about the veracity of thrillers like these.  It all adds up to a film that's reasonably entertaining if not exactly timeless, one that's geared more towards providing relief - for its protagonist and audience alike - than inspiring awe.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins
Dir. Craig Johnson

3.5 out of 5

I haven't done extensive research, but I am pretty certain that the topic of attempted suicide has fallen the aegis of comedy more than that of drama throughout the last couple of decades.  I suppose some filmmakers feel that it makes a kind of morbid sense, as your basic comedic protagonist usually starts at or quickly experiences an exaggerated low point.  The Skeleton Twins doubles down in the first five minutes, with titular siblings Milo (Bill Hader) and Maggie (Kristen Wiig) both either contemplating or failing at the act of killing themselves.  The experience forces them to reconnect in their old childhood stomping grounds, where Maggie is drifting apart from her amiable granola bro of a husband (Luke Wilson) while Milo unwisely decides to rekindle a dysfunctional romance from his teenage years.

As two recent alums of the Saturday Night Live proving grounds, Hader and Wiig have a divine chemistry that surpasses even the most optimistic of expectations.  Their relationship has an immediate lived-in quality that provides the film - which is essentially a melodrama - the verisimilitude that it requires.  Wiig is impressive as a downbeat variation on her Bridesmaids character, a woman torn between her wants and her needs.  It's also the finest work of Hader’s film career to date.  He plays a man locating a personality that's equally pitiable and playful; it's some of the most legitimately genuine acting I've seen this year.  (I should also mention that Milo is a gay man, a detail that informs the character's plotline much more than Hader's actual performance - he's definitely no Stefon.)

The Skeleton Twins works down the checklist of a prototypical Sundance film with its slightly-against-type performances, cleverer-than-real-life bon mots, and white middle class ennui.  However, director Craig Johnson tosses at least a few curveballs at the audience simply by letting his stars dictate the rhythm of several key scenes - at one point, Johnson keeps rolling on an extended lip-sync rendition of "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" that ends up defining Milo and Maggie's bond better than any exchange of dialogue.  Such moments are essential, considering that the admittedly funny script - written by Johnson and collaborator Mark Heyman - has difficulty revealing anything about its characters that isn’t plated with the armor of irony and sarcasm.  

Yet that’s true to the characters in many ways, who struggle with anything that might make them appear too vulnerable, not understanding that leaving things in the past requires you to mourn them first.  The Skeleton Twins might take a while to clue us in to Maggie and Milo’s true inner lives, but it eventually gives them a roadmap to maturity that doesn’t require them to pursue dull, unfulfilling compromises.  That’s certainly something to live for.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Dir. Lenny Abrahamson

4 out of 5

Most outsider artists, whether through insecurity or circumstance, wind up hiding their light under a bushel.  Eccentric musical genius Frank (Michael Fassbender) prefers to hide his light under a fiberglass cartoon head.  He's the mercurial leader of the noise-rock band Soronprfbs, which also has a drummer (Carla Azar), a bass/guitar player (Francois Civil), and a brusque theremin player (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  We learn about these odd ducks from the vantage point of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an aspiring musician who joins the group as an emergency keyboardist and slowly gains control of the enterprise, steering it toward a more rewarding exploitation of Frank's creative energies - much to the chagrin of all the non-Frank band members.

Music is a kind of religion, and Frank is the kind of prophet whose actions ride the line between deep, unknowable wisdom and complete insanity.  He doesn't let anyone see him without the head, which gives him the appearance of a character from a lost 1960s anime (think Astro Boy meets Max Fleischer).  Frank's end credits inform us that the film is inspired by Chris Spivey, a fringe rocker who performed for years in a getup nearly identical to the one featured here.  Yet the idea seems more savvy than strange in the context of the film - in many ways it's a sly commentary on the power of a clever gimmick in a crowded entertainment marketplace.  Jon's tweets and YouTube posts are frequently displayed onscreen, along with a tally of his followers - a pathetically small number at first, but one that grows as Soronprfbs gains its own modest notoriety as the band with the cartoon head guy.

But is it really a gimmick?  Frank has an answer, but plays coy for a long time.  It can be a hard film to pin down.  Jon's early struggles to be accepted by his bandmates (save for Frank, who's generally a beatific presence) follow a fish-out-of-water tradition that predicates his seeming triumph against the odds when he gets the band booked at Austin's annual SXSW festival.  However, the center of the film contains a slowly expanding darkness, which director Lenny Abrahamson keeps hidden under a droll sense of humor.  As a character, Frank skirts dangerously close to the "holy fool" archetype - the SXSW portion of the movie plays particularly like a rock 'n roll Rain Man - but Fassbender's performance makes him seem unique and vital.  Even without showing his face, Fassbender captures the essence of a man whose all-seeing mind is still blind to the basic truths of reality.

Abrahamson is essentially telling a parable here.  He starts with a collection of impenetrable or foggy ideas and gradually, soothingly demystifies them.  Sometimes that means the supporting characters - like the excellent Scoot McNairy as a band manager with a set of quirks to rival Frank’s - turn out to be instructive plot devices.  But, for the most part, they’re entertaining plot devices: Gyllenhaal is a hoot doing a curmudgeonly Karen O impression and makes a perfect nemesis for the overreaching Gleeson as they fight over the band's - and eventually Frank's - mortal soul.  For all its weirdness, Frank is about as sincere as indie films get, funny and heartbreaking in equal measure.  It’s also nuanced enough to complicate the obvious themes about the preciousness and purity of art.  It's just a thing we do, however we’re naturally equipped to do it - no accoutrements necessary.