The November Man

Posted September 14, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, thriller, underrated

The-November-Man-trailer-2-750x310Has it really been twenty years since Pierce Brosnan was officially announced as the then-latest James Bond? (Brosnan’s debut, GoldenEye, marks its twentieth anniversary next year.) Now 61, Brosnan seems interested in interrogating the cold 007 archetype from different angles, whether farcical (2005’s The Matador) or serious, as in his new thriller, The November Man. The movie is based on the seventh in a largely overlooked series of spy novels by Bill Granger about Devereaux — no first name, though in the film he goes by Peter — a former agent who keeps getting pulled back in to contend with international crises. Here, Devereaux must protect a woman (Olga Kurylenko) who possesses dangerous information about a piece of rapist slime who’s being groomed for the presidency of Russia.

The newsworthy thing about The November Man, directed with old-school grit and clarity by Roger Donaldson, is how emotional its violence feels — and there’s plenty of blood spilled. The fights and gunshots seem to burst forth out of rage and contempt — and that’s when the good guys do it. Well, “good guys” according to whatever definition means anything in this gray context. Devereaux is brought in by old handler Hanley (Bill Smitrovich, doing his best Peter Boyle), who soon turns on Devereaux, takes over from section chief Weinstein (Will Patton, doing his best J.T. Walsh), and sends Devereaux’s former protege Mason (Luke Bracey) after him.

What we’re never allowed to forget is that the convoluted plot is powered by those who perpetrated war crimes on vulnerable girls and those who want to bring the perpetrators to justice. Devereaux is already nursing a painful personal loss at the callous hands of his employers. Later in the film, he will present a harsh and bloody choice to Mason. In part, the movie is about the misogyny at the highest levels of government and federal intelligence. Usually women in spy movies are bargaining chips or femmes fatale or, with 007, a motivation for the hero to press onward vengefully. Here, Olga Kurylenko is allowed central importance, with back-up from Caterina Scorsone as an agent, Amila Terzimehic as a fierce and unstoppable assassin, and Eliza Taylor as Mason’s warm, cat-owning neighbor.

Brosnan’s Devereaux is cool, abrupt, coiled for action. Not suave like 007, he’s closer to a spy version of Donald Westlake’s Parker, brutal and pessimistic. Combined with Julian Noble of The Matador, Devereaux is Brosnan’s way of telling us that he understands that a 007 in the real world would be a monster, or at least monstrously desensitized. Still, Devereaux isn’t far enough gone to see that a woman who seeks justice should have it. And again, somehow the violence Devereaux commits in the movie feels like an expression of anger at what the world of dirty international politics does to innocence and to women (Devereaux, it’s revealed at some point, has more than one personal reason for being angry). The November Man is structured like a routine spy thriller — and it sure goes like lightning — but it means more than meets the eye.

Frank

Posted September 6, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, cult, drama, one of the year's best

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The first time I heard of Frank Sidebottom, the cult-favorite British musician/comedian also known as Chris Sievey, it was in the pages of The Trouser Press Record Guide, where Ira Robbins waxed ecstatic about the man who performed Queen medleys, thought everything was “fantastic,” and wore a large papier-mache head patterned after old Fleischer Brothers cartoons. You had to be in England during a particular era — mostly the ’80s — to tune into Frank’s dadaist charms, though he’s pretty well represented on YouTube these days. Those interested in Frank’s peripatetic career would do well not to rely on the new film Frank, a comedy-drama lightly based on Frank’s early days with his Oh Blimey Big Band. British journalist Jon Ronson spent some time as Frank’s keyboardist, and his experience led to a Guardian article, which was expanded into a short book, which in turn somewhat informed the movie.

There’s no hint of Chris Sievey under the Frank mask here (nor does he get the surname Sidebottom). Indeed, we don’t get a look at Frank (Michael Fassbender) until almost the end. In the meantime, he bellows muffled stream-of-consciousness doggerel into a mike while the Jon Ronson analogue (Domhnall Gleeson) plonks along on a Casio and the scowling Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plays a theremin. Ronson has said that Sievey, who died in 2010, wouldn’t have wanted a straight Frank biopic (there’s a forthcoming documentary, Being Frank, to serve that purpose anyway), and the non-Sidebottom Frank we meet here — a son not of Timperley but of Bluff, Kansas — is perhaps not the Frank but a Frank, a symbol of persistent, lunging creativity. We’re left with the oddly comforting notion that Frank is legion, that he appears wherever illogic is sorely needed to disturb the squares.

What isn’t comforting — and it is right that it not be so — is the film’s clear-eyed assessment of the creative urge as it relates to mental illness. Frank refuses to romanticize affronts to the brain; it takes its cue from those who had to live and work with such crazy diamonds as Syd Barrett, Daniel Johnston, and Captain Beefheart. People in Frank’s band keep wandering off to end it all; it’s as though Frank attracts unstable elements so that he can feel more sane in comparison. By the time Frank’s band (with the jawbreaking name the Soronprfbs) plays a Twitter-hyped gig at Austin’s SXSW, young hipsters have gravitated to the various road dramas and to the instability on display; they appreciate Frank’s music ironically, as a funky freakshow. I was reminded of the following that the schizophrenic underground musician Wesley Willis found, despite himself. Enjoying the art of the mentally ill on any level should be an occasion for checking one’s own assumptions. Do we genuinely value the art, or are we taking a chic tour of the nightside of human experience?

Frank is a finely grained ensemble piece, more sober than it needed to be, and more complexly engaging, but no less entertaining. Fassbender manages to express more through papier-mache than most actors can unencumbered, and the strange, sometimes atonal music sets the outsider tone. This isn’t the Frank Sidebottom movie; it uses a similar likeness to probe the demons that can pursue — and, yes, inspire — artists, while sanely denying that the demons are necessary for the art. I’m sure Poe and Robin Williams would’ve opted for happiness over the darkness that undeniably added spice to their work, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have made better art, and had longer lives, without the darkness? The noncreative get their revenge on the creative by saying that the price of creation is madness. All this from a movie about a man with a big fake head. Fantastic.

To Be Takei

Posted August 31, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

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Of all the original Star Trek cast members living or dead, George Takei has undoubtedly led the most fraught and compelling life. Yet that life, full of drama and pain, has birthed a relatively fluffy profile, To Be Takei, a documentary in the form of what journalists (back when there was journalism) used to call a puff piece. To be fair, the movie seems to hew close to Takei’s own personality, one that compartmentalizes past traumas and disappointments. Takei lives in the now while giving his history its due; he appears to have an eminently healthy outlook, which may make for a happy man but also a portrait without edges.

Takei spent three years of his early childhood in various Japanese-American internment camps during World War II; he went into acting at a time when there were vanishingly few inoffensive roles for Asians; he was closeted for decades until, in 2005, in response to opposition to gay marriage in his home state of California, he came out. Takei says he stayed in the closet to protect his career, though coming out seems to have had an effect the exact opposite of what he feared — he’s been highly visible and beloved ever since, followed by millions on Facebook, lending his honeyed and insinuating baritone to commercials, cameo appearances, and Howard Stern’s show, where he’s been a fixture since 1990. Takei turned out to be the hippest Trek veteran since Wil Wheaton (seen here when Takei gets a dig in at him about his weight) learned to stop worrying and love the Enterprise.

To Be Takei throws together the expected clips, along with some rarely-seen early TV work that probably only the most die-hard Trekkies have laid eyes on in decades. Takei, like Nichelle Nichols, stood for something on Star Trek: Gene Roddenberry’s ideal of a color-blind meritocracy. Actors John Cho (who assumed Takei’s role of Sulu for the new reboot movies) and B.D. Wong talk about how empowering it was to see a vital, passionate Asian actor on TV, not playing a clown but someone with rank and agency. A lot of the present-day footage follows Takei and his husband Brad, a fretful, vaguely resentful type who organizes Takei’s many gigs. Scenes of Takei interacting happily with often emotional fans lose a bit of heartwarmth when we find that Takei, like many other glad-handers on the nerd-nostalgia convention circuit, charges $35 an autograph.

Director Jennifer Kroot, who previously made the documentary It Came from Kuchar about the underground-filmmaker Kuchar brothers, is obviously simpatico with the outsider, and she tries to jazz up To Be Takei visually with a motif of blue pulpy patterns. Unavoidably, though, most of it is talking-heads footage. Kroot follows Takei and spouse to the remnants of one of the internment camps, but the passage is over with fast, presumably on the grounds that it would bum us out. More time is devoted to the folly known as Allegiance, a musical loosely based on Takei’s experiences in those camps. To be honest, from what we see of it, it looks kind of awful, but Takei calls it his “legacy work.”

As seriously as he may take that musical, though, it would seem that Takei’s real legacy will be as an avatar of cool in the “It gets better” era — a double minority whose story has had a storybook final act. I like George Takei. I don’t see how anyone couldn’t. He’s funny, avuncular, on the side of the angels (well, except when he recently posted a joke image on his Facebook page that offended disabled fans, and then blew off their objections). He’s a cult figure among l’internetoisie and possibly a continuing inspiration to young gays and aspiring Asian actors. I’ll feel a sad twinge when he goes (may he outlive William Shatner, who comes off in the movie as a supreme douchebag). To Be Takei celebrates him but blithely neglects to probe for any complexity in a man who has surely suffered much. Maybe what we see today — a septuagenarian amiably adjusted, basking in acceptance after decades of suppressing himself — is all we get and what the movie offers.

The Zero Theorem

Posted August 23, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, satire, science fiction

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The sickly neon lighting, the relentless Dutch angles, the grab-bag mix of futuristic and steampunk design, the theme of escape from bureaucratic control through fantasy: these are all excellent indicators that you’re watching a Terry Gilliam film, and his new one, The Zero Theorem, is the Terry Gilliamest piece in his portfolio in quite a while. I wish I could say that I mean that as a compliment, but Gilliam’s flaws may be inseparable from his strengths: when he’s on, he’s brilliant, but when he whiffs, the bleak swooshing sound is deafening, and The Zero Theorem, despite my fervent desire to claim otherwise, is one whiff after another. The surprise here is that most of the ground Gilliam covers here, he already trod devilishly well in Brazil, and after a while I wondered why he didn’t know that. He’s said he considers this film the third in a dystopian trilogy begun by Brazil and continued in 12 Monkeys, but it plays like a Gilliam imitator’s crude remix of the two.

Christoph Waltz, bald and charmless, is the obsessive computer geek Qohen Leth, who toils in a cubicle for the Management, personified by a white-haired eminence (Matt Damon, seemingly doing a Philip Seymour Hoffman turn). Qohen is given the Zero Theorem assignment — he has to prove that everything in the universe adds up to nothing. “Zero must equal 100%,” we’re told by machines again and again. This nihilist math/philosophy problem has broken many other thinkers, and Qohen, who refers to himself as “we” and has the prerequisite collection of genius quirks, finds himself dangerously distracted by blonde femme fatale Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who may have been sent by Management to test his resolve or sabotage his efforts.

Pat Rushin’s script plays as if Rushin fell asleep during a Gilliam marathon, woke up, and cobbled together a screenplay from what he dimly remembered. What’s missing is any emotional charge, any urgency — what William Goldman once called “the pregnant moment,” the reason the story is being told now. Qohen is a passive character obsessed with a phone call he once missed, a phone call he thinks could have revealed his purpose in life. Aside from that, he works on the theorem and he dallies in virtual reality with Bainsley. Much of The Zero Theorem is a two-character play, spiced up by Gilliam’s Dutch angles and colors that snap, crackle and pop. One dialogue scene, between Qohen and Bainsley in the cluttered former monastery he calls home, dribbles on and on; Gilliam seems to have forgotten that editing is part of the art of cinema, the thing that moves the images and the story.

Tedium sets in fast. Gilliam makes the surroundings as candied as he can, with Satire 101 messages running across digital billboards. The Management controls everything, but except for a Mutt and Jeff team of a heavy and his dwarf companion (ah, Gilliam and his dwarves), the Management doesn’t have much of a menacing presence, or a presence at all, really. Qohen stays inside for months grinding away on the theorem, occasionally resisting cybertherapy from Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) and sharing irascible dialogue with the Management’s son (Lucas Hedges), a prodigious hacker who calls everyone Bob. Little of this has any dramatic interest; it’s full of bits of sour whimsy, which we’re meant to take as a hip, cynical vision of bland, hellish tomorrow (and tomorrow in this sort of dystopian satire is always today with futuristic trimmings).

One wants to root for Gilliam and his stubbornly uncommercial work, especially if we’ve enjoyed his earlier movies. I get no pleasure from swatting a new Gilliam film — there aren’t going to be very many more of them, he’s not getting any younger, and he has a hell of a time getting these oddball things financed as it is. A salute, then, to Gilliam for staying true to himself, not even knowing how to sell out. But the irony of The Zero Theorem is that it’s a parable about finding meaning in life, but it doesn’t mean much itself. It’s a doodle, a riff on Gilliam’s pet themes, but emotionally and dramatically it’s an inverse of the theorem: 100% of it equals zero.

Let’s Be Cops

Posted August 16, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, one of the year's worst

media_lets_be_cops_cbGiven what’s unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri as I write this, a comedy called Let’s Be Cops seems hideously ill-timed, at least if you go by the advertising. The premise put forth in the ads is simple: a couple of schmoes pass themselves off as policemen, get off on the privilege and power of their new position, and get into all kinds of slapstick debauchery. The actual movie, though, gets all of that stuff — which, if the script went into it deeply and sharply enough, could actually threaten to be subversive satire — out of the way fairly early, clearing the way for an idiotic and dull farce pitting our faux heroes (Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr.) against mobsters of possibly Russian, or vaguely Slavic, origin. See, they pretend to be cops and then have to step up and actually do what cops are supposed to do! Get it?

I can’t adequately express how soul-sucking the crime subplot is here. The crime subplot has derailed many a promising comedy; I wished, for instance, when sitting through Date Night that the movie would forget about its mobster storyline and just let Steve Carell and Tina Fey riff and improvise. By the same token, Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. are amusing enough when simply roaming Los Angeles in their fake cruiser, so why not let them? The desperately tired plot, which also involves a corrupt detective (Andy Garcia, in and out in about three scenes), just leads to uninspired shoot-outs so routine that they might as well be abstract color and movement for all the emotional impact they pack.

Wayans’ character works at a videogame company, and his big idea for a game puts the player in the shoes of a purportedly realistic patrolman having supposedly realistic adventures. The game actually looks like every other escapist first-person-shooter game, and so does the police action in the movie. Let’s Be Cops would have some point, some satirical juice, if it set up its two idiot protagonists as wannabe-cops based on what they imagine police work is from all the movies they’ve seen, and then harshly showed them what actual police work entails — going into scenes of very human despair and squalor. But that wouldn’t make for a rowdy Saturday-night farce — not that the movie ends up being one anyway, since it pulls its punches while remaining squarely sexist, racist and homophobic, and not even in transgressive ways that might be cleansing and redemptive, just lazily status-quo.

It’s something, I guess, for the black guy to take up with a white girl (Nina Dobrev, not allowed to show a fraction of what Vampire Diaries fans know she can do) and have it be no big deal. Some things are changing. And I liked how she’s allowed to contribute to the heroics by plying her trade — she’s an aspiring make-up artist — to make Wayans look like one of the mobsters’ scary couriers. (The courier he’s made up to look like is played, with welcome idiosyncrasy and improvisational flavor, by Keegan-Michael Key.) We don’t have to look at the head mobster (James D’Arcy) holding a gun to Dobrev’s head until one fake cop or the other mans up and shoots him. That job — the manning up, that is, not the Dobrev-menacing — is left to actual cop Rob Riggle, most likely doomed to play military, cops, or other alpha-male stereotypes until some imaginative director rescues him.

That director certainly isn’t Luke Greenfield, who acquits himself here with the same blandness and unfailing ability to miss the point (and the laugh) with which he directed The Girl Next Door ten years ago. The Girl Next Door was an R-rated movie about a porn star in which we never saw the porn star naked — not that I’m pining for nudity, but a movie with raunchy subject matter would do best not to chicken out of it — and Let’s Be Cops never hits the delirious highs or revolting lows that a truly daring cop comedy could go for. No, it sticks to its witless, anti-comedy gangster plot, involving a generic Slavic community that Nina Dobrev’s character doesn’t seem to be a part of, even though the actress is Bulgarian and speaks the language fluently. But then this would have to be a movie that showed the slightest affinity for being culturally astute or for giving its actors something interesting to do.

About Alex

Posted August 11, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's worst

large_aboutalex_web_3About Alex isn’t actually about Alex (Jason Ritter), a lonely twentysomething leaving the hospital after a suicide attempt. It’s mainly about his annoying friends from college, who have all drifted into disappointing lives since graduation. When they get the news about their troubled classmate, they converge on Alex’s cabin in the woods, where monsters and demons kill them — wait, no, I’m remembering more entertaining movies. At the cabin, the twentysomethings argue and bare their souls and dance to old music and pass a joint around and more or less re-enact The Big Chill.

Every other review of About Alex has mentioned The Big Chill, and so I was going to do my best not to, but I’m not strong enough. If you hated the yuppie self-absorption of The Big Chill, you will melt into a radioactive heap of rage and loathing in the presence of About Alex. If you liked The Big Chill, well, you’ve already seen it once, right? About Alex was written and directed by Jesse Zwick, whose father Ed Zwick created the sensitively irritating ’80s TV show thirtysomething (a.k.a. The Big Chill: The Series) along with Marshall Herskovitz; both men also produced this film, so we must assume their appetite for whiny entitled twats wasn’t sated two decades ago.

The movie does improve on its ancestors in that it isn’t lily-white. Of the young cast, Nate Parker is African-American, Max Minghella is part Chinese, and Aubrey Plaza has Puerto Rican ancestry. It doesn’t matter a whole lot, though, because none of the characters are written as anything specific. For a minute, I thought Alex would turn out to be a bisexual with a crush on Nate Parker’s aspiring novelist character, but no, there are zero non-heteros in this group.

We watch as the talented cast try and fail to breathe life into overwritten clichés. The most overtly annoying of the group, a womanizer played by Max Greenfield, actually comes off as one of the most interesting, since he gets some much-needed tension going. But he’s also that time-honored theatrical group-dynamic boogeyman the Truthteller — the one who digs out what everyone else is too repressed to say out loud — and in case we didn’t get it, he straight-up tells us: “I’m a Truthteller.”

Nice to meet you, Truthteller. Meet your fellow stereotypes the Neurotic, the Frustrated Artist and His Maybe-Pregnant Girlfriend, the Yuppie Scum and His Too-Young Girlfriend, and Alex, who gets scarcely any traits at all, clichéd or otherwise. Alex is merely a void around which the other characters can circle the drain of timeworn drama. One gets the impression that Alex has been kept alive — unlike the suicide, also named Alex, whose death brought the Big Chill group together — so that About Alex wouldn’t be considered a flat-out unofficial remake of The Big Chill. He certainly serves no other purpose. And even though we get a lame college-flashback bit near the end, we have little sense of why Alex was friends with any of these douchebags, or why they were friends with each other. They’re just thrown together to be even more annoying as a group than they are individually.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Posted August 2, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, adaptation, comedy, comic-book, overrated

maxresdefaultIf you take a piece of white bread and stick weird things into it, what you have isn’t anything bold or dazzling; it’s just white bread with weird things stuck into it. Guardians of the Galaxy is that white bread: ornamentally eye-catching but fundamentally bland. The movie is set in the same universe as Iron Man and The Avengers and the other interconnected Marvel-comics films, but it’s set somewhere in the cosmic margins, away from Earth, off to the side. It’s a milieu we sort of have to agree to accept as alien, though many of its inhabitants pretty much look human, only with fresh coats of blue or green paint. It’s not futuristic; it’s happening in 2014, except that its main Earth character, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), has been off-planet since 1988, so his references to terran culture end then.

Peter has an Awesome Mix Tape filled with his dear dead mom’s favorite tunes, which tend towards classic rock from the ’70s. The presence of this music in what’s supposed to be a planet-hopping adventure occasionally lends it the aura of a midnight movie, albeit a midnight movie that cost $170 million. Guardians has been written (by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) with a good portion of snark, though none of the verbal barbs turn around and aim at the movie itself, or at Marvel (or Disney). It feels like a parody that isn’t parodying anything; a movie that costs that kind of money can’t be expected to have sharp teeth, and it doesn’t. It’s just smug, engaging in lightly inane badinage and lumbering into any number of cluttered action set-pieces. The jokiness commands you not to take the proceedings too seriously, as if you would anyway.

Peter, who calls himself Starlord, finds himself aligned with several other outlaws — assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), bruiser Drax (Dave Bautista), sentient walking tree Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), and talking raccoon Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) — against the usual dull villain who wants to destroy everything. This good-vs.-evil plot unfolds inside the usual meaninglessly convoluted web of allegiances, various people who don’t like the Guardians, as well as tensions between the Kree and the Xandarians (ah, yes, that old conflict). Guardians would like us to find it hip and quirky, but at heart it’s like every other obscenely expensive summer movie about heroes trying to stop bad guys from doing bad things. The bad guys want to do bad things for reasons we barely comprehend — they do bad things because they’re bad guys, I take it. And they have to be stopped. This requires extremely pricey, poorly edited chase scenes, things blowing up, people shooting at or punching other people, and other greatest hits.

Gunn is clever, and I’m not immune to his nudging; I chuckled a few times (mostly at bits of business involving Groot or Rocket). But anyone expecting the perversities of Gunn’s Troma-meets-Cronenberg horror-comedy Slither (2006) or his previous film, 2010’s Super, had better keep waiting. I much prefer Super, which had the sting of human frailty, and which, perhaps not coincidentally, cost 68 times less than Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn has already made his superhero movie; this new one doesn’t really feel like his. It feels like a corporate jest, of the sort that Marvel used to indulge in briefly in the ’80s, when they would launch stunts like Assistant Editors’ Month — titles like Spider-Man or Daredevil would be turned over to less serious writers for tongue-in-cheek meta-stories that happened more or less out of continuity. Guardians is like an Assistant Editors’ Month issue writ large. But readers were expected to pay the full sixty cents for those issues back in 1984, and audiences are expected to pay full ticket prices for it now.


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