Archive for the ‘comedy’ category

Redwood Highway

June 22, 2014

11945_388969124578176_5236639086043232091_nJudi Dench is fantastic, but there are other septuagenarian actresses. One such is Shirley Knight, who turns 78 in a couple of weeks, and who provides the rock-solid center for the perfectly pleasant comedy-drama Redwood Highway. Knight is Marie, a widow and grandmother who passes the days at an Oregon retirement community. The place looks comfy as such places go, but Marie hadn’t planned to die there. She takes off, unannounced and without her resented cell phone, for lengthy walks by herself. This drives her adult son Michael (James Le Gros) nuts; she has a spiky, unstable relationship with him and with her granddaughter Naomi (Zena Grey), who’s about to get married.

The embittered Naomi, who knows Marie doesn’t approve of her fiancé, leaves her a message saying not to bother to come to the wedding. Marie, alas, is not the type who will do what she’s told to do, or told not to do. She sets out on foot, again unannounced, with a backpack and a bit of food swiped from the community snack table, on the eighty-mile journey to the wedding site. The premise may sound similar to last year’s overrated Nebraska, but I assure you this is the far better film, starting with the fact that Shirley Knight — who’s in almost every scene — wipes the floor with Bruce Dern’s monotonously irascible performance. Marie is what used to be called a “tough old broad,” but also vulnerable and eventually grateful for help. Fairly quickly, she figures out she’s not going to be able to make the trip solely on her own steam.

Knight’s Marie may be the sort of stubborn person it’s difficult to have in one’s own life — there’s some degree of sympathy for Michael, who moves heaven and earth to track Marie down once she goes missing from the community — but she’s terrific company for an hour and a half. Marie moves briskly and with purpose, and she speaks the same way to people she isn’t sure of. Knight makes her a tragicomic figure leaning towards comic; Marie doesn’t pity herself, so we don’t either. It helps that with one exception, when Marie happens across a couple of meth-heads at a deserted motel out in the boonies, everyone she meets is nice to her (and even one of the meth-heads doesn’t want to cause her any trouble — she reminds him of his grandma). Redwood Highway thus becomes a fable of kindness. It’s soothing, and no big points are being made for or against Marie or her rural surroundings (another reason I prefer it to Nebraska, which was nasty to everyone and everyplace on the screen).

Director Gary Lundgren picks the supporting cast well. Marie meets a widower played beautifully by Tom Skerritt, who reminds us of his effortless command of decency. There’s one moment when Skerritt rests his head on Knight’s shoulder, and it’s incredibly intimate and romantic even though the plot steers clear of romance. Michelle Lombardo is warm and nurturing as a young bartender who insists on giving Marie a bed to sleep in for a night. Twin Peaks fans will be happy to see Catherine E. Coulson, the Log Lady herself, as Marie’s best friend at the retirement community; her appearance is brief but winningly tremulous. None of these people are ridiculed; the script, by Lundgren and James Twyman, allows each character his or her humanity, and we feel they all have lives outside of Marie’s story, perhaps worthy of their own movies. About Skerritt’s character, who still tends the “artisan art” shop he and his wife once started, I would happily know more. And what about one of Marie’s old flames, a deaf old duffer who lives off the grid with, unaccountably, a Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” sticker in the front window of his cabin?

Redwood Highway moves at Marie’s pace, strong and purposeful, and arrives smoothly at its conclusion. Shirley Knight’s bullheaded performance reassures us that Marie will carry out her adventure, that she isn’t going to expire of a heart attack out in the woods or something stupidly melodramatic like that. Sometimes we don’t want to have to worry about what’s going to happen next in a movie; sometimes we just want to be pleasurably curious about what happens next, and we like Marie and want to be with her on her journey. The film’s synopsis tells us that Marie “discovers that you’re never too old to learn something about life and about yourself”; please ignore that, because it makes the movie sound much more softheaded than it is. It is, among other things, a sharp distaff rejoinder to the male-centered, sour-faced Nebraska; it’s what Nebraska might have been if it had forgotten about Bruce Dern and Will Forte and gone off to follow June Squibb.

The Fault in Our Stars

June 8, 2014

fault-in-our-stars-movie-clipsEvery young generation deserves its own great love story. But does The Fault in Our Stars qualify? I can’t truly be the judge of its greatness; that call isn’t mine to make. (My generation has Say Anything and the Before trilogy, and I can imagine the generation before mine taking issue with that.) I am no longer a teenager, the ideal age at which to experience doomed, star-crossed love — in fiction, mind you, not in life — for the first time. Really, I can only convey to what extent the movie successfully got around my defenses and spoke directly to my inner romantic teenager. Like John Green’s mega-popular 2012 novel, on which it’s faithfully based, The Fault in Our Stars flatters its audience for its hipness to the usual tragic narrative. But when it comes time to push the time-honored emotional buttons, goddamn, the movie works those buttons, pounds them. Even my inner teenager was offended.

The Fault in Our Stars is two-thirds of a graceful romance. The self-deprecating, sardonic teenager Hazel (Shailene Woodley, charming as usual), who narrates, barely holds cancer at bay with experimental drugs and an oxygen tank. At a rather pitiful support group — the movie is rather cruel about the basement-dwelling, Jesus-loving goof with testicular cancer who runs the group —  Hazel meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), an equally sardonic kid who lost his leg to cancer. They forge a bond out of shared gallows humor; Augustus instinctively senses that Hazel has no time for uplifting bromides, and the two fall with relief into easy chat. They’re smart, well-read teens — Augustus favors adventure paperbacks, though, while Hazel idolizes a cancer-kid novel written by a recluse (Willem Dafoe) who hasn’t published anything since.

The recluse’s novel ends in mid-sentence, and Hazel wants to know what happens after it ends, which is to say she wants to know what happens after she ends. Does the fictional cancer girl’s family go on and find some sort of happiness? Hazel worries about her mom (Laura Dern), worries that too much of her is tied up in being Hazel’s mother and that she’ll be left with nothing once Hazel goes. I felt my eyes sting a couple of times, and Laura Dern owned both of those moments; just the way she runs into Hazel’s room, expecting a disaster, when Hazel has merely exclaimed about a surprising email, is heartbreaking. Dern does a huge amount with very little here; it’s heroically open work from a great actress.

The plot takes the two kids to Amsterdam, where Dafoe’s bitter alcoholic writer hides in a clutter of ignored fan mail and refuses to give Hazel an answer. In my mind, this is the most sensible thing he can do, because there isn’t an answer, but his harshness drives the couple out of his flat and into the Anne Frank house, where they have their first kiss while other tourists applaud. This sort of self-absorption is easily forgiven among (a) the dying and (b) the young, and Hazel and Augustus are both. It’s also an indication that Hazel may not be the most reliable narrator.

The Fault in Our Stars becomes aggressively, almost brutally manipulative in its final stretch. It’s an old-school weepie, all right, and the usual weepers will weep loudly, as they did at my screening. I stayed dry, ticking off all the bullet points. The purest love, the movie says, is not long for this life; true love can only spark between two people who won’t live long enough to get sick of each other (or to have a kid with cancer and to watch their married lives become about medical bills and wolf-hour hospital runs). As long as it stays with the two kids who have suffered far too much to be anything but honest around each other, the movie is fine. But then there’s middle-of-the-night melodrama and a fake funeral and a real funeral — so many attempts to raise a lump in the throat that even the most forgiving viewer may feel a bit throttled. The movie, like the book, may gather a patina of greatness for those who look back on it fondly once safely out of their teens. But both the movie and the book should have had the courage to end mid-sentence.

Neighbors

May 11, 2014

20140511-211738.jpgLast month, Seth Rogen turned 32. That’s about the age that an overgrown boy starts taking on the responsibilities of a man, while sorely wishing he didn’t have to. In the amiably dirty comedy Neighbors, Rogen is Mac, a new father to an adorable baby daughter. Mac and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) are both happy to be parents, but a large part of them resists the idea that their lives need to change now. They met in college, and they’re still college kids at heart and in bed (though they seem to prefer sex everywhere in the house except the bed). Kelly stays at home with the baby while Mac drifts through a generic cubicle job, getting stoned on break whenever possible.

When the frat Delta Psi moves in next door to Mac and Kelly, the couple actually don’t object in principle. The guys seem friendly enough, if a bit too legendary for their epic parties. Mac and Kelly might co-exist peacefully with them, even attend their parties regularly, if they didn’t have to get up in the morning to go to work and look after the baby. They’re welcomed to the first-night blow-out, and they get blitzed (it’s a good thing the baby seems to sleep through the night easily). After that, though, it’s back to the grind, and when they call in a noise complaint on the second night, the frat leader Teddy (Zac Efron) is hurt. Not angry — just hurt.

The nice thing about Neighbors, which made me laugh pretty consistently, is that nobody is the good guy or the bad guy. The frat boys like their fun but aren’t terribly vicious. Mac and Kelly try to short-circuit the frat, and go too far on several occasions. It’s certainly a more good-natured comedy than the inept 1981 film of the same name. People talk to each other in this movie, and try to understand each other. The commercials emphasize the slapstick, but the verbal barbs, many of which sound improvised, keep a certain level of wit in play (my favorite, regarding a frat pledge wearing a blocky pair of camera-equipped glasses: “He looks like J.J. Abrams”). And there’s a useful symmetry in the notion that Mac and Kelly devolve to frat-like behavior themselves, while the frat boys have to embrace responsibility, or at least simulate it.

Comedies generally aren’t cinematically exciting. If they make us laugh, they don’t have to be. But more recent comedy directors like Edgar Wright, Wes Anderson, and Nicholas Stoller (who directed Neighbors) bring welcome visual brio. The party scenes in Neighbors have some of the candy-colored skankiness of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. As in his Get Him to the Greek, Stoller wants to make each scene lively and eye-catching, while within the engaging frame the actors seem to be given license to riff, to deepen bonds between characters — the conflicts as well as the affections are credible. Neighbors could have been a lazy beer-fart comedy in the Adam Sandler mold, but, like Teddy, it knows it has to work to earn that spot on the wall next to its ancestors.

Which, ultimately, it does. The original text, of course, is Animal House, which aside from its performances and a couple of sequences involving Belushi hasn’t aged all that well. There’s also Old School, which I have trouble recalling outside of Will Ferrell’s breakout work as an overgrown frat boy who gets a little too into it (I love his grief-stricken funeral tribute to an elderly frat bro: “You’re my boy, Blue!”). Neighbors seems to have more going on under the hood, including the post-Bridesmaids insight that women can be as debauched as men. The key to the movie is the big fight Mac and Kelly have over the fact that neither of them wants to be a responsible adult. Kelly doesn’t want to be the nagging wife familiar from every comedy (i.e. Leslie Mann in many of her husband Judd Apatow’s films), and so she isn’t. She agitates to be a person, not a type. She’s ridiculous, but so is everyone else, ranging from Lisa Kudrow as the headline-obsessed college dean to Hannibal Buress as the cop who keeps answering the noise complaints primarily because it seems to amuse him. Believable, individualized people and playful filmmaking are rare in big-studio American movies just now; we’ll take them where we find them.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

April 6, 2014

20140406-211249.jpgIn The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson makes no pretense whatsoever to reality. Anderson’s films, of course, have all been fanciful and fantastic, but this one ensconces itself in a fictional European country whose characters all speak in different accents, the natural accents of the actors playing them. When Edward Norton turns up as a fascist military inspector named Henckels, he doesn’t bother sounding like a fascist military inspector named Henckels; he just sounds American, and Ralph Fiennes, as a hotel concierge known as M. Gustave H., uses his native English tones. This prepares us to view The Grand Budapest Hotel as a fable told via actors playing dress-up. It’s consciously artificial in a way that Anderson’s films haven’t been before, and that’s really saying something.

The key to the movie, for me, is its elaborate matryoshka structure. The story is told to us by The Author (Tom Wilkinson as an older man, Jude Law as his younger self), who talks about the time he was told a story by the elderly Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) about the time he, as a young man (Tony Revolori), worked as a lobby boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel for Gustave. The Author tells this story in a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel, read in the present day by a girl standing before a monument of The Author. We are seeing all this in a movie called The Grand Budapest Hotel, making us the audience to a reader to an author listening to a storyteller. What’s more, Anderson evokes each era by using a different aspect ratio — in 1968 the frame is enormously wide, in 1932 it’s a demure square.

The events surrounding the story — Nazism encroaching like a bloodstain on a map — suggest that Anderson is boxing off the historical nightmare the way his compartmentalized, symmetrical compositions box off everything else. Just outside the colorful wackiness in the frame, shadows lie. The plot itself, sectioned off by all the narrative scaffolding, is almost inconsequential: a rich matron of the hotel (Tilda Swinton) has been murdered, leaving a priceless painting to Gustave in her will, and the police nab Gustave for the crime. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, the movie isn’t about this plot; it’s about how we use stories to keep thorny emotions in manageable spaces. People die, and the deaths aren’t felt, at least not in the story as it is told. A major character’s great love dies offscreen, her fate covered by a couple of lines of narration. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a callous work, but it’s about packing painful experience in storage.

On the most basic level, the movie is visually sumptuous, with Anderson’s fizzy deadpan comedy ladled over the immaculate design. The elegance of the look and sound is broken every so often by salty language, glimpses of surreptitious sex, even some bloodshed, all of which are relatively scarce in Andersonworld. When the jailed Gustave takes a sip of water and sets the glass down, we see a little cloud of red swirling in it. That’s about all the reality of prison brutality that Anderson wants to, or needs to, show us. Yet severed body parts and a breathless chase between a skier and a sled are also on the menu. There may be several floors of story here, but the overstory is a movie — the movie is the hotel itself, a story for each room. So Anderson gives us movie-ish thrills and a mystery of the sort we’ve seen umpteen times.

Of all the divertissements, I think what I enjoyed most was the implication that every great hotel back in the glory days of hotels was distinct only in design. A passage titled “The Society of the Crossed Keys” gives us a montage of concierges responding identically to a crisis, saying “Take over” to their right-hand men no matter what they’re doing. For all the moneyed prestige and pride of their architecture, functionally they might as well all be in the same motel franchise. This, of course, is never true of Wes Anderson’s films, which always manage to be utterly unlike anything else surrounding them in adjoining theaters. As for this one, it’s almost as if Anderson is addressing the detractors of his hermetic-dollhouse style and saying that wildness and weirdness are possible inside the dollhouse, and darkness outside.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

March 16, 2014

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A Western reader might want to think of Journey to the West, Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century novel, as the Chinese equivalent of The Odyssey — a seminal epic that has informed hundreds of stories in all media over the years. The tale of a Buddhist monk, Tang Sanzang (or Xuanzang), on a pilgrimage to find sacred texts, its most recent iteration was 2008’s Jackie Chan-Jet Li vehicle The Forbidden Kingdom. Now we have Stephen Chow’s version, whose subtitle, Conquering the Demons, suggests that this is only the first of a series; indeed, it functions largely as a prequel, examining the humbler days of Xuanzang (Wen Zhang) as a fledgling demon-hunter and how he first encounters the three demons who will later, at the movie’s end, accompany him on his quest.

Stephen Chow has been down this road before; in 1995 he starred in the two-part A Chinese Odyssey, wherein he played one of Xuanzang’s servants. In recent years Chow has come into his own as an actor-director whose films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle won him an enthusiastic cult in the west. This is his first film in eight years (since the rather lukewarmly received CJ7), and the first he’s directed but does not appear in. Chow is 51 now, and possibly getting a bit long in the tooth for such roles as Xuanzang or even the Monkey King, the role he played in A Chinese Odyssey, here filled by the grimacing Huang Bo. Chow settles instead for infusing the film with his obvious love for over-the-top action, melodrama, slapstick, and movie references. As an instance of the latter, the opening sequence dealing with a water demon terrorizing a village is Chow’s opportunity to rewrite Jaws, if Jaws ended with the shark reverting to human form and Roy Scheider reciting nursery rhymes to it.

Yes, that’s Xuanzang’s M.O. Instead of destroying demons, Xuanzang, following the beliefs of his master, prefers to reform them through moral mnemonics. This puts him in conflict with fellow demon-hunter Miss Duan (Shu Qi), who takes a decidedly more Buffy-esque approach. Miss Duan disdains Xuanzang’s ineffectual methods but finds herself falling in love with the asexual monk-in-training, going so far as to stage an ambush with several colleagues to get him to have sex with her. (Which would seem unfathomably gross if the genders were reversed, but never mind; Chow never passes up a chance for a laugh, even when the jokes verge on homophobic.) Xuanzang would probably get killed without Miss Duan, but his destiny as an enlightened monk depends on his adherence to nonviolence — Chow subtly sets up a dialectic between force and persuasion.

For fans of the freewheeling Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Chow breaks out one elaborate set-piece after another, employing not-always-convincing special effects to pit humans or gods against beasts. The water demon is an appetizer; most of the movie deals with the pursuit of (and retreat from) a fearsome pig demon, leading up to Xuanzang’s climactic encounter with the Monkey King, the most powerful of all. Chow pulls out the stops, introducing Buddha himself as a deus ex machina who hovers above earth like the Star Child in 2001. The action, as with Chow’s previous films, is flat-out cartoonish — a live-action anime — but always with grave stakes underneath. Even when the computer-generated beasties falter in verisimilitude, the movie is still ecstatic eye candy.

But again, this is only the prologue of a much larger story, which may frustrate the uninitiated. Journey to the West has already shattered box-office records in its native Hong Kong and elsewhere, so sequels are all but guaranteed; let’s hope Chow gets the next one in the can in fewer than eight years. I enjoyed the tension, so prevalent in Asian cinema, between brutal physicality and peaceful philosophy; in the martial arts these are two sides of the same coin, something Jet Li, for example, explored in his Fearless. In order to be worthy of the Buddhist scriptures he seeks, Xuanzang must believe that the monsters who try to kill him are worthy, and capable, of redemption. It’s an oddly pleasing theme, and ending, for a shoot-the-works action-comedy.

Vampire Academy

February 9, 2014

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The team of brothers Mark and Daniel Waters on a teen vampire movie sounded more than fine to me. Mark directed 2004’s Mean Girls, still Lindsay Lohan’s brightest day in the sun, while Daniel dipped his quill pen in acid and wrote 1989’s cult favorite Heathers. So the idea of these two working on a project set in a vampire boarding school — with the attendant bitchery and snark among vampire girls — writes a big check Vampire Academy can’t cash. It’s amusing enough, and will pass the time for you painlessly on Netflix in a few months, but the damn thing — following Richelle Mead’s YA series of novels — is just too plot-heavy.

We’ve barely sat down before the film heaves a massive infodump into our laps — the relationships of royal vampires (the Moroi) to the human guardians (the Dhampir) who protect the Moroi from evil vampires (the Strigoi). With all this mythology and terminology, the Waterses scarcely have room to breathe their own sarcastic life into the proceedings. Vampire Academy comes across as a comedy some of the time, with the witty Dhampir Rose (Ellen Page lookalike Zoey Deutch) maintaining a running commentary and amusing her Moroi BFF Lissa (Lucy Fry). The short, dark-haired, sardonic girl tossing fond verbal darts at her tall blonde friend who comes from a richer bloodline — this is almost a supernatural 2 Broke Girls. (They even have a heavily-accented, heavily-lipsticked foil in the person of headmistress Olga Kurylenko, whose character will inspire a few drag queens, Halloween costumes, and fetishistic attention among viewers not in the movie’s target demographic.)

I really couldn’t succinctly outline the story for you if you held a silver stake to my heart. The gist of it is that someone is plotting against Lissa, and the vicious Strigoi are involved (never mind the politics of pitting shabby-looking, 99-percenter vampires against gilded vamp royalty and expecting us to root for the latter), and also the Moroi have magical powers over the elements and Lissa is able to bring mortally injured beings back from the brink of death. The only hitch in our presumed identification with Lissa and her ilk is that they must drink human blood. But don’t worry: they get it from human volunteers who’ve read the Twilight books too many times. (In the movie’s reality, Twilight exists and is goofed on.) There’s some satirical flavor in the idea of vamp-smitten fangirls/fanboys willingly submitting to periodic nibbling.

But again, it’s too much info too fast. It’s too bad Vampire Academy bombed and won’t get a sequel, because the sequel — with all the world-building and glossary out of the way — would give the brothers Waters enough space to sit with Rose and Lissa and their classmates and get some comic rhythms going. (As it is, if you want the full spectrum of vamp pathos and snark, you’ll have to tune in to The Vampire Diaries, which has usually found the right balance between character moments and overarching narrative.) There’s a fine moment at an Equinox Dance when Rose, Lissa, and their dorky vamp friend Natalie (Sarah Hyland) stride into the hall in their fabulous new dresses, past a gaggle of teen-girl vamps who bare their fangs and hiss. There’s also a Heatherish vamp, the pixie-haircut Mia (Sami Gayle), who might be in on the plot against Lissa; but Mia sort of gets lost in the shuffle.

It’s always fairly sad when a movie that hopes to kick-start a franchise, but whose pallid box-office receipts guarantee zero sequels, ends on a semi-cliffhanger note that screams “Come back for the next film to see how this develops!” I assume there are going to be — or would have been, anyway — more challenges to the royal privilege of Princess Lissa, and her scrappy human friend would have had to help. Truly, other than the regal presence of Joely Richardson as the queen of the vamps, I would’ve been happy enough to drop the whole royalty aspect. It’s too transparently a ploy to hook teenage girls by combining vampires, Hogwarts, and princesses, three things that teenage girls presumably adore. The actors are game for wittier, sharper stuff, as are the filmmakers, but they’re all hamstrung by the demands of YA fiction — or at least this YA fiction.

American Hustle

December 22, 2013

american-hustle-amy-adams-1“People believe what they want to believe,” says con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) in American Hustle. I wanted to believe in the movie, but I couldn’t, starting with its hard sell that any of its characters are worth much. American Hustle is a loose, borderline-farcical treatment of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late ’70s. The sting took down a number of politicians convicted of taking bribes, including the mayor of Camden, N.J., fictionalized here as Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a good Italian boy with an epic pompadour. The styles and attitudes of almost all the characters are ludicrous; this is another 21st-century movie that invites us to chortle fondly at the sartorial excesses of the ’70s while trying to crank us up with classic-rock needle-drops and aping the cinematic style from the era, particularly its American master, Martin Scorsese.

Oh, David O. Russell must have had a ball for himself directing the film. He gets to engage in any number of patented Scorsese tracking shots; he reunites with no fewer than four favorite actors from two of his previous movies (Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook). But American Hustle left me feeling much the same way Boogie Nights did. In both, dynamic camerawork and epic breadth (American Hustle runs two hours and nine minutes) seem to mock and belittle the bottom-dog subjects of the movies. The problem with biting from Scorsese’s style is that if you lack Scorsese’s passion and obsession — which animate his style and make it feel like the way he sees the world — you’re left with empty technique, and that’s what happens with a lot of American Hustle.

It’s a comedy, but it seems to want to be more, starting with its self-important title (the script, by Eric Warren Singer, was originally called American Bullshit). People in the movie keep justifying themselves by claiming they’re not in it for themselves. Which is a useful satirical element, except that the movie kind of buys into the justifications. Irving Rosenfeld, for instance, balances a home life with flaky young wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) and her son with his relationship/partnership with another con artist, Sydney (Adams). The FBI agent who busts Irving and Sydney, Richie DiMaso (Cooper), is almost insane with ambition to make bigger busts and a name for himself, which he passes off as duty. Carmine Polito makes well-meaning noises about doing everything for his community. Russell half makes fun of these people and half feels sorry for them. They’re just doing what they have to do. Of course, they almost all have stupid hair and funny accents (Amy Adams is the only one who escapes — the camera loves her).

Richie compels Irving and Sydney (who poses as a Brit with banking connections) to help him catch politicians on the take. They produce a Hispanic FBI agent and pass him off as a sheik looking to invest in casinos on the East Coast. Blinded by money, and believing what they want to believe, a lot of powerful men are caught on tape taking the briefcase. (In real life, one man was approached but didn’t bite — Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. Given the film’s ’70s fetish, it’s surprising Guccione, or a version of him, didn’t make it into the movie.) But the scamming scenes go by so fast we don’t get much sense of their logistics or the emotions involved. It seems that David O. Russell isn’t all that interested in the story; all he wants to do is play with the camera and indulge his actors. Sometimes this works and entertains, sometimes not: one of the worst and most pointless scenes of the year has to be Jennifer Lawrence lip-syncing the living shit out of “Live and Let Die.” Other actors’ bits, such as when a desperate Irving and a wary Carmine find common ground, and Bale and Renner perform it flawlessly, are top-shelf.

At such moments, the film’s believe-what-they-want-to-believe motif comes alive. But American Hustle, like Boogie Nights before it, vaults heedlessly between bedraggled comedy and serious-stakes scenes in which the director shuts off the fun. This sort of tonal shift only works when it feels organic, and nothing in American Hustle feels organic; everything has been exaggerated and, in the end, Hollywoodized. Everyone gets what the audience wants them to get. The cast has boisterous personality to spare, but we’re locked outside of it because the film itself has none. Are we supposed to laugh at these people or with them? Russell is part of a generation of smarty-pants filmmakers whose eyes are bleared over — they have no clear vision of what they want to do other than to make cool movies with cool actors. American Hustle is geared towards grown-ups, and that might explain some of its grateful reception among critics tired of superhero movies. But grown-ups deserve and should hold out for better.

Inside Llewyn Davis

December 8, 2013

Inside-Llewyn-Davis“Talented” is death, a waffle-word to describe the never-was, the artist distinguished enough to get on stage and not stink up the joint, but not exceptional enough to soar and to take the audience with him. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), the folk singer at the center of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, is talented. Llewyn used to be someone, part of a folk duo called Timlin and Davis, until Timlin jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Now Llewyn drifts from gig to gig and couch to couch. The movie definitely takes the romance out of living in Greenwich Village in the old days; it’s set in 1961, not even a decade after the events of Paul Mazursky’s wistful memoir Next Stop, Greenwich Village, but the winter air is thick with the desperation of the “talented” to break out. Llewyn is decidedly not Larry Lapinsky, munching on an apple strudel at the end of Next Stop and thinking about where he’s been and where he’s going.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a plotless, week-in-the-life character study, following Llewyn from New York to Chicago and back, often in the company of a cat who seems as restless as he is. The musical backdrop works here the way it worked in the Coens’ 2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the songs of Americana born of strife and poverty yet transcending despair by the purity of their sound. “If you’re singing,” the songs seem to say, “you’re alive.” The saturnine Llewyn doesn’t transcend anything; he’s down, and he seems to want to take the audience down with him. He’s a bummer, and Oscar Isaac plays him that way, but with an angry edge; Isaac is uningratiating but compelling. Llewyn is a dick who knows life is passing him by, and knowing it makes him more of a dick. He doesn’t even have the redeeming musical grace that Sean Penn’s even more loathsome guitarist had in Sweet and Lowdown.

As always, the Coens get the external details precisely right. I don’t know how much it cost to reproduce the Greenwich Village of 1961, complete with period cars that are only seen glancingly enough to identify them as period cars (maybe those were done with CGI), but it was worth it. And as always, the filmmaking is gorgeously controlled, no mess, nothing extraneous. The lead character is heavy but the movie isn’t; it’s full of lively, immediately readable people, except for Llewyn himself. The title (also the name of Llewyn’s solo album) is ironic: we never really do get inside Llewyn Davis.

We know so little about him; he doesn’t say much about himself, and we don’t know whether he mourns Mike Timlin or just mourns the fact that his own career hit the water along with Timlin. The only people who seem to like Llewyn are a sociologist (Ethan Phillips) and his wife (Robin Bartlett), and Llewyn repays them by losing their cat and then insulting them. Yet Inside Llewyn Davis wouldn’t work if it were about a kind-hearted go-getter who doesn’t make it. It would be too depressing. It plays as a deadpan comedy in which a has-been or perhaps never-was tries to be as objectionable and as annoyingly unyielding as, say, Bob Dylan (seen briefly here at the end, as if showing Llewyn how it’s done) without having Dylan’s genius. Yet when he tries to sell out, as when he gigs as a session musician on an inane novelty ditty called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” he can’t even sell out right — he opts to take a fast paycheck instead of waiting for his agent to approve it, thus cheating himself out of the song’s royalties.

So the Coens surround their central blank with more enjoyable company, like John Goodman as a heroin-addicted jazz player, or F. Murray Abraham as a Chicago club owner, or Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as a husband-and-wife folk duo, half of whom Llewyn may have impregnated. I also appreciated Stark Sands as a soldier/folk singer who speaks fluent Coen-ese. They all have enough life to sustain their own films, but we stay stubbornly with Llewyn as he mopes and schleps the cat around and tries to scrounge money or couch space. Why make a movie about Llewyn (or Barton Fink, or Larry Gopnik, the mathematician non-hero of A Serious Man)? Why not, especially since American cinema tends to want to dismiss or forget any protagonist who isn’t dynamic and aggressive and, well, American, particularly now in the era of the superhero blockbuster? In a world of iron men and supermen and Norse gods, Llewyn is actually an exciting novelty.

The World’s End

August 31, 2013

130823154838-worlds-end-movie-still-story-topOnce again, Edgar Wright has directed the brightest bit of fun in a lugubrious summer. The World’s End starts out as a rueful where-have-the-years-gone comedy in the mold of Grosse Pointe Blank (complete with killer soundtrack) and somehow morphs into a mid-period John Carpenter sci-fi film (complete with stock-still antagonists whose eyes and mouths glow like Christine’s headlights, bisecting the wide frame with blue lens flares). Both movies within this movie are fresh and convivial, though the structure borrows from Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, in which the distracted protagonists were oblivious to the scope of the problem for a comically long time. Here, the problem is people in the town of Newton Haven being replaced by robots who shed blue blood (aristocrats?) and lose their limbs a tad too readily to be the terminators they seem to want to be.

Gary King (Simon Pegg), an alcoholic ne’er-do-well approaching forty, yearns for the golden year of 1990 — the year he and his four best mates from school tried and, alas, failed to drink their way through twelve pubs in a night. Gary contrives to convene the old lads again — Andy (Nick Frost), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), and Peter (Eddie Marsan) — though they’ve all moved on and become respectable. Gary’s epic idea is to re-enact the pub crawl, and finish it this time. Eventually the lads give in, knowing that arguing with Gary is futile. At the fourth pub in the crawl, it becomes fairly evident that all is not what it seems.

It’s entirely possible that, like Grosse Pointe Blank, The World’s End will resonate most directly and viscerally for those who were Gary’s age or thereabouts at the dawn of the ’90s. The bold strut, early on, of Primal Scream’s “Loaded” (with its bite from Peter Fonda: “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! And we wanna get loaded!”) took me right back to college and assured me I was in good nostalgic hands. But the songs aren’t just Super Sounds of the ’90s; many of the tunes, like the one noted, express the film’s theme of pursuing freedom in the face of authority and conformity. Wright and Pegg, who again cowrote the script, tweak the other four fellows for putting their party days aside, but Gary emerges as the film’s saddest character, a freedom fighter in his own mind who in truth wears the thickest chains.

The movie casts Pegg and Frost against type: in their previous two efforts with Wright, Pegg was the uptight striver and Frost the dissolute screw-up, and here it’s the reverse. The scenes of Gary trying to reconnect with his resentful former best mate Andy play like a scrawnier Falstaff appealing in vain to the fond memories of Prince Hal. Gary is also the right age to have seen, memorized, and worn out the video of Withnail & I, though the film is sensibly never addressed here — we look at Gary and we know he sees himself as Withnail 2.0, sneering in the rain “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?,” though missing the tragic point of that famous scene. Pegg gives us a delusional anti-hero who develops into a deeply flawed hero and eventually, by movie’s end, a bona fide John Carpenter hero.

By turns, The World’s End is better-choreographed than most of what’s been passed off as action this summer; funnier than most comedies this season; and, at times, scarier than most horror films in the last few months — the scene involving Gary’s old flame Sam (Rosamund Pike) and a pair of twins is pretty creepy. It’s a full package of entertainment, genuflecting to the sci-fi of John Wyndham as well as to the cinema of John Carpenter (who adapted Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos). As in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright and Pegg love to mix their British and American pulp influences into one spiky drink. I wasn’t a huge fan of Hot Fuzz, feeling that Wright and Pegg were too smart to go on riffing on other creators’ work, but what they’ve done here feels personal, not so much derivative. There’s a sincere melancholy to it. You literally can’t go home again, nor, apparently, can you drink there the way you once did.

This Is the End

June 29, 2013

this-is-the-end-trailer-12202012-193922In the opening half hour of This Is the End, Hollywood loses about 90% of its thirtysomething comedic talent. James Franco, playing himself, is throwing a big party at his L.A. home, and anyone who’s anyone is invited. Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel, also playing themselves, decide to head on over. The party, though, is interrupted by gaping hellmouths and rampaging demons. The end, indeed, seems to be nigh — in downtown L.A., various people are raptured away in beams of blue light. Among the survivors are Franco, Rogen, Baruchel, Jonah Hill, and Craig Robinson, all holed up in Franco’s not terribly well-fortified fortress, waiting for rescuers who never come.

The comedy of that first half hour rests largely on watching various sitcom players and/or one-time Judd Apatow cast members falling into the abyss. The remainder of This Is the End pits the increasingly unhinged survivors against each other as they fight over water rationing or territorial rights to a porn magazine. It’s funny in a lazy let’s-get-a-group-of-dudes-together-and-have-fun way that reminded me strongly of the ’80s comedy-movie aesthetic, particularly some of the Cheech & Chong films. Like those films, This Is the End was made for stoners by stoners; as in most everything Seth Rogen has appeared in, vast quantities of weed are toked, as well as copious intake of cocaine and ecstasy. At one point, Franco and Rogen sit around and brainstorm a sequel to their cannabis hit Pineapple Express; later, they and the other bored survivors actually film it on Franco’s camcorder left over from 127 Hours.

Bits of everyone’s filmographies come in for ruthless mockery, except maybe for the serenely sarcastic Craig Robinson, who has one note — he always seems to be raising a bemused eyebrow to the camera even when he isn’t — but plays it well. When party-crasher Danny McBride enters the scenario, and, earlier, when an axe-wielding Emma Watson joins in, the movie has an entertaining randomness. It sags a bit, though, when we’re just watching everyone squabble over the rapidly depleted supplies, and that takes up a good chunk of the film. Still, these guys are amiably stupid company, and Jay Baruchel, who lacks the name recognition of his co-stars, emerges as the movie’s unlikely hero and moral center.

As a potentially cameo-heavy Hollywood satire, This Is the End is disappointingly front-loaded, though a couple of surprise appearances near the end earn the big laughs they get. The movie cost around $32 million but mainly stays indoors; most of the money, I gather, went into the destruction effects and the shadowy hell-beasts who pop up here and there, chasing the guys around or visiting Jonah Hill in his bed. I would’ve liked more outdoor movement; there’s only so much boredom and annoyance one can watch before one becomes bored and annoyed. Past a certain point, the novelty of hanging out with comedians goofing around shades into irritation at watching rich people goofing around, and This Is the End crosses the line a couple of times.

Essentially, the movie is too self-amused to be truly inspired or gonzo, considering this premise and this cast — especially the cast it wastes in cough-and-a-spit roles, like Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, and Mindy Kaling. Also, self-parody may come a little too easily to a meta-actor like James Franco, who was probably funnier on General Hospital as a psycho artist named Franco. (Half the fun of a comedy like this is actors playing against expectation, but aside from Emma Watson we don’t really get that. Seth Rogen is pretty much the Seth Rogen you’d figure he’d be, and so on.) But the movie’s very self-amusement makes it go down easy, and it’ll make a decent Netflix streaming choice in a few months. It’ll sit comfortably on the shelf next to Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams or Next Movie (though C&C’s masterpiece, Things Are Tough All Over, occupies a higher shelf alongside The Man With Two Brains and Top Secret). Don’t file it with the apocalyptic flicks, though: The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 and World War Z are (inadvertently) funnier.


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