Monthly Archives: March 2015

While We’re Young — 6/10

WHILE WE’RE YOUNG (2015, Noah Baumbach)

Plenty of good stuff here for a story that’s ultimately not very good. Sabotages itself by going in all the lamest directions once it establishes its themes. And those themes are interesting, even if they’re ones Baumbach has been wrestling with in nearly every one of his films to date. But it has a few new things to say about aging, youth, and adults who can’t grow up: there’s the idea that young people aren’t as guileless, liberated, vivacious, and defense-free as old people think; those are just projections. People are always that bad; some just hide it better. Also, there’s the idea that using the latest technologies doesn’t make you young — in fact it’s usually the oldest people at the conference room table with the iPads (for example, nobody my age that I hang out with has one, but both of my parents do). The montage of Stiller and Watts slaving over their phones, tablets, cords, and wires intercut with Driver and Seyfried using analog equipment like typewriters and vinyl, playing basketball outdoors, etc. — it’s a keen observation about how aging isn’t in your lack of understanding of modern life, it’s in your lack of openness to it (echoed in one of the closing scenes with Grodin).

But for all of these smart — and quite funny, in many places — thoughts, Baumbach shoots himself in the foot by concocting a ridiculous third act about betrayal and artifice, then preaching to us with heavy-handed monologues and confrontations about truth in documentaries, the nature of communication, and blah blah blah shut up. I never thought I’d say this, but exploring the marriage between Stiller and Watts would be more interesting. (Plus, Watts gives one of the film’s best performances and deserved a more fleshed out role than this).

One more thing: almost stealing the entire movie is, amazingly, Ryan Serhant as a douchey investor. His character gets the biggest laughs in the two or three scenes he’s in, and what shocked me about how good Serhant is is that I only know him as a real estate agent, one of the stars of Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing: New York. Turns out all that practice in front of the camera for a reality show got him comfortable, and also turns out he has a theater degree and was on As the World Turns for 19 episodes before he became a realtor. He’s a douche on the TV show, but now I’m wondering if it’s all an act — he’s too good in this movie not to be self-aware. If Bravo cancels his show, I hope he quits real estate to go into comedy acting for a living now.

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What We Do In the Shadows — 7/10

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2015, Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi)

Doesn’t have much to say beyond its premise (Spinal Tap for vampires), nor does it add anything visually or structurally to the mockumentary genre, but it’s pretty damn funny. The little details and throwaway gags are the best things about it (e.g. when the vamps first run across a pack of werewolves and tease them by throwing sticks and the Alpha has to tell one werewolf not to chase it; or when they play Pac-Man in the mirror). Clement & Waititi understand character very well, and generate most of the gags from what established characters would do in a given situation — and that situation is so amped up because of pop culture’s well-worn trail of vampire and supernatural mythology that it’s a recipe for instant comedy.

I could see this as a TV series that would work even better than a feature film — even at 90 minutes this feels a bit slowly paced at times, but several 22-minute episodes tightly edited would be fantastic.

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It Follows — 7/10

IT FOLLOWS (2015, David Robert Mitchell)

Entering theaters with a massive amount of hype built up among the cinephile community (thanks to appearances at Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, and just about every other film festival held over the past 10 months), yet little-to-no mainstream marketing muscle, Mitchell’s modern horror film had a lot to live up to. Perhaps without these expectations my reaction would be stronger, but still — for the most part it does live up to the hype: it’s scary, it’s photographed incredibly well, and it avoids some of the lamer horror tropes that sink many in this genre.

The premise (a ghost/monster/creature/thing that stalks you and everyone you’ve slept with) is a giant honking metaphor for STDs — most specifically AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s, since sex basically equals death in this film. If you catch this thing, you’ll die sooner or later, and whoever you bang is going to get it too. To fuck someone is to murder them, essentially. Regressive, isn’t it? Same with the idea that when you fuck somebody, you’re actually fucking everyone they’ve ever slept with. This never made sense to me. But anyway, even being HIV+ isn’t a death sentence anymore. The amount of life-or-death terror heaped on the sexual act in this film, then, can most charitably be read as a comment on how important sex seems to you when you’re losing your virginity. But even that seems a bit dated.

Speaking of dated, when does this movie take place? It’s kind of fascinating — all the cars are old, the characters use wall-corded landlines (nobody seems to have a cell phone), and all the TVs are old CRTs. So it takes place in the ’80s, right? Well hold on — the youngest sister uses this weird Kindle-type reader that looks like a seashell-shaped compact but contains all of her school reading. It’s literally the only modern piece of technology in the entire film. Then again, Mitchell is aping John Carpenter (specifically HALLOWEEN) so loudly that he probably wants 2015 to be 1980. [The last film to be this Carpenter-heavy was THE GUEST, which I thought of frequently during this, yet without even recognizing that Maika Monroe plays the female protagonist in both movies — and she’s quite good].

Other questions involve the logistics of the premise: Does it transfer if you use a condom? What about oral or anal sex, or gay sex? What about group sex — who will it follow? What if you start but don’t climax? If the thing can break through doors and windows, why does it knock so often? It can walk great distances, but can it get onto boats or planes? If not, just fly to Hawaii. Sometimes it walks right through people, but sometimes you can feel it if you bump into it. Does it smell?

Okay, enough nit-picking. This is a pretty good movie; the camera stalks with purpose and does terrific things with creepy reveals and all edges of the frame. The characters are nicer to each other than most teen horror films, and bond together with sibling love and deep friendships rather than isolating each other. And whenever the acting isn’t so hot, Mitchell’s camera takes over the heavy lifting. The entire thing is drenched in water imagery — we first see Monroe in a cheap, above-ground swimming pool; there’s rain and ocean and lakes everywhere; and the climactic battle with the thing (the film’s best sequence by far) takes place in a massive indoor pool. (Not to mention one of the ghost-zombie figures is soaking wet and peeing on herself while stalking Monroe). And a shot early in that above-ground pool is key: Monroe notices an ant crawling down her arm, so she gently submerges her skin in the water, and the bug is easily lifted off of her. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the bugs we had around us could be removed so gracefully?

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A couple notes I didn’t fit in here:

* Mitchell falters when he tries too strenuously to get the movie’s themes into the text, such as when teachers or sisters read text aloud from books — the biggest offender is the youngest sister sitting there talking about how death is inescapable and relentless.

* The sound design and foley effects are often laughable. With so many other good technical credits here, it’s weird how risible the audio work is — half-open cabinets are opened with massive latch-catching noises, doors creak far too much, and a tuna sandwich on white bread is chewed as if it were a bag of potato chips. (Followed by a juice box sounding like it was a pool being drained). I can see this entire sound design being intended — over-modulation and exaggeration as an artistic comment on the world, but it doesn’t gel with the acting methods, the production design, or the tone.

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Maps to the Stars — 3/10

MAPS TO THE STARS (2014, David Cronenberg)

Heavy-handed and tone-deaf, it’s no surprise to see that Bruce Wagner, the screenwriter on MAPS TO THE STARS, has no decent credits on his resume. But it is a surprise to see that veteran Cronenberg, now 71 and wildly experienced, would helm a movie this poorly put-together. Although he’s never been a big-budget guy (his masterpiece THE FLY takes places almost exclusively in one loft, and his early horror films indulged in cheap thrills), MAPS feels almost senile with its coverage.

In an early scene, teenage celebutard Benjie (played by Evan Bird in an embarrassingly stiff and awkward performance) is visiting a dying girl in a hospital, and Cronenberg uses only two setups for the exchange — an ISO on her, and a two-shot of Benjie and his lackey — but when a reaction causes Benjie to cast a glance at the lackey, Cronenberg stays on the medium the entire time. What, did he have like an hour at that location to get the scene finished? Try a couple more angles, please. Then later there’s a nightclub sequence that mingles several of the main characters together, but you never get the sense of the space or when he’s cutting between stories. The compositions are lax and overly economical, and the result is a totally confused piece of filmmaking. It’s really sad to see a guy of Cronenberg’s caliber settle for coverage like this, and even though he’s never been Scorsese with his camera movement, at least his previous films got the most out of their economy. If there’s an aesthetic justification for direction this weak, it would be quite a reach.

And the material itself… ugh, not that we needed another movie to point out that Hollywood is incestuous and self-cannibalizing, but it still could have been done with more nuance. Julianne Moore is exceptionally good as usual, but when paired with her THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT co-star Mia Wasikowska, she can’t rescue a botched tone. One scene has the two of them dancing around celebrating the death of the son of Moore’s rival, and it’s clear Cronenberg intends it to be a chilling, mean-spirited sequence, but it just comes off dopey, unfunny, and a watered down attempt. John Cusack is amusing but wants to be in a different, funnier movie — while Olivia Williams is given the short shrift as his wife. It’s possible Cronenberg can still make another good film at this age (his last really successful one was 2005’s A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE), but he will need a lot of help with the material.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service — 6/10

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015, Matthew Vaughn)

For the first 15-20 minutes, KINGSMAN is electrifying — it moves at a blistering pace, but nevertheless each shot has an intricate choreography — the camera is constantly moving, but where characters live inside the frame is carefully composed and sometimes cheerfully amusing. And during all of this whiz-bang sorcery, there are some marked comments about Britain at large, introducing the film’s themes of how jolly old England is changing and what needs to happen to keep it alive. I thought I was watching vintage Guy Ritchie but with a brain, but then the Vaughn of KICK-ASS rears his head, and the film quickly slips back to mediocrity.

The bloated second act relies on drawn-out, predictable training sequences (while it’s cross-cutting with the fleshing out of its American villain), only coming back to life in the climactic action setpiece inside a mountain. This section is amped up to 11, furious and gleeful, but also unabashedly tasteless and vulgar. Vaughn wants to eat his cake and have it too, in a way, by promoting the gentlemanly charms of old England, decrying the American thirst for violence at every opportunity, only to serve up that violence on a silver platter, cashing in on every CGI burst of blood. (And for a movie with such a high body count, the violence here is so synthetic and computerized, none of it registers).

The jokes in the fringes — like a tabloid headline about Blur juxtaposed with one about seeing Brad Pitt in a sandwich — are cute, and certainly further the Britain-First, America-Last message, but so does the casting, which places the only two non-Aryan faces (a lisping Sam Jackson, giving it his all in full DJANGO villain mode, and Algerian actress Sofia Boutella) in the roles of the bad guys. Everyone else is squeaky clean, white, and properly English. That said, Colin Firth does an excellent job proving he would have made a terrific James Bond in an alternate universe where Bond could be self-aware, and it’s a pleasure to watch Firth so much as enjoy a pint of beer. Every time he’s on screen the movie pulses with life. Newcomer Taron Egerton is quite good as well. But I wish Vaughn had paid as much attention to the entire two hours as he did the beginning — it just feels like he storyboarded the shit out of the opening, then gave up and just let a lot of green screen and so-so dialogue do the work.

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Focus — 7/10

FOCUS (2015, Glen Ficarra & John Requa)

Fast-paced, luxurious, attractive, and entertaining, FOCUS would be easy to write off as a style exercise, another con-artist romp with nothing to say but plenty of tricks up its sleeve. But how about we don’t take the easy way out? So much emphasis is placed on the love story at the heart of it, that it becomes clear that this con game is really just a gloss on a fundamental tale about honesty in relationships. And what’s more, it doesn’t settle on the trite cliche that love is about being honest — its real message is that if you succeed in life by being deceptive and manipulative, then your best match is someone who appreciates and enables that. Kind of curious, and perhaps wrong-headed, but interesting nonetheless.

Ficarra & Requa’s other two directorial efforts, I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS and CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE. were also about con men, suave tricksters, and finding whom you’re meant to be with when you’re used to being deceptive. FOCUS is just as strong a comment on how love complicates our need to deceive both ourselves and other people, but it’s also a pretty cool package. For one thing, the costume design is out-of-control great. Modern-day films, especially lighter fare, never win Oscars for Costume Design, but Dayna Pink’s work here is the star of several scenes: the clothes and accessories define the characters as not only who they are to themselves, but whom they want to be for their marks. There’s a seductiveness to every pair of pants or sunglasses, even when they’re worn by actors as unattractive (but very talented) as Adrian Martinez.

I wish I could say the same for Jan Kovac’s editing. This is his debut feature and it shows. Perhaps he did the best with the coverage he was given, but the results on screen are troubling. Luckily he’s saved by the star wattage of Smith and Robbie (the latter of which is every bit as electric as her seasoned co-star), as well as a script that’s full of surprises. Ficarra and Requa seem to know all the tropes of con man movies, so they lead the audience to expect one twist and then deliver a completely different one. And they do this numerous times. All too often this leads to Robbie just getting amusingly mad at Smith for tricking her, but even still the narrative is fleet and intelligent. The best sequence takes place at the Super Bowl, giving BD Wong one scene to upstage everyone else in the film and create a hilariously memorable villain. This is one sequence you can say is all about surface pleasures, but oh, what pleasures.

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