Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Age of Adeline — 5/10

THE AGE OF ADELINE (2015, Lee Toland Krieger)

There’s a scene late in this film that involves neither of the two leads, nor does it advance the plot in any way. It involves a character introduced halfway through the film and could have been cut out in post without hurting the story at all. But it’s the best sequence in the movie because it actually feels honest. The moment in question involves Harrison Ford’s character William, giving a speech at his 40th wedding anniversary party, talking about what his wife means to him. So far in the film we’d seen William go into shock at seeing a woman who looks just like (and might even be) the girl he fell madly in love with nearly 50 years ago. But he only dated her for a few weeks, and she disappeared. The film risks making William look like a dick for ignoring his long-loving wife in favor of this fleeting affair, but then earns back our trust with William’s speech, which argues for the real value in a lengthy relationship — that love is years of support, not a weekend of lust.

This is essentially the message of the film, and it’s why Ellen Burstyn’s character spends the whole movie trying to convince mom Blake Lively to get involved in something long-term. But no other sequence in the film lands as well as William’s speech; it’s just platitudes and cornball gestures. Lines like “you’ve lived all these years but never had a life!” and things like romantic walks among old timey theaters. Worst of all is the Ellis character — played with soap opera sincerity by Michael Huisman (a Dutch actor struggling with an American accent), Ellis changes not one bit after getting to know Adeline. He’s fallen in love with her before speaking one word to her, and spends the entire film trying to get her. Why? Although Adeline has plenty of good qualities (she’s wise and worldly but very humble; she’s caring and sensitive but has a sense of humor), Ellis apparently doesn’t need to know any of them. He does, but it doesn’t change how he behaves. He’s the same lovesick puppy dog in the third act as he is in his opening scene: smitten. Shouldn’t Adeline deserve a guy who loves her once he realizes what she has to offer?

Another issue is in Adeline’s agency. She can make choices, but for a woman who has infinite time on her hands, she sure acts quickly and impulsively for no good reason. Most of the dramatic problems here would be solved if she took an hour or a day or a minute to think about things. If I were Ellis I’d be more concerned with this apparent wishy-washyness than her just being closed-off. But the one thing she never makes a choice about is her anti-aging condition, and by taking these decisions out of her hands, Goodloe and Paskowitz’s screenplay doesn’t let Adeline be active in any meaningful way. It’s kind of a cop out.

Krieger has a decent eye, though, and his compositions and cutting are fluid and elegant. Ford and Burstyn are reliably good, the former especially endearing because it’s been so long since he’s been able to tackle a role like this. After so much focus on Indiana Jones and Han Solo, it’s nice to be reminded that this guy can really act. Lively, on the other hand, has a bizarrely unreal voice and an icy demeanor that is no doubt correct for this part (I can see why she was cast as a chilly but pretty woman who never ages and never gets close to people) but makes it tough to really identify with her or cheer her on. The result is a mixed bag that continues to fall short of the standard set by that one superlative speech.

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Unfriended — 8/10

UNFRIENDED (2015, Leo Gabriadze)

With horror movies having drained the found-footage conceit of every possible nuance, Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves have not only invented something new, but done so with considerable intelligence and creativity. The concept is both limiting and exhilarating — the camera never leaves the rigid frame of a laptop screen, but that screen contains various windows, each of which present their own opportunities for suspense. A file download, a secretive IM chat, thoughts typed and deleted before they’re sent, and even sound effects — the familiar bwip of a Macbook indicating something has just come in. UNFRIENDED is not a film about technology: not about its fears, its evils, or its benefits. It’s a film that assumes this technology has been woven into our lives for better or worse, and then generates its fear from story and character.

What’s so exciting about this work is how it manages to explore familiar themes with only visual cues — ironically, for as limited as the gimmick is, and as little as the camera can move, this is one of the most visually astute horror films released in years. So much is told with Blaire’s cursor and keystrokes: what she wants to say but can’t, how desperate she is (gauged by how quickly she types or refuses to fix typos), and most importantly — how much she trusts her friends and boyfriend. The issue of trust runs throughout this entire film; there’s the trust Laura put into her friends (that was betrayed by the viral video which ruined her), the trust Adam/Jess/Ken/etc. have in each other (witness how easy it is for them to place blame for the ghost’s actions on each other), and ultimately the amount of trust Blaire has in Mitch, which is indicated by her hovering cursor over words like “I promise” and the secrets about Val she almost shares but doesn’t (props to the movie for not being heavy-handed about child molestation; it presents the problem but doesn’t use it as a plot device nor an explanation). Although we only see her face in her own Skype screen, the moral struggles Blaire goes through are palpable merely through a roving diagonal black arrow.

Even more thought-provoking is the damning social message this story conveys. Laura’s ghost is a metaphor for how teenagers reveal their insecurities and turn on each other out of peer pressure, spite, and angst. It’s a film about cyberbullying, yes, but it’s bullying in general — why it happens, what it means, and how it can spread. These kids are not exceptionally terrible, but they’re not as “good” as they think. As explored recently by the likes of author Jon Ronson, public shaming is an issue now because rather than being a weapon of the mob, the mob is us. We’ve used social media to crowd-source bullying, and it creates a snowball effect of emotional violence that, in this film, becomes very real violence. Our culture’s best horror films are those that are both terrifying to experience and reveal something about the society we live in today. UNFRIENDED is both a trenchant critique and a visually vibrant piece of cinema.

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Ex Machina — 4/10

EX MACHINA (2015, Alex Garland)

…and that’s what I was thinking the entire movie. Get there faster! Actually, it probably didn’t matter how fast it got there; because I knew where it was going and I didn’t care to see it happen. But Domhnall Gleeson’s character Caleb is essentially Joey in that FRIENDS scene. The audience is (or should be, if you’re halfway paying attention) aware of what’s really going on in this plot but Caleb just can’t fucking figure it out. And he’s supposed to be some intelligent kid. (On a tangent — Gleeson is kind of playing the same part he did in FRANK: studying a strange person and not realizing that in his attempts to be good he’s actually messing everything up). So it’s a slog as we impatiently wait for everyone to catch up to the obvious. What’s more insulting is Garland presents the “reveals” as if they’re twists we could have never seen coming. Even though they’re not only telegraphed and predictable, but really the only potential outcomes that would make any sense.

There are some things to recommend, however. Oscar Issac is quite good as Nathan, a loner recluse billionaire genius who’s half Tony Stark and half Dr. Frankenstein. The production design is very cool (but how does that house stay so clean? You never see Kyoko or Nathan doing any housework) and the dialogue has some clever zingers. But watching it crawl at half speed to the most obvious conclusion imaginable is absolutely maddening.

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Furious 7/10

FURIOUS SEVEN (2015, James Wan)

Neal H. Moritz already had a career of big successes (I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, CRUEL INTENTIONS, etc) before producing THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS in 2001. Like most Moritz films, It wasn’t a good movie, but it made a ton of money. Yet even Moritz couldn’t have known what the franchise he started would turn into. Like Tom Cruise with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, Moritz would hire a different director for each installment: Rob Cohen, then John Singleton, then Justin Lin, before settling on Lin for episodes 3-6. Over that time, Moritz turned a POINT BREAK ripoff about street racing into a globe-trotting spy series with all-out wars in the streets.

Luckily for us, Moritz wanted to hurry episode 7 into theaters after the huge successes of 5 & 6, and Lin didn’t want to rush through post on 6 in order to do a half-assed job in prep for 7. (Nobody tell him that every film he’s done in his career is half-assed anyway). So Moritz hired James Wan of all people. Who would have thought that the director of SAW, INSIDIOUS, and THE CONJURING could do a big budget explosive action movie? Well, anyone who saw DEATH SENTENCE, I guess. That weird, grim, violent Kevin Bacon vehicle may have died at the box office but it showed that Wan had an untapped knack for camera movement in action scenes, and for montage cutting in simple scenes. And with this bizarre teaming of Wan with the FURIOUS franchise steadies, the product is the first actual good film I’ve seen in the series. (Disclaimer: haven’t checked out 2-4, but I was not a fan of 1 or 5, and found 6 to be barely mediocre).

Screenwriter Chris Morgan, who has penned all the films since episode 3, certainly hands Wan enough setpieces to make his mark, and Wan delivers. As in DEATH SENTENCE, Wan shows a penchant for above-ground parking garages and the ways in which they can host mayhem galore. But the greatest stunts involve driving cars through skyscrapers and — my favorite of the bunch — Paul Walker running along a bus teetering over a cliff so he can leap to safety on the spoiler of a passing sports car. The action here is ludicrous (pun intended) but enjoyable, in a relaxed way that towers over the forced and insipid stupidity of FAST FIVE, and Morgan’s dialogue is just as dumb but does not get in the way like it did in the last two entries.

There’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments here, from The Rock snapping off a cast on his arm by flexing to Michelle Rodriguez’s take-it-too-seriously performance, but it’s best seen with an audience who will have as much fun. (The less said about the morbidly saccharin final five minutes the better). Thanks to solid stunt work, good effects, and a director who lets nothing get in the way of pacing or entertainment, FURIOUS SEVEN is, oddly, a seventh-time’s-a-charm for Moritz’s franchise, and if it’s the last, at least they went out with a good time.

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