Monthly Archives: June 2015

Dark Places — 4/10

DARK PLACES (2015, Gilles Paquet-Brenner)

David Fincher makes dark movies. FIGHT CLUB exists a lot at night, and even when it’s daylight it’s coated with a grey haze. SEVEN is pitch black both in tone and often in visuals, but the genius DP Darius Khondji worked magic in that darkness. And Fincher’s most recent film, the excellent Gillian Flynn adaptation GONE GIRL, goes into a slightly more moral darkness, but manages to be smart, exciting, funny, and incisive. A lot of credit for GONE GIRL should go to Flynn for writing a cracking story and adapting it nicely for the screen, but a lot of it should also go to Fincher for knowing his way with actors and with camera work.

By the same token, a lot of blame for DARK PLACES should fall on Paquet-Brenner, who both directed and wrote the adaptation of this Flynn novel (which I haven’t read). Paquet-Brenner takes the word “dark” in the title far too literally, and unlike Fincher, simply can’t handle a movie that occurs in black rooms on starless nights. He and his DP Barry Ackroyd (who amazingly has cinematography experience on such films as CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and the HURT LOCKER, because watching this you’d think it was his first movie) just let the night interiors fall into that digital-video black, which isn’t rich, but just swallows up everything so all you see is a very dark grey piece of mud. Here’s a still from a tense conversation between Charlize Theron and her FURY ROAD co-star Nicholas Hoult:

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And later in the film, there’s a thrilling action piece inside a house, occurring in a flashback to 1985. Here’s a gripping still from that sequence:

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Okay, to be fair, there are some scenes where you can actually see actors. But that isn’t too much of a saving grace. Hoult is wasted in a role designed to be nothing but an engine for exposition. MAD MEN’s Christina Hendricks is narcoleptic in the flashback story — we’re waiting for her to show any signs of inner life, and she never gets the chance. Theron fares a little better since she’s in virtually every scene in the present day story, but the dialogue lets her down — it sounds unnatural and overly written, not like the peppier, engrossing dialogue from GONE GIRL. Corey Stoll only gets a couple of scenes; not enough to build any sort of real character. Tye Sheridan, so terrific in MUD and THE TREE OF LIFE, plays Stoll’s character in the flashback story, and while he’s immediately sympathetic and believable, also falls victim to a story engineered to force him down the path of a convoluted plot. A few nice moments make their way in here and there, especially with a great and weird teenage villainess played with gusto by Chloë Grace Moretz, but this is a glorified TV movie with no emotional current, no great mystery, and serves as a lesson that a great cast and good source material do not make a great movie by themselves. Sometimes it’s nice to have a David Fincher around.

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Jurassic World — 4/10

JURASSIC WORLD (2015, Colin Trevorrow)

The fourth installment of an ever-diminishing series is a face-palming monstrosity of stupidity, talking down so low to its audience, feeding them the lowest-hanging fruit from a tree grown in a lab designed to do the least work for the most money, that it’s no wonder at all it earned the highest grossing opening weekend box office of all time. The best-selling beer in America is Bud Light.

This bloated, self-proclaimed blockbuster starts off with a Lifetime movie prologue introducing us to the blandest white family since… JURASSIC PARK? Two market-tested kids (one is a headphone-donning hoodie-wearing teenager, the other a wide-eyed Spielbergian boy of wonder) fly off to meet their aunt Claire, played by Bryce Dallas Howard (dishonoring her father, whom I like to imagine narrating her character’s absurd pointlessness in his ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT voice). After wasting a good 15 minutes on these dull Q-tips, we enter Claire’s world, which is mired in corpocracy and greed — just imagine, a movie that finally takes on giant corporations! It’s almost like big companies are commodifying nature by turning it into theme parks and zoos, destroying life in order to make a fast buck! What a novel criticism; I really hope people pick up on this subtle message. (And believe me, it’s lost on nobody — the irony of an anti-greed message in a movie so greedy it actively insults its audience).

Finally after about thirty minutes, we meet Chris Pratt’s Owen, then spend another eye-rolling fifteen minutes watching the Raptor Whisperer argue with a power-hungry Vincent D’Onofrio (having tanned his skin and grown some hair since DAREDEVIL) over whether or not to exploit these beloved creatures. You will suffocate underneath all these strawmen.

So it isn’t until an hour into the movie when we’re introduced to the main narrative obstacle, which is the breaking loose of a genetically engineered Superdinosaur, the Indominus Rex. This beast is spoken of in such hushed tones of fear (the wasted Irrfan Khan says that not only will it scare kids, but it “will give their parents nightmares”), that you’ll be expecting one jaw-dropping visual. Well, guess what. It just looks like a T-rex. In fact, in the movie’s final act — which is by far its finest section (it includes about 15 minutes of stellar F/X work as raptors, the Indominus, the T-rex, and some pterodactyls all fight each other in World Dino War I) — you can’t even tell which one’s the Indominus and which is the T-rex half the time. How unimaginative is the creative team that they couldn’t design a badass awesome looking mega beast? It nearly ruins the only part of the movie that isn’t agonizingly stupid.

The script deserve special mention for idiocy, as it performs the incredible feat of turning Chris Pratt humorless. I assumed that wasn’t even possible. Scenes are stitched together or cut out without rhyme or reason — at one point it cuts from a character leaving a scene in broad daylight and entering the next scene in the pitch black of night. At another point Pratt douses himself in gasoline and then runs into a control room where his clothes are miraculously dry and scent-free. Claire calls her teenage nephew in panic, trying to warn him that a giant man-eating monster is on the loose right where he is, and their reception cuts off. So do you think she instantly goes to text him just in case the text goes through? Nope. She just calls again and prays for him to pick up.

More storylines are introduced and discarded, characters are there just to be dino-food, and one scene after another either rips off, echoes loudly, or pays blunt homage to several actual movies. But being reminded of the existence of ALIENS, PREDATOR, HOOSIERS, and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK does not make me enjoy the thing that’s reminding me. It just makes me wish I was watching one of them instead.

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Heaven Knows What — 7/10

HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT (2015, Josh & Benny Safdie)

Don’t be fooled by the bland, pillowy title. This is one of the most deeply disturbing, unpleasant experiences you’ll have at the movies. It’s also pretty damn good.

A word-cloud of discussions and reviews about it will likely generate frequent uses of things like “authentic,” “dirty,” “real,” “raw,” and “grimy.” Shot almost entirely with non-professional actors playing versions of themselves (i.e., smack junkies and dealers), on location with guerilla intensity (though the long lenses they’re forced to use in order to keep the camera out of the way do create a distance between the audience and characters, and often pushes us away when we need to be closer), HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT surely passes the verisimilitude test. It makes a Dardennes picture feel like sci-fi fantasy. This is the first film I’ve seen by the Safdie brothers (Josh writes, Benny edits, they both direct) but I’ll bet they’ll make some pretty good dramas.

The best thing they did, though, is discover and cast Arielle Holmes, a fierce talent who reportedly is just acting out her life on screen. But the fact that she has no training and is making no stretches doesn’t take away from the sheer force of her performance — her character is compelling and ultimately someone you care deeply for, even though she continues to make one terrible choice after another. At one point she is storming down a busy New York City sidewalk in a filthy black hoodie talking to herself with flailing arms. The passersby (almost surely real pedestrians who don’t know a movie is being shot, UNDER THE SKIN style) ignore her or look askance, and it’s a scene we’ve all been part of every time we walk through a major urban area. Some homeless nutjob, either crazy or on drugs, talking to themselves and being a nuisance. Let me just hurry up and get to my car. But here, we know who she is. We know why she’s upset, and we would rather follow this nutjob heroin addict more than any other person in the entire borough.

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Results — 6/10

RESULTS (2015, Andrew Bujalski)

Good luck finding a review of this movie that doesn’t lead with the director — either introducing him to readers via his past as a mumblecore auteur (FUNNY HA HA, MUTUAL APPRECIATION), or contrasting this film with his weird and original 2013 film COMPUTER CHESS. But truthfully, RESULTS barely feels directed at all. There are some bizarre old-school wipes fresh out of STAR WARS that really don’t serve to transition into a new scene very well, and once in a while an edit will make a good point. I can even remember one composition that was striking — a shot of Pearce in a bathroom peeing while the right 2/3 of the frame showed Danny’s dark, empty house. But for the most part, this is a character study and a low-key comedy, and it could have been directed by anyone from Joe Swanberg to Lynn Shelton.

Pearce, Smulders, and Corrigan give fine performances, though Smulders is hampered by a contentious and unlikable character who seems pretty unlikely to be the center of this love triangle. But plenty of scenes just lie flat, some meander, and others are quite forgettable. In short, it’s just a half-filled plastic cup of iced tea, something that was there and then it wasn’t. Hard to criticize too much, but even harder to think of a reason to revisit it.

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Inside Out — 8/10

INSIDE OUT (2015, Pete Docter & Ronaldo del Carmen)

If you’ve been waiting for Pixar to knock your socks off again since the 1-2-3 punch of WALL*E, UP, and TOY STORY 3 (in 2008-2010), but been disappointed by the output over the past five years, your wait is over. In a quick, breezy 94 minutes, the animation kings of Hollywood once more deliver a body blow to your emotions. In a film that might as well have been called ALL THE FEELS (as much for its effect on the audience as for its narrative premise), Docter, del Carmen, and their co-writers serve up a healthy dose of pathos with a side of sobbing, aiming more for adults than ever before. While always doing a good job balancing colorful slapstick for kids with poignant messages for their parents, Pixar really started to target the older crowd with WALL*E and UP. But now with INSIDE OUT, which certainly has the candy-colored dreamworld and funny voices to entertain and please the tykes in the seats, it’s going to be a weird sight when the credits roll and kids wipe Skittle dust off their lips to look up and see Mom and Dad wiping tears out of their eyes.

Amy Poehler is the central protagonist, playing Joy, but the MVE (most valuable emotion) is actually Sadness (Phyllis Smith). How about them cajones for a family cartoon? “Hey kids, it’s time to learn the true value of sorrow and dejection!” And without being too heavy-handed, there really is a nice acceptance here of why we need to let pain in. (It could even be read, by one so inclined, to be an argument against child psychology meds designed to keep kids from being depressed — or at least against the parental philosophy of “my kid should always be happy”). Heartstrings will be pulled even more by Richard Kind’s Bing Bong, an imaginary friend who seems to be invented by the grieving id of TOY STORY 3’s conclusion. With nearly the intellectual rigor and visual poignancy of ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, the Bing Bong storyline contemplates the unavoidable tragedy and painful certainty of the loss of memories.

Sure, there are some sops to the kids, with the minion-like appearance of little brain workers all over the place doing funny things, and at HQ there’s Lewis Black’s Anger character, whose flame-throwing fury top will no doubt earn guffaws from the young’uns. But even at these moments, INSIDE OUT never forgets the adults — in fact there are specific shout-outs to cinephiles, my two favorites being an obvious nod to CHINATOWN and, incredibly, Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 Cannes Palm D’Or winner 4 MONTHS. 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS. Seriously, a schoolteacher in this movie actually references a Romanian abortion drama.

And as usual, the animation is peerless. Creative beyond belief, endlessly unpredictable, and fully imaginative. I love when the format really takes advantage of its lack of boundaries. Deserving of special note is Michael Giacchino’s gorgeous score, which makes sure your eyes water even if the pictures and words weren’t already doing their job. I haven’t yet mentioned much about whether this film is actually funny. Because it’s ostensibly a comedy, you’d think it would be funnier — a lot of times I smiled but didn’t laugh, and I do wish it had been wittier overall. But there are a few great bursts of comedy (the Forgetter workers are a highlight), and for cat-lovers like me, a gag at the end is the most hilarious joke you’ll see in a movie all year.

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Spy — 7/10

SPY (2015, Paul Feig)

As the man carrying the torch for female-centered comedies (feminism will have to take what it can get, it seems), Feig goes bold here — casting all of its heavyweight roles (the hero, the super villain, the competent accomplices) with ladies, and saving the macho, studly men for sidekicks, clowns, buffoons, and perverts. But that’s about as far as SPY goes in its attempts at sociopolitical rebellion: its mind is strictly on making us laugh, and that it does. Very often.

I was looking forward to seeing Byrne take on a villain role, since she showed incredible comic chops in BRIDESMAIDS and NEIGHBORS. This performance isn’t quite up to those others, but she has her share of good scenes. McCarthy doesn’t really do anything we haven’t seen before, though she once again proves she might even be better at subtle emotion than broad comedy (I’ll take her touching third-act speech to Amanda Peet in the otherwise lame IDENTITY THIEF over anything in THE HEAT). In support, Allison Janney and Miranda Hart are terrific.

As for the boys, Jude Law is brushed a bit to the sides (though he relishes his rare time on screen) and Bobby Cannavale is uncharacteristically forgettable — but the standout by far is Jason Statham. Like Law, he doesn’t have a big enough role, but when he’s center screen he is tremendous; he finally turns the unintentional hilarity of his straight-laced straight-to-DVD persona (check out how he delivers the final line “A potato” in TRANSPORTER 2) into intentional hilarity. Statham knows that to be overly serious is to be funny, and he squeezes every bit of pulpy juice out of the fruit given to him Feig. And for good measure, fans of Will Arnett’s short-lived RUNNING WILDE sitcom will recognize the amusing comic talents of the prolific-these-days Peter Serafinowicz, once again playing someone gross.

SPY isn’t much of a spy thriller — its attempts to spoof the genre are half-hearted at best, nor does its narrative provide anything fresh (it has one very predictable third act twist that frustratingly has zero consequences); but it’s slickly photographed even if it’s sloppily edited (you’ll lose track counting the continuity errors). But it does have a ton of good jokes about big hair and ingesting 127 different kinds of poison at once.

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