Thursday, September 18, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor, Kick Gurry, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Jonas Armstrong
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

"Live. Die. Repeat." That's the catchy tagline for Edge of Tomorrow, and it's hard to accuse the studio of false advertising. But for the first half of its running time, the film feels like it's going to aspire for more than that, only to take a promising premise and one of the more interesting protagonists Tom Cruise has played, and instead settle into a routine action vehicle indistinguishable from his other recent offerings. And the set-up really is great, casting the actor in his familiar alpha male power position, only to pull the rug out and expose the character as kind of a bumbling fool, ill-equipped for the situation he's been thrust into. Initially, it could be described as Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers meets Metal Gear Solid, as everything surprisingly fires on all cylinders for a while. At least until a key reveal that causes the movie to go on autopilot.

When a race of alien Mimics take over Europe, public affairs officer Major William Cage (Cruise) is unexpectedly ordered by United Defense Force head General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) onto the beaches of France to suit up for combat. As a high ranking official whose position is limited to a desk job motivating those in battle, rather than engaging in it, the terrified Cage objects to the assignment, even threatening to use his media clout to blackmail Brigham. Instead, he awakens in handcuffs at Heathrow Airport, discovering he's been labeled a deserter and is now being prepped for combat under the gruff Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton).

It's a losing battle, not just for the inexperienced Cage, but all the humans involved in the invasion. Only he's the one who has to continually repeat it, waking up each previous morning after dying in combat, hoping to eventually gain enough experience and information to defeat the Mimics. His ally is Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who agrees to train him, immediately recognizing the rare phenomenon he's experiencing and how they can use it to claim victory.

Right away it's apparent that the film is bucking more than a few trends and at least attempting to deliver something a little different than we've come to expect from the current onslaught of overblown action spectacles. When we meet the protagonist he isn't very likable at all. In fact, he's smarmy and egotistical, fully deserving of the "transfer" he's about to receive. That he also almost wets his pants at the thought of battle is just icing on the cake. Think of it as an extended feature length episode of Undercover Boss in battle, if the supervisor in question is forced not only to do the grunt work, but demoted against his will. None of these soldiers know who this guy is and at first glance understandably find him to be a real idiot.

What's surprising here is how good Cruise is at playing against type, excelling even when not cast as the smartest, most physical guy in the room. Through this Groundhog Day scenario, Cage is suddenly given more than enough opportunities to gather information and figure out how to defeat the alien race, with the script effectively exploiting every one of them. That Emily Blunt's Rita isn't a sidekick or love interest, but a fierce warrior guiding Cage every step of the way and training him for battle. They lose a bit of that heading down the final stretch, but Blunt's believability in the role never wavers and is easily the film's most valuable asset.

To say a movie looks and feels like a video game would in most cases be disparaging, but director Doug Liman invites complimentary comparisons to that medium for a change with some excitingly choreographed action sequences. And while slugging around a heavy, armored metal suit wouldn't seem to lend itself to the most practical or mobile means of combat, it manages to look a lot less silly on screen than you'd picture it described. More importantly, it's fun, and despite doubling as a virtual advertisement for Hollywood's over-reliance on CGI, the technology at least looks good this time, making it easy to get pulled in, even while watching on the small screen.

The eventual disappointment is only that much greater when the overexplanatory reveal kicks in and Liman hits the default button, making clear his intentions to cruise (sorry) along to the finish. Really the whole last 45 minutes or so are mind-numbing, as the characters go through the requisite motions of blowing things up and getting killed over an over again to take us to the thoughtless place we feared we were going before the opening credits started rolling. While it's unfair to necessarily expect deep introspection from an action spectacle, teasing us with it, only to then cop out, is a far worse offense. The blame could lie at the feet of the source material, author Hiroshi Sakurazaka's Japanese young adult novel, All You Need is Kill, which was the film's working title before common sense (and maybe fear of a possible Beatles lawsuit) prevailed. But is calling it something as bland and forgettable as Edge of Tomorrow really that much of an improvement?

For a while there, this really looked like this was actually going someplace intriguing. It's difficult when a film has a great concept but the writing feels forced to over-explain it, causing considerable disappointment. What the approach does provide is a definitive end point with numerous explosions along the way, and despite an opening that wisely teased the opposite, an opportunity for Cruise to further extend his decades-long run as a kick-ass action star. At least this time he's spreading the wealth with a co-star capable of matching him in an arena he usually dominates. Liman probably accomplishes all he can with the material he's working with, and as far as big action blockbusters go, you could definitely do worse. Far worse.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Labor Day

Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Dylan Minnette, Clark Gregg, Brooke Smith, James Van Der Beek, JK Simmons, Alexie Gilmore, Brighid Fleming
Running Time: 111 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★) 

There are two scenes in Jason Reitman's stab at an Oscar-friendly period piece, Labor Day, that had me howling with laughter. No, it's not the infamous peach pie scene, in which Josh Brolin's escaped convict romantically teaches Kate Winslet's single mom how to make a peach pie. It's ridiculous for sure, but what  beats it is a long soliloquy from a manipulative teen girl that's one of the more hysterically out of place and overwritten speeches in recent cinematic memory. To say dialogue like this wouldn't come from the mouth of a girl that age isn't even doing it justice. It wouldn't come out of the mouth of any human being on the planet. Even in 1987. The boy listening to it has this dumbfounded look on his face the whole time and who can blame him? He'll later have a dream about her that's the second most ridiculous scene in the film and an embarrassingly bizarre depiction of an adolescent's first stirrings of sexuality.

Give Reitman credit for going way out of his comfort zone in adapting a Joyce Maynard novel, even if it's a place I hope he never goes again. And that's coming from someone who thought his last film, Young Adult, qualified as a darkly comic masterpiece. Apparently, enough people disagreed for him to attempt this mishmash of tones, which starts promisingly as a lurid crime drama before evolving slowly and painfully into what feels like a lightweight Nicholas Sparks adaptation. While featuring a pair of strong performances, it contains holes in logic large enough to drive a truck through, which is odd considering just how dull and formulaic the story ends up being. If this came from any other director it would probably be considered a decent if middling effort, but from a talent like Reitman, it's an unwelcome departure and an even bigger disappointment. If nothing else, we should at least give him credit for admitting it. The faster he puts this behind him, the better.

Adele Wheeler (Winslet) is a depressed single mom raising her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) in a Boston suburb in 1987. After husband Gerald (Clark Gregg) left her for his secretary, it been difficult for Adele to even leave house, with young Henry stepping up to assume the responsibilities of the household. As luck would have it, the one time a month the agoraphobic Adele can bring herself to the store, bloodied fugitive and convicted murderer Frank Chambers (Brolin) takes her and Henry hostage, formulating a plan to evade police while hiding out in their home. But he gets a little too comfortable, and so do they, with Frank becoming a sort of surrogate father to Henry and the husband Adele wishes she always had. After a while, the word "hostages" hardly applies as the stoic fugitive warms up to the idea of a new family even as he's haunted by a troubled past. But police are closing in, forcing him to decide whether his freedom is worth the potential  harm that can come to this woman and her son.

The story is narrated by an adult Henry (a miscast Tobey Maguire) and is in a way presented as a coming-of-age tale centered around his journey and memories of that Labor Day weekend in 1987. Ultimately though, that portion is where the film falls shortest, taking a backseat to the dopey romance. At the risk of dating myself, there's little in the film that gives us any real sense it's taking place in 1987, or was part of anyone's childhood, save for maybe the period cars. There's also little in the way of establishing the setting which we're lead to infer is a Massachusetts suburb primarily because of Frank's Red Sox cap and little else. After the standoff start one would expect from a fugitive taking hostages, he settles into the role of cook, handyman, electrician, dance instructor, husband and father. For Henry he's a more than suitable replacement for the dad who walked out on him while Adele's sees as a potential lover rather than a dangerous criminal almost right from the start.

Many of the film's problems stem from Frank being such a great guy that there's basically no conflict at all, aside from some really nosy neighbors. Everyone in town is bothering this kid about his mom, and not of out concern for her mental health, but because they're annoying and invasive. A supermarket clerk cross examines him about his items. Townsfolk show up at their door unannounced, and in some cases, even walk right in. And yet, Frank's been cleaning gutters and fixing cars in broad daylight without anyone noticing. Ironically enough, the one time everyone should have known something was up was when Adele and Henry are first abducted at the store, and none too subtly either. You couldn't imagine two more obviously petrified people not wearing shirts that read "HOSTAGES." But there is one rewarding sequence involving the unexpected visit of a handicapped child that does create some genuine tension and suspense with Frank's identity threatened to be accidentally revealed in a surprising manner.

Interspersed with the present-day action are flashbacks to Frank's past and the murder that landed him in prison. These sequences work and are some of the more visually impressive, but we know from the start Frank is no coldblooded killer, so while the scenes are engaging, nothing about them feel revelatory. Winslet and Brolin are fine in their roles, with Brolin the clear standout. But you could probably name half a dozen or more of their performances that are better, if only because the material was. Gattlin Griffith is strong too, except when he's dragged down in scenes with the aforementioned girl (played by Brighid Fleming), which force him to react to the unreactable.

Everything completely collapses in the third act when a character figures out information they couldn't possibly know and what started as a fugitive on the run story recalling A Perfect World or The Fugitive deteriorates into The Notebook. James Van Der Beek appears as a cop, and maybe the only smart character. Too bad even he's wasted when we realize Reitman was more interested in settling into a weepie love story. Maynard's source material is just too stilted and reserved for a filmmaker of his type. He needs that contemporary humor and a satiric edge to really excel. Here, he's handcuffed, dishing out a traditional period piece as is, without the benefit of being able to explore. Labor Day starts as something important with accelerating tension but by the end it's almost completely neutered, fizzling out as it approaches its final lap. It's one of those movies that seem enjoyable enough while you're watching only to discover afterward just how much better it could have been.            

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

Director: Josh Boone
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Willem Dafoe, Lotte Verbeek, Mike Bibiglia
Running Time: 126 min.

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's an affliction that exists in movies often mockingly referred to as "Beautiful Girl Doomed with Cancer" Syndrome. We've seen it enough over the years that it's almost become a running gag. In The Fault in Our Stars, adapted from John Green's bestselling YA novel, Shailene Woodley gives what just might be the best "Beautiful Girl Doomed With Cancer" performance of all-time. And that's not meant sarcastically or as some kind of backhanded compliment. She's wonderful precisely because she so naturally makes us feels like we're never watching one of those. And yet it delivers exactly what the trailers and commercials promised and its book's tween girl fanbase were clamoring for. It's definitely a teen romance through and through. But what's shocking is how this isn't a deal-breaker or even necessarily bad news since it proudly owns that designation while reaching for something more. The movie honestly wears its heart on its sleeve, completely committing to what it wants to do without any fear of coming off sappy or ridiculous.

According to doctors, 16 year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster (Woodley) is on borrowed time. She has been for a while now, suffering from Stage 4 thyroid cancer that's spread to her lungs. While an experimental drug has temporarily improved her quality of life, the simplest of daily activities are difficult. But with a sarcastic sense of humor and a realistic outlook on her condition, she sees herself as anything but a victim. When her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) suggests she attends a cancer patient's support group at a local church to make friends, she meets the charismatic Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) a former high school jock whose ongoing battle with osteosarcoma resulted in the loss of his leg.

The two start spending a lot of time together bonding over their favorite books, but despite Augustus' persistence and charms, it's a relationship she insists on keeping platonic, describing herself as a "grenade" ready to go off and destroy anyone who gets too close. But that stance is seriously tested when he provides her with the opportunity to fly to Amsterdam to meet reclusive author Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe), who wrote her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction, which centers around a young girl battling cancer. Whether she'll be well enough to even survive the trip and what eventually happens during it defines the relationship between Hazel and Augustus, which is rapidly evolving in ways neither expected.

For much of its first half the film follows a trajectory that would probably be familiar to not just anyone who read the book, but those who have seen any movie about a young person in love battling a terminal illness. But the difference here is that Hazel is unusually well-written and intelligent for a character of this type. She talks openly, humorously and sometimes even sarcastically about how horrible her condition is while maintaining a positive enough outlook that falls on the side of realistic rather than saintly. That's all Woodley's performance. Augustus isn't quite as deeply drawn and could easily be considered a "Manic Pixie Dream Boy," showing up seemingly out of nowhere to sweep Hazel off her feet by saying all the impossibly right things. But Elgort's so likable and the two actors share such incredible chemistry it's difficult for even that to be bothersome.

Their initial courtship is the film's strongest claim to "chick flick" territory with scenes that come off as somewhat cutesy in the moment until the full story later comes into view and they feel completely earned. The turning point is the Amsterdam trip and even some of the events leading up to that regarding Hazel's health. A lesser film would have just glided over the dangers and pitfalls of flying a Stage 4 terminal cancer patient on oxygen overseas. But the screenplay actually spends some time with her parents and doctors examining all the drawbacks, before coming to a reasonable resolution. We know the trip is technically a bad idea and likely impossible, but at least the characters are smart enough to understand that also.

Revealing anything about the jaw-dropping encounter Hazel and Augustus eventually have with her literary hero is giving away too much, but when a successful author's a recluse there's usually a reason why. And most of the time it's bad. Paraphrasing Hazel, Willem Dafoe ends up being the real "grenade" of the story, shifting things in an entirely different direction. The whole van Houten sequence is a legitimate shocker in how uncomfortable and angry it makes the viewer. I was literally squirming in my seat. If that's not enough, it's followed by another surprise that proves to be just as emotionally devastating, but equally well handled. In a rarity, the over two hour run time adds a bit of weight and heft to what could have seemed like a less substantial effort without the breathing room, even if it probably has one more ending than it should.

Woodley's simply a revelation in the role and try as the script might to sometimes take her into syrupy territory, she's having none of it, bringing a realistic vulnerability and toughness to Hazel that sidesteps as many cancer patient movie cliches as it can. With each passing scene she only pulls us in further, likely winning over any cynics who thought she was possibly too old for the role or didn't have the moxy to pull it off. She deserves much more than an MTV Award. Elgort is almost equally strong and in a way he had to overcome more in being thrust into the more obviously "written" part. He not only overcomes it, but creates doubt that Woodley couldn't have done this opposite just anyone else, effectively portraying this young man who isn't as sure of himself as he'd have everyone believe. An actor playing an actor, the only thing we know for sure is that his feelings for Hazel are very real.

It's easy to complain Laura Dern is being relegated to the mother role, but at least it's written and performed in such a way that it never feels like are noses are being rubbed in it. Walking the line between wanting Hazel to have a life and friends but aware of the precautions that need to be taken with her daughter's health, Dern makes her almost impossibly cool and normal without ignoring the emotional pain of the situation. Sam Trammell gets less time in as her dad, Michael, but he's portrayed and performed just as believably. Nat Wolff kind of feels hung out to dry as Augustus' blind best friend, more there as a wisecracking sidekick to provide comic relief amidst the gloom and doom. And it's already established that Dafoe steals the movie in his few, but monumentally pivotal scenes, bringing his trademark creepiness to the last movie you'd expect to find it in.

Indistinctly but efficiently adapted to the screen by relative newcomer Josh Boone, he may have just cashed in his directorial lottery ticket by simply not screwing this up. It's a victory that shouldn't be undersold since the number of ways a disease melodrama can go wrong are endless. Written by the duo of Scott Neustader and Michael H.Weber, this effort comes in a distant third behind their work in (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now, but there's little shame in that considering those were two of the best scripts written about young love while this is somewhat handcuffed by the trappings of a super-popular YA adaptation. But remarkably, that same observational quality about relationships from those films is still very present.     
The Fault in Our Stars doesn't exactly go where you'd expect, or at least in the way you'd suspect it to. But it also kind of does. And still, nothing about it really seems juvenile or cloying, even if by every right it should. With a somewhat bizarre structure and a wordless scene near the end that will have you choking back tears, it still has its faults, but even a few of those are converted to strengths thanks to some smart choices and two performers that make everything feel real. They're worth every penny the studio paid them, as it's impossible imagining a similarly successful result with different actors in the roles.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Blue Ruin

Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eved Plumb, David W. Thompson
Running Time:  90 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's a scene in the revenge thriller Blue Ruin where the petrified protagonist attempts to remove an arrow from his leg. He can't do it. And when you really stop to think about it, there's absolutely no reason why he should succeed. We take it for granted that movie characters can just do things like that on a whim. The entire sequence represents everything that's right with writer/director Jeremy Saulnier's Kickstarter-funded film, taking a common sense approach to logical storytelling.

Rather than a murderous vigilante on the loose hell-bent on revenge, we have someone who behaves as many of us would in the same situation. He has no plan. He's scared. He's in over his head. It's nice to see that not only acknowledged, but effectively dramatized to deliver a more compelling experience. This isn't an idiot plot and these aren't idiot characters making decisions only to fit the needs of the script. I believed almost everything that happened in this movie could have really occurred, to the point that you half-expect to discover it was actually inspired by true events.

Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is a bearded, homeless drifter living out of his rusted blue Buick in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Scouring through trash cans and dumpsters to get by, his daily routine is interrupted by a local cop who gives him some troubling news. Wade Cleland, the man who murdered his parents, is set to be released from prison after serving over a decade. With vengeance on his mind, he follows the newly freed Wade and makes poor attempts to to procure a murder weapon, eventually finding success.

Despite lacking any kind of plan, he's able to sloppily take Wade out, but in such a way that it puts him in considerably more danger than if he'd left things alone. Now a fugitive the run from the remaining Cleland family members, he now must not only protect himself, but his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves) and her two kids. And he'll have to rely on every resource he can find to withstand the seemingly insurmountable threat that's about to bare down, even if that means finding the courage to again strike first.     

While it completely subverts expectations, the actual act of revenge comes early enough that it's not a spoiler to reveal that's it's incompetently carried out by our nervous, panicked protagonist. Only it's the worst kind of revenge, providing no relief or satisfaction because Dwight will have the consequences of what he's done weighing over him, as well as the immediate danger he's put his own sister and her family in. Deliberate and methodically paced, there's a palpable sense of suspense bubbling under every scene since this guy has no idea what he's gotten himself into or how to get out.

Much like he's presumably gotten along up to this point, Dwight has to rely on only his resourcefulness to outsmart the Cleland family and Saulnier is clever in how he finds ways for his screenplay to do this that don't involve stretching credibility or relying on typical revenge movie tropes. Dwight won't be outmuscling or intimidating anyone, so he leans on whatever happens to be at his disposal. In one instance it's childhood friend William (David W. Thompson), who helps him out while still letting him know that this whole thing just seems wrong. And coming from someone who seems like they've been around this block before, it's a particularly unsettling statement.

Having an unknown Macon Blair cast as the lead helps immensely, further solidifying the everyman quality that makes us pull for Dwight's survival. When we first see him, his scruffy, Bonnaroo escapee appearance is off-putting, but there's still the sense of a kind, scared soul under that beard. And when he loses the facial hair out of necessity, our focus turns to Blair's face, whose giant, bewildered eyes convey the fear and desperation inside as he fights against becoming what he must in order to survive.

The entire situation has forced him to become someone he isn't, or was deep down without knowing it. And that revelation is scary. You get the sense that out of a moral obligation he's just trying to complete a job, albeit an ugly one. What Blair brings with his masterfully understated performance is the possibility that at a Dwight could reside in all of us if a similar set of circumstances lined up. In fact, you could argue the entire film is meant to hold up a mirror up and force us to examine what our actions would be. And through it all Dwight still can't seem to commit. Hesitation is his worst enemy.

It's debatable whether revealing key details concerning Dwight's murdered parents and the Clelands adds to the film or was unnecessary information better left alone. That said, I understand why Saulnier did it, showing that in situations like this there are sometimes two sides to the story and often no one is completely innocent. It's a lesson Dwight learns as continues on his journey, consciously choosing whether he should continue or end an already vicious cycle of violence. While the action escalates in the midst of all this, it never flies off the rails or feels like a revenge movie, maintaining its plausibility right up until the final scene.

Authenticity like this is rare since most thrillers of this sort are almost always drenched in over-the-top genre conventions, with acting, writing, and dialogue turned to eleven for maximum impact. This can be entertaining, but the truth is far more unsettling, as Saulnier ratchets up the tension with sheer, straight forward realism, opting for a bare bones treatment that glues our eyes to the screen when it becomes increasingly clear just how painfully relatable the seemingly unrelatable Dwight is. For him, revenge is only the beginning. It's the fallout from choosing it that's far worse.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Draft Day

Director: Ivan Reitman
Starring: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Tom Welling, Sam Elliot, Ellen Burstyn, Chadwick Boseman, Rosanna Arquette, Terry Crews, Arian Foster, Josh Pence, Sean Combs, Wallace Langham, Pat Healy
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Draft Day is an entertaining crowd pleaser that goes down easy, telling a tight, well-constructed story that accomplishes exactly what a movie of this genre should. But more importantly it's smart, while featuring a really impressive lead performance from an actor who again reminds us of his value in the right role. On paper, these would seem to be all the ingredients for success so it's perplexing that mainstream audiences, who usually eat this stuff up, stayed away. Until you consider this isn't about a superhero, but a general manager of a sports franchise struggling to rebuild his team and life. While it's loaded with football terminology and sports talk, it's basic stuff and not so "inside" that it would prevent those unfamiliar with the NFL from grasping the gist of what's happening or appreciating the protagonist's dilemma.

Cleveland Browns General Manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner) has a lot weighing on his mind, having not only fired his own father as coach, but mourning his sudden death a week before the NFL draft. Holding the the seventh overall pick heading in, he's made the controversial decision to trade their next three first round picks over the next three years to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for their number one. It's a steep price to pay, but the reward could be University of Wisconsin quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), which sits just fine with Cleveland fans and team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), who demands Sonny "make a splash." But potentially giving up their future doesn't impress coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary) or current QB Brian Drew (Tom Welling), who thought he was that future before getting injured.

With lingering doubts about Callahan's potential starting to rear its head, Sonny has other options on the table like outspoken Louisiana linebacker Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman) and Florida State running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), whose father, Earl (Terry Crews) played for the Browns. But Molina only wants Callahan, and Sonny could be out of a job if it doesn't happen. And simultaneously, his girlfriend Ali (Jennifer Garner), who manages the Browns' salary cap, hits him with the news that she's pregnant. With his father gone, and lacking respect from both his staff and fans, he now must step out of that shadow to rebuild the franchise and carve out a new life that's uniquely his own.

Reitman's juggling a lot of balls at once here and manages to keep them all in the air with little confusion as to what's going on at any given moment in the plot. Like the superior Moneyball, it's loaded with scenes of big deals being made, decisions being second guessed and back peddling. But unlike that film, much of that conversational action is handled with a split-screen as Sonny spends what feels like over half of the film's running time on his cell, which is obviously a necessity given the nature of his job and the circumstances (not to mention the fact he's human). What's surprising is how exciting  this turns out to be as his decision to surrender all of this ailing franchise's first round draft picks for the foreseeable future, and his mad scramble to fix it, presents a certain side to the sports equation that does differentiate it from Moneyball.

Rather than relying on statistics, Sonny often acts only on gut feelings and emotion, much to the ire of the Browns staff who prefer to look at the cold, hard facts. Sonny's not as smart as someone like Billy Beane, but he's a hustler who can persuade people that even the craziest idea will work. And if he can't persuade them, well then, who cares? He can just fire them anyway. Many times in this movie he's wrong and sometimes even when he's right it looks like he just got lucky because he had to guts to risk it all. That's a shade of nuance you don't often find when managers are depicted on screen, until you remember he's at such a low point personally and professionally that he has nothing to lose. His reasons for doubting "can't miss" prospect Callahan seem really sound and crazy at the same time, even if I don't know enough about the intricacies of drafting players to speak on its accuracy. But the best thing about the movie is that you don't need to. It's accuracy is irrelevant since Sonny isn't making decisions based on that. The script creates a compelling mystery around what's wrong with Callahan, then engages us with an interesting discussion about why it matters.

This is exactly the kind of role Costner should be playing at this stage in his career and seems almost tailor-made for an actor who's experienced some of his greatest onscreen successes in the sports genre. It's not baseball, but all the qualities he brought to Field of Dreams, Bull Durham and For the Love of the Game transfer seamlessly to the context and setting of pro football. There are a lot of unfair misconceptions about him as an actor, but only times he's faltered was when asked to go over-the-top or play larger than life characters in big budget spectacles, rather than normal people struggling with real problems. He's always been an underrated character actor pushed down our throats as a movie star. That makes this is perfect for him, taking full advantage of the actor's laid back, cool persona in a believable way that doesn't ask too much of him or the audience. As a result, he's superb. Take how he plays a pivotal scene with Tom Welling's injured QB, silently acknowledging he's fully aware how angry and betrayed his player feels, while resolute in doing what's best for business and letting him know who has the final say. Welling is also phenomenal in his brief role, totally believable as an NFL QB and commanding the screen with an authoritative presence that feels miles removed from Smallville.

Aside from them, the rest of the film is equally well cast across the board with Frank Langella leaving no doubt he's the profit-driven owner of a major sports franchise, calling the shots and making everyone's job hell. Denis Leary is just as plausible as the loudmouth, opinionated coach who refuses to back down to his G.M. since he's ultimately held responsible for whatever team Sonny puts together. Jennifer Garner is saddled with the girlfriend role, but she's one of the few top actresses who can believably play a nerdy brainiac so the lawyer role fits, bridging the gap between the two worlds. She and Costner don't exactly light up the screen with their chemistry, but they're bickering and talking about football most of the time anyway. Their sub-plot's the weak link, but it isn't unnecessary, and doesn't distract any from the sports side of things. The backstory concerning his dad's passing and the arrival of his mom (played by Ellen Burstyn) is handled better and of greater interest since it directly informs the events surrounding the draft.

The best way to watch this is pretending that Moneyball never existed, but Reitman makes that task easy by not only covering an entirely different sport in similar detail, but choosing to focus on a specific aspect of the business within a constricted time frame. By doing that, and having a skilled cast carry it out, he delivers a surprising amount of tension, despite us having a pretty good idea of the outcome. It's a lot of fun just sitting back and letting the script and performances work their magic, taking us there in a sensible, intelligent way. The main character may be constantly on the clock, but when it's over it hardly feels as if any time has passed for us at all.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dexter (Seasons 6-8)

Creator: James Manos, Jr.
Starring: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, David Zayas, C.S. Lee, Aimee Garcia, Geoff Pierson, Lauren Velez, James Remar, Colin Hanks, Edward James Olmos, Josh Cooke, Mos Def, Jason Gedrick, Katia Winter, Ray Stevenson,Yvonne Strahovski, Charlotte Rampling, Sean Patrick Flanery, Bethany Joy Galeotti, Darri Ingolfsson
Original Airdate: 2011-2013

Season 6: ★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Season 7: ★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Season 8: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

                                    Spoiler Warning: Following Review Contains Major Spoilers for the Entire Series

It was with great apprehension I recently resumed my viewing of Showtime's Dexter after a nearly three-year hiatus, during which time the series reached its highly controversial, much malig conclusion. It was time well spent, discovering Breaking Bad and Mad Men, the former being its closest thematic competitor in terms of featuring an anti-hero engaging in criminal activity that destroy the lives of those closest to him. It's a comparison that would seem to do Dexter no favors, despite it actually premiering first in 2007, since settling into a satisfying, if slightly predictable routine for its next five seasons, its quality remaining relatively consistent throughout. But whatever surface similarities may exist, Breaking Bad is the pinnacle of television drama. Dexter is Dexter. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Dexter opening title card
Having now actually binged it, it's a pleasure to declare that the final three seasons are as good (if not better) than much of what came before and the inexplicably reviled finale is a more than worthy show closer, ranking amongst the more intriguing dramatic finales of recent years. It's as gutsy as it is tragic, capping of a spectacular run of episodes under new showrunner Scott Buck, who followed through on promises to take the series in a different direction and shake things up. The series digs as deep as it ever has into Dexter's past and the creation of his Dark Passenger. With the big secret finally exposed to his sister and the introduction of some pivotal new faces, the lid gets completely blown off the series, resulting in a bloodbath that alters (or in some cases ends) characters' lives. This is what fans wanted, so it only figures once they get it, the complaining starts.

What really scared me away was all the internet bellyaching about how the show took a creative nosedive in its final seasons, a claim proven to not only be false, but littered with spoilerish details (i.e. lies) reconfigured to fit that very argument. It was impossible to avoid them all, but I should have known better than to even listen. An incest storyline. The Miami Metro Police Department not catching Dexter. Deb dying. Dexter as a lumberjack. And let's not forget a series finale many have already proclaimed the "worst ever." It's a a phrase we heard before when Lost concluded and again this year when How I Met Your Mother wrapped. Hyperbolic statements like that immediately kick my skepticism into overdrive, and for good reason this time.

An entire year has passed for Miami Metro's blood spatter analyst/part-time serial killer of killers, Dexter Morgan (Hall) since the events of Season 5. He's looking into schools for infant son Harrison while sister Debra (Carpenter) is promoted to Lieutenant, which is due less to an endorsement of her abilities than the fact she's caught in the middle of a political tug-of-war between Captain Maria LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) and superior Tom Matthews (Geoff Pearson). As her relationship with detective and former partner Quinn (Desmond Harrington) collapses and she deals with reluctantly accepting a promotion originally reserved for friend and mentor Batista (David Zayas), Dexter has a pair of new enemies to take care of.

"Doomsday Killers" Travis Marshall and Professor Gellar
Say what you will about Season 6 (a questionably scripted premiere sees Dexter taking inexplicable risks for mere shock value), but it is one of the more focused, thematically coherent seasons. That theme centers around religion and spirituality, with Dexter investigating a pair of ritualistic "Doomsday Killers" (guest stars Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks), whose murders are drenched in apocalyptic symbolism and cryptic tableaus, just as he starts examining his own spiritual convictions. With his Dark Passenger guided by the hallucination of late father Harry (James Remar) and a new confidante in murderer-turned-minister Brother Sam (Mos Def), Dexter attempts to curb his urge to kill, or at least tries to make sense of its origins. He isn't successful, but it sets the stage for the succeeding seasons.

No sixth season episode better illustrates this moral conflict brewing inside him than "Nebraska," which sees him driving cross country to investigate the mysterious deaths of the wife and daughter of the Trinity Killer. Guided not by the hallucination of Harry, but of his late brother, Brian Mosier AKA The Ice Truck Killer (Christian Carmago), it's a detour, but an important one as he continues to infuriate Deb with his secrets and wrestle with his past. While the sixth season does hue closely to the series' familiar format and is slightly hurt by a twist that could adversely effect rewatch value, it's better than most give it credit for and features a genuinely creepy performance from Colin Hanks that's anything but a throwaway.  But this season is mostly remembered for one moment that in hindsight divides the entire series into two parts: Pre-reveal and post-reveal.

How Deb would eventually uncover Dexter's secret life and what her reaction would be was already intensely speculated on by fans years before it happened. And the writers really couldn't have waited any longer before finally pulling the trigger since doing so freed them up to deviate from the show's format and start telling a different story. Would she turn him in and leave a son without his father? Help cover up his murders? How can she she go to work each day as a police Lieutenant knowing her brother's a serial killer?

Dexter's secret is finally uncovered by Deb
Of course, few could have guessed all these questions surrounding Deb walking in on a Dexter kill would have been preceded by the realization (prompted by her psychologist) that she had fallen in love with her own brother. Other than to hammer home Deb's sordid history of falling for damaged men like him, I'd agree with those unsure what the writers were trying to accomplish with this, but we can least give them credit for backpedaling fast and not following through with it. Occupying only two or three episodes and presented as a more of a psychological undercurrent, it's hardly the "incest storyline" it's been referred to as, almost immediately pushed aside in the wake of Deb's discovery.

Already having growing pains in her new position as Lieutenant, it's fair to say she doesn't take the news that her brother's a serial killer all that well, naively thinking she'll be able to rehabilitate him and help control his urges. Despite worries they wouldn't go through with it, the writers don't hedge their bets and go all the way, fully incorporating Deb into Dexter's dark universe. She knows everything, even as he tries to placate her with his explanation of Harry's Code and defenses that those plastic-wrapped victims who end up on his kill table deserve their what's coming, having evaded the law and prepared to kill again. The scariest part of the series has always been how true Dexter's defense is, but what it doesn't explain is why he enjoys killing so much, or even at all.

There's a lot going on Season 7 between the big reveal, Dexter tangling with the Ukranian mob and LaGuerta closing in on his crimes, as Deb still struggles to come to terms with it all herself. His ongoing feud with crime boss Isaak Serko (guest star Ray Stevenson) would feel like filler as we wait for the other shoe to drop with LaGuerta, if not for Stevenson's cool and cunning performance, but the entire story arc still brings back unfortunate memories of Miguel Prado from Season 3. But the  mob storyline does provide an excellent showcase for the continued downfall of Quinn, who must break some kind of record in terms of how much drinking, corruption, tampering and sleeping with witnesses one officer can engage in while not only keeping his job, but eventually being up for a major promotion. Whether he's taking payoffs from a strip club owner (Jason Gedrick), stealing evidence, or sleeping with a stripper (Katia Winter), you're aghast at how this guy is even still alive and not in rehab, much less following leads on big cases. He can thank Deb, Batista and eventually even Batista's sister (and Harrison's incredibly patient nanny), Jamie (Aimee Garcia) for keeping him on the straight and narrow.              

Yvonne Strahovski as spree killer Hannah McKay
With already enough plot for multiple seasons, it's the introduction of another killer, Hannah McKay (Yvonne Strahovski) that ends up shaping the remainder of the series and Dexter's emotional development. Finding the perfect match in a like-minded psychopath, he appears to have found the one person who finally understands his urges and accepts him for who he is. Unlike Julia Stiles' Lumen from Season 5, this isn't the single season, "one and done" guest arc we've gotten used to and those only familiar with Strahovski from Chuck will be surprised how chillingly she exudes a vacant,  cold detachment in the role, while still keeping Hannah stable enough to remain a viable long-term candidate for Dexter's affections. The only question is whether he's willing to risk the safety of his sister and son to enter a serious relationship with someone as potentially dangerous as he is.

The bumbling ineptitude of the Miami Metro police department has always been the show's creative Achillies' heel, as it was always tough to buy that they wouldn't have figured it all out by now, especially considering Dexter's increased sloppiness in covering his tracks. And it's that carelessness that points a suspicious LaGuerta in his direction.The image of Dexter being brought into Miami Metro in handcuffs as the Bay Harbor Butcher with his dumbfounded colleagues looking on ranks up there with the shocking moment John Lithgow casually walked into police headquarters to pay someone a visit. Of course, it doesn't take long for Dexter to play the victim card, successfully painting LaGuerta as a raving lunatic trying to frame him. But she won't give up that easily. While the seventh season finale could easily double as a series finale with Deb literally forced to choose between her brother and the life she's built for herself. Of course, she'll always choose Dexter.

Having Deb kill off LaGuerta was one of the best creative decisions they made, eliminating a character who had outstayed her welcome while sending Deb down a self-destructive rabbit hole for which Dexter's responsible. Season 8 belongs to Jennifer Carpenter, with the actress giving the performance of her life as Deb's self-loathing and seething resentment toward Dexter pushes her off the deep end. Regardless of what's been said about the final season, there's no way around the fact Carpenter was robbed of an Emmy nomination, even amongst the stiffest of competition. She's asked to play an entirely different character than previous seasons, so stung by her own actions that she's descended into an abyss of drugs, murder and sex.

Deb and Elway on the job
This all occurs under the guise of her new career for Elway Investigations, run by former detective Jacob Elway (Sean Patrick Flanery), who at first seems to merely be a slick used car salesman type. It's a surprise when he turns out to actually be a cool guy and an extremely fair boss, but a bigger one when Deb's allegiance to Dexter starts getting in the way of business, both personal and professional.  Bounty hunting and skip tracing would seem to be quite the fall from being Lieutenant of Miami Metro, but it fits Deb, a tough, foul-mouthed cop who was always more comfortable with the grunt work of active duty than dealing with red tape and politics. But this is really to escape, from Dexter and her guilt over killing LaGuerta to protect him.

The writers' willingness to reveal exactly how Dexter came to be at the risk of demystifying him elevates the final season into its strongest since the fourth. And it makes sense that there's no better person to do this than a criminal psychologist. Played by Charlotte Rampling in one the series' most rewarding guest arcs, Dr. Evelyn Vogel is initially brought in to help Miami Metro catch the "Brain Surgeon," a new serial killer removing pieces of victims' brains and leaving them at her doorstep. But she's really there for Dexter, as his surrogate mother figure who had a hand in creating him and the infamous Code. Now she desperately needs his help and protection.

Dexter's complicated relationship with Vogel hinges on her frequent inability to see him as anything more than a lab rat or a Frankenstein's Monster she created as the "perfect psychopath," unable to control his urges, but fine tuned to channel them in a direction that would cause the least amount of collateral damage.Her insistence that he's incapable of empathy, love, remorse or any other feelings associated with a normal, functioning human being is tested with Hannah's return and the responsibility he must take for essentially destroying Deb's life. For the first time, the siblings are at each others throats, with Dexter seriously contemplating his future as he plays a cat-and-mouse game with the mysterious Brain Surgeon, who proves to be his most dangerous adversary since Trinity.

Dexter confronts Dr. Vogel
Coldly robotic and almost Terminator-like in his presence (while being deeply obsessed with Mama Cass' "Make Your Own Kind of Music"), the reveal of who the Surgeon actually is and his purpose proves to not only be an absorbing look into the mind of a stone cold killer, but a bona fide shocker that actually makes sense in the context of the narrative. Besides leaving a trail of deaths, who he eliminates is important and personal, calling Dexter into action for reasons beyond merely the thrill of the kill. This time it feels like his moral duty. We also get the opportunity to see Dexter as a mentor, attempting to take a troubled young man under his wing afflicted with the same dark demons as he. But that project is short-lived, in more ways than one.

With LaGuerta gone and Batista, Quinn and Matthews taking on more prominent roles, Miami Metro isn't portrayed as incompetently as before, with even resident laughing stock Masuka (C.S. Lee) being given a somewhat serious sub-plot that subverts and challenges the character's loony reputation as a perverted horndog. And the writers knew something we didn't, as a long-term term plan was apparently put in place for Quinn that only comes into full view when the series concludes, as he becomes a rock for Deb when she needs someone most. Aside from Carpenter, Harrington's the actor who's grown the most in the series, ending his run ten times the performer than when he started.

Too often, series finales are judged by what fans believe THEY want to see or think should happen based on their expectations, rather than what serves the characters and story. Perhaps in their ideal finale, Dexter would be fully exposed for his crimes, caught by the police and sentenced to death. That's the only explanation I can think of as to why so some were disappointed by "Remember The Monsters?," which not only serves as a fitting final chapter, but one those rare finales that deserve to be considered amongst the series' best episodes, closing the door, yet leaving it cracked open enough to contemplate future possibilities. Some finales tie a series up neatly in bow. Others shock and polarize. There's no question which category this falls into. Dexter technically "survives," but the spiritual death he suffers is far greater punishment than his actual demise would have been.

Dexter says goodbye to Deb
The bond he and Deb share has always been the glue that holds the show together and in the last episode it's permanently torn apart. Him being thrown in jail or even sent to the electric chair for his crimes would have been too easy. Having seemingly rid himself of his Dark Passenger and need for Harry's advice, he's prepared to start a new life with Hannah and Harrison, at least until the full magnitude of his actions finally catch up with him.

With a potential escape from Miami cleverly juxtaposed with the landfall of Hurricane Laura (Mosier?), Dexter's final scenes with Deb where he's forced to pull the plug on his sister are the most emotionally devastating of the series, only magnified by the fact few saw her death coming, especially given her state at the beginning of the episode. And it's all his fault. He knows this, which is why he has to protect Hannah and Harrison from this monster. His Dark Passenger. As long as that side of him exists, he knows they're not safe. Just as Debra wasn't.

Seeing Dexter Morgan as a bearded Lumberjack having faked his own death and living under an alias in an Oregon cabin, it's hard not to be reminded of the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, "Granite State," in which Walter White is hauled up in a New Hampshire cabin dying of cancer. But even he got to put things right to an extent. We leave Dexter trapped in his own personal hell, staring vacantly into the camera knowing he'll never see his son and sister again. Without them and Hannah, he's nothing.

Lumberjack Dexter in "Remember The Monsters?"
The ending is more poetic and ironic than it's gotten credit for and doesn't feel manufactured so Showtime can milk more Dexter with a spin-off. For all we know they eventually might, but it sure doesn't feel like the motivating factor for a creative decision that more than holds up under logical scrutiny. And Michael C. Hall probably has enough offers on the table that the idea revisiting a character he's just played for the past eight years wouldn't be enticing. Could it happen? Absolutely, but it would take a lot of ingenuity to make it work.

That any continuation of the series is even being speculated is proof enough how compelling an end this was for the character and should silence dissenters claiming everything that came after Season 4 was "worthless." One can only hope the cast and crew tuned it out, especially Hall and Carpenter, who for 8 years carried this show on their backs. Everyone can agree their work never wavered. But   they couldn't have done it without an equally strong story driving them.              

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Under the Skin

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Joe Szula, Kryštof Hádek, Paul Brannigan, Adam Pearson
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: R

★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Every once in a while, an artsy, adventurous film no one can seem to agree on or make any sense of comes out and sparks debate. Such a movie divides critics while completely frustrating mainstream audiences gutsy enough to see it. It then starts showing up on year end lists, before eventually being discussed in the years ahead as some kind of "overlooked masterpiece," remembered long after the nominated features of that year have faded from memory. Other than alienating audiences (while actually focusing on an alien), Jonathan Glazer's bizarrely repetitive and dopey Under the Skin isn't one of these. Not even close. It isn't about anything. It has nothing important or even unimportant to say, save for a few gripping sequences that provide a temporary high. That it's well made and carried by a somewhat mesmerizing lead performance, is its saving grace. But let's be honest. It has to be carried by such a performance because, well, what else is there? When big name actors or actresses engulf themselves in edgy, artier fare it's usually in order to gain street cred or challenge themselves as a performer. Such a move is commendable, assuming said project also exists for reasons beyond that. purpose. I'm not sure this one does despite living up to its title by getting under my skin. In all the wrong ways.

Loosely adapted from Michel Faber's 2000 novel, the film is more of an atmospheric tone poem than a fully realized narrative, opening in Scotland as a motorcyclist finds a young woman's body by the side of the road. It's difficult to even describe what happens next other than saying this woman's skin is shed to reveal another nameless woman (Scarlett Johansson) who we can assume from events that follow, is an alien. And not just any alien, but one that's very seductive and overtly sexual, driving around Scotland in and and picking up men on the street via a selection process we're not quite privy to. These are her prey, whom she's easily able to lure back to her place, a black, vacant void where they find themselves submerged in a gooey liquid before meeting their demise. She continues to search for potential victims and finds them, all while the mysterious biker (real pro motor racer Jeremy McWilliams) follows her, retrieving bodies along the way. Becoming increasingly comfortable asserting control in an environment she knows little about, the hunter will soon become the hunted.

With a dialogue-free prologue and even very little spoken during the entire film, Glazer (who previously directed 2004's almost equally confounding Birth, with Nicole Kidman's dead husband reincarnated as a little boy), draws it's atmospheric inspiration from minimalist sci-fi head trips like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Man Who Fell To Earth, while matching neither in terms of content or ambition. But he deserves credit for trying, especially in terms of the imagery and visual effects, which were achieved practically and look all the scarier and more realistic because of it. The death scenes are mesmerizing the first few times, until you realize their conclusion will inevitably lead to her prowling the streets for men again and long, drawn out stretches of banality as she chooses her victims, and then, perhaps more painfully, engages them in what this movie considers conversation.

The only exception to the narrative's cyclical structure is alien woman's encounter with a lonely, disfigured man (played by actual neurofibromatosis sufferrer Adam Pearson) who's briefly enlivened and confused by her sexual advances in a scene that recalls the classic Twilight Zone episode, "Eye of the Beholder" in how we see how someone with no reference point for society's definition of physical beauty would view a disfigured person. Momentarily, the script has something important to say, making it easier to imagine the film earning all the wild praise it received had it focused exclusively on the ideas contained in that relationship.

That the cast consists mainly of unprofessional actors speaks to its authenticity and realism, even if they're trapped in a universe that doesn't do much with them and isn't all that interesting. But everything revolves around Johansson, who's appropriately seductive while also conveying the confusion and wonder of an woman dropped in an unknown world her character is struggling to understand. That said, you don't cast a big, recognizable star like her in something this weird unless you're trying to make a statement, and since we have no idea what that it is, at times her mere presence resembles a stunt. The most frustrating thing about the film is that she must have been cast for an obvious reason and we're left scratching our heads as to exactly why, besides providing male audience members the opportunity to see her strip down. She's effective in the part, but I never lost sight of the fact I was watching Scarlett Johansson in every scene since there's really no role for her to truly disappear into.

It's easy to understand why so many critics would embrace this risk-taking diversion, especially considering every other movie released these days seems to be a carbon copy of the next, more dependent on building a brand than creating a work of art that's unique or compelling. But this is an offender at the opposite end of that spectrum, trotting out highbrow arty fartsy nonsense at the expense of potentially intelligent observations about life and humanity, which is sci-fi's bread and butter. And that's coming from someone who loved Southland Tales, Synecdoche, New York, Enter The Void and Beyond The Black Rainbow, all movies perhaps even stranger than this, but containing real ideas. While it's problems don't seem likely to be remedied with a second viewing, you never know. If nothing else, Glazer deserves credit for infuriating me twice, and I hope he keeps doing it since the worst thing that could happen is his right to keep making bizarre movies being taken away. This is a bad one, but at least he had the talent and wherewithal to fail interestingly. That's more than you can say for most.