Saturday, October 18, 2014

Carrie (2013)

Director: Kimberly Peirce
Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabriella Wilde, Ansel Elgort, Alex Russell, Portia Doubleday, Judy Greer
Running Time: 99 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Let's just get it out of the way now: Yes, Chloe Moretz is too pretty to play Carrie White, the role originated by Sissy Spacek in the 1976 Brian DePalma film. It's a statement you've heard and read a lot from everyone leading up to release of a remake most would consider pointless anyway. But whether or not it's actually pointless is up to the filmmaker remaking it, and sometimes that's not even true as they're often just following the marching orders of the studio. While we'll never know for sure, that seems to be what happened with director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry, Stop-Loss), who's as good a choice as any to make this work. And there are some moments when it almost does, in spite of all the obstacles put in front of her.

The question of whether Carrie has to have a certain look in order for Stephen King's story play believably on screen is a good one since the character's supposed to be an outcast on every level. While Spacek would never be considered "ugly" by anyone's standards, she did have an unconventional appearance that made her stand out from the pack, allowing the narrative of a shy, creepy misfit and social outcast to take flight in a way it wouldn't if another, more conventional "movie star" were cast. It's a case where looks matter. The same description even applies (to a lesser degree) to Angela Bettis in 2002 TV remake. Because the last thing Moretz can be described as is "unconventional," she's already at a deficit before the cameras start rolling. No one's denying her talent and despite being miscast she does a commendable job under thankless circumstances. Unfortunately, she just has to work harder to do it.

Shy outcast Carrie White (Moretz) is tormented by her classmates at Ewen High School, while at home she's emotionally bullied by her borderline psychotic mother Margaret (Julianne Moore), whose religious fanaticism prevents her daughter from leading the life of a normal teen. But at school Carrie finds a confidante and mentor in gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), who seems determined to punish the offenders, most notably popular ringleader Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday). Also feeling sympathy is classmate Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) whose guilt over joining in the teasing leads her to urge boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom. Needless to say the invitation doesn't go over well with mother Margaret, whose daughter is now just starting to realize her telekinetic powers. And that means trouble for everyone.

What's most bothersome about this reimagining is how it almost seems to draw attention to the miscasting by overcompensating, both with Peirce's direction of the actress and some of the goofy creative choices early on. Exaggerated mannerisms and costuming choices are used to accentuate the fact Carrie is a weirdo since that's really the only viable option. She mumbles, she slumps, she walks with her arms folded. All of this screamed acting with a capital "A" to me and altogether doesn't seem like the wisest route to take, but perhaps predestined considering the casting.

Moore's take on Margaret is campy to say the least, chomping on every scene in a performance that feels like an audition reel for Mommie Dearest. The only good thing is that it's clear early on the tonal direction they were going with this and the performance works as that. Whether it's the direction they should have gone with the material is another argument altogether, but unless memory fails, the original didn't feel quite this over-the-top and silly in its first half. Carrie's discovery of her "powers" also isn't handled as well, making the original seem like a telekinesis documentary in comparison. The presentation seems off, as if the screenwriters saw one too many episodes of Heroes, as opposed to attempting to organically incorporate it into the story.            

A web video on a smartphone and some texting represents the script's stabs at contemporizing King's first novel, but given how much of a timely, hot-button topic school and cyber-bullying has become, I expected a little more. But maybe it's for the best that they didn't at the risk of it feeling like just another teen horror movie, which it kind of already does. But the scenes involving Carrie's abuse at school are some of the strongest, especially that infamous shower scene with her cluelessly experiencing her first period as classmates ridicule her. One would guess this is primarily what earned the film its "R" rating, although you can't help but think the end product still strangely feels like a "PG-13."

The two strongest performances unsurprisingly come from Judy Greer and Ansel Elgort. As Miss Desjardin, Greer is asked to do some pretty ridiculous things for a gym teacher and yet she's completely believable doing every single one of them. She's an actress who can just slide into any role and do anything so it's not a shock, but when her character hits and curses at students, I actually believed an administrator wouldn't even think of firing her. It's one of many instances of her impressively covering up the script's flaws.

Elgort shows signs of the talent he'd later emerge as in The Fault in Our Stars with a similar but not identical performance. He exudes a laid-back confidence and likability as Tommy, going a long way to transcend material that wants to paint him as a one-dimensional high school jock. He and Sue going out of their way to help Carrie just might the most compelling sub-plot, if only because there's legitimate doubt as to their intentions the entire time. While Gabriella Wilde comes off as a blank slate as Sue, what Portia Doubleday does with Chris is great, as the character is less a school bully this time around than a full-fledged sociopath. It's a wise decision that only enhances our sympathy for Carrie and has you anticipating the moment when Chris get hers.

When Moretz transforms from ugly duckling into beautiful swan for prom it weirdly feels like the equivalent of Rachael Leigh Cook removing her glasses in She's All That, to the point that I half-expected Sixpence None the Richer to start playing. Nonetheless, this is the point where Moretz's performance really comes alive, as she's freed to play a more realistic teen instead of sulking as a weirdo. With the exception of maybe a little too much CGI, Peirce nails the big bloodbath of a finale, which was high on the list of things she absolutely had to get right.

There were plenty of stumbles along the way, but the staging of the famous ending is an exciting recreation, even making a couple of minor changes to the action in that gym that seem creatively defensible. What isn't is the final image, which reminded me of what Tim Burton did in his disastrous Planet of the Apes remake: Take an iconic closing shot and unnecessarily tweak it while winking at the audience. This isn't as bad an offender, but you have to wonder why they made it a point to change one of the few things that should have remained untouched. And are all horror remakes now required to close with a hard rock song, regardless of whether it fits?   

Since it clearly isn't strong horror, you have to wonder if Peirce had abandoned all genre trappings in favor of a coldly realistic dramatic tragedy, this would have turned out better. Sure, it would have alienated horror audiences, but that's a demographic you could argue is dwindling in theater presence anyway. There's little doubt that approach would have made for a better film, but I'm not sure it would have been as fun to watch.  This latest King interpretation certainly doesn't rank amongst his worst, but it's a missed opportunity, eventually finds its footing in time to deliver a gripping third act. But by then, the damage is already done.There's no problem in remaking Carrie, but if they're not going to change anything besides the cast, it's perplexing just how inferior this turned out with all the talent involved.

Friday, October 10, 2014

3 Days To Kill

Director: McG
Starring: Kevin Costner, Amber Heard, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen, Richard Sammel, Tómas Lemarquis, Eriq Ebouaney, Raymond J. Barry
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The best thing about the otherwise unambitious but fairly enjoyable McG action thriller 3 Days to Kill is Kevin Costner's performance. It continues what has to be considered somewhat of a late-career resurgence for the actor who's as good as he's ever been lately, this time as a veteran CIA agent dying of cancer. The set-up is both more and less interesting than it sounds, with a script that sometimes cleverly blends the main character's professional and personal lives, while delivering few surprises. That means it's all up to Costner to carry this, which he does, playing a two-sided character that isn't completely unlike the one we saw him portray in 2007's overlooked Mr. Brooks, with the key difference being that this murderous character is a legally contracted one. And yet the two movies are nothing alike and his work impressively not even the slightest bit similar. But even that's not enough to save what ends up being a fairly routine action outing well disguised as something more substantial.

CIA agent Ethan Renner (Costner) probably won't live to see Christmas, having been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer that's already spread to his lungs. When he returns home to Paris from his latest assignment, he sees the diagnosis as the final chance to repair his damaged relationship with estranged teenage daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife, Christine (Connie Nielsen). Instead, he's greeted with a proposition from CIA assassin, Vivi Delay (Amber Heard) to find and kill a dangerous arms trafficker known simply as the Wolf  (Richard Sammel). In exchange he'll receive an experimental drug that could possibly prolong his life, giving him extra time to reconnect with his family. But its hallucinatory side effects cause him to wonder if it's worth the trouble, while also making it extremely difficult to complete the task at hand. Hardly in top form but with nothing left to lose, Ethan's in a race against the clock, but the bigger challenge might be figuring out how to be a dad to a rebellious teen.     

To its credit, this is actually a pretty compelling premise, muddled by some of the usual cliches found in hitman movies. That's tempered slightly by Costner's work as a dying man trying to do right by his daughter. He makes it clear that Ethan is weakened and on his last legs, but doesn't overplay it either, showing shades of an agent you'd imagine as a force when he was at the top of his game. His best scenes are opposite Steinfeld, whose Zooey is not only at the age where she's mortified to even be seen with her father, but actually has a good reason since he's been selfish and absent most of her life. It's not groundbreaking material and I'm still on the fence about an actress of Steinfeld's caliber being burdened with having to flesh out a whiny teen in an action thriller, but if it has to be played by anyone, it may as well be someone talented.

How their relationship develops beats anything having to do with the actual assassination plot or whatever tasks Ethan must complete to extend his life. Their arc may be predictable, but in the hands of these two actors it manages to at least feel somewhat fresh. As entertaining as it is watching the action jump back and forth between Ethan's bumbling attempts to connect with Zooey and his assigned kills, the two never really merge in a satisfying way. The lone plus on the professional end of the narrative is Amber Heard at her most seductive as Vivi, injecting a decent dose of deadpan humor and energy into each of her appearances opposite Costner, even as Ethan injects the drug that could potentially extend his life.

The action sequences are excitingly filmed by McG, with everything eventually coming to a head in a bullet-heavy finale that concludes exactly as you'd expect. If anything, you'd figure the added drama of having a dying protagonist working against the clock would organically inject the script with an urgency, at least leaving the door open for possible surprises. Instead, it seems the filmmakers were content just letting this predictably unfold. That it was co-written and produced by Taken director Luc Besson should have been a hint to expect something a little meatier than a run-of-the-mill thriller but both installments of that franchise were considerably more suspenseful and exciting than 3 Days to Kill, despite having seemingly less to work with. Trying to turn Costner into the next Liam Neeson isn't the worst idea in the world, but he's going to need a much better project to fully pull it off.

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.