Friday, July 27, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises


Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, Nestor Carbonell, Juno Temple, Ben Mendelsohn, Brett Cullen
Running Time: 165 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

So, here we are again. It's been four years since the release of The Dark Knight, but it definitely seems much longer. Re-watching it again recently I was surprised how poorly it's held up and how on target my original complaints were. They only loom larger now. Poor editing choices, pacing problems, cringe-worthy dialogue, a poorly written love interest and a third act mess. And it was still pretty great. Much it saved, or at least greatly covered, by the late Heath Ledger's unforgettable Oscar-winning performance. It really was the rare case of one actor rescuing an entire film and a lesson in the danger of heightened expectations.

Now, with the arrival of The Dark Knight Rises comes the closing chapter in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, and another instance where it's difficult to approach a Batman film without seeing it through the prism of a real-life tragedy. At least for a while. We can only hope that doesn't last, because very little of what occurs in this final installment bares little resemblance to a reality we know. And what a relief. This is escapism at its finest. It's not only by far the strongest film in the series, but Nolan's grand-scale masterpiece and the movie everyone insists its predecessor is. He takes the gloves off, raising the stakes and escalating the mayhem. Knowing this is the end frees him up to anything, and boy does he take full advantage.

A palpable sense of fear and tension comes from sensing everything's up for grabs and anything can happen. And it mostly does. There seems to be no rules, but within that framework Nolan still manages to create something structurally sound and airtight, free of filler and flaws. Nearly three hours breeze by without a minute wasted. Of course, there's no performance like Ledger's, but there shouldn't be. In fact, it wouldn't even fit here. What's delivered instead is a more ambitious threat both terrifyingly physical and deliberately planned, as well as two tour-de-force supporting turns that steal the film outright. The results on screen don't lie. But the real story isn't how much better this is than Nolan's previous Batman outings, or anything else in the genre. It's that it isn't even close.

Revealing anything is probably giving away too much, so it's best to tread lightly when discussing the plot, which is as multi-layered as The Dark Knight, but more focused, with much of its thematic content calling back to Batman Begins. Eight years have passed since Batman took the fall for District Attorney Harvey Dent's death and a crippled, bearded, Howard Hughes-like Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) remains secluded in his mansion, even as trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) unsuccessfully attempts to coax him out of seclusion. Wayne Enterprises is crumbling after a failed investment in Miranda Tate's (Marion Cotillard) energy project while Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) grows tired of living the lie that inspired the Dent Act, a bill that's cleaned up crime and restored peace to Gotham City. At least temporarily.

Enter Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked mercenary with an intricate, carefully orchestrated plan to gain control of the city and instigate a revolution, restoring power to the people. With support from Gordon and most of the Gotham Police, including rookie detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Batman/Bruce Wayne is drawn out of retirement. But he must also contend with the arrival of cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), whose own motivations may or may not include helping him.  

From the exciting opening hijack scene revealing Bane, the film grabs hold and doesn't let go. Sounding like a Scottish Darth Vader, talking and breathing heavily through his life-sustaining gas mask, he's a horrifying presence as much for his oratory delivery as his freakish, hulking physique. All the complaints about his voice being unintelligible are unfounded and the few times I did had to concentrate on what he was saying was well worth it since its so hypnotically creepy. You actually look forward to his soliloquies about the troubles of Gotham and hang on every word, which is a good thing considering he lectures a lot.  Beyond that, the physicality Tom Hardy brings to the role is astounding, making his fights with Batman the most intense the series has seen. There's a feeling he could literally die at this man's hands. Brilliantly skirting the line between comic book adversary and reality inspired cult leader, he's true enough to be believable in both worlds, but successfully functions as both in Nolan's.

Bane's motivations aren't outright political or socioeconomic, nor are his actions (most notably an attack on Gotham's stock exchange) meant as some kind of endorsement or condemnation of the Occupy movement. The film isn't a social commentary. It's about Batman. And this may be the first Batman film that really is. Or rather, it's more about Bruce Wayne. The line between the two is fuzzier than ever in this installment, if not eliminated entirely. As a result Nolan plays fast and loose with Batman's identity, finally freed from the constrictions of having to "hide it," making Bale's performance more compelling as a result. The two personas are so inseparable that when a major character finally pieces the two together he feels out of the loop and the last to get the memo. Bale spends his least amount of time in the Bat suit, which feels right and means more when he's eventually back in it. That gravely voice is still there, but for some reason it bothered me less this time, either just because he isn't under the cowl as much or there's too much else going on to care. The movie is literally it's title, and that focus results in Bale's best work in the role yet.

Gotham City is also for the first time becomes a living, breathing character and fleshed out as much more than merely an action setting. This is a story that feels epic in scale, more so when Bane's plan starts to come to fruition and we head into the exhilarating final act, which contains a pair of shocking, game-changing twists. The city is literally at war with itself but the movie never feels like its playing in standard action territory because these sequences are seamlessly presented with minimal CGI, and the story stakes feel so high. Unlike The Dark Knight, nearly all of that action takes place in broad daylight so we can actually see what's happening and the camera isn't shaking, which makes for a notable improvement in presentation.  It might also mark the first time a nuclear bomb is used in a movie in a way that doesn't feel contrived or ridiculous.

Nolan's script opens up the entire city and pushes every important supporting character to center stage alongside Batman. It could have easily felt like an Inception reunion with so many cast members from that film on board, but it doesn't because each is plugged into wildly different supporting roles that help piece together the ambitious narrative. Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox probably has the least to do this time around while Michael Caine gets some of his most emotional moments in as Alfred. Despite being laid up in a hospital bed for nearly half the film, Oldman still manages to be as much of a force as Jim Gordon, this time eaten up with regret. And taking the requisite Eric Roberts/Tom Berenger veteran character comeback role in a Nolan movie, Matthew Modine turns in exceptionally solid work as a clueless, but power-hungry Deputy Commissioner Foley. 

If the Two-Face material felt shoehorned into the last act of the last film, than this one represents the most successful integration of two villains yet, if you want to classify Selina Kyle as a villain. Bane doesn't care about the haves or the have nots, the one percenters, or the rich getting richer, but Selina does and let's Bruce Wayne know about it. Yes, it's true she isn't referred to as "Catwoman"  by anyone during the course of the film which makes perfect sense since it wouldn't fly in this context. Of all the villains in the pantheon, Nolan was supposedly most resistant to incorporating this character into his grittier, more grounded universe, and it's hard to blame him. Michelle Pfeiffer's performance in Batman Returns, falsely held up as the gold standard, may have been appropriate for that film, but the interpretation is campy beyond belief, and that's coming from someone who loves the classic 60's TV series.

As the trailers have hinted, Anne Hathaway absolutely knocks it out of the park, delivering the definitive interpretation of the character by making her a believable human being with real motivations. Devastatingly sexy and lethally dangerous, Selina's damaged goods who might have past the point of redemption and I loved how the usually super-expressive Hathaway's eyes just seem to go dead. There's legitimate doubt which side she's on that lasts until practically the final scene, and is only enhanced by Hathaway playing Selina as if she might not know either. And I love the catsuit, which actually seems like a functional uniform for her job rather than a costume. She's also given just the right amount of screen time to make the necessary impact. Much like Ledger, in hindsight it seems impossible anyone would think she was miscast or another actress could have done this better. And I've thought it too. We couldn't have been more wrong.

Marion Cotillard's Miranda Tate is thankfully no Rachel Dawes, and along with Selina Kyle, finally disproves the allegation that Nolan is incapable of writing strong female characters.Calling Hathaway's performance the picture's strongest is high praise, especially considering Joseph Gordon-Levitt almost walks away with it. Despite what you may have heard, his part as Gotham cop John Blake is so huge in both camera time and importance that you may as well consider him a co-lead alongside Bale. As the only hopeful, idealistic cop left amidst a sea of corruption, he seems to understand Bruce Wayne in ways no one else can, and Levitt plays him as the ultimate good guy, struggling to hold on to his values even as his city collapses around him. The movie's as much about him as it is Batman.

There comes this point in the picture when Nolan does something we didn't think he'd ever do, that he swore he'd never do, and even Christian Bale said he better not even try. But somehow he pulls it off, and without us even realizing he did until it's over. It's surprising just how powerful this ending is. Talk about sticking the landing. It feels like the cherry on top of a sundae, bringing the saga circle and confirming that Nolan hasn't been overpraised for his resuscitation of a franchise that was left for dead before 2005's Batman Begins. Even when the execution had holes, his overall vision for the trilogy was airtight. So now the strongest film gets a somewhat divisive reaction. Why?  Because Ledger's not in it?

The Dark Knight Rises, besides actually being fun, feels like The Empire Strikes Back of the series, fulfilling all its lofty ambitions while still leaving us wanting more. Nolan could easily continue, but he's right to go out on top. Saving the best for last, he's come the closest to shaking the stigma associated with comic book movies by using its origins as a jumping-off point to something bigger. His work's done, but the beauty of the Batman franchise has always been how open it is to wildly different interpretations. Just pity the poor director who has to follow this one.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

American Reunion


Directors: Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Thomas Ian Nicholas,Seann William Scott, Tara Reid, Mena Suvari, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Eugene Levy, Jennifer Coolidge, John Cho, Dania Ramirez, Katrina Bowden, Ali Cobrin, Jay Harrington
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: Unrated

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The fourth and likely final installment of the American Pie franchise, American Reunion, is the first film in the series that works better as a movie than a comedy. Or rather, it works better as a coming-of-age drama. No, scratch that. It's kind of a bittersweet tragedy. Which brings up an interesting question: Do you punish a film for being something entirely different than it was advertised as? Even if it's more? Count me among the few looking forward to seeing a fourth film with the reunited entire original cast . Being the same age as the characters and essentially growing up with the series, I figured it could be exciting seeing them reprise their roles almost a decade later. At worst, it could at least be good for a rush of nostalgia. And now after watching it I still think it was a great idea, just not at all in the way I expected. The thing is that the kind of humor that's hilarious when you're a teenager or college student often rings hollow when you're an adult, even a relatively young one. So seeing these characters at this age awkwardly engaging in it creates a wildly different tone. In other words, it's sometimes kind of sad. But the big surprise is that the filmmakers know it, resulting in a picture that's oddly moving, while still fitting firmly within the franchise's wheelhouse. More of a dramatic re-imagining than a sequel, this installment bares little, but just enough resemblance to the previous films to hold up really well on its own.

The East Great Falls High School Class of 1999 is having a reunion and the gang is back together, now as adults in their early thirties. Pie-humping Jim (Jason Biggs) is still married to former band camper Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), but now as parents with adult responsibilities their sex life is  non-existent, as we discover in a hilarious opening sequence typical for the series. Kevin Myers (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is an architect whipped (figuratively) by his wife into cooking and watching The Bachelorette. Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott) is as immature as ever, floundering at a temp agency while sexually harassing and insulting co-workers. Oz (Chris Klein) is an L.A.-based sportscaster and minor celebrity with a supermodel girlfriend (Katrina Bowden), but still pines for high school sweetheart Heather (Mena Suvari). Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) arrives back in town on his motorcycle, supposedly reinvented as a sophisticated world traveler, catching the eye of Michelle's old friend Selena (Dania Ramirez). None of these characters are as they were when we last saw them or they saw each other, and their expectations of how this reunion will play out differs greatly from what actually happens, even if some things seem to always to stay the same.

This is the first film in the series not written by Adam Herz, but instead Harold and Kumar writer/directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. And it really shows. Not in a bad way, but it just has an entirely different feel to it. It even looks different. As supposedly big fans of the franchise who wanted a crack at this, no one can claim they don't know these characters inside and out. It almost plays like a piece of fan fiction, speculating what would happen if the gang returned home and came to the sudden realization everything's different and they're getting older. Even the bond that's always been the heart of the series undergoes a change as Jim's dad (Eugene Levy) adjusts to life as a widower and must now rely on his son for advice and support after years of being the one giving it (often with overly graphic descriptions). Much of the humor this time around comes from a place similar to that, mixing gross-out gags and call-backs to the previous films with real emotional pathos that feels earned because there's a history to draw upon with the characters. It's less the teen sex romp stuff we're used to and more the "Yeah, that's what it's like" recognition that comes from reaching adulthood and suddenly seeing those times through the rear view mirror.

I'm probably making this sound deeper than the filmmakers intended but take the uncomfortable, bordering on creepy, sub-plot involving Jim and his barely legal neighbor Kara (Ali Cobrin),whom he used to babysit, but now is infatuated with him. In what qualifies as the movie's major set piece as much as Jim's web cam tryst with Nadia did in the original, the image of him trying to sneak a drunk, topless Kara back into her bedroom as Finch, Oz and Stifler entertainingly distract her parents downstairs is funny precisely because the filmmakers seem aware of how creepy it is. Here's Jim, now a husband and a father, carrying this naked teen girl (who's about the same age he was in the original) and hiding out in her bedroom.  Having always played the most neurotic and self-conscious of the group, Biggs know just the right way to approach it, making Jim seem as horrified as we are. Our shared history with these already established characters help bizarre situations that might fall flat in another comedy work. They also have enough guts to make Stifler pathetic and crazed, as his actions in this one come closer to what you would expect from a mental institution escapee than a fully functioning adult. He's a sad, angry loser and the script at least has enough guts to present him that way and have every character openly acknowledge it. Pranks that may have been funny in his day would land any adult in jail I appreciated there was no attempt made to have him miraculously experience a life change or mature as a result of the films' events. His best scenes involve the gang's encounters with current high schoolers and his failure to realize what made the "Stifmeister" cool then only qualifies him as a total tool now.

Surprisingly, the movie belongs to Chris Klein and Mena Suvari, with the former giving his most relaxed, lived-in performance yet as Oz. Playing him in a state of depression as if he were some repulsed, distant observer of his shallow life, Klein gives this brilliantly subversive take on a D-list star who once embarrassingly appeared on "Celebrity Dance-Off." It seems to exist in this odd meta realm located somewhere between Neil Patrick Harris (who actually cameos) and James Van Der Beek on the self-parody scale. Oz's reunion with Heather proves to be the movie's most successful element as the writers give the sub-plot just enough breathing room for you to really want to see them back together, not only because the story dictates they should, but because it actually feels earned due to their chemistry. Suvari shines, proving she's still got it, and Klein has a crucial scene late that he plays perfectly, alternating between humiliation and sadness in what should be (and still strangely is) the movie's comedic high point. That both actors seem to reignite in themselves the spark and promise they first displayed when bursting onto the scene in the 90's only make their performances resonate that much more.

The relationship between Thomas Ian Nicholas' Kevin and Tara Reid's Vicky is also given appropriate closure of a different kind, but worth pointing out for Reid's semi-successful, train-wreck free return.  Pie's most well-known alumnus, Alyson Hannigan is kind of brushed aside in a thankless wife role, as Michelle seems withdrawn and lacking the buoyant personality we'd normally associate with the character. Then again, the point of the movie is that these people are no longer what they were and Jim's marriage is becoming a bore, so to that end, the point's taken. Of course, couldn't be an American Pie movie without Jennifer Coolidge returning as Stifler's mom, this time hooking up with Jim's dad in a development that oddly makes some degree of sense and gives two comic treasures and opportunity to strut their stuff. There's also very brief appearances from Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth), "MILF guy" (John Cho), and Jessica (Natasha Lyonne). Some of these seem crammed in as an afterthought but given the sheer number of franchise cast members and need to focus on the core group, it's hard to be upset that lesser supporting players were relegated to cameos.

The filmmakers deserve credit for recognizing a new American Pie movie warrants a different approach and having the guts to not just simply deliver another helping of the same recipe. The characters are older now and thankfully the script reflects that progression and the feelings accompanying it.  There are some laughs, but the laughs aren't the same ones we got in the previous three films. They're more uncomfortable and cringe-worthy, likelier to hit a nerve with early-thirties viewers than than high school demographic the series was originally aimed at. But that's really how it should be at this point considering where the characters are in their lives.  Comedy and drama too often mix unevenly, but American Reunion seems to strike a nice balance in tone that's been escaping most mainstream comedies centered around adults not wanting to grow up. Here, for once, are characters who actually have. Getting them all back together to do this again every five or ten years might not be such a bad idea.               

Sunday, July 15, 2012

John Carter


Director: Andrew Stanton
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong, Thomas Haden Church, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Bryan Cranston, Daryl Sabara
Running Time: 132 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

I really don't care how much money a movie makes or what it costs to make it, though it seems many in the media do, holding it up as a testament to its creative worth. Of course, it's nice for the people involved and the studio releasing it when their project cleans up at the box office, but just because an expensively made movie is a financial flop doesn't make it an artistic failure. Any more than it's necessarily a success if it rakes in the dough. In this era of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, Twilights, Transformers and Marvel movies, just about the only argument that can be made in favor of a relationship between quality and cost is an inverse one. Yet somehow, Disney's John Carter, a fun, spectacularly silly throwback adventure that has its heart in the right place has become this symbol of Hollywood greed and corporate avarice because it didn't recoup its high price tag. Really guys? You're gonna attack THIS?

Far from the Waterworld-sized debacle it's been touted as, JC is actually an intelligently told fantasy fable featuring a likable protagonist, an incredibly strong female lead and great visual scope. It's also a bit of a mess, albeit a fascinating one. The plot's too convoluted with about three or four different timelines and villains, and a more streamlined screenplay would have resolved some lingering issues, but that's the extent of it. Its worst crime just may have been being based on Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs' 100 year-old series of stories that inspired the likes Star Wars, Superman, Flash Gordan and Avatar, but arriving onscreen last, unintentionally making it look and feel derivative when it's just late. With just a little tweaking, this really could have been a huge deal. And with his first foray into live action, longtime Pixar director Andrew Stanton certainly does a smoother job fleshing out a world and navigating intraplanetary politics than Lucas did with his prequels, as faint as that praise may seem. But it isn't faint, as more sci-fi adventures could stand to be as fun as this.    

After a brief, poorly placed prologue on Barsoom (A.K.A. Mars) that plays as a strange cross between Return of the Jedi and 300, we're informed of the death of John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) of Virginia, a Confederate Civil war Captain who left nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) a diary explaining the circumstances that eventually lead to his death. It flashes back years earlier to the Arizona territory where Union Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston in a blonde wig and colonial garb!) arrests him, but he escapes, leading them both to a cave where Carter is confronted by a Martian Thern named Matai Shang (Mark Strong) and transported--via a mysterious medallion--to Barsoom, where he's discovered by a Green Martian Tharks and their leader Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe). With his new ability to jump incredible heights and perform superhuman feats, Carter's unwillingly thrust into the middle of a bitter feud between rival cities Helium and Zodanga, with the evil Sab Than (Dominic West) plotting to end their war by marrying the headstrong Princess of Helium, scientist Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Rescued by Carter, she promises to get him home and with the help of Tarkas' daughter, Sola (Samantha Morton) and a lizard dog named Woola as they embark on a treacherous journey across the Red Planet.

While the plot's way too complicated and at times unfocused, but for a film of this scale it's surprisingly deep, with the meat and bones of the story working really well and clear care put toward character development. Despite seeming to take a library's worth of Burrough's stories (supposedly it's mostly adapted from just one, The Princess of Mars) and attempting to jam it into a single overplotted feature, it's a shock this isn't harder to follow. I'm usually no fan of extensive CGI and think it's criminally overused, if not outright ineffective in most films, but the effects here are fairly realistic-looking.Yes, the entire budget is right up there for everyone to see on the screen, but at least desert vistas actually look like desert vistas. I hesitate in describing the Tharks as resembling Jar Jar Binks (which they kind of do) since they're more crisply rendered with a mixture of CGI, motion capture, and make-up, and not nearly as annoying, possessing identifiable traits that serve the narrative. Lizard dog Woola looks so real you'll want to take him home, while the pair of giant white apes Carter tangles with in a gladiatorial showdown recall the monstrous wompa Luke faced off against in The Empire Strikes Back.

The story does lull and lag in places (particularly the middle portion) while spinning off in a few different, sometimes problematic directions, but there was never a moment when I didn't care about what was happening or lost interest Carter or Dejah's predicament. Taylor Kitsch is solid as the lead, if kind of a blank. Then again, a blank hero is called for in this situation. This isn't the kind of movie that rises or falls with his performance so trying to pin the imaginary "blame" on him is pointless since any actor could have been plugged into the role with the same result. Whether he should have taken it is a different discussion altogether, but I'm glad he did regardless of the fallout because at least it's a start. He'll survive this and hopefully move on to edgier work, which is where his strength more likely lies. But all things considered, he did really well. Parts as memorable as Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights don't come around every day on the big or small screen, so we may have to wait a while for him to find something comparable.

As tanned, tribal tattooed warrior princess Dejah, Lynn Collins is a real find in her first leading role. After co-starring in a handful of smaller, underseen projects without really registering much, she sure registers here. Her character is strong, beautiful, independent and intelligent, representing exactly the kind of lead female role we need more of in adventure movies. Collins is more than up to the task, never making her feel like a damsel in distress. If there were any justice she'd be a huge star off the back of this film. Instead, being in her mid-thirties, she may not even be given another opportunity at this level again. That's a shame and a sentence I should never have to type, but a chilly reminder of how Hollywood works. Give Disney credit for casting a mature woman in a woman's role instead of a kid in hopes of reeling in teen audiences. Now doing THAT would have been greedy, not to mention detrimental to the film.

If John Carter's guilty of anything it's over-ambition both in terms of visual design, and in telling a more involved story than was necessary. Not much of a crime from where I sit. That overreaching is especially evident in convoluted, twist-laden ending, which takes a bit to come into focus, but pays off in a satisfying finish. Much like Disney' unfairly maligned Tron: Legacy, it's a family film, but PG-13 and not made exclusively to sell toys. It's closer to an old school sweeping sword-and-sandals fantasy epic than a superhero movie. Of course, no one knew what it was. But Stanton did, and his slavish devotion to the source material is a creative plus that alienated confused audiences unfamiliar with "John Carter From Mars," but found it difficult to get psyched for a film simply titled, "John Carter." Knowing how it concludes, the title change does actually make sense, working best under the assumption they'll be a sequel. Barring a sudden resurgence on DVD, that seems unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility. I wouldn't mind seeing one, or revisiting this because at least it dares to be different. It mostly succeeds. With untested stars and an ambitious story, John Carter takes chances. And when movies like that stop being made, then we're really screwed.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Chronicle

Director: Josh Trank
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Alex Russell, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Anna Wood, Bo Peterson
Running Time: 83 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Coming out of nowhere, Chronicle uses its high-concept premise as a playground to push past its genre boundaries to become something entirely original and exciting. It's such a surprise and so cleverly conceived that it's perplexing audiences didn't come out to see it in droves, despite it doing fairly well at the box office. Why they didn't probably has something to do with its lack of marketing and the fact it combines two heavily played out genres: superhero and found footage films. I hesitate even mentioning that because it feels more like a John Hughes movie in how it crafts an intelligent, mature story about teenagers that can be appreciated by all ages. A title card reading "Presented By Steven Spielberg" wouldn't look out of place if this were the 80's. After watching is it plainly clear what "bigger" movies like Super 8 and Hancock were trying to do, but couldn't fully accomplish. Here, the camera really is a character and through it we're taken on a wild ride that would be tough to replicate using just any other technique. And in doing so, first-time director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis should be congratulated for submitting one of the top films of the half-year and perfectly weaving all its elements with an emotional, Columbine-style allegory. It dares to ask what a modern day Holden Caufield would be like if he suddenly possessed superpowers. As you might have guessed, the answer isn't pretty.  

Seattle high school senior Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) has a mother (Bo Petersen) dying of cancer and a drunk father (Michael Kelly) who's verbally and physically abusive. A social outcast at school who's constantly bullied by his peers and somewhat ignored by his own cousin Matt (Alex Russell), Andrew's only friend seems to be a handheld camcorder, which he starts carrying around to chronicle his life. When Matt drags him to a rave in hopes of helping him meet people they encounter popular student Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) who persuades them to record a strange occurrence in the woods. They enter a giant, mysterious hole in the ground emitting a loud noise and containing a giant, glowing crystalline object. Fast forward a couple of weeks later and they possess a wide array of telekinetic powers that begin to escalate, becoming more refined as they experiment in their backyards and beyond. Pretty soon they're using the powers in public for practical jokes and seemingly harmless mayhem, but with no established rules for its use, Andrew's darker side comes out, threatening their friendship and everyone's lives.

The scenes where they first discover their powers are about as entertaining and funny as could be hoped for in a superhero movie, if only this were just any superhero movie. Testing out their telekinesis on unsuspecting customers in a supermarket is hilarious not only because of their actions, but because the sequences perfectly capture the kind of joy and excitement you'd expect high seniors to have if they possessed such abilities. Not often is the word "realism" thrown around when discussing movies in this genre, but it's applicable here because Landis' screenplay is so dedicated to playing by the rules of the situation it creates and letting us care about them. We've seen plenty of found footage films through the years with many recently using the camera as a distracting gimmick, but here's an instance where its presence seems to serve a narrative function.  That's especially evident when the three friends discover their ability to fly, resulting in a scene that's breathtaking in scope. It feels like we're up there with them, sharing in the revelation. As the film wears on and the action picks up, Trank's direction is so clever in how he still manages to incorporate the single camera perspective, whether he's switching out the characters who appear to be doing the filming, shifting to a security camera or, in many cases, having them appear to record the action from their state of levitation. In a good move, it seems like this was shot at like a higher quality than we're used to getting with these types of movies, with camera work that's sharper and not as nauseatingly shaky as you'd expect.

With these thrilling elements taking hold, it was only matter of time before things start to go dark, with the angry, tormented Andrew suddenly gaining popularity he can't seem to process and doubting the loyalty of the his only two friends. Only then, does it come into full view what this is really about, and how it used a superhero origin story as vehicle to get there. It's impossible to consider it all working as well without the three leads, who share a chemistry together onscreen so authentic that when their friendship begins to dissolve it really does seem tragic. Much of that is due to Dane DeHaan's frightening, but sympathetic portrayal, which is sure to be looked back on in a few years as marking the arrival of a major talent.

Resembling a younger, geekier looking Leonardo DiCaprio, DeHaan captures the burden of every outcast adolescent who thought they'd never survive high school. When Andrew snaps, his eyes go dead and it's impossible no to think of stories and descriptions of loner teens we hear about on the news. As Sam, former Fright Night Lights' star  Michael B. Jordan brings intelligence and dimension to Steve, making him more than just your stereotypical popular jock and demonstrating all of the charisma he displayed on TV has been translated full force to the big screen. The final piece of the equation is Alex Russell, whose performance is Matt is interesting in how he suggests the possibility of a whole backstory to the character we don't get to see, as he struggles to come to grips with where he fits in. It's most obvious in his relationship with would-be girlfriend Casey (a delightful Ashley Hinshaw), who's video blog provides the film an opportunity to add yet another camera to the mix. As far as romantic sub-plots go, this couldn't have been handled any better or with more subtlety.

Working on a relatively meager sized budget, Trank crafts a jaw-dropping final finale in downtown Seattle that looks and feels positively epic in scope, putting most big budget action blockbusters to shame. It also helps that we actually care about those involved in it and the result. Less a movie watching experience than an amusement park ride, the handheld camera replicates how insane it would be to see something like this happening on the streets. I've gone back and forth on how the movie likely would have played without this found footage technique, or whether it was completely necessary to tell the story, but the bottom line is it works and that's all that counts. It also trusts the intelligence of its audience to figure things out and fill in the blanks on details, since at just under an hour and a half, not a minute of screen time is squandered. Supposedly there's talk of a sequel, but that seems pointless, especially given how concrete an ending this has. The closing scene is especially perfect. Chronicle does a better job capturing high school than most dramas and documentaries do, and more traditional superhero movies released this year could have a tough time following it.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Straw Dogs (2011)

 

Director: Rod Lurie
Starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland,Walton Goggins, Anson Mount
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

I cringe whenever I'm about to see a remake of a classic film I'm very familiar with or have great affection for. It's almost impossible to watch without comparing it, sometimes scene-by-scene, to the original. Such a comparison almost always ends unfavorably for the remake. Fortunately or unfortunately, in the case of Rod Lurie's re-imagining of Sam Peckinpah's controversial 1971 ultraviolent classic Straw Dogs, I'm extremely familiar with the original, but not altogether opposed to the idea of remaking it. Following its release late last year, one of the major complaints from critics and audiences alike was that this was merely a modernization, following exactly the same plot lines and exploring the same themes as its predecessor. Which begs the question: If the original's a classic and Lurie hardly changed a thing, how could it be a failure? And therein lies the inherent contradiction with remakes. As many as there are each year, it seems we still haven't found a way to come to terms with their purpose. This version does make some little changes, in addition to a major thematic adjustment most missed. Whereas the original clearly argues in favor of an animal instinct residing inside all men, this take is more interested in exploring society's definition of manhood. Who's to blame for the events that eventually unfold is also more ambiguous, while the one famously ambiguous scene from the original is made clear as day. Lurie's presentation isn't as subtle, but it's tension-filled, and definitely not the horror "torture porn" it was strangely advertised as.

When screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) and his TV actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) return to her hometown of Blackwater, Mississippi to rebuild her recently deceased father's house. Their arrival brings Amy's ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) and his three friends (Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Drew Powell) out of the woodwork and in an attempt to extend an olive branch, David hires them to fix the roof of the barn. With his manner of speak and dress, the well-to-do David immediately sticks out like a sore thumb in town, unable to fit in and at times displaying a condescending attitude toward Blackwater's customs. Perhaps out of jealousy that he's Amy husband or maybe just merely the fact he doesn't like him, Charlie and his gang begin subtly taunting and harassing both of them. As it escalates, David's insistence at avoiding any type of confrontation drives a rift in their relationship with Amy instigating Charlie and his gang to prove a point, putting both their lives in danger and forcing him to step up, or maybe down, to their level.

As much as the commercials have tried to convince you otherwise, this isn't your routine black and white, good vs. evil thriller. And like the original, it isn't a typical horror film despite many scenes providing more than a fair share of psychological terror. There's definitely a slow burn toward the climax, for which Lurie should be commended as I'm sure the pressure was on from the studio to reboot this as some kind of relentless gore fest. Changing the location from England to the deep South (replacing the British working class with Gulf Coast rednecks) was an inspired decision that ends up benefiting the mood and atmosphere, while also bringing the culture clash uncomfortably closer to home for American audiences. The couple's Hollywood occupations don't earn points for subversion or subtly, but it does seem to create an even greater rift between David and and the townspeople he seems to look down on. Or does he? What can easily be construed as condescension could almost equally be interpreted as ignorance (such as in a key scene when he walks out during church service) or just simply not fitting in and overcompensating to cover for it.

The power of the story (adapted from Gordon Williams novel, The Siege of Trencher's Farm) has always been it's realism and ability to put the viewer in the middle of a moral circumstance that could easily occur. At worst, David's a wuss willing to do just about anything to avoid a conflict, even when the situation absolutely necessitates it. Arguably his hesitance makes the ordeal worse, letting the problem fester until finally exploding. At best, he's a normal and responsible guy who could easily be defended for showing patience and trying to work issues out with something other than his fists. According to Amy, whatever he's doing isn't enough and when David's response to her is to "wear a bra" when the gang's leering at her, the gloves come off as she intentionally baits them with her body. The infamous rape scene is presented less ambiguously and as an overt act of violence, mostly doing away with the notion that Amy could have "enjoyed" it. But given her actions up to that point and the animalistic nature of the story, discerning viewers couldn't be blamed for still at least considering the possibility.

Physically, James Marsden is miscast, seeming on the surface too much of a pretty boy to fill Dustin Hoffman's nerdy mathmatician shoes from the original. Marsden solves that problem by wisely not attempting to and offering up a completely different take on the character. He need not necessarily be believable as a full-blown geek, but instead a  passive-aggressive people pleaser who living in his own bubble. Marsden does a great job fleshing that out, while at the same time making you feel empathy for the no-win situation David finds himself in, which isn't all his doing. Bosworth's task isn't as daunting in terms of the shoes she must fill, but she's as perfect a fit as for this as she wasn't for Lois Lane, giving one of her best performances as a woman taking power of her sexuality while at the same time pressured into subverting it. And as for the more emotionally disturbing scenes, she's more than up for it. With a southern drawl and seductive smirk, True Blood's Alexander Skarsgard really steals the show as Charlie, smoothly underplaying everything to the point where it's almost difficult not to like the guy until all hell breaks loose. Even then, he never resorts to playing him as a full blown psychopath, keeping it cool all the way through. It's to his credit that lines between good and evil seem so blurred. That I have problems even remembering the actor who originated the role proves Skarsgard must have done something right.

A major sub-plot involving the town's hotheaded former football coach Tom Heddon (James Woods) and his teen daughter Janice's (Willa Holland) infatuation with mentally handicapped man Jeremy (Dominic Purcell)  is over-the-top to say the least. It's definitely wasn't this insane in the original, with Purcell oddly resembling Steve Carell on steroids and a terrifying Woods devouring each scene as if it were his last day acting day on Earth. Had nothing else in this movie worked (which it thankfully does), this would still be worth seeing for Wood's performance, if only just to say you saw it and survived. Ironically enough, it most resembles his oscar-nominated turn as white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith in 1996's Ghosts of Mississippi, at least in terms of outright hostility.  His daughter's clearly acting out to stick it to him, but the tragic consequences of that are unintended. This and the main story seemed to merge better in the original despite Lurie deviating very little from the source.

The eventual climax is thrilling, if a little too slickly filmed. It's only here where it becomes apparent we're watching a modern re-interpretation. The rest of it exists in some kind of bizarre 70's time warp, which isn't such a bad thing. The other little changes are justifiable as well, even if the jury's still out as to whether modernizing a film improves upon on it by simply making the material more timely. It all still feels a little routine, if powerful. But that the eventual violence still feels shocking and unsettling in this era proves that it was the context and ideas, not the violence itself, that made the original so unnerving. It's recreated here to chilling effect, with the original and remake both somehow coming out of this looking better as a result.