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Kicking the Tweets
Saturday
Aug022014

Get On Up (2014)

Blech Power

I knew very little about James Brown before seeing Tate Taylor's Get On Up. Sadly, that's still the case. This is one of the most irritating and frustrating films I've seen all year: irritating because Taylor and editor Michael McCusker seem so hell-bent on avoiding familiar biopic territory that they've taken a perfectly serviceable film and played 52 Card Pickup with the narrative. It's frustrating because there's so much brilliant talent and energy buried under the pretentiousness that one can almost see Get On Up's stifled potential weeping at the edges of every frame.

We jump from the latter days of Brown's career to the middle to the beginning to the kind-of middle to the end to the beginning--all with dates and cute chapter headings that become absolutely meaningless very early on.* In one scene, Brown is on the cusp of both stardom and fatherhood. Ten minutes later, he's wrangling four school-aged kids and two wives (one current, one ex) on the tarmac of his private jet. Characters and motivations come and go, appearing to change on a whim, simply by virtue of our having been fast-forwarded or rewound too much to latch onto anyone but Brown. Maybe that's the point, considering Tate's movie is about one of the most narcissistic and unlikable artists ever captured on film.

I should clarify: the character of James Brown, as written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (who we last encountered playing around with time in the far more coherent and enjoyable Edge of Tomorrow) is a monster of ego, libido, misogyny, and violence, who may or may not resemble the real-life Godfather of Soul. If even half of what's portrayed here is accurate, it's puzzling to me why anyone would have put up with this jerk--historically significant musical genius or not.

The film opens with a mid-sixties Brown bringing a shotgun into one of his businesses (what, exactly, that business is never gets explained) and terrorizing a seminar because someone dared to use the bathroom. The film ends with Brown strutting confidently onto a stage, imagining everyone we've met in the movie chanting his name. In the middle, we're treated to spousal abuse; drug abuse, berating of friends and family; blanket racism against white people; and even more of Brown's name--uttered by himself, in the third person.

I've heard about Brown's influence on music, and have enjoyed many of his songs, but Get On Up leaves out key bits of information that would have perhaps made me a fan of the artist and not just the art. Tate and company gloss over, for example, the process by which Brown found his voice and invented his game-changing funk. His struggles breaking into the white mainstream seemed less about skin color and more about his toxic personality--again, it's difficult to tell because the timeline is a giant bowl of spaghetti.

Every white person in the movie is presented as an untrustworthy square, which seems like an easy out to me. Considering how many terrible black influences Brown encountered in his life, it's unclear how he could so easily condemn one race over the other. As an audience member of mixed heritage, I felt familiar pangs of racism while watching Get On Up as I did with Tate's previous hit, The Help. Both films asked me to accept a bizarre line of inherent racial nobility versus ignobility, which I feel are detriments to the very conversations each piece was meant to inspire.

There is a single scene that transcends the filmmakers' skewed perspective: following Martin Luther King's assassination, Brown plays a show at Boston Garden and quells a riot by asking his brothers and sisters to rise above the Angry Black stereotype. It's a beautiful, complex moment that makes little sense in a film whose protagonist is presented as alternately simple and savvy, soulful and reprehensible--depending on the needs of the scene and not, as I've said, the greater story.

The only reason to see Get On Up is for Chadwick Boseman's turn as James Brown. As turned off as I was by the character, I dialled in on the actor's awe-inspiring commitment to nailing Brown's distinctive speech, attitude, and dance moves. When he takes the mic, electricity blushes. Boseman is surrounded by a notable supporting cast that includes the likes of Help alum Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, as well as Nelsan Ellis (terrific) and Dan Aykroyd (embarrassing), but their work is ultimately undone by the editing.

Get On Up succeeds in being an unconventional biographical drama, but fails at being a good one. By invoking, I guess, the spirit of James Brown and playing by their own rules, Taylor and the Butterworths prove that they're no James Brown. It takes talent, passion, and an instinctive understanding of what the audience wants and needs in order to pull off such a daring feat. This movie's funk isn't so much something you feel as something you smell.

*Surely someone on this production could've gotten Tarantino's number.

Friday
Aug012014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Shadow of the Empire

Guardians of the Galaxy may be the most fun you'll have in a theatre this summer, but I hesitate to call it a movie. Director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman have turned the little-known Marvel Comics property into a rambunctious, gorgeous, and adventure-filled universe. Too bad Disney's puffy-gloved thumb has squeezed out any narrative uniqueness in favor of Popcorn Cinema's Greatest Hits. The end result is a two-hour spectacle whose ingredients are so calibrated, market-tested and productized as to make the shell encasing them more beaker than blockbuster.

For the record, I really like Guardians of the Galaxy. In the moment, Gunn's comedic space fantasy feels like a welcome rain after two very dry summers. Thanks to a colorful main cast who fall into Joss Whedon's "Found Family" archetype; a save-the-universe story that's complex but not too convoluted; and a universe full of creatures, ships, and out-there planets that are actually worth pouring over, this carnival ride is definitely worth the price of admission.*

Chris Pratt stars as planet-hopping thief Peter Quill, a dashing cross between Indiana Jones and Boba Fett. His pursuit of a high-priced metal orb (which contains a universe-destroying weapon, naturally) lands him in the cross-hairs of several warring factions, as well as in the company of other lovable outlaws. Among them are a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper); the adopted daughter of a supervillain (Zoe Saldana); a vengeful colossus (Dave Bautista); and a tree-man who has more in common with The Iron Giant than just Vin Diesel's voice.

These reluctant heroes must come together to defeat a crazed, black-hooded zealot named Ronan (Lee Pace) before he can use this round weapon to destroy entire planets. Ronan's small potatoes, though, compared to Thanos (Josh Brolin), who mostly gives him orders via giant hologram from inside a massive chamber. In the end, the self-proclaimed Guardians lead a raid on Ronan's master ship, which is on its way to destroy the home world of the peaceful Kree resistance. Gamora engages in a sword fight with her age-old opponent/former friend, Nebula (Karen Gillan), while on a mission to disable the shield controls (which will allow the fleet of good guys to take down the vessel). At the last second, Nebula highjacks a fighter and exits the picture, sure to fight another day.

If you've just convulsed with flashbacks to 1977's Star Wars, congratulations on not falling completely under Disney's spell. The structural and archetypal similarities are glaring, and it's impossible for pop culture junkies not to recognize every single beat. Guardians of the Galaxy is like a game of charades, where the clues are scenes, characters, and themes that are just different enough to skirt claims of plagiarism. Gunn, Perlman, and Disney mix things up a bit, inserting elements of J.J. Abrams' recent Star Trek films and lots of Joss Whedon's Serenity. The cynical part of me recognizes that the Mouse House now owns Guardians, Star Wars, and, to a certain extent, Whedon and Abrams, and is not surprised that this film is--more than is publicly understood--a two-hour commercial for The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Episode VII.

I can't write the film off as retail propaganda, though, because there's so much artistry and fun involved. Everyone from the actors to the production designers to hair and makeup and the digital effect team approach the material as if breaking new ground. Guardians of the Galaxy zips along from set piece to set piece, with a snappy classic-rock soundtrack underscoring the big scenes. Sure, the movie has at least one too many "all is lost" moments, but Gunn invests them with grim panache that helps distract from the fact that none of these action figures (sorry, Unique and Very Expendable Characters) are in danger of missing out on the already announced sequel. In an especially beautiful and sad scene, Starlord comes very close to freezing to death in space; the filmmakers clearly used underwater filming techniques to achieve this, but transplanted the footage to a deep-space setting; the effect is downright haunting for a kids' movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy is sure to make a bajillion dollars this weekend, and I don't begrudge it that. My only gripe is that the story does a tremendous disservice to the originality and unabashed fun of everything that went into realizing it. For each badass moment of heroism, I had a split-screen moment in my head that played a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek: Into Darkness, or, of course, one of the Star Wars movies.

I know there are original ideas out there in the vast, untapped realms of human imagination. But they're probably "too weird" to pass in mainstream, tentpole entertainment. Looking at a film like Serenity, for example--which was also about quirky, space-traveling thieves--Whedon had the courage and the permission to kill off one of his principal cast (for real) just ahead of the climax. This let the audience know that truly anyone was up for grabs in the next vicious, bloody twenty minutes--making the fight personal instead of perfunctory. For reasons I don't need to get into, Guardians of the Galaxy is a colorful, bursting bag of cotton candy, scientifically engineered to provide maximum flavor that will in no way challenge your palette. You're guaranteed to walk away stuffed and smiling, but dying for an actual meal.

*It's also worth the 3D up-charge: Gunn and his technical wizards give Guardians a striking sense of depth, proportion, and tips the audience into full immersion.

**They could have dropped one or two of these, honestly; I kept waiting for a "Now Available on iTunes" banner to pop up in the corner.

Monday
Jul282014

Very Good Girls (2014)

Pause and Affect

I posted this on Facebook a couple weeks ago: "Watching a terrible movie in two sittings isn't QUITE defeat, but it feels awfully damned close." Very Good Girls turned out not to be terrible, unless you consider mediocrity an affront to quality--which I do, so the statement stands.

The problem with writer/director Naomi Foner's coming-of-age story is that it's so generic as to be unworthy of the cast assembled to tell it. Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen star as Lilly and Gerri, two high school seniors who vow to lose their virginity before heading off to college. They fall for the same hunky ice cream vendor (Boyd Holbrook), but keep their affections secret from one another. Yes, it's a summer of first times, last times, betrayal, and half-nude shenanigans as the girls learn about life 'n stuff.

In addition to the marquee performers, Very Good Girls boasts supporting actors whose presence will likely elicit two reactions: A) surprise that they'd agree to such sub-CW melodrama after careers built on substantial roles, and B) an impromptu game of "Celebrity Six Degrees of Separation" ("Did Richard Dreyfuss ever do anything with Ellen Barkin? There's gotta be a Dreyfuss/Demi Moore connection somewhere, right?"). For viewers who are truly up on things, seeing Peter Sarsgaard inspire appreciation of Foner's film as a Night Moves reunion.*

Moving further into meta territory, I had a hard time watching Fanning and Olsen play vacuous high schoolers. It's jarring to see two performers who've very recently brought such intelligence and maturity to their careers take seven steps backwards. Gerri and Lilly apparently live in the same culturally secluded bubble as Jenny Wright's character in Obvious Child, dealing with family, boys, and sexuality with what might generously be described as dangerous naivete.

Worse, there's a contradictory air of salaciousness to the production that made me uncomfortable. Foner makes a point to show her leads in various stages of undress throughout the film, but not in a way that suggests these characters are carrying on like typical best friends. Much like Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens' much-publicized shredding of their Disney-star reputations in last year's Spring Breakers, the sexuality on display in Very Good Girls seems designed only to prove that Fanning, in particular, isn't the little girl who burst onto the scene fourteen years ago. It's creepy, it's cold, and unsexy in the worst possible way.

And what of the desire object, David? Neither Holbrook nor Foner give any indication as to why two besties would fight over this character (aside from artistic inclinations and a practiced, smoldering pout that reminded me of the prince in Tangled). He comes off as the love child of Brad Pitt and Benicio Del Toro auditioning for the Ryan Gosling part in an indie romance. In fairness, his co-stars appear to be staging a revival of the Kristen Stewart acting method (all downward stares, fidgeting, and stammering), so I should probably give him the benefit of the doubt.

I've talked very little about Very Good Girls itself, mostly because there's so little to talk about. Not checking the clock was a Herculean act of will, and I wanted nothing more than to watch anything else. I'm not proud to admit that splitting this film into two viewings was the only way to get through it in one piece--but there you have it. In a world where Boyhood and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are accessible options, Foner's brand of adolescent exploration comes off as downright phony. There's nothing personal or exceptional about this gender-swapped update of The Summer of '42, and watching such a gifted cast give this sleepwalked material everything they've got filled me with both admiration and sadness. 

*And, in a weird, alternate-universe way, a prequel.

Friday
Jul252014

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

The Great Gassy

For me, Woody Allen's latest comedy, Magic in the Moonlight, was an emotional roller coaster. His 1928-set romantic comedy soars with spot-on, electric performances that serve a script dripping with wordsmith porn. But at the precise moment when the third act begins, Allen's premise, story, and characters disintegrate before our very eyes. The laughs succumb to ponderous declarations of love and dismissals of same, and his formerly fantastic leading couple (Colin Firth and Emma Stone) transform from delight to delivery system. I can't recall the last time a movie slipped so gracelessly, so quickly, from top-of-the-year to "Get me out of here".

Let's rewind. Firth plays a renowned illusionist named Stanley who travels the world performing as a Chinese mystic. One night, his age-old professional rival/best friend, Howard (Simon McBurney), shows up back stage and asks for his help in busting a fraudulent psychic. A young girl, he claims, has latched onto a wealthy widower (Jacki Weaver) and her doofus son (Hamish Linklater), bringing them messages of hope from the other side. Concerned relatives had hired Howard to expose the sham, but he'd been unable to figure it out. If Stanley would join him in the French countryside for a few weeks, his friend says, he'd not only get a break from touring, but also continue his reign as the world's premiere debunker of otherworldly phenomena.

The pompous egotist Stanley agrees, and is quite sure of himself--until he meets Sophie (Stone). Beautiful, sassy, and apparently genuinely clairvoyant, she makes a believer out of him, and blows wide open decades of skepticism, atheism, and misanthropy. Allen proves himself a master of misdirection here, at first making us invest in the cranky, snobbish magician, before plunging us headlong into love with Sophie (or, more precisely, with Stone; even more precisely, with Stone and Firth). The first hour flies past, as we enjoy snappy interstitials broken up by lively clarinets and scenic postcard portraits of rural France. It's almost enough to conceal the story's central mystery: is Sophie really gifted, or is Stanley being had?

The answer is satisfying, in a fashion, but the big reveal's aftermath is thirty minutes of belabored predictability. Act three plays as if Allen had said everything he'd needed to say about man's quest for meaning in the universe through rich characters--and then realized he needed to pad the run-time for theatrical-release consideration. I have no proof that he hired an assistant to merge his margin notes with hackneyedplots.com's first ten entries to construct the last half hour--but there's enough evidence here to at least make a case.

Were it not for the contrived, meandering bits that precede a rather sweet closing shot, I'd call this a fine companion piece to Midnight in Paris. Both movies deal with existentially fractured minds and mid-life crises. Both do so in fun, funny, creative ways. But Allen cops out several stretches before the finish line, sacrificing brains and heart for uncharacteristic convention. There truly is magic in the moonlight, but this story is dead by dawn.

Friday
Jul252014

Happy Christmas (2014)

Motivation X

Joe Swanberg needs to focus. In the last couple years, the Chicago filmmaker has dabbled in acting, writing, directing, and generally spreading his creative seed as far as the winds of newfound indie fame will take him. I don't hold this against Swanberg, of course. He is, as they say, living the dream.

But, strictly speaking as an audience member who's experienced a lot of his output lately, I can say that not all of his endeavors are worthwhile. Running around with Ti West and Adam Wingard has landed him in horror projects ranging from passable (V/H/S) to disappointing (24 Exposures) to excerable (The Sacrament). The blood, guts, and hipster-melodrama scene may be a fun diversion, but Swanberg's true talents lie in capturing the aimlessness of a generation that was never told to grow up (or even how to)--and making his characters' fictitious lives feel as relatable as our own memories.

The writer/director's latest, Happy Christmas, is the keenly observed, heartfelt version of pop culture's ubiquitous, faux "Millennial Pulse" parade. Every other mass-market trailer, TV show, and movie seems to feature at least one drunk, broke, directionless twenty-something woman whose pathological whining prevents them from moving forward.* Worse yet, these anti-heroines are coddled and/or feared by people who should ostensibly know better.

Not so in the case of Jenny (Anna Kendrick), whose arrival on her brother's basement couch after a break-up elicits more glares than sympathy. Jeff (Swanberg) is understanding on the first night, re-introducing li'l sis to her toddler nephew (the filmmaker's real-life son, Jude) and showing off the tiki bar motif of her new underground pad. Things turn sour after a middle-of-the-night phone call from Jenny's best friend, Carson (Lena Dunham): an obliterated Jenny passed out in the middle of a party, and will remain immobile until Jeff can swoop in to take her home.

Sometime the next day, Jenny awakens to find a guy named Kevin (Mark Webber) watching her nephew--a task she'd promised her sister-in-law, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), she'd be up for. Yep, there's a talking-to in Jenny's future (a few, in fact), as well as a series of uncomfortable encounters that will ensure she shakes off whatever relational residue remains from her ex, on the path to acting like she belongs in a world of functional adults with actual lives and profound struggles.

Don't worry: Happy Christmas isn't nearly as heavy-handed in its assertions as I've been in this review. Swanberg masterfully shows and doesn't tell, placing Jenny in a number of situations that have been played for laughs in lesser projects. From her alcoholism and drug use to her lack of consideration for her hosts' time and property, Jenny's poisonous wallowing is confronted at every turn--with love foremost and judgment second. Jeff and Kelly have been close to where she is, we get the feeling, but understand that twenty-seven is far too old to louse about on someone else's dime.

The narrative balances out beautifully, as we get frequent glimpses of the smart, charming, intelligent spirit buried beneath Jenny's slacker muck. She tags along on Kelly's early Christmas present from Jeff: a run of ten eight-hour days in which she has full reign of his empty movie-production office, where she can begin re-invigorating her career as a novelist. In her capacity as a stay-at-home mom, Kelly's life has taken on new meaning, but she wrestles with the attendant lack of creative drive, ambition, and time. Unsure of the company at first, Kelly grows to love Jenny's optimism and cheerleading of her talents, and the two wind up collaborating on a trashy romance book together.  

I don't know how much of Happy Christmas was written and how much was improvised by the actors at Swanberg's direction. The film is one of those rare gems that feels un-scripted; truly a slice of life, down to its untidy but emotionally and intellectually satisfying resolution.

Fans of Swanberg's similarly themed, relatively high-profile hit, last year's Drinking Buddies, may walk away frustrated by the looseness of the dialogue (there are more "like"s here than in the history of Facebook); while others might be put off by the decidedly messy, grown-up, and seemingly mundane nature of the central conflict. But for those who navigate the everyday horror movies of making ends meet, raising children, and staying creatively engaged in life, Happy Christmas will serve as a reassuring beacon of recognition in an entertainment landscape awash in the unwashed and unmotivated.

*The tell is in the arrested-development titles: Girls, 2 Broke Girls, Obvious Child. It's hard to pinpoint where intentional irony ends and cosmic meta-commentary begins.

**(Jason Voorhees has nothing on the commercial artist's existential crisis)  

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