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Kicking the Tweets
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)  

Friday
Jul252014

And So It Goes (2014)

Silver Fox and the Hound

One of the hardest things to admit as a critic is that I may not connect with certain films because they weren't designed to connect with me. Rob Reiner's new comedy, And So It Goes, for example, is the kind of sweet, serviceable movie about senior citizens getting their groove back that we've seen a hundred times before--which is approximately half as many times, it seems, as Diane Keaton has played a free-spirited, silver-fox divorcee/widower in the last fifteen years or so. That's not a knock on the actress. She's great at what she does, and just happens to do it a lot (like Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Katherine Heigl, and Melissa McCarthy, to name a few).

Here, Keaton plays Leah, a retired actress and aspiring lounge singer who lives next door to a mega-curmudgeon named Oren (Michael Douglas). He owns their beach-front Connecticut apartment building and is on the verge of retiring from a rocking real estate career. Like Leah, he's also lost a spouse, and the ensuing years have hardened him into a real PG-13 asshole.

Yes, Oren is racist, sexist, sex-obsessed, and mean to animals and children. But he's also played by Michael Douglas in a Rob Reiner picture. To be clear, the phrase "a Rob Reiner picture" once carried both a sure-fire quality guarantee and the promise of audacious, big-hearted filmmaking. But the Reiner of This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, and Misery is not the Reiner of And So It Goes.* Whether a function of age or taste, I found Reiner's latest to be boringly sentimental.

It does, however, offer an interesting point of comparison to another recent slice-of-life movie, Wish I Was Here. How could I find fault with the structural predictability of both films, while professing weeping affection for one and glazed-over disinterest in the other? The answer is "specificity".

Zach and Adam Braff injected their semi-conventional screenplay with insights that, if not genuine to their own experiences, at least felt like they were (Mandy Patinkin's memory of the ice cream truck, for example). In And So It Goes, Reiner and writer Mark Andrus dispassionately recycle genre conventions in a way that will not so much speak to the ages as to the aged. Andrus also wrote As Good As It Gets, Georgia Rule, and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood--basic-cable-bound movies I have to believe that the in-his-prime Reiner would have skipped past on a Sunday afternoon. Yet somehow he's helped create a perfectly indistinguishable bit of lineup filler.

After the first forty minutes or so, I silenced my internal grousing and willed myself into the movie's all-too-familiar rhythms. It mostly worked. There's a reason Keaton and Douglas are movie stars, and it has largely to do with being able to sell all kinds of material. When Oren's estranged son (Scott Shepherd) shows up on his doorstep with a cute-as-a-button daughter (Sterling Jerins), you can bet that Oren's warped heart will melt soon enough; that father and son will begrudgingly reconcile; and that the nurturing Leah will find her happily ever after with the unlikely Prince Charming next door.** I couldn't be mad at anything on screen because the performances, setting, score, etc. were all orchestrated with the kind of Hallmark Channel earnestness of a production convinced of its own originality.

Sure, I could nitpick the odd lighting choices that sometimes gave Keaton the irradiated glow of 2001's Star Child, or the practically old-fashioned tameness of Douglas' character in the age of Bad Words and Bad Grandpa. But it's as futile an exercise as trying to convince a paranoid ninety-six-year-old that the President isn't chancellor of a reptilian overlord cabal. In the end, And So It Goes is a safe, unassuming comedy that goes down as smoothly as strained peas. Some audiences will find that appetizing, while others will crave more to chew on. I'm in the latter group, but at least I walked away fed.

*A title that, by all rights, would have been attached to an awesome Kurt Vonnegut biopic back in the day.

**Sorry for not leading with a "Spoiler" alert.

Sunday
Jul202014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Curious Bore

I had zero interest in seeing 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It smelled of movie movie studio property-trolling and an excuse to show off the latest CGI technology in another dumb summer blockbuster. Turns out the joke was on me, and Rise made my list of that year's best films.

Similarly, I had little enthusiasm for Matt Reeves' follow-up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Rise, in my opinion, was a solid Elseworlds-style prequel to the 1968 Charlton Heston classic, and did not, in fact, need a sequel. However, recalling the wonderful surprises director Rupert Wyatt and returning screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver served up last time, I held out a little hope that Dawn would be, at worst, worth seeing and, at best, the smartest possible version of its armed-ape revolution premise.

No such luck on either front, sadly. Dawn is a two-hour-and-ten-minute time suck that would, I imagine, have garnered no attention at all from moviegoers or critics were it not for WETA's continued innovations in motion-capture technology--as aided by Millennial Lon Chaney, Andy Serkis. In amping up production values, the filmmakers have neglected the two real keys to Rise's success: heart and brains.

Ten years ago, a small army of intelligent primates escaped the lab that had experimented on them for years. They attacked the Golden Gate Bridge before retreating into the woods outside San Francisco. This coincided with the release of a super-virus that, in a few short years, wiped out hundreds of millions of people and was nicknamed "The Simian Flu". A decade on, the apes' population has exploded, with compassionate leader Caesar (Serkis) building an Endor-like Utopia, while the few remaining humans cling to dwindling food, gas, and energy.

The apes are content to let the humans die off, and the humans are unaware that there is now a tribe of speaking, weapons-wielding animals living a few miles down the road. The humans are led by the conveniently obsessed Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) who (like an alarmingly large number of his crew) is so thick as to not take the intricacies of this new threat seriously until there are literally chimps on horseback charging his fortress, double-fisting machine guns. Fortunately, his best friend is a scientist named Malcom (Jason Clarke), who adheres so closely to the Bro Code that he looks past Dreyfus' genocidal tendencies, always giving him the benefit of the doubt. Malcom becomes an ambassador to the apes, and tries to make everyone get along.

(I can only imagine the mental gymnastics Malcom must put himself through every day. How difficult must it be to trust someone who witnesses first-hand a garrison of apes making a peace offering (in English) and then repeatedly dismisses them as just being animas?)

Anyway, if you've seen The Walking Dead (or any post-apocalyptic TV show/movie about rag-tag survivors), Dawn has absolutely nothing to offer beyond pretty pictures. I mention The Walking Dead specifically in reference to the show's most recent seasons, in which the leader of the noble survivors tries to convince the megalomaniacal head of an armed-and-paranoid camp that everyone can co-exist peacefully. A television series can get away with bouncing from one compound to another because its storylines are spread out over the course of a whole season. In Dawn, we skip from tree village to San Franciscan compound and back again and back again and back again--with a brief sojourn in James Franco's house, but without a hint that anything besides the inevitable CGI showdown is on the horizon.

The writers stack the movie with characters but limit characterization to genre clichés--a decision they rose so far above in Rise as to invite the assumption that both films were created by wholly different teams. Just as Michael Bay's Transformers pictures are often (and rightly) criticized for being stuffed with stuff but devoid of substance, so, too, does Dawn of the Planet of the Apes feel like layers of cheap padding on a cold cement floor.

The actors show up for work, but they're given little to do beyond read comic books to orangutans and look on wistfully during speeches about the insanity of mutually assured destruction. Their ape counterparts, while impressively expressive, are similarly engaged in a plot as old as man's quest to walk upright: one of Caesar's lieutenants betrays him, staging a false-flag assassination attempt that leaves the apes' pacifist leader incapacitated. It doesn't help that I didn't buy Caesar's death for a second,* but it does make me wonder if Reeves and company expected anyone to. If not, why bother?

All this lack of originality might have been easier to stomach had the filmmakers simply gotten on with it. Instead, the movie's a slog, an animated brand spectacle that exists because it's a tent pole and, by definition, doesn't necessarily have to be entertaining.** The movie ends with a closeup on Caesar's scowling mug that mirrors the film's opening (artsy!); it also perfectly captured my own face when I realized I'd sat through a rickety bridge leading to an even sillier, emptier war movie in 2015's Cash-in of the Planet of the Apes.

The charm and discovery Rise of the Planet of the Apes lay in the fact that most of the movie downplayed the inevitability of its title. Audiences knew that mankind would be screwed eventually, but the filmmakers drew us into a dramatic and exciting world that worked as relevant sci-fi on its own merits--regardless of franchise pedigree. That Dawn ends with its human and ape factions more or less exactly where they began the film (separated by woods and awaiting war) is a sad reminder that we're just collectively marching uphill to Victorian-English-speaking apes arguing over whether Charlton Heston is smart enough to live. In continuity, that storyline is thousands of years in the future. At this rate, Reeves and company will succeed in making us feel each and every one of them.

Note: For me, the film's single visual triumph may have been accidental. There's a shot during the climactic battle in which apes scramble up tilted scaffolding while being pelted with obstacles from above. It's a fun homage to Donkey Kong and a reminder of better things to do than watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

*For a similarly clumsy handling of this device, check out another Gary Oldman picture, The Dark Knight.

**See also The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Saturday
Jul192014

Wish I Was Here (2014)

Present and Accounted For

Before we dive into the review of Zach Braff's latest film, Wish I Was Here, can we please dismiss this lame Kickstarter controversy? Last spring, the co-writer/director sought to crowd-fund his movie after years of trying to get it made in Hollywood. The Internet, ever an indignant child, screamed "foul", insisting that the well-off gazillionaire star of Garden State and Scrubs use his own money to fund his own movie. Untold scores of e-activists boycotted Braff and ensured that he'd never see a dime from people who actually work for a living.

Oh, wait. That didn't happen. Wish I Was Here raised an astonishing $2 million dollars in three days, and added another million-plus by the end of its campaign. More than 46,000 fans dug deep to realize a dream project (Braff's and their own). I, for one, am glad they rallied: this is one of my favorite films of the year.

If you listen to the Internet (which, admittedly, has made my critical career possible--never not a source of existential conflict), you'll probably see words like "manipulative", "derivative", and "cheesy to describe the movie. No arguments here, but there's a lot to be said for an artist who can deliver exceptionally well-done schmaltz that targets our gooiest depths and hits the bullseye. I wept on and off for an hour during Wish I Was Here. Walking out of the screening, I had to cut short a conversation with a fellow critic due to puffy eyes, a headful of snot, and shaky syllables that almost sounded like words.

Don't get me wrong: the film is far from a downer. Braff and his brother, Adam, have written one of those smart, funny, touching, and life-affirming pictures that can make the soul rejoice in recognition and understanding--especially for those of us who see it at the right juncture.

I won't get too far into the plot, except to say that Wish I Was Here is like a modern-day, alternate-universe version of The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. In this reality, Zach Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a struggling L.A. actor who must cope with his father's (Mandy Patinkin) resurgent cancer and the prospect of yanking his two young kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) out of Hebrew school. He also has an odd brother (Josh Gad) and a sense that his passions are not aligned with the universe. Oh, and Aidan's wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), supports the household with a crappy data-entry job at which she's sexually harassed daily.*

One key difference between the Coens' comedy and the Braffs' is that Larry Gopnik didn't grow up in the age of Star Wars. His experience of being a frustrated, nearing-middle-age cuckold is made darker by a lack of faith in both the afterlife and the people around him; there's a pointlessness to his world view that makes his attempts at being happy seem both noble and preposterous. Aidan Bloom, on the other hand, has had lifelong fantasies of running around different planets in a futuristic warrior's suit, wielding a giant sword, and accompanied by a cute, beeping sidekick. Both he and his brother are of a generation that believes--to some deep-seated extent--that they're one big break from doing great things in a universe that's waiting to be saved.

This pop illusion rears its head throughout Wish I Was Here--from Noah's epic struggle to visit his estranged, dying father in the hospital; to Aidan's daughter, Grace, donning a Hit Girl wig after a rebellious head-shaving incident; to Aidan's chosen profession: throughout the film, he pounds the pavement looking for acting gigs, and has a cute scene with Jim Parsons concerning how best to sell the motivations of a "red shirt". I'm mixing up my sci-fi fantasy references here, but I hope you get the point.

Another distinction is that the Coens painted women as creatures of desire, temptation and scorn, whose mission in life seemed to be encouraging Larry Gopnik to crawl through his miserable life. On the filp side, we have the Braffs who, through keen misdirection, make women the heroes of their film. Though we're made to empathize with the psychic crises of Aidan, his father, and brother, many of the catalytic moments in Wish I Was Here point directly back to the women in their lives. It's refreshing to see popular entertainment featuring genuine, nurturing, two-way support systems, ones that don't sacrifice either person's dignity. The mother/son and father/daughter relationships here may seem sitcom-thin on the surface, but there is real depth to this love.

This ties in loosely with my only critique of the Braffs' film, which is that the screenplay could have used another going-over--preferably with a copy of Entertainment Weekly sitting next to the laptop. The characters make a lot of dated references, which should only come from Aidan (who likely doesn't have time to keep up on who's hooking up with who to which lip- synched pop single). Unfortunately, everyone speaks as if they're at least five years out of time.** I also winced a tad when the Braffs' Big Themes bled into the dialogue from the plot. Kate Hudson is great and all, but even she can't sell the line, "It will shape who they are as men".

I can look past those things, though, because the Braffs' entire film--from production to writing to performances--comes across as earnest. Some might disagree, letting the baggage of the Kickstarter thing (or perhaps other beefs they have with the director) inform their opinions of his work. Or maybe I'm just too soft and receptive to the message and the delivery system.

Whatever the case, I was absolutely moved by this film, and am (mostly) not ashamed to admit that I think it's great. Is there hypocrisy in that statement? Not really. I rail on movies all the time for being saccharine and full of clichés--but only because I can't stand cheap imitations in a world where the better version is readily available. In the case of Braff's latest, I can confidently point to it and say, "Watch this". Slick, searching, fun, and sweet, Wish I Was Here sliced through my cynicism and, more importantly, provided a solid life lesson about bringing plenty of Kleenex to the movies.

*This portion of the film is (I hope) intentionally unfunny and skin-crawlingly horrifying. The Braffs and actor Michael Weston create a fine monster in Sarah's obnoxious co-worker, Jerry. He's a cypher and a catalyst in his own right, leading to a not-so-convincing climactic moment and possibly an American Beauty-inspired contribution to the film's Happy Ending. The material is ugly, jarring, and belongs elsewhere--but even in its awkwardness, I can't help but marvel at how well it's rendered.

**Though, technically, we're never given a year in which this movie takes place.

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