Monday, June 24, 2013

Love: Monsters University

In 2001, Monsters, Inc faced off against Shrek for the first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.  The results weren't good. Shrek took the prize, marking the only time Pixar has ever lost the trophy to the rival Dreamworks, and kicking off an increasingly unfortunate rash of boxy, loud, and imaginatively dim Shrek-tales.  While I'd perhaps prefer a world where Pixar continued to churn out fresh new ideas instead of resorting to recycled materials, there's an inevitability to Monsters University that cannot be denied.  Inc, in hindsight, clearly had the goods. The film was (and is) an endearing fable, and a fully realized concept. In candy colors, we learned truth behind the criks, craks, and all those creatures we suspected lurked in the shadows of our childhood bedrooms. Now? We get to see everything else.

If you felt Inc got a little too hung up on human-child "Boo" and didn't give you enough of the monster otherworld: all that has been remedied here. Monsters University is, of course, a prequel -and good thing, too. Where a return to the industrial setting of the first film might have led to a lazy, unproductive rehashing of familiar material, turning back the clock and opening up the outside 'monster' world gives the animation new life.
This time around we follow the sprightly cyclops Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) as he steps bright eyed and shiny scaled into his dream school.  Young Mike has spent years studying tirelessly. He's as book smart as it gets, works harder than anyone, and wants to graduate top of the MU 'Scaring' Program class.  The only problem? Mike, as we know, isn't particularly frightening. He's got the knowledge, but not the natural talent. Though he should be the star student, it's Sulley (John Goodman) who impresses without effort.  Descended from a long line of top Scarers, Sulley's big, toothy, and in possession of a roar he deems good enough to close the books on.  They're opposites. Sulley has the raw ability, Mike only has knowledge of the technique. Without both, neither can survive. Since each has what the other needs, they quickly become spiteful rivals.
Their shortcomings force them begrudgingly together, and in a desperate attempt to follow their dreams, they join up with tiny, unbearably dorky fraternity Oozma Kappa to participate in the campus Scare Games. It's a take on a story that should be familiar to any casual aficionado of college comedies. Animal House, Revenge of the NerdsThe House Bunny, and any number of campus flicks run with a pack of underdogs, usually with a surplus of kegs and female nudity. Here, Pixar finds a way to capture the spirit of those films without any of the crudity. Oozma Kappa offers up a new supporting cast of lovable misfits, furry and slimy twists on the freaks and geeks of old.  Together with Sulley and Mike, the group faces off against ingeniously designed sororities and frats in a last ditch effort to prove they've got the stuff to be Scarers to their classmates and the ferocious Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren).  

Though the conceit is old, the monstrous twist makes for lively viewing.  It's immediately clear why Pixar decided to go through with this particular sequel. Moneymaker or not, the film is relentlessly charming and, surprisingly, very funny. The sight gags are crammed into every frame, as can be expected, a clear sign that the animators had a field day with the possibilities.  The script though, too, is impossibly sharp. I say this not simply because I laughed, but because the writers (and possibly the voice talents behind them) really seem to have a feel for the characters and their distinct personalities. Mike and Sulley each have their particular ways of communicating, not in a language of animated exposition, but in revealing bits of their own frustrations. It's something that's echoed in the animation. Technologically, Pixar has only improved since 2001. Here, the movements of our monsters say as much about them as their voices do, and we love them immediately for the humanity they're able to capture that so many campus comedies can't.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Love: The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola's latest meditation on wealth and fame seems like a custom fit. Restless teenagers, the lives of the wealthy, celebrity fame, alienation, manufactured identity; all the bespoke materials of the director's signature style. In the opening credits, the camera travels over collections of beautiful objects and spaces that seem primed for a fashion editorial, we take them in to the electric discord of a rollicking Sleigh Bells song, understand that they are to be desired.  These are the spoils of modern royalty, what it looks like when Marie Antoinette's boudoir comes complete with shelf after shelf of color-coded Louboutins.  In The Bling Ring, Coppola returns to the scenes of true-life crimes perpetrated by a group of well-off teenagers.  It's ideal material for her brand of luxury navel-gazing, made all the more compelling by its curious refusal to pass judgment on its club kid thieves.
The story is based on the Nancy Jo Sales piece "The Suspects Wore Louboutins" printed in Vanity Fair in March of 2010.  In the essay, Sales chronicles the varied accounts of the ex-high schoolers, attempting to piece together the hows, whys, and whats of their exploits.  For those not familiar, in 2008 and 2009, the real life Bling Ring used Google Maps and tabloid culture to figure out when celebrities were out of town, find their houses, break in, and "go shopping." Though the dollar amount of what they pulled in was extremely high, by the millionaire standards of their targets, they were relatively small time crooks looking for a thrill, designer shoes, and an upgraded wardrobe.  They lived for it, stupidly took pictures of their conquests, partied publicly in their loot, bragged to their friends, posted on Facebook. The Bling Ring robbed Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox, and Orlando Bloom, among others, and the Sales piece suggests that their criminal behavior is a sort of extreme example of some desperate need for a new, 21st century kind of inclusion. The evidence is certainly compelling. Sales pulls a quote from conversations with the most media-prevalent of the Ringers, Alexis Neiers, and the line reveals something of her inability to complete a sentence without a name dropped comparison:  

"“I’m a firm believer in Karma,” she said, “and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I see myself being like an Angelina Jolie,” she said, “but even stronger..."" 
In an amusing turn, Coppola uses the Angelina Jolie example in a small scene midway through the film. Alexis has been renamed Nicki here (played by Emma Watson), and as she and her "adopted sister" Sam (Taissa Farmiga) sit curled up on an overstuffed couch in tracksuits and Uggs, Nicki's clueless, The Secret-following mother (Leslie Mann) attempts to give them a lesson on building character. She holds up a vision board dotted with Jolie's image -clearly meant to be aspirational- and asks the girls what positive characteristics Jolie possesses that make her a good example.  Nicki and Sam jump immediately to Jolie's "hot bod" and hotter 'husband'. They mean it. This is the level of superficiality Coppola is dealing with here, and, indeed, The Bling Ring is forced to posture itself from a place of vapidity and projected self-obsession. The film that results is a curious product of the voyeuristic society it depicts, and the lifestyles the media obsessively holds up for mass coveting. The film returns to Nicki and Sam repeatedly as a sort of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum of over stimulated youth (in part because there's something knowingly funny about Watson's adoption of a convincing ditz-kid accent), they are the sounding boards for the more recklessly stupid of A-list culture's fanatic devotees.

The true center of the story, though, is the understated push-pull between 'ringleader' Rebecca (Katie Chang) and new kid in town, Marc (Israel Broussard).  They are the origin point, and frightening in their nonchalance. Rebecca is depicted as having an almost sociopathic level of composure.  She's the girl you follow because she's able to convince you that nothing is wrong, that who walks down high school halls and into Paris Hilton's nightclub room with her head held high. Though far from the most engaging character on screen, her teen glamour is self-evident, and Coppola draws her as a TMZ-obsessive sort of femme fatale, the perfect friend and foil for Marc.  At several point in the film, we hear pieces of Marc's interview with Sales in which he reflects on never feeling really attractive. He didn't "look A-list," is the term he uses, and though he's far from a victim of circumstance, it's through Marc and his friendship with Rebecca that Coppola is able to draw out the film's themes.
There's a complete amorality in The Bling Ring, or maybe it's a sort of moral obliviousness.  The characters never seem to have any sense of what's truly right or wrong, and the obligations they have to attend to in their personal lives are nearly nonexistent.  School is an afterthought and something that impinges on their future stardom.  Instead, they're fueled by greed, desire, and a desperate fumbling for the formations of their own identities. When they break in to a celebutante's closet, they hunt desperately for the accessories and outfits they recognize and snap candids of themselves posing near the things they've seen in magazines or on MTV's Cribs.  Each outing is their way of coming into contact with celebrity, and, by proxy, becoming somehow nearer to them; part of their inner circle. Coppola never allows the audience to truly identify with the Bling Ring kids, but doesn't seem to judge them, either.  To her, it seems there's a sadness to the collections of objects they crammed into stolen Birkin bags and Vuitton trunks.  In trying to become an idea of success or happiness, they become merely those collections, the items listed and priced out in magazine after magazine. Their icons are hollow, and each person is not considered a person. Paris Hilton is a curiosity who "has a lot of stuff." Audrina Patridge is noted simply for her style.

As Rebecca, Nicki, Marc, and the others document their forced lifestyle, they become their own paparazzi, hellbent on the construction of an image - of living something enviable- instead of addressing the subject of their own decrepitude.  Online they're dressed up in Herve Leger and Chanel, pouting as they down Grey Goose in a club near Kirsten Dunst. In real life, they're quietly wrecked by drugs, selling unwanted goods on the side of the road, crashing cars, living like trash. Their image-making is telling, and Coppola offers it without comment, finding a strange, satisfying depth in everything superficial.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Squalor: After Earth

So, uh, I saw After Earth. It's, um, not very good. Like, there's an actual absence of good. It's like there's this math problem and you're looking at one of those graphs and you're supposed to figure out to the decimal point the exact amount of good present in After Earth and then you realize it's practically a trick question and the point is in the far bottom left corner of the negative zone. Vertical axis = potential to be good, horizontal axis = measurable good.  In this equation, the presence of M. Night Shyamalan (M) cancels out the charisma of Will Smith (W).  Basically, the After Earth equation is like M + W - 100 = X.  Solve for X. What do you get? Negative good. In some places, we call that bad.  Here, actually, we call that bad.

The film is made of disastrous stuff, beginning with the easily twisted title (I'm resisting that urge so hard) and without a foreseeable stopping point.  Though Will Smith has had tremendous success with science fiction material in the past, his on-screen presence here is nothing short of robotic. Smith senior stars as Cypher, a heroic general who has mastered the art of a self-controlled martial art called 'ghosting' in poorly explained battles with a monstrous alien being.  Cypher is present mostly as a tool to access family memories and tap into a dull background story for teenage protagonist Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith). At the behest of his mother, Kitai is brought along on a routine mission with his emotionally distant dad.  When the ship crash lands on the former Earth (how this happens is basically a feat of expository will and the puppeting hand of an incompetent writer), Kitai must journey across predatory lands with minimal supplies to retrieve the ship's beacon and save his father. Of course, Kitai is overambitious and eager to please to a moronic fault,  and as After Earth takes turn after obvious turn, he becomes a gratingly inaccessible lead in an even more inept example of genre filmmaking.
Many have offered a polite nod and claimed to see the film's raw potential. They're being too nice.  After Earth is stupefyingly sloppy, far too choppy and poorly realized to possibly exist in a landscape of super-slick, glossed-up summer blockbusters.  It looks and feels like a project crafted on the quick and immediately forgotten, left to be slapped together by disinterested editors instead of reshot or cared for.  What I don't understand --and why I needed that over-complicated and likely inaccurate mathematical model-- is how it's possible that there are successful people working in Hollywood who failed to see what was wrong here and stop it, who couldn't predict the outcome of that previous equation.  The pieces of this project simply don't add up to anything other than a lumbering mess, and while I've marveled at M. Night Shyamalan's roach-like ability to remain afloat in Hollywood despite his clear inability to self-edit (or generally direct), this time it seems like the real blame should perhaps be passed to our star and producer, the Fresh Prince himself: Will Smith.  Shyamalan? That dude is probably just thrilled to be working at this point, right? I mean, The Sixth Sense was alright, there's a shimmer of something in Unbreakable, but it's been one long downhill journey to remedial level storytelling since.  You peaked, dude. Take a break. Do some traveling. Watch the entire list of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Take a few courses on aesthetic theory and creative writing. Reflect on your sins. Don't force it.  Big Willie Style, on the other hand? The Willennium is over. Take a seat, we need to talk about some shit.
Dear Mr. Smith-

I like you, Will Smith. The country likes you. The world likes you. You're a likable guy. Because of that, you have been gifted with a type of star power that very few have the privilege to know.  You are on the A-list. You have the power to grant terrible scripts greenlit life with the swoosh of a signature and a transfer from your bank account. With great power, Will Smith, comes great responsibility.  With that I ask: what. were. you. thinking?

Let's review an abridged version of what we have with After Earth, shall we?

1. A father-son vanity project in which the much-loved, well-recognized father steps back and sits immobile in a chair speaking in monotone for the entire run-time while junior carries out the action.
2. A major trauma plot point involving a kid squatting in a terrarium.
3. A future where every building is uniformly constructed out of sails of canvas. IS THAT A SKYSCRAPER TENT YOU'RE LIVING IN, WILL SMITH? How practical is that? Huh? I'd love to know...
4. Hideous, cheap spaceship set design. When you sat in the vessel your character is supposed to be hurtling through the cosmos in, Will Smith, did it occur to you that it appears to be made of paper towel tubes, bed sheets, and paper? Because...the crash scene looks like the aftermath of a high school TP jag.
5. An opening sequence involving a clunky, poorly phrased voiceover narration that eschews having to show anything in favor of what appears to be a stock footage montage. Will Smith: that's not the way to do it.
6. THOSE GODDAMN ACCENTS. What is that? WHAT is that? The sound of the future? In the future are we South African by way of Australian by way of Colonel Sanders by way of crossbreeding with Jar Jar Binks and JFK?  I can't even fathom how those were devised. Or why. Will Smith, what did they tell you to do to prepare for that? Why did you do it?
7. The slowest action sequences on the planet.  Before, during, or After Earth. Will Smith, you've been in movies where all the shit blows up. The White House, Will Smith! What is this? I'm pretty sure the apocalypse came and went while I struggled to keep my eyes open because...
8. You cast your son as an incompetent, annoying hero. He's not like that for real, right? Because, if he is, you may need to have Willow talk to him about shutting the hell up and owning it. No one wants to watch the underdog hero cry, whine, call out for his father, and flail around a field for two hours before suddenly, miraculously becoming a magical zen master. I don't buy it, Will Smith. I just don't buy it.
9. To make matters worse: he's an incompetent, annoying hero who can't take orders literally to save his life. Sure, kid, throw a rock at the pissed off ape. Go for it. Will Smith, why would you let Jaden's character act so stupid?
10. M. Night Shyamalan inexplicably KILLING every animal that appears on screen. Bad, good, doesn't matter. Why, Will Smith? What's he got against animals?
11. An alien monster called Ursa. Latin for bear, Will Smith, appears to have no relation to even the idea of "bear."
12. An obsession with Moby Dick, which I'm pretty sure no one involved actually read. Forced allusion, brah. H.G. Wells could have worked a little better, but best to let him lie.
13. The Ursa monster hunts people, but just leaves them skewered dead in trees to scare one particular person instead of eating them. You know, because the Ursa is just a sociopathic serial killer and actually prefers a nice salad. Am I right, Will Smith? Am I right?
14. There's a volcano. The image below shows a picture of said volcano. You will note that it's a large mountain...which Kitai runs straight up about 65% of very quickly though he's been suffering from oxygen depletion. That's not how mountains work, Will Smith.  Not in my experience.
15. A bird. Saving Kitai from freezing. Why does that bird save your son, Will Smith? How does that bird find him? Has that bird been stalking him? Cause, I mean, you'd think he'd notice...
16. A bizarre dream sequence in which Kitai's dead sister (Zoe Kravitz) shows up on a raft and they stare googly eyed at each other like they're dating and not related. That was awkward, Will Smith. I didn't know how to feel about that.
17. Dead seriousness. Everywhere. Dear Will Smith: sense of humor. You have one. This movie? It really needed one.
18. Nothing remotely logical. Go back and ask yourself, Will Smith, why did the script have me read that line there? Does it add anything? No? Didn't think so.
19. Some scientology stuff about fear? Will Smith: save it for book club with Cruise and Travolta.

I could go on, Will Smith, but you owe us about 5 indie films, some straight comedies, and a big budget sci-fi film with a competent director. Also, it's great that you love your kids and stuff, but maybe let them go on their own auditions, yeah? No producing. No meddling. No M. Night Shyamalan.



PS: The best part of the movie? "Dad, I want to go work with mom..."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Late Night Trailers: The Wolf of Wall Street

As a final note before I actually sleep after yet another 20-hour day of nonsense, can we all just watch this trailer for Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and give it a resounding hell yes? Scorsese re-teams with Leonardo DiCaprio for a tale of dark, debauched crime comedy about money laundering stockbrokers? Yes. "Black Skinhead" on the soundtrack, weird thing with the redeemed McConaughey I don't quite understand, extreme examples of inappropriate office partying? Ready. Set. Go. 

Like: Man of Steel

Beware, I'm about to spoil two movies (and a graphic novel).  Why? Well, it may be impossible for me to talk about Man of Steel without making note of the ways it often seems to be more of a loose addendum to the 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore's classic Watchmen than a zippy rehashing of the old DC Action Comics.  Our new Superman saga may correct some of the supposed wrongs wrought by Superman Returns (which I really must admit I didn't think was as dreadful as many), but in doing so it's a far bleaker affair. Man of Steel carries the weight of dead planets and features a Superman who can't yet stop the fatality count from rising, and whose no-kill policy of truth and justice is bent slightly out of whack. Though he didn't direct (as many misunderstand) Christopher Nolan's dark noir vision of comic legend colors his work developing the story. There are traces of something in line with the new Gotham here, but, ultimately, the lens flare fingerprints all point to a Zack Snyder coup that makes the movie work, but read to me as a bit like some sneaky trolling.
Man of Steel is a frantic, cobbled together affair built off the assumption that our cultural understanding of Superman's origin story will carry audiences through a very jarring, often completely unexplained sequence of early events. America - and perhaps the world- is well-versed in Clark Kent's years spent in Smallville, Kansas. Years of television shows and repeat films have made sure of that, and Snyder attempts to deftly veer away from spending too much time on the Kent family farm and show us a big picture we haven't seen quite as much of - and from a different angle.  While purists may cry foul, Man of Steel is a stylish affair devoted to immersing the viewer in something other than simple repetition.  After an extended moment spent in Kal-El's infancy on a crumbling Krypton, where we're introduced to a battle of wills and principles between "Superman's dad" Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and the megalomaniac General Zod (Michael Shannon), the narrative gets caught trying to pull too much together.  We see lessons from Earth dad Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) blended with occasionally tough to follow intersections of adult Clark (Henry Cavill) working odd jobs and sticking up for folks. This isn't a Superman tale that picks up with Clark Kent working at the Daily Planet, but it is one that finds Lois Lane (Amy Adams) hot on his trail.  The problem is, it's hard to figure out exactly why.    
The events that push Lois Lane towards her discovery are utterly forced and seem to swing out of nowhere. To get through them requires a suspension of disbelief far more potent than any required to buy into the notion of a flying dude in a cape.  If you can make it through the deep logical flaws and inconsistencies of the film's first half, and Michael Shannon's completely out-of-character lack of clout, you will be rewarded with a rich second half loaded with expertly designed comic book battles and stunning visuals.  When Man of Steel gets to the flying and fighting, it operates at a dizzying fever pitch.  When it stops? Things tend to get a little shaky.  Shannon, as mentioned, is a surprising dud here. After proving his ability to pull off menacing intensity in just about everything including Premium Rush, Zod's threats of genocide almost make Loki sound threatening. Someone seems to have caught on to this early on, as there's simply no other way to explain the plot's insistence on throwing the nasty Faora-Ul (Antje Traue).  Kryptonian nationalists aside, Cavill slips between 'aw shucks' native son and majestic alien-god figure with little difficulty, and he has the right look to pull off even the most constipated of facial expressions while hurtling through the Earth's atmosphere. The shrewder take on Lois Lane, too, is to be appreciated though at times the character's presence seems oddly contrived.
What struck me the most, though, were the aforementioned ways in which Man of Steel occasionally reads as a continuation/adaptation of some of Watchmen's M.O.  Sure, there's no Cold War or threat of nuclear war, but Snyder draws us a Superman who, once exposed, is not immediately welcomed by military forces or the general population.  He's forced out of hiding to become a costumed hero, but at points the threat he's battling seems more like the best case/unplanned version of the scenario plotted out by Watchmen's Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias): an alien invasion threatens Earth, lands in a major city (Metropolis/New York), decimates that city's population only to succeed in bringing together the world to combat a mutual threat.  Veidt kills three million with a giant squid monster to force peace and hope, Zod lands in Metropolis in a squid shaped vessel filled with squid-like things.  Superman, meanwhile, grapples with his outsider status. He too wants to bring hope to the people, he too is considered a threat.  What's uncomfortable about Snyder and Nolan's vision of Superman is that when he "saves" the city, he leaves most of it in ruins. We don't get the hero who appears just in time to sweep hoards of plummeting people to safety, we don't get the hero who we see picking up wreckage or ferrying away the wounded.  Instead, we get a shrug of acceptance from a military presence. Though the film ends on a winning, pumped-up note, there's a strange sense permeating the story that Clark Kent's logic is in line with Veidt: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Au Revoir, Google Reader! Time to get some Bloglovin'...

It was a sad sad day a few months back when Google announced they'd be retiring Google Reader from their Skynet-sized roster of resources. While I haven't a clue what brought about the decision (I certainly used it, did you?), I've since been idling on where to transfer my RSS subscriptions.  There are any number of options out there (Feedly was recommended to me), but for now I've opted to run with a service this very blog has previously pulled readers from, and which possesses a glossy, user-friendly feed to help smooth out the already tough transition: Bloglovin'.

If you follow Love & Squalor here or on Twitter, you know I periodically remind folks it's an easy place to keep track of new entries and to find all kinds of amazing new blogs to read.  As I was transferring over my subscriptions (holler at me if you feel like I should be checking out your site!), I took a screen shot to help catch the simplicity of the design:
If this is sounding like a big plug for Bloglovin', I'm afraid it's far more self-serving than that.  I wish Bloglovin' encouraged me to do this, but I totally just want to keep seeing people. Whatever your method, as the change comes, I'm hoping not to lose all of you quiet but present repeat visitors.  Bloglovin' has been working for me thus far, but if you've got a method you prefer, I'd love to hear it.  Digg will have a Reader replacement soon, as will many others; Pulse and Flipboard seem to work for some (though I find the latter glossy but claustrophobic).

Anyhow, follow Love & Squalor on Bloglovin' by clicking here.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Love: Mud

Despite a surplus of positive word of mouth, I'd sort of written off Mud as some inevitably exhausting bore. It read like the bastard child of last summer's big-ticket indie films: kids floating around southern waters, Matthew McConaughey, other know what I mean. There was little chance of Mud surprising me, and so I didn't run to it.  I'm a bit ashamed of this fact, of course. Not because the film proved me wrong, no (sometimes you can just sort of see the way something will unfold), but because that excuse is a terrible reason not to experience the nuances and methods of an individual story.  It shouldn't matter whether the trailers have made the outcome transparent, or whether we've seen material like this before.  A film like Mud is simply about the storytelling process. We're watching something slowly unfold, not flailing towards the inevitability of the ending.  
Mud is the third film from Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols, and he seems to have a knack for pinning down the way life in rural settings seems to accentuate the balance between man and nature. Here, the natural provides something of a fairy tale quality to the lives of young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loflan).  Ellis lives in a shack of a houseboat along the Mississippi with his unhappy parents. Given even a ghost of a chance to, he escapes on small adventures with Neck. Together, they're a modern Tom and Huck, a pair who get up to trouble in Piggly Wiggly parking lots and who take things in stride. Ellis and Neck have an enviable freedom, a lack of responsibility that finds them riding dirt bikes through the woods and slipping away to a deserted island in search of a boat lodged by flood waters in the branches of a tree. Of course, when they find it, it's already inhabited by a mysterious vagrant who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey).  Because this is that kind of movie, the kids strike a deal with him a la Great Expectations.  They'll bring him food from the mainlands. When he leaves? The boat will belong to them.

With Mud, Ellis and Neck are given a purpose. They're amateur detectives, scavengers, and assistants. Though they have no real reason to, they are drawn to the man, Ellis in particular.  Perhaps it's because he communicates with them without condescension, perhaps because they feel they can truly help, or maybe because sharing a secret builds a powerful bond.  Whatever it is, as the secrets of Mud's past are slowly revealed, the necessity of this connection becomes palpable in its energy.  What's surprising about Mud certainly isn't its concluding chapter, but is instead the individual potential of its characters. They have the ability to surprise us while remaining in character, and we become close to Ellis and Neck as we first realize that they are more complicated than we gave them credit for, and then as they themselves begin to understand that the adults in their world all house richer past lives and stories 
Ellis and Neckbone are written a bit like Spielberg kids, the sort you'd expect to find populating one of his earlier films, hiding away Mud like E.T.. Nichols allows them to carry the film and doesn't divert our attention to the talented adult actors just on the sidelines. Sheridan and Loflan hold the story up between dalliances with McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, and Sam Shepard. And though McConaughey here has a certain charismatic charm that makes for a powerful performance, he shares his scenes with Tye Sheridan, and the kid makes a good go of it.  

While the film's final act is unfortunately also its weakest moment, Mud has a life to it that makes it something better than our last glimpse.  Though the story shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone, Mud is a good, solid film made of sturdy stuff that's just plain better than should be possible.

Love: Before Midnight

In yet another summer of super sequels, Before Midnight is perhaps the tiniest and most unlikely retread. It's the third in Richard Linklater's no-frills chronicling of a romance, and follows -in a sort of modified real time- the events of Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004).  The first two, of course, have become quietly beloved indie classics. For the uninitiated, a raw synopsis sounds deceptively simple, perhaps to the point of being boring. Two strangers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), meet while traveling and spend one evening talking, walking, pontificating, and falling in love in Vienna.  Just one night, hence the title. The chance encounter was repeated when the lovers reunited in Sunset, but the relative purity remained. Sunrise was, essentially, the bench scene of Manhattan magnified and enhanced. Where Woody Allen gave us one enchanting talking sequence between a pair of like minds (a moment of intellectual porn, basically) Linklater gave us the whole picture. We watched as Jesse and Celine connected, and the curious thing was that somehow the more they did so, the more we were riveted.

Two films later, there's still something fascinating about watching Jesse and Celine simply communicate though we're a long way from the simplicity of that first night. First came the fairy tale, then the bittersweet reunion, and now, the modern, complicated ever after. Before Midnight finds Jesse and Celine as parents entering middle age.  An extended summer vacation in Greece with their twin daughters and Jesse's teen son has become somehow trying, and the two argue with increasing frequency. Celine is a strong woman trapped by motherhood, Jesse is a laid back writer who prefers not to dwell on the negative. The story itself is too familiar. We've seen troubled relationships before, we've met couples caught up in what's supposed to be true love. In Before Midnight, though, we find ourselves actually caring. 

Visually, the film isn't much. Long scenes pass with the camera focused on the front seat of a car or tracking the couple as they simply walk through some ruins. As Linklater's camera sits stationary, all attention is diverted to every line of dialogue, every accented pronunciation. We're forced to really listen, and thus to really hear. Though the conversations tend to slip to familiar meditations on love, marriage, gender, and aging, there's a poetry to the meandering differences between the two characters.  We learn everything we need to know about the last ten years through  their bickering, and they expose their individual weaknesses via their own narcissism. They love to hear themselves talk, and in a rare moment of serendipity, we do too. 
Delpy and Hawke co-wrote the script with Linklater, and though they all but disappear into their characters, their individual touches are all over it. There's a sublime pretentiousness here, an honest acknowledgment of the absurdity of their loftiest 'intellectual' thoughts and a way of communicating without fear of judgment or repercussion though the stakes are so very high.  Before Midnight resists becoming a film about two people dealing with the pressures of raising a family and instead focuses on what happens when two dreamers (or thinkers) find themselves without time enough to spend raising themselves.  They're tired and worn, embittered and lost, and the film is consequently as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. We find hope in their absolute honesty. Each speaks in a way the other understands, though they find it trying, and each glimmer of recognition makes us hope all the harder that they'll find a way to stay together. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Love: This is the End

A few years back, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg released their semi-autobiographical comedy Superbad onto the world. There was much rejoicing. It was a project they began penning together when they were both 13 year olds in Canada, and years of crass, juvenile growing up were layered over surprisingly deft depictions of enduring friendship.  Superbad was a rare mix of the ultra crude with a depth of character and heart, something that seemed to bridge the wonderful world of Freaks & Geeks with the stoner comedies Rogen was beginning to find himself starring in. Now, Rogen and Goldberg have moved on from their adolescent alter-egos and jumped full force into the concept comedy to end all concept comedies: This is the End.  We're not in high school any more, my friends. This is the End is a half-baked jumble of nonsense, an exercise in extreme self-referential postmodernism, a nightmarishly playful critique on social Hollywood, a buddy-action-stoner-horror-comedy/event blockbuster with out-of-control, violent mood swings. Mostly, though? It's funny as hell.
Rogen writes, directs, and stars here as himself. We're introduced to the on-screen Seth Rogen as a guy who can't walk through the airport without someone asking him to "do the laugh" or critiquing his inability to play a different role. He seems to accept his place as cinematic comedy's lovable Fozzie Bear, and excitedly brings home his visiting friend Jay Baruchel (they co-starred on the massively underrated Undeclared) for a weekend of video games, junk food, and premium weed.  The Baruchel here is a Hollywood outsider, a misanthropic guy who detests the phony put-on attitudes of Rogen's new crew and who especially hates Jonah Hill.  Though he protests, Seth drags Jay to James Franco's housewarming party and forces him to mingle uncomfortably with Jonah, James, Craig Robinson, and a host of familiar faces (most memorably: a coked-out Michael Cera).  What begins as a mild annoyance quickly becomes a life or death matter when the majority of the party's guests are killed off when, well, all hell actually breaks loose. From then on we're treated to the survival antics of a group of narcissistic frenemies locked away in a Los Angeles fortress.  Franco, Rogen, Baruchel, Hill, Robinson, and Danny McBride bicker, banter, fight, love, and constantly keep track of their resources.
Things get weird quickly, and they never quite straighten back out. This is the End seems to relish being the best version of a very bad trip it can be, and the blend of real-life with the apocalyptic here leads to a quality that succeeds in being wonderfully hallucinatory. All of the edges have been smudged and blurred, and the actors are so thoroughly invested in playing to their best and worst public qualities that we love them and hate them as the film itself does.  The best of the group's public perception is one the crew seems very aware of: they're the original bromance guys, the guys you're supposed to feel like you could (potentially) hang out with, and the guys who - even when they're smoking spliffs and spitting depraved lines - your mom would somehow like (or, at least, my mom does?).  So, the film lets you hang out, it lets the jokes roll, the riffs happen, the circles and inward references turn in ways that bring you inside instead of pushing you out.  Though the satanic horror elements begin to encroach on the fun in occasionally disturbing ways, This is the End succeeds in keeping things light. Oh, and the final scene? A weird kind of bliss.

So, yeah, I haven't laughed this much in the theater since last year's surprisingly good 21 Jump Street, and I doubt I'll stop giggling about certain scenes for days to come.  This is the End is evil with a dopey, smiley face; the kind of happy weirdness that can convince you the most off-color things are simply funny.  Sure the plot is a stretch and the idea was likely hatched in a fog of pot smoke, but, damn if it's not so stupid it's positively brilliant.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Love: Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach has a long history of subjecting his intellectual characters to curious forms of sadism. He's a director whose works bear the mark of Woody Allen, but who has never allowed the neurotic messes he writes to thrive or find their place in the way Allen's somehow seem to. Instead, Baumbach seems to pull from a personal history of annoyances (the dueling aesthetes of Squid and the Whale were modeled after his own parents, after all) to catalog the ways in which the so-called smart people are barely excuses for people at all.  Squid, Kicking and Screaming, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg mark an increasingly embittered progression of mean-spirited talkies.  Where Allen's films (of the late 70's and 80's especially) seem to find some sort of laughing joy in their intense, self-admitting narcissism, Baumbach's tend to crucify their characters and force them to drag about the cross of their own neurotic behavior til it manifests as mental illness.

At first, it seems like Frances Ha may lead in that direction. Baumbach's latest outing is a small-scale ode to French New Wave, Woody Allen, and his leading lady/real life girlfriend: Greta Gerwig. Baumbach and Gerwig have pinned down the curious ways in which contemporary Brooklyn seems to be reaching back towards the New York depicted in Allen's Manhattan. The American Apparel-style clothes are interchangeable with the threads of 1980, the struggling artists and trust fund babies are equally insufferable, the eyeglasses have come full circle.  The superficial similarities work in the film's favor to build a sense of deep nostalgia around Frances Ha. It's a movie that feels well-worn, like we've seen it a dozen times already, but which is somehow brand new.
The big difference between then and now is, perhaps, that we've reached a point where people have the luxury of not having to straighten out and completely 'grow up' once they've hit the legal age of adulthood. Gerwig specializes in playing someone who's only about half adult, a confused woman-child who's happiest when they're allowed to just be themselves without putting on what, for them, is a phony air of maturity.  Frances Ha's titular protagonist, Frances Halliday, is a 27-year old dancer who, we find out, doesn't really get much of a chance to dance. She's the ballerina from the island of misfit toys, a girl who's blissfully happy so long as she's hanging out with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), who has big ideas about love and connection, and who charms those around her even as she makes them a bit uncomfortable. The film opens on what we understand to be a standard-issue perfect day in Frances's world: she and Sophie hang out with friends at a party, drink too much, play fight, and go home to read and reassure one another of their platonic affections. So, when Sophie drops the news that she's moving to a new apartment (and might be truly in love with her 'bro' of a boyfriend), Frances finds that the ground has dropped beneath her feet.

Wholly independent and stubborn to the last, the film follows Frances as she embarks on hardships that she seems to treat like isolated adventures. She takes on trust-fund hipster roommates (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) until she can't afford to do so any longer, she refuses to compromise her dancer dreams until she finds herself unemployed, she goes home and doesn't let her parents know she's struggling, she jets off on a weekend in Paris that she accidentally sleeps through half of. When she speaks aloud about each moment (if she does), the more well-adjusted around her seem to belie their discreet judgments. Her friends and peers have moved on to talking about careers and homes, they're getting married and beginning to have kids. As they listen to Frances, they seem to be edging away, unsure of how exactly to respond.  She's a struggling artist who talks, in long, broken, dazed sentences, about big ideas she can't quite articulate. Yet, while her own brand of intellectual narcissism leads her towards stubbornness, she's forever her own person and never as hateful as the characters (just on the periphery) depicted in, for example, Girls.
For all the implied loneliness of Fran's existence, the film resists becoming the sort of nastiness Greenberg was and never takes pot shots at its protagonist. Instead, it plays out as a love letter to Gerwig's capabilities and to Frances's genuineness of spirit. Baumbach has found an actress who, for him, works like Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow did for Allen, and who is allowed to exist pleasantly on her own terms.  Though she at first seems to be of the mold, Frances is not a character crafted in the image of Annie Hall or Alvy Singer, or who obnoxiously grew up too aware of their existence. Instead, she's just Frances. So she dances. She dances and talks and play fights and tries to the point that we feel we have befriended her and are, somehow, invested in the film's outcome. Though frequently defeated, Frances Ha holds up small recession-era victories and allows the audience to walk away feeling like the character is better off than they found her, that she is capable of enduring the hardships of her vagabond homelessness and misadventures.  She will keep dancing.

Win: 'The Purge' Prize Pack

Well, this is different for me, but why not? Here's your chance to win a material thing!

If, on one night every year, you could commit any crime without facing consequences, what would you do?

 In an America wracked with crime and overcrowded prisons, the government has sanctioned an annual 12-hour period in which any and all criminal activity--including murder--becomes legal. The police can't be called. Hospitals suspend help. It's twelve hours when the citizenry regulates itself without thought of punishment. On this particular night in 2022, plagued by violence and an epidemic of crime, one family wrestles with the decision of who they will become when a stranger comes knocking.

 When an intruder breaks into James Sandin’s (Ethan Hawke) gated community during the yearly lockdown, he begins a sequence of events that threatens to tear his family apart. Now, it is up to James, his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), and their kids to make it through the night without turning into the monsters from whom they hide.

The Purge hits theaters June 7, and one lucky reader will receive an exclusive Purge pack t-shirt (it's creepy!) and mask to #SurviveTheNight with here.

Interested? Simply take the quiz and post the results and your e-mail address in the comments below. The cut off for entries is June 18th, the winner will be notified via e-mail on June 19th.

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Squalor: Now You See Me

Let's begin with a list of all the on-screen talent involved in the making of this film, shall we? In this magical, misdirected version of Ocean's 11 we have Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Melanie Laurent, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Mark Ruffalo. I'd put Dave Franco on there, too, but frankly, I'm not yet convinced of his skills beyond the title of 'brother of James'. Most of the others, though, are pretty established.  Like, say, to the point that we could probably compile a list of the things they're generally good at. Eisenberg plays a great fast-talking smart ass, Harrelson makes smarmy characters endearing, Freeman is the voice and the guide, Laurent allows a sophisticated touch of something just beneath the surface. With the exception of Fisher (whose talent is (questionably) a sort of squirrely physical comedy), Now You See Me relies on the general typecasting of its actors. If you want to see this assortment of actors doing the things they're known for doing together on stage, for one performance only, this is your movie.  If you're hoping all these actors will get a chance to actually make something of their characters? Well, it's like any trick, right? First you see something, then you don't.  In this case: first you see potential, then it just.. sort of... disappears.
Now You See Me is what happens when a good idea gets over-plotted, over-complicated, and over-cast.  There are too many characters involved in events that require too much explanation, and so very little happens that doesn't directly contribute to the events of the story. Of course, a heist film about magicians should be relatively frothy, and given a superficial glance, Now You See Me succeeds as a weightless entertainment. A ragtag group of street illusionists is gathered via Tarot card invite and assembled -with almost no explanation and a set of light-show blueprints- into a Vegas-style attraction. There's little point introducing you to the characters themselves, as we've established everyone here is essentially just a vessel, so let's just say we watch Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher, and Franco step cheesily into the klieg lights as the Four Horsemen.  When the Four Horsemen wrap up their stint at the MGM Grand by 'magically' robbing a Parisian bank, they attract the attention of a rumpled FBI agent (Ruffalo), Interpol (Laurent) and a nosy professional mythbuster (Freeman). The cat and mouse game begins, the film keeps us in the dark as to which party is one step ahead, we work towards the end game and the inevitable 'prestige' twist.
I won't reveal how things play out, as Now You See Me is certainly watchable enough to warrant a cursory glance without spoilage. Instead, I'll jump to complaining about the film's flimsy construction. A fair amount of Now You See Me is centered on the backstage revealing of its varied mechanisms. While just enough magic is retained for us to suspend our disbelief, the story requires that we understand a fair amount of the technical misdirection just up the illusionist's sleeve. The problem with this is two-fold: first, the time it takes to do so overcomplicates and takes away from more interesting content, then, it forces us to read any unexplained too magical elements as unbelievable bullshit. Had the writers and directors drawn more influence from the ensemble work in Ocean's 11, they could have solved these initial issues by simply centering the film on the magicians themselves. When we hang with the thieves, when we see them bicker, practice, and run us through the heist/act, we're less likely to need a clunky aside.  This is where Now You See Me fails. Too much of the illusion is left on stage, and so are the magicians. Instead, the action of the film is centered on the law element. When the criminals aren't really villains and the agents aren't really straight heroes, the tension that might otherwise keep us in the chase is easily lost.
So, we know all the while we're watching some sort of elaborate charade. Everything feels like a setup, and the stakes seem lower than all the hubbub on screen suggests. Director Louis Leterrier, who has previously hinted at style on films like The Transporter or Clash of the Titans, here never bothers with anything that could tilt towards visually engaging. It's a blandly shot film with a daylight finish that lays everything too bare and makes the artifice too phony. Though I kinda liked Now You See Me while I was watching it, by the end I felt bored and a bit cheated. If the cheat came from the twists themselves, that would be alright, but it comes instead from simple absences. In trying to capture everything, Now You See Me that cuts out any real cunning or intrigue and implies, instead, that both the characters and the audience are simply present to be duped. The second the screen goes black, everything the film tries to pull off begins to unravel.

Squalor: The Hangover Part III

Here's the good news: if you saw The Hangover II and wondered if you were being trolled by the film's producers into a money making roofie cycle, part three actually does find the Wolf Pack on a new trajectory. The amnesia shtick has been dropped, the partying has been exchanged for criminal blackmail, everyone participates in the film's events with a reasonable understanding of boundaries and past mistakes. The Hangover Part III opens with Alan (Zach Galifianakis) at a maniacal low point.  The accidental murder of his pet giraffe has caused mass chaos on the freeway, his father has died, and Alan's cross-section of issues not yet listed in the DSM IV has his remaining family on edge.  Stu (Ed Helms), Phil (Bradley Cooper), and Doug (Justin Bartha) are roped into assisting with Alan's intervention, and when they promise to travel with him to check into a treatment facility, they find themselves kidnapped and forced to participate in a crime boss's revenge scheme against the demonic Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong).  Chow has escaped from his Thai prison and sources tell us he's been in contact with Alan, his only friend in the world...

Love: Star Trek: Into Darkness

[May contain spoilers] I grew up on Star Trek. TNG thru Voyager, we're talking like, serious, grade A, level one obsession from early childhood until about age 12.  I had piles of toys and books: plastic phasers, tricorders, comm badges, an army of action figures and ships, novelizations, official guides, parts of the series of YA books about Jake Sisko and Nog; and thankfully a couple friends who shared similar interests. Outside of our tight-knit backyard circle of Starfleet adventurers, the other kids just didn't get it. I learned early on not to throw around a Trek enthusiasm too much on the playground, and after all those years of reluctant fandom, the mass acceptance that came into vogue post J.J. Abrams still makes me feel weirdly justified. There's just something about watching a line of teen girls fresh from cheer practice file into the theater and giggle to each other about Captain Kirk's shenanigans that's kind of great. Some Trek fans (Trekkers, Trekkies, I can't keep the preferred term straight any longer) have been quick to deride the Abrams films as too-glossy exercises in 'trying too hard', but dammit, Jim, fuck nerd-cred and exclusion. Star Trek is the kind of series that should belong to the people, and Abrams proves again once more with Into Darkness that he's capable of delivering it to the masses, at a minimal price. 
The first entry in the rebooted series was a sparkling bit of summer adventure that mashed-up its 60's influences with 21st century effects.  While some of the concepts of the original series have been lost, much of the material was (and is) merely the result of clever recycling, the new Star Trek films are, somehow, just fun. At a point where 'darkness' seemed to be a buzzword for any self-respecting action flick, 2009's Star Trek was pop-art fresh to the point of making weary audiences giddy. When the buzz on Into Darkness (title included) seemed to suggest the primary colored quip would be replaced by Christopher Nolan-style menace, some worried the series would disappear into the bleak summer sci-fi landscape. The threat is definitely there. Abrams had already mucked things up a bit with die-hards when he made the film more about explosions than exploration, and the "sequel" seems to believe it has to break a few more Prime Directive rules to shape its new direction.

Of course, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) has always been a sort of maverick. The film opens on an action-packed sequence that finds Kirk battling between keeping his crew alive and upholding a basic first-contact regulation. When his decision finds him suspended and without the Enterprise, he's present for a series of Earthbound terrorist attacks on major Starfleet marks.  The perpetrator is John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a shadow figure who flees to the edges of Klingon space where he believes no reasonable peacekeeper will travel.  That's what it takes to get Kirk back in the Captain's chair and reunited with the ever-logical Spock (Zachary Quinto), irritable Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (Jon Cho) and plucky Chekhov (Anton Yelchin).  The familiar faces resume their duties as effectively as before, and there's a chemistry between the actors that makes the real highlight of this film the bickering, bantering, and 'in' jokes between crewmates, lovers, and would-be enemies.    
Though the film's heart is invested entirely in the relationships between its recognizable characters, Benedict Cumberbatch pulls focus in a way that could find him easily typecast for years to come.  Cumberbatch has the look, talent, and voice to pull off a convincing sociopath, and the moment he detaches himself from anything that reads as 'human', he's compelling in that way only villains can be.  As the Enterprise's crew travels with plans to fire upon the terrorist with new, mysterious photon torpedoes, Harrison surrenders willingly and draws Kirk in with two revelations: that they may share an enemy far more dangerous than he and that John Harrison doesn't exist. His real name, of course, is Khan [Sidenote: I thought this was common knowledge going into the film, but apparently it's a major spoiler?].  Cumberbatch is a delightfully fierce villain, and as he combines power with intellect, he's the perfect excuse for Abrams to continue to push Spock into the role of unwitting action hero.  In 2013, we're not exactly hard up for another devil-may-care Kirk type, and so Spock's increasingly complicated turn is yet another way the franchise distinguishes itself from a redundancy of Marvel and DC wink-and-a-one liner juggernauts.  The film alternates between logic and brawn, rules and rebellion. And? Plainly put? I love watching the reluctant bromance (tired as that word may be) between Spock and Kirk. Abrams gets their relationship in ways the original series couldn't quite push, and their struggle to understand each other's logical reasoning seems somehow telling.
The film's end is the TV show's classic opener, and, in many ways, what Abrams has done here is build a film that plays out like a deluxe-sized episode. The resources are more plentiful, the sets bigger, the possibilities more abundant than ever; and though some of the kitsch that made the original has been lost, enough of the legacy remains. With Into Darkness Abrams polishes up that old school content, keeps up the lens flare on an already shining sequence of images, and boldly goes into the past where many may have gone before, but where we're happy to return.

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