Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Signal (2014) **

There's something about seeing a movie at a film festival. Excitement is high, but expectations are moderated. There's a sense of community among the audience, and everyone is rooting for the filmmaker. This energy makes movies seem better than they really are.

“The Signal” is a case in point. The movie debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and had I seen this low-budget, sci-fi thriller there, I probably would have loved it. The plot holes, cheap gotchas based on spelling and arithmetical gimmicks, and general lack of originality would have been swept away by the thrill of seeing something so beautifully-filmed, not to mention the Question-and Answer session at the end, where the director would have charmed us all. But I didn't see it at Sundance. On HBO, the movie has to stand on its own, and it just barely limps along to a slightly annoying conclusion.

Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Jonah (Beau Knapp), and Haley (Olivia Cooke) are college friends on a road trip, moving Haley cross-country. The big move is putting a strain on Nic and Haley's romantic relationship, as is the unnamed degenerative disease that requires Nic to use crutches. On the trip, they are taunted by a computer hacker who previously hacked them and their school. Nic and Jonah use their own skills to figure out where the hacker, who calls himself Nomad, is logging in from, and they decide to take a detour to track him down and expose his identity. The trail leads to a shack out in the desert, which the guys explore in a scene straight out of “The Blair Witch Project.”

Then all hell breaks loose, and the next thing he knows, Nic is waking up in some sort of hospital facility, where all the staff are wearing hazmat suits. He meets Damon (Laurence Fishburne), apparently some kind of doctor, who reveals that Nic may have come in contact with aliens. Damon won't explain much, and he wants to run all kinds of tests on Nic. Meanwhile, Nic learns that his two friends are also in the facility, and he hatches plans to get them out. The questions of where they are, what happened to them, and whether Damon can be trusted all get answered in time, in sort-of surprising ways.

Writer/director William Eubank more or less succeeds in keeping you glued to the screen, living this disorienting experience through Nic's eyes. The pace of the film is a bit too slow, though, especially given the limited payoff at the end. Eubank could have skipped a lot of the flashbacks to Nic's running days, and really, the story would have been better served up as a 1-hour Black Mirror episode. (Although it still would have been the weakest episode in that series.) As long as the film feels (it's actually only 1h 37m), there are still major plot points that are poorly explained. Meanwhile, the explanations that are finally delivered tend to be lame and/or derivative. The acting is a strong point, both from the young stars and from Laurence Fishburne, who lends the film an air of gravitas, and they all do the best they can with the script they are given. Overall, “The Signal” doesn't look bad for a $4 million independent film, but it serves less as a fully-realized film and more as a demo tape from a promising, young writer/director who still needs to iron out some wrinkles in his craft.

2 stars out of 5

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Al Final del Tunel (At the End of the Tunnel, 2016, Spanish) **1/2

Joaquin is a physically and emotionally crippled computer expert, mourning his dead family and living alone in a house that he is unable to afford. To stave off foreclosure, he rents out a room to a hot, single mom. Berta (Clara Lago) and her daughter Betty upset Joaquin's quiet life, an invasion he initially resents but eventually accepts, as he and his aged dog come to like the newcomers.

Meanwhile, something is going on downstairs, in the adjoining building. Joaquin hears strange conversations through his basement wall, sometimes mentioning him. He discovers a criminal gang burrowing a tunnel under his house to the bank on the other side. Using his electronics skills, the wheelchair-bound Joaquin learns the gang's plan and hatches his own scheme to get the money for himself.

Argentinean writer/director Rodrigo Grande has created a tense, claustrophobic thriller that is full of plot holes. The character's actions make little sense, and Clara Lago is too much a poor-man's version of a dark, Spanish movie star to be really compelling. Fortunately, the two male leads, Leonardo Sbaraglia as Joaquin and Pablo Echarri as the gang-leader, carry the movie. Federico Luppi also makes a sinisterly convincing appearance as a shady policeman. Grande does a good job putting you in Joaquin's place as he overcomes his paraplegia to pull off his scheme, and the scenes in the tunnel are cool. Unfortunately, the plot falls victim to lazy writing, and no amount of good acting or cinematography can overcome that.

2.5 stars out of 5

Monday, September 04, 2017

Sing Street (2016) ***1/2

More than any working filmmaker I know of, writer/director John Carney makes films that are love letters to music, and specifically songwriting. In “Once”, “Begin Again”, and now “Sing Street”, Carney lets us in on the process as his characters write and perform original songs. The results can be a little uneven in terms of storytelling, but absolutely enjoyable musically.

In “Sing Street”, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays Conor, a disaffected, Irish schoolboy who plays music to distract himself from his parents' constant bickering. With the crappy 1980's Irish economy, the family has to tighten its belt, so Conor has to switch to a cheaper school. Fitting in at the new, more working-class school is tough. Plus, there's a girl Conor would like to impress, so he does the only logical thing: he forms a band.

Conor and his band of misfits are a bit rough around the edges, but they possess a young, punk energy and Conor's talent for songwriting. Armed with some good advice from Conor's older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor) (“You don't need to know how to play. Who are you, Steely Dan?”), they set to work making music videos, which is the perfect excuse for Conor to get to know Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Every music video needs a pretty girl, and Raphina is a stone fox. She's also a complicated girl. Conor works on wooing her as he and the band work their way through a variety of 80's musical and sartorial styles, trying on everything from Duran Duran to The Cure.

As his filmmaking career has progressed, John Carney has taken a greater hand in writing the songs for his films. The songs in “Once” were written by his stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, whom you may remember won an Oscar. In “Begin Again,” Carney himself gets a couple of co-writing credits, and for “Sing Street” Carney contributed to almost all of the original tunes. They are surprisingly good songs for what is essentially '80s pastiche.

Unless you are a 15-year-old boy trying to decide whether or not to start a band (Do it!), “Sing Street” isn't going to change your life. Little effort is wasted on a believable plot or on character development. The point of this film is the music, and between the original songs and the '80s classics, it is guaranteed to make you feel good.

3.5 stars out of 5

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Adaptation. (2002) *****

Some books are easier than others to adapt to the screen. Susan Orlean's “The Orchid Thief” is a sprawling, ruminative meditation on life, flowers, and a Florida horticulturist named John Laroche. Laroche is a toothless plant-poacher with an endless willingness to expound on his philosophy of life. He's a great interview subject for a New Yorker journalist like Orlean, and he's the kind of singular character who belongs in a movie. If Laroche is movie-ready, however, Orlean's book is not. A genius was needed to mold “The Orchid Thief” into a screenplay, so the movie studio turned to the genius behind “Being John Malkovich,” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

As the story goes, even Kaufman developed writer's block in the face of “The Orchid Thief.” Out of ideas, he finally decided to write a movie about his own writer's block. “Adaptation.” is the story of fat, balding screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), a guy so awkward that he can't even use his status as a working screenwriter to hit on a waitress. In Hollywood! This is a guy who could fall into a barrel of tits and come out sucking his own thumb! Kaufman, stuck in his own head, awkwardly lurks on the set of “Being John Malkovich” while struggling to come up with a way to faithfully adapt “The Orchid Thief”. Meanwhile, his (fictional) twin brother, Donald (also Cage), successfully loafs through life, sleeping in Charlie's spare room, hitting on makeup girls, and annoying Charlie by embarking on his own screenwriting project.

Charlie becomes enamored of orchids and develops a crush on Susan Orlean, but his screenplay is still nothing more than the tale of a New York reporter interviewing an eccentric horticulturist. He needs something exciting, some kind of story arc, some kind of drama, but there's nothing in the book that provides that. Then Charlie and Donnie start to suspect that there is something Orlean isn't telling us, that she discovered more than a story idea down in Florida. They set out to find out what she is hiding, and the story takes a wild turn.

At one point, Kaufman describes himself as a snake swallowing its own tale, and that's exactly what his narrative does for a while. The on-screen Kaufman starts to write his own writer's block into his script, then he writes about himself writing his writer's block into the script. The decision to investigate Orlean is what breaks Charlie out of this dead-end cycle, and astute viewers will recognize this as the point where Charlie gives up on being faithful to the book and begins to employ serious artistic license.

Charlie gets an assist from a screenwriting seminar by Robert McKee (played brilliantly by Brian Cox). The real-life McKee is a creative-writing professor and author of the unofficial “screenwriter's bible.” The on-screen McKee tells Charlie, “The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you've got a hit.” By the time Charlie is done, a story that wasn't supposed to have sex, guns, car chases, or characters “learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end” winds up having all of those things.

Directed by Spike Jones, “Adaptation.” is meta, funny, sexy, and mind-blowingly brilliant. And it wows us in the end.

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Passengers (2016) ***1/2

An interstellar vessel hurtles through space, full of hibernating colonists and crew, on a 120-year journey to a new planet. An unexpected asteroid field puts a strain on the ship's shields, causing one of the sleep pods to malfunction and wake up its passenger, Jim (Chris Pratt). Imagine Jim's growing horror as he discovers that 1) He is the only person awake on the ship. 2) They are still 90 years from their destination. and 3) There is no way for him to go back into hibernation. Jim goes through all the stages of despair as he exhausts every possible way to reactivate his sleep pod, get a message to earth, or break into the secure crew quarters to wake one of them up.

After a year of this frustration and solitude, Jim is bearded and depressed. Only two things keep him going. One is the robot bartender, Arthur, who can not only converse, but dispense bartenderly advice. The other is his growing infatuation with a sleeping fellow passenger (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer named Aurora Lane (I know, it's a stripper name. Just go with it.). Jim agonizes over what to do about Aurora. He can't reactivate a sleep pod, but he has figured out how to wake someone up from one. He could wake Aurora up and have a companion, but then he would have damned her to live out her life in deep space, missing out, like him, on the colony they are all destined for. Spoiler alert: He does it, and then has to live with the guilt. On top of that, there's a problem with the ship.

“Passengers” is beautifully filmed, with impressive space imagery, but at its core, it isn't science fiction. Jim's ethical dilemma is the beating heart of the story. Essentially trapped on a desert island, he has the opportunity to have someone join him on the island, but then, of course, she will be trapped there, too. How much solitude could you endure before you gave in to that temptation?

In the end, Jim and Aurora face the same existential questions we all do. We all at some point have to make the best of a situation that isn't what we wanted. When our dreams are utterly out of reach, how do we find a new dream? How do we forgive those who wrong us, and how do we forgive ourselves?

Considering the weight of the questions it deals with, “Passengers” doesn't have quite as much gravity as it should. You could rightfully accuse the plot of being a bit predictable, and wrapped up too neatly and too quickly. There's a lot of food for thought, but you have to cook most of it yourself, as the end of the film feels hurried. Still, this is a decent story with charming actors. Most of the reviews I have read on it were negative, but I think it's well worth a watch.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Performance (1970) ***

“Performance” is ostensibly a crime drama, but what it is really about is sexual identity, or just identity in general. James Fox plays Chas, a British gangster who spends his days brutally intimidating people. He enjoys his work, perhaps too much. When he pushes the wrong guy's buttons, he winds up having to kill him, which puts Chas in trouble with his boss. On the run from the London underworld, Chas dyes his hair and rents a basement room in what turns out to be the home of a faded rock star named Turner (Mick Jagger). Turner lives there with his girlfriend Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and the androgynous Lucy (Michele Breton).

Turner and Chas don't hit it off at first. Chas describes his new housemates as “long-hairs, beatniks, druggers.” Still, Chas can't help but be attracted to the ladies in the house, and he becomes fascinated, as well, with Turner's artistic energy. As he dallies with them, Chas starts to open his mind to his own artistic, and feminine, side.

This is definitely one for when you're in the mood for some art-house fare. The camera work is shaky, the acting is iffy, and the plot is really just a weak excuse to get to the orgies, gender-bending, and naked Anita Pallenberg. Still, “Performance” has a certain artistic spirit that can't be denied. James Fox is like a British Steve McQueen, tough and iconically masculine, which makes it rather trippy to watch Anita Pallenberg get him to dress like a girl. The chemistry between Chas and Turner is also interesting. The thrill that Chas gets from violence is not unlike Turner's artistic drive. These two complete opposites recognize a kindred spirit within each other.

As interesting as the movie itself is the controversy surrounding it. The rumor is that Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg had actual intercourse during the sex scenes. That wouldn't be all that scandalous except for the fact that Pallenberg was Keith Richard's girlfriend at the time. Meanwhile, the movie studio thought they were bankrolling a Rolling Stones version of one of those happy-go-lucky Beatles movies. Instead they got this weird, psychedelic experiment that was banned in many venues. It seems you can't always get what you want.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Chinatown (1974) *****

Born of the marriage of German Expressionism and American, hardboiled detective fiction, film noir is a genre that keeps coming back around. The 1940's and '50s are considered the classic noir era, but directors to the modern day have continued to make starkly-lit, cynical movies about complicated men in suits who get sucked into the darkness of greed, corruption, and betrayal. Among the greatest of these is Roman Polanksi's “Chinatown.” 

 Filmed in 1974, in an America wracked by self-doubt, the movie is set in the hot, L.A. Summer of 1937, during a drought. The city of L.A. is fighting with rural farmers over every drop of precious water. During what starts as a standard cheating-spouse investigation, private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) discovers that someone is secretly dumping fresh water into the ocean. The cocky Gittes soon finds himself in over his head in a story with all the classic noir elements: a murder investigation, a scheming millionaire, an irritable police force, and, of course, a femme fatale (Faye Dunaway).

“Chinatown” could easily have been simply an homage to noir movies, but the perfection of its execution elevates it to a noir classic in its own right. Polanski's direction is spare and taut. The plot is complicated, but if you pay attention, it makes sense. Jack Nicholson appears in every scene at his charismatic best.

“Chinatown” is about many things, not least of which is the impossibility of being a good man in a system that makes it impossible to do good. As the story unfolds, we learn that Jake used to be a police officer, working in Chinatown. He found it to be a place where no one was interested in solving crimes, just in lining their own pockets and keeping things quiet. When he tried to do one good thing in the midst of all that, he failed, so he left the force to become a private eye. Now, Jake once again finds himself in a position to do something good, if only he can.

If you haven't seen “Chinatown,” it's really imperative that you check it out. The movie stands as one of the greats, alongside films like "The Third Man" and "The Long Goodbye". It holds up well to repeat viewings, and the nihilistic, final line, “Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.” will haunt you forever.

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Entonces Nosotros (2016, English title "About Us") ***1/2

We took a chance on this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it. The risk paid off! This turned out to be a really charming, little Costa Rican romantic dramedy. It turns out it was Costa Rica's submission for the 2017 Academy Awards.

Sofia (Argentinean actress Noelia Castano) and Diego (played by the writer/director, Hernan Jimenez) are a couple in a 3-year relationship that has turned rocky. Diego, in particular can't get over the fact that Sofia hooked up with another guy during a period when they were on a break. He suggests a beach vacation where they can get away from all their old issues and reconnect. At the beach,however, they run into Malena (Marina Glezer), an old friend of Sofia's. The gorgeous Malena insinuates herself into their vacation and threatens to ruin everything, including Diego's plans to propose.

That's all there is to it. No one has superpowers or gets blown up. It's just a good, basic story about complicated love. The scenery is beautiful, as are the women. All three actors are excellent, especially Noelia Castana, who can speak volumes with a subtle change in facial expression. Jimenez, who is a professed fan of Woody Allen's work, put a lot of heart into the $400,000 film. The humor often induces more cringes than belly laughs, but it's enough to mellow the emotional honesty of the story. It might be a little TOO honest to be a good movie for a first date, but it's a great choice for a 100th date.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017) *** --Spoilers!--

The struggle is over. Wonder Woman has finally made it to the big screen! Gal Gadot plays Diana, daughter of Zeus, raised by the Amazons to fight Ares, the god of War. Diana's mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) teaches her history, while her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) teaches her to fight. Living on the magically-protected, man-free island of Themyscira, the Amazons assume that the defeated Ares is still off on his millenia of exile. When Allied spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane through their magical barrier, they learn that Ares has risen again, in the form of WWI (“the war to end all wars,” LOL!) Diana leaves Themyscira with Steve, hoping to find and destroy Ares, thus putting an end to war and suffering.

I'm not really sure what to think about “Wonder Woman.” On the one hand, we are supposed to celebrate the gender-victory of the film's having been made at all. The studios have been very reluctant to invest in a comic-book movie with a female lead, especially after the failures of films like “Catwoman” and “Elektra.” Then there's the star, former Miss Israel, Gal Godot, who is so ridiculously good-looking that I would watch a film of her reading the phone book. Seeing her make things blow up while wearing go-go boots and a Wonder-Woman micro-skirt is probably worth the ticket price right there.

On the other hand, I can't look at Gadot without thinking that she has probably had a nose job, and maybe that sort of sums up my feelings about the movie. There's an inorganic feel to it. The plot and casting have clearly been carefully calibrated to draw in the largest audience possible. After all, Warner Bros. and DC Comics are counting on Wonder Woman and the larger Justice League universe to become a multi-billion dollar juggernaut to rival the Avengers franchise. They aren't going to risk a billion here or there to make a character or a movie more nuanced or complex.

Thus, “Wonder Woman” nips at the heels of some complex and controversial topics, but it never sinks its teeth into anything. We hear Steve's secretary (Lucy Davis, from the British “The Office”) mention women getting the vote, but then that's the last we hear of it. We hear a couple of characters of color briefly mention racial injustice, but ironically, their small, undeveloped roles represent the only people of color in the film.

The greatest missed opportunity in “Wonder Woman,” however, strikes at the very heart of the story. Diana sets out to defeat Ares, whom she has been taught is responsible for all war and evil. If he is defeated, she believes, mankind will return to its original, Edenic state. As she walks the earth learning of the evil that men do, she continues to blame it all on Ares. Steve tries to explain to her that things aren't as simple as “good” human nature and “evil” influence from some dark god, that every person carries within them the potential for kindness or for savagery. Even War and Peace are concepts that should not be oversimplified. As terrible and destructive as War is, it is also sometimes the lesser of two evils. Then, too, as the villainous General Ludendorrf explains, war gives man purpose. Meaning. A chance to rise above his petty mortal little self and be courageous, noble, better.

“Wonder Woman” could have skipped the numbing boss-battle at the end and instead explored these themes more deeply. Ares would have been more effective if he had remained a disembodied force, encouraging mankind's warlike tendencies, but ultimately more a manifestation than a cause. When Diana defeats General Ludendorrf, then is bewildered to see battle preparations continue, that is a great lesson for her character. It's a lesson that is undermined when she winds up engaging in fisticuffs with the actual Ares, a fight that we in the audience should know is pointless. WWI was not, as we know, the war to end all wars.

Superhero stories have done well in the last decade or so, and well they should. On the surface, they appeal to the fantasy of transcending human limitations. On a deeper level, the characters have tremendous allegorical potential. Part human, part superhuman, these characters are able to be archetypes in the same way that the mythological gods once were. The stories we tell about them help us learn about and define who we are. “Captain America” is the definition of patriotic, but he has concerns about massive government surveillance and control. Ironman Tony Stark is a brilliant billionaire who constantly struggles with the question, “Should I build powerful weapons to fight evil, at the risk that those weapons may someday be turned to evil ends?” These modern gods are all about contradictions, just as we humans are. For Diana's part, she wants to end all fighting, but she is, herself, a weapon, made to fight.

Unfortunately, Warner Bros didn't make “Wonder Woman” to explore these contradictions; they made it to make money. There is a better movie hiding in there somewhere, but fortunately it's still decent, blockbuster entertainment, if you can ignore the limited range of the actors, the mustache-twirly villains, the sometimes-sketchy CGI, and that tacked-on ending. I do recommend you watch it; just turn off your brain and enjoy your popcorn.

3 stars out of 5  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Don't Breathe (2016) ***1/2

I feel like there has been a crop of high-quality horror films in recent years. Maybe I'm just finally giving the genre a chance. This past year I have caught up on "It Follows," "Green Room,"  "Cloverfield" and "10 Cloverfield Lane," as well as the more recent "Get Out", all outstanding movies. Next up was “Don't Breathe,” by Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez. Alvarez's rise as a director is classic. In 2009, for about $300, he made a short, action film called “Panic Attack.” The film caught the attention of Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead”), who knows a little something about making high-octane horror films on a low budget. Raimi tapped Alvarez to direct his “Evil Dead” remake; the guy knocked it out of the park; and now Alvarez gets to write and direct his own projects.

The first of these projects is “Don't Breathe,” about a group of thieves who break into the wrong house. Rocky (Jane Levy) and her boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), are a couple of Detroiters with no money or job prospects. What they do have is their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette), whose dad works for a private security firm. Alex is able to get access to alarm codes and house keys, which the trio use to commit small burglaries. They keep the crimes small at Alex's insistence, to limit police interest in them. Then Money gets a tip about a blind war veteran who may have a ton of cash in his house. The kids figure this is an easy way to make a score big enough to start new lives.

As you can guess, it isn't so easy. The blind vet turn out to be a badass, who knows his house like the back of his hand. In the dark, he is the one with the advantage, and it leads to a very rough night for Alex, Money, and Rocky.

You wouldn't think the story would work. To enjoy a horror movie, you need to identify with the terrorized characters, and who wants to identify with people who would rob a blind guy? It turns out, the movie takes time to develop the characters of Rocky and Alex enough that you actually sympathize with them a bit. Then they discover the blind guy's secret, which really turns the tables on the question of whom to root for.

“Don't Breathe” doesn't break new ground or subvert any of the classic horror tropes. The scares are of a type that we have seen before: The bad guy keeps coming back to life. There's a damsel in distress. You know the drill. Fortunately, thanks to very tight directing and charming performances, especially from Dylan Minnette and Jane Levy, “Don't Breathe” is a thoroughly enjoyable, scary good time.

3.5 stars out of 5