Thursday, November 13, 2014

More remake, less sequel scars Dumber To

In the closing credits of Dumber and Dumber To, the long-gestating sequel to the 1994 comedy smash, the film shows split screens of the two movies together, just in case the new one left you wanting more. And it will. 

The split-screens also highlight a glaring flaw in the sequel: everything that happens in Dumb and Dumber is given a do-over or update in the new entry. Looking at just the plot points, each film is mostly identical. Here’s a synopsis for both: after duping a blind kid with a bird, two Rhode Island idiots take a cross-country road trip in a ridiculous car with a murderous henchman to return a package to a woman who will likely be a romantic interest to one of them. Along the way they violently prank each other, abuse mustard, dress in absurd costumes, dream about ninjas and are saved by undercover cops. The details are changed, but the two films are largely identical. In many ways, this is more remake than sequel. 

It begins 20 years after the events of the original film, because that’s how long it’s actually been. Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) is in a mental hospital and Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) makes occasional visits to change his diapers and empty his waterbed-sized urine bag. Lloyd eventually snaps out of it and the two IQ-deficient men head off to find Harry a kidney before he kicks the bucket.

Their search leads them back to their old apartment, the blind bird boy (played by the same kid, now grown up), and eventually to Harry’s Asian parents, where he receives a decade’s worth of mail — Lloyd: “Look, Harry, you were accepted to Arizona State!” They end up at the house of an old conquest, Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner), who reveals that she had given birth to Harry’s daughter 20 years earlier. The daughter is now in El Paso at a tech conference unveiling a billion-dollar idea, which brings out the worst in her stepmother (Laurie Holden), who looks so much like the original’s Mary Swanson (Lauren Holly) it kept ejecting me out of the movie. 

Now, could any movie live up to the original Dumb and Dumber? Not likely, which is why a lot of what happens here gets a pass. But I did expect the sequel to be original, and it rarely is. Much of what happens is call-and-response from the original film. The peppers-in-the-burger gag has been replaced with a fireworks-in-the-bedroom gag. Lloyd tearing a ninja’s heart from his chest and putting it in a doggy back has been swapped out with him snatching a man’s testicles off with a leather whip. In both films, the men comically abuse the package in their care — here they punt it in a game of football.

All of this would be more tolerable, if it were more organic and pure, like the original’s thunderous arrival. But it all feels forced and stretched. And poor Daniels, he was so genuinely earnest and dopey in the original. Here he seems out of his element and confused at Harry’s stupid tone. Some of the jokes just fall flat, including a long sequence that requires Lloyd to stick his hand in awful places on a deaf octogenarian or a bit with Mama June from TV’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. The TV mom, prone to dating child molesters, imploded on arrival — not a laugh in the entire audience. (In the film's defense, the scene was filmed before the mother's dating habits surfaced.)

The comedy does hit some home runs, though, including a bombshell that relates to an envelope’s return address and a Stephen Hawking-like scientist uttering a very unscientific sentence using his electronic voice assist. Carrey, so rubbery and goofy in the original, brings it all back here as Lloyd. It’s sometimes hard to remember Carrey’s physical comedy, but this will take you right back. He has a bit where he orders two hot dogs, sloppily eats the sausage and then uses the buns as napkins. It’s a very Jerry Lewis moment, but it’s silly and stupid in just the right amounts. Carrey also has one of the best context-free quotes of the movie: “That douchebag stole our hearse!” What he doesn’t know is where the hearse actually went. 

Dumb and Dumber To is not the sequel we deserved — and it reveals the continuous story failures of writer-director team Peter and Bobby Farrelly, two mummies from the ’90s — but it is a sequel that we should have expected. It’s not great, although there are moments of stupid brilliance.


Film can learn a lot from Too Many Cooks

As Too Many Cooks, Adult Swim’s 11-minute absurdist TV parody, climbs into the collective conscious of the Internet’s scattered dome, the kitschy farce has some lessons for the cinema in its wall-to-wall presentation — and debunking — of stale television tropes. 

The cinema might seem like a stretch for a TV-based short that lampoons outdated ’80s and ’90s programming like ALF, Battlestar Galactica, Law & Order, Full House and Family Matters, but Too Many Cooks’ wacky delivery and its viral hitmaking frenzy are signs that maybe feature films are ready for some new strategies. 

For starters, if you haven’t seen the short, it begins with a catchy little theme-song jingle that unspools a make-believe TV show’s cast. There’s a Flanders-like dad, several kids of varying ages, a mother and grandmother, and they all seem to be smiling a lot on the Married … With Children set. Just as the intro appears to be wrapping up, signalling the start of the actual show, the song adds verse after verse introducing even more characters as it skewers a variety of new shows, from G.I. Joe and Wonder Woman to The Cosby Show and Dynasty. Eventually, a serial killer plotline begins to get looped into the repetitive call-outs of actors, and slowly Too Many Cooks begins to unravel into madness as it is consumed by absurdity, doom and a surreal stupor, all with a gleefully oblivious smile on its twisted face. 

The short, created by an enterprising young writer named Casper Kelly, has found fame — and infamy — because of its cheerful jingle (with lyrics about broth and stew), twisted plot developments with machetes and cannibalism, a teasing brand of parody that looks back on its targets with genuine fondness, and the wicked sense of humor it displays across its bleak, patience-stretching 11 minutes. 

Film can learn a lot from Too Many Cooks starting with its guerrilla-style marketing. The short aired at 4 a.m. in the middle of a nondescript block of programming called “Infomercials.” There were no teasers, no PR blitzes, not even a notation in the description in the programming guide. The only reason the show found an audience was because someone uploaded a rough copy, presumably from their DVR, onto YouTube, and then another person (or maybe the same person) posted it to Reddit, where it rose to prominence. 

Too Many Cooks is not the first of anything to drop itself into the world without warning: Beyoncé has done it with an album of music videos, and J.K. Rowling and other authors have done it with books written under pseudonyms. Movies, burdened under the weight of eight- and nine-figured marketing budgets, need to be nimble out the gate, and a covert release like Too Many Cooks isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It allows an audience to build organically and at its own pace. Due to the nature of film, and the large casts and crews involved, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a secret movie just turn up in the theater, but the thought of that notion is intriguing. No Mt. Dew tie-ins, no teaser trailers, no Taco Bell combo items, no press junket tour, no social media campaign, not even known stars. One day the film just comes out and it forces audiences to be swayed by their own curiosity versus the media blitz that was rolled out months earlier. 

Films on the festival circuit, including at big names like Sundance and Cannes, arrive with audiences mostly unfamiliar with what they’re about to see. But how many people can afford, let alone gain access, to Cannes to watch a movie unvetted by the marketing honchos? Not many, which is why it would be so impressive to see a major motion picture just turn up in theaters across the country, because it would involve ground-level movie fans as opposed to festival regulars and critics. The risk involved with that would be great, but the rewards would be greater when considering that the audience will be the film’s ultimate champions. 

The Adult Swim show also hints that audiences might be ready for a new brand of storytelling. Something just southeast and down of center, something skewed into the bizarre. Airplane, Blazing Saddles and the original Police Squad! are appropriate examples, even if that genre of fourth-wall-breaking spoof comedy is worn and tired these days. Watching it again (and again and again), Too Many Cooks has a spontaneity that is so rarely seen in comedies, and I think its weird depravity and obsession with repetition would fit in well in the context of a larger comedy. 

I’m not suggesting a movie-length Too Many Cooks, just a comedy that invokes its gonzo-bonkers style. Besides, 11 minutes is plenty.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Do not go gentle into that good night"

In the great cathedral of space, no one can hear you scream, but the cosmic organs are imbued with an acoustic majesty all their own. Their thundering choruses leap and swirl to an audience of stars, supernovas, nebulae and that little speck of shivering matter we call mankind.

Christopher Nolan’s bravely beautiful Interstellar establishes humanity’s insignificance, the universe’s vastness, and how human exploration will one day narrow the margins between them. The film obliquely dabbles with religion, philosophy, science, quantum physics, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, all under the umbrella of an adventurous space opera, emphasis on the word opera — the music is exceptional.

In the near-future, the environment is scorched to the point of collapse. Water is scarce, dust chokes out anything living, and civilization is forced to take evolutionary steps backward to hack out a meager existence in devastated farmlands. We are plopped into the dusty haze of a farm run by former NASA test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). He’s a corn farmer, because everyone is — it’s the only crop that will grow in the planet’s temperamental weather. We catch a glimpse of the dinner table: corn on the cob, corn salad, cornbread, and creamed corn. We don’t see breakfast, but my bet is on cornflakes.

After a fluctuating gravity field is discovered in his plucky daughter Murphy’s bedroom, Cooper is sent bolting into the dust and desert for answers. He ends up finding a secret NASA base intent on launching a rescue mission into deep space to discover a new world, fresh water or the answer to a world-saving proof that has stumped a mathematician played by Michael Caine. As luck would have it, the mission is short a commander. Cooper’s truck disappears into his farm’s dust at the same time the film cuts to a similar shot of a rocket blasting white smoke as it breaks free from Earth’s atmosphere. Off we go!

The first stop is to Saturn, where a quantum anomaly might turn out to be a wormhole to an uncharted grid of the known universe. NASA knows the anomaly leads somewhere; a dozen astronauts in a dozen different ships were sent through years earlier and three are still relaying information back. Cooper and his fellow astronauts (including Wes Bentley and Anne Hathaway) buckle up and start spiraling toward the anomaly, which is itself a gateway to the rest of the film, a gateway I will peer into but not spoil further. 

Nolan has made some of the most important blockbusters of the 21st century, and he outdoes himself here with rocketships, time travel, black holes, desolate planets, twirling space stations, monolithic AI sentries and enough big ideas to stroke the edges of Stanley Kubrick’s all-but-untouchable 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like that picture, Interstellar is only half interested in its human characters, instead committing itself to the grander mission of human achievement, a cerebral journey into the nature of space travel and the galaxy’s dreadful expanse. It’s a theme repeated over and over again as Cooper’s tiny-by-comparison ship glides past Milky Ways, dwarf stars and rocky planetoids. In one exceptional shot — made exponentially better when rendered on IMAX’s huge screens — the ship is represented as a single pixel as it cuts across the face of Saturn. That kind of scale is not only accurate, it’s terrifying. 

Nolan is an astoundingly perceptive director, but an awful cinematographer and editor. (Hoyte Van Hoytema and Lee Smith are his actual cinematographer and editor, respectively.) The editing cuts too frequently to unwanted angles or confusing perspectives; it is frustrating to see a film of this caliber struggle with the basics, and yet it does repeatedly. The cinematography is also noticeably sub-par in random chunks. It’s as if they didn’t get enough coverage during initial photography, and then winged it all later when the film was being edited. The rocket launch isn’t even shown until the rocket is in orbit, the spaceship is only photographed from one annoying down-the-nose GoPro-like angle, and dialogue is shot using a stale set of alternating medium shots, like this is some kind of flat Lifetime movie. I will give Nolan credit for using lots of in-camera tricks (as opposed to green screen and CGI), but the nuts and bolts of the film’s mechanical bits are wobbly and unstable. It’s a complaint that is still echoing with resounding strength from his Dark Knight days.

And one more gripe before switching gears: the science is little wonky. Well, a lot wonky. It renders the Theory of Relativity into a plot device with about as much nuance as an episode of Scooby Doo. The film’s big revelation — Caine’s mystical proof — is never explained enough to take it seriously. And then the plot holes: How would a planet with 2 feet of water pooled on its surface be able to sustain waves as tall as the Rocky Mountains? Doesn’t time-bending only work on things traveling the speed of light or near the speed of light? What’s the point of that Indian drone that crash lands near the cornfield? Why wouldn’t Anne Hathaway’s character have aged more after another character tinkers with a black hole? What does the proof even solve? Remember when Neil deGrasse Tyson picked apart Gravity? With Interstellar he might have to nuke it from orbit, just to be safe. 

Now that I’ve sniped at the science, let me reiterate something: Interstellar is a phenomenal movie about adventure, love, family and the reaches of the human spirit. It doesn’t portray science or space accurately because it doesn’t have to. It’s real quest is to take us into the emotional cosmos of a father separated by space and time from his daughter. (There is  a similar theme in Robert Zemeckis' equally perceptive Contact, another McConaughey film about space-time travel through the galaxy.) Interstellar's story came about after Jonathan Nolan, the director's brother and collaborator, grew interested in time travel, but not the theory as much as the scenario in which the theory is discussed. In science books, the Theory of Relativity is often framed in a diagram of a person on a train platform watching as a train, traveling the speed of light, carries another person away into the great beyond. Interstellar has two people (Murphy and Cooper), a platform (earth) and a convincing train (a rocket), and it uses that model to weave a compelling space drama that will suck you into its eternal void of deep space.

Interstellar has its Spielbergian moments, and its Kubrickian moments, and some very quintessential Nolan moments, including a scene of Cooper, gone for hours on a strange planet, asking how much real time — relatively speaking — has elapsed while he was away. “23 years,” a now-graying astronaut says. There’s also a brilliantly choreographed scene of a spaceship docking with another ship under the most extreme circumstances. The music is pumping, the camera is whirling around the ship and Cooper is fighting as hard as he can to save himself and the human race — this is Interstellar firing on all cylinders. 

Scores are rarely noteworthy enough to get detailed mentions in reviews, but Hans Zimmer’s score is the rare exception. Zimmer’s electric organs, booming bass and hypnotic swells are just perfect. The music is comparable to the 1982 Philip Glass soundtrack in Godfrey Reggio’s art picture Koyaanisqatsi, itself a film about the limits of man and the unbalancing of the earth. Zimmer’s music, occasionally full of bombast and broad salvos of sound, can also quietly punctuate the dialogue, including Caine’s great recital of Dylan Thomas’ line, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” or when Cooper paws through the dry soil and ponders, “We once looked up and wondered at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

Interstellar is not without its scientific failings, but looking at what it accomplishes and what it invokes within us, it is likely to go down as one of the great science fiction movies of this generation. It has scope, it has grand ideas and it has a story large enough that it can be seen from Jupiter, which was probably the point all along.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Marching to the beat of a different drum

In an often-repeated story in Whiplash, when the saxophone legend Charlie Parker was a young novice he had a cymbal thrown at his head by Jo Jones, who was irritated at his playing style. Parker would shake it off and eventually become one of the most important players in musical history. 

The first time this story is told, it’s slanted toward Charlie Parker, the young punk with the determined spirit. The second time it’s slanted toward Jo Jones, the pig-headed teacher pushing his student to his true potential. The beauty of Whiplash is that it’s actually about both men — the master and the apprentice. The road it takes to bring those two sides together is a hard slog through turbulent waters, but it’s worth it in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, one of the best movies of 2014. 

We begin with the apprentice, Andrew (Miles Teller), who’s at a prestigious music school in New York City. The eager young drummer is working his way up through the ranks of the school’s band programs when he meets the school’s head instructor, a stubborn monster by the name of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). We get lots of practice time with Fletcher, who runs his rehearsal space like it’s North Korea. In an early scene he torments one trombone player who may be out of tune. The poor kid is assaulted with homophobic slurs, threats of violence and Fletcher fuming in his face. The college-age kid eventually starts crying, a common occurrence under Fletcher’s direction.

Andrew thinks he has this drum thing all figured out, until Fletcher smacks him into his place as an alternate. But Andrew doesn't give up. He practices at night, listens to music of the greats, sleeps in his rehearsal space and dumps a girlfriend who was likely going to ask for more time with him. His practice routine is so intense that blood pours from open blisters on palms and fingers. Bandages just slip off the raw wounds. But the practice pays off and Andrew gets a spot on the jazz band.

But then trouble really starts as Fletcher lays into his musicians. In one especially awful session, he forces three of his drummers to do a double-time swing until they get it right. Hours later, one of them is victorious. He tells the losers, “Alternates, clean the blood of my drumkit!” Then, after all that comes a kicker: “OK, now we can start practicing.” The audience I saw Whiplash with groaned audibly at his cruelty. This is the norm: Fletcher intimidates his students, terrifies them, belittles them, and grinds their ambition into a fine powder. In one scene, he’s seen making nice with a student, asking about his parents, inquiring about his past. He’s gathering ammunition. Sure enough, one missed note later — “a tonal catastrophe” — and the kid’s entire family history is being heaved at him like a battering ram. I haven’t seen torture this cruel since 120 Days of Sodom.

Simmons plays a monster brilliantly. He’s so often the nice guy, the kind dad, the affable boss … and here he is a contemptible jerk and sadist. Awards season is going to be nice to Simmons. He has one line that sums up his cynicism and contempt for compliments: “There are no two words in the English language worse than ‘good job.’” Teller, it should be said, is also fantastic. He’s a drummer himself, which allows Chazelle to film his hands and to show wide shots with Teller behind the kit. It’s a nice touch to see the actor doing the hard work, and Teller’s humble presence makes it all the better.

My experience with phenomenal drumming is the Buddy Rich drum-off with Animal on The Muppet Show, so take my praise with a grain of salt, but the drumming is electric. I loved all the little insert shots — close-ups of hands, tuning keys, drumheads, bloody palms, and vibrating cymbals — that bring us up close and personal with the instrument. The soundtrack, with its machine-gun salvos of snare and uptempo jazz numbers, is also wonderful.

Whiplash is a brutal exercise in obsession, talent and determination. You’ll keep wondering how much Andrew will take before he snaps. He takes more abuse than I thought he would, but he does snap — everyone under Fletcher eventually does. After a big blow-up at a competition, the film shifts gears into something monumentally more powerful. As Andrew ponders his next step, he meets Fletcher again in a different environment and starts to see things from his point of view. This is where we hear the Charlie Parker story again. And it frames the last act of the movie, which is a triumph of epic proportions.

It ends with an ambush, a double-cross, a public execution, a retaliatory strike and a drum solo to end all drum solos. I’ve never had so many ups and downs in a film this year, or any from the past five. When it was over I had to catch my breath.

And then I wanted to do it all again. This is the film to beat this year.

From Batman to Birdman in 25 years

What can only be compared to avant-garde jazz on psychotropic drugs, Birdman spazzes off the screen in a cacophony of hammered notes, false starts, odd tempos and syncopated rhythms. Somehow it finds a tune in this wall of noise. And what a strangely melodic tune it is. 

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film — the full title is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — is likely to be the most polarizing movie of the year, the Synecdoche, New York of 2014. If its nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards, like some early adopters are already suggesting, it will likely draw out a curious and varied crowd, half of which will walk out shrugging their shoulders. The other half will be on their hands and knees bowing to Birdman’s wacky eccentricities. Let the games begin. 

First of all, it’s a stroke of genius. I’ve never seen anything like it. Only Charlie Kaufman’s scripts come to mind when grasping for comparisons, but even those fall short of this film’s brain-like three-dimensional matrix of neural pathways and firing synapses. It’s not just cerebral and existential; it’s densely written and perversely styled, a supernova within one man’s exploding psyche. 

The film stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a Broadway director, actor and writer who is carving a piece of himself into Raymond Carver’s What We talk About When We Talk About Love. Many years before the events of the film, Riggan starred in a series of comic-book movies called Birdman, and now his professional career is spent playing into and against that unfortunately bombastic legacy. Fans and detractors of his work grow bored of the Carver play but perk up when someone mentions the unfilmed Birdman 4, which is about as likely as a Terry Gilliam’s forever-gestating Don Quixote movie. 

Now, Keaton’s casting here is interesting. He was a successful ’80s actor until he was plucked out of the normal acting world and dropped into two Tim Burton Batman movies, which forever colored the rest of his career. He went through some down time, and he took some dud movies, but here he is playing what can only be described as “Michael Keaton on Broadway” in Iñárritu’s spiraling whirlwind of ideas. He’s mesmerizing, and also heart-wrenchingly honest. Truer performances have not yet come to pass. 

As Riggan gets ready for his play, he interacts with members of the theater, including a maddeningly brilliant actor (Edward Norton), a gentle theater veteran (Naomi Watts), his daughter and personal assistant (Emma Stone), his lovely ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and his hovering attorney (Zach Galifianakis), who is desperate to get Martin “Score-seez” in the theater’s seats. As Riggan interacts with all these characters, he slowly starts to unravel as his alter-ego, the likely-imaginary, possibly-real Birdman starts to fight for space in his noggin. And as Riggan plays through different variations of his theater character, so does Birdman with Riggan. 

The film seemingly takes place within one single day, but watch careful and you’ll see weeks whiz by in cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s careful presentation, which includes virtuosic long takes, seamless transitions, nifty editing tricks and silky-smooth Steadicam tracking shots. The camera seems to have no limit as it bobs in and out of dressings rooms, up and down narrow stairwells, onto roofs, effortlessly through audiences or, in a signature scene, through Times Square as Riggan streaks through in his tighty-white briefs. Notice all the mirrors and reflections — never once do you see the camera. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more special effects here than in the last Thor movie. Also of note is the score, which includes dizzying drumwork, some of which can be seen as the drummer appears in scenes as if he were a magical siren on Birdman’s shores. 

This is a brilliant movie, and it features two groundbreaking performances (Keaton and Norton) that are simply awe-inspiring. I did find the film rather hollow in sections. Riggan’s scattered brain, although ceaselessly provocative, would often circle back on itself, and while it seemed like the script was rocketing toward the sun, on reflection it was more likely static. It’s a difficult film, one that makes you dig for its treasures, one that will likely infuriate some viewers. 

Birdman is quite simply a once-in-a-billion film. I’ve never seen anything like it, and likely won’t ever again. Even when it frustrated me to no end it was still captivating and hypnotic, and as lyrical as any song, as poetic as any poem and as cinematic as any film.