Friday, July 25, 2014

Lucy in the sky with ... EVERYTHING

Lucy begins in two very odd places: on a microscopic stage with several splitting cells doing a glowing mambo, and 3 million years ago as a shaggy cavewoman sips water from a river. What happens next is a science thriller so bananas that to explain it thoroughly would require lectures from Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson, with visual annotations from John Woo, Quentin Tarantino and Terrence Malick. And possibly drugs. 

The movie is directed by Luc Besson, whose films have wavered in quality over the years, but his command of the language of film has always been impeccably fluent and precise. Recall the immediacy of La Femme Nikita or the rhythmic editing of shots and music in Léon. His plots don’t always find their marks, but the journeys they provide are rarely boring. And here he might have outdone himself with a sci-fi flick so dementedly high-minded that it will draw serious comparisons to Malick’s Tree of Life, or maybe just a version re-edited with more kung-fu, gunfights and enough spacey cracked-out science theories to make Bill Nye's bowtie twirl.

Lucy is bonkers. It's settings include Taiwan, France and the Eagle Nebula — seriously. Its weapons include guns, knives and inky brain matter that devours a whole laboratory. The title character speaks dialogue usually said between bags of Funyuns, but here she is entirely genuine when she says, "I can feel space, gravity, the rotation of the earth, my own brain … I remember the sound of my bones growing." The film ends when a character is literally absorbed into the space-time fabric of the universe. "Bonkers" doesn't seem to cover it all in this case. 

All this cosmic lunacy is caused by a synthetic drug ingested by Lucy (Scarlett Johansson), a party girl caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The crystallized blue drug, when consumed in just the right way, allows the brain to access more and faster computing power in the firing synapses of the mind. Humans use no more than 10 percent of their brains. Dolphins, for comparison purposes, use 20 percent — the extra 10 percent gives them the ability of echolocation. So, the movie reasons, just think of what would happen if humans could go to 20, or 50 or even 100 percent. Lucy pushes that envelope until she becomes a god. And Besson's movie is her Genesis.

But before it gets all theoretical and trippy, especially in its final 20 minutes, Lucy is a rather straightforward action thriller. Lucy — the woman, not the movie — is told to deliver a metal case to drug kingpin Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi from the original Old Boy), whose consideration of human life is negligible. The scene is perfect Besson: Lucy is handcuffed to the case and told, through a telephone interpreter, that she must open it. But before she pops the lid, Mr. Jang and his crew of henchmen all stand behind armored shields, never a good sign. Later, Lucy has the drugs sewn into her belly for smuggling abroad. The plan is going smooth until a wayward kick from a handler dislodges the drugs and sets Lucy on her metaphysical journey through all of Einstein's theories.

But before she goes all omniscient, some smaller miracles happen: she gains the ability to distort and manipulate matter, control other humans and also distort time. She can also see electrical and magnetic fields, which provides a beautiful visual: Lucy plucking electric strings that are the wireless signals for all of Paris. Her new powers of perception allow for a spirited wrong-way chase through France. She can also see inside bodies and minds, change her hair style the way most people refresh their browser windows, and make guns disintegrate in the hands of her enemies. What does your brain capacity have to do with manipulating matter in this manner? I have no clue, but Lucy is a believer so just roll with it.

The movie is slickly edited and shot, and Besson throws in all kinds of inserts, time lapses, B-roll and nature footage to prove his points. When Lucy is in danger, we see two cheetahs eyeing a stray antelope, or a mouse circling a mousetrap. A reference to sex cuts to a shots of animals getting it on. When Lucy begins "colonizing her brain," the entire universe unfolds before her with animation, space imagery and even more time-lapse shots. This will be the most famous scene in the movie — equivalent to the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey — as Lucy swipes her hand in front of her, like she’s using God’s iPad, and time creeps backward to the 1960s, then the 1800s and then quicker until the continents mash together, the dinosaur-killing comets are sucked back into space and organic matter sinks into lava-spewing volcanoes. But as if that weren’t enough, we zip into space to witness black holes, the birth of the galaxy, the Big Bang and what might be the first particle of anything ever. Ambitious? Lucy has everything. Literally everything.

That being said, Lucy is still awkwardly paced. Some of the action is anti-climactic, and much of the non-action just kinda sits there with nothing to do. The ending, which I adored, is so obscure that some audience members would likely rage-quit out of the theater if the movie didn't abruptly evaporate into the ether first. Oh and Morgan Freeman's in it doing everything you'd expect a Morgan Freeman cardboard cutout to do. I wanted him to have a larger role. Johansson is fun, though. She's grown more familiar with high-octane action flicks, and here she seems to be purring with wonder, even as the camera hovers over her universe-filled eyeballs.

Besson deserves a lot of the credit for Lucy's audacious ideas. He walked to the edge of the galaxy to fish out this bizarre action-science hybrid. I'm grateful that movies like this are made, even if their ideas are as nutty as a Baby Ruth. And about that zaniness: yeah, it's all bogus, but surrender your brain at the door. Or at least 90 percent of it.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Metalheads devour their way through Hellion

The adage of "boys will be boys" only stretches so far until it breaks. And then there’s Hellion, which takes the saying out back and beats it with rusty fence posts until it’s whimpering in the Texas mud.

Yeesh, these boys. The movie opens and they’re relentlessly smashing a pickup truck with hammers and pipes in the parking lot of a high school football game. One kid climbs on the hood to pulverize the windshield. Another kid lights a fire in the front seat. They’re like piranha devouring a Christmas ham. 

We've seen teens do worse things in movies. Remember Kids, or when Anne Hathaway rolled dice to see how many gang bangers she had to sleep with in Havok. A generation of daughters won't be let out of their bedrooms by their overprotective fathers because of that scene. But the Hellion kids are 13 years old, with baby fat still on their cheeks and action figures still on their dressers, and there they go lighting fires, starting fights and pulling revolvers during home invasions. Something tells me a long grounding isn't going to correct this behavior. 

Hellion follows Jacob (Josh Wiggins) as he pals around with his little crew of metalheads as they break the law, ride dirtbikes and generally terrorize their neighborhood in sudden violent outbursts. Jacob lets his kid brother, the tiny tyke Wes, hang around with him and his buddies, even as their caustic influence starts to seep into Wes’ little noggin. In an early sequence, Jacob won't let Wes look at a porn magazine, but in the next scene Wes is being forced to commit arson as a form of gang initiation — priorities are all over the place. 

Jacob is screwed up mostly because his dad, Hollis (Aaron Paul), is a deadbeat drunk, whose only expression of emotion comes when he drops flowers by the intersection where his wife was killed in a car accident. Hollis hardly registers when cops bring Jacob home in handcuffs, or when a social worker takes Wes out of the home to live with his aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis). Eventually, though, Hollis does start giving a damn, but it may be too late for his children, who are pushing away from him faster in their downward spirals. 

The writing, persuasively realistic in tone and mediocrity, is uneven and frustrating because the film lurks forward without any serious motivation. At times Hellion feels like a slice-of-life documentary, which gives it an authentic feel but little narrative arc. I could have used a few less shots of the boys just sitting around, or wandering the streets on their bikes. And Hollis apparently doesn't have a job, which means he can sit around and hammer stuff all day with no progress to show for it.

The children are convincing (and also terrifyingly cold) and so is Paul, who doesn't show as much range as he did on Breaking Bad, though he does have a heartbreaking scene in a pizza joint that will crush your soul. It is interesting how the film ponders Lewis's Pam: she's the only character with her act together, yet the film frames her like a villain, the child-stealing homewrecker. And I adore Lewis. Somewhere, perhaps in different interplanetary dimension, Juliette Lewis is a beloved national treasure.

Hellion tries overly hard to convince us it has some kind of metal cred. The tweens wear genre-clashing T-shirts of Skeletonwitch, Slayer and Pig Destroyer and have circle pits in their living rooms to vintage Metallica songs — and the film features a Transformers-level of product placement for the band The Sword — but the effect seems to be an exact response to Spender Susser's equally headbanging delinquent-teen drama Hesher. I initially disliked Hesher when it came out, but the film's subversive, nihilist streak has won me over after several viewings. It worked because the metal soundtrack was great, but also because the film had an emotional payoff. Hellion can't say the same with its more realistic, but abysmally more depressing, final moments.

In the end, Hellion just dishes out too much turmoil, so much that it starts to shove you away. That’s not to say the acting or the directing, by newcomer Kat Candler, aren't stellar, because they are. It’s just the film is too loud, too scattered and a little too gritty.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Serkis captivates in Apes sequel

The apes are back, and once again they aren't so damned and aren't so dirty. 

In fact, the apes are looking pretty snazzy in Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with their matchy warpaint high in their evergreen fortress in the rugged forests north of San Francisco. This is where we saw them victoriously scamper to at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the movie that featured the preacher from Footloose, Draco Malfoy and a James Dean puppet called James Franco, yet all anyone could talk about was motion-capture master Andy Serkis and his riveting unseen performance.

Serkis, who had previously played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, returns here doing more motion capture — he gets to wear pajamas to work! — for Caesar, the ape leader who has fled humanity’s rotten grasp (or "stinkin' paws") to start his own primate civilization in the Sierras. And like his previous endeavor dragging his knuckles, Serkis again steals the show with a nuanced and rare performance that is only seen through the digital surrogate of Caesar, ape emperor. But more on that later. 

Dawn wastes no time and begins with immediate exposition: the opening credits reveal that a mutated Alzheimer's bug is sweeping around the planet in a deadly wave. In a nifty little animation, the infection is shown as a bright orange rash popping up over a spinning globe. And then the orange starts to fade — not because the virus has died off, but because the virus has no one left to kill. Some humans are naturally immune, and they hunker down in the post-apocalypse cities of America. In San Francisco, a decade after the pandemic started, we meet Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman), two sound leaders trying to figure out if a nearby dam might provide their struggling refuge with some power.

And wouldn't you know it, the dam is in monkey country, where Caesar — a horse-riding, English-speaking, elk-spearing primate that puts those bike-riding bears at Barnum & Baileys to shame — has staked out his own kingdom within the trees and mist. After the humans cross into their borders, Caesar confers with his orangutan elders, warrior chimps and tank gorillas before deciding on a course of action. The decision he makes surprises me: backed by his furry army, he marches to the gates of the human city to announce to a stunned population that they have a "human home" and Caesar and his friends have an "Ape home" and never the two shall meet.

It was pretty much at this point I decided I liked this movie. A lesser film would have had a big action sequence here followed by three identical, yet slightly different, action scenes and then the credits. But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is less interested in war and gunfights than it is with the examination of two competing societies — one on an upswing, the other crumbling away — as they struggle for meaning in a post-apocalyptic world. The fact the film builds off Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but in an entirely different direction in an entirely new genre only adds to the charm of the franchise.

These types of movies are usually filled with obnoxious archetypes, the kind of characters that Walking Dead fills its roster with to move the plots forward in lumbering incoherence. But that's not the case here. Aside from one meathead (Kirk Acevedo, who’s actually been on Walking Dead), Dawn is filled with smart and understanding human characters. They do things that real humans might actually do. They think. They reason. They encourage each other. They smile. Even Oldman, who turns into a minor villain, is given so much common sense that it defies the genre, which so frequently clings to murderous nutjobs. Clarke’s Malcolm has several important scenes that require him to trust his ape neighbors, including a sequence where he walks into Caesar’s village to petition that they all work together. His wife shares her medicines with the sick apes. And his son swaps comics with a lovable orangutan who has a thirst for reading and knowledge. These are decent people, and likable, too.

The human characters are mirrored in many ways within the ape society. Caesar plays Malcolm’s counterpart; he’s curious and willing to hear out his human visitors. Like Malcolm, Caesar has a son and a wife, and several close advisers, including apes called Ash and Rocket, and rampaging human-hater Koba, who was used as a test subject by humans before the fall. Caesar orders Koba to work peacefully with the humans and Koba points at his scars, "human work," he says in slow English. Maybelline did a number on this guy, and his actions are hot-headed and cruel, but not without merit. 

Of course, the established truce falls apart in a spectacular fashion as the movie requires it, but that doesn't take away the goodwill that was established earlier in the picture. Caesar believes in the humans, and some of the humans believe in Caesar, and that sets the stage for an epic standoff that is less about man versus ape, and mostly about competing ideologies, specifically peace versus war.

This is a competent and lyrically written action bonanza. It works on paper without a single special effect, yet the special effects make it something exceptional, especially Serkis and the other motion capture actors. The apes have weight, character, presence and momentum. It's obvious these aren't just computer models; they have a heavy physicality to their movement. Talk is being thrown around that Serkis should get an Academy Award nomination for a role he's never seen in. I don't think we're there yet, but we're definitely closer. And the fact that we’re even debating that is a huge testament to the work Serkis has thrown himself into. 

Aside from the motion capture, though, Dawn also deserve accolades for its gorgeous set design — from the rusty and overgrown city to the splintery wood deathtrap of the forests — and also its steady cinematography. Reeves did us no favors when he created super-shakycam with Cloverfield, but here he and cinematographer Michael Seresin slow their shots down, and atone for their movie sins, with careful camera placement and inventive composition of apes swinging through the trees or a single shot of a rotating tank turret. There are several long-takes, including one with Clark storming through his compound looking for an escape from the invading apes. It's no Children of Men, but the attention to the nuts and bolts of filmmaking is profoundly evident on the screen.

I must circle back to Serkis before closing out my review. I think he’s figured out how to fix lifeless CGI — a human must inhabit the special effect. It won’t fix a movie's CGI, but it puts it on the right path to create something memorable. Something like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Snowpiercing stunner just won summer

Dust the peanut shells off your shirt, gather your stuff and start heading for the car: With outs still left to play, Joon-ho Bong’s succulent sci-fi masterpiece Snowpiercer just hit a walk-off home run to end the summer. 

I’m not one to romanticize the summer’s popcorny action blockbusters. It’s a phenomenon that has grown to a worrisome size and brand of exclusivity — entrance is only granted by way of $200 million or more, and its only members are superheroes and transforming robots. But every now and again a movie like Snowpiercer comes along in the heat of the summer to obliterate our movie expectations. 

This is a wholly unique and fascinating movie, one that further proves the most daring and groundbreaking movies have been from the science fiction genre, which is rich with ideas and spectacular invention. The movie takes place aboard a massive train that is plowing around the frozen globe, a natural disaster the result of a botched cloud-seeding experiment 17 years ago to reverse global warming. The outside world, extinct of all life, is wintery white and equally frigid, yet on the train there is heat, food, shelter and safety, but to varying degrees of concentration.

The humanity that survived the winter apocalypse have been assigned social classes aboard the train, which is so long that engine and caboose are presumably separated by area codes. Wealthy one-percenters ride near the front in lavish comfort, while the poor and undesirable ride in the rear, a gulag of cold steel and unbearable conditions. This is where we meet Curtis (Chris Evans), who has grown weary of the Marxist dystopia the rear of the train has provided him. It’s cramped, there are mandatory public countings, brutal beatings, children are kidnapped, and the food, protein bricks made of what looks like black cherry Jell-O, isn’t quite Soylent Green, but it’s close. Punishment in the rear cars is administered by locking a person's arm outside the train, letting it freeze solid and then tapping on it with a hammer until it shatters. Lovely, right?

Curtis and the other supporters of wise village elder Gilliam (John Hurt) stage a massive revolt that requires them to time the opening and closing of train doors with the brute force of a hastily constructed battering ram made of metal drums. I found this solution ingenious, if also improbable. It helps that the soundtrack swells appropriately and heroically as the mob rushes the door with their rusty door-breaching contraption. Once they’re through the first couple cars, they start picking up momentum as they race from their third-world prison up through the social classes.

The film has some marvelous performances, including a showstopper by Tilda Swinton as a kooky government leader, but let’s make no mistake about this: the star here is the train, which is so expertly designed and utilized within the plot that it’s a character unto itself. First, the look and feel of the train is just perfect. It’s wide enough to contain action and storytelling without feeling cramped, but tight enough to create a sense of claustrophobia when it’s needed. And at some point these train cars existed on a real set somewhere, because when the camera looks through open doors you can see distant cars undulating in the distant. It’s a hypnotic special effect. Bong also does a clever trick: he doesn’t show us any cars that Curtis hasn't yet visited. This allows us to explore the train as Curtis does, from the industrial refinery cars through to the greenhouse and aquarium cars and later in cars devoted to steam saunas and dance clubs. Watch how even the color temperature changes from the gritty greys of the rear of the train to the warm and organic browns and yellows of the paneled sleeping cars. 

The train’s prominent role in the film also gives it some stand-out performances, including when two men have to wait for a sharp curve for the train to bend enough so they can see each other for a firefight. In another scene, a massive brawl is halted so the murderous combatants can count down to an eventual “Happy New Year!” They know it’s a new year because the train, which takes a full year to circumnavigate the globe, crosses a specific bridge. After some cheering and a little song they all return to killing.

Most importantly, though, the train has relevance within the plot. Bong and fellow screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) have created a substantive mythology from the speeding locomotive’s existence. Curtis’ journey from one end to the other isn’t just a variation on a road movie, it’s metaphor, allegory, spiritual parable … it’s whatever you want it to be: young and old, life and death, rich and poor, head and tail. Interpretations of the train’s implications are going to be like the locomotive’s meandering journey around the world — all over the map.

This isn’t quite high art, though it’s awful close and it does have its fair share of brawls, shootouts, axe fights, riots, plenty of violence and also scenes that reveal the true, and terrifying, nature of the train and its inhabitants. John Hurt’s character wears an umbrella handle where his hand once was; that makes for a doozer of a story late in the movie. There’s a sequence in a school car that is nuttier than it has any right to be, yet it also provides some important exposition about the train’s engine and the prophet-like man who supposedly keeps it running. In yet another scene, immediately after an action bonanza, the main characters stop at a sushi restaurant and have a bite to eat. The film has it’s own pace and tempo, but the movements work surprisingly well. 

Go see this movie. You might have missed Transformers 4 last week; keep missing it and instead put your money into a movie that you haven’t yet seen, and will likely see again.


Dance, actor, dance!

Eric Bana is asked if anything supernatural happened during the filming of his new movie, Deliver Us From Evil.

“Absolutely nothing,” he says, destroying all of the marketing for Scott Derrickson’s movie, which is milking the “based on a true story” tagline as dry as the desert Bana is now sitting in during a roundtable interview with four reporters.

He’s flanked by Joel McHale a man so joylessly sarcastic that he drove Chevy Chase out of Community. That’s not the official story, though it seems more and more likely as McHale playfully fake-answers his ways through the longest 15-minute roundtable ever recorded. He’s like Jim Carrey doing his rubberface routines, or Robin Williams riffing on props — the longer he goes on the more uncomfortably awkward, and sad, it starts to get. He’s asked if Derrickson wrote his cop character with McHale in mind. “No, you’re thinking of J.K. Rowling. She wrote the screenplay, and she used her pen name Scott Derrickson … She wrote him with me in mind because I have a lot of knives I personally own.”

He goes on like this for every question. On Bana’s role: “He plays a cop from the future … he’s not Time Cop, though, he’s more like Robocop … and he has a flux capacitor on his suit.” On Bana: “When I heard Eric Stoltz was on board I just had to get involved.” On Star Wars Episode VII: “I want to play the door of the Millennium Falcon that tries to murder Han Solo.”

This is probably amusing on set when he needs to ad-lib through one of Dan Harmon’s Community gags — or on Talk Soup, television anarchy — but here in interviews it’s painful. Bana sheepishly smiles at all of McHale’s dry little quips, but inside he’s probably wondering why he’s here. Certainly he could have been watching the World Cup or reading a John Hillcoat script. Anything but this nickle matinee in Phoenix, Arizona. 

And wait, why is he there? Oh yeah, to hype up Deliver Us From Evil, a movie that is better described by other movies: Seven meets The Exorcist. Bana plays a cop who has a crime radar that starts going bonkers in New York City. His partner (played by McHale), has the seven deadly sins tattooed on his neck so surely that might figure into all this. Wrong. Instead it’s just some Iraqi curse American soldiers brought stateside. One soldier paints the curse on basement walls, bedroom wallpaper and on the lion enclosure at the zoo, and this unlocks demons in people, who do terrible things. Bana has to figure this all out while McHale trolls New Yorkers with a Red Sox hat. 

Someone asks the most obscure off-topic Star Wars question, which gives both men a chance to not talk about their movie. At one point Bana asks us seriously if we use clothes dryers in this desert heat and he seems upset with our answers. I ask him if he likes jumping from genre to genre; from swords-and-sandals epics (Troy) to war (Black Hawk Down) to comics (Hulk) to science fiction (Star Trek) to spy thrillers (Munich) to horror here in Deliver us From Evil.

His answer lasts about 7 seconds before he’s interrupted: “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been very fortunate to have been in many different genres. The one that is safe is musical …”

McHale cuts in to suggest he do “a Rex Harrison thing where you sing-speaks everything.” Bana laughs and says even his sing-speaking is not up to par. McHale again: “Or maybe a remake of Sound of Music … you could be Liesle. I am 16 going on 17 …”

They’re asked their favorite horror movies. Bana says The Shining. McHale says Overboard. Zing. 

Eventually, a PR person tells us to wrap it up and then, taking pity on this sad interview, she asks the two actors to sum up their visit with a closing statement. Mumbles and blanks are all that’s delivered (sadly, no evil). And then it’s over and we’r
e shuffled out so another group can ramble with the talent for 15 minutes. One reporter seems eternally wounded that she couldn’t get an autograph or photograph.

Most roundtable interviews are more productive than this one, but I don’t hold it against Bana or McHale. This isn’t who they are. It’s a business transaction. It would be like the barista at a coffeehouse looking for existential meaning in a random transaction; to the customer it’s coffee without meaning or purpose. Just coffee.

And Eric Bana and Joel McHale are just two dudes shilling for a movie. And failing.

The power of Bana compels you

Deep into Deliver Us From Evil, two police detectives are searching an apartment complex for a demon-possessed Iraq War veteran. One of the men, an Australian with a bad Bronx accent, turns to the other man and tells him, “We should split up.”

Obviously no one here has actually seen a horror movie. And that’s the problem with any horror flick: the audience is always smarter than the characters. In Deliver Us From Evil’s case, the intelligence gap is especially noticeable considering these characters aren’t horny teens vacationing at an abandoned cabin in the woods, but veteran detectives who presumably graduated the police academy without shooting their hands off or wrapping their cruiser around a telephone pole in the parking lot.

The cops are Sarchie (Eric Bana), the “we should split up” genius, and Butler (Joel McHale), who’s backward hat bro-ness wouldn’t cut it in a Limp Bizkit video. They cruise the New York streets waiting for the ping of Sarchie’s detective radar, his internal WTF-locator. It starts pinging a lot around three combat veterans from Iraq who may have brought a dark curse back from the warzone. And “dark curse” isn’t a metaphor for PTSD; they actually bring a stupid superstitious demon back with them. The demon is activated when it sees a Latin curse written on pretty much any surface. As luck would have it, two of the soldiers started a painting company after their tours in Iraq, which means they can start painting the curse all around town, but mostly in dank basements, creaky-floored Brownstones and — oh, you know, wherevs — the freakin’ lion enclosure at the zoo.

Bana is a likeable enough guy. He has the face of an everyman, and the seriousness of someone who wouldn’t put up with the satanic hocus-pocus of Deliver Us. But in walks Sarchie to every terrible horror cliché the movie can hit before some unseen buzzer goes off and points are tallied. Cats hiss and jump, lights flicker, flashlights go dead, bathtub water spins and churns, mirrored doors are closed, a piano is tickled in the dark … at one point a Jack in the Box turns up with terrifying motives. This is pretty much the most basic horror package; these gags are sold in bulk at Costco. 

Nevertheless, the film unspools ever forward, the mismatched pairing of Seven and The Exorcist. Poor Olivia Munn makes an appearance as the naggy wife and kidnap bait, and then Édgar Ramírez turns up as some kind of defrocked exorcist priest, who’s too handsome and cool for the priesthood, but there he is in a 30-minute exorcism listening to The Doors (it’s the demon’s favorite band) as some poor actor has to say vile things in a gurgly death-metal stammer. And why do demons talk like the Cookie Monster? A demon with Sam Cooke’s voice could pretty much conquer the world, but apparently they haven’t figured that out yet. And speaking of demons, have you seen those hilarious Bob Larson videos? This movie should have hired those actors.

Deliver Us From Evil is written and directed by Scott Derrickson, who has a lot of experience with horror films, including Sinister, The Devil’s Knot and the The Exorcism of Emily Rose. His career makes a strong case for a theory I’ve long championed: every director should make one horror film, but no director should make two. Kubrick, Spielberg, Scorsese, Friedkin … they’ve all made contributions to the genre, and yet they’ve never repeated themselves simply because they only made one film from the cursed genre. Now here’s Derrickson, whose entire career has exploited the same jump scares that look pretty much identical from movie to movie. He’s not doing horror any favors by diluting its features.

But horror sells, they’re cheap to produce, and easy to make. And judging by the scripts, they’re green-lit with a shrug from a studio head — “eh, whatever.” By those standards, Deliver Us From Evil is exactly what you’d expect with a modern horror movie. And by that I mean it’s weak and irrelevant.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Baysplosions: the reboot/remake/sequel

Michael Bay is just trolling critics now.

When it was announced he was making a fourth Transformers movie with a new cast and new storylines, there was a suggestion in the tone of the press releases and other news that the quality and style of the film might change. People were batting around the word “reboot,” which is a word that intrigued me after the painfully awful first trilogy, in which Shia LaBouef spent nearly 8 hours bathed in digital calamity. 

But after seeing Transformers: Age of Extinction, it’s obvious Bay has no desire to tinker with his formulas. It’s more about ability: Michael Bay can’t make a better movie. It’s beyond his talent and scope. He’s the Walmart of film directors. He makes expensive stupid movies that appeal to people who can be suckered into paying for the same thing four times. He’s settled on that career path. It’s time we all accepted this as well. 

That’s a hard thing to do, though, especially when you’re three hours deep in a movie filled with what is essentially the same exact imagery over and over again. How many times can you watch low-angled shots of a hero Transformer shooting at an enemy Transformer? Here’s a whole movie to determine your breaking point.

Starring in this Transformer outing is Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager, a name that is supposed to conjure the spirit of adventure and bravery that is Chuck Yeager, the test pilot that first broke the sound barrier. Cade is a penniless tinkerer and inventor in the most wholesome town in America, where screen doors, windchimes, rocking chairs on wooden porches and American flags are seen so prominently they deserve below-the-title billing. It’s as if a Toby Keith song vomited all over a Cracker Barrel.

Trucker-hat-wearin’ ‘Murican patriot Cade — whose oblivious customers actually pay $20 for Discman repairs — makes a trip to a local condemned theater to scavenge for invention parts. He meets the theater owner’s son, an effeminate man with a wobbly handshake (gay joke?), who sells him an old 35mm projector and a demolished big rig that turns out to be Optimus Prime, the Transformer leader who has gone into hiding after the destruction of Chicago in Transformers 3. Later, because the plot demands it, a CIA strike team descends on Cade’s farm to search of Optimus.

And then the movie delivers its first double rainbow of awfulness: Cade tells a government goon he doesn’t have a warrant to search his farm. The agent points at his nose and says, “My face is my warrant.” What does that even mean?! Was his face drafted by a lawyer and signed by a judge? Or does he mean that his face is so mean-looking that doors just open for him? I’ll buy you tickets to a better movie if you can explain this line in a reasonable manner. Anyway, Cade’s daughter Tessa — wearing an outfit only worn by exotics dancers on Western Night at strip clubs — turns up so she can be threatened, kidnapped and thrown into danger only to be saved by men. To Bay, women are useless sex objects that would cease existing without male heroes. But don’t take my word for it; watch his movies. Any of them.

Optimus and his human companions eventually escape using a five-story rally car death-drop that is so implausible it makes the transforming robots seem kind of pedestrian and normal. They drive 20 minutes or so, from Texas to Arizona, to meet up with other Transformers including a fat one (voiced by John Goodman), a samurai (Ken Watanabee) and Bumblebee, the yellow one who talks using clips of other Michael Bay movies.

A plot starts coming together, but it mostly resembles the other films. The CIA has aligned itself with a Transformer, whose face literally turns into a gun, to hunt down all the other Transformers for some kind of space zoo. In the deal, the humans get alien technology that will allow them to make their own transforming robots in the style of Megatron, the villain who has been killed in three movies, yet still lives on. The metal used in Transformers is revealed to be Transformium, which is inexplicably dumber than the Unobtanium of Avatar. Kelsey Grammar and Stanley Tucci have minor roles, including a kung-fu break with Tucci as he waits for an elevator that never comes. Seriously, someone should check that elevator because it made this scene really awkward, especially when the female kung-fu warrior just stood there, as if she forgot her lines and Stucci had to mouth her dialogue to her off camera. 

All of the action is mostly identical to the action of the other movies. Someone could make a game show out of that premise: Which Transformer Movie? You’d have better luck looking for differences in two versions of a Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. My point is proven perfectly in a battle scene here in Age of Extinction when a Transformer ship destroys the top of the exact same building similarly crunched in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I guess the CGI artists already had a composite for that building built, so why not reuse it? Every scene is vaguely similar to something already done in previous Transformers movies, be it Gunface and Optimus sword fighting, Bumblebee swooping ragdolled human bodies out of the air, or of Transformers blasting their armguns in heated battles. I will say Wahlberg’s gunsword was new, and also ridiculous. But still new.

All this eventually leads up to many, many product placements, including an Oreo and Waste Management Transformer, more Chevy’s than have ever (or will ever) exist in Detroit, an exploding Victoria’s Secret bus and a shameless scene involving Tucci turning some Transformium into a Beats speaker, because Beats didn't get a shit-ton of free press when Apple bought them off a guy who has lyrically killed half of Los Angeles. As if that weren’t bad enough, Wahlberg can’t even finish a major battle sequence until he swigs from a Bud Light. The biggest product placement, though, might be its final location, China. Remember when Iron Man 3 shot China-specific scenes to help promote the film to that huge market? Here we are again with the final act taking place entirely in the most populated country on the planet. This isn’t cultural outreach; it’s money seeding. 

Oh and dinosaurs. There are dinosaurs. Transformer dinosaurs. Nothing more be said about this.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is a terrible movie. All the Transformers movies are this bad. But you know this already. You either know it and don’t see them, or you know it and see them anyway. No one is arguing that these are great or important movies. Bay has his apologists; they’re anyone who buys a ticket. If these movies thrill you or tickle the bits of your brain that find sexual gratification from movie explosions, then I’m glad a film has that power on you. Movies have some of those powers over me — just not these movies. I don’t want to spoil your fun, but I do ask you to consider how many times you would pay for the same thing.

Because Michael Bay is trolling. And your wallet is the victim.

Night Moves is a taut eco-thriller

The opening moments of Kelly Reichardt’s hauntingly bleak Night Moves re-establish the director’s brand of proto-realism: characters wander, stare, skulk, sit, stand, lean, ponder, mumble and drive, though no two at the same time. To find comparably one-tracked, and terminally silent, characters we have to reach back to 1968, when men in monkey suits did a 20-minute cold-open for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This is an excruciatingly nuanced method. Slow and agonizing, and yet also perceptive and whisper-soft. This methodical pace and volume is the hallmark of Reichardt, whose work was first widely seen in Wendy and Lucy, in which Michelle Williams camped around a Northwestern town with a dog. Williams returned for Reichardt’s next film, Meek’s Cutoff, a period piece about settlers and their clueless prairie guide. The film’s tone and half-muffled dialogue baffled audiences and critics alike. 

In Reichardt’s Night Moves, which she co-wrote with frequent collaborator and Mildred Pierce writer Jonathan Raymond, the director doesn’t stray too far from those flat, realistic performances that have marked her previous pictures. The film opens on Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) as they bop through an Oregon town running some errands, including one at a nude day spa, a suburban home to buy a boat, and to an organic vegetable farm. As things start getting pieced together, a shocking plot develops: Josh and Dena are eco-terrorists and are planning to blow up a dam that, in their minds, represents America’s endless energy dependence. 

As they piece their operation together they are helped in their endeavor by Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), a fellow True Believer, who seems to have hyped up his own intelligence by simply saying it out loud over and over again. The three eco-terrorists have their target, their delivery device and their window of opportunity, but not the bomb, which requires a visit to a nearby fertilizer plant. Dena, her innocent face and blond locks hardly threatening, is elected to go make the purchase even though the sale of 500 pounds of ammonia nitrate — the primary compound used in the Oklahoma City bomb — would likely send up some red flags. It’s this scene, as well as several others, that reveal a secondary motive for Night Moves: it’s a suspense thriller. An effective one, too. 

Reichardt’s pacing does wonders to the thrills. Even scenes of Josh towing the boat, it’s hull overloaded with explosives, through a recreation area left me jittery and ready for pretty much anything. Later, after the bomb’s timer has been started, as the trio are paddling away from the dam, a car blows a tire on a dam overlook, forcing the driver to get out and change the tire with the bomb-boat in clear view over his shoulder. The rules of suspense require this scene, which allows the three leads to tremble in their boat while the tire-changer struggles with his lugnuts. And remember what Hitchcock said about suspense: bombs exploding are less suspenseful than bombs not exploding. 

Later in the film, as Josh, Dena and Harmon separate, the film becomes a meditation on trust, guilt and the adage “honor among thieves.” Night Moves is seen entirely from the perspective of the Eisenberg’s Josh character, who seems to have no personality whatsoever. He does have ideas, though he’s a victim to their results. Josh lives on a family farm run by some hippy types who have more balanced principles. “I’m not interested in statements. I’m interested in results,” the main farmer says after the terrorist act. Someone asks: You don’t call the destruction of a dam results? “No, I call that theater.” Later, this same farmer learns of Josh’s involvement in the dam explosion and the single human death it caused. He kicks him off the farm, which provides one of the subtle visual wonders of Night Moves: Josh, a profoundly confused hypocrite, driving a gas-guzzling truck past a bank of electrical boxes. Another razor-sharp image can be seen from inside an RV, its passengers watching The Price is Right while supposedly “camping.” 

The movie isn’t really interested in the environment, sustainable water usage, marine biodiversity, organic farming, or other ideas from the granola belt. It’s an examination on the choices people make and the repercussions from those choices. The performances are slow and tedious, but that’s no slam on Eisenberg and Fanning, both of whom do what all actors in Reichardt movies do — they underplay everything. A looser, more ambivalent film might unravel under those conditions, but Night Moves is wound as tight as its characters. That allows for an interesting experiment in acting, story and suspense. 

Faces and trigger fingers are stars in Korengal

What we don’t understand about battle-born PTSD isn’t that troops want out of the war zone, but they want back in

That is one of many interesting new insights in Korengal, the sequel and follow-up to the award-winning Restrepo, which featured a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley, where gorgeous scenery concealed hundreds of enemy combatants and the daily hell they brought to American troops. 

Restrepo is the name of the sandbagged outpost perched high up on a mountain in Korengal. It’s named after a soldier who was killed there. The way the soldiers talk about their mountain fortress has an Apocalypse Now tint to it. Restrepo is their Kurtz compound. But instead of a long ponderous journey up a river to get there, they’re airlifted there in a day. There’s no acclimation. One day they’re somewhere safe; the next they’re in the maw of the mountain, a death zone that will torment them throughout their 15-month tour. 

And yet, when the soldiers talk about it, Restrepo is their home. They feed off the danger, the rush of firing that massive 50-caliber machine gun, the crack of bullets over their head, the solidarity of their weary band of brothers. Sebastian Junger’s documentary benefits because it doesn’t have to say anything; it lets the soldiers speak. And we have the opportunity to listen. 

Of course, it helps if you’ve seen Restrepo, though that’s certainly not mandatory. Some of the footage will look alike; Korengal is essentially B-roll from the earlier movie. But where Restrepo was more about the perils of war, this movie is more ponderous and concerned with the details of the day-to-day living and fighting. Korengal Valley is home to an Al Qaeda highway, but it “looks like Colorado Springs,” one soldier says. He walks us through the nicknames of some of the pre-sighted hills — Spartan Spur, Nipple Rock, Honcho Hill. Personalities start to come out heavier. One soldier romanticizes his machine gun in a way only other soldiers will relate to. 

The troops confirm something that Americans might be unsettled by: they love the firefights. Injuries and deaths were always awful, but the occasional skirmish lets them blow some steam off. And their weapons become extensions of their souls, screaming to release. One man is asked what he’s going to miss. “Shooting people,” he says.

The firefights serve an important purpose beyond their obvious catharsis — they are proof the enemy is still there. Silence and boredom can wage wars of attrition in Korengal. On slow days, the troops lounge around, the weight of the world grinding against them. If only they had something to shoot, or kill, or blow up. When the enemy doesn’t come to them, they go to the enemy on patrols to nearby villages, where villagers greet them. “That guy accepts our 10-pound bag of rice during the day. Fires RPGs at us at night. And then the next day he smiles and waves. Fuck his heart. Fuck his mind,” a soldier says, quoting LBJ’s mission in Vietnam to win “hearts and minds.”

The movie has some absurd imagery right out of a Joseph Heller novel: soldiers firing their machine guns wearing only their military-issued boxer shorts, soldiers playfully holding hands on a patrol, and a scene of a troop smashing his guitar at Restrepo so it can’t be played anywhere else. War might be hell, but it’s also surreal and strange. 

Junger filmed Korengal and Restrepo with photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was later killed while covering the Arab Spring in Libya. His camera work is exceptional because he focuses on what matters most — faces. It’s a personal touch from which the movie benefits greatly.

Korengal might be a slight rehash of Restrepo, but it gives us another chance to listen to soldiers tell us their stories. We should never stop listening.