Showing posts with label 2012. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2012. Show all posts

November 10, 2014

Not Fade Away Review (David Chase)

Not Fade Away, directed by David Chase

I have a recurring dream where I’m tasked with playing live in a familiar band. The locations are usually random; it once involved a concert in my neighbors’ driveway with the Reverend Horton Heat. The scenario typically follows a certain pattern. I get up on stage and start into the songs and then realize that I have no idea how to play guitar. This isn’t really a nervous dream since we somehow still manage to create the music. It relates more to a subconscious interest in making a band. This is hardly a rare idea; anyone with even a modest interest in music has probably dreamed of being a rock star. Countless movies have depicted young idealists who only care about becoming successful. A few of them succeed, but most fall into the standard rise-and-fall narrative. Talent isn’t enough in a business that’s constructed on the artifice of what makes a “real” rock band. There’s a reason that so few have reached the apex of stardom.

Depicting young artists is easier when they’re real-life stars. We know where Johnny Cash or Joan Jett is heading. There’s an inevitable movement to their stories that keeps us engaged. On the other hand, there’s no sense they’re really going to fall short. Ray Charles may struggle with drug addiction, but we know his ultimate destination. The benefit in presenting characters that aren’t real music legends is the unknown aspects of the story. Of course, this mystery only works if the people are interesting. The aspiring rocker may seem cool in the movie’s world, but it’s wise not to alienate the audience. Giving a young actor a sharp haircut and hipster sunglasses can only take him so far.

Not Fade Away John Magaro

This challenge is everywhere in David Chase’s Not Fade Away, which chronicles a young man from working-class roots who joins a band. It’s a warm look at the ‘60s through some of its best music, yet its success hinges on the self-centered guy. John Magaro plays Douglas, a quiet teen who finds his place with rock ‘n’ roll. His timing is perfect and coincides with the rise of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. The band gives him a sense of purpose, but it also lifts his ego into an unflattering zone. Douglas may feel engaged, but he’s become someone even less inspiring. When the band performs for a record producer (Brad Garrett), it’s hard to care. It’s clear they aren’t ready, but it doesn’t feel tragic. The constructive feedback that they need to pay their dues is accurate. It takes more than playing house parties for friends to become professional musicians.

This scene recalls a similar moment from Inside Llewyn Davis, where the weary title character (Oscar Isaac) takes his shot. In that case, he’s clearly a skilled musician but there isn’t “money in it”. The direct reply from Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is tragic because we know Llewyn’s skills and his limitations. His refusal to join a trio is frustrating because his stubbornness will be his undoing. By that point, I was engaged by his story and felt the rejection with him. There’s little of that feeling with Douglas. Instead, the band’s inability to recognize the truth is irritating. They’ve been wooed by stardom yet have no interest in working for it. There’s a similarity with Llewyn’s response, but it feels completely different because these guys haven’t earned our respect.

Not Fade Away, starring James Gandolfini

Not Fade Away has many connections with Chase’s young life in Mount Vernon, New York. There’s a love for this time period from a guy who grew up in this era. Along with the interest in music, the family dynamics connect to his teenage life. The relationship between Douglas and his father Pat (James Gandolfini) is tumultuous because their world views are so different. It’s a tricky performance for Gandolfini because he’s playing the familiar trope of the angry parent who doesn’t understand his son. The working-class guy takes out his frustrations on Douglas and has little joy in his life. A conversation near the end shows Pat in a different light, but it’s so out of left field that it feels comical. It’s a dreary existence and starts becoming repetitive with conflicts on the same issue.

An exception is the music, carefully prepared by Chase and Steven Van Zandt with more than the obvious songs. The soundtrack includes Lead Belly, The Left Banke, The Small Faces, and other notable artists. The film’s best scene has the band rehearsing in a basement and joining together one by one to play “Bo Diddley”. The melodic hooks and upbeat drums do an excellent job showing what attracts them to playing together. Chase maintains the one shot and revels in the creation of the art. Douglas begins as the drummer and only gets the chance to sing through pure chance. His first moment on stage to sing “Time is On My Side” shows his talent, if only for a fleeting moment. The guys spend more time squabbling then creating memorable songs. That performance works because Magaro shows the uncertainty for Douglas in taking center stage. We don’t get the same feeling once he’s become the front man and lost sight of what originally inspired him.

Not Fade Away, starring Bella Heathcote

An inevitable part of any rock fable is the love story, and Douglas' role in the band helps him woo a girl he’s pined over for many years. Grace (Bella Heathcote) comes from the other side of the tracks, and she’s drawn to rock musicians. A key early scene shows her watching Mick Jagger perform and gazing at him longingly. Grace may feel a bond with Douglas, but it’s his place on stage that draws her. When they travel to California near the end, it’s doubtful they’ll stick together for long. How can he compete with icons that have actually made it? Of course, it’s too easy to let Douglas off the hook for issues in their relationship. He seems more concerned with being cool than listening to her ideas. There’s a subplot involving Grace’s sister Joy (Dominique McElligott) that never really gets off the ground. Her fate shows the generational rift but does little to further the main story.

The real challenge in connecting with Not Fade Away is Douglas. His facial expression reveals a guy who’s trying to be someone, and it isn’t convincing.  Does Chase intend us to think of Douglas as a phony? If so, then the awkward mannerisms from Magaro are at least understandable. It’s still tricky to identify with his journey, however. We don’t have to love the guy, but it’s hard to find much reason to spend any time with him. The music keeps us afloat for a while and livens up the environment, yet it can only do so much. The final scene with Douglas’ sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu) breaking the fourth wall is an interesting move. Her appearance helps frame the events as a rock ‘n’ roll myth. Douglas fades into our memory while his sister dances away to the Sex Pistols’ performing “Roadrunner”. The torch is passed to a new generation, and that cycle continues today.

May 9, 2014

Skyfall: A Closer Look

Daniel Craig and Judi Dench in Skyfall

When Skyfall was released in fall 2012, many James Bond fans considered it among the best of the series. Few could anticipate during the low points of the Brosnan era that we’d reach a place where people seriously considered Best Picture potential. While a nomination didn’t happen, the discussion showed quite an evolution for the franchise. Bringing powerhouses like Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes on board introduced more legitimacy, and expanding Judi Dench’s role created a dramatic arc for Bond and M. Sam Mendes brought renewed confidence behind the camera, and Roger Deakins’ photography and Thomas Newman’s score enhanced that work. It’s a challenge to compare this film to the series’ early movies because they live in such different spheres. I reviewed Skyfall after its original release, and this post will dig further into how it diverts from the model while still being a Bond film. There are a few issues more noticeable on a second viewing, but it remains a stunning film.

Looking back to 2006, Casino Royale arrived with less fanfare and managed to convert many Bond cynics. I was ready to write off the series after Die Another Day, so it was a revelation to even a cynical long-time fan. Craig took the character seriously, and that approach has permeated all three films with him as the star. There was a slight misstep with Quantum of Solace two years later, though it wasn’t as sharp a dive as many believe. The first Craig film set the bar so high that nearly anything would be considered a step backwards. When you add that to a dreary story and too much fast-cutting from Marc Forster, it opened the door for cries of “worst Bond ever!” and other ridiculous statements. The people that make that claim have not watched Diamonds Are Forever recently. Even so, there were questions prior to Skyfall about where the series was headed. Could it be fun but not veer back to silliness?

James Bond is introduced in Skyfall.

Diving into the Mayhem

The story opens with a blurry shot of a figure at the end of a hallway. It pays homage to the gun barrel sequence that was a Bond standard until the Craig era. Once the haze clears, the shadows obscure most of his face as he steps into a hotel room. It’s quite a mysterious entrance for a character we know so well. Sam Mendes and his team of writers seem determined to make Bond an interesting guy once again. When he leaves the quiet hotel room and steps into the bustling streets of Istanbul, the non-stop chase begins. It’s interesting to note that the most high-flying action sequence opens the film in a similar vein to the relentless chase early in Casino Royale. Mendes isn’t worried about losing the audience because he believes that the character beats are strong enough later. This opening thrusts us into a daring world where Bond and his fellow agent (Naomi Harris) must do anything to prevent the list of agents from falling into the wrong hands. This MacGuffin make the chase more relevant than the normal mayhem.

What makes this scene work is how closely it risks drifting into comedy. It never veers into “Bond drives a tank” territory from Goldeneye, but watching him use a construction vehicle on board a moving train heads in that direction. A main reason this sequence thrills is because of Newman’s score, which speeds up and slows down with the action. Another is the vulnerability of this Bond, who gets shot twice during a short period of time. He’s also evenly matched with the villain, who responds to Bond’s moves and escapes in the end. Watching Bond fly off the cliff and to his apparent death ranks among the most impressive pre-credits events in the series. We know that Bond can’t die right at the start, but the fact that he’s so close sets the tone for the entire movie. He’s broken and weakened by this experience, and that makes his path that much harder down the road.

The credits sequence of Skyfall

This Is the End…

I’ve grown weary of the Bond credit sequences, which have started to follow such a predictable formula. They’ve improved in the Craig films but still have felt out of place for the most part in the more realistic world. Skyfall is the exception to this rule, however. The imagery begins within the water and flows seamlessly towards the visions of death, hell, and the afterlife. There are a few attractive women the mix, but they’re hardly the focus of this sequence. Instead, we’re left with a claustrophobic feeling that the walls are closing in on Bond as he gets older. How can this guy survive in a new world order? Death is just around every corner, and escaping it (for him and M) may be quite a challenge this time.

A key reason for the credits’ success is the title song, which ranks among the series' best. Adele’s powerful voice fits perfectly with the tone, which feels epic without getting too bombastic. Its construction is fairly simple, yet it works because it isn’t trying to be edgy or popular. Instead, it heralds back to classic tunes like “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball”. This is definitely by design and fits with the approach to the film as a whole. It’s trying to deliver a modern action film while paying tribute to the glory days of the franchise. Adele is modern yet able to stand alongside Shirley Bassey without seeming out of place. It’s hard to say the same thing about Sheryl Crow or even Madonna in this musical style.

James Bond fights an enemy in Shanghai in Skyfall

It’s a Young Man’s Game

The first hour is intriguing because we don’t rush into the action following the chase in Turkey. Bond is a broken guy who spends his days drinking, taking pain meds, and having sex with a beautiful woman. He seems to get little joy out of any of it; he’s nothing without the job. Back in England, M is facing serious heat while MI6 faces a terrorist attack. Both come from the old-school game and may not have a place in the new world. Their new Quartermaster is a young computer genius, and shrewd gadgets don’t have the same place in this world. What did you expect, an exploding pen? This clever wink to a painful device in Goldeneye is one of many nods to longtime fans within this movie. Of course, they may not be ready for a Bond that’s closer to The Dark Knight than Goldfinger. Even with the family back story and more personal villain, there’s still enough to make this a Bond film.

I’m getting ahead of myself, however. Bond first ventures to Shanghai for one of the most visually stunning moments on screen in 2012. The fight within the shadows is a truly remarkable moment, and the giant video screens in the background contrast sharply with the old-school fight. Bond’s weakness again impacts his skills and nearly leads to a spectacular fall with a rising elevator. Nothing’s easy for a guy who needs a massage and physical therapy more than anything. He can still hold his own in a fight, but the brutal instrument of destruction that we saw in his earlier outing isn’t there. Bond’s more likely to break a rib crashing into a wall than smash through it, and this vulnerability serves the character well.

Bérénice Marlohe in Skyfall

Not Suited for Field Duty

The Daniel Craig films have moved forward their characterizations of women, particularly Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. Even so, there’s still a sense that the franchise is trying to have it both ways. Naomi Harris does a convincing job as Eve, who’s a capable ally for Bond in the field. Even so, she’s essentially a set-up for the kicker that her last name is Moneypenny. Harris feels like a real person, which is a major step in the right direction. Her part in the movie still feels a little too thin, however. She’s still miles ahead of Severine (Bérénice Marlohe), who makes a grand appearance and then goes out so quickly. It’s the classic case of Bond girl who betrays the villain and is killed. The difference is that she’s with the bad guy because of fear. Severine doesn’t need much convincing from Bond to help him. Her character is mostly around for a quick shower scene and to prove the villain’s nastiness.

The counterpoint to complaints about the women is Dench’s remarkable work as M. She brings such grace and strength to the part and deserves the opportunity for an expanded role. I’m completely on board with her character right from the start, and she stands up well to Bond and Fiennes’ Mallory. Is that enough to offset the limitations of the others? It’s a start in the right direction, yet I still feel like more could happen. Craig and Mendes prove that taking chances pays huge dividends, so why not do more? I’m hoping they can build on the modest advances this time and keep moving forward in the future.

James Bond waits for Javier Bardem's Silva in Skyfall.

Rats in a Cage

One of the most brilliant moves in Skyfall is holding back a clear shot of Bardem’s Silva until the 1:12 mark. Characters talk about him in fear and just build the tension for the memorable arrival. The long shot from behind Bond as Silva slowly approaches is incredible. He recounts a lengthy monologue while slowly approaching the camera in a lengthy shot. It’s easy to forget just how little he’s actually on screen because he leaves such an impression. Silva’s plan is essentially very simple (make M suffer and kill her), but he stays complex because of Bardem’s devilish performance. His delayed appearance recalls an even later arrival for Dr. No back in the first Bond picture. While he’s working outside of normal reality, Silva’s also a smart guy who won’t go down easily. He’ll keep pursuing M right to the bitter end.

A less inspiring move is having Silva employ the familiar strategy of allowing capture to enact his plan. Wouldn’t it be easier to just do the same thing without the theatrics? Of course, he wanted the chance to confront M and make sure she realized he was the villain. This plan would seem more novel if it wasn’t also used in The Dark Knight and The Avengers. It could just be a poor coincidence, though I doubt that’s the case given the inspiration from Nolan’s film. Another question mark is the moment when Silva attacks Bond with an unoccupied train car. How would he know that Bond would be there? On a repeated viewing, I decided that the car was meant to be a distraction regardless. Silva used it as a tactic to slow down Bond, but that wasn’t the original goal. It’s a bit of a stretch, but that’s my best guess.

Javier Bardem as Silva in Skyfall

A unique part of Silva’s role is that he actually succeeds in his plan. Bond kills him with a knife to the back, but the damage is already done. There were some obstacles along the way, and Silva didn’t fire the shot. However, the result was the same. That doesn’t mean that Bond fails completely, however. There was a danger of major collateral damage from Silva’s vendetta against M. By choosing to leave the city and face the enemy on their own terms, Bond and M had to realize they might not survive. The risk was needed to stop the threat and serve the greater good. That’s the real victory beyond killing Silva. MI6 and Bond are still in place to defend against the next threat that arises to take them down.

James Bond Will Return

We’re still more than a year from the next Bond release, but that’s okay. The four-year gap before Skyfall made me appreciate it even more. Craig is 46 years old, so there could be a point where he decides the physical toll is too much. Thankfully, his confidence in the part has only grown with each successful film. There are a few moments of levity within the darkness, particularly in Bond’s cat-and-mouse pursuit of Silva in the London Underground terminal. We also get the chance to revisit the famous Aston Martin car, which leads to a fun exchange with M about the Goldfinger ejector seat. In the final battle, Bond’s angriest moment comes after the car is destroyed, and Craig’s face is pitch-perfect.

James Bond looks over London in Skyfall

Skyfall’s coda has a gorgeous shot of Bond standing over the city ready to fight evil after the loss of M. Their personal connection is a rarity and brought much-needed heart. What’s interesting is the way this experience leaves Bond with a new dedication to his job. When his new boss Mallory asks him if he’s ready to get back to work, it’s clear that the broken man is gone. When the gun barrel arrives and the phrase “James Bond will return” appears, it feels earned because he’s been put through the ringer. The classic shots of the red door, Moneypenny, and M giving a new mission set us up for a more familiar Bond installment. Of course, I doubt the next film will be a complete throwback. Mendes and Craig will continue to take the franchise in interesting ways while keeping the past in mind with each new step. They’ve set the bar very high, and will take something remarkable to surpass it.

April 14, 2014

Johnnie To: Drug War (2013)

Louis Koo and Ka Tung Lam in Drug War

It takes a filmmaker with great confidence to spend a film building a world and then destroy it in the final scenes. Johnnie To frequently pulls the rug out from under his characters, particularly when things start to turn their way. Even within the limited sample size of this marathon, the last act has included a turnaround that leaves characters either dead or severely damaged. His latest film Drug War is no exception and ends with a shootout that spirals into an all-out bloodbath. It’s a procedural focused on infiltrating the drug trade through an informant, but that formula changes quickly in the final round. Despite all the indications that a betrayal is possible, the move is still a gut punch to everything that’s preceded it. It’s also brilliant and lifts an already solid story into the stratosphere.

After a high-flying opening, To pulls back and allows us to become familiar with this ugly world. An undercover drug sting reveals a bus full of drug mules, and there’s nothing glamorous about that job. Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is caught by the cops when a chemical explosion nearly kills him. The pieces are in place for the ambitious pursuit of an extensive drug ring. This material could seem dry in lesser hands, but the deliberate approach is what makes it work. It’s the attention to detail that gets us engaged and sets the story in motion. Conversations are filled with tension, and the stakes keep rising as they pursue the bigger fish. Captain Zhang’s (Ka Tung Lam) team is ready to tackle this job and has the skills to make it work, but they’ve chosen a shady partner who could lash out if pushed too far.

Johnnie To's Drug War

Even after seeing Louis Koo inflict mayhem in Triad Election, it’s hard to think he’s really such a bad guy. Casting him makes us identify with Choi, and that just sets up the smokescreen. The shot of him talking with Zhang and Yang Xiaobei (Yi Huang) lays out the limited options for his future. The camera sits behind their heads and traps Choi between them like two ends of a vice. He has no power in this situation, and that helpless feeling makes him even more dangerous. Zhang and his team are all business; this isn’t the first informant they’ve coerced into assisting them. It’s a risky game with few certainties, but the rewards could bring down some major players dealing drugs throughout China.

Drug War is a rare To film shot in mainland China, and it focuses on the vigilant efforts of law enforcement that go beyond the expected police work. There’s a remarkable sequence with Zhang and Choi meeting with an overly exuberant drug contact. Zhang plays a serious, drugged-out character that’s always convincing while observing their target at the same time. This gives him the opportunity to masquerade as the happy guy in their next meeting. That conversation is far more treacherous and backs Zhang in a corner where the only escape is taking mind-altering substances. He keeps it together until their mark leaves and then collapses into a total mess. Few scenes do a better job at revealing the tightrope walked by cops deep into the drug trade than watching Zhang fall apart.

Louis Koo in Drug War, directed by Johnnie To

There’s a key moment that foretells where the story is heading for Jimmy Choi. While pursuing two associates driving product around in a run-down truck, he nearly loses it and shoots the guys. The police are everywhere, so there’s no escape plan for Choi. The camera pulls in on his face and reveals a man who’s cracking at the seams. It’s easy to forget that his family was just killed in the factory accident, and he’s hardly operating at full capacity. He keeps it together well enough to fool his former co-workers and help the cops, but it’s only a matter of time before the flimsy construction shatters. His captors are so focused on their pursuit that they miss the danger of working with someone with nothing more to lose.

The final showdown escalates so quickly, and it’s all about Choi initiating chaos. This isn’t a situation where a brilliant manipulator turns the tables on the cops with an intricate plan. The police underestimate him (and some of his associates), but the main reason is even putting such a volatile guy in that situation in the first place. They need Choi to capture the gang of seven, but it’s a risky game with so many enemies within such a small space. The bloodbath says plenty of the futility of pursuing the drug trade. The authorities are enforcing stiff penalties on crimes and doing everything they can, but the end result is a blitzkrieg of violence. Is there any point to the entire pursuit? To doesn’t give a clear answer, but it’s hardly an upbeat portrayal of this war. Drug War shows the admirable persistence of the police while reminding us that expecting the bad guys to go down quietly is a pipe dream.

March 19, 2014

Niche Culture: Indie Game - The Movie (2012)

Indie Game - The Movie

One of my clearest holiday memories from my childhood was getting an original NES for Christmas in the late ‘80s. My parents had insisted that Nintendo wasn’t coming to our house. It was quite a smokescreen. After following clues around the house, I arrived in the basement to see that glorious system ready for play. My celebration was probably extremely dorky and ridiculous. My friends and I started with Super Mario Bros. and became obsessed with games like Castelvania, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and so many other classics. Breaking out the old system reminds me about its greatness. The games are still a blast to play, despite not having the complex worlds of recent titles. There’s something to be said for having a simple yet challenging task and being able to execute it to accomplish a goal.

This nostalgic feeling is present with the creations shown in Indie Game: The Movie. These guys come from my generation of gamers, and their programs have a throwback feeling to them. The online medium is much different, yet the experience of exploring those worlds seems very similar. The challenge for these inventive minds is to compete with gargantuan companies like EA. Their work may be original and exciting, yet the marketing machine is pushing them out of the fray. It takes serious dedication to find a way to stand out, and even that isn’t enough if the odds are stacked against you.

Edward McMillen in Indie Game: The Movie

Watching guys struggling to develop a game doesn’t sound exciting, yet it’s quite a thrill. The reason is that Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky have found such interesting figures. Tommy Refenes is a pale, skinny guy who looks like he barely steps out of his apartment. This is his first big project, and he’s determined to make it happen. His partner Edward McMillen has found success, but nothing has prepared him for the stressful run to complete Super Meat Boy. These are the outsiders from high school who stayed at home and played video games, yet they’re hardly awkward. McMillen is married and seems well-adjusted despite the stereotype. Refenes’ main goal is to pay off his parent’s debt on their house. These are likable guys that are easy to root for, so we’re on board to hope for success.

The other focus is Phil Fish, who earned several awards for his game Fez way back in 2008. Four years later, he was still struggling to complete it. His story shows the difficult side of being a loner in an industry dominated by large corporations. He battles on the legal side with a former business partner while trying to finish his much anticipated game. The question is whether he really can let it go. Fish keeps digging into the details, and each change introduces the possibility of new bugs to fix. He’s clearly unstable and talks of killing himself if the game isn’t released. He’s presented as a decent guy who just wants to finish his game, but there’s another side that probably makes him a difficult business partner.

Phil Fish in Indie Game: The Movie

The success of video games is off the charts; its blockbusters dwarf the movie industry. I’m not even sure that I realize just how large they’ve become with younger generations. This movie shows how the programmers who grew up with Atari and Nintendo have become game developers. They’re stretching the medium's boundaries while still longing for the excitement of the products that inspired them. The ambitious worlds are beyond what was possible a few years ago. And the technological advancements just keep coming. Despite their struggles, the fact that McMillen and Refenes can sell more than a million copies of their game reveals the stunning potential for this industry.

It’s surprising to note just how gripping Indie Game: The Movie becomes right to the end. My interest could stem from my gaming past, but I doubt that’s the only reason. Pajot and Swirsky are first-time filmmakers and don’t try to over reach and cover too many subjects. They briefly talk to Jonathan Blow, who created the breakout hit Braid in 2008. He clearly has plenty to say about the state of the industry, yet he comes off more pretentious than the other developers. His presence is interesting, but he spends just the right time on the screen. It’s those decisions that raise this movie above your standard documentary. I felt the heartbreak when Super Meat Boy’s release wasn’t appearing on Xbox Live. It takes a lot to engage me so thoroughly, and this inspiring film doesn’t miss a beat.

Next week, I’m switching gears and checking out the work of Johnnie To with Election.

February 3, 2014

Dystopian Films: Dredd (2012)

Karl Urban in 2012's Dredd, directed by Pete Travis.

This year was a tipping point for me with tentpole action films. It’s been a challenge to get excited about most of them, especially franchise continuations like Man of Steel and Star Trek into Darkness. The budgets are larger than ever, and established actors have brought respectability to even the silliest premises. Even so, there’s a sense that something is lost within the complicated plots. When the movies are clocking in at well over two hours, filmmakers keep stretching the scope to epic levels. While that leads to some impressive visuals, it doesn’t always deliver great entertainment. What I’m seeking is a movie with modest goals and a simple premise that’s executed brilliantly. A savior has arrived, and its name is Dredd. The title character isn’t saving the world, yet there’s a weight to his story that’s missing from the standard blockbuster. Despite watching it at home on a modestly sized television, I was thrilled to check out this tight and clever thriller.

Olivia Thirlby in as Anderson in Dredd.

In a place called Mega-City One in a dystopian land called the Cursed Earth, the Judges control law and order. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) arrives at the Peach Trees slum skyscraper to investigate a murder with trainee Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). The duo gets caught in a bloody fight with the forces of the drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and must battle to reach the top floor and survive.

This environment works because Pete Travis doesn’t try to show us every aspect of the city. Instead, he stays focused on the story at hand yet uses enough digital effects to sell it. This is a heightened reality, so he isn’t trying to explain how a 200-story slum would function. Instead, it’s merely a setting to allow Dredd to battle with many gun-toting baddies. The film was shot in Johannesburg and Cape Town mostly inside a studio, yet the reliance on visual effects works because it’s such a stylized production. When characters are thrown off buildings and their views are slowed down with the “Slo-Mo” drug, it’s entrancing because it’s so different. It’s clear that this movie was designed for 3D from the start and used clever devices to take advantage of the technology.

Lena Headey as Ma-Ma in Dredd.

Although it uses a dystopian environment, Dredd isn’t concerned with making any grand statements. What it’s doing is deviating from the current trends of the action genre. It’s an ultra-violent exercise yet doesn’t feel excessive because it seems natural in this hardcore atmosphere. When Ma-Ma tells her underlings to skin her rivals and throw them down the atrium, it sets the tone right away. This is no bloodless comic book story. The reported budget was only $45 million, so Writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later) could stay focused on the main characters. That’s half of the amount for the 1995 Stallone version, and it’s an even larger spread when you consider inflation. We spend nearly the entire film at the Peach Trees, and that minimalist approach leads to an original and tense showdown.

Despite never removing his helmet (a comics staple), Karl Urban is excellent as the grim-faced title character. Dredd is all business, yet there’s a sense of justice behind the guy. This contrasts sharply with the corrupt judges that Ma-Ma hires. Urban isn’t so recognizable to distract us yet has a formidable screen presence that makes his survival more believable. Olivia Thirlby seems like an odd choice for this tough universe, but it’s this exact quality that matches Anderson’s lack of experience. She stands up well to Wood Harris’ (The Wire) thug in her big moments and has a believable connection with Dredd. It’s also refreshing to not have a romance between the leads awkwardly thrown into the mix. Lena Heady has plenty of nastiness as Ma-Ma and makes for a worthy adversary. Her willingness to sacrifice anyone to stay in power makes her quite a challenge.

Karl Urban in 2012's Dredd.

Analyzing Travis' work is challenging due to unconfirmed reports that he played a lesser role in the final product. Regardless of that fact, this is a striking movie that bypasses nearly all the pratfalls of the expected formula. Compared to a stinker like Elysium that thinks it’s smarter than it is, Dredd knows exactly where it lives. It’s a fast-paced and gritty film that delivers all the fun and action that you want from a genre film. It’s too bad that its limited box-office take may prohibit a sequel from happening. I’m curious about where they could have taken the characters and this universe. This focused story is a sharp introduction to a world that I wouldn’t mind revisiting, and that’s pretty rare these days.

Next week, I’ll join a much-younger Bruce Dern in space for Silent Running.

December 18, 2013

Modern Black and White Marathon: Frances Ha (2012)

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha

The time after graduating from college is a frightening one. Now that we’ve entered the “real world", what’s supposed to happen? Things get even trickier by the late 20s, when some have grabbed the reins of adulthood. Where does that leave everyone else? Noah Baumbach thrives on presenting the insecurities faced at each new stage of life. Kicking and Screaming depicted young guys who hadn’t completely pulled away from their college heyday. Greenberg fast forwarded to a man in his 40s trapped by his past failures. He’s tackling a different type of challenge with his latest picture Frances Ha. Co-written with star Greta Gerwig, the story chronicles a self-sabotaging 27-year-old who can’t seem to find the right path. Presented in gorgeous black and white, this new film captures the divergent paths that separate even the best of friends.

What's this story about?
Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Summer) are best friends who live together and spend their days messing around in New York. Their relationship changes when Sophie moves out and begins a serious relationship. Frances is struggling to become a dancer and feels lost without her closest ally. Her social graces aren’t very refined, and this leads to a series of awkward encounters. She moves in with Benji (Michael Zegen) and Lev (Adam Driver), but her financial situation may push her away from her dreams.

Greta Gerwig and Adam Driver in Frances Ha

How does the black-and-white cinematography serve the film?
Baumbach’s choice to use black and white connects Frances Ha with the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Greta Gerwig spends the film running awkwardly, falling down, and committing gaffes like sleeping through much of her trip to Paris. While the setting and themes are modern, there’s always the feeling that Frances will eventually find her way. Another connector is the films of the French New Wave, particularly Godard’s Band of Outsiders and Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Both of those pictures are shot in black and white, and the style from certain characters matches that look. This style brings out the charms of the streets of New York and Paris, even while Frances struggles to find her way.

Does this style feel modern or like more of a throwback?
Baumbach and Gerwig provide an interesting mix of modern and classic themes that are easily identifiable. Who doesn’t connect with losing touch with a friend who’s drifted into different circles? Frances is lost without Sophie and doesn’t know how to interact with rich kids from the city. Her middle-class upbringing from Sacramento gives her a much-different outlook. There’s little cool in her approach to life, and that contrasts sharply with her smooth acquaintances. She’s lost at a dinner with very-rich New Yorkers who have vacation apartments in Paris. During this scene, the film becomes a comedy of manners with the awkward country girl lost among the fancy socialites.

Greta Gerwig and Mickey Summer in Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha

How interesting are the characters within this setting?
This precious atmosphere is tricky, but it works because Gerwig understands Frances. She shined in a similar role in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, though this character has more connections with the real world. She has talent but needs to recognize that her goals should be different. Michael Zegen’s Benji makes sense as a romantic connection, and he pulls off the understated guy well. Mickey Summer also does well as Sophie, who’s more put together on the surface than her best friend. It’s their connection that forms the heart of the movie, and the separation pushes Frances into a downward spiral. Baumbach is wise to avoid the romantic formula because the key friendship drives the story.

What's the end result?
Frances Ha moves dangerously close to making her too hapless, but it never reaches that point. Baumbach recognizes that Frances can succeed if she learns to get out of her own way. It’s that recognition that keeps us on her side and makes the story click. When that bond combines with the attractive visual style, it leads to a refreshing experience. The pivotal factor is Gerwig’s performance, and she delivers the strongest of her excellent career. After honing her craft with indie veterans like Joe Swanberg, Gerwig has burst onto the scene as a rising star. She appears in every scene in this film and never strikes a false note. It’s an award-worthy performance that helps to create a remarkable movie.

December 13, 2013

The Bourne Legacy and Fast & Furious: Extending a Franchise

Jeremy Renner in The Bourne Legacy

It's no secret that we live in a world of lucrative franchises, sequels, and reboots. They drive the bottom line for Hollywood and have a better chance of drawing crowds than an original concept. Studios bank on these productions each year, and that trend will only increase. A glance at the 2014 slate includes new superhero films with Captain America, Spider-Man, and the X-Men alongside popular adaptations of the Hunger Games series and The Hobbit. And that's just the tip of the iceberg for the ridiculous group of blockbusters in 2015. Continuing popular franchises seems like a no-brainer. On the other hand, what does a studio do when they want to extend a series that seems to have reached its end? It could be a trilogy that completed its story or a tired concept that's lost its appeal. The most obvious approach is a prequel or reboot, but there's also a chance to continue with more unconventional tactics. Two recent examples offer variations on keeping the fire going, with very different results. Let's take a look at how Universal and the forces between the Bourne and Fast and the Furious franchises tried to maintain and build on success.

When Jason Bourne swam to safety at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, it felt like a fitting end to the story of the former spy looking for his true identity. The Blackbriar operation was exposed, and the wrongdoers were brought to justice. Where else could the story go? Starting over in the Amazing Spider-Man mold wouldn't work since Matt Damon embodied the Jason Bourne character. One option was making a sequel and bringing him back into the mix with a new conspiracy. When Paul Greengrass and Damon left the project, it was decision time. The ultimate outcome was a film that overlapped with the original trilogy in an odd fashion. The Bourne Legacy begins during the middle of its predecessor, and it struggles to connect this new story with the last entry. All this effort seems unnecessary, and the connections could be explained using a few lines of dialogue. Writer/Director Tony Gilroy (who wrote the original trilogy) wants to start a new chapter but can't seem to remove himself from the earlier stories. Characters keep referencing Bourne to remind us that we're in the same universe. It's off-putting and goes beyond what's needed to continue the story.

Ed Norton and Stacy Keach in The Bourne Legacy

Beyond the awkward story overlaps, one question hangs over the entire film. Can Jeremy Renner lead a franchise? He's a capable actor with intensity who can shine in the right part. Even so, he seems out of place as the lead in this blockbuster. The lack of warmth makes it a challenge to care about whether he finds his meds and survives. Unlike Jason Bourne's relentless quest for his identity, Aaron Cross knows about his past. He's trying to retain his super smarts, which is understandable but not really a thrilling arc for a movie. There's little mystery to the plot because we have a large group of exposition machines hoping to track him down. Edward Norton takes his best shot at playing the emotionless villain who believes he's doing the right thing. He's joined by Stacy Keach, Corey Stoll, Scott Glenn, and many others as they try to uncover what we already know. Despite their efforts and high production values, it's a lot of bombast with very little payoff.

The Bourne Legacy returns to the original's format with Rachel Weisz joining the fun as a doctor who treated test subjects like Cross. Unlike Franka Potente's Marie, she's directly involved with the conspiracy. That doesn't help her case, however. Damon and Potente sold their characters' growing connection and made us root for them. When Marie was inadvertently killed at the start of the sequel, it pushed Bourne to seek revenge and continue his quest. Even when Cross makes a similar decision to jump off the grid at the end of this film, it feels less authentic because they lack the same chemistry. There's an impressive car chase at the end through Manilla, but the stakes feel less essential. We know they'll survive, and the mayhem lacks the tension of the actions scenes created by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass. It's not a total mess and loses our interest because it's just so average. Gilroy takes few chances and creates a bland and predictable story.

Vin Diesel and Michele Rodriguez in Fast & Furious

The Fast and the Furious franchise was on life support after the middling response to Tokyo Drift, which starred Lucas Black and Zachary Ty Bryan. Vin Diesel did make a cameo that was shot after weak test screenings. When Paul Walker and Diesel decided to return for a fourth installment, it felt like a desperate move from a series with little staying power. Fast & Furious opened in April 2009 and drew huge crowds, which paved the way for two very popular sequels. Michele Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster also reprised this roles, and it felt like a direct follow-up to the original. That movie is basically a Point Break rip-off, but Diesel's hulking presence brings a weight that was missing from the sequels. Despite his limited range, there's enough charisma to sell ludicrous moments. He spends much of the fourth film grieving at the loss of his girlfriend Letty (Rodriguez) and seeking revenge, so he really just needs to stand and look angry. While audiences love car chases, this film's success is also due to their enjoyment of watching Diesel's chill approach.

Despite the commercial achievements, this movie is not very good. There's a reckless abandon to the story that keeps it entertaining, and Lin understands the type of film that he's making. It opens with a high-flying heist with Diesel's Dominic Toretto and Letty trying to rob a tanker. This sequence ends with a ridiculous driving stunt to avoid the out-of-control truck. It should be clear after the first 10 minutes that we're living in an alternate version of reality. The parties include hundreds of ridiculously attractive women who do nothing but dance and make out. The street racing leaves destruction everywhere, yet even the feds spend little time worrying about that side of it. I'm getting off track, however. The real question is how did this fun yet simple movie do so well? Audiences can't get enough of watching Vin Diesel and Paul Walker race cars. Now that they've added The Rock and others to the mix, it's only expanded the excitement from fans.

Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in Fast & Furious

The surprise for an $85 million production is the poor CGI, which stands out among the physical driving stunts. A fast-paced chase through underground tunnels barely resembles anything in the real world. When a series is centered around car chases, its greatest asset is making us believe there are actual cars performing those stunts. Once we see the strings, there are no stakes beyond seeing how the bad guys reach their end. Another challenge is the disparity between the honorable criminals like Dominic and the corrupt feds who have no ethics. Amazingly, Walker's Brian O'Conner has become an FBI agent after being a fugitive in the second film. He's clearly drawn to the criminal world, particularly the high-speed races. Putting him back with the authorities turns Fast & Furious into a near-remake that strikes the same beats as the original film. This makes it different than a typical sequel and more like a reboot that corrects the creative mistakes after the first movie.

Both franchises now find themselves at a crossroads, and for completely different reasons. The recent announcement of another Bourne sequel in 2015 with Jeremy Renner was greeted with a collective "really?" from nearly everyone. Bringing Lin on board as the director is interesting, but it seems like he'd do better working on a new series. Walker's death has raised questions about the future of the Fast and the Furious movies. The seventh installment was in production, but that's been halted after the loss of its star. They'll likely keep this cash cow rolling at some point, though it will seem different without one of its key players. There's still plenty of interest from audiences in seeing Diesel and The Rock embark on another high-flying caper. The potential box office is too high to exit after Walker's death. Unlike the Bourne series, there are enough players involved to maintain the successful pace well into the future.

October 23, 2013

Soderbergh Week: Magic Mike (2012)

For the second entry in this Soderbergh Week, I'm checking out one of his major hits from recent years. Magic Mike was marketed as the “male stripper movie” and did surprisingly well at the box office. It earned more than $100 million on a slim $7 million budget. Knowing Soderbergh, it’s clear there’s more to this film that showing naked guys dancing on stage. Despite some pacing issues, The Girlfriend Experience was hardly just a stunt to cast an adult film actress. Channing Tatum drew on his own past as a stripper for the lead role, and it's clear this isn't an exploitation picture. That said, the promise of hot guys dancing probably didn't hurt its box-office chances. Will this film stand out from Soderbergh’s remarkable career? His consistency is remarkable, especially when you consider his prolific output during the past few decades. The odds are good that it will pass the test.

Channing Tatum stars as Mike, a 30-year-old stripper who still has the moves to lead a popular all-male revue. He’s an idealist with big dreams, but past financial struggles are making that difficult. It takes more than a love of furniture to start a business. In similar fashion to Behind the Candelabra, we discover Mike’s world through the eyes of a newcomer. Adam (Alex Pettyfer) is a dim-witted ex-football player who’s bumbling through life. Mike sees something in the guy and introduces him to this corner of show business. Adam doesn’t have the same drive and is content to party and hook up with girls. It’s an enticing lifestyle, particularly since their fans are looking for more than an autograph. Even so, Mike’s beginning to learn that his entrepreneurial dreams may not connect to the reality. Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) gives him a different perspective from an outsider who recognizes the hypocrisy in his high-flying lifestyle.

A frequent question when analyzing Soderbergh’s films is whether they represent “indie Soderbergh” or “mainstream Soderbergh.” These labels are limiting and simplistic, but they give a general idea of where we’re living. The spectrum puts Bubble at one end and Ocean’s Eleven at the other, and everything falls somewhere in between. Magic Mike is interesting because it drew mainstream audiences while still maintaining Soderbergh’s focus on the characters. Its release coincided with the rise of Channing Tatum, and Matthew McConaughey always brings more interest. The mix of glitzy performances and more sedate drama have generated a pretty strong backlash. Many viewers want to put a movie in a box, and Soderbergh rarely lets that happen. A good example is Haywire, which has a premise similar to many genre films yet keeps subverting our expectations. This story could stick with a gritty indie focus or stay inside the club, but that’s too easy. His willingness to go a different route is one of the reasons that Soderbergh is a premier modern filmmaker.

Another reason for the difference is the personal connection for Tatum, who developed the project and helped to finance it. Reid Carolin wrote the script, but it’s clearly drawn from the star’s experiences. Tatum’s still a little flat, but it works for this character. Mike is alive on stage, but he’s kind of a dummy in real-life matters. He’s essentially the Hollywood type of the “hooker with a heart of gold”. He tries to believe a fling with Joanna (Olivia Munn) is a lot more, and he takes an idealistic view of his job. The owner Dallas (McConaughey) tells inspiring stories of their move to Miami, but they’re really serving his own ends. Mike needs a push from Brooke (and Adam’s fall) to really see the truth about his chosen profession.

Magic Mike’s promotion focused on the sex and skin, but the marketing undersells its success. Soderbergh presents this world like a gangster film and slowly reveals the less savory elements as we dig further into it. It’s mostly a personal story and hardly a brutal take-down; this isn’t Requiem for a Dream territory. The characters feel like real people and don’t fall into obvious categories. Even Joanna seems believable and keeps Mike at a distance to avoid any true connection. The challenge is staying engaged with Adam, who’s not self-aware and just drifting to the next adventure. Pettyfer seems a bit lost on screen, yet that matches the child-like character. His mindless approach makes him a good catch for Dallas, who won’t get any questions about fair compensation. The spot-on portrayals from the cast help to create a believable environment. This is a surprising, effective film that deserves a lot more attention when reviewing Soderbergh’s fine career.

August 7, 2013

Game Change (2012)

Ed Harris and Julianne Moore in Game Change

The 2008 presidential election was the first of its kind. The 24-hour news cycle had reached a different stage where Internet chatter bypassed the cable networks. Adding to the drama were several intriguing candidates who differed sharply from the typical model (i.e., old white guys). The chaotic primary season gave way to an intriguing general election that ended with a victory for the country’s first African-American president. Barack Obama’s landslide victory was only part of the story for a nation more sharply divided than ever. This remarkable year was chronicled in the compelling 2010 book Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. They gave an insider’s look at the campaigns of all the major players, especially Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. There were questions about its accuracy, and it’s hard to dismiss those claims entirely. Even so, it’s a fascinating read that helps to show how politics functions in our modern era.

Woody Harrelson in Game Change

Instead of trying to adapt everything in this extensive book, HBO’s movie version focuses on a specific (and important) part of the election. It follows McCain strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) during the choice of Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) and the aftermath. Director Jay Roach and Writer Danny Strong were the creative forces behind Recount, which sharply presented the 2000 Bush/Gore election. They craft a thrilling narrative that’s just composed of people talking yet packs an emotional punch. Harrelson rarely plays normal guys, but he brings such intelligence to the role. Schmidt’s growing exasperation at dealing with his unstable charge is handled just right. He doesn't overplay the scenes and says plenty with his expressions. Harrelson is a passionate liberal off screen, but he never seems out of place working for the conservative McCain (Ed Harris).

Harris provides a strong center, but the show-stopping performance comes from Julianne Moore. She avoids turning Palin into the Tina Fey impersonation and makes us sympathize a little bit with her delusions. I’m as far on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Palin as you can be, but it’s easy to understand her focus on being her own person. Even when she’s completely off base, it’s no easy feat to play in this vicious world. Moore shows how the celebrity gets to her and creates a diva who listens to no one. Strong’s script makes it clear that this type of charisma is more important than policy today, but that only goes so far. When the Gibson and Couric interviews reveal her lack of knowledge, even Palin’s most devoted fans can’t drive her to victory. We don’t learn as much about McCain, who comes off like a limited guy who follows his strategists. Harris does get a few scenes to remind us of what drew independents to the war veteran. It’s a tricky performance because of the line McCain had to walk with the Republican party. We aren’t sure if the self-described “maverick” is still there, and Harris shows that McCain may wonder as well.

Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in Game Change

Game Change isn’t going to charm hardcore conservatives, but it brings more nuance to the McCain campaign than you might expect. Schmidt comes off like a well-meaning guy who believes in his candidate's ability to lead the country. Sarah Paulson brings warmth to Nicolle Wallace, an advisor who tries desperately to get Palin up to speed. We’re right with her as she eventually gives up the thankless job. Jamey Sheridan, Ron Livingston, and Peter MacNicol play believable guys working behind the scenes to get their guy back into the race. Roach and Strong aren’t criticizing McCain’s policies and just tell the story about a huge mistake while “going for the win”. I’m a liberal but don’t believe my enjoyment of this film comes from observing the fall of a right-wing campaign. Watching McCain and Palin study the late-night talk shows and Saturday Night Live gives a clear reminder that those nasty barbs strike a chord with even the toughest-looking figure. Getting skewered for being dumb or out of touch feels sour regardless of the source. The divisive political landscape has only grown nastier during the past five years. Movies like Game Change remind us that we haven’t been completely won over by celebrity in our politics. Even so, the chaos of 2008 may seem like an afterthought with another battle on the horizon.

June 5, 2013

We're All Dead! Marathon II: It's a Disaster (2012)

Disaster films often take a serious look at survivors coping with a devastating environment. Movies like The Road, The Quiet Earth, and many others show people looking for meaning in life after society has crumbled. Taking a much-smaller approach is Todd Berger’s It’s a Disaster, which appeared at film festivals in 2012 and received a limited theatrical run last month. Familiar faces like David Cross, Julia Stiles, and others arrive for a pretty mundane couples’ brunch. There’s some interpersonal drama, particularly with a couple announcing an impending divorce. That pales in comparison to the impending doom that’s lurking just outside their walls. Signs continue to appear about issues beyond that house. The power goes out, phone lines are down, and television is gone. What is happening? Even when the danger is clear, the characters are still more focused on their own drama. Berger takes a light approach to the disaster and uses it to set up the comedy. It’s a small-scale production but has some charm if you don’t mind the self-involved characters.

Cross stars as Glen, the newbie who’s just started dating Tracy (Julia Stiles). This is his first introduction to the other long-term couples, and each pair has its own peculiar qualities. Emma (Erinn Hayes) and Pete (Blaise Miller) host the gathering and are heading for divorce. Hedy (America Ferrara) and Shane (Jeff Grace) are one of those couples that’s been engaged for many years. The goofballs are Lexi (Rachel Boston) and Buck (Kevin M. Brennan), who play awful music and seem ready jump in bed with anyone. The early scenes are awkward and push the quirkiness a bit too much. It’s hard to be interested in anyone besides Glen and Tracy, and this is going to be a long lunch. Thankfully, the disaster premise arrives at just the right time and knocks everyone out of their comfort zones. The entire film takes place at one location, so it’s up to the actors to sell the dire premise. Berger writes in plenty of jokes, but they’ll only land if we’re ready to stick with the characters. Cross does the best work as a regular guy who’s mystified by the others’ goofy behavior. His comic timing is excellent and lands most of the big laughs. He might seem like an odd choice to have a romance with Julia Stiles, but you can see it. Glen’s outsider status and dry wit is a nice contrast to the more dramatic behavior of the others inside the house.

My wife and I are certain that we'd be the first people to go after the apocalypse. However, I think we'd last longer than this group. Berger has fun playing with the conventions of the disaster movie. Shane has seen a lot of movies and is most concerned with the forces behind the bombings. While the others are still playing out the personal drama, he’s solely focused on the situation. Of course, he’s also crazily paranoid and has watched too many conspiracy movies. One highlight takes an obvious shot at telemarketers. The phones and electricity are out, but even that can’t stop the power of offshore call centers. The Manila phone operators’ reaction to learning about the attacks is classic. It’s this type of moment that keeps the story engaging once the chaos begins. Another fun scene has Tracy icily staring down Jenny and Gordon, the always-late attendees. She gets the last word about their tardiness while they die on the porch. Stiles sells the cold, yet understandable approach to friends who just can’t get their act together. The party eventually devolves into singing, dancing, and other mayhem as everyone loses their nerve. America Ferrara’s eating and drinking extravaganza is a fun change of pace for the talented actress.

The thin plotting for It’s a Disaster works because it’s a breezy experience. Clocking in just below 90 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. There is an unfortunate third-act twist involving Glen that falls flat. The shift doesn’t fit with everything we’ve learned about his character and feels like a gimmick. It’s designed solely to set up the final gag and brings a strangeness to the ending. The last shot is amusing and nearly saves this move, but it still rings false. Cross sells the craziness and is the right guy for that material. There’s a way to use the same device without giving such an odd change to a likable character. Even with this choice, Berger does plenty of things right with this low-budget production. It’s the type of movie that charms film festival crowds but rarely makes a dent in a limited theatrical run. I’d suggest checking it out through video on demand or in a future home release. The change of pace from the normal disaster movie is enjoyable. There are few pretensions or grandeur, and the actors have fun playing in this small-scale environment.

April 1, 2013

Outsiders Marathon: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The concept of high school being the “best years of our lives” has been demystified, but the nostalgia for this time remains in plenty of our hearts. I don’t share this fierce longing and have mixed feelings about the experience. There wasn’t any huge trauma involved, but it drifted by without that much excitement. I was just there, hanging in the background while others were clearly having a blast. Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower shows the difficulties for a damaged freshman boy, but it also recognizes the uncertainty that most of us faced when entering this scary new realm. I can identify with going to a football game and hoping desperately to see a familiar face or standing at a dance trying to get the courage to move. These moments are presented brilliantly in this film, which shows how the love of a small group of friends can make all the difference. Based on Chbosky’s beloved 1999 novel, this warm adaptation presents an individual story yet captures the essence of teenage life. Although my background is different, I connected strongly with this convincing look at taking the first steps towards adulthood.

Ezra Miller and Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower

What's this story about?
Charlie (Logan Lerman) arrives in high school just trying to survive the horrifying new experience. He had an awful time in middle school and is struggling to cope with several past traumatic events. His fortunes change when he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), seniors who take him under their wing. Charlie is thrilled by the new experiences and falls hard for Sam. His demons are still there, but he’s able to keep them at bay while having a blast with his new friends. Going to parties, experiencing romance, and just spending time with his new friends changes his outlook forever. The question is whether his salvation is permanent or just a brief respite from the next downward spiral.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

How is the main character an outsider?
Charlie is shy and lacks confidence, but that’s only part of the challenge. He’s Catholic and faces the guilt from awful circumstances from his childhood. If that wasn’t enough, his best friend committed suicide the previous year. One of these events is enough to push someone over the edge, but the combination is even more difficult. Friends from middle school have put him aside for greener social pastures, and he’s left on an island. The high-school class system dismisses anyone who seems different, and Charlie has nowhere to turn. Logan Lerman does a great job showing his desire to make any connection. When Patrick and Sam accept him, it’s life-affirming and changes his entire perspective. He’s no longer a loner feeling sorry for himself and has joined the “island of misfit toys”. These are fun, accepting seniors who think he’s cool! Patrick and Sam are facing their own demons, and they recognize a kindred soul who desperately needs them. They also truly like the guy and make him feel wanted, despite his damaged psyche.

Logan Lerman and Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower

What external forces (if any) have created this isolation?
A key presence in Charlie’s past is his Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey), who appears kind but played a nastier role. His sadness about her seems caused by her tragic death, but there’s more to the story. Even his well-meaning parents (Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh) don’t know what happened. His older sister Candace (Nina Dobrey) also cares for him but is dealing with her own problems with an abusive boyfriend. Thankfully, Charlie discovers an encouraging presence with English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd). His passion is writing, and it’s so pivotal to have a mentor who directs him to classic authors. Rudd does a good job as a teacher who recognizes something different in Charlie. Sam also pushes him to write and gives a wonderful gift of a typewriter at Christmas. Typing “write about us” onto the page, she provides just the right inspiration. It’s a charming scene that never feels too precious because the actors sell the connection. The typewriter helps to keep his thoughts in focus and gives Charlie an outlet to push the monsters into the background.

Emma Watson in the Perks of Being a Wallflower

Do the situations feel authentic and natural for the environment?
This story takes place in the early ‘90s, so the music and styles reflect that time period. There’s nostalgia for that time, but it never gets in the way of the characters. Chbosky wisely doesn’t just focus on prominent songs from that era and goes back to ‘80s classics like “Come on Eileen” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over”. He also pulls iconic tracks like Cracker’s “Low” and L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead” that place us right in that time. It’s a tricky balance for the first-time director who wants to deliver authenticity without going overboard. Another interesting facet is the shared bond of discovering music through mix tapes, which is a lost art. When Sam hears David Bowie’s “Heroes” on the radio for the first time, it’s a transcendent moment. She stands in the trailer of their truck and reaches for the sky while Bowie’s “We can be heroes, just for one day” blares over the speakers. It’s a remarkable sequence and has extra relevance since they don’t even know the song. Without easy access to the Internet, the characters are sent on journeys of discovery to find past artists. While we’ve gained plenty today, we’ve lost some of the intellectual curiosity because of this easy access. Chbosky captures a time just before the rise of the iPod where a mix tape meant a lot more than just passing along some new music.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

What themes are being tackled by the director with these outsiders?
Chbosky is covering heavy subjects that may surprise viewers expecting a more upbeat look at teenage life. The Perks at Being a Wallflower is a rare film that’s able to tackle this material yet rarely feel gloomy. There are so many stunning moments of grace and joy that counteract the sorrow. Chbosky has great allies in Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller as the leading trio. Miller is surprising as an openly homosexual teen with so much life. Patrick’s in a relationship with a popular jock who isn’t so comfortable with his sexuality. Watson matches this brilliance and makes it easy to realize why Charlie would fall for her. Their first kiss is another poignant moment that provides charm without going over the top. This is such an engaging film and would have been near the top of my year-end list if I’d seen it earlier. I loved it from start to finish and can’t wait to see it again.

Next week, I'll head to Iran and find out why This Is Not a Film.

March 18, 2013

Decaying Cities Marathon: Detropia (2012)


So far, this Decaying Cities marathon has looked into the downfall of government housing and the challenges of gang violence, but even these serious challenges pale in comparison to the collapse of an entire city. Detroit was once a thriving metropolitan area due to the success of the American car industry. The difficulties of those giant companies have matched the recent struggles of this prominent city. The latest project from Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka) delves closely into the dire situation faced by the citizens of Detroit. The obstacles are so much greater than anything we see even in a declining city like St. Louis. Abandoned homes litter a downtown area that is starting to resemble a ghost town. Is there any chance for revitalization? There's no easy solution for a community that's been slipping into a downward spiral for a long time. It's a fitting conclusion to this marathon because it covers the pivotal issues facing our country and its most troubled cities as we venture recklessly into the 21st century.

Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

What is the topic of this documentary?
Ewing and Grady avoid the talking-head approach and present a collage of the issues facing Detroit. We meet long-time residents concerned about the city's future that want to do something about it. They attend union meetings and city council hearings and show the frustrations of the disenfranchised populace. Scavengers dig through abandoned buildings looking for raw materials to grab even a few dollars to stay afloat. Activists document once-beautiful structures that stand vacant yet house the ghosts of a once-thriving spot. It's a devastating portrait of a place set to fall right off the map if things don't change.

How does this example show the failings of this once-thriving city?
This entire production reveals the disappointments of Detroit's fall from grace, yet there's no easy answer for the scale of the disaster. The auto industry's fall is a major factor, but those companies have also outsourced production that once took place in this country. Unions are facing a new wave of attacks because their benefits have become a lot more expensive. A stark example is the vote on a final offer to a union that seems to purposely insult them. That business clearly wants to cut ties with the union and move their factories to another place, so they provide a low offer to ensure that it happens. This scene reveals the bind faced by workers just trying to make ends meet. If they reject frequent cuts to their salaries and benefits, they risk losing it all. It's a new era for corporate finances, and the primary attention isn't on rewarding their workers. The challenges of working-class employees are at the heart of this engaging documentary.

Detropia, released in 2012

What do these issues tell us about the changing urban landscape in this country?
Although Detroit is in worse shape than many cities, it tells us plenty about the challenges facing our economy following the 2008 crisis. Unemployment is high, particularly in communities built on the rise of manufacturing following World War II. The problems go well beyond mistakes by politicians or corrupt business practices. They reflect the shift in our economy away from production. Can the U.S. survive and still reach its current standards? Ewing and Grady deftly look into these issues but avoid giving obvious summaries. Instead, they show how the impact of the economic problems on a personal level. These anecdotes are a lot more effective than simply reading about job losses in the newspaper. Hearing from guys about the limited money they're getting from gutting the buildings for parts is disheartening. Along with showing a community's demise, it also reveals just how much effort is expended to generate limited results.

What are some of the most effective sequences? 
The most intriguing aspect of Detropia is the somber mood. There are plenty of gorgeous shots even when showing decrepit locations. The music scenes at a local nightclub remind us about the city's heritage without beating us over the head. On a different note, it's also interesting when that club's owner visits a local auto show. He listens intently to a presentation for the Chevy Volt, then steps over and talks with a group from China. The kicker is that the model from the second option is about half the price of the Volt. This sequence feels a bit staged, yet it makes valid points about the challenges facing the American car makers. The follow-up item about the Volt's technology being made in China just strikes home the point that we're hardly the only game in town anymore.


Beyond the subject, does this documentary succeed as a feature film? 
Detropia works as more than an educational tool because it avoids the conventional route. Ewing and Grady took a similar approach to Jesus Camp, but this film moves even further away from a linear story line. They've taken on the monumental task of presenting the current environment in Detroit within the brief 90-minute time frame. There are a few examples of the positive side of the decaying infrastructure. Young artists can afford large spaces that would be unheard of in a thriving economy. The final scenes also present some positive news from the auto industry that a turnaround may be imminent. Recent news has shown that Detroit still has a very long road ahead, however. This film may not thwart its downfall, but it strikes a warning bell for the entire country that nothing lasts forever. We need to be ready for anything or risk facing the consequences.

Next week, I'll begin a new marathon about outsiders with Oslo, August 31st.

March 1, 2013

Damsels in Distress (2012)

Damsels in Distress, directed by Whit Stillman

Exactly two years ago, my first post for Public Transportation Snob appeared. It was about Sixteen Candles and started a marathon of ‘80s comedies that I’d previously missed. The time has flown by since that point, and it’s mind-boggling to see the 440 posts listed on the site. My original plan was to do a review once a week, and that pace quickly escalated to a lot more. It becomes an addiction even when few people are reading it. Getting the chance to interact with other movie fans through this blog and on podcasts makes it even more fun. Although there are thousands of people doing a similar thing, the Internet is still the Wild West. We’re all stumbling through the dark and trying to find our niche. I’m still figuring out exactly what I’m trying to do here, and the approach is constantly evolving.

A common question that I get about this blog is the origins of the name. After deciding on the marathons format, it was challenging to come up with something that felt unique. I’d recently watched Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, and one of my favorite throwaway lines involves the phrase “public transportation snob”. Chris Eigeman’s snarky character gives his trademark deadpan style in this scene, and it’s one of my favorites. Also, this name felt right because I typically commute to work by train. That isn’t an easy feat in St. Louis, but it works because our house is close to a station. While I’m not sure Public Transportation Snob was the best move to get a larger audience, it still feels like the perfect fit. In honor of this second anniversary and the blog name, I’m going to review the latest film by Stillman. Damsels in Distress was his first movie in 14 years, and it more than lived up to the hype.

Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody in Damsels in Distress

Although Stillman is hardly a household name, he’s built a dedicated following who were thrilled by the prospect of another film. I am one of those people. It’s impossible to look at Damsels in Distress without acknowledging my bias towards enjoying this movie. That said, there’s still plenty to recommend if this is your first Stillman experience. The story exists in a fantasy of college life where idealistic young women believe they can truly change the crude guys on campus. Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her fellow ladies try to rescue fellow students with unconventional methods. For example, their suicide prevention program mostly involves handing out donuts and coffee. When Lily (Analeigh Tipton) comes under their wing, she discovers that Violet isn’t so put together as she might seem. The ring leader puts on a good show and is trying to start a new dance craze, but that doesn’t mean it’s all roses in her background. It doesn't take much to push her towards depression.

This story is difficult to cover because it sounds messier than it is on screen. Stillman excels at a certain type of wit that transcends conventional storytelling. His movies are at their best when characters are just talking about authors, music, and the nuances of life. Stillman’s 1990 debut Metropolitan mostly involves people hanging out at “deb” parties, and the difference from typical indies is refreshing. There’s a delightful rejection of structure that stands out even more in his latest movie. If you aren’t willing to take the ride and follow the characters wherever they go, you’ll likely reject the film. The vibrant dialogue snaps and has bite without really going after the goofy characters. Even the dim-witted guys who populate the campus aren’t viewed as idiots. Violet pities their faults, and Stillman is right there with her. It helps that we never feel like this is meant to be a real-life campus. This movie has the least connections with real life, particularly in the way it presents college.

Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, released in 2012

Romance blooms with several characters, including the wonderfully named Fred Packenstacker (Adam Brody). The tone is so light that even the challenges of love don’t feel that heavy. Each time a dance number takes over, it's fitting since we’re living in a cheery world. The subplot with the sexual religion of Xavier (Hugo Becker) doesn’t work, but it’s presented with the same glossy approach. When he quickly switches from these practices, it lessens the negative impact of his earlier proclivities. This is clearly a guy who’s stumbling through life and grabbing onto random fixations. The cast also includes familiar television faces like Megalyn Echikunwoke (The 4400), Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) and Jermaine Crawford (Dukie from The Wire), and they all fit comfortably. Although Greta Gerwig is wonderful, it's the supporting players that make this movie. My favorite scene occurs in a diner and has Violet chatting with characters that we never see again. It's these random moments of wit like that make returning to this movie so rewarding.

Similar to The Last Days of Disco, Stillman focuses on the young women. Gerwig (Greenberg) is charming as Violet and brings a clever insecurity to her confident exterior. Gerwig is a rising star, and that trend should continue with Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Analeigh Tipton's Lily is actually our entry point into this world, and she does a nice job showing the confusion over their odd methods. She feels more like a real-life college student who’s been pulled into this idealized world. The differences between Violet and Lily feel stark at the beginning and grow slimmer as their understanding increases. Stillman’s writing never lets them down and keeps us engaged right up the end. Even when the story takes a left turn at the conclusion, it feels right for this unconventional tale. We leave with the happy characters dancing the night away and ready to face any challenge.