Sunday, November 29, 2015

New(ish) Releases: Inherent Vice (2014); What We Do in the Shadows (2015); Get Hard (2015)

Inherent Vice (2014)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

The Big Lebowski meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As you may imagine, this works brilliantly at times but is a hazy mess at others.

Inherent Vice bears many hallmarks of the noir film genre: A male detective protagonist. A (quasi) femme fatale. An array of strange and suspicious characters. A nefarious plot which grows complex enough to baffle nearly any viewer. The story was clearly taking from the pages of the earliest noir novelists like Chandler and Hammett, as well as the classic noir film directors such as Raoul Walsh and Billy Wilder.

Where Inherent Vice would seemingly take a different slant on the noir genre is how it makes the private investigator protagonist a semi-burned out stoner, Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). That is, it would be a different slant if the Coen brothers hadn't already done it nearly 20 years ago in The Big Lebowski. Granted, there is far less comedy and far more grasping for some sort of vague profundity in Inherent Vice. Still, it is impossible to watch the parade of comically bizarre and eminently "Los Angeles" characters and not think of the dozens of oddballs whom The Dude encounters while trying to track down Bunny Lebowski. The Dude had Walter, Jackie Treehorn, Maude Lebowski, the German nihilists, and plenty of others. Doc has Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts, in a solid performance), Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, the same), Jade the hooker, Dr. Blatnoyd, D.D.S., the Nazi skinhead bikers, and plenty of others. Vice is clearly the spiritual successor of The Big Lebowski's tale of "a strange dude among far stranger and scarier people." It does make for a rather fun, trippy, 20th century American odyssey.

I have not read Thomas Pynchon's source novel, though I must assume that it provides the film adaptation's inconsistent, incoherent voice-over narration. Amidst what is sometimes very straightforward slapstick or gumshoe storytelling, the thoughts and observations of the nebulous character Sortilege often seem out of place and pretentious, if not downright ridiculous. The main characters also suffer from this same strange inability to completely flesh themselves out, whether through their actions or dialogue. It is simply quite difficult to get any firm grasp on who or what each person is supposed to be. When you mix in the sometimes-frantic tone, which I associate with Terry Gilliam's wildly uneven adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then there tends to be just a little too much emulation of earlier iconic pieces of work. Honestly, Inherent Vice even has Benicio del Toro in a cameo playing a fast-talking, unhinged lawyer, just like in Fear and Loathing.

All of this said, I will likely watch this movie again in the future, probably after reading Pynchon's novel. The performances are certainly commendable, even hypnotic at times. The movie seems strongest when at its most comical, even if this is also when it wanders too deeply into the territory of being a Lebowski clone. The story also includes enough of the noir hallmark twists and turns to provide amusing mental exercise in simply keeping up with everything. Some of the work pays off, while some left me wondering at the exact purposes of certain parts of the film.

Inherent Vice is another film in the Paul Thomas Anderson catalogue which shows the director's eye for visuals and dedication to crafting something engaging. This recent effort, though, is arguably his least accessible film to date. Those who like a clear, straightforward narrative and tone will probably find this 140-plus minute movie frustrating. Even those who appreciate elements of the film will likely find their patience tried more than a few times.

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

Directors: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi

Maybe not quite an instant classic in the Spinal Tap class, but this is a great mockumentary.

Mimicking the tone of "days in the lives of" documentaries, What We Do in the Shadows follows four flatmates in New Zealand who happen to be vampires, ranging in age from around 150 to over 8,000 years old. Though having all of the powers glamorized through popular fiction, the four undead roomies are not immune to many nuisances similar to those experienced by the living, though their problems have very peculiar twists. They bicker about who has to clean the dishes, but they do it while floating in the air and hissing at each other. They try to keep the carpets clean, but mostly from their accidentally hitting a victim's artery and spraying blood all over the apartment. Since they can't cast a reflection in a mirror, they have to draw rough sketches of each other in order to know what they look like. And on it goes.

The movie is hilarious in a variety of ways. Some of the gags and lines are immediately and gut-bustingly funny. Others are far more wry, but they are likely to stay with you and grow funnier the more you think about them. One example is how the vampires, in their attempts to go clubbing, are constantly frustrated by the fact that they must, in keeping with well-known vampire lore, be invited inside. Watching the main trio of powerful creatures get turned away from club after club grew funnier the more I replayed it in my mind. This was just one of dozens of similar gags.

The cast is all but perfect. True to the humor seen in director/star Jemaine Clement's HBO series The Flight of the Conchords, everything is done in complete deadpan. The actors were, to a person, spot on in their absurd matter-of-fact approach to being vampires, meeting vampires, or even being eaten by vampires. A particular standout is co-director Taika Waititi, who plays Viago, the single most amusing and memorable character in the film. Viago was born in 18th century Austria, and is a hilariously chipper "dandy," as his roommate and fellow vampire Vladimir calls him. Waititi plays this undead creature of the night with such hilarious cheerfulness that his performance alone is worth your time.

I have a feeling that this movie will only grow funnier upon repeat viewings, as do the very best mockumentaries.

Get Hard (2015)

Director: Etan Cohen

Enjoying this movie requires two simple things: Be a fan of either Will Ferrell or Kevin Hart, and check your brain in before you watch it. I am, and I did, and I had just enough fun to justify spending 100 minutes with this comedy.

The  movie has problems, to be sure. The script and tone smack of disorganization and overreliance on improv by the highly energetic co-stars. The attempts to use race and racial stereo-typing as sources of humor sometimes fall flat at best, and horribly offensive at worst. Many of the scenarios are far too ridiculous to hold up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny. All the same, it provided just enough of the stupid humor that I was looking for that night.

My main concern going in was that I would find the hyper-active Kevin Hart extremely annoying. Blessedly, he's the far straighter character, resulting in his toning down his energy level enough to remain funny without getting too clownish. Ferrell is the far more ridiculous character here, which has always been his comfort zone. Between his occasionally manic outbursts and deadpan absurdity, he can carry many would-be dud scenes. Granted, there are several scenes so ill-conceived that neither Ferrell nor Hart could breath humor into them.  All the same, I got a good solid laugh every 5 or 10 minutes, which is all I really look for in a movie that clocks a 29% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The most frustrating thing about movies like Get Hard is that they have far more potential. In the opening scenes, it seems as if we are in for a well-done satire on wealth, privilege, and racial stereotyping. Around 15 minutes in, though, the satire fades and an oddly serious tone takes over. The remaining hour or so continue to zig-zag between complete zaniness and half-baked or misguided attempts at social commentary. If the movie had had a clearer vision of itself and more imagination and courage with the script, it could have been far better. As it was, it ends up in the same barrel as Talladega Nights - an intermittently funny flick that I'll never watch again. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

New Releases! The Martian (2015); Spotlight (2015)

The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott

A strong, sober take on outer space adventure, but one that takes no true risks.

Set in an undetermined but not-too-distant future, The Martian is the tale of Doctor Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astrobotanist who is accidentally abandoned by his crew on Mars during an exploratory mission on the red planet. Once he awakens after being knocked unconscious, Watney must attempt to survive on a planet with almost no water, very limited food, and no immediate way to contact Earth to send a rescue team.

The strength of the film is in seeing just how a top-notch scientist uses all of his knowledge to fend off impending death at multiple turns. Watching Watney diagnose and solve problem after problem offers plenty of fascination for those who wonder exactly how someone might survive in the worst environmental circumstances.

Buoying the compelling plot is the performance of ever-reliable Matt Damon. Damon does excellent work in conveying the affable doctor's fear, frustration, elation, bemusement, and excitement at various turns in the film. He humanizes Watney in a way that stokes our hopes that he somehow safely return to Earth.

Watney takes a little break during one of his lower moments.
Not surprisingly, director Ridley Scott oversaw some
incredible visual effects within which Matt Damon could
bring Watney to life. 
These immense strengths make the movie well worth watching. However, I couldn't help but see some places where other, similar movies have outdone The Martian. The 1995 drama Apollo 13 tells a similar, albeit historically true, tale in which the NASA engineers and astronauts are less romanticized or glamorized while still being granted extreme respect for their intelligence and abilities. The 2013 film Europa Report is far more similar to The Martian, being a futuristic tale of speculative fiction about space exploration. However, this earlier film avoids Hollywood tropes such as the sometimes-misplaced playful humor and occasional caricatures which we see in The Martian (just note the socially awkward, uber-nerdy astrophysicist Rich Purnell)

The main reason that I think more highly of a movie like Europa Report is that it takes the risk of actual peril with its characters. I never for one moment watching The Martian doubt that Watney would be saved. The movie sets a tone early on that tells us viewers that we shouldn't worry too much about the lovable doctor. What I respect so much about Europa Report is that strong, dignified characters must literally die for a higher purpose - in this case broadening humanity's collective scientific knowledge. It may not be the most crowd-pleasing element, but it is one that I hold in high regard. The Martian misses out on some of this, in the name of finding a broader appeal.

Spotlight (2015)

Director: Tom McCarthy

Quite simply one of the best movies I've seen in years.

Spotlight depicts the lamentably true story of how a handful of dedicated journalists working for the Boston Globe exposed nearly 90 Catholic priests in the Boston area who had molested young children, only to have church authorities and other local institutions cover up and bury the story for decades.

The Boston priest scandal was a bombshell when it broke in 2002. The story of the victims and the protection of their abusers is one that required the utmost respect, diligence, and skill of a filmmaker. Fortunately, director Tom McCarthy and his team were clearly up to the task. Spotlight conveys just how hard it can be, even for the most skilled and dedicated journalists, to construct and publish an immensely impactful story in the proper way and at the right time. This movie truly is the All the President's Men of our time.

When watching a film based on true events, I am always wary of directors' attempts to romanticize or glamorize the real characters or actions. I found none of this in Spotlight. What we get is a group of always committed, sometimes conflicted professionals who are chasing down a social disease. The facts of the story provide all of the drama, without need for anything extra. In fact, I cannot think of a single scene or character in the movie which was superfluous to the primary story. There are no romance stories or relationship dramas thrown in for inattentive viewers, and every character feels completely fleshed out.

Liev Schreiber as editor Marty Baron. He may look and talk
like a human tranquilizer, but underneath lies the steady hand
that urged and supported the revelation that was the Boston
Catholic priest abuse scandal.
The acting, with one exception, is above reproach. My only little gripe is that I found Mark Ruffalo trying a bit too hard to display righteous indignation in an overt, twitchy way that I felt oversold the emotion. I did grow accustomed to it as the movie progressed, though. All of the other actors, major stars and lesser-knows as well, are outstanding. In particular, I found Liev Schreiber's understated yet extremely powerful turn as new editor-in-chief Marty Baron to be quietly amazing. The depiction of his character is the very portrait of a restrained yet unwavering sense of what is right and how to do it correctly. He and all of the other actors seemed well aware that this movie was far less about them or their performances, but rather it was about the horrible story that they were dramatizing. They clearly went to great lengths to get it right, just as their source people did in their jobs as journalists.

I can very easily see this film becoming an inspiration for young people who see it. Just as All the President's Men stoked the fires of meaningful journalism in the 1970's, Spotlight could very well do the same these forty year later. I certainly hope so.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Mafioso (1962); Al Capone (1959); Charley Varrick (1973)

Mafioso (1962)

Director: Laberto Lattuada

A slow, frightening burn of a mafia movie. This was one of the more unique and unnerving gangster movies I've yet seen.

Mafioso takes some time to get to the "mafia" elements. For much of the film, we follow Antonio Badalamenti, a native Sicilian who has long since left his home island and become a successful manager in a Milanese industrial factory. He has a beautiful wife and two charming little daughters, whom he is bringing home for a 2-week vacation during which they will meet his family for the first time. Antonio has also been given a peculiar little task by his superior at the factory - to deliver a "very valuable" small package to Don Vincenzo, an extremely prominent man in Antonio's hometown. Antonio's manager says that he and his "friends" in New Jersey, U.S.A., have some business with Vincenzo, though the details are not explained to Antonio. The fastidious and ever-pleasant Antonio agrees without hesitation.

Upon arriving in Sicily, Antonio quickly embraces his old roots. His large and traditional family welcomes him warmly into their home, though Antonio's cosmopolitan wife has difficulty adjusting to the earthy and standoffish demeanor of her husband's mother and aunts. Antonio begins to reconnect and catch up with his old friends, who refer to him by his old nickname "Nino." It soon becomes clear that the entire town is still dominated by Don Vincenzo, the patriarchal mafia leader who commands respect and admiration of nearly everyone in town. There are hints at possible dissenters, though we are led to believe that such malcontents have been dispatched. Despite this air of death, Antonio pays his obligatory respects and delivers his manager's package to the Don.

Then Antonio's world goes completely sideways.

Just as his wife seems to be acclimating and Antonio begins to fully relax, he is pulled into the mafia world which he had left behind long before. Being an "outsider" and a preternaturally good shot, Antonio is pegged to exact an assassination. The otherwise kindly factory manager is all but kidnapped and forced to embark on a strange and dizzying journey to New York City, where he is expected to execute a rival Don.

Mafioso is undoubtedly one of the strangest and most intriguing gangster movies I've ever seen. The senses of place are so well established that we can easily grasp the anxiety, confusion, and terror that Antonio falls into. Our introduction to Antonio is in Milan, where his satisfied clockwork attention to detail speaks of a man right at home in the bustling modern city. Once in Sicily, though, we soon see the culture from which he comes. His town and family follow modes that are fastly fixed in traditions hundreds of years old, from the burka-like robes that the older women wear to the vicious culture of murder and vendetta which the men fully embrace and accept as a fact of life. When Antonio is made an assassin against his will and whisked away to New York City, we get the sense that he has fallen down some horrible rabbit hole where he must act out the very worst things which he had sought to escape in going to Milan.

This movie has stayed with me since watching it a few days before writing this. It is a frightening prospect to consider that one's childhood environment can reach out and warp a person into becoming a monster, and this is what Mafioso presents to us. It can be slow in the telling, as the buildup is very gradual, but this lends it even more power. It is not at all difficult to see why this is considered one of the great gangster movies.

Movie pairing: I couldn't help but think that the modern Sicilian mafia movie Gomorrah makes for a great follow-up viewing for Mafioso. Like the latter, the former explores just how organized crime can impact average people who may have or may want nothing to do with the nefarious crime organization.

Al Capone (1959)

Director: Richard Wilson

A solid film which is even more fascinating when taken in the historical context of gangster movies which came before and after it.

As you can guess, Al Capone offers the tale of the infamous Chicago gangster's violent and ruthless rise to power in the Depression Era. It starts from his arrival in Chicago, following his departure from his native New York City under shady circumstances. Capone (Rod Steiger) becomes a bouncer at a bar run by friend and fellow criminal Johnny Torrio. Through Torrio's connections to Chicago's organized crime syndicates, the ruthless and vicious Capone quickly rises to the head of the local families. He readily employs any method to obtain and maintain power, including murder, extortion, election fixing, and legal manipulation. Law enforcement does catch up to Capone by the mid-1930s, though, after he has spent nearly a decade lording over much of Chicago. His many legal transgression land him in Alcatraz Prison for several years.

The historical points covered in the film are familiar to most Americans with any interest in this iconically notorious criminal. What Al Capone offered was a less glamorous portrait of the title villain than many previous biopics had offered. In fact, star Rod Steiger had refused the first three scripts sent to him since he felt they showed Capone in overly glamorous tones. What the 1959 version gives us is a snarling, pugnacious, and murderous thug who happened to be in the right place at the right time, and who had enough low cunning to satisfy his unrelenting greed. This was a rare depiction of a man who had often been exhibited without his more repellent characteristics.

The fascinating aspect of this movie was how, technique-wise, it so clearly had a foot in both the past and future, with 1959 being the fulcrum. Rod Steiger's performance is the most obvious. While his raging, manic rants evoked images of more overblown acting techniques from the earlier half of the 20th century, the dialogue sometimes had a more disturbing and modern authenticity. The quieter, creepier moments also had a realism which is far eerier than nearly any movie that came before it. The sliminess with which Capone oozes his way into the life of his future wife has a naturalistic look which is unnerving.

This is a great gangster movie to watch in the middle of several of it's predecessors and successors. One can clearly see how it acted as a sort of bridge between earlier films like Key Largo or White Heat, and later films like Bonnie and Clyde or Dillinger.

Charley Varrick (1973)

Director: Don Seigel

Interesting in its grittiness and tension, but a crime movie lacking soul.

Walter Matthau plays the titular thief, a very clever and calculating bank robber who pulls a daring heist with his wife and three other professional larcenists. Things don't go quite as planned, though, in several ways. During the robbery, Varrick's wife and two other members of the five-person crew are killed by police. Once Varrick and the lone other survivor, the hot-headed Harman, execute the rest of their careful getaway, they discover that the amount of cash taken far exceeds their expectations. While the impetuous Harman thinks little of this beyond imagining just how he'll spend his six figures in stolen loot, the wiser Varrick knows that such a large sum will be sorely missed. The two soon learn that Varrick is all-too correct, as the money belonged to the mafia, who has sent a ruthless hitman on their trail.

The crime elements of the story are actually quite good. In ways that foreshadow Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men (as well as the Coen Brothers superb film adaptation), you have a cold-blooded and chillingly intelligent killer chasing down an equally crafty thief. Watching just how they circle and re-circle one another makes for fairly compelling viewing. For me, though, this is where my interest stopped.

The characters simply didn't evoke any kind of empathy, sympathy, or any other emotion which made me care for them one way or the other. Walter Matthau has often played ornery but likable characters. Charley Varrick is not one of them. Varrick doesn't bat an eye as his wife and fellow bank robbers mercilessly gun down police officers. Varrick himself also shows little care for any of the other people whom he sells out or puts in harm's way. The only thing you're left to admire about him is that he is smarter than the other criminals around him and after him.

And then there's the misogyny. What gritty crime movie made between 1967 and 1978 would be complete without a funk jazz music score to accompany a woman getting slapped a few times before jumping into bed with her abuser? Between movies like Point Blank, Dirty Harry, and plenty of others including Charley Varrick, this bizarre sadomasochism was practically a matter of course. For my part, such scenes make me want to take a shower afterwards.

Charley Varrick is a decent enough movie to see one time, if you know how to take your '70s film crime with its requisite amount of sleaze and utter lack of amorality. I'll never need to bother again, though. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Before I Die # 552: The Ladykillers (1955)

This is the 552nd of the 1,162 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

A fairly amusing dark comedy, though not as thoroughly entertaining as I had hoped.

I had seen the misguided 2004 Coen Brothers remake, so I knew the basic story. The original is set in 1950s London, England, where a group of thieves pose as musicians who practice their string quartet in the home of the elderly and somewhat loopy Mrs. Wilberforce. They are led by the abundantly sinister Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness), whose master plan involves using Mrs. Wilberforce's home, conveniently situated just above the train station, as a headquarters for a daring robbery of an incoming delivery of cash. The heist initially goes as planned, but things go awry when Mrs. Wilberforce learns of the larceny before the crooks can get the money away from the house. This forces the thieves into the grim conclusoin that Mrs. Wilberforce must be eliminated, permanently. The rest of the movie is comprised of the group deciding who will kill her and how the dark deed will be done.

While that description may sound like a horribly macabre story, rest assured that it is merely the stuff of black humor. This is a great concept, and it is not difficult to see why the Coen Brothers decided to try their hand at updating it. Alas, though the original is certainly far better than the 2004 remake, I did find it a chore to watch much of the time. Many of the scenes and situations smack of a comedy sketch that goes on a bit longer than necessary, and most of the characters, while amusing in theory and stature, lack enough memorable dialogue to make a real mark.

This crew had a lot more potential than was met, especially
given the acting talents involved.
The movie was even more of a disappointment after I had seen the name Peter Sellers in the opening credits. Though quite young at the time, he would go on to become an absolute legend of comedy, so I was hoping for an early look at this budding genius. Alas, there was nothing in the performance that demanded any of Sellers's prodigious comic talents. His character, Harry, was only mildly amusing, and it could have been played by any one of countless other actors. With so much hindsight, it seems to be one of the most obvious wastes of talent that one is likely to find. While the other characters were more interesting in theory, they were never given the script to bring the humor to life.

Now having seen them both, it seems like the original and remake were two parts of a potentially greater whole. The original had the set-up and casting right, whereas the 2004 version misfired on setting and some casting. Conversely, the 2004 version understood how to punch up the dark humor, especially when the bodies start piling up, while the original couldn't maintain the comedic element consistently. An even better comparison lies in the 1949 movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, which also starred Alec Guinnes in a variety of roles. That earlier movie is a case study in dark humor, and The Ladykillers of 1955 might have been better had it taken a few lessons from it.

For those who like dark British humor, this is worth a watch, though I would advise tempered expectations.

That's 552 movies down. Only 610 to go before I can die. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

New Release! Spectre (2015)

Director: Sam Mendes

A barely-adequate modern Bond movie, which falls victim to the preceding film's shadow.

I suppose I've never been a massive James Bond fan. Sure, I thought the character was cool enough when I was a kid in the latter portion of the Roger Moore era. He had a slick accent, nice suits, cool gadgets, and the ladies seemed to love him. I got it, on some basic level. Still, even after going back to watch all earlier Bond films, and all through the Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnon eras, I never became obsessed with the franchise as many have.

That said, I've enjoyed Daniel Craig's run, and my hopes for Spectre were quite high. Casino Royale  was a really strong retelling of Bond's origin story. Quantum of Solace wasn't nearly as good, but it was decent enough. And then, Sam Mendes came along and gave us Skyfall, arguably the best-executed Bond movie of all time, bringing together so many great elements of modern action movies and the elements that have made Bond an indelible film franchise. So when I saw that not only was Mendes teaming up with Daniel Craig for the follow-up, but that the brilliant Christoph Waltz was going to be the villain, I figured that there was no way that Spectre could be anything less than brilliant.

The tank-like henchman, Mr. Hinx. Hinx was one of several
new characters with plenty of potential, nearly all of which
went untapped.
I figured a bit wrong. Spectre isn't necessarily a bad movie; it's just very thin. All of the things that you want to see are in it: the sinister, megalomaniacal villain, the terrifyingly massive and nigh-unstoppable henchman, the sleek cars, a few gadgets, the globe-trotting adventure. Yet, it is all held together with some very flimsy adhesive. The few new characters are only moderately engaging; the plot cobbles together ideas from other, similar films, including many from earlier Bond entries; and the dialogue showed very little imagination or creativity.

I will say that the movie does offer a decent sense of closure, not only for its own story but also for the Daniel Craig Bond era. It will likely please fans of Bond well enough. It will never become the joke that some past Bond films have become over the years. All the same, I would recommend against setting one's hopes too high.