Thursday, August 27, 2015

Review: "No Escape"

A rather clumsy but also rather effective thriller, "No Escape" is a dark night's ride through a landscape of xenophobia and primal instincts. It's the sort of movie that accomplishes its mission but makes you feel a little slimy after watching it.

It's about an American family who land in some unnamed Southeast Asian country to start a new life with dad working for a benevolent U.S. company building a plant to provide drinking water for the spectacularly ungrateful natives, who launch a coup almost the minute they get to their hotel and start hunting foreigners for summary execution.

There's more to it, of course. Director John Erick Dowdle ("Quarantine"), who co-write the script with brother Drew, throws in suggestions that the Western spooks and suits have been here for some time, ripening up the ground for economic enslavement. Hey, somebody says, maybe all those leering marauders shooting American tourists in the back of the head are just freedom fighters standing up for their own children!

I'm guessing this is supposed to make us feel better about cheering when the yanks smash in the face of some anonymous bandana-wearing thug. Today's globally-themed disposable entertainment comes conveniently embedded with its own white guilt.

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell play the parents, and they're the best things about the movie. They're likeable and emotionally identifiable figures, and both have faces that are fascinating to watch in the way their beauty seems to transgress every supposed rule of how attractive people are supposed to look. I'm guessing a bunch of people told them they were ugly as teenagers, and look at 'em now.

Like Gerard Depardieu's, Wilson's nose boasts more interesting topography than most mountain ranges, with clefts, ravines and humpback rises. Thank God the plastic surgeons never got ahold of him.

Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare play the daughters, and they're good eggs, adorable when needed and whiny just when the story needs them to make noise when the bad guys are trolling nearby. Pierce Brosnan plays a scarred, debauched Irishman who offers a little help at the airport, and then a little more down the line. These days when Brosnan turns up in a movie, we just assume he's got a Walther PPK or a wristwatch laser stashed somewhere.

The bulk of the movie is essentially just one big long chase, as mom and dad try to get the kids to safety while avoiding the roving, random bands of bad guys. They end up making for the border with Vietnam to seek asylum ... Vietnam! You can practically feel the filmmakers poking us with the irony stick.

Look, I understand the rules better than most about how movies manipulate us, and the ways we are driven to root for the protagonists by having the villains do nasty things to them. But I'm uncomfortable with the way this picture uses Asian heavies as faceless boogums barely indistinguishable from each other.

The Americans wander around, stupidly trying to speak English to everybody, while the natives chatter away like inscrutable monkeys. Since the movie never even bothers to give the country a made-up name or language, they're literally generic hostile "foreigners."

(It was shot in Thailand, for what that's worth.)

The Americans are the naive innocents, of course, caught up in some overseas intrigue that interests them only so much as it threatens them. You get the sense that the dad's first call after the tragedy will be not to relatives to assure their safety but to his company to see if his relocation bonus check will still clear.

"No Escape" is visceral, nail-biting and sure to entertain. Your instructions are to shriek at the scary Orientals, and try not to think too much about it afterward.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: "Mistress America"

Many critics and audiences went nuts for “Frances Ha,” the last collaboration between writer/director Noah Baumbach and actress/screenwriter Greta Gerwig, but not me. I found it an unfocused and rambling portrait of a twentysomething woman trying to find a purpose in New York City. So I approached their next film together, “Mistress America,” with some hesitation.

Even though thematically the movies are kissing cousins, “Mistress” is a much more fully realized and vibrant work. Here Gerwig is not the subject of the story but its object. Her character, Brooke Cardinas, is a 30-year-old New Yorker who seems to have a lot of jobs and grand ideas, but all of them are transitory. She’s got a load of panache and personality, the sort of person who lights up a room and effortlessly takes it over.

She is described, aptly, as a woman who is spending her youth well.

It’s no wonder that Brooke is captivating to the actual protagonist, Tracy Fishko, an 18-year-old Barnard College freshman. They’re thrown together because Tracy’s mom and Brooke’s dad are marrying each other, which means they’re soon to be step-sisters. Brooke takes Tracy, who’s been struggling to fit in at school, under her ample wing for a night of fun and freedom, essentially auditioning to become her role model and muse.

Soon Tracy, who aspires to be a writer but has been declined by the hoity-toity campus literary society, is penning a vivid and not-very-well-disguised portrait of Brooke -- her fearlessness and foibles, her bright imaginings and doomed plans. Tracy reads portions of her short story throughout the film, serving as a sort of narration.

This is a very, very smart film about how people consciously and unconsciously are inspired by and imitate others. It’s also very self-aware, such as when the two women are silhouetted at night against a lit-up bridge as a groovy tune plays on the soundtrack, and one says to the other: “We look like we’re in a song!”

Tracy is played by Lola Kirke, who’s had a few small roles here and there, but announces herself with this nuanced, emotionally true performance. She has that rare ability to let the audience see her thinking, so we are swept along with Tracy as she beholds the amazing Brooke and is inevitably pulled toward her and starts emulating her.

Tracy has her own small circle of friends, notably Tony (Matthew Shear), a sensitive beta-male type who shares her literary ambitions. They hang out during first semester; both rejected by the lit society, and form their own little circle of trust. It seems like they must end up as a couple, but as often happens in real life the current pulls us in other directions. Tony winds up dating Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), who is defined by her jealousy.

Things really get interesting when Brooke’s plans to open a restaurant hit a financial snafu, and she’s led to approaching a wealthy ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Michael Chernus), for the cash. Unfortunately, he’s now married to Brooke’s former best friend, Maimie-Claire (Heather Lind), who -- as she sees it -- stole her man, her T-shirt design, her cats and her richly deserved life of idle comfort.

Tracy and Brooke decamp to Michael and Maimie-Claire’s extravagant Greenwich, Conn., mansion, along with Tony, who’s providing the ride, and Nicolette, who’s providing the suspicion. This whole gaggle shows up on their doorstep, and at first I had visions of the same thing happening in “Funny People,” a potentially great movie that flushed itself down the commode with an ill-advised and rambling visit to an ex’s abode.

But this encounter, which essentially takes up the last third of the film, merely brings all the characters into sharper focus. The dynamic between Tracy and Brooke is examined, exposed and fundamentally altered. The muse gets P.O.’d at the artist.

The dialogue is razor-sharp and eminently quotable: “It was too much fun to agree with her.” “He’s the sort of guy I hate, except that I’m in love with him.” “I’m the same! I’m just the same in a different direction now.”

Smart, brave, probing and sensitive, “Mistress America” shows us that movies about messy people don’t have to be a mess themselves.

Monday, August 24, 2015

More "Mad Max: Fury Road" thoughts

 The greatness of "Mad Max: Fury Road" only becomes more apparent upon repeated viewings. The ability to pause and go frame-by-frame is a particular thrill. You find out things like the fact that George Miller used snippets of the earlier movies in Max's visions, such as the Toecutter's eyes bugging out or a black-masked marauder. The spare dialogue is enhanced by captions, so you can catch all the nuances of the linguistic mash-up used by the characters, altered slightly between the clans of the War Boys, Many Mothers, Joe's Wives, etc. ("Are you a Black Thumb?" aka mechanic.)

It seems more and more clear to me that this world is set much further down the road after the apocalypse, perhaps 40 or 50 years. Of course, Max would have to be an old man by then. Which is perhaps why he is essentially a supporting character, more an existential force than a person, a whitewashed version of the "magical Negro" figure who exists mainly to support and propel the main character, who is Furiosa.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Video review: "I Am Chris Farley"

If you looked at the average lifespan of “Saturday Night Live” alumni compared to the general population, you'd find it’s shockingly low. So many talented comedic fireballs have gone to early graves -- some to disease (Gilda Radner) or violence (Phil Hartman), but far too many to excessive lifestyles and a lack of self-control.

Anyone watching the show in the 1990s initially viewed Chris Farley as the reincarnation of John Belushi: a maniacal tubby guy with a natural grace for physical comedy that belied his girth. “I Am Chris Farley” is the new documentary about his life, where he came from, why he was so popular on the show -- and why he was incapable of doing anything halfway.

Directors Brent Hodge and Derik Murray interview an impressive list of people who knew or worked with Farley, tracing his rise from class cut-up in a bucolic Wisconsin town to king of the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago up through the seemingly ordained call-up to SNL. We learn that he was a man who would literally do anything for a laugh, even being suspended from his Catholic school for exposing himself during typing class.

People like Adam Sandler, Dan Aykroyd, David Spade, Bob Saget, Mike Myers, Christina Applegate, SNL chief Lorne Michaels and many others weigh in with memories, regrets and praise. Farley’s brothers and childhood friends speak of a soul so innocent and pure that there was simply no nastiness in him. His inability to cope with alcohol and drugs was, they say, simply an extension of a man whose appetite for joy was unquenchable.

Myself, I was never a particular fan of Farley’s. He seemed to operate under the principle of “comedy by volume” -- that is, any line of dialogue becomes funny if you shout it loudly and repeatedly. The half-life he could wring out of material was regrettably brief; no doubt the reason his two films in a starring role both bombed as audiences couldn’t summon the endurance for 90 minutes of Farley’s pratfalls and mugging.

His act got old fast, and so did Farley. His death at age 33 of an overdose, compounded by his obesity, came as a shock to exactly no one, his friends say.

Still, if Farley’s brand of merriment wasn’t my bag, I appreciated the devotion he put into his craft. As this doc underlines, no one put more effort into looking like a screw-up.

It’s an insightful, affecting portrait of a misunderstood comedy giant who left us too soon.

As a straight-to-video release that’s also being shown on the Spike TV channel, there are no bonus materials.



Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review: "American Ultra"

"American Ultra" is a quirky take on an old saw. This action comedy stars Jesse Eisenberg as a seemingly normal guy who discovers one day that he has amazing skills, including the ability to take down armed assailants with his bare hands. He wasn't even aware he could do this, until he does it.

We've seen this idea before with "The Bourne Identity," "The Matrix" and countless other flicks. The notion holds appeal because maybe anyone of us could be revealed as the badass chosen one, too.

The twist here is that Eisenberg is seemingly the last guy on Earth who could secretly be a trained super agent. It starts with the actor's small stature, unimpressive physique, soft features, trembly voice and disappearing chin. If you looked up "beta male" in the dictionary, it'd probably have his picture as an illustration.

Screenwriter Max Landis ("Chronicle") layers on the reinforcing characteristics. Mike Howell is an unassuming stoner who clerks at the Stop-n-Go, gets high with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), draws an amateur comic starring Apollo Ape and Chimp the Brick, and does little else. He's wracked with crippling phobias, including a violent aversion to leaving his town of Liman, West Virginia.

As the story opens, they are about to fly off on a Hawaii trip where Mike plans to pop the question. (Hawaii? Fancy ring? Must've been a lot of double-shifts at the Stop-n-Go.) But he's unable to get on the plane, and worries that he's just slowing Phoebe down. But then some big guys in black camo show up out of nowhere and try to kill him, and Mike easily takes them out armed with nothing more than a piping hot cup o' soup and a spoon.

Here we have the classic trope about the master spies deciding that a rogue agent who hasn't done anything to anybody in years needs to be eliminated -- even if it requires expending many more agents' lives and the entire operational budget to do it. Listen, spooks: if Jason Bourne decides he wants to retire on the beach, let him get fat on barbecue and piƱa coladas.

Topher Grace plays the maniacal young CIA chief who goes after Mike, and he's got a small army of his own twisted agents to do it. Of course, he always sends them against clerk-boy in twos and threes, instead of calling the whole gang in at once. On several occasions he's literally got a bunch of his "tough guy" spies sitting around doing nothing while he picks a pair to be the latest sacrificial lambs.

Lesson two, spooks: if you have 17 guys to dispatch against one, why in the world would you not just send all 17?

Connie Britton plays the good CIA gal who recruited Mike (unbeknownst to him) and is still looking out for him. Walton Goggins, so great on the "Justified" TV show, is the Laugher, one of the evil toadies. John Leguizamo turns up as your friendly neighborhood drug dealer, and Tony Hale plays a nebbishy desk agent caught between loyalties.

It's a fun ride, and director Nima Nourizadeh keeps things moving at a snappy pace. Eisenberg and Stewart have nice chemistry together in between all the chases and dismemberments. (Though I recommend the little-seen "Adventureland" if you really want to see some romantic sparks fly between them.)

"American Ultra" succeeds under the wallflower charms of Jesse Eisenberg and a clever script. Sometimes even pathetic losers can kill you with a spoon, so be nice.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Review: "The End of the Tour"

“The End of the Tour” is simultaneously a great character study and possibly the best portrait of writers I’ve ever seen.

It’s essentially a two-person conversation that takes place over the course of five days in 1996. Both are youngish men who have recently published books. One is famous, the other is not. The less celebrated one is writing a profile of the famous one for Rolling Stone magazine while he finishes up his book tour.

They grow friendly, but jealousy and resentment are always close at hand. They circle each other warily, tribal companions and combatants harboring their own stakes and agendas. Theirs is a magnificent, haunting dance of intellects and emotions.

David Foster Wallace is the celebrated novelist, whose “Infinite Jest” has just been released to spectacular acclaim and predictions of major awards. His dense, playful style of writing, replete with extensive endnotes and citations, seemed a precursor to today’s hyperlinked, hyperactive style of information consumption.

He plays up his regular-guy image, teaching at an unremarkable Illinois state college, wearing bandanas and hanging out with his slobbering dogs and select friends. Wallace killed himself in 2008 at age 46.

David Lipsky is the interviewer, a few years younger and whose own novel, “The Art Fair,” has been much more modestly received. An early scene shows him reciting at a sparsely-attended book reading, so later when he looks out over the packed room for Wallace’s final book tour appearance, we understand how that stiffens his spine.

In Wallace, Lipsky beholds someone more accomplished and wants to capture that, understand it, and thereby ensure his own ascent.

Director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) and screenwriter Donald Margulies reveal many things about both men in “The End of the Tour,” but also hold back in other ways. For instance, Wallace never produced another novel while alive. (An unfinished work was published posthumously.) He mostly turned to nonfiction and essays, even penning for Rolling Stone.

Meanwhile, Lipsky’s article was never actually published in the magazine. The interview essentially became memories and a box of old tape recordings. Lipsky dug them out after Wallace’s passing and turned it into the book, “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” upon which this movie is based.

Jason Segel plays Wallace. Yes, that Jason Segel – the pants-dropping comic everyman of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and TV’s “How I Met Your Mother.” If you can’t conceive of him giving a layered, dramatic turn, just remember that many funnymen have gone on to become serious actors. I believe this film will do for Segel what “Moscow on the Hudson” did for Robin Williams.

It’s a career-changing, stand-up-and-take-notice kind of performance.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky. It’s a tight, precise portrayal, the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from the actor from “The Social Network.” His Lipsky is nebbishy and charming, sort of a modern-day Woody Allen type. He’s ambitious and can be ruthless when pushed, but he genuinely likes Wallace and wants to get inside his head.

Plot-wise, the story essentially just follows Lipsky as he follows Wallace to Minneapolis for the last leg of his book tour. They spend almost every minute together, driving in cars, riding in planes, hanging in the downtime. Lipsky keeps his recorder going the whole time, an old-style cassette job with an oversized microphone, one of which every journalist of a certain age probably has stashed somewhere. The tape machine becomes a virtual third character, an omnipresent reminder that their conversations are “on the record” and posterity is listening.

The men talk about writing, depression, addiction, sex, television, having kids, the intangible appeal of Alanis Morissette and other topics. It’s fascinating to watch the tidal ebb and flow of trust, as Wallace starts out very reticent to reveal himself, then slowly opens up, only to recede back into himself when he starts to think Lipsky is playing him.

And Lipsky is playing him -- from a journalistic perspective. He peeks into the guy’s medicine cabinet and writes down the contents, makes notes after a middle-of-the-night heartfelt conversation, and declines to order an alcoholic beverage because, he tells Wallace, he respects the 12-step process. It’s Lipsky’s way of letting Wallace know he knows about past substance abuse problems.

These are the sorts of things reporters routinely do as part of the job that outsiders would doubtless regard as monumentally crummy. Intrusive? You just defined journalism.

Better than any film I can think of, “The End of the Tour” captures and crystallizes what it’s like to be inside the head of people who live through words. Eisenberg and Segel are magnificent conduits into the writer’s darkest corners.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Walkabout" (1971)

"Walkabout" is mostly remembered for its gorgeous photography and its tale of innocent lost British children wandering around the Australian outback with the help of an Aborigine boy. But the film begins and ends with horrifying, unjustified acts of violence that detract from its enjoyment.

Mind you, I'm not talking about the fact that people die horribly. It's that these deaths carry exactly zero psychological weight with the two English children. These traumatizing events seem to have zero impact on their psyches, only presenting challenges to their immediate physical plight. I never could reconcile the rest of the movie with these two black marks upon the film's emotional integrity.

"Our father just killed himself after trying to shoot us with a pistol? Oh my! Well, look at that gekko!"

If that comment seems flip, that's because it is. It also makes light (improperly) of director Nicolas Roeg's signature technique of crosscutting the narrative imagery with sudden environmental shots of the character's surroundings or inner thoughts. It's a startling style, which has been countlessly copied and (over)used by other filmmakers: Terrence Malick, Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, etc.

The movie is very much aligned with the Australian New Wave. Like another one of those films recently discussed here, "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "Walkabout" has a hazy, dreamlike quality that cues the audience in to the fact that they're not watching a straight, linear sort of picture.

This is underscored by John Barry's lush music, replete with his familiar swells of stringed instruments. Lacking a distinct melody, the score adds colors and shades to the cinematic experience without imposing an emotional state on the viewer.

The film was based on a novel of the same name by James Vance Marshall, though screenwriter Edward Bond changed things around significantly for the movie.

In the book the siblings are Americans whose plane crash-landed in the outback, and some of is told from the point of view of the Aborigine boy, who was on his rite of manhood journey when he stumbled across the pair. He struggled with whether to help them, since he is supposed to remain alone on his spiritual quest, but decides he cannot leave them to die. It's a fateful choice; he perishes himself after catching influenza from them, since he is not immunized.

"Walkabout" means very different things in British and Australian cultural traditions. The Aussies have expanded the meaning beyond Aboriginal customs to mean any kind of arduous journey or undertaking. For the English, it means an informal stroll or walking tour, especially by a VIP.

These gradations of meaning seem to apply to the siblings, who never seem very afraid despite often being close to death.

Jenny Agutter plays the sister, while her brother is played by none other than Roeg's own son, Luc. David Gulpilil, as the Aborigine, suffered the ignominy of having his last name misspelled in the film's credits.

None of the characters are ever named in the movie, simply referring to each other as "he" or "she" or "you." Gulpilil's character does not speak English, but he and the tyke soon figure out a basic form of communication through mime and a few Aborigine words.

Agutter and Gulpilil were both about 18 when the film was shot, though I get the sense their characters are meant to be closer to 14 or 15. This adds an extra layer of discomfort to the frequent nude scenes, which include shots of genitalia.

"Walkabout" was originally given an R rating by the MPAA, but upon appeal it was changed to GP, later known as PG.

This is pretty astonishing, considering there is also some quite graphic violence of the Aborigine performing some apparently unsimulated hunting and butchering of wild animals, with guts and gore aplenty. Not to mention the suicides that begin and end the film, with lingering shots of the bodies.

Along with "Jaws" and "Poltergeist," these films must form the trio of the hardest PG-rated flicks of all time.

While the depiction of their young bodies is mostly non-sexual, Roeg has the habit of having his camera zoom in closely on the most intimate parts of people's bodies -- breasts, anal clefts, Agutter's nethers as she repeatedly summits the surface of the pond where she's enjoying a swim.

I think he's going for an organic verisimilitude -- these are bodies in nature; deal with it -- but to 2015 sensibilities it still registers as pervy leering at underage kids.

The story is straightforward. A British businessman (John Meillon) living in Australia with his family drives his two children out to the middle of the outback for a picnic. Seemingly at random, he pulls out a pistol and starts firing at them.

The boy, who's maybe 6 years old, doesn't understand and thinks his dad is playing a game. But the sister gets them behind cover. Frustrated, the man sets his black Volkswagen Bug on fire and then shoots himself in the head. Sister refuses to let brother see the aftermath, and they begin walking away and are soon lost in the brutal hardpan.

They never discuss his death until the end of the film, and not a tear is shed for dear old dad.

From there, the movie becomes just what the title says: walking, walking, more walking, while trying to survive and make their way back to civilization.

(Of course, the smart thing to do would be to stay right where they are and wait for the black smoke of the vehicle fire to attract somebody -- which it soon does, drawing an Aboriginal family who loot the scene. They paint the man's body and hang it in a tree, which -- based on later events and a little Googling -- I take to be a cultural rite.)

Gulpilil's character helps the siblings out by showing them how to use a reed to suck water out of a dried oasis bed, and they more or less begin following him after that.

From fairly early on after their meeting, it becomes clear that the Aborigine is attracted to the girl, and she on some level returns the sentiment. She gazes intently at his beautiful lean body, charcoal-black and essentially nude except for a modesty cloth wrapped over his loins.

Later, while resting at an abandoned settlement, he catches her in a state of undress that causes her distress. It's a bit unclear why, since he already would have seen her nude on several occasions during their journey. (Indeed, the final image of the film is her character, years later, wistfully recalling the three of them skinny-dipping together.)

He misinterprets her intentions and begins a traditional mating dance. She, unfamiliar with such things, think he's just acting strangely and lets the ritual go one for hours without any response, which he takes as rejection, leading to tragic results.

Roeg himself dubbed "Walkabout" "a simple story about life and being alive, not covered with sophistry but addressing the most basic human themes; birth, death, mutability." Roger Ebert opined that the movie was about "the mystery of communication," something I think underscored by my paragraph above.

Perhaps it's a bit of many things. Some movies are mysteries to their audiences, while others are mysterious even to themselves. I think "Walkabout" falls into that latter category.

It's a film of wondrous craftsmanship that is content to just exist in itself without trying to impose a grand 'meaning of it all.' In doing so, though, it presents characters who do not behave as real humans would. As such, they remain lovely cardboard cutouts -- they catch the light beautifully, but cast little shadow.