Gone Girl (2014)

?????????????????????????????????????????20th Century Fox presents a film directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Gillian Flynn; based on her novel. Produced by Leslie Dixon, Bruna Papandrea, Reese Witherspoon, Ceán Chafin. Music by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross. Photographed by Jeff Cronenweth. Edited by Kirk Baxter. Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens.

It’s a setup that Alfred Hitchcock could have devised: a Missouri man named Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home to his posh house on his five year anniversary to find his wife missing. There are signs of violence, but not enough to provide leads. A detective (Kim Dickens) enters the picture and begins asking questions, ones that Nick frustratingly doesn’t have answers to. The missing girl is a minor celebrity (her parents made a fortune on children’s books that she became an inadvertent model for). So the media gets involved, her parents enter the picture, searches are organized…and all the while, Nick Dunne…there’s something just not right about Nick Dunne. It’s not that he looks suspicious. It’s just that the media and society start mutually agreeing that he’s not behaving like an innocent person should. And maybe, for that matter, he isn’t one. Or maybe he is. Or maybe…

This is the (very simplified) outline of Gone Girl, first a novel by Gillian Flynn, and now a movie by David Fincher with a screenplay again by Flynn. The novel had diabolical fun with unreliable narrators, prose tricks, and lies that inform, belie and recolor reader sympathy from page to page. Fincher and Flynn, somehow, have managed to retain the book’s nasty, prickly spirit even while reworking it for cinema. I shan’t spoil, but viewers going in expecting a routine mystery will be met instead with a psychosexual thriller that meditates on media, marriage, projected selves and stymied expectations. Yes, including ours.

As the film begins, we cut between two parallel stories: the police and Nick investigating the disappearance, and the diary entries of Amy (an icily, trickily perfect Rosamund Pike). Amy’s story tells how the couple met, in scenes that have the dialogue and magical realism of a romantic comedy, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ flowing fantasy score teases us with artifice. The procedural scenes are played with mounting dread, as Nick feels a nightmare noose tightening around his neck: his own character flaws might make the lack of a body virtually irrelevant. There’s also savage commentary on Nancy Grace-type news personalities that trade in fabricated outrage and enlist viewers as armchair vigilantes. Gone Girl is a very dark movie, but it’s also bitterly funny when it wants to be: when a TV show talking head begins an analysis with “I’ve never met Nick, but…” the line is so true it’s almost anti-parody.

That there’s more happening here is fair to say. Amy’s diary entries take a sour turn as the recession moves the couple out of their New York brownstone and into a heartland malaise. Nick in the present seeks out the help of ace attorney Tanner Bolt (a wry Tyler Perry), “the patron saint of wife killers.” Nick’s sister Go (Carrie Coon) watches in mounting horror as the investigation takes its toll. Dickens’ detective is fair and not trying to railroad anybody; that makes the case she starts to build against Nick all the more frightening. Eventually some..unexpected…things occur and, from a certain perspective, Gone Girl almost changes into an entirely different movie. It remains a mystery, yes, but it’s less about the how and more about the why. It’s an emotional horror movie, a lurid and intentionally schizophrenic missive about how hard it is to truly know someone. In Flynn and Fincher’s cynical worldview, people are selfish companies that sell inflated versions of themselves, and marriages are merely ugly corporate mergers. Or possibly hostile takeovers.

This material is pitch perfect for David Fincher. A gifted stylist and expert at wringing superb performances out of the most unlikely of actors (a key supporting role comes from Emily Ratajkowski, best known from Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video), Fincher is also a master of detail-obsessed paranoia (Zodiac), plot twists (Fight Club), and thriller material that masks a dark, nasty agenda (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). There’s also echoes here of his Social Network, especially in the way his detached eye finds sympathy within sociopathy. Fincher’s penchant for endless takes and methodical camera movement creates crisp frames that hang with discomfort, and Affleck gives one of his best performances as the secretive, harried Nick. He’s topped only by Pike, in a performance that demands Oscar recognition for the range of levels it occupies. By the time the beautifully sick and twisted Gone Girl ends, you may be tempted to see it again, now equipped to strip out its complex layers. This is one of the year’s best films.

This is Where I Leave You (2014)

This-Is-Where-I-Leave-YouDirected by Shawn Levy. Written by Jonathan Tropper, based on his novel. Produced by Levy, Paula Weinstein, Jeffrey Levine. Photographed by Terry Stacey. Edited by Dean Zimmerman. Music by Michael Giacchino. Starring Jason Bateman (Judd Altman), Tina Fey (Wendy), Adam Driver (Phillip), Rose Byrne (Penny Moore), Corey Stoll (Paul), Kathryn Hahn (Alice), Connie Britton (Tracy), Timothy Olyphant (Horry), Abigail Spencer (Quinn), Dax Shepard (Wade Boulanger), Jane Fonda (Hillary), Aaron Lazar (Barry), Ben Schwartz (Boner).

This is Where I Leave You is a dysfunctional family comedy/drama that devolves into a traffic jam. It takes a familiar (but workable) premise and then burdens it with too many characters, details, quirks, subplots, former lovers, current partners, revelations, reversals, ironies, and zingers. Screenwriter Jonathan Tropper has adapted his own well-liked novel, but it feels like something genuine that was ambushed by an army of sitcom writers along the way. It’s likable and has a big heart, but its overwritten state is just too much of a muchness.

The center, more or less, is Judd Altman, played by Jason Bateman in the mode he knows best – smarmy guy who unsuccessfully protects real hurt. He arrives home early one day to find his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) in bed with his shock-jock boss (Dax Shepherd), and Judd retreats into misery. When his sister Wendy (Tina Fey) calls to let him know about the death of their distant father, both siblings return to the Altman house, which is ruled by mother Hillary (Jane Fonda, in the Jane Fonda role). Although no one in the family was a practicing Jew, dad’s will stipulates for everyone to mourn sitting shiva: that is, all under one roof for seven days. That also includes uptight and successful brother Paul (Corey Stoll) and womanizing layabout Phillip (Adam Driver).

Each sibling except for Judd brings along a significant other (Aaron Lazar for Fey, Kathryn Hahn for Stoll, Connie Britton for Driver), and some of them disappear for large chunks of time, even though the house is big but isn’t that big (Judd is relegated to sleeping in the basement in a bed that doesn’t fold out all the way). Judd himself reacquaints with high school flame Penny (Rose Byrne), a character that we learn absolutely nothing about except for (a) she likes Judd and (b) she runs an ice rink that no one, apparently, ever goes to. The movie just doesn’t have time for her, nor does it have time for either of Fey’s love interests (she also has mentally handicapped Timothy Olyphant across the street), or even very much time for the great Jane Fonda. Nor does it give Quinn much credit once she re-enters the picture under very changed circumstances. Ben Schwartz shows up as the “hip” rabbi overseeing the shiva, and his schtick is funny, but it’s too many flourishes spent on a character who is not at all the focus here. Breathlessness is the name of the game in This is Where I Leave You, not in the manner of a farce, but in the style of a story that is constantly looking at its watch.

And yet. The movie is sincere and well-acted. Bateman and Fey are welcome in any movie, and they generate a warm brother-sister relationship that feels natural and real. Fonda makes her big moment of the film really work. Driver is brilliant and winning as a brother who can light anyone’s fuse, and Stoll is dependable as a man with a very short one. The spouse and girlfriend scenes play like convincing trailers for movies out there somewhere that are about them. The only two actors that come closest to not working here are Olyphant and Byrne; both can be fine performers, but only when they are being given actual characters to play. It’s a very busy movie, and the good moments that are there feel like the eyes of loud mini-hurricanes. The family’s surname, Altman, I fear may be a reference to a certain movie director who was infinitely more gifted at juggling a large cast of seriocomic characters.

The director of record here, however, is Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Date Night), who has not really distinguished himself at plumbing the emotional depths that could be explored. He keeps everything surface-level and nice, and that only helps the feeling that every emotional beat feels less therapeutic and more like obligatory marks on a bingo card. A dysfunctional family can certainly be mined for the material of fine dramedy, but perhaps one could have been made here that was paced with more honesty, with fewer side plots, and where the characters speak in fewer punchlines. Perhaps a movie where Judd Altman asks not just where he was left, but why. B-

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

harrisonford_2636435bDirected by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Williard Huyck, Gloria Katz; story by George Lucas. Produced by Robert Watts. Music by John Williams. Photographed by Douglas Slocombe. Edited by Michael Kahn. Production designed by Elliot Scott. Starring Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Kate Capshaw (Willie Scott), Ke Huy Quan (Short Round), Amrish Puri (Mola Ram), Roshan Seth (Chattar Lal).

Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opens with something that no student of its predecessor, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), could have ever anticipated: a musical number. As dancers and showgirls tap through an elaborately glitzy rendition of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” (sung in Chinese), our senses are delighted—and bewildered. Isn’t this supposed to be an action/adventure film? Isn’t this a feverishly anticipated sequel? Starting with a song and dance routine? Is this an inexplicable choice?

Not at all, as it turns out. This opening doesn’t just drop us into the middle of the unexpected (just like Raiders, in a different way), or simply establish an important character (one who manages to stand in front of the film’s super-imposed title, telling us all we need to know about her before she says a word).  Thematically, it’s completely on point: if there’s one mantra that perfectly summarizes the whiplash gaudiness of Temple of Doom, it’s “Anything Goes.” Here is a finely-calibrated piece of action adventure nonsense, done with such poise and skill that it approaches balletic intensity.

Yes, balletic. Temple is an unending compilation of stunts, suspense, action and adventure. “A bruised forearm movie,” Roger Ebert dubbed it, because every five minutes you would clutch the forearm of the person next to you in apprehension. That’s a descriptor for both the film’s richness of action and with the way it’s handled: with such poise and elegance that even 30 years in the past, Spielberg puts many current workers at the action factory to shame. The film’s kitchen sink approach to conceptualizing itself only heightens its own effect, because not only does Spielberg tackle each set piece with supreme confidence, but he switches between them with the juggling skills of a master, and maintains a pitch so manic that he purposefully invites you to consider the complexity with which Temple was conceived, and the ease with which it appears to have been made. After the financial success of Jaws, Raiders and E.T., Temple is Steven Spielberg fully unleashed, and its glorious excess becomes, in effect, a comment on itself.

Much has been made in the years since Raiders of identifying its inspirations: 1930’s Saturday matinée serials. Temple taps the same water, but from a different well, and casts its net bigger. Raiders was a two-fisted tribute to the likes of Commander Cody, The Perils of Pauline and Zorro: stories that pitted larger-than-life heroes against dastardly villains. That thread remains in Temple, but with Indiana Jones now established, this sequel draws from pulp adventure: Tarzan, The Phantom Empire, countless tales of darkest Africa. These films were typically about gosh-golly explorers who stumble into lost continents and underground cities, and are opposed by entrenched locals. They traded in exotically backwards locales and secret societies that drip with undiscovered evil. The 1930’s were an ideal time period for these types of adventures, because the world was still large enough to make such things teasingly plausible, and also because at the time aggressive western colonialism (and its inherent racism and xenophobia) was very much in vogue.

But of course, you didn’t go to the movies just to see the serials. There was often a program that followed, and Temple is a movie that also cherishes its ability to recall Old Hollywood. It borrows villains and settings from Gunga Din (1939), employs photography as colorful and busily controlled as those seen in the films of Powell and Pressburger (and their own inspiration, Walt Disney), stages a chase sequence that does for mine cars what Buster Keaton did for locomotives, and the near-monochromatic Busby Berkley beginning is pure Gold Diggers of 1933 (or ’35, or ’37). As is often in Spielberg productions, Temple is a movie that loves movies, and wants to refurbish old favorites to a new shine. The key difference between Spielberg and the many impostors who have followed in his wake is that Spielberg grew up watching movies, while his successors have grown up watching only Spielberg’s.

The screenplay (by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz of American Graffiti fame–with a story by George Lucas), possibly moreso than any other Indiana Jones film, is primarily a clothesline for stupendous action sequences. Jones (Harrison Ford), now a fortune hunter and mercenary, escapes a business deal gone south in Shanghai with two refugees in tow: a feisty little kid named Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) and the prima donna showgirl Willie (Kate Capshaw). What with one thing and the other, they find themselves bailing out of a runaway charter plane via an inflatable raft, after which they fall off a cliff, navigate treacherous rapids, and arrive at the doorstep of an Indian village cursed by the mysterious abduction of a sacred stone…and their entire population of children.

Indy, interested in the stone as little more than a profitable artifact, agrees to go after it, and the trio travel to a palace where the hosts are all smiles, but that’s merely a cover for a subterranean hellscape that houses both child enslavement and Hindu devil worship (known as Thugee). This drives the entire second half of the film, a cavalcade of ritual sacrifices, beatings, whippings, stunts, gunplay, and Indy-on-Thugee violence so intense that it (along with the concurrent Spielberg-produced Gremlins) helped institute the now-shamelessly abused PG-13 rating. It’s a lot of fun.

Temple detractors are often quick to point out two serious flaws against the film: overt sexism and troubling racial stereotypes. The sexism speaks mainly to the character of Willie, a gold-digging, ceaselessly complaining shrew who goes through a whole repository of “spoiled city girl goes camping” clichés when the trio goes on the road (she does, however, give a spectacular scream). She stands in stark contrast to Marion from Raiders, who was smart, tough and practical. Here, Willy is a simpering ninny, who, even at her most heroic, rarely rises above the pathetic. Lucas apparently conceived the character during a messy divorce with his wife Marcia, and it shows: the gender politics between the two films are disappointingly regressive. However, Lucas deserves credit for not simply creating a Marion clone with Willie: she’s a pest, but she’s also very much part of the film’s overall strategy to be as different as possible. Another wellspring of Indiana Jones inspiration was, of course, the James Bond series, so it’s notable that none of the Jones leading ladies suffer from the interchangeability that certain Bond girls do. That’s damning with faint praise, of course.

The potentially racist material is, however, a different matter. The film’s viewpoint is dramatically unenlightened, imagining India as a land where people must choose between either simple-minded abject poverty or pitch-black magic, and the film’s finale, where a British detachment, with rifles drawn, brings order to the countryside, is bombastic in its xenophobia. But I would argue that’s the point, as much as the film has one–Spielberg is calling attention to the dark underbelly of the very thing he was aping last time. 30’s serials trucked very often in racial stereotypes, and the colonialist attitudes that pervade Temple would not be foreign to those. Spielberg hid those elements last time, but here, more confident in his command of the tongue-in-cheek Indiana Jones tone, he satirizes his targets via straight-faced presentation.

Temple is oft-noted as being a darker film than its predecessor, and this is indeed the case. Its dark ceremonies, replete with voodoo tokens, blood drinking, repetitive chants, and instant unsanctioned heart surgeries, seem to tap into a palpable Satanic power. There are little grace notes, too, like the necklace made of bloody fingers and the alcoves infested with both cobwebs and flayed skins. And the cackling Mola Rom (Amrish Puri) is less an evil priest and more a man possessed with apoplectic fury. In the mines, children are shackled and beaten with impunity, and even Indiana Jones falls under an evil spell for a while, forced to drink demonic blood and becoming a Thugee zombie, with just enough fire left in him to suggest that deep down he kinda likes it, a little. As Spielberg’s follow-up to the kid-friendly E.T., these choices are shocking, but they are earned when you see them as Spielberg’s attempt to find new ground in the Indiana Jones franchise, and establish different stakes.

Missing from this installment are, of course, Nazis, and indeed once you take stock of the fourth film’s Soviet baddies, this is the only Indy film to make use of non-military forces as villains, although the Thugees do all wear identical robes to make identification (and the stuntwork) easier. In that sense, both the Nazis and Thugees are the personification of evil conformity, although the Nazis had the advantage (even in the past) of having their loathsomeness pre-sold. Nazis are such a known commodity (in the storytelling sense) that they make terrific stock villains: a film with Nazi antagonists doesn’t have to apologize in the process of making them one-dimensional monsters, and the swift nature of serial plotting means that such scenes become not about establishing evil, but merely confirming it. In Raiders, Spielberg could waste no time in humiliating his Nazi villains, since he did not need to stop to ask our permission to do so. It’s part of what makes that movie sing.

But if Raiders was Spielberg’s attempt, as a Jewish filmmaker, to strike back against the Nazis within the framework of an adventure fantasy, then Temple sees him at a remove from the franchise’s heart and soul: without Nazis as villains, here he must work to establish the Thugees as equally vile, and in doing so he essentially doubles down. This is partially where the film’s over-the-top nature, arguably, comes from: Spielberg’s attempt to modify the Raiders formula while still supplying the same amount of reciprocal joy. This goes for the film’s ultimate construction as well: some have claimed that Raiders is an “impersonal” film from Spielberg, but the attitudes toward the Nazis help give it weight: it’s the story of an archaeologist, yes, but it’s also the story of a filmmaker purging his demons. Temple isn’t about that, or much of anything else, so it instead, by default, becomes the story of an artist trying to recapture a previous success via sheer craftsmanship.

But what craftsmanship indeed! And, in its own way, what success. Temple contains some of the most accomplished and sustained action sequences in Spielberg’s entire career, starting with the opening Shanghai number (which is mirrored in a brawl that happens in the same space five minutes later), and then moving on to nimble sequences that mingle comedy and violence, like the sexy flirting between Indy and Willie where one side is soon distracted by an assassination attempt, or the following moment where Indy and Short Round are imprisoned by an escalating booby trap, and Indy must talk the skittish, dim-witted Willie into successfully freeing them in time. There’s wit in the choreography and sight gags, again and again.

Raiders was a movie with nary a dull spot—it was literally one damn thing after the other. Temple takes a moribund turn about 2/3 of the way through, where Indy has fallen, everyone is threatened, and evil looks like it will win. But it’s a short-lived part of the grand design, because once that passes, it raises the curtain on a wall-to-wall action finale that lasts about half an hour and moves at breakneck speed: the freeing of the enslaved children, the battle with a muscle-bound Thugee slave driver (played by longtime Indy stuntman Pat Roach), the exhilarating, virtuoso mine car chase that resembles a multi-track roller-coaster over the fires of hell. The movie even saves one of its most memorable set pieces for the very end: a final battle on a precarious rope bridge across a river infested with crocodiles, which escalates in the most gobsmaking way. It’s thrilling stuff, and the sequence’s concluding moment, where Indy, clinging to the remnants of the destroyed bridge, pulls himself to safety and smiles in relief as he produces the stone is one of the best little moments in the entire series.

Ford is, arguably, better than ever in the role. Never more rugged, never more laconic, never more buff, it’s a shock these days to go back and see how, even in such dark material, how warm and wry he is. The film’s status as a prequel (it takes place one year prior to Raiders, in 1935) is able to recast Jones as more disreputable and dishonest—the filmmakers are now keenly aware of Ford’s strengths, of his innate ability to court forgiveness for his sins. They let Ford play to those strengths, emphasizing his Bogart self-involvement, allowing us to avoid any suspicion that Indiana Jones has gone too soft. He’s equally at home in a tux as he is in a tattered shirt, and he nicely plays Indy’s unshakable suspicion that he is slowly growing a conscience.

The relationship with Short Round, usually a sticking point for films like this (“Hey, let’s add a cute kid!”) works because both actors sell it with such conviction (notice the genuine feeling in the moment where Indy and Shorty change hats and embrace after Indy awakens from possession). The movie delights in pairing the two of them in entertaining ways: like their cantankerous poker game in the jungle, or the wonderful shot which tilts between Indy and Shorty fighting separate foes, throwing identical punches. There’s generosity here in all the performances, even within the go-for-broke shrillness of Willie. Like many Spielberg productions, this one doesn’t let the actors get swallowed by the technical credits, although they are uniformly superb: Elliot Scott’s delicious production design, Douglas Slocombe’s vivid cinematography, John Williams’ excellent score, all three being perhaps the finest in the Indy series.

Audiences were not ready for the full-frontal assault that was Temple of Doom. Parents were not thrilled by the film’s tone, and it’s a message that Spielberg seems to have internalized: these days, he distances himself from Temple as if it was a phase he went through, and although he has made finer films, it’s tough to find one with more verve and electricity. The criticisms of the villains led to a subsequent series of softball antagonists in later Indiana Jones movies, lacking much menace. That doesn’t make them bad films (well, Crystal Skull maybe), but they did lack a special something.

And so it goes. At 33 years, Indiana Jones is one of the longest-running un-rebooted franchises in Hollywood, even though it only consists of four films plus persistent rumors of a fifth. With Indiana Jones now under control of Walt Disney pictures, how long before they insist on another installment? And would that be a good thing? With Disney now approaching the traits of an entertainment monopoly, the last thing we should want is an Indiana Jones that reeks of sameness. (I have similar worries about Star Wars, mind you)–Disney middle-management has born great entertainments, but it has also felled them. Ironically, this very weekend, rumors began to spread about trouble brewing at Disney-owned Marvel Studios. If the Mouse House can fell young superheroes, what chance does a octogenarian archaeologist have?

The quality of such a project might be in doubt, but we (and they) should always be willing to give a great team a chance, and let them do their thing. For studio executives, their philosophy is that “anything is profitable.” But Spielberg, in his varied and intriguing career, has proven his own artistic philosophy time and again. Anything goes.


Neighbors (2014)

Neighbors-Movie-TrailerDirected by Nicholas Stoller. Written by Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien. Produced by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver. Music by Michael Andrews. Photographed by Brandon Trost. Edited by Zene Baker. Production designed by Julie Berghoff. Starring Seth Rogen (Mac Radner), Zac Efron (Teddy Sanders), Rose Byrne (Kelly Radner), Dave Franco (Pete), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Scoonie), Ike Barinholtz (Jimmy), Carla Gallo (Paula).

One of the pleasures of the movies is that it allows us to watch actors change. They test themselves, they evolve, or they just plain get older and fit more comfortably into ensembles.  In Neighbors, Seth Rogen plays a new dad who starts a war with the frat house that moves in next door, which is shocking because it feels like only yesterday Rogen was at an age where he would play the college student, not a parent. Instead, the frat boys are led by Zac Efron, who seems like he should still be a little kid, although in actuality he is 26, and older than most (not all) frat brothers. So it goes.

To be fair, Mac Radner (Rogen) and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) don’t want to be thought of as old, either. When a frat moves in next door the couple warily introduce themselves to the impressively chiseled alpha male Teddy (Efron) and his sidekick, Pete (Dave Franco). They offer a bit of free pot, attempt to be cool, and try to be as polite as possible.  But they also don’t set solid boundaries, partying with them all night and then trying to ease back into responsibility the next evening; weighing the need to be either liked or respected, they end up miscalculating on both. Eventually the two camps become enemies, leading to an escalating series of raunchy, brutal pranks.

That’s the premise of this hybrid of campus and suburban comedy, which views both sides of the conflict even-handedly. For Mac and Kelly, their new neighbors are a constant reminder of the party-hard, zero-responsibility lives they had to give up by settling down. An early sequence has them getting ready for a night out with the baby, and the preparations bog them down into exhaustion before they even get out the door. For Teddy and company, the Radners represent the scary future, and although Pete has the wisdom to see beyond college, Teddy lives in the now. Like the heroes of Animal House, campus life is all he has and he clings to it fiercely. This adds a surprising amount of heart, even to an ending with involves Rogen and Efron battling with…well, let’s not go there.

This is a frequently funny (and very dirty) comedy, although not necessarily a great one. It’s not wall-to-wall hilarious moments, but it’s never far from one. Some sequences are misfires (a comic breastfeeding scene with Byrne is memorable for all the wrong reasons), some of the riffing goes on too long within scenes and kills momentum, and other moments are tasteless but redeemed by perfectly delivered punchlines, such as a visit to the ER where the couple meets an unhelpful doctor (Jason Mantzoukas) whose single line gets one of the film’s biggest laughs. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really great: Byrne and Rogen’s strategizing on how to destroy a frat party from the inside, Efron narrating a history of fraternity milestones, lots of jokes playing off of Efron’s impressive physique (and Rogen’s…not-so-impressive physique), plus two scenes stolen by the inimitable Lisa Kudrow as the college dean. There’s also priceless one-liners, my favorite being Pete’s angry protest at Teddy giving him the brush-off (“Why does everyone keep forgetting I’m a psychology minor?”)

The Rogen school of comedies have typically been heartfelt, but here it’s interesting to see him now taking dad roles, nostalgic for the past or no. He and Byrne make a splendid team, with the latter flexing her comic muscles with zeal (and using her native Australian accent in a movie, for once), although Stoller seems unwilling to always recognize her for the MVP that she is–I guarantee there’s a lot of really funny Byrne improv on the cutting room floor. Franco, for his part, nails the feeling of a college kid who’s a bit brighter than his friend circle, and worries that he’s slowly outgrowing them.

The real surprise, though, is Zac Efron: formerly a Disney channel star, he now graduates to basically being considered a legitimate actor, using a lot of craft and tight control to make Teddy into a very very specific bro. We feel kinda sorry for Teddy when all is said and done, and that adds poignancy on top the laughs (which are often huge). The director, Nicholas Stoller, previously made Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement, so he’s an old hand at making comedies that actually deliver a bit more than you expect. He also co-wrote Muppets Most Wanted, so, yes, he’s having a very eclectic year so far.

A word of warning: Neighbors is a very ribald comedy, with nothing left sacred. But if you’re willing to buy into that, it’s also a very likable one. Probably because they’re such nice kids. Yes, even the adults. B+

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

captain-america-2-photos-galleryMarvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures present a film directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo. Screenplay by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeeley. Based upon the Marvel comic book by Joe Simon, Jack Kirby. Produced by Kevin Feige. Music by Henry Jackman. Photographed by Trent Opaloch. Edited by Jeffrey Ford. Production designed by Peter Wenham. Starring Chris Evans (Captain America), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Sebastian Stan (Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill), Frank Grillo (Brock Rumlow), Emily VanCamp (Agent 13), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury).

It’s hard to think of a movie sequel – let alone a superhero sequel—that is so markedly different from its predecessor than Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The original 2011 Captain America: The First Avenger was an old-fashioned throwback to 1940’s era adventure films, and stayed true to the origin story of its titular hero, a soldier granted maximized bodily potential through the use of a super-serum. After surviving the icy arctic, emerging into the present day and enjoying a stopover in The Avengers, Cap is back in his own sequel, struggling to acclimate to the world that has changed around him. And if Captain America has one foot in the present and one still in the past, then so does this movie, which evokes the aura of a 1970’s Washington conspiracy thriller. Call it All the President’s Supermen.

Returning as Captain America (aka Steve Rodgers) is Chris Evans, square-jawed, stalwart and true, once again able to convey relentless idealism and integrity without coming across as a dweeb. His back-up team consists of the glowering Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the spy organization SHIELD,  and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who still has no superpowers–as far as I can tell–except for her lethal arms, lithesome figure and smoker’s rasp. New to the fray this time out is Falcon (Anthony Mackie), a veteran paratrooper who makes use of a winged exoskeleton and computer graphics to fly the skies. The rest of the Avengers are no-shows, but passing references to Iron Man and so on provide nice little indicators of a larger world—each new Marvel movie is like a party at a different person’s house, where someone familiar may stop by for a drink, or at the very least will call to say they can’t make it.

Picking up a thread from The Avengers, the plot this time around involves Captain America’s optimism directly butting heads with SHIELD’s penchant for draconian solutions and shiftiness. There’s a line between efficient compartmentalization of secrets and trusting your compatriots, and Cap and Fury stand on opposite sides of it. SHIELD’s latest project is a state-of-the-art information-gathering network that, once deployed, will invade the privacy of millions of people—and keep the world “safe,” of course. The primary SHIELD proponent of this plan is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who is stern and shadowy. The casting of Redford, in addition to recalling the lean socially-minded thrillers of his own past, makes a subtle point about how eventually all rebels, if they live long enough, become the establishment.

A crisis happens. Soon an assassin targets Nick Fury, and Cap is plunged into a world of paranoia and fear. Who is working for whom, and why? He himself comes under suspicion for refusing to release trusted information (he has reasons). He becomes a fugitive from SHIELD, which puts him straight into the path of The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a masked killer with a cyborg arm, about whom I cannot safely say very much else. Does he have obscure roots in Captain America history? Is he a force for Hydra, the presumed-dead Nazi organization that was once the bane of Cap’s existence? Has Hydra possibly infiltrated SHIELD? It’s certainly possible.

What is also possible is to welcome every new Marvel movie with a smile rather than a groan of monotony. The Winter Soldier is the ninth in the line of Marvel studios movies that feature their interconnected properties, and this one expertly balances forward plot motion with better-than-average character development. It makes choices with big repercussions, dotes on serious issues, and makes a statement or two. And it still covers that core with a tasty action movie shell: the apocalyptic finale is done with considerable skill, not because the special effects are good (although they most of the time are) but because the stakes stay concurrently grand and intimate. Cap and his compatriots fight for security and freedom and personal values, and the characters are so strongly drawn that these feel like real issues they grapple with, not abstract concepts designed to fuel mindless action.

What makes the growing Marvel Movie Universe work is that it is a choir made up of distinct voices. There’s no mistaking the glib utilitarianism of Iron Man with the Shakespearean theatrics of Thor, and so on. And although they will occasionally unite for an overwhelming chorus, their solo acts are valuable in and of themselves. Credit to that goes to the complex vision that Marvel Studios has been forwarding since 2008 – one that treasures its characters and strives to give them each their due. For the third time in a row now, they have resisted the undeniable temptation to turn Captain America into some sort of campy goof, and they honor the Marvel tradition of good stories, told with conviction and craftsmanship. There’s a decision, for example, made late during this movie that could only—only–be made by Captain America, and we love him for it.

By now, the actors inhabit these roles like a pair of comfortable shoes. Evans is this sub-franchise’s secret weapon: he can play cocky, but here he purges any insincerity without dialing down. His Captain America is good-hearted, just and lovable; he slips through our ironic defenses in an age when that is seldom allowed. Johansson succeeds at increasing both her confidence and vulnerability each time out; the way she and Cap needle and toy with each other is like a brother/sister pairing, give or take decades of (technical) age difference. Jackson has proved that he has now joined the ranks of actors who can steal scenes just by appearing in them, although he does meet his match with Redford, who is the invaluable elder statesman of that particular group.

Behind the camera, Joe and Anthony Russo have stepped in to replace Joe Johnston as director. The Russo brothers are television veterans with ambition, and they make their first feature film a stylish and confident job well done, staging elaborate sequences in an urban jungle of highways, skyscrapers, elevators and rooftops. While the cinematography occasionally toes the line of messiness that has flavored most post-Bourne action movies, the fight choreography, when we see it, is terrific. While many superheroes have long lists of abilities, Cap’s bread and butter are simply agility, reflexes and strength…well, that and his incredibly versatile shield, of course. This means the fistfights, martial arts sequences and discharges of weapons fire must have weight and might, because those things don’t bounce off of him.

As I was watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it occurred to me that we’ve come a long way since Superman (1978) broke ground on the comic book movie. Once a genre with limited prospects, it has evolved now into a platform from which one can launch multiple genres: coming-of-age story, urban crime, pulp fiction, psychological horror, domestic drama, comedy, and now the conspiracy thriller. And it works. As if proving the point, Marvel’s next movie is designed to be a go-for-broke old fashioned space opera.  And then, what next? Maybe they’ll try a musical. B+

Noah (2014)

noah_02035851_st_5_s-highDirected by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Aronofsky, Ari Handel. Produced by Aronofsky, Scott Franklin, Arnon Milchan, Mary Parent. Music by Clint Mansell. Photographed by Matthew Libatique. Edited by Andrew Weisblum. Production designed by Mark Friedberg. Starring Russell Crowe (Noah), Jennifer Connelly (Naameh), Ray Winstone (Tubal Cain), Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah), Emma Watson (Ila), Logan Lerman (Ham), Douglas Booth (Shem), Nick Nolte (voice of Samyaza), Frank Langella (voice of Azazel).

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is that rarest of things.  No, not just a multimillion dollar epic built out of sensitive subject matter. And no, not simply one of those handled by a great filmmaker. No, not even just one of those projects that is those things and yet perfectly and specifically reflects the pursuits of that artist. No, it’s rarer than all of that: a biblical epic of massive scale that is…get this: a real movie. Not content to be a lazy retelling of an old story (see this year’s shameless cash grab Son of God) or even anything resemblind a crowd pleaser, Aronofsky’s new film is maddening, bizarre, rough, brutal, thrilling and intelligent, especially in the way it challenges and provokes. And it’s the work of an auteur who is grappling heroically with the essence of his material, and with the tenets of his own faith. This is maybe the most personal and ambitious motion picture about religion since The Last Temptation of Christ.

Granted, this one comes from thinner source material. The biblical story of the flood is maybe four pages long, and Aronofsky, to his credit, has reimagined it by thinking laterally, pulling from works outside the Hebrew canon, and following  the principles of midrash, a philosophy that values the experiential over the tangible. To argue the historical “facts” of the biblical story of Noah is, in Aronofsky’s view, beside the point, and beside the movie. He uses the mechanics of a fable and the cinematic language of the adventure film to tell a grand-yet-circumspect story about survival and sacrifice, impossible choices and brutal tests of character, the relationship between righteousness and monomania, the wickedness of all men and the goodness buried inside the best of them. How refreshing to see a $125 million dollar epic that’s actually about something, by the way.

Sunday school versions lingering of the flood story tend to emphasize the picaresque, pop-up book components of the story, showcasing a family captaining a boatload of animals. These iterations tend to step nimbly over the context of these images, which is, after all, an apocalypse brought on by irredeemable sin. One of Aronofsky’s aims, it appears, is to not let us off so easy. He plants us in a bronze age fantasy world that has reached its societal nadir. He shows a wasteland dually raped by industrialism and evil men, where rock monsters called watchers (Nick Nolte, Frank Langella) roam the countryside and claim to be the encrusted, worldly forms of fallen angels. It’s a place where Noah (Russell Crowe), son of Seth, tries to cultivate the land and his family, equally in vain, as both of those things are dying (the film’s pro-environment message is severe). And it’s a world where all evil is personified by the barbarian king Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone), waging war against the sons of Seth in a series of bloody, muddy conflicts.

Crowe, as it turns out, is perfectly suited to playing Aronofsky’s take on Noah, because he combines his traditional world-weariness with a frightening tunnel vision. He receives flashes of an upcoming reckoning from The Creator–He is never called God in the film, which will annoy the easily annoyed. Noah cannot process these insights, and must go to the mystic hermit Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), his grandfather, for help. He intuits evidence of an oncoming flood and presupposes that the reasoning behind it is God’s displeasure with mankind. He is helped in building his ark by the rock men watchers, who identify themselves as fallen angels who fled heaven to help man, were absorbed by the earth, and were since abandoned by the Creator. Now why would He do that? Indeed.

Noah’s wife (Jennifer Connelly) and children uneasily support him in his goal, and years pass as the ark exits construction phase. Soon the animals are summoned (two of each, naturally) and subdued into the ship’s massive cargo hold by magic incense.  By then, Noah’s adopted daughter Illa has turned into Emma Watson, and she’s married to his son, Shem (Douglas Booth), not that this matters so much, as she is regrettably barren. But both are still better off than Noah’s second son, Ham (Logan Lerman) who has no wife and his prospects of getting one before the end of days are not good. Ham is crucial to Aronofsky’s re-conceptualization of this story as an allegory; he symbolizes man’s ability to fall into the depths of jealousy, lust and betrayal. Ham falls under the sway of the odious Tubal Cain, who leads an all-out assault on the ark, which is interrupted by torrents of rain and water that horrifically wash away humanity’s dregs: the term “wrath of God” has never been dramatized with more power.

It must be said, though: this is absolutely Aronfosky’s take on the material. It may not be yours. Did I mention the rock monsters? No, I’m still not kidding. Certainly, Noah reflects no interpretation of the story I’ve ever been exposed to (although it’s been a long time for me since Sunday school).  But Aronofsky’s attempt does not denigrate the material; it instead twists and stretches it in tantalizing ways. The director’s goal here is not to blasphemy but instead to take this story apart, put it back together, and see how it works. He doubles down on fantasy elements in order to set a proper filmic foundation for this story, allow it to breathe, and figure out what it means, and why it matters. He invents his story out of whole cloth, with the utmost sincerity.

In the past, Aronofsky has specialized in characters who walk a tightrope of sanity above a gaping abyss. This is true here, too, as Noah has been recast from being an antideluvian Dr. Doolittle to instead being a man tortured by unbearable, momentous purpose that is challenging to decode. God’s voice comes not as a booming baritone but instead as simple, bracing images that cause frightening implications.

The problem with taking visions directly from God (or “The Creator”) is that you begin to internalize what you think is their intent: while Noah sees the value in washing away the filth and restarting a new paradise, he begins to wonder if any part of humankind is part of that bargain, including his own family.  He terrorizes his loved ones with a growing fatalism. In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, the family spends the first night of the ark listening to wails of the dying echo through the ship’s walls, and Noah is quick and stern to underline that they are not to be saved. His plan for when they find dry land is not at all propagation of the species, but rather its death rattle under guise of a retirement package. He also fails to realize that a screenwriter would never introduce a barren woman into act one of a story like this unless…well, you know. This causes complications.

What kind of man would do all this? Certainly he is asked by his family, but his newfound identity as God’s instrument provides little solace, to him or them. He is like Michael Shannon’s confused husband in Take Shelter: so surrendered to an invisible mystery that he has perhaps lost all sense of humanly reason. But what is humanity, anyway? If something has the capacity for evil, is it worth saving? If a person sacrifices decency at the altar of righteousness, is that deserving of respect? There are no easy answers in Noah’s universe: our nominal hero finds himself easily capable of terrible acts, and we are reminded how easy it can be to confuse a lack of self-doubt with strength. Meanwhile Tubal Cain tutors the fallen Ham in dialogue scenes that have a dark, seductive poetry.

What I like so much about Aronfosky’s film resides in this third act, and the way he pumps up his story while still avoiding the waters of overwrought melodrama. He’s more interested by the elemental, the metaphysical, and the awkward relationship those have with the humanistic. Has a man who has aided the workings of an apocalypse turned his back on his own race? If Noah has truly been touched by God, does he owe it to Him to follow that being’s impenetrable logic? If he has gone crazy (there is that possibility), what kind of God would allow that? What type of mercy or justice can flourish in a new world borne out of genocide? In bringing his own creation to the screen, Aronfosky has crafted a screenplay where himself, Noah, and the offscreen God cycle through each other’s perceived philosophies. Halfway through, Aronofsky pauses for a retelling of the creation story, one that bridges the gap between science and creationism with gorgeous visuals that imply the big bang and evolution, and handle the subsequent expulsion from paradise with stark mystery. This might be the bravest sequence in the entire movie.

Like his other films, Aronofsky makes no small plans here, and he swings for the fence. He uses the opportunity of a well-known story to tackle universal themes, and he embraces them with an artist’s zeal. The film is also technically beautiful, marrying the grim and the lovely, CGI and practical effects, film and digital. Noah’s ark, for once, has weight and form and makes architectural sense. But the most impressive effects are probably the watchers, who have acrobatic body language conveying a clunky physicality, while still suggesting a buried grace. And unlike many directors with their eyes on hugeness, Aronofsky knows how to handle actors: notice the way that Watson, with her tremendous eyes and her own precious cargo, becomes the heart and soul of the whole film, and how confidently Aronofsky keeps that from us until just the right time.

Noah is a movie that will certainly anger some, especially those who reserve the right to take offense when someone else’s spiritual experience does not strictly match their own. It has already been attacked in some circles by those who have not screened it, which is convenient for them. These are people who prefer groupthink to discussion; boy, they must throw boring parties. If you like faith-based movies that simply tell you what you like to hear, then do not go see it. But I think for the devout, atheists and agnostics alike (I’m of the third category), Noah is exhilarating: an adventure story that includes elements of severe psychological horror, in a package that just slightly touches the infinite. At the very least, it will leave you with lots to talk about.

There is something exquisitely courageous in Noah’s makeup – it asks big questions and finds communion with us in its inability to find definitive answers. My own take on the flood story is that it is a fiction designed to bring the reader closer to a subjective truth, and that’s what Aronofsky has done, only sharing it with all of us. What a generous creator he is. A

Divergent (2014)

divergentDirected by Neil Burger. Screenplay by Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor. Based on the novel by Veronica Roth. Produced by Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shabazian, Douglas Wick. Music by Junkie XL. Photographed by Alwin H. Küchler. Edited by Richard Francis-Bruce, Nancy Richardson. Production designed by Andy Nicholson. Starring Shailene Woodley (Tris), Theo James (Four), Ashley Judd (Natalie), Jai Courtney (Eric), Ray Stevenson (Marcus), Zoë Kravitz (Christina), Miles Teller (Peter), Tony Goldwyn (Andrew), Ansel Elgort (Caleb), Maggie Q (Tori), Mekhi Phifer (Max), Kate Winslet (Jeanine).

Many sci-fi films have taken place amid dystopias, but Divergent is the first one to predict the downfall of the Myers-Briggs personality test. It posits a future world where society (or at least Chicago) is divided into five factions, each one built around a psychological trait. At its center is a plucky heroine, Beatrice, who is special. Of course she is. She is a divergent, which means she doesn’t fit into the classes, but she tries to fake it. She also becomes a key figure in a political revolution that depends upon certain people’s character, or lack of it. The movie is based on a young adult novel by Veronica Roth, but those who have not read it may still feel that this story sounds very familiar.

The classes are as follows. There are the Abnegations, who are politicians. There are the Erudite, the learned and logicians. Amity is the class for pacifists and farmers. Dauntless is for the brave soldiers.  And then there is Candor—they tell the truth and nothing but. In this world, when one comes of age they take a psychological test that advises their faction, and once selected, they stick to it with fanatical loyalty. Otherwise they are cast out and become homeless. There are even stereotypes for each group. When a lab technician sees an Abnegation admiring herself in a mirror, she remarks: “What is it with Abnegations and mirrors?” I know, right?! They’re the worst! But seriously, folks. Some of my best friends are Abnegations.

The movie stars Shailene Woodley in what is a bit of a coming of age for both her character and for her as an actress. Seen before in sparkling supporting roles (see her troubled daughter to George Clooney in The Descendants and her lovestruck innocent teen in The Spectacular Now), Divergent marks her entrance to the big time, just as soon as she completes the young adult adaptation/superhero movie decathlon that so many young actors must partake in these days in order to graduate to better things. She does an admirable job in Divergent, playing an Abnegation named Beatrice who is shocked to reveal her personality test is inconclusive; in defiance, she joins up with the Dauntless class and changes her name to Tris. (This may be a pun, as she is a girl who definitely refuses to “Bea.”) These choices slightly concern her brother (Ansel Elgort) and parents (Ashley Judd, Ray Stevenson), either because she’s turned her back on the family class, or possibly because with the Dauntless she may wind up dead. The second possibility is, I suppose, reasonable.

These Dauntless (Dauntlesses?), they’re quite the cut ups. For being the state-ordained army, they are shockingly not well funded. They run around the city like extras in a West Side Story revue, hitching rides on phantom el trains that apparently have no other passengers. They then disembark in places not designed as rail stations, if you get my meaning. When they’re not doing that, they’re staging capture the flag scenarios under the free reign of the city they apparently enjoy, and their home is a series of abandoned warehouses and tunnels where they can stage mini fight clubs. Their crowded, slapped-together mess hall would make Dickens proud. Dauntlesses (Dauntlessi?)  are vaunted for their bravery, but they seem to encompass all sorts of alternate lifestyles, which means they’re like an inoffensive mix of punk brats and Bjork fans. (Warning, parents: “Let’s all get tattoos!” is a line in the movie, and it’s one that is followed up on.)

To be divergent is to live in secrecy and fear. That’s how a lot of teens feel, of course, but here the stakes are very high indeed. To be divergent means you’re immune to the constant indoctrination and brainwashing that the factions employ, and there are methods constantly used to smoke out impostors. You also have to master multiple virtual reality tests where you have to confront your fears, and although divergent brains have built-in cheat codes for these games, that makes them all the more suspicious. Soon Tris is under the nose of Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), an Erudite who is engineering a coup against the ruling class of Abegnates. As a rather tortured allegory for the choices teens make as they grow up and attempt to self-identify, this will do, I guess.

At this point I gotta wonder, though. Is this really a workable caste system for a civilization? Doesn’t a farmer require basic understanding of science to raise crops? Are soldiers not allowed to tell the truth? Are politicians not expected to be brave and honest? (Actually, strike that, that one makes sense.) The movie has an answer for why some of these class distinctions are upheld (some are mind controlled), but lobbying to institute them in the first place must have been an uphill battle, one that’s not even hinted at. Where’s that story? It’s possible that we’ll get our answers in the already-in-production sequels, projects that all-too-clearly exist in the screenplay’s mind. During a visit to the wall surrounding Chicago, one character asks “What’s out there?” and never gets a satisfactory answer, like this is a round-robin or a Lost episode. Sorry, folks, we can’t reveal it. Maybe next season.

What we have here in Divergent is a dubious framework to hang a speculative fiction story, but then so many of them are. I love movies and I love sci-fi, which means I am blessed with disbelief that is waiting to be suspended. I smiled at the voice-over narration that sets up the story with economy and speed. I liked the little touches of production design like the spare, squarish homes that house Abnegates. I was on board with Divergent even while it was ticking through dystopic young adult clichés.

I started to tune out, however, when I realized it was never really going to stop. Divergent is completely made of bits and pieces of better stories, and although it is reasonably polished, it never shakes that hand-me-down feeling. It evokes the fascism and brain manipulation of Hunger Games and 1984, swipes the wall from Game of Thrones, and its intelligent and spunky heroine recalls practically everything but Twilight. It throws in a typical romance that is admirably understated and triangle-free: the moment where she admires the tattoos on the bare back of Four (Theo James) is as hot as it gets.  Also, there’s a dash of Logan’s Run in that so few of the characters are over 30. Even fewer if you don’t count bad guys.

On some level, this all more or less works. But it still feels empty and perfunctory. Unlike its heroine, Divergent never transcends its own self-imposed classification; it pretty much stays on the level of a YA-inspired potboiler throughout. Tris is ably played by Woodley, but her character is murky and ill-defined, which is undoubtedly the point but it doesn’t make her interesting. The film is handsomely mounted by director Neil Burger (The Illusionist), but it feels uneasy in the way it marries this bleak material to a PG-13 rating (and audience). The film’s climactic armed revolution, for example, is so whitewashed and ideologically soft that it plays like someone’s synopsis of an uprising, not an actual one. That’s probably due to the Winslet character being so underwritten—what exactly is the motivation of a woman who wants to stamp out all free will everywhere? The movie doesn’t answer. Because it’s not about her, conveniently.

It is the curious mark of a teenager to think thoughts and then immediately believe no one has ever thought of them before. In Divergent that includes the notions of armed revolution and active rejection of the five-class system as opposed to passive acceptance. It is helpful for the story that Tris is the one to innovate these concepts, because otherwise someone else would be the hero, and that would not do. The structure of Divergent is a closed system, one that purposefully resonates with a teen’s needs to be seen as both smarter and more misunderstood than anyone else. In actuality, the smartest teens know they still have much learning to do. And to be sure, Hollywood understands teeangers very very well. That’s how movies like Divergent get made, don’t you know. B-