Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review: "Unfriended"

Though it's not quite the game-changer that "The Blair Witch Project" was, "Unfriended" is an innovative and bold twist on the horror genre. The entirety of it takes place through the computer screens of six teens communicating with each other via Skype, Facebook, IM, Google searches and so on.

They're being hounded by an Internet troll, who claims to be their friend Laura Barns -- which is impossible, because she killed herself a year ago after being harassed online. But this unknown entity, which calls itself "billie227," invades their video chat room, seemingly takes control of their computers, and threatens to start killing them one by one if they log off.

If you think this may not seem like enough narrative to sustain a feature film -- even one that barely crosses the 80-minute mark -- then you'd be dead wrong.

Director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves cleverly layer in additional story elements as time goes on and the threat level increases, along with the body count. It borrows liberally from classic horror tropes -- such as the virginal "nice girl" as the main character -- while burrowing itself deeply into the instant-everything culture of today's teenagers.

Their computers, smartphones and ear buds are not just tools; they're biometric accessories they rely upon to augment and enhance their interaction with the world at large (even when they never leave their rooms).

The idea of the "ghost" haunting the characters translates easily to the anonymity of the Web, where people feel free to treat each other in a loathsome fashion because of the remove from their intended victims. The characters are represented through thumbnail video boxes transmitting from their webcams (which change in size and position to reflect who is currently the main focus).

Shelley Hennig is Blaire, the heroine. The movie opens with her flirting with her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), doing a tame striptease and promising to consummate their relationship on prom night. Their friends join the video chat just in time to break it up ...along with a mysterious hanger-on.

Adam (Will Peltz) is the headstrong one of the bunch, quick with an insult and our prime suspect as the person who posted the embarrassing video of a drunken Laura that pushed her to commit suicide. Val (Courtney Halverson) is the rich snob whom the others just tolerate. Jess (Renee Olstead) is the party girl who's not as tough as she projects. Ken (Jacob Wysocki) is the tech nerd who we suspect helps the more popular kids with their homework.

If most of the cast members look like they're closer to 30 than high school algebra classes, that's because they are. Hollywood loves to make movies about teenagers, but pathologically shuns the real acne-and-awkwardness of those years. So actors in their mid- to late-twenties get the job. (Hennig is the most convincing of the bunch.)

Things go from there, with billie227 quickly offing one of the kids to prove its power, then forcing the rest to play a revolving game of "Never Did I Ever." They're forced to reveal the horrible things they've done online and to each other. It seems these seemingly normal upper-middle-class kids are capable of great cruelty and selfishness.

And that, perhaps, is the hidden subtext behind "Unfriended" -- the banality of inhumanity we all experience, or contribute to, whenever we log onto a computer or mobile device these days. We have seen the face of evil, and it is a reflection of ourselves that reverberates through a million virtual connections.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Review: "True Story"

A man sits in a dusty tent in a foreign land, taking notes. He's asking some teen boys about awful experiences they've been through via an interpreter. We've seen this movie before: he's obviously a journalist, doing important work, and we know it's just a matter of time before we hear the words "New York Times" or "Washington Post." (It's the Times.)

One of the boys is reluctant to divulge. The man says you can trust me. More hesitation. So the journalist coolly flashes a $100 bill, neatly folded between his fingers. The interview concludes, the money changes hands, a terrific story later appears on the cover of...

...wait, what?!?

I would hope that most people would know that paying sources to talk is a big journalistic no-no. So obviously something's not right with this guy, Michael Finkel, played by Jonah Hill. We're not surprised when, a few minutes later into "True Story," he's fired for fudging the facts. Disgraced, shunned by colleagues, he retreats to his Montana hometown.

The problem is, the filmmakers want us to like this guy. Or, at least, identify with him. "True Story" is supposed to be the tale of a guy who reaches rock bottom and then pulls himself back to the top with the story of a lifetime. Instead, Finkel remains a moon-faced mystery, a guy who never fully confronts the depth of his deceptions.

If Finkel is a puzzle, then Christian Longo is a total enigma. He's the big story Finkel is after: a seemingly normal man who is accused of murdering his wife and three young children. His tale wouldn't even be known if it weren't for one thing: while on the lam, he sometimes used the alias of Mike Finkel of the New York Times.

The real Finkel is intrigued to know why Longo impersonated him, and reaches out to him in prison. "I was wondering if you could tell me what it's like to be me," he writes. The men meet. Longo is cryptic, but offers his story, exclusively. Finkel sees a shot at redemption and a big payday.

Things go on from there, with the two forming a quick bond with deep undercurrents of mistrust. Is Finkel repeating his mistakes, trying to mold the facts to fit the killer story he's pitched to book publishers? Is Longo a manipulative fabulist exploiting the reporter for his own ends?

This sounds more interesting than it actually is. Director Rupert Goold, who co-wrote the script with David Kajganich, wants to give us a mix of "Shattered Glass" and "In Cold Blood," a probing tale about the intersection of crime, truth and justice.

Instead, it turns into a rather dull succession of scenes in which Hill and Franco spar listlessly across a bare table in the prison interview room.

Hill, I think, is a promising young actor whose head has been swelled by a couple of Oscar nominations he clearly didn't deserve. He hasn't developed enough nuance in his screen presence to carry a dramatic picture. His Finkel comes across as a disaffected dope. Franco is better, snaky and sharp, but it sometimes feels like he's smirking at the camera.

Felicity Jones plays Finkel's wife, whom he uses as a financial and emotional reservoir to sponge off of. In lesser hands this sort of role turns into a thankless, dreary distraction -- and these filmmakers' hands are lesser.

There are the bones of a good story in "True Story," but the movie is content to take us to places we've already been to before. For instance, it never satisfactorily answers the question behind the main premise: why did Longo impersonate Finkel? 

The only thing more disappointing than sloppy storytelling is the lazy kind.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Reeling Backward: "My Life As a Dog" (1985)

"My Life As a Dog" is one of my personal touchstone films. It was one of the first foreign language movies I saw that seemed vibrant and alive, and so tantalizingly different from the standard, safe Hollywood fare of the mid-1980s.

It's not an exaggeration to say this film played a key part in my educational and career choices. Were it not for Lasse Hallström & Co., you might very well not be reading this.

"Dog" was one of the rare films not to be nominated for an Academy Award for foreign language film but receive Oscar nods in other major categories, director and adapted screenplay. Interestingly, although the film was released in its native Sweden in 1985, it didn't make it to the U.S. and U.K. until 1987, thus making it eligible for the Oscars given out in 1988.

The prestige the movie garnered allowed Hallström to segue to English-language filmmaking, where he has more or less resided ever since, producing films magical ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape"), lavishly overpraised ("The Cider House Rules") and criminally underrated ("The Shipping News").

Not bad for a guy who started out as the pet music video director for ABBA.

Watching it again for the first time in a long time, I was struck to learn that "My Life As a Dog" is based on the middle of a trio of autobiographical novels by Reidar Jönsson. That probably shouldn't have been a surprise, as the film undulates with the rhythms of real life, rather than trying to conform to a pat three-act narrative. It has a confident authenticity absent of any big show-me moments.

My memory was that the main character, Ingemar, was a very young Swedish boy, but the character is actually supposed to be 12, as he deals with the pending pressures of pubescence. Part of that's the sheer apple-cheeked nature of actor Anton Glanzelius, who was 11 when the film was made but looked closer to 7.

The story, which starts in 1958, is mostly about Ingemar's relationship with his mother, or, more accurately, his anguish over the emotional and physical abandonment he feels. His mom (Anki Lidén) is dying of tuberculosis, though the boy is in pathological denial about this. But even when she's well, she's not a particularly maternal figure, estranged from her husband and resentful of the way Ingemar and his older brother impinge on her poor health and book-reading.

The first image in the movie is a brief snippet of a summer vacation where Ingemar clowns around on the beach for his mother, who takes her nose out of her novel long enough to be delighted. It lasts only a few seconds, and is repeated several times during the movie, and thus becomes a totem of the boy's frustration about being pushed away by her.

Another recurring visual theme is a dreamy, staring shot into space with a million twinkling stars, which shows up for voiceover musings by Ingemar on a variety of topics. He's especially fixated on the fate of Laika, the Russian dog who was the first Earthling shot into space, only to die months later when her food supply ran out. Ingemar can't reconcile the fact that humans would deliberately send an animal to perish, even in the name of scientific exploration.

Again, this relates right back to his own gradual orphanhood from his mother. It's not just that some things must die, which even a child can understand, but that it was intended to die.

This also ties into the disposition of his own dog, Sickan, whom he is told is being put into a kennel when he and his brother are sent away for the summer while their mother recuperates in a sanitarium. There's a heartrending photo session of the boy and his dog posing together, amusingly resembling each other, helped by Ingemar's signature swoopy haircut.

Of course, the pet is being sent away just like the children, but on a more permanent basis.

 Interestingly, the tale Ingemar relates about Laika is actually inaccurate -- she died mere hours into her flight from heat exposure. The Soviets did disseminate a false tale about her demise, but it was that she was euthanized prior to her oxygen running out on day six. I'm sure Hallström and his fellow screenwriters, Per Berglund and Brasse Brännström, were aware of this.

But somehow, having the boy concoct his own faulty version of events and then obsess over the meaning of them only serves to make the character seem more accessible and immediate. At that age, emotional truth often prevails over strict adherence to facts.

Ingemar's summer is a completely magical experience in the pastoral province of Småland with his uncle Gunnar (Tomas von Brömssen), a carefree man-child who has a wife but no kids of his own, and works in a glass-blowing factory. The boy finds other children to play with, along with an interesting array of colorful local characters.

There's Fransson, the guy who is constantly hammering away at roof repairs, or Mr. Arvidsson, a dying old man who likes to have Ingemar read to  him from the lingerie catalog he keeps hidden under his mattress. He doesn't even look at the pictures, but enjoys the lad droning on about the new miracle fiber caressing the female form or whatnot.

There's a kid whose blond hair is tinged green from swimming in the chemical-laden ersatz pool his grandfather creates out of the factory machinery, along with a cable-fed "spaceship" whose final frontier is the cow-patty-laden field across the boulevard.

And we have Berit (Ing-Marie Carlsson), the blonde bombshell who is the object of lust by half the factory workers, especially Uncle Gunnar. When she poses nude for a local artist, and brings along Ingemar as a pint-sized chaperone and guardian of her virtue, it sends the town into a tizzy. He sees her as a combination replacement mother and receptacle of his own burgeoning curiosity in the fair gender.

Ingemar becomes best friends with Saga (Melinda Kinnaman), a girl his own age who has short hair and dresses as a boy so she can play on their football (soccer) team. It's funny because there doesn't appear to be any confusion in any of the townsfolk's minds about Saga's true gender. They all just feel compelled to go along with appearances so they don't lose their star player.

(Perhaps the ruse is intended for opposing teams.)

The relationship between the two children, the faintest beginnings of romance, is so incredibly tender and true. She feels compelled to express her affection for Ingemar via her tomboy identity, such as sparring in a barnyard boxing ring, each sharing one-half of a pair of gloves. They mostly just bump fists, though things get more heated as competitive zeal and hormone levels rise.

Saga complains about her budding breasts and how they will doom her athletic career, and enlists Ingemar in helping her tape them down. She even displays her nascent bosom to him, and the confusion on the boy's face is just priceless.

Ingemar returns home in the fall renewed with optimism, as if his positive experiences in the countryside will somehow rescue his mother's deteriorating situation. She soon passes away, without ever giving the boy any kind of sense of warmth toward him. He and his brother briefly go to live with his other uncle in the city, but Ingemar's jocular tomfoolery -- he's a born mimic and mime -- soon gets him banished.

He returns to Småland, but things have changed in winter. A Greek family has taken over most of Gunnar's house, so he has to sleep with peevish old Mrs. Arvidsson, now widowed. Fransson finally comes down off his roof, but not in a good way. The artist has become world-famous, but Berit is mortified by the sculpture he created from her naked form.

Saga is there, with more promise for both affection and conflict. When another girl makes flirtatious moves toward Ingemar, Saga is incensed but, with typical adolescent projection, directs her anger at him rather than the interloper. Having finally accepted the reality of the death of his only parent and dog, her rejection is the final blow.

"My Life As a Dog" ends on somewhat hopeful note, with the coming of spring and a renewed acceptance of everyone's roles. Ingemar finally seems ready to let go of his stubborn hold on childishness and begin the journey toward manhood. Saga starts wearing dresses and realizes that doing so won't deteriorate her identity.

Rather than a pat, happy Hollywood ending, however, this one is fulfilling not because everything ended the way it should, but because the characters evolved in a naturalistic way toward their ultimate, deserved harmony. This gem contains not a single false note.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Video review: "Big Eyes"

I’ve been hard on director Tim Burton for spending the last 15 years (mostly) cranking out soulless remakes of moldy intellectual property – “Alice in Wonderland,” “Planet of the Apes,” etc. He finally diverged to make “Big Eyes,” a low-budget original dramedy about an interesting historical curio.

The result was a funny/sad tale with some first-rate performances by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. The film got lost in the holiday shuffle and overlooked by the Academy Awards, but I urge you to give it another look on video.

It’s the true story of Margaret Keane (Adams), an artist whose paintings featuring waifs with enormous eyes became a huge commercial hit in the 1950s and ‘60s, appearing in ubiquitous reprints all over the country. Except it was her husband, a magnetic huckster named Walter (Waltz), who claimed credit for the work. He was a more established artist and better at selling himself.

Plus he convinced her that her paintings wouldn’t be taken seriously if people thought they were created by a woman. (Sadly, he was probably right, which doesn’t make his deception and bullying any more palatable.)

The story (screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) is about the rise and fall of their relationship, culminating in a real-life court battle in which the estranged spouses engaged in a paint-off before a judge.

Adams is sensitive and endearing as a weak-willed person who eventually finds her own inner voice. And Waltz is delightful as the charismatic, conniving Walter.

Sometimes it’s best to paint outside the lines.

Video extras are pretty disappointing. The DVD comes with a standard making-of featurette, and the blu-ray adds Q&A highlights with cast and crew.



Thursday, April 9, 2015

Review: "The Longest Ride"

Movies based on Nicholas Sparks books tend to be short on brainpower but long on emotional tug. "The Longest Yard" is the best one since "The Notebook," making up most of the yardage in smarts without sacrificing too much in the way of passion.

Like all Sparks flicks, it centers around a volatile relationship between two young people from different worlds. It also borrows the familiar technique of giving us a parallel story of another love from another time, with connections between the two growing stronger as the film goes on.

It stars Britt Robertson and Scott Eastwood as one couple in the current time, while Oona Chaplin and Jack Huston are the antique pair.

If some of those names sound familiar, that's because they are. Chaplin is the granddaughter of the great Charlie Chaplin, and Eastwood is the son of Clint Eastwood. (I thought Huston might be one of the Hollywood Hustons, John/Danny/Angelica, but no, he's a Brit.)

Overall it's a nice cast, with each couple sharing warm chemistry between them. It also features Alan Alda in the old man role, and he's quite effective in an understated way.

The story is this: Sophia (Robertson), smart art student from Wake Forest meets Carolina bull rider Luke (Eastwood). They fall hard for each other, but she's soon headed to New York to work at a gallery, while he's chasing the elusive championship after some very hard knocks. On the way home from a magical first date, they rescue Ira (Alda), an old man whose car has run off the road, along with a box of old letters.

While visiting Ira in the hospital, Sophia reads the letters to him, which chronicle the tale of his lifelong love, Ruth (Chaplin). Part of the close-knit Jewish community in Greensboro in the 1940s, they fell in love themselves and started a life together, but not without certain challenges and tragedies along the way. Huston takes over the role of Ira as a youngster.

"Love requires sacrifice -- always," says elder Ira, in the sort of movie where characters just blurt out its main theme.

In the case of Luke and Sophia, that means he must give up the ranch and cracking his skulls falling off bulls, and she has to shelve her dreams of curating great art, or both.

Robertson is a charismatic and likeable star. Her face looks like a cross between Lena Headey ("Game of Thrones") and Linda Hamilton, and she has the spunk of a young Reese Witherspoon about her. Eastwood is like a prettier version of his dad, and much of the early going involves both cowgirls and college girls growing woozy at the sight of him. His acting's a bit stiff in the talkie scenes, but again, just like pop.

The Chaplin/Huston pairing is even better, enhanced by spectacular period costumes, cars and sets. Director George Tillman Jr. ("Men of Honor") shows off Sparks' North Carolina backyard in all its sun-dappled gorgeousness. He even manages to capture the frenetic, bestial grace of bull riding -- though, like the quarter mile races in "The Fast and the Furious," those 8-second rides somehow get stretched out to a minute of screen time.

"The Longest Ride" is a big cinematic piece of caramel-covered melted cheese, unapologetically sweet and sappy. But it will cause warm swells in the heart and a tear or two to be shed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: "While We're Young"

Writer/director Noah Baumbach makes movies that often seem lightweight at first glance, even frivolous, but creep up on you with their hefty themes and cerebral contemplations.

The newest from the filmmaker behind “The Squid and the Whale” and “Frances Ha” is “While We’re Young,” about a married couple in their 40s (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who fear life has passed them by and want another shot at youthful liberation. They do so using another couple who are about 20 years younger as surrogates, befriending them and absorbing their carefree lifestyle.

“Young” is simultaneously very funny and very thoughtful. The movie is trenchantly observant about how we live today as individuals within a changing society, especially how evolutions in technology have affected the ways in which we communicate with each other and tell stories – for good or ill. (Mostly ill, in Baumbach’s take.)

Baumbach visited some of these same themes in “Greenberg,” which also starred Stiller as a Generation X guy trying to fit in with the Millennials, and looking poorer for the effort.

Josh (Stiller) is a formerly successful documentary filmmaker whose career has been swallowed by his latest project, 10 years in the making and not any closer to completion, or even coherence. It’s something about power in America, but not only is Josh incapable of summing it up in an elevator speech for potential financial backers, he couldn’t even do it if they took the stairs.

His wife Cornelia (Watts) is a producer for her father (Charles Grodin), a storied documentarian – think Pennebaker or Maysles -- who used to be Josh’s mentor until they diverged on aesthetics. Josh promotes the idea of the “personal documentary,” in which the filmmaker is an active participant in shaping a narrative.

Cornelia and Josh get along seemingly well. They’ve got their work, they don’t seem to want for money, and they have a small circle of acquaintances their own age. But there’s an undercurrent of regret there.

They have no children (after failed attempts years ago), and feel estranged from their closest friends, Marina and Fletcher (Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz, both terrific), who just had a baby that their lives now revolve around. And Cornelia sits in the middle of the schism between her husband and father.

Things change when they meet Jamie and Darby, played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. They’re 25-ish hipsters, married but otherwise seemingly untethered to adulthood. He’s an aspiring filmmaker who attends one of Josh’s classes, and she makes her own ice cream. In very short order the two couples have glommed onto each other, with Jamie seeking professional help from Josh and Cornelia finding emotional support from her counterpart.

This section contains quite a lot of laugh moments, such as Cornelia’s horror after being roped into her friend’s baby music class, or Josh pathetically copycatting Jamie’s slouchy fedora and vinyl obsession. There’s also a great scene in which they attend a New Age-y session where people drink ditch water to inspire hallucinations and purge the soul (and stomach). Stiller ponders dizzily, sounding like Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now.” And the shaman, who rides a hip Vespa, frets about his charges purging onto his carpet.

But things get more somber, and smarter, as time goes on. Jamie, played assuredly by Driver, proves to be a sly manipulator, affecting too-cool nonchalance while quietly directing events in his favor. Josh begins to resent his young pupil/guru and his film methodology, especially regarding a project about a disturbed Afghanistan veteran (Brady Corbet).

If the film has a weak spot, it’s that the female characters start out as full partners in the storytelling process and gently recede into the background. The movie becomes more and more focused on Jamie/Josh, with the Grodin character as the third leg.

My objection is a mild one, based not on political correctness but regret for missed opportunities for insight. At 97 minutes, this is the rare film these days that could stand to be longer.

In many ways, “While We’re Young” is Noah Baumbach’s most mature work to date. For a little while I thought the movie had simply forgotten to be funny, but it was deliberately morphing into a second half that is decidedly less jovial but inarguably more profound. Such is life, and moviemaking.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Video review: "A Most Violent Year"

Young writer/director J.C. Chandor made the wonderful but little-seen “Margin Call” in 2011, then followed it up with the virtually wordless “All Is Lost” starring Robert Redford, earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination for screenplay in the process.

After such a dazzling career start, I was expecting great things out of his third feature film, “A Most Violent Year.” But while most other critics found this 1980s crime-and-punishment drama worthy, I was put off by its circuitous plotting and unrealized themes.

Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, owner of a heating oil business serving the New York City area. It’s an industry rife with corruption, grudges, protection money and outright thievery, and nobody keeps their hands entirely clean – including Abel. He’s about to buy a fuel terminal that will give him a huge leg up, but challenges abound.

His trucks are being routinely hijacked and the oil stolen. Meanwhile, the local district attorney (David Oyelowo) is breathing down his neck with pending charges, which causes the financing for his big deal to teeter. And his Lady MacBeth-ish wife (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of an infamous mobster, chastises Abel for refusing to fight fire with fire.

It’s a whole lot of intriguing, disparate elements that never really solidify into a coherent whole. Abel is presented as reluctant to use violence to get what he wants, but as he is the only person in his realm who thinks this way, it makes him seem hopelessly naïve and impotent. The wife character, meanwhile, feels like an amalgam of other tough molls we’ve seen in film noir pictures over the years.

Chandor avoided the “sophomore slump” that often affects promising filmmakers on their second outing. But given the heights of his fledgling career, his third effort registers as a major disappointment.

“A Most Violent Year” is being released with solid video extras, starting with a feature-length commentary track by Chandor and two of producers. There are also three making-of featurettes focusing on production, the original concept for the film and a conversation with Isaac and Chastain. Plus, deleted scenes and outtakes.



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