Sunday, August 31, 2014

Review: "Starred Up"

Director: David Mackenzie
Runtime: 106 minutes

The last time David Mackenzie made a movie, he attracted two sizable names - Ewan McGregor and Eva Green - yet virtually no audience outside of festivals. That film was called Perfect Sense, and like all of Mackenzie's other films, it was divisive. Yet when Perfect Sense's odd blend of pandemic thriller and romance clicked, it truly soared. After two all-over-the-place acts, Mackenzie stuck the landing in the home stretch, particularly in the devastatingly beautiful final sequence. Perfect Sense could be a tin-eared, tone deaf mess, but there was something intriguing about the dedication on all fronts. 

Jump forward two years (or only one if you're in the UK), and Mackenzie has done a total 180. His new film, Starred Up, finds the fascinating director tackling the well-worn territory of the grimy prison drama. Working off of a script from Jonathan Asser, Mackenzie has made a film that ticks all of the gritty kitchen sink cinema boxes, down to the accents that will leave large portions of non-British English speakers leaning in to better decipher the dialogue. Starred Up is a turning point for Mackenzie as a director - as evidenced by the thus far unanimous acclaim for the film, but I find myself apprehensive about where his career will go from this point. Mackenzie has delivered what is both his most consistent film, and his least interesting. 

At the center of Starred Up is Eric (rising Irish star Jack O'Connell), a volatile young man who has just been transferred from a young offender institution to an adult prison. Though Eric doesn't immediately attract attention from other inmates, an unfortunate incident puts him on thin ice with the draconian prison staff, who give him an ultimatum: he must take a group therapy course led by Mr. Baumer (Homeland's Rupert Friend) without any more violations, or risk being sent to solitary confinement. Complicating matters is the guiding hand of fellow inmate Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who just happens to be Eric's estranged father.

To Mackenzie's credit, he has adapted to this more traditional narrative format quite well. He navigates the confined spaces of the prison well, never allowing the limited spaces to force him into visual repetition. Mackenzie's work with his cast is also quite effective, with O'Connell giving solid evidence that those "next big thing" labels may actually be justified. It's an enormously physical performance, relying on the actor's ability to snap into violent rage at any given moment, and O'Connell carries himself quite well through all of it. Mendelsohn, meanwhile, continues his streak of compelling portraits of morally dubious men, while Friend - despite not enough to do - brings a nice level of calm to his scenes. 

Yet even though Asser's script steers Mackenzie into relatively straightforward territory, it's also responsible for the rather shrug-worthy pieces that fit into Starred Up's whole. The story spends far too long getting Eric into Baumer's group, leaving barely any time for the group therapy scenes to amount to much of anything. While Asser's dialogue avoids overbearing profundities, it also never taps into the inner workings of its characters and their histories of violence. The development of Eric and Neville's father/son relationship is paced rather glacially, which keeps the harrowing final scenes from landing with their full impact. 

The script's stabs at tackling broader issues often suffer as well. In tiny doses, Starred Up tries to tackle the ideas of a broken prison system that spends no time trying to rehabilitate its inmates. It may have been an attempt at subtlety, but it feels like a giant missed opportunity. Friend does his best to sell Baumer's impassioned plea for actual support of the inmates' mental health, but the scene ultimately rings false. Rather than subtlety, it's an example of there being too little far too late. 

Mackenzie and his cast, at least, navigate through the slipshod story quite well, even when so many potentially compelling moments wind up dramatically inert. Starred Up tries to play the prison drama angle two different ways - gritty character piece and social commentary -  yet can't quite make either one connect. The film goes through the paces, often admirably, yet there's a noticeable lack of true tension or danger, even when the fists start flying. The most interesting part of it all may simply be wondering what attracted a man like David Mackenzie to something so unwaveringly mundane. 

Grade: B-/C+

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Review: "Love is Strange"

Director: Ira Sachs
Runtime: 94 minutes

These days, it's so rare for character actors like Alfred Molina and John Lithgow to get truly rewarding roles, let alone lead roles. That alone makes Ira Sachs' Love is Strange worth seeing, even though the writer/director's latest is a bit on the scatterbrained side. Sweet without being saccharine, this unfussy look at love under late-in-life stress is mostly a success thanks to Molina and Lithgow's lovely performances. 

Molina's George and Lithgow's Ben have been together for decades, though they've only just become married. In the opening scene, Sachs and his two leads beautifully capture a lived-in union that is still filled with love. The two get ready for their long-overdue wedding day while smiling through each other's little quirks. Yet not long after everything seems like it's been wrapped up with a bow does everything start to come undone. George loses his job at a private Catholic school once word of his marriage reaches the Archdiocese, which puts him and Ben in a difficult financial position. 

Eventually, the two are forced to live apart. George takes up residence on the couch of another, much younger, gay couple, while Ben moves in with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their son Joey (Charlie Tahan). Though their friends and family do the best to accommodate them, it doesn't take long before different lifestyles start to clash, in ways both funny and serious. 

Yet after such a wonderful introduction to his main characters, it's frustrating how Sachs handles the early stages of their separation. The basic tensions that are established make sense, yet the movement of the plot tends to be a bit jumbled. At times, Love is Strange almost forgets that it's about George and Ben as it tries to work in the lives of Elliot, Kate, and Joey. Burrows is often flat as Elliot, while the usually effortless Tomei is stuck in a role that never feels consistent or coherent. And even though young Mr. Tahan's final scenes are quite nice, for most of the film he's left to play the same bratty teenager notes over and over. 

The more Sachs tries to expand his vision to include more characters, the more the heart of Love is Strange starts to slip out of his grasp. This is only made worse by the often head-scratching use of various shots of Manhattan, which come off as either padding or a lazy way of trying to open the film up to some broader idea.

Where Love is Strange works best is when it gets down to dealing with George and Ben's independent lives. The less the film is concerned with their interactions with friends and family, the better the film is as a whole. Tellingly, the film's strongest scene involves a letter George writes to the parents of his former students, an angle that is sorely under-explored. 

Molina and Lithgow play off of each other so beautifully, and it's a shame to see them caught up in various subplots that get in the way of really delving deeper into their characters. The handful of scenes at the end show what Love is Strange could have been had its priorities been sharper. Instead, Molina and Lithgow spend too much time fighting for attention in a film that's supposed to be their stories. The two actors are good enough to shine through all of the clutter, but Sachs' film seems more determined to hinder rather than help. Love, as presented here, isn't strange at all. What's strange is Sachs' all-over-the-place narrative focus on what should be a straightforward, tender exploration of one couple's affection through dire setbacks. 

Grade: B-

Review: "Frank"

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Runtime: 95 minutes

Michael Fassbender's mask-wearing singer/composer may be the face (and title) of Lenny Abrahamson's Frank, but the film's story belongs to someone else. That someone is Jon Burroughs, played by fellow Irishman Domhnall Gleeson (son of Calvary star Brendan Gleeson). Though Gleeson is our entryway into Frank's world of off-kilter, underground musician, he emerges as the most fully-formed character. He is more than an audience surrogate, which is a huge plus considering the slightly cartoonish characterizations of everyone else who appears on screen in this mostly winning dark comedy. 

When we first meet Jon, he's doing his best to compose a song based on what he sees around him, yet nothing is coming together. There is no magical moment of inspiration that ever takes place throughout the rest of Abrahamson's film, which further grounds the story's stakes in the real world, despite the broad strokes used in defining many of the characters. This is no Behind the Music/rags to riches story. Like last year's excellent Inside Llewyn Davis, it's a story of simply trying to get by, in hopes that something great will be not too far off. 

So even though Jon is taken with Frank's very alternative take on indie rock, he understands that they have a lot of work to do to finish a first album. Secluded away in the Irish countryside, the young man starts to document the band's progress through every tedious step (it takes almost a year before proper recording even commences). Along the way, he has to contend with the band's financial struggles, along with resistance from a duo of French band mates and the stand-offish Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

And then there's Frank himself, who's his own riddle wrapped up in a mystery (etc...). No one has seen Frank without the bulbous fake head at all, and no one has any idea what the reason for wearing the piece might be. Still, even with his expressive face concealed, Fassbender lends a surprisingly playful air to this bizarro band leader. He is an extreme example of the tortured artist that no one truly understands, yet Fassbender keeps him in check, never making him too broad or "out there" to the point where he loses his humanity. Despite the odd looking head-gear, Frank, along with Jon, comes off as a believable presence. 

Unfortunately, this isn't true at all for the rest of the band's members. Gyllenhaal has a great deal of fun with her prickly role, but the script struggles to push past her surface behaviors. More often than not, she's used to punctuate a moment with dour sarcasm, leaving her little to do for herself. The mumbly French duo are given even less to work with. 

Thankfully, Gleeson holds the film together quite nicely, even as Frank starts to drag its feet in the final act. The writing often seems too caught up in the eccentricities of given moments, and in doing so, forget to really sharpen the arcs of its major players. Gleeson and Fassbender, however, at least have material with some semblance of substance to work with, even as they're forced to make due with a wobbly foundation.

So even though the majority of Frank works, it's still a film that lacks strong focus. The final scene is both charming and bleak, an unusual combination that somehow works. Yet afterwards, the film's intentions seem a bit muddled. There are a number of big, rich angles touched on, yet it's hard to say which one the film really put as its number one priority. Despite some nice performances and a nicely honed, dark sense of humor, Frank often feels more like a novel bit of eccentricity, rather than a fully-formed work. Like Frank's band, Abrahamson's film is clearly onto something, but it's desperately in need of a great deal of fine-tuning. 

Grade: B-

Monday, August 25, 2014

Review: "Abuse of Weakness"

Director: Catherine Breillat
Runtime: 105 minutes

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but that doesn't automatically make it more compelling. A story's basis in real events is not a get out of jail free card, no matter how personal the events are. This is a big part of why Catherine Breillat's Abuse of Weakness is often such a frustrating viewing experience. Taken from an incident in Breillat's own life, the film opens and closes magnificently, yet much of the middle is barren when it comes to insight or psychological tension. And much of the success of the beginning and end have less to do with Breillat's work than with the considerable skills of Isabelle Huppert, the film's star. 

The incident in question is a stroke that leaves sharp film director Maud (Huppert) partially paralyzed. Breillat's opening shot is beautiful in its composition and sinister in its content, and gets the film off to a fabulous start. As the camera glides over Maud's white sheets, we see movement, as if some sort of creature is crawling up her body. Moments later, we're met with the crushing realization that there is no one else. There are only the pained, twitchy movements of Maud's body as it seizes up and betrays her, leading to a devastating fall. 

From there Breillat takes us through expected territory, with Maud realizing what has happened, struggling to cope, and initially moving forward with her life, doing her best to control her half dead body. These scenes all provide magnificent room for Huppert to do what she does best: communicating psychological pain through her immensely expressive face. The viewer knows next to nothing about Maud during most of the hospital scenes, yet watching her fight against her body to try and learn how laugh again is still wrenching to behold. The added bonus here is the exhausting physical work the role requires of the actress. Her movements are strange, but they never come off as cheap ploys for sympathy. Up to this point, Abuse of Weakness seems like an austere, yet gripping character study and psychological drama. And then the actual plot kicks in. 

Determined to go back to work as soon as she can, Maud becomes fixated by the story of notorious con man Vilko (French rapper Kool Shen). Convicted of fraud, Vilko has recently completed his time in prison, and is now getting as much mileage as he can out of his story. For Maud, he (and only he, no actual actors) is the perfect subject for her next project, which she begins to tailor to Vilko's demeanor as much as possible. After mild hesitation, Vilko accepts her offer, yet insists on spending as much time with Maud before shooting (something she prefers not to do prior to actual production). 

It doesn't take too long before Vilko starts channeling Dirk Bogarde in The Servant, and becomes far too prominent in Maud's life (and, worse, her finances). Yet where Abuse of Weakness stalls is in its iffy character trajectories from this point on. Maud is obviously a keen observer of people, so it's understandable why she's drawn to Vilko as a person. But when she starts writing him checks for large sums of money, something rings false. Vilko doesn't enter her life as a deceptive wallflower. His coarseness is apparent from their first conversation. Why then does someone as astute as Maud fall prey to a figure like this, over and over again? 

The story's intrigue quickly dissipates once the checks start going into Vilko's pocket, and Abuse of Weakness never quite recovers from this big misstep. With Maud now left to simply listen to Vilko and spend time observing him, Huppert suddenly has little to work with other than her exaggerated physical work (barring one excellent scene at a beach-side cafe). The film's final scene lays out a compelling dilemma of identity and denial, yet it's a bit of a cop out given the film's sluggish mid-section. The tension between Maud and Vilko simply never amounts to much, because it's hard to believe that the former wouldn't see through the latter's manipulation almost immediately. By the time the situation escalates, and Vilko is sleeping at Maud's house, the film has completely run out of energy, yet plods along as though it was doing something other than giving us more of the same. 

When these events happened to Breillat, they must have been wrenching and fraught with emotional complexity. Yet in turning to this moment of her life as inspiration she has delivered a film that goes exactly where you know it's going to go from the moment everything is set up. After such promise, Abuse of Weakness merely goes through the motions without much of anything to offer making it neither a satisfying character study or low-key psychological drama. The captivating start all-too-quickly gives way to a rather flat "and then this happened, and then we did this, and...." method of storytelling that doesn't accomplish enough to give the layered finale any proper heft. Abuse of Weakness ultimately lives or dies by whether Huppert has engaging material to work with. The actress does her formidable best when she can, but those opportunities are few and far between. Sometimes, even the the most unflinchingly honest truths need more than just the facts. 

Grade: C

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Review: "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For"

Director(s): Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
Runtime: 102 minutes

The over-stylized, faux-noir alleys of Frank Miller's Sin City stories may be treacherous, but few of them compare with the journey that it took to get a sequel to 2005's Sin City to the big screen. On and off for years, a second adaptation of Miller's work was in a constant state of almost being off of the ground. Alas, nothing quite took, even with names like Johnny Depp and Rachel Weisz attached at different times (remember when those names actually piqued your interest?). Yet somehow, even after nearly a decade of waiting, the world of Sin City still holds a tiny bit of cinematic appeal. Co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller himself, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For may be running on fumes, but those fumes still hold a mindless, pulpy allure.

Functioning as both a prequel and sequel (kind of), A Dame to Kill For is as visually outlandish as its predecessor, even though the technique (monochrome with selective use of color) isn't even remotely fresh by this point. When Marv (an especially rough-looking Mickey Rourke) kicks off the movie with overwrought voiceover work, it's clear that no one here is aiming for the realm of high art. For all of its visual flourishes (some of them quite dazzling), Sin City is as crude and campy as its characters. At its best and worst, A Dame to Kill For embodies the spirit of its source material.

Yet even though nothing about the film feels fresh, the mix of old and new cast members are often able to make their mark amid all of the visual chaos. Josh Brolin, taking over Clive Owen's character from the original, makes a stoic hardboiled anti-hero, albeit without the sort of grimy, rakish charm that Owen brought to the role. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also quite solid as a cocksure young gambler, even though his best scenes find him facing off against meatier performances. Returning members Roarke and Powers Boothe (as a villainous senator), especially the latter, are still having fun in their over-the-top roles. And, of course, it's still fun to see Rosario Dawson smirk and fire off a few rounds, even as she's given basically nothing else to do.

But when it comes to having fun, no one is having a better time than new addition Eva Green as the film's titular dame. In her second long-delayed comic book sequel of the year (after 300: Rise of an Empire), the actress puts even the visual effects to shame when it comes to theatricality. Her casting as an extreme version of a femme fatale is already spot on, and watching Green shift her voice (breathy damsel, husky temptress) and her always camera-ready face while playing men off of each other captures all that a Sin City movie should be: outrageous, sleazy, twisted, seductive, and darkly funny. 

And, if Dame was all about Brolin and Green's story, it would make for a fun, disposable piece of entertainment. Where the film loses its way is in its awkward structure. Like the first film, Dame involves several interlocking stories. However, this time around everything is compartmentalized. We get intros to two major plot threads before Brolin and Green's kicks in and runs through to its conclusion, which then leaves two more stories that have a middle and end. 

Not helping matters is that the first complete story is also the best on all fronts. By the time narrative thread #3 arrives (involving Jessica Alba's stripper Nancy and her struggles with alcoholism and revenge), the film's initial fumes have started to wear off. With smarter structure, A Dame to Kill For could have escalated to a spectacular finale with plenty of room to play around with chronology. The film already has one location - the dive bar where Nancy dances - designed as a narrative hub, yet it only makes minimal usage of this set up. The film doesn't exactly wear out its welcome, but it does feel like it's in need of some rearranging so as to make sure none of the main stories are left feeling like filler.

Even at its lowest level, at least A Dame to Kill For offers something different compared to the usual comic book/graphic novel fare. The noir influence is backed up more by the style than the substance, but it lends the film the chance to dive into decades-old narrative tropes with an anarchic energy that, at the very least, acts as a fresh coat of paint. Underneath all of that gloss may be something old and rusted, but it's still eye-catching when the light hits it just right.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review: "The One I Love"

Director: Charlie McDowell
Runtime: 91 minutes

While a good movie should be able to withstand the spoiling of its twists, sometimes the experienced is only heightened by going in absolutely blank. Case in point is Charlie McDowell's Sundance sensation The One I Love, which tackles marital strife through the lens of a low-key, off-kilter psychological thriller. In his beautifully assured feature length debut, McDowell, working off of a tight script by Justin Lader, has announced himself as a major talent to watch.

Yet in a year filled with excellent dramas filled with vague existential dread, The One I Love is immediately disarming in its apparent normality. Young married couple Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are in therapy, trying to save their marriage after an unspecified incident. This leads their therapist (Ted Danson) to suggest a weekend stay at a mansion that's open for rent. The shrink promises that every couple he has sent there comes back feeling reinvigorated about their relationship. Ethan and Sophie (mostly the former) are desperate, and they throw themselves into the beautiful and secluded home. During their first night, something magical seems to happen, and they enjoy and effortless evening filled with red wine and a little marijuana. 

And this is where I leave you. While what happens after this point isn't so outlandish that it's impossible to guess, but the gradual sense of something being wrong in paradise is best left to unfold without foreknowledge. The film's official synopsis probably says it best: the couple is faced with an unexpected dilemma.

Outside of the flashy concept (which gently tips its hat to Haneke's Funny Games and the recent Borgman), though, McDowell and Lader have still given the relationship drama enough consequence. As the weirdness is carefully turned up, The One I Love uses its strange mystery to explore the major weaknesses in Ethan and Sophie's marriage. Most winning is how the concept allows for the film to explore heavy issues like trust and desire while still moving the narrative forward with a sense of calculated purpose. 

Duplass and Moss are both exceptional in their roles, and they handle the unsettling developments with just enough levity to acknowledge the out-there situation, while still bringing enough honest emotion to keep the drama grounded in something resembling reality. Circumstances bring them together and then turn them against each on a dime, and the actors remain totally convincing even as their characters become increasingly disjointed and lost. Moss in particular is excellent at communicating the ups and downs of the relationship, and she quietly owns the film even when she has nothing to do but stare and let her eyes get watery. As the miniseries Top of the Lake, and now this film, have shown, she clearly deserves a bright future beyond Mad Men.

Even with its indie roots, its amazing how confident Mr. McDowell's direction here is (he has previously directed only a single short film). His sense of space is clear (though he can make it disorienting when needed, and his work with editor Jennifer Lilly is tight and polished. Some films running 90 minutes can feel like lifetimes, but The One I Love, which starts at a nice clip to begin with, has a hold on its storytelling that is uncommonly accomplished. 

With so much build up, a few of the details that emerge (one big question is left unanswered, however) in act three feel like threats to the emotional integrity of the first hour. But even as The One I Love stretches outside of its comfort zone, it comes back to a conclusion that provides ample room for discussion, without feeling incomplete for some pretentious stab at greater meaning. This is one of those special Sundance debuts that feels like a self-contained cinematic accomplishment, rather than a festival circuit calling card that barely announces a new talent. With The One I Love, Mr. McDowell and Mr. Lader have let us know, without arrogance, that they are, indeed, the real deal. 

Grade: B+

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Review: "Calvary"

Director: John Michael McDonagh
Runtime: 100 minutes

The opening scene of Calvary gives off the feel of an Agatha Christie or Alfred Hitchcock mystery-thriller. In a static close-up, we see Father James (Brendan Gleeson) hear a confession from an unseen man, who threatens to kill the priest in a week. His motivation? Retribution for the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest as a child. His reasoning in targeting Father James? A bit of ironic brutality. He intends to kill an innocent priest because it will make more of a statement (also: the man who abused him has passed away). 

We don't know who the man making the threat is, but writer/director John Michael McDonagh has other things on his mind. Calvary is an anti-whodunnit in the vein of the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The answer will come, but what matters is the exploration of the protagonist and the world around him. That's not to say that the end result isn't important, but it's simply not the reason to see McDonagh's sophomore effort. By turning inward, the director is actually able to work with a bigger and more thematically ambitious canvas, even though he falters along the way.

Mr. McDonagh is the brother of In Bruges mastermind Martin McDonagh, and he certainly exhibits a similar worldview to his Oscar-winning sibling. However, the shadow cast by In Bruges was long, and neither of the McDonaghs have surpassed it to date. Yet where Martin regressed a bit with sophomore feature Seven Psychopaths, John Michael has made massive improvements on round two in the director's chair. His debut, 2011's The Guard, was an amiable, yet rather clunky debut that came off as In Bruges-lite. 

Calvary, by contrast, possesses a much more distinct voice. McDonagh sheds the winking, tongue-in-cheek dark humor, and takes on something much more sincere. That's not to say that there aren't some blackly funny ingredients in the mix. They remain, but they're simply toned down, as they've been diluted by a more sobering look at life, death, and faith. 

And even though McDonagh still treads too lightly on certain facets of his characters' backgrounds and motivations, his storytelling has matured beautifully. The film is filled with gorgeous photography of rural Ireland (courtesy of the great Larry Smith), and one can practically feel the soft light trickling through the grey skies and the winds coming off of the ocean.

It would be tempting to label Calvary as a stealth advertisement by Ireland's board of tourism, were it not for the intimate relationships that take up the bulk of the runtime. We learn early on that Father James actually knows who his future assassin is, yet he refrains from going to the police. Instead, he does his best to tidy up his affairs, which in his case means tending to the messy lives of some of the more troubled and contentious folk in town, along with his recently-arrived daughter Fiona (from before he entered the priesthood, and played by Kelly Reilly). 

Mr. Gleeson, as always, brings a understated gravitas to the role. Though he goes out of his way to call upon parishioners, Father James does his best to maintain the same demeanor he displays in the confessional. Yet tensions are running higher than he realized, and bit by bit, the facade on Gleeson's bearded, ruddy face starts showing its first cracks. Gleeson has worked with both McDonagh brothers previously, and he remains an ideal fit for both styles of writing and directing. He can be playful and gentle, like he is with his daughter or the troublesome altar boy, and he can be compassionate and weather the storm of aggressive teasing that comes from some of the other men in the village. Regardless of the relationship, everyone views James as a symbol of the Church at large, for better and for worse.

Though Calvary is set in a very small Irish town, it acts as a social and religious microcosm of the whole Emerald Isle. The film was made on the heels of widespread turmoil in both Ireland's banks and in its Catholic Churches. Times are hard, and even the Catholic faith, a comfort for so many, has had its reputation tarnished, and its trust violated.

McDonagh never pontificates on these issues, and keeps them almost entirely as subtext, which is mostly beneficial. Yet by the time the promise of the first scene comes full circle, Calvary's handling of a fascinating psychological dilemma comes up a bit short. McDonagh traverses the uncomfortable territory with success for so long, and it's frustrating to see him flinch right as he gets to the most sensitive and personal conflict in the film. 

Though Calvary leaves one with a compelling portrait of Ireland, it doesn't quite stick the landing when it comes to its own plot. The set up is a great entry point for a balanced character study, but it also gets in the way one it's time for things to wrap up. The conclusion certainly doesn't derail the film, but it does ensure that Calvary lands short of the true greatness that was clearly in its grasp. McDonagh's sophomore film is a major step forward, and a legitimately strong film, but the failing of the finale only drives home the notion that the director was so close to making his first great film. Instead, he'll have to settle for Calvary being his first very good film. That's nothing to sniff at, but it's the equivalent of getting a B+ on an exam and finding out that you were only one or two questions away from getting an A or A-. 

Grade: B+

Review: "Get On Up"

Director: Tate Taylor
Runtime: 138 minutes

If Hollywood is listening properly, they will know that a new star has come roaring to life. Chadwick Boseman, who previously starred as Jackie Robinson in last year's 42, is here to make a case for himself, and he does so thrillingly. Moving from the world of sports to music, Boseman's performance as James Brown - the Godfather of Soul himself - is an electric take on an icon that easily transcends mere mimicry. The film around him, as directed by Tate Taylor (The Help), is quite good as well, but it's Boseman who undeniably leaves the biggest mark in Get On Up, which is only appropriate, given the Godfather's massive legacy. 

Though Get On Up does cover the majority of its subject's life, Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have sidestepped the Achilles heel of such an approach. As opposed to something like J. Edgar, which moved in mostly linear fashion and came off as a greatest hits tale, Get On Up jumps around in time in a style closer to Ray. One minute, we're in Brown's childhood, the next, we're somewhere in the middle of his career, and then we're somewhere around his first big break. At the very least, this choice of structure keeps the film from falling into the creaky arc used by so many showbiz biopics. 

The Butterworth brothers' script is certainly comprehensive, and Taylor has evolved nicely from the nice, but somewhat schmaltzy emotions of The Help. Only as the film enters its final lap does the structure feel less elegantly thought out. Rather than have one framing device to act as a narrative hub, Get On Up has three or four (I think). Some don't even seem like framing devices until, late in the game, the film suddenly returns to a setting to mark an important development. The film's last half hour or so isn't exactly messy, but it is a bit cluttered. 

Yet overall the storytelling is solid, and it certainly avoids the heavy drudgery that so many showbiz films fall into (the film touches on Brown's drug use, but never becomes mired in it). However, there are a few areas that might have benefitted from just a bit more probing, namely Brown's sometimes abusive relationship with his first wife, and his own musical inspirations. Regarding the latter area, yes, it's true that Brown was a trailblazer in multiple ways, but a richer look at the actual influences would have been beneficial. At the very least, the film does capture the relationships between Brown and the public, the establishment, and the socio-political environments that shifted during his lifetime (sometimes directly because of him).

All in all, it's a solid film that's immensely watchable, though so much of that is owed to Mr. Boseman himself. 42 proved that he could hold his own at the center of the film. Get On Up proves that he can absolutely burst through it. It's a big, barn-burner of a performance that feels entirely complete, despite some limitations imposed by the PG-13 rating. Boseman (who plays Brown from 16 into his 60s) so effortlessly inhabits the man's skin that the mere feat of talking and sounding like him quickly ceases to be a simple sketch show gimmick. In the film's biggest and smallest moments, he shines as bright as the sun, embodying the Godfather's big personality and showmanship (on and offstage) with riveting results. Boseman also holds his own musically. Though many of the big performance scenes had the actor lip sync, in other scenes it's Boseman's own voice. The resemblance is pretty damn impressive.

The film establishes that Brown could easily hold his own as a solo artist, and that his bandmates were easily replaceable (at least in the eyes of music execs). The same applies to Boseman and the rest of the ensemble. Though big names like Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Dan Aykroyd help round out the cast, their overall contributions are dwarfed by Boseman's hurricane-strength turn. However, Nelson Ellis (of TV's True Blood) as Brown's right hand man Bobby Byrd, does nicely as the diplomatic co-leader of Brown's musical entourage. And Davis, despite a tiny role, lends convincing gravitas to a stock character (albeit one based on a real person). 

So even though Get On Up may not shoot up to the top tier of musical biopics, it certainly cements itself as a solid (and very lively) piece of entertainment. Biopics that span decades of a subject's life outstayed their welcome somewhere in the last decade, but Get On Up proves that the subgenre isn't quite dead yet. If that means more star-making vehicles for actors like Chadwick Boseman, then that's hardly a bad thing. Hollywood is always looking for the next Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. It's rarely looking for the next Denzel Washington (if it was, Idris Elba would be everywhere by now) or Viola Davis. Here's hoping that enough people take notice of Boseman's towering take on a supernova-sized icon, and move him closer to the place in the stars he deserves to occupy. 

Grade: B

Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: "Guardians of the Galaxy"

Director: James Gunn
Runtime: 121 minutes

Though there's not a pirate to be found in Guardians of the Galaxy (at least not of the Blackbeard variety), the word that kept popping up in my head during the credits was "swashbuckling." Without question the Marvel universe's cheekiest adventure to date, James Gunn's breezy adventure may go through the motions of plot, but it's rather winning when it comes to character dynamics. At once acknowledging its own silliness and genuinely caring about its rag-tag group of heroes, this comedic foray into space opera territory errs on the lighter side, for better and for worse (but mostly for better).

The film's whole feel is best summed up by the film's main character Peter Quill, as played by Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt. He's slick, he looks the part, and he's got the whole roguishly handsome vibe going on, yet with just the right look in his eyes to let you know that things are never going to fall into outright despair. The film kicks off with young Quill's mother dying of cancer, yet barely a minute later he's abducted by a group of space rogues who train him to be an intergalactic thief. 

And it's on one seemingly routine, Indiana Jones-like mission that Quill's life takes its pivotal turn and gets the story proper going. After stealing a mysterious metal orb from an abandoned planet (and rocking out to the mix tape on his cassette tape player), Quill finds himself targeted by multiple forces. Among them are the fierce warrior/assassin Gamora (a bright green Zoe Saldana), who wants the orb for her boss, and two bounty hunters looking to collect the sizable claim on Quill's head. Those assassins are Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), and they happen to be an anthropomorphic raccoon and tree, respectively. 

Of course, one thing leads to another, and everyone gets locked up in a floating space prison (as you do), falls in with fearsome warrior Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and begrudgingly decides to work together. Turns out that orb is an ancient weapon, and Gamora's now former boss Ronan (Lee Pace) wants to use it to commit genocide. What happens next? Well, nothing terribly surprising, although that hardly ends up being a bad thing in this case.

Regarding plot and character, director Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman make no bones about the fact that they're creating a film designed to launch a franchise. So even though the "get the MacGuffin back from the villain" story largely goes through the motions, the pair compensate by placing focus on the mostly lighthearted bickering and bantering among the central quintet. This turns out to be a winning formula, as it's when the film is usually at its most purely enjoyable. Much of this also has to do with the nature of the characters. Rather than the usual Marvel demi gods and super humans, the Guardians are, for lack of better term, more down to Earth that your average heroes. They have their skills, but not to the point of being too different from the rest of their wild, dangerous universe. 

The main cast all have a great deal of fun with their light-as-a-feather material, and Gunn even finds ways to work in some genuinely emotional moments without going into the thornier emotional complexities. Pratt makes for an endearing leader of this band of outlaws, and proves to be a surprisingly capable leading man in both comedy and sci-fi/adventure. Saldana, now launching her third major sci-fi franchise (after Avatar and Star Trek) is as fierce as ever, and makes Gamora a suitably level-headed character without turning her into a spoil sport or a nag. And Bautista, though initially a little shaky, nicely grows into his role as the vengeful and literally-minded Drax.

The real heart of the movie, however, belongs to its two entirely digital characters. Cooper does an exceptional job voicing the wily Rocket, and helps punctuate the close encounters with po-faced dramatics with perfectly calibrated doses of sarcasm and humor. Diesel as Groot has less to work with (the character's only means of communication is to say "I am Groot"), yet he turns these repeated declarations into appropriately varied expressions of the character's emotions (and thankfully, Rocket, the Han Solo to his Chewbacca, is always on hand to translate). Both characters are also superbly rendered by the visual effects artists, which only lends extra heft to impeccable voice work from both actors.

Despite some hints at deeper trauma or sadness in these characters, the overall approach is to keep everything buoyant and in forward motion. Even with its cardboard cutout of a plot, Gunn keeps it all moving, and the film ends up feeling about 10 or 15 minutes shorter than its actual length (2 hours). So much happens, yet Guardians hardly feels like it's going along too quickly for its own good.

Gunn and his behind the scenes team have also knocked it out of the park on the visual front. Guardians hops all over the galaxy, and the art design of the all the locales feels distinct and lived-in. And, like the recent X-Men film, the overall color palette is both more vibrant and more sophisticated than almost all of the other Marvel-based films in the last decade. Guardians of the Galaxy clearly succeeds when it comes to tone, but it's also worth noting the truly sincere level of care that went into the art direction, costume design, make-up, and visual effects. Tyler Bates' grand, soaring score is a bonus on top of the slick technical accomplishments on display.

All of the above, including the winks at the audience, is more than enough to offset the well-handled, yet wholly recycled plot. Guardians does work as a self-contained adventure, but it's also designed to spawn sequels. Unlike The Amazing Spider-Man (or TASM 2), Guardians knows how to make its "origin story" click. The plot is there to make sure that things don't get stagnant, yet it's left to the characters coming together as a bizarre team and family that really matters. It's utterly frivolous entertainment, despite the hints at deeper, dark emotions, yet it also sets up a thoroughly engaging world that offers a quite literal universe to explore. This quality is what elevates Guardians of the Galaxy above other fun-but-disposable fare. It may not sink its hooks into you, but it ultimately proves to be infectious on multiple levels, and makes the wait for the next adventure (2017) feel far too long.

Grade: B/B-