Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: "Tracks"

Director: John Curran
Runtime: 112 minutes

To watch Mia Wasikowska in Tracks is to witness a rare feat of acting, one that combines physical exertion and quietly suggestive character detailing. In tackling the real-life expedition of Robyn Davidson across nearly 2000 miles of the Outback, director John Curran (The Painted Veil) couldn't have picked a better actress for the part. Wasikowska wears the role with integrity, allowing the marks of Davidson's journey to slowly, but surely, leave their marks on her mind, body, and memory. Even with a somewhat spotty script, Curran's fifth film is a rewarding return to form, bolstered by Wasikowska's beautiful performance and some outstanding cinematography courtesy of Mandy Walker (Australia).

Earlier this summer, The Rover portrayed the Outback as a dry, empty, unforgiving landscape. Tracks' vision, though formidable in its own right, is a much more inhabitable place, albeit for a chosen few. Among those few is Robyn Davidson, who - for reasons not immediately given - always preferred living in the company of mother nature than in the company of other people. She's not on a journey to "find herself." Instead, she already knows who she is and what she wants, and her response to the obvious question of "why?" is simply "why not?" 

Despite no clear angle for the journey other than "because I like being alone and am capable," Curran and writer Marion Nelson have fashioned a steadily paced, gradually involving exploration of Davidson's journey and its connections to her childhood. Despite a handful of friends and seemingly decent relationships with her father and sister, Robyn is determined to make as much of the trek on her own, with her only companions being her dog and four uppity camels. 

With so many shots of Davidson and her four-legged friends trudging through the sun-blasted Australian desert, it's a bit of a miracle that Tracks and Wasikowska never settle into empty, repetitive rhythms. Wasikowska - along with some truly stellar make up - is calm and determined, yet she finds ways of pushing beyond one or two default expressions along the way. Not once does it feel like the actress is coasting simply because a shot doesn't require obvious emoting. She sells the big, teary-eyed moments effortlessly, in part because she earns them through the dignity she brings to so many dialogue-free scenes covering Davidson's epic journey. The young actress has been on a roll this year in a handful of (sometimes underwritten) supporting roles, and she doesn't disappoint when her time in the spotlight finally arrives. Tracks is rarely, if ever, and exciting film, but it holds one's attention thanks to Wasikowska's sensitive portrayal of Davidson's physical and emotional struggle to endure nature at its harshest.

The only thing more important to the success of Tracks are Robyn's surroundings, and the film certainly disappoint here either. Cinematographer Mandy Walker (who, as a woman, is an unfortunate rarity in the field) turns in some truly gorgeous work capturing the Outback's harsh beauty. Her imagery - like Wasikowska's performance - never grows repetitive, even though it may seem like there's only so many ways to capture reddish sand and dried out plant life. Tracks is aces all around on the technical front, but it's hard to over state just how crucial Walker's work is making Davidson's journey look convincing. 

Additional departments like the aforementioned make up also contribute greatly to making Tracks work as well as it does. Garth Stevenson's lush, yet unobtrusive, score works wonders without threatening to overtake the images and emotions. With so much wordless traveling to be done, montages inevitably pop up (smoothly handled by editor Alexandre de Franceschi), and Stevenson's music keeps everything flowing along with understated elegance. That understated elegance is shared by Curran's directing which takes on the considerable task of balancing Davidson's literal and metaphorical journeys with smooth results.

The lone disappointment of Tracks comes from Nelson's screenplay, which doesn't always hit its mark when it comes to pacing or timing. National Geographic photog Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) shows up multiple times early on, and as a result it feels like it takes far too long for Davidson's real journey to get going (kudos, though, for not simply starting the film off with her already in the desert). Certain elements, like a compass with deep ties to Robyn's past, are introduced only moments before they become important viewer, which drains the film of some tension. Thankfully, Wasikowska and company are usually enough to counterbalance Nelson's structural missteps, even as they still keep Tracks from being an across-the-board triumph.

Tracks will, with good reason, not be everyone's cup of tea. Its treatment of Robyn's past and her mental state will strike some as lazy or shallow, and will leave them with almost nothing to connect to, even as Wasikowska tries her hardest. For all of the epic visual moments, it's the tiniest of details that will separate Tracks' admirers and detractors. Like Davidson's preference for limited human interaction, Curran's film is understandably not for everyone. Yet if there is a connection, what transpires over roughly two hours will prove to be a gradually-involving work of tremendous scope and delicately beautiful human strength.

Grade: B+/A-

Review: "The Guest"

Director: Adam Wingard
Runtime: 100 minutes

Trading in meta-horror for more traditional thriller fare, You're Next duo Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are back with The Guest. Though sincerity isn't a trait that runs through Wingard and Barrett's films thus far, The Guest does see them paying straightforward homage to a genre, rather than deconstructing it. In their latest, they have conjured up a gloriously dumb throwback to the John Carpenter-esque horror/thrillers of the 80s, complete with a delightfully charming and menacing turn from former Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens. It lacks the winking smarts of You're Next, but The Guest proves that when it comes to B-movie thriller fare, Wingard and Barrett know how to stay true to a genre's roots while tweaking it just enough for the 21st century.

The Guest certainly doesn't waste any time in putting things in motion. Opening with Stevens' David running along a dusty Midwestern road, only moments later he's at the door of the Peterson family. With his aw-shucks charm and his piercing blue eyes, David has no trouble convincing parents Laura and Spencer (Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser), that he served with their recently deceased son in Iraq, and became his closest friend. He's even in a photo of the dead son's platoon, smiling with a machine gun on his shoulder.

Naturally, David has no trouble cozying up to the family and making himself useful in unexpected ways. He helps the Peterson's youngest child Luke (Brendan Meyer) deal with some high school bullies, and even manages to bond with suspicious daughter Anna (Maika Monroe) after a stressful night at a party.

As with similar charming mystery figures, the role of David requires a certain unassuming, placid confidence, and Stevens proves to be ideal casting. The posh accent and dapper clothes are gone, replaced by the look of boy-next-door who may or may not be capable of snapping someone's neck in the blink of an eye. Stevens admitted that he eventually grew somewhat bored of his character on Downton Abbey, and at times it showed rather painfully. Here, however, he seems reinvigorated as a performer, capturing David's vaguely sinister sense of optimism with just the right touches of camp.

And while most of the Peterson clan (as well as their friends and neighbors) may be total saps, Maika Monroe does quite well distinguishing herself as the only person to never fully believe in David's story (even when she catches a glimpse of David's physique fresh out of the shower).With a look that falls somewhere between Greta Gerwig and Dakota Fanning, Monroe's low-key flippancy is an added gift, and further solidifies The Guest's success as an effective homage.

However, with so many expected developments obvious from the outset (of course David isn't going to be entirely who he appears to be), Wingard and Barrett sometimes get a little too high on channeling certain styles, and let the plot stagnate. At 100 minutes, The Guest does outstay its welcome a bit, especially since it gets everything set up so quickly. Wingard and Barrett make the whole adventure knowingly dumb fun, but they also take too long to get to the real turning point of the narrative. 

So when it comes time for the explanation of exactly who David is, The Guest comes uncomfortably close to tripping over its own shoe laces as it crosses the finish line. By now, the particulars of David's backstory have been so overdone that it's underwhelming to see Wingard and Barrett not add anything into the mix. Though Barrett's script refrains from coming to a halt solely for exposition, a little more than the basic motivations would have cemented The Guest as an even more admirably loopy piece of work. Thankfully, the actual finale is mostly a success, with the climactic set piece moving from action-thriller into firm horror territory, complete with a perfectly designed maze of sorts for folks to run around in while avoiding death. 

Stylistically, Wingard and his technical collaborators have upped their game, with the photography and set design being standouts. Faded neons add a off-kilter glow to the otherwise plain desert setting, and the color variety expands nicely once all hell starts to break loose. The throbbing electronic score is another plus, and makes The Guest feel like a perfect mix of modern and retro thriller atmospherics. Like David, The Guest looks the part entirely, even though it has a few glaring red flags. It may not have the meta smarts of You're Next, but The Guest - in large part thanks to Stevens' chilly and charismatic work - succeeds as a mindless little slice of empty calorie cinema.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: "Maps to the Stars"

Director: David Cronenberg
Runtime: 111 minutes

There's quite a bit of talk about fires and burns in Maps to the Stars, yet precious little actual heat. The latest from David Cronenberg sees him taking a knife to the squishy, slimy underbelly of Hollywood, with results that are more likely to induce shrugs than gasps of horror or outrage. Maps is something of a companion piece to Cronenberg's last film, 2012's Cosmopolis, tackling a different sort of elitist American culture, albeit with drastically different tones. The iciness of Cronenberg's approach in Cosmopolis was off-putting at first, yet gradually became an effective choice before making a gripping hard left turn into fire and brimstone condemnation. Unfortunately, the director isn't able to bring even a small fraction of Cosmopolis' concluding fire to Maps. Despite scenes that are, on paper, stomach-churning, Cronenberg's latest is ultimately a lukewarm stab at cutting satire.

Hollywood has always provided multiple angles for satirization, and Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner have at least assembled a good host of targets. There's fading star Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), trying to revitalize her career in the shadow of her dead mother (Sarah Gadon), and her new assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who happens to be a burn victim. Then there's Agatha's possible boyfriend Jerome (Robert Pattinson, now at the front of the limo), a limo driver who really wants to be a writer and actor. And then, of course, there's the screwed up child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) and his vaguely creepy parents (John Cusack and Olivia Williams). All good ingredients to have for an expansive satire of the entertainment industry's vanity, misplaced priorities, and closets stuffed full of skeletons.

Where Maps to the Stars veers of course starts with Wagner's screenplay, which spreads the screen time around so much that all the plot lines feel half baked. The most compelling part of Maps is Havana's story - in no small part thanks to Moore's Cannes-winning performance - yet Wagner spends so much time with the rest of his Hollyweridos that her story comes off as pointless by the time the credits roll. In Havana, Wagner is able to tackle issues such as celebrity status, aging, Hollywood's standards for women, and the trauma of childhood abuse, yet he refuses to fully engage with Havana's mindset. During the first hour or so of the film, Gadon pops up as the ghost of Havana's mother (a famous actress who died young in a fire), presumably to torment her struggling daughter. 

Yet as Wasikowska's own story starts to move independently, Havana's hallucinations cease and her mental strain is washed completely away. Gadon and Moore play off of each other well, and their casting taps into some interesting notions about age and talent, but every scene they have together is exactly the same. Havana asks what Gadon's Clarice wants, and by the end of Maps to the Stars, you'll neither know nor care (Havana seems to forget about her as well).

This is made even more frustrating because of how much fun Moore is having sinking her teeth into a role like this. She alone seems to understand what Cronenberg and Wagner are trying (and failing) to accomplish. She is constantly on edge, even when trying to meditate her way through receiving bad news, which enlivens Cronenberg's otherwise staid atmosphere. The biggest crime of the film is that Moore is a member of an ensemble cast, and not a definitive lead. With her at the center, Maps would have had a infinitely stronger foundation. 

Only Wasikowska comes close to Moore's understanding of the film's aims, even as she's saddled with an underwritten character. Though Moore dominates the scenes with Havana and Agatha, Wasikowska is able to effectively hold her own as a sounding board for Havana's histrionics. And when facing off against other cast members, Wasikowska is really able to shine, giving careful hints about Agatha's damaged psyche and doing her best to fill in the gaps of Wagner's writing. 

The rest of the main cast, however, look as though they've been directed into comatose submission. Bird has the looks to play a royally messed up Bieber-esque child star, but he's never given the room to truly dig into the character's excessive lifestyle and increasingly erratic mindset. Cusack, meanwhile, is unable to lend a spark to what should be a juicy role: a classic puffed-up Hollywood life coach/guru. Yet rather than inflate himself to fit the role, the actor shrinks and goes through the motions. As for Pattinson, he's only got a handful of scenes, and they're all of the sort that really don't require a name actor at all. The exception, and not in a good way, is Olivia Williams, who - perhaps because of the editing - appears to be giving two performances at once. One minute she's a domineering stage mother, and the next she's falling apart and weeping over a past trauma. There's no in between, and the shifts feel completely forced. 

Though Cronenberg knows how to direct freakish madness on screen (Videodrome, Naked Lunch, The Fly, etc etc etc), his forays into psychological dramas over the past decade have largely proven to be stillborn. Cosmopolis and Spider had some effective moments and ideas, yet films like A Dangerous Method were often just sluggish and hollow. Maps to the Stars presents the best opportunity for Cronenberg to use his gifts as a director of nightmares, yet those nightmares never come. Even with the ghosts, different forms of incest, burning bodies, and three dead children, nothing about Maps to the Stars resonates. The visuals are flat, the production design passable, and the music barely notable. The content on page is so scattered that it can't really work without a strong atmosphere to heighten to horror of what it depicts, and Cronenberg and his collaborators never supply it.

One can't blame the director for trying to branch outside of his body horror roots, but you'd think by now he'd have seen that films like Maps to the Stars really don't fit his skill set at all. I have no doubt that he has some genuine contempt for the seedier aspects of Hollywood, but Maps to the Stars ultimately gives the impression that he's just indifferent towards it. Were this his first foray into this sort of satire, it would be easy enough to lay most of the blame at Wagner's feet. Yet even though Wagner's script is heavily flawed, Cronenberg's directorial choices (or lack thereof) are equally lackluster. There is so much bark in what Maps to the Stars wants to say, but when it comes to bite, the film has forgotten to put its dentures in. 

Grade: C

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Review: "The Skeleton Twins"

Director: Craig Johnson
Runtime: 93 minutes

In their tenure on Saturday Night Live, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig were two of the show's most consistently exciting, vibrant performers, even when they fell back on reliable characters to generate a laugh. Yet, beyond SNL, the two have also proven themselves capable of finding consistent work on the big screen, although in Hader's case it's mostly meant supporting roles in ensemble comedies. And, ever since Bridesmaids, Wiig has struggled to find a comic or dramatic (or tragicomic) vehicle with a strong enough script to show off some potential hidden range. For those who have been following the two actors since their respective departures from late night, the wait is now over. In Craig Johnson's debut film The Skeleton Twins, Hader and Wiig have finally found roles that play perfectly to their strengths as comedians, while simultaneously allowing them to flex their heretofore unseen dramatic muscles. 

Though pushed mostly as a dark comedy, Twins' opening gets off to a particularly heavy start. In Los Angeles, failed actor Milo (Hader) attempts suicide. Back in New York, dental associate Maggie (Wiig) is just about to swallow a handful of pills, only to be interrupted by a phone call informing her of Milo's near brush with death. Going from coast to coast, Maggie comes to take Milo back home with her for the time being, even though the pair haven't seen or spoken to each other in a decade. 

Once the basic relationships and plot mechanisms are in place, Johnson and co-writer Mark Heyman (Black Swan, of all things) let the rest of Twins unfold in tightly controlled emotional swings. Maggie and Milo's is left to go through long-delayed growing pains on its own, without any overly complicated story elements to get in the way. From a structural point of view, this can leave the shifts in tone feeling a bit abrupt. A truly joyous scene involving lip syncing is followed almost immediately by a setback in the relationship. While the back and forth does a solid job of capturing the touch and go relationship between the siblings, it can make for a somewhat jarring viewing experience (one that makes the slim runtime feel a bit longer than it is). 

At worst, however, all that The Skeleton Twins really needed was a little bit of restructuring. Otherwise, Johnson and Heyman's writing creates an authentic and compelling sibling bond. Their work, highlighted by Johnson's deft, unfussy directing, touches on myriad emotional issues, and never goes too deep or too light in execution. For a film that nearly begins with both protagonists offing themselves, The Skeleton Twins is often quite buoyant, even in its most unpleasant moments. 

The main attraction here, however, is to see Wiig and Hader do something genuinely new as performers, even as they engage in some purely goofy behavior. Their years as SNL co-stars serves them well when it comes to chemistry, as the two are instantly believable as siblings. They joke, tease, bicker, and even explode at each other, and every bit of it rings true. Both faces are so recognizable as those belonging to comedians, yet both are equally capable of communicating frustration, guilt, and sorrow. Wiig is especially impressive as the conflicted Maggie, juggling Milo's arrival along with her goodie two shoes husband Lance (Luke Wilson, charming and low key), with a quiet effortlessness. 

Even at its most grim, The Skeleton Twins retains a vague sense of hope (albeit without an ounce of gooey sentimentality). Johnson isn't afraid to get to some uncomfortable issues, as well as conflicts that don't come to an easy or pleasant resolution. Much like Boyhood (on a much, much smaller scale), Twins is a study of life's messiness at all ages. Its scope may not be as broad, nor its impact as profound, yet it's still a rewarding (and hugely promising) debut with a beating - albeit acid-tinged - heart at its core.

Grade: B/B+

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: "The Two Faces of January"

Director: Hossein Amini
Runtime: 96 minutes

When source material is too highly regarded and too indebted to the specifics of prose, cinematic translations often stumble. For Patricia Highsmith, however, that's often not been the case. Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley are both exemplary adaptations that retain the voice of the original text, all while standing as separate cinematic entities. Because Highsmith's stories have translated to the big screen with such stellar results before, however, it's disappointing that the latest adaptation of her work is such a middling piece of filmmaking. Making his feature debut as a director, Oscar-nominated writer Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) has turned Highsmith's The Two Faces of January into a moderately engaging, yet wholly unmemorable film that plays like a half-hearted attempt capturing what made something like Ripley work so well. 

The Ripley-esque figure (minus the capability for downright evil) this time around is American ex-pat Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a tour guide in Greece who has a habit of getting extra money out of gullible tourists. When Rydal spots wealthy-looking couple Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), he immediately sets them as his next mark, and starts encroaching on their carefree vacation. In part, Rydal is drawn to the MacFarlands because Chester reminds the former of his recently-deceased father. Yet the MacFarlands have ulterior motives of their own, and one accidental death later the trio find themselves bound by a dark secret. 

There are so many themes that Ripley and January share, yet there's a sizable gulf in quality when it comes to the actual results. Isaac has what should be a juicy role, yet his mild duplicity and parental estrangement issues are quickly thrown overboard in favor of getting the plot moving. The film's focus is in constant flux, leaving neither Rydal nor Chester particularly well-rounded by the time everything wraps up in the admittedly tense finale. To their credit, Isaac and Mortensen play off of each other well, although the latter sometimes struggles to convince as the sort of man who's not terribly sharp on his feet. Mortensen has a reserved intensity about him, and it doesn't lend itself well to a character who's occasionally written as, as one minor character puts it, "without a clue." Isaac, meanwhile, does his best to create a convincing portrait of a man being pulled in multiple directions, yet he's ultimately unable to overcome the crushingly superficial and unfocused writing. 

As for Colette/Dunst, she's left in a majorly watered-down version of Gwyneth Paltrow's Ripley character, with hardly any legitimately compelling material left over for her to work with. At the outset, it seems like Dunst is either miscast or simply not trying. The actress does prove her commitment in her one big emotional scene, revealing that the rest of her material gave her almost nothing to do.  

Though Amini has proven himself as a capable screenwriter, his first stab at directing finds him putting not enough effort into, well, the writing. Character-building is abandoned in favor of either moving the plot forward or spilling exposition. This leaves little room for a little thing called subtext, meaning that the underlying issues are hammered home in the exciting, yet far too hurried final act. Amini has done well when it comes to the visual and sonic aspects of directing, yet his handling of actors and underlying emotions tends to be rather wobbly. 

Foundational flaws aside, Amini has at least assembled a handsome looking production. Though the visuals have limited variety, January does for Athens and Crete what Ripley did for San Remo and Venice. Ancient ruins, seaside towns, and rugged coastal terrain all contribute nicely to the atmosphere (certainly more than the writing), with the photography, art direction, and costume design all working perfectly in sync. Composer Alberto Iglesias contributes an effective score to help move things along, even though some of it sounds like rejects from his work on Almodovar's Broken Embraces

So even though The Two Faces of January isn't a complete failure as far as Highsmith adaptations go, it's still a rather underwhelming effort, despite a handful of strengths. Yet in focusing so heavily on his duties as a director, Amini has left his debut without much emotional heft. Minor plot developments take precedence over authentic relationships among characters, robbing the narrative of a consistent sense of danger. January looks and sounds the part, and it never drags, but it's also too light on its feet to leave its own mark. 

Grade: B-/C+