Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

Lars Von Trier's last two movies have been humorless affairs, but in Nymphomaniac he seems to have discovered a more playful side of himself, a way to grapple with Serious Ideas while, occasionally, smiling or even laughing. Americans tend to accept graphic violence in films without much protest (sometimes even get all feverish for it, a la Passion of the Christ), but graphic sex? That's a no-no (and a whole other conversation). Which is why it amuses me that Nymphomaniac is populated with famous American actors (some used to great effect, others to less effect). This is, in other words, the movie's best joke. And, of course, there's Von Trier's European Von Trierian sensibility toward the subject matter. Unsurprisingly: it's not happy, hearty sex on parade here. It's painful, addictive sex. Sex as drug, sex as emptiness. The unfolding dialogue between Joe and Seligman, moving nimbly from chapter to chapter, tells the story of a woman desperate to discover her worth as a human being. I haven't seen God's Not Dead, but based on the trailer alone, it's no stretch to say that Nymphomaniac Vol. I is a probably a far more spiritual film.

Written and directed by Lars Von Trier

Monday, March 17, 2014

Veronica Mars (2014)

Despite what 99% of fans may think, Veronica Mars (2004-2007) had the perfect ending. Thomas crafted a nice noir finish by having Veronica walk away in the rain, having cast her vote for a compromised father. It ended with the heart of the show intact, the relationship between father and daughter. For this, the show's assertion that fathers can be good, as well as bad, I always thought Veronica Mars was top-notch. Because sometimes girls deserve a better hero than Buffy Summers, and Rob Thomas gave her to them. That said, the 2014 movie is a disappointment. It recycles the Logan-is-a-killer plot from season 2, tacks on a clumsy opening prologue to explain who Veronica is (as if anyone who doesn't know would actually wander into one of the 272 theaters screening it; there were Kickstarters present in the showing we went to on a Saturday afternoon in Morrow, Georgia), and it forgets the heart of the series by sidelining Keith Mars to a hospital bed and then creating no dramatic tension from this. Add to these sins a mystery that involves little jeopardy for its heroine and a minimal amount of sleuthing before the villain spills all in an overlong monologue, and the script adds up to lazy and poorly thought out. Of course, all the old faces are here, and yeah, they make us smile and feel nostalgic, but nostalgia is a lie, and that's the movie's ultimate failing: it doesn't seem to realize this. It's an odd misfire. I hate to say it, but maybe it's the price you pay for Kickstarting movies with fan money; you end up bowing to the lesser, more soapish elements (Team Logan or Team Piz?) and forget to tell the story that really matters. Also, as much as I love Kristen Bell, the Kristen Bell I see here is only Veronica Mars in fits and starts. The movie's greatest misstep, it turns out, is failing to understand what happens when you move on from high school, when you grow up. You don't go back. Veronica makes wrong choices in this film. She did that in the series, too, but the series understood those choices were wrong, even when she didn't. Her ultimate choice here, to remain in Neptune as Logan's sometimes squeeze, I don't think Thomas realizes how unsatisfying that really is.

Written by Rob Thomas and Dianne Ruggiero
Directed by Rob Thomas

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Lego Movie

Every now and then, a movie comes along that critics and the American movie-going public seem to agree upon. Everyone likes it, everyone thinks it's swell, and no one's too quick to offer much in the way of a thoughtful opinion about the ideas at work. I don't want to be the nay-sayer on this one, as I, admittedly, loved about 80% of what I saw. The humor is spot-on, the performances fantastic, and the animation is beyond belief.

That said, I have to point out two tiny, teensy, itty-bitty, minor, insignificant little tenants of good storytelling: 1) stories have to operate according to the internal logic they establish, and 2) stories must be honest in order to ring true. (And before I get started, don't say, hey, monkey, wait a minute, aren't you forgetting, it's a kids' movie! The target audience may be children, but it wasn't made by children  though, if you believe later plot developments, an eleven-year-old would make a great Hollywood director of tentpole feature animation projects; besides, who says kids' movies get a pass on good storytelling?).


Regarding logic, a story's internal logic must be established, generally, from the outset and followed in order for the story to be effective and coherent. Take Toy Story, for example. In that movie, we know, right away, that toys can walk and talk − but only when humans are absent. This basic rule, once established in the first five minutes of the movie, is obeyed throughout by the storytellers, and the result is a series of escalating crises that keep us, the audience, emotionally involved in the story. Now, this doesn't mean a movie can't break its own rules, but the rule-breakage has to be earned and honest. Again, in Toy Story, when the toys finally do reveal their agency to a human, it's to scare the bejeezus out of him, which, let's face it, is what would really happen if your toys started talking (see item 2 above: honesty).

Near the end of The Lego Movie's second act, we learn that "The Man Upstairs" is actually a disappointing dad, a live-action Will Ferrell obsessed with ordering his world, gluing it together, and daring anyone − including his son − to touch it. Until this point, of course, we've simply bought into the premise that our favorite Lego pieces are walking and talking and living in a fully established Lego world that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with reality. I was on board for that, but the odd attempt at merging the Lego World and the real world is jarring. Why? Because the movie did not, from the very beginning, establish any basic internal logic about the co-existence of these two worlds. And, regarding the honesty of this sub-plot, well, it's pap. I don't believe the resolution for a second. Because any man weird enough to super-glue his Legos together wouldn't see the error of his ways so quickly and hug his boy and say he's sorry. No, he'd probably yell at the kid and then crack the kid upside the head, and then the boy's mother would take her son and go to her mother's and call a lawyer and file for divorce. This, weirdly, would have been a more honest route for the storytellers to take; they were the ones, after all, who decided to introduce the notion of a disappointing, overbearing father but then didn't take it seriously. Judging from what I've read in praise of the film from critics and movie-goers alike, not very many people did.

All that said, let me reiterate my praise from above: humor was awesome, voice-cast was awesome, animation was awesome, but everything? Everything, unfortunately, was not.

Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Office (U.S.): 9 Seasons

It's not uncommon these days for a series to be extended past eight seasons, but The Office, despite its longevity and its British roots, is, in fact, an uncommon series. My initial dislike of the show's first season stemmed from the fact that it was weirdly slavish to the UK series, which was and still is, I believe, a touchstone in the history of television. About a year or so ago, I watched a few episodes of Season 2 of the US version on Netflix, and while the parallels to what Gervais and Merchant had done remained, I was hooked. Characters were becoming their own people, far removed from Tim and Dawn and the Brent-Meister General. Crystal joined the fun around episode 4. We kept going and found we had a new favorite thing. The show is funny on the order of Arrested Development, which is very funny, but unlike the Bluths, its characters are you and me and every other person in America who's ever held a job they can't quite find joy in. Joy, the show seems to suggest, is something we find in our connections to other people: spouses, coworkers, friends, family. The work we do is, in many ways, incidental. As the series progresses, year after year, it manages to stay fresh and interesting, to weather even the hardest of knocks; when Steve Carrell leaves the show, the characters that sweep in to take Michael's place are large and memorable. And Dwight Schrute, for my money, is one of the great characters in the history of American television, idiotic but never dumb, big-hearted and wise (eventually), his own man by the end, not a lackey.  And then there's Pam and Jim. Their love is the great love some of us are lucky enough to see play out in our own lives, but the writers never take that love for granted; they trouble it constantly. In the end, what makes the show great is the accumulated wisdom of near ten years. Andy Bernard, of all people, says it best, in what for me is one of the show's most touching moments: I wish, he says, you could know you were living in the good old days, so you'd know to cherish them that much more.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Great American comedies are hard to come by, and now, after this and The Wolf of Wall Street, I've seen two in a row. Very different, these two, which I guess goes without saying, but maybe not so different, too, in that each has weighty things to say about the country I live in and, yes, do love, despite my occasional frequent grumblings that I'd like to a) found my own totalitarian state or b) move to England. That said, it's not the idea of truth vs. power I respond to here so much as Anchorman 2's warm, beating heart. It's a story told by comedians and actors who've hit middle age or passed it and have decided to make careful, thoughtful movies, not dreck. From the slow-motion tumble of a recreational vehicle (surely one of the funniest things ever put on the big screen) to the genuine and silly second act in which the title character is struck blind and rediscovers what's good in life in a lighthouse on a beach in Georgia, this Anchorman is so much more than its predecessor. The first movie was fun. This one is great. Jokes are made at the expense of American idiocy, sure, but the truly awful Americans are the corporate news tycoons who've ruined good journalism and left us all dumber for it. In this and in its optimistic take on people, in general, it's a carefully made movie about wising up and seeing. An extended brawl near the climax of the third act features every great comedian currently working, it seems (and I do count Liam Neeson among that number). They're all impediments to Ron's hero's quest, the goal of which is simple and bright: to make his son's piano recital. It's not a crass series of cameos so much as a constant one-upping or self-topping gag that reminds us of what's at stake, what Ron Burgundy stands to lose − or may, even, be giving up. For this and the bottle-feeding of a great white shark, Will Ferrell is nothing short of a national treasure.

Written by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay
Directed by Adam McKay

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street is a black comedy of the highest order. Scorsese hasn't made a movie this mean since After Hours. Of course, Paul Hackett is the kind of character you can root for, and the strange things that happen to him, arguably, aren't of his own making. Jordan Belfort, on the other hand, knows exactly what he's up to; he reminds us at every turn. What keeps him likable is an odd streak of naiveté that runs through him, best exemplified in his honest and warped, Kane-like devotion to his second wife. You can see, deep down, that he isn't such a terrible human being, but he, like all human beings, is capable of such terrible things. And this is why, I think, Scorsese and Sopranos alum screenwriter Terence Winter want us to laugh at him: he is, essentially, all of us. But there is and always will be, as suggested in the movie's most sober and poignant moment, a federal agent who takes the honest route home. It's reassuring, but it's not where we end: the camera ends on Belfort's audience, waiting for his secret to their success. It ends on us.

Written by Terence Winter
Directed by Martin Scorsese

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Desolation of Smaug is faster and leaner, in many ways, than its predecessor. But its headlong rush to the finish − or, at least, the finish of this installment − feels like an unintentional creative metaphor for the production itself. I kept thinking that the special effects looked bad more often than they looked good. Distant shots of orcs running, for example, looked rushed, as if they could have used another texture pass or two. The barrel ride was a terrible disappointment, lovingly thought out and crafted, for sure, but the same care and attention was left out of the final cut, which mixes high-end digital camera shots with what look like, I swear, extreme sports GoPro shots from a dwarf's barrel. Odd choices. Smaug certainly delivers, and Jackson wisely takes what amounts to a single chapter in the book and expands it delightfully into a long and exciting sequence that culminates in what I, a cat owner, am fondly calling "stupid-dragon face." I'm a fan of Tauriel, too, who ends up getting the quietest moments here, she being the heart of a picture that all too often doesn't take its time.

Written by the usual gang, all on a journey
Directed by Peter Jackson