Saturday, June 30, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed (and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter)

I'm huge into cinematic greatness and perfection, but there's an obvious limit on these two quantities when it comes to certain types of films. Sundance indies, that much-derided sub-genre that's become so clear in the past couple decades, is probably the most prominent example of this, along with Hollywood blockbusters. "Safety Not Guaranteed" is in many ways a textbook example of a cliched low-budget film. But even though it has a flawed framework, it comes to work marvelously in spite of itself, and though many of its sins can be pardoned, I wish it had gone the extra mile and done all of the work for us. Alas, neither Colin Trevorrow as director nor Derek Connolly as writer has the chops to make a film like that at this point in their careers, as they're still cutting corners with bright montages and jokes about nerds. But they do provide some surprisingly provocative insights under the playfulness. Most of all, though, they have a remarkable cast of actors, each at the top of their game, who make this a movie worth taking the time to see.

The chemistry achieved by Audrey Plaza and Mark Duplass (also individually outstanding) is an amazing thing, harkening back to the work done by Britt Marling and William Mapother in last year's "Another Earth" but flowering more because this is a stronger film. Both play people on the societal fringes who are looking for happiness in  what appear to be wrongheaded ways. Darius (Plaza), working on a potentially illuminating magazine story with Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) and Arnau (Karan Soni), hasn't been happy since her childhood, and looks dubiously on this assignment to try and find out about Kenneth (Duplass). Kenneth posted a very unspecific classified ad asking for a time-traveling partner, and after Jeff tries to be his man (failing as no doubt many others have in Kenneth's eyes), Darius steps in with the right amount of confidence to satisfy the role. Kenneth has extremely high standards and at first seemingly warped ones; he's a longtime social reject who is routinely considered crazy and whom fears rejection and scorn. In Darius, he finds someone willing to take him seriously and who's actually serious about something herself. 

The film feels the need to take some detours since it apparently can't be only about the relationship of these two. Thus, there is a subplot involving the other two members of the team, most prominently Jeff. Jeff wants to rekindle a long-gone relationship with a girl he used to know in high school (because, weirdly enough, Kenneth is set up in the same Washington town where Jeff went to high school). This could have been a significant misstep, as could have Jeff's attempts to get the shy and conventionally nerdy Arnau laid. But these scenes are played very right, with perfectly chosen details (the aviator sunglasses), and at certain points reach a beauty that really floored me. (They also fit into the film's perceptive overall message about revision and regaining a lost feeling.) I was also impressed with Johnson, whom I remember as being incredibly annoying in the not-often-discussed indie "Paper Heart" with Charlyne Yi and and Michael Cera. Here he's certainly abrasive but much more bearable. 

You have to meet this film halfway. No doubt about it. Perfectionists stay away. It's not incredibly polished, and you might not be happy with the directions it goes in (and avoids). But if you're willing to accept it for what it is, it's quite a pleasure, and certain moments and performances (Duplass' most especially; a heartbreaking and very intense contender for best male acting of the year) are to be savored. B

Abraham Lincoln was already a badass. Okay, maybe not as much as George Washington, but surely, freeing slaves and helping end the Civil War count for something. Add to that an unknown history of vampire hunting, and man, this guy's the real deal. This could have provided for an outlandish, campy, schlocktastic blast, but somewhere along the way, the fun stopped. Was it the studio head, the screenwriter (Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the book), or the director (Timur Bekmambetov, who made the plenty insane "Wanted")? My guess is some combination of the first two (as Bekmambetov has run wild in the past), but there's no way to know why "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" failed to be a transcendent B-movie diversion. Sure, it has some slaying and historical inconsistency, but all the same, this is nowhere near as hilarious and irreverent as it should have been. I did read in an in-flight magazine interview something that may indicate Grahame-Smith was trying to please historical scholars along with regular filmgoers, but that honestly shouldn't have been a factor in the slightest. If only it had been scarier, wackier, or funnier. Only one scene (a completely left field chase sequence through a stampede of horses) shows the kind of tone the film should have had.

Dominic Cooper was the absolute right actor to cast as Henry Sturgess (who teaches Honest Abe in the vampire-hunting arts), and Anthony Mackie is good to have on hand as a freed slave, but having the stolid and too rigidly Lincoln-like Benjamin Walker as the great man was a huge mistake. A better or more game actor could have saved the film from becoming too polite, but Walker seems caught in the middle. The film can be dismissed on these grounds alone, so I suppose it's not particularly worth it to comb through the film's ridiculously-PC racial politics or lack of coherent follow-through. It all feels so tasteful, when very little of it should have been. It does look good, though: Caleb Deschanel (who shot the gorgeous "Natural" way back when), lends allure to mundane moments. C

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

It was already a good year for erudite, mannered white filmmakers, with Whit Stillman's strong and sometimes very deeply felt "Damsels in Distress." But Stillman's protege Wes Anderson, following up his excellent "Fantastic Mr. Fox," has made 2012 a great year for the privileged. "Moonrise Kingdom" is a wonderful, tonally adept, beautifully crafted, and near impeccably acted film that dodges most of the traps that its familiar and too-quirky-on-paper scenario sets up. The way "Moonrise" is marketed suggests a film very easy to get on your nerves; in actuality, the complete opposite (at least for me) is true. Once the film finds its footing after a red herring of a precious opening sequence, it's essentially all uphill, a masterful ride of a childish adventure.

The film equally divides itself between the efforts to search for two runaway kids and what the kids are doing while they're being looked for. This could have been an iffy proposition if the "fugitives" in question weren't such strong screen presences. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as Sam and Suzy are given a remarkable amount of time and they, under the calculated direction of Anderson, elevate their material to the stars. They make their story of two emotionally disturbed types (one a neglected, orphaned Khaki Scout; the other a troubled iconoclast) true and relatable, two words that aren't always the most prominent in describing a Wes Anderson film. All of their scenes, from their first meeting, to a clipped montage of letter-writing, to their adolescent courtship and views of love, are pitch-perfect. The rest of the child actors are also superb.

The bit with the adults comes through, too, and I think that Anderson did himself good by working with a lot of new actors. I'd never thought I'd see such gravitas from Bruce Willis, playing a sympathetic cop (Captain Sharp) in the middle of a declining affair with Suzy's mother (an exceptional Frances McDormand). And I'd never thought I'd see such comic chops from Edward Norton, who does a great turn as Khaki Scout Master Ward, a man who takes his job very seriously (to the point of intense depressions while journaling it). The only actor I was really disappointed in was Bill Murray, cuckolded once again by Anderson and not given too much to work with. He has some good moments, but his performance doesn't pop in the same way that fellow regulars' Bob Balaban's or Jason Schwarzman's do (hilarious in only about 5 or so minutes as Cousin Ben).

Another thing I was very impressed with here was Anderson's clearly developed filmmaking technique. He's always been known for his style, but here he creates truly astonishing imagery, playing with light and playfully mimicking '60s and awkward childhood filmmaking devices as well as terrible special effects. He's made quite the film, both human and aesthetically pleasing, and one that continues the run that began with "The Darjeeling Limited" (which I love unabashedly) in very good fashion. A-

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Greek New Wave spearhead Yorgos Lanthimos' "Alps" is at once a more ambitious and slighter work than his previous film, the much-celebrated, bizarrely Oscar-nominated "Dogtooth." Conceptually, it spirals to the levels of Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” reaching for similar theatrical metaphors as a way of prying into the modern ailment of dispassion and disconnection. Yet, at the same time, though this isn’t a fun film to watch in the slightest, Lanthimos has slackened his constricting tone from the film before. Thus, the film doesn’t leave quite the visceral imprint, and moments feel wasted and, shockingly enough, boring. Even so, it’s a strong, mind-bending movie, maybe a bit too vague but probably all in the interest of leaving endless possibilities wide open.

It’s clear throughout that no other director could have made this film, from the head-scratching scenario to weird and consistently offbeat comedy to the deliberately stilted direction to the inevitable descent into sad sex, harsh violence, and despairing madness. Lanthimos follows four people who, oddly enough, offer themselves to pretend to be people who died so that those who lives were impacted by the deaths can resolve their grief. This sounds like a ridiculous and emotionally destructive idea, but, as you might expect, there is a market for it. The whole operation is controlled mercilessly by an EMT who goes by the code name Mont Blanc (Aris Servetalis), which is the biggest of the titular mountains (used as a group name because it is considered essentially nonrelated to the practices of the “substitutes”). The others include a gymnast (Ariane Lebed, incredible in “Attenberg,” extremely disturbing here), her abusive and singleminded coach Matterhorn (Johnny Vekris), and Monta Rosa (Aggeliki Papoulia, looking a lot older here than in “Dogtooth”), who works in the hospital with Mont Blanc (and whose relationship with him is as strange as anything in this movie).

Monta Rosa is the audience’s cipher into this world, though not the single POV, and not a very clear cipher either. She lives a relatively mild existence, rooming with her father (Stavros Psyllakis) and seeming to get a sort of pleasure out of some of the jobs that she takes on (as an angry wife, as an adulterous friend, and, most prominently and dangerously off-the-clock, as a teenage tennis player). But it’s all speculation, as it could be that she’s a transitory figure, substituting for her father (?) and not living anywhere in particular. What comes towards the end fits under this interpretation, though the eventual explosion could be just the typical sort of Lanthimos aberration.

Little is known about the other members of ALPS, and how long the group had been around before being christened that. We do know that the gymnast is suicidal, fragile, and wants more than anything else in the world to perform to pop music, and that Matterhorn the coach feels some sort of lingering affection for his dead barber. The rest is a mystery, and all we know about certain characters in the film is who their favorite actor is, a trait that reflects Lanthimos’ obsession with acting and popular culture. Outside of the narrative growth, “Alps” doesn’t represent much of a push for Lanthimos, more of a refinement of what he did before. For example, the ending is excellent here whereas in “Dogtooth” it came as too much of a sudden shock. There seems to be more here than in that film too, and multiple viewings could help mine all of the possible implications. And even if it’s familiar for Lanthimos, that doesn’t mean it isn’t original and interesting overall. I’d like to see more of a spin on or rethinking of his style next time out, but this will certainly do for now. B+