Beautiful Frauds

"One of the problems with film reviewers is, they see too many movies."                                                                        --Anonymous Internet Wisdom

NPR Essay: Endless Summer Turns 50

Bruce Brown Films, LLC.

"This is Bruce Brown, thank you for watching, I hope you enjoyed my film."

That line, sounding a little like a proud eighth-grader closing out a book report he felt was particularly insightful, is the last piece of narration in the landmark 1964 surfing film The Endless Summer (which didn’t receive its nationwide theatrical release until 1966). It’s a little amateurish, eye-rollingly hokey, and yet irresistibly endearing in its aw-shucks wholesome sincerity. It’s those qualities that have allowed the film to improbably endure as the most influential adventure sports documentary ever made, and warrant another in a few dozen theaters nationwide to celebrate a half-century since it first screened.

Documentaries about sports like surfing, skiing, snow and skateboarding, or mountain climbing are a niche market, often screened only at specialized film festivals before living out their existences being played in the background at ski lodges or in the homes of enthusiasts. Endless Summer didn’t invent the genre, but it was unique in its huge crossover appeal, sparking popular interest in surf culture that has endured at the movies ever since, whether in direct descendants like the 2003 documentary Step into Liquid (directed by Brown’s son, Dana), or Keanu Reeves’ undercover surfing “EFF…BEE…EYE…Agent!” in 1991’s Point Break.

Many of the surfing movies that rode Endless Summer’s wake presented surfing as the apotheosis of living-on-the-edge cool, with ripped dudes and lean ladies speaking a language all their own while devoting their days to the romantic pursuit of the perfect wave. (Spoiler alert: Brown & Co. found it while filming the movie in 1963, and it’s in South Africa.) But Endless Summer has…

Continue reading the rest of my piece over at NPR.

NPR Review: Wish I Was Here

It seems pretty clear what Zach Braff is up to. Ten years after his breakout debut as a writer/director, Garden State, Braff has returned with Wish I Was Here, a partially Kickstarter-funded film that is neither a sequel nor a remake, but feels as much like both of those as a film with no narrative connection to Garden State possibly could.

In both movies, Braff plays a struggling actor at an existential crossroads. In both movies, his mother is dead, and he must deal with a disapproving father. In both, the love of an unfailingly supportive woman is a piece of his salvation. Both are soundtracked with gentle indie and classic rock tunes that cover even the present in a film of dreamy instant nostalgia. The big difference is that this time, he’s married with children, and his second parent is also not long for this world. Braff has taken the same house and redecorated it with the concerns of a guy staring down the latter half of his thirties rather than his late twenties.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that in 2024 we can look forward to Braff’s meditation on middle age, as he plays a journeyman actor approaching 50 and no longer able to nail down work, paying alimony to his ex-wife, and struggling to put his kids through college while he awaits the results of a biopsy on his worrisome enlarged prostate. It’ll be like Richard Linklater’s Before series, only for anxious-but-souful dudes.

It’s not that the issues Braff is dealing with are…

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and the apes feel fine. As for humanity? Not so much, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t care so much about their feelings. This dawn is well past mankind’s twilight.

The excellent 2011 reboot of the Planet of the Apes series ended with a map hinting at the worldwide spread of a man-made contagion. The retrovirus used to make lab apes smart in that film was, it turned out, deadly to humans. A more generic Hollywood franchise might have followed that film up with mankind’s collapse, focusing on the chaos of our desperate attempts to keep society intact as the apes grew stronger and smarter and more organized, hidden away in the forests. But this sequel is anything but generic.

In fact, the film skips over the specifics of that collapse almost entirely, only referencing it through an opening credits audio montage of news reports describing society’s rapid spiral into radio silence. Then director Matt Reeves, taking over the franchise from Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt, drops us into a now well-established ape society a decade down the line.

What few humans are left are…

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: Tammy

Think of Melissa McCarthy playing Megan in Bridesmaids, and you may first remember her defecating in a sink, or driving a minivan full of stolen puppies, or brazenly propositioning an air marshal. McCarthy stole the show with a talent for profanity and pratfalls, but it’s a reflective one-on-one scene playing impromptu life coach to Kristen Wiig’s character that solidified her star-making performance. For that scene, she dropped the clownish shtick for a real human moment that made Megan into a character, not just a caricature.

Tammy, McCarthy’s co-screenwriting debut with her husband, Ben Falcone (who directs for the first time), looks to mine that same dichotomy. McCarthy plays the title role, a slovenly small-town fast-food worker who loses her job, her car, and her husband in the first 10 minutes and spends the rest of the film trying to find some meaning in her broken life with the help of her alcoholic, pill-popping grandma Pearl (Susan Sarandon).

But for the first 20 minutes or so, McCarthy and Falcone seem to have misjudged the best uses of McCarthy’s talents to epic proportions. When she turns her performance up to 11, she doesn’t just demand the spotlight; she creates her own. That allowed her to steal scenes in Bridesmaids, or work effectively as a duo with Sandra Bullock in last year’s The Heat, because there was the constant push and pull of her performance against other strong and contrasting ones.

But the opening scenes of Tammy never

Continue reading my review at NPR.

Filmspotting’s Best of 2014 (So Far)

The guys over at Filmspotting were kind enough to ask me for my favorite movie of this year so far for this week’s episode. Keeping with longstanding Filmspotting tradition, I cheated. You can hear me talk about my pick(s) at 1:18:54 in the podcast.

NPR Review: Snowpiercer

"All things flow from the sacred engine…The engine is forever." The passengers on the titular train in Bong Joon-ho’s grim, post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale essentially deify the locomotive that is their salvation. This "rattling ark" carries the last remainders of humanity, after an attempt to reverse global warming goes terribly awry, plunging the planet into an extinction-event deep freeze. Extinction for all but those on this endlessly circling, perpetual-motion-driven train that can’t stop, or else these few survivors will meet the same fate. When the movie begins, they’ve been running non-stop for 17 years.

There’s nothing subtle about the allegorical implications of this messianic express, nor any of the other metaphors piled up like the ice and snow the train blasts through relentlessly. For the survivors, this technological marvel has become a religion, and as such, dictates appropriate behavior for its acolytes – be they willing followers or not. Science and religion become blurred here, both flawed, but flawed via their filtration through humankind. Even near extinction, humanity finds ways to continue perpetuating cruel class systems and authoritarian oppression of the many to benefit the few.

So it is that those designated poor live in the tail of the train in absolute squalor, sleeping on top of one another and subsisting on gelantinous brown “protein blocks.” (The revelation of their contents, while not people, still packs a disgusting Soylent Green-style shock.) They’re regularly beaten, arbitrarily tortured, and punished to maintain order, As one moves up towards the front…

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: Third Person

Third Person announces itself in a messy tangle of people and locations, an unsolved Rubik’s cube of disparate lives waiting for a hand to start turning. There’s a harried woman running late for an appointment in New York. A stereotypical ugly American receiving a secretive envelope in Rome. A shapely woman changing clothes in a cab in Paris. A woman scared to jump in her pool, an artist teaching his son to finger-paint, and, most importantly, a Writer.

We know immediately that the latter is The Writer, because he sits in a dim room in front of a glowing computer screen, cigarette smoke lazily curling out of the ashtray in front of a bottle of booze, while he pops a couple of pills out of a prescription bottle. The setting is the answer to an unspoken challenge to fit as many movie-author stereotypes into one shot as possible.

Writer/director Paul Haggis has traveled similar territory before, in his Oscar-winning Crash, giving us characters based around well-established types, who marginally intersect in service of conveying an Important Lesson. Where the former film takes on racism, Third Person examines love, particularly as it relates to issues of betrayed trust, victimization and what happens when we catastrophically fail those we love and who love us.

There are three main stories at work here:…

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.

AFI Docs Reviews for Washington City Paper

Four brief reviews for WCP’s coverage of AFI Docs this year:

The Newburgh Sting

The FBI sets up a sting operation to catch a group of would-be terrorists in the tiny, depressed hamlet of Newburgh, NY. But is it more setup than sting, and would these guys have ever done anything like this if the FBI hadn’t put them up to it?

Read my review.

The Possibilities are Endless

My favorite of the docs I’ve seen this year, an impressionistic look at the recovery of singer/songwriter Edwyn Collins from a 2005 stroke that left him comatose and then nearly speechless. The filmmakers cleverly structure the documentary in a way that mimics the slow recovery process. A gorgeous piece of filmmaking.

Read my review.

Back on Board

Starts with the rather shocking revelation that Olympic star Greg Louganis was, at the time of this film’s making, nearly bankrupt and in danger of losing his home, and then jumps back and forth between past and present to provide a deeply personal biography of the diver as well as a look at the progression of LGBT rights and attitudes both in sports and society at large over the past few decades.

Read my review.

Freedom Summer

Well-crafted PBS doc that looks back at Mississippi’s Freedom Summer, an effort to register systemically disenfranchised African-American voters in that state a half-century ago.

Read my review.

NPR Review: 22 Jump Street

If there’s any doubt that 22 Jump Street is a cartoon dressed in live-action clothing, it should disappear completely when Channing Tatum’s lovably lunkheaded Detective Jenko is puzzling over an obvious set of connected clues when – DING! – the answer suddenly comes to him. That “Ding” is literal – the sound is just an office noise from somewhere in the formerly abandoned Vietnamese church where his investigative unit is based. But it might as well be accompanied by a light bulb flickering to life above his head, before he begins running excitedly around the office like Yosemite Sam with the seat of his pants on fire, excited beyond measure that for once a thought has survived the leap between synapses.

"Cartoonish" isn’t a criticism here any more than it would be in reference to a classic Looney Tunes short. It just means that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller feel no need to maintain any tether to reality or plausibility in service of a good gag. And these two are never at a loss for good, self-aware gags – like the red herring tattoo emblazoned on a character who is exactly that.

What worked last time, in Miller and Lord’s unexpectedly successful 2012 adaptation of the ’80s cop drama, 21 Jump Street, also works here. That’s part of the joke. Just as that movie made fun of its own existence by calling attention to the ridiculousness of rebooting an already kind of ridiculous TV show about adult cops posing as high school students, 22 Jump Street recognizes its perceived status as a cash grabbing action sequel. Then it mercilessly mocks the tradition it’s becoming part of.

Acknowledging the fact that…

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: Edge of Tomorrow

It’s rarely a compliment to say that a movie is video game-like. That’s usually shorthand for effects-heavy, narratively lightweight CGI shoot-em-ups. Don’t get me wrong: Edge of Tomorrow has no shortage of big effects set pieces, a lot of invading aliens getting shot at, and the seemingly ageless Tom Cruise performing death-defying acts on a battlefield. Except that he doesn’t defy death, and that’s where the film borrows an important quality of video games to anchor its story: death is never the end.

Death in a video game means rebooting, going back to the last save point and trying again, this time presumably ready for what killed you last time. That’s the situation facing Major William Cage (Cruise), a weaselly military PR flack who gets railroaded onto the battlefield by a hardened general (Brendan Gleeson) who feels it’s soldier’s wartime duty is to spend at least a little time on the front lines. In this case that means putting on a mechanized exoskeletal battle suit and going up against a horde of “mimics,” fearsome alien creatures that have already conquered much of the earth.

Cage, woefully unprepared for battle, can’t even figure out how to turn the safety off on the suit’s guns when he gets dropped, D-Day-style, onto a French beachhead, only to die a few minutes later; and then awake the day before, back on the base just when this nightmare began. So begins his own video game, in which he eventually lives on the battlefield long enough to meet Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a soldier he only knows by reputation, because he’d been using her image in recruiting efforts following her heroic efforts in humanity’s only victory in the war so far.

Turns out…

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.