Beautiful Frauds

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

NPR Review: Transcendence

Transcendence seems like the perfect film for Wally Pfister to kick off his career as a director. Pfister emerged as one of the best cinematographers in the business through his collaborations with Christopher Nolan (which also won him an Oscar, for Inception), and one of the hallmarks of that collaboration has been their dogged commitment to shooting on film rather than digitally, even as the industry has rapidly abandoned the 20th century technology. With Transcendence, a science-fiction tale about an artificial digital intelligence putting our old-fashioned analog intelligence at risk of eradication, Pfister gets to play out that philosophical battle at a level with life-or-death stakes.

He establishes Will Caster (Johnny Depp) as a man with feet on both sides of that divide: He’s the world’s leading researcher in artificial intelligence technology, a man whose life is devoted to creating consciousness out of circuit boards, but his sanctuary at home is a lush, green garden where he listens to old LPs on a record player.

Caster fits neatly into sci-fi archetype as a scientist interested in the noble pursuit of pure knowledge — it’s how that knowledge is used by others that winds up becoming a problem. As he says at one speaking engagement, it’s his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), who wants to change the world; he just wants to understand it.

Not everyone views his intentions as so honorable…

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: Draft Day

Draft Day may be a sports movie, but football isn’t the sport. Games are played, but they’re not on a field. This is a chess match, a poker game and a battle of wills, and in the place of a team full of plucky underdogs trying to come up with an unlikely win in the zero hour, there’s a downtrodden NFL general manager trying to make a series of business deals to save his job and his team’s revenue stream.

If Field of Dreams was cinema’s most heartfelt tribute to the absolute romantic purity of a sport, then Draft Day is its more coldly practical descendant: Heart and starry-eyed idealism is great and all, but we still need to come in below the salary cap.

At the center of both movies is Kevin Costner, now appearing in his fourth feature about the sporting life, though now well past the point where he can be on any kind of field himself. Here he plays Sonny Weaver Jr., general manager of a Cleveland Browns team that is years away from its last winning season. Draft day is the day to try to turn that around, and Sonny is having a rough go of it, between a calculating team owner (Frank Langella) ready to show him the door if he doesn’t make a “splash” with his picks, and a hot-headed coach (Denis Leary) with a penchant for destructive acts of defiance when he doesn’t get his way.

He also faces…

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: Jodorowsky’s Dune

Dune will be the coming of God.”

Hyperbole, thy name is Alejandro Jodorowsky. Early on in Frank Pavich’s documentary about Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s science-fiction epic to the screen back in the 1970s, he not only compares his vision to that of the arrival of a deity, but also claims that it would have given sober viewers the exact feeling of being on LSD.

The Chilean-born director speaks of recruiting not technicians and artists, but fellow spiritual warriors. At one point, he describes a shot from the planned film that he intended would outdo Orson Welles’ legendary opening tracking shot in Touch of Evil — only in service of showing the entirety of the cosmos.

Basically, dream big or just don’t dream at all.

Pavich’s documentary tempers that kind of imaginative chaos by…

Continue reading my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: Bad Words

As the star of Arrested Development, Jason Bateman became best known for being the most mature member of the emotionally stunted Bluth family; the roles that followed were largely of the same tone, casting the actor as the affable, mild-mannered, often put-upon nice guy.

Always playing the straight man amid casts of clowns must have created some built-up performance envy, because in his directorial debut he trades in Mr. Nice Guy for Mr. Guy Trilby, finally getting to play an apparent case of severely arrested development himself.

Trilby is a foul-mouthed 40-year-old who bears the unhealed emotional scars of a childhood trauma, and his grand plan to make things right involves exploiting a loophole in the rules of a national spelling bee that will allow him to compete against kids.

Of course, word difficulty at that level of competition is enough to stump most people, so age isn’t necessarily much of an advantage for Trilby. But what does give this middle-school dropout a leg up….

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Chances are you’ve already made up your mind about Wes Anderson. Either you’re willing to go with the meticulous symmetry of his dollhouse compositions, the precious tchotchke-filled design sensibility and the stilted formality of his dialogue, or you check out of his storybook worlds in the first five minutes. On the evidence of his eighth feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s clear no one is more aware of his idiosyncracies than Anderson himself — and he’s not apologizing.

Grand Budapest is a culmination of the tinkly music-box aesthetic of Anderson’s work to date, turned up to 11. If you’ve already tuned out, all the two dimensional tracking shots, whip-pans, color coordination and stop-motion animation is going to come crashing down on you like a truckload of playfully plinking harpsichords. But if you meet Anderson on his terms, you’ll reach the end and just want more.

The film’s structure is a justification of the distant remove from anything resembling reality, with Anderson nesting the primary narrative within a series of framing stories. The primary tale is a zany caper set in the fictional Eastern European republic of Zubrowka, involving murder, stolen art, a prison break and a mountainside toboggan chase. At the center is Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), concierge of the mountaintop resort of the title, and his lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori).

That plot unfolds in 1932, but…

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: Non-Stop

"Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?" So asks one character in Edgar Wright’s excellent 2007 comedic tribute to buddy-cop movies, Hot Fuzz, in a moment meant to highlight the simultaneous ridiculousness and awesomeness of that particular action-movie trope.

In Non-Stop, Liam Neeson doesn’t fire two guns, nor does he jump through the air. He does, however, grab a gun in midair while in a zero-G nosedive on a trans-Atlantic flight, and fire said gun whilst floating through the cabin. In slow motion. It’s Liam Neeson at his Neesoniest, and yet another entry in his expanding late-career bloom into gruff and commanding action hero.

Non-Stop bears a surface similarity to the glossy European-style high trash of 2008’s Taken, but Neeson’s Bill Marks in this film is a far cry from the ex-CIA operative — “with a very particular set of skills” — he played in that film. Marks is a Federal Air Marshal, and his particular skills largely involve numbing himself with a very Irish coffee on the way to his next flight and managing to have a smoke undetected in the airplane lavatory. The flight attendants on his regular New York-London route know his habits well enough that they bring him bottled water when he futilely orders a gin and tonic.

We see the flight as he sees it:…

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: Pompeii

You can say this for director Paul W.S. Anderson: He gets the basic purpose of 3-D movies. While the current renaissance in cinematic stereoscopy is touted as a method for creating more “immersive” experiences for audiences, the list of movies that achieve that lofty goal can be counted on one hand: Gravity, Hugo, Life of Pi. Most 3-D exists to bilk customers out of a few extra bucks.

But as it was conceived back in the mid-20th century, 3-D was all about kitschy spectacle, about giving an audience a cheap thrill by making them duck involuntarily in their seats. In that context, Anderson’s repeated hurling of flaming volcanic projectiles directly at the screen — the dominant feature of the latter third of Pompeii — is firmly in the lovably trashy spirit of the ’50s drive-in.

Pity that beyond those pyroclastic missiles, Anderson seems to want us to see his film and its hackneyed romance — basically Titanic with swords and sandals — as a serious-minded historical epic. If there were a hint of a sense of play or humor in the filmmaking, beyond a briefly amusing moment of comeuppance for a foppish slaveowner, Pompeii might be a fun February diversion instead of a dull, eye-rolling slog.

Maybe it’s not all Anderson’s fault…

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: RoboCop

Gotta feel a little sorry for director José Padilha, tasked with taking over an action-classic remake that had been stuck in development for years — and that fans of the much-admired original eyed with considerable skepticism.

But let’s also be honest for a moment about the movie Padilha is revisiting: Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop, a B movie punching far above its weight, with some cheekily subversive Establishment-tweaking and brilliantly executed subtext buried under some truly clunky performances and stock ’80s action. In short: There was plenty of room for improvement. And in taking advantage of that, Padilha’s new take on the material isn’t the disaster some might have predicted.

It doesn’t hurt that Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer have even more fertile political material to work with in 2014. Verhoeven’s film had no shortage of targets — among them rampant crime, corruption, the vapidity of media and entertainment, and corporate greed. The update manages to work with all of those while also taking high-caliber shots at drone warfare, flag-waving cable-news talking heads and the vulnerability of legislators to money and marketing.

The basic story is the same:…

Continue reading my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: A Fantastic Fear of Everything

Pity the plight of the writer — at least as seen through the eyes of the filmmaker. The solitary business of writing is the jumping-off point for many a claustrophobic celluloid descent into madness, whether it’s in Barton Fink's surreal journey through a hellish Hollywood, in Charlie Kaufman's fractured look at writer's block in Adaptation, or in The Shining's Jack Torrence getting a touch of murderous cabin fever while snowbound at the Overlook Hotel. Even a relatively well-adjusted writer like Misery's Paul Sheldon gets put through the ringer by a deranged fan. There's no winning.

Crispian Mills and Chris Hopewell’s A Fantastic Fear of Everything isn’t going to inspire a spike in creative writing MFA enrollments, for its part; it pretty much throws more than one variation of the above at Jack, its beleaguered and bedraggled central author. Unfortunately, it won’t inspire much else, either. Mills, who also wrote the screenplay, is better known as the frontman for the band Kula Shaker, while Hopewell is a music video director — and their first stab at feature filmmaking both benefits from their prior careers and bears the marks of their inexperience.

As a songwriter, for instance, Mills probably knows well the anxious frustration of sitting in a room alone, trying to force an idea into existence. And he magnifies that experience by orders of magnitude in creating Jack (Simon Pegg), a children’s-book author attempting to make the leap to TV writing via a series on 19th-century mass murderers.

Which, of course, requires a lot of research — and as he descends further into the minds of maniacs…

Read the rest of my review over at NPR.

NPR Review: 12 O’Clock Boys

"This is our tradition, our culture, our release."

So says one of the 12 O’Clock Boys — a large group of dirt bike and ATV enthusiasts who, depending on your perspective, either grace or terrorize the streets of Baltimore each Sunday with acrobatic feats on their motorbikes. They weave through the city traffic, popping extended wheelies, the line of their bikes almost at vertical, approximating the hands of a clock at noon.

Lotfy Nathan’s documentary seems, at first, to be something we’ve seen before. Over the course of three years, he follows Pug, a sweet, small-for-his-age 13-year-old who aspires to two things: to parlay his love of animals into a veterinary career, and to one day ride with the big boys. For now, he’s practicing doughnuts and wheelies on an adorable miniature ATV.

This is the story of a struggle against inner-city adversity, one talented child finding his escape, avoiding gang life through a potentially more positive, less violent community tradition, right?

But Nathan’s film defies easy categorization…

Continue reading the rest of my review over at NPR.