Friday, May 23, 2014

The Spectacular Now (2013) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Aug 2, 2013.

Potential Spoilers: I reveal a little more about the plot than I normally do in reviews, primarily because I want to discuss the way the film progresses during its second half. There are no big reveals in the review - it's not the kind of movie that features twists, anyway - but those who want to avoid plot details may wish to return after having seen the film.

One of the criteria I use assess the lasting power of a movie is whether the characters stay with me after I leave the theater. With many films, even those I recommend or classify as good, that's not the case. With The Spectacular Now, it is. The two leads, Miles Teller's Sutter Keely and Shailene Woodley's Aimee Finicky are so well drawn and believably portrayed that it's impossible not to accept them as real. Their tribulations don't feel like something lifted off the page of a movie script. In addition to Teller and Woodley, credit for this goes to director James Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, who may be on their way to a second indie success (their first one being 500 Days of Summer).

The Spectacular Now's DNA contains elements of the John Hughes teen comedy-dramas of the '80s. There's also a little Cameron Crowe - in fact, replace the soundtrack with something more dynamic and it might be easy to mistake this for a Crowe film. The first two-thirds are fairly light as they navigate the familiar pathway of a high school relationship that develops between two unlikely opposites. But The Spectacular Now doesn't opt for the cheap payoff. Instead, the final half-hour plunges into territory that's darker and more serious than what we get in most movies of this sort. The transition from teen romantic comedy to dual coming of age story is, for the most part, handled smoothly. We don't feel like we have been jerked out of one movie and plopped into another. The consistency of the characters is a key reason for this. The cracks that expand into fissures have been there all along.

Sutter Keely is a popular 18-year old who approaches high school graduation like he's been repeatedly listening to Glory Days. When an adult asks him about his plans for the future, he says he thinks growing up is overrated then turns the table on the teacher by asking him if he's happy. Sutter's unwillingness to face the future becomes the irreconcilable difference in his relationship with Cassidy (Brie Larson), who quickly transitions from girlfriend to ex-girlfriend. As funny and clever as he can be, there's something broken deep within Sutter. His relationship with his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is strained. There's not much of an emotional bond between him and his sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And his father (Kyle Chandler) has been out of the picture for half his life.

He meets Aimee when she discovers him lying on a lawn one morning while she's doing her paper route. He's not sure how he got there - he has a tendency to drink too much and the night before was a case in point. With little else to do, Sutter decides to accompany Aimee on the rest of her route. She's thrilled to have the company of a popular guy - something unusual for a wallflower like her. Despite his protestations to his friends that it's just platonic, his relationship with Aimee grows increasingly amorous. They challenge one another and discover a surprising and unexpected compatibility. Then Sutter learns his father's whereabouts. He invites Aimee to go with him on a road trip and that's when everything changes - both in terms of the movie's predictability and its tone.

What The Spectacular Now accomplishes in its final 30 minutes cannot be overstated. Since the movie is told from Sutter's perspective, it's perhaps not surprising that we gain a new and deeper understanding of his character as a result of his encounter with his father and the aftermath. The movie, however, provides an equally vivid portrait of Aimee as events - some of them seemingly harsh - forge her in the kiln of late adolescence. The final scene, which I won't reveal here, may be seen by some as abrupt and unsatisfying, but if you think about where the characters are in that moment, the paths they have taken to get to that point, and the way the actors play the scene, there's no cliffhanger. The situation is obvious. We know how the next scene would play out if there was another one before the end credits.

The Spectacular Now is perfectly cast. Miles Teller channels equal parts John Cusack and Patrick Dempsey in his portrayal of a likeable goof whose charm starts to wear thin once you get to know him. Shailene Woodley, best known for The Secret Life of the American Teenager and possibly destined to become Mary Jane Watson at some point in the future, is credible as the shy, nerdy girl who blossoms because of Sutter's friendship. And this isn't the case of a Hollywood romantic comedy makeover - the transformation is believable. Aimee dresses better, takes more care with her hair, and applies a little makeup, but she doesn't go from ugly duckling to supermodel. Effective support is provided by Brie Larson, whose role as Sutter's ex doesn't fit into the usual romantic complications category, and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler as the mom and dad whose parental style is critical to understanding Sutter's personality.

The Spectacular Now is something many movies about teenagers aren't: smart. It treats the characters and audience with respect. It doesn't resort to dumb humor and bathroom jokes to enliven the proceedings. The sex scene is tasteful but gets the point(s) across. The movie's initial structure is familiar enough to establish a layer of comfort that falls away once we realize that we're headed for a deeper, richer experience than the usual boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl-back. Through August, 2013 has been characterized by big budget disappointments and under-the-radar surprises. The Spectacular Now is one of the most remarkable entries into the latter category. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** ½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: comedy, drama, romance, teenager

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Her (2013) [R] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli for, on Jan. 9, 2014.

Never accuse Spike Jonze of lacking ambition. His latest cinematic endeavor, Her, could be considered meditative science fiction or perhaps an iRomance. Regardless of how it's designated, Her uses a familiar idea to sci-fi fans - machine sentience - and spins it in a new and exciting direction. In addition to exploring how that might work in a near-future, real-world setting, Jonze looks at the ways in which people react to non-traditional relationships and how interpersonal interaction might change in an increasingly computer-dominated society.

Events transpire at an unspecified time in the future. The world is recognizable but subtly different. Everyone is plugged in. People wear earpieces to communicate with their personal data systems. Dictation has replaced typing and video games are physically immersive, using holographic technology for true 3D. Communication is often done anonymously and sex sometimes doesn't involve any physical contact. Viewers who live on the electronic cutting edge will see a vision of the future not radically advanced beyond the present.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a handwritten letter writer. His job is to sit at a terminal and craft letters (a lost art) from one person to another. The writing is done on a computer but in a way that creates a reasonable facsimile of something inscribed longhand. He lives an isolated life, preferring to stay at home rather than go out. He's in the process of a prolonged divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and rarely spends time with his best friends, Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher). One day, everything changes for Theodore when he downloads a personal Operating System (OS) - a product with an artificial intelligence far more advanced than anything otherwise available. He chooses the female option and is introduced to Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), who becomes Theodore's constant companion. As she gains sentience, he falls in love with her but, as with all relationships, no matter how unconventional, the honeymoon phase can't last forever.

Theodore is an intriguing individual, played with just the right amount of awkwardness by Joaquin Phoenix. He's not completely inept around other people but his interpersonal relationships are limited - a condition that is enabled by the social conditions under which he lives. His friends are more like accessories than necessities. He has a long history of failed romantic relationships - a fling with Amy that turned into a friendship, a failed marriage, a late night chat session that enters bizarre territory, and a blind date (played by Olivia Wilde) that takes an ugly turn. Considering how badly things have gone with Theodore and flesh-and-blood women, is it any wonder he finds bliss with an entity he can never touch?

Samantha is a fascinating character, cut from the whole cloth of hard sci-fi stories that postulate the possibility of a sufficiently advanced AI gaining consciousness. Jonze takes this as a given; we never doubt that Samantha is as real as Theodore. For a while, she has a Pinocchio syndrome in which she tries to find a way to become a real live girl and interact physically with Theodore. A failed experiment using a stand in (played by Portia Doubleday) leads to her becoming comfortable in her own skin, so to speak. Her asks a lot of questions about Samantha that it can't (and probably shouldn't) answer, like what does love mean to an OS? Or when an OS has an orgasm, what is being experienced - pleasure, a simulation of pleasure, or something else? It's impressive that a movie can get a viewer to think about things like these when too many films are interested in deadening the intellect.

Certainly, the relationship that develops between Theodore and Samantha is unusual, but Jonze is careful not to be judgmental about it. His approach isn't to deride his main character for being so detached from the human experience that he can only find happiness with a machine. Instead, Jonze likens the Theodore / Samantha pairing to many couplings viewed at one time or another as nonstandard: mixed-race, May / December, homosexual, etc. In Her, some characters react negatively to Theodore's revelation that he's dating an OS. One woman calls him weird and is repulsed by him. Others treat it as irrelevant and don't see anything wrong with it. There's a lovely scene in which Theodore and Samantha double date with one of Theodore's co-workers and his girlfriend.

The movie is talky, but one wouldn't expect anything different when half of the lead couple exists only as a voice. Scarlett Johansson never appears in the flesh, which gives her only her vocal chords to work with. Although I wouldn't go so far as to argue for a Best Supporting Actress for Johansson, she successfully brings Samantha to life. It would be interesting to watch a cut of the movie with the original actress (Samantha Morton) in the role and see how it differs.

Jonze doesn't make conventional movies; he's a lot like Terry Gilliam in that way. Yet his films, which have included Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, almost always work because they take chances and don't underestimate the viewer's intelligence. Her is another such production. It's audacious but also genuine. It's emotionally true and demands much from its audience not in terms of suspension of disbelief but of empathy with the main character. [Berardinelli's rating: *** ½ out of 4]

Labels: drama, romance, sci-fi

Blogger’s comment: While Spike Jonze definitely breaks new ground, what would have been truly futuristic would be to take the next logical step and extend Samantha’s existence into either (1) a 3D holographic reality with which Theodore could interact in a virtual reality environment, or (2) an android with which Theodore could interact in his physical world. The latter scenario has already been explored in Cherry 2000 (1987) in which a businessman falls in love with his android wife, and then goes to extreme lengths to find a replacement, after she suffers a total internal electrical meltdown.

Before Midnight (2013) [R] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli for, May 22, 2013.

Richard Linklater's Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) looks to be headed in the same direction as Michael Apted's Up series: an exploration of the human condition over the passage of time. When Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy made Before Sunrise in 1995, there was no thought that it would become an episode in something longer. It was intended to be a one-off movie and, as such, it was perhaps the most romantic film of the decade. The deliciously ambiguous ending, coupled with a genuine affection for the characters (both by the participants and those who saw the film), led Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy to revisit Jesse and Celine nine years later. Now, a second sequel allows us to see how the characters have evolved since 2004. Based on hints dropped by the filmmakers, it wouldn't be surprising for there to be a least one more Before (presumably in 2022) if not more than that. Given the ages of those involved, there's no reason we couldn't grow old alongside Jesse and Celine.

The three movies comprising the series as it currently stands all have different tones and intentions. The one similarity is that they're all verbose and thoughtful. These films are driven by dialogue, much of which has an improvisational feel. Richard Linklater's camerawork is simple and unobtrusive. He delights in long takes that allow the characters to interact naturally. The original Before Sunrise was scripted. The sequels came into being in a workshop fashion with Hawke and Delpy intimately involved in the writing process. They are collaborative efforts.

The Before movies show different phases of love. In Before Sunrise, it's a delirious, exhilarating immersion into the intensity of love-at-first-sight. It's undiluted romance, with two people desperate to dilate time as they revel in the moment. In Before Sunset, regret wars with optimism. With the clock ticking, Jesse and Celine attempt to reconnect and see if the spark that drew them together nine years earlier is still alive. The ending argues it may be. Now, in Before Midnight, we find something altogether different. Sunrise and Sunset gave us a nine-year gap in which Jesse and Celine were apart. Sunset and Midnight provide us with an equal gap except, in this case, they have spent the time together. Now, like any long-term committed couple, they are having trouble coping with life in each other's company. The Honeymoon Phase is long gone. They are discovering just how much hard work is involved in keeping a relationship in place once the giddy times are over.

The strength of Before Midnight is how real everything feels. The centerpiece conversation, a one-on-one between Jesse and Celine in a hotel room, is powerful and visceral because of its universality. It doesn't offer Hollywood's version of a husband/wife conflict. The ebb and flow of the argument is neither overblown nor underdone. As I was watching this twenty-odd minute sequence unfold, I was gripped by the unassailable feeling that I have lived this. The sense of verisimilitude is powerful. These are issues that every couple faces. These are how real-life fights start, climax, and perhaps finish. Scenes like this can be beginnings, endings, or something in-between. Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke understand this and keep us guessing. There's tension here about whether we're seeing the end of a relationship whose improbable beginning was told nearly twenty years ago.

There's also something in Before Midnight about how the passage of time changes us. When we first met Jesse and Celine, they were in their early 20s and unfettered by responsibility. In Before Sunset, the commitments of adulthood had begun to weight them down. Now, with both of them at age 41, they have twin girls. They struggle balancing careers and family, and things are especially difficult for Jesse, who is keenly aware that his role as an absentee father to a 14-year old son is causing him to miss out on a lot of important moments - moments he'll never get back.

Before Midnight can be loosely divided into two pieces. The first does something neither of the previous movies explored: having Jesse and Celine interact meaningfully with other characters. There's a 20-minute dinner sequence that feels like something scripted by Eric Rohmer (except that it's in English instead of French). Then, around the midway point, Before Midnight switches to provide us with nearly an hour of Jesse and Celine, walking and talking. This time, however, there's a sharper edge to their conversations. Tinges of bitterness and world-weariness infect the phrases. These are still recognizably the people we met at 23 and revisited at 32, but they're different as well. The romance in them has been replaced by practicality. Age and familiarity have done their dispiriting work. There's nothing surprising about this except that it's such a rare thing for a movie - any movie - to acknowledge.

As Vienna was a supporting character in Before Sunrise and Paris was more than just a location in Before Sunset, Greece fills a similar role here, although the loving views of the rich landscape are limited with the final quarter of the movie transpiring in a hotel room. The settings have never defined the action in the Before movies but they lend color to the proceedings. Just as the events in Before Sunrise could never have occurred if both participants weren't in a foreign locale and things couldn't have transpired as they did in Before Sunset if Celine wasn't at home, so Before Midnight once again demands a place of limited familiarity.

Delpy and Hawke know these characters. It's tempting to wonder how much of the material here is autobiographical. The actors are so convincing that it's tempting to see a blurring between fact and fiction that may not exist. Physically, the years have been kinder to Delpy than to Hawke (or at least that's how it appears on screen). She's much the same - a little older, obviously, but still attractive and capable of radiance when she smiles. He wears the time more roughly, although that could have something to do with the grooming and haircut. Still, Hawke's face looks more lined and careworn.

For this series, the titles have predicted their tones. Before Sunrise is easily the lightest and most optimistic. As with all love stories, it's a fantasy. Before Sunset interweaves the remnants of that fantasy with more concrete concerns. Before Midnight is a darker movie. The fantasy has evaporated. This is a more intense and at times unsettling experience. In the end, however, there's still room for hope and optimism. But the relationship of Jesse and Celine is never going back to where it once was. That's the thing about sequels. By advancing the characters and their relationships, the added layers of complexity may take the story in unforeseen directions.

Jean-Luc Godard famously stated that The cinema is truth at 24 frames per second. Often, when faced with overproduced blockbusters and special effects laden mainstream fare, it's easy to forget that. It takes something like Before Midnight to remind us of what truth means. It's a delicate thing, easily missed either in whole or in part. There's nothing wrong with escapism; I love many escapist motion pictures. But it's a rare and powerful thing to confront something honest and real on the big screen. It stays with you in a way that nothing else can. Before Midnight is fiction but it might as well be a documentary. [Berardinelli's rating: **** out of 4]

Labels: drama, romance

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) [PG] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for, Dec. 24, 2013.

One could make a compelling argument that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty does what a good remake should do: it takes the essential premise of the original and, while retaining some of the names and touchstones of its predecessor, moves in a new direction. Viewed from that standpoint, Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is both familiar and fresh. Fans of the 1947 classic won't feel marooned by a filmmaker with no affection for the original nor will they believe they're watching an inferior carbon copy. Unfortunately, where The Secret Life of Walter Mitty lets down its audience is with a flaccid narrative. It's hard to pinpoint the cause of the problem, but Walter's story never engages. His adventures seem perfunctory. The movie comes to life when stars Ben Stiller (who plays Walter) and Kristen Wiig (who plays his love interest, Cheryl) share the screen but it's less engrossing during the long globetrotting sequences that have Walter on the trail of hotshot photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn).

Is the underlying premise of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty too innocent for a 2013 film? The story is about a meek office worker who lives vicariously through the photographic negatives he processes at Life magazine. When a prized photo - the one designated for the cover of the final print issue of the magazine - is missing, Walter is forced to go on a real-life adventure to locate the photographer. Along the way, he finds himself and gains a new appreciation of life. Films of this sort may have worked well in a simpler era but this one could have difficulty finding an audience in a time when a defining social characteristic is cynicism. The only cynics in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are the bad guys, like Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), the new boss who berates and belittles Walter before firing him.

The most enjoyable parts of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty are his fantasies, such as one in which he stands up to his boss in a way he never would in real life. The actual adventure arc, which takes up more than half the movie's running length and transports Walter to Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan, is more like a travelogue with a couple of action/adventure set pieces. The scenery is beautiful but the story seems to be spinning its wheels. The objective is to get Walter to experience life before he catches up to Sean but there are a lot of sequences when the movie seems to be stalling for time.

Ben Stiller, who chaperoned this movie out of development hell and all the way to the big screen, has the perfect everyman quality to play Walter. The only other big-name actor I could see in this role is Tom Hanks from about a decade ago. Kristen Wiig tones down some of her more annoying comedic mannerisms to present an attractive and appealing Cheryl. She and Stiller evidence perfect PG chemistry - sparks don't necessarily fly but one can imagine a great big heart with an arrow through it appearing the air above them. They're cute.

There are a couple of high profile actors in small roles - Shirley MacLaine as Walter's mother and Sean Penn as the elusive photographer. Adam Scott is the stereotypical bottom line-oriented boss whose business-minded approach clashes with Walter's whimsical one. If there's one thing missing from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it's that Hendricks never gets a comeuppance. In fact, as the film moves toward its climax, he vanishes from the story. It's an odd choice and I'm not sure it works.

The word old-fashioned can be used to describe The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; unfortunately, that's not necessarily the kind of description that will translate into box office success. This is a moderately enjoyable but largely forgettable confection. It's being marketed as a family film but young children with short attention spans will probably be bored. Stiller deserves credit for remaining true to the spirit of the original; unfortunately, he fails to recapture the magic and that makes the 2013 iteration of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty only fitfully satisfying. [Berardinelli's rating: ** ½ out of 4]

Labels: adventure, comedy, drama, fantasy

Friday, May 9, 2014

Pacific Rim (2013) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli, for, July 11, 2013.

Call it Godzilla (Toho version) on steroids, or perhaps Transformers with a heart. Either way, there's no mystery about what Pacific Rim is and, more importantly, what it delivers. It's the perfect summer spectacle, with giant robots pounding on monsters, monsters stomping on cities, and the kind of mayhem that only big theaters with big screens and big sound systems can truly convey. There's not a single original moment to be found in Pacific Rim's 130-minute running time, but that doesn't much matter because the familiar beats are conveyed with maximum expertise intended to provide a visceral experience.

The movie begins with a concise recap of what has gone before. Alien creatures called kaiju [Japanese for strange beast or monster] by the world media have arisen from a rift deep in the Pacific Ocean to wreak havoc on humanity. To counter this threat, the world governments band together to fund the jaeger [German for hunter] program - giant robots piloted by two mind-linked humans that can go toe-to-toe with the kaiju. For a while, the jaeger gain superiority and the pilots achieve rock star popularity. Then things start getting tough. The kaiju become bigger and more dangerous and the frequency of their appearances increase. The jaeger are systematically destroyed until there are only four left. The program is de-funded and, led by Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), forced to go underground and work as a resistance.

At the height of the war, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is an elite jaeger pilot but, after his brother is killed and his robot severely damaged, he disappears into obscurity. Now, with the world on the brink, Pentecost locates him and pulls him back into active duty. His robot has been reconstructed and upgraded. All he needs is a new co-pilot - something he finds in Pentecost's ward, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Their first trial run is a disaster but, when a pair of kaiju attack Hong Kong and disable the other three jaeger, there's no option but to send Raleigh and Mako into action.

This Hong Kong battle, which occurs about two-thirds of the way through the movie, is without a doubt Pacific Rim's highlight. It's an adrenaline-and-testosterone cocktail that fans of monster movies, robot movies, and high octane action films will swallow in a single gulp. This is bravura filmmaking that only top-notch, special effects-comfortable directors can choreograph. The thing that really makes this work, however, is the human element. There are people inside the robots and Pacific Rim never forgets that. In fact, it goes out of its way to develop and amplify the friendship/romance between Raleigh and Mako. Both are damaged souls searching for redemption and the chemistry between Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi is effective enough to make us believe in these two as friends and future lovers.

The primary difference between Pacific Rim and Transformers is easy to identify. For Michael Bay, Transformers is all about the wow factor. It's about explosions, robot-on-robot smackdowns, and cutting edge special effects. Everything else is an annoying detail, sometimes marginalized and often ignored. For Guillermo del Toro, the wow factor is paramount as well, but del Toro also cares about the other things: character development, relationships, narrative progression, and so forth. Transformers is an extended highlight reel; Pacific Rim is a complete film.

Pacific Rim is all about visuals so a comment or two is warranted about the presentation. The 3-D is, for the most part, used effectively but, as is often the case with this technology, there's an issue. About 75% of Pacific Rim transpires at night or deep under the ocean, where light is at a premium. 3-D by its nature diminishes the amount of light that reaches the viewer's eyes, and this becomes an issue. There are times when it's difficult to see what's happening in 3-D. Take off the glasses, however, and the action becomes clearer even as the image turns fuzzy. The trade-off isn't necessary in 2-D.

There are some pacing issues. The comic relief featuring Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as rival scientists is lame and distracting and has a smaller payoff than one might reasonably expect. The two actors play their roles broadly, aiming for laughs by being spastic and off-the-wall; it's not an asset. This subplot also gives a chance for the great Ron Perlman to make an appearance and, although Perlman is always welcome, the role is unnecessary. This is del Toro's solution to avoid things becoming too serious and it doesn't really work. Because as soon as the movie cuts away from Day and Gorman, it's back to citywide devastation and thousands of people dying. A throwaway shot of Newton's Cradle is more chuckle-worthy than fifteen minutes of the antics of these two.

Pacific Rim could be accused of an anticlimactic finale, but that's because the Hong Kong battle is so good that it can't be topped by what happens in the final fifteen minutes. So, in a strange way, it's more of a strength than a weakness. There are also some nice moments that have nothing to do with big-time special effects. One of the most memorable, human scenes features Raleigh and Mako squaring off in hand-to-hand combat to determine if she's worthy of being his partner. And just about everything with Idris Elba is solid… but that's only to be expected.

Pacific Rim shows what del Toro can do when given a big budget and free rein. It's not as thoughtful a piece as Pan's Labyrinth but it's every bit kick-ass as the two Hellboy movies. And, although it's a genre film with lots of pyrotechnics, it's not so stupid that it requires disclaimers to go along with a positive review. It's big, loud, and fun but doesn't leave the viewer feeling vaguely insulted about the filmmaker's opinion of who's watching. Del Toro's nearly fanboy-ish joy for the genre shines through but it's also apparent that understands how to make a good movie, and that's a differentiator between this and many seemingly similar tent pole productions. [Berardinelli's rating: *** out of 4]

Labels: action, adventure, alien-invasion, sci-fi