Sunday, February 14, 2016

Paper Towns (2015) [PG-13] ***+

A film review by James Berardinelli for on July 24, 2015.

Paper Towns is the third coming-of-age story to reach screens during the summer of 2015, following in the wake of the vastly superior Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Dope. Based on the novel by John Green, Paper Towns is an exercise in artifice. The contrived storyline offers little opportunity for characters to grow and the meandering narrative trajectory and anticlimactic ending will have some viewers wondering why they bothered.

Coming-of-age stories work best when they are populated with relatable characters. In Paper Towns, the narrator and protagonist, Quentin (Nat Wolff), is grounded but uninteresting. He is defined by a single personality trait: his conformity. He's a studious guy who gets good grades, never cuts class, and doesn't sneak out of his house at night. He is seduced out of his cocoon by the girl across the street. She's Margo (Cara Delevingne), one of the most popular girls in school and Quentin's private obsession. Like Quentin, Margo isn't a real person - she's a wafer-thin movie confection defined exclusively by her free-spiritedness. Since Paper Towns is presented from Quentin's perspective, it's understandable that Margo would be so poorly drawn (we're seeing her as he sees her, not as she is). It's less explicable why the same is true of Quentin.

The movie opens with an interminable 30 minute setup. For about half that time, we are treated to glimpses of Quentin and Margo's childhood as they grow up as best friends. (Their differences are italicized in a scene where they are shown bicycling side-by-side with him wearing a helmet and her without one.) Through this, Nat Wolff provides a voiceover talking about how invigorating it was to be around Margo but how, in the end, they drifted apart.  Then, one night a few weeks before the Senior Prom, she hijacks him to be her accomplice on an adventure that includes a series of revenge-fueled pranks. After that, she disappears but leaves behind a series of clues for amateur sleuth Quentin to piece together. In order to find the love of his life, he must leave his comfort zone, even going so far as to skip school and embark on a 1200-mile road trip.

There's a saying about road trip movies that the journey, not the destination, matters. In Paper Towns, the journey is dramatically inert - an empty half-hour comprised of minor misadventures and inane chatter among the five friends in the car. The movie's final act is disappointing. I admire what the film is trying do with respect to defying conventions but the means to achieve this are awkward. After sitting through about 95 minutes, one deserves a little more than sermonizing about what it means to grow up.

Wolff, who was fine in The Fault in Our Stars (last year's John Green adaptation), shows little in the way of emotion or range here. It's hard to say whether the blame lies with the actor (and, by extension, director Jake Schreier) or with the character. Quentin is dull and his development as a person seems more cosmetic than organic. Has he really changed? British model Cara Delevingne imbues Margo with an intriguing quirkiness but she's not on screen long enough to make more than a fleeting impression and she and Wolff share no chemistry. The actors who portray Quentin's friends and traveling companions are as forgettable as the characters they play.

Paper Towns is perhaps best viewed as a flight of fancy. That's the only way to overcome the suspension of disbelief curve. Little of what happens in the movie - either during the initial night adventure, the subsequent investigation, or the road trip - could happen in the real world, so we must assume this is a parallel universe where adults are as relevant and intelligible as those in a Charlie Brown cartoon. This is, after all, a movie about teenagers. Why clutter it up with old people?

To an extent, Paper Towns is all about perspective. Seen through the eyes of Quentin, this is the story of how a boy, trapped by his own fears and insecurities, learns to break free as a result of his single-minded pursuit of love. A different but no less valid point-of-view might argue that this about how a boy, driven by an unhealthy obsession for a girl, acts recklessly and irresponsibly (nearly causing death or injury to five people) in his stalking of her. A better, more self-aware movie (consider The Spectacular Now, also written by the duo of Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber) would have found a way to fuse the two interpretations, but this rote screenplay lacks the necessary insight.

The success of The Fault in Our Stars has led distributor Fox to be bullish about the prospects for Paper Towns, but the films aren't comparable. The Fault in Our Stars is heartfelt and guileless - a touching depiction of what happens when youth clashes with mortality. Paper Towns is shallow and chokes on its own glibness. It's hard to believe both movies germinated from the pen of the same author. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** out of 4 stars]

Blogger’s comment: Screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber co-wrote (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars. All of those are far superior to Paper Towns.

Labels: comedy, drama, mystery, romance, teenager

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Martian (2015) [PG-13] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Oct. 2, 2015.

The Martian is the latest in a series of realistic science fiction films - movies that eschew the space opera elements of the genre and concentrate instead on believable aspects. Following in the wake of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (and featuring two of the same cast members), The Martian speculates about how a near-future manned Mars mission might evolve. With the exception of a slightly over-the-top ending, the film mostly avoids the Hollywood-isms that sometimes degrade science fiction into futuristic fantasy. This is neither an action-oriented motion picture nor a special effects extravaganza. It's an introspective story about what it might be like to be the sole inhabitant of a distant world and knowing that instant communication isn't possible and a rescue is at best a year away. It's also an examination of how necessity truly can be the mother of invention - not only for the survivor but for those on Earth seeking to find a way to save him.

The events of The Martian transpire in the near future, although an exact date isn't given. As the movie opens, the six-person crew of the Ares 3 mission are on the planet's surface conducting experiments and gathering samples. In addition to astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and mission Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), the crew includes pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), chemist Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), and specialists Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara) and Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan). The approach of a major storm - one that has the potential of tearing apart the fragile artificial habitat and, literally, tipping over their escape rocket - forces Lewis to order an emergency evacuation. In the race to the escape craft, Watney is struck by a piece of flying debris, lost, and presumed dead. He is reluctantly left behind by his fellows. When NASA receives the news, director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Mars mission controller Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) make the news of the death public.

Watney isn't dead, however. Although injured, he is able to use an emergency medical kit to close a wound and, after coming to terms with the enormity of his situation, he assesses what he will have to do to survive. Within a month, NASA has become aware of his survival and, not long after, rudimentary communications are possible. The film then becomes a race against time to save Watney before his provisions run out.

Most movies about Mars (and there have been a lot of them) are hybrid science fiction-horror or science fiction-thriller productions with little emphasis on the science fiction part of the equation. Since The Martian isn't interested in the exploitation aspect, that makes it an outlier in the Mars canon. Instead, it's a close cousin to sci-fi stories like Moon, Gravity, and Interstellar and deals with some of the same themes and ideas as Cast Away and Touching the Void. The Martian's drama evolves from showing how the character copes with isolation. There are certainly physical challenges but the psychological difficulties are the most compelling ones.

Although the concept of a modern day Robinson Crusoe marooned on Mars might sound like a depressing proposition, the film's tone never ventures into dark and downbeat territory. Without detracting from the seriousness of the situation, director Ridley Scott infuses the production with moments of low-key, appropriate comedy. Watney's introspective video journals illustrate not only his practicality and innovation but his wry (sometimes gallows) sense of humor. Likewise, some of the Earth-based scenes, while not openly comedic, are played with a lighthearted sensibility.

For Matt Damon, this is a rare opportunity to show his range. Neither action hero nor supporting character nor George Clooney sidekick, he gives a performance to rival The Departed as the best of his career.  One key difference: here, he isn't surrounded by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, and Martin Sheen. This is Damon's movie and it's hard to find a flaw in the way he brings Watney to life. The fear, the anguish, the loneliness, the desperation, and the joy… they're all there. Only once does Watney give into despair and, on that occasion, it doesn't last long. The secondary cast is impressive, with names like Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Sean Bean lending their talents, but their roles aren't large. They support and never threaten to take the spotlight away from Damon. (Considering that he also played a stranded astronaut in Interstellar, one wonders whether he has become Hollywood's go-to guy for this kind of character.)

As a director, Ridley Scott is by no means a can't-miss proposition.  Although one can rarely fault his ambition, the results have been mixed, especially in recent years. When it comes to science fiction, however, Scott's track record is solid: Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus - two bona fide classics and one flawed but compelling odyssey. The Martian is a different kind of film from those but no less impressive. Scott uses special effects as a tool to enhance the experience rather than as the means to define it. Many of the effects in The Martian are of the practical variety with CGI used primarily to add an otherworldly flavor to the Martian landscape. The space sequences are nearly as good as those in Gravity. The 3D, although not as impressive as in Alfonso Cuaron's 2013 picture, feels neither gimmicky nor unnecessary. As uneven a director as Scott can be, he can do some amazing things when he's on; this is one such occasion.

The Martian is based on Andy Weir's novel of the same name and uses a similar science-based approach to many of its scenes. NASA was involved both at the script stage and during filming and, although there are instances in which The Martian takes liberties with the laws of physics, it presents one of the most accurate screen depictions of space travel to date. This authenticity is one of the factors that attracted Damon and Scott to the project and Weir's continued involvement brought NASA on board.

In releasing The Martian, 20th Century Fox has fired the first shot in the 2015 Oscar competition. Although the science fiction genre is more often associated with the escapist fare of summer than the serious offerings of the fall, The Martian is an exception. Those who crave nonstop action and seizure-promoting editing may find this film's pace too deliberate. They may be unable to appreciate its character focus and slow but undeniable build-up of tension. This is science fiction for sophisticated audiences and, as such, a fulfilling and satisfying experience. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** ½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: adventure, drama, sci-fi

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Intern (2015) [PG-13] ***+

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Sept. 24, 2015.

If The Intern had confined itself to the unlikely relationship that develops between thirty-something entrepreneur Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway) and seventy-year old retiree Ben Whittaker (Robert DeNiro), it might have worked. Unfortunately, writer/director Nancy Meyers has bogged down the narrative with questionable scenes, tangents, and subplots that take the focus off the April/October friendship and drag the running time out to an unacceptably long two hours.

Retirement means different things to different people. For some, it's an opportunity to unwind and relax after a lifetime of work. Many people enjoy living a life of leisure where demands on their time are few and far between. For others, it's a roadway to boredom. They may not have loved their jobs but now they have far too many hours to fill and the monotony of not doing anything meaningful becomes oppressive.  Ben is a card-carrying member of the latter category. A retired widower, he finds himself marking time until the end - existing rather than living. An opportunity to do something arrives in the form of an advertisement for Senior Interns. A growing online fashion site wants to give back to the community by hiring a few over-65s and Ben goes after the position with relish. After being hired, he is assigned as the personal assistant to Jules, who runs the company. Jules, however, doesn't relate well to old people and things start out strained. After a while, however, Ben's disarming, parental approach breaks down her barriers and the two become close.

The Intern is a romantic comedy without the romance. Meyers goes into overdrive ensuring there's not a whiff of sexual tension between Ben and Jules. Is it artificial?  Perhaps, but Meyers is compensating for Hollywood's long tradition of pairing aging leading men with much younger women. There's a counter-argument to this, however. Romantic or quasi-romantic companionship doesn't demand sexual frisson - consider the sublime way in which Lost in Translation handled it. A more mature approach might have acknowledged the possibility of attraction without requiring either party to act on it. As it is, Hathaway and DeNiro develop an appealing platonic dynamic. They mesh well together, which makes it a shame that the movie takes so many extraneous detours.

Some attempts to add depth to the characters don't work. A romance between DeNiro and a masseuse played by Rene Russo is so underdeveloped as to be pointless. On the other hand, too much time is spent on Anne Hathaway's marital woes - a little exposure to these would have gone a long way. There's also a bizarre interlude in which Ben and his fellow interns become involved in a heist. This comedic segment feels like an outtake from a Woody Allen movie and, although amusing as a stand-alone skit, it's out-of-place in the larger scheme. Finally, there's an instance of foreshadowing that is (thankfully) ignored. Like too many aspects of The Intern, it's orphaned. It's hard to determine whether the final cut underwent significant tinkering post production or whether the screenplay was never properly vetted before filming began.

Meyers is known for witty screenplays that emphasize the female perspective. Her best known films are the Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson romance, Something's Gotta Give, and the Meryl Streep/Steve Martin/Alec Baldwin triangle, It's Complicated. Both are lighthearted, enjoyable romps - funny enough not to be taken too seriously but with a hint of insight. In between, however, she was responsible for the messy The Holiday, a rambling, bloated production that resembles The Intern closely in tone and temperament.

Without question, DeNiro and Hathaway elevate the material. They're Oscar-winning professionals and their acting is on display. They make us care about unevenly written characters. In terms of comedic and dramatic content, The Intern is hit-and-miss. Notions about ageism and corporate prejudice against female CEOs are grazed but not explored in a meaningful or compelling way. In the end, the only thing that keeps us from walking out is that we like Ben and Jules, especially when they're together. Had The Intern been better focused and a good bit shorter, that might have been enough. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** out of 4 stars]

Blogger’s comment: Nancy Meyers has 16 screenwriting credits and six (6) directing credits, including: The Intern, It’s Complicated, The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give, What Woman Want and The Parent Trap. She’s known for light films with little drama depth or character development, no memorable dialogue, but gorgeous costumes and sets, to such an extent that her films have been described as interior design porn. Personally, I’m a big fan of her earlier work, especially What Women Want and The Parent Trap, but her later films… not so much.

Labels: comedy

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Jenny’s Wedding (2015) PG-13] ***

A film review by James Rocchi for on July 13, 2015.

Moments of vivid characterization poke through the blandness of this slow piece about a suburban couple’s reaction to their daughter marrying a woman

Brought to the screen by the combination of a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and no small amount of old-school indie-film pluck, writer and director Mary Agnes Donoghue’s Jenny’s Wedding is a warm, agreeable coming-out romance buoyed by strong performances from its actors even as it explores fairly shallow waters. Katherine Heigl stars as the titular Jenny, devoted daughter of her fireman dad Eddie (Tom Wilkinson, fine as ever in a lower gear) and mom Rose (familiar if unheralded actress Linda Emond).

Jenny, her siblings (including Anne, played by Grace Gummer) and her parents have a happy, messy life together, like any other family. But after years of being asked when she’s going to find a nice guy and settle down, Jenny must face the fact that she needs to tell her family and parents how she’s found the right person — and that it’s not the right guy.

Jenny’s Wedding, from its title to the end credits, is decidedly free of surprises. Yes, Jenny’s more traditional mom and dad will react — badly — when told that not only is Jenny a lesbian, but that she also wants to marry her longtime partner and roommate Kitty (Alexis Bledel). Between the resolutely conventional script and the somewhat flat direction, you can’t help but wonder if this is a case where one person took on the dual tasks of writing and directing and thus removed the possibility of being pushed towards greatness by another collaborator’s vision and ideas. (While Jenny’s Wedding is resolutely independent, Donoghue is hardly a newcomer; her other screenwriting credits include Beaches and White Oleander.)

For all of the film’s clunky missteps and tentative tip-toeing, though, the cast still shines through. Gummer’s younger sister character seems to have a bad case of Jan-from-The-Brady-Bunch disease, considering herself unloved and unwanted next to the Marsha-like Jenny. When Anne stops worrying about her sister’s happiness and her parent’s attitudes and takes her life into her own hands, however, it’s gripping and intriguing viewing. Wilkinson and Emond also bring no small amount of skill and grace to their work as a couple who seem to be burying all of their long-standing problems under a comfortable blanket of what’s best for the kids.

Much of the dialogue is painfully opaque and unidirectional: Eddie and Rose, when finally informed of the truth, argue about which of them specifically Jenny is rejecting through her lesbianism, while the soundtrack repeatedly leans on Mary Lambert‘s She Keeps Me Warm, a song best known for its incorporation into Macklemore’s Same Love, a decision that functions less as a music cue and more as the sonic equivalent of a bright yellow highlighter.

There are flashes of fire and passion in the otherwise rote Jenny’s Wedding; Heigl’s best scene comes as she loses her temper with her father’s cluelessness utterly and completely at a funeral, and the film could have used a lot more of that kind of incendiary feeling and less of the calm, slow-fizzle pacing it follows. Shot and set in Cleveland, the look of the film is all suburban simplicity — Pepto-Bismol pinks and tasteful furnishings — and there are plenty of comforting clich├ęs to help the social-justice medicine go down, whether characters are changing their lives through actions captured in montage or a cavalierly homophobic neighbor gives Rose something wrong to push against so she can get back to loving her daughter.

Jenny’s Wedding isn’t ill-intentioned or actively bad; it’s just a little too familiar, a little too safe and a little too satisfied with itself. If you’re looking for a lesbian wedding coming-out drama to watch with your parents, Jenny’s Wedding is designed all too precisely to provide adequate entertainment.

Labels: comedy, drama, lesbian, romance