Saturday, June 20, 2015

"Inside Out"

 4 / 5 

Endlessly inventive and deeply touching, Pixar's Inside Out is unlike any movie the animation studio has created so far, which is both a great strength and a minor weakness, because while it's unabashedly sentimental and inarguably touching, there are moments when Inside Out finds itself in the same predicament as two of its leading characters: It isn't quite sure where to go.

Like Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Lois Smith, the movie's standout), Inside Out finds its way, to be sure, guided by the talents of its director, Pete Docter -- an animation visionary if ever there was one -- leading to an emotional climax that affects all but the most hardened hearts.

It's only a little distracting that some of the main characters are left with very little to do, and that some scenes feel frankly dismal and bleak; more on that in a moment.

From the first moments, Inside Out offers a hard and fast reminder that Pixar's animated films are unlike those by any other studio in the business, including its parent company.  It's rooted, as the best Pixar films have been, in the real world: It takes place not in a far-off, fairy-tale kingdom, or in a weird outer-space fantasyland, but right here where we live.  Baby Riley is brand-new to life, and her mind is home to only one resident, the emotion Joy, who finds optimistic delight in every possible situation.

Joy is (naturally) ecstatic to discover the world with Riley, which she gets to do with impunity for exactly 33 seconds, which is when she's joined by the adorably mopey Sadness.  They share the same blue hair, but that's where the similarities end.  Short, squat, myopic Sadness and tall, slender, pixie-like Joy quickly find themselves in the company of Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and working together, the five of them guide the emotional life of their charge.

Like Capt. Kirk and his crew on the Enterprise, they do it all from a compact control room somewhere in Riley's head -- and, the movie explains, the little girl isn't unique: Everyone has these five emotions running the show.  Riley just feels emotions a little more deeply than others: She's 11 years old and she's just been uprooted from Minnesota to San Francisco.

In impressive but sometimes overwhelming detail, Inside Out explains how memories are formed and how they, in turn, make up personality.  In many ways, Inside Out owes quite a bit to the 1982 Disney flop Tron, and it falls into some of the same traps, trying to move back and forth between the "inside" world and the "outside" world.  Especially for younger audiences, it's a little confusing and overwhelming.

Just at the moment I wondered if Inside Out was going to be more visually interesting than emotionally involving, though, everything clicks into place.  A character named Bing-Bong (voiced by Richard Kind), who initially comes across as grating and off-putting, winds up genuinely endearing as he quite literally catapults the movie into a final 15 minutes that are as captivating and emotionally overwhelming as anything Pixar has ever created.

Remember those wordless first 10 minutes of Up, also directed by Docter?  While Inside Out doesn't match the sheer perfection of that montage, it comes pretty close.

Still ... for all of its visual flair and complex machinations, the feature-length Inside Out is frankly outmatched in sheer beauty and emotional complexity by the short film that plays before it.  In just seven minutes, Lava manages the seemingly impossible feat of making the most inanimate of inanimate objects -- an entire island -- come to delightful life. I won't spoil anything except to say that the entire short is told through a song, and it's a splendid one.

As good as Inside Out is, Lava is downright spectacular.

Viewed June 20, 2015 -- Walt Disney Studios Theater


Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"

 4 / 5 

It's tempting to think of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as some cinematic lovechild of John Hughes and Wes Anderson, since it combines precociously self-aware high-schoolers with visual inventiveness, and sometimes feels very much like a movie that either Hughes or Anderson might have made.  But after indulging in some overt preciousness in its first 15 minutes or so, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl settles into its story, only occasionally lapsing into flights of whimsy and more frequently demonstrating a fine assurance and keen sensitivity.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is based on a young-adult novel and bears the hallmarks of a film intended to appeal to young fans of the book, but director Alfonse Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Jesse Andrews (he also wrote the novel, which I've never read) prove to be as canny students of film as their protagonists.  They are deliberate, careful, but not overly cautious, movie-makers, and the moment I knew that I wasn't simply enjoying Me and Earl and the Dying Girl but was falling into a sort of mild cinematic love with it came during a critical scene between "Me" and the "Dying Girl."

"Me" is Greg Gaines, a tall, gangly guy who's just, well, Greg.  He's not a nerd enough to be a nerd.  He's not a jock enough to be a jock.  He doesn't do drugs, so he can't be a stoner.  He's not rich, so he can't hang out with the rich kids.  There's nothing all that special about him, at least the way he sees it.

Greg does have one very specific set of skills, though he prefers no one to know about them -- no one, that is, except his "co-worker" Earl.  Thanks to the intellectual predilections of Greg's sociology-professor father (he's tenured, which means he doesn't need to go to class all that often), Greg and Earl have learned how to appreciate foreign-language auteur-driven films.  Names like Eisnstein, Marker, Kurosawa, Welles, Tartakovsky, Scorsese, Kubrick, Buñuel -- they all mean something to Greg and Earl.  Some kids learn about football at an impressionable age and want to become football players.  Others learn about science and astronomy and devote their lives to learning more.

For better or worse, Greg and Earl learned about films.  Not just movies, but films -- the blacker-and-whiter, the more foreign, the more obtuse and pained the better.

Like most high-schoolers, they begin to explore their own worth as artists not by creating but first by emulating.  They make movies like 2:48 PM Cowboy instead of Midnight Cowboy, Monorash instead of Rashomon, A Sockwork Orange instead of Kubrick's anti-violence screed.  They don't know why they do this, but they do.  Only Earl and Greg get to watch the final productions.  They're embarrassed by their own creativity.

As Rachel, the dying girl in the title, almost immediately picks up: Greg and Earl are not embarrassed.  They're scared.  Greg insists he's ugly with the face of a groundhog, even though everyone can see that he is handsome.  He is dead-set against going to college, because it will be just like the emotional minefield of high school without the safety net of friends you know.  He can't see himself succeeding in college.  He'd rather have a normal, you know, life.

Then he meets Rachel, a girl he has seen around the school.  Greg has seen everyone around the school, which he views as a survival tactic; if all the myriad social cliques know of him and at least tacitly approve of him, he can glide by on the sidelines -- never a stranger, but never quite a friend.

Greg's mother (Connie Britten) drops the news on him that Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia, and she wants Greg to befriend the girl he barely knows.  Neither one of them is entirely comfortable with the arrangement, but they try.  Gomez-Rejon inserts unnecessary quirkiness into many of the scenes, adding title cards that impart a mildly ironic deprecation to blunt the impact of emotion.

These touches are clever, but they begin to detract a little from the serious turns the story takes -- serious, yes, but rarely maudlin.  They're defense mechanisms, much like those Greg has developed: "Don't take me too seriously," they say, "even though I wish someone would take me seriously."  Wink-wink.

But that is the heart of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl -- that whether we're in high-school or decades removed, we are looking for those people who can see through the personas we've developed, who will recognize us despite the efforts we've made to get through life more or less invisible, the way Greg hopes to.  But none of us will emerge from high school, not to mention the rest of life, unscathed.

Thomas Mann as Greg, RJ Cyler as Earl and Olivia Cooke as Rachel all deliver fully realized characters.  We get to know Earl least, but it's clear he hopes the creative streak that he and Greg have developed can get him out of his depressed Pennsylvania town.  Greg's cloak of invisibility is pulled off of him when he meets Rachel, and for her part, she's neither as perfect or as stoic as others might hope her to be: She's 17 and she's dying.

It's long after their friendship has begun, long after chemotherapy sessions have started for the dying Rachel, that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl puts forth its bold play to make it clear that the makers of this film are actually filmmakers -- they know how to tell a story with a camera, and to do it well.

In one long scene, Greg comes to visit Rachel and she drops a bombshell on him, one that makes both of them rethink and redefine everything that has come before.  There were dozens, maybe more, ways to film the scene, but Gomez-Rejon takes a page directly from more classical, more accomplished filmmakers: He locks down the camera and lets the actors play the scene.  In the audience, our eyes dart back and forth from one character to the other as we listen to them, watch for reactions; the filmmakers trust their audience enough to let them decide how to mentally edit the scene.

The actors get to act -- and both Cooke and Mann have created unusually whole and memorable characters -- and the scene plays out in real time.  It's a daring and sophisticated move; today's editing styles should have dictated a number of cutaways to drive home the emotion of the scene, but Gomez-Rejon gives us nothing but the actors talking with each other.

It's a scene that changes Greg's entire view of both Rachel and of himself.  A more intrusive, active version of the scene might have been more commercially acceptable, but in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl it's perfectly placed, perfectly timed, trusting both the actors and the audience to have the ability to pay attention, to focus, and to be moved by the realizations that are taking place.

I had been enjoying Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, especially its slightly silly, mildly subversive way of viewing the world.  But in that long, quiet, careful scene, my enjoyment grew to adoration.  The rest of the movie didn't let me down.

It completes its story in ideal fashion, never going over the top, never succumbing to the modern temptation to hit home the story points with heavy camerawork or aggressive editing.   The characters remain true to themselves, the story completes itself in ways that are both inevitable and surprising.

What began as charming and adorable ends up thoughtful and significant -- much like the kids themselves will, with luck, become.  Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is made by filmmakers who know what they're doing, and it shows.

It's a tender, big-hearted movie that knows that all you really end up remembering about high school are the people who were your friends, and that when you think about what became of some of them, you cry, because it's not fair that some people don't get to finish their lives.  And then you laugh because you remember the things you did with them, the way you were when you were around them, and you hope that as you move forward and get older, maybe you can be a little bit more like that person you used to be when you were young, even if high school pretty much sucked and there were some people who didn't make it out alive.

Viewed June 13, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Friday, June 12, 2015

"Love & Mercy"

 3 / 5 

Love & Mercy is half of a fantastic film and half of a so-so film, but the so-so bits are worth slogging through if you don't mind having "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations" running through your head for hours afterward.  Personally, I don't mind at all.

In Love & Mercy, John Cusack and Paul Dano both play Brian Wilson, one of the founding members of the Beach Boys, a band whose music has become ingrained in American culture.  Love & Mercy doesn't reveal anything about how the Beach Boys came to be or about the ways they struggled as artists to be known for more than just surfing music.  A more straightforward biopic narrative might actually have helped Love & Mercy, because its two halves are constantly warring for attention.

The first half, which feels less successful and more predictable, is about Brian Wilson in his 40s, when he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by a less-than-reputable psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) and falls in love with a woman (Elizabeth Banks) who begins to realize that the doctor doesn't have the best of intentions for his charge.

This part of the movie is generally engrossing, but nothing about it feels new or exciting.  The actors are all exemplary, and Giamatti in particular brings a disturbing energy to the role that keeps it interesting though predictable.  Cusack looks appropriately haggard and haunted, and Banks finds some substance in the underwritten role of perky, plucky heroine.

Where Love & Mercy really comes alive, though, is in the sections with Paul Dano as Wilson in his 20s.  While it tries way too hard to find a tangible reason for Wilson's mental problems, focusing in on a bullying, domineering father, Dano consistently finds even more interesting places to take the role.

Wilson is an unabashed genius, but he's terrified by the source of his talent, his innate ability to hear how music comes together.  Love & Mercy comes tantalizingly close to being a modern-day Amadeus, a movie that explores the fine line between extraordinary talent and debilitating madness, and Dano has all the right instincts to take it there, but every time the movie comes close to letting us see further in to Wilson's chaotic mind, it pulls back to show us a near-comatose Cusack-Wilson moping about his Malibu house.

Love & Mercy goes off-the-rails wrong in a last-minute scene that seems to channel 2001: A Space Odyssey, of all things, but even that colossal mistake can't damage some genuine brilliance.  One spectacular scene shows how Wilson perplexed even his studio musicians with his off-kilter compositions that seemed all wrong on paper but blended together perfectly when played.

Love & Mercy barely touches on the relationships Wilson might have had with his brothers or his first wife, but more than makes up for that oversight by giving great latitude to Dano to portray a tortured, scared artist.

It's a good movie, made all the better by Dano's unflinching performance and some flashes of real brilliance that make the end result seem better, in retrospect, than the sum of its parts.  There's nothing exactly wrong with the Cusack-Banks sections, but imagining the film that could have been made by focusing only on the younger Wilson brings to mind one of the Beach Boys' own lyrics: Wouldn't it be nice?  Yes, that film would probably be nice, indeed.

Viewed June 12, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Thursday, June 11, 2015

"Jurassic World"

 3 / 5 

Let's imagine that Jurassic Park, the theme park that ran famously amok way back in 1993, were to re-open.  Let's say you were hired to run the place.  Let's say you had at least a passing awareness of the incidents that took place on Isla Nublar so many years ago.  Might you consider the need for heightened security measures?  Might you recommend against measures that would encourage another event of mass carnage?

Well, you might, but then what kind of fun would that be?  Jurassic World, a sequel to the 1993 original that pretends the last two Jurassic Park movies didn't happen, is a movie that can't exist if everyone in it isn't relentlessly stupid.  Even the smart people are stupid, because if they weren't, nothing would happen, and that wouldn't make a very interesting movie.

Perhaps there was a way to work around this little problem and come up with a story as tightly focused and carefully controlled as the first movie and the novel on which it's based.  That movie needed only a handful of characters and the barest of bare-bones plots.  Jurassic World is neither tightly focused nor sparingly cast.  New characters just keep on coming, and there's one action-driven set piece after another.  It's bigger than Jurassic Park was, just not necessarily better.

That's not to say Jurassic World is bad.  It's a completely serviceable, at times even impressive movie that nicely emulates the visual style and tone of Spielberg at his finest.  Director Colin Trevorrow, who made the enormously underrated and impossibly charming Safety Not Guaranteed, loves that silky-smooth, ultra-polished style, and he uses it to great effect here.

Likewise, the actors are all fine, especially Chris Pratt, who at times seems to be auditioning for the rumored Indiana Jones reboot -- based on the evidence here, he'd be great at it.  He can flirt, wink, charm and rescue women and kids.  Bryce Dallas Howard comes across as a little too cold and distant, but her character is in over her head in every possible way: As the operations manager at Jurassic World, she's more focused on amping up the profit than worrying about making sure dinosaurs don't escape.

Most of the time, she's too busy counting the number of guests in the park and making sure that the lines don't get too long at Starbucks, Ben & Jerry's, Margaritaville, Brookstone or any of the other dozens of real-life retailers who must have spent a lot of money to get a few seconds of screen time.  But she's quite proud of the newest addition to Jurassic World, a genetically engineered dinosaur called the Indominus Rex.  No sooner has she introduced the park's velociraptor trainer (yes, really) to the I. Rex than the giant beast manages to escape.

Very little stands in the way of the I. Rex and the 20,000 people who are in the park.  And for the next two hours, Jurassic World is essentially a remake of Jurassic Park but with bigger dinosaurs.

Throughout, Jurassic World seems almost obsessed with referencing the original film.  In one key scene, some of the characters find the original entrance pavilion from the first movie, now overgrown with prehistoric flora, and it seems cute and clever for a moment -- but, why go to such lengths to constantly refer to the better movie?  Jurassic World pales by comparison.

Those insistent references to Jurassic Park never completely undermine Jurassic World, but they do serve as reminders that in 1993, computerized dinosaurs were something no one had ever seen before.  Now, we have.  And as Howard's character notes, the public grows bored and jaded too easily.  They need to see something bigger, bolder, and more exciting.

Jurassic World is bigger, no doubt.  And it's a completely satisfying bit of summertime entertainment, a harmless and often fun way to spend a couple of hours out of the heat.  But it suffers from exactly the same problem that its titular theme park does: We've seen it all before.

On the other hand, at least the people in it are stupid.  They do stupid things and make stupid decisions, as if they learned nothing from the first go-round.  Thank goodness for that, because if they were any smarter the I. Rex would have remained locked in her enclosure and the only thing to watch would be hordes of hot, tired tourists waiting for an iced cappuccino at Starbucks.  As it is, Jurassic World has got a lot of smart dinosaurs and a lot of stupid people, which is a pretty good combination for a summertime movie, especially if you're in a particularly non-critical, generous sort of mood.

Viewed June 11, 2015 -- DGA Theater



 1.5 / 5 

Watching Aloha reminded me of the frustrating, uncomfortable experience I had the first time I watched a movie in German without subtitles.  I spoke German relatively well, and assumed that I could get by just fine in a movie.  As I watched, I heard the words and saw the images, but I was crestfallen to discover that the best I could do was piece a few bits of it together and hope it would make sense in the end.

Aloha isn't in German, but it might as well be.  Cameron Crowe's script leaves the audience bewildered.  Are entire scenes missing?  Did this once make sense on paper?  What are Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone and Rachel McAdams doing?  Their characters seem only loosely to relate to one another, as if they're all participating in an acting improv course gone terribly wrong, each one hoping something will happen to rescue them from the disaster they see looming.

There's no internal logic to Aloha, and as one scene moves dangerously to the next, you start looking in the backgrounds for something interesting, something that will distract your attention, focusing on the non-stop music tracks that in theory relate to the emotions of the scenes but that are as random as the action on screen.  Occasionally, Cooper or Stone smiles in close up, or McAdams makes one of her adorable cute-faces, and you realize why they are stars, and you wonder if they are angry at any of their managers or agents for getting them into such a mess.  They're all good actors, and they're gamely reciting the words, unsure (as are we) of exactly what they mean.

Having learned a thing or two back in Frankfurt from my first time watching a movie I didn't understand, I tried to be patient with Aloha.  I tried my hardest to concentrate and think about the things the movie wasn't telling me, like what exactly (other than a "civilian contractor") the job of Cooper's character is, and why the first person he sees in Hawaii is his old flame McAdams, even though she doesn't seem to have an actual job to do.  I squinted hard and tried to see what it was in Stone that Crowe thought looked one-quarter Hawaiian.

(The accusation that the movie "white-washes" Hawaii isn't exactly true; I've met more than a few fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed Asian people -- the bigger problem Aloha has is that there's no reason for Stone's character, Capt. Allison Ng, to look Caucasian other than the fact that there are no exotic-looking, big-named actresses to fill the role, which is a different dilemma altogether.)

Occasionally, Bill Murray pops up as a multi-billionaire who is launching a satellite that plays a very big role in the plot, except that most of the satellite stuff seems to have been cut out of the final movie, which means the motivations of the main characters make no sense.  There is talk about Hawaiian folklore and mythology, about the skies being sacred, about the privatization of the aerospace industry, about land disputes between the government and native Hawaiians, about the way men communicate without saying things but women talk about everything.  There's meant to be some tension about Cooper and McAdams being old flames and whether he might steal her away from her husband (John Krasinski), but none of it goes anywhere.

It wasn't until about the 95-minute mark I was able to piece together some of these plot elements.  There's also a big 11th-hour revelation about Cooper's past with McAdams, but even someone as completely clueless about the plot as I was saw that one coming during their first scene together.

I couldn't do it by myself.  I finally resorted to reading a long and elaborate plot "summary" on Wikipedia that I hoped would straighten it all out but instead cleared up absolutely nothing.  Aloha at least has the advantage of a few (not enough, but a few) good shots of Oahu scenery, and a couple of nice song selections on the soundtrack -- plus, what's not to like about seeing Cooper and Stone smile their dazzling smiles on the big screen?  That's about all Aloha has to recommend it, though.  Take the actors and the location out of it, and all that's left is a confused, confusing hodgepodge of nothing much at all.

If I ever watch it again, I might try it in a German dubbed version.  Or maybe in a language that's entirely foreign to me.  With the English subtitles off and Cooper and Stone spouting off in, say, Icelandic, perhaps Aloha would make more sense.

Viewed June 11, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, June 6, 2015


 4 / 5 

On paper, everything about Spy indicates the kind of movie I'd hate.  True, I may have enjoyed the lowbrow humor of Bridesmaids, but quickly grew tired of the "shocking," gross-out comedies it spawned.  Outside of the early Pink Panther movies, I've never seen a spy spoof that actually made me laugh -- and those were funny because I was a kid.  Melissa McCarthy has become so exposed she's starting to grate on me.

In short, I went in to Spy ready to hate it.  And it won me over in just about every way a movie possibly could.

It's funny, it's clever, it's got an actual story, and it presents McCarthy with a role that's actually a character, not just a bunch of improper mannerisms masquerading as humor.  It even manages a little heart, but that's certainly not its goal, nor should writer-director Paul Feig be either praised or condemned for that sweet little trick.

Plus, Spy offers a veritable travelogue of European cities without the clumsiness of bumping in to tourists.  The sightseeing alone is almost worth the price of admission, so it's just a big, big plus that the lovely cinematography is backed up by sight gags, verbal gags, even long-running gags that finally pay off in the end.  Spy is a sleekly designed piece of comedy machinery that throws in some action set-pieces that are unexpected and expertly conceived.

Spy is a full-fledged movie.  It's not an Airplane!-style movie where every shot is set up for a joke.  It's not a girls-behaving-badly movie in which the humor stems from the male-driven observation: "Hey, women shouldn't do things like that." Spy avoids all that because it tells a spy movie through the eyes of the CIA's least-likely (and most  poorly trained) special agent.

Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is an actual, trained agent, make no doubt.  But her skills might be a little rusty, since her job as a CIA analyst is to sit in front of a computer in the basement and talk with with spies stationed all around the would.  Looking like Judy the Time-Life operator, she instructs them on what exactly they need to be doing at any given moment: Run, duck, shoot, jump, hide.  Analysts like Cooper see it all, they're just not out in the field.

That changes for Susan.  Against better judgment, her supervisor (droll, spot-on Allison Janney) reluctantly agrees to send Susan into the field for an intelligence-gathering assignment.  She's not to engage the enemy, just learn.  And she'll do it disguised as frumpy mid-western housewives who sell Mary Kay cosmetics.

So, there she goes, meek and mild Susan Cooper, wearing frumpy wigs, trying to blend in.  But it's not going to work for too long.  The bad guys have a nuclear bomb they're trying to sell, and time is running out.

From a millionaire's casino in Rome to a seedy Parisian hotel, to the less-familiar streets of Budapest,  the story pauses long enough for a few set pieces that other filmmakers should study to learn how to fuse humor and action.  As Susan gets chased from one impossibly beautiful location to another, even as the stakes get higher and higher, Spy never lets us forget that this is a bawdy comedy.  It finds the big cinematic moments, but roots them in the character of Susan Cooper, a dowdy old frump who never imagined she would be getting to do the kinds of things she's doing.

In Spy, that means trying to find a nuclear bomb that's been hidden away by Rose Byrne's supercilious and ridiculously coiffed bad guy who wants to sell the bomb to the highest bidder.  After a massive cock-up by another agent (hilariously played in dim-witted fashion by Jason Statham), Susan's sent into the field for the first time to monitor and track the villains.

It doesn't take her too long before she's engaging in gun fights, breaking arms and legs, and -- here's the real beauty of it all -- discovering that this is the life she wants.  She doesn't want to watch the action happening from the safety of Langley, she wants to be part of it.

As she does, she finds her own voice, her own strength, and to that end there's a great message for young women (heck, for both genders of all ages) about fighting for what you're owed, about standing up for yourself, and about confidence.

The good news is: While all of that's there, it's buried very, very deeply under a pile of laughs. McCarthy is poised, confident, totally in command of her humor and skills, even when she's vomiting right onto a man she has just killed.

Spy has been designed to make you laugh.  A lot.  And it will.

Surrounded by an astonishingly game supporting cast, including Byrne as an impossibly wealthy arms trader, Miranda Hart as Susan's best office mate, Allison Janney as the unhumorous CIA boss, and Jude Law as a sneaky agent, everyone is in on the joke.  They know how to make Spy work -- to make both an uproarious comedy (you may feel a tear or two on your cheek from laughing so hard at key moments) and an intriguing spy caper.  It's a spy movie, first and foremost, make no mistake -- the plot is wrapped up tightly -- and it needed to be in order to avoid simply being a slapstick.

It carefully manages not to cross that line between story and silly, it just toes it well and cautiously for its entire running length.  If a few minutes toward the end of Spy seem to lag a bit, fear not: There's always a well-conceived, elaborate joke waiting to be conveyed -- and it's got a real and interesting story, to boot.

A lot of movies have tried to get this balance correct.  I can't remember many that have succeeded this well.  Spy gets it right -- and keeps getting it right, pretty much to the very end.

Spy is fantastically funny, anchored by an unexpectedly rich comic performance by McCarthy and augmented by equally fine (and unexpected) turns by Jason Statham, Peter Serafinowicz, and particularly Byrne, who proves that you can be simultaneously beautiful and trashy, evil and manipulative and enormously funny.

From the writers, producers and actors to the director and even the visual-effects creators, everyone was devoted to making a comedy first and foremost, and in that they've succeeded wildly.  It's grafted on to a second-rate spy movie, but we're not really hear to watch spies being spies.  We're here to watch Melissa McCarthy being a spy, which proves to be gloriously giddy, ridiculously outrageous, and one of the most perfect marriages of actor and role I've seen in a while.

McCarthy makes the most of it.  But it's not just her movie, and it's not just about crazy, mildly inappropriate female spies.  It's just a comedy laced with action that makes you laugh a lot, feel tense just a little, want walk away feeling like you just got your money's worth.  Spy certainly gives you that, and makes it all giddily, stupidly memorable.  Spy is everything summer movies aren't supposed to be: it's not based on an existing "franchise," it doesn't pander to the kids, and it's got a strong central female character.  It's not supposed to be what makes summer movies work, but this time around, it is.  So far this summer, Spy is the most fulfilling, most gregarious big-studio movie I've seen.  More like this one, please, if you're reading, Hollywood Executive Types.

Viewed ArcLight Sherman Oaks -- June 6, 2015


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Favorite Films: "Talk to Her"

My first encounter with Almodóvar's film Talk to Her came in the numb months after Sept. 11, when everything seemed touched by the specter of grief and loss, when nothing we thought was permanent and safe was either of those things.

Within the first moments of Talk to Her (Spanish language: Hable con Ella), tears are shed.  Two men sit in the audience of a ballet, and one of the is so moved by the performance he begins to cry.  The men do not know each other; their seats are next to each other purely by chance.  (Or, as the film will later imply, is it?)

It's not until months later that they encounter each other again.  The crying man is named Marco, and he is in love with a bullfighter named Lydia.  The dry-eyed man is Benigno, and he has his own reasons for going to the ballet that night.

Agitated one morning before a bullfight, Lydia has something she wants to tell Marco.  She never does, because she's gored by the bull and falls into a coma.  Her lifeless body is placed in a bed at a local hospital.  Benigno works there, too.  He's a nurse, and introduces Marco to the woman he cares for.  Her name is Alicia, and she was a ballet dancer before she got hit by a car.

Neither Lydia nor Alicia has a chance of waking from their comas.  They are in persistent vegetative states.  Benigno, who has such simple views of life that his co-workers call him the "retard," urges Marco to "talk to her," because there's no definitive way of knowing whether a comatose patient can hear.  There's always a chance.

Benigno and Marco form a friendship.  Awkward, virginal Benigno and handsome, virile Marco spend a lot of time together, taking care of the women in their lives, devoted to their comfort.

Back to that first viewing, 13 years ago.  Talk to Her struck me as a yearningly romantic movie.  Despite the often unsavory things that happen on screen, Talk to Her moved me deeply for its observations of how love seems ideal when it's necessarily one-sided, how talking about the need for care, the need to talk can pull together two people who have such different lives.

They don't know what will become of the comatose women, but Benigno and Marco both know they each need a friend.  That relationship is tested when doctors note that Alicia has missed her periods and is pregnant.  Could Benigno have done this terrible deed?  Will Marco remain by his side?

The movie is interested in asking those questions, but more than anything Almodóvar engages in a studied, careful homage to Alfred Hitchcock, using many of the same storytelling and cinematic techniques to convey the unbalanced psychological states of his leading characters.

"Women tell each other everything," Benigno tells Marco at one point, jealousy shaping the tone of his words.  The unspoken corollary is: Men don't, but should.  Benigno has a secret.  Marco had his own, the knowledge of which made it impossible for Lucia to focus the day of her bullfight.  The men begin to reveal their secrets, and as they do the ramifications of what has been done come real -- Benigno winds up in jail.  But Marco isn't going to leave his side, no matter what has happened.

Through some fascinating camera work, Almodóvar engages in that masterful Hitchockian technique of visually layering one character onto another over a pane of glass -- the two halves are whole, two unformed thoughts become one complete idea, the two lives are joined.  Visually, it's a magnificent piece of work, one that has been crafted with both the tools and the language of film.  If for no reason other than the filmmaking style, Talk to Her is a movie worth seeing.

But its must more special than that, thanks to its odd, disjointed, challenging story: The main characters in Talk to Her do some unsavory things, but they have their reasons, most of which come down to love.  And the film wonders, over and over, what love and desire mean.  Under the guise of a psychological thriller, Talk to Her offers up the observation that relationships are never equal, can never be fully honest, that one person will always know more of the other, see more, understand more.

Ultimately, Talk to Her does lead to a revelation, but it is neither as shocking nor as definitive as the film might have you believe, undone by a cryptic, intentional remark that Alicia's ballet teacher (Geraldine Chaplin) makes to Marco.  It's the last line in the movie, with reason: Can we be sure of anything we've seen?  Did we draw our own conclusions because of the assumptions we made about these people?

Either way, the film has shown its real heart much, much earlier, when, in a flashback, Marco watches Lydia from across a crowd as they listen to a guitar player sing the haunting "Cucurrucucu Paloma," a song about a dove who returns each day to the same place waiting for a sad and lonely woman to return.

Marco doesn't know what it is about the song that moves him to tears, but we do: He will return and return and return, as will Benigno, to an intolerable situation, never losing hope.  He can never get what he needs, he can never have a healed heart, but he will keep trying.

That message of clinging to faith seemed impossibly affecting in the raw months after Sept. 11, and it hasn't lost its power so many years later, but like loss and grief, it has changed into something less emotional, more understandable, deeper and more resonant in its age.

We watch the people in this movie do (possibly) hateful things and yet we still have feelings for them.  It's hard not to care for them, because they are trying to prove their love in whatever way knows how -- even if it means being like the dove in the song, always trying but never succeeding, steadfastly refusing to accept that love itself can ever die.

In Talk to Her, the lovers and the objects of their affection are never quite what we assume they will be.  But they are strong and true, they are honorable and moving nonetheless.  They want love to persist, somehow, even if it means losing themselves to let their love live.

Perhaps I'll revisit Talk to Her in another decade or so and find a slightly different film; that's the beauty of a film from a director as accomplished, as sure of himself, as Almodóvar.  It means different things at different times to different people, even if it loses none of its ability to stun through unexpected filmmaking and the story of its unusual, compassionate characters.

Viewed June 1, 2015 -- Amazon Instant Video