Sunday, September 27, 2015

Catching Up: "Boulevard"

 3.5 / 5 

Boulevard is the final dramatic film starring Robin Williams, and it's an unexpectedly fitting bookend for an film acting career that began with the sprawling, messy, whimsical, wonderful epic The World According to Garp in 1982.

That movie explored the idea that life is an unpredictable adventure, that nothing is more important than personal (and sexual) liberty.  It was big, bold and loud.

Boulevard is small, meek and quiet.  It explores the idea that most people don't know what their lives are about.  Garp was an ambitious novel.  Boulevard is a modest short story.  As Garp, Williams was exuberant.  As Boulevard's humble banker Nolan Mack, Williams is so restrained he seems to be in pain -- which is exactly the movie's point.

Boulevard begins by showing us Nolan's little life.  He lives with his wife of who-knows-how-long, a perfectly lovely and fiercely intelligent woman with the ironic name Joy, who's played by the always-spot-on Kathy Baker, one of those actresses you've seen a hundred times, never quite in the same way.

Nolan works in a bank.  He likes the people who come to him for money.  If he seems just a little jealous of his latest clients, a gay couple buying a home, it's because he is.  Nolan, we come to find, has known of his own homosexuality since he was 12.  That knowledge hasn't changed the course of his life -- he got a degree, took a job, took a wife, bought a house, very probably in that order.  Now, he and his wife sleep in separate rooms.  "Separate beds, separate rooms, separate lives," she says to him one night, not in anger.  "How much more separate can we be?"

A lot, it seems.  Nolan's wife does not accompany him to the hospital, where his father is dying.  No doubt, he has told her not to bother herself.  So, she's not driving with him the night he maneuvers the car through the seedy part of town, where the hookers line up.

By mistake, he nearly hits one of them, but it's not a movie meet-cute moment.  It's just one of those moments in life that leads to another, and another, and another, and pretty soon Nolan's life is moving down roads he didn't know existed.

The hooker's name is Leo.  He's played by Robert Aguire in a performance noteworthy for the way he brings simultaneous clarity and confusion.  Leo is as unaware of a world outside his own as Nolan is. Nolan is captivated by the younger man.  He begins to have a sort of affair, but it's been so long since Nolan experienced what Garp's Jenny Fields would call "lust," he has no idea how to begin.

Nolan becomes infatuated with Leo.  He can't bring himself to admit that he's in love with a prostitute; it's not the sex-for-money part that stuns him -- it's the love part.

His wife suspects.  But, then, his wife has probably suspected a lot of things about Nolan, maybe even about herself.  Boulevard is filled with people who have talked themselves into their lives.

By and large, Boulevard is a quiet, clearly examined character study.  Only toward the very end does it generate some much-needed drama in a brief but memorable scene in which Joy finally asks Nolan to explain himself.  He can't, so she does it for him.  It's a scene of undeniable power, well-written and ferociously acted, and can be compared favorably to the short-but-mighty scene in Network for which Beatrice Straight won the Academy Award.  Joy lets loose on her husband, but not in the way, or with the conclusions, you might imagine.  The one scene of great drama in Boulevard does not betray the bottled-up, repressed emotions of the rest of the film -- though it does expand on them.

Williams, in turn, brings a scared hesitancy to Nolan, a man who now knows what direction he's moving -- whether he likes it or not.

In its final moments, Boulevard tries too hard for a happy end to this unhappy domestic drama.  It's nice to imagine that Nolan will find himself, that Joy will be resilient, but Boulevard insists on showing this moment of optimism.  But it's less effective than it might be, because Boulevard begins with grown-up characters realizing they still have a lot to learn about life.  The learning will go on for a long time, can't be tacked on by a happy coda that makes Nolan and Joy both look a little too much like Mary Tyler Moore about to throw her hat in the air.

Hat tosses aren't needed in Boulevard.  It's a movie that supposes a kiss between an estranged husband and wife can be just as valid as a kiss between two men who aren't sure yet whether they're in love, or whether they ever will be.  They're kisses stolen in the moments between emotion, and those are the moments Boulevard is best at exploring.

Viewed Sept. 27, 2015 -- On Demand

9 p.m.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"The Visit"

 3.5 / 5 

The Visit begins with a situation that must be universally uncomfortable: Staying at the house of a friend or relative for the first time, it dawns on you that you don't really know them all that well.  The lights go out at bedtime, and you start to hear noises, maybe some whispers.  Those nocturnal activities that are normal for your host can be disquieting to you.

That's the situation teenagers Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) find themselves in as they start on a weeklong visit to the home of their estranged grandparents.  It seems their mom (Kathryn Hahn) had a falling out with her parents long before the kids were born, but Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) want to meet their flesh and blood at long last, and to see the house where Mom grew up.

The timing works.  Mom's about to head off on a Caribbean beach cruise with her new boyfriend, so the offer of a week in the cold, snowy woods of central Pennsylvania seems perfectly timed.

Off they go, Becca, a budding filmmaker, with a camera in her hand -- she senses that there may be reparations to be made during the visit, and she's certain that the healing of multiple generations of one family could make a terrific documentary.  Her 14-year-old brother may be less helpful, but he's still intrigued by the idea, especially if it gives him time to rap on camera.

It's dull out there in rural Pennsylvania, but Nana and Pop Pop plan to do their best to show the kids a good time during the Monday-through-Saturday stay.  Really, there aren't even all that many rules in the house -- just two, actually: After 9:30 p.m., stay in bed. Don't open the door, no matter what you might hear.  Don't go snooping around the house at night.  And don't head down into the basement.

If they sound a little like the warnings Billy Peltzer was given in Gremlins, that's not entirely unintentional, as The Visit blends humor with scares for a result that feels very much like that earlier film.  Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan never seems to take any of it too seriously (unlike his deadly dull "thrillers" The Village and The Happening), and the mostly teen-aged audience I saw it with seemed to be having a blast, spending far more time laughing than screaming.

The Visit isn't as much a scare-fest as it is a mystery tinged with thrills.  It becomes clear pretty much right away that there's something very off about Nana and Pop Pop, and Shyamalan has both the guts and the filmmaking prowess to set one of the movie's earliest squirm-inducing moments in the middle of the day, as the kids discover Mom's old hide-and-seek spot.

But what is going on, exactly?  Are Nana and Pop Pop just, as they insist, getting old?  If it's as simple as that, how come the goings-on are increasingly disturbing?  And why is it that when Nana spilled some biscuit batter on Becca's computer, it only damaged the camera?  It makes for some pretty one-sided video chats with Mom out there on that cruise ship, but she reassures the kids that her parents were hippies -- that should explain everything.

As the days progress (each day is flashed on screen in huge letters, an homage to Kubrick's The Shining, another move about being stuck with unreliable parental figures), the kids are increasingly disturbed, and committed to getting to the bottom of things.

The Visit is a compact little film, clocking in at just over an hour and a half, but as with most Shyamalan films things don't always move with haste.  Despite the brevity, The Visit repeats itself frequently, while managing to bury some of the most salient clues.  When the final solution is revealed (it's a Shyamalan film, of course there's a "twist"), it's less of an "a-ha" moment than a jolt; sure, it makes sense, but there's no way we should've seen it coming if only we had been more attentive.

The movie's four central performers go a long way to offsetting the movie's minor flaws, most particularly DeJonge and Oxenbould.  They make a tired old device like "found footage" seem fresh and interesting, and they bring welcome dimension and depth to characters that are surprisingly well-rounded.  It's rare indeed to find a thriller works as a character study, but this one almost does.

What The Visit lacks in scares it makes up for in chills, and it compensates for some groan-inducing moments with humor and flair.  The Visit is in keeping with Shyamalan's pernicious little Devil, and might not qualify as one of his major works; but given the quality of his "major" works since The Sixth Sense, perhaps that's for the best.

Viewed Sept. 12, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Catching Up: "The Overnight"

 1.5 / 5 

For a movie that has very little on its mind except penises, pot and boobies, The Overnight is remarkably dull.

A half-century after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, here's another film about the sexual curiosity of long-married couples.  The Overnight seems to think it's on to something new and slightly naughty by revealing that people who have been married for a long time might have sexual desires beyond the confines of matrimony.  It titters and tee-hees at sexual proclivities, and seems almost embarrassed by the truths it's trying to reveal.

The Overnight stars Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling as a nice little couple from Seattle who move with their toddler to a tiny little apartment in Los Angeles.  The movie's writer and director, Patrick Bice, apparently thinks Seattle is the new Sheboygan, because there's rarely been a more square, more awkward, less sophisticated couple of people to come to L.A.  They're as sweet as can be, and, golly-gosh, they are just so excited to make friends when the mildly creepy Jason Schwartzman, wearing a nouveau-Hasidic hat, comes up to them in the park one fine afternoon.

Soon enough, they're having dinner with the weird, rich Schwartzman character and his French wife, while their sons play upstairs.  They put the kids to bed.  Then things get progressively weirder.

Schwartzman shows Scott the wacko pictures he paints in his studio.  They're human sphincters, ha ha, and Scott thinks they're golly-gosh interesting.  Stoned and drunk, Schwartzman talks Scott into taking his clothes off for some pictures, while the wives talk dirty to each other in another part of the house.  Before you know it, they're skinny dipping.

This is the big moment for The Overnight: The men take off their clothes, and the film seems to build and build with frenzied excitement as it prepares to show us ... penises!  Oh, the movie loves its penises, and seems downright gleeful to reveal that both actors are wearing prosthetic penises, which look like something designed by someone who's never really seen a penis.  Boy, this movie spends a lot of time talking about penises -- a lot of time.  Really, an unbelievable amount of time.

The Overnight has a prurient, slightly worrisome view of sex, which it presents as something to be embarrassed and ashamed about.  Watching the movie is like listening to some junior-high boys talk about breasts and dicks and all the things they imagine they're going to do when they get older.

What The Overnight fails to do is offer any insight -- comedic, dramatic or otherwise -- into the lives of its characters.  The actors seem genuinely committed to the concept, and they're all engaging enough, but there's nothing to do except read the lines.  The whole thing is only slightly better than watching a self-funded play in a tiny Melrose Avenue theater.  It's uncomfortable, slightly embarrassing, and even though it only lasts 79 minutes, it's as irritatingly endless as the night it depicts.

Viewed Sept. 11, 2015 -- Amazon Instant Video

Catching Up: "Poltergeist" (2015)

 1 / 5 

The 1982 mini-classic Poltergeist opened with an extreme close-up of a television screen as a channel signed off for the night and the picture faded into noisy snow.  The ghosts in Poltergeist used this video snow as a way to communicate between the spirit world and the real world, and they latched on to a little girl named Carol Anne, who they wanted to help lead them out of purgatory.

It was a convoluted story, but it worked because of the skill of its filmmakers (the director, at least minimally, was Tobe Hooper, but it was executive producer Steven Spielberg whose creative fingerprints were all over the film, released just a week before E.T. the Extra-Terresrial.  The two movies were bookends that offered a fantastical look at just what secrets and oddities lurked behind the normalcy of American tract homes.

The 32-years-on remake of Poltergeist (thankfully, no one has touched E.T. ... yet) also begins on an extreme close-up of a video screen.  It's not because the ghosts are going to use this particular screen as their point of entry. In fact, the video screen seen in the first shot of this movie never factors into the story again.

The filmmakers do it because the original movie did it.  All throughout the 93 execrable minutes of Poltergeist, elements from the first movie keep reappearing, no matter how little sense they make.  There's a malevolent clown doll, for instance. But what 10-year-old boy owns a creepy clown doll?  None.  So the filmmakers have to figure out a way to bring that into their version.  There's a big tree outside of the house, too, because there was a big tree in the first film.  Yes, it attacks.  No, it's not scary or creepy or even (as in the first film) lyrically malicious.

And when it attacks, during a freak storm, little Carol Anne -- here renamed Maddie, because, well, I don't know -- will go into the closet, which has already been set up as a spooky place.  If she didn't go into the closet, there would be no movie, since the filmmakers behind this version of Poltergeist can't really do anything different or unique, except make inexplicable changes like renaming Carol Anne Maddie.  So, yeah, back to the closet.

Poltergeist a lumbering, gloomy movie, resembling the first one in the way a paint-by-numbers kit resembles the Sistine Chapel.  There's some vague sense that maybe they're trying to replicate the original by copying it, but they're using cheap dime-store paint and the colors aren't even right.

There's none of the spark of the original.  The family is angry and sullen, dad is an unemployed wimp, mom is a non-entity, the little boy is neurotic, Carol Anne/Maddie is a forgettable plot device.  The silliness of having a little tiny psychic with a beehive hairdo figure everything out is replaced with a middle-aged British reality TV loony wearing a porkpie hat.  I don't know who thought these were the changes that needed to be made to update Poltergeist into the 21st century, but the changes stink.  They're listless, lazy ideas that suck the life right out of the underlying concept.

Back in 1982, Poltergeist was a romp, a blend of comedy, horror and over-the-top visual effects, tied together with appealing actors and a memorable Jerry Goldsmith score.

The new Poltergeist just proves that you can't go back again. It's a tired, bitter, strangely angry movie (dad is unemployed, the house is no longer a gleaming tract home but a run-down, slightly squalid place) that proves just how rampant cynicism is in Hollywood.  Poltergeist has had every trace of fun removed from it.  Every time the movie's score hints just slightly at a few notes of Goldsmith's theme, every time Rosemarie DeWitt as the mom repeats one of Jobeth Williams' lines, every time the movie tries to offer a knowing nod at the first film, everything just feels even worse.

Poltergeist is the cinematic equivalent of that dirty, stained-up Spider-Man on Hollywood Boulevard. He's just a pudgy, grungy, odor-filled copy of the original, and by trying to imitate the original he's just embarrassing everyone.

Viewed Sept. 7, 2015 -- Virgin Atlantic