The viewing experience sometimes needs to be shared, and I’m talking about films beyond the obvious genre exercises — the found-footage horrors where very little happens, seemingly made for midnight screenings, or the mythic displays of cartoonish world-beating violence that dominate the shared mythic realms of our comic book universes. No, I’m talking about the character-driven narratives, the minor indie reflections of the quirkily mundane, presented in occasionally stylized frames. These are the films that sometimes need to be cracked open like fine wines to breathe before being dispensed and discriminatingly sampled for delicate spices and hidden notes that might tickle the palette.
I recently uncorked Infinitely Polar Bear during a film club session with a select group of Lighthouse Youth Crisis Center participants. The title arrived with the expectation of a more private screening for coverage, and I dared to offer it up to the club as a film that none of these kids would likely pay to see in theaters on their own — quite possibly they wouldn’t even consider it if the movie ended up before them years from now on cable or in a streaming queue.
In a tangential way, I liken it to the impetus behind Between the World and Me, the already much-debated new release from Ta-Nehisi Coates. That book arrives as part of a tradition that goes back to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, socio-cultural commentary addressed to a younger generation (in each case 14-year-old male children) from a perspective weighted with inevitable frustrations and hard-earned wisdom.
Coates uses sociological talking points and the known (albeit rarely referenced) historic record to accent very personal anecdotes about growing up under a dominating and ever-present institutional regime that from a distance offers the appearance of change, only to have that sense erode upon closer inspection.
Coates finds himself at odds with the notions of hope and belief, seeing them as just examples of psychological chains — tools to constrict and imprison potentially beautiful minds and spirits. Without a doubt, I can appreciate those concerns, and I tend to retreat into a well-fortressed cynicism.
At first glance, the parallels between Between the World and Me and writer-director Maya Forbes’ narrative — about the struggles of Cameron Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) as they attempt to raise their daughters Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) and Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) while dealing with Cameron’s acute manic depression during the mid-to-late 1970s — seem fleetingly tenuous at best. Infinitely Polar Bear spends most of its run time focused on Cameron’s dilemma, although it does a surprisingly good job of framing it through the impact on his daughters.
And rather than highlight the more innocuous circumstances in broad situation-comedy fashion — where the girls might merely be embarrassed by a parent like Cameron ping-ponging between manic highs and emotional depths — we see and feel the genuine affection the girls have for their father (and that he certainly has for them) balanced alongside cautionary instances where the children are isolated in situations that, today, might be labeled endangerment. It was fascinating to hear teens grapple with the complex realities of dealing with a parent — especially a father — like Cameron who is barely able to hold himself together but wages this intimate internal battle to do so for his kids.
From an instructive standpoint, the film works well as a tool for discussion, too, because of the period time frame. For instance, when questions of race arise briefly when the older daughter expresses concern to her mother over the idea that she is constantly challenged when she says she’s black because she doesn’t have obvious “black features,” it forces modern teens to recognize how the way we apply categories and have these discussions has changed. I had to point out to the class that biracial distinctions — so commonplace in our lexicon — were not prevalent more than 30 years ago. I’m not sure it means that we’re more enlightened, but there is definitely a willingness to allow for more specific self-definition.
But it is the fact that Infinitely Polar Bear provides an opportunity for audiences to engage in these considerations, effortlessly, that the film will win over hearts and minds. Forbes narrows the distance between the audience and the film’s characters, presenting them as people struggling courageously, beautifully and ultimately as truly human beings that can be seen and appreciated as such. (Opens Friday) Grade: B+ (tt stern-enzi)
DIRECTOR BILL CONDON LETS THE DETECTIVE SET HIS STORY STRAIGHT
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: PG, Grade: B+
I can’t say I’ve made the leap back to Arthur Conan Doyle’s celebrated detective. In recent years, I made forays into the literary detective genre, but I have done so from the comparative standpoint of contrasting American practitioners of the craft versus the British (Ian Rankin’s Detective Inspector John Rebus) and the legion of Scandinavian writers covering the beat (Camilla Läckberg, Henning Mankell and, of course, Stieg Larsson). Larsson’s a bit of a cheat, when you consider that neither his legendary heroine, Lisbeth Salander, nor her somewhat reluctant, yet idealistically-minded colleague are detectives at all.
I am currently delving–completely out of sequence, mind you–into Jo Nesbø and his darkly disheveled creation, Harry Hole via “The Devil’s Star.” Nesbø has already attracted the attention of filmmakers with “Headhunters” and “Jackpot” as the premier adaptations of his work thus far. I’m quite partial to him, having favorably compared him to Elmore Leonard, my current idol in the field.
The thing is, though, every detective writer out there is trying to escape the long shadow of Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes. And here I am, a film critic, a narrative detective of sorts, looking for clues while operating with a rather severe blind spot—this lack of knowledge about the great Sherlock Holmes (which is hard to believe since Holmes is everywhere). Various versions litter the small screen, and there have been more big screen takes than villains in his rogue’s gallery. But I’ve never made a concerted effort to dig into his literary origins, beyond a brief survey in junior high school, most likely “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” if I had to guess.
Which is why Bill Condon’s “Mr. Holmes” feels like a blessing and a curse.
Based on a novel (“A Slight Trick of the Mind”) by Mitch Cullin, the film takes and runs with Doyle’s signature character as a long-retired figure (played here by Ian McKellen), living in 1947 in a remote farmhouse with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker), a precocious boy with the kind of sensitive and inquisitive mind that keeps Holmes on his toes as he revisits notes on a final case that has flummoxed him for decades. He is also haunted, to a certain degree, by the impression of him that exists in the world, thanks to the series of books written by Watson (Colin Starkey). Holmes sees the notes and the resolution of this nagging mystery as his effort to write his own story at long last.
Condon has surveyed various genres—adapting musicals (“Dreamgirls”) and bestselling tween fantasies (“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Parts 1 and 2”) and horror (“Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh”)—but he has shown a keen and knowing reserve when it comes to the lives of aging reclusive men. His “Gods and Monsters” brilliantly captured the last days of James Whale (McKellen again), the director of “Frankenstein.” That film too was based on a novel (by Christopher Bram) and featured the relationship between an older figure and a young man; in “Gods and Monsters,” it was Brendan Fraser. Condon won an Academy Award for the adapted screenplay.
And so, he sets his sights on similar territory, crafting, with able assistance from McKellen, a portrait of Holmes that could easily become the default representation of the character for someone like me, a crime fiction reader with precious little experience with the defining narratives. His Holmes is a welcome contrast to the morally ambiguous detectives that roam the bleak streets of the modern era. His judgment is not impaired by too much drink, the kill shots taken (or not) or the long-buried emotional traumas of his troubled youth. Holmes is a brilliant witness of humanity, afflicted by the simple ravages of time. His greatness is never far from the surface, but Condon’s expertly nuanced rendition is so good, it negates the need or desire for unfamiliar viewers to investigate that past for themselves.
“Mr. Holmes” does indeed allow the character to write the last chapter and close the book on his own storied history.
Sometimes it pays off big to make a few small, albeit risky departures from convention. Take the case of Marvel Comics and Disney’s joint leap of faith with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this sprawling collection of stories and characters dependent upon the idea of a shared world in which heroes of all types — chemically enhanced super soldiers; brilliant inventors using technology to do the impossible; spies trained to push their bodies and abilities beyond human limits; mythic god-like figures able to command the elements; and, soon, practitioners of mystic arts — unite against common foes to defend the planet.
What works well on the page in hand-drawn comic panels does not always translate so easily onto moving frames with live action competing with CGI for the ultimate supremacy — the transporting sense of true gut-level believability. Who — and I’m not just talking about comic book fanatics — doesn’t want to be a superhero? Who doesn’t want to have astonishing powers and the sometimes-crushing responsibility that comes with them?
That’s why man creates myths, movie stars and, yes, superheroes.
And that is also why, and how, those heroes can be compromised when transferred from one medium to another. We want the imagined, and maybe we want, without even knowing it, to shrink them down to a more manageable size and scale. But if we change them too much, we lose the initial intrinsic appeal.
Writer-director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and his creative partner Joe Cornish (director of Attack the Block) had a dream — long before such things were practical — to bring one of their favorite comic book superheroes to life. They wanted to bring Ant-Man to the big screen, so they set about the task of penning a screenplay for Wright to helm. The pair imagined Paul Rudd as their heroic little Ant-Man, a burglar named Scott Lang seeking a shot at redemption and to provide for his young daughter.
As is the case with Hollywood productions, business decisions forced Wright and Cornish off the project, with Peyton Reed (Bring It On, The Break-Up) brought in to complete the assignment. Rudd remained, and this new and improved Ant-Man (with script punch-ups from Rudd and Adam McKay) was slotted into Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe. Up to now, Marvel movies have gone big in terms of scale and scope and box office dominance; they have become tentpoles in the seasons of their release. And each new movie has had to deal with the crushing weight of higher and higher expectations.
Ant-Man, on the surface, is no different. Yet the movie that Reed and company have created is so very unique, it dares to stretch the mold. It starts off comfortably in the Marvel narrative tradition, with scientist/inventor Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) seeking to protect his discovery — the Pym Particle, a formula that shrinks living cells and tissue while allowing for density and mass to remain intact. S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to weaponize the science and create an army of super soldiers. Years later, after Hank Pym has retreated from his own company with his secrets held close to the vest, his protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is on the verge of repeating Pym’s success and selling the goods to the highest bidder.
Rather than fighting fire with fire, Pym settles upon the idea of stealing the new tech and destroying it before the sale goes through. Enter Lang and his ragtag crew of criminal associates (Michael Peña, T.I. and David Dastmalchian — scene stealers, one and all) who team up with Pym and his frustrated daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who would rather handle the situation on her own. This Ant-Team turns out to be surprisingly smart as well as full of heart and soul.
Lang learns to communicate and command his loyal army of ants through trial and error experiences that run from mundane tasks like moving sugar cubes to facing off against an Avenger (nope, not spoiling the cameo for you).
What Ant-Man proves to be is a capable independent heist movie — think Mission: Impossible meets Fast Five with weird and wacky dollops of The Usual Suspects and To Catch a Thief thrown in for good measure — that also happens to be a wonderful Scott Pilgrim twist on what a Marvel superhero should look like. Every detail, both big (Michael Douglas) and small (Peña), works to alter our perceptions of we mean when we talk about this genre and those crazy expectations.
Who knew going small would pay off in such a major way? (PG-13) Grade: A- (tt stern-enzi)
FROM STAND-UP TO TELEVISION TO FILM, THIS COMIC RIDES HER OWN BULLET TRAIN
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: R, Grade: A
Amy Schumer is on the fastest of the fast tracks. The successful stand-up comedienne made the transition from the stage of comedy clubs to her own Comedy Central show (“Inside Amy Schumer”) look like a stroll across a barely traveled two-lane road. She has attracted attention for her skewering of sexism with sharp barbs and seemingly weathered a recent firestorm about her approach to the subject of race with the assurance of a social media spin-master. The social media connection ties into the high-speed mode that has allowed her to dominate the game in such a brief blink of an eye.
As a film critic, I tend to miss “Inside Amy Schumer” during its night-time run, but find myself instantly plugged into all things “Amy Schumer” thanks to blogs and the Twitterverse, which presents instant feedback on each episode (sometimes it feels like the collective reaction posts before the sketches have even finished airing) and alerts me to the highlights with Sportscenter Top Ten flair. And I hungrily feast on the clips as soon as possible, which helps to maintain my status as a member of the cool kids.
But I feared the “Amy Schumer” bubble might have been on the verge of bursting with the imminent arrival of her new film “Trainwreck,” directed by comedy guru Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” among a host of other movies that he has either produced, written, and/or directed). Apatow is a comedy Midas, so much so that it seems like he doesn’t even have to lay his hands directly on a project for it to take on a golden glimmer, but how long can his run last? And with him working from a script by Schumer, a sketch talent to be sure but taking center stage writing and acting here, the fall from such dizzying heights could be catastrophic, right?
Schumer barely even blinks.
Her character, named Amy, is likely a more polished and professional version of the “Amy Schumer” character from her stand-up or some of her “Inside Amy Schumer” bits; meaning Amy stands before us with backstory to flesh out her comic imperfections. She’s the eldest daughter of a father (Colin Quinn) who was a crude and unfaithful drunk. Despite all that, her dad passed along what struck her as sage advise that the adult Amy took to heart: Monogamy is an unrealistic fairy tale for candy-assed dreamers susceptible to getting hoodwinked by the lie of living happily ever after. You’re only happy for a night or two, if that, so enjoy it when you can and move on quickly.
It doesn’t hurt that grown-up Amy works for a cheeky men’s magazine that subscribed to gutter-level assertions about what matters to what passed for men today (sex, sports, sex and raunchy sex). At a pitch meeting, Amy winds up with an assignment to interview a legendary sports doctor (Bill Hader) who performs miracle surgeries on the greatest players on Earth and happens to be best buds with LeBron James (who could have a successful career playing this quite scintillating version of himself). Surprise, surprise, Amy falls for the good doctor—who really is quite good because Hader is proving to be an all-star talent with all-around game as both a comedic and dramatic performer—but must overcome the faulty hard-wiring from her father.
“Trainwreck” is a flat-out riot, in terms of the romantic comedy elements. The whole cast sells the human relatability of the gags—especially the non-comic players like James and wrestler John Cena (who is hilarious in his early extended cameo as one of Amy’s lovers who hangs around longer than usual)—but Schumer shows a willingness to fearlessly venture beyond the comfort of easy laughs into real emotional territory. As the character and the top-lining talent both in front of and behind the camera, Schumer stands up before us without the safety net of a joke and lays bare the sadness of her clownish persona.
Since filmmaking collaborators Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing teamed up back in 2011 on Kid HULK — a four-minute short about a young Bruce Banner who helps a girl deal with bullies (Lofing even got a bit of screen time as the titular hero) — it might be logical to assume that the pair might have been interested in attracting the attention of the Marvel-movie-universe brain trust in the hope of securing a coveted gig helming one of the highly anticipated superhero features on the horizon. (Mark Ruffalo, it might be worth tracking these guys down if you ever want the chance to take center stage in a solo Hulk project.)
Instead, their first feature-length film ventures down another popular genre trail — albeit one that might be on the verge of advancing past its expiration date: found-footage horror. Consider for a moment the long run enjoyed by this thoroughly modern (and quite inexpensive) riff on the fright game. The Blair Witch Project, back in 1999, took advantage of our escalating fascination with video-recording capabilities. Cameras were becoming lighter and cheaper, creating a whole generation of shooters eager to run and gun their way into quick fame and fortune. And horror provided a relatively low-fi narrative angle in which the majority of the action could take place out of the frame, leaving the heavy lifting to the imaginations of viewers.
It seemed as if we were moving past the idea of unstoppable faceless hulking menaces and/or corny thrill-killers slashing their ways through our collective nightmares. The final self-aware death throes of these genre hacks — think Wes Craven’s Scream franchise and the I Know What You Did Last Summer clones and copycats — were being chased out of the multiplexes briefly by the torture porn upstarts and the spooky supernatural voyeurism offered by found footage.
Who knew watching smaller, frantically captured images on a big screen could be so intriguing? Apparently Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, that’s who.
Blumhouse has seized upon this trend with a furious obsessiveness, spawning franchises like Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Insidious and Sinister, capable of exploiting the maximum efficiency of micro-budgeting and the heightened tension that could result from very little happening onscreen to anonymous people (few of these movies have even dared to cast a truly recognizable face, much to their credit and totally in keeping with the low-end production model).
And The Gallows has all the hallmarks of yet another Blumhouse shocker, although this time it would appear that there’s the sense that the found footage craze might be wearing thin, so Cluff and Lofing seek to inject a bit of the old-school tricks to scare up more twisting and shouting in the cheap seats.
After a horrific accident 20 years ago ruined a high school theater production in a small town, a new generation of students seeks to resurrect the play to honor the anniversary.
The new restaging of The Gallows features a high school jock named Reese (Reese Mishler), who has given up his status as a sporting golden boy to slum it with the theater crowd — in particular Pfeifer Ross (Pfeifer Brown), the little queen-diva of the stage who struck upon the idea for this anniversary tribute. Reese’s prickish best pal Ryan (Ryan Shoos) and his girl Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) convince poor Reese that he’s doomed to fail on the big stage, so the trio sets out to secretly destroy the set the night before the play opens, only to discover that the show must go on, no matter what.
All manner of devices get employed to shed light on and push the found-footage narrative forward with precious little cohesion or coherency, but that will not stop audiences from buying into the jittery hysterics and the movie’s efforts to merge the occasional bumps and noises off camera with fleeting glimpses of a vengeful figure (The Hangman) straight out of the Freddy Krueger-Michael Myers-Jason Voorhees playbook.
What’s missing here, and what has largely been missing through most of the Blumhouse oeuvre, is a campy sense of humor. For all the success of Blumhouse franchise players, I find only the Insidious installments worth repeated viewings, and that is because those movies offer characters willing to laugh in the face of absurd horror, providing a brief respite from all the dire happenings.
The Gallows definitely could have used a self-aware joke or two to liven things up in an otherwise routine execution exercise. (tt stern-enzi) Grade: D+
HOW WE’RE ALL IMPLICATED IN THE LOSS OF AMY WINEHOUSE
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
“I ain’t got the time, and if my daddy thinks I’m fine…”
That line from Amy Winehouse’s breakthrough single, “Rehab,” says so much because it becomes her way out of going to rehab for a drug problem that apparently everyone close to her saw but could do nothing to prevent. Listening to the song now, it all seems so obvious, and maybe the song itself was her way of crying out for help. Think about it—“Rehab,” like every other song on Winehouse’s second collection, Back to Black, scored with audiences thanks to the raw, confessional tone the singer-songwriter copped to on each track. If she were a criminal in the box, and we were the detectives ready to ask questions, then she was the Mirandized songbird, fearlessly confessing to every crime in the book because she had committed each and every one—and, truth be told, she wasn’t feeling all that guilty about it either.
Asif Kapadia’s documentary “Amy” lays out the background of her life, sets the stage for this posthumous confession and is a remarkable story, especially in how it is told to us. Amy Winehouse speaks to us, so often, and—more importantly—we have the chance to see her, the young working-class Jewish girl with that voice, such a powerful instrument of heartfelt and deeply lived blues and brazen sensuality. But what we (in particular, American audiences) might not have been aware of is that Winehouse was an oddly self-aware poet with a feel for the guitar. She wasn’t an expert with an axe, but she knew how to wield it, to complement that voice of hers.
Yet, it was Mark Ronson’s Motown-inspired girl group production on Back to Black that provided the perfect backdrop for Winehouse’s genre-blurring delivery—husky blue notes, jazzy dance around the beats and boldly defiant around-the-way girl swagger—winning her critical and commercial appreciation across the modern musical spectrum. The demo versions of some of those hits offer undeniable proof that Winehouse could take these disparate elements and reconfigure them in her head in different settings, like elements of her personality.
Problems arose, though, when fame took her attention away from her rich and carefully composed musical persona—the place where she tells us onscreen, “The more people see of me, the more they’ll realize the only thing I’m good for is making music”—and stranded her on some distant shore, far from her closest friends, the people who were with her when it all started and music was the only thing that mattered.
It is difficult to listen to her songs now. The lyrics have a prescience that, in 20/20 hindsight renders the tragedy a melancholic bend that feels like the forward spill into oblivion where the tears might never run dry. And the music videos that remain, much like this film, match that tone beat for beat. “Amy” allows us to see, truly see, Winehouse in a stunning collection of images and clips that span her entire life, while we hear from the people in her life as they try to narrate her epic fall.
Every one of them struggles with some personal blame for what happened to her, save, seemingly, her father Mitch (who comes across as the man most culpable outside Winehouse herself), and by the end, the truly empathic in the audience will take on some responsibility, as well. We all watched, unable to turn away, and “Amy” makes us do so again and again, without letting us off the hook.
If only we could say, “[She] left no time to regret,” as she did about her lover on title track “Back to Black.” But Winehouse needed more time.