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Column Sat Aug 23 2014
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, If I Stay, When the Game Stands Tall, The Trip to Italy, The One I Love, Land Ho! & The Possession of Michael King
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
It looks and sounds and bleeds like the Sin City we know and love from 10 years ago, the one co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, based on Miller's insanely popular graphic novels. There are a few familiar faces, a few new ones, narration all over the damn place, and deadly black-and-white images, splattered with blood. But strangely enough Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is missing something that I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe it's the fact that Rodriguez and Miller haven't given us anything new in terms of the visuals; the almost-entirely CG environments feel the same, which is a shame because it limits the film in its pursuit to distinguish itself from its predecessor.
Marv (Mickey Rourke, seemingly even puffier in makeup than before) is back, still looking for a fight, but always willing to help out a friend. The one thing that isn't clearly explained (if it was, I missed it) is the timeline. Some of the film clearly takes place after Sin City. Bruce Willis' cop Hartigan is still dead but seems to be hovering over the shoulder of his charge, the stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba), trying to discourage her from going after the men who killed him, mostly those controlled by Senator Roark (Powers Booth, who has become more of a caricature villain than anything truly worth being scared of. But we also get stories that take place before the first film. Jaime King shows up as both twin sisters, Goldie and Wendy, one of whom we know dies in Sin City. I don't think the past and present storyline intersect, but jumping back and forth can get tiresome and confusing, especially to those who don't realize that Josh Brolin is playing the same character (pre-plastic surgery) he played in the first film. Good luck with that.
The best sequences are those that feature new characters. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is here as Johnny, a card shark of sorts who takes the good senator for quite a lot of money in a high-stakes poker game. Julia Garner is sweet and sexy Marcie, who acts as Johnny's good luck charm until she doesn't. Aside from the segment having a completely unexpected ending (the film was scripted by Miller as well), Gordon-Levitt just seems to get what he's doing and how this world works. His character has the requisite secrets and bombshells and reverse bombshells to remain interesting, and the actor possesses the required level of coolness to pull this off. It helps that he's also one of the only men in the film who isn't smacking a dame around at some point. But his storyline ends so abruptly, that there's no way you won't look around as say, "Huh?"
A Dame to Kill For is endlessly hateful of women — the prettier they are, the more it seems to want to mess up their faces, to the point where Alba literally self-scars herself to complete her transformation into a killing machine. It's kind of gross.
Perhaps the most fascinating character, old or new, this go round is Eva Green's Ava, the complete black widow whose motives are vague (maybe money, control, power, sexual frustration), but her methods always seem to involve taking off all of her clothes, which I'm certainly not complaining about. The problem is that her character is so horribly underwritten, it gets to be silly. Green is clearly right at home playing this type of hell-on-wheels woman, who has no problem lying, but knows that the real pain comes from telling her men the truth. She arranges for Brolin's Dwight (a former flame) to do a job for her that of course involves him driving into the back alleys controlled by Rosario Dawson's Gail and her underwear-clad ladies of Old Town.
The violence in these chapters of the Sin City saga is almost too conventionally bloody. And while one or two of the new characters are amusing (a pair of police detectives played by Jeremy Piven and Christopher Meloni are pretty amusing, especially when Meloni becomes fixated on Ava), many of the newbies just seem there to add to the parade of famous faces — Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Stacy Keach, who is unrecognizable in some pretty great makeup, Dennis Haysbert. And not much of their participation adds up to much.
Sin City's appeal to me was always that it took the conventions of film noir and ramped them up to a far edgier and nastier level. With A Dame to Kill For, however, the filmmakers have slipped from that approach to something that feels a lot like parody, and the joke isn't funny. In many ways, this chapter can't decide what it wants to be, which is probably why it all feels so unhinged and lost in its own visual style. There's a great deal to like here, but the material and performances that don't work severely undercut a lot of what's good. It's actually a fairly close call, but I never found myself able to truly get on board with this one.
If I Stay
There were times when I was genuinely surprised how effective and moving this adaptation of Gayle Forman's hugely popular novel was, but with the help of an (mostly) impressive cast of actors and a deliberate attempt not to let the proceedings get too sappy, If I Stay keeps its emotional bearing steady and deliver a version of a love story not often seen.
The film is the story of Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz), a promising young cello player who is on the verge of becoming something great in her field. She's been accepted by Juilliard, which would mean leaving behind her family (including former rock musician mother and father, played by Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) in the Pacific Northwest. But the hardest part of leaving her hometown is the separation from her boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley), a rising rock star in his own right, who begins pulling away almost as soon as Mia brings up the idea of heading to New York.
Mia's life is rich and full and rewarding and loaded with people who love her, so it seems all the more tragic when her family are involved in a car accident that puts her in a coma, one from which she is somehow able to observe her surroundings via an out-of-body experience that takes her back and forth between her present condition in a hospital bed, with those who love her visiting and talking to her, and through a tour of her memories of all the things and people she loves most dearly, including her music. Not everyone in her family survives the accident, and the thought of rejoining the waking world without them is possibly more than Mia can take, and the story sets up a scenario that effectively makes the choice of whether to wake up or slip away Mia's entirely.
The sequences in the hospital are actually fairly standard-issue bedside stuff. A slow, steady parade of visitors comes to Mia's room over the course of several weeks to deliver heartfelt pleas for her to fight to live. The one exception comes from her grandfather (beautifully played by Stacy Keach), who lets her know that if she would find it too painful to return, it's okay to let go. Director R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) does fairly solid work handling the highly emotional material with maturity, but that scene in particular is so perfectly designed to make an audience cry, there's no choice but to give in.
That's actually how I feel about most of If I Stay — you either buy the premise or you probably won't even bother walking into the theater. The movie never becomes some sort of faith-based exercise, yet there is a loose spirituality to the whole affair. Mia believes that those she's lost will probably be waiting for her on the other side. Moretz has been acting for almost as long as she's been forming sentences, and her skills at bringing the unlikely a bit of credibility (as she did in the Kick-Ass films and Carrie, for example) are on full display here. She's the most human, uncertain, flawed character in the film, which you wouldn't expect from a film about a prodigy, and I don't think it's written into the Mia character; it's something Moretz instinctively bring to the role.
Blackey doesn't fair as well as Adam. He's convincing enough as a rock star on the rise, but very little about his performance made me believe a young woman like Mia would fall for him once she got past his cool-guy hair and catchy music. Not that she doesn't throw herself into the relationship like any overachiever would, and I don't think it's a coincidence that Mia's ultimate life-or-death decision doesn't seem influenced by anything Adam says to her at her bedside. Whether this is the fault of the actor or simply an underwritten role, Adam is a dud of a character, which normally we could overlook if he wasn't in so much of the damn movie.
If I Stay has enough going for it to just recommend (barely). It offers a different and appealing vantage point to view this story of young love without forgetting to allow us to care about the characters. There are higher stakes here than in most young adult tales, but in the end the film is about finding the things in your life that you love and mean the most to you. It doesn't attempt to be life affirming, but that doesn't mean a lot of people won't find it so.
I was impressed at the emphasis on a loving family who not only support its daughter's artistic inclination but her choice in boyfriends; it actually startled me that the parents weren't painted as disapproving types and instead had confidence in their daughter as a person with a brain who tends to make smart choices. Maybe I should take back what I said about the film not being life affirming, because the family scenes are far more inspirational than the romance elements. In a strange way, you have to look to the periphery of If I Stay to see its greatest moments, and that fine by me.
To read my exclusive interview with If I Stay stars Chloë Grace Moretz and Jamie Blackley, as well as author Gayle Forman, go to Ain't It Cool News.
When the Game Stands Tall
I was a bit confused by this one from the first kick-off. This is the true story of a California high school football team that has a record-shattering winning streak of 151 games in a row, over a period of 12 years. Now of course, the team's coach Bob Ladouceur (played by the overly stoic Jim Caviezel) doesn't care about the streak and is more interested in setting up his players to be strong men after they leave high school. In all fairness, that's an easy philosophy to have when you literally can't lose.
As the story of When the Game Stands Tall goes, the coach has a heart attack, and as a result, he can't take part in the early part of training for the next season, one that includes his own son in his final year of play as a senior. And as a result, the team ends up losing its first two games, send them into a shame spiral the likes of which sports has never seen. But the coach comes back, eases the tensions among the players while still finding time for his whiny son and his overly accommodating wife (Laura Dern, playing a role that is far beneath her talents). And naturally they start winning again, taking it to the inevitable finals showdown.
I'm sorry, am I missing the source of the drama in this story? They lost two games out of some 160. Cry me a river. The film attempts to add what I'm fairly certain are completely fictional characters to beef up the tension in the final game. Clancy Brown embarrasses himself as the aggressive asshole father of one of the players who is on the verge of breaking a career touchdown record by the final game. The only words Brown's character seems to know are "record" "touchdown" "respect" and "grrrr." And the way that subplot plays out, whether it's historically accurate or not, is just flat-out stupid.
I like the idea of presenting an audience with a lead character who seems like a truly decent man who does everything in his power to discourage his players from getting caught up in the streak hype and wants them to make decisions for the team and in life that will help them grow as responsible adults. But director Thomas Carter (Coach Carter, Swing Kids, Save the Last Dance) handles When the Game Stands Tall like a guy who skipped school the day they taught the definition of subtlety. As a sports movie, I promise you, you've seen better, although I will admit seeing an almost unrecognizable Michael Chiklis as Ladouceur's assistant coach Terry Eidson was something of a thrill, one that sadly is smothered by the film's overbearing sense of falseness. I'm not saying the film is making things up (I honestly don't know), but when it feels unauthentic, it's almost as bad and it doesn't make for an enjoyable moviegoing experience.
The Trip to Italy
This will be one of the easiest and shortest reviews I've ever written (we'll see about that). The 2010 film The Trip was one of the more enjoyable experiences I had that year, witnessing comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (a virtual unknown stateside) playing thinly veiled versions of themselves drive around the roads of northern England, eating great food and trading some of the funniest banter and impersonations you're likely to hear. Woven between the laughs are a few serious discussions about career and life and love, but most they exist for our pure amusement. So it should come as no surprise that the sequel, The Trip to Italy (also directed by the great Michael Winterbottom), brings Coogan and Brydon back together to make a similar journey through Italy's finest cities, hotels and restaurants, but with perhaps a bit more emotional heft.
Driving in a mini-Cooper (pretty much rented by Brydon because of the film The Italian Job) through Rome, Liguria, Tuscany, Amalfi and finishing off in Capri (sadly not in Sicily, where Brydon wanted to re-live some of the great moments from The Godfather, Part II), the pair continue their eating and jibing journey, set to the soundtrack of only CD they happen to have on them, Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill," which they both acknowledge their love for.
What separates The Trip to Italy from the first film are the moments in between the jokes and eating. Brydon cheats on his wife and is racked with guilt for much of the film, except for the moments when he wants to do it again. Coogan is dealing with cancelation of his fictional American TV series and is looking to re-connect with his son (Timothy Leach), who joins the pair at the end of their trip. And its these moments that strengthen the film to such a degree that it makes it a much more spiritually fulfilling experience, and not just a wonderful chemistry test between the leads.
Lest you think these two get along in the traditional sense, they relish the idea of tearing down even the slightest sense of accomplishment or pretension the other might feel. My only regret about this movie is that it didn't take place after Coogan's recent Academy Award nomination, which he would have gleefully dangled in Brydon's face for the duration of the film, to which Brydon would remind him that he didn't actually win. And fret not, lovers of the first film, the dueling Michael Caine impersonations return briefly, as they should, supplemented with takes on most of the cast of The Dark Knight Rises.
Much like this another current release, Land Ho!, The Trip to Italy boils down to being a story of friendship, and as much as they bicker and pick at each other during the course of this film, there's no way these movies would work without there being a true bond between these men. I hope every four or five years, the pair and director Winterbottom pick a new country to drive through and make their mark upon and allow us to share in the truly joyful experience. I should make it clear that although seeing the original film should be on your to-do list if you haven't seen it, it's not required watching to fully enjoy The Trip to Italy. But just to be safe, watch them both in succession. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
The One I Love
When every minute of a film (aside from the first 15 minutes of set-up) is potential spoiler material, it makes for interesting reviewing, but let's attempt this in broad strokes.
When a married couple is as good-looking and lovable as Ethan (Mark Duplass, Safety Not Guaranteed) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss, "Mad Men"), it makes it that much more difficult to watch their relationship start to crumble. But as this pair begin to drift emotionally and physically, their therapist (Ted Danson) offers them a unique opportunity to spent a weekend in the country on a property outside of Los Angeles that includes a couple of cozy, tastefully decorated houses — a main quarters and a guest house — where the couple can either sleep in the same bed or choose to spend their days separately. The mission, in theory, is to bring the best version of themselves to the weekend, rekindle loving feelings and hopefully begin to repair what's broken.
At first, things seem to be going swimmingly. Ethan and Sophie eat, talk and just generally enjoy each other's company. And as an audience, we begin to settle into what we believe will be a sweet, perhaps brutally honest look at 30-somethings trying to together in this crazy modern world. But settling in and getting comfortable in the hands of first-time feature director Charlie McDowell and screenwriter Justin Lader would be a giant mistake.
On that first night at the retreat, it's clear that something is amiss and it may not necessarily be about the relationship. Sophie wanders from the main house and into the guest house, where she is eventually met by Ethan, and things get intimate, seemingly because Ethan has turned the perfect husband controls up to 11 and becomes completely irresistible. In the after-sex glow, Sophie runs back up to the main house to find Ethan sound asleep. Confused by not alarmed, she wakes him and asks how he pulled a fast one, and he seems confused about her description of the whole night after dinner. Thinking he's now reverted to his jerky ways, Sophie is hurt and throws him out to sleep in the guest house. Once there, Ethan crawls into bed and before long (you guessed it), Sophie crawls into bed next to him like nothing ever happened. And that's as far as I'm going to get in terms of specific plot.
At its most basic, The One I Love is about being careful what you wish for when it comes to your significant other. It concerns that nagging feeling that we sometimes get that they would be perfect if they would just change that one thing... or two things... or seven things... and before long the list becomes endless, especially if our partner actually does better themselves at your behest. Before long, a new grievance takes the place of the old one. But what if you are suddenly presented with the "perfect" or "ideal" version of the person you love? The film begs questions such as, could you ever be happy with this person? Or, could you ever be happy with anyone? Needless to say, both Ethan and Sophie are drawn into this Garden of Eden-level temptation, without much thought as to what they must sacrifice for taking a bite.
What's even more remarkable about the film is that, although the grand scheme of the plot was mapped out in advance, Duplass and Moss essentially improvised most scenes or sketched them out roughly in the day before shooting. The conversations they have, both loving and filled with anger, seem so utterly authentic that it's difficult to imagine that their words aren't carefully scripted down to the punctuation. This may be my favorite on-screen performance from both actors, as they are called upon to play variations of the same two characters in ways that are meant to be both charming and vaguely creepy (but never menacing).
In many ways, The One I Love is the antithesis of every romantic comedy Hollywood has ever churned out. It dares us to either love the one you're with (as the song goes), or cut and run immediately to avoid drawn-out heartbreak. And it somehow pulls this off while remaining fairly lighthearted, humorous and entertaining. The only downside to the plot is when the curtain is pulled back and we're more or less clued into exactly what's going on with this couple as they move back and forth between these two curious houses. The mystery is 90 percent of the fun, but much can be the same about relationships, so it seems appropriate that the film eventually asks us to accept the whole and not just the parts that make us the most happy.
Movies about friendship are a mixed bag, which makes the sheer greatness of the road trip (through Iceland) story Land Ho! all the more interesting and entertaining because it's a work that dives into the nature of friendship and what makes two people suited as pals. Every fiber of my being wants to believe that stars Paul Eenboorn (This Is Martin Bonner) and relative newcomer Early Lynn Nelson are real-life friends, despite their being such different creatures. As reserved newly divorced Colin (Eenboorn) and his good old boy ex-brother-in-law Mitch, these two men cook up a spontaneous trip to Iceland just for the sake of adventure — not necessarily a last adventure (I'd love to see these two go to a new exotic place in future films) — and end up learning a great deal about each other.
The film comes courtesy of another unusual pairing between directors Aaron Katz (Cold Weather) and Martha Stephens (Pilgrim Song), who wrote the screenplay for these actors, but could not have anticipated how wonderfully they took to the unique landscapes of Iceland. Less a travelogue film, more of a character study, Land Ho! relishes the art of conversation, while taking full advantage of the nation's topography, cuisine, climate and (to a lesser degree) native people. Most of the people that Colin and Mitch interact with are not from Iceland; instead, like many tourists, they gravitate to other Americans and even a family member who happens to be in the same part of the world.
As the film moves along, the gentle jabbing and jokes told at the other's expense between the two men becomes something more significant. Thoughts of dreams and failures and missing opportunities and fears of aging abound (both men are well into their senior years). They smoke pot, annoy each other at times, complain about their kids, but inevitably just find ways of becoming deeper friends in a world where making them becomes increasingly difficult. Eenhoorn is a known quantity as an actor and wonderfully lets little bits of his deeper thought rise to the surface; Nelson is a brash, forward, front-of-brain performer (as in real life), so when his concerns about health and the future are spoken, there's more a shock to his honesty and anxieties.
Land Ho! never allows itself to become sappy or sentimental; it never even gets close. Situations play out unexpectedly, almost defiantly so at times. And when all is said and done, we feel a little bit more secure that these two guys will live out the rest of their long lives with their feisty streaks full intact, always ready for a new ride and maybe even a new lady to share it with. You will find it impossible not to love this film. It opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre,
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Land Ho! stars Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson.
The Possession of Michael King
I don't have the immediate, knee-jerk negative reaction to found-footage/faux documentary films that a lot of people do. I still think they have a place in the cinematic world, although I think filmmakers may have exhausted their effectiveness at this point. Still, I'm always happy to take a look at a slightly new take on the method and hope for the best. The Possession of Michael King falls more into the faux doc category, as we seem to be watching a pieced together finished film culled from security cameras that the filmmaker has placed around his home in his attempt to discover if the devil actually exists.
In the wake of his wife's untimely, senseless death, Michael King (Shane Johnson) has lost all sense of spiritual meaning and belief. He wasn't much of a religious man to begin with, but he foolishly decides to show those who do believe once and for all (using none-too-scientific means) that as much as he tempts being visited by evil forces, such things simply don't exist — ergo God doesn't exist, by King's logic. Never mind that he has a young daughter (Ella Anderson) depending on him to support and protect her — he's more interested in finding occultists and demonologists and anyone else who might inject him with all sorts of bad juju. In case you haven't figured it out, first-time writer-director David Jung doesn't really care if we like Michael King, and that's fine; we don't have to like a main character to be entertained by him. And like most people who tempt fate, King gets himself a little bit possessed, and the things inside him have their sights set on getting their mitts on his daughter.
The conceit of The Possession of Michael King is that every bit of footage (I believe) is meant to have been captured by one of King's countless spy cameras planted around his home, some in places that don't even make sense if their only intention is to capture as much information in a given room as possible. I hate playing the game of "Would the subject keep filming in these circumstances?" or "Who's filming this exactly?", but this film practically begs you to in so many spots during its short running time that it becomes truly obnoxious. Pick a style, commit to it, don't change the rules unless you have a good reason to. I've seen films where the found-footage style is dropped, and if it's part of the way the story is being told, it's pretty great. Not here.
And that brings us to Shane Johnson's performance, which admittedly requires a lot out of him, both in terms of the physical demands, vocal gymnastics and addressing the camera as a sort of amateur reality show host. The sad truth is, Johnson and director June aren't bringing anything to the possession or exorcism table that we haven't seen before. Even the faux doc format has been used before in this sub-genre of horror, and while Johnson's performance isn't embarrassing, it's not especially inspirational either. He's good enough, and that's about as far as it goes.
There are certainly a few well-timed scares in The Possession of Michael King, but it's not enough to just make me jump for a second and move on. The things that make me remember and recommend scary movies (or any movie) are characters and how much I care about their well-being. I never feel like I get a chance to understand King's belief structure. I get that the loss of his wife was painful, but since we only get to see them together for a couple of minutes early on, we don't feel the loss as deeply as he does — not even close. So his tantrums and grand emotional outbursts seem a bit overreactive. If there were even just a few choice moments that felt fresh and inventive, I might have been able to recommend the film, but as it is, you'll probably forget the details of the film walking to your car after seeing it.