Saturday, April 28, 2012

We Have a Pope

Adequate to the Task                    
by Mark Dispenza

Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti (The Son's Room, The Caiman) returns to his early roots in comedy and religion in We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam).  The title may lead you to believe this is a movie about the inner politics and machinations of the Catholic hierarchy, but nothing could be further from the truth.  This is not a story about a crisis of faith, but rather a crisis of personal confidence.

The current Holy Father of the Catholic Church has died, and a new Pope must be elected.  The world waits with baited breath as the College of Cardinals, sequestered in Papal conclave, takes on the difficult task of electing the new Pope.  When the favored candidates fail to garner the required majority after repeated votes, the conclave turns to a dark horse on which everyone can agree.

No one is more shocked than the winner, Cardinal Melville, played by the great octogenarian French actor, Michel Piccoli.  However, mere seconds before the announcement from the balcony of St. Peter's, il Papa has a panic attack and is unable to address the crowd.  The announcement is suddenly pulled and Melville sequesters himself in his quarters, throwing the entire Catholic world into turmoil.  Was the new Pope taken ill?  Has he died?  Bewildered and flustered by this unexpected turn of events, the cardinals turn to Italy's top psychologist, played to comic effect by Moretti himself.

Michel Piccoli
As someone who's fond of a strong narrative story arc, I was less than enamored of the meandering journey on which Moretti takes us.  In fact I wouldn't call it a journey at all, as the story essentially returns in the end to the same place where it started.  Don't worry that I've spoiled it for you, as the most compelling reason to see this film has nothing to do with the plot.

Over the years I've reviewed many scripts and films by people who come from a variety of backgrounds within the industry.  Over time I've learned to recognize exactly which backgrounds those are by the stories I'm given.  In many cases scripts written by actors are peopled by wonderful, memorable characters and bewitching dialogue, and yet very weak in story structure.  They will typically begin to unravel in the second act and then come to a less-than-satisfying ending in the third act, as if the writer got lost and couldn't figure out how to conclude the story.  This film plays like that.

In spite of that weakness, I have to admit that I enjoyed it precisely because it was populated by such wonderful characters.  Its world looks a lot like the Vatican, but is in fact a kind of magical realism.  The cardinals are neither religious zealots, nor scheming politicos.  They are depicted as fundamentally good human beings living in a world that continuously befuddles them.  I found this a refreshing departure from the excessive negativity often contained in stories about the inner workings of the Catholic Church these days.

Nanni Moretti

While I'm sure that, like most human institutions, the truth lies somewhere between, Moretti's Disneyesque version certainly provides a plethora of entertainment.  His psychologist is really just as bewildered by the world as everybody else.  He tries to gain control and alleviate the boredom, while waiting for il Papa to come to his senses, by setting up a volleyball tournament for the cardinals.  The political competition among the delegates from different continents is thus satirized and sweetened by devolution into an athletic contest.

Don 't expect to gain any real insight into the inner workings of the Catholic Church by watching this film, but do prepare to be immensely entertained.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Cabin in the Woods

The Horror Behind the Curtain             
by Zac Sanford

College coeds at a secluded cabin in the woods have long been a staple of the horror genre. It's a tired and stale cliche that has left audiences bored and hungry for something new and inventive. With the release of Cabin in the Woods, director Joss Whedon and co-writer Drew Goddard tackle the genre with a crowd-pleasing twist on that tired and dreary formula.

To go too deeply into the twist, one would have to lay out heavy spoiler warnings, and this is a film best viewed with the least amount of prior knowledge. As with the "kids in the woods" tropes, it begins with a mix of cliches and stereotypes. We've got the alpha male who will try to stand tall when the stuff finally hits the fan (Chris Hemsworth), the dim-witted blonde with a nice rack to drive up the ticket sales of the adolescent set (Anna Hutchison), the heartbroken but reserved female (Kristen Connolly), the stoner with his different views on the world (Fran Kranz), and the token black character (Jesse Williams). Yes, these are total Hollywood cliches, or at least that's what one is led to believe.

Joss has been known in the past to take something familiar and turn it on its head. While all those stock characters may give you the idea of perception as reality, the writer/director wants you to look deeper beneath the layers that are on the surface. It isn't until something is conjured up to attack our group that true identities come to the forefront. But what will actually attack our heroes?

In the cabin in the woods movies it could be a bevy of concepts or ideas. Typically some backwoods inbred psycho is on the loose or conjured up from the dead. Once our characters get to their destination, the psycho in the woods does come at them, but this isn't like any other horror film. As the campers prepare for an evening filled with cup after cup of alcohol or their preferred drug of choice, something beckons them down into the dimly lit and eerie basement. Every character is entranced and drawn to a specific item. Will it be the orb? The book about a past event in this very cabin? A piece of jewelry with special powers? Or could it actually be a mix of all these things.

Cabin in the Woods is more akin to to Scream than Hostel. The laughs come far more often than the scares or the gore, which is mainly saved until the climatic and overdone third act. Joss and Drew know the genre and how they can play around in it, manipulating and poking fun at horror movies. As a personal fan of horror films, I sometimes want to yell at the screen for the idiotic choice of the main character, but with this flick, it is proof that the writer and director knows how to manipulate and invoke a reaction.

Even if horror movies aren't typically your thing, I would implore you to check this movie out. Usually when a film sits on a shelf for multiple years it is because the final product isn't of the highest caliber, but this film was only lost in the shuffle due to the demise of MGM. Cabin in the Woods is a treat for any film fan.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Raid: Redemption

A Kick of Adrenaline                         

by Zac Sanford

While light on plot, Gareth Evans' The Raid: Redemption more than compensates in its stylized and non-stop tour de force action.

Like Die Hard, The Raid centers around one man on a mission. At the outset that isn't completely accurate since Rama (Iko Uwais) is joined by a cavalcade of cops. Their mission is to enter into the decrepit apartment building and capture drug kingpin, Tama (Ray Sahetapy). The problem is Tama has the building completely wired with intercoms and cameras. He throws out the promise of "free rent for life" to tenants who are able to stop the intrusion. With the call to arms, the building that has housed many drug dealers and murders comes alive. Gunfire erupts upon Rama and his team, sending most to the morgue within a matter of minutes.

As the numbers are narrowed, The Raid slips into video game mode, with each new level bringing on a different set of bad guys and a different style of fighting. Guns on the first few levels, knives and machetes on the next couple of levels, and last but not least, the biggest fight of all between Rama and Tama's most hardcore of henchman, the aptly named Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian). He is one that believes using a gun is like "ordering take-out." He'd rather fight someone with some real skill, that of Pencak Silat, the Indonesian style of martial arts.

There are a couple twists and turns along the journey, but mostly they are there to service the cliches of the genre. Corrupt cops, brothers on opposite sides of the law and a pregnant wife awaits our hero back at home. Viewers who are subtitle-phobic shouldn't worry, as the dialogue is minimal, only peppered in to add a little breathing room between non-stop escalating battles and violence.

Evans effectively captured the lost art of a well-crafted fight scene. American films tend to have the camera in close, handheld and constantly cutting to give the feeling of intense action in an otherwise poorly executed fight scene. Evans pulls the camera back from the action and lets it follow smoothly along corridors, hallways and rooms where the action takes place. Each punch, kick, stab and swing of a weapon is felt with force as the scene plays out without a cut every fraction of a second. If the film was a series of rapid cuts, the viewer would be left dazed and confused within the first thirty minutes of the almost non-stop action.

Like the many action stars before him, Iko Uwasis should find steady work within the genre. He has charisma and the chops to pull off some of the more elaborate action set pieces. And since Sony Classics decided to add on the "Redemption" part to the title (considering no character is really redeemed), hopefully there are plans to continue on the franchise with the few remaining actors at the end of this non-stop blood bath. But don't let the words "blood bath" scare you away. If you can handle the opening execution by Tama where he runs out of bullets before his last victim, leaving him only a hammer to end it, you can make it through The Raid.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Signs of Coincidence                       

by Zac Sanford

Indie darlings, the Duplass Brothers (Jay and Mark), reference the king of the "twist ending," M. Night Shyamalan, in their latest movie. It isn't necessary to know what happens in Signs, or what the big twist is, but know that it is a movie about coincidence, and every little thing has a purpose.  Jeff (Jason Segel) laments about his love of the movie, with its multiple levels and you can't fully comprehend in just one viewing. There are layers upon layers by Shyamalan, all leading up to the final climatic battle with alien invaders.

Luckily for the viewers of Jeff, Who Lives at Home, there are no aliens taking over the world or getting in the way of the characters and their journeys of self-reflection and discovery. Instead Signs gives the Duplass Brothers an excuse to bring forth a script filled with moment after moment of coincidence. But it works. Jeff, his brother Pat (Ed Helms), and their mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon), all have personal journeys to take, and the constant crossing of paths on an otherwise ordinary day leads to a decent conclusion of sacrifice.

Jeff is the typical type of character you'd find in a Duplass flick. He's a bit of a man-child who never found purpose in his life. He lives at home with his mother and can't even seem to finish a menial task like picking up wood glue to fix a broken shutter. With a constant cloud of pot smoke clouding his brain, he is easily distracted, and the day our movie begins (and ends) is no different. Before he can even head out the door to grab the glue, the only thing his mother wants done for her birthday, he answers a call that any other human would consider a wrong number or a prank call. The caller is looking for Kevin, who of course doesn't live at this home, but the caller doesn't believe Jeff and throws out a harmless and anonymous threat. Jeff racks his brain to recall who Kevin may be.  

While Jeff may be the man-child, his brother Pat has his life put together--well, at least a little more than Jeff. Even though he's married and lives in a small apartment, things are going well enough to spring his latest purchase on his wife, Linda (Judy Greer), the ultimate in a man's mid-life crisis--a Porsche. Problem is, they can't afford it. Not all is well in his house, even if on the outside he seems to haves it all together. And a bigger surprise (and not really ruined here unless you've skipped the trailer), Linda may be having an affair, which Pat doesn't know about until one of those moments of coincidence.  

Sharon, the mother of both, seems bored and at a dead-end spot in her life. She works in a call center for something we're never told. The highlight of her birthday isn't the thought of presents or being with family, but a secret admirer who has been sending paper airplanes and anonymous chat messages to her. With each flirty message, the hard exterior is chipped away, showing a woman past her prime, just looking for someone to connect with. Her own journey comes together with the others, leading to the biggest climax of any Duplass film.

Some viewers may be turned off by Jeff's child-like charm, but it worked deep down into my otherwise hardened core. He is a character with heart. All Jeff wants is for those to be happy around him, even if deep down he is miserable. There may be a million reasons why Jeff has never amounted to much in his life, but it is the little changes and coincidences around him on this eventful journey that will hopefully turn him around. And it isn't just Jeff who the audience will feel for, but everyone in the family, including Linda and her reasons for possible infidelity.