Sunday, April 27, 2014

Blue Ruin



BLUE RUIN: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, directed by Jeremy Saulnier (90 min.)

From the outset it is clear Dwight's appearance doesn't match the intensity in his eyes.  He is hidden beneath dirty long hair and a full beard that covers nearly all of his face.  This makes us focus on his eyes, and they are burning with desire.  For what, we aren't sure yet.  Dwight is homeless, a drifter, with only a dilapidated blue car to his name, but as I mentioned his disposition doesn't fit that of a homeless man.  He doesn't drink or act sickly or shuffle through the streets with a shopping cart.  He sneaks into homes to bathe himself and collects meals from trashcans, then eats while reading in his car.  In the morning, Dwight is brought in by a police officer, but even this seems out of place.  She is not there to put him behind bars, but she wants him to be in a safe place to tell him some bad news, news that sets the plot of Blue Ruin in motion.

Blue Ruin is a straight revenge thriller, simple and to the point, but one with enough inventiveness and twists in the story to keep the proceedings incredibly tense.  And despite its simplicity it is a strange and often fascinating thriller where nothing is fully explained, only shown.  The curiosity of these characters drives the momentum of the film to its messy conclusion that may seem too abrupt for many.  I found it fitting.

Dwight (Macon Blair) is told by the officer that a certain man is being released from prison.  Despite his lifeless body language, Dwight shows his emotions through his eyes and regardless of how much the officer pleas with Dwight to not do anything, she must understand what is going to happen.  Because we see his eyes, and we know.  Just like that, Dwight begins planning his revenge against this man, whose crime is clearly responsible for Dwight's current psychological and physical state.  He gets his car running and tries to steal a gun, which doesn't quite work so he takes a different route.  The man is released form prison and Dwight, waiting outside the prison behind the limo picking him up, follows the man to a bar.

I don't want to spoil the events which transpire because it will inadvertently spoil everything afterwards.  Dwight begins to exact his revenge, but the target shifts and changes and the scope broadens.  He sneaks into another home and cuts his hair and shaves his beard and it's as if we are given a new character in the film.  Seeing Dwight clean shaven seems to open up the picture on a visual level.  He visits his sister, who may be in danger, and the plot moves forward even more.  Dwight seeks out a high school friend, Ben (Devin Ratray), who supplies him with guns and teaches him how to handle himself.  Again, I don't want to say any more because watching the revenge plot unfold is the entirety of the film.

Blue Ruin is quiet and terse throughout with bursts of shocking violence along the way.  Macon Blair is captivating as Dwight, as he explains what it is he is doing and must do in a flat, detached voice that adds a certain chill tot he dialogue.  Everyone else in the film has only a handful of scenes along the way, it is Blair's film and he handles it well.  Director Jeremy Saulnier makes sure to keep the color blue in a majority of the scenes, and allows the film to happen rather than forcing any of the action.  The climax is a bit of a mess the way it unfolds, but it is brief and appropriate when all is said and done.  There is nothing earth shattering in the picture, but nothing is intended to be.  As a revenge film, Blue Ruin is a nice addition to the genre and a sign of great things to come from its director and star, who are both worth the price of admission.

B+    

Friday, April 18, 2014

Transcendence


TRANSCENDENCE: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, directed by Wally Pfister (119 min.)

Transcendence is a confused and muddled film with big ideas at the beginning, big ideas which are systematically taken apart step by step thanks to a weak script and illogical behavior from central characters.  This ultimately derails everything.  The actors involved give it their all, I suppose, but the screenplay pours water all over their performances.  Here is a sci-fi thriller with no faith in its own ideas and no energy.  At the heart of everything lies an interesting premise: what happens when technology and humanity ultimately meld together?  What would be the implications of such a thing, where self awareness was not a mutually exclusive idea to the human race, and computers and the internet were able to achieve self awareness?  In the hands of a competent film, these ideas with this plot could go places.  But, alas, we are not given the tools to carry these theories anywhere interesting.

Johnny Depp is the star I suppose, although he spends the majority of the picture inside a computer and on a screen.  He is Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist, and he is working on a supercomputer that is dangerously close to becoming self aware, the one element of human consciousness which separates us from everything else.  His wife, Evelyn, is played by Rebecca Hall.  Evelyn is brilliant in her own right, and believes in Will's work.  The opening act features Will giving a speech at a California science convention where he discusses artificial intelligence in some droning and uninteresting dialogue that seems cobbled together from other movies.  After the speech, Will is shot in the lobby at the same time computer labs across the country are blown up.  While the bullet does so little damage that Will is able to get out of the hospital and walk into his office hours later, it turns out that the bullet is laced with radiation which begins poisoning Will and will soon kill him.

The bullet was fired by a member of R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), a rogue group of militant anti-tech people, led by Bree (Kate Mara).  Well, Bree seems to be the only one we get to know, so I suppose she's a leader of some sorts.  This sure seems like a ragtag unit, which leads me to their assault on computer labs across the country… how?  They can't even manage to have a proper secret hiding place throughout the film, yet they can simultaneously infiltrate secure laboratories and blow them up?  I am digressing into the illogical aspects of the picture, and if I do that we will be here all night.  So let's move on.

Evelyn has a great idea.  She plans to upload Will into his own supercomputer and put him online so he can live after his body dies.  The plan is so hair brained that I can't imagine even the most layman individual thinking it is a good idea, regardless of the emotional connection.  Evelyn and Will's friend, Max, played by the always milquetoast Paul Bettany, realizes the implications of such an endeavor.  But here is this brilliant scientist, risking the fate of humanity on uploading her husband to a computer so she can hang out with him forever.  Either way it happens, and Will is uploaded to the internet, so his mind apparently encompasses everything.  Literally, everything, so that alone should end the film.  But no, Will has Evelyn move out to a dying desert town where they build an expansive field of solar panels and an underground computer lab.  That's right…

In this underground lab, Will - or the computer version of Will - figures out how to restore plants and cure broken bones and illnesses, with a catch.  All of the people he ends up healing are linked into his brain and… forget it.  The FBI, represented by Cillian Murphy in a wasted role, and another scientist, played by Morgan Freeman in a role that didn't even need to exist, employ the military to come out and stop Will and his healing and creation of a new God, or whatever.  What Will is doing with this ethnology seems harmless and, to be honest, helpful to humanity.  But it doesn't really matter because the logic in the story is absent.  The clear dangers of this whole undertaking are completely obvious to everyone except Rebecca Hall's Evelyn.  And then, the ultimate answer to curing everything is to basically end humanity?  By this time I had stopped caring.

In my opinion, there are two very important elements to a successful sic-fi film.  1) Believe in the idea, and 2) make certain the characters act logically in the face of the illogical.  Most sic-fi films dip their toe in the illogical, and as long as the characters in the story handle this lack of sense with a very firm conviction and dedication to the logical, the picture works.  Transcendence has neither of these things.  Logic abandons the thesis of the picture for sure, but it even leaves very basic, very simple moments in the film.  The whole thing unravels from one scene to the next, and the weak screenplay falls apart at the seams with every word.  Wally Pfister, who is a fantastic cinematographer, loses sight of anything interesting or worth our time in his debut directorial feature.  What a wasted opportunity, and what a waste of two hours in the theater.

F

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Under The Radar Films: Disconnect

With so many ways to consumer films both old and new these days, it isn't uncommon for some worthy movies to slip under the radar.  Whether they are released in limited theaters, on demand, or both, it is much easier these days to miss out on some impacting pictures.  Such is the case with Disconnect, a small film with large aspirations and a story that is tragically timely.  In the same vein as films like Crash, Disconnect deals with multiple narratives weaving their way into one another, however casually, while shining a spotlight on the very real and very damaging issue of internet bullying and exploitation.  I didn't expect much going into the film, but was blown away by the raw emotion on display, the performances, and the willingness of the film to not take the easy way out of situations that could most certainly fall into the routine.

The central story of Disconnect focuses on a seemingly normal family with all of the distractions of work and technology we all have in our lives.  The father, Rich (Jason Bateman, an underrated dramatic actor), is a busy lawyer who loves his kids but allows his work to stay in the way.  His wife, Lydia, is played sparingly by Hope Davis.  They have two children, a teenage daughter and a younger teen son, Ben (Jonah Bobo) who becomes the focus of this tragic tale.  Ben is like many teenage boys, awkward and quiet, consumed by his music and a loner in the halls of his school.  Naturally, Ben's "different-ness" catches the eye of two hateful boys in his class.  But instead of bullying him in the halls the two boys take a route of bullying and cruelty all too familiar these days; they go to the internet.  They use Facebook to create a fake account of a young girl and begin flirting and luring Ben into a trap.


Our second narrative revolves around a reporter, Nina Dunham, played by Andrea Riseborough.  Nina is an investigative journalist who catches sight of an online sex website where young men perform favors on camera for those willing to pay on the other end.  She meets and reaches out to Kyle, one of the young men, and urges him to tell his story on a special report with his identity kept secret.  He agrees, and his report begins to upset things within his group and draws the attention of the FBI.  All the while, an odd flirtation grows between Nina and Kyle.

The third story involves Derek and Cindy Hull, played by Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton, as a married couple dealing in their own individual ways with the death of their young son.  Cindy reaches out to people in a chat group online, developing a relationship with one man in particular, while Derek's grief sinks inward and he disappears from Cindy in life.  Derek is struggling at work and Cindy is lost at home, so when their identity is stolen and their bank accounts hacked, the devastation cripples their lives.  They hire a private investigator, Mike Dixon (Frank Grillo) to find out who did this.  Mike also happens to be the father of one of the boys responsible for bullying young Ben, and causing a tragic event that unravels the family in our central story.

All of these stories are given their own time and focus, and the balancing act by director Henry Alex Rubin and writer Andrew Stern keeps things afloat.  While the story of the Ben and his family takes center stage, the narrative finds easy and unforced ways of weaving these tales together.  As I mentioned there is a tragedy that is the focus of the picture, but in each of these stories there is tragedy and misfortune.  What weaves these stories together even more than characters and situations is the human condition and the way we retreat into the internet to find help.  As the title suggests, there is a disconnect between us all these days, and that is the thesis of the screenplay.  More often than not, there are people around us we can go to, but perhaps not as easily as we can find chat rooms and online relationships.

All of the performances are compelling in their own right, no matter how big or small.  Jonah Bobo is compelling and painfully lost as Ben, and as his father Bateman's obsessive search for what happened to his son takes him into deep, dark emotional places.  This is a film which feels important, something to show teenagers these days so they might be able to understand the damage they can cause from a distance.   There are interesting twists and turns in the story, and not everything ends as one would expect from films of this ilk.  Too often, these films with large casts of interwoven stories crumble under the weight of derivative narration and easy ways out.  Look no further than Crash, the Paul Haggis Oscar winner that has aged poorly with its stereotypes and cliches.  Disconnect is fresh and inventive and timely, which isn't necessarily a good thing when you consider the story.

A