Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Seven Five, Sunshine Superman, Tomorrowland, Slow West, Good Kill, The Film Critic, When Marnie Was There

The Seven Five
Sunshine Superman

Slow West

Good Kill
The Film Critic

When Marnie Was There

Only one genuinely bad movie among the week’s new releases, but what a doozy:

First, an enthusiastic recommendation for Tiller Russell’s absorbing documentary “The Seven Five,” about Michael Dowd, the NYPD officer immortalized in the Daily News headline “DIRTEST COP EVER.” Scoring lengthy interviews with Dowd, his then-partner Ken Eurell, and Eurell’s wife, Russell shows us how the pair worked simultaneously for the law and for the biggest Colombian drug runners in the city. It’s a thrilling tapestry of corruption, complete with close calls, narrow escapes, and $25,000,000 in cash. A combination guaranteed to make you say…”Whew!” And I never saw the final twist coming.

Acrophobes are advised to steer well clear of Marah Strauch’s documentary “Sunshine Superman,” about Carl Boenish, the inventor of BASE jumping. Much is made of Carl’s free spirit and prioritization of “the laws of nature over the laws of man,” but the most compelling figure in Strauch’s story is his wife, Jean, a Pomona College undergrad who attended one of his skydiving lectures and soon became the love of his life and the brains of his makeshift operation. Jean grounds the movie with words of wisdom and context. And, of course, some of the jumps are heart-stopping.

OK, now for the dog of the week: Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland,” an aggressively unpleasant mishmash already well on its way to a place among the biggest bombs of recent years. It’s not often you wonder what players at this level were thinking, but this script (credited to a Hydra of writers) is so all over the map – geographically, temporally, and tonally - it screams “unfilmable.” Throw in endless arguments between George Clooney and two teenage girls – one (Raffey Cassidy) creepy, the other (generic Brittany Robertson) clearly just glad to be here – and you have two hours of true torture.

Clooney plays Frank Walker, a disgruntled inventor whom we first meet as a precocious whiz kid (Thomas Robinson, over-relying on his transcontinental smile) who brings his “jet pack” to the ’64 World’s Fair despite its inability to, you know, fly. He’s rebuffed by the humorless David Nix (Hugh Laurie), and now (one of countless unexplained jumps in time) lives in technologically fortified solitude. Enter Casey, who’s “smart” the way a lot of girls in the movies are smart these days – she watches men (her father, mostly) tinker futilely with mechanical gizmos before fixing them with the flip of a switch. Forced to spend the night in jail after trespassing on a NASA facility (or am I mixing this part up with “Interstellar”?), she finds among her belongings a mysterious pin emblazoned with the letter “T.”

Whenever she touches it, she’s instantly transported to Tomorrowland – not the obsoletely futuristic section of Disneyland (nobody in the movie’s ever heard of that), but the place itself, imagined (by the highly creative Bird) surprisingly sketchily, with little shape or substance. The pin was bestowed on Casey by Agatha, the creepy girl who’s actually a robot, who needs Casey to help save Tomorrowland, except that the world may already have ended (as we see, near the end, in brief video clips reminiscent of John Woo’s sci-fi bomb “Paycheck”), but maybe it didn’t, and maybe (as Laurie suggests in a speech out of left field) all we have to do is recycle, or pay attention to global warming, or God knows what. 

“Tomorrowland” is the kind of mess that leaves you shaking your head and talking back to the screen. It goes out of its way to put you off, with countless redundant scenes of the disputatious trio hurtling through the universe, barely avoiding gaps in the time-space continuum, and landing on their asses. It cost a reported $280 million to make and market, but the money doesn’t show; it looks to have been shot half on green screens at studio lots and half at remote locations chosen for their film subsidies. A typical mistake involves a daytime scene between Frank and Casey, in which Frank has made a rare exit from his house and the camera, which should be positioned so that Frank blots out the sunlight and we see his face, instead captures only the glare around him, causing us to squint. There’s never an excuse to hide Clooney’s face, though he may want to if he ever actually sits through “Tomorrowland.”

On now to a picture called "Slow West," and whoever put the word "slow" in the title needs to be fired. Few words could act as a stronger deterrent to potential audiences. The young Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as the Scotsman Jay Cavendish, who treks across the American West of the 19th century in search of the young woman for whom he carried a torch back home. Michael Fassbender is Silas, the taciturn frontiersman who, for a hundred dollars, pledges to deliver wet-behind-the-ears Jay to her. In the New Yorker, Anthony Lane notes that New Zealand stands in for Colorado so unconvincingly here he half-expected Gandalf to descend from the mountains; still, the gorgeous scenery is the main attraction for the first hour, as everyone in the territory appears to have been positioned on the same unmarked trail Jay and Silas travel, waiting for their individual scenes. The movie picks up in the last twenty minutes, with an extended shootout that captures the brutal randomness and indifference of life and death in that time. Director John Maclean ends the picture with a tableau of all the characters who died during the movie, left in situ; it's a grace note I haven't seen before, at once lovely and haunting.

In Andrew Niccol's "Good Kill," Ethan Hawke plays Tom Egan, an Air Force fighter pilot who now flies a drone from the comfort of a reinforced trailer at a base outside Las Vegas, dropping bombs on suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives from seven thousand miles away. January Jones is his wife, Molly, who senses the psychological toll taken on Tom by what he perceives as the cowardice and misguidedness of his new job. She knows he yearns to be back in the air, but wants him home with her and their kids. Like Jones, Bruce Greenwood gets a bit more to do here than you might expect as Tom's commanding officer, who shares his disdain for the "bomb first and ask questions later" approach imposed on them by the CIA.

The main problem with "Good Kill" is Niccol's script. He's in love with phrases such as "Don't ask me if it's a just war…it's just war," mistakenly believing they sound smart. While military personnel may turn such phrases more frequently than you and I, the effect of so many of them is to take us out of the scenario and remind us we're hearing written dialogue. The movie's main selling point - besides Hawke, who'll never be confused with the Tom Cruise of "Top Gun" but still manages to cut an attractive figure in his zipped-up bomber jacket - is the drone footage itself, the time-release detonations and on-the-ground soldiers able to catch a few hours' sleep while Egan and company watch over them from afar. The grounding of aircraft and their replacement with drones is a reality of the modern military, and the flawed "Good Kill" is worth seeing if only for its glimpse inside the new air-conditioned bunker.

An affectionate thumbs down for Hernán Guerschuny's Argentine import "The Film Critic," with Rafael Spregelburd as Victor Tallez, a powerful and parsimonious Buenos Aires film critic who hasn't given a movie "five seats" in 20 years. He especially loathes the tropes of the romantic comedy, until he meet-cutes a beautiful woman who bids against him for a desirable apartment and his life becomes the very cliché he abjures. Tallez' misanthropy yields several big laughs, as in a scene in which he and several colleagues are accosted at a restaurant by a filmmaker whose first film Tallez panned. "Do you know what you are?" the aggrieved cineaste asks. "I do, I do," Tallez' friend offers, waving his arm frantically. "Failed filmmakers?" But the relationship with Sofia (Dolores Fonzi) never generates heat; it remains a script construct throughout.

Finally, the feature pick of the week, Hiromasa Yonebayashi's exquisite and deeply felt animation "When Marnie Was There," reputedly the last film from Studio Ghibli before the legendary Japanese house ominously goes "on hiatus." Anna, an asthmatic foster child who keeps to herself, is sent from Sapporo to the Hokkaido countryside where the air is purer. She stays with a jovial aunt and uncle and finds herself drawn to an abandoned house across the marsh where she thinks she sees a light on in an upstairs window and…is that a girl having her hair brushed? It is Marnie, instantly her best and only friend, though Marnie insists she keep their friendship a secret from the others in town. It's clear that Marnie is, at least to some extent, a figment of Anna's imagination, but whom might she represent? I guessed wrong initially (the direction I took would have elevated the movie to an even higher level), but here's a case where the sumptuous and dreamy visuals make the journey more important than the destination. Be sure to see "When Marnie Was There" - and all films in this category - in the original Japanese with subtitles, not in dubbed English versions that inevitably look and feel off.

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