Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Executors of 2013, Pt. III: Feat. World War Z, Star Trek Into Darkness, and This Is the End

Today, we're wrapping up our look at the Executors. If you missed them, you can find Part I here and Part II here.

Nebraska. It's not quite accurate to say that Alexander Payne has matured. He's older than he used to be—most of us are—but Payne's directorial signature already seemed fully formed when he debuted in 1996 with Citizen Ruth, and his follow-up, the brilliant satire Election, felt like the work of a visionary. It's not as though he ever needed seasoning. But if Payne hasn't grown up as a filmmaker, he's definitely changed, trading in the jaundiced worldview of his earlier work for something more mellow and contemplative. It's a shift that's produced The Descendants, one of 2011's best films, and now Nebraska, an even quieter and more reflective picture about love, death, mental illness, and human decency. Election 2.0 this is not.

Not that Nebraska is entirely somber. It's still an Alexander Payne movie, and as such, it retains the distinctive, occasionally clunky mix of awkward comedy and simmering drama that crackled in About Schmidt and Sideways. Payne remains the rare filmmaker who can follow a poignant heart-to-heart between father and son with a scene of an octogenarian flashing her vagina at a gravestone ("See what you could've had, Keith, if you hadn't talked about wheat all the time!") without inducing tonal whiplash. It also features a strong, ferociously unsympathetic performance from Bruce Dern as Woody, a mentally ailing father who refuses to apologize for his myriad failings. The cinematic trope of the wizened, wisdom-dispensing father figure has been thoroughly exhausted, so it's oddly refreshing to watch an aged patriarch who's irritable, selfish, and sometimes just plain mean.

Woody's journey provides the functional backbone of Nebraska, which follows him across multiple flyover states in a hopeless effort to claim a bogus prize of a million dollars. But the real journey traveled in the movie—and the one that imbues it with surprising emotional potency—is that of David, Woody's son, played with wonderful texture and stillness by Will Forte. David agrees to accompany Woody on his fool's errand, partly because the old codger is so obstinate, but mostly because he's interested in probing the past of a father about whom he knows virtually nothing. As you might expect from a Payne film (at least one from his current period), the revelations that follow are not all that revelatory, but they're also beside the point. Nebraska is really about family, and about learning to love one's relations for who they are rather than who you want them to be.

That's a broad, blunt-force theme, and its nakedness conflicts somewhat with Payne's quiet, nuanced observations of Midwestern life. Further, although he possesses obvious affection for his central characters, he's more ambivalent toward his supporting cast, and his playful treatment of rural affectation occasionally slips into outright mockery. But for the most part, Nebraska deftly reconciles its disparate tones, especially in its moving and winning finale. There is no "Eureka!" moment at the end of David's journey, but there is greater understanding, and it's clear that Payne, for all his prior acerbic commentary on human weakness, values David's strength. Maybe he's grown up after all.

Philomena. I'm presenting this list alphabetically, but it's convenient that Philomena immediately follows Nebraska, as the pair make for an intriguing double-feature. Not only did both (somewhat surprisingly) land Best Picture nominations, but both are small, unassuming films that indulge in mild comedy while also searching for pathos. Both are also road-trip movies in which a pair of mismatched wanderers travel to an unfamiliar land. On balance, Philomena is more successful, largely because it's less ambitious. Stephen Frears has made some striking movies, including crime classic The Grifters and rom-com super-classic High Fidelity; Philomena, for all its virtues, is not a classic. But it nevertheless feels properly sized, an intimate, touching portrait of one woman's heartfelt attempt to right a past wrong, and one man's attempt to both help her and comprehend her.

If that makes the movie sound stodgy and solemn, don't be concerned. It's true that Philomena functions as a serious inquiry into topical issues, including a glancing examination of modern attitudes toward homosexuality, as well as a more forceful attack on the systemic abuse that pervades religious institutions. But for such a socially conscious film, Philomena is also a surprising amount of fun. That's mainly thanks to the tender, beautifully understated lead performances of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. The latter plays Martin Sixsmith, a grumpy journalist who reluctantly agrees to accompany the title character (Dench) to America as she searches for her long-lost son. That sounds trite, and at the outset, the movie hints at becoming a groaning buddy comedy, one in which the erudite Martin will suffer through Philomena's naïveté only to inevitably learn valuable life lessons from his wholesome, morally superior companion. But Frears is hardly so lazy, and both Dench and Coogan are too committed to allow their characters to play as mere archetypes. To be sure, Martin finds Philomena to be completely baffling—her plucky optimism is utterly anathema to his brooding cynicism—but he also respects her almost immediately, and Coogan credibly conveys Martin's combination of bemusement and admiration. As for Dench, she's such a sternly revered actress that it's delightful to see her playing something of a boob—her earnest pitch to watch Big Momma's House remains priceless—but she doesn't oversell Philomena's fish-out-of-water moments, and she never loses sight of her character's unshakable dignity.

That dignity prevents Philomena from slipping into the recesses of polite triviality. But even during its cathartic climax—in which Philomena confronts the loathsome inflexibility of the church that casually disregarded her humanity so many years ago—the movie never feels like a polemical screed. Frears could have tried to spin the based-on-a-true-story conceit into an Important Film, one with loud emotions and clanging portentousness. Instead, he chose to focus on how two dissimilar people learn to appreciate one another. Philomena may not be a classic, but Philomena will nevertheless linger in your memory.

Rush. Break it down to its elements, and Rush presents itself as a fairly run-of-the-mill sports movie. There's the hero, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), one of those fanatical athletes who's so obsessed with professional success that he's incapable of committing to anyone in his personal life. There are the disposable women (first Natalie Dormer, then Olivia Wilde—both stunning, both wasted), who are initially fascinated but ultimately frustrated by the hero's unhealthy passion for his sport. There's the trajectory, in which the hero begins as a cocky upstart, gradually establishes his athletic bona fides, and finally must prove victorious in The Big Game. And there are the sports sequences themselves, here taking place in the realm of Formula One. To be fair, Ron Howard's direction of the racing scenes is competent, and the score and sound design provide plenty of sonic firepower, but there's only so much energy a filmmaker can inject into images of men yanking furiously at gearshifts as sleek vehicles zoom past one another. The cars are cool, and Rush does well to poke under the hood and examine the invisible mechanics that are so crucial to auto racing; it illustrates the way innumerable tiny components operate in harmony to transform a hulking hunk of metal into a motorized force of awesome power and speed. But while Rush hurtles forward with impressive fluidity, the majority of its own components are so familiar that the movie is less electrifying than relaxing.

I say "the majority" because there's one element of Rush that feels breathtakingly new, and that's the character of Niki Lauda, played with extraordinary thoughtfulness by Daniel Brühl. Lauda is Hunt's chief Formula One rival, and given that Hunt is the film's nominal hero, one would expect Lauda to serve as its sneering villain (think Max Baer in Howard's Cinderella Man). Instead, he's more of a co-hero, but what's fascinating about him is his approach to racing as work. So many sports movies, including this one, revolve around generic macho-men who prattle vaguely about their burning desire for victory, and about how nothing can satisfy them except for the thrill of athletic conquest. Lauda wants to win—indeed, he's arguably more obsessed than Hunt is—but not because he loves racing. It's just because he's good at it. "If I could earn better money doing something else, I would," he confesses to an astounded colleague and an even more astounded audience. But he can't, so instead he becomes a ruthlessly gifted driver, one whose excellence stems not from insatiable hunger but from stoic commitment and disciplined craft.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that Niki Lauda is a historic character in the sports-movie arena, and much of that derives from Brühl's shifty performance, which defiantly refuses to ask for your sympathy. What's more, while Brühl imbues Lauda with unimpeachable integrity and unwavering resolve, there's also a flash of jealousy beneath his robotic surface, as though he covets Hunt's charms even as he openly derides them. Brühl is so good that he makes Hemsworth look better, which is saying something, given that the sapphire-eyed Australian is possibly the best-looking movie star to grace screens since Paul Newman. Admittedly, Hemsworth is far more effective in conveying Hunt's winking, devil-may-care insouciance—when he can wield his electric handsomeness for playful, seductive effect—than in selling his overwhelming thirst for triumph. But the two men play off each other nicely, and their peculiar relationship, which ping-pongs between spiteful antagonism and grudging respect, is what makes Rush memorable. It may not reinvent the wheel, and despite Howard's best efforts, it never quite reaches top speed. But it does create an unforgettable character; in the current sports-movie climate, that's arguably more impressive than earning the checkered flag.

Star Trek Into Darkness. The official mission of the Starship Enterprise is—stop me if you're heard this before—to boldly go where no one has gone before. But in cinematic terms, J.J. Abrams' brisk, sharply entertaining sequel isn't particularly interested in exploration. That would require the freedom to take chances and make mistakes, but Star Trek Into Darkness is the product of a studio machine that is intolerant of failure. And so, Paramount has bestowed $190 million upon J.J. Abrams, its undeniably competent director, with strict instructions to follow the blockbuster blueprint. Abrams, in turn, outfits a bevy of hard-working, high-profile actors in futuristic garb, then takes them and their technological toys out for a spin. Friendships are tested, villains are bested, jokes are lobbed, meaningful glances are exchanged, and no one really gets hurt in the process. Star Trek Into Darkness is pure corporate engineering—it doesn't take risks, it doesn't make waves, and it doesn't upset the meticulously-calculated balance between playful, character-driven banter and lavish, effects-driven spectacle.

What it does do, however, is work, largely because it's about as slickly executed as a blockbuster can be. Abrams may be doing Paramount's bidding obediently, but he knows how to pace a story, and Star Trek Into Darkness toggles between lively action sequences and livelier dialogue with canny, expertly-calibrated precision. It is also blessed, as virtually every aspiring blockbuster these days seems to be, with an indecently talented cast. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto have settled nicely into a sparring partnership, Alice Eve (sparky) happily ups the female quotient alongside Zoe Saldana (spunky), and Karl Urban remains the franchise's most reliable source of sour, deadpan humor. (This line reading of Urban's is a particular delight.) But the undeniable highlight is the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch, playing a super-villain whose very name constitutes a spoiler. Like fellow Londoner Tom Hardy, Cumberbatch has repeatedly proven himself a slippery and chameleonic screen presence, but here he relishes the opportunity to embody pure malevolence, a shade of evil that he can't help but infuse with his own brand of chilling intelligence. The movie's best scenes involve Cumberbatch's remorseless heavy negotiating with Quinto's quick-thinking Spock, as the audience revels in the world's scariest, most dizzyingly logical game of space-chicken.

But while Star Trek Into Darkness occasionally feels electric, it never strays too far from tried-and-true formula. That's something of a disappointment, especially compared to the surprise and spontaneity of its predecessor, which embroiled itself in a complicated time-travel plot that somehow made sense. It also features the obligatory action climax, the usual loud, leaden finale that dutifully concludes most franchise productions these days. It feels especially meaningless here, not because of its execution (it's fine, if familiar), but because it nullifies a moment of human quiet that takes place just prior, in which Abrams makes a passing stab at emotional significance. Turns out he's just feinting, and we should have known better; title of his movie aside, his corporate overlords would never allow true darkness to complicate such a vibrant display of light and color. But there's still plenty to see here, and Abrams delivers it all with a workmanlike efficiency that feels less ruthlessly commercial than honestly professional. Star Trek Into Darkness goes, not-so-boldly, where many other movies have gone before. But few get there quite so pleasantly.

This Is the End. Have you ever heard of Jay Baruchel? It's a fair question—I'm guessing you know him by sight but not by name—and its legitimacy animates the hidden theme permeating This Is the End, a thoughtful, oddly poignant reflection on the tenuous nature of adult friendship. Oh, and it's also a wacky, gleefully absurd comedy about the end of the world. Directed by the Superbad-scripting duo of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the movie assembles virtually every member of the Apatow Laugh Factory, that minor troupe that originated on a little show called Freaks and Geeks and gradually expanded until its members became the world's foremost purveyors of foulmouthed, emotionally earnest comedy. It then casts each funnyman as an outsized version of the screen persona with which you're so intimately familiar. And so, there's Rogen, aggressively affable and also a touch obnoxious; there's Jonah Hill, even more jovial and also an unbearable phony; there's James Franco, outrageously pretentious (at one point, he rhapsodizes about how Subway's employees don't make sandwiches so much as create art); there's Craig Robinson, legitimately nice and regularly aggrieved; and there's Danny McBride, Kenny Powers himself, a pure id who obliterates everything in his path with demented gusto. There's also a supporting cast that doubles as a who's-who of 21st-century mainstream comedy, most notably Michael Cera—flipping the film's script and revealing himself not as a timid, ineffectual weakling but a sex-crazed, drug-addled hedonist—and Emma Watson, cutting loose with the boys and taking supreme relish in doing so.

And then there's Baruchel, who—wait, who is Baruchel, anyway? If you're an Apatow disciple, you may recall his leading role on Undeclared, that much-loved, little-watched college comedy series that, like Freaks and Geeks, lasted just one season but developed a cult following after its merciless execution. You may also recognize him from his supporting parts in Tropic Thunder or Knocked Up, or even as the voice of Hiccup in the How to Train Your Dragon movies. But regardless of your familiarity with Baruchel, if someone asks you to describe This Is the End, you are unlikely to identify it as, "That movie with Jay Baruchel and his friends." Unlike the rest of the cast, Baruchel just isn't a household name. So when the movie begins with him arriving in Los Angeles to hang out with his old best friend Rogen, only for Rogen to drag him to a gigantic party at Franco's house with all of Rogen's more famous pals, it raises some intriguing, not-entirely-juvenile questions. Can these guys still be friends? Is Baruchel's lack of celebrity status compatible with Rogen's pop-culture ubiquity? Should we embrace our longtime friends for branching out and finding new companions, or are we within our rights to feel scorned and insulted? For its first 20 minutes or so, This Is the End seems poised to explore these questions, and presumably to answer them according to the satisfying, life-affirming formula popularized by Apatow-produced hits like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Bridesmaids.

Then the Rapture happens.

From that point, you know what you're going to get: six dudes holed up in James Franco's house, panicking about the end of the world but mostly bickering, joking, threatening, nearly murdering, and even fornicating (trust me, it's not what you think). This stuff practically writes itself (and if it isn't written, that's only because the actors improvised it), and if the movie begins as an introspective study of male bonding, it quickly abandons that subtlety in favor of broad, manic exaggeration. (Case in point: The fire-and-brimstone monsters that rampage through L.A. all have giant phalluses, because why not?) Some of it is hysterically funny (watching the guys haggle over a Milky Way is a riot), some of it less so (McBride is invaluable in small doses, but his act wears thin), but for the most part, it's a blast just to sit back and watch these guys use the apocalypse as a launching pad for gonzo comedic riffs. Still, an undercurrent of realism and ringing truth accompanies the mayhem, from Baruchel's sullenness (toward Rogen) to Franco's unhealthy affection (also toward Rogen) to Hill's sense of weary superiority (toward everyone). The absurdity of the situation heightens and distorts the emotional stakes, but they're there.

Is this the end? Probably not, especially given that Franco's and Rogen's next movie, The Interview, casts them as pseudo-journalists with a secret plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un. Perhaps these actors have been too successful playing overgrown man-children to ever bother growing up. But This Is the End nevertheless hints at maturity percolating beneath the madness, and it stealthily sprinkles melancholy amidst the hilarity. Perhaps next time, rather than retreating into themselves, Rogen and his crew can expand and push outward. But if not, we should hardly worry, as This Is the End is its own form of dementedly glorious art. Like a Subway sandwich.

World War Z. Zombie movies are rife with metaphoric potential. The pinnacle of the form, George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead—in which four heroes get trapped in a suburban mall surrounded by undead shoppers—skewered America's obsession with mindless consumerism. There was also Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead parody, which posited that humans live such dully insular lives that our neighbors and colleagues could turn into man-eating flesh monsters and we'd barely notice. And currently on television, AMC's The Walking Dead envisions a horrifying future in which mankind's violent impulses have degraded to the point that civilization itself seems untenable. And now, to this rich and varied genre, we can add Marc Forster's World War Z, which functions as a metaphor for... absolutely nothing. This is not an allegory about the dangers of technological innovation, or the rise of corporate malfeasance, or the inevitability of socioeconomic revolution. This is a movie in which zombies try to destroy the human race, and a handful of characters try to stop them.

And you know what? That's just fine. Because even if World War Z is unlikely to form the basis for a political-science student's master's thesis, it more than compensates for its lack of metaphorical underpinnings by excelling at one thing: kickass entertainment. Forster's inability to choreograph coherent action scenes submarined Daniel Craig's second James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, but he exhibits supreme confidence here, delivering one riveting, awe-inspiring set piece after another. Episodic in nature, the movie follows Gerry (Brad Pitt), a United Nations lackey who is somehow uniquely qualified to thwart the zombie threat, perhaps because he looks like Brad Pitt, who just happened to finance the movie. In any event, though World War Z begins in Philadelphia, it smartly conceives its zombie infestation as a worldwide pandemic, meaning Gerry trots across the globe, making stops in South Korea, Jerusalem, and—wait for it—Wales. Each destination features a unique and well-imagined threat, testing Gerry's ingenuity while also scaring the hell out of the audience.

In between these thrilling orchestrations of undead mayhem, World War Z pads its runtime with banal exposition and token stabs at character development. (The Killing's Mireille Enos is hilariously wasted as Gerry's tearful wife.) It's a pity. Sure, the film would have been better if it had created fully realized characters and introduced real personal stakes into the drama, but Forster may have been better off just eliminating these scenes altogether, because his halfhearted attempts at intimacy just feel like tedious intermissions from the fun, scary stuff. World War Z makes a vague effort to prophesy the political brutality that would accompany the apocalypse—unscrupulous military types basically strong-arm Gerry into saving the world, and his family's safety hinges on his value to the bigwigs—but to the extent that registers, it does so as unintentional comedy.

But if you're occasionally chuckling while watching World War Z, you're more often gasping for breath as your eyes bulge in astonishment. What's particularly impressive about the movie is its variety; it admittedly shuffles from one nightmarish set piece to the next, but no two feel alike. And so, after the hectic escape from Philadelphia, we get a sequence in South Korea involving a hurried nighttime raid, with rain spattering the lens and amplifying the sense of terror lurking in the shadows. Juxtapose that with the jaw-dropping sequence in Jerusalem, a bold, brawny showcase in which thousands of zombies pile upon one another to scale a gigantic wall as the camera swoops toward them with speed and precision. Then there's a rip-roaring scene in which a zombie terrorizes an airborne jet, and the claustrophobia and mounting fear are suffocating. Best of all, though, is the finale in Wales, which torches the blockbuster playbook and replaces your typical action extravaganza (see: Into Darkness, Star Trek) with a weird, unsettling game of zombie-and-mouse. It's an unusual, decidedly hushed capper to a movie that hasn't hesitated to slather on the excess, but it works, and it demonstrates that horror and comedy make beautiful bedfellows. (Apparently, the original script called for one of those generic action climaxes, but Pitt brought in script doctor Damon Lindelof, that wizard behind Lost and The Leftovers, to rejigger the ending. Thank God for script doctors.)

But what caused this deadly outbreak? Where is the metaphor? What does it all mean? Most importantly, who cares? There's no time for infantile questions. The zombies are coming. You better run.

You're Next. Throw out the grisly, generic-slasher-movie prologue, and the first 15 minutes of You're Next credibly camouflage the film as a low-key domestic drama. A scattered family of wealthy suburbanites gathers at its mansion retreat, ostensibly for celebratory purposes. The parents luxuriate in the job well done of raising a successful brood, while a pair of adult brothers bicker childishly, their needling suggestive of long-simmering sibling rivalry. All of the children (grownup in age if not in nature) have towed significant others along, and each of them takes a different tack in an attempt to fit in; one is polite, another disdainful, and a third—more on her in a bit—is especially timid, looking on anxiously and just trying not to bother anyone. As they sit down to dinner, rumbling disagreements eventually boil over into shouting, and there's the sense that lifelong familial relationships, currently hanging by a thread, will soon be torn asunder.

They will be, but not by words. In the midst of the raucous argument, a member of the dinner party ambles away from the table and peeks through the window, at which point an arrow from a crossbow shatters the glass and embeds itself into his skull. "Attention, you first-world assholes," director Adam Wingard announces. "Your petty squabbles are over. It's time for carnage."

Look, there's nothing fancy about You're Next. If the prospect of watching a band of animal-masked-assassins terrorizing a bunch of rich white people doesn't appeal to you, well, there's the door. But if you admire cinematic craftsmanship—sharp editing, confident camera moves, inventive violence—there's much to behold. For one, the movie is impressively unapologetic in its savagery. The bloodletting isn't particularly gratuitous, but the sound design takes no prisoners; when an intruder hops through a window only to land on a sharpened nail, his howls of pain will reverberate through your entire body. There's also a brilliantly conceived slow-motion escape sequence that gives new, decidedly bloody meaning to the term "clothesline". Nor is the barbarism purely visceral, as the script actually features the line, "I want to fuck you next to your dead mom"—I've heard plenty of repulsive dialogue in movies, but I have to admit that's a first for me.

That such a proposal disgusts its intended recipient is about as human a moment as You're Next has to offer. (It suggests, if nothing else, that there are at least varying shades of sadism at work here.) Wingard isn't particularly interested in his characters' feelings; he's actually indifferent, to the point that he doesn't really take sides. What really intrigues him are the mechanics of survival, and he thus explores how a group of pathetically unequipped civilians would respond to such a terrifying threat. Where would they hide? What would they use as weapons? How would they try to escape? Wingard may take a bit too much pleasure in killing off his entitled socialites, but he's good at this stuff.

And so, it turns out, is Erin. Who's Erin? Well, remember that timid girlfriend who was just being nice to everyone at the beginning of the movie? Turns out she grew up in a survivalist camp, which means she's especially gifted at defending a house from a group of masked maniacs. Erin is played by Sharni Vinson, and I'm going on record right now and proclaiming that she's going to be a star. An Aussie, Vinson has a slender, willowy frame and long, flowing hair—she looks a bit like Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is not anyone's idea of a killing machine, which may be why Erin can so effectively hide in plain sight during the movie's opening act. But once the crossbows start to fly, Erin's instincts take over, and Vinson's electric screen presence becomes the film's dominant force. She's completely convincing in transforming Erin from meek bystander to no-nonsense taskmaster, and she expertly reconciles her own waifish figure with Erin's pragmatic, steely competence. When you're watching You're Next, you can't take your eyes off her. There's a reason for that: Sharni Vinson has arrived. She's next.

Next time: Honorable mentions for the best movies of the year.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

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