Sunday, May 31, 2015

Results: When what you want is what you get

Left to right, actors Guy Pearce and Kevin Corrigan and writer-director Andrew Bujalski discuss Results.

Danny wants his ex-wife back. Trevor wants to expand his business and take his relationship to the next level. Kat does not know what she wants, but she knows she wants whatever it is on her terms. All the characters in writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s new romantic comedy Results are looking for something to fill the void in their lives; however, they refuse to question if what they are pining after will actually be good for them.

Bujalski and two of the film’s stars, Guy Pearce and Kevin Corrigan, were in New York City on Friday night to screen the film and stayed for a question-and-answer session after. The half-hour discussion covered topics from the decline of studio romantic comedies to American archetypes to new models of distribution, with a few odd digressions in between.

This is the fifth feature film from the fiercely independent Bujalski, whose previous efforts helped define the Mumblecore movement. With Pearce, Corrigan, and Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) as his leads, Results could be Bujalski’s biggest, most crowd-pleasing film yet and the first one that could perhaps be mistaken for a big-studio effort. It is fitting, then, that he chose one of Hollywood’s oldest and most maligned genres to make the jump.

“I think romantic comedy in this day and age is a pretty disgraced genre,” said Bujalski. “Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I paid to see one. They’ve gotten pretty awful, and Hollywood doesn’t make them anymore for whatever economic reasons. But, there’s something about the genre that always appealed to me. Largely, of all your classic genres, it’s the one that is rooted in human foible. What always makes them go is people not understanding themselves or thinking they want something but they really want something else. That’s fertile territory. That’s something that I can play around with.”

In Results, there is human foible to spare as the newly wealthy Danny (Corrigan) pulls Trevor (Pearce) and Kat (Smulders) into his orbit. With the death of his mother, Danny inherits a fortune. He goes to the gym Trevor owns, Power 4 Life, ostensibly to get in shape so he can win his ex-wife back, but his stated goal is that he wants to be able to take a punch. Whether literally or metaphorically, Danny is a guy who has been knocked down by life more than once. At her own insistence, Kat is the personal trainer assigned to help him.

The problem is Danny would rather eat pizza, smoke pot, and spend his money accumulating worthless junk to fill his empty, rented mansion. He knows he shouldn’t, but he does anyway. Danny is the epitome of this attitude, but all the film’s characters engage in behaviors they know are harmful. They either cannot help themselves or do not want to change, but whatever their reasons, they are not living their lives optimally.

This is not new territory for characters in a romantic comedy or any film, for that matter, but Bujalski’s twist is to set the film in the world of personal fitness and to make Trevor a true believer in his methods. Trevor genuinely thinks he can help people achieve a kind of holistic wellness through his fitness program. For a jock, he sure is a bit of a dork, spouting catch phrases and generic self-help advice at every opportunity, but because he believes it and Pearce sells it, Trevor never comes off as anything other than sincere. Corrigan had some kind, somewhat self-effacing words that summed up Pearce’s performance.

Pearce, Corrigan, and Bujalski at the IFC Center.
“I did watch some of Guy’s films before we went to work on this film,” said Corrigan. “You can take your pick, which Guy Pearce films you want to watch. There’s so many to choose from … and I just kind of spun the wheel. I wanted to see Factory Girl, and there he is as Andy Warhol, and it didn’t prepare me at all to work with Trevor. Now that we’re promoting Results, I see Trevor as a beautiful Pop Art creation, almost like one of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup [cans].

“It’s just a perfect representation of a kind of American archetype. Trevor is just so perfectly representative of a certain kind of character. In my striving to be Danny, I wasn’t going for anything like that. I was trying to be relaxed – because to me, that’s what the goal of acting is: to just relax – but he was doing a whole picture.”

For his part, Pearce was a bit embarrassed at the praise and said as much. He deferred to Bujalski’s script in helping him create the character of Trevor. In fact, Bujalski, who may be most famous for working with unknown actors or untrained non-professionals, wrote Results with Pearce and Corrigan in mind, and while the movie has a free-wheeling, improvisational nature to it, both actors and Bujalski confirmed everything stuck pretty closely to the script as written.

“I feel like the majority of it was there on the page,” said Pearce. “Andrew and I, we had an interesting experience because we talked about this. We had talked about this a couple years ago on something else, which never quite eventuated – or at all eventuated – and then, this came up. Andrew sent it to me, and I was really honored and flattered to take it on.

Corrigan plays Danny, and Pearce is Trevor in Results.
“I like to really understand, I suppose, to quite a large degree who it is that I’m going to play. I certainly can’t turn up and expect there to be sort of major left turns. … I’ve spent a bit of time in my life in gyms, in and out of gyms, being either obsessively fit or mildly fit or ‘ugh,’ kind of completely over it. But, for 30 years, I’ve been in and out of gyms, so it was a world that I felt that I knew to a degree, and it was very easy for me to imagine this character anyway and particularly in the way that I think Andrew had expressed him on the page with all the complexities of what Trevor was hiding, even if he didn’t realize he was hiding it. So, I felt like most of it was there and ready to go.”

In addition to working with bigger-name actors and operating within a better defined genre, Bujalski’s latest is also getting one of the biggest releases for any of his films, though that is probably due in part to those previous two factors. The film is in New York and Los Angeles right now and will open in other big cities over the next few weeks. The movie is also available to watch at home on demand, a distribution strategy that likely means more people will see Results than otherwise might have but about which Bujalski expressed less enthusiasm than resignation.

“Cherish it while you got it,” said Bujalski about seeing new films in cinemas. “I’m a 20th century kind of guy. The movie is on demand today … All your friends who live in Marfa, Texas, seven hours’ drive from Austin [where Results is set], they can get it on demand right now. They’ve probably already seen it, and it’s great. I’m all for that. I am from the 20th century, and I like to do this. I like to sit in a dark room and have communion with strangers. I think that’s the way to watch a movie, but I don’t begrudge the future. They can have it, their futuristic way. That’s fine. Everybody can have what they want.”

It is an aptly on-point message from the writer-director of Results – that everybody can have what they want. Much like Danny, Trevor, and Kat, the movie’s audience will have access to what it wants – in this case, Results – but is watching a movie at home, no matter how big your screen, really the outcome any of us might desire? Sure, audiences get a new movie from a talented young filmmaker, and the movie gets a wider audience. Everybody wins, to a degree, but that might not be what is best for any of us.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

New movie review: Love at First Fight

Adele Haenel and Kevin Azais star in Thomas Cailley's beautiful Love at First Fight.

For the purposes of this conversation, let’s redefine what we mean when we say “summer movie.” I am sure most of you who care to will have seen Avengers: Age of Ultron or Mad Max: Fury Road by now. Perhaps, you are looking forward to Jurassic World or some other big-money blockbuster. These are the movies we talk about when we talk about summer movie-going now. It is not a problem. It is just the way it is. But, let’s pretend for a moment it does not have to be that way.

Think very hard about your childhood or teenage years or, hell, even that weird nether-zone between the end of high school and the beginning of adulthood. What defined those times best? For a vast majority of you, it was not robots, explosions, and non-stop action – unless you spent your summers at the movies, but bear with me here. No, summer means lazy days hanging out with your friends, not taking your part-time job quite seriously enough, and maybe a new girl or guy catching your eye.

The French festival hit Love at First Fight is one of the few movies to get the feeling of summer just right. From first-time feature director Thomas Cailley, Love at First Fight has an innate understanding of what it is like to watch the sun come up, go down, and come back up without having truly done anything during the long spaces in between. The days blend together into a haze, and the future is just an abstract concept as far off and insignificant as boats on the horizon.

Madeleine (Adèle Haenel) is a college dropout living with her well-off parents who plans to join the army. She signs up for an intensive two-week training course with the Army Rangers, not out of a sense of nationalistic pride but for fear of an impending apocalypse and a desire to be prepared. She is a smart, strong young woman with a fiercely independent streak. She is the kind of heroine we rarely see in American films – give or take a Tomorrowland.

If Madeleine is perhaps too focused on her preparations for the end of days, Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) maybe has too little focus at all. He crashes parties with his friends, shows the minimum amount of interest in the army to get the free blow-up mattress the recruiters promised, and generally seems unenthused by the family landscaping business. Arnaud and Madeleine strike up an uneasy friendship – because she is guarded and he lacks confidence – as he builds a pool house in her family’s backyard. He signs up for the training course in part to follow her but also to give his days a sense of structure, direction, and purpose.

These early passages are shot through with care and sensitivity by Cailley and cinematographer David Cailley, the director’s brother. There is a glossiness to everything that evokes youth, nostalgia, and memory in ways that are both universal and specific to these characters’ experiences. After a long night out at the club, it is dawn, and Madeleine and Arnaud are walking back home with two of his friends. The friends stop at the beach, strip down, and run into the water. Madeleine decides she would rather go home.

After trying for a moment to convince her to stay, Arnaud lets her leave. We do not see her walk away, but through Azaïs’ performance and the way camera lingers on his face as he watches her, we know instinctively what he feels. Her leaving marks the end of one day but the beginning of another, and as Arnaud wades slowly into the glistening water, the sun hovers at the edge of the frame, reminding us of what the sun always reminds us of: the march of time and the endless possibilities of the new day.

Haenel and Azaïs are marvelous throughout the movie, and Cailley’s breezy script establishes their characters early and with efficiency. Madeleine is the kind of person who thinks nothing of strapping 30 pounds of weights to her back and dropping into the ocean – whatever it takes to be prepared. Arnaud, on the other hand, will drop his work at a moment’s notice to ride hours out of town on his motorbike to do a favor. That the little work he accomplished is wiped away by a storm in his absence only drives the point home further. To him, nothing is so important it cannot be put off until later.

This established dichotomy sets up a beautiful switch when they arrive at the training camp. He takes to it easily, and she is absolutely stifled. The reversal is well earned and perfectly in keeping with who these characters are. Of course Arnaud takes to the regimentation of the army. He just needs someone to point him in a direction, and he will start walking. Madeleine, however, is not built to take orders or become a cog in some greater wheel. Her goal is to be the whole damn machine.

Because this is no place for her, she heads off into the woods, and because as ever, he just needs a direction, he follows her. This sets up the film’s gorgeous final act, which I will not spoil here. Suffice it to say they learn what it really takes to survive apart from the rest of the world. “Knowing how to pass the time – not doing or thinking about anything in particular – that’s surviving,” he tells her. No matter where you are or who you are with, life is about filling those endless days when nothing may happen, but it feels like anything could. That is survival. That is summer.

See it? Yes.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Now Watch This: Assault on Precinct 13

By Sean Patrick Leydon

The Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by a group of natives.
The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, “Indians. Indians all around! Well, Tonto, ol’ Kimosavee, it looks like we’re finished.”
Tonto replies: “What you mean … ‘We?’”
– Mad Magazine No. 38 (1958)

Modern action films are much more predictable than their predecessors. With many action movies containing similar pacing and messages, the genre has become thoroughly homogenized. What makes Saving Private Ryan feel similar to Mission Impossible or other action films? They bombard the senses with big, flashy action sequences, and they pull at many of the same heartstrings: family, honor, respect, martial prowess, patriotism, etc.

Today, we’re taking a look at John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. It covers a lot of genres: cop flick, drama, thriller, cult. These days, we’d call it action, but now, that implies top-tier CGI budgets and the slickest editing known to man. Assault is different. Its moments of violence are more sickening and human. The feeling of the film is akin to Crash being bludgeoned over the head with Night of the Living Dead – a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of gang violence and racial tension.

There’s a trend in recent action films to ignore a character's ethnicity until it can become the subject of a shallow joke. I see this often when action films have a gang of heroes from racially diverse backgrounds, as in the remake of The Italian Job when Mark Wahlberg introduces his crew. We meet a crew of stylin’ white men with cool specialties and one black guy who likes to blow stuff up. It’s easy to pick on a flashy action movie, but do you remember that one time in Full Metal Jacket? When the troops are negotiating with a prostitute and the black soldier becomes the butt of the “too beaucoup” joke? Amid the horror of war and mounds of existential searching, Kubrick manages to find room for a well-hung black man joke.

There is a different atmosphere in Assault. The actors are different shades, but race is addressed in more serious and realistic ways. As Ethan, a black lieutenant, familiarizes himself with the police station he just took command of, the white receptionist Leigh asks him if he would like coffee. As Ethan accepts her offer, she asks, “Black?” to which he responds with a smile and says, “For over 30 years.” The joke falls on its ass with her. There’s no ribaldry. The conversation just continues as they get to know each other.

Another aspect that sets Assault apart is a sense of equality between the law and the outlaw. Criminals and police are both capable of bumbling stupidity or impressive insight into the real world, and this holds true in Carpenter’s vision. This pleases me to no end. The relentless othering of antagonists in film grosses me out. The distillation of conflict into a Smart Good Guy-Dumb Bad Guy binary is neither inclusive of what we observe in life nor conducive to good storytelling. Still, this staid form of conflict has become the expectation of the action genre.

The film opens with a negative depiction of police. As the film progresses, we meet characters we like and dislike on either side of the law. Conflicts blossom among many characters and groups, and we encounter the kind of classic inter-group conflict that arises in every zombie siege flick.

On a filmmaking level, parts of the film read as both more brutal and quainter than other similar films. Some of this is due to the inventiveness of Carpenter, while some of it is due to the era in which it was made. Of the many subtle aspects of Assault that set it apart from the action genre, my favorite is the treatment death receives. When characters die in action movies, we are accustomed to melodrama: “Tell my wife thing X,” or pulling the pin on the grenade, whatever. There’s a brief second life in which dying characters set things right in the world. In Assault, when you die, your ruined body falls to the ground – because you are dead, and that is what dead people do.

Mad Magazine No. 38 (1958); drawing by E. Nelson Bridwell
We’re familiar with rhythm in action films as simple as: The terrorists did X, so the commandos must complete Y. The sense of foreboding that Assault manages is largely due to the mysterious motivations of its silent antagonists. The result is that the film feels like less of a gimme and more layered with dread than other films. The violence depicted in Assault is random and chaotic. In action films, the main draw is the risk of death and how our hero overcomes it, but the hero is always aware of the source of the danger.

In Assault, characters die in the middle of mundane chores, unaware of the risks they were running being in an action film. Some of the tensest action occurs when Leigh needs to free prisoners so they can help fight off invading gang members. The pacing and editing do no let up. Everything needs to happen at exactly the right time, or our heroes die. The sequence brings together all of the film’s major themes – race, the threat of violence, the commonalities between cops and criminals – and the ultimate message is interesting. Teamwork is important. At one point, Leigh turns to Wells, a prisoner she has freed who is tempted to make a run for it. She says: “No sides to it. We’re all together.” A far cry indeed from “What you mean … ‘We?’”

Sean Patrick Leydon is a photographer, artist, and contributor to Last Cinema Standing. You can check out more of his work at

Friday, May 22, 2015

New movie review: Tomorrowland

Writer-director Brad Bird's Tomorrowland is a lovingly assembled plea for hope and optimism.

It has been 78 years since Walt Disney Company released its first feature-length motion picture – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Now, nearly eight decades later, they finally did it. They made the ultimate Disney movie, and with nary a princess, witch, or evil queen in sight – just two smart girls and a grizzled inventor with a utopia to build, gosh dang it.

I have written here before about how we live in a cynical era for pessimistic people. Writer-director Brad Bird’s bouncy sci-fi fantasy Tomorrowland is not of these times, which makes it the perfect movie for our times. You must check your cynicism at the door, and if you forget to pick it back up on the way out, so much the better. Tomorrowland preaches a philosophy of optimism, of looking past what is wrong and asking: What can we do about it?

Britt Robertson plays Casey, a bright, inventive teenager with a mind for science and passion for discovery. She is told numerous times throughout the film that she is special, and as such, she is tasked with saving the world. If this brief plot description sounds familiar, that is because it would not be out of place attached to many recent young adult action-adventure adaptations. The difference is that Casey is not part of some Hunger Games- or Divergent-style dystopia. She is part of our world, and she must figure out a way to make the utopian world of Tomorrowland a reality before it slips from our grasp.

She is recruited by Athena (Raffey Cassidy, a relative newcomer who is also immensely talented), another younger girl with a few secrets and a knack for getting straight to the point. They are joined by an inventor named Frank (George Clooney), who has seen the best of the future and the worst of the now and can no longer imagine how the present can make it to Tomorrowland.

Hugh Laurie plays a shadowy, somewhat malevolent figure working at cross-purposes to our heroes, but I would hesitate to call him the villain. In fact, I would hazard to say there is no villain in Tomorrowland. The only enemy is negativity. After an animated prologue introducing us to the idea of Tomorrowland, the film begins with Frank addressing the audience directly, laying out a near-certain doomsday scenario for our world. However, Casey keeps interrupting him. Rather than dwell on the ramifications of failure, she wants to focus on the rewards of success.

Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof (Lost) set up this dichotomy everywhere in the film: Sink into despair and perish or rise up in hope and flourish. It is heady stuff for what could amount to a pre-teen adventure flick, but in reality, kids are the best audience for the message. Frank is representative of potential adults in the audience – world weary, beaten down, and devoid of optimism. The film argues he is capable of change, and maybe we all are, but kids do not need to change. The hope for a better tomorrow rests in the boundless imagination of children. They do not know what is impossible, only what they want to make possible.

On a filmmaking level, Bird is the perfect person to break down the barriers between what is possible and impossible. As someone who got his start in animation – an Oscar winner for The Incredibles and Ratatouille and a director and consultant for years on The Simpsons – Bird’s style embodies inventiveness and is bound only by what he and his team can imagine.

Comparisons are there to be made to The Incredibles, and as also evidenced by his Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the man knows how to stage an action sequence – a fight and chase set on the many levels of a technologically advanced house is a particular highlight – but the work Tomorrowland most resembles might be Bird’s first feature, The Iron Giant.

If you have not seen it, do yourself a favor and seek it out. Most of what Bird finds success with here is on display in that earlier picture, which is as much an homage to E.T. as it is a riff on 1950s B-movie science-fiction stories. With jet packs, tramways, and funny-looking futuristic clothing, in many ways, Tomorrowland might be the world’s greatest B-movie. Nothing should be taken too seriously – and at one point, Frank even asks the ever-more inquisitive Casey, “Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” – but as a smart, entertaining family movie with its head and heart in the right place, it occupies rare air.

For all the film’s talk about global warming, famine, and war proliferation, not to mention it stars famed Hollywood liberal George Clooney, I can already imagine the conservative talking head backlash awaiting the film. Do not listen. That is cynicism poking its nose where it does not belong. The film is not meant to indoctrinate, as some will no doubt claim, but to inspire. It speaks to the hope inside all of us for a brighter future, but the responsibility is ours to listen.

I said up top Bird and his collaborators have made the ultimate Disney movie, which I mean as way of discussing its place in the company canon but mostly as a reflection of Disney himself. For whatever else he was, he was a firm believer in the power of imagination to make dreams come true and change the world. Tomorrowland makes those dreams tangible and gives us a blueprint for change. It is up to us to choose to follow it.

See it? Yes.