Jul 22, 2014

Rage (2014)


Rage (aka Tokarev) begins with what appears to be unbridled enthusiasm for otherwise well-worn genre trappings, although it's difficult to determine just how much of this is the film riding the coattails of one Nicolas Cage's particular brand of bottled-lightning near-hysteria. Cage is Paul Maguire, a former criminal whose long-standing efforts to go straight are infringed upon when his teenage daughter is kidnapped, ostensibly by Russians with a long-standing grudge. With no shortage of bloodshed or cruelty, Paul enlists some of his friends to search for clues as to his daughter's whereabouts, and the motives of those who took her.

An early scene in which a near-catatonic drug addict is tortured for information is but the first of many miscalculations that rob the film of its initial gusto without adding anything in the way of moral gravitas. The theme of cyclical violence is an admirable one to unpack, particularly within the context of what is ultimately a nihilistic thriller, but ultimately both this narrative conceit and director Paco Cabezas' bag of tricks wear thin, and even a small parade of faces familiar to such proceedings (e.g. Peter Stormare, Danny Glover) are unable to do much more than go through the motions. Rage is less disrupted by moral confusion -- indeed, it's sense of ambivalence towards violence is almost necessary, in the same sense that even anti-war films can be exciting -- than by a stultifying apathy, it's sobering conclusions heartfelt, but ultimately unearned.

May 4, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)


Despite the talent put into it, 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man failed in large part as a result of its own redundancy. Not merely serving as an almost-remake of a film barely a decade old, the entire affair reeked of something thrown together as a last-minute necessity (which, after Sam Raimi walked away from a potential fourth film), its plot mechanics an unfortunate amalgam of franchise-establishing necessities and screenwriting so perfunctory, one almost wishes it had been written via formula instead. The in-film absence of pathos overwhelmed any flashes of wit or emotion, and the result felt stillborn at best. (My review of that film, penned after a midnight screening that barely enthused my caffeine-addled eyes, was entirely too kind; a second viewing negated most of my residual fondness.)

With some skepticism, then, I approached this follow-up, which, at least on the page, is looks like a committee project run amok, so jam-packed with antagonists and character crises that it rivals the overstuffed lineup of Raimi's ultimately doomed third film. As an example of how the auteur touch can enliven any otherwise waterlogged corporate product, I still champion Spider-Man 3 (the first two films of that cycle are nearly perfect), and now The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (hereafter Spidey 2) joins its ranks. Webb's affecting lightness finally manifests amid the competently (if obviously) delivered plot, and the tone is so distinct and personable that even the choices that could be justifiably considered mishaps (particularly Jamie Foxx's nebbish villain, taking a cue from The Incredibles' Syndrome before going all Dr. Manhattan) still feel genuinely lived-in. Spider 2 is, ultimately, product, but in a genre of increasing sameness, it's tactile emotions leaves a potent impression.

I was fortunate enough to see the film projected on 35mm, a welcome opportunity for the increasingly rare Hollywood film shot on the format. The quality of the image was noticeably better than other films with CG effects transferred to celluloid (the next to most recent Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, suffered for the transfer), and speaks to Webb's desire to ground the material in something of genuine substance. Without a cast capable of enlivening the otherwise xeroxed archetypes (among the collective resumes of the three credited screenwriters, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner, the best film prior to this one is the excellently disposable Mission: Impossible III), it's hard to imagine this material working, but therein lies the spark of this kind of spectacle. Difficult choices and personal demons -- from what we do for family and love to a surprisingly political acknowledgement of class struggle -- roil beneath the surface, and if Spidey 2 ultimately resolves without quite plumbing its own depths as much as I'd have preferred, I'm still more than impressed with where it opts to go in the first place.

Apr 30, 2014

Under the Skin (2013)


The impulse to compare filmmakers (especially those whose work might be described as "slow" and "arty") to Stanley Kubrick is one I wish we would get away from. Much as it might laud the man who might be my favorite to ever make movies, as a comparison, it's overused, reductive, and does nothing to illuminate the many ways these directors (e.g. Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher) are great; it merely states with hyperbolic obviousness that they are great, and it dulls appreciation of why and how they do what they do in favor of trivial flattery. Those feelings notwithstanding, it still seems within reason to note that the opening sequences of Under the Skin reminded me potently of 2001: A Space Odyssey. On first viewing, this was because of the basic connection of space-like darkness and star-like light; on second viewing, and more importantly, it was because I realized that I felt not unlike that film's primate characters, in awe of the monolith before then, transformed by sonic sensation, and more, into something unprecedented. Writer-director Jonathan Glazer isn't merely inspired by Kubrick's genius; he's standing on his shoulders (and Hitchcock's, and Roeg's...), and earning his place.

These quixotic opening images (and most of the film) refuse to provide any surrounding context, and as a pre-title plunge, they're an excellent primer for the dreamy, terrifying, sporadically funny, almost mathematically acute experience that follows, like a pressure chamber one might use to adjust to otherwise uninhabitable conditions. (Spoilers ahead.) A dot of light forms from seemingly nothing; an apparent detail shot suggests that this is the birth of a star; something aligns, something enters, a dulled voice begins cycling through the phonics of language, and the Kubrickian comparison is invited again by a jarring cut to Scarlett Johannson's eye. Named Laura in the credits but, as near as I can tell, nameless on screen, her character is everything and nothing, human yet not, that which we long for and that which keeps us from sleeping at night. I imagine these opening images to be her birth -- perhaps some metaphysical computer system coming online, or a virus downloading itself into the viewer -- but the film is better for leaving such literal interpretations there, in the realm of imagination. Under the Skin is among the most aptly named films I've ever seen, and Glazer's third feature is nothing if not an intense meditation on what it means, not to occupy a body, but to be one.

Under the Skin's loosely-drawn plot -- a female, ostensibly extraterrestrial, prowls Scotland for men, whom she lures into a black pit for mysterious and unknown reasons -- adapted loosely from Michel Faber's eponymous novel, isn't so much about the telling of a story as it is carrying a mental drag net, through which all manner of stimuli catch and mingle. As an alien invasion, the literal menace is subdued and distant -- the film hints at some larger plan spreading the countryside, if not further, and later implies that Laura's experience infiltrating humanity fails in part because she ultimately becomes too human (an unlikely correlation with the almost-equally batshit Robot Monster) -- but what stands out most is an unspoken essay on empathy, epitomized in a touching scene in which Laura offers a kindness that would seem to go against her directives, and which arguably sets up a later scene that acts as both savage humor and heartbreaking insight. (If Under the Skin can be said to function as a feminist statement, it's telling what many male critics assume about this woman, and women in general.)

Seen through Laura's eyes (she's arguably a proxy for the victims, and would-be victims, of sexual violence, and although the film eschews strictly feminist readings for something more thorny and universal, some implicit suggestions are eventually realized), Under the Skin allows us to see even basic things (shopping malls, parking lots) anew, with an emphasis on life being frequently definable as discomfort bordering on terror. The sins of human selfishness (the covetous man; the parents who think of themselves before the child) and the often cruel randomness of life (the man with a deformity condition) themselves become as terrifying as the black abyss in which Laura's unlucky prey find themselves. Scarlett Johansson's celebrity and sex appeal are recast as something, essentially, too good to be true, and between this film and last year's Her, it's fitting to see this talented woman finally reaping the fruits of her work in Lost in Translation (with the upcoming Luc Besson film Lucy, Under the Skin seems destined to be the central panel in an unofficial triptych of soul/body/mind), as good here as she has ever been, as capable of insect-like coldness as tender frailty.

A pair of scenes come as close to suggesting a character arc as anything else in a film with unspoken disdain for plot delivery, although, like everything else in this mad beast, they raise greater questions and deepen the surrounding mystery. An errant ant invites Laura's intense curiosity, her scrutiny later mirrored when she unexpectedly encounters her reflection, after a particularly shaping experience with humanity. The desire to know what lies behind our eyes is a uniting facet of existence, and therein her dawning realizations and autonomy lies...something, ineffable, beautiful, unforgettable. Metaphorically fertile and stripped of clutter, Glazer's achievement is pure cinema -- a philosophical line in the sand in a medium defined by such achievements. Under the Skin doesn't just affirm the movies' ability to draw us out of our worldview: it raises the bar. I can't wait to watch it five or six more times, at least.

Aug 10, 2013

Clear History (2013)


A stunningly unfunny comedy, Clear History's failure is all the more disheartening when one considers that it comes from the same minds that penned some of the finest episodes of both Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld. Nathan Flamm (Larry David, channeling his usual schtick) is an eccentric marketing executive with an upstart electric car company, but the name of their new product—“Howard,” inspired in part by the main character of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead"—is so off-putting to him that he sees no choice but to sell back his share of the company and disassociate himself completely, a decision that becomes the focus of public ridicule when the car proves to be a raging, billion-dollar success. Ten years later, Flamm is in hiding on Martha's Vineyard (where the populace, oblivious to his embarrassing and financially ruinous history, knows him as Rolly DaVore) when his former boss, Jon, (Will Haney), buys a local property.

This scenario might have sufficed for a half-hour episode of television, but at feature length, it's stretched past the breaking point, and it's one not helped by the script's tendency to pass over ripe comedic opportunities for those of the obvious and uninspired variety. Given the film's blatant attempts to capitalize on David's long history of playing a socially graceless narcissist (as indicated by the script's assortment of awkward personal encounters, unfortunate coincidences, and typically David-esque pet peeves), it's somewhat astonishing when, after the invocation of Ayn Rand, Flamm's anger over the name Howard is revealed as entirely apolitical, instead proving to be merely a curmudgeon's petty reaction to something new, an unsubstantiated idea necessitated by the script to justify all that follows. Such pettiness is on display throughout, from the predictably structured setups and payoffs of the plot's disparate threads to the tossed-off and callous nature of most of the jokes (a long-gestating gag concerning the weight of Eva Mendez's character, Jennifer, feels particularly cruel) to the almost complete absence of a world with rules and consequences. One of the strengths of Curb Your Enthusiasm was its creation of situations in which David's guilt or innocence was largely beside the point, and the hilarity of his existential frustration worked because of a distinct moral context that questioned the nature of justice. Clear History, by contrast, exists in an arbitrary moral void.

That David manages to score a few laughs throughout is a testament to his innate talent as a comedian, but the script's rehashing of situations, gags and personal hang-ups (some of them dating as far back as the Larry David persona's original incarnation in Seinfeld's George Costanza) to such diminishing returns suggests that a different kind of characterization was called for this time around. Ostensibly, we're supposed to be rooting for Flamm, and while many a successful dark comedy has put far more reprehensible characters in the role of protagonist, Clear History's shorthanded characterizations and ethical vacuum prove so flaccid that it fails even if one views it as a nihilistic statement. Among the largely wasted cast, only Michael Keaton, as a grizzly islander with an appetite for destruction, walks away with his dignity intact, while it's roundly embarrassing to see talent like Philip Baker Hall and J.B. Smoove spinning their tires. On top of it all, the film simply looks banal and dreary, another surprising disappointment given director Greg Mottola's usual flair for infusing life and energy into otherwise visually sparse locations. Clear History fulfills the mantra that Seinfeld cheekily embraced, i.e. it's a film about nothing. Enthusiasm, curbed.

Jun 13, 2013

Current, HRW Film Festival, "The Guillotines," "Beetlejuice," etc.

Less output than I'd have liked the past few weeks, but given that I've finally started proper full time employment for the first time in nearly two years (as opposed to multiple part time job employment in excess of 50 or 60 hours a week), I consider this much in the way of published material to be something of a triumph.

The meatiest is by far my coverage of this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which starts today and runs through June 23 (details here). I covered only six of their 20 films this year, and next year hope to go even more expansive; of the six, Camera/Woman (pictured above) was by far my favorite. At Slant Magazine you'll also find reviews of the disappointing The Guillotines as well as the recent DVD release of the complete animated Beetlejuice series. Last and, to these eyes, most certainly least (in terms of the film; as far as the writing goes, I leave that to your eyes) is my Southern Berks News piece on J.J. Abrams' rank Star Trek Into Darkness. Retch.

May 23, 2013

Current: "The Great Gatsby," "The Last Stand," etc.

A few links to catch up on. Though mixed, I'm ultimately in favor of Baz Luhrmann's all-over-the-place adaptation of The Great Gatsby, my review of which can be read online at the Berks-Mont News here. Less favorable was my take on the threadbare indie comedy 3 Geezers! at Slant Magazine, but it was a film I adored compared to the patience-testing experience that was Pilgrim Song (autopsy detailed here). The cream of the crop was my coverage of the Blu-ray release of Kim Jee-woon's The Last Stand, a Schwarzenegger action vehicle I more or less love in spite of some quibbles. More goodies to come.

May 7, 2013

Current, "Iron Man Three," "The Big Wedding," etc.

Not much new over these past few weeks, but some exciting news in that I'll now be contributing to the online (and occasionally the print) edition of The Southern Berks News. My first review for them is for this summer's first mega-release, Iron Man Three, which I rather shamelessly enjoyed (twice, actually; the 3D is ultimately unnecessary, but well rendered, surprisingly so for a post-conversion job). Why did I write out three, you ask? Because that's how the title appears onscreen, and I'm stubborn like that. Less noteworthy is the documentary Free the Mind, which I wished had proven more substantial given how endearing its subjects are, but it's still leagues away from The Big Wedding, which will likely end up on many worst-of-the-year lists.