Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wide Angle: 2015 in Review

Regular readers have surely noticed that the Amblog hasn't been updated in a long time. I still can't say for certain what the future holds for this space: consider it a very long, indefinite hiatus. (And don't forget to check out the What Were We Watching podcast!)

However, I am bound by tradition and ego to give my thoughts on the movies of 2015. As always, my disclaimer: Awards are silly. I like to think of this as more of a journal for posterity.

Top Whatever

Many big Hollywood blockbusters, even when they succeed in giving us a visceral thrill, still come across as programmed and choreographed. But Mad Max: Fury Road was anything but safe: it was a runaway semi truck that smartly used its franchise pedigree as a springboard instead of a crutch. Because while we don't need any more detailed explanation of honestly-who-cares mythology, we definitely need more pustulous warlords, fiery car crashes, and electric guitars that are also flamethrowers.

Vampire mockumentary: those two words accurately describe What We Do In the Shadows, and also sound like a half-hearted attempt to chase an old trend using one of the most exhausted conceits of the past few decades. Shadows is a miracle, a lively comedy about a boarding house for undead bloodsuckers in New Zealand that uses vampire lore as a starting point to exaggerate and examine the dynamics of friendship.

There are few friends on the grimy streets of Hollywood for the struggling transgender sex workers of Tangerine. Yet even in an environment that breeds despair, hardship, and heartbreak, they are able to build a world that sustains a simulacrum of family life - a reserve of humor and camaraderie to ward off the pain caused by manipulative pimps and insecure johns.

The characters of Mistress America, Noah Baumbach's latest whip-smart farce of the modern leisure class, come from more privileged backgrounds, which makes cracking their facade of sophistication a conspiratorial affair for the audience. We ultimately root for its protagonists, a wide-eyed college freshman and her dilettante stepsister, because we see a way to forgive our own silly preoccupations and fantasize about finding such opportunities to embrace true personal growth.

The truth is hazy in Sicario, a dark dispatch from the Mexican drug cartel wars. There is intense metaphoric potential in an idealistic FBI agent trying to suss out the agendas of her new partners, a smirking CIA operative and a local ally with a shadowy past, but the film admirably embodies the spirit of realpolitik. It's not a journey of heroism or cynicism - it's an innocent's initiation into a world of hard-won knowledge.

One of the best gearshifts in recent memory occurs about halfway through Room, a story told through the eyes of a 5-year-old boy who has lived his entire life as a captive in a cramped emergency shelter with his mother. While that experience is dramatic enough, Room is truly about an individual's ability to not only withstand trauma but absorb it, to let it stand as a separate part of herself and find reasons to endure beyond basic survival.

There is no way that Steve Jobs can be an accurate depiction of the events it portrays, and that is exactly why it is an essential piece of cinema. It's a breathless theatrical broadside pitting the Apple co-creator against a Greek chorus of friends and enemies (though most people are often both to Jobs) during his rise, fall, and rebirth in a natural evolution of the biopic form: taking license with the subject's chronology to gain a deeper, more meaningful understanding of his philosophy.

Don't mistake the investors and financial analysts of The Big Short for white knights - their investigation of the percolating subprime mortgage crisis that eventually brought the national economy to its knees was done in the spirit of making the rich even richer. But that only adds another layer of complexity to an already compelling, zany, and almost-unbelievable story of capitalist hubris and the average American's yearning for a slice of the good life.

As a competition between man and nature to determine which can be the harshest, The Revenant would be one of the grittiest survival stories of all time. On top of this, however, the film considers the calculus of revenge in a mountain man's quest to avenge his son despite a constant array of mortal danger, and what physically animates the body and mind after the soul has been decimated.

Finally, Anomalisa shows how the mundane can transform into the sublime, as in its tale of a motivational guru incapable of seeing individuals as anything besides dull, unimpressive automatons until he befriends a beguilingly shy fan. It's a reminder that whenever we cast ourselves as the protagonists in our own dramatic narratives, we risk ignoring the potential of the supporting players.

Other Good Stuff

Inside Out explored the complex world of human emotion with sensitivity, humor, and insight, while Ex Machina wondered if the wrong combination of those brain impulses could create something monstrous. Both Brooklyn and Carol followed budding romances in 1950s New York, one an affirmation of courage and pluck, and the other dealing with the sometimes difficult consequences of exposing one's true feelings.

Joy made a live QVC product pitch seem as tense as a scene from Network; its depiction of a modern-day Cinderella who acts as her own fairy godmother was just as refreshing. The Hateful Eight reckoned with the dubious mythology of the American West, as well as its enduring archetypes of outlaws and lawmen.

And Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the perfect kind of comfort food, basking in the warm glow of nostalgia while introducing a group of new, charismatic friends to invite into our imaginations.

Small Things In Movies That Brought Me Joy

- Mortdecai's description of The Standard, a trendy hotel on the Sunset Strip, as "a concrete brothel"
- Seth Rogen's video selfie freak-out about impending fatherhood in The Night Before
- the guy taking a moment to save his margaritas from attacking pterosaurs in Jurassic World
- Kate Winslet's subtle Eastern European accent in Steve Jobs
- the visual effects of Pixels, a benchmark in CGI/live action integration that almost nobody noticed
- Jeff Bridges using his natural accent to portray a medieval wise man in Seventh Son

Just the Worst

The lazy stereotypical humor of Get Hard, the dumb machinations of The Visit, and the overall incoherence of The Last Witch Hunter all rank as lowlights from 2015. But the top of the dung heap belongs to The Boy Next Door, a sleazy sub-Lifetime thriller starring J.Lo as a high school classics teacher sexing up a student who goes from exploited teenager to manipulative psychopath overnight.

Flawed But Fascinating

I loved the premise of It Follows without caring much for the execution - a horror film that possessed the heart of a sensitive indie drama, and managed to contain the most annoying elements of both. Some peace and quiet might have improved Tomorrowland, as its worthy message about imagination as motivation gets lost in a lot of clamor.

But how could I settle on anything other the patron saints of flawed-but-fascinating movies, the Wachowski siblings, and their baffling space opera freak-out Jupiter Ascending. Featuring a byzantine plot about extraterrestrial bloodlines, genetically-spliced human/animal hybrids, and Channing Tatum in anti-gravity rollerblades, it's completely out of sync with conventional popcorn movie tastes - which is exactly why it demands to be seen.

Biggest Disappointments

Though I already began to sour on the Marvel Cinematic Universe last year, the overstuffed and underwhelming Avengers: Age of Ultron didn't exactly inspire a change of heart. Crimson Peak was a big bummer, squandering the panache and vision of Guillermo Del Toro on a half-baked story. And while Magic Mike XXL likely met any reasonable person's expectation of a male stripper movie not directed by Steven Soderbergh, it's strange how the movie not only downshifted into guilty pleasure mode, but also was designed to disavow the existence of its more thoughtful, melancholic predecessor - a choice that reveals XXL's unflattering perception of its audience.

Most Pleasant Surprises

An adaptation of a little-known comic book starring an unknown lead and an against-type star more comfortable in romances than shoot-em-ups sounds bad on paper, yet Kingsman: The Secret Service was one of the most kinetic and confident films of the year. The Gift flew under the radar during the summer, so not many appreciated how this nasty, low-key thriller subverted typical genre expectations. We already knew the deft and humorous Ant-Man was going to have a different vibe, but even after the high-profile firing of director and co-writer Edgar Wright, it still turned out to be a much-needed change of pace in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Best Performances

If you think I'm missing some heavy hitters, that's by design. I try to omit some of the obvious to make room for the not-so-obvious.


Brilliant on both sides of the hero-villain divide, it's difficult to say which Tom Hardy performance I enjoyed the most in 2015. Though he spends much of the first act of Mad Max: Fury Road bound and captive, his Max Rockatansky is the ideal pulp hero: an man of action who commands the narrative, but doesn't dominate it. Despite his character's name being in the title, Hardy performs a version of heroism that leaves plenty of room for the contributions of his allies. A greater subtlety is on display in The Revenant, this time in a murderous fur trapper trying to cover up his many misdeeds. Hardy handles the big monologues with aplomb (and a Baltimore-ish accent), but his genius is in the way he physically inhabits his villany, haggard and hunched and wild-eyed, as if evil is slowly consuming him from the inside.

Samuel L. Jackson is known for his prolific filmography, but rarely does he get a truly meaty role like his button-pushing bounty hunter in The Hateful Eight. Nobody delivers Quentin Tarantino's bruising dialogue quite like Jackson, and it's refreshing to see the actor get to expand his range beyond anger and annoyance, and ensnare his rivals thanks to his mind instead of his muscle. Similarly, his idiosyncratic bad guy in Kingsman: The Secret Service could have come across as a bundle of quirks, but Jackson successfully tones down his natural menace to create a memorably kooky billionaire. (And his drive-by in Avengers: Age of Ultron proves that the straightforward, suffer-no-fools Jackson is alive and well.)


Steve Carell walks a fine line as an abrasive hedge fund manager in The Big Short, and succeeds in perfectly balancing his character's repellent qualities with a strangely ennobling tenacity. Speaking of determination, few leading men were as ferocious and assured as Michael B. Jordan in Creed - it would be easy to root for him even without Rocky Balboa's endorsement. It's even harder to step out of Han Solo's shadow, but John Boyega nearly stole Star Wars: The Force Awakens with his infectious glee and big personality. The future of the Force is in good hands.


The high-stakes drama of Room wouldn't be as effective if not for Brie Larson, keeping both the audience and her young co-star, Jacob Tremblay, grounded in the tender, complex relationship between mother and son. Familiarity was the strength that Greta Gerwig brought to her scattered hipster socialite in Mistress America, reflecting the lives and Instagram accounts of a million Millenial strivers. And kudos to Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez for animating a largely unseen world and giving Tangerine a much-deserved sweetness among the tart disappointments of life on the streets.


While the characters portrayed by Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, and Kevin Corrigan in Results initially appear to be plucked from different movies, their slow-burning chemistry mirrors how real-life friendships are often forged through uncommon bonds. On the other hand, the differences between Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson in Ex-Machina strain their little collective until it must collapse in a shocking and thought-provoking fashion. Finally, praise be to Charlize Theron, along with the Wives and Vuvalini of Mad Max: Fury Road for effortlessly slipping into the role of distaff wasteland warriors and upstaging the dude who essentially becomes their valet.

The Golden Ham

Last but not least, a distinction that might be my personal favorite: the year's most superlative scenery-chomper.

Though I relished Jason Statham's return as a hyper-masculine wrecking ball in both Furious 7 and Spy, as well as Tobey Maguire's raging paranoia and cartoony Brooklyn accent in Pawn Sacrifice, there is one performance that (quite literally) screams for recognition.

Playing an evil alien plutocrat in Jupiter Ascending, Eddie Redmayne seemingly loses all control over the volume of his voice, shifting from "old man whisper" to "pre-pubescent drill sergeant" at the drop of a hat. It didn't affect his Oscar buzz for The Theory of Everything, however, as Redmayne won Best Actor honors just weeks after Jupiter debuted in theaters. Not bad, 2015.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Vinsanity - The Oeuvre of Vin Diesel

"I don't have friends.  I got family," growls Dominic Toretto in the trailer for Furious 7, the latest installment of one of the hardiest action franchises in cinematic history.  The line is wholly applicable to the career of the man who's now played Toretto six times: Mark Sinclair Vincent, better known to audiences as Vin Diesel.

Diesel's best-known characters are practically like familiar relatives, anchoring both nascent (Guardians of the Galaxy's Groot) and long-running franchises (Toretto in the Fast movies, sci-fi badass Richard B. Riddick), each sequel catching us up with what Uncle Vin has been doing.  It's a career so franchise-dependent that Diesel hasn't portrayed a live-action character other than Toretto or Riddick since 2008.

Nevertheless, being the face of a franchise (or two) obscures the individual underneath.  It isn't unusual for movie stars to become brands unto themselves, but the schism in Diesel's career is so abrupt and severe that it bears closer examination: both the glowering, gravel-voice action star who causes a ruckus on the internet simply by singing or dancing, and the hungry Hollywood neophyte with designs on being the De Niro or Pacino of his generation.

Diesel's debut feature Strays (1997) invites comparisons to Rocky and the career arc of Sylvester Stallone.  Both films were written by their stars, and feature gritty urban settings and marble-mouthed mooks with hearts of gold.  This being the peak era of the no-budget, achingly personal Sundance film, Diesel also directed and produced his story of an unambitious hustler taking tentative steps toward maturity in order to romance the wholesome girl next door (Suzanne Lanza).

Strays is a feature-length argument for Diesel's sensitive side.  The movie's mission is to subvert expectations, presenting a romantic drama that's more like John Cassavetes filtered through the sensibility of Kevin Smith than the next Mean Streets.  If that sounds dubious, well, that's because it kind of is - beyond the clunky dialogue and jarring tonal shifts, the film's main pairing suffers from a lack of chemistry.  But there's something appealing in Diesel's unpolished sincerity, an admission that both the movie and its star are rough around the edges, and thus more vulnerable than the film's macho bluster or the actor's superhero physique would have you believe.

You can see that same mystique in Diesel's first mainstream roles, which often capitalized on the "less is more" theory - witness his supporting role as a chiseled Army grunt in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the voice that launched a million tears in The Iron Giant (1999).  But he's most cleverly utilized in David Twohy's Pitch Black (2000), an entertainingly efficient sci-fi thriller that's a bit like Stagecoach in space: when a star freighter carrying a cultural cross-section of passengers - including a dangerous criminal named Richard B. Riddick - crash-lands on a deserted planet, the survivors must pull together and find a way off the rock before they're hunted down by nocturnal alien predators.

As Riddick, Diesel finds an ideal route to his signature archetype: the noble tough guy.  He laps up the character's humor, menace, and singular code of ethics.  Like the film itself, he's convincing enough to allow the audience to buy into the conceit without taking it too seriously.  At the same time, Pitch Black smartly positions Diesel as the featured player in a slowly dwindling ensemble cast, gradually building his ass-kicking aura instead of relying solely on his charisma to elevate a fundamentally silly premise - a good move considering Diesel's baseline of campy self-awareness is somewhere far south of Schwarzenegger.

Of course, that didn't stop the creators of xXx (2002) from betting the farm on Diesel's potential as an above-the-title action hero.  And though it's hard to blame them after the runaway success of The Fast and the Furious made Diesel a household name, xXx fails to capitalize on the actor's strengths, casting him as an extreme sports enthusiast named Xander Cage recruited by a national intelligence agency to infiltrate a terrorist group run by a Russian mercenary (Martin Csokas).  But asking Diesel to play the part of the suave, globe-trotting spy - a kind of in-your-face James Bond for the Mountain Dew generation - is like trying to crush an anthill with a boulder.  Unsurprisingly, he responds with the phoned-in performance that this cheesy, cynical cash grab of a film deserves.

Xander's initial recruitment resembles a theme park version of a Hitchcockian "wrong man" conspiracy thriller, which Diesel plays like a prickish volunteer at a magic show who refuses to go along with the deception.  xXx quickly gives way to strident soda commercial edginess with heroes who think and talk like middle-aged Hollywood executives desperately trying to grasp what those crazy kids are into these days ("Stop thinking proud police, start thinking PlayStation - blow shit up!" is a typical xXx bon mot).  There's also something weird about watching a physical specimen like Diesel ordered to pursue the delicate business of espionage, which sounds the premise of a comedy, not the beginning of the next huge action franchise.

Not that his track record in comedy is sterling.  While The Pacifier (2005) is a dreadful attempt at giving Diesel his own Kindergarten Cop, the courtroom comedy Find Me Guilty (2006) should inspire more faith based on its director, Hollywood legend Sidney Lumet, alone.  Diesel plays New Jersey mafioso Jackie DiNorscio, who boldly and eccentrically served as his own counsel during a massive organized crime trial in the late 1980s.  A wiseguy in every sense of the word, DiNorscio stumbles his way through the legal proceedings with off-color jokes, waggish questions, and a constant shit-eating grin - Diesel's chompers are indeed on frequent display, making up for nearly a decade of grim stoicism.

It's not hard to see why Lumet cast Diesel in the film - the actor's success comes from the same elixir of streetwise charm and chutzpah that, in larger, more dangerous doses, breeds an overreaching big city hustler like DiNorsico.  Alas, a creeping phoniness sets in when you realize that the movie is actually trying to garner an uncomplicated sympathy for DiNorscio and his shady associates, sloppily rationalizing their defense by casting the prosecution as a bunch of shrill, smug tricksters.  It falls to Diesel, swaddled in the bulkiest of '80s fashions to hide his He-Man physique, to try and sell the idea of the populist antihero - a tall order in a film this flippantly corny.

While Find Me Guilty might have been too much of a stretch for audiences, it's preferable to the disappointing familiarity of the abysmal Babylon A.D. (2008), in which Diesel once again plays a taciturn mercenary comfortable in the criminal element - but only for the right reasons.  It's not often that a movie has me clamoring for more exposition, but the lack of guidance through Babylon A.D.'s incomprehensible mythology made me pine for the idiotic simplicity of xXx (which is clearly the superior film where Diesel traipses around Russia in a giant winter coat).

With a lot of material obviously left on the cutting room floor or omitted entirely in a cynical appraisal of Diesel's fanbase, Babylon A.D. is setting up its star to fail.  Yet Diesel remains remarkably self-possessed throughout the ordeal.  On the other hand, there's not much he can do with a character as stunted as Toorop.  Babylon A.D. is, to date, Diesel's last starring role before retreating into the comfort of his multimillion-dollar franchises - and given the quality of such unchallenging, one-dimensional roles, it's hard to blame him.

Looking at the arc of Diesel's career, it looks like one of two things happened: either he learned to play exclusively to his strengths as a intimidating screen presence; or he resigned himself to the industry's lack of imagination about how to use him.  The truth might be a mixture of both.  Still, it's interesting to consider a couple of Diesel's deeper cuts, particularly the fascinating Boiler Room (2000) - where he gets to be light, funny, charming, and everything else that seems improbable at this stage in his career - and Knockaround Guys (2003), where he gives his most underrated performance as an avenging ass-kicker who's deployed with great restraint and thus greater meaning.  Somehow, some way - perhaps when we run out of ideas for implausible car stunts - Mark Sinclair Vincent will once again get to spread his wings.

Monday, March 23, 2015


Dir. Yenn Demange

3.5 out of 5

In the opening scenes of '71, Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) is part of a regiment of young British soldiers training for their eventual deployment overseas.  But the action they see will not be far from home - just across the Irish Sea, in fact - as the soldiers are ordered to ameliorate the internecine conflict between Catholic and Protestant militias in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the early years of what would quickly become known as the Troubles.  During his squad's first mission in the field, Gary becomes separated from his unit and embarks upon a dangerous journey through Belfast that exposes him to the ethical complexities and diverse combatants in this tangled sectarian conflict.

While Yenn Demange's film has an academic interest its many different factions vying for power in Northern Ireland - staunch Protestant loyalists, shady British military intelligence agents, and two squabbling groups of fiery IRA nationalists - it's ultimately about the corrupting nature of war in general.  Seen through Gary's relatively innocent eyes, the brutal violence is an almost apolitical byproduct of base human impulses that go beyond the immediate 20th-century concerns of government and religion.  Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke aren't creating a historical document here - they are crafting a passion play within the structure of an urban action thriller, replete with stunning escapes, double-crosses, and unlikely allies.

Indeed, labeling '71 as simply a "war movie" belies its focused intensity and would muddle the broader message its creators are attempting to convey.  Its ideals are not glory or honor but a certain humanity - albeit a tragic one - that persists in some of the most hopeless situations.  On the other hand, the film's scale sometimes tips too far into the symbolic; the deeper Gary falls into his predicament, the more he functions as a plot point than as a character.  Demange also seems to squander '71's specificity in the characterizations of the supporting cast, whose motives either remain unclear or are spelled out in a somewhat clichéd language.  Still, '71 is absolutely captivating whenever lives hang in the balance and Gary is on the run - which is to say almost the entire time.  The filmmakers' general political ambivalence turns out to be a wise choice for the type of movie that '71 so frequently is: a tense, protracted chase sequence through a maze of crooks, charlatans, and collaborators.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Dir. Neill Blomkamp

2.5 out of 5

It takes a village to raise an automaton.  That's the most cogent takeaway from the sci-fi thriller Chappie, in which the architect (Dev Patel) of Johannesburg, South Africa's robotic police force uses a decommissioned machine to produce a sentient form of artificial intelligence.  But when the little guy, childlike and helpless, falls into the hands of some desperate street thugs, his development oscillates between the warm, compassionate wonderment supplied by his surrogate mother (who impulsively dubs him "Chappie") and his criminal exploitation at the hands of his father figure - played respectively by South African rappers Yolandi Visser and Ninja, better known as Die Antwoord.  Then there is the harsh, violent reality of Chappie's environment, where a stable urban society exists adjacent to a quasi-Mad Max wasteland, characteristic of director Neill Blomkamp's consistent predictions of a future starkly divided between the haves and have-nots.

Chappie, at its core, is not so different from Boyhood - if Boyhood also featured a beefed-up version of the ED-209 from RoboCop controlled by the thoughts of an ex-military hardass (Hugh Jackman).  The film's coming-of-age element maintains a critical emotional through-line within Blomkamp's loud, hyper-stimulated action aesthetic.  The tenderness and cute humor of Chappie himself - animated via the vocal and "poor man's motion capture" performance of Sharlto Copley - cuts through the static of an energetic but often hopelessly cluttered script.  Co-writers and real-life partners Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell have crammed enough ideas and subplots for multiple movies into Chappie, resulting in a film that feels disjointed for its first two-thirds, then hopelessly rushed once it's time to tie all the threads together.

But some of those threads, taken individually, can be quite intriguing.  Much like Ninja is obsessed with teaching Chappie all about the hard knocks of life in the slums - and the exaggerated macho hardness that's required to endure them - Blomkamp is preoccupied with the idea of authenticity expressed as coolness.  He's mashing up the worlds of Coachella and SXSW, alternating between the profanely-tagged abandoned rave site that is the criminals' hideout and the sleek, supermodern technocracy where Patel's and Jackman's characters are rivals jockeying for position in the pecking order of scientific and cultural innovation.  In the end, Chappie's own cinematic parentage is an amalgamation of Blomkamp's two previous films, Elysium and District 9; it's both a hopelessly confusing crackpot mess and a visually stunning work of ambitious social import.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

It Follows

It Follows
Dir. David Robert Mitchell

3 out of 5
We all know what happens to the sexually promiscuous (or even just the sexually active) in horror films: once the clothes come off, a grisly death usually isn't far behind.  The teen chiller It Follows, from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, magnifies this trope to movie size: after teenage Jay (The Guest’s Maika Monroe) sleeps with the older boy (Jake Weary) she's been dating, she's haunted by spectral visions taking the form of various people, often creepy-looking and disturbingly mutilated strangers.  Jay's lover has the courtesy to explain, post-coitus, that it's a condition passed down a long line of sex partners and that his only motive in courting her was to rid himself of the curse, as the visions will relentlessly hunt down and kill the most recent link in the chain.
It wouldn't take much to push this premise into exploitation territory, but Mitchell takes it in a more introspective direction, trying to examine the impact Jay's situation has on her relationship with her friends: younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), schoolmate Yara (Olivia Luccardi), bad-boy neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto), and childhood crush Paul (Keir Gilchrist).  Only the afflicted can see the visions, so they spend much of their time consoling Jay without knowing exactly why.  Jay herself is a fascinating character, contemplating the morality of her limited options in relieving herself of the curse.  Together, they all perform the duties of friendship in a sensitive interplay that would feel very realistic for a conventional coming-of-age drama, much less a horror film.
The premise lends itself to a metaphor for teen sex, one that Mitchell complicates with the ever-changing form of Jay's tormentors and the detail that they will only pursue their victims slowly, on foot.  They're never a powerfully overwhelming force but a consistent creeping dread in the back of Jay's mind.  What she is interpreting, Mitchell cannot truly say.  His script mines a motherlode of mental triggers, from post-pubescent confusion and anxiety about sex to a recalling of the emotional scars left by our earliest intimate relationships, even suggesting a component based on the repression of sexual trauma.
The last thing this movie needs is a moral, but it seems to be grasping at a larger purpose that is not made fully clear.  Granted, that's Mitchell's likely intention, but his lyrical approach short-sells the potential of the conceit.  He delights in constructing a formal mystery house of atmospheric slow zooms, pans that lead to nowhere, and nerve-fraying sound design.  It's top-notch horror movie affect.  It's also pretty frustrating without the right amount of payoff.  It Follows becomes a slow-speed chase film for almost its entire second half, a repetitive exercise no matter how many times the nightmare changes its disguise.  Mitchell's gift for wan understatement also doesn't mesh well with a young cast struggling to communicate the film's intensely psychological conflict.  It Follows is ultimately a great idea resting upon a wobbly framework, trying mightily to strike its own balance between the codification and deconstruction of horror tropes.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service
Dir. Matthew Vaughn

4 out of 5

The titular organization in Kingsman: The Secret Service is an international spy agency that's not MI-6, even though everyone involved just happens to be British.  Nor are its gentlemen agents who wear fine suits, deploy lethal gadgets, and infiltrate underground lairs supposed to be any kind of stand-in for a certain type of spy who emerged in the golden age of cloak-and-dagger during the Cold War.  (Their origin has something to do with tailors and the fortunes of wealthy casualties in World War I.)  Indeed, Kingsman borrows as many of its cues from modern fairy tales like Star Wars and Harry Potter as it does from spy movies.  Consider its protagonist: Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), a poor London youth whisked away from his troubled home life to audition for an espionage program that tests the limits of his physical and psychological capabilities; whilst his mentor, top agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth), investigates a flamboyant tech billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson) for a litany of suspicious behavior, including but not limited to employing a personal assistant (Sofia Boutella) who sports razor-sharp foot prosthetics.

That last flourish is typical of Kingsman, a stylish spy thriller and love letter to the James Bond film series that does what many of the Bond films themselves cannot: land on the right side of the homage-parody divide.  Of course, this is the old-school '60s and '70s Bond we're talking about, the movies stuffed with outlandish megalomaniacs, gimmicky henchman, and grounded gadgetry.  But Kingsman is most intriguing in its attempt to best Bond in the personality department.  From their tony headquarters on Savile Row to their emphasis on expertise and teamwork, these guys (and gals) take their self-appointed status as gentlemen quite seriously.   It's a not-so-secret jab at the idea of a violent, vengeful Bond serving as a symbol of masculine cool; the Kingsman way is practically the opposite, according to Hart, who quotes Hemingway to his young protege: "True nobility is being superior to your former self."

It's another way of saying that you must be comfortable in your own skin, as director Matthew Vaughn certainly is.  With Kingsman he finally combines his visual panache and cheeky sense of humor with thematic heft, as the film's the out-of-nowhere commentary on wealth, class, and privilege is a vast improvement over solipsistic missteps like Kick-Ass.  This being Vaughn, the film is none too subtle, and several of its winks to other spy films are rather clunky.  Yet it succeeds all the same by taking a different tack than lesser Bond imitators, which so often try to declare their importance by either symbolically murdering or pantsing Bond in a fit of desperation.  Kingsman is the anti-anti-Bond film, working on multiple levels for many audiences: those who will recognize its tango with the history of the spy genre, those who appreciate a subversive product slipping through the Hollywood system, and those who simply want to sit back and enjoy the buoyant confidence of a movie that knows exactly how to find its own groove.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Seventh Son

Seventh Son
Dir. Sergei Bodrov

2 out of 5

Meryl Streep famously spoke of the difficulties that actresses face upon reaching a certain age - upon turning 40, she reportedly began receiving a deluge of offers to play witches, a role she resisted until last year's Into the Woods.  The starkly generic fantasy Seventh Son seems a lot like the type of movie that Streep was turning down years ago.  It's a film that has no use for female characters who aren't witches, or at least closely associated with the villainous coven led by Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), a powerful sorceress who has returned after a decades-long exile to seek vengeance on John Gregory (Jeff Bridges), the "spook" - a kind of supernatural bounty hunter - who imprisoned her.

It's easy to read Seventh Son as a feature-length act of acquiescence.  The movie squanders a talented cast on a pro forma hero's journey invested exclusively in meat-and-potatoes fantasy clichés (gee, I hope this magic pendant comes in handy later).  As the last representative of an order dedicated to protecting people from evil magical creatures, Gregory is forever in search of a worthy apprentice.  When his latest one dies, he tracks down Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), a restless farmboy so blatantly Skywalker-esque he actually stares into the middle distance and verbally confirms that he's meant for something greater than this.  As they fight their way through Malkin's minions, Gregory gradually convinces Tom that bitches be crazy and that all witches should be summarily executed.  However, the boy nurtures a seed of dissent when he discovers that a mysterious young woman (Alicia Vikander) accused of being a witch might not be so bad after all.

There's nothing wrong with embracing the Joseph Campbell template, but you had better bring something new to the equation.  All of Seventh Son's flimflam about bloodlines and destiny amounts to little more than a few character beats in the film's loud, boring climax, when its sudden stabs at profundity feel completely unearned.  And while most of the cast more or less plays the material straight, Bridges tries way too hard in turning Gregory into one of his signature wizened drunks; for some reason, this one happens to talk like Alfred Hitchcock after swallowing a truckload of gravel.  (One of the movie's few interesting undercurrents is that the heroes progress through the story despite its wise man's consistent recklessness, hectoring, and hardline stance on witch genocide.)  Alas, when the montage of medieval fantasy images in the end credits suggests a deeper and more interesting world than anything in the actual movie, it's clear that Seventh Son suffers from a fatal lack of imagination.