Friday, December 30, 2011

War Horse (2011)

War Horse (2011)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

4 out of 5

The use of horses as cavalry mounts and beasts of burden in World War I - a conflict that introduced so many horrors of modern combat - is a sad anachronism tailor-made for effusive metaphors of old ways surrendering to new. While director Steven Spielberg can't completely resist such obvious comparisons in
War Horse, his adaptation of the critically-acclaimed play itself drawn from a children's novel, he deserves credit for largely avoiding simplifications and letting the story's elemental struggle between beauty and brutality unfold at its own pace. For the first half-hour it's the tale of a boy (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse, Joey, a magnificent and headstrong colt impulsively purchased by his father (Peter Mullan) at auction. Irvine's special bond with the animal is solidified when he must turn Joey into the plow-horse that Mullan was meant to acquire. This bond is then tested when the family's continuing financial struggles force Mullan to sell the horse to an English cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) shortly after Britain declares war on Germany.

From there Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski create a gradual and seamless transition from the perpetual stillness of the verdant English countryside to the perpetual hell of the Western Front. Joey is featured in a series of vignettes that flow effortlessly into each other, winding up with a pair of deserters, a sickly French girl and her protective grandfather (Neils Arestrup), and a German artillery detail. Slowly but surely, the horse transforms into a type of ennobling symbol, a benchmark of the innocence lost in the great slaughter. Though the film's thematic motifs and emotional cues bear a certain resemblance to those in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg's trademark sentimentality works just as well with this particular narrative, distinguished by a message more universal than the director's solemn tribute to the Greatest Generation.

War Horse also has a harshness that distinguishes it from typical feel-good fare. Few films do a better job of capturing the utter confusion of trench warfare and its complex mixture of savagery and camaraderie. Virgin forests quickly transform into the muddy, denuded wasteland of No Man's Land, where an encounter between the horse and two enemy soldiers turns into a conspicuously theatrical yet moving commentary on how the promise of friendship could possibly overcome an appetite for destruction. After spending so much time surrounded by anxiety and fear and muck, the film's one major misstep is raising the possibility of redemption too conveniently. But the world of War Horse is one of fundamentally good people trying to make the best of a terrible situation - caring for Joey allows them to believe in the brightness of humanity while they endure a maelstrom attributable to the worst angels of our nature. "The war has taken everything from everybody," remarks Arestrup, echoing a German officer who forcefully requisitions war maté
riel from his small family farm. After witnessing the film's endless string of sacrifices, a sweet catharsis is well deserved.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Separation (2011)

A Separation (2011)
Dir. Asghar Farhadi

4.5 out of 5

A Separation is not so much about a difficult divorce as it is about loyalty, truth, and the vicissitudes of the Iranian justice system. The affecting domestic drama of estranged husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and wife Simin (the striking Leila Hatami) takes a backseat to the slow-burning intrigue that envelops Moaadi when he hires a working-class woman (Sareh Bayat) to look after his Alzheimer's-afflicted father. A series of misunderstandings and miscalculations lands Moaadi in hot water with the law, suddenly charged with murder after Bayat suffers a miscarriage while on the job.

The audience quite literally plays jury as the details of the case are hashed out in front of no one but the litigants and a judge operating out of a tiny office in the local courthouse. To Western eyes, these sessions have the look of informal hearings, but they are official proceedings that can produce a binding verdict. The process doesn't appear to involve any lawyers. There is much talk of honor and of God. Though Moaadi and Bayat are gradually convinced to negotiate a financial settlement, we hear plenty of times that it's not about the money. What's important is whose word can be trusted most. even though both parties waver when attempting to pass their stories through their personal moral barometers - for Bayat, the Qu'ran, and for Moaadi, his studious daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the real-life daughter of the film's director).

Watching the young girl's confidence in her father crumble is especially heartbreaking, and a crucial part of the emotional fabric of a film that has a tendency to put the concerns of its female characters on the back burner. After her compelling arguments for divorce in the opening sequence, Hatami disappears for long stretches of the film as it shifts almost exclusively to Moaadi's perspective. But it's probably this upending of expectations that makes
A Separation so compelling. People make decisions big and small without knowing exactly where it will take them. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi has a similar perspective in weaving the threads of his unassuming dramatic tapestry, eventually rewarding the viewer who knows that life has a knack for unraveling at the corners.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

We Bought a Zoo (2011)

We Bought a Zoo (2011)
Dir. Cameron Crowe

2.5 out of 5

Based on the memoir of a British newspaper columnist, We Bought a Zoo is a big-hearted dramedy about a widower (Matt Damon) who,'s right there in the title, and I'm not going to repeat it. His hope is that a financially risky whim can rehabilitate his grieving family, particularly troubled son Dylan (Colin Ford) who has been filling sketchbooks with angsty drawings that are a little like what Edvard Munch might have posted on deviantART. Damon must also win over the animal park's skeptical staff - led by zookeeper Scarlett Johansson - to get up and running by the summer tourist season.

Undeterred by the thin premise, director Cameron Crowe manages to stretch the film over two hours by relying heavily on melodramatic contrivances, time-expanding editing, and an unbearably lightweight set of obstacles to Damon's success. In a lazy attempt to build dramatic tension, Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna settle for a string of hoary clichés, among them an outrageously strict bureaucrat (a campy John Michael Higgins) and an ill-timed rainstorm. All of this is at least partially redeemed by Damon's surprisingly dignified presence in an otherwise cloying role that requires him to hold a conversation with the ghost of his dead wife (Stephanie Szostak). He fares far better than Thomas Haden Church, on autopilot as Damon's surfer-bro brother who is forced to spout gag-inducing maxims like "I like the animals, but I love the humans."

To be fair, We Bought a Zoo makes a decent effort to address the moral complexities of owning a menagerie of exotic creatures. A subplot involving the declining health of the park's beloved tiger is as close as the film ever gets to evoking a genuine emotional response without relying on heated shouting matches or giggling toddlers. If only the rest of the movie was handled with such delicacy. Crowe is still adept at arranging a warm, inviting background for his experiments with a diverse palette of human emotion: witness solid supporting work from Elle Fanning as Ford's love(ish) interest and a finespun Jónsi score that trembles as much as it thunders. It's just a shame that he's endeavored to paint the rest with the broadest brushes in his arsenal.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

3 out of 5

The world of a beloved Belgian comic book hero bustles to life in the motion capture film The Adventures of Tintin, following the exploits of a young investigative journalist (Jaime Bell) as he unravels a centuries-old mystery involving a cache of hidden pirate gold. When Bell ignores a stranger's ominous warning and purchases an old model ship at a flea market, he comes into possession of a cryptic message that launches him into a maelstrom of adventure, intrigue, and murder. It turns out that the message is a clue leading the finder to treasure concealed on a real ship, the Unicorn, which was sent to the bottom of the sea with an untold fortune in gold bullion stashed in its hull. Joining forces with the tippling Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), an ancestor of the Unicorn's original captain, Bell races to locate the ship's final resting place before a nefarious gentleman (Daniel Craig) who will use any means necessary to get there first. It's the type of ruddy, two-fisted adventure story from the time when Men were Men, sea captains were lovable drunkards, and villains wore mustaches just begging to be twirled.

Tintin features perhaps the most colorful and fluid use of motion capture animation to date. It's a wide-angle cartoon that takes unabashed pleasure in flaunting the laws of physics - a license Spielberg takes full advantage of with impossible tracking shots and a giddy mayhem that's both breathtakingly dense and just plain noisy. The visuals strike an agreeable balance between photorealism and comic surrealism; characters' noses seem to have been assigned in a particularly haphazard and sometimes tragic fashion. Spielberg is successful in being as faithful to the look of the original Hergé books as he possibly can, while adding the proper cinematic touches - a rousing John Williams score here, some deft editing there, topped by the clever juxtaposition of an inebriate Haddock acting out lengthy flashbacks to events on the Unicorn.

But while Tintin is often evocative of a great adventure yarn, the final product is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Not even a king's ransom of creative talent - Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson, and three-headed writing hydra Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish - can disguise the fact that the actual Tintin stories haven't aged particularly well. Nor is it guaranteed to capture an aged imagination: the film's intended audience skews younger than you might expect, and there is plenty of room for dissatisfaction in its simplistic, circular storytelling. Bringing modern technology to bear upon this antiquated Euro-curio has not changed its essence, keeping Tintin as clear-eyed and optimistic as ever but making it the cinematic equivalent of a splashy Sunday comics serial that temporarily stirs the senses before being folded up with the rest of yesterday's news.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
Dir. Brad Bird

3.5 out of 5

Your mission, should you choose to accept it...these are words that call not only to Mission: Impossible series lynchpin Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), but also to the bevy of action-minded directors who have each taken a turn at the helm of this surprisingly hardy franchise. In Ghost Protocol it's former Pixar wunderkind Brad Bird (The Incredibles) who accepts the invitation to play with M:I's inexhaustible toybox of high-wire thrills in his live-action debut and, in doing so, submits the series' best entry since the original. After a bombing at the Kremlin gets pinned on Cruise, he must go off the grid with teammates Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, and Jeremy Renner to pursue a twisted nuclear scientist (Michael Nyqvist) hell-bent on initiating a global thermonuclear war. Veteran spies just can't seem to go more than a few missions (or a couple movies) without needing to restore their good names.

While much of the film is comprised of recycled parts from other spy thrillers, Bird manages to keep the proceedings fresh by refusing to let the audience catch its breath, taking advantage of as many swooping helicopter shots as Paramount can afford. With a narrative confined to three major locations, the action remains coherent and focused, even as the heroes produce a menagerie of gadgets that can't all have fit in their duffel bags. But it's difficult to sweat the details when the next breathtaking action sequence is just around the corner. Cruise and company's visit to Dubai is particularly noteworthy, a bravura piece of action filmmaking that manages to pack as much suspense into a tense exchange of stolen nuclear codes as a risky ascent of the world's tallest skyscraper.

Ghost Protocol suffers whenever there's a plot-necessitated lull - if you see the main characters sitting around a table or standing in a circle, you can be fairly certain that someone is about to start dictating their allotment of the film's expository dialogue. The entire Mission: Impossible series also shoulders the unique burden of attempting to humanize the action automaton that is Hunt/Cruise. It's mitigated in this film by the addition of new agent Renner, who lends a wry skepticism to a franchise that tends to project a greater swagger than it has truly earned. Truth be told, Ghost Protocol isn't too far from being a James Bond rip-off with more than a few hastily-drawn roles, but luckily distinguishes itself with an excess of confidence and panache. It may not stand up to the closest scrutiny, but it's such a successfully wild, satisfying ride that any direct resemblance to other films always feels more kindred than derivative.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Descendants (2011)

The Descendants (2011)
Dir. Alexander Payne

3 out of 5

Far from an exotic paradise where people come to while away the hours in a sleepy idyll, the Hawaii portrayed in The Descendants is a thoroughly modern place, full of anxiety about family, money, and the Way We Live Now. It's not much more than a picturesque place for the American dream to die. Not that busy lawyer George Clooney is in any danger of losing the farm. He does, however, have a million headaches as the sole trustee for a old missionary family's massive tract of virgin beachfront property and the sole parent to a wayward teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) and a younger one (Amara Miller) who might be headed down the same path. A virtual widower due to a boating accident that has left his wife in a coma, Clooney stumbles upon an unexpected connection between financial and familial crises: his dear spouse was sleeping with the real estate agent who's poised to negotiate the sale of his family's land. "Fuck paradise," he asserts in the copious narrated exposition that begins the film. It's difficult to disagree with him.

A ramshackle plot like this needs a solid anchor, and it has an excellent one in Clooney. His performance is subtly magnificent, conveying the quiet impotence of a successful striver who can't fathom why everyone else has such trouble keeping up. It's a slightly darker spin on the his character from Up In the Air, where he played a cocksure man who is just learning what it truly means to fail. The Descendants throws even more slings and arrows his way, triggering a simmering rage that manifests itself in frequent verbal confrontation. This is an Alexander Payne film, after all - violence delineates the uncouth and the stupid from the heroic. It's telling that the only hand raised in anger belongs to Clooney's exaggerated bully of a father-in-law (Robert Forster) and comes down upon Woodley's beatific moron of a friend (Nick Krause).

While strong at its center, The Descendants struggles to provide its protagonist with worthy accoutrements. The dialogue is often clunky, particularly that of the younger characters, and the pacing gets tiresome as Clooney bounces from emergency to emergency like a schizophrenic superhero. Beau Bridges has a nice little turn as one of the cousins pressuring Clooney to ignore his moral misgivings and sell the family's land, but the rest of the characterizations are often too weak and set up a clumsy dichotomy between the competent Clooney and the selfish sharks that surround him. That's a shame, because The Descendants ultimately has an affecting message about the immutable bonds of family. It would just be better if it wasn't such a one-man show.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Young Adult (2011)

Young Adult (2011)
Dir. Jason Reitman

3 out of 5

Charlize Theron gives a jolting performance in the pitch-black comedy Young Adult as a profoundly unhappy ghostwriter for a popular book series revolving around the romantic entanglements of precociously glib high schoolers. She's good at her job, the movie suggests, because the self-absorbed characters she creates aren't too far removed from the capricious prom queen she once was - and still is, inside her mind. When an old flame (Patrick Wilson) from Theron's small Minnesota hometown sends her a picture of his newborn child, it throws her life of arrested adolescence into stark relief. Not that this is particularly discouraging to Theron. Instead, it convinces her that she can and must relive her high school glory days by prying Wilson away from his grown-up existence as a devoted husband and father.

That mordant plot capsule is about the only thing Young Adult has in common with anything else by writer Diablo Cody or, come to think of it, any other film by director Jason Reitman. This is their Big Bummer movie, full of writerly miserabilia and moral confusion that second-guesses misplaced nostalgia and our ruthless cultural preference for youth. That this is done with minimal ironic detachment is all the more impressive. Cody's usual linguistic acrobatics disappear when she has to put her words in the mouths of adults, aside from the too-cute device of having Theron translate her gradual meltdown into fodder for the final installment of her soapy teen novel series. For a duo that did their darndest to make teen pregnancy seem kind of cool in Juno (a few years before MTV did the same) it's quite the daring turnaround.

It's hard for me to describe, then, why Young Adult doesn't feel as affecting as it should. Part of it has to do with events near the end that strain credulity and clash with the movie's otherwise nonjudgmental tone. However, it would be difficult to completely spoil the patiently-crafted relationship between Theron and fellow slacker Patton Oswalt (it should be said that nobody does schlubby misery as well as Oswalt). They are both pretty interesting people, as it turns out, and possess talents that are overshadowed by their all-encompassing bitterness. Despite their fantastic performances, that sour taste never really goes away. It makes for an refreshingly acerbic film but comes at the expense of dulling the rest of the senses.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Follow Ambler Amblog on Twitter

I've finally taken the plunge and joined the masses of twits and twats typing ten trillion truncated trickles of textual tedium on Twitter. Please follow my official twittery, @AmblerAmblog, for timely links to my reviews and articles. You can expect the usual menu of URLs and droll one-liners that accompany my Facebook updates, but I'll try my best to include a few more sweet nothings for those of you rubbing me up with your smartphones (aw yeah).

In fact, the creative juices are already flowing as I can introduce you to the hashtag #ScreeningParty. I'll use this tag on tweets when I'm making advance plans to see a film, so those of you who would like to join/stalk me as your schedule permits can message or tweet me back for more details. This could be a bad idea, or a terrible one. I can't wait to find out.

You can follow the Amblog on Twitter right now - just click the handy button at the top of the right sidebar. It's tweetin' time!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Dir. Lynne Ramsay

4 out of 5

A dowdy Tilda Swinton steps out of her dinky cottage home near the beginning of We Need to Talk About Kevin, only to find her entire porch streaked with rivers of bright red paint. It's the mark of a pariah, and we quickly learn - by way of a brief visit to the local penitentiary - that Swinton's bad seed of a son (Ezra Miller) has committed unspeakable sins that are now visiting themselves on the mother. To outsiders, Miller's crimes are isolated tragedies, a marginal evil that irrevocably changed their lives in the course of one terrible day. What director Lynne Ramsay daringly asks us to imagine, however, is what it would be like to live with and work against that sort of evil for sixteen years. Might we have a little sympathy for the devil?

Quickly jumping backwards in time, Kevin shows us a carefree Swinton and her paramour, John C. Reilly, taking a plunge into domestic life as the result of an unplanned pregnancy. For vague reasons it's Swinton, formerly a globetrotting writer, who ends up as the stay-at-home parent. The job that fills her with more than a little ambivalence. It doesn't help that little Kevin returns the favor from infancy all the way to adolescence, putting on a sweet face for his permissive dad while secretly terrorizing mom with behavior that grows ever more malicious. More than anything, it's Swinton's nuanced performance that keeps the film's dark fantasy grounded just enough for it to have a horrifying plausibility. It's the most thankless role of the moviegoing year. Though we may be titillated by the prospect of what nefarious deed the boy will do next, she must somehow try to love such a child while hiding her disgust and disenchantment.

Of course, we already know that things will not end gracefully for this family - if the film's disjointed narrative doesn't tip you off, Ramsay is right there with blunt visual symbolism and constant foreshadowing. Swinton aside, several of the characters are written with an annoying obliviousness that nudges them into Lifetime territory, inured to a narrative that might as well be bathed in blood. But that's all secondary to the extreme - some would say honest - portrayal of a mother-son relationship gone sour for reasons that defy simple explanation. Is Miller simply a sociopath, or could Swinton have saved him by being a better parent? Ramsay doesn't give us an easy answer to this question, and the result is movie that masterfully combines pulpy melodrama with ravenous psychological horror, relentlessly asking us to absorb a parent's guilt whether or not we think she has earned that privilege.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jump Cuts: Citizen Ruth, You Again, Beginners

Full reviews aren't right for all films - movies that seem past the point of timely comment, movies I can't find an interesting angle on, or movies I just don't feel like explicating. Some films are better off with bite-size opinionating. Let's call them "Jump Cuts."

Citizen Ruth
Dir. Alexander Payne

3.5 out of 5

Before applying his deft touch and dry wit to harrowing yarns about student body elections and Santa Ynez wine tours, Alexander Payne honed his approach on a suitably lightweight topic: abortion. Citizen Ruth's effectiveness as an ensemble satire rests predominately on the fiercely unglamorous shoulders of Laura Dern as the indigent, paint-huffing expectant mother who is used as a political football for competing pro-life and pro-choice groups. Her boorish honesty and lack of self-awareness - as well as spot-on supporting work from the likes of Kurtwood Smith and Swoozie Kurtz - help offset what is otherwise very depressing subject matter (a late appearance by Burt Reynolds amounts to little more than a glorified cameo). In fact, Dern is so convincing as a wastrel that her character's third act machinations feel somewhat unbelievable, but it can't distract from Payne's impish glee in lampooning the polemic politics that turn spectators into participants and individuals into unwitting symbols.

You Again (2010)
Dir. Andy Fickman

1.5 out of 5

Psychoanalysis is bunk. All your subconscious motivations and enduring mental hang-ups are forged in the fiery crucible of high school, dictating your destiny until the day you die. I know this because the movies told me - movies like You Again, in which a former wallflower (Kristen Bell) is shocked to discover that her brother is engaged to the tyrannical queen bee (Odette Yustman) of her teenage years. In many ways this film is like the season finale of a long-running sitcom - the action is brisk, the slapstick is broad, and (non-spoiler alert) it all ends with a wedding that looked to be in jeopardy. Overall, You Again gives the audience very little to think about that isn't spelled out with insipid gags or ham-fisted morals, so I'll try and provide a few discussion questions: Is there a scene that Betty White can't steal? What, exactly, are the subtle differences that make Sigourney Weaver an expert scenery-chewer and Jamie Lee Curtis an insufferable ham? Why did Yustman borrow Daniel Day-Lewis' body from Gangs of New York? And is that you, Carl Winslow?

Beginners (2011)
Dir. Mike Mills

4 out of 5

Though his character's death hangs over the entirety of Beginners, Christopher Plummer is an indispensable source of warmth as a perfectly jocular septuagenarian who reveals to his son, glum graphic designer Ewan McGregor, that he is gay and that he has cancer, in that order. He is able to enjoy at least a few years out of the closet before his health begins to falter, an experience (told via numerous flashbacks) that serves as the last piece of fatherly advice digested by McGregor as he begins a whirlwind romance with a French actress (Mélanie Laurent). Undercutting any assumptions of morose pretension with whimsical asides and the cutest Jack Russell terrier this side of The Artist, director Mike Mills spins a saga of despair and hope that cuts to the core of what it takes to care so deeply about another person. And while it might chafe a bit to sit alongside these lonely, lovesick Angelenos as they ride their never-ending romantic carousel, Beginners still has an undeniable optimism that keeps us surmising that, maybe this time, things will finally turn out differently.

Monday, December 12, 2011

New Year's Eve (2011)

New Year's Eve
Dir. Garry Marshall

2 out of 5

A kind of Decameron for rubes,
New Year's Eve is a vapid omnibus full of dubious wisdom and unearned sentiment. It asks us to fully invest ourselves in the lives of nearly two dozen lovelorn New Yorkers, few of them achieving the depth necessary for us to appreciate their individual plight, which spans the importance spectrum from a nurse (Halle Berry) trying to clock out by the end of the second shift to a man (Robert DeNiro) in the same hospital who is dying of cancer. It is the kind of movie that puts great emphasis on the "midnight kiss," a threadbare convention that, at this point, feels like it was invented exclusively to build romantic suspense in movies and television shows. It is the kind of movie that wants us to believe that Zac Efron and Sarah Jessica Parker are siblings, 22-year age gap be damned.

It's difficult to determine which of
New Year's Eve's interlocking stories is the best, and perhaps even harder to identify the worst. The tentative relationship forged by Ashton Kutcher and Lea Michele while trapped in a sitcom plot, I mean elevator, is a tour de force of anti-chemistry. Equally odious is a tale of two pregnant couples who are vying to deliver the first baby of the new year, a title which comes with a $25,000 cash prize. I suppose there have been greater risks taken for 25 grand, but it's unsettling to see prenatal tampering and medical irresponsibility played for big, broad laughs.

Yet even in this repository of recycled bits from other, better romantic comedies, there are some redeeming qualities. The movie benefits from genuinely funny performances by TV veterans like Seth Meyers and Sofia Vergara, people who know a little about how to stand out in an ensemble. And Efron's unconvincing alpha-male bike messenger can't spoil the film's best narrative thread involving his unlikely friendship with Michelle Pfeiffer, a mousy record company drone who quits her job to fulfill a decade's worth of New Year's resolutions in one day. It's a refreshing change of pace from the film's silly twists and general air of desperation, a keen reminder that our couplings need not always be ordained by cosmic prophecy. They're the only pair starting with a clean slate in a movie that insists on celebrating new beginnings with a counter-intuitive reliance on the tried and true.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Sitter (2011)

The Sitter (2011)
Dir. David Gordon Green

2.5 out of 5

The Sitter may be the most apropos title for a Hollywood film in a while. Never straying too far from the confines of a familiar construct, it babysits the audience for 90 minutes until our minds can return to more substantive matters. It doesn't entertain so much as it occupies. At times it attempts to inject the into-the-night genre with a new enthusiasm but always returns to the warm, welcoming bosom of incredulous plotting and ethnic stereotyping. Somewhere, there will always be people comforted by the sight of white suburbanites forming uneasy alliances with streetwise African-Americans as they go off the reservation and onto the unpropitious turf of the inner city.

At least the beginning of Jonah Hill's journey is somewhat unique. He's already a sad sack and a ne'er do well when pressed into duty as an emergency sitter for three children on the outskirts of New York City - an anxious teenage boy (Max Records), a tween fashionista (Landry Bender), and an adopted Salvadorean with a penchant for destruction (Kevin Hernandez). Hill's reasons for dragging his charges into several dangerous situations revolve around scoring drugs for a woman (Ari Graynor) who doesn't much like him but has dangled the possibility of sex if he can make it to a Brooklyn house party with a little bit of nose candy. This storybook romance is threatened, however, when Hill runs afoul of unstable drug dealer Sam Rockwell and must produce a large sum of cash before daybreak. Thus the film allows some room for creativity, since narcotics are typically not affordable for folks working for $10 an hour.

Of course, there's an argument to be made that Hill should be getting paid as a psychiatrist, not a nanny. The kids' emotional boo-boos seem like a constant preoccupation in
The Sitter, which bounces incessantly between its heartwarming and caustically chaotic modes. And while it's nice to see director David Gordon Green rebound from the silly debacle of Your Highness, his style is still too shaggy for all of the film's mismatched parts to hang together. Hill is amusing as an older version of his Superbad character that's less manic and prematurely wise, projecting a familiarity with failure that outstrips his age. But I would trade the movie's excessive schmaltz for more hysteria in a heartbeat - apart from a few inspired comedic setpieces, The Sitter wants to slack off and put us to bed early when we could be having so much more fun.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Shame (2011)

Dir. Steve McQueen

3.5 out of 5

The deleterious effects of addiction make for easy admonitions against poor behavior and poor choices by meth heads and alcoholics, but what about when the drug in question is as elemental (or as banal) as sex? That's the dilemma posed by Steve McQueen in Shame, a message film that's often as emotionally detached as the stoic sex addict (Michael Fassbender) at its center. With a warm smile and an understated sophistication that belies his tendency to masturbate and copulate vigorously in a variety of locations, Fassbender is mesmerizing as an archetype of masculinity gone wrong. His prurient pursuits are upset by an unexpected visit from his bohemian sister (Carey Mulligan), exposing the disturbing nature of his private affairs and sending both of their lives into a desperate tailspin.

McQueen almost has a documentarian's curiosity toward Shame's subject matter, with multiple long takes and static compositions lending the film a fascinating fly-on-the-wall quality. Shame examines humanity in a fundamental state - not just the understated moments of honesty, but also the stark meanness that accompanies a craving as insatiable as Fassbender's. Doubling as an encompassing portrait of the lonely, Stygian side of New York City, the movie pulls the eye away from the skyscrapers and penthouses towards the gutter, and suggests that the distance isn't as far as you would think. In the movie's best moments man and city intertwine, codependent agents that feed off each other's need for a little bit of action. The takeaway seems to be that some people seek just to prove that they can find.

One thing you won't find a lot of in Shame is sympathy. Mulligan projects some heartbreak as a cipher for the families that struggle with their "difficult" loved ones. Doing everything short of writing her brother an intervention letter, she doesn't define her own desires as much as she tries to deny his. But what, besides the complex chemistry of siblings, motivates the pernicious push-and-pull in this odd coupling? It's hard to say. But to know Fassbender is to be riveted by him. His bold performance is largely responsible for making Shame a compelling, clinical day-to-day examination of asynchronous emotional and physical needs, even if the bulk of the film's courage rests in the supple montages of Fassbender's unfathomably Dionysian existence.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Artist (2011)

The Artist
Dir. Michel Hazanavicius

4 out of 5

In a holiday movie season packed with nostalgic appeals to cinematic days gone by, The Artist stands out as a particularly dedicated pastiche: a story about the rapid decline of silent movies told sans dialogue. It rolls back movie technology to circa 1927 - before widescreen, before color, before sound - and yet feels like a fresh and immediately familiar expression of Hollywood's constant death-rebirth cycle. Borrowing liberally from classics like Singin' in the Rain and A Star is Born, director Michel Hazanavicius charts the opposing trajectories of matinee idol Jean Dujardin, who refuses to accept how "talkies" have revolutionized his profession, and spunky starlet Berenice Bejo, who rapidly ascends from background hoofer in one of Dujardin's silent films to the new leading lady of the sound age.

As with any successful homage, Hazanavicius must delicately balance historical fidelity with more modern (i.e. darker) methods of storytelling. Dujardin and Bejo make a dashing pair throughout the five flirtatious years that follow their initial meeting at a lavish movie premiere, even as it comes at a great cost in the long, slow decline of Dujardin's acting career and the strain on his already shaky marriage. The depths of his despair are unexpected in a film this glamorous and sentimental. Decades of gritty realism and moral equivocation may have inured audiences to the highs and lows of old-fashioned melodrama, but here is a movie that brings it all back with blow after crushing blow. It would, at least, explain the inordinate number of cute dog reaction shots.

The Artist is by no means a gloomy film - ultimately, it's a crowd-pleaser and an airy confection with plenty of wry humor positioned to undercut the heavier emotional moments. Dujardin and Bejo both have a natural physical charm that easily garners them sympathy without having to say a word (John Goodman also delivers a great supporting performance as a harrumphing studio exec). The film tends to stall whenever Hazanavicius must add a barrage of intertitles to keep the plot moving forward, but Ludovic Bource's zippy Jazz Age score quickly puts things back on track. Though ultimately leaning on a series of contrivances and twists that wouldn't fly in most other films, The Artist endears itself by letting the audience know not to take it too seriously, lest that spoil the fun.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hugo (2011)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

4.5 out of 5

There aren't many family films that provide insight into the nascent French cinema of the 19th century, but then again there aren't many directors with a love of film history as deep as Martin Scorsese's. His new film,
Hugo, tells the story of the titular Parisian orphan (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the rafters of a bustling train station, secretly maintaining its many mechanical clocks with the skills he honed alongside his late father (Jude Law). A tinkerer by nature, he watches with fascination the clockwork precision of the world below him, filled with its many creatures of habit, and is compelled to intervene when something seems awry. Such is the case with the grumpy toy booth proprietor Georges (Ben Kingsley), whose curmudgeonly exterior conceals a deep sadness that is unexpectedly triggered when he finds Butterfield with detailed sketches of a mysterious metal automaton.

Hugo whirrs along like a well-oiled machine as it delves into the backstories of Butterfield and Kingsley, bridged by the latter's goddaughter (Chloe Grace Moretz), an adventuresome girl with a novelist's passion for peeling back the emotional layers of complicated human beings. With tenderness she mediates a halting relationship between the boy forced to grow up quickly and the man who acts as stubborn and selfish as a child. The struggle for sympathy permeates the film, often manifesting in romance. It is Paris, after all, where even the glowering station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) threatening to ship Butterfield to the orphanage has a soft spot for the shopgirl at the flower stand.

First and foremost, however,
Hugo is enamored with the alchemy of cinema. Scorsese has created a gorgeous valentine to the movies and a compelling investigation of the medium's unique ability to visualize dreams. Using the simplest magic tricks, we learn, the early masters replicated scenes previously confined to the imagination. The fact that Hugo is a digitally-shot movie offered in 3D (I saw the non-enhanced version) creates some ironic dissonance in its overall effect. The film's too-conspicuous visual gags are like little cacophonies in an otherwise sweet and elegant chorale of the senses. Like most films, Hugo would not be possible without the technology and the know-how to make it run, but it would also break down without the heart and keen affection that drives even the most meticulous among us.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Muppets (2011)

The Muppets
Dir. James Bobin

3.5 out of 5

Avowed Muppet superfan Jason Segel takes the reigns of the beloved Jim Henson characters in The Muppets, an ingratiating film that nonetheless struggles to surmount the high expectations cultivated by a rapturous promotional campaign and its own interjections of self-importance. Co-writer and producer Segel stars as Gary, a full-grown man who happens to be the brother of Walter, a creature who is Muppet in appearance but human in acculturation. After a lifetime spent idolizing Kermit and the gang, the siblings embark on a Muppet-centric tour of Los Angeles with Segel's under-appreciated sweetheart (Amy Adams) when they learn that greedy oil executive Chris Cooper plans to demolish the troupe's old studio and theater. Segel and Walter then scramble to reunite the Muppets, all long removed from their glory days, in a last-ditch attempt to save their legacy.

One thing that the movie largely manages to avoid is any mention, directly or indirectly, of Henson's legacy. The getting-the-band-back-together structure of the movie's first half never succeeds in showing what makes these characters worth summoning again, and often uses tone-deaf and strangely violent methods to extract the Muppets from their post-showbiz occupations (Fozzie Bear's fate as a seedy casino performer is particularly off-key). The integration of Walter into the cast is also an stumbling block. While he performs his intended function as a symbol for maturation and finding one's place in the world, he also represents Segel's Muppetized ego. Walter is often thrust into the curious role of Muppet savior that, however inadvertently, seems to suggest that Segel has filled the same role in the real world.

The good news is that there are still plenty of reasons to be proud of The Muppets. The movie really hits its stride when the Muppets stage a telethon to raise the money that will fend off Cooper's hostile takeover, a brilliantly-staged homage to the Muppet Show of the late 1970s that harks back to that program's wholesome brand of comedic mayhem. The movie is also successful in blending old Muppet standbys - celebrity cameos, misdirection gags - with some fresh and surprising elements. Of the latter, the original songs by Flight of the Conchords troubadour Bret McKenzie stand out, reaching an apex with the trans-species ballad "Man or Muppet?" Such self-deprecating humor has always been the foundation of the Muppets' appeal, and the filmmakers realize this in the nick of time. After enduring plenty of over-enthusiastic posturing early on, I was beyond delighted when The Muppets was willing to settle for putting a smile on my face.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Dangerous Method (2011)

A Dangerous Method
Dir. David Cronenberg

3.5 out of 5

For a man who
helped shape many of the 20th century's philosophical underpinnings, Carl Jung seems forever destined to stand in the long cultural shadow of Sigmund Freud. Even though Jung's modern contributions to the field of psychoanalysis - among them, the archetype and the collective unconscious - eventually had a sweeping effect on a discipline born of Freud's 19th-century model of Victorian repression, few people discuss individuation with the same zeal and amusement as, say, hidden phallic symbolism. A Dangerous Method shows us, to some extent, the great influence that Jung would have on human psychology. But it also manages to be a sort of validation of Freud's cultural supremacy, with director David Cronenberg mining Jung's private life for intelligent and racy examples of the mind's inevitable willingness to succumb to its darkest and deepest desires.

Portraying Jung during his initial rise to prominence throughout the early 20th century, Michael Fassbender is a model of restraint, maintaining an idyllic psychological institution in the Swiss countryside and an oddly platonic relationship with his pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon). His interest is piqued by a new patient, an unstable Russian heiress (a game Keira Knightley), on whom he employs the then-radical "talking cure," teasing out details of her past in intimate conversation until she gradually admits that her mental issues are being caused by the suppression of her masochistic sexual desires. Faster than you can say "physical therapy," they conduct a torrid affair that inspires Knightley to begin her own psychiatric training and informs the ideas that bring Jung to Freud's attention as a rising young colleague and potential rival for supremacy in the field.

The rhythm of the story is classically Cronenberg. Lurid temptation doesn't merely loom, it waits expectantly for its cue and slides in between intense discussions of psychological import; it's the kind of movie where academic insights are often reinforced by a brief, thorough spanking.
A Dangerous Method gets too obvious at times, particularly in the scenes that feature Viggo Mortensen as Freud, who plays him as a highfalutin, cigar-chomping, dream-interpreting patriarch. It's a portrayal that owes a lot to the fantastical celebrities of Midnight in Paris, especially as Cronenberg positions him as the film's scheming villain. It's heavily implied, for example, that Mortensen sends a debauched, cocaine-addicted colleague (Vincent Cassel) to Fassbender's retreat to convince the stoic psychiatrist to unleash his repressed lust for Knightley. Fassbender keeps the film from veering too far into camp territory, however, with a quiet, smoldering torment that belies the theatricality and lurid sex appeal of the goings-on around him: a deadpan re-affirmation of Jung's hard-won pragmatism being outmatched by Freud's intellectual fireworks show.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

J. Edgar (2011)

J. Edgar (2011)
Dir. Clint Eastwood

3 out of 5

J. Edgar has a novel solution for the predictable arcs and narrative doldrums of the typical biopic: make stuff up! Following the life story of infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) all the way into the swirling vortex of rumors about his alleged homosexuality and transvestism, the film traffics in the kind of salacious gossip that Hoover himself would've relished. And while it's not unusual for director Clint Eastwood to bludgeon audiences with his melodramatic takes on hot-button issues, his collaboration with Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black seems to have given him a sort of feisty vigor that extends all the way to presenting hearsay and intuition as the cold hard truth. All of this is to say that J. Edgar is at least an engrossing, sometimes surprising film, if not a particularly elegant or stylish one.

Of course, J. Edgar also possesses many of the hallmarks of a staid period piece. A frame story presents DiCaprio dictating his memoirs to a rotating cast of assistants, detailing his single-minded opposition to political radicalism as a young lawyer in the Department of Justice to his forming the Bureau of Investigation (the formal predecessor to the FBI) and its agents into modern-day Knights Templar, a new breed of professional and scientific law enforcement to combat the equally new and professional breed of American criminal. All of this is juxtaposed clumsily with Hoover's attempts to consolidate his power in the COINTELPRO era of the 1960s, bugging the hotel rooms of civil rights leaders and sparring with a skeptical Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan). Toss in the aforementioned business of his personal life - mostly concerning his longtime companion and colleague Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, who gets saddled with terrible old man makeup that turns him into the long-lost cousin of Sloth from The Goonies) and his domineering mother (Judi Dench) - and you get a movie that frequently loses any sort of momentum in a jumble of temporal and tonal whiplash.

It's hard for any film to be accused of lacking magnetism when it features a commanding DiCaprio performance, and the hot mess of a narrative allows him to draw from the same free-ranging obsessive reservoir he tapped as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. The problem is that Eastwood, while a competent filmmaker, is no Scorsese. He takes pride in J. Edgar as a broadly imagined Hollywood biopic garnished with a little gayness. It captures all of Hoover's omnipotent lifeforce but none of his subtlety; far too much of the film operates out in the open and on a singular historical level. Better is Eastwood's suggestion, presented near the end of the movie, that Hoover's own mantle of cultish patriotism and paranoia was seized by the last president he served under: Richard Nixon. Now they would have made quite the pair.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (2011)

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (2011)
Dir. Bill Condon

2 out of 5

So...this wasn't supposed to happen. When the attendant informed me that the film I had paid to see,
Immortals, would not be screened due to a projector malfunction, a little improvisation was necessary to salvage my planned double feature. As it turns out, Breaking Dawn is a pretty decent compromise when you are not sure exactly what you want from a movie. Or rather, what you want from a bad movie - it manages to be confusing, exasperating, boring, and batshit crazy over the course of two montage-filled hours.

Breaking Dawn is not for laypeople. Numerous feuds from the previous films in the Twilight series have spilled into this one, distracting from the pure nuptial porn that is the wedding of wan damsel-in-perpetual-distress Kristen Stewart and moony vampire Robert Pattinson. The union has ruffled plenty of feathers, mostly due to Stewart's decision to turn vampire after the honeymoon. (Can you imagine that first Thanksgiving? 'Hi Dad, no turkey for me, I'm an immortal killing machine now!') After they're hitched, Stewart and Pattinson share an awkward lovemaking sesh that they discuss afterward in a manner that makes it seem somehow both revelatory and regrettable; bigger problems emerge when they discover that Stewart is carrying a half-human, half-vampire fetus that will slowly kill her as she brings it to term. Oh, and various factions are convinced that this child is some sort of Antichrist that endangers all human life across the Pacific Northwest.

For such an ambitious mashup of Harlequin romance and hardcore body horror (the birthing sequence is the most disturbing thing I've seen since Human Centipede 2), Breaking Dawn's pace is still pretty torpid, slowly churning its way through numerous personal epiphanies and earnest conversations. These are rather transparent stalling tactics to ensure that there's enough material for Part 2, though it's also entirely possible that Stephanie Meyer's novel contains too much insanity for just one film. Ludicrous and dopey, Twilight's number one priority has always been satiating its ardent fans' appetites for chaste, politically regressive romances with shirtless were-beasts and fleshy, golden-eyed vampires. By going completely off the deep end, however, it pulls off a truly shocking feat - making a loony, excessively complex pro-life fantasy mildly entertaining for the non-initiated.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wide Angle: Sitcoms and Intelligent Design

An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'

Warning: minor spoilers ahead for Community and The Big Bang Theory

If only the strong survive in the Darwinian world of broadcast TV, then NBC’s Community is a delicate protozoa chugging along on little more than hope and mitochondrial proteins. The network’s recent decision to place the show on midseason hiatus is interpreted by many as a prelude to a cancellation. This, of course, has triggered a frenzy among Community’s fervent cult of superfans.

I don’t blame them. In an unprecedented era of television resurrection,1 a pre-emptive strike is the best strategy. Neither do I blame NBC – Community is one of the lowest-rated programs on a network where the bar for success is comparatively low. This is not so surprising when you consider the show’s propensity for massive shifts in its tone, its themes, and its character dynamics not just from season to season, but episode to episode. One week it’s a farcical re-enactment of Goodfellas; the next it’s about refusing to play pool in gym shorts. From a survival standpoint, Community has been foolishly reckless in refusing to adhere to traditional modes of TV storytelling.

For a show to reach the channel-surfing tribes seeking the uncomplicated apotheosis of comedic creation, it’s better to resemble a crowd-pleasing hit like The Big Bang Theory. The formulaic CBS sitcom continues to thrive in its fifth season, sometimes pulling in ratings that are five times better than Community’s. What fascinates me, however, are the foundational similarities between the two programs and how, despite this, they represent two completely opposite philosophies of televisual excellence.

Both Community and Big Bang are what I would call “assimilationist” sitcoms. American television has a long history of programming comedies that satisfy viewer curiosity about different ethnic, racial, and cultural groups. It’s not a straight line from Norman Lear and MTM Productions to, say, The George Lopez Show, but it seems like it’s easier for us to countenance diversity when it’s making us laugh.

The two shows in question here are not about anything so lofty as promoting racial understanding, but they both concern groups of societal misfits struggling to find individual acceptance. The people we are assimilating are no longer of a differing color or creed or national origin. We’ve done that heavy lifting already. Community and especially Big Bang are all about pursuing a new cultural goal: assimilating the geeks.2

At least Big Bang is a show that used to be about geek assimilation, back when it centered on the impractical social and romantic desires of Leonard (Johnny Galecki) who was almost like a single dad in the way he doted on his brilliant, socially awkward roommate Sheldon (Jim Parsons). Today Big Bang is practically the Sheldon Show. Sitcoms are frequently retooled to take advantage of a breakout character’s unexpected appeal, but Sheldon’s mojo is derived from a strange mixture of the audience’s adoration and ridicule.

To wit, here are some recent Sheldon plots from the currently-airing fifth season: Sheldon lacks the guile to execute a successful Halloween prank; Sheldon finds it exasperating to comfort a female colleague (whose sexual propositions are frankly and tactlessly rejected); Sheldon is hysterically afraid of a bird then extremely possessive when he adopts it as his pet. This is the incredible thing about The Big Bang Theory. The less evolutionary potential it has displayed, the more successful it has become.

Community, on the other hand, has a fetish for refusing its cast the privilege of reaching any emotional plateaus or developmental stasis. Where Big Bang is an unending treadmill of interchangeable jokes and behaviors – a gag machine rooted in the precise design of its deity-like creators – Community is a stellar example of punctuated equilibrium in a TV show. The members of the Greendale gang may never fully abandon their identifying strengths and weaknesses, but in two-plus seasons have gradually subsumed them to forge a cohesive social unit in an atmosphere of intense social pressure.

This difference in ideology is most evident in how Community treats its own Sheldon, the aloof, pop culture-obsessed Abed (Danny Pudi). Some critics have suggested that Sheldon is the first TV character to positively portray a person with Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological condition on the autism spectrum. But Abed, while displaying very Sheldon-like behavior at times, would represent a much more well-rounded depiction of the disorder.3 His childlike repudiation of complex social interactions also has a disturbing side; last spring an entire episode was devoted to his prodding the assimilation-skeptic Jeff (Joel McHale) into a deep and meaningful conversation by staging an elaborate re-creation of the film My Dinner with Andre.

It’s important to note that I don’t view these differences as a conflict between “smart” and “dumb” comedy. The more accurate comparison is one of order and disorder. While its creative hook was initially an appeal to assimilationist desires, The Big Bang Theory has always been a fine-tuned universe where as the geeks are, so shall the geeks always be. Community was built for experimentation, finding excitement in the margin for error that accompanies messy human discovery. Leonard will always just roll his eyes at Sheldon, but Jeff and Abed may very well achieve a mutual understanding someday.

The reality of evolution is that some species will inevitably fail, unfit for their environment despite possessing certain special or unique qualities. Community was destined to scrap and struggle and collapse in a euphoric heap. The surprise is not that it may soon be canceled, but that it has lasted this long in the first place. Big Bang instead consolidated its position by refusing to budge from a time-tested, almost innate roadmap for long-term survival.

I don’t think this dichotomy is set in stone, though. Ambitious, risk-taking sitcoms like Community can still be encouraged on network TV. Much like the mammalian ancestor that crawled out of the primordial ooze, the odds are stacked against its success. But it can still succeed, however briefly. It can even survive long enough to flourish - these 50-65 episodes should be enough proof that intelligent design in television is, after all, just a theory.

1 7th Heaven, Jericho, Friday Night Lights, Damages, Medium, Scrubs, and the unkillable monster that is Family Guy, just to name some successes.

2 “Geek,” not “nerd.” Semantics are important to distinguish between willfully eccentric successes/strivers and amusingly contemptible losers/outsiders. Jerry Seinfeld was a geek. George Costanza was a nerd.

3 In this respect, The Big Bang Theory is to Community as The Jeffersons was to The Cosby Show.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Melancholia (2011)

Dir. Lars Von Trier

4 out of 5

The sumptuous tableaux that form the prologue of Melancholia serve as a kind of anti-spoiler warning. Lars Von Trier's last film, Antichrist, had an opening sequence that precipitated the ensuing horror and disgust without really anticipating how far he was willing to go. Here, he leaves even more to the imagination, stringing an awe-inspiring trail of breadcrumbs that are revisited in a more humanistic - even banal - fashion. It's an unexpected emotional apex that belies the close-up examination of depression that comprises the rest of the movie. Half mordant comedy of manners, half apocalyptic drama, Melancholia has almost all the humor, heart, and hopelessness you could want in a caustic valentine to the frailty of feelings.

Kirsten Dunst stars as a restless bride struggling to enjoy her wedding reception on the rambling country estate of older sister Charlotte Gainsbourg in the film's first half; later, the high-strung Gainsbourg freaks out
as an ostensibly harmless planetoid named Melancholia passes perilously close to Earth while a visiting Dunst seems to grow less despondent as Armageddon approaches. (Note to future scientists: do not name harmless planetoids after states of crippling emotional distress.) The two women are chips off the same passive-aggressive block - even if Dunst somehow avoided inheriting the accent of screen parents John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling - but they both have a kind of savvy that eludes Gainsbourg's dismissive husband (Kiefer Sutherland) and Dunst's impotent new spouse (a hilariously cuckolded Alexander Skarsgard). Their bond is a complex potion of pain and camaraderie that allows them to face even certain death together. When Gainsbourg says "Sometimes I hate you so much" to Dunst, it's just an old sibling code that means something like "I need you so much it makes me feel helpless."

The diptych structure favors the wedding portion of the movie, full of color and character in a way that just isn't possible with the ticking doomsday clock of the latter portion. But, boy, does Melancholia end with a bang. The message seems to be that sadness and worry can be beneficial when expressed at the appropriate time and place, but harmful when repressed and internalized for too long. Which is, like, duh, but Von Trier articulates this all with an artistic and sympathetic eye (he reportedly suffers from sporadic bouts of depression) that makes the end of the world feel like poetic justice for the human race's optimistic hubris. Above all, though, Melancholia asserts that there's nothing to fear but loneliness: even if you're going down with the ship, you'll be better off with all hands on deck.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Into the Abyss (2011)

Into the Abyss
Dir. Werner Herzog

4 out of 5

In just the past decade of an amazingly prolific career, Werner Herzog has taken audiences to some of the least accessible places on the planet: the depths of Chauvet Cave, the ice pack of Antarctica, the mindspace of Nicolas Cage. So it's telling when Herzog chooses to title this film Into the Abyss, as it is primarily about the thin line between life and death in a culture that still affirms the value of some lives through the taking of others. Abyss centers on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two Texas men convicted of triple homicide in 2001, the gruesome decrescendo of what was initially nothing more than a botched car theft. One received a life sentence and the other was shipped to Death Row. Predictably, they disagree on most of the particulars of their case, from their roles in the crime to their sentencing.

Though Herzog states his opposition to capital punishment early on, the film is driven by his innate intellectual curiosity rather than a specific political agenda. He approaches the case from all possible angles, interviewing law enforcement officials and the victims' family members, as well as Burkett's addled, incarcerated father and a dissuaded former captain of an infamously productive "death house" in the Texas penal system. Together they compose the two sides of this story - one of simple facts and one of complex truth.

In a way, this reflects the dualistic personality of the film's director (though he never appears onscreen, Herzog has a constant presence as a prodding interrogator). His intimidating Teutonic countenance is quickly undercut by his disarming playfulness time and again, almost to the point of losing focus. Once he spots a loose thread, no matter how unimportant, Herzog just can't help but pull it. But his digressions into topics like a prison chaplain's encounters with wildlife on a golf course or the mysterious pregnancy of Burkett's legal advocate-turned-wife leaven an otherwise bleak and depressing tale. He seems to be pointing at some of the absurdities of living a life condemned by jury or by circumstance and reveling in the little miracles that do arise (such as an ex-con who obliquely knew Perry and Burkett overcoming his illiteracy). These are the times - and there are plenty of them, thank goodness - when Abyss unexpectedly taps the well of humanity adjacent to the ever-present, gaping maw of death.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Jump Cuts: Psycho, The Fog, Dead Ringers

Full reviews aren't right for all films - movies that seem past the point of timely comment, movies I can't find an interesting angle on, movies I just don't feel like explicating. Some are better off with bite-size opinionating. I call them "Jump Cuts." In this edition: my Halloween screenings cup runneth over.

Psycho (1960)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

4 out of 5

Psycho may have lost much of its ability to shock through cultural saturation via clip shows and parodies (not to mention relaxed standards governing movie violence), but Alfred Hitchcock's stab(!) at cheap grindhouse thrills still manages to terrify over 50 years later. This, in spite of the fact that the film devotes a lot of time to the humdrum procedural side of cracking the criminal mind. Yet keeping Anthony Perkins' creepy Norman Bates offscreen is as integral to his spooky mystique as his piercing gaze and his straightforward declarations about the joys of taxidermy. It's a minor miracle that Janet Leigh's ineptitude as a law-breaker doesn't telegraph Hitchcock's true intentions, but she's never meant to be a femme fatale in the classic sense. Psycho is the work of a slumming suspense sophisticate encouraging brand confusion by lending his luscious visual aesthetic to a dime novel story. There's a fastidiousness to this film that trumps its inherently freewheeling, trashy nature, a curious disconnect that somehow makes everything seem more unsettling than it should.

The Fog (1980)

Dir. John Carpenter

2 out of 5

Janet Leigh also pops up in distracting form in The Fog, John Carpenter's maritime ghost story featuring vengeful spirits that float in on eerie luminescent fog to terrorize the small coastal town of Antonio Bay. The film never delivers on the promise of its setup, hampered by glacial pacing despite a running time less than 90 minutes and the ineffective use of a large ensemble featuring Leigh, Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Atkins (whose icky onscreen romance with Curtis is tossed in with casual disregard for the fact that he is twice her age). Their non-interaction enhances the movie's claustrophoic sense of isolation but, on the other hand, also speaks to its general lack of cohesion. Hal Holbrook delivers a wonderfully batty performance as the priest who figures out the fog-monsters' motives, but it's not the best sign when the bar on a slasher's tension level is set early by monologues from elderly authority figures. Sandwiched between two stone-cold classics in the Carpenter canon (Halloween and The Thing), The Fog feels distinctly like a great conductor cracking his knuckles between movements.

Dead Ringers (1988)

Dir. David Cronenberg

3.5 out of 5

Identical twin gynocologists - both played by Jeremy Irons - enjoy playing the old switcheroo in their professional and private lives in Dead Ringers. Based partially on a true story, the film portrays the most twisted of fealties and determines that not much separates loyalty and addiction. Irons is terrific in his dual role, though one is markedly meatier than the other - the meeker of the twins, Beverly, who unwisely continues a romance with a pill-popping actress with a rare reproductive deformity (Genevieve Bujold) that was initiated and quickly discarded by his more confident, sharkish brother. Usually the organic scare-monger, director and co-writer David Cronenberg goes for deeper psychological chills here. Still, the best bits are derived from his trademarks - nightmarish transformations, kinky romance, and the horrors wrought upon the human body by technology (a delusional Irons has an amusingly dispassionate sculptor make him a set of grotesque gynocological tools "for use on mutant women"). Cronenberg doesn't see much value in developing the world around Irons as secondary characters hover offscreen until they are needed to advance his psychosis. But maybe we can just attribute that to the poisonous narcissism inherent in the concept of the doppelgänger. Once you spend too much time with yourself, no one else can possibly compare - and no one else is to blame if things get messy.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Scream 4 (2011)

Scream 4
Dir. Wes Craven

3 out of 5

The state of the American slasher film is not unlike the state of the domestic auto industry - once a vibrant, dependable cash cow, things have taken a turn for the worse as consumer appetites are increasingly stated by overseas imports. Meanwhile, the strategy at home seems to be based on distracting people with pale imitations of past glories or copying the successful templates of foreign competitors. We used to make things in America, dammit. It's no coincidence that the Scream series first emerged as people started to doubt our ability to keep churning out psychos and Chevys at an equal pace. If the original Scream was a fevered attempt to perform triage on the badly hemorrhaging body of domestic horror, then Scream 4 fancies itself fit to give the last rites.

The setup is familiar. Erstwhile victim Neve Campbell returns to Woodsboro, a town where an inordinate number of young people profile as serial killers and even more have met a brutal demise at the hands of various ghost-faced killers over the past 15 years. Her homecoming is predictably spoiled by the return of a knife-wielding ghoul, re-igniting the series' meta-commentary on the shifting "rules" and conventions of the horror genre. Series regulars David Arquette and Courtney Cox are bolstered by a new cast of warm bodies culled from the CW's primetime schedule and headlined by Emma Roberts as Campbell's shy, vulnerable cousin and Hayden Panettiere as her horror-flick-obsessed bestie.

The irony is that, for a film that purports to reclaim and rewrite the history of horror, Scream 4
never strays too far from the wheelhouses of Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Like all Scream movies, it's a cavalcade of gruesome murders leavened by snarky humor in what feels like the world's most macabre game of Clue. There are several details for genre fans to appreciate (a scene where Panettiere rattles off a slew of recent horror remakes is one to savor) but the general shape of the story hasn't changed much. In setting its sights on hackneyed remakes and franchise bloat, Scream acknowledges its own formulaic underpinnings to mock its imitators but never fully realizes its satiric possibilities. Ending in a hurried mismash of media critique (some of it admittedly clever) the movie flees toward a safe middle ground - remakes and reboots can be bad or good, but Scream, like all the enduring franchises, will always be a trend unto itself. The franchise is dead. Long live the franchise.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nostalgia for the Light (2010)

Nostalgia for the Light (2010)
Dir. Patricio Guzmán

2.5 out of 5

The Atacama Desert - one of the driest, most barren places on planet Earth - is an unlikely muse. It's the kind of place loved best by patriots and poets, the kind of people who can see beauty and mystery and metaphor where others only see a unending pile of rocks and dirt. Noted Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán is definitely the former. In
Nostalgia for the Light he travels to the desert to see if he can learn what it has to teach - and reveals its past and present uses as an ideal laboratory for history and science, not to mention oppression and murder.

Juxtaposing the work of astronomers that have flocked to the Atacama (so dry that the night sky is described as "transparent") with the desert's infamy as a dumping ground for Chileans murdered by the Pinochet dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s, Guzman wants to rescue the memories of his beloved home country, even the terrible ones. As with any nation scarred by great atrocity, says a desert historian, there's a tendency towards forgetfulness. The bloody Chile of then seems so far removed from the constitutional Chile of now. How are we to feel anything but heartbreak and pity for the sisters and mothers of the "disappeared" who still search for the remains of their loved ones underneath the salty soil?
More importantly, how are we supposed to care about anything else presented in the film?

The Pinochet killings are
Nostalgia's knockout punch, but Guzmán doesn't time the blow for maximum effect. The attempts to weave history and astronomy with the remnants of Chile's turbulent past are muddled at best. Even the film's subjects comment on its lack of cohesion - from both the astronomers' and the grave hunters' remarks, they seem mostly unaware of each others' efforts. Should they be? The scientists speak excitedly and abstractly about relativity; they are literally monitoring our universe as it expands. The women, conversely, seek closure and are unlikely to find it, except in bone fragments and a few teeth, perhaps. Nostalgia takes a heady mix of complex topics that could probably sustain two separate films and mercilessly trims them to fit Guzmán's grand unifying theory of Chile (and to make time for his long, fetishistic close-ups of moving machinery and dusty skeletons). There is good material on either side of this story, but it's too inelegant to be scientific and too detached to be political. The result is a documentary as dry and impenetrable as the desert itself.