Monday, January 30, 2012

Jump Cuts: The House of the Devil, Hellraiser, The Babe

Full reviews aren't right for all films - particularly ones that seem past the point of timely comment. These films are better off with bite-size opinionating. Let's call them "Jump Cuts."

The House of the Devil (2009)
Dir. Ti West

3.5 out of 5

An immediate sensation in the cultish world of horror aficionados,
The House of the Devil is a canny throwback to the vintage American splatter films of the 1970s and early 1980s, zeroing in on a comely co-ed (Jocelin Donahue) who takes an iffy babysitting job in a remote Victorian home and gets much more than she bargained for. The film hinges on a long, slow build of tension - literally over an hour - until erupting in a ending that's one sustained burst of violent mayhem. Writer/director/editor Ti West creates massive anxiety by constantly teasing the audience's expectations, even turning a goofy interlude set to the Fixx's "One Thing Leads to Another" into a nail-biting experience. And while some of the material comes across as blatant filler, West's technical skill and loving attention to detail are obvious. In this House, the waiting is the hardest - and best - part.

Hellraiser (1987)
Dir. Clive Barker

3.5 out of 5

Can a film be rightly remembered for the wrong reasons? It's a key question to consider in Hellraiser, Clive Barker's examination of sexual desire and dysfunctional human relationships in the context of a horror movie. When a married couple (Andrew Robinson and Clare Higgins) moves into a house previously inhabited by Robinson's brother-in-law (Sean Chapman), it rekindles Higgins' memories of her hedonistic affair with the prior tenant. She discovers that her lover has been transported to a realm of sadomasochistic torture after opening a mysterious puzzle box, and helps him slowly regenerate his body with freshly murdered corpses. Despite
its confounding mythology, the film has a uniquely transgressive vibe thanks in no small part to its disturbing imagery and subject matter. However, audiences have heaped attention on the former, particularly a group of S&M demons called Cenobites - mutilated harvesters of corrupt human souls - with enough appeal to sustain a nine-film Hellraiser franchise. There's no doubt that Barker's vision has been diluted by all the facsimiles, as well as his complicity in the rise of the "torture porn" subgenre. But the astonishing humanity of Hellraiser will always be there, proving that he's not just another sicko.

The Babe (1992)
Dir. Arthur Hiller

2 out of 5

A dubious exercise in fantasy casting, The Babe takes the Colossus of Clout and turns him into the Sultan of Snooze. John Goodman surely fits all the physical requirements to portray baseball legend George Herman "Babe" Ruth, but there's simply not enough of him to fill out the disappointing two-dimensional role. His gift for paternal softness mingled with quickly escalating rage works well when it's nuanced, but The Babe demands that he swing for the fences in every scene. There's an admittedly good arc in Ruth's life story, the archetypical "too much, too soon" athlete who achieves a belated sort of redemption and wins many laurels along the way. Yet the film persists in perpetuating old myths (that Ruth was sold from the Red Sox to the Yankees to cover the Boston owner's losses on Broadway) and portraying half-truths (the Babe calling his shot in the 1932 World Series) in the most turgid way possible. The Babe cuts too many corners to be worthy of its larger-than-life subject; by the end, it's sadly like the man himself, just going through the motions.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Miss Bala (2011)

Miss Bala (2011)
Dir. Gerardo Naranjo

3 out of 5

Pitched somewhere in between exploitation and urgent social commentary, the Mexican crime thriller
Miss Bala builds upon the dispatches from the last half-decade's drug cartel wars to tell a story about collateral damage. As the struggle for control of the lucrative narcotics trade wends its way along the U.S.-Mexico border, a willowy Tijuana beauty (Stephanie Sigman) of modest means dreams of stardom, skipping out on familial obligations to attend an audition for the Miss Baja California pageant. Her youthful idyll is violently interrupted after she witnesses a nightclub massacre by a particularly ruthless drug gang, whose leader (Noe Hernandez) spies an opportunity to use Sigman's striking looks as a shield for increasingly dangerous criminal activity. Loosely based on an incident involving a real Mexican beauty queen, the film dabs an unrelentingly bleak story with generous dollops of pulp.

Whether in the film's explosively swift and brutal firefights or Sigman's unwilling ascent from driver to mule to bait for a prominent police official marked for a cartel hit, writer-director Gerardo Naranjo seems most interested in the surrender of control demanded by the narco-wars. Hernandez makes a big impression with his chilling performance, quietly monstrous and nihilistic. Even in the softest of threats he commands obedience, and Sigman has no choice but to comply. Her character projects a crushing despair that underlines the cruel coincidence of her condition. She painfully realizes that the entire game is rigged and no help is on the way. Every cop in Tijuana appears as corrupt as the one who delivers her to the cartel when she tries to file a report on the nightclub shooting, and results-oriented DEA agents can't tell her apart from the willing accomplices. Sigman allows herself to smile only once, when trying on gowns for the Miss Baja pageant that the cartel fixes in her favor, but it's a sad, pitiful reminder of a dream perverted.

However, the pageant subplot fails to disguise the fact that Sigman's character is essentially just a backstory with an eternally terrified expression. She's a cipher for the filmmaker to re-enact pieces of the media hysteria surrounding the drug wars. Through her we more easily comprehend the terrible, exploitative nature of the cartels, but her story doesn't give much more insight than you might find in a typical newspaper article. There's also too much dead air in a film that's so preoccupied with the sensual and sensational. Naranjo lets scenes drag on in silence and exhausts the audience with attempts to create formal distance, such as blocking his actors deep within the frame and following Sigman with the ubiquitous Darren Aronofsky back-of-the-head tracking shot (as if her character needed to be any more faceless). The combination of grim realism and stylish artifice does work intermittently. The film gets its title from the Spanish slang word for "bullet," and Naranjo displays his impressive action chops in a handful of thrilling sequences.
But while its visceral appeal is impossible to ignore, the movie's style keeps getting in the way of its latent substance. Miss Bala's beauty is, unfortunately, only skin deep.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Grey (2012)

The Grey
Dir. Joe Carnahan

2 out of 5

Liam Neeson reunites with his A-Team director Joe Carnahan for
The Grey, a man-versus-nature survival picture that casts the late-blooming action star as a modern "great white hunter" employed by an Alaskan oil company. Aspiring to a status akin to the visual equivalent of the muscular prose of Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, the film instead reeks of misguided machismo and blandly masculine sentiment more suited to an Under Armour commercial. There's plenty of respect for rugged individuals but precious little regard for the power of the vast, indomitable wilderness, with the two sides portrayed as bitter rivals locked in eternal combat. For the record, I'm putting my money on nature.

Neeson's job is to stand sentinel for oil drillers and ward off attacks from the grey wolves whose ornery insistence on protecting their habitat threatens our endangered pipelines. Animal experts have already been quick to point out the extreme rarity of wolf attacks on humans, but for the purposes of this plot they are aggressive, bloodthirsty behemoths. When a plane crash strands Neeson and a small cadre of oilmen in a remote section of the tundra, they must rely on the hunter's finely-tuned survival skills to escape the wolves' territory and trudge their way back to civilization. Though Neeson slips naturally into a leadership role, his charges unfortunately resemble a generic band of roughnecks destined to become tasty snacks for predators. There's a weird exhibitionist bent in their dwindling numbers, as if Carnahan is unduly obsessed with the many ways people can perish in the Arctic. The lone memorable exception is a bespectacled Dermot Mulroney, who has plenty of rough edges but also shows enough vulnerability to dodge the tough-guy caricature that is the be-all, end-all for so many of his co-stars.

Perhaps most perplexing is the film's tendency to muzzle Neeson, whose spectacular beat-downs are surely the
quid pro quo for projects that force him to discard his actorly mien and rely solely on his hulking screen presence. But balls-out man-on-wolf combat is too visually ridiculous for a film this self-serious, and unfortunately leaves Neeson with little to do besides yell at everyone to keep walking. The Grey is a similarly grim, plodding affair (through some admittedly beautiful Far North scenery) that consistently undercuts whatever literary aspirations it does have with misplaced sarcasm. The recurring motif of a pugilistic poem penned by Neeson's father completes the film's blustery Victorian tone, hoping that we'll confuse stubbornness for virility and braggadocio for heroism, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Contraband (2012)

Contraband (2012)
Dir. Baltasar Kormákur

3 out of 5

There's no better example of fill-in-the-blank filmmaking than the "one last score" movie, where the bar of success is set at the rather modest level of not embarrassing oneself. By that forgiving measuring stick, the action-heist film Contraband is better than decent, a capable little thriller that re-animates an old, worn-out formula with sheer grubby energy. Poetically, the film is also a remake: Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur originated Mark Wahlberg's leading role as a reformed ex-smuggler pressured into one more job in 2008's Reykjavik-Rotterdam. Kormákur's steady hand guides his cast through an Americanized version of the story, which sets a course from New Orleans, where Wahlberg's brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) has run afoul of a Cajun crime lord (Giovanni Ribisi), to Panama City, where Wahlberg's crew hopes to secure millions in counterfeit cash aboard a container ship and pay off all their remaining debts. Sounds straightforward enough, but Kormákur is able to keep the tension high by tossing game-changer after game-changer into the mix, subtly mutating the film's admittedly generic DNA.

Wahlberg is undoubtedly Contraband's weakest link. Lacking a rogue's charisma, he has a face that registers determination as extreme irritation and often comes across as a bully instead of a hero. Yet, as if to remind us that he's the good guy, Wahlberg unfortunately relies on an excessive family-man doofiness that reappears as a frustrating motif throughout the film. Even the unhinged Ribisi gets his own adorable moppet to watch cartoons with when he isn't threatening Wahlberg's children and brutalizing his wife (Kate Beckinsale). Fortunately, the supporting cast provides more than enough ballast to keep the film afloat. Lukas Haas provides welcome comic relief as a semi-clueless accomplice and is appropriately terrified throughout a fierce gunfight at the film's midpoint. Diego Luna also has some fun as a Panamanian gangster who conducts business with a flourish, apparently convincing his men that duct tape makes a better disguise than a ski mask during a robbery. The great and intense Ben Foster also turns up in a role that alters the course of the movie, but his work is much better than his questionable character arc deserves.

You might notice that many of these folks aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer - a priceless and highly recognizable work of art is referred to more than once as "an oily rag." One of these utterances comes from J.K. Simmons, playing a wily ship captain who somehow can't detect the criminal activity occurring right under his nose. The film's dumbest sensibilities come to full fruition in its wildly preposterous ending, but at least Contraband has the good sense to give us a mostly satisfying 100 minutes before that and some halfway legitimate reasons for Wahlberg to turn into superdad instead of calling the cops. Though it never reaches the heights of other, better thrillers, Contraband nonetheless has a grimy appeal that transcends the otherwise mediocre movie at its core.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Red Tails (2012)

Red Tails
Dir. Anthony Hemingway

2.5 out of 5

Upon its release in 2009, I tabbed Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds with the potential to annihilate the repetitious World War II movie paradigm of bland deference and esteem, or at least make it a little more self-aware. What I didn't count on was the stubborn will and blithe disregard of George Lucas. In his long-gestating war film Red Tails, we have the exact tonal opposite of the gleefully anarchic Basterds. Yet its approach is surprisingly similar - a hyper-earnest fantasy of wartime drawing inspiration from a rich genre legacy, if not borrowing elements directly from older, more recognizable films. The key difference, however, is that Red Tails is so achingly sincere in its desire to deliver a well-intentioned, wide-angle drama about war, race, and America that it fails to engage on a personal level with its characters or its audience. Instead, Lucas and company see fit to clumsily arrange men and events and facts in a heavy-handed symbolic tableau. In telling its story of uncommon courage in the skies, Red Tails never stops playing to the rafters.

Though hardly the first to approach the subject of the Tuskegee Airmen - an elite group of African-American aviators, the first such unit in the U.S. military - director Anthony Hemingway's film is the first to give them the full-on blockbuster treatment. It focuses largely on squadron leader Martin "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) and ace pilot Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo), two men with their share of philosophical differences that are neatly summarized by their nicknames. They clash just as easily in matters of combat protocol as they do in their political approach to the army's overt racism. Commanding officers Terence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. are there to stand up to army brass reluctant to give the Tuskegee group a meaningful mission and whip up the troops with inspirational speeches, but neither leaves a terribly specific impression. The film's breathtaking dogfights are all that's left to redeem its stock characters and routine plot. Red Tails is at its most effective when dispelling notions of individual glory bred by years of Top Gun clones, portraying aerial combat as a group undertaking with a razor-thin margin of error. It suggests that the steely determination of second-class citizens with something to prove makes those men better pilots, and feels like it lands mighty close to the truth.

Yet this is not a feeling that Red Tails can sustain over two hours of what is more of a reverent homage to the Tuskegee pioneers than a compelling narrative film. Quite frankly, it is all over the place, haphazardly plotted and reliant on cornball clichés or outright theft - one minor subplot plays like deleted scenes from The Great Escape, as confounding as it is completely unnecessary. The tin-eared dialogue from co-writers John Ridley and Aaron McGruder doesn't help matters, highlighting juvenile preoccupations that bear the fingerprints of Lucas, who personally financed the entire project. The excellent supporting cast, stacked with alums of HBO's The Wire, truly deserves most of the credit for the film's watchability. In all honesty, it's a minor miracle that this 20-year cinematic boondoggle manages to avoid total disaster, even as its dewy-eyed godfather keeps the movie grounded in naivete and never gives it a chance to soar.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Haywire (2012)

Dir. Steven Soderbergh

3.5 out of 5

Former mixed martial arts fighter (and American Gladiator) Gina Carano plays a private security contractor who uses her fists and feet (and thighs) of fury to exact revenge on her betrayers in Haywire, a sleek and straightforward action film from the ever-stylish Steven Soderbergh. After a nearly-botched hostage rescue in Barcelona, Carano's boss (Ewan McGregor) convinces the reluctant agent to take one more job overseas. But when the mission goes awry, Carano must disappear and evade the considerable forces mustered against her, slipping back into the United States and restoring her good name. It's typical off-the-grid intrigue interspersed with fight scenes that aim to mimic a brutal realism not unlike the fisticuffs of the Bourne franchise. Haywire is arguably better at achieving this goal, however - in many respects it's the un-Bourne, refusing to glamorize its violence with jittery editing or a pulse-pounding score. Most of the time it's just two people mercilessly whaling on each other in front of an almost motionless camera.

This is a keenly calculated decision, as Carano is very specifically cast as a blunt instrument first and a thespian second. Doing most - if not all - of her own stunts, she is highly convincing as an icy angel of retribution. Soderbergh goes out of his way to make the rest of film compliment her stark performance, cleverly framing her against the perpetually grey skies of Dublin and the wintry wilderness of upstate New York. It is in the latter location that she encounters civilian Michael Angarano, doing the best he can in a stock role as a bewildered bystander along for the ride. He's partially an audience proxy, as a great chunk of the film is told to him via flashback. But beyond allowing Carano to briefly break from hardass mode and exhibit some mothering tendencies, he lacks a greater purpose in the film. In fact, the supporting cast as a whole is underdeveloped, mostly functioning as a set of human bowling pins for Carano to eventually knock down in expected fashion.

There's a sense that Soderbergh is kind of messing around in
Haywire, trying to prove (for reasons unknown) that he can produce a pleasingly economical action flick. He seems happily beholden to certain conventions of the genre - an epic row between Carano and Michael Fassbender ends up demolishing every single bit of a four-star hotel suite - but at the same time seems a bit bored by them, as the short running time and lack of character depth conceal a much sadder story about a woman obsessively molded into a emotionless human weapon by her paranoid, ex-vet single dad (Bill Paxton). But none of this detracts too much from the film's entertainment value. Haywire is a coolly efficient thriller, if not a terribly complex one, and like Carano it smartly uses the element of surprise to compensate for its lack of brawn. It may not be the biggest or baddest action movie on the block, but woe be to those who underestimate it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Dir. Tomas Alfredson

3.5 out of 5

Watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson's hushed adaptation of the seminal John Le Carré spy novel, feels a lot like eavesdropping on a clandestine conversation spoken partly in code. The exchanges won't sound so labyrinthine to viewers familiar with Le Carré's book, but for the rest of us, there's Gary Oldman. The erstwhile chameleon effortlessly slouches into the rumpled suit and thick spectacles of George Smiley, a British intelligence lifer barely forced into retirement before he is recruited to sniff out a mole amongst the highest echelons of her majesty's spooks. As a spy, Oldman doesn't cut the most impressive profile. He's more like a cop on the beat as he tracks down former colleagues and informants who know the circumstances surrounding the shooting and capture of a British agent (Mark Strong) during a mission secretly designed to function as a Soviet trap. Oldman pursues each thread slowly and methodically, his weary countenance seemingly incapable of registering anything but a neutral pensiveness. His inscrutability turns out to be his greatest weapon. Sometimes it takes a tortoise to catch a hare.

Yet as deliberate as Tinker Tailor aims to be, its non-linear structure and dense plotting make connecting the dots quite challenging. It takes intense focus to decipher exactly what's going on, and even then most mortals (the author included) would benefit from a second viewing. This is a movie that requires you to be your own detective, and is perhaps best viewed with a notebook or maybe even a tape recorder. I don't think the director or the screenwriters are trying to be oblique - that's just the nature of the film. It's a hushed story of secrets and deception that has much in common with Alfredson's meditative vampire drama, Let the Right One In, rationing key information until it's finally delivered in furtive, frigid whispers. (Though the excellent ending montage is a crucial exception.)

That this isn't terminally boring speaks to Alfredson's skill as a visual stylist. His sensibility is (what else?) unassuming, but he's found a story where it fits like a glove. Alfredson immerses the audience in his gloomy vision of the early 1970s, with drab government buildings and cluttered flats creating lonely silhouettes for characters resigned to a lifetime of suspicion and malaise - even at the office Christmas party. The characters meet a similar standard of dowdiness - save for Tom Hardy's roguish agent who is the first to blow the whistle - but this is often even less appealing than it sounds. With so many misshapen intelligence men in dark suits, it's hard to tell who's a real player and who's just there to fill out the police lineup. Tinker Tailor may be too impassive for some tastes, and it's never going to be mistaken as a work of pure entertainment. But as cinematic homework assignments go, this is one that makes for some pretty fascinating research.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Big Year (2011)

The Big Year (2011)
Dir. David Frankel

2.5 out of 5

As the kind of movie made for people complain that Hollywood used to make good movies, gosh darn it, the kind the whole family could enjoy, The Big Year takes no chances in establishing its aura of genial harmlessness. Doughy man-child Jack Black stars as an avid birdwatcher (or “birder” in official parlance) living with his parents when he decides to tackle the “big year” – an annual competition to spot the most species of birds in North America within a calendar year. To win, he must outmaneuver the current record holder, a paisley fedora-wearing asshole played by Owen Wilson, as well as retired businessman and friendly rival Steve Martin. This triumvirate of mellowness is complemented by the competition’s relatively low stakes, which are not much more than the respect of other birders and the thrill of seeing one’s name in print (curiously, the latter is the same honor that once made Martin’s simpleton character in The Jerk beside himself with glee).

Films like this must necessarily exaggerate the popularity and importance of a particular subculture, but this one is almost constantly on the defensive. Family members, co-workers, and the media pick on the birders like schoolyard bullies; the movie returns the favor with ill-conceived comedy punishing the uninitiated for their pitiful lack of ornithological knowledge. At least the film has a spry momentum that keeps the less-than-scintillating narrative in motion, as the characters travel to a variety of verdant and rustic locales from the topical climes of the Gulf Coast to the westernmost outpost of the Aleutian Islands. This nature-oriented footage has a breathtaking scope, successfully showing the appeal of birding for a few brief moments before returning the focus to the half-baked human drama.

There’s a problem when a narrative feature seems like it would be more appealing as a nature documentary. The film unwittingly presents a disconnect between its assertion of the big year as an ennobling, life-altering experience and the reality of its grueling routine of constant travel, dreary motels, and plaintive phone calls to lonely spouses/parents/paramours. It may build character, but that doesn’t seem worth the issues it creates in the main trio’s personal lives. Not that this matters so much. When all is said and done, most people will likely remember the pretty birds and forget the formulaic script. That’s about the worst thing that can be said about The Big Year – a movie as scenic as a picture postcard and only slightly more memorable.

Originally posted to Screen Invasion

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Margaret (2011)

Dir. Kenneth Lonergan

2 out of 5

A epic of sweeping mediocrity, Margaret is the cinematic version of the annoying prankster who pushes every button in the elevator before getting out at the top floor. Despite a promising beginning with Anna Paquin as a jejune New York high school student who inadvertantly causes a fatal bus crash, the film's meandering script follows far too many blind alleys in her struggle to make sense out of a truly senseless tragedy (and I mean "senseless" as in "dumb," as in a cowboy hat plays a critical role in a pedestrian's death). Some of these wanderings I can understand. Margaret was shot in 2006 and shelved until last year due to a lengthy post-production lawsuit that prevented writer-director Kenneth Lonergan from finishing his movie. Hollywood heavyweights like Scott Rudin and Sydney Pollack rushed to Lonergan's aid, and final cut was handled by some guy named Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. With this much creative heat, how could Margaret be anything less than a masterpiece?

Well, there's an old saying about a horse designed by committee. There's also plenty of evidence, however, to suggest that Margaret was quite a homely creature to begin with. Paquin's guilt brushes up against enough adolescent angst to fill multiple movies. She bickers with her insecure mother (J. Smith-Cameron), plays Lolita to her handsome math teacher (a defiantly placid Matt Damon), loses her virginity to the class cad (Kieran Culkin), and on and on. Margaret feels like a entirely different film once the bus crash comes back into play, as Paquin and the victim's best friend (Jeannie Berlin) sue the MTA to fire the driver (Mark Ruffalo). Even at two and a half hours it's clearly too much plot for one movie, a fatal flaw that's extremely evident as seemingly important characters disappear completely and carefully crafted subplots are resolved in jarring bursts of tossed-off dialogue.

To be fair, Lonergan is a skilled writer. He's an emotional polyglot who maintains a high standard of authenticity as he shuttles between the minds of mewling lawyers, brassy old ladies, and sophomoric high school know-it-alls. But a little restraint might have been nice. It's as if Lonergan had three (somewhat clichéd) movies in mind, and decided to make them all. The result is a hot mess with many ideas that probably sounded good on the page (Lonergan casting himself as Paquin's hero-intellectual father; English teacher Matthew Broderick conveniently popping up whenever the film needs a forced literary allusion) but come across as phony and indulgent onscreen. Margaret is genuinely intriguing when it posits our need to grieve as a construct of our underdeveloped consciousness and our rejection of a cruel, random universe. It's just a shame that every other second is dedicated to the patently false notion that Margaret is a great work of art, waiting expectantly for us to pledge our respect and admiration for such a contrived, over-the-top display of shaky judgment and terrible self-editing.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sleeping Beauty (2011)

Sleeping Beauty (2011)
Dir. Julia Leigh

3 out of 5

Despite its erotic inclinations, a clinical numbness permeates Sleeping Beauty, the debut film from Australian writer-director Julia Leigh about a financially insecure college student (Emily Browning) having trouble making ends meet on the meager income from her several part-time jobs. All that changes when she responds to a newspaper ad placed by a mysterious madam (Rachael Blake) who hires out young women as lingerie-clad waitresses for the formal dinner parties of the rich and bizarre. Until long, Browning accepts further assignment as a "sleeping beauty," lying naked and completely sedate in a bedroom where men pay handsomely to do whatever they wish with her, so long as it does not include any method of penetration.

Aside from the general recklessness and desperation that motivates Browning to endure such treatment, Sleeping Beauty is centered on her near-complete absence of identity. She seems to experience life as a series of larks and temporary pleasures, and nearly always subject to the whims of others. Her ambivalence only enhances the shock value of her sleep "sessions" with various grotesques that are the most controversial and memorable parts of the film. If nothing else, Sleeping Beauty is a loaded treatise on masculinity and on men's absurd expectations of women shown at their most extreme. That's interesting enough, but the effect is perhaps queasier than Leigh intends. When Browning eventually shakes her wan disaffection long enough to smuggle a hidden camera into her workplace, it feels like a halfhearted stab at transforming the film into a tale of feminist redemption.

Save for Browning's platonic ideal (Ewan Leslie) who serves as a sort of suicidal Prince Charming, Sleeping Beauty references the rich symbolism of folk storytelling in title only. From the lack of any non-diagetic music to the minimalist script, Leigh establishes an atmosphere of strict asceticism. Her flat, tuneless direction establishes a mood that's occasionally haunting but mostly just soporific. This approach does have its merits - the director builds great anticipation into every one of Browning's encounters, and her character projects a weary vulnerability that makes her behavior understandable, even sympathetic. It's a gloriously sad and knowing performance, as if she's accepted her objectification as the price of personal and professional advancement. But for a film that traffics in such heady ideas, it's all a bit too direct. Though commendable, Sleeping Beauty just never feels as deep as it's meant to be, a dry work of horror with stillborn philosophical aspirations.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Jump Cuts: 1980s Action-Fantasy Edition

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." In this edition: three flights of fancy from the Reagan Era.

Subway (1985)
Dir. Luc Besson

2.5 out of 5

A lonely thief (Christopher Lambert) tries to romance a gangster's trophy wife (Isabelle Adjani) while hiding out in the tunnels of the Paris Metro in
Subway, but the love story quickly becomes a sideshow when Lambert starts to ingratiate himself with the other bizarre denizens of the underground. His quirky odyssey takes him from alienated thug to unlikely concert promoter as he slowly assembles a band of fellow outcasts to play a climactic show for an audience of commuters and gutter punks. Unfortunately for director Luc Besson, the anarchic margins of Subway contain much more interesting material than his moody portrait of young star-crossed lovers. The film gets by with more than a little help from Lambert's friends (post-credit scenes and character introductions don't get much doper than this). That doesn't stop Besson from beating the drum for a relationship that never feels terribly convincing, seemingly overestimating the audience's desire to tolerate Lambert and Adjani's endless brooding.

Conan the Destroyer (1984)
Dir. Richard Fleischer

3 out of 5

A prime example of the narrative bloat imposed on Hollywood sequels, Conan the Destroyer gives Arnold Schwarzenegger's titular barbarian an unwieldy cohort of comrades - itself a lesson in stunt casting gone awry with the presence of Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain - as he pursues a magical jeweled horn prized by a deceptive queen (Sarah Douglas) willing to sacrifice her teenage daughter (Olivia d'Abo) to resurrect a vengeful god. The film attempts to broaden its audience by toning down the brutal violence of the first installment and replacing it with awkward comedy and creepy sexual innuendo - a subplot where the virginal d'Abo attempts to put the moves on an oblivious Schwarzenegger should've been left on the cutting room floor. Nonetheless, plenty of Destroyer is still given over to Conan doing awesome Conan things, resulting in a rating best described as a "hard" PG. It's a film with just enough chutzpah to work despite its many shortcomings and with exotic visuals lustily shot by the legendary Jack Cardiff, there's still a little sorcery in Conan yet.

Repo Man (1984)
Dir. Alex Cox

4 out of 5

With a frank and freaking hilarious script bearing all the marks of a cult classic, Alex Cox's Repo Man stars Emilio Estevez as a down-on-his-luck punk in Los Angeles who finds his niche in the repossession business. The film perfectly captures the gritty, grimy milieu of a stultifying metropolis (all the consumer products have generic labels like "Beer" and "Food - Meat Flavored") even as the story morphs into a sci-fi mystery involving a 1964 Chevy Malibu transporting a dangerous group of extraterrestrials. Nearly every ingredient Cox tosses into his strange brew enhances the formula, especially the livewire relationship between Estevez and his mentor in legalized theft, Harry Dean Stanton, a perpetually on-edge repo man with the rumpled suit of a used car salesman and a personal code that forbids damage to any vehicle but doesn't rule out speedballs. Repo Man doesn't soft-peddle any of its quirks, yet avoids feeling too insufferable thanks to Estevez's earnest performance and an unexpectedly operatic climax assuring us that anyone can eventually find their place in the big, bad, weird world - even if home sometimes feels like it's light years away.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Battle Royale (2000)

Battle Royale
Dir. Kinji Fukasaku

3.5 out of 5

This is what tough love looks like in the dystopian near-future of Battle Royale, a chaotic, brutally violent film with a premise that remains just as controversial as when it was conceived over a decade ago. With juvenile delinquency reaching epidemic levels among Japanese youth - and sky-high unemployment removing any kind of safety valve for directionless teens - the state is forced to enact extreme disciplinary measures. Entire junior high classes are to be periodically transported to an uninhabited island, equipped with a variety of weapons, and encouraged to slaughter their classmates. The last boy or girl standing at the end of three days is the winner of the "game" (all contestants are executed if there's more than one survivor). The prize is freedom. And you thought dodgeball was a cruel lesson in classroom hierarchy.

What makes Battle Royale so notable, however, is not its obvious intent to shock you, but its constant attempts to move you. It's like Lord of the Flies meets John Hughes, deriving much of its gonzo energy from the superheated emotions of teenagers with a conveniently dramatic backdrop for their declarations of undying love and bitter hatred. Adolescence isn't merely a developmental stage in Battle Royale - it's a primal state. Some kids are craven, some are cunning, and only a handful truly have the will to survive. The last group includes the timid Noriko (Aki Maeda) and the sentimental Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara), whose partnership is the main throughline in the film's observation of a volatile group dynamic. Upsetting the process of natural selection are two "transfers," the psychotic Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando) and the dour Kawada (Taro Yamamoto), a past "winner" who seeks revenge against the game's authorities and feels a duty to protect the weaker contestants.

Director Kinji Fukasaku is excellent at constructing tense situations that inevitably explode in a fountain of blood and hormones. More ponderous are recurring flashbacks and dream sequences that attempt to lend meaning to the carnage, but ultimately just muddle the film's message. Battle Royale is not a film that has much claim to gravitas, but that doesn't stop it from trying. Even the nihilistic former teacher-turned-warden played by Takeshi Kitano is dealing with family issues when he's not dispensing perfectly droll safety instructions to the doomed students. That the movie is thwarted from achieving its greater dramatic ambitions by its intrinsic dark humor is something of a blessing. Surely we aren't meant to take this shit seriously - that much is clear from the opening title cards - yet perhaps that misguided insistence on grounding an absurdly violent exploitation film in recognizable angst is what makes Battle Royale a singularly unsettling experience.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Wide Angle: 2011 in Review

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

It's folly to unequivocally declare an entire year a good or bad one for movies - quality doesn't follow the calendar. It's easier than ever to curate your own viewing, making it tempting to perceive a critical mass of depth. On the other hand, the sheer number of releases available to the average person can also give one the feeling of drowning in a sea of dreck. A fruitless scan through the Netflix Streaming library is the new lament of the media-saturated mind, the "100 channels and nothing good on" of the next decade.

But it's helpful and instructive (and more than a little fun) to take stock of everything when a benchmark presents itself. I had a chance to do just that a couple of weeks ago with a top ten list for Screen Invasion. Such exercises can be frustrating because they will never be definitive, with second-guessing virtually guaranteed. It can't be helped. And to be honest, it's a big reason of what makes movies fun. Films are missed only to be discovered later, opinions are reconsidered, and experience interprets a story differently than it would have a year, a month, or even a week before. Doing a year-end survey like this really reminds me why I love the movies, these things than can be so trivial and yet so essential, explaining nothing but meaning everything.

Top Whatever
I don't see a whole lot of sense in numerical rankings or round numbers when talking about great films. So my list of 2011's best begins chronologically with the bizarre fable that was Rango, distinguished by a voice-acting performance from an A-list star (Johnny Depp) who is there to complete the character and not just to fill in space on the poster. The poetic Tree of Life confused and polarized and perfectly matched an uncompromising narrative to a daring method of storytelling. Conversely, Attack the Block was an unquestioned crowd-pleaser and announced itself as an instant genre classic in every frame.

The Interrupters was never easy to watch, but the way it invested a gritty topic with genuine warmth and hope was a stunning achievement. I can still hear the grumbling during the end credits of Drive, a tense and terrific rebuke to the consequence-free world of the typical action movie; similarly, Moneyball focused on a compelling human drama and proved that the best sports movies are not necessarily about sports.

Melancholia and The Skin I Live In were decadent, anxious, and personal movies orchestrated to maximum emotional effect by two great directors, but it doesn't get more personal than Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for cinephiles that also captures pieces from the reality of a lifelong love affair with film. And sneaking in at the end of the year, A Separation belied its unassuming nature with a story and performances that cut to the quick while We Need to Talk About Kevin delivered the goods in every aspect of its lurid premise.

Other Good Stuff
2011 had plenty of films that were a notch or two below greatness but no less memorable, including the moving biography Senna, the inscrutable Into the Abyss, the elegiac War Horse, the hilarious Bridesmaids, and the intimate Another Earth.

50/50 successfully mixed pathos with comedy, as did The Trip. And The Artist, whether trifling or manipulative or unrealistic, was still a superior cinematic confection.

Best Performances
Only Ryan Gosling's taut, mannered work in Drive stands as tall as the Year of Michael Fassbender, whose tortured cycle of restraint and release elevated both Shame and A Dangerous Method. Newcomer Elizabeth Olsen hinted at an ocean of torment underneath a placid exterior as an cult escapee in Martha Marcy May Marlene, while Elena Anaya found a certain strength as another type of captive in The Skin I Live In.

The pairing of Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Melancholia's sniping sisters was all the better for being so unexpectedly natural, likewise Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in Win Win, where a non-professional actor and real-life wrestling champion brought out the best in an Oscar winner. Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) and especially Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) gave great performances as individuals whose worst fears are not taken seriously, while Seth Rogen successfully translated his wisecracking schtick into a heartfelt role as a bulwark for a seriously ill friend in 50/50. And this list could not be complete without John Lithgow, who steals New Year's Eve with the briefest of scenes as a record executive who has to shriek lines like "But it's Grammy season!" in a hot, hammy lather as only he can.

Flawed But Fascinating
Midnight in Paris is an agreeable, lighthearted trip into the past but egregiously dresses up its simplistic themes in a way that makes its audience feel smart without having to do much actual thinking. Bellflower's unique visual style and interesting characters can't fully compensate for the ugliness of its second half, a juvenile and indulgent revenge fantasy that should captivate therapists for years to come.

But neither is anywhere near the piece of work that Sucker Punch is, Zach Snyder's hot mess of a thesis on feminism in pop culture. Somehow believing that he can coherently explore the physical and psychological oppression of women from the exploitative vantage point of a leering fanboy, Snyder's presence is heavily felt in every second of a fascinating disaster with a methodology far too dumb to properly execute an experiment this clever.

Most Unexpected Surprises
Raise your hand if you thought Rise of the Planet of the Apes would even be a watchable action flick, let alone a surprisingly thoughtful portrayal of the relationship between man and beast. The remake of Fright Night was another of 2011's entertaining overachievers, and I suppose Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol belongs here too for making us all forget that Tom Cruise is a bit of a weirdo.

Biggest Disappointments
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's sterling track record was sullied by the inert, only sporadically funny Paul (maybe they should collaborate exclusively with Edgar Wright?). Super 8's nostalgia train derailed spectacularly as it squandered a pitch-perfect first act on two-thirds of a ridiculous monster movie. And don't get me wrong - I liked most of The Muppets, but it took a major second-half rally to make me forget its early tone-deaf humor and abundantly puzzling creative choices.

Just the Worst
I would just as soon forget the painfully unfunny Your Highness and ridiculous character dynamics of Something Borrowed, but I fear that nothing will be able to remove the stain of Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence from my memory. Inexplicably addressing his own (very small) audience with an undue sense of contempt, Tom Six at least makes clear his intentions in extending his ass-to-mouth horror "franchise" - he simply loves forcing people to swallow his shit.

And on that note, here's wishing everyone good health and good movies in 2012! Thanks to everyone for reading, commenting, and sometimes confronting me in person about my reviews. I can't wait to continue the conversation.