Thursday, February 28, 2013


Stoker (2013)
Dir. Park Chan-Wook

4 out of 5

Life isn't easy for India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a artistic loner whose beloved father dies on her 18th birthday, leaving her all alone with Evie (Nicole Kidman), India's flighty flibbertigibbet of a mother.  Her handsome Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) unexpectedly materializes after the funeral, causing further strain by moving in and getting a little too cozy with Evie - not to mention the mounting evidence that lurking underneath his suave facade is a psychopath and a murderer.  But despite quickly seeing Charlie for what he is, India gradually finds that his presence has unusual effects on her pent-up frustrations and raging hormones, an unsettling transformation that Stoker explores as a sly, stylish cross between an Electra complex-thriller and a Gothic horror film.

Stoker marks the English-language directorial debut of Korean maestro Park Chan-Wook, whose Vengeance Trilogy introduced Western audiences to his penchant for operatic emotions and viscerally disturbing action.  It's also the screenwriting debut of Wentworth Miller, the actor best known for his role as a heavily tattooed inmate on the TV series Prison Break.  His first script navigates confused waters, combining a coming-of-age drama with a vengeance tale.  But it displays an admirable ambition in attempting to stretch a Lolita-lite subtext around the bones of a genre thriller.  Thankfully, Stoker is blessed with a highly talented cast that shapes the material into something resembling a theatrical tragedy.  The Wasikowska-Goode-Kidman trio gives the film an effectively combustible vibe, each serving as a potential fuse to the powder keg that is the Stoker residence.

Though its title suggests a supernatural brand of malevolence, the evil in Stoker comes from a primal, almost instinctual place, amped up by Park and Miller's shared relish for heavy-handed symbolism.  India slipping off her saddle shoes and into a pair of heels is meant to be a sledgehammer blow to her eroding innocence, and her first close encounter with Charlie's dark side literally ends with a furtive scrubdown in the shower (though it also includes a denouement that's bound to raise some eyebrows).  Wasikowska is magnificent in a challenging role that requires her to be impressionable but not exactly vulnerable.  Her co-stars are equally impressive, from Kidman's wine-addled spin on Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest to Goode's blankly beautiful cipher with twice the creepy charisma of Ted Bundy.

Stoker is best when it communicates its twisted story with spellbinding clarity, especially its virtuosic flashbacks to Charlie's past and a wild climax that successfully brings an hour and half of mounting tension to a head.  While Park will probably never top his classic Oldboy in terms of dramatic payoff, Stoker is an entertaining and controversial film in its own right, another devilishly dark fable about how parental figures can warp their progeny in unintended and terrifying ways.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)
Dir. John Moore

1 out of 5

At the risk of overstating the obvious, the main reason the original Die Hard was such a breath of fresh air was because it suggested that a modern-day action hero could be as human as the next guy.  In the hyper-masculine realm of pumped-up ‘80s action films, it was a big deal that John McClane was nervous about flying on a plane, had a strained marriage, and would be caught without footwear just as a gang of terrorist-thieves seized control of an office building.  He was a real person, not a steroidal cartoon.  A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth installment in the once-vital franchise, is the culmination of a 25-year demolition project designed to remove all traces of the original's intricate plotting, witty humor, and relatable characters.  It thoroughly offends its own legacy not just in sullying the Die Hard name in service of a generic, visually exhausting shoot-em-up, but also in the way it proves that poor instincts and even poorer taste have once again become the norm in big-budget action.

Bruce Willis returns as McClane for an extremely out-of-character adventure to Moscow (because all Jersey mooks turn into globetrotters once they become AARP-eligible) to track down his son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who has run afoul of the Russian authorities.  The estranged pair teams up to protect the former tycoon Yuri Komorov (Sebastian Koch), who is in possession of a file implicating a high-ranking politician in a major scandal.  Considering that their adversary blows up an entire courthouse to get to Komorov, this must be some really juicy information.  However, the multiple twists and reversals that follow do little but emphasize the lack of cohesion that pervades the film, from the muddled story to the clunky, seemingly interminable action sequences.

Even non-Die Hard partisans will find plenty of reasons to be disappointed with this Good Day.  Director John Moore unwisely puts all his resources into inventively blowing things up, then removes any sense of danger by turning the McClanes into iron-skinned Supermen capable of surviving anything - gruesome car crashes, multi-story plummets, acute radiation exposure - with nary a scratch.  An over-the-top film deserves an antagonist to match, but Good Day’s idea of an interesting villain is a rat-like lackey whose lame bundle of affectations includes nibbling on a carrot while dancing a little soft-shoe.  At least he’s kind of humorous.  Any Die Hard neophytes are unlikely to realize that McClane was once known for cracking more jokes than skulls with the way Willis agitatedly delivers his flat one-liners, along with the film’s general treatment of any emotional display as a type of infectious disease.

To be fair, Die Hard lost its way once McClane turned from a character into a catchphrase ("Yippie-ki...” once again receives prominent placement).  The idea of an true Everyman hero has been gradually overwhelmed by all the statistical noise suggesting that action sequels need to be bigger, louder, and dumber to keep turning a profit.  Unfortunately, none of that translates into better, even as the franchise resorts to dangling more members of the McClane family over the fire as a way of raising the stakes.  Like most things in A Good Day to Die Hard, it’s just not working.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2013)
Dir. Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov

3 out of 5

Here’s a serious question: could any documentary be improved just by adding Werner Herzog’s mellifluous voiceover?  That notion is put to the test in Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, a project that lacks Herzog’s presence behind the camera - all of the footage was compiled by his Russian co-director, Dmitry Vasyukov, whose unedited footage was collecting dust until Herzog saw it and offered to cut it into a feature - but embodies his irrepressible curiosity about man’s place within the natural world.  

However, despite Herzog’s eye for interesting detail and Teutonic-inflected musings, the film is oddly detached from his personality.  Befitting its title, Happy People is downright cheery about life in one of the harshest natural environments on Earth: a remote fur trapping village smack in the middle of the Siberian permafrost.  It depicts a year in the life of several fur trappers in Bakhta, which is so far off the beaten path that it’s only accessible by helicopter (and also by boat, if you happen to travel during the few months when the river isn’t frozen).  These men are hardy types who matter-of-factly demonstrate the tricks of their trade during year-long preparations for the next winter trapping season.  It’s easy to see what Herzog appreciates in them, one master craftsman finding his determination, skill, and professionalism reflected in others.

That same fastidiousness is what makes Happy People just a bit too passive for general audiences.  It often feels like the work of a distant observer, which is precisely what it is.  Inviting us to sit back and quietly observe the rhythms of life in this small community is not a bad strategy for a novice documentarian, but this is Herzog we’re talking about.  There's little indication that this is the same director who recently dropped a redneck soliloquy on upward mobility into a film about the death penalty; he appears to be coasting here.  Part of that is attributable to working with footage obtained second-hand, but Vasyukov’s images of impossible landscapes - set to a booming Klaus Badelt score - certainly aren’t what is holding the film back.

Happy People simply lacks the level of insight seen in his previous nature docs like Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World - though a trapper trudging up an icy incline being likened to a “prehistoric man from a long-ago Ice Ace” is a victory in the analogy department.  In the end, the film’s most memorable voice belongs not to Herzog but to a middle-aged trapper who speaks of being airlifted into the taiga at the age of 18 and struggling to survive his first winter.  Now he goes about his business - splitting wood, honing skis, setting traps - with a quiet satisfaction.  He describes these routines as a perfect state of contentment, of “the sense of a job being done,” one of the few indications of that elusive happiness (some of the subjects, like the native Ket people stuck in cycles of poverty, neglect, and alcoholism, lend a bitter irony to the film’s title).  The people of Bakhta lead lives that are light in superficial comforts yet complex in terms of what’s necessary for survival.  They are lives of clear, if simple, purpose.  It’s not exactly a subject that begs for the Herzogian philosophical treatment - something it feels like he gradually realized while looking at Vasykuov’s impartial portrait of the land and its inhabitants, and eventually deciding to let that speak for itself.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Jump Cuts: Unsung 2012 Oscar Nominees

With the Oscars just a week away, the awards narrative is focused squarely on the expertly-crafted big-budget Hollywood fare that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to applaud exclusively  (give or take a Beasts of the Southern Wild).  For most smaller films, though, the nomination is the award.  Each of the three films below has a slim chance of going home with a statuette next Sunday:  one's technically a shoe-in for at least one award, but faces stiff competition in some high-profile categories.

However, simply being in the conversation can raise a film's overall profile - one of the few bright spots in a seemingly interminable entertainment awards cycle often dominated by repetition and foregone conclusions.  Want to be pleasantly surprised?  Skip the ceremony, and watch one of the these movies instead.

Yes, prickly Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s Amour is a fiercely unsentimental film, depicting an elderly couple in declining health and reminding us of the crushing certainty of death in its opening scene.  Yes, it is often cruel, stealing the dignity of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) as a series of complications paralyzes half her body, forcing her husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to become an around-the-clock caretaker despite his own physical limitations.  Yes, it is upsetting - particularly to anyone who has served as an impotent witness to a loved one’s final corporeal moments.  (It feels bitterly ironic to note that many consider Amour to be Haneke's most "accessible" film to date - including the Academy, which handed it a staggering total of five Oscar nominations.)

However, Amour is also unfailingly romantic in a way that most films rarely consider.  For Anne and Georges, love really does mean never having to say you’re sorry: Georges knows to expect nothing but pain while seeing his lover slowly slip away, but he dutifully accepts Anne's ultimatum that she receive all of her care at home rather than a hospital or nursing facility.  Amour also succeeds in showing how building a strong foundation of trust and understanding means the most at the end, when the choices truly are a matter of life and death.  One of Anne’s former piano students sums up the typical cinematic attitude toward this topic when he refers to his visit as “a beautiful and sad moment,” providing him a wistful snapshot of a sick - but still lucid - mentor.  Amour’s triumph is that it goes far, far beyond that pleasant-sounding moment, with Haneke yanking the curtain of privacy away to peer past affinity and into raw, unfiltered intimacy.

Australian writer-director Ben Lewin's The Sessions resides on a completely different wavelength: a sweet and surprisingly humorous tale of poet and social activist Mark O’Brien (a superb John Hawkes) and his quest to lose his virginity at the age of 38.  Complicating matters is the fact that O’Brien is paralyzed from the waist down and spends the majority of his days in an iron lung.  An exploration of his options leads him to “sex surrogate” Cheryl Cohen-Greene (a very naked, Oscar-nominated Helen Hunt), a type of therapist who helps clients with unique physical or psychological barriers to intimacy to discover their sexuality.  

The Sessions tries to take a variety of stances towards sex, ranging from frank to raunchy, but ultimately it is O’Brien's innocence that defines the film's texture.  The innate goodness of Hawkes’ character keeps the racy subject matter grounded in goofy one-liners and tender poetic sentiments - culled from the writings of the real-life O’Brien, whose article on his sexual awakening also inspired Lewin’s script.  Despite bouts of middlebrow fluffiness and a tendency to cocoon itself in the touchy-feely, hyper-considerate trappings of its Berkeley setting, The Sessions proves that even a gentle, nearly conflict-free experience can still get a little frisky.

In 1973, a U.S.-backed military coup installed General Augusto Pinochet as the ruler of Chile, launching a dictatorship that endured for almost two decades through the intimidation, torture, and murder of thousands of political dissidents.  By 1988, Pinochet was facing a second referendum to extend his rule (the first, in 1980, was marred by electoral fraud and corruption), with no easy end in sight.  Best Foreign Language Film nominee No masterfully dramatizes the circumstances of the effort to force Pinochet's ouster, starring a magnificent Gael García Bernal as a hip ad executive tapped to create a series of political TV ads convincing Chileans to vote against another 8 years of the military junta.  

Director Pablo Larrín's decision to shoot with grainy videotape stock adds an extra layer of you-are-there immediacy (particularly during the film's harrowing riot scene) but in many cases the low-fi docu-drama look is probably more of a distraction than he intended.  That doesn't matter much when No's drama is so clear and compelling, and when the strategy of the "No" campaign - eschewing academic seriousness with populist emotional appeal and wry humor - dovetails nicely with the film's unexpectedly friendly and inviting tone.  Bernal's struggle to protect his family and keep his activities secret from his boss, a high-level Pinochet supporter, adds a serviceable thriller element; however, at its core No is a classic David-and-Goliath story that filters historical events through the commercial language of advertising - new replacing old, hope and optimism overcoming fear and retrenchment - to inspiring effect.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies (2013)
Dir. Jonathan Levine

2.5 out of 5

Adolescent love easily lends itself to cinematic metaphor, particularly in the everything-is-supernatural era where studios are scrambling to identify the next Twilight (why hello there, Beautiful Creatures).  In this climate, the zombie romance Warm Bodies seems like a weird little orphan, a refreshingly light spin on the genre that’s still painfully aware of its own commercial savvy.  There's a juicy kernel of satire in a lovesick zombie known only as R. (Nicholas Hoult), who consumes the brain of a young man (Dave Franco) and is suddenly overcome with amorous feelings for his victim’s former girlfriend, Julie (Teresa Palmer).  He whisks her away to safety in the abandoned jetliner he calls home and attempts to articulate his romantic interest.  Just like any couple taking their first awkward steps together, R. and Julie try their best to find common ground.  She’s impressed by his record collection and wonders why a zombie would spend time collecting such artifacts, to which R. grunts, "Sound...better.”  Who knew the undead were such audiophiles?

It’s not hard to see the humor in positioning a brain-dead follower as the quintessential puppy lover.  And for a little while, director Jonathan Levine (50/50) is able to sustain the film’s promise as a daffy send-up of teen romances and an enjoyable romantic comedy in its own right.  R.’s instantaneous devotion and totally compliant attitude are funniest when bouncing off other performers with comic chops, like Rob Corddry as R.’s zombie bro and Analeigh Tipton (Damsels in Distress) as Julia’s BFF.  Lest we forget that this is also a monster movie, Warm Bodies injects danger into the plot via the “Boneys,” a skeletal sub-race of aggressive zombies that pursues R. and Julia all the way to the human survivors’ walled stronghold in the center of an unnamed post-apocalyptic city.  This only compounds the stress of Julie’s father (John Malkovich), the leader of the human resistance.  He’s not the only dad ever to disapprove of the mumbling, shuffling slacker brought home by his daughter, but he’s probably the first to immediately insist upon shooting the young man in the head.

Despite its intermittent cleverness, Warm Bodies feels like a missed opportunity.  Levine, who also scripted, struggles to spice up the story's obvious Romeo and Juliet through-line - take a second look at those character names.  He also fails to elaborate a satisfying mythology for the horror/sci-fi elements, undermining the film’s central conceit.  In his voiceover narration, R. admits that he can’t explain the origins of either the “normal” zombies or the Boneys, and they all seem able to go for days without any sustenance.  Furthermore, the humans appear to live in relative comfort incongruous with their situation, with unlimited access to electricity and running water.  (I guess utilities workers were spared the plague.)  All of this means that the key conflict of the second half - changes in the physiology of the zombie community, sparked by R.’s unlikely infatuation - registers as contrived and overly simplistic without the proper background information.  Warm Bodies is a pleasant enough diversion for audiences who will appreciate poking a little fun at rom-com and zombie movie tropes, but much like its protagonist, it’s constantly in need of some more brains.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Side Effects

Side Effects (2013)
Dir. Steven Soderbergh

3.5 out of 5

There’s a moment in Side Effects that almost feels like a betrayal, as if director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns are happily embracing conventionality after flouting it so openly in their previous collaborations: Emily (Rooney Mara), a melancholy young woman struggling with a resurgence of her depression after her husband (Channing Tatum) is released from jail, suffers unforeseen consequences from a new antidepressant pushed by her psychiatrist (Jude Law) as the camera conspicuously zooms in on the pernicious bottle of pills.  However, it’s merely a red herring, a prelude to the ethical miasma that Law’s Dr. Jonathan Banks must confront when it comes time to assign blame for the chemical misfirings of Emily’s brain.  It’s not exactly a subtle feint, but then Side Effects is not a subtle film.  Frank about mental illness one minute, then frankly ludicrous the next, it’s a tonal rollercoaster that maintains an almost perverse watchability with its crazy twists and turns.

Side Effects is Soderbergh’s theatrical swan song (his Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, bows on HBO later this spring), and that’s more than a bit disappointing.  His recent string of moodily effective genre thrillers was a particularly interesting detour in a career full of them.  It's a great testament to his skill as a director; all the instincts on display in sex, lies, and videotape - voyeuristic camera placement, powerful close-ups, punky disregard for narrative convention - resurface here.  The performances are top-notch as well, from Tatum's casually hurtful white-collar criminal to Mara's lost lamb to Law's increasingly deluded practitioner.  Along with Catherine Zeta-Jones as one of Banks' psychiatric colleagues, it's a small, talented ensemble that works hard to sell some of the film's more questionable elements.

But though a master stylist like Soderbergh can elevate iffy material - remember what he made of the career ennui of assorted hunks and lawwwwbreakers in Magic Mikehe can’t completely salvage it.  As Burns' script sinks further and further into histrionic melodrama, it becomes every bit as campy as its the anti-drug PSA it was threatening to be.  That's not entirely a bad thing.  Side Effects works as an entertaining, elaborately-plotted (if often problematic) slice of paranoia, even if it's not the most accurate representation of, well, anything.  (You should definitely check any complaints about the psychological disorders in Silver Linings Playbook at the door if you hope to enjoy this one.)  Ironic for a movie that relies on the de-stigmatization of mental illness and psychiatric treatments to provide its subject matter, Side Effects is - to borrow outdated terminology - certifiably insane, and proud of it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Catch-Up: Links While You Wait

The late winter dumping ground is filled with the desiccated corpses of many a delayed/flawed theatrical release.  Though I’ve managed to get out and review a few new films, curling up with a good DVD tends to be a better option this time of year.  But that doesn’t mean our Internet fun has to stop.  Here’s what I’ve been up to recently in non-Amblog related venues:

- The short film nominees for Academy Awards are criminally underseen, despite improved efforts in recent years to release them publicly in back-to-back, arthouse-friendly programs.  My Screen Invasion piece, Oscar Nominated Short Films: Predicting the Winners, should help you get a handle on some of the trickier categories in your Oscar pool...and hopefully inspire you to seek out the films!

- Screen Invasion also sends me DVD screeners to review from time to time.  Checking the mailbox has never been so scintillating.  My latest reviews for the inspiring Lithuanian basketball documentary The Other Dream Team and the Tyler Perry-as-tough-cop thriller Alex Cross are online now.  I liked one of them much more than the other...

- Attending the Stanley Kubrick exhibit at LACMA was a pleasantly surreal experience for many reasons, from forgetting that I had seen a similar installation at Paris’ Cinémathèque Française in 2011 to the sighting of noted cinephiles Josh Duhamel and Fergie.  If you’re a film buff in or near Los Angeles, you owe it to yourself to see it: far just dropping a bunch of movie props into a gallery, the curators have perfectly contexualized Kubrick’s work within the traditions of fine art.  (Bonus: Don’t miss the installation that’s just an excuse to put an awesome Hot Wheels track in an art museum...)

- Finally, a reminder to follow me on Twitter (@AmblerAmblog), which is more active now that I’m experimenting with more than just links to reviews.  A recent attempt to live-tweet a viewing of the Fatal Attraction-aping domestic potboiler Obsessed resulted in a half-dozen half-inebriated musings that I’m half-proud of!