Sunday, April 28, 2013


Oblivion (2013)
Dir. Joseph Kosinski

3 out of 5

Earth is a lonely planet in Oblivion, a stark piece of science fiction that imbues a post-apolcalyptic world with a kind of beautiful desolation.  The film follows pilot and mechanic Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) as he ticks off his last days on this ruined world, repairing the armed drones that protect Earth’s precious remaining resources from the vestiges of an invading alien force.  The war went nuclear long ago, forcing the survivors off-planet to colonize one of Saturn’s moons.  Jack - along with his navigator/lover Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) - are part of a handful of humans tasked to sticking around until a string of giant reactors finishes converting the oceans into an energy source that will fuel their escape vessel, an ominous grey tetrahedron that floats in constant orbit overhead.

The last time Joseph Kosinski directed a sci-fi film, the result was Tron: Legacy, his overhyped debut that married gorgeously sleek visuals to a completely nonsensical story in a gambit to pry open the wallets of nostalgic computer nerds everywhere.  (It worked, to the tune of $400 million worldwide.)  Thankfully, Kosinski’s second effort has less of a mercenary feel, attributable to both its origins - Oblivion was first a graphic novel co-written by Kosinski and Arvid Nelson - and its commitment to combining the solitude and disaffection of quirky 1970s sci-fi films with state-of-the-art visuals.  And for a while, it’s the best of both worlds: Oblivion spends an awfully long time for an effects-heavy blockbuster on drawing its simple portrait of a workingman, with Jack embarking in his (unfortunately genitalia-shaped) aircraft to check on damaged drones.  Kosinski takes his time in establishing the particulars of a new type of survival, one wholly dependent on these lifeless orbs with an unblinking red eye that’s an unmistakable homage to 2001’s HAL 9000.

Of course, this cannot last forever.  There are battles to be had and plot twists to uncover, and further description would engender spoilers.  Suffice to say, however, that not all of Oblivion’s secrets are worth guarding so closely.  To his credit, Kosinski uses design as more than just an excuse for cool-looking contraptions and whirlwind firefights, communicating in subtle ways the unsettling and sinister artificiality of Jack and Victoria’s existence (for a post-nuclear world, all the techonlogy sure is shiny and clean).  But after teasing the exploration of several intriguing ideas - the nature of human memory, the ethics of drones - the film settles into a less challenging narrative arc, especially after Jack rescues a crash-landed astronaut (Olga Kurylenko) who looks exactly like a woman in his recurring dreams of a pre-ruined Earth.  The transition to a more visceral experience mirrors the shift in Cruise’s character, from curious Everyman gradually waking up to reality to a generic “chosen one” protagonist who mutates into yet another version of his smarmy flyboy from Top Gun.  But Kosinski has learned a few lessons from Tron, creating in Oblivion a treat for the eyes and ears (thanks to a complementary score by electronic pop artist M83) with more than a few moments of eerie stillness that linger long after its sensory pleasures have faded.     

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Mud (2013)
Dir. Jeff Nichols

3.5 out of 5

Mud, the third film from writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), spins a tale of youngsters in peril that plays like a contemporary update of the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn mythos.  Kids getting into trouble during the summer makes for more compelling cinema than say, the ones going to basketball camp, but it's rare to see a movie like Mud that follows this well-trod path to more realistic, frankly upsetting places.  It helps that the setting - a rural Arkansas backwater where creaky houseboats abut the Mississippi River - is just the type of place where unsupervised rapscallions can quickly get in over their heads.

Two 14-year-olds, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover a boat stranded high atop a tree on a remote islet and start making plans to retrieve it, before they realize that it's already the habitat of a fugitive named Mud.  And since Mud is played by the resurgent Matthew McConaughey, he's many things you'd expect - laid-back, forthcoming, occasionally shirtless - and some that you don't.  Despite his elaborate snake tattoo that winds from shoulder to wrist, this McConaughey is not the reptilian predator of Killer Joe or Magic Mike: he's a romanic, pistol-toting mystic desperate to reunite with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), a woman who only seems to need Mud when she needs rescuing.  

The grandeur of Mud’s quest appeals to the sensitive Ellis, whose perspective turns Mud from a crime thriller into a tender and dramatic coming-of-age tale.  It’s a nimble feint by Nichols (an Arkansas native), as he still manages to pull a palpable sense of danger from the general structure of a junior detectives paperback.  Mud’s ambiguous nature - confirmed by a crusty ex-Marine (Sam Shepard) who lives on a houseboat across the river from Ellis’ family - and history of committing violence against Juniper’s abusive lovers doesn’t seem to bother Ellis, though it does raise red flags for the skeptical Neckbone, who’s learned a thing or two about charismatic posturing from living with his punk rocker/oyster diver uncle Galen (Michael Shannon).

Mud works best when it focuses on Ellis’ painful transition from an idealized concept of love into the adult reality of compromise and heartbreak.  It would be even better if Nichols didn’t feel the need to heavily underline this message at every opportunity, tossing in parallel subplots about the looming divorce of Ells' parents (Deadwood alums Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) and a predictably doomed attempt to woo his older crush (Bonnie Sturdivant).  Mud beats its themes to death through the periodic speechifying of its adult characters, who spell out Life Lessons in big, bold letters - a flaw that's especially conspicuous since most of the film is so wonderfully understated.  However, Nichols is savvy enough to focus on the things that quietly demand our attention, like the hardscrabble beauty of the lower Mississippi and an assured performance from The Tree of Life's Sheridan, evoking a world as rich and alluring and morally complex as the one Twain wrote about.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Simon Killer

Simon Killer (2013)
Dir. Antonio Campos

2.5 out of 5

The basic plot of Simon Killer reads like a variation on something we've seen in the movies many times before: after a nasty breakup, recent college graduate Simon (Brady Corbet) takes a trip to Paris to clear his head.  But even if the title wasn't a dead giveaway, there'd be no mistaking this film for a redemptive romp or a moody travelogue reflecting on love and loss.  Instead, director Antonio Campos creates a bracing study in self-immolation - a nasty, nervy tale that requires an open mind to fully absorb what comes tumbling out of the damaged one on display.  Campos takes the saturnine self-absorption and violent sexuality of American Psycho and buries them even deeper inside a handsome cipher meant to symbolize the failings of modern masculinity.  Yet whereas Mary Harron's classic thriller used blunt satire to indict an entire generation for its bankrupt moral values, Simon Killer takes an obsessive, hyper-granular approach as it observes one man succumbing to his demons and a massive creeping paranoia.

And, boy, does Simon Killer ever creep along slowly.  Simon mopes around the apartment of a family friend, periodically emerging to shuffle around the Louvre or go to the movies.  His halting attempts at socializing lead him to a brothel where he meets Noura (Mati Diop), a prostitute with whom he has an intense, almost immediate connection.  It would be wrong to call their relationship a romance, however.  Despite the culture shock and the language barrier - which actually provides the film with its most powerful scene in Noura's lengthy monologue about her tragic past, a story fatally misinterpreted by Simon - the foreigner sets off to manipulate as many Parisians as possible, starting with the sob story he concocts to shack up with Noura and extending to the extortion of her married clients with secretly filmed videos of their illicit trysts.  

The long, deliberate set-up of his con job is admittedly necessary to achieve the devastation of its inevitable collapse.  But Campos tries the audience's patience with diversions that provide little, if any, shading to Simon's despicable character - a club scene that pointlessly holds on a gyrating Corbet for more than half of LCD Soundsystem’s 8-minute opus "Dance Yrself Clean" is particularly grating.  Simon Killer is at least an excellent showcase for Corbet, who receives script credit along with Campos and his co-star Diop.  He turns in a creepily committed performance, using his scruffy handsomeness and piercing gaze to the same off-kilter effect he achieved in the cult runaway drama Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Still, it's difficult to tell how much of Simon's arrogance and alarming behavior is intended to serve Campos' portrait of an overwhelmingly ugly American, and how much of it is simply the character's solipsism rubbing off on the filmmakers.  The most shocking moment in Simon Killer that has nothing to do with the film's violence, but the offhand way it indicates, near the end, just how much time Simon has spent languishing in the darkest depths of his ego.  Much of the surprise has to do with the muddled and haphazard manner Campos has portrayed the presumably important events in this span; it's disorienting in both good ways and bad.  Simon Killer hunts for something substantive in its investigation of the monster lurking beneath the civilized veneer of a sensitive man, but too often it's as hollow as the callous, unrepentant coward at its core.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Angels' Share

The Angels' Share (2013)
Dir. Ken Loach

4.5 out of 5

There's a parable that's repeated in the excellent social drama-cum-heist movie The Angels' Share, involving a self-professed smuggler repeatedly crossing a border with a donkey.  Years of searches reveal no contraband, baffling the authorities until the criminal, now retired, confesses that the whole time he was smuggling...donkeys.  Likewise, The Angels' Share hides its true nature in plain sight, using a lighthearted caper set in the world of fine Scotch whisky to weave a larger tale of working-class plight and urban poverty in Glasgow, Scotland.  It's the Sideways of kitchen sink realism.

Diminutive scrapper Robbie (newcomer Paul Brannigan) receives his last chance at an honest life when he's assigned to community service instead of prison at the beginning of the film.  It's not his first run-in with the law, but you hope it's his last, given that his girlfriend, Leonie (Siobhan Reilly), is about to give birth to their son.  Robbie vows to turn a new leaf, but finds it difficult to shake his criminal past and the memory of a vicious beating he gave to a middle-class teen while high on cocaine.  Whilst serving his sentence, Robbie meets a new group of friends - jovial rabble-rouser Rhino (William Ruane), spunky kleptomaniac Mo (Jasmin Riggins), and cranky half-wit Albert (Gary Maitland) - who develop a fascination with top-label whisky thanks to a distillery tour organized by their supervisor (John Henshaw).  When they hear that an extremely rare cask of spirits is going up for auction somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, the four misfits hatch a plan to steal some of "the wee dram" right from under the noses of the world's most prominent whisky connoisseurs.

Legendary director Ken Loach - best known for his sympathetic warts-and-all portraits of the British working class - achieves a kind of miracle, crafting a magnificently heartwarming and accessible film that spends a lot of time languishing in grimy despair.  Robbie is less of a plucky underdog than a tragic hero.  Everyone, including Robbie, seems to assume that he is trapped in a perpetual cycle of violence and poverty.  Having a child inspires him with a chance to break that cycle ("You only get one shot at being a wee baby," says stalwart mother Leonie) but Loach and frequent collaborator Paul Laverty don't rely on simple emotional manipulation to generate empathy for these characters, even when the film takes a broad turn in its sillier, more straightforward second half.  Despite their disadvantages, they are not greedy or malicious; they're stealing from the rich to sell to the super-rich, like a bunch of entrepreneurial Robin Hoods who just want their own modest piece of the pie.  An immensely entertaining film, The Angels' Share is also a whimsical and essential argument in favor of social justice - even in the slang of its title, which refers to the daily evaporation of whisky stored in wooden casks - reminding us that everything the haves take for granted could make a big difference in the lives of the have-nots.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Catch-Up: Admission, Gimme the Loot, From Up on Poppy Hill

I try to see - and review - as many movies as I can, but there's only so much time in a day.  Here a few that I've caught up with recently...

Admission (2013)
Dir. Paul Weitz

3 out of 5

Tina Fey and Paul Rudd form an indestructible nucleus of affability in Admission, an eager-to-please dramedy that leans heavily upon the well-established personae of its two stars: the quick-witted career woman and the preternaturally laid-back boy next door.  In this iteration, Fey is a Princeton admissions counselor who’s gradually drawn to Rudd’s charming high school administrator and his slightly awkward star pupil (Nat Wolff), who may or may not be Fey’s biological son.  Admission has a few tricks up its sleeve to elevate its fill-in-the-blank premise, including an acerbic supporting turn from Lily Tomlin as Fey’s feminist mother.  Aggressively low-key direction from Paul Weitz keeps tonal whiplash to a minimum (except in the too-silly scenes dealing with the actual grunt work of Fey’s job), but it makes the film feel half-accomplished; he manages the film’s many subplots like a high school senior padding his résumé with a bunch of barely-attended extracurriculars.  Solid but unspectacular - and a bit frustrating - Admission aims for the middle despite its potential for higher marks.

Gimme the Loot (2013)
Dir. Adam Leon

4 out of 5

For most teenagers, summer vacation theoretically brings the promise of the complete freedom and time necessary to hatch grand plans.  In practice, however, such freedom often feels stifling and cruel due to geographic or financial limitations.  That's the dilemma faced by the two young graffiti artists in Gimme the Loot, an honest, naturalistic slice-of-life movie that observes the social and racial stratification of New York City from the perspective of kids just coming to realize how they've internalized the behaviors the world expects from them.  Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sophia (Tashiana Washington) are small-time hustlers who yearn to make their names in the graffiti world by "bombing" - parlance for graffiti tagging - the giant mechanical apple that rises from the bowels of Citi Field in Queens every time one of the New York Mets hits a home run.  (The characters' obsession with the downtrodden, cash-strapped Mets instead of the ubermensch Yankees is a brilliant metaphor for the film's modest ambitions.)

The profane but loving rapport between Hickson and Washington is unquestionably the film's greatest asset.  Even at a scant 81 minutes, Gimme the Loot gives plenty of time to the type of digressions and idle complaints that spill out of developing minds when the weather's too hot and there's nothing to do.  And ok, maybe Adam Leon's directorial debut doesn't have a terribly developed plot, tossing in obstacles - a flirtatious prep school girl (Zoë Lescaze) who turns on Malcolm in mixed company, a rival graffiti crew, random crooks on the streets - that mostly distract from the goal at hand.  But that's sort of the point.  Despite a late-breaking twist that comes from out of nowhere and nearly spoils the sweetness of their relationship, Malcolm and Sophia perfectly embody the struggle of countless teens - especially those of modest means - who harbor big dreams but ultimately have little hope of achieving them.  There's definitely a melancholic streak to Gimme the Loot, but it's leavened with humor and nails the little life lessons that tend to have their greatest impact when you're focused on something completely different.

From Up on Poppy Hill (2013)
Dir. Goro Miyazaki

3.5 out of 5

Though Japan’s Studio Ghibli is best known for the whimsical, folkloric flights of fancy from its creative patriarch, Hayao Miyazaki, it also specializes in a much rarer breed of film: the animated period piece.  In the tradition of Grave of the Fireflies and the Miyazaki-penned Whisper of the Heart comes From Up on Poppy Hill, an adaptation of a popular manga about teenagers coming of age in early-1960s Yokohama.  16-year-old high school student Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger in the English-dubbed version) helps run her family’s all-female boarding house, waiting for her mother to return from medical school in the United States and raising nautical signal flags each morning in tribute to her deceased father.  At school, she meets the passionate Shun (Anton Yelchin), who is trying to prevent the school board from razing a dilapidated clubhouse that serves as the nerve center of his friends’ intellectual pursuits and social life.  They grow closer as Umi assists Shun in his political battle, but a revelation about their shared heritage briefly throws their lives off-balance and threatens their tentative relationship.

Directed by Miyazaki’s son, Goro, and co-written by Keiko Niwa and Hayao Miyazaki himself, From Up on Poppy Hill has a pretty distinguished pedigree for what amounts to a minor Ghibli effort.  It’s pleasant enough for a low-stakes animated drama, though the film is too quick to alleviate any stress with tidy resolutions that make its conflicts seem quite inconsequential.  The soap opera aspect may be partly intentional - it is a high school romance, after all - but it’s missing the maturity and poise that accompanies the best of Miyazaki's films.  And, apart from one or two timely speeches about the importance of preserving the past, Umi suffers from a curious lack of agency for a Ghibli heroine.  It’s also hampered by some questionable English voice casting - few things are more distracting than the deep-fried Southern drawl of Beau Bridges coming from the mouth of a high-powered Tokyo businessman.  Still, Poppy Hill is expertly animated and reflects Ghibli’s fastidious attention to period detail in the film's environments (posters for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics dot the background of scenes in the city), making up for the shortcomings of its source material with an abundance of beauty.

Friday, April 5, 2013


Trance (2013)
Dir. Danny Boyle

3 out of 5

Movies that take place in the cracked headspace of an unreliable narrator - movies like Trance, a jumpy new thriller from Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle - have an easy time explaining away any confusion or lapses in logic.  Or, rather, they have an easy time avoiding the need to explain anything in plain terms.  So we sit up and take notice when fine art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) introduces himself by addressing the audience directly, describing the ingredients of a successful robbery and how he's trained to prevent such occurrences.  Simon's training kicks in when a professional gang of thieves steals a Goya canvas worth more than $25 million from his London auction house.  But it's not enough:  he's conked on the head by the gang's ringleader, Franck (Vincent Cassel), who makes off with the painting while Simon lies unconscious on the floor.

Here we have the blueprint for a standard heist movie, except that the actual crime takes place within the first 10 minutes.  Trance flips the script by skipping the preparations and examining the fallout among the stick-up crew, whose inside man has duped Franck by giving him a worthless decoy.  When they press the turncoat to reveal the location of the real painting, he cannot remember, because "he" is Simon and "he" is suffering a case of retrograde amnesia caused by Franck's vicious blow.  With his options running out, Simon is forced into hypnotherapy, where it's hoped that an attractive American doctor (Rosario Dawson) can pull the information out of his subconscious.  It doesn't take long for her to discern what's really going on and demand to be included in the scheme, raising the bar of the movie's high-stakes game of deceit and betrayal.

Boyle deserves credit for taking a convoluted narrative that relies on an near-religious acceptance of the effectiveness of hypnosis and molding it into a pulpy, noir-ish confection not unlike this year's Side Effects.  His finest skill is making things seem cooler than they really are, and he's chosen subject matter that's almost too appropriate for the disorienting swirl of his repetitious, cut-and-paste visual style.  "Trance" is not so much a title as a mission statement that Boyle and his entire crew (particularly his editor and his composer) take very seriously.

Unfortunately, the style only compounds Trance's issues as it begins to break down from the strain of its increasingly wild plot twists.  Boyle and screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge make the fatal mistake of expanding the psychodrama beyond the one unspooling in Simon's head, blunting the impact of an otherwise propulsive and well-acted film.  The perpetually-shifting narrative only seems like it's divulging its secrets at a breakneck pace.  The constant "or does he?" revelations start to grate by the third act, which presents a torrent of scenes meant to clarify the central mystery but come across as an exhausting pileup of far-fetched conceits.   Just like any entertaining fib, Trance starts off nimble but becomes leaden with complexity until it can barely support its own weight.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Evil Dead

Evil Dead (2013)
Dir. Fede Alvarez

3.5 out of 5

Getting to the good stuff in Evil Dead is its own mini-exercise in horror tension: the longer the wait, the more the pressure builds.  This approach certainly heightens the intensity of its spectacularly squirm-inducing sequences, but, on the other hand, it also makes everything in between that much more tedious.  At least the film starts with a bang.  In an excellent misdirection, a girl running through the woods is captured by some malevolent-looking hillbillies and tied up in a remote cabin.  However, it's quickly apparent that she's the evil one, possessed by a demon that's cast back into the netherworld via a bit of reverse witchcraft.

Time passes, and five twentysomethings converge on the same secluded cabin to help the youngest, Mia (Jane Levy), kick her drug habit cold turkey.  First-time director Fede Alvarez (who co-scripted with his fellow Uruguayan Rodo Sayagues and an uncredited Diablo Cody) works unnecessarily hard to establish a logical framework, tossing in Mia's absentee brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez), who also thinks it's a good idea to bring his new girlfriend to this impromptu family reunion-cum-intervention.  It's particularly ludicrous in light of what's to come and in respect to Sam Raimi's original trilogy of gonzo bloodbaths - films that started from a place of wry self-awareness and got sillier as they went along.

Alvarez's Evil Dead has the latter in common with those films, at least.  He's able to right the ship once all hell starts breaking loose and the others start believing in Mia's ramblings about a malignant presence invading their hermetic hideaway.  Levy is a magnificent comedienne, whether being tortured by evil spirits summoned from a book of black magic, or in her possessed state as she taunts and infects the rest of the group with her wicked malady.  And seasoned gore-seekers will appreciate the way the film tries to top itself with increasingly wild and ridiculous mutilations, dismemberment, and other extreme acts of violence.

Indeed, there's no question that the film is much better when it dispenses with the pretense of plot and gets down to bloody brass tacks.  It's a lesson that Alvarez could learn from Raimi, who spruced up a stock premise with an inventive visual style and a memorable central star in cult icon Bruce Campbell.  Evil Dead displays brief flashes of that devil-may-care spirit in Mia's demon prankster and in Lou Taylor Pucci's supporting turn as Eric, the stereotypical "brain" whose intellectual convictions are misguided at best and unbelievably stupid at worst.  He's an infuriating but nonetheless hilarious and endearing character who the film thoroughly punishes for his mistakes.  It's all the emotional shading the movie needs, even if Alvarez stubbornly tries to convince us otherwise.  But nobody really wants to see that this Evil Dead has a heart - we just wanna see it get torn to smithereens.