Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
Dir. Francis Lawrence

3.5 out of 5

The opening scene of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire effectively hits the reset button, as if to suggest that its predecessor was nothing but a bad dream:  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is back in the hardscrabble environs of her home, bow in hand, hunting illegal game for sustenance.  That illusion is shattered, however, when Katniss imagines one of her targets as a victim from the state-sanctioned deathmatch known as the Hunger Games, which she recently won by threatening to commit suicide with her fellow competitor and sham boyfriend Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).  She can’t shake the trauma, especially when life outside the arena proves just as ruthless as the dystopian bloodsport used to distract and mollify the masses.

Catching Fire benefits from a massive budgetary upgrade to expand the world of Panem, where the elite of the central Capitol exploit the labor and resources of their nation’s impoverished, far-flung districts, none more marginalized than Katniss and Peeta’s District 12.  But their romantic play-acting is interpreted by some as an act of defiance – the audiences on their awkward victory tour seethe with anger towards the government, pushing the country to the brink of rebellion.  Unwilling to make Katniss a martyr, the embattled President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and new game designer – wait for it – Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) devise their masterstroke: put Katniss back in a special edition of the Games, an “all-star” version that pits past winners against each other in an extravaganza that promises to eliminate the people’s idol, and earn boffo ratings.

Under the care of a new director (Francis Lawrence) and new screenwriters (Slumdog Millionaire’s Simon Beaufoy and Little Miss Sunshine’s Michael Arndt), Catching Fire surpasses the original in both narrative stakes and visual panache.  More really is more, especially when it comes to the Games themselves, which now include older, deadlier opponents and a constantly-changing arena that only heightens the players’ sense of hopelessness against the system.  The decadence and moral rot suggested by the first film is bolded and underlined here, a continued skewering of reality TV, manufactured celebrity culture, and audience manipulation.

That being said, there’s still a lot about this world that feels unnecessarily vague.  In confining its social commentary to the most general, shopworn slogans (have you heard the one about the bread and circuses?), Catching Fire foments a revolution in search of a metaphor.  This opening stretch feels longer and less novel than it did the first time around.  The film zips through a handful of convoluted subplots and political machinations that I suspect will take on a greater meaning in the planned sequels.  At the moment, it’s simply killing time before killing time.

Nevertheless, it’s still clear what The Hunger Games has going for it.  The star quality of Lawrence, who cycles through so many emotions from fear to despair to determination without losing the innate decency so fundamental to Katniss.  The visceral impact and suspense of the Games, introducing new wrinkles to quench the audience’s thirst for novelty.  The courage to clothe its grim self-seriousness in outrageous Capitol fashions and memorably silly phraseology like ‘Quarter Quell’ and ‘Jabberjay.’ (And, in case you forgot, ‘Plutarch Heavensbee’!)  Ultimately, Catching Fire follows an effective blueprint for a franchise picture: the basic foundation may be prefab, but it’s more than made up for in distinct and entrancing personal accoutrements.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Catch-Up: Fall 2013

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: four films with strong authorial points of view on civil rights, masculinity, relationships, World.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Dir. Lee Daniels

2.5 out of 5

While “history is biography” no longer flies as a maxim in the academic world, the movies just keep on trying.  Case in point: Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a film that takes its inspiration of the life of an actual long-time White House servant and molds it into a Forrest Gump-esque journey through the African-American experience of the late 20th century.  Part family melodrama, part fabric-of-America saga, The Butler stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, who rises from a traumatic childhood in the sharecropping fields of Georgia to become a domestic worker at the residence of the most powerful person in America.  

The director of Precious and The Paperboy remains uninterested in subtlety, as Cecil eavesdrops on a succession of presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan (played by a variety of stars in supremely distracting cameos, though John Cusack makes a delectable Nixon), while his radicalized son (the underrated David Oyelowo) takes a Zelig-like journey through every crucial moment of the civil rights movement from 1960 to 1985.  It’s an overstuffed, frequently corny history lesson sprinkled with some truly powerful, emotionally affecting sequences.  

That’s just another way of saying it’s unmistakably Daniels, bursting with ambition and passion yet hamstrung by several off-key moments and sloppy filmmaking - his idea of attention to detail is to put a Rubik’s Cube on the desk of a Reagan-era administrator.  The Butler is yet another Daniels film carried by its talented cast, but not even they can hide the movie’s significant flaws.

Dir. Randy Moore

4 out of 5

There's a lot of psychological baggage to unpack in writer-director Randy Moore's Escape from Tomorrow, a nightmarish farce of a family vacation gone awry.  Jim (Roy Abramsohn) is a middle-class dad accompanying his wife and two young children on a trip to the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.  And while Jim is cast in the mold of Clark Griswold from the Vacation films - right down to his futile attempts to salvage no-win situations - he shares none of Griswold's chipper enthusiasm.  Jim's trip is a hallucinatory descent into family man hell, as his long-suppressed id begins to revolt against the stresses of fatherhood and marital fidelity.

For first half of the movie, it feels like Moore is intent on recycling tropes about the "dark side" of the Disney empire.  He revels in depictions of unwholesome behavior at the Happiest Place on Earth: Jim ignores his family to follow two nubile French teenagers around the park, succumbs to a temptress on a park bench, and gets embarrassingly shitfaced on a spin around Epcot Center.  It all builds to a bizarre interlude in an imagined secret bunker underneath the Spaceship Earth attraction, where it's finally made clear that Moore's agenda is much broader than a takedown of corporate conformity.

Moore filmed much of Escape from Tomorrow on Disney property in Orlando and Anaheim without the company's consent (some complex/objectionable scenes are achieved via unconvincing green screen), a fact that has generated praise for the sheer chutzpah of his guerrilla filmmaking style.  It's quite a feat, but it's not inherently impressive until Moore establishes a genuine emotional imperative for his efforts to achieve such realism.  The last twenty minutes of Escape from Tomorrow introduce themes that are both personal (drawing on Moore's memories of spending time with his father at Disney World) and universal (the psychic effect of a break from the "real world").  The location is not at fault; rather, it's the notion of indulging fantasies that distort our perception of reality, creating a disconnect that lingers long after the vacation is over.

Dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt

3.5 out of 5

Few young stars can boast a work ethic as tireless as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the director, writer, and star of Don Jon, a movie equally inspired by the famous Renaissance libertine and the hyper-masculine fitness and laundry enthusiasts of MTV's Jersey Shore.  Packing pounds of muscle onto his cherubic frame, Gordon-Levitt transforms himself into the titular cocky, slick-talking womanizer whose litany of conquests still doesn’t satisfy him as much as his beloved internet porn.  Jon vows to turn a new leaf when he starts dating the stunning Barbara (Scarlett Johannson), but finds his porn habit hard to break, even as his new girlfriend is able to exert a considerable influence on his life in several other ways.

Originally titled Don Jon’s Addiction, the movie’s romantic conceit is really a stalking horse for an exploration of sexual expectations in the digital age.  For someone with a résumé as diverse and idiosyncratic as Gordon-Levitt’s, Don Jon isn’t much of a curveball - this is still a world where female characters exist mainly to trigger the epiphanies of a male protagonist.  But credit JGL for his open-mindedness and sense of humor.  Jon is a man whose life is defined by a routine that starts off as faintly ridiculous (he counts off weightlifting reps by reciting that week's assigned Hail Marys), but it's not until he forms an unlikely bond with night school classmate Esther (a pleasantly warm Julianne Moore) that he recognizes the severity of his emotional disconnect.  It’s a simple message, but one told affably and with conviction and without castigating Jon’s other lifestyle choices - about what you’d expect from a nice, hard-working showbiz kid like Gordon-Levitt.

Dallas Buyers Club
Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée

3.5 out of 5

A frank yet earnest snapshot of the AIDS crisis, Dallas Buyers Club dramatizes the life of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a macho electrician, hustler, and part-time rodeo cowboy who, after contracting HIV at a time that it was still considered a “gay disease,” circumvented FDA regulations to obtain unapproved pharmaceutical treatments for the illness – first for himself, then for a community largely ignored or marginalized by the medical establishment.  Directed by Quebecois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, Dallas Buyers Club repels treacle thanks to its setting – unmistakably Texan, but also indicative of the disease’s nationwide impact – and its mostly unsentimental tone.  The latter is attributable almost entirely to Woodroof, an indomitable and deeply flawed individual played in a bravura performance by a wiry, gaunt McConaughey.  Woodroof doesn’t simply want to survive, he wants to live, and his compelling struggle practically turns the film into a character study.

In fact, it may be preferable to think of Dallas Buyers Club that way instead of as a white heterosexual narrative of the early battles against ignorance and misinformation in the AIDS epidemic.  The movie’s portrayal of the gay community is by no means monolithic – Woodroof eventually partners with a transgender woman named Rayon (Jared Leto) to market his alternative remedies – but it’s stuck playing second fiddle.  There’s also the film’s distinct libertarian streak which, although unique, sets up a number of straw men to be blown away by the colorfully offensive Texan’s bluster.  The enemy is not only Big Pharma, but also doctors – save for one sympathetic physician played by Jennifer Garner – and government regulators loyal to a self-serving system that keeps individuals from seeking their own solutions. 

Still, Dallas Buyers Club triumphs by focusing on the changes in Woodroof.  The disease precipitates a complete personal transformation, a motivation to learn more – about AIDS, about medical research, about the world (he becomes incredibly well-traveled for a guy who starts the movie in a trailer park), and about himself.  Like any good social issue drama, Dallas Buyers Club views controversy as a teachable moment: one that’s equally instructive for its characters and its audience.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Nebraska (2013)
Dir. Alexander Payne

4 out of 5

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) just wants to keep moving forward.  After receiving a sweepstakes letter promising a $1 million prize, he starts trudging from Billings, Montana, to the contest headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, a destination that achieves near-mythic proportions in Nebraska, the latest film from Alexander Payne (The Descendants).  Woody Grant is also in his 80s, so he doesn't get far before a highway trooper spots him on the side of the road and takes him back home.  The man's pitiful quest worries his entire family, but only his youngest son, David (Will Forte), a sad-sack home theater salesman, is willing to brush aside the specter of Woody's senility in order to spend one last time attempting to connect with his dad.  David agrees to drive Woody to Nebraska to collect his prize, an impromptu road trip that transforms a deep dive into the family's past as former denizens of the Cornhusker State.  But as friends and relatives dredge up ancient history, Woody remains insistent on reaching Lincoln - after all, he's got a million bucks coming to him.

Nebraska is a film that takes its sweet time, and thank goodness.  The plot meanders like a country road around the contours of Woody's life, waylaid by old grudges and still-remembered romances.  A sudden injury forces Woody and David to spend a few days in their old hometown among these ghosts.  Their party becomes more formidable with the addition of Kate (June Squibb), Woody's frank and domineering wife, a pistol whose zero tolerance policy regarding bullshit is a refreshing antidote to the typical onscreen portrayal of Midwestern nice.  Her resolve becomes a necessity once word of Woody's windfall gets out, and friends and foe alike come calling with palms extended, claiming that the long-time alcoholic owes them for various instances in which he lost sight of his finances.

A black-and-white photo album of familial dysfunction, Nebraska is another one of Payne's hilariously deadpan odes to a supremely tacky, yet oddly gorgeous, American way of life.  And while Payne sometimes seems to hold this world at arm's length solely to ease the business of laughing at it, the monochromatic imagery and stilted acting of the (surely native, probably non-professional) bit players gives the movie a defiantly unpolished vibe that perfectly fits its celebration of the mundane: the type of movie in which a stolen air compressor transforms into a talisman of family honor.  Meanwhile, Dern's performance is something beautiful, a masterstroke of addled inactivity devoid of any manufactured cuteness.   When a stranger asks if Woody suffers from Alzheimer's, David says no.  "He just believes what people tell him," the son insists, a fitting mantra for a character who's like a hapless knight making one last stand for the honesty of imperfection.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Jump Cuts: Ralph Bakshi Edition

An industrial school graduate who got his start in the animation business at the age of 18 cleaning dust off of painted cels, Ralph Bakshi doesn’t immediately spring to mind when thinking about the cowboy auteurs who birthed the New Hollywood movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.  But within the confines of feature animation, he starts to resemble a Coppola or a Scorsese: a larger-than-life visionary who used his medium to document his own obsessions and hang-ups, and pushed his field in the direction of gritter, more adult storytelling.

Bakshi burst into the public consciousness with 1972’s Fritz the Cat, an X-rated tale of urban-dwelling anthropomorphic animals that established the viability of “cartoons” for mature audiences.  Over time, he began to flirt with mainstream success, perhaps achieving his greatest notoriety by adapting roughly half of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1978.  The failure of 1992’s Brad Pitt-starring Cool World led Bakshi to quit Hollywood, though he still continues to work: earlier this year, he took to Kickstarter to help fund his first new film in more than two decades, The Last Days of Coney Island

In between those points of entry and exit, however, lies much of Bakshi’s most interesting work.  His oeuvre paints the portrait of a quintessential artist, consumed by his passions and the unrelenting tension between the personal fidelity of his work and the need to court commercial interests.  Ultimately, Bakshi’s greatest strength and his Achilles heel were one and the same – whatever the charge, he always crammed as much of himself into a project as possible. 

A wildly grotesque, out-of-control portrait of urban life, Heavy Traffic (1973) could be the most determinedly unpleasant cartoon ever made.  It’s also one of the most personal, and an obvious labor of love for Bakshi – the film he was born to make.  In the film, a Bakshi avatar – a struggling cartoonist named Michael – wanders out of his parents’ house and around New York City, seeking money, companionship, and sex, not necessarily in that order.  In this gritty, decaying landscape full of freaks and lowlifes, he hooks up with Carole, an African-American bartender whose race and demeanor upsets Michael’s bigoted father, a low-level Mafioso, who plots to murder his son and preserve his twisted sense of family honor.

Much like Fritz the Cat, the X-rating of Heavy Traffic is like a badge of honor.  Its cavalier depiction of violence is unsetting, with acrobatic fistfights like something out of Looney Tunes, only queasier.  One particular scene sends a self-loathing transvestite caroming around a bar; in another, a naked women is shoved off a rooftop, the “punchline” being that she’s saved by a tangle of electrical wires.  The movie’s, ahem, complex relationship with good taste also extends to sex, but it’s more focused on the frustration of the virginal Michael and his inability to get laid.  Not that Heavy Traffic condones the behavior it depicts – in the end, it’s a metaphorical fantasy of city living, massive warts and all – and an exercise in pure id.  As Bakshi and his crew thumb their noses at society’s self-filtering mechanisms and behavioral taboos, they create something so misshapen and so wrong that it can’t help but be completely human and alive.

Bakshi takes his first plunge into genre with Wizards (1977), built around a normal swords-and-sorcery template – two warring magicians stage a climactic battle of good against evil – that’s complicated with political undertones and apocalyptic imagery evoking man’s darkest and most violent impulses.  In a future where nuclear war has scarred the earth and turned most humans into a race of hideously mutated monsters, there is one enclave where the inhabitants remain unafflicted.  Under the watchful eye of Avatar, a kind and generous wizard, they provide a haven for all elves, fairies, and other fantastical creatures.  Meanwhile, the evil wizard Blackwolf, having eschewed natural magic in favor of technologically advanced weaponry, dispatches an assassin to kill Avatar while simultaneously planning to invade the unspoiled lands he so covets.

Wizards most resembles a psychedelic road movie as Avatar and his cohorts – buxom half-human/half fairy Elinore, elf warrior Weehawk, and Necron-99, the robot assassin that Avatar enchants and re-dubs “Peace” before it can murder him – spend a good chunk of the film on the run from Blackwolf’s minions.  Bakshi augments their hijinks with battle sequences that rely heavily on rotoscoping:  a compositing process that utilizes live-action footage that’s then traced over by an animator one frame at a time.  The uncannily fluid visuals produced by rotoscoping would a major part of Bakshi’s signature style, but in Wizards it’s almost charmingly primitive and fits the identity of the movie as a bridge between his highly personal, urban-inflected work, and his subsequent forays into more commercial fantasy stories.  And while it would be a stretch to call Wizards an unqualified narrative success, it’s an invaluable glimpse into Bakshi’s schizophrenic imagination, combining the dark fantasy of Heavy Metal magazine with the lingering psychological effects of World War II and the Holocaust (Blackwolf hypnotizes his enemies with old Nazi propaganda filmstrips he finds in the post-nuclear rubble) to make a highly conflicted, yet memorable, case for pacifism.

Such personality is absent from Fire and Ice (1983), a failed attempt at launching an epic fantasy franchise with Bakshi’s wilder impulses toned down for a younger audience.  Released the same year as the debut of Mattel’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, Fire and Ice is a dull, punchless simulacrum that invites unfavorable comparisons to the toy-centric television series, as well as the adventures of Conan the Barbarian.  The similarities to Robert E. Howard’s classic hero make sense, as Bakshi co-created the characters of Fire and Ice with Frank Frazetta, the legendary comic book artist who also illustrated iconic paperback covers for the stories of pulp authors like Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  This creative dream team was backed by a script from a pair of equally talented writers: Gerry Conway, co-creator of the Punisher, and Roy Thomas, the first successor to Stan Lee as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics.

With all of the assembled talent, it’s baffling and painful to watch Fire and Ice struggle to meet the standards of merely diverting entertainment.  The movie recycles several elements from Wizards, including the character name “Nekron,” who’s another evil sorcerer leading an army of sub-humans as they try to force their way into a nicer neighborhood.  As Fire and Ice is a more commercial endeavor, it loses the idiosyncratic perspective of Bakshi’s earlier films while finding a way to exploit their puerile elements within the boundaries of a PG rating.  Unfortunately, sex and violence do not a movie make, and the lasting impression made by Fire and Ice is one of boredom and squandered potential.

Though Bakshi will always be remembered primarily for his envelope-pushing subject matter and visual flair, he also has a case as one of the fathers of the modern movie soundtrack – Heavy Traffic was one the first films (along with American Graffiti, released the same year) to take advantage of what were, at the time, dirt-cheap licensing rates for classic pop songs.  By the time he directed American Pop (1981), the practice was increasingly common – and much more expensive – yet Bakshi still had no trouble pulling together almost a century’s worth of popular hits for his multigenerational saga of a Russian Jewish immigrant family making its mark in the music business. 

A propulsive tale about the risk and reward of the American dream, American Pop is an ingratiating oddity with a surprisingly dark backbeat.  This being Bakshi, the movie indulges his preoccupations with violence, often in ways that have almost nothing to do with the story.  But Ronni Kern’s script is mostly successful in reining in his worst habits, putting the focus firmly on the music and its parallel representation of upward mobility and exploitation.  With rotoscoping superior to that of Bakshi’s fantasy films, American Pop doesn’t shy away from the fact that hard work and gumption are not always rewarded with riches.  American lives, as Bakshi well knows, are peppered with mishaps and misfires for those seeking a path outside of the typical conformity - but for those willing to endure the rough times, it makes for a better shot at a lasting individual legacy.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises (2013)
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

4 out of 5

There's a moment in The Wind Rises where Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno), the film's protagonist, meets a dream-like manifestation of his idol, Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni (Nomura Mansai), who tells Jiro that he only gets ten years in peak creative form, so it's best to use them wisely.  The advice sharpens Jiro's focus, a critical turning point in this animated biography of the famed Japanese aircraft designer and a keen distillation of the creative impulse if there ever was one.  (Ten years is long enough to accommodate procrastination, but short enough to seem like the years could fly by without accomplishment.)

It's hard to believe, however, of Caproni's advice applying to the film's creator: Studio Ghibli godhead Hayao Miyazaki.  His decades-spanning career crosses several different eras of animation, yielding classics such as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away while building his legacy as one of the key figures responsible for expanding the popularity and influence of Japanese animation around the world.  Ten years for a master like Miyazaki is like a drop in the bucket.

Still, The Wind Rises is billed as the 72-year-old's final feature, so it's easy to understand why Miyazaki might feel a sudden sense of urgency.  This is undoubtedly a "legacy" film, one built to reflect the values and obsessions of its creator.  It's no coincidence that Horikoshi's story is one heavily invested with an intellectual curiosity and a staunch pride in craftsmanship.  It also has planes - lots and lots of planes - as Miyazaki's lifelong love affair with aviation receives a feature-length valentine.

In a narrative that occasionally bends toward hagiography, Horikoshi emerges as the hero intellectual, a brilliant aeronautical engineer on the cusp of a major career breakthrough.  Growing up in an ascendant nation struggling to find its geopolitical footing, he dreams of creating a beautiful machine that Japan can call its own.  Though accidents of timing - the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923; the rise of Japanese militarism; the tragic illness of his wife, Naoko (Miori Takamoto) - endanger or elide the purity of his artistic vision, he never stops looking forward.  "The wind is rising," goes the movie's oft-repeated refrain, taken from a Paul Valéry poem: "We must try to live."

Like many biopics, Miyazaki's smooths over the more problematic details of the historical record.  Jiro's elegant designs were used to fashion the fighter planes flown by Japanese pilots before and during World War II.  The consequences of his actions remain offscreen, the grimness of his labors revealed only briefly in the movie's coda.  But Miyazaki doesn't shy away completely: The Wind Rises includes a romantic interlude at a summer resort that takes a haunting detour when a German expatriate questions the ethics of Jiro's work for the Japanese military.  Here the movie draws comparisons to The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann's famous novel about the moral bankruptcy of Continental Europe on the eve of the First World War, in a bid to provide context and foreshadowing.

But like any great artist, Miyazaki is ultimately a humanist.  He has no interest in affirming or refuting political positions, but would rather tell the story of a man who embodies noble artistic qualities like self-sacrifice and tireless dedication.  (That the movie has been criticized by both left and right-wing politicians in Japan is also a strong endorsement of its quality.)  Whatever the extratextual distractions or minor quibbles - it's about ten minutes too long, it's too adamantly obsessed with aeronautical minutiae - that keep The Wind Rises from joining the pantheon of Miyazaki's greatest achievements, it is undoubtedly a fitting farewell for the beloved filmmaker, a lovely piece of wistful optimism from one of cinema's most vivid dreamers.

“The Wind Rises” is now playing a limited awards-qualifying run in the United States.  It will receive a wide release in February 2014. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Counselor

The Counselor (2013)
Dir. Ridley Scott

3 out of 5

In recent years, “Cormac McCarthy adaptation” has become Hollywood shorthand for a specific kind of picture – a grim, morally slippery drama in the vein of The Road or the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men.  Simplifying McCarthy’s oeuvre down to these two stories is unfair (and ignores Billy Bob Thornton’s 2000 version of All the Pretty Horses, a Western romance), but it’s likely to be etched in the minds of audiences watching The Counselor, so it may come as a shock that the film is actually a comedy…sort of.

Directed by Ridley Scott (the lifetime-pass veteran of Alien, Blade Runner, and, uh, Prometheus) The Counselor coincidentally marks McCarthy’s first attempt at adapting one of his own books for the screen.  It’s an uneasy combination of narco-thriller and black comedy that stars Michael Fassbender as a nameless lawyer who, in a bit of absurd metaphoric stubbornness, all other characters refer to only as “Counselor.”  Intending to settle down with his fiancé (Penelope Cruz), he simultaneously gets involved in a massive cocaine deal with drug lord Reiner (Javier Bardem), only to watch it slowly disintegrate due to the machinations of Reiner’s malicious girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz).

Scott and McCarthy take the movie to the brink of high camp but aren’t bold enough to go all the way.  Not all of the actors seem to recognize the potential for dark humor.  (Least of all Fassbender and Cruz, who fail to understand that repeated use of the word “Boise” will never be not funny).  Too often the joke is lost in quasi-philosophizing from characters like Brad Pitt’s Westray, who resembles a sort of Yoda figure for crime-curious yuppies, or in the graphic depictions of cartel violence upon which the story is constructed.  The movie is alternately somber, irreverent, and melodramatic.  That could be a recipe for an exciting new cinematic delicacy.  But it’s mostly a list of ingredients that end up overcooked.  (Only Bardem seems to be having fun, playing a weary clown who delivers loopy-yet-chilling monologues portending doom for other characters.)

As the film’s identifiable villain (though there are no saints here), Diaz’s hypnotically and blatantly evil performance makes her character the most interesting to watch but the hardest to understand.  She manifests as a rachet girl with taste, her “leopard spots” tattoo and single gold tooth taking focus off her designer dresses.  She monologues about the erotic thrill of watching her two pet cheetahs hunt their pray.  She gyrates, sans underwear, on the windshield of a yellow Ferrari.  Sadly, her characterization only gooses the movie’s misogynistic undertones, essentially confirming Rainer’s assertion that bitches just be crazy

The Counselor could be a critique for America’s continued naiveté about the War on Drugs, and how it’s foolish to think you can dismantle a machine with so many moving parts – or, in Fassbender’s case, seamlessly fit in without understanding how it works.  But that would be giving a thoroughly confusing film a lot of credit.  Like the Counselor himself, the movie wants to have it both ways, unsuccessfully blending lurid criminal violence and oddball satire.  The Counselor is only entertaining when at its shaggiest and only effective when it’s precise and deliberate – but, alas, it can’t be both at once.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Dir. Alan Taylor

3.5 out of 5

For a project as ambitious as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, sometimes it makes sense to play it safe.  That was certainly the case in the build-up to The Avengers, which only became the third highest-grossing film of all time.  But post-windfall, Marvel seems to be warming up to the more outré elements of its creative catalog, both in upcoming films (the wacky-sounding Guardians of the Galaxy, Edgar Wright’s sure-to-be-madcap Ant-Man) and recent hits (handing the reins of Iron Man 3 to cult quipster Shane Black).

This is just a long-winded way of saying that Thor: The Dark World feels a lot like the movie that 2011’s Thor would have been if it lacked any qualms about potentially alienating people who couldn’t tell Jotunheim from Mjolnir.  Out goes the fish-out-of-water comedy of the hero Thor (Chris Hemsworth) struggling to adapt to human customs.  In comes more complex space-Viking mythology and sumptuous quasi-Shakepearean pomp.  Goodbye to director Kenneth Branagh.  Hello to new helmer Alan Taylor, a TV veteran with high profile credits on Game of Thrones - a show that’s not shy about tossing viewers into the deep end of its dense mythos.

The Dark World actually begins a lot like Thor, with a fearsome enemy threatening to use a dreadful weapon to transform the nine realms of the known universe.  This time it’s the Dark Elves, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), and a gelatinous goo called the Aether that has the power to plunge all worlds into eternal darkness.  Thwarted years ago by Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) father, Malekith reawakens as the nine realms approach a perfect celestial alignment, blurring the boundaries between separate realities.  Astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles upon one of these wormholes and inadvertently releases the Aether, trapping it inside her body.  Cue the return of a concerned and love-struck Thor, who whisks Jane away to Asgard and defends his home against the invading elves bent on recovering their doomsday device.

Taylor brings his Thrones experience to bear as the story jumps from location to location, checking in with several cliques of characters and spinning these plates until it’s time to gather everyone for the big finish.  The Dark World also has a thing for regal females, giving Thor’s mother Frigga (a dignified Rene Russo) a brighter spotlight and teasing Jane’s romantic rivalry with warrior Sif (Jaimie Alexander).  Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to Jane’s earthbound assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings), a grating presence in a comic relief subplot that establishes her as the Scrappy Doo of the Marvel universe.

If the Thor movies have a true character weakness, though, it’s Thor himself.  Even the simple arc of the first film - Thor goes from arrogant Nordic fratboy to mature future leader - is meatier than what Hemsworth is asked to do in the sequel.  The Dark World finds Thor contemplating treason, but it feels without consequence due to his well-defined moral rectitude.  How can you question the actions of a god, let alone relate to him?  He’s not nearly as entertaining as his wild card half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who steals the movie with his live wire energy when he reluctantly teams up with Thor in a last ditch effort to defeat their common enemies.

Though we get an obligatory climax involving the threat of destruction for a major city on Earth (at least the United States is spared after the The Avengers and Iron Man 3 ravaged the nation), Thor: The Dark World is commendable for spending the majority of its time on Asgard, opening up so many wonderfully weird and alien avenues for the imagination - and future Marvel movies.  After a half-dozen movies putting our own planet in peril, it’s about time we had more stories exploring different corners of this vast, uncanny universe.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Ender's Game

Ender's Game (2013)
Dir. Gavin Hood

3.5 out of 5

It’s not hard to imagine a blockbuster-style elevator pitch for Orson Scott Card’s seminal sci-fi novel Ender’s Game: In a future where humanity is always on the brink of war with an insectoid alien race known as the Formics, the most gifted child prodigies are bred to be the next generation of military commanders in a ruthless, hyper-competitive training program.  It’s Lord of the Files meets Starship Troopers!  In reality, Ender’s Game is much more nuanced – a beloved YA classic that’s more about warfare as a psychological state than as physical violence.  The long-awaited film adaptation, written and directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi), carries out its charge with as much gravitas as it can muster, while straining to reconcile the expansiveness and the introspection of the source material. 

Asa Butterfield (Hugo) plays Ender Wiggin, a genius and reluctant warrior recruited by Colonel Graff (an appropriately grizzled Harrison Ford) to attend the prestigious Battle School, an orbiting boot camp for Earth’s prepubescent saviors.  The bulk of the film comprises the deliberately stiff and mechanical experience of basic training.  Though it’s meant to be dehumanizing, it’s still colder than it should be, and feels rushed and expository.  So much of the film’s success as an adaptation rests on Butterfield to guide the audience through an arc that’s highly internalized on the page.  However, Hood relies on a surfeit of mentors – including Graff, the matronly Major Anderson (Viola Davis), fellow cadet Petra (Hailee Steinfeld), and Ender’s empathetic sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) – who spell out character development beats before Butterfield even gets a chance to do it.  (In one memorably frustrating scene – one of the film’s emotional centerpieces – Valentine literally finishes Ender’s sentences for him.)

Despite his shakiness with the actors – though most of the young’uns do improve as the film marches on – Hood delivers on the look and feel of a world where all institutions have been thoroughly militarized.  Contrast the bleakness of Ender’s spartan surroundings with the gorgeousness of the Battle Room, a proving ground that doubles as a cathedral to combat.  These tactical scenes are ironically the most thrilling and seductive in the entire film, underscoring the point Card was making about humanity’s competitive instinct, often presented with the justification of “survival.” 

It feels strange to say, but Ender’s Game is almost kindred to Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables – obviously handcuffed by the limitations of the film medium to capture the full scope of the story while retaining its overall emotional impact.  Unfortunately, Hood shows little interest in breaking from convention, a decision that allows him to avoid the criticisms that accompany bold directorial choices but also minimizes his stamp on the project.  It’s practically the platonic ideal of an Ender’s Game movie, cleverly designed to appeal to a mass audience without alienating diehard fans, and smuggling just enough of the novel’s darkness and difficult moral quandaries within a slick, crowd-pleasing shell of genre cinema.