Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Last Leg of 2011: Part IV

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011) -- B+

Surfaces and depths become indistinguishable from one another in Lynne Ramsay's most provocative film to date - We Need To Talk About Kevin emits a suffocating, claustrophobic intensity throughout, even though there's nary a sequence that seeks to exploit the central quandary - what compelled Kevin Khatchadourian (Ezra Miller) to go on a high school killing spree and, more intricately, what blame is felt by his mother Eva (Tilda Swinton)? Ramsay slyly goes a tongue-in-cheek route to these issues, suggesting Kevin as a Damien-esque monster, not a kind, empathetic bone in his body, though grounding both his utter indifference (Kevin collects computer viruses for fun, "for no reason,") and piercing perception (a scene where he predicts every word Eva plans to say over dinner is of particular note) as a demonstration of societal disconnect and savvy. He knows what people desire, their weaknesses and emotion, but feels none of it himself. He is not evil, so much as empty. When asked at the end of the film why he committed such a heinous act, he says: "I used to think I knew, but now I'm not sure anymore." In a sense, Kevin is Ramsay's built in defense for her own film, based on the bestselling novel by Lionel Shiver, since every potential rebuttal to his portrayal, to psychoanalyze him, must run head-on into the fact that any reason, suggestion, is arbitrary in that it cannot achieve a universally affirmative causation for moral breakdown and absence. Ramsay tells the story more sensory than causal too, refracting memory, color, sight, and sound through Eva's broken, post-homicide body - pale, sickly, abject. Ramsay's craft convincingly constructs Eva's subjective disembodiment, if less so Kevin's social environment (Ramsay refuses to provide any context outside of the home). A kindred spirit to this year's Martha Marcy May Marlene and, more obviously, Elephant, Ramsay's film is more to be felt than examined, since it sees psychopathology much like a dog chasing its own tail.

My Week With Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011) -- B-

My Week With Marilyn epitomizes a cinematic trifle, but director Simon Curtis deserves credit for making it a breezy, handsome, and generally mawkish-free one. It's no surprise from Curtis's filmmography (which consists solely of British television enterprises) that he relies primarily on actors over affect to propel the based-on-a-true-story account of aspiring filmmaker Colin's (Eddie Redmayne) stint on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, with a chauvinist Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) directing and starring alongside a distraught, confused Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), whose erratic behavior (and new-found interest in Colin) puts the production in jeopardy. Curtis has little vision beyond star-gazing, fascination and small moments of human empathy, and he keeps the film on a rather general plane of cadence and progression. Fortunately for him, Williams's bravura turn, which is neither showy, imitative or histrionic, but carefully managed and subtle, keeps the wheels chugging with enough energy and goodwill, that gusto marginally prevails over the lacking gall to attempt anything a bit more irreverent.

Le Quattro Volte (Michaelangelo Frammartino, 2011) -- C

Precious idiosyncrasia, through and through, Le Quattro Volte, Michaelangelo Frammartino's second feature film, writhes in its dulled, pastoral sentimentality, rejecting any sort of piquant, eclectic sensibilities (absolutely stagnant mise-en-scene). Conveying birth and life through stillness flaunts mere contradiction and engages esoteric artistry of the worst sort. Shame on critics for falling over this nostalgia-porn drivel.

Poetry (Lee Chang-Dong, 2011) -- B+

Lee Chang-Dong makes sprawling, expansive films about individuals grappling and seeking meaning at various stages in their lives. His films are about duration, temporal, geographical motifs abounding, in Poetry seen through the deteriorating health of Mija (Jeong-hie Yun), whose early onset Alzheimer's symptoms compel her to join a poetry class, to reclaim her individuality. Far from the soapy smile-and-cry hokum a brief synopsis may suggest, Chang-Dong uses Mija's condition to address numerous other issues, among them the intrusion of technology within youth culture, which deteriorates emotive expression just as much as Mija's memory loss. Micro and macro intersect, one of many subtle, intelligent moves made by Chang-Dong's steady, mature directorial hands.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2011) -- B+

An instant-classic of sorts (though that certainly depends on who you're asking), Apichatpong Weerasethakul's (I'll stick with Joe) latest patience tester returns him to Tropical Malady form, engaging another Thai folk legend as the central conceit for family strife - this time, red eyed, furry creatures who allegorize the dieing recollections of Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), which, in turn, gives the film a highly episodic nature, each development more bizarre, fascinating, and worthwhile than the last. Elliptical and meditative, there is an essence, an evocation consistently present, attaining intimation through suggestion rather than direct or obvious statements, which keeps the family dynamics unstable, the filmmaking responsive.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Last Leg of 2011: Part III

Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2011) -- B-

Everybody moves West in Meek's Cutoff, except for director Kelly Reichardt, who takes a slight step South with this handsome, rigidly composed, but textually hollow meditation on Manifest Destiny gone awry, primarily through a hackneyed opposition of nature and nurture, patriarchy lost amidst moral absence, all before the horizon dissolves as the Native-American walks into the sunset. Nothing about Reichardt is obvious or overtly dramatized for easy digestion - instead, she goes the other way, sharing similarities with Steve McQueen, portending significance without ever arriving there, the static takes, somber surroundings only sporadically effective, and generally aesthetically stagnant. Reichardt directs actors well, getting particularly strong turns from Bruce Greenwood and Michelle Williams, but little congeals beyond momentary relevance; like McQueen, Reichardt is verging on self-righteous artistry, deaf to criticism, and tunnel-visioned.

Paul (Greg Mottola, 2011) -- B

While not the purely joyous adolescent romp that Adventureland was, Greg Mottola solidifies his comedic worth and presence with Paul, one of 2011 sharpest and most consistently amusing comedies, if only because the director and writers/stars Simon Pegg and Mick Frost have such a firm satirical grasp on pop cultural worship, here of that particularly geeky variety - sci-fi fans. Though mixing metaphors and tones galore, there remains a persistent recognition (and reverence) of irrational cultural obsession, without becoming overtly precious or outwardly cynical. Pegg and Frost avoid ironic detachment by sincerely engaging with not just their characters (sure, these are caricatures, but imbued with humanity by Mottola and cast), but the hilariously hostile oppositional rhetoric that facilitates cultural disintegration, epitomized no better than the film's best visual gag, a t-shirt worn by Kristen Wiig's dogmatic evangelical, that's too hilarious to spoil here.

Your Highness (David Gordon Green, 2011) -- B

David Gordon Green, in an ironic turn, is now making better films in Hollywood than his last independent efforts (Snow Angels being the most laughable, egregious offender). Pineapple Express and, especially, Your Highness, display the sort of absurdist impulses missing from contemporary comedies. Predicated on being a "stoner comedy," Green approaches the inherently juvenile material with an appropriate degree of irony and sincerity, not outright castigating The Lord of the Rings films for their silly, mistaken sense of importance and relevance (the most overrated films of the past few decades), but fusing contemporary vulgarity and adolescent culture, aligning their sensibilities. It's a deft move, one which seems to go unnoticed by the bland taste-buds of most critics.

The Future (Miranda July, 2011) -- C

Ah, the hip. Little is more insufferable than deliberate idiosyncrasy - except when it's made precious. Alas, such is the case with Miranda July's latest, infused with solipsistic glum to spare, so forcefully preaching difference and individualism (but with mumblecore detachment), that the incongruities begin to overwhelm, and it becomes nearly impossible to stay tuned in. Nevertheless, there's an undeniable charm and effervescence in July's sense of humor (one should suspect much of this is meant to be ironic/satirical), but slathered in Indie cliches and epitomizing some of the worst Sundance-stamped characteristics, The Future renders itself immediately obsolete.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Reincarnation (Jennifer Fox, 2011) -- B+

My Reincarnation, a new documentary from director Jennifer Fox, is culturally specific, yet universally drawn - no easy task, but Fox's steady, affectionate reveal of the tumultuous generation gap between Tibetan Buddhist leader Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and his Western-born son Yeshi manages to locate such a balance. Norbu believes Yeshi to be the reincarnation of his uncle, a revered Buddhist master and, naturally, wishes him follow his footsteps. Nevertheless, Yeshi prefers the arts and education ("I want to be a photographer and play music"). While Fox spends much time following Norbu's public speeches, which have attained an almost celebrity status within the Buddhist community, the film primarily remains concerned with the relationship between father/son and their reuniting as Norbu, now 70, is dying of cancer.

The most impressive aspects of My Reincarnation are its specificity of tone, insight, and focus. At a mere 82 minutes, Fox juggles various interests, but ultimately is most concerned with parsing through each man's inclinations - Norbu's being a complex sense of duty, honor, and heritage for Yeshi's subsequent path, but Yeshi, essentially a full-blooded, middle-class secularist (in other words, of his society), seeks a path of education and individual betterment, diverging the two from one another. Fox rarely lets the material go astray and, seeing that she has been following her subjects for nearly 20 years, it's no surprise that My Reincarnation avoids simplistic moralizing or sentimental moments. Far from seeking easy pathos, Fox allows her subjects to do the talking - the best kind of documentarian - and instead of forcing her feature's relevance or significance, in turn, allows humanity and familial struggle (never precious) to convincingly achieve these ends.

My Reincarnation will play @ Roxie Theater in San Francisco from Friday, December 23rd - Thursday, December 29th.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Last Leg of 2011: Part II

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011) -- B-

Though a considerable stylistic improvement over the Swedish adaptation (the opening credit sequence, in terms of virtuoso thrill, is something of an instant classic), David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo merely plows through Stieg Larsson's lurid material with little distinct vantage point or insight, playing things at a sprinter's pace, rarely slowing down to even absorb ambiance and aura (a club sequence lasts less than 30 seconds, as does most every scene), much less any sense of character, feeling, and significance. As a 158 minute, break-neck bubble gum rush, Fincher delivers the goods, but his career should have progressed beyond this sort of exercise, especially if he's going to be so transparent in his textual apathy. Rooney Mara deserves kudos, however, for potentially the year's best lead performance.

Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011) -- C-

As forcefully puerile as they come, Zack Snyder continues to display his visual flair amidst narratives suited only for 10-year-old boys who don't know any better or cultural schizophrenics who relish utter annihilation of context, significance, and sincerity. There's no one to blame here but Snyder, whose writer/director/producer credits fully reveal his true interests: comprehensive fetishization, be it computer animated Nazi guards or a pack of skirt-wearing, weapon-wielding heroines, whose "dance" is revealed in an insufferable series of action set-pieces, each more muddled, meaningless, and indistinct than the last. Snyder likes it loud, be it images or sound, and though stretches (say, 10-15 seconds) of the film achieve their giddy ends, on the whole, it's less pure cinema than cultural enema.

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, 2011) -- B

Striking a balance between cosmic inquiry and human proclivity is never an easy task, but Patricio Guzmán generally (and, at times, gorgeously) locates such an even keel in Nostalgia for the Light, which pits the filmmaker's existential questions amidst the recovery of murdered Chilean civilians during Pinochet's reign. The film's overall metaphor of illumination, be it the unknown or the past, searingly functions to hybridize his intentions and solidifying that human loss and strife will always (or should) supersede theoretical and/or theological anxieties.

Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011) -- C

Stagnant, slogging, and generally flat-footed, writer/director J.C. Chandor views 2008's financial meltdown from the Wall Street genesis, over the course of a single day, attempting to show just how cold, calculating, and uneventful malice and greed can be. In that sense, his film succeeds, but his ends are rather obvious to begin with and, outside of serving as an admirable ensemble showcase, featuring the likes of Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, and Stanley Tucci, the tone and aesthetic resemble an HBO production more than a nuanced, feature film.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Last Leg of 2011: Part I

Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011) -- B+

Young Adult corrects Diablo Cody's Juno sins, with a shift in emphasis, away from solipsistic smart-assery and towards a more thoroughly satiric, but genuine examination of generational anxiety, of a distinctly feminine variety. By integrating not just more-obvious allusions to reality-TV image-making, but implicitly condemning the malpractice that goes into forced cultural construction, Cody and director Jason Reitman excavate the crux of both contemporary malaise and displacement.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011) -- C+

Let's admit it: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is essentially just a white-collar version of Fast Five, decking-out the franchise with several rousing set-pieces (especially in IMAX), but with very little interest whatsoever in rooting any of the proceedings in a genuine sense of the social, real, or global. Though fashioning a globe-trotting plot, there's a thoroughly feigned sense of awareness, since there are essentially nothing but archetypal characters, with the same sexist, racist, and homophobic baggage that generally accompanies the genre. Moreover, the underlying mold longs for a simpler, more conservative era, where baddies were international stoics rather than domestic threats - but what MI:4 forgets, is that the genre's best entries, from any era, are rooted not in a puerile sense of the fantastic, but a piercing, allegorical fascination with the political, dispersed through character.

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011) -- B

Herzog has rarely been so patient and straightforward - Into the Abyss seeks not to neatly place polemics or problematize morality through outside testimonial. Concerned only with individuals close to the Texas case involving a triple homicide, which sent one killer to death row and left the other with a life sentence, Herzog hurtles ahead with more of a reporter's eye than a documentarian's, at least, without the usually elliptical insight that imbues much of his work by taking the micro and turning it grandiose (Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Grizzly Man). Here, the pathos come less from Herzog than his subjects - meaning, by establishing a de facto testimonial presentation, pain and emotion come from subjects grieving over the death of loved ones, lamenting their situations, and coming to little nuance other than the lingering sting. None of this is to say Into the Abyss isn't riveting at times in its small revelations of permanent loss and essence - but it plays like a hop-and-a-skip work for Herzog.

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011) -- A-

I was certain it would happen someday. A filmmakers has finally made a contemporary, near-equivalent to John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 - that someone being Joe Cornish, whose writer/director debut amicably demonstrates his flair for minimalist depth, utilizing the cinematic medium nearly as centrally as he places genuinely emotive characters, whose camaraderie is rooted within a discernible sense of the social real, but tinged with a proclivity for genre archetypes. Even sharper, using teenagers who're dropped into an adult narrative, Cornish deftly negotiates a terrain between Goonies-like adolescent bait and hard-edged affect, stylish and genuine.

Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011) -- B+

Andrew Naigh one-ups Mike Mills and Woody Allen by insisting on keeping his love-affair romance grounded and wholly tangible, without losing a canny aesthetic emphasis, aligning Naigh's film with the Nouvelle Vague in the most direct way - not just through form, but genuinely entwined, inseparable in that text and form are not merely complimentary or arbitrary, but necessary. There's no gimmick or amplification in terms of textual pretension and, thus, Naigh is able to stay above the line of Indie-bloated preciousness, without insisting his two-guys-talking narrative has added significance. Perhaps Steve McQueen could also take a note or two.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011) -- C+

Having never seen a single episode of The Muppet Show, I am likely not the best person to critique a film featuring the same characters, many of whom I am unfamiliar with. In fact, I grew up with The Muppet Christmas Carol more than any other Muppet affair and, thus, when Kermit the Frog first appears in The Muppets, I half wanted to call him Bob Cratchit. Little of any said prior knowledge ultimately seems to matter, however, since writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller essentially begin tabula rasa, with a new Muppet named Walter and brother Gary (Segel), the pair setting off for Los Angeles with Gary's squeeze Mary (Amy Adams) to both see the Muppet's old studio and celebrate the couple's tenth anniversary. Of course, the film reintroduces many old faces, inserts countless cameos, and proceeds with an admirable degree of zest and self-awareness, if the latter becomes slightly grating. Nevertheless, amidst all of the singing, dancing, and charm, lies a greater sense of requisite commercialism, particularly in the film's inherent plea to rekindle old (consumerist) flames. Add another nostalgia piece to a seemingly endless 2011 laundry list, though The Muppets is by no means the most despicable offender, if only because its effervescent satirical impulses often eradicate the unspoken glamorization of branding. However, in one of the lamest decisions of the year, Disney chooses to insert a billboard not once, but twice, for Cars 2, as to coincide with that film's DVD/Blu-Ray release a little over a month ago. The well-oiled merchandising machine steadily chugs along and just like with nearly any Pixar entry (ironically, excluding Cars 2), the culture appears to abide. Let's look at it like this; Disney releases Tron: Legacy last fall, their first piece in reconstructing their attempted retrograde puzzle - they are out to literally make the old new again, with the post-conversion 3D of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. The Lion King 3D already raked in close to $100M, and now The Muppets comes along as further primer, to solidify the (false) need, the desire for "old friends," as Kermit puts it. Were Disney not planning to re-sell their products to susceptible children/consumers, the underlying message would simply be capitalist. Nothing wrong with that. Yet, knowing what Disney has coming down the line, The Muppets becomes deceptive and disingenuous, regardless that Segel worked on the film for a reputed four years. These intentions don't matter when they are subsumed. No one escapes the jaws of string-pulling authoritarianism - not even The Muppets.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) -- D

Midway through The Artist, restless, perturbed, and realizing Michel Hazanavicuis' multiple-count offender had no chance whatsoever of redeeming itself in the second half, I reached into my pocket to retrieve a pack of cigarettes, following the lead of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), whose fledgling career has just been cemented by the flop of his latest, big-budget silent film (talkies are in full-swing, leaving poor George to sit, sulk, and drink). Pouring his shot of scotch onto the table and taking a drag off his smoke, Hazanavicius neatly, literally frames the shot as a perfect mirror image, doubling, certainly to reflect the forsaken actor's fractured state; it's a move that would still be obvious regardless of the circumstances, but seeing how Hazanavicius takes every opportunity possible to neatly situate and explicate his insufferable homage (?) to silent cinema, the moment plays far more requisite than intimate. Now, back to that desired cigarette. The Artist sees life, art, and cultural significance in the most reductive of terms. It harbors nostalgia in droves, precious to the very end in its desired replication of the past, culling cutesy effrontery from nearly every scene, and neglecting to revise almost anything (aside from a dream sequence that's nothing more than bubblegum surrealism). As such, one gets the sense Hazanavicius believes it is 1929 or, even worse yet, wishes it were. Meaning, in the thrust of his icky sentimentality, how could one not wish to light up that cigarette, to dissolve into the grain of the film, to reject contemporary relevance and become lost in a world devoid of consequence, meaning, and time? In other words, a vacuum, a black hole, perhaps even, a heaven. At least, these are one's desires if they succumb to his cultural handicaps.

Heaven apparently can't wait for Hazanavicius, who should take any and all scathing criticism his innocuous, petty, puerile film deserves. The Artist is for those who wish to slide back into a place of pacification, a milieu that values (or more appropriately, valorizes) regression as a means of grappling with hard times, rather than pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. In other words - reassurance over reification. Much like last year's The King's Speech, Hazanavicius views history not with a critical eye (and certainly not an artistic one, as his title oafishly alludes), but as sentimental fodder for one man's ultimate triumph over hardship via a circle of caring, compassionate people. While The King's Speech is far more egregious in its flippant disregard for sanguinely shifting historical discourse, The Artist might be equally detrimental in its condensed explanation of cinematic desire (made even more grating by its literal, meta elements). A silent film about a silent film star? Even Chaplin never went that far. Moreover, there's nary a single satirical angle to any of Hazanavicius' executions, almost as brazenly ignorant as Steven Soderbergh's epic failure, The Good German. Here we have the converse of movie love - its incessant tainting by solipsistic filmmakers.

Parsing through the faults of The Artist, even just in terms of narrative, is almost too easy. But go ahead, give it a go: take a few minutes, write down what you think is likely to happen in the film from this set-up, at least, what would be the least offensive, most middlebrow road to take (think in terms of form and content): *It's 1928. Valentin is on top of the world. His latest film is a massive success. He's the biggest star in the world. Everyone loves him. Posing for a photo, clumsy aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) accidentally bumps into Valentin! Their moment together is captured on the cover of Variety (rancid Hollywood masturbation from Hazanavicius), leading to nationwide speculation as to whom the mystery girl might be. Scoring a series of roles and ultimately attaining leading lady status, Miller's rise peaks right at the introduction of sound.* Now, suppose you were asked to fill in the blanks following, as to hit the most obvious beats. Would Valentin be apprehensive about the introduction of sound? Yes. Would Miller, in turn, fully embrace it and become the biggest star in the world? Yes. Would Valentin blow every dime he has independently financing a big-budget jungle movie of his own? Yes. Will his wife leave him? Yes. Will Miller talk shit about Valentin, only to find out he's sitting right behind her? Yes. Will Valentin have to sell off his entire estate? Yes. Will he drudge out nitrate prints of his earlier films and watch them alone? Yes. Will, in a drunken anger, he set fire to those very prints? Yes. Will he almost be killed in the fire trying to save a single print that has sentimental value for him? Yes. Will Miller reach out to him, feeling guilty for his current state? Yes. Will Valentin realize that Peppy actually purchased all of his shit at auction, out of said guilt? Yes. Will Valentin become even more depressed, and stick a pistol in his mouth? Yes. Will Miller make a mad dash to save him? Yes. Will there be title card asserting ambiguity as to whether or not Valentin actually killed himself? Yes. Will Valentin actually kill himself? No. Will Miller's presence be the saving grace? Yes. Will Miller and Valentin ultimately team-up, at film's end, to become an Astaire & Rogers dancing duo? Yes. Oh yeah, and throughout all of this, will there be a cute dog that does tricks, rescues his owner, and generally looks adorable? Of-fucking-course there will be!

Now, take a look at our script. Pretty bad, eh? Pretty...lame, yes? Lame, in the truest sense of the word: crippled, impaired, disabled. In essence - deficient. Uninteresting. Yet, these are the very plot points The Artist functions with and, to my and any half-conscious thinker's chagrin, without even a hint of suggestivity to something larger, or even, something else...at all. In fact, Hazanavicius is one of few directors that come to mind who unblinkingly sees imitation, pure homage, as true expression - he seeks to make a silent film as if it were the late twenty's, with no more cultural, industrial, or aesthetic awareness than any placating melodrama from the 1950's, when untroubled escapism reigned. Problem is, as with nearly all escapism, this is not an escape from, but an escape to, an inherent devolution of cinematic totality, the reversal of artistic progress made by a filmmaker like Guy Maddin. There's no pain here; not even the slightest hint of real suffering. Silent cinema enables empathy and, when at its best, with films like The Last Laugh and The Passion of Joan of Arc, boils human compassion down to a discernible essence, which wields a power the spoken word lacks. The Artist is content to trample any of these self-evident images with its hackneyed, deplorable case of mistaken decency - it's one of the least compassionate films of the year, if you can see through its inches of goup, slop, and subterfuge.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011) -- B

There's an undeniable emptiness in Steve McQueen's Shame, something the viewer is consistently forced to reconcile throughout, to attribute the said lacking to an overall sense of ennui/malaise, or textual flatness and, potentially, triteness. It's easy to see how one would fall on either side; McQueen privileges the long take, whether tracking or stable (as he did in his near-masterpiece Hunger) and in doing so, inherently valorizes a degree of detachment, an absence of interference or manipulation, imbuing the proceedings with a greater sense of verisimilitude, neo-realist in its desire to depict social zeitgeists. Fair enough, but unlike the greatest filmmakers of this sort (Rossellini, Olmi, Burnett, Clark), McQueen lacks any perceptual end or, perhaps better stated, context. Certainly, set in contemporary New York City, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) works a vaguely defined finance job (visions of Patrick Bateman are inevitable), outwardly attached, driven, and committed, but harboring an overall dissatisfaction, momentarily assuaged by recurring sexual endeavors, some with prostitutes, random women, men, and, in Brandon's hope for salvation, a woman named Marianne (Nicole Beharie) from his work place. These issues become further problematized by the arrival of Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his sister from Los Angeles. While the markers of social meaning and significance are present, there's very little actually implemented to instill a sense of cultural specificity or ethnicity into the proceedings (Brandon claims he moved to New York from Ireland when he was a teen, but it's merely part of the film's simultaneous lip service and stubborn denial to commit to any statements, whatsoever). It's not surprising to learn McQueen originally planned to set the film in London, only changing his mind after budgetary reasons forced his hand.

Nevertheless, this lack of definition does not prohibit McQueen from successfully probing what seemingly drives his interest in the material: displacement. In terms of this key conceptual anchor, McQueen masterfully uses Brandon's spaces (home, work, streets, bars) to formally suggest circuity, rather than simply through text, (the film's script by McQueen and Abi Morgan is surprisingly structured, at least in terms of action). The opening sequence (along with a later sequence in which Brandon hits rock bottom) rivetingly display McQueen's flair for composition, montage, and suggestivity. I might even go so far as to say without these virtuoso structures, Shame would unquestionably succumb to a totalizing ambiguity (and, thus, shallowness) that unfortunately characterizes much of the film. In fact, there are moments when McQueen is so obtuse, unwilling to insert any form of meaning into his sequences, that the film flirts dangerously close with becoming inert. McQueen may be close, himself, to becoming that sort of ugly director, so enamored with his own brilliance and artistry, that he forgets to, or is incapable of, communicating significance. Every scene of Shame feels as if it should be more significant than it is (sans the two sequences previously mentioned). They are marvelous, breathtaking, and artful incarnations of personifying longing and fear, the two inextricably intertwined. Then there's stunningly bad scenes, mostly involving Mulligan's character, as when she risibly performs the entirety of "New York, New York" in almost unbroken close-up or Brandon's race home to find Sissy with her wrists-cut in his bathroom. All of the brooding, all of the sporadically convincing artistry, is supported by very little textual conviction and, even worse, a sense that McQueen is playing dress-up, unable to locate the crux in any of his characters, which might inevitably be his point, but becomes beside the point once his point fails to impart distinguishable social significance or, dare I say, pathos.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) -- B

Any viewer that has an invested interest in the future of cinema, as it becomes obfuscated with television, digital media, and assorted forms of technological emergence, must view Martin Scorsese's Hugo with equal parts enthusiasm, apprehension, and castigation. Let's parse through the film's outwardly jejune interests (Dickinsian abbreviation, wonderment, isolation) to Scorsese's core interests, as artist and filmmaker: the emergence of technology, a nostalgic view of the past, and, ultimately, synthesizing the two using altered apparatical forms (3D) with classical cinematic mise-en-scene (deep focus, tracking shots), to explicitly reconcile the early days of sound (the contemporary parallel obvious) as progenitor of progression and inhibitor of expression - in other words, a reductive, derivative view of history and technology that filmmakers have been grappling with for the better part of the last half century. Moreover, in Scorsese's first attempt to confront these apparently engrained emotions, he does precisely what a thoroughly modernist filmmaker would: instead of anything slightly askew or avant-garde, he makes an accessible film, a potentially simplistic one, though beautifully rendered and played, in the traditional sense.

Here's how we know Scorsese has devolved into a filmmaker that's merely a level or two ahead of someone like Tarantino (a back-handed compliment) in terms of text: he likens his use of 3D in Hugo to the emergence of technicolor in the 1940's, an aesthetic tool that has no explicit ties to theme or form (color does not alone comprise form), much like 3D simply tightens the frame, but provides very little by way of altered affect, at least in how contemporary Hollywood is using it. Meaning, Scorsese's awe at the new technology (he has since claimed he wants to do every subsequent film in 3D) reflects his artistic regression, wishing to engage an inherently consumerist cinema that offers little by way of depth, personality, or subversion. Sure, there's potential subversion in the way Scorsese reintroduces silent cinema, in 3D, full clips from A Trip to the Moon or The Great Train Robbery, but only in the sense that it reinvigorates the potential for interest in repertory cinema. Hugo is not a political, personal act. It may reveal Scorsese's unfortunately nascent state of filmic adoration (much like Shutter Island merely afforded Scorsese the chance to make a film noir, devoid of conviction), where the enchantment, the awe, supersede the desire to engage pure expression without didacticism, which Hugo nearly packs to the brim in its lecture-heavy second half.

Furthermore, there's something purely middlebrow about screenwriter John Logan's situation of personal failure, particularly in Papa George (Ben Kingsley), whose ultimate dissatisfaction lies in self-pity, that his illusions and predilection for performance are no longer valued by a rapidly evolving society. Logan purposefully seeks to induce empathy via isolation and Scorsese misinterprets Jacques Tati by turning rigid artistry/satire into sentimentality and lament, stuck in a psychological stasis, unable to move past his debilitating focus on the past, in both form and content. Critics and others can claim Scorsese has done that by embracing 3D, but that's little more than wishful thinking; those who view cinema-love through a Spielbergian lens are very likely to hail Hugo as a masterpiece; actual cinephiles, who view the cinema as more than simply a facilitator of child-like awe, will smile sporadically throughout, but on the whole, be left with more than a slight sense of suspicion at Scorsese's aims, dubious of his CINE 101 historicism.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011) -- C+

The Descendants finds Alexander Payne caught between a rock and a hard place; dealing with, by far, his most ambitious thematic material yet, in which nearly every scene, to some capacity, deals with jilted, multi-millionaire father/husband Matt King's (George Clooney) dying wife, a confrontation of her infidelity, and what that may suggest for Matt's teetering sense of worth and individualistic purpose, there's little room to claim Payne's opting to play it safe - he's undeniably dealing in weighty themes, approaching each scene with a deftly cynical hand, obscuring and problematizing any sense of cues for easy laughs (the trailer displays the most obvious of these moments). Though the material remains vaguely/adjacently close to a sitcom-esque realm, Payne does an admirable job of steering clear from obvious pratfalls, wrangling excellent performances from Clooney, Shailene Woodley as conflicted daughter Alexandra, and Robert Forster as a begrudging father-in-law. By all conventional accounts, Payne's sensibilities are well-guided, walk a fine line between offensive and placating, never falling too sternly on either side of the line. In other words: he has nuance.

Unfortunately for Payne, the script itself, yields very little; the material is inherently flawed, in that it implicitly ignores the issue of class or, at least, obfuscates its characters' titular, unearned privilege by reducing their dilemmas to unconvincing humanist pap, though Payne does his best to understate these moments (namely Clooney's intended, penultimate announcement that he doesn't wish to sell his family's numerous acres of inherited Hawaiian land). Moreover, early voice-over work nearly tanks the film immediately, as when Clooney claims: "Everybody thinks Hawaii is all-day sunshine and paradise, but the divorces sting just as much and the cancer kills just as fast." Such bittersweet-cute reductionism appeals to the film's overall sense of guilt, which cannot be assuaged merely by asserting remorse, much less from the vantage point of a character whose humanity allegedly comes from his familial interests, seeing his daughters avoid harm, etc. Whenever it's necessary for Payne and company to confront these issues head-on, they balk in favor of re-affirmative pandering, much in the same way that The Kids Are All Right and Little Miss Sunshine use stereotyping/caricature as a means of abstaining defeat - there is nothing subversive about these films. In fact, Payne's usage of Hawaii isn't more than a click or two away from the Peter Segal/Adam Sandler trainwreck 50 First Dates (those who will immediately scoff at this suggestion should be reminded that Payne co-wrote the screenplay for Sandler's I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry). Comparisons to the Farrelly Brothers wouldn't be out of line either, particularly in the way background, bit parts, and passerby characters are played by non-actors, who are treated with equal parts "ain't they cute" admiration and condescension. Finally, the film's closing scene, in which the family trio come together, under a blanket, in front of the TV, is perhaps the most risible ending since Clooney's previous Michael Clayton.

What's perplexing about all of this contrast is that Payne had a hand in the script, and likely a significant one. Yet, his comedic tone and sensibilities as director seem completely at odds with his touches as writer, a conflicting wound that inevitably bleeds The Descendants dry. Nevertheless, Payne has assembled a film that, in spite of all of its plentiful flaws, gets as close as any film that comes to mind in addressing the ever expanding generation gap, one that, paradoxically, may suggest the kids are now more sophisticated than adults, as Clooney's character almost plays protege to his savvy daughter. Without making these scenarios gratingly obvious, Payne still can't shake a greater sense of insignificance, that his barely afloat material yields pathos beyond simplistic ironies and normative familial anxieties.

Melancholia (Lars Von Trier, 2011) -- B-

Lars Von Trier...ah yes, Lars Von Trier. Every time I sit down to evaluate the Danish provocateur's latest faux-opus (here the term is more appropriate than ever), I find myself of two minds, often fascinated by Von Trier's bravado, artistry, compositional knack (these qualities are relatively undeniable), yet infuriated by his outward, bratty sense of artistic self-worth, amplified by his so-bleak-it-borders-on-sadistic-farce material. Thus, in Melancholia, that border has almost comprehensively been dissipated, projecting Von Trier's material, especially in its second half, into a hysteria-driven, lushly photographed bit of empty insanity, assuaging claims that the director lacks a sense of humor. Almost undoubtedly, Melancholia is high farce, a film stretched to a 136 minute runtime with so little to say, that one can only imagine the most aristocratic cinephiles will even be able to conscionably endure it, out of some completist masochism, to possess the "knowledge."

That, indeed, may be a strange way to suggest that Melancholia is likely the best film Von Trier has ever made, though it only strikes that way since it's the first time, in his entire filmmography, that he imbues the admittedly hacky material with a visual, aural sense so symphonic, so driven by affectual interests, that it consistently propels the mundane, repetitive narrative anxieties (Kirsten Dunst plays naked and hysterical, Charlotte Gainsbourg is again obsessive and neurotic) towards a useful, contrapuntal experience. In using the latter word, perhaps Von Trier is, and would always have been, best suited to embrace his films as spectacle, not just of grandiosity, like here, in the film's stunning prologue, but of the body, of human pain, of corruptive, venal power. Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville: these films all inextricably fail because of their Dogme 95 gimmickry, a fake manifesto, propagated by minds that can't think beyond the literal, that see cinema as a basic set of tenants, not an organism that breaths, lives, and imparts feeling. With Melancholia, Von Trier convincingly retraces many of these formal steps, but his material, as unabashedly cruel as ever, relishes destruction for its own sake, gleefully nihilistic, but lacking sincere conviction in its stance. That's what makes Von Trier a hack; not that he's incessantly nihilistic, but that his preferred discursive method is wholly unconvincing, "punkish" in its irreverence, lacking experiential fortitude. Von Trier isn't even making films for human beings anymore - who could embrace this, beyond those who valorize weird, strange, thoroughly kinky disjointed behavior? Since I include myself in this latter category, I suppose that may partly be Von Trier's point, that rationality, the conscious denial of his material/aesthetic modes on purely moral grounds, constitutes an inherent act of nearly primal reckoning (this film being the yang to Antichrist's yin), where any rejection or attempt to make concrete, oppositional sense of what's being seen hangs the viewer by her prejudices.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011) -- A

Martha Marcy May Marlene breaths not just life back into American independent film - it oxidizes the tenants that have plagued Indie films for the better part of the last two decades (precious-cute attitudes, ironic-detachment pathos, callow, dysfunctional family neurosis). While first-time director Sean Durkin may not entirely escape the confines of the latter (though, given his thoroughly rigid, airtight narrative (De Palmaesque in its efficiency), scoffing away such an impedance is more than effortless), his gut-punch artistry, in terms of mise-en-scene and temporality, displays a toughness, a resistance, that only the greatest of filmmakers are able to achieve in any of their films, much less the first. In fact, if one has to align Durkin's debut with another, perhaps the best comparison is with Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water, because of similar themes in the narrative, yes, but even more so, a patience, a guiding, propelling directorial intuition, coupled with an eviscerating knack for directing actors - there's nary a moment in Martha Marcy May Marlene that seems to allude Durkin and this mastery ultimately cleanses any minor defects his comprehensively original vision might hold.

Alas, the latter compliment would be sufficient only in expressing a command of personal vision (an impressive, but not particularly lofty feat), were Durkin's aims not so remarkable. Modest at first, then hauntingly revelatory, the truth of Martha's (Elizabeth Olsen) past becomes clearer during her stay with bourgeois sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and hubby Ted (Hugh Dancy) on their lakeside, Connecticut vacation home. Piecing differing chronologies proves less a means of misdirection on Durkin's part, but an intricate means of questioning the medium itself, often using match cuts to switch between time-frames, a choice which inherently convolutes a clear sense of linearity, memory dictating narrative, rather than an explicit causality. Martha's past with a cultish, Manson-esque leader named Patrick (John Hawkes) provides the facade of genre thrills, the consistent mixing of time frames suggesting a degree of "sorting-out" will occur to alleviate the psychological fracture. Yet, Durkin never succumbs to these lesser impluses, refusing to give-in and degrade his loftier aims, a mix of the metaphysical and social, deftly, almost satirically mounting a Bergman-esque country house farce (Smiles of a Summer Night) or drama (Through a Glass Darkly), amidst an Altman-esque hybrid of irreverent humanism and the fantastic (3 Women). Reducing Durkin's achievement to a paradigmatic alignment with previous filmmakers is not my intention; rather, by pointing out these potential reference points (my subjective cinematic lineage), once can begin to discuss Martha Marcy May Marlene outside of its connotations, ranging from the Sundance stigma to the 60's-European Art House similarities.

Durkin's does not intend to valorize the ugly, the poor, the geographically "imparied" (to explain poverty-porn critical hits like Frozen River, Winter's Bone, and Precious, all of which received a Sundance stamp of approval). It takes sly aim at not simply class (the aforementioned films are not about "class struggle," but the exploitation of class to assuage liberal, humanist anxiety guilt), but the deeper-rooted tenants of exploitation: ideology. Absolute power, in all cases, corrupts, no matter if it dictates the unconscious need to own a lakeside townhouse (Martha hilariously asks aloud, perplexed, why the couple are the only people occupying the large home-away-from-home) or the disingenuous philosophy of Patrick, whose "family" is literally patriarchy in crisis, turned horrific. Equally irreverent recent films like Dogtooth and The Woman focus less on striving for social commentary than understanding a humanist ontology; Durkin's tongue is planted so firmly in his cheek here, that his biterness, pessimism, and antipathy towards human nature, in general, threatens to propel his film into utter misanthropy which, given Durkin's compelling argument, may be just the place it needs to go. Perhaps the director's only misstep is in partially satiating his otherwise ascetic aesthetic with far too literal presentations of rape and murder (choosing to simply "show" the deeds proves Durkin still has some growing to do), but these scenes don't sully the piercing effect of the film's larger implications, schizophrenia as human condition, less about the suffering individual, than the fractured, false consciousness whole. Like any great philosophical piece, the "right" answers aren't so readily available, morality seemingly more opaque at the end, than when the film began.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Woodmans (C. Scott Willis, 2011) -- A-

Encompassing the holistic experience of viewing The Woodmans must begin with a reconciliation of its often suffocating moments – some filled with joy, others with pain, the majority somewhere in between. It is, indeed, a film of moments or, perhaps better stated, moments of refracted memories. Francesca Woodman, at the age of 22, took her own life after years of struggling with both herself (her body) and the means with which she was (un)able to satisfactorily express a passionate artistry, emotionality. Director C. Willis Scott situates her struggle within a moderately conventional documentary framework, using talking heads of friends and (primarily) family. Willis uses this form to abstractly emote Francesca’s truly unknowable essence – that being her disembodied consciousness, still pulsating from within her raw, mature art works.

In terms of said artistry, there’s no mistaking that Francesca was a wunderkind, possessing a “rock star quality” as one of her former classmates puts it. Parents George and Betty, lifelong artists themselves, marvel in recalling her resolve, persistence. Often baring her entire body for the art, but as a means of rejecting explicitly heteronormative, patriarchal expression (she denies absolute scopophilia, as seen in this piece), she shares qualities with the work of Cindy Sherman in how history, art, and mise-en-scene (the collective hell of connotation) refute bourgeois practices of advertising, consumerism.

Nevertheless, The Woodmans is really about family dissolve, the ways in which recuperative, repressive memory seeks to grapple with death and guilt, especially the suicide of a young one. Betty Woodman perhaps states Willis’ enigma best, speaking about Francesca’s fractured self: “She was vain but also masochistic – how can they co-exist?” Willis lets remain implicit that Betty’s artistic pursuits, detachment from emotional support, approval, cultivated Francesca’s desperate seeks of approval, affirmation, and worth. Moreover, Willis brilliantly correlates art, memory, and emotion, seeking Francesca’s lost humanity, attempting to reify an essence through testimonials and art. He excavates personal moments of history without motives of psychological reduction or succumbing to that dreaded Indie valorization of dysfunctional family neurosis – disorder is not celebrated. Willis seeks unity, without the pretense of seeking absolute knowledge, total understanding. How to speak the confluence of haunting, confined energy, amidst a society that’s unreceptive to difference, pain, and irreducible yearning? Willis enables a direct confrontation with Francesca’s attempted expiations, perhaps no more eloquently than in the sparse use of voice-over entries from her private diary.

Willis has a gentle, but unsentimental touch. There’s nary a sense that he’s milking the material, nor simply paying reverence to artistic martyrs – he’s not motivated simply by ideology. Isolation motivates much of his selected material, made complete by a late quote from George Woodman, now 77, struggling to choke back tears, lamenting the fact that Francesca will never get to see the later stages of life. George’s conclusion, that “to stay alive is a pretty good thing to do,” pierces with its potentiality for ambivalence, suggesting language does not equal art, but that the two are inextricable and must be reconciled – Francesca is alive in her art, but only in a cultural sense, her person (like her art) in a persistent, unknowable limbo.

The Woodmans will play @ Roxie Theater in San Francisco from Friday, November 18th – Thursday, November 24th.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011) -- B+

The body, a locus for transgression/transformation, has always been Pedro Almodóvar's central thematic concern - he peels back the layers of sexual difference, embracing (or, at least, striving towards) a sensual cinema, textually concerned with anatomical identity, but visually, it's like Vincente Minnelli meets Dario Argento (meticulous, virtuosity, haunting). Moreover, Almodóvar shares a common link with Brian De Palma, in that each use the frame as boundary, the separation between outside/inside, too intelligent to merely be meta, their frames pulsate with affect. Now, it's of my humble opinion that De Palma (the master) should belong a couple rungs above Almodóvar, but then my taxonomic preferences essentially negate the cinema each yearns to create. In a recent interview, Jean-Luc Godard says, speaking on the films of Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol that, "This was not the cinema we had dreamt of." The same could not apply to either De Palma and Almodóvar, who both literally and figuratively dream of an alternative cinema; they do so with the image.

The titular skin, for Almodóvar, is cinema. He lives in cinema, much like De Palma. Hence, they speak from within the elements inherent to the medium. Such a distinction should not be confused with filmmakers like Tarantino or the Coen Brothers, who use cinema rather than speaking it - they do not feel in the same manner. Thus, almost as a confession, Almodóvar grapples with a similar claim made by Michael Powell, when asked about his visual style. He replied: "I do not have a style. I am the cinema." Such seeming arrogance (only to those short-sighted enough to care about semantics) becomes validation when, in his films, Powell does indeed speak with (moving) images.

Thus, arriving to The Skin I Live In, certainly Almodóvar's most impassioned film since Bad Education, the contorted, almost amorphous body of Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) stretches, bends-backwards over a couch. Her body becomes the locus of filmic (image) obsession, seeking to capture (enclose) through understanding, mechanism, form, flesh, reconstruction, (re)imagining, the means by which touch, contact (and perpetual, existential isolation) construct an understanding of individualistic worth, coded through patriarchal sexuality. Though perhaps more explicit than ever before, Vera's eventual plight is essentially that of any Almodóvar protagonist, male or female - a line dissipated here. To say Almodóvar has finally made his horror film is to miss the message - he's always made horror films, the horror of confinement, the border, the frame, the limits of corporeal control. Striving for liberation, Almodóvar remains among the most refined, progressive, thoughtful contemporary filmmakers.

The Rum Diary (Bruce Robinson, 2011) -- B+

The Rum Diary may lack for the appropriately gonzo filmmaking of Terry Gilliam, but Bruce Robinson's no slouch either and, through his socio-contemporary use of hedonism, satire, and adulthood, might have even made a film that tops Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In what initially seems to be a conventional, episodic narrative meant to playfully indulge Hemingway-esque male adventure, Robinson slyly inverts perception through cheekily allegorical musings on adolescent yearnings for autonomy, brazenly denying the efforts of filmmakers like Judd Apatow, Todd Phillips, and Dennis Dugan to infantilize the male ego. Not so with Robinson, who uses the Hunter S. narrative to embrace rebellion and burgeoning adolescence, not shun it via sexually inept sociopaths (this should be a catch-all for the aforementioned directors), nor merely use it as hero-worship (here is a film that's finally not so bloody obsessed with reaffirming the individual). Moreover, the use of fourty-somethings Johnny Depp and Michael Rispoli to play the good-natured dupes is brilliant, implicitly suggesting the film's fallibility/construction, a bizarro expiation of Superbadian mythmaking - The Rum Diary romanticizes drunken/drug-induced excess only to the extent that it has to, in order to achieve it's desired symbiosis of product/critique, recognizable in relation to its puerile counterparts. Furthermore, the ingenious casting/scenario becomes compelling when subterfuge turns to violence by the presence of local gangster/lothario Aaron Eckhart, especially in a scene that's a direct homage to Roger Vadim's ...And God Created Woman, the tenants of progressive, politically correct rhetoric a failure when it equally facilitates a uniquely American retardation, the inability of children to leave the nest and assimilate into the world, on their own. Tis' a double-edged sword, the line between excess and self-sustainability, but it's a valid question, pressing in its sociological implications, and one that Robinson slyly configures as inherent to the Thompson legacy.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, Tower Heist, J. Edgar

In varying ways, Tower Heist, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, and J. Edgar are all three tired, silly, and lacking sufficient reason to exist; when not treading ultra-familiar territory, they're embracing their own inconsequentiality. Such a tactic works more in the favor of Harold & Kumar, a third weed-anthem, perhaps their most inspired yet, if self-negating in its persistently ephemeral, reflexive demeanor. Problem is, there's nothing about this duo (nor the filmmaking) that resonates beyond the male-bonding ritual satire, which, since the pieces are so disparate (faux-gay Neil Patrick Harris, a snatch seeking bestie, a doped-out, CGI baby, to name a few) is as much a hindrance as a boost to imbuing the proceedings with a genuine sense of the Carnivalesque, rather than a run-through of potential subversion only to complacently arrive at adamant, male-assertion affirmation. There's little more ridiculous than a film that lampoon's consumerism, advertising, yet is released in surcharging 3D (the film has gags which merely poke fun at the extended medium, rather than using it for truly homosocial commentary/critique). Like the similarly disappointing Jackass 3D, ample potential is squandered on empty provocation. The joke's over, at this point. Same could be said from the intro gags of Tower Heist, "a Brett Ratner film" that can be esteemed only by ranking its effrontery to political sense slightly above In Time, though both heedlessly lurch along, paying lip service to "class warfare" in some bizarre, perversely-tuned denouement of economic revenge/wish-fulfillment. Were Ratner even slightly attuned to the inherently problematic ironies of an assembly-line film ineffectually preaching the detriment of assembly-line political unconscious (In Time even more so), perhaps there would be an inverse effect/pleasure to be had - instead, there's mugging all around, very little laid on the line, even less restoration of comedic dignity to the careers of Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, and Matthew Broderick, if one cares about such things. Speaking of careers, Clint Eastwood may have the most overrated directorial oeuvre of all contemporary directors. Sure he's made some good/very good films (High Plains Drifter, A Perfect World, Mystic River), yet these are merely a few gems amidst other ridiculous, insulting, haphazard efforts. His prolific work ethic isn't helping either, turning from the shamelessly pandering Invictus and the wholly risible Hereafter, to J. Edgar, a biopic whose artistic and political sensibilities are indicative of a film made five decades ago. To call this thing nostalgic and anachronistic wouldn't begin to explain Eastwood's regressive tactics (along with hack screenwriter Dustin Lance Black), using a flashback structure to problematize historicity (Edgar (Leonardo DiCaprio) dictates his memoir while pontificating on the struggle to differentiate "heroes and villains"), yet indulging Oedipal hilarity (including an especially hilarious scene where mother Judi Dench flatly tells Edgar she'd rather seem him dead than become a homosexual, then proceeds to teach him how to "dance"), latent homosexual desire (Eastwood only has the balls to show hand-holding and a kiss amidst a violent struggle), and the often monochromatic, nearly black & white cinematography (capping a retrograde trifecta). On top of this is DiCaprio's worst performance since Gangs of New York, yet that matters little when Eastwood refuses to use the material for subversive/political means. Questioning historical authenticity? Not exactly provocative, especially when Edgar's words ("a country is doomed once it forgets its history") merely pay lip service to postmodern crisis (though the claim that "America must never let down its guard," when spoken in DiCaprio's twang, sounds a good bit like "we must never let down our God," an amusing contrast). Problem is, Eastwood's too busy pacifying (who exactly?) to muddy the waters, providing not a single, memorable cinematic flourish amidst 137 minutes of cinema fit only for those who have trouble remembering what year it is.

Immortals (Tarsem Singh, 2011) -- C-

Question One: The image. Question Two: Montage. Both questions fail to be answered in Immortals. Instead, we're left parsing through the dialectics of Tarsem Singh's obvious, traditionalist narrativity. Those expecting more of an impressionist, silent, visually driven opus of slo-mo, color, and synecdoche - look elsewhere, since Tarsem's avant-gardist sensibilities appear only in flashes; Immortals is more 300-esque pap for kids who still get their rocks off on blood, tits, and puerile affect - not real artistry. Unfortunately, the opening image teases with its eloquence, starkly framing the stunned, frozen faces of a dozen Titans, trapped in a cage, holding the bars with their teeth, the body in place of structure, architecture as intertwined with human subject. Such a breathtaking introduction gives way to meddlesome, "arise a knight" oppositions, any sense of visual style and/or personal infiltration consistently squashed by a script chock-full of frustrating, meaningless, empty exchanges, nearly all of them too asinine to remember (or even pay attention to). Tarsem could be working to bridge the gap between screen and viewer, but instead he's content to assimilate with the same trite, "storytelling" methods as nearly every "filmmaker" to come down the pike. There's nothing remotely subversive, affectual, haunting, sensual here. The image doesn't speak - it's stunted amidst a confluence of regressive inclinations/forces.

Friday, November 11, 2011

In Time (Andrew Niccol, 2011) -- D

Praising In Time would require considerably ignorant joviality, a demeanor so pleased and amused to merely be in the presence of a film, that its searing, painful deficiencies become carelessly subordinated to "ignorance is bliss" securities. Andrew Niccol proves the literalist, absent-minded douchebag his eariler efforts (Gattaca, Simone, and Lord of War) only hinted towards. Regressing to consumerist fetish par excellence (just look at that fucking poster), Niccol engages reactionary "political" filmmaking of the most fickle variety, exploiting real-world economic crisis and amping individualistic savior nonsense into an action concoction whose most compelling dimension is Justin Timberlake's always two-day facial hair, even when he and fembot squeeze Amanda Seyfried have been on the run for days (time-space ceases, latent dysmorphophobia persists). Never clean shaven and not quite growing into a beard, his face remains ever so slightly scruffy, rugged. Perhaps it's the year of the stubble. Ryan Gosling sported a similar no-shave (but always trimmed) look in The Ides of March. Does JT have a little tool in his coat-pocket, using it between shoot-outs to keep everything just so? If such is the case, why would Niccol keep such a detail hidden? Hidden. That's where Amanda Seyfried's dignity remains throughout, trotting along, doting, without agency (JT lets her perform a few times -- mostly on him). JT, metonymically standing in for some displaced, absent, condescended to, forsaken proletariat, Niccol succumbs to every worst instinct, sexualizing his aesthetic, indulging sentimental entropy, then lazily offering a triumph of the individual (class) over systematic disavowal and repression. Few films work this hard to slap viewers on the ass and in the face simultaneously.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The 15 "Scariest" Movies Since 2000

1. Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, 2001)
2. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
3. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
4. Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 2008)
5. Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, 2008)
6. Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2010)
7. Bug (William Friedkin, 2007)
8. Mad Detective (Johnny To, 2008)
9. Inside (Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury, 2007)
10. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
11. High Tension (Alexandre Aja, 2005)
12. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)
13. Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)
14. Audition (Takashi Miike, 2000)
15. Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Twenty-Two: Bad Biology (Frank Henenlotter, 2008) -- B+

Bad Biology aka The Girl With the Crazy Pussy aka You Dirty Little Cunt-Bitch-Whore, went relatively unnoticed in its 2008 release (even by a cinephile like myself), because the marketing/product machine has become so large, so looming, that there's no room for a true visionary like Frank Henenlotter, whose entire oeuvre has been marginalized because it exists within the system, to a certain extent, and is a palpable threat to dismantling the "values" of a cinema predicated on maintaining a hegemonic order that never too forcefully deviates from those parameters. Now, I'm not suggesting Henenlotter functions as a part of the system, more that his films suggest genre works gone awry, injected with a subversive tinge, using sex, the body, violence, and the grotesque as a means of over-satiation; Henenlotter is funny and genius because he's refracting Americana, disavowing scopophilia through a Carnivalesque wit - not enough contemporary filmmakers have it.

Jennifer (Charlee Danielson) has a problem: she's a nymphomaniac like no other, she "feeds on orgasms," with needs physical not psychological, she believes "God wants to fuck me." Art, excess, pornography implode amidst sex sequences that evoke jouissance, death/pleasure inseparable, copulation inevitable (Jen also has, let's just say, very active genitalia). Speaking of, Batz (Anthony Sneed) is her unbeknownst soul-mate, struggling with his active, mind-of-its-own cock, which has "troubled" him since he was a tyke (his member seems to deliberately evoke Duane's troubled "little guy" from Basket Case). Reporting on the specifics of the narrative is useless, since Henenlotter's brilliance comes in his spirit, critical but fascinated, disgusted but enamored - ambivalent. Such a film must remain in a "cult" realm, so long as more obvious, literal, and finite fare receives cultural perpetuation.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Twenty-One: Paranormal Activity 3 (Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman, 2011) -- C-

Aside from offering an adept tutorial regarding On and Off-screen space, Paranormal Activity 3 provides little to legitimate its "Where's Waldo?" gimmick, as ephemeral as it is cynical, not utilizing its "personal" aesthetic for political means, but merely as an asinine piggy-backing ploy, seemingly oblivious or apathetic to why its domestic terror via home video footage resonates so forcefully with audiences (PA 3 became horror's biggest opener this weekend with a haul of roughly 54M). Not that any of this should surprise considering filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman's previous film, Catfish, equally exploited and remained oblivious to its faux-documentary foolishness, the opposite of self-reflexive, questioning representation by accident rather than through an honorable attempt. Though Catfish could at least offer an interesting case study of ever shrinking lines between (non)fiction, Paranormal Activity 3 merely seeks to fulfill itself as a product of Paramount's ingenious marketing campaign (anchored by a "Bloody Mary" scene which does not appear in the feature, itself).

Moreover, Joost and Schulman prove to be the philistines their debut suggests, in that their interests are so miniscule, so detached from the personal becoming the political, that Paranormal Activity 3 could barely even be called ephemeral, its phantasmagoric pretenses masking retrograde narrative nonsense that literally devolves into haggard old-woman paranoia, without the slightest hint of satire. Expect straight-faced babysitter screams and scared best friend sequences too; Joost and Schulman are embarrassingly prideful about their derivative demeanor, aping from the franchise itself and other films so liberally, but disguised under a suggestion of innovation, that by the film's limp-wristed, "that's it?" conclusion, the stringent odor of consumerist, naif-devised bullshit abounds.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Twenty: They Came Back (Robin Campillo, 2004) -- C-

A thoroughly inert attempt at aristocratic horror, They Came Back attempts to situate itself as worthy of inclusion within the horror genre through its use of "zombies," though these folks look like they were buried yesterday. Essentially, a small French town becomes perplexed when its buried patrons arise from their graves and return, not to feed on the living, but to assimilate back into society. That this is "a zombie flick like no other" should not suggest quality, since director Robin Campillo cannot shake his wholly metaphoric pretensions, not revising genre so much as belittling it. Were he more keyed into the potential satirical dimensions of his narrative (this only sporadically manifests), the literal title could simultaneously dismantle and pay reverence, both to zombie films and social reform. Not interested in cracking much of a smile, Campillo is potentially at his strongest when focusing on smaller relationships, between the dead-come-to-life and their loved ones - but even here, there's a consistent sense of muddied intent and execution, disjointed not to imbue a degree of ambivalence to the proceedings, but seemingly because of an uncertainty or (more likely) unfamiliarity, coupled with an arrogant disdain towards genre filmmaking, in general.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Nineteen: Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (Kôji Shiraishi, 2007) -- B

With Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman, director Kôji Shiraishi doesn't so much make a compelling, intelligent horror film as he does a potentially iconographic one, more impressive in its return-of-the-repressed, towering, massive scissor-wielding slasher than anything the film can muster in terms of thoughtful dialectics. Nevertheless, the latter's deficiencies will only negate filmic pleasure if such criterion are one's sole method of achieving it; in fact, Carved's use of a generic plot and narrative mold almost work in its favor, ultimately, since this is really a horror film for the fans - a new slasher is born. In a small Japanese city, the patrons begin to notice several children disappearing. A few people, having contact with a tall, strange, vengeful woman when they were younger, begin to suspect the figure has returned. The specifics of "why" the figure seeks said retribution is relatively meaningless and Shiraishi treats it as such, instead keeping things lean and more geared towards visual thrills. Of course explicitly linked with A Nightmare on Elm Street (and nowhere near as profound as Craven's film), Shiraishi has fun upping the ante in terms of who's on the chopping block, as well as lingering on the titular slasher, lumbering slowly forward, scissors-up, eyes wide open. In a few particular sequences, the film proves adept simply in terms of genre, understanding the slasher film in its inherent ability to emphasize isolation, difference, and individuality gone awry, the community dissolved because of apathy, disinterest, and complacency. These themes appear steadily throughout, making anyone who's a fan of slasher films immediately attuned to Shiraishi's brand of havoc.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Eighteen: The Ordeal (Calvaire) (Fabrice Du Welz, 2004) -- C

Like many failed horror films of the past decade, Fabrice Du Welz's The Ordeal miscalculates its dosages of homage and ingenuity, remaining far too much in awe of its predecessors (in this case, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) to create anything new or, even, worthwhile. Chilling and intriguing as some of Du Welz's sequences are, little coheres or resonates past its derivative genesis. Traveling magician Marc (Laurent Lucas) is almost to his next gig when his car breaks down. Too bad for him, he's trapped in a French countryside where some odd fellows reside, the worst of which, it turns out, is the seemingly friendly Mr. Bartel (Jackie Berroyer), who warns Marc that he "shouldn't visit a nearby village," claiming that "not too many artistic types live there." The film's eeriest scene comes in an explicit Psycho homage, where Marc/Bartel sit in the parlor, exchanging stories, until Bartel requests that Marc sing a song for him. Unto this point, The Ordeal works as a derivative, but clever slow-burner. However, once Bartel actually captures Marc, tortures him, and sits him down at the family dinner table, where a 360 degree camera reveals all of the demented family members cackling uncontrollably, Du Welz loses grasp on his earlier, more subtle sensibilities, ultimately settling for perfunctory, literal intimations that lack resonance beyond an ephemeral gag-reflex at the depravity.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Seventeen: The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence (Tom Six, 2011) -- C

The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence might be more schizophrenic and creatively impotent than its overweight, mimetically-driven lead character; in a meta-device that consistently keeps the narrative from approaching any sort of resonance or sincerity, parking-garage attendant Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) is obsessed with director Tom Six’s debut feature, The Human Centipede. He watches it every day and night on his laptop while at work; he keeps a bounded scrapbook under his bed, full of fetishizing over the original’s reputedly “100% medically accurate” mantra and especially lead actress Ashlynn Yennie, who unsurprisingly turns up as herself, late into the film. Are these ironies particularly inspired or compelling? Not really. Six situates them as some sort of perverse, socially refracted mirror, but to have any success with this brand of purported of insight, he needs more than a simple (solipsistic) idea. If M. Night Shyamalan took shit for casting himself as a prescient writer in Lady in the Water, Six’s sophomore feature merely cannibalizes his original film and ventures so far into self-effacement, one can only suspect the original as the set-up for this ludicrous, feature-length payoff (however, The Human Centipede III: Final Sequence is underway, apparently).

Nevertheless, while the high-concept stuff is easily the film’s weakest point (it does little more than allow unhinged crudity and excess), the strongest material comes during the first half, inside Martin’s home, where he lives with mother (Vivien Bridsen) and frequent visits from grossly-bearded, pervert (shock) shrink Dr. Sebring (Bill Hutchens). When questioned about Martin’s obsession over “making a centipede with twelve people,” Dr. Sebring responds: “The centipede is likely a phallic substitution for Martin’s displaced feelings of hostility and anger towards the probably sexual and psychological abuse of his father.” Six’s play is not to make this a viable explanation, but to lampoon any sort of reductive psychological or sociological reading. Problem is, Six’s treatment is nothing remotely new, denying Martin any voice whatsoever (he literally never speaks a word), then littering the film with allusions to previous trauma, albeit (again) outrageously (there’s the suggestion that “baby’s tears make daddy’s willy hard”). By suggesting there are no explanations (and, ultimately, intimating the film’s events may never have even happened), Six intentionally effaces his entire film – something, while moderately interesting conceptually, that’s simply faux-bad-boy antics, much like the bulk of The Human Centipede II’s purported “depravity.” Six lacks the ability (or will, could be either) as a filmmaker to give his horrific deeds any gravity; For example, Martin beats a pregnant woman, strips her naked, makes her part of the centipede. Near the end of the film, she escapes, hops in a car, dazed and frenzied, trying to start the engine. Before she can, she goes into labor, the baby plops out, lands by her feet. She’s elated; however, a scare from Martin cause her to scream, she puts pedal to metal – only her newborn baby’s head just happens to get in the way and she crushes it like a fresh cantaloupe. Now, the moment surely elicits groans, gasps, and guffaws (all three at once, even), but it’s hardly “provocative,” because the image, the deed, is merely exhibition, a singular act devoid of any ties outside of simple exploitation. If this is Six’s point, it’s self-defeating; moreover, Six’s mostly clinical approach to terror, shame, and gross-out lack artistry, or, even cohesion in argument – if Six is attempting to get academic, he’s too iffy in that pursuit to maintain consistency.

Thus, everything about The Human Centipede II is a bloody, shitty mess. Six commits to at least four different thematic and tonal pursuits – even chaos and nihilism needs consistency and some sort of internal “logic” (the word is insufficient) to be effective. So, when shit literally sprays onto the camera (the only color that’s (ahem) inserted into Six’s black & white cinematography), when Martin jerks-off with sandpaper, when an actress mistakes Martin’s luring-in for a Quentin Tarantino film audition, when Martin has an actual centipede funneled into his ass, when 12 people are successively executed at point-blank range, when Dr. Sebring claims he’d like to “fuck that fat retarded boy up the ass,” – the reaction is laughter, cringing, or head-shaking – the specificity of which is seemingly irrelevant to Six, so long as it’s one of the three. Is it a good thing The Human Centipede II exists? Yes. Does that make it a successful film? Not by a long shot. Nevertheless, Six’s freak-show, mad-scientist mentality does sporadically induce more than simply self-consciously trite excess, but since Six is so wrapped up in himself and his (delusional) role as provocateur (need it even be suggested that Martin is Six’s stand-in?), he comes off as little more than a self-professed, prideful, badge-wearing pervert, chasing his own ass.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Horrorthon 3: Day Sixteen: The Thing (Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., 2011) – C

The sun does not shine, it is too wet to play, so Columbia paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a team of Norweigian scientists sit in their Antarctic campsite all the cold, cold wet day. Kate sits there with Braxton (Joel Edgerton), they sit there, they two, and Kate says, “Oh, I wish we had something to do.” Too wet to go out and too repressed to bawl, director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. has them sit in the house and do nothing at all. But then!

SomeTHING went bump! How that bump makes them jump. They look and then see it crash in with a spring, the CGI-ing of The Thing. “I know some dull games we can play,” says The Thing. “I know some old tricks. A lot of old tricks, but I will act like they're new, John Carpenter will not mind the blatant 'screw you!'” Since there’s no one here to say, “make this Thing go away,” Heijningen and company get to stay in and play. He claims homage, but making easy cash is his wish, and he’s taking a shit on one of Carpenter’s most cherished. Exposition overload, no humanist recall, Heijningen is a hack – and lets everything fall.

And I say: “Do I like this? Fuck no I do not.”

Out of his box come Thing one and Thing two, so overblown and ridiculous, one wonders what to do? These things will bite you, they want to have fun, but as for Heijningen, well, he seems to have none. Kate is the leader, she knows what to say, round everyone up, and check teeth for decay. Fillings over feelings, the dance is inert, unless your knowledge is lacking, and you’re a cinephilic squirt.

Bump! Thump! Thump! Bump! Down the wall in the hall. The Thing morphs and devours so sillily, it matters nothing at all. Carpenter’s film trampled, what would he say? Oh, he would not like it to find his Thing this way. Fast as they can, a plan made by the crew, a way to get rid of the thing, some creativity is due. Nope, as it were, flamethrowers and a grenade, Haijningen’s film is a crock, though sturdily made.

Horrorthon 3: Day Fifteen: The Woman (Lucky McKee, 2011) -- A-

The bleakest, most perverse satire of American, patriarchal domesticity since A History of Violence, Lucky McKee returns after two lukewarm entries (The Woods, Red) to finally fulfill the promise of his debut feature (May). Unlike in his lesser films, McKee now challenges dominant norms that resonate more through suggestion of a prolonged period of exploitation than explicit real-world links; here, it's the American narrative of nuclear family under patriarchal rule, the "in the name of the (white) father" order that facilitates racism, misogyny, and bigotry. McKee's dealings aren't particularly timely, per se; in fact, the film lacks cultural specificity to place it in the "here and now," and could almost belong to the early wave of domestic terror films in the early 1970's, begun by The Last House on The Left, Deathdream, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nevertheless, in refusing to make allusions to reality of any sort (other than grand narratives), McKee's film takes on an uncanny quality, even more terrifying in its implication that these issues aren't so much a "return of the repressed," since they remain firmly in place, hardly absent even amidst claims of "radical" social reform and politically correct speech. When sociopathic/rapist father Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) finally spews his hate-filled, epithet-laden rhetoric - it stings quite a bit.

The Cleek family lives in a middle-class country area; under the father there's mother Belle (Angela Bettis), quasi-goth loner high-school daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), young teenage son Brian (Zach Rand), and post-toddler Darlin' (Shyla Molhusen). The facade of their normalcy is revealed through Chris's depravity; finding a mysterious, "uncivilized" woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) in the woods while hunting, he bags her, clears some space in the cellar, and chains her up. She's ferocious; a mesmerizing opening sequence suggests she's been raised by wolves, but that's the extent of her background. Quite like Terrence Stamp's unnamed visitor in Pasolini's Teorema, her presence bubbles tensions lying just beneath the surface, eventually bringing them, by turns both hilarious and horrifying, to an irretractable boiling point. Much like last year's Dogtooth (the first masterpiece of the new decade), The Woman is not so much parodic as embittered by its almost ineffable anger directed towards hegemonic cultural codes. However, by turning hostility into humor and irreverence, both filmmakers imbue a degree of sincerity, which makes their blood-soaked codas equal parts indeterminate and cathartic, but not illusory - the problem still lingers.

Most interesting about The Woman is the "battle-of-the-sexes" showdown that materializes throughout; suggesting "boys will be boys" rhetoric as the ignition of sexist subterfuge and nationalistic pride (an irrational belief of self-righteousness), McKee goes to dark (but necessary) places in fulfilling the totality of his satirical grasp, keying in on (as few filmmakers have been able to) a distinctly American focus on materiality and capital. When Brian sneaks into the cellar to torture and rape the eponymous Woman, the father's ultimate assessment is: "Well, if no one was harmed, then everything's fine." In concentrating on tangible results (visible evidence of bodily damage), McKee implicitly critiques capitalistic drives, the belief in "no harm, no foul" if the damage cannot be evidenced in empirical ways. Ignoring shame, pride, honor, dignity (emotion, essentially), morals and ethics are irrevocably cast-aside, enabling a rationalization of depravity. While one of the sole references to religion is a bit egregious (Chris cartoonishly claims he "still wants to get to heaven" after committing rape), it nevertheless problematizes a reductive reading or take, since McKee is not pinpointing a specific genesis for this sort of chauvinist, "mightier-than-thou" behavior. There's a persistent ambivalence concurrent throughout, and right when The Woman feels like it's about to go off-the-rails, McKee tightens the screws, ups the ante, and dares you, to use a crude (but appropriate) colloquialism, to "pull-out." When McKee's at his sharpest, there are no easy answers.