Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Way (Emilio Estevez, 2011) -- C+

Luxury plays a significant role in The Way, director Emilio Estevez's sixth (who knew?) feature film, yet it's something the writer/director neglects to adequately address, opting instead for a more conventional, literal tale of Tom (Martin Sheen), a grieving father , who upon learning about the death of his son Daniel (Emilio Estevez), decides to travel the El Camino de Santiago by foot, a trek his son attempted to make before being killed on the journey. The scenario is trailer-made (see for yourself here), verging on Hallmark-stamped levels of easy irony and unearned pathos. Moreover, the literal journey leads to obvious metaphorical ends (there's symbolism in nearly every scene), as do Tom's inevitable encounters with a host of characters, namely Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), and Jack (James Nesbitt), all of whom have afflictions of their own; Joost is in a bad marriage and overweight; Sarah flees an abusive relationship; Jack suffers from writer's block. Ho-hum to say the least, especially in the utterly lackadaisical presentation. And yet - these very simplicities ultimately (and surprisingly) turn into charmingly small insights, anchored mainly by Sheen's impassioned performance and Estevez's decision to shoot nearly every scene from Sheen's perspective, a tact that imbues a degree of subjective strife (if indulgent) detached from class divide. Much like Sean Penn's Into the Wild, Estevez is too in love with the independent spirit to critique it; in doing so, he valorizes impudence, championing a will that's afforded only by privilege, not dedication. Estevez's film isn't as nearly self-absorbed as Penn's, but The Way can never quite manufacture a reason for its existence, given the often trite, recycled notions of family, faith, grief, and retribution.

Killer Elite (Gary McKendry, 2011) -- B-

Killer Elite shares considerable commonalities with The Debt, but succeeds because of one major difference: sincerity. Gary McKendry's attention to genre detail makes him far more complex than John Madden; he locates his subjects within a needlessly complex tale of double-crossing SAS agents in 1981 London, caught amidst a suitably (because of time period and generic predecessors) xenophobic narrative involving a sheik of Oman demanding retribution for the murder of his three sons. These plot points allow propulsion towards more dynamic elements, namely the film's inherent critique of politically correct visual rhetoric, which disallows masculine assertion via violent fantasy (the intertwining of history and fetish), Eurocentric in its aims, but proletarian in its grappling with class. Killer Elite is a far better homage to its genre than The Expendables, since it carries its prides and prejudices without irony - there's a degree of resolve missing from most contemporary action films. Nevertheless, McKendry's focus doesn't properly make a 21st century shift, retrograde in its ideas, no more informed than if the film had actually been made in the mid-80's. Both a blessing and a damnation, McKendry is helped immensely by Jason Statham, Robert De Niro, and Clive Owen, who effortlessly carry the flimsy material to loftier heights, even if the effect is ultimately short-lived. If McKendry relied less on emphasizing the veracity of his tale (the end credits go to embarrassing lengths of self-legitimation), he might have been able to turn retro into contempo - a task that (arguably) no action director has been able to successfully complete.

Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star (Tom Brady, 2011) -- F

Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star is one of the most repulsive films I've ever seen. There's almost an abject fascination to be had from its terribleness. Did human beings make this film? Certainly no one from planet Earth could have viewed the final product, been amused, given a thumb's up, and said: "I HAVE to attach my name to this." No. Any rational, even moderately psychopathic individual would go to great links to disassociate themselves from having their remaining filmmaking career resting upon the shoulders of a film this regressive. To possess a view of sexuality that draws "humor" wholly from grown-manchild Bucky (Nick Swardson) having no conception of his own physicality, secluded and repressed (with a miniscule dick, no less), seeing his parents fuck in a porno, then deciding he wants to follow in their footsteps, represents the most puerile sensibilities conceivable - the sort of self-hating confusion that breeds sexual deviants. Yes, it's true - Bucky Larson propagates a brand of humor that, seen by anyone without sexual experience, threatens to twist their anxieties towards shame and away from celebration, the body as a source of self-doubt, Bucky's perpetual adolescence the obsession and fascination of truly disturbed individuals, a retardation of the highest order. Fuck this movie; it's a social cancer. It's as misguided as they come, the absolute converse to the greatest film ever made about human sexuality, Dusan Makavejev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Nothing (and no one) in Bucky Larson resembles humanity.

The Debt (John Madden, 2011) -- C-

Utilizing the sort of "based on a true story" mold that screams Oscar bait (and, thus, denies nuance), John Madden's The Debt not once questions the veracity it so rigidly propagates, settling instead for top-heavy exposition devoid of larger meanings, a chronology shifting narrative oblivious to its own exhaustive banality, and an aesthetic suitable to any run-of-the-mill politico tale. The film's only potentially interesting tampering with temporality comes via a double take of revisionism, where a man thought to have been killed lives, an implicit proposition of historical ambiguity amidst moral loss, but Madden situates it merely as plot propulsion, a means to get less savvy audience members sitting up straight in their seats rather than furthering any sort of genre revision. Moreover, the central sequences, following Secret Agents Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington), and Stefan (Marton Csokas), specifically a few scenes where Rachel gets a medical exam from the ex-Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen) in question, are warmed-over bits of better films (Marathon Man specifically comes to mind), and simply fetishize historical narratology, specifically Naziism, for ends devoid of critical consideration. Politics becomes entertainment, feigning pretensions of grandeur, made no more apparent than in the film's jargon-heavy, motor-mouthed scenes that seek to explain rather than show. Madden has no insights - he's just proficient at setting up signposts that stroke the allegiance of cultural false consciousness.

Our Idiot Brother (Jesse Peretz, 2011) -- B

Jesse Peretz's Our Idiot Brother helps to rescue modern comedy from an abyss of improv-for-improv sake, excessive crudity (comedy = economy), and socio-political subterfuge, the naively eponymous Ned (Paul Rudd) almost a rebuke to contemporary cynicism, his kindness practically anachronistic in relation to his three sisters (Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschnanel, Emily Mortimer) and their significant others (Adam Scott, Rashida Jones, Steve Coogan). Refraining from mere situational insight, Peretz steers Ned's fuck-ups away from fodder for idiot savant beneficence (this is not Forrest Gump), lending his humanity a sincerity and the film a sophistication that, in its best moments, strikes a commendable level of unsentimental pathos, locating feeling instead of fashionable vulgarity. Our Idiot Brother is, in retrospect, the summer's only comedy that treats its subjects with care (Bridesmaids might be sporadically cannier, but it's far less composed) and doesn't abuse the genre for cheap laughs (Horrible Bosses and Bad Teacher being the primary offenders). Peretz's charming direction is a refreshing antidote to Apatowian deception.

Monday, September 26, 2011

30 Minutes or Less (Ruben Fleischer, 2011) -- C+

It's hard to determine whether 30 Minutes or Less, directed by Zombieland hack Ruben Fleischer, is a work of social relevance cum genre firecracker or merely a nonsense piece of pop-cultural potpourri, as tasteless as it is ephemeral. Perhaps the question is hard to answer because the film is both, at times acutely aware of its characters' post-adolescent (but still nascent) masculinity as tied directly to grander notions of monetary gain (image rules their desire), yet at others merely a product of over-stimulated cultural awareness, no better epitomized than ODB's "Baby I Got Your Money" which plays over the closing credits, a most disingenuous quasi-ironic hipster choice that aligns Fleischer not as a social satirist, but merely a kid lost in a candy store, picking and choosing without discrimination, merely drunk on his own euphoric delusions of grandeur rather than any cogent cultural focus. The film's title cleverly aligns stringent consumerist cannibalism with dehumanization (the penniless pizza boy a perfect metonym for absurdist capitalism), but the only joke that manifests involves Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) getting an extra $20 off a couple of dim-witted middle-schoolers. Funnier than Eisenberg is Chet (Aziz Ansari), though he's generally left to fulfill dutiful side-kick roles. Moreover, the potential for hilarity would seem endless between knuckle-heads Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson), whose entrepreneurial dreams consist of opening their own massage/fuck parlor (a PERFECT metaphor for the now indecipherable cultural synthesis of sexual unfulfillment and heteronormative psychology), but yet again, petty banter takes the place of irreverent perception. Fleischer seems capable of taking a cultural pulse, at times hilariously allowing an expression of gender hostility (Dwayne's epithet "Quiet down, Slumdog" to Chet's sister stands out) that transcends grab-bag nihilism. Ultimately though, the elements that suggest sophistication are snuffed-out by too much playful apathy, settling for unfocused shenanigans over streamlined satire.

The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011) -- C

It wouldn't be a shock, whatsoever, to see The Help win the Oscar for Best Picture come next February. It has all of the necessary ingredients; a tailor-made script for bi-partisan appreciation that caters to both die-head social liberals and down-south, false consciousness conservatives through its placating demeanor, an "issue" film without any tangible issue, given the one-dimensional approach to racism, empathy, and resolve. It feigns provocative moments and interests in a so-called post-racial climate (the white folks who made the film no doubt see this as their major allegorical aim), yet loses any sort of progressive or forward-thinking points by the very nature of its existence, re-aligning the faux-historical narrative to provide a white lead - spunky, unbiased, fair-to-all do-gooder Skeeter (Emma Stone), whose persistence against the downright evil behavior of Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) in 1960's Mississippi leads to the publication of the eponymous book, which contains anecdotes and testimonies of nearly two dozen black maids, among them the outspoken Minny (Octavia Spencer) and Aibileen (Viola Davis), the latter of whom provides the film a superficial voice-over, essentially serving as a soothing bookend rather than engendering caustic insight. Director Tate Taylor's primary foul-up is that he reduces an unspeakable pain, a tumultuous social milieu, brought on by repressed feelings and unspoken fears, to a three-act structure of melodramatic inertia, situating revelations of disgust, anguish, and, eventually triumph, as merely exploitable moments that will look pretty impressive on Oscar night (Davis and Spencer are locks for nominations and have excellent chances to win), but immediately sink the film as a serious work of art. There's a compelling subplot involving ostracized housewife Celia's (Jessica Chastain) relationship with Minny that, at its best moments, suggests the sort of feminine camaraderie located by Douglas Sirk in his 1959 masterpiece Imitation of Life, but, problem is, Taylor squanders that potential by aligning the two as kindred spirits of inequality, a problematic proposition at best, made even more sour by the film's "you are a Godless woman!" finale, abandoning any degree of subtlety to chastise a character whom, at this point, has surpassed even Cruella De Vil levels of inhuamnity, something the film expects to elicit cheers (and likely has amongst undiscriminating viewers), but only reinforces just how simplistically The Help views racial discrimination and potential avenues for progress and equality.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011) -- C-

Moneyball belongs to a growing species of filmmaking that can only be called anti-cinema, made by pedantic, talentless hacks, utilizing genre not for useful or passionate allegory, but simply an act of obfuscatory solipsism, where the ironically temperate form enables blithely self-absorbed content. Chief offender here is Bennett Miller, following up his equally empty Capote with something even less enticing: a baseball movie that hates baseball movies. Notoriously literal and tactile screenwriters Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin provide Bennett with a proper amount of smug for him to unveil his one-dimensional insights and gratingly dry aesthetic taste, insisting not upon an inversion of genre (the proper critical act), but a negation, subtracting archetype, but neglecting to replace said subtraction with any supplemental value. What manifests in lieu of this absence is casual detachment usually reserved for the likes of Steven Soderbergh (though he broke his creep streak with Contagion), epitomized no better than by Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), whom Bennett treats not with a degree of delineating investigation (getting beyond patriarchal crisis), but prissy existentialism, aligning past failure (masculine insufficiency) with present self-pity, a tired neo-liberal anxiety and one that strands the film's foundational aspirations, especially given Bennett's disinterest in dramatics of any sort. No big speeches, no love interest, no final game, no mentor-protege bonding - all well and good, but Bennett proves himself merely a hater, not an artist. He's unable to take his apparent disdain for normative formula and produce anything other than, well, his apparent disdain for normative formula. Billy Beane asks aloud late into the film: "How can you not be Romantic about baseball?" right before statistics wiz Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) shows him a scouting video with a blistering irony. "It's called a metaphor," says Brand. Beane smiles and says, "I know it's a metaphor." Bennett perpetually can't help himself, whether willfully seeping the life out of nearly every scene (he's a horrible director of actors) or relying on Sorkin's (presumably) fake-smart reflexive quips. Problem is, without a compelling proposition to reflect on, there's nothing but dead space, which Moneyball has in droves.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) -- A

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is a rebuke to nostalgia, seemingly participant what with its 80's synth-pop score, reverent aesthetics, and influence from prolific filmmakers like Michael Mann, William Friedkin, John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, and David Lynch (to name a few), but adamantly opposed to mimesis as a means of grappling with psychological and cultural deficiencies. Imitation begets confusion, duplication being the avenue to erasure of essential perceptibility, and of purity and goodness. At the core of this dilemma lies mythology, wholly in the postmodern sense, the accumulation of mediated images resulting in an imperceptibility between reality and simulation. Refn has managed, however, to brilliantly extricate this concept from the science-fiction genre, replacing literal machines (borgs and that stupid shit) with a living, breathing automaton, named simply Driver (Ryan Gosling). Under the guise of an action film (this is no more a genre piece than Taxi Driver), Refn produces something akin to pastiche, only in an inverted form, an amalgamation of cinematic influences as testimony to his highly personal form of introspection, not with solipsism or explicit acknowledgements, but a simultaneously critical and participatory discursive mode, both hero-worship and admonition against it, not so much hypocritical as hypercritical, both of fellow filmmakers' contemporary malpractice and of itself - in many ways, Drive is self-effacing, passionate in conviction, but nihilistic and pessimistic that such feeling translates into any functional humanism in an era so detached, unmotivated, and mistaken.

Drive opens by recalling both Thief and To Live and Die in L.A. (particularly the latter), a kaleidoscopic presentation of pulsating rhythms, fetishized images, and stark contrast lighting, isolating Driver as he either frequents his barren, blank-walled apartment, or simply...drives. By day a stunt driver/auto-shop mechanic, by night a getaway driver, the initial minimalism plays as obvious doubling, Driver merely a stand-in, a fake. However, once night turns, Driver steps into his own film of sorts, now the pulse-pounding hero he can only pretend to be on film sets.

His desires tend towards anonymity, at least until he meets neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos), whom he forms an immediate bond with. Refn quickly stamps-out any meet-cute pretensions, however, instead giving Irene and Driver very little dialogue, their relationship founded upon looks, glances, touches, and, perhaps, a deeper understanding of their similarly fractured lives. When Irene's hubby Standard (Oscar Issac) returns home from a jail stint, he enlists new friend Driver to pull off a heist, only to have things go horribly wrong (think Anton Chigurh level-carnage), placing Driver in deep shit with crime boss Bernie (Albert Brooks) and psycho-thug Nino (Ron Perlman). Little do they know the seemingly level-headed Driver is actually a deluded, sadistic psychopath, capable of shooting, stabbing, hammering, and drowning his way through a slew of baddies to protect his "damsel in distress" and her son.

Much controversy will come from the propulsion that leads Driver to risk himself for a woman he's, presumably, not even had sex with. His notions of valor are predicated on fairy-tale conceptions of masculine and feminine, puerile in their short-sightedness, protection through violence as the only recourse to closure. One would be mistaken, however, to simply align Refn with Driver, insofar as Refn's auto-ironic style continually restates his paradoxical desire to both distance himself and get closer to Driver's frighteningly easy ability to flip a switch of bloodthirsty destruction. Much credit must go to Refn's brilliantly ironic song choices (lyrics like "I don't eat. I don't sleep. I do nothing but think of you," "Do you know the difference between love and obsession?" and "Real human being...and a real hero," are eerily celebratory of misguided cultural morality), sexualizing violence (making it emotional/primal) while lamenting the loss of any human connection. When Driver finally dons a stunt mask near the film's end, he's a Michael Myers level psychopath with the abject veneer of normalcy; pop culture and urban nihilism have been fully synthesized, attesting to Refn's madcap vision of culture and decay as inextricably linked.

It admittedly seems hard to believe that such concepts could manifest so palpably with a director like Refn, who, unto this point, has not displayed these forms of cultural interest. His rigid examinations of masculinity have been about the use of violence as a replacement for language, bodily expression transcending denotative meaning to provide symbolic connotation and, therefore, negating psychological explication, instead interested in physiological assertion. The title is a pun, not just referring to vehicular movement, but "drives" in the psychological sense, the unconscious move towards a final goal or destination: desire. From the pink title credits, to a pivotal slow-motion embrace in an elevator, to Refn's self-labeling as a "fetish filmmaker," Drive is ultimately about the genesis of desire, not tied to any discernible reality (the film is set in Los Angeles, but makes little effort towards "realism"), but linked exclusively to its inversions - Romanticism and Heroism, a post-human psychopath without recourse, fulfilling desire (as the film mirrors his endeavors) under media-constructed mores. Drive is the ultimate meta-film of the 21st century, topping even Michael Haneke and Quentin Tarantino's best efforts, because there's little delineation (consciousness) between the film itself, and an act of criticism. Never breaking the fourth wall or explicitly referencing other films, Drive is truly dangerous, an act of subversion so in-tune with societal disconnection from humanity and feeling, that it runs the risk of being mistaken merely as a product of its time. It is to a certain degree. Yet, the end result's implosion of meaning, pulling back a generic veneer to reveal the constructed mechanizations beneath (lacking any psychology) resonates with an emptiness, a sting few other films are able to build towards, much less deliver on.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Warrior (Gavin O'Connor, 2011) -- B

Two artistic ends tug against one another in Gavin O'Connor's fascinating Warrior: (1) the macropolitics of working-class struggle, men who use atavistic impetus to transcend the emotional and capitalist trappings (both are equated in the film) that inhibit their happiness and (2) the minimalist, physical representations (Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte) of what makes a "man". Unfortunately, Connor is not an astute enough filmmaker to really probe the ontology of their drives, neither psychological or phenomenological, instead casting their ends of desire merely within the realm of commonplace cliche, a stock genre tool. As Simone de Beauvoir might say, "It goes without saying that they are men." Unlike Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life, which is the greatest sports film ever made, the question of desire (and how brutish assertion approaches the Lacanian jouissance) remains an inconsequential one. Nevertheless, O'Connor's visual work with the male specimen (actual bodies) is one of the finest breaks from contempo-cliche in recent years.

Many critics often refer to This Sporting Life as kitchen-sink realism, emphasizing its foundational interests on urban verite. A more apropos examination utilizes the Freudian underpinnings of a phallicized industrial milieu, then sees Anderson's inversion of psychoanalysis via poetic montage, aligning Frank Machin's (Richard Harris) rebellious (self-destructive) energies with an unconscious rejection of hetero-normative order, and, thus, capitalism (an exploitation Machin(e)). His collisions on the Rugby pitch don't so much provide an arena for the expulsion of repressed desire as they reflect simulated phenomena of exchange (in the monetary sense), his flesh the direct correlative to profit, which in turn degrades both his emotional and sexual energies. It's a virtuoso visual proposition, lithe and bereft of hackneyed corporatism, reflective not of mainstream political values but phenomenological humanism - essence over capital.

The same cannot be said for O'Connor's conservative inclinations. He positions mainstream sports culture with a fan's eye, not a critic's. He's not out to examine the culture, only to propagate it. The film's set-up, which relies heavily on proletarian anxieties of class struggle, familial fracturing, and their transcendence (through feral behavior and capital) merely reinforces norms of representation. Exposition driven at times, his only worthwhile contribution is a deft montage utilizing split-screen (though to little useful aesthetic ends) and knowing when to go in for a close-up on Tom Hardy's ferocious mug. In many ways, actor's presence supersedes directorial authority, compelling mainly because of O'Connor's conduits, rather than his mise-en-scene or insights. Nick Nolte enervates the veneer of method-acting histrionics by encircling actual, palpable pain, a "papa" that permeates archetype to unearth pure emotion. It's a performer's showcase, especially between Hardy and Nolte (Joel Edgerton is good, but nowhere near his fellow actors' levels of unrestricted feeling). Were they not contained in a film heavily reliant on cultural pandering, they would qualify as stand alone works of art. Perhaps they still do.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011) -- B+

Never have Steven Soderbergh's detached, clinical formal techniques been put to better use than in Contagion - in fact, the prolific director's latest is arguably the first time he's ever managed a successful synthesis of form and content. Soderbergh's filmic concerns have evolved primarily to deal with the ways in which he can subvert convention, subtracting much narrative interest for aesthetic experimentation. While these efforts are commendable, his aims have consistently been muddled,opting for bad-boy solipsism over genuine human interest or sincerity. The Limey, The Girlfriend Experience, and especially Che are direct examples of this specific miscue, diverting viewer (and his own) attention away from narrative coherence and structure towards merely a game of pseudo-intellectual semiotics, a deconstructionist act without sophistication, negating anything about the films that could be even remotely resonant. Contagion, fortunately, breaks this trend.

Beginning with a global-scale montage that could easily be mistaken for something out of an Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu opus, people are getting sick. Coughs, fever, vomiting - all of the images are streamlined for narrative economy, and clinical in the matter-of-fact, temporally-marked subtitles, providing city names and populations to suggest an absence of immunity - everyone is vulnerable. Various familiar faces begin to crop up. After his wife's sudden death, Mitch (Matt Damon) is left to wonder how he will keep his daughter out of the virus' path. CDC officials Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) quickly try and asses the most efficient path to vaccination. Dr. Erin Meyers (Kate Winslet) seeks the location of anyone who's come into contact with the infected. Journalist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) suspects governmental conspiracy and tampering. Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is an investigator from the World Health Organization, seeking the cause of the deadly virus.

Though the initial premise sounds dreadfully similar to the condescending, offensive cinema of Paul Haggis and Inarritu, Soderbergh's concern is not to draw cultural parallels or make broad assertions about political hypocrisy. The most political figure in the film, Law's snarky San Francisco based journalist, makes claims and assertions that the film has no interest in commenting on - nothing is tailored to engage polemics. In fact, Soderbergh's detachment makes logical sense in this case, treating a global pandemic not with sentimentality or sensational humanism, but the appropriate degree of nihilism, the rising death toll as a mere figure of multi-media postmodernity, random in its reach, soulless in its grasp. Late into the film, military commander Lyle Haggerty (Bryan Cranston) announces the order of vaccine distribution, chosen in lottery form, drawing numbered balls from a machine. Much like the bulk of the film, there's little feeling to any of it. Contagion never stops to mourn its lost human lives, but that doesn't make it passionless. In fact, through subtle close-ups and moments of human pain, Soderbergh communicates far more humanist concern than ever before. The world he depicts is cold, calculating, distant, but he finally removes himself from that alignment, recognizing the banality of apocalypse without rooting for destruction. Almost Kubrickian at times, Soderbergh solves the misanthropic puzzle that's plagued his entire filmography by separating himself from the destructivist impulses of his Darwinian milieu. Cliff Martinez's kinetic score verges on sensationalism at times, but Soderbergh's restraint resonates more as a waking-fever dream, succinct in its humorless resolve, human life as a societal contingency of postindustrial isolation.