Friday, September 28, 2012
Thursday, September 27, 2012
Carrying the baton for arrested development even further, MacFarlane takes John (Mark Wahlberg), an almost forty (!) used car salesman that still enjoys palling around and taking bong rips with Ted (Seth MacFarlane), a pint-sized, talking teddy bear that has been John's BFF since childhood, to half-heartedly explore the tug-and-pull between adulthood and adolescence. Problem is, serious girlfriend (and wasted presence) Lori (Mila Kunis) wants to put a ring on it - of course John, with his continued proclivity for blowing life opportunities, isn't sure if he's ready to make the commit. None of this is enacted with much conviction - rather, an excuse to make allusions to Airplane (1980), innumerable pop cultural figures (that predictably run an eclectic gamut from Norah Jones to Tom Skerritt) and even has Flash Gordon's Sam Jones show up for a good, old-fashioned coke binge. Chuckle-worthy stuff, certainly, just as the prolonged, hotel-room smackdown between John and Ted earns its laughs. Nevertheless - outside of the moment (composition-wise, MacFarlane does little), where does Ted's resonance lie? Obviously, it struck a major chord with audiences and, to this point, is the highest grossing comedy of 2012. Beyond the box office tally, however, where will Ted be in a decade? Two? Much like the films of Judd Apatow, Ted's absolute concern with pop cultural past and present, rather than fine-tuning a comedic mechanism, surely signals its long term insignificance - as forgettable as an SNL "Weekend Update" from December 6, 1980 - the weekend of Flash Gordon's release.
Forgetting isn't hard, in this case. The four leads (they're even unfunny on the poster) are a group of non-human, screenplay concoctions. Each has traits that are supposed to make them "characters," but these are simply place-markers for the comedians to riff. Evan (Ben Stiller) is an uptight Costco manager (impotent too...no really, he's shooting blanks with wife Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt)) who, after a weird Latino stereotype (or "security guard" as the script likely said) is murdered, desperately forms a "neighborhood watch" (the film's original title, changed after the Trayvon Martin slaying) to combat the city's assailants. All he can attract are loud-mouthed, potentially sociopathic Bob (Vince Vaughn), the surely psychopathic Franklin, and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), who sees the neighborhood watch as a way to score blow-jobs from Asian houswives. FUNNY RIGHT?!?!?
No. Even less so, once it becomes apparent just how tone-deaf and inept director Akiva Schaffer is at orchestrating comedic rhythm, a succession of gags, or even holding a damn shot - The Watch struggles on elemental filmmaking levels, much less actually being funny. Its pathetic attempts essentially involve Bob and Franklin shooting-off at the mouth, mostly one-liners that are completely outside the parameters of the film, while Stiller's straight-man plays goof and stands staring at the weirdos. Yet, Schaffer can't even handle simple shot/reverse shot compositions, often confusing the space with his jumbled, utterly non-cincematic framing. Then, there's the film's finale in which the neighborhood watch actually have their ridiculous suspicions validated (there are aliens roaming - wait - seriously?), while enacting a bit of macho comeuppance that involves proving who has a bigger dick (every male in the film is compensating in some way for anatomical deficiencies), who can fire the most rounds, and who can turn arrogant town cop Sgt. Bressman (Will Forte) into a quivering coward. Having succeeded at all, the neighborhood watch struts off, ready to apply their newfound masculinity. Any filmgoer will slog out, depressed for a few hours, perhaps even a day or two, at the rapidly deteriorating state of mainstream, American comedies.
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
To begin, it is clear that David Ayer has been taking copious notes over the last seven years. Since his screenplay for Training Day (2001) and his impressive directorial debut Harsh Times (2005), Ayer has been thinking about his cinematic craft. At least, he has been thinking his craft through other filmmakers. He appropriates the gonzo Los Angeles mania from Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor's Crank (2006) and Crank: High Voltage (2009). In addition, he is clearly obsessed with the existential wasteland of Michael Mann's Miami Vice (2006). With the dash-cams/surveillance footage (which even have a time count in the corner), he shows reverence to the structural pursuits of Paranormal Activity 2 (Tod Williams, 2009). And, in having Jake Gyllenhaal's Brian Taylor (make note of the duplicate name with Crank's co-director) be an aspiring filmmaker, documenting he and partner Mike Zavala's (Michael Peńa) daily South Central duties, it immediately recalls the USC-bound soldier from Brian De Palma's Redacted (2007). Thus, having solidified these concrete reference points, we can now begin to see how/why they may be used.
End of Watch aspires to synthesize its titular concern - visual presentation/looking - with Ayer's chosen textual modus operandi: the Los Angeles Police Department. Coming off the generic, disappointing Street Kings (2008), Ayer substitutes a more classical continuity style for mixtures of hand-held, security cam, quick-zooms, and random switches to black and white (a potential pun on the slang for a police car). In mixing forms, he immediately invites a discussion - a reconciliation - of this switch. Herein lies the first problem with grading End of Watch: I believe Ayer's experiments, almost comprehensively, fail. Yet, how does one evaluate quality in the face of ambition? Would it be "better" if he had retained a more standard visual form? Would that improve the film? Maybe - but one must be grateful that Ayer hasn't simply phoned in another routine cop drama. Having said that, Ayer hasn't just thrown caution to the wind - he's lofted it into a hurricane, since End of Watch displays little to no restraint, whatsoever.
That lack of restraint enables a palpable sense of danger - Los Angeles is a place/land where morality and rationality no longer function. Gang members reside on every street corner. In the opening scene, the dash-cam watches a high speed pursuit, resulting in Taylor and Zavala popping out of the car and returning fire on two unloading hoods. Later in the film, Taylor is asked why he didn't shoot a felon who was beating on a cop. He responds: "I didn't feel like killing anyone today." In Ayer's milieu, death and murder are daily occurrences.
However, Ayer adopts a fast-paced, caricature mold to explicate these dangers. Herein lies the second problem with grading End of Watch: the film's intentional usage of caricature/ethnic stereotyping is being used not matter-of-factly, but as an aesthetic choice to appeal against (or refute) its more cartoonish counterpart: Crank. Those who read this blog will know my affinity for Neveldine/Taylor, the Crank's especially. They are intricate, sophisticated examinations of cultural semiotics - their gonzo, satirical A.D.D. form implicitly critiques consumption, over-stimulation, and compulsory pop addiction. However, they do so not with a rigid ploy towards being taken "seriously"; rather, their film refutes these more bourgeois qualifications for proper "taste" and reside in the realm of digital surrealism - a "trash" culture carnivalesque.
End of Watch wants to be taken seriously, clearly; it views humor and laughter as a means to humanize Taylor and Zavala, who drive around, swapping stories, pulling pranks, and trying to maintain a degree of sanity. But, beyond the diegetic laughter, Ayer has no real sense of humor about his project. These aims could be forgiven, but for one critical flaw - his efforts are utterly risible, wavering in conviction, and completely unearned. These failures are best seen in the interaction of the film's various gangs, especially the Latinos, lead by a leering, nonsense character named Big Evil (Maurice Compte), whose exchanges with gang members consist primarily of "fuck you," "fuck you puta," "fuck you cabron," "fuck you essay," "we got this fucking shit," "fuck that!" and "where the fuck are those pigs?" (it should come as no surprise that Christian Spotlight labels the film with a "moral rating" of "very offensive"). I use that ridiculous rating not as an agreement, but to demonstrate how reductive (and virtually absent) Ayer's consideration of on-screen violence is in End of Watch. To be sure - the violence is exhilarating and aestheticized so much (Ayer even resorts to first-person shooter in the film's second half), that it calls into question what Ayer is even doing with his film. If he's not out to use morality, family, and camaraderie as a critique of glorified violence, then what, exactly, is he up to?
Herein lies the third (and final) problem with grading End of Watch: it's an incredible, often exhilarating film to behold. Ayer has tapped into a certain degree of ecstatic macho brooding, gunplay, ethnic stereotyping, and unwieldy visual presentation, which switches logic sometimes two or three times within a scene, that the outpouring of effort overwhelms - it, in some ways, defies the more rational, causal reasons I would like to dismiss the film. Even on a more basic level, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peńa are absolutely compelling, both individually and together. They sell their roles in ways most cop slogs don't and/or can't (see the previous Street Kings, for example). Nevertheless, the perverse joys the film affords are undermined by its own confusion and, consistently, inanity. The film doesn't make a lick of sense. Ayer opts for literal content to visual transition - if the film's Los Angeles is in chaos, so is Ayer's style. Such is not the case with Crank, where seeming stylistic chaos actually has a profoundly rooted, textual orientation. Thus - we arrive at the film's overall failure to cohere - indeed, End of Watch is incoherent. My grade, finally, would be a C-. But don't let that stop you from buying a ticket, sitting in the theater with mouth agape, and wowed by the lengths Ayer is willing to go in order to show, in the words of Big Evil: "he just doesn't give a fuck."
Red-headed Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is one of Pixar's best creations - determined, scrappy, but young, she sees her place within her Scottish kingdom as inadequate: she deserves more. Her skill is archery (after The Hunger Games and Snow White and the Huntsman, no more please) and can out-sling any lad she's faced with. The problem is, her hubris as an archer conflates an understanding of her role within the society. She disobeys her parents, flees, makes a deal with a witch and, from there on, Brave engages its moral trial and error. Merida eventually learns the value in her parents words and that being a contrarian has its place - but when self-determination forcefully overrides communal output, you become an asshole.
Brave is likely Pixar's most conservative film. It views rebellion not as a virtue, in-and-of-itself, but in a given context, that rebellion must be tempered by an understanding of those outside the self. While it reaffirms hegemony and patriarchy, it is not ignorant of these affirmations - it addresses them rather thoroughly (and entertainingly) through character development and slapstick humor. And yet, many critics were displeased with Brave, seemingly because it affirmed a method, a value set even, not their own. Condemning the film for its ultimate conclusion, even though the duration convincingly arrives at these points, is amateur critical conduct.
Moreover, Bernie impresses because its narrative convincingly grows in complexity, and does so without resorting to stand-alone set-pieces. Bernie's relationship with wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) is layered through the testimonials, which simultaneously further the complexities of their relationship, while questioning how reliable any of these testimonies can be, given they are, surely, gossip, rumor, and speculation. Therein lies the bulk of Linklater's success - he lets the characters speak for themselves, since he isn't as concerned with shaping a polemic against conservative values as he is allowing an organic reveal of gullibility when faced with primal matters. Bernie is said to have committed "a crime of passion," but the town's religious acceptance and passivity embody the opposite of passion - dogmatism - as their pat, succinct, but ultimately confused (they just can't understand how Bernie would do such a thing) insights yield little, empirical information.
A mid-point entrance by lawyer Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) helps solidify these themes, though we should applaud Linklater for sticking to his guns, so to speak, and refusing to psychoanalyze Bernie, though the residents indirectly speculate, since any such desired endpoints would undermine the film's overall success as a witty, concise bit of business, as it contemplates the often inextricable social conduct tied to a given geographical setting. Less "slice-of-life" than "slice-of-lies," Linklater asks where truth ends and begins, how performance and sincerity have become one-and-the-same.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Click here to read my review for The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of Paul Bartel's Eating Raoul, at Cinespect.
Click here to read my review for The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of David Fincher's The Game, at Cinespect.
Three high school seniors (Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper, and Jonathan Daniel) throw a house party that degenerates into a series of felonies - each one more flagrant than the last. When the parents are away, this generation doesn't just play - it turns short-lived autonomy into the pursuit of booze, drugs, and bass-heavy music as a means to enact violent frustrations. If Nourizadeh lacks interest in levying knee-jerk admonishment to these pursuits (and, with good reason) it's because Project X possesses an affable understanding of the constraints imposed upon media inundated youngsters. The electronic music calls. The lure of sex (for both boys and girls) supersedes rational counter-arguments. Primal more that perennial, these ephemeral pleasures must be had (and unfettered) in order to progress. As the cultural expectation for adulthood recedes (the average American male now marries at twenty-nine years old), then the image of a teenager lying face-down, drunk, potentially unconscious, straddles that retreat. Don't hate.