13 ASSASSINS (Takashi Miike, 2011) -- 3/4
13 Assassins finds iconoclastic director Takashi Miike in a surprisingly reverential mode, paying thorough and adept homage to Akira Kurosawa's samurai epics, nearly devoid of his more perverse sensibilities, and approaching something almost shockingly grounded. Nevertheless, in terms of craft, scale, and visual sophistication, Miike reveals a classicist knack, focusing on traditional themes of honor, duty, and morality without an explicitly subversive or revisionist tract to be found. In essentially creating a workmanlike film, Miike both facilitates and inhibits his ends, certainly compelling as the rogue crew of ronin are assembled - and stunningly kinetic in the virtuoso, near hour long conclusion (here Miike recalls the unforgettable bloodshed of Okamoto's The Sword of Doom). Yet ultimately there's a feeling of restraint and a disappointing lack of anarchy from one of cinema's most notorious madmen. However, without considering Miike's oeuvre, there's little reason to quibble with straight-up proficiency - 13 Assassins is a professional affair from first to last frame.
TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON (Michael Bay, 2011) -- 3/4
AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY (Matt Harlock & Paul Thomas, 2011) -- 2/4
Instead of letting Hicks speak for himself (through stand-up), this limp-wristed documentary attempts to narrate the gone-before-his-time comedian's rise from humble small-town beginnings to hilariously controversial (and ahead of his time) politico, using his stand-up for near activist means, challenging mob rule behavior and blind-leading-the-blind governmental actions. However, whenever the film cuts away from Hicks on stage, it regrettably inserts monotonous praise or recounting of specific dates and linearity, rather than finding a form to match his madcap persona. Eulogizing Hicks is not inherently misguided, but directors Matt Harlock and Bill Thomas communicate little passion in their presentation, heedlessly peppy and tritely conceived. Hicks's life and work is fascinating - the film is less than compelling.
THE WAY BACK (Peter Weir, 2011) -- 2/4
Prizing "based on a true story" narrative complacency over rigorous formal pursuits, director Peter Weir is content to shoot amidst vast landscapes without utilizing them for visual splendor, while drearily marching through man vs. wild sequences, as a group of Siberian prison escapees march thousands of miles towards their freedom. Problem is, Weir doesn't weird it up enough, neither conceiving of nature in a surrealistic way or transcending rote dialogue exchanges musing on metaphysical trappings with precise observation. There's a total lack of immediacy or passion in the filmmaking. Any time a film opens with "this film is dedicated to...", it's an immediate recognition of pandering, dramatizing history instead of implicitly questioning that dramatization; in other words, Weir makes the film as if it's 1948, without any clear indicators as to why he's chosen this subject. Films don't tell stories - they show them. Weir's chosen aesthetic plays depressingly antiquated.
NO STRINGS ATTACHED (Ivan Reitman, 2011) -- 2/4
Why is it that nearly every modern romantic comedy lacks any real bite, insight, or specificity regarding class and socio-cultural influence? No Strings Attached presents two single 30's somethings, neither of which seems to hold sincere convictions that have come from over a decade of relationship baggage and emotional scars. Instead, they are caught in a web of sitcom-level scenarios of infidelity, jealousy, and altogether narcissistic behavior. Instead of working class, hell, even professional middle-class, it's Phantom Hollywood time, as the skewered mores of elitist studio execs are passed off as the hopes, dreams, and sexual desires of the masses. Hollywood has always used beautiful people to enact romantic scenarios, but former battle-of-the-sexes verbiage has given way to reductive maxims, tritely summarizing instead of playfully engaging. The film does thankfully spare much of the crude hijinks for a genuine attempt at humor and drama, but the film never dirties nor challenges either star, pre-packaged to sell, and conceived without any desire to truthfully excavate any nuance about contemporary relationships.
RUBBER (Quentin Dupieux, 2011) -- 1.5/4
Absurdity isn't inherently clever. It takes a certain degree of wit, deft application of irony, and a firm grasp of tone to achieve resonance. Director Quentin Dupieux struggles to find these avenues with Rubber, a self-reflexive piece about an anthropomorphic tire with telekinetic powers. Crushing a bottle in the desert, next a scorpion, then a beer bottle, and finally, exploding a man's head, it's a goofy bit of allegorical drivel, the tire's desires driven by empirical instances of power and control. Unfortunately, this already pathetic set-up is sullied even more by painfully indulgent and cutesy running commentary, first through an introduction that asserts there are "no reasons" why certain things happen in many films, then with a group on onlookers who break the narrative in order to provide reflexive insights (none of which are funny or insightful), recalling Haneke's Funny Games - but without any genuine sense of terror, this isn't a sick joke, just a lame one.
THE COMPANY MEN (John Wells, 2011) -- 1/4
Rarely are films as offensively reductive and middlebrow as The Company Men, a "timely" look at the harsh effects of downsizing on career men whose lives are essentially returned to square-one after losing their six-figure salaries. Director John Wells ineptly dramatizes this with one calculated scene after another, forcing pathos through numbingly false introspection and easy payoffs, losing any and all nuance in favor of hokey-inspirational tactics (too many CROWD-PLEASING moments to count), while retaining dour undertones to insist that this is a DRAMA. Nothing transcends a one-note dialectic (everything is made neatly explicit), so that even when characters burst into a rage or display fleeting conviction, the script undercuts it with an immediate reversal or manufactured emotional cue. Lacking even a single genuine, unfiltered moment (and made even more grating by a cutesy score), there are few films as transparently condescending.