Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bellflower (Evan Glodell, 2011) -- B+

Say what you will about the unfortunate descent into nihilistic wish-fulfillment violence and self-absorption during its final third, there's no denying the passionate ferocity that first-time director Evan Glodell emanates throughout the often exquisite Bellflower; equal parts Blue Valentine personal crisis, Bully amoral societal expose, the eventual turn towards violence and degeneracy is wrapped tightly in the helplessness of Woodrow (Evan Glodell), whose deteriorating relationship with Milly (Jessie Wiseman), which is beautifully, hauntingly established in the film's first half, causes him to lose his grip on reality, decency, and loyalty to often obnoxious BFF Aiden (Tyler Dawson). Glodell smartly chops down on the quirky, self-pitying factor that usually accompanies Sundance stamped pictures by both streamlining all of the relationship insight (every second of it seems culled from personal experience, but not made precious) and catalyzing his gritty aesthetic not with long takes, but quick, non-causal edits, suitably jumbling viewer comprehension of the "facts," just as Woodrow will eventually be unable to distinguish reality from fantasy.

The latter issue will likely stir up much debate with this film; for many, it will be a "did it all really happen?" sort of question, but simply stopping there misses a much greater complexity in Glodell's suggestions about isolation, male camaraderie, and the posturing images of masculinity, embodied by the central pair's favorite film - Mad Max. However, what's so exciting about Glodell is his ability to traverse the referential turf without succumbing to what lesser filmmakers would: hero-worship. Undoubtedly, George Miller's original influenced much of Glodell's boyhood constructions of physical brutality directly translating to manhood (just as it does for Woodrow and Aiden), but he succeeds those influences by channeling his own angsts and anxieties - most notably, the desire to disregard humanity for self-aggrandizing assertion, strictly through violence. Is Bellflower nihilistic and misogynist? Well, the fantasies of the lead characters certainly are, and the trouble with Glodell's debut feature is that it spends much of the duration of its second half treating fantasy as reality, satiating its characters' self-destructively callous (homicidal, rapist) unconscious and, perhaps, the viewer's too. Were Glodell more attuned to spectatorship, he could have one upped Michael Haneke without the condescension - he doesn't resort to those tactics, but he lacks Haneke's keen insight as it relates to cinematic violence. For too much of Bellflower, these sadistic tendencies are presented as primal (an incorrect extrapolation), mid-twenties heartbreak as personal apocalypse, where much of the surrounding milieu literally comes crashing down in flames. These are mistakes, but ones that do not negate Glodell's exhilarating eye for human behavioral traits, individual shots, and moments of grace, even if most of it is unfortunately predicated on celebrating solipsism.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Final Destination 5 (Steven Quale, 2011) -- B

What audiences and critics alike seemed to miss about Scream 4, above all, is that it takes a pop cultural pulse, concerned foremost with evaluating not only the latest generic artistic endeavors, but also integrating its characters' reliance upon technology, which results in their deaths, socially causal instead of arbitrarily "cool." Now, almost ten years after the first Final Destination, the fifth installment takes a cue from Craven's nearly patented brand of modern horror, new director Steven Quale hinging most of the horror upon class issues, technological failure, and workplace anxieties. In addition, Quale makes appropriately goofy use of the 3D, devises several "oh shit!" deaths, and prizes his characters far more than any of the previous installments (perhaps sans the original).

Unsophisticated horror buffs (gore-hounds, they're called) and especially non-enthusiasts will be unable to see through the IMDB plot synopsis while watching the film, which reads, "survivors of a suspension-bridge collapse learn there's no way you can cheat death." Less high-concept than high-aptitude, Quale takes the franchise's now famous central destruction sequence, which threatens the lives of several employees of an upstairs/downstairs, Marxian office; the workers/groundlings are beneath, slaving away, while the bourgeois, college-educated sit behind desks up top. The desk-jobbers are those whose lives are spared, though of course, that's but temporary, as death lurks for each not far into the future.

Quale's concern with inter-office impersonality makes for amusingly morbid fun, especially when prick-ish boss Dennis (David Koechner) asks to speak with someone in the office, needs to be reminded that they were killed in the tragedy (this comes not soon after the funeral). Even better, Dennis laments when hearing that he might soon lose his job, that the "factory workers are usually the first to go." Playful, understated, but exact, Quale navigates social angst precisely, while systematically killing off characters because of their inadequacies (the highlight is a douchebag who refuses to turn off his cellphone). Furthermore, the franchise finally explores moral dilemma with at least considerate thought, now offering survivors a way out: if they kill someone else, they trade lives, taking the years that person should have had. Preposterous, of course, but that's beside the point - those hung up on the film's "ridiculous" premise are unable to feel Quale's multi-layered depth, taking death seriously and irreverently simultaneously - the best way to play it. Final Destination 5 eventually devolves into routine thriller territory, with people chasing each other around a kitchen, pointing guns, but much of what precedes is proficient genre work.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fright Night (Craig Gillespie, 2011) -- C

There's a tedium to Craig Gillespie's Fright Night remake that never subsides, commencing during the film's playful, but routine "jump-scare" intro, and continuing past the point that hot-boy cum vampire neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) has been staked and burnt into CGI dust. Tom Holland's 1985 original, while troubled by some self-congratulatory satirical issues, at least moves with enough pep, genre knowledge, and gravitas to warrant its existence and status as a minor horror classic, particularly because of its allegorical (if problematic) dealings with homosexuality and AIDS anxieties. Utilizing the genre for both social critique and genre reflexivity, Holland appropriately applies the ethos. The new version's trouble begins with Marti Noxon's script, which often devolves merely into exposition speak and throwaway jokiness. Her background in TV is apparent throughout; many scenes play without urgency, written to more than twice the length necessary, particularly once attention shifts towards TV persona Peter Vincent (David Tennant), whose "bad-boy" schtick feels like third rate Aldous Snow. Moreover, the central relationship between geek-turned-kinda-geek Charley (Anton Yelchin) and disarmingly cute Amy (Imogen Poots) fizzles rather than pulsates - Charley's emergence from adolescence is doubled by the genre's vampire fears (one of horror's oldest thematic concerns), but even this simple task is too much for Gillespie's disappointingly pedestrian eye, directing scenes (and, even worse, editing them) with little regard for consistency, pacing, or basic film mechanics. Fright Night contends for one of the most poorly edited films in recent memory and cinephilic formalists should recognize the incongruities rather easily. Even more lackluster than the film's technical prowess (including almost pornographic use of CGI blood) is any discernible subtext or reason to revisit the original's timely premise, other than the potential for a box office double dip.

A few gags work; Jerry watches reality shows while waiting between feedings and at one point, a contestant claims they "just want to look normal," which nicely suggests a modern ethos as inseparable from mediated presentation, much like Jerry's own appearance (healthy, normal) makes his "disease" all the more frightening. However, little of this is utilized for any real fun or piercing insight, mostly just coincidental overlap. Unsurprisingly, the film pokes fun at the Twilight franchise's Romanticized skewering of vampire lore, but again, it comes and goes without any real wit or specificity. It's merely pop cultural lip-service. Instead of answering Twilight's teeny inanity, Gillespie merely falls in line with recent remake trends, glossing over cultural relevance or perspective for easier mass consumption. The film's saving grace, however, is Colin Farrell, whose personal life nicely compliments Jerry's womanizing, scorching charm. Farrell seethes and moves his eyes rather than speaking, often waiting 3-4 beats longer than expected before answering a question. It recalls the sort of idiosyncratic star-performances of earlier Marlon Brando or Martin Sheen, dynamic but reserved, method but not histrionic. It's a brilliant piece of acting in a film that is otherwise inert, fun and exciting only if standards have been lowered to accommodate for the discouraging remake trends of recent filmmaking.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Change-Up (David Dobkin, 2011) -- C+

Shocking as it may be to acknowledge, The Change-Up is a relatively painless, sometimes funny, and often enjoyable comedic effort that takes its high-concept premise, sets up various obstacles in the first act, then adequately resolves them after the titular reversal takes shape. Surely, the script is wholly literal, taking workaholic father Dave (Jason Bateman) and bong-ripping womanizer Mitch (Ryan Reynolds), each of whom are dissatisfied with various facets of their repetitive lives, then switching them (through a magic fountain, no less), where each can identify solutions to their actual lives, while resolving any animosity existing about the other's chosen path. Souring relevant observations about difference and daily monotony are several gross-out gags, including projectile baby-shit, dancing CGI babies, and the genre's re-discovered sexism (Leslie Mann and Olivia Wilde, though likeable, get the shrew and slut treatment). All unfortunate inclusions (though not the least bit surprising coming from "the writers of The Hangover" as the poster boasts), but what salvages The Change-Up (at least if we're grading on a bit of a curve here) is its reliance on leads to carry the comedic torch - and Bateman and Reynolds are more than up for the task. Knowing each actor's history makes the inside joke all the more humorous, if stale by the film's conclusion. Nevertheless, director David Dobkin deserves marginal credit for insisting his film have a structure, a through-line to comedic ends, rather than choppy, less-focused summer comedies like Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses, or Friends with Benefits. Perhaps that distinction shouldn't be enough to warrant a warm response to the film's simplistic, muddled understanding of each character and his/her dilemmas, but in the worn-down, dog-days of summer, The Change-Up is oddly refreshing and certainly no worse than most any other mainstream summer garbage.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) -- C+

Despite the best efforts of relative newcomer Rupert Wyatt, Rise of the Planet of the Apes can never vanquish a palpable sense of antiquity, that its discrimination allegory has not been properly evolved to deal with a "post-racial" America. Of course, only a self-congratulatory prick would use such a term to begin with, but Wyatt consistently neglects or, essentially, ignores what's required of him: reimagining beyond the CGI-ing of Apes, which is admittedly impressive. Call it a prequel to the 1968 original (the studio sure will), Will Rodman (James Franco) believes he's found the cure for Alzheimer's disease. Testing the drug on Apes (contained in a metal cylinder, which he conveniently keeps in his fridge at home, natch), the cause is particularly of importance to Will, since his Dad (John Lithgow) is battling the disease. Another battle takes shape in super-smart ape Caesar (Andy Serkis), who's given the usual rigmarole of animal abuse, abandonment, and admonishment, before seeking vengeance. Wyatt embraces the film's pulpy, B-movie roots head on, keeping things relatively small, intimate before the Apes do what the title says - this time in modern-day San Francisco. Nevertheless, in spite of some stirring emotional attachment to the monkey (excuse me, ape), little of this plays as anything more than yet another franchise aspiring reboot, equipped with rehashed mythology, exposition overload, and a cliffhanger ending. Wyatt isn't a director without detail (Caesar's ticking time-bomb adequately expresses the lasting scars of oppression), but he favors narrative efficiency (workmanlike is his bag) over avant-garde shocks and subtext. A perfect chance to make a genre classic given current social anxieties and debates, Wyatt ignores much of that, placing product over passion, more concerned with Ape realism than artistic endeavor.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011) -- F

The Adjustment Bureau rivals any film released in 2011 (and pretty much any year) for sheer incompetency, inert and incapable on just about every imaginable level, it's a film to distinguish those who have an eye for basic cinematic intelligence, how a film is constructed and what indicates even a passable level of artistry. Writer/Director George Nolfi (his first directorial effort) makes the wrong decision in every scene of his film, explicit and literal when he should be evasive, blunt and trite when he should instill idiosyncrasy and nuance. Less old-fashioned than hopelessly retrograde, the film begins with an hilariously emphatic montage of Senator David Norris (Matt Damon) running the campaign trail, appearing with various real life figures, even getting the insight of James Carville while Norris watches from the comfort of his living room. Nolfi is oddly obsessed with reaction shots, often showing characters "deep in thought" as the director claims on the commentary track, but essentially just lingering on close-ups (Anthony Mackie gets the most, I counted at least eight) while they stare at the floor and/or off into the distance. The dialogue comes in three varieties: expository, questions, or platitudes. Those who claimed Inception featured several characters whose sole purpose was to further expository understanding haven't seen anything yet - every character speaks merely to propel a ridiculously hokey sci-fi narrative or propagate endlessly meaningless, hollow rhetoric about free will, self-fulfillment, and true love. Moreover, the central romance between Damon and Emily Blunt (the worst performance of her short career) is meant to be passionate and sincere - but only because every character keeps repeating this, that the pair are destined to be soul mates. The film never actually shows why these two are inseparable lovers (aside from a few quick scenes of forced, playful banter, they share little time on-screen together). Everything that could be wrong is in Nolfi's horrifyingly lame adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick short story, from his misunderstanding of action sequences (he cuts to Mackie's character running down the same street an astonishing five times without anything detering his route) to the wholly bungled metaphysical discourse, to the amping up of sentimental romance, only to let any passion or gravity elude him. Here's a bad movie that instantly ascends the heights of cinema history's worst offerings, an instant classic of sorts, not offensive in its intent (Nolfi is too soft for that), but brazenly, comprehensively misguided on any conceivable artistic level.