Saturday, December 1, 2012

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012) -- 5/5

Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly stands alongside Magic Mike and The Master as one of 2012's genuine American masterpieces. Already mistaken as a slight genre work (critics must have fallen asleep), Dominik questions the essence of signification via genre forms, while melding genre fiction and fact (the film's 2008 backdrop often consists of snippets from Bush Jr. and Obama speeches). However, these inclusions are not merely knee-jerk reaches to provide supplementary relevance, nor are they didactic political cries. Rather, Killing Them Softly concerns itself with rhetoric, both in visual and spoken terms. Aural/visual playfulness abounds, often conducted in such a mannered style as to suggest satire - but Dominik is never so forthcoming. Likewise, how to interpret the lengthy, often non-sequiter conversations in-relation to Bush and Obama yammering on about the economy? There's a lot of yammering here, a lot of detours - but Killing Them Softly is not confined by its seemingly straightforward convictions. Rather, the narrative's relative simplicity is a red herring to exorcize cinematic demons - is this a revisionist crime film or a rebuttal to Michael Haneke's Funny Games? For Mr. Dominik, I am happy to let him have his shotgun and shoot it too.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Weekly Viewing 10/8 - 10/10

The Eyes of the Mummy (Ernst Lubitsch, 1918) – 4/5

A film that helped to establish cinematic iconography and narrative. Cross-cutting finds innovative use and Lubitsch moves his fleet-of-foot narrative at a nice clip. When the eyes on a tomb open for the first time, there is a palpable sense of imagination and sincerity, if primarily for its material existence within the frame.

The Day of the Locust (John Schlesinger, 1975) – 1/5

Nathaniel West’s fiercely prescient, satirical 1939 novel gets butchered by Schlesinger, who takes the inherently “termite art” material and transforms it into smug, “white elephant” perversity. Schlesinger’s film is, ironically, as vacuous and empty-headed as the mid-30’s Hollywood it depicts (of course, the film is also meant to draw parallels with contemporary social mores, as well). Waldo Salt’s screenplay mimics West’s novel, rather than giving it an overhaul. Characterization hinges upon risible psychological torment (Schlesinger is a sucker for the meaningless zoom-in on eye-line). Moreover, William Atherton is atrocious in the lead role – it’s no surprise he was relegated to supporting, hysterical baddies shortly after. Worst of all, Schlesinger is again humorless, substituting empty ridicule and incoherent idiosyncrasies for actual discourse.  

Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976) – 3/5

Another risible, bordering on incoherent outing from Schlesinger – but this time, the lurid material (Nazi targets psychologically damaged Grad student? – sounds like absurdist melodrama to me) finds resonance in its intimations of deeper, unrecoverable fractures in National identity, post-event horror, post-catastrophic trauma. Still, these themes are found in a narrative that’s sheer Hollywood exploitation (a scene where Roy Scheider fights an Asian man in his hotel room or two old men dueling with their cars reveal Schlesinger’s odd, but consistently empty sense of humor), and yet again, Schlesinger encourages acting styles that place personality above setting, filmmaking. Schlesinger will get you that Oscar nom – but he seldom makes an intelligible film in the process.

The Falcon and the Snowman (John Schlesinger, 1985) – 2/5

Schlesinger’s aesthetics have morphed into some sort of TV Movie of the Week/tense political procedural hybrid. Moreover, he has retained the smug indifference that sullies several of his other films. Steven Zallian’s script is predictably shoddy. Finally, the lead performances from Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn are suitable, if forced (especially Penn – his manic style often only works with a manic director, see BDP’s Casualties of War and Carlito’s Way). Schlesinger is a rather boring filmmaker, at this point.

The Believers (John Schlesinger, 1987) – 1/5

Aping (poorly) William Friedkin’s entire tone and visual schemata for The Exorcist, Schlesinger descends into absolute futility with this voodoo horror/drama, with Martin Sheen thanklessly playing a father trying to protect his son from being sacrificed. Nothing works here – the opening scene has Sheen’s wife shocked-to-death while standing in a puddle of milk. He screams. Later, a voodoo woman tries to help his son. He screams. His son runs out in front of some cabs – you get the picture. Moreover, the films takes little consideration in its depiction of cult/religious conviction. For a “socially” conscious filmmaker, Schlesinger treats voodoo as simply a driving force of evil – there’s nothing remotely human about any element of The Believers.

Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002) [rewatch] – 5/5

The metaphysics of Aleksandr Sokurov’s unbroken museum trek through 300 years of Russian history consistently layers itself on at least two levels – the marvel of self-identity as related to cultural, national identity and the unblinking cinematic eye that records and documents such inner-subjectivity. Sokurov constructs his film as a waking dream, suggesting historical identity as essential to avoiding existential crisis, though the film, done in one steadicam take, begs to be taken as the ultimate culmination of cinematic crisis and artistic existence, that crisis which cinema has been trying to resolve since the Lumiere brothers invented the cinematograph: the paradoxical stoppage and persistence (of vision) of time and space. André Bazin would be proud.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Weekly Viewing 10/4 – 10/7

The Blue Bird (Maurice Tourneur, 1918) – 5/5

Tourneur’s expressionist masterpiece finds delight and terror, simultaneously, in the tinted moving-image. More fun than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, less theoretical than Lang’s Destiny.

Victory (Maurice Tourneur, 1919) – 4/5

Tourneur's beautifully realized adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel lacks the author’s psychological depth (is this necessarily a bad thing?), substituting a more Romantic view of humanity (“love” is the film’s final title card). What Tourneur lacks in subtle irony, he makes up for in conviction.

Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) – 4/5

A certain influence on Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Schlesinger’s droll ironies, complimented with a terrific performance by Tom Courtenay, precisely address a burgeoning trend in solipsism and individuality run amok. For some reason, Schlesinger would flip-flop on these tendencies later in his career.

Darling (John Schlesinger, 1965) [rewatch] – 3/5

Christie won the Oscar for her performance in what is, essentially, an update of the great Baby Face, with Barbara Stanwyck. Self-critical enough, if slightly undercooked in terms of social commentary (plus, Christie is no Stanwyck).

Far From the Madding Crowd (John Schlesinger, 1967) – 2/5

Schlesinger has two aims with his Thomas Hardy adaptation – a quest for scale/vision and to further flesh out his sexual politics. Both are muddled in a sporadically handsome, but dramatically inert ego-trip.  

Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) [rewatch] – 2/5

Schlesinger’s Best Picture winner is a heavily aestheticized, sentimental account of late 60’s bleeding-heart liberalism. Rather than reckoning with the implications of sexual liberation, Schlesinger humorlessly panders to contemporary immorality, guised under the pretense of visual experimentation. Moreover, the method acting of Voight and Hoffman predicts contemporary preference for deranged, psychoanalyzed protagonists. Paul Morrissey would correct these errors with his Flesh trilogy.

Perfect Sense (David Mackenzie, 2012) – 2/5

For a film about sensory necessity, David Mackenzie displays little interest in varied formal technique. Rather, his crypto-apocalyptic downer would rather revel in banal melodrama and feign its way through addressing the theoretical precepts implied by the film’s title and premise.

Miss Bala (Geraldo Naranjo, 2012) – 2/5

Naranjo bucks the hand-held trends in telling his contemporary story of human degradation and exploitation. However, much like fellow filmmakers Cary Fukunaga and Matteo Garrone, the overriding, borderline offensive neglect to intricately deal with the ethical considerations of not just the historical moment, but their own detached, observational approach negates any tangential resonance.

Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2012) – 2/5

Genre-blending hokum from director Ben Wheatley borrows liberally from Mike Leigh, buddy comedy, and The Wicker Man, but fails to adequately preface and convincingly transition into its hardcore violence. Replete with lead-pipe ironies and serio-pretentious aspirations.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2012) -- A

William Friedkin hasn't softened with old age; if anything, he's become harder, more sour, and even less reserved (which is impressive given his Cruising (1980) and To Live and Die in LA (1985), two of the most uncompromising American films of the 1980's). At least, such conclusions could easily be reached by the 77 year-old director's Killer Joe - perhaps the most perverse, audacious American comedy since Paul Bartel's Eating Raoul (1982). If Bartel targets the hypocrisy of "liberated" swingers (and, by extension, the potential insincerity of social revolution), Friedkin uses a screenplay by Tracy Letts, adapted from his own 1993 play, to target pulpy, lascivious Americana - that is, he offers a critique of spectatorial desire to revel in lower-class struggle, hardcore violence, and sexual humiliation. Killer Joe contains all of these, en masse. However, Friedkin's brazen disregard for "good taste" (a pun that will become all the more apparent after seeing the film) and consistent attention to gaze, line of sight, and stunted "vision" (in terms of spectatorship) offer nuanced, carefully composed sequences of squalor that are considerably more sophisticated and thoughtful than your average "red dirt" noir.

Killer Joe and Eating Raoul align nicely (these two on a double bill might light a theater on fire), since each uses caricature and stereotype as a means for prodding and further dissembling the line between high and low art. Though these lines have been consistently blurred for at least the last sixty years, Killer Joe makes use of explicit content in new ways. The narrative will sound trite because it is - that's the point: Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) owes big-time money to Dallas drug dealers. His father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) offers little help - he's an unemployed "fuck-up" that has trouble staying in conversations about what to eat for dinner. None the wiser is Sharla (Gina Gershon), a hot trailer-trash mess if there ever was. Finally, there's virginal Dottie (Juno Temple), perhaps the film's key character, if only for how she makes the men around her behave/react. Chris concocts a plan to kill his real mom (never seen in the film) and solicits the help of Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a contract killer. Chris hopes the indemnity money will cover his debts - naturally, things don't quite work out.

Friedkin chooses not to shy away from more lurid sequences and lines of dialogue; the film's final third, in particular, will draw ire from viewers who condemn both its violence against women and seeming disregard for the images shown. Rather than jumping to knee-jerk assumptions, however, consider the implications of Friedkin's film, in its entirety. A scene early in the film has Chris and Ansel go to a strip club, to discuss their plans. Friedkin shoots with deep focus, but uses color to flatten the space, rather than expand it. Spaces are consistently defined by their visual contradictions. When the two look up to see a woman dancing above them, it's but a passing glance, devoid of affect. In Killer Joe, even aggressive behavior is rather passive, and lacking in absolute intention. Ansel becomes a running gag, simply for his irresoluteness. Sharla has agency, but only insofar as her sexuality - just like Dottie, whose "purity" becomes a point of fascination - then absurdity - then insanity - for Joe, as his sullied line of work is satirically revived by Temple's blond "angel." Essentially, Friedkin is calling for a reckoning of exploitation - as a filmmaker, his career has often hinged on genre thrills and archetype as a means for unearthing his distinctly paranoid fears of bodily deformation. When Joe says, "you insult me again, and I'll cut your face off and wear it over my own," it summarizes Friedkin's plight - he isn't hiding behind a genre, its ethos - he's peeling off the skin, its corporeal presence sutured over his grimy, outlandish - hilarious - determinism.

Lawless (John Hillcoat, 2012) -- C+

Receding from the gritty existentialism of The Proposition and the ambitious, if undercooked fatalism in The Road, John Hillcoat opts for thorough conventionality with Lawless, which is easily the director's least satisfying film to date. Routinely scripted by Nick Cave, the depression-era setting serves as backdrop to the bootlegging Bondurant gang, a Franklin County, Virginia trio of brothers that "don't lay down for nobody." Most convincing in this regard is Forrest (Tom Hardy, still packing his Bane weight), whose mumbled, gruff dialogue provides direct contrast to the dandy diction of Chicago-based Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Otherwise, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the runt (at twenty-six, LaBeouf needs to abandon these types of roles), trying to earn the respect of his Forrest and Howard (Jason Clarke) while chasing town naif Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and doing fun things, like peeking through his rear-view mirror while she tries on a purty dress he just done bought for her. Perhaps what Lawless does best is suggest the disconnect between sex and violence with the Bondurant boys - when dancer-turned-waitress/bookeeper Maggie (Jessica Chastain) disrobes to seduce a bed-bound Forrest, he shrinks at the thought, reserved rather than forward. The primal drive towards sustenance and survival lacks the intimacy needed for sex - brute force alone cannot sustain pleasure - and inevitably brings pain and death, rather than perpetual life. These intimations resonate only so far, however, since Hillcoat has difficulty balancing character and circumstance; moreover, Lawless lacks a compositional panache necessary for transcending the material's tried-and-true roots. The climactic showdown, especially, cannot establish a convincing sense of place, space, and import (not to mention putting characters in "sure death" situations, then letting them survive). Lawless might not be gutless, but it's certainly toothless.

Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012) -- B

Pastiche is back in fashion with Rian Johnson's Looper, the most aggressively "cinephilic" mainstream endeavor since 2009's Inglourious Basterds. Critics praising Johnson's "originality" clearly haven't read their Fredric Jameson, their Jean Baudrillard. Johnson is a curator with creative license - he takes bits, pieces (sometimes entire sections) of other films, rearranges them, subtracts one functional equivalent for another, and carefully stitches them together into something that has the appearance of being new. What we actually have are jumbled, empty signifiers, especially when Johnson attempts to get explicit in his intentions (in Looper, see Abe (Jeff Daniels) as the director's conduit).

The problem is not so much individual instances of reference - Johnson does a commendable job of grafting the surgical wounds. In fact, Looper is, on an aesthetic level, remarkable. Rather, the film's problem lies in its overall vision of cinematic emulation. Much like Tarantino, Johnson's film suggests him as something of a savant, exceedingly well-versed in cinema history, cinematic ethos - but less convincingly so in terms of representational awareness. Looper's quick, sharply-directed opening scenes seemingly foreshadow an impending immersion in 21st century affect and, one would hope, a critical look at the incessant search for corporeal jolts and sensory shocks which dominate contemporary "youth" culture. Johnson abandons this, however, for a less interesting meta-text about cinematic circuity - how time, space, language, and intent are all contingent upon one another, wrapped and warped within the same spatio-temporal matrix. Thus, when Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) blows his assignment to kill Old Joe (Bruce Willis), the film becomes a humorous, sometimes dazzling cinematic trifle, rather than the thematic juggernaut about culture and aesthetics suggested by its early scenes.

Less interesting still, are the obvious referents for Johnson's film. To list them all would take ample space - an ultimately yield little information. Herein lies Johnson's (like Tarantino) problem - no matter how convincing his stitch-job becomes (and it is, quite so), there remains our underlying issue of ontology. Johnson sees the world of representation through the world of representation; that is, he sees cinema through cinema. He makes films to express the influence of other films. Thus, it's unsurprising that a mute, passive Asian woman is used as the central narrative impetus for Old Joe. Johnson can't stop to be concerned with the cultural implications of his representation - he simply knows the male-driven archetypes. Similarly, Looper tries to use the subterfugal slaying of children as executioner guilt, which is absolutely risible. These oversights indicate mimesis over character-based conviction. In fact, Johnson's film (and script) is likely going to get too much credit because of the nuanced work done by leads Gordon-Levitt, Willis, and Emily Blunt - perhaps the most proficient work of each actor's career. There are especially giddy pleasures to be had in Willis's sage - credit Johnson here for finding an ingenious way to allow Old Joe's plight the narrative resonance needed to reveal Willis's performative intricacies. For that jaw-dropping sequence, Johnson makes a thirty-year duration play like chronological progression - remarkable. However, unlike last year's Drive, Johnson is more fanboy than cultural critic - a critique of screen violence does not implicitly manifest. In fact, the recent Dredd has much more to say about cinematic violence as ritual. If we look beyond the screen, Looper is rather straight.

Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012) -- C-

Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers often divides viewers and critics alike, primarily for its aggressive variance of styles; whether the faux-Rodney Dangerfield sitcom that brazenly satirizes consumer passivity, the extremely canted angles that switch from grainy black & white to heavily saturated color, or the forceful political commentary rooted in an ambivalent critique of media ethics (hypocritical condemnation of violence while reveling in the aesthetic joys - much like the film, itself) nothing about Stone's nihilistic, kaleidoscopic masterpiece (to this viewer) settles for stable representation. His cinematic world is always in flux - morality cannot exist (just as aesthetics are susceptible to paradigm shifts) with such a jarring misplacement of ethos and capital. Savages, on the contrary, is the ugly, nonsense film many Natural Born Killers detractors claim. It is pornohistoriography. Stone is less interested in producing a stringent critique of screen violence than using late 20th century drug wars as an "epic" milieu for his deranged semiotics. Whereas Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Julliette Lewis) were caricature-cum-metonymic figures for Stone's necessary sensorial overload, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are indulgent, explicit mouthpieces for Stone and writer Don Winslow's existential leftist concerns. Savages views sex, violence, and drug use the way one might expect from a fifteen-year old weaned on Red Bull and Grand Theft Auto. Everything is a money shot.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb, 2012) -- C

Let's set the bar rather low, to begin: Is there anything particularly wrong with The Amazing Spider-Man, Marc Webb's (lol) reboot, just a decade removed from Sam Raimi's original? In a sense, no - it zips along at a pleasant enough speed, is well-shot, and features warm, affable performances from Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Now, let's take that bar a foot higher: does The Amazing Spider-Man do anything particularly interesting? Aside from more thoroughly attempting to unlock the psychology of the titular web-slinger by having his ethics and patience more fully contested when Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) bites the dust, or allowing Garfield the chance to brood and soul-search before donning the body suit - no. Little about The Amazing Spider-Man is able to transcend a palpable sense of deja vu and, more precisely, franchising run amok. Nevertheless, during the final half hour, as Spidey flies along the NY cityscape, Webb finds an ironic, metropolitan sublime, where the enormous buildings and energy-sucking lights of the city provide vision and sight to a "hero" trying to take down a giant lizard (not sure what the metaphor is there - he's just a big-ass lizard). Problem is, Webb doesn't push the issue far enough - these potential ruminations remain backdrops to empty exposition and character development - very similar with The Avengers. If we raise the bar one last time, to ask if The Amazing Spider-Man is essential, our bar is well out of range from Spidey's web. In an era that affords directors like Webb a 200 million dollar budget, there's no excuse why ideas and intelligence (which are, essentially, free) cannot be fused into mega-productions. If they are not, it is time to abandon all mercy and contrition and just be blunt: The Amazing Spider-Man dangles, like the unhealthy, consumerist excrement it is.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ted (Seth MacFarlane, 2012) -- C+

While watching Ted, a viewer is sure to be torn between two inclinations; the first, how funny Seth MacFarlane's directorial debut often is - the second, how undeniably disposable and ephemeral his comedy renders itself. Anyone who isn't actively familiar with Family Guy (MacFarlane's smash-hit television series) is likely to see Ted and believe they are seeing an audacious, associative, even intellectual montage-like collision of ideas/concepts. For those unfamiliar, Family Guy operates under "remember when" logic, often vacillating between past and present to irrelevant non-sequiturs (for instance, lead character Peter fighting a Ronald McDonald size chicken, often for five-six minutes at a time) as a way to invoke/appeal to cultural referents. Thus, it's no surprise that Ted sees the world in an extremely similar manner - one where defining characteristics are pop cultural knowledge, sexual appetite, and not whether you smoke pot - but how often you smoke.

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.

The Watch (Akiva Schaffer, 2012) -- D-

It isn't very difficult to assign a grade to The Watch - it's awful. In fact, while watching this half-improvised, half-ineptly scripted disaster unfold, the experience turns from mounting indifference to, when Franklin (Jonah Hill) flips over his mattress to reveal an arsenal of semi-automatic weaponry beneath, tangible hatred - you want to choke any fleeting life out of this thing, bury it in the backyard and, primarily for the sake of those involved, hope others either never find it or, even better, forget it existed in the first place.

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 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

End of Watch (David Ayer, 2012)

I normally assign grades to films in order to give readers an immediate indication of quality; the grade speaks to the tone and aims in the content of the review to follow. As with anything in an internet age, brevity is desired and essential. Readers peruse Rotten Tomatoes not to digest full reviews, but to see the verdict: rotten or fresh (and maybe read the pull quote, if the reviewer is lucky). However, in some cases, a grade cannot speak to the complexity contained within a given film - it cannot coordinate into a single letter the merits seen over a two hour duration (in fact, grades can never do that, which is why a review necessarily follows). Such is the case with David Ayer's third film, End of Watch. It is insane. And, in this case, rather than allowing my grade (which will be negative) to provide preconceived notions for readers who may be interested in seeing the film, I will ask that you bear with me and read on to understand the situation.

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."

Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012) -- C+

Another band of Mumblecore misfits is on the loose in Safety Not Guaranteed. This time, magazine rooks Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (Karan Soni) follow cocky editor Jeff (Jake Johnson) as they investigate a recent newspaper ad by Kenneth (Mark Duplass), who claims he can travel through time. Director Colin Trevorrow has difficulty visualizing the premise outside of some early (but predictably quirky) scenes with Darius (really?) voice-over, but little of this amounts to more than decorative stylistics. Perhaps what is most flattening about Safety Not Guaranteed is its lack of purpose and significance. It is network TV safe. There are no real stakes here - trivial insights and geeky ruminations are all Trevorrow can muster. The relationship between Darius and Kenneth is standard Florence Nightingale effect - their scenes together are always obscured by the film's declarative difference, its self-labeled "outsider" status. Aside from a rather hilarious late development between Arnau and Jeff, the former snatched away from his laptop for a much needed night of drinking and womanizing, Safety Not Guaranteed epitomizes bad zeitgeist filmmaking - ugly to look at and saturated with insignificant characters and actions, it begs for laughs from those who identify with the qualities possessed by its characters. Though the film may indeed get those laughs, what we have here is another conventional case of pandering.

Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, 2012) -- B

For anyone familiar with this blog, you have surely noticed my general dislike for Pixar - they often promote social activism and friendship within a 200 million dollar plus enterprise, not to mention all of the toys, stuffed, animals, and board games on the side. It is disingenuous, since promoting humanism and Marxism just doesn't work when the company with the megaphone is part of the problem, not the solution. Thankfully, with Brave, Pixar has decided to drop the socio-political rhetoric and primarily sticks to constructing an impressively rendered animated world inhabited by characters that children/adolescents can identify with, while engaging moral constructivism that, if simplistic, at least works on a more emotional level.

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.

Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2012) -- B+

Shades of Christopher Guest and Errol Morris abound in Richard Linklater's Bernie, a true-crime comedy that is less about pathology than gently prodding the constraints that inform and define small-town USA. Linklater hasn't been this funny since Dazed & Confused, nor has his filmmaking been so in-tune with the material, here co-scripted by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote the newspaper article which serves as the film's basis. From the opening scene, where mortician Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) carefully explains the procedure for presenting a corpse during an open casket funeral, Linklater maintains comedic balance. He is less derisive of his characters and more loving, empathetic; residents of the small Texas town comprise Linklater's testimonial approach - several of which are so convincing (Rick Dial as Bernie's superior, in particular), it's hard to believe we're watching trained actors, and not residents plucked from their homes.

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

Eating Raoul (Paul Bartel, 1982)

"Eating Raoul is an American comedic masterpiece that should be placed alongside Paul Morrissey’s Trash (1970) as one of the most thoughtful films ever made on the topic of sex, indulgence, and capital."

Click here to read my review for The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of Paul Bartel's Eating Raoul, at Cinespect.

The Game (David Fincher, 1997)

"The Game is essentially Fincher’s solipsistic sob-story—a hollow contrivance about the Hollywood studio system’s egregious interference with his own personal vision."

Click here to read my review for The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of David Fincher's The Game, at Cinespect.

Project X (Nima Nourizadeh, 2012) -- B

The Hangover is one of the most offensive comedies of the last decade. Project X isn't - in fact, it is precise in acknowledging the inevitable drive towards self-destruction as a rite of passage faced by teenagers living in a post-Gen X, digitized America. These differences are surprising since Todd Phillips has a hand in both (with the former, he directs, with the latter, he produces), but director Nima Nourizadeh recognizes the difference between minors who haven't yet been confronted with societal responsibility and man-children who relish their refused initiation into the social order (not to mention their sexist, homophobic, white-privilege behavior).

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.

Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012) -- A-

Dredd burrows deeper into its own, implicit nihilism than just about any other film in recent memory. A minimal narrative premise allows for character-driven genre filmmaking - which I thought died with the financial failure of John Carpenter's Escape From LA (1996). Director Pete Travis is here to lead a resurgence. Much like Carpenter, Travis speaks in genre, not about genre. Themes remain bubbling just above the surface and, if not subtle, impressionistic rather than absolute. Think of Dredd not so-much in terms of its premise, which involves Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and rookie partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) locked-down inside drug-kingpin Ma-Ma's (Lena Headey) post-apocalyptic, prison-like apartment complex. Like Gareth Evans's The Raid: Redemption (2012), the shoe-string premise serves as forum for formal and discursive playfulness. For Travis, a synthesizer-heavy score (again recalling Carpenter) and saturated visuals are means for auto-critique - is the hyper-violent Dredd a jest at post-modern filmmaking or should it be lumped in with other, lesser A.D.D. iterations? Fact is, these questions no longer satisfy or, perhaps, matter, which is why Dredd's forceful, abrupt nature seems so startling - terrifying, even. Travis (and veteran screenwriter Alex Garland) suggest no recourse towards redemption, of any sort. Dredd's efforts, with his rigid adherence to law ("your sentence: death") in a milieu of chaos, is but a drop in the bucket, a fleeting gesture towards Romantic civilization, lost. Travis's film kicks Cabin in the Woods in the teeth - it sees hopelessness not as aesthetic, empty theoretical fodder, but a means of Apocalyptic Laughter, taking the loss of ethos in-stride. As such, there is a considerable amount of genre pleasure to be taken in the slow motion sequences (meant to express the effects of the film's drug of conflict, appropriately called SLO-MO), and when Dredd finally meets Ma-Ma at the top, Travis doesn't belabor the point - death is swift but painful, vengeful but neat. Order and pleasure are consistently at odds - jouissance both in-and-outside-of affect.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012) -- B

The level of "epicness" (misused by many a fanboy, mistaking simply a literary genre for a laudatory claim) has been amped in The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan's nearly three-hour trilogy capper, though the degree of success the larger-scale storytelling brings is certainly debatable, given the stockpiling of characters new and old, and vacillation between post-continuity action sequences and smaller, mostly exposition driven dialogue scenes (the Nolan bros. dialogue remains predictably on-the-nose, though not as egregiously as in Oliver Stone's recent Savages). And yet - my personal interest with this film (and Nolan's trilogy, in general) lies less in accessing the merit of his adaptation, in narrative terms, than it does in analyzing the peculiar, elusive combination of visceral and banal that has come to constitute the bulk of Nolan's oeuvre. He wrings (or attempts to) feigned significance from tone and affect, rather than diegesis. His Batman films, though believed by many to be brilliant for their storytelling prowess, have always been more impressive, in my eyes, for their emphasis on paying reverence to classical, continuity style (Griffith, Ford, Hawks, at least when looking strictly at narrative forms) while altering those techniques (in TDKR's case: parallel editing, Eisensteinian montage, ellipsis) to fulfill the tendencies of most post-9/11 action cinema towards a fragmented temporality (recently termed "Chaos Cinema" by Matthias Stork). TDKR has a foot in both realms, as it were, entering its spatio-temporal matrix with the corporeal tenacity of a silent epic, but the disillusioned sense of space belonging to fellow post-continuity enthusiasts Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and (the worst example) Paul Greengrass.

Nolan's interest in form must eventually supersede a discussion simply of narrative - one which prizes Modernist storytelling, utilizing literary devices from said period like foreshadowing, understatement, and, at times (though not nearly frequently enough) irony to weave together its character arcs, agendas, and motivations with clarity. And yet - it's this clarity which often negates the film's purported "dark" tone, since darkness necessarily lies in behavioral ambiguity - something TDKR comprehensively lacks (aside from its plot twists - the weakest form of effective revelation). Batman is crippled (physically and emotionally, oh how metaphysical!) from taking the Harvey Dent murder wrap - putting Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) out of commission for the last eight years. John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), an investor set on absorbing Wayne Enterprises, jokes early on that Wayne "is holed up with eight-inch fingernails and peeing into Mason jars," - a rather clever in-joke for Nolan followers, who has stated that his dream project is a biopic of Howard Hughes while holed up for months in his screening room - all while Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) fumbles at the microphone and with Deputy Commisioner Foley (Matthew Modine) in explaining the truth about the night Harvey Dent died all those years ago (cinephiles note the name of Modine's character in Full Metal Jacket: Private Joker). Meanwhile, stealthy maid Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is busy roaming the grounds in search of Wayne's fingerprints (we later learn they are needed by Daggett), all while sure-to-be femme fatale Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) stands around, in exposition mode, detailing her plans for the city's clean energy, which can be achieved with a prototype device being manufactured by Wayne Enterprises. Oh - did I mention all of this comes after the opening sequence where a masked mercenary (and forthcoming Gotham super-villain) named Bane (Tom Hardy) stages a mid-air hijacking and blood transfusion, as to gain control of nuclear physicist Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul), whom he needs to control and operate the device Miranda Tate also seeks to gain possession of? Lest we even discuss rookie beat cop Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose earnest idealism and interest in re-instating an underfunded orphanage (he's was an orphan too, just like Wayne, natch) are intended to provide the film with a moral center. Nolan manages the characters well enough - but he has mistaken convoluted for complex, as the dialogue scenes that connect the more interesting action sequences are written to a pulp, especially some early scenes between Alfred (Michael Caine) and Wayne, with each beat and potential consequence explicitly out in the open.

Multiple viewings reveal the care with which the Nolan bros. planted lines, scenes, and a fair share of red herrings to give nearly every action meaning within the context of its not-so hermetic universe (characters often speak lines that deliberately bleed over into real-word political/social issues). Nolan is proficient at layering his narrative with subtle hints that potentially offer subsequent reveals - but he's often simply maneuvering through the proceedings rather than imbuing them with tangible conviction or significance. What does TDKR really mean or have on its mind, besides feigning zeitgeist pretensions? Ultimately - not much, especially since Nolan isn't able to show the purported decadence that has sullied Gotham (such is Bane's claim), except for an Eyes Wide Shut-lite sequence at Wayne Manor, with guests sipping champagne and flashing their Venetian masks. Unlike Kubrick's best (or even recent films like The Social Network and Magic Mike), Nolan struggles to suggest something looming beneath his frame - an unspoken, semiotic terror. With Nolan, what you see is what you get.

Which is not to suggest that what we see (and hear) isn't often impressive and/or of significance. Nolan's work with composer Hanz Zimmer has taken a Wagnerian track throughout TDK and TDKR, assigning themes to various characters and giving sequences an almost operatic coda, to capitalize on the affective pull. Most compelling through all of this is Bane, as Hardy's ferocious, psychotic, but perversely detached, presence seems to belong in a different, more dangerous film. His dialogue and voice, clearly ADR'd and given a 360 degree presence, sound like an ironic, reptilian David Bowie, his cadence and emphasis lacking consistency as he emphatically and idiosyncratically shouts his mandates in front of various crowds - only he speaks with a degree of joyful detachment, seemingly deriving pleasure from the fact that he is unaffected by such heinous acts (nearly every line is immanently quotable/memorable, not necessarily for what Bane says, but how he says it). Hardy gives Bane an ambiguity that the film tries to snuff out through its insistence upon flashbacks and reductive dialogue, denying his character a more compelling moral ambivalence in favor of "pure evil," (or "necessary evil," depending on which character you believe).

Nolan lacks the artistry to give his film's something other than their immediate pleasures. TDKR zips by so quickly because it's all there, on-screen, which is why the film works fairly wonderfully in the moment, less so with subsequent contemplation. Such a qualification would extend to the film's form, excluding the initial fight sequence between Batman and Bane. Taking place in a sewer and the first face-to-face for the two characters,  it contains such bone-crushing, on-screen physicality and sonic variance (no music, sounds of water falling, Bane's piercing voice/claims) combined with visual prowess (light to dark, edits to longish takes) that it ranks among (if not at the top of) Nolan's most impressive visceral achievements.

Unsurprisingly, Nolan stumbles when having to cross-cut and establish a spatio-temporal basis outside of a single setting, as with the film's prolonged denouement, set predominately on the steps of Gotham City Hall. A basis for the sequence of shots is never properly (not to mention cleverly) established, which both stagnates and makes arbitrary each successive cross-cut. Made even worse are the disappearance and reappearance of characters without proper spatial explanation (one character is dispatched by another - but only after the latter character has been absent from the film for at least fifteen minutes, last seen miles away from where the concluding action takes place). Nolan has never had a firm grasp on the spatial dimensions of his cinematic worlds (similar problems exist in Batman Begins, Inception, and The Dark Knight). Moreover, the proceedings, while varying in effectiveness, lack the satiric cadence and gravity of the action genre's best. Even just earlier this year, Neveldine/Taylor turned Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance into a Carnivalesque whirligig of playful, but sincere affect, layering their ambivalence for pop cultural worship with a coherent, complex subtext of addiction, both literal and metaphorical. But Nolan makes some of the most compellingly empty films I can think of; he builds them from the outside-in, instead of inside-out, which helps to explain the peculiarity, but isn't quite satisfactory. The viscera responds while cognition remains dormant. Captivating for its duration and impressive for its visceral qualities, but lacking any consistent understanding of the human condition, TDKR's bizarro-normative demeanor is a quid-pro-quo affair - and such relatively thoughtless fetishistic supplementation almost always comes with unwanted side-effects.