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.