Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (Molly Bernstein) 2/4
Filmmakers are not required to be reflexive by profession, but more often than not, it sure would help. Such is the case with this rather pedestrian documentary about a rather extraordinary man - one whose face cinephiles will undoubtedly recognize from the films of David Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson (the latter's films are not even mentioned in this doc). However - Deceptive Practice is much more concerned with Ricky Jay the magician - a master sleight-of-hand whose live performances sell-out auditoriums and even get put on Broadway (directed by Mamet, no less). Yet, Molly Bernstein's doc lacks the pulse-quickening disappearing acts that make Jay's work (and life) so fascinating. Rather than use Jay's self-account as a means to explore cinema (and especially documentary) as historical narrative - one whose abilities to turn impossibility into reality has remained an illusion since Melies and the Lumiere bros first help create the medium - Bernstein lacks even the ability to establish a coherent timeline, jettisoning from interview to interview across decades, and ultimately seeing Jay as an end in-and-of himself. Such would be the case were the filmmaking not so content to maintain such an even keel.
The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie) 3/4
2013 is making a wonderful case for the fact that originality within the cinematic medium has died. That is - nearly every film under consideration here draws heavily upon prior cinematic influences. Such should not be a surprise with Rob Zombie, whose entire oeuvre to date has been built upon homage and revisionism. The Lords of Salem is no different, but the mean through which Zombie finds his one-two punch here is more in-depth than usual. Picking up where Halloween II's psycho-surreal sequences left off, Zombie has decided to fully embrace his inner-Jodorowsky, placing wife Sheri Moon's radio DJ into bizarro scenarios that frequently slip into ambient sounds and ritual-sexual imagery. The combination is often striking, even alluring, but it would be difficult to commend Zombie for anything more than eloquent pastiche. There's a certain beauty in the ugly here, especially in several domestic set scenes, that echos Polanski's best work. That's really all it is though - an echo. Zombie is too far from the referent, too wallowing in his own desire to be an original, that even the sharpest moments lack the audacity and fervor found in those 1970's real-deal classics.
Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski) 2/4
A Dune-like effort that's more slog than slick, Joseph Kosinski's sophomore film seeks to replace the sheen and gloss of Tron: Legacy with an existential air to carry the current of his mundane vision of post-human existence. That's not to say the images aren't striking - perhaps they are, but mainly in terms of effects-driven images, rather than an acute eye for framing. Even more disappointing, the score from M83 routinely slips into what could be mistaken as a scratch-score for nearly every sci-fi Blockbuster. If there's anything distinguished about Oblivion, it would be the insistence on maintaining a particularly muted tonal pitch, which ebbs-and-flows at times whenever an action sequence is required. Even so - the bombast remains low, the interest in rhythm strong - but said interest rarely translates into productive, affectual rhythms. Give Kosinski credit for the effort, but not too much credit for the relatively limp final product.
Mud (Jeff Nichols) 2/4
Jeff Nichols is going the way of David Gordon Green. Shotgun Stories, his first feature, had a hard-edged grit, which lead Michael Shannon superbly performed. Take Shelter, his second, remained a strong work focused in psychological deterioration as product of latent Biblical fears, though the edge wasn't quite as refined. Now - with Mud - Nichols has lapsed into Oscar-baiting territory, providing an ensemble cast with "big" moments to satisfy their actorly urges, dialogue heavy scenes that reveal fairly simplistic binaried philosophies, and a coming-of-age core that remains reductive throughout. Moreover, Nichols's camera is often steady rather than audacious, his editing straight-laced. There are also questionable gender issues, such as young Ellis's (Tye Sheridan) interest in an older girl as evidence of his desired manhood. Young Ellis sees women betray both himself and Mud (Matthew McConaughey) throughout and that underlying perspective is less examined that perpetuated. Finally, once a ridiculous shootout commences as the denouement, it is clear that Mud is merely muck.
Pain & Gain (Michael Bay) 3/4
The hate against Michael Bay has always been unfair. He is what scholar Tom Gunning calls "The Cinema of Attractions." There is something to be said for spectacle over narrative - it tends towards affect far more, even if the images are "stupid," as Julia Kristeva might say. But - there's nothing very stupid at all about Pain & Gain - more an embrace of the absurd. In fact, Bay's cinema has always tended towards achieving a sort of visceral bliss which, to Bay at least, seems to come through loud, industrial/mechanic sounds, bombastic music, and grandiose figures in movement. Instead of robots here, it's body builders, but the effect remains nearly the same. Of course, there are no clanging-metal battles atop sky-scrapers, but the pursuit of Adonis-like perfection, be it physical, material, aesthetic, or psychological, is the driving force of Bay's work. Has a filmmaker ever been so over-loaded with signifiers? The images will singe the retinas with their humor-based suggestivity.
The Iceman (Ariel Vroman) 2/4
The Iceman might be my last biopic. On the whole - they are terrible. For whatever reason, those who direct them rarely have any playful or worthwhile sensibilities. The one significant exception is Frank Perry's Mommie Dearest - likely the best of all-time. That's because the film routinely descends into anarchic historicism - of course, this likely explains why that film won many Razzies. Here, Michael Shannon's titular hitman is give Goodfellas-Sopranos-lite material, none of which ever finds an even modestly satisfactory insanity. Shannon seems game - you can practically feel the rage seething from his eyes - but director Ariel Vroman does not capitalize on his actor, nor the inherently domestic-absurd scenario - hitmen with kids. The material is ripe for satirical melodrama, perhaps even a Written on the Wind - with mafioso. Alas, Vroman hits the matinee beats with seeming disinterest. Why make these movies if they aren't going to be batshit?
Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams) 3/4
All of J.J. Abrams's films suck - except this one. Brilliantly, Abrams has instilled the latest Star Trek with a truly 21st century attitude, from the dancefloor-like shootouts - the noises of which could be mistaken for EDM drops - to the urban-spaces gone post-human, epitomized by Benedict Cumberbatch's mechanical-electronic posturings, the affect here is fully palpable. The lens flares actually work here too, since the idea that everything-is-a-light-show has become part of a refracted digital reality, within and outside of the film. The cast is affable enough and all look great in both their suits and Abrams's effective canted angles. Close-ups pop - the flick moves at a nice clip. The title is a misnomer - this is Star Trek Out Of Geekdom Darkness, and into the rhythmic flows of a fully post-human realm, where electricity is required. There's nary a power outage here - shit sparks.
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater) 3/4
The titles of Richard Linklater's so-far trilogy deliberately recall both Yasujiro Ozu and Eric Rohmer. Each of those incomparable directors used seasonal settings as a means (more a backdrop, perhaps) to explore the seeming peccadillos of human relationships, though the ramifications of time past/lost often bestowed those outward trifles with a much deeper resonance. Through sensibility, Linklater is seeking to marry the two - Rohmer's sexual dance, Ozu's socio-familial dynamics. Linklater is not as successful as either of those filmmakers, however, since his moves are borrowed - this is not the original. Not that these cribs render Before Midnight unworthy - in fact, the pleasure of hearing the lead pair converse often functions as reason alone to stay engaged. Yet the whole of it is rather manufactured and vacillates between homage and revision - albeit deftly. Thus, a smart curator would pair this and The Lords of Salem for a double feature. Discerning cinephiles would nod in approval.
This is the End (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) 3/4
A would-be The Day of the Locust for the 21st century comedian, the unlikability of a host of vain celebrities is the point of the film. These guys are dicks. That's why they weren't saved and left to fend for themselves. Their "celebrity" status behavior has rendered them so. To complain that the film is unsuccessful because it features selfish, petulant characters is to misunderstand the satirical bent - these characters are meant to be reviled, while laughing riotously at both the inherently ridiculous scenario and their outrageous behavior. The satire comes up a bit short, especially in the last 1/3, however. The celebrity-as-sinner conceit is mostly given lip-service in favor of extended, frantic exchanges and scenarios, 90% of which are inspired and hilarious, though do little to deepen and darken the inevitable judgments. When the film should get real, it goes soft, and doesn't follow through on earlier convictions. Still - the satirical elements make this a must-see for anybody remotely interested in these actors, their previous films, or questions involving celebrity vanity.
The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola) 2/4
Discern the difference between Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring, and you are on your way to mastering the notion of effective affect. The former is produced through a complex formation of affectation through disaffection, which manifests in the film's form and interests, themselves. Sofia Coppola's latest, whose oeuvre I have always been a fan of, has apparently been caught in David Fincher's headlights, as each beat desperately tries to mimic the tone and pitch of The Social Network, down to even cutaways to courtroom segments and interviews. Coppola's idea of affect is slow-motion club scenes, Fincher-fake montages, and a shot to culminate the film's final courtroom scene so hokey and Van Sant-inspired, that any sense of feeling or meaning collapses on Coppola's "feel nothing" ethos. Even the use of several tracks from Ye's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" feel late as fuck.