Tuesday, September 24, 2013
2013 Films (The Fifth 10)
With The To Do List, writer/director Maggie Carey offers an honest, mostly shame-free teen-sex comedy - perhaps the best since Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982). Carey's only mistake is setting the film in the early 90's, which adds unnecessary nostalgic leanings (the kitsch-irony of Beaches for example. When Seinfeld playfully satirized Beaches and its syrupy-saccharine take on love-and-loss in 1993, the joke was of-its-time, related to an immediate zeitgeist and spoke directly to contemporary pop cultural significance. Doing so in retrospect is too easily digested, too cutesy-smarmy to carry more than nominal cultural capital. Carey is making less a critique of period-love than embracing it for presumably solipsistic expressions). Nevertheless, the sexual agency given to Brandy (Aubrey Plaza), as well as the film's playful sexual/gender politics (BFF/love-interest Cameron (Johnny Simmons) sheds the most tears in the film, while Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele) offer the most sexual knowledge/advice) directly refute the conservative, regressive bromance cycles championed by Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips. Whereas Knocked Up seeks laugh through its manchild protagonists, The To-Do List understands collective social progress through self-discovery and evolution, of which sexual, bodily knowledge is a primary tenet. Every sexual encounter (sans a BJ for Van (Andy Samberg)) locates some degree of sincerity for its participants, whether embarrassment, elation at newly discovered pleasure, or some combination thereof - a rare feat in contemporary American comedy.
Magic Magic (Sebastian Silva) 4/4
Quietly, and almost completely off-the-radar, Sebastian Silva and Michael Cera have made two films that rival, and arguably best, the recent work by Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling. With Crystal Fairy, they boiled the road-trip movie down to its minimalist, character-driven essence, as if attempting to outwardly sustain a feeling of drug-induced euphoria, yet undercut by the angst and uncertainty that accompanies both ascendancy into adulthood and the literal, geographical discovery of new places. In Magic Magic, those interests are maintained, but instead of drug-induced euphoria, the converse applies: absolute, unshakable madness. Here, Alicia (Juno Temple) is the geographical novice, introduced by her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning) to an odd group of friends including bitchy Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and creepy Brink (Michael Cera). Silva is intent from the opening - a nearly five minute montage of changing skies, animal sounds, and shifty landscapes - of unsettling any sense of narrative complacency, which persists throughout, as Alicia's grip on reality appears to gradually slip away from her, as the characters are frustratingly, maddeningly, unable to articulate emotions, establish meaningful relationships, and accomplish anything resembling unity. Silva doesn't blink in these aims and only truly game audiences will be interested in engaging with his staring contest, which sustains a sense of insanity in ways perhaps only previously achieved by Bergman, Polanski, and Altman. Magic Magic is even better than Martha Marcy May Marlene for its opaque resilience and refutation of concrete psychological significance. Chillingly shot by renowned DP Christopher Doyle, Silva's film is less a puzzle than a remarkably sustained experimental piece on the ways in which cinema can replicate, perhaps more than any other medium, the effects of psychological illness and distress. In a just world, Magic Magic, not The Conjuring, would be the sleeper horror hit of the summer.
Lee Daniels' The Butler (Lee Daniels) 2/4
Any film that insists upon covering 50+ years time - not to mention a national history that comes along with that time - has a necessarily troublesome endeavor from the onset, in terms of representational significance. For the most part, director Lee Daniels elects to go the Cliff Notes route, selecting highlights and instantly accessible historical signposts to guide the life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a man who worked as a butler in the White House from the Eisenhower administration through the end of Reagan's two terms. Daniels has never been a director comfortable with nuance, and The Butler is no exception. The film opens with Gaines's father being gunned down by a malevolent, almost robotic plantation owner (Alex Pettyfer), whose few, brief minutes on-screen count as one of the year's worst performances, but the blame must go to Daniels, who establishes the film's comprehensive father/son impetus with a cloying, pandering sensibility that is, more or less, sustained throughout. Moreover, the film's visual style is wholly unremarkable and Daniels does a fairly atrocious job of making a small budget ($25 million) cover for the film's large-scale aspirations. Daniels has little eye for effective storytelling economy, with family-dialogue scenes hitting obvious, repetitive beats, sometimes incoherently so. Nevertheless, Daniels does nicely establish a through-line to refute easy binaries, as he suggests generational conflict - and not just racial injustice - as a primary obstacle for societal harmony. Of particular note is a montage which juxtaposes Cecil's son Louis (David Oyelowo) refusing to leave a whites-only restaurant, while Cecil serves a party in the White House. Each man, with varying notions of progress, problematizes easy resolutions, in a comparable way that the conflicting quotes that end Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) suggests easy resolutions to deep-seated hatreds are impossible. Then, visual discourse synthesizes to literal discourse as the two debate the symbolic value of Sidney Poitier nearly a decade later. In this thread, Daniels achieves a compelling coherence. Otherwise, The Butler is serviceable only to viewers that like their historicizing resolute, peppered with period-piece humor, and whose idea of research begins and ends with skimming a Wikipedia page.
Perk up, Michael Bay - The Cinema of Attractions has a new contender in Neill Blomkamp, whose Elysium elides its narrative underpinnings in mostly delightful ways throughout, rectifying the unconvincing apartheid allegory put forth by the faux-documentary conceit of Blomkamp's first, District 9. Blomkamp proves himself an immaculate world-builder here, constructing a hybridized reality-future that envisions dystopian gloom less as Ridley Scott and more as George Miller, loaded with grimy, dusty baddies, tatted-up, lugging endless amounts of hardware. A gear-head's wet, fetishized dream, the perfunctorily masculine protags, antags, and toadies embody Blomkamp's Darwinian cinematic mode with a ferocious brutality that revels in surfaces over depths. While that could potentially be read as a knock against the film, Blomkamp's embrace of these desires rather than attempted suppression offers pure spectacle, unencumbered by a need for consistent narrative address. Only the film's third act use of a sick child sullies DP Trent Opaloch's year-best cinematography, Sharlto Copley's sword-wielding maniacal howl, and Wagner Moura's screamo speaking cadences. Elysium flirts with satire, but refrains, which prevents it from entering the ranks of great gonzo action works like Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984), Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987), or the Crank films (Neveldine/Taylor, 2006/2009), but its complex devotion to rendering high-tech swagger makes it something of a hardware masterpiece.
The Conjuring is one big red herring, a distraction meant to obscure just how derivative, complacent, and unimaginative its proposed horrors are. Look past the sleek cinematography and you're left with a series of similarly scaled and executed jump-scare sequences, predicated less on screen-space than soundtrack submission. Look past the ghost house creeps to find archetypes that began with at least James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932). Look past the family-in-danger conceit to find a lack of dread or terror lurking elsewhere. Look past the protagonist ghost-hunting couple to see the simplicity of their constructed motivations. Look past The Conjuring and see Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977), Possession (Andrezj Zulawski, 1981) or Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001) instead.
The Canyons (Paul Schrader) 2/4
Whereas Terrence Malick and Brian De Palma have delivered late-career masterpieces in 2013, Paul Schrader has made a deliberately unpleasant film, meant to gong the end of cinema; no, literally, Schrader opens the film with a credits sequence displaying abandoned movie houses. Whether the intent is a coup de la mort or the passing of an era, what follows does little to either expound upon the suggested opening, nor do Schrader and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis have much of note to offer, beyond the hollowed titillation-but-not...titillation. Lindsay Lohan fares best in a performance much better than the film she's in - unfortunately, Ellis sticks her with tinny dialogue ("Who's happy? Who's really happy? Tell me!" or "We couldn't pay the fucking rent Ryan. We couldn't pay the fucking rent!"), so even her game effort is somewhat diluted. Perhaps most disheartening is the ignoble, unremarkable nature of the entire film. Schrader offers little by way of narrative or formal ingenuity.
Bullet to the Head articulates the macho-malaise that each Expendables film has muffed. Leave it to veteran master Walter Hill; his sense of narrative economy has rarely been keener, articulating genre pathos with both gusto and an underlying critique of recent films that view violence as fodder for cinematic kicks. Ever the philosopher of the genre image, Hill's mise-en-scene deftly interrogates the film's themes of generational divide and misguided justice. James Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone) sees no out for himself except through violence - that is, violence which he carries out in the name of justice and rationale. Nevertheless, the "die for the code" ethos gives way to more bloodshed, yet the pacifist attitudes of beat cop Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) are even less effective amidst an underworld of unfeeling, bloodthirsty, psychopathic drug runners. Much like AMC's Breaking Bad, Hill is interested in what happens when violent men with supposedly honorable intentions meet even more violent men with no intentions.
Few films transcend the confines of cinema to become something bigger - something that so shatteringly defies representational logic and aesthetics, that it becomes less a film and more an indelible statement about representation, as it relates to trauma and atrocity. Forugh Farrokhzad's The House is Black (1963) is one. Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985) is another. Now, add Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing to that short list - offering the horror of violence through an absurdist, genre-based critique, Oppenheimer's film is inherently critical of the unthinking manner with which Hollywood cinema deploys violent, masculine-coded imagery and ultimately offers such a critique in relation to the implications on a global scale. In stating this, I am not suggesting Oppenheimer elides the specificity of Indonesia's trauma; rather, the film remains intensely focused on detailing the effects of such violence on those involved, while implicating global capitalism and "movie-as-commodity" exportation in such acts.
The World's End finds Edgar Wright taking a step back from the wonderful, ingenious formal play of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Making his fourth feature, with three of them dedicated to his "Corenetto Trilogy," Wright makes the best of this final entry, locating storytelling economy through a fantastic early sequence, as lifelong fuck-up Gary King (Simon Pegg) recruits his now-corporate mates to rekindle their youthful selves by embarking on a twelve pub bar-crawl known as "the golden mile." Pegg and Wright's script deftly establishes character and theme, positioning their reunion (and navigation of space) as a geographical imperative as much as a nostalgic one. All of this is great - except, the film does itself a disservice by taking such a well-defined, streamlined premise and insisting upon devolving into genre deconstruction. This go-around, Wright steeps himself in a sewer of sci-fi cliches, only to see if he can maneuver himself (and his characters) out of them. Presumably, the introduction of sci-fi elements is meant as an allegorical forum to exercise these established themes. Rather, Wright loses his grip on each and, for the first time, cannot decide how character informs genre and vice-versa, instead muddling both with yuppie "blue-blooded" (har har) aliens. The World's End is more convoluted than complex.
Touting a stunning blend of self-awareness and genre ingenuity, Adam Wingard's You're Next understands true horror works in relation to social and spatial uncertainty. Thus, a family reunion turns into a "navigate-the-domestic-space" blood bath. Would it be that Wingard ended there, he would have a good film. Instead, he ups the ante by casting fellow directors Joe Swanberg, Ti West, and Amy Seimetz as family members! Let's just say each of their fates are not exactly uplifting. Wingard solves the puzzle that neither omnibus horror film VHS or The ABC's of Death could: he figures out how to unite the collaborative short structure with the feature, "mapping" narrative structure on both diegetic and meta levels. Moreover, the film's final third parses its narrative down to image/sound relation, subsuming narrative to formal play. No horror film has done this so effectively since Amy Holden Jones's The Slumber Party Massacre (1982).