Saturday, May 30, 2015

"The Voices": A Fun Film With Too Many Tones

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Marjane Satrapi burst onto the directorial scene with a keen eye for visual flair and a sly feminist wit when she adapted her acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis to the screen as an animated feature.  She then went on to adapt her novel Chicken With Plums to the big screen with a similar degree of success.  Now we have The Voices, a truly bizarre addition to her filmography, not really dealing with any themes or motifs that fit into her comfort zone, and while this expansion into new territory certainly shows her struggle to move beyond feminist intellectualism as her go-to subject, it is still a decent enough film where I feel it deserves a recommendation.

Ryan Reynolds stars as Jerry, a pleasant enough guy who just has something a little off about him.  At his factory job, he’s friendly and upbeat, but social niceties are a little beyond him, so he comes off as weird to his coworkers.  When Jerry goes home, he talks to his pet dog and cat… and they talk right back.  Jerry suffers from some form of mental illness (a vague form of schizophrenia that is never fully diagnosed) wherein his dog acts as his conscience and his cat as his psychotic murderous id.  Through interacting with his animal “friends,” Jerry navigates the treacherous world of dating, accidental killing, intentional killing, and sexual intimacy.

Satrapi plays to her strengths right off the bat by casting the sets and characters in a darkly comic tone, with bright scenery and perpetually polite characters populating the screen as the undercurrent of Jerry’s approaching breakdown looms just below the surface.  Reynolds is actually a surprisingly good fit for the role, shedding his normal frat douche persona for a more innocent and confused man who doesn’t know how to handle his loneliness.  The film really shines when Jerry decides to stop taking his meds, and the wool is pulled from both his and the audience’s eyes as we see that his existence isn’t so bright and cheery as we would believe.

Alas, that is also the film’s biggest stumbling block, as it fumbles between wildly contrasting tones at the behest of the plot.  The film starts as a dark comedy, and remains as such for a good long while, but soon we start to get glimpses of Jerry’s past and a scene shot from the perspective of one of his potential murder victims, and suddenly the laughs come to a complete stop.  It is rather jarring to spend one scene talking with a disembodied head in a comically overblown accent, then another seriously dwelling on child abuse and suicide as side effects of mental illness.  The scenes are handled well to convey the tones that they are intended for, but the tones are so wildly discordant that they don’t feel like they belong in the same film.

And yet, despite this issue, I had a good time with The Voices.  Though definitely not the smartest work in Marjane Satrapi’s portfolio, it remains consistently funny when it’s trying to be, and the self-serious diversions aren’t so much film-breaking as they are distracting.  For fans of dark humor, I say give this one a shot, and hope that Satrapi can continue making great work after learning from her mistakes.

What do you think of Satrapi’s past work?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

"Goodbye To Language": A Confounding Art Piece

Now Available on 2D DVD and 3D Blu-ray

So, this review is going to require some disclosure.  I do not enjoy 3D movies.  Never have, likely never will.  My eyes do not register the effect very well, and the consequential blurring and discoloration that is often a by-product of the 3D rendering process tends to pull me out of the experience rather than immerse me.  So, it is very well possible, if not probable, that by watching Goodbye To Language in 2D, rather than the 3D for which it was filmed, I have deprived myself of the substantial purpose of the film.  Furthermore, I do not generally watch art films.  I tend to prefer narrative pieces, which is why I generally stick to films reasonably likely to be known by my audience.  However, May is shaping up to be a slow month for notable home video releases, so I thought I would try my hand at something different.

Being that this is an art film, it will most certainly not be for everyone.  Between the experimental shifts in coloring to the seemingly arbitrary dialogue and voiceover (all appropriately enough in French), many a viewer is sure to be baffled by an hour with no readily apparent purpose.  Goodbye To Language is best classified as an audio-visual experience rather than a traditional narrative motion picture, and like all art, what you take away from it will be completely unique to you.

The film is comprised of two interchanging parts: “Nature” and “Metaphor.”  “Nature” is paradoxically set primarily in urban locales, cars, or in a person’s home, and dialogue philosophizes over visual chaos.  My takeaway from these portions was that as language evolves, it becomes harder and harder for us to understand one another, because language is no longer about communication but individual expression.  “Metaphor,” on the other hand, primarily focuses on a dog wandering through the woods with observational voiceover as accompaniment.  I took these portions to be representative of there not being a need to communicate at a base natural level.  Now, my interpretations may not be the understood norm of what this art piece is supposed to represent, but given my usual avoidance of art without structure, this is the best I can come up with.

Director Jean-Luc Godard is best known for founding the French New Wave film movement in the 1960s, which tends to abandon character, story, and form in favor of experimentation with film as a medium.  That is precisely what he has done here, though as a two-dimensional experience it is hard to judge it as anything revolutionary.  New Wave techniques have worked their way into popular cinema over the decades, so perhaps the 3D experiments Godard performed here will make their way into our annual blockbusters.  I don’t rightly know, and I likely never will, given my distaste for this particular experiment.  So is Goodbye To Language a good film?  I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer.  I don’t regret the hour I spent with it, but I don’t think I could recommend the film with any enthusiasm either.  Ultimately, it comes down to whether you think yourself a person who would enjoy abandoning narrative fiction for an hour to simply experience something.  And only you can answer that question.

Have any experience with art cinema?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Winter Sleep": Textually Brilliant, Exhaustively Long

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

One of the potential dangers of independent cinema is that a lack of producer input can lead to an inferior product.  Winter Sleep is such a film to demonstrate that issue; it is by no means a bad film, and it is actually a rather brilliant character study of its protagonist.  However, the film has a runtime of over three hours, with many scenes running for excessively long periods that grind the narrative to a screeching halt.

Taking place in a Turkish village (and with dialogue entirely in Turkish), Winter Sleep is the story of Aydin, a former actor and current hotel owner, as well as landlord over a substantial portion of the village.  His time is devoted mostly to researching for a book he wishes to write about Turkish theater and writing columns for the local paper.  He is a wealthy and educated man, but leaves the handling of his affairs to an assistant and a team of lawyers.  One day, while driving with his assistant, a young boy throws a rock at Aydin’s window, which we later find out is in retaliation against Aydin’s legal team hiring debt collectors to claim property to pay for months of unpaid rent.  The boy’s uncle is the local imam, and tries to get Aydin to see charity in assisting a family that is down on their luck and in need of leniency in paying their rent.

The truly remarkable thing about Aydin is that he is a creature of self-delusion and contradiction, sitting aloft in an ivory tower that is admittedly of his own devise, yet feels no need to personally address the concerns of his tenants or the well-being of his fellow man.  In fact, behind his general niceties and lofty speeches of idealized community and morality, Aydin is an extremely selfish and egotistical person, claiming that any sort of financial leniency he could offer is out of his hands, even though he is the one in charge, ultimately benefits most from rent collection, and has already amassed considerable wealth.  In essence, Aydin is the pure embodiment of libertarianism, yet is not committed enough to the idea of self-realization to admit that he operates in a self-imposed isolation.

And yet, despite this brilliant character study, it gets lost in the fact that the film itself is just exhausting.  The first and third hours are handled just fine, with decent pacing and enough narrative twists to almost work as a film entirely on their own.  The middle third, however, feels unnecessarily protracted, almost entirely consumed by two extremely long scenes wherein Aydin speaks with his sister and his wife, both of whom spend more than twenty minutes conversing about how Aydin is a hypocrite and a narcissist.  Not only are these scenes overlong and, with the exception of one or two key plot points, completely unnecessary, they are also incredibly blunt, laying out in synoptic form the entire thesis on Aydin’s personality.  The film is not so subtle that these dialogues are needed to explain the thematic nuances, and they stretch the film to almost unbearable lengths.

However, I do think Winter Sleep is worth recommending.  After the first protracted conversation, which ends at roughly the halfway point, I would recommend taking a break and coming back to see the second half, just for the sake of allowing your brain to absorb everything that has happened up to that point.  This is a film that would have been much better with tighter construction and more editing, but as is, it is an engrossing character study and well worth watching… just not in one sitting.

What overlong films do you think could have stood to be edited down?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

"Lost River": Ryan Gosling's Unrealized Potential

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I tend to think it a pretty rare thing for anything good to come from an actor deciding to take a seat behind the director’s chair, as the results tend to be rather lackluster.  Acting and directing require very different skill sets, and often what makes actors great is their knowledge of themselves and how they best can serve a role, an attitude often at odds with the more universal perspective necessary in a director.  Enter Ryan Gosling with his freshman attempt at writing and directing, Lost River.  And you know what?  He has potential.  This just isn’t the film in which it gets to shine.

The film follows the lives of a family in Detroit, about to have their house foreclosed upon and destroyed by their mortgaging bank.  The story follows two divergent moneymaking ventures by family members.  First we have Bones (played by Ian De Caestecker, whom some may recognize from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) searching for scrap to sell, only to be hounded by the self-professed overlord of the scrap trade, the aptly named Bully (Matt Smith, in a role about as vulgarly far removed from The Doctor as I can imagine).  The other tale follows Billy (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks), Bones’s mother, who begins working in the bank manager’s club in a gore-centric form of burlesque, subjecting herself to the discomforts of the audience’s gaze as she plays at mutilating herself for their amusement.

Gosling has a real eye for making his scenes vibrant and surreal, blending visual and auditory stimuli to make us question the reality of what we’re seeing.  There is clear homage here to the works of David Lynch, the most obvious being Blue Velvet.  The homage is so striking, in fact, that it almost crosses the line into plagiarism, replicating shots and motifs with such reverence that it feels derivative.  It’s generally normal for young directors to try to replicate the styles of their idols, and while Gosling certainly has good taste in cinema, he tries so hard to be David Lynch that his film loses any sense of identity.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that the film doesn’t have much of a plot.  It teases its audience with some commentary on the predatory lending practices that led to the housing bubble collapse, which is already an observation that has come a few years too late, but the film goes on to not have much to say on it.  Both Bones’s and Billy’s stories have their share of bizarre visual delights and tense moments, but by the end of the film, both of their conflicts are individually resolved, they reunite, and nothing is really learned or gained from their experiences.  The primary conflict of their housing crisis isn’t even addressed, leaving the introductory plot thread conspicuously dangling as they shrug and ride into the sunset. Combine this with the fact that these actors barely have characters to play beyond the barest archetypes, and what is an initally visually appealing movie becomes thematically and narratively dull.

Ryan Gosling may give up on his directorial pursuits given the negative response this film has received from critics.  I for one, though, would like to see where he can steer this creative energy.  Sure, this first film is a dud, but the problems are easy enough to fix.  The biggest problem is likely Gosling’s lackluster screenplay, but with some fresh outside material and a bit more of an exploration into a unique visual style, he may have what it takes to make something of himself.  Unfortunately, Lost River is not the film that’s going to get people interested.

Can you think of any actors who have turned a new leaf to become good directors?  Leave your favorites in the comments below.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Black Sea": A Tense Claustrophobic Ride

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Black Sea seemingly holds all the trappings of a rousing heist adventure.  Its main character Robinson (Jude Law) is fired from his salvaging job, so he assembles a crew of mismatched archetypes, half British with salvage experience, and half Russian to pilot a Russian-make submarine.  Their goal is to find a cache of lost Nazi gold at the bottom of the ocean, that only they and their mysterious benefactor know about.  The only problem is that it is within Russian territory, so they will have to trespass without radio contact to the outside world in order to claim the treasure.  Despite the film’s opening scenes, however, Black Sea has much more sinister intentions, as the claustrophobia of the ship’s environment comes to stand for less than smooth sailing.

Now, admittedly, the clear division of British and Russian crewmembers tends to feel a little contrived for the purposes of advancing conflict through misunderstanding and cultural tribalism, but that is largely forgiven in light of the film’s more important mechanism for controversy.  Robinson declares that after their benefactor receives his cut of the gold, each crewmember will receive an equal share of the remainder.  It is quickly pointed out, though, that should any of the crew perish, then the portions of the reward will consequentially get larger.  The main conflict then doesn’t become against the environment to claim the Nazi gold, nor is it even between the factions of crewmembers, but it is the tension between wanting to murder one’s crewmates in order to receive a larger cut and keeping them around as necessities in operating the submarine.

This tension is just about all the film has going for it, as its characters generally aren’t much deeper than a description of a few words.  Among the British, we have a blundering rookie, a corporate coward, and a grizzled veteran, and among the Russians we mostly see gruff bullies, with the exception of one who is sympathetic mostly through his ability to speak English and willingness to communicate once cultural relations start to deteriorate.  Robinson, as captain, acts as the moral compass of the crew, wrestling with his own greed in light of losing crewmembers to various treacheries.  Thankfully, though, the film is good enough at crafting harrowing scenarios that character depth is not really a necessity.  At the end of the day, this is a film about human nature, not about particular individuals.

And its scenarios are certain to induce nail-biting, whether it comes to a virtual civil war among the ranks, attempting to salvage gold from the wreck at the expense of an essential part to repair their vessel, or simply trying to surface with damaged equipment and no way to call for help.  The cold metallic hull that serves as the only scenery for most of the film’s runtime acts as a constant reminder to the danger that lies just beyond, and of the danger trapped within.  Even when characters venture out in their salvage attempt, the risk of loss is omnipresent as they navigate the edge of a trench while putting everything they’ve worked for on the line.

Ultimately, Black Sea is a hell of a ride.  It isn’t great by any standard, but there’s nothing outright wrong with it either.  It serves up a terrifyingly human scenario and lets the pieces fall where they may.  And those pieces fall precisely where they need to in order to deliver a gratifying two hours of entertainment.

Have a favorite submarine flick?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Leviathan": Russia Takes A Self-Inflicted Hit

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Leviathan is a Russian-made film that is unapologetically critical of the Russian government.  What is perhaps more astounding than the fact that this film was produced, finished and distributed in light of Russia’s strict control of its own media is that it was Russia’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, for which it was subsequently nominated.  More curious is the fact that this film has spawned proposals from Russian officials calling for stricter film production guidelines to prevent denigration of Russian culture.  All of this real world controversy is indicative of just how powerful Leviathan turned out to be, and it is a damn powerful film at that.

Kolya is a man with a house by the sea, and the local mayor decides to use the Russian equivalent of eminent domain to take possession of the property, not because he wishes to use the land for any government purposes, but merely out of self-interest and greed.  The film begins with Kolya’s fight against the governmental taking, which becomes tied in bureaucracy and hypocrisy as courts rattle off extensive legalize and the mayor drunkenly flaunts his power in spite of the government’s formalities.

Eventually, a settlement seems to be reached in light of some of the mayor’s indiscretions, and the film seems to reach a degree of resolution somewhere around the half-way mark.  Of course, the film does not end here, and I do not wish to spoil this for anyone, so I will neglect to point to specifics from here on out.  However, what the film does masterfully is build a hidden plot into the background of what is shown to us for the latter half of the film.  It is almost as if director Andrey Zvyagintsev is daring his audience to imagine what isn’t being shown on film, because that is where the real story is.  And this reflects the reality of Russian life, under the watchful eyes of a government that operates outside the knowledge of its people.

There is another edge to how this narrative sword cuts, however, as it only really works in retrospect.  The latter half of the film is populated with scenes of Kolya’s family and neighbors, which after a while begin to lose their potency due to an increasing lack of context to the greater narrative.  The pieces all fall into place during the third act, but in the meantime a very personal struggle develops that, while intriguing, doesn’t seem to tie into the larger narrative until much later on.  This isn’t the worst sin a film can have though, so I really only say this as advice to stay with the film until the end rather than as a whole-hearted critique.

At one point in the film, an allusion is made to the Biblical story of Job, where God tested Job’s faith through making him suffer hardship after hardship.  Kolya is thus compared to Job, but his God is not the god of the Russian Orthodox Church or of any religious affiliation; rather, his God is the Russian government, and his rewards for standing up for himself come in the form of further pain and suffering.  He is not a heroic man or even a particularly likeable one, but he is a simple man with the might of a world power threatening everything he has ever known, owned, and loved.  He is just an average Russian man, and that’s ultimately the point.  This is cinematic political commentary done right, and it is well worth seeing.  Find a copy near you.

What films do you think are the best examples of political commentary?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"The Cobbler": Why Did I Even Bother?

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The sky is blue.  Adam Sandler movies are bad.  These are two immutable facts of life, and yet, every now and then, there are exceptions to these rules.  Sometimes the sky takes on various twilight hues.  Sometimes Sandler tones down his obnoxious persona to make a film that is actually worth watching, like Punch Drunk LoveThe Cobbler would like you to believe that it belongs in the sky of a setting sun, but really, it does not take a hard look to realize that it is a shade of teal, only barely distinguishable from a bright summer’s day.

Following the life of Max Simkin (Sandler), a cobbler in a downtown neighborhood who hates his life due to its monotony and inconsequence, while simultaneously lamenting his and his mother’s abandonment by his father.  Upon discovering an old sole stitching machine in his shop’s basement, Max discovers that he can take on the form of anyone by slipping into their shoes, so long as they have been mended by that machine.  Now Max can live as other people and see how they live.

Despite this somewhat interesting premise and adequately coherent direction, the film fails to really find a footing as far as having a discernible plot.  At first, Max just messes around, using his newfound powers for mischief and for random acts of silliness.  Then, the plot shifts into needing to steal funds after Max’s mother dies.  Then the plot shifts once again to the prevention of an evil scheme by a real estate tycoon to kill an old man who refuses to leave his home.  And through all this, Max never really develops as a character.  Shifting plot focus wouldn’t be such an issue if Max had any character to him whatsoever, but most of “Max’s” screentime is portrayed by actors other than Sandler, doing their best Sandler impressions.  This has the inherent consequence that Max never has any sort of character arc, making the whole narrative entirely pointless.  This is almost a shame, considering how unusually subdued Sandler plays this role.

Ultimately, though, that restraint only offers the illusion of sophistication, as the primary sources of the film’s so-called humor are something to which Sandler is no stranger.  During the course of his various transformations, Max embodies a stereotypical black gangster, a caricature of a transgender woman, and the cliché of an extremely handsome ladies’ man who is secretly gay.  For a film that has the supposed premise of walking in the shoes of others, it has very little understanding of any perspectives beyond those that are white, male, cisgender, and straight, and uses Max’s transformative qualities to paint a portrait of everyone except for the hegemony as strange, worthy of mockery, or just scary based on the color of their skin.

The Cobbler is shot and directed as an indie-circuit dramedy piece, but at the end of the day, it’s just another trip through the meandering and casually prejudiced world that is Adam Sandler’s film career.  This film may not be a Happy Madison production, but it might as well be; for all its purported class, this one is just as terrible as anything else its star has been a part of.

What would you say are Adam Sandler’s diamonds in the rough, if he arguably has any at all?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Friday, May 15, 2015

"Mad Max: Fury Road": Already A Contender For Best Of The Year

Now In Theaters
Sometimes a film comes along that shuns the current trends of cinema, to return to a simpler time, an arguably better time when CG didn’t dominate the screen and stories were told with an assumption of intelligence on the part of the audience.  Mad Max: Fury Road is exactly such a film, calling back to its roots as a high-octane trilogy in the 80s, and my gods does it kick a lot of ass.  It decides from the outset to do one thing very well: provide some of the best practical stuntwork seen on film in at least a decade.  But it also manages to not be a shallow experience, with great and memorable characters and a fully realized post-apocalyptic world that is almost a character in and of itself.

The title of the film is almost a misnomer, as the titular Max (Tom Hardy) is perhaps one of the least important characters in driving the plot forward.  The true star is Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a general under Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a warlord in the wastes of an oil and moisture starved apocalypse.  Furiosa flees Immortan Joe with a horde of his breeding wives, whom he uses to produce heirs to his empire.  Now Immortan Joe gives chase to get his wives back, with Max as the prisoner of one of the drivers in his army.

The film truly excels at telling its story through demonstration rather than exposition.  Characters are introduced naturally, their motivations and emotions revealed through action rather than dialogue.  This is an amazing drink of water in a drought of modern films that assume too little of their audience’s intelligence.  Its characters are astoundingly deep for how little they speak, and the social mechanics and character arcs at play are apparent through observation; the characters all know their situation, so there’s no need for them to explain it to one another.  It isn’t easy to craft a story with so little by way of dialogue or dedicated establishing scenes, but Fury Road is masterful at giving its audience the tools it needs to follow along for themselves without excessive narrative handholding. 

What is perhaps most astounding, though, is that the film manages to be compelling for the entirety of its two hours, even though at its core the whole film is little more than an extended car chase.  But through the imaginative designs of director George Miller, we see the film’s high speed death rigs dance around one another with a manic grace, colliding and exploding with a reality that a lesser film would have simply animated.  Miller chooses to actually put real mayhem and destruction on screen, juxtaposed with awesome ridiculousness like a car devoted entirely to carrying a drum section and a shredding guitar player.  And the guitar is also a flamethrower.  It is an adrenaline-pumping experience, and these scenes aren’t merely a diversion from the plot, but the mechanism through which the plot is portrayed.  This is an astounding feat of cinematic storytelling, and one that is not likely to be replicated any time soon.

I would also be remiss to not point out how this may be the closest we’ve ever come to having a feminist action blockbuster, as Furiosa leads Immortan Joe’s battered wives in a search for a better life, fighting back against their patriarch’s possessory malice.  That alone would make this film noteworthy, but just as important to note that this film is just a lot of fun.  I have a hard time imagining that any other films coming out this summer will be able to top this, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if this film made my top ten list at the end of the year.  You would be doing yourself a disservice to not see Mad Max: Fury Road.

What films are you excited to see this summer?  What do you think will end up being the best film of the summer?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"Blackhat": A Pointless Anachronism

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The cyber thriller was an espionage film pastiche in the 1990s that took the new and expanding world of computing and attempted to apply it to popular spy tropes from decades past.  It was a reasonably successful marketing ploy at the time, as most of the films' audience were still relative novices in the realm of popular computing and internet usage, and the introduction of hacking into popular culture seemed like a sexy addition to film vocabulary.  Fast forward fifteen years, however, and we live in a world where cyber-terrorism exists as a reality, and what does it amount to?  Harassing female video gamers and infiltrating the databases of a major film studio.  While these are definitely problems in their own right, they are hardly the mainstays of yester-decades spy flicks.  That’s why Blackhat feels like such an anachronism, as it functions primarily as a callback to those cyber-espionage films but does little to modernize or even attempt self-parody.

Our main character is Chris Hemsworth (and let’s not worry about character names, because I don’t think anyone really cares), an imprisoned master hacker who has been placed on furlough in order to track down another hacker responsible for manipulating the stock market and causing a nuclear meltdown in Beijing.  And beyond that, the film really fails at making its plot points connect in any way meaningful to its audience.  Jargon is spewed from the mouths of government agents with little reductionism for the layman, but that doesn’t even seem to matter as hacking seems to function as a magical do-all MacGuffin in the eyes of the plot anyway.  This is generally a staple of the cyber-espionage genre, but in an age when we all have at least some knowledge of how networks function, the leaps in logic the film makes would be silly if it didn’t take itself so damn seriously.

And that lack of levity makes Blackhat a real bore of a film.  Not only are all the characters stock, but they are uniformly stoic as well, meaning no one has any depth or personality to make them relatable to the average viewer.  The closest the film comes is a romance between Hemsworth and English language newcomer Tang Wei, but it seemingly comes out of nowhere and lacks any sort of realistic chemistry.  I’m fairly certain this isn’t the fault of the actors, but of the material and direction with which they had to work, as their stilted performances are only indicative of the film’s greater problems.

The film only really springs to life during its act transition action scenes, which arrive like clockwork and only served to arouse me from my near catatonia.  These scenes are the only ones well directed, with gun and knife play expertly captured with a handheld camera, but they are hardly worth it provided the context in which they are presented.  They even come across as slightly ridiculous, as Hemsworth’s supposed hacker character engages in action-movie antics right alongside the government agents and bad guys, which makes sense for the types of roles Hemsworth usually plays but not the character he is playing in this instance.

At the end of the day, Blackhat is exactly what it appears to be: a January film release that didn’t meet the expectations of its producing studio, pushed out in hopes of making a few dollars in cinema’s artistic dead zone.  It’s a dull, pointless affair that would have been more at home two decades ago, yet probably wouldn’t have been well-received then either.  Don’t even bother.

What dead genre tropes would you like to see revived?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

"Fifty Shades of Grey": Sadly, Badly Mundane

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Fifty Shades of Grey could have been a much worse film than it turned out to be.  Much credit must be given to director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel for managing to make a workable film from such horribly unworkable source material.  To say nothing of the problems with its sexual politics, Fifty Shades is at the very least a poorly written novel, so the fact that much of the film’s dialogue doesn’t come off as silly and juvenile is a feat in and of itself.  And yet, as the colloquialism goes, you can’t polish a turd.  Fifty Shades is still a pretty bad film, but for surprisingly normal reasons given the trappings of its genre.

I won’t dwell on the story, as most people are at least cursorily familiar with it by now, and it honestly doesn’t merit much more inspection.  Screenwriter Marcel has managed to pull a bit more character out of leads Anastasia and Christian than the book ever explored, but this mostly comes in the form of self-aware quips at the standard trappings of romantic clichés.  At the end of the day, Anastasia is still a cypher on which the target demographic can project themselves, and Christian is supposed to be some idealized form of masculinity, and the film quickly devolves into a billionaire boyfriend fantasy, entirely devoid of character or substance.  It’s just generically dull.

And I’m certainly not the first to point out how entirely problematic some key aspects of the Fifty Shades storyline is, though the film version does seem to place at least some effort into making consent and negotiation a visible priority, even if its characters routinely ignore their established boundaries.  Even the so-called “kinky” sex scenes are extremely tame, almost laughably so.  No, I would say the bigger problem that the film still cannot seem to escape is that the relationship between Anastasia and Christian is classically abusive, as Christian stalks Anastasia, using his wealth and connections to continually pull her back into his life.  The film hopes this will come off as charming, but it has some rather frightening subtext that is only made worse by Christian’s insistence that he must be controlling, dominant, and physically violent due to a dark and abusive past.  This is the type of escapism that perpetuates real-world abuse, the type of excuse a survivor of domestic violence turns to in order to justify her abuser’s actions.  And what is perhaps the most tragic thing is that this isn’t even unusual in romantic fantasy; this instance just happens to be high profile for its BDSM sensationalism, an aspect that is underplayed in the film so as to retain an R rating.

The film ends with Anastasia leaving Christian, as she seemingly ends their relationship and leaves him behind.  Director Taylor-Johnson reportedly wanted Anastasia to use the word “red” to prevent Christian from following her, thus signifying that their relationship had crossed an unwanted line.  Producers changed the line to “stop” in order to keep the film in line with the novels so that the sequels could also be made.  I opt to adopt Taylor-Johnson’s interpretation, as it casts a more tolerable shade on the whole affair.  It may not save the film from itself, but it offers closure to a film for which the sequels will not have the benefit of Taylor-Johnson’s restrained guidance.  It can only go downhill from here; let’s pretend this franchise ended on a high note.

Friday, May 8, 2015

"Ex Machina": Decent High Concept Sci-Fi Done Decently

Now In Theaters
A friend invited me to see Ex Machina on a whim, reportedly because it has an insanely high score on Rotten Tomatoes.  We sat down in the darkened theater, made some jokes about the trailers and settled down for what was promised to be a great experience.  Two hours later, as the lights went up and the credits started to roll, we looked at each other and gave a resounding “Yeah, that was pretty alright I guess.”

Caleb, who works for Bluebook (the film’s fictional equivalent to Google), finds himself selected in a contest to go and spend a week with Bluebook’s founder, Nathan.  As Caleb arrives via helicopter to the isolated mountain home, it quickly becomes clear that he is not so much Charlie on his way to the chocolate factory as he is at the mercy of his benefactor.  Nathan soon reveals (after a non-disclosure agreement) that he believes he has invented a true artificial intelligence, and he has brought Caleb to the testing facility in order to put this new consciousness’s legitimacy to the test.  Enter Ava, robotic intelligence given femininely human form.  As Caleb and Ava interact, it becomes clearer that Nathan is not being entirely truthful about the nature of this experiment, and Caleb decides he needs to go down the rabbit hole and get to the truth of Nathan’s intentions and Ava’s true nature.

This set-up works really well for a couple of things, perhaps most obvious being the performances of the minimal cast.  Oscar Isaac is always a personal favorite of mine, and he absolutely kills it as the drunken, lonely Nathan, resorting to the companionship of a crafted woman and a complete stranger in order to fulfill his need for interaction.  Also great though are Domhnall Gleeson as a gradually less naïve Caleb and Alicia Vikander as Ava, who feels like a natural conversationalist until you notice her mechanical speech patterns and slight stutter in her walk.

This premise is also perfect to address classic science fiction themes of the nature of consciousness, the ethics of creating new life, and the implications of artificial intelligence functioning at cognitive levels beyond those of humans.  This is all very interesting stuff, but it is also where the film faces its biggest problems.  See, because the film spends so much time in familiar territory with its philosophy, it never really breaks beyond the bonds of its predictable storytelling.  Almost every one of the film’s major narrative twists is way too heavily telegraphed beforehand, either because it is a similar twist to a film that has come before it, or the foreshadowing ends up being a bit too “fore” and not enough “shadow.”  This in no way lessens the impact of the performances or the philosophy that the film grounds its theming in, but it does cause certain scenes to feel like a mechanical necessity, particularly in the film’s climax, where the inevitable end is teased for what feels like an excessive period of time.

That said, though, Ex Machina is not a bad film, and it was certainly an enjoyable one.  Whether you enjoy good character acting or tales of roboethics, Ex Machina is likely to offer something you’ll enjoy.  Just don’t get too upset when the finale is not quite as shocking as the film keeps promising.

Does a predictable film necessarily mean a bad film?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"Mr. Turner": Bloated Beyond Redemption

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Coming from a year of an underwhelming and overrated collection of biopics, I had high hopes for Mr. Turner.  It was the subject of nearly universal critical acclaim, and its exclusion from the major Oscar categories lent the film a degree of mystery, only exacerbated by the film’s theatrical run never reaching anywhere near my home.  Alas, the wait proved only to raise my expectations too high, as Mr. Turner is just as trying as its other Oscar-baiting brethren, though it astonishes me that this particular piece didn’t hook the Academy as other biopics did.

J.M.W. Turner was a renowned painter of the early-mid 1800s, known as the primary inspiration for what would become known as the Impressionist movement.  The film takes place during the last two decades of Turner’s life, and does not seem to craft much of a purpose for itself other than plodding from scene to scene in what amounts to a dramatic re-enactment of scenes that very well could have been a part of Turner’s day-to-day.  Turner is played by the character actor Timothy Spall, and though his performance is fantastically nuanced in its portrayal of a reprehensible, selfish man, his constant grunting and grumbling begins to wear a bit thin over the course of the film’s overlong runtime.

To give credit where credit is due, the cinematography by the great Dick Pope is simply gorgeous, worthy of admiration as much as Turner’s visceral landscapes.  The camera here acts as a window into how Turner saw the world, in rich and vibrant colors found in the natural world, yet lovingly recreated on Turner’s canvas.  Yet, to say that a film is beautifully shot does not imply forgiveness for what is narratively a dull and drab affair.

For the first ninety minutes, there hardly seems to be a purpose in the film’s structure, as Turner’s success is counterpointed by his public disownership of his family and his sexual exploitation of his house servant.  The film moves from scene to scene with an episodic quality to it, and yet each episode feels devoid of meaning without greater context, which is neither provided in theme or relative to other scenes.  Only when the film hits the final hour of its exhausting 150 minutes does a purpose begin to take shape.  Turner loses the acclaim he once held in British high society, becoming a hack in the eyes of popular culture, even though his work has remained substantially of equal quality.  It becomes a commentary on the influence of gossip and celebrity on public appreciation of art, and though it is an apt point, it takes the film far too long with far too many dalliances to get there.

Ultimately, Mr. Turner suffers from the same issue as many biopics, particularly those that have somehow entered the limelight in 2014; it dramatizes a life with little to no narrative through-line, telling a series of events that would much better be suited to a documentary.  Mr. Turner might have even been great as a narrative piece, though, if it weren’t so bloated with unnecessary scenes that redundantly hammer home how Turner’s personal ethics were greatly at odds with his public adoration.  This could just as easily have been told in ninety minutes with tighter construction, but in the end, Mr. Turner did not leave enough on the cutting room floor.

What other films are too bloated for their own good?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

"Mommy": Destroyed By The Director's Indulgences

Now Available on DVD

Mommy could have easily been a good film.  It has all the ingredients of a good film: great performers, a good script, decent thematic depth.  Alas, Mommy is not a good film, because it is ruined by one man: director Xavier Dolan.  Dolan has crafted a film that feels like it should work, but it is ultimately brought down by such overt aesthetic flair that it fails to remain focused on the film’s strongest elements.  It operates with a level of ADHD similar to one of the film’s primary characters, and if that was an intentional choice, it was one made to the film’s detriment.

Set in an alternate world where the Canadian government has instituted a program where parents can institutionalize their unruly teenagers with no questions asked (blatant foreshadowing if I’ve ever seen it), we follow the lives of Die (short for Diane) and Steve, a mother and teenage son who have just been reunited after Steve was expelled from boarding school for seriously injuring another student.  Steve has serious anti-social behavioral issues that make him lack empathy and prone to violence, seemingly due to the death of his father at a young age.  Die struggles to keep him in check, having to sacrifice her job in order to homeschool him and taking odd jobs in order to pay the bills.  Enter Kyla, a neighbor who finds herself connecting with both mother and son, as a best friend and confidant respectively.

The dynamic between these three characters is actually quite charming, even if Steve’s eccentricities can become grating after a while.  Die is genuinely trying her best in a difficult situation, and the support she receives from Kyla offers some relief, though not enough so that the constant strain Steve exerts isn’t always present.  Kyla, on the other hand, is clearly only happy when she’s with this new surrogate family, and seemingly only remains with her husband and daughter out of a sense of obligation.  Steve clearly has issues, and though he is the film’s dramatic weak link, what he represents on a thematic level is crucial to allowing Die and Kyla to fully realize their character arcs.

Unfortunately, the film’s strengths are terribly burdened by some incredibly obnoxious choices of direction.  First, and most obvious, is Dolan’s insistence on shooting the film in a 1:1 aspect ratio.  The film breaks free of these limited dimensions during select instances which reflect a liberation from the claustrophobic atmosphere of living with Steve, but watching the film through a perspective that looks like it was filmed on a smartphone does not make those fleeting moments of symbolic importance worth it.  And both of those liberating widescreen moments feel wasted in two of the film’s five extended montages.  This effectively pads the film beyond all necessity, dragging out what is ostensibly a simple story for nearly two and a half hours.  Combine that with at least one abandoned plot thread that could have easily been resolved in some of that wasted screen time, and you have a film that has indulged in artistry at the expense of its overall quality.

And that is my impression of Xavier Dolan as a director: indulgent.  By making an arbitrarily obnoxious visual choice and overstocking his film with his soft rock favorites, he effectively sabotaged the great performances and worthwhile story he otherwise could have made a great film out of.  As it stands, though, Mommy is little more than a project of misplaced passions.  Let’s hope Dolan learns his lesson.

Know any potentially great films ruined by awful direction?  Share them in the comments below.

Friday, May 1, 2015

"Avengers: Age of Ultron": In Dire Need Of A Director's Cut

Now In Theaters
Last year, when I wrote my review of the original Avengers, one of my main critiques was that certain parts of the film seemed to have been trimmed down in the interest of time, offering short shrift to some characters.  However, this was in lieu of creating a fun and frantic action film with some fantastically witty screenwriting to fill in the film’s quieter moments, and seeing as it was a miracle that the film managed to juggle so many distinct characters into a coherent narrative, its shortcomings were certainly forgivable.  Now, we have Age of Ultron, a sequel that has astoundingly somehow become larger in scope than its predecessor, and is miraculously another good film in its own right.  It’s just unfortunate that the franchise’s problems got bigger along with it.

Tony Stark, frustrated with the pain and suffering that he and the Avengers must continually fight against, seeks to pre-emptively end the war against Earth by building Ultron, an artificial intelligence designed to protect the world so as to make the Avengers unnecessary.  Alas, the AI goes rogue, and in its madness determines that in order to save the world, humanity must be destroyed so that a new mechanical race may take over the planet.  Now it is up to the Avengers to stop Ultron and his robotic army from destroying the very world they intended to protect.

What director Joss Whedon does best are character interactions, and this film seems to try its hardest to find the space for its more intimate moments.  Thankfully, it mostly succeeds by placing emphasis on characters we do not see in their own franchises.  Black Widow, Hulk, and Hawkeye each have very involved character arcs that serve as a great reminder as to why they are on the team.  This isn’t to say that the Cap, Iron Man, and Thor don’t all get humanizing moments, but their individual arcs feel somewhat redundant of their own most recent films.  Ultron himself is also a remarkably good foil to Tony Stark, mirroring his creator’s sardonic quips with a misguidedly mad lilt.  Less interesting are the inclusion of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch as Ultron’s primary lieutenants, as their presence feels more obligatory to Marvel’s franchise management than necessary to telling the best story possible.  This isn’t to say that their inclusion detracts from the story at all, but it does tend to overstuff the film in terms of character arcs.

And that’s the biggest flaw in the film: there’s just too much going on.  Whedon’s original cut of the film was reportedly over three hours long, and it shows.  In order to make room for the climactic third act and keep the film under 150 minutes, the editing team really took a hatchet to some of the less necessary scenes.  Some scenes feel particularly rushed and only serve as connective tissue in order to keep the action setpieces coherent, turning those scenes into a Cliffs Notes version edited down to the bare essentials.  Now, don’t get me wrong; the action scenes are expertly realized, with great emphasis on battle cinematography and impressive stunts, as well as a clear concern for the civilians affected by the villain’s chaos.  However, the film begrudgingly places emphasis on the action at the expense of its ability to let its characters and scenes take a moment to breathe.

Now, does this mean Age of Ultron is a bad film?  Hell no.  I really enjoyed it, and it’s a fun ride from start to finish.  What I am saying, though, is that it is sorely in need of a Director’s Cut, one that has the runtime necessary to accomplish both its storytelling and action-centric ambitions.  And thankfully, it is already rumored that one is on its way for the Blu-Ray release.  In the meantime, though, Marvel fans will not want to miss out.

On the other hand, is three hours too long for a superhero film?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.