Tuesday, December 31, 2013

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

At the end of the day, I'm not sure Peter Jackson understands how to adapt The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien's brisk children's book to which Lord of the Rings was a sequel. Jackson seems to feel that because both books are from the same author and are set in the same universe that they can simply be snapped together with some help from the Rings appendices. But the fact remains that The Hobbit is a fundamentally different work meant for a completely different audience and it's just not an epic, no matter how much Jackson wants it to be. So here we have the second in a trilogy of films based on a 120 page book. The first film visibly strained under the weight of serving both as an adaptation and a prequel to an existing, but dispirit franchise. The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, kinda gives up on the book and settles for just being the best Rings prequel it can be, which is for the best, even if as it continues to feel like the film is being upstaged by franchise obligations.

The film picks up with Hobbit pseudo-protagonist Bilbo (Martin Freeman), exiled dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his extended entourage as they race to reclaim their homeland from a usurping dragon.  The echoes from the Rings films start to pile up, particularly with Thorin, whom the film carefully paints as our new Aragorn, introduced here at the same inn where we first meet Aragorn in the previous film. The scene stresses that he too is a roguish heir to a lost kingdom who only needs the courage to take charge of his larger destiny. But whereas Aragorn was noble because he never wanted power, it feels like Thorin and co are, at least in part, in it for the money. Indeed there's an assertion that Thorin has a relationship to the Arkenstone (a McGuffin needed for part 3) that Jackson hopes we'll find analogous to and as compelling as the one between Frodo and The Ring. Further mining the Rings films is material from the books appendices designed to give the main quest more urgency by suggesting that the dwarves must defeat Smaug quickly because Sauron is gaining power and might try and recruit him.

The resulting film feels more like a chase movie with ticking clocks and the kind of easily surmountable impossible obstacles we expect in a proper adventure: dark forests, ancient riddles, Ray Harryhousen spiders, politically ambivalent elves, orcs, goblins, shifty rogues and they even manage to squeeze in the titular dragon. On a superficial level, the action is all well directed, and as long as he sticks to action, Jackson has a great skill in extrapolation. He looks at small scenes in the book, like the one where Bilbo helps the dwarves escape from some elves by hiding them in barrels being sent down river and asks with boyish abandon: "what if there was a lock blocking their way and the elves caught them rasing the gate but then orcs attack everyone and it turns into a great three-way chase down river and one guy gets catapulted into the air, lands and rolls over a bunch or orcs in his barrel," and so on and so forth.

These extended scenes are fun without ever feeling as vital as they should, but as soon as he shifts to narrative, the film starts to dull. For instance, that barrel scene is a lot of fun, particularly with the addition of Rings favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his sidekick Girl Legolas (Evangeline Lilly) opening up a can of whoop-ass on wave after wave of faceless goons, but when they stick around to have a pointless love triangle with one of the dwarves that's all forbidden and junk, it starts to feel just a tad calculated.

If you're wondering where all these additions leave Bilbo and Smaug, the two title characters of the film, the answer is nowhere, the two seem strangely diminished here. Bilbo exists primarily to get the dwarves out of trouble while Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is off doing stuff (with thankfully little assistance from Radagast). As much fun as it is to watch Martin Freeman do stuff, this is sort of preferable to his treatment in the last film, which labored endlessly over his potential importance. That said, it's hardly ideal for him to just blend in with the group of 13, mostly undeveloped, dwarves.

Then there's the eventual encounter with Smaug. All the build up with Sauron kind of turns Smaug into a second-teir villain. Important not for his own villainy so much as his potential usefulness as a future henchman of the real bad guy who belongs to a different trilogy. Furthermore, while Smaug is played with gleeful menace by Benedict Cumberbatch and is given a magnificent entrance, he comes in at a point where the film desperately needs to start thinking about its cliffhanger but instead reaches greedily for just one more action sequence that every audience member knows wont resolve anything, alter the narrative or our perceptions of the characters. It's just another example of what this series needs less of: padding.

It's sad that Jackson feels so adrift. His Lord of the Rings trilogy should have been the beginning of a bold, new chapter of his career as a more manic successor to David Lean, but instead of finding big stories to tell, he seems to think he can take smaller stories and stretch them to epic lengths, first came his gargantuan King Kong remake, now this. He want's length, but he doesn't understand that length requires density. If he wants to continue in this direction, there are other great sci-fi/fantasy books to adapt and fantastic historical epics he could be doing (Napoleon, Musashi Miyamoto), or he could going back to his horror roots or do something completely new. Instead he's stuck in a rut of faux-epics, trying to stuff his past triumphs into ill-fitting forms.

Grade: B-

Sunday, December 29, 2013

SECOND CHANCES: JAMES WAN

In 2004 I remember seeing the ads for Saw, the new horror film by first-timer James Wan. Many of them featured a woman in something I later learned was called a reverse bear trap and two strangers trapped in a room that reminded me of Cube, but with a twist: the people would have to mutilate themselves to survive. Word on the street was that the film was shocking, new and, most important to my 15-year-old self, ridiculously violent. But when I finally got to see the thing, I was completely let down by what I thought was an appallingly dull, terribly made film.

Saw might have become the defining Horror film of the decade, but at the time I was certain Wan couldn't direct his way out of a paper bag. But perhaps it's not best to judge a director based solely on one film, particularly a first attempt. Recently Wan has made something of a comeback and has earned a modicum of respect from critics and horror fans. Is it possible that he's gotten better, or that he was secretly great the whole time? I decided to rewatch Saw and then look at his three most recent films: Insidious, The Conjuring, and Insidious Chapter 2.


Note: while I tired to tread carefully for his two 2013 releases, these are generally spoiler reviews.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Saw is that it actually has some pretty good ideas. They're just executed really, really badly. In the film's hideously shot opening sequence, we meet the aforementioned prisoners, played by Cary Elwes and Wan's frequent screenwriting partner Leigh Whannell. Soon they learn that they've been kidnapped by Jigsaw, a puppet-obsessed serial killer who places his victims in elaborate death traps to see if they have the right stuff to escape. In this case, one must cut through his own feet and kill the other to be released.


It's a good B-movie setup that should theoretically lead to a lean, economical thriller. But these scenes end up being only mildly engaging at best, and even then only in spite of every aspect being botched. Not only does the film look bad, but the miscast actors are terribly directed. Elwes looks constantly befuddled but Whannell is worse at delivering his own tin-eared, overly sarcastic dialogue in a clawing whine. I don't believe for a second that either character would be cracking jokes in this situation, nor are the cracks delivered in a way that makes us feel like the characters are trying to cover for their fear. But the thing that sinks the film is its insistence on cutting to scenes that just don't matter, which becomes Wan's signature bad habit. The film just can't deal with the situation in front of it. Every time things start to get good, Wan cuts to a series of tedious, ineffective flashbacks explaining how the pair came to be in the room, and it torpedoes every ounce of tension the film has struggled to build up.


Also in the "this should work but doesn't" department are Jigsaws death traps, many of which have a certain Rube Goldberg charm that could be gleefully dark in the right hands. They’re brought down by cynical dread, tired thriller tropes and Jigsaw's faux philosophy, which is endlessly reiterated yet feels so underexplored that it comes off as a self-conscious imposition to either "justify" the pornographic bloodshed or extol the supposed cleverness of the creative team behind it.

The moral of the film is simply that we should appreciate life and we're asked to believe that the victims are all sleazeballs guilty of not appreciating it enough, but damn if the crimes they commit don't seem feeble and pretty off-message for Jigsaw, like the man who apparently called in sick once too often for Jigsaw's liking, possibly so he could go appreciate life. This aspect feels like a weak echo of the killer in Se7en, who was all the more frightening because, despite his horrifically extreme methods, he actually has a point about the relationship between apathy and sin in modern society.  Like Se7en, our fear of Jigsaw is supposed to derive from our awe of his power and intellect, except here it doesn't because Jigsaw is kind of a dunce and Saw doesn't want to explore or subvert. It just wants to cover its ass and the ideas it brings up fail to hold up to even mild intellectual analysis.


For instance: the idea of free will in the film is a flat binary. If you find yourself in a Jigsaw trap you either "appreciate life" enough to kill yourself trying to escape or you're a weakling who deserves to die. The message might have seemed potent to a post 9/11 audience shaken by sudden violence, but you can't bring up such ideas in this context only to boil down someone’s inner strength down to whether or not you're willing to crawl through razor wire to certain death or face a different certain death. There's no room in the film's worldview for someone who refuses to play Jigsaw's game who would, against every primal instinct, accept his death but would have spiritually beat the game by not submitting to it. The film isn't interested in exploring the logical endpoints of the philosophy it's extolling, but it desperately wants us to think so. It's telling of the film's nihilism that the only person to survive a Jigsaw trap thanks him and credits her horrific experience (which involves digging through the intestines of her still living cellmate) with getting her off drugs. Good for her, I guess.

All this is rendered in a visual style that's actually fairly distinct, unfortunately it's by virtue of being ugly. There's an aesthetic here that wants to be a distant cousin of Fincher and Demme, with its grainy, saturated greens and deep blacks but it fails at basic, technical things. Wan can't convincingly stage scenes and his compositions feel so awkward that it feels like this film was made for a different aspect ratio than the 1.85:1 it's presented in. David A. Armstrong's lighting is flat and muddy to the point that it's sometimes hard to see faces (this doesn't feel like a choice), and everything, regardless of location, feels sickly, like it was filmed in a sewer. Kevin Murphy of MST3K and Rifftrax fame once asked in relation to Saw: "Is there nothing in this movie that isn't grime encrusted?" There are tiny attempts at stylistic variety, most prominently when Wan occasionally gives us a sudden burst of fast motion coupled with snap zooms, but instead of being exciting, it just feels out of place in a film that's mostly going for something more brooding and does little to help the film look good. I guess the look is effective in that it hammers home the film's nihilism by rubbing our faces in muck for 100 odd minutes, but it also makes me want to claw my eyes out.


If Saw were honest about its intentions to be just a novel slasher, it might have been a more passable piece (technical shortcomings aside), but everything about the film feels two-faced. If that wasn't enough, Wan and Whannell further dilute their core ideas with a pseudo-arthouse structure, featuring multiple levels of flashbacks, a potentially scrambled timeline and an endless parade of ancillary characters and subplots. Wan keeps expanding the world and the mythology, he want's the most gore, the most characters, the most subplots because he equates most with best. By the time we see the cop (played by a visibly embarrassed Danny Glover) growing obsessed with the Jigsaw case to the point that he gets thrown off the force and takes up residence across from a suspect’s house, it's clear that this film should have packed it in long ago. Saw may have popularized Extreme Horror, but I doubt it would have survived if smarter directors hadn’t come along to do more worthwhile things with the form.

After the release of Saw, Wan all but disappeared as a director. He released two films in 2007 (an evil doll movie Dead Silence, which Wan basically disowned, and the similarly named but unrelated revenge thriller Death Sentence), but both of them were financial and critical disappointments. Wan and Whannell took a break before coming back with 2011's Insidious.

For about 30 seconds I got my hopes up about Insidious, which opens with what is easily its best shot: the camera fades in on a spherical lamp that reads "a James Wan film," the words fade and the camera turns right side up and we see a child sleeping peacefully before we pan around the room right past the silhouetted figure lurking outside the window who is soon revealed to be a hideous crone. It's campfire hokum, but it’s well-executed hokum. However the film tips its hand and resorts to making it's title card into a cheap jump scare, a tactic the film will rely on again and again and again.


On the surface, it seems that Insidious shows Wan branching out. After popularizing Torture Porn, here is a film almost completely devoid of blood and gore that theoretically relies on suspense and ideas to scare us. Unfortunately, that theory doesn't translate and it becomes clear that the dull viscera of Saw hasn't been replaced by anything.

The film centers on the Lamberts, an All-American family headed by Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), who have just moved to a new house. As they unpack, Renai notices some strange stuff going on: boxes are missing, the house creaks, strange sounds on the baby monitor, and other  plays from the Standard Haunting Tactics Handbook, 5th Edition. Then, the morning after an ominous and dubiously staged accident, their son, Dalton, doesn't wake up. He's not dead, but in a medically unexplained coma.

It's not a bad start, but it would help if it were competently made. Whatever Wan's strengths are, atmosphere, suspense and jump scares don't seem to be among them. He attempts to build tension early on by placing the strange events against the backdrop of the families day to day life, but these scenes fall flat due to a general lack of inspiration, unconvincing family dynamics, a distracting resemblance to Poltergeist, and a series of strangely timed edits. Wan can't make up his mind whether he wants things to play out in masters or cut to awkward inserts.

The suspense doesn’t fare much better. Honestly, every film student should be able to make a moderately effective "frightened women descends into a dark basement" scene, but not Wan, at least not here. Perhaps sensing his ineptitude, he aims to make every scare a jump scare, with the burden handed off to composer Joseph Bishara, who's sole task seems to consist of occasionally banging a single piano cord as LOUD AS POSSIBLE! This isn't really scary as much as it's startling, and most of the time it doesn't even manage that. Many of the scares in the film went without a single reaction from me beyond growing irritation. It's easy to do a jump scare and plenty of Horror films use a few of them, but to have it be the primary mechanism Wan uses to scare us is cheap and easy and timid.


Equally frustrating are the strange narrative gaps that Wan and Whannell have left in the film, moments that cry out for some kind of plot development or action but receive none. It's curious but mildly defensible that we don't see the doctors run any sort of tests on Dalton, but how strange is it that Renai has no follow up questions when her other son mentions that Dalton (who, it should be stressed, is in a coma) walks around at night? Or when the burglar alarm goes off and Josh wanders around the house for a while before the camera awkwardly fades to black leaving us to wonder if the cops were called at all. Or most irritatingly, when Renai finds blood, BLOOD, on Dalton's sheets and doesn't immediately call the nurse in the next room. All these gaps and missed opportunities are so conspicuous that I was certain that they'd be resolved by the film's inevitable twist ending, but they're not. At least Saw followed up on the stupid plot threads it raises.

The film goes on and on and after many restless months of tedious haunting Josh takes action and hires a team Z-grade ghosthunters that even the SyFy channel would turn away. We're supposed to think these guys are funny, but instead Wan just proves he can't do comedy either. At this point Wan starts piling on: we learn that Dalton has been projecting his aura into an astro-realm called The Further (yes, really) and his coma is the result of getting stuck there, putting him in danger of being possessed by some ugly ass demon and the only way to save him is for Josh to venture into The Further and bring him back, something he was able to in the past but conveniently forgot about until just now.

The Further lives down to its name. It's full of twitchy 50's families that whistle while shooting each other, leather clad ghouls in bad rubber masks and trippy red doors. There are moments where Wan starts to finally build tension but mucks it up. A wide angle shot of an actor wandering dark, foggy moors at night with a lantern with eventually be tense if the director lets it play out and we believe he is truly alone. But just as in Saw, Wan demonstrates an almost pathological need to cut away to things that just aren't important in his faux-kenetic camera style. In this case to Josh's family watching over him while ghost hunter guru Elise (Lin Shaye) holds the audiences hand, delivers exposition, and coaches Josh form across the dimensions.

The problem isn't just that the mythology that Wan and Whannell have concocted is hopelessly dopey, it's that it's the film's primary concern. In the film's insufferable final act, it's clear that the two are laying track for sequels much like they did with Saw, right down the cliffhanger twist where we learn that while successful in bringing his son back from The Further, Josh has been possessed by the crone that haunted him as a child. It's not a bad twist, though it relies heavily on the film's convoluted mythology and strangely involves Renai having a flashback to events that she wasn't present for but we, the audience, saw not even a full minute earlier. When James Wan wants to make a point, you better believe he will underline the hell out of it.

Which brings us to The Conjuring, one of two films he released in 2013, and it's easily his best to date. At times feeling like a bigger budget version of Insidious, the film is another haunted house/exorcism movie, the difference being that Wan mostly manages to tame his worst habits somewhat. It's hardly a masterpiece but it's effective at times and could be mistaken for the work of a semi-competent filmmaker.

Conjuring follows two families, the Perrons and the Warrens. The Warrens, Ed and Lorraine (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are a pair of Indiana Jones-esque paranormal investigators who travel the country collecting cursed objects and doing college lectures. In "real life" these two cleaned up the Amityville haunting. The film opens in the late 60's with the pair solving a case involving a comically ugly doll that's a conduit for a demonic spirit. It's a fun scene and the Warrens are cool enough characters that Wan's emphasis on exposition and mythology almost works. Sure, some scenes are tinny and labored, but there's an intriguing bit of world building where the Warrens show off the room where they keep all the very dangerous artifacts they've secured, sort of a maximum security ghost prison in their basement. It would have been novel if Wan had just followed this couple as they got into supernatural adventures, but Wan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes (Baywatch Nights) decide to split their focus with the Perrons, a bland family in a typical haunted house situation.


We meet Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lill Taylor) in 1971 as they move into a new house with their 10,000 children (actually there are only 5, but it feels like way more because they're all interchangeable). As always in these type of films, the house is creaky, leaky and stuff starts happening: the dog shows up dead, Carolyn has strange bruises, daughter #23 starts sleepwalking, and daughter #17 finds a creepy music box that allows a strange boy to appear. Like Insidious these are fairly standard bits for the Horror genre; unlike his previous films, they're done with a certain amount of skill. Wan does a good "frightened women descends into a dark basement" scene. The editing seems tighter and for once a Wan film doesn't look hideous. While the film is still largely a machine to go 'boo' at the audience, but it helps that the stakes are higher this time out, the ghosts don't just wander around but seem actively bent on harming the Perrons. It's a shame that these elevated stakes happen to characters who are almost too thin to even be called 'types.' Eventually, things get unbearable and the Warrens are called in. They look the place over and quickly decide that the house needs an exorcism (no shit).


But before we can get to the exorcism, the Warren's need proof so they can get a Vatican approved exorcist (I guess Protestants don't do exorcisms?). That kind of conceit worked well for William Friedkin in The Exorcist because he used the investigation to turn up the intrigue. Here it comes off as a clumsy excuse to bring in a bunch of new characters to dump needless exposition. This is hardly the first film in cinema history to ever explain things, but it might be the first time I've seen a film stop to explain obscure concepts like Holy Water, the Trinity and demons not liking crosses.

It does get mildly better. I liked parts of the final exorcism: there's some tension going into it and some genuinely freaky imagery involving a woman's face bleeding through a sheet. But like in his other films, Wan sabotages the film by cutting away and overcomplicating. It's telling that several prominent plot points are completely abandoned. For instance, throughout the film Ed is increasingly worried about the toll another exorcism will take on his family for reasons that are built up till it's the primary audience anxiety point going into the ending but then it's just forgotten. Similarly, we're lead to believe the doll from the prologue will be integral to the climax but then never appears. If these threads were meant to be red herrings, they commit the sin of being far more interesting than what actually happens.


Perhaps I'm asking too much from the film. It's hardly aiming at greatness or even novelty the way that Saw was. It's aiming to be retro and conventional. In interviews Wan has stated that he want's this to be his homage to old school horror. But there's a difference between riffing on convention and resting on it. Conjuring is like a functional cover of a very well known song, too scared to do much with the arrangement. It's not bad, but it's pretty disposable and no substitute for the real thing.

It's almost not worth mentioning Wan's other theatrical film of 2013, Insidious: Chapter 2, a trite, dreary waste of space, made without an ounce of enthusiasm, a minor film in an already minor filmography.

The story deals with the direct aftermath the first film which ended with the death of head ghost hunter Elise at the hands of Josh who, having rescued his son from The Further (that most comically named astro-realm) has been possessed by an evil spirit. Unfortunately Wan and Whannell have no idea what should come next except that it should be kinda like The Shining without the being scary part. Strange stuff keeps happening to Renai and we get a lot of Patrick Wilson standing around being vaguely menacing like a milquetoast Jack Nicholson. In between are a lot of loosely constructed "scenes" where things creek and go 'boo!' Wan no longer punctuates every jump scare with a loud noise on the soundtrack, but they're as inept as ever.


The worst of these sequences is a long visit to a haunted hospital. 'Why would they visit a haunted hospital?', you might ask. I don't know. It kind of ties in later, but it’s mostly apropos of nothing except to tell us that there is a now deceased serial killer who might have been a cross dresser. The transvestite killer thing might have passed muster in the 60's and, who am I kidding, the 80's, but in 2013 it's tacky and insensitive to suggest that his transvestism, forced or otherwise, made him a killer. The sequence itself looks like a really bad rip-off of Blair Witch Project, and it reminded me that two of the producers on the film also make the Paranormal Activity series, the most prominent of the bargain-basement Blair Witch pretenders.


While we're at it, the things that James Wan finds scary look pretty hokey. This is a universe where ghosts wear cheap pancake make up and sing "creepy" nursery rhymes in rooms where the fog machines have been left running all night. It's so pastiche that I was beginning to work under the theory that the film was a comedy, which would explain why the comic relief characters got more screen time this time out, but the laughs the film gets aren't really at the intended jokes but more often at lines of dialogue like "I'm not interested in ghosts, I'm interested in the living people who create them!"


Eventually the "suspense" comes to a head with a surprise visit to The Further where the film gets even more idiotic. The Further is now kind of like purgatory and also a conduit for time travel, because sure, why not. Anyway Josh tires to escape to his body which, in our world, is busy recreating the end of The Shining but with more people and in a more confusing way. It's not to clear what happens at the end but it seems like the day is saved when someone beats a ghost to death, or at least into unconsciousness, whichever is more plausible.

I might not be a huge fan of Wan, but I know he's better than this film. Perhaps this is him in 'contractual obligation' mode, maybe he was just tired after shooting this sequel almost back to back with Conjuring, or maybe he's just tired of the genre. Recently Wan announced his retirement from Horror, and it's about time. He's been in the game for most of his carrier and his sole "triumph" is just kind of okay. Currently he's shooting Fast and Furious 7, which seems like an odd choice for such a grim director. But perhaps it's the break he needs. Maybe we'll learn that campy action was his real wheelhouse this whole time. I hope that proves to be the case, and not just because the production is already dealing with the tragic loss of star Paul Walker, but after watching four of his six theatrical films and trying really, really hard to like each one, I'm sticking to my original assessment with a caveat: flukes might occur, but this guy isn't much of a director.

Grades:

Saw: D
Insidious: C-
The Conjuring: C+
Insidious: Chapter 2: D

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE

Over the years, English director Steve McQueen has been exploring how people deal with imprisonment. His previous film, Shame, showed a man imprisoned by his own body, alternately embracing and rejecting his own impulses as they destroy him. His first film, Hunger, showed an emaciated Michael Fassbender as an IRA prisoner becoming questionably delusional fighting his imperialist wardens with an impractical, perhaps suicidal hunger strike. Unlike in Hunger the protagonist of his latest film, 12 Years A Slave, can't strike out no matter how much he wants to, and instead faces a slow and systematic damnation via his own sense of pragmatism.

The film is based on the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was drugged and kidnapped from his family before being sold into slavery in 1841. This sort of thing was fairly regular. Under the Fugitive Slave Act it was legal for bounty hunters to pursue runaway slaves into free states but many times it was easier just to grab any black man, say he was a runaway, and sell him for easy money. In this sense, Northup's story isn't that special, except for the fact that he happened to escape and be literate enough to tell his story well, and this film is all the better for recognizing how ordinary all these events were. Northup was well educated and made a nice living as a carpenter and violinist. The film seems to recreate this accurately, though it might overplay the contrast between his free life and slave life by suggesting that Northup, played in the film by  Chitwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men), didn't face any racial adversity as a free black man in Saratoga before being drugged by strangers.

When Northup wakes, he is told that he's now a runaway named Platt and is beaten within an inch of his life when he tries to assert his true identity. Early in his journey he finds himself on a ship paddling down the Mississippi, (the incessant thudding paddles suggest at the machinery of slavery as an industry). He knows that when the ship reaches its destination, he will be sold and he’s presented with the option to violently fight and face certain death or keep his head down and survive. He’s determined to do neither, but in the heat of the moment he knows that he must appear to accept his new life while searching for a way to escape.

We see that decision to be pragmatic slowly crush his spirit. After being sold to his first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), he dares not reveal his identity but he looks to flash his intelligence so to be noticed. Ford probably senses that Northup isn't a runaway but is happy to have a useful slave. Any hope of being freed by Ford dies when he gifts Solomon a violin to "make the years pass more joyously." Furthermore Solomon's show of engineering skill earns him the ire of an overseer played by Paul Dano, who strings him up for hours from a tree just low enough that he might survive if he stands on his tip toes and doesn't slip in the mud. After a while his fellow slaves start to go about their business in the background. They don't speak up because there's no one to speak to, and because they would be punished for it. It's this pragmatism that literally keeps his life in danger in this scene that Northup must attempt in order to survive, one that McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley present as the central evil of slavery: the ability to force a person to accept his own suffering and ignore suffering in other people.

Things get worse when he's sold to Edwin Epps (Fassbender) who gives none of the limited regard Salomon might have enjoyed with Ford. Epps is a monster who frequently tortures his slaves under the guise of scripture when they fail to meet their quota and delights in frequently raping Patsy (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o), a female slave he professes to love but occasionally has whipped to keep his jealous wife happy. Patsy goes along with this at first because she hopes it will mean better treatment as a House Slave, and then because she has no choice. More and more Solomon must play himself down to survive, leading to a harrowing moment where, for very complex reasons he is forced to torture a fellow slave.

There's a lot of cruelty and McQueen plays it in his signature, matter of fact tone. But instead of removing us from it, the approach makes everything all the more horrifying.  Under both owners we constantly hear slaves being tortured either just out of frame or in the frame but just out of focus. He uses the images to emulate the blinders Northup and his fellow slaves must wear to survive. By showing just how casual an attitude slaves and owners have to the human suffering caused by the institution, it becomes a film of almost surrealistic horrors. Take the scene where Solomon is sold: We're in a posh, middle class home, Paul Giamatti and his perspective buyers dressed in the finest of fashion as the slaves stand around mostly in the nude, staring blankly, desplaying their teeth and muscles on demand, while Solomon is forced to play violin concertos to make it all feel more normal.

The performances are all excellent, all the principals throwing themselves into their parts with method like abandon without ever overwhelming the film, Fassbender and Nyong'o are particularly good and Ejiofor's performance avoids the Oscarbait traps of appearing overly noble.  This is a man who knows how vulnerable he is and that he's losing his soul day by day. Every attempt at defiance or escape he makes puts him in more and more danger. The fact that he does eventually manage it is so miraculous that it'll feel like Deus Ex Machina to some and in a way it is. Most people who entered slavery, either by birth or kidnapping, never escaped and the odds say that he should have died in bondage. But the reunion with his family feels hollow. We know that his only way out was, ultimately, to ignore the cries of others, knowing that to speak out could spell the end of his own tentative freedom. The real Solomon Northup spent the rest of his life working on the underground railroad, so it can't be said that pragmatism broke him, but in McQueen's film, it certainly compromises him.

Grade: A-

AMERICAN HUSTLE

To him, it's all about the hair. For most men hair isn't a big deal, a couple brush strokes here, some gel or mousse or whatever and boom you're done for the day. But no, Irving Rosenfeld has a system. Most of the hair on his head is long gone, but there's still a tuft in front. As long that tuft remains, he figures he has hair and that he can glue little bits of foam to the top of his head, comb it over and call it real. It fools no one but him, not even his wife and girlfriend who seem to like him more for the confidence required to attempt it, yet such intimate acts of deception are central to David O. Russell's huckster epic American Hustle, a film that has a lot of what you need for a real film, even if the rest is all foam.

Everyone in the film is a schemer or a cheat of some kind and the implication is that the artifice of deceit is so ingrained in them that they don't really know how to do anything else. Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is an entrepreneur who came up with the idea of breaking windows for his fathers glass company as a child and by the late 70's skims off of several dry cleaners he owns but his big thing is fencing stolen/forged art and good ol' insurance fraud. His partner/lover Sydney (a wonderfully fragile Amy Adams), is an ex-stripper who's good at keeping everything bottled up. Irving notes that she's got everything needed to be a good con, she can look right through you and she understands Duke Ellington. In terms of self deception, she doesn't have a comb over but she does spend half the film wondering in and out of a British accent while inhabiting her perfected alternate persona “Lady Edith.” It fools more people, including Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the hungry FBI agent who busts them before using their skills to set up stings that will hopefully put his name on the map.

The partnership is uneasy, quickly becoming a love triangle. Actually it's a quadrangle because Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), perhaps the slickest con in the film, who soon becomes involved in the latest sting which, like many 'big scores,' has spiraled up in scope till they're trying to get Atlantic City rebuilt with money from a fake Sheik and bribe congressmen to legislate for his citizenship. If that last bit sounded familiar, the film is based on the famous ABSCAM case. If your worried about this being a historically accurate account, don't. Russell assures us at the start of the film that only “Some of this actually happened.”

The film enjoys being as removed from reality as its character, allowing the film to indulge in proper movie fantasy. Russell (Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook) shoots the film in a modified Martin Scorcese style, and it's a lot of fun to watch the love quadrangle unfold with its elaborate camera moves, Jukebox soundtrack (Jeff Lynne in place of Scorcese's Stones), dueling narrators, and plenty of deliberate homages to the master. Russell makes the style his own somewhat. For instance: he sometimes has people sing along to the soundtrack, leading to a standout moment where Lawrence joyously sings “Live and Let Die” after potentially sending someone to their death. On the nose, sure, but fun. But you never forget you’re watching a Not-Scorsese movie, which is disappointing for Russell who used to swing much harder for the fences stylistically with films like Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. He’s still produces good work, but he seems to have mellowed out considerably. The film isn’t completely forgettable visually: there's a great image with a laundromat carousel and a jaw dropper where all the bickering, spurned lovers arrive at an event like incoming rock gods from out of the fog to the stings of 10538 Overture.

He also distinguishes himself with a sense of looseness that runs completely counter to the cocaine induced madness of Goodfellas or the greatest accused faux-Scorcese film Boogie Nights. Instead of being a massive explosion of plot, character exposition, and episodes from their lives that show us what they do, Russell aims to slow everything down to create a sense of intimacy. That approach is usually a strength for him and it does ensure that all the actors have moments to shine, but it wrecks the pacing and muddies everything up thematically. The film starts with a strong thread, but it's lost and found again many times along the way that the film feel adrift and directionless. 

Still, Hustle is mostly fun, it might even spawn a catch-phrase with 'science oven,' and it'll make a good party movie, but it's ultimately a formula movie without anything audacious to add. There's substance here somewhere, but in a film with so many people trying to break free of artifice, David O. Russell doesn't quite manage it either.

Grade: B


Thursday, December 5, 2013

OLDBOY (2013)

For months I've been trying to think of a production as ill conceived as a remake of Park Chan Wook's 2003 film Oldboy. I have no idea who'd want to see this. Most remakes are done, I suspect, because the original is famous enough that the marketing can coast on the general public's nostalgia for the title. But Oldboy is fairly obscure, has little brand name recognition to cash in on, and is too unpalatable for general audiences. Furthermore, the people who do know it are mostly film lovers who generally hold it as a classic and wouldn't want to see it remade, even by Spike Lee, a great (if uneven) filmmaker in his own right. The only hope is for Lee, who delights in provoking, to come up with something so different that it stands apart as a new vision.

Unfortunately, Lee mostly just walks the line between doing his own thing, and staying within the confines of the established story. The results are well made and somewhat distinct from the original without being truly distinctive. The film starts in 1993 when we meet Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), a rakish ad exec who neglects his family and is on the verge of losing his job. One particularly drunken night he's snatched off the street and wakes up in the locked hotel room where he'll spend the next 20 years.

The scene where Doucett discovers his predicament is very well done and the sequence makes the best case for Lee's version as an alternate take. Many of the beats from the original are there, but instead of trying to outdo the sheer propulsiveness of it, Lee instead slows down for something more intimate. Doucett doesn't know who imprisoned him, but he learns through his TV that he's been framed for the death of his wife. As the decades pass he'll quit drinking, attempt suicide, get in shape, plot escape, eat a lot of bad dumplings and in one touching vignette (Lee's best addition) befriend a family of mice living in the walls before they meet a particularly nasty fate.

After he is mysteriously released, the film starts to lose me. He makes contact with his old bartender (Michael Imperioli) and Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), a pretty doctor who helps him track down his tormentors. He kinda wants revenge, but mostly he just wants to clear his name and be there for his daughter, meaning the film must now link the two goals if the plot is to move forward, leading to the intervention of his former captor who puts a timeclock on the investigation. The captor is played by Shartlo Copley as a series of cartoon affectations, his long fingernails and Draco Malfoy accent eliciting Python levels of laughter in my screening. He's not just in a different movie, he's in a different galaxy.

Copley's performance is emblematic of a major issue with the film, it has no idea what it wants to do tonally. Lee isn't interested in replicating the original's theatricality, but when the material is gothic, operatic Greek Tragedy, it doesn't respond well to the comparative realism Lee imposes on it and the film often seems to be fighting him. No mater how much Lee tones down his own distinct style to compensate, this needs to be a quirkier film. Copely and a warden played by Samuel L. Jackson are some of the remnants of the Park weirdness (albeit without the dark humor), but outside of Jackson, they don't work, partly because of cognitive dissonance, and partly because Copley is terribly miscast.

Further wonkiness results from just how much of the original structure remains. Lee may deviate and elaborate, but he doesn't improve or fundamentally change, meaning fans will find Lee's alterations  mostly distracting. Neophites will get the most out of this, but they won't confuse the film with being a masterpiece. The ending still packs a wallop, but I believe newbies will sense how Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich overcomplicate it and dilute its horrific consequences. While the film has more than its share of nastiness, frequently trying to outdo its source, it's much less daring too. The downfall of Oldboy 2.0 (3.0 if you count the original manga) is that it does nothing to break free of the original's shadow, there are pieces of a truly original take on the material, but they're stuck in a film that just doesn't have the guts to go all the way with them.

Grade: C

Friday, October 11, 2013

GRAVITY

After a painful, seven-year absence, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men) has returned with his most technically impressive film in a career. The nerve-wracking suspense thriller is one of those large scale epics that will probably be wasted on anyone watching at home. Its grand, vertigo inducing vistas featuring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating 30 miles above the Earth, demand to be seen in 3D and on the biggest screen possible.

The entire first act is captured in a single, stunningly extended, 17 minute take that starts with a breathtaking view of the Earth and a small speck that quickly grows into the Space Shuttle. As Cuarón's camera balletically zips around, we see astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) testing a new jetpack while our protagonist, Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) completes repairs to the Hubble Telescope. We learn that while Kowalski is an old hand, Stone is a rookie, a mission specialist who's there more for her expertise with the equipment than her abilities as an astronaut. This inexperience makes what happens next so much worse for her. An unexpected cloud of debris strikes and destroys the shuttle, sending Stone flying off into the emptiness of space. Cut off from ground communication, low on oxygen with no chance of rescue and only 90 minutes till the debris orbits around the Earth and hits again, rarely have characters found themselves in more dire situations. 

Gravity might be the most authentic feeling space film ever made. All the equipment the astronauts use looks correct, Cuarón doesn't cheat the lack of sound in space, everything we hear in the film comes from the in helmet mics, and he makes extensive use of CGI to make the weightlessness work, and it all helps sell the peril, which is helpful in a film that was filmed with so many special effects. Even more than last years Life of Pi, Gravity blurs the line between what we consider to be an animated film and what is live action.
 
The CGI and the use of very long takes, which continues throughout the film, gives the film a decidedly videogame aesthetic. But what elevates Gravity's cinematography far above the level of a really good E3 demo is the personality that Cuarón and his regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, breathe into the camera movements. The camera never feels like a cold, remote observer, but instead flies around like an inquisitive child struck with fear and wonder and at the same time invigorated by the freedom of movement that zero-g offers.

For all of its intimidating technical achievements, the script (co-written by Cuarón and his son Jonas) is a bit clunky and too wordy, particularly towards the end. Also, while the film admirably tries to be weightier and give Stone an emotional back story, it sometimes feels like too much. Bollock delivers one of her best performances, but when we're spending the entire film thinking she could die at any moment the emotional stakes are already there and we don't have time to care about anything else. But these are minor quibbles, Gravity may not work as much more than a roller-coaster ride, but it's hard to care when it's the best damn roller coaster ride in town.

Grade: A-

Monday, October 7, 2013

PRISONERS

Sometimes it seems that the whole world is on drugs. Prisoners is currently enjoying a fairly impressive box office run and glowing reviews despite being complete and total dog shit. It's a sleazy, exploitative Basic Cable thriller with Oscarbait aspirations.

It stars Hugh Jackman as religious survivalist Keller Dover. One afternoon the Dover family visits their neighbors, the Birchs, for a quiet Thanksgiving dinner. Director Denis Villeneuve takes his time laboriously underlining just how normal a day this is while a dank, dirty RV circles the neighborhood. Eventually, both families realize that their respective 6 year old daughters have been kidnapped.

The police are called and it's not long till Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the owner of the RV, emerges as a suspect. But after being held and questioned by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jones is released due to lack of evidence and the fact that he has the IQ of a small child, and is likely incapable of committing the crime. But Dover isn't so sure. Fearing the worst, he takes matters into his own hands and kidnaps Alex, holds him in an abandoned building and tortures him for information.

You might be wondering what everyone else is doing during all this, the answer is not much. With so many big name cast members, you'd think the film might focus on how this kidnapping effects the lives of these two families, but no. Rarely are casts like this wasted so badly. Keller's wife, played by Golden Globe nominee Maria Bello, spends most of her negligible screen time siting in bed doped up on pills. Will their older son feel guilty as his negligence inadvertently aided the kidnappers in act one?  No, he'll be almost completely forgotten.

It's the same problem with the Birch family, they are played by Oscar nominees Terrance Howard and Viola Davis and they are absent from the film for such outrageous stretches that it's easy to forget that they're in the movie at all and that they too have lost a daughter. Sometimes they show up so they can be complicit in Keller's crimes, but nothing much comes of it. However unintentional, the film seems to be telling us that in this situation, only the emotional struggle of macho white men are worthy of screen time.

Worse still is that the film doesn't do much with that screen time. The film has a lot of potential ideas to mine, but for much of the extravagant 153 minute run time we're punished by endless scenes of Dover yelling and torturing Jones, every one plays the same note except louder than the last. Each one not sure if it wants us to marvel at just how villainous Keller has become, or to agree with his methods. Occasionally the film reaches for religious symbolism – opening with Dover reciting Our Father, or occasional insert shots crucifixes – as a justification. But while the film does it's damnedest to get us to notice these images, it never does the hard work of attaching any meaning to them. It's window dressing Villeneuve uses so he can pretend to condemn Dover's brutality towards this mentally disabled man before ultimately excusing it.

While Dover brutally tortures Jones, Loki's investigation stumbles around, pursuing a series of increasingly implausible red herrings presented with all the ceremony of a Law & Order: SVU episode but without the self-conscious camp. We get murderous priests, and lots of snakes and mazes and bumbling on the part of the supposedly brilliant Loki and again, nothing much comes it except to put Loki in the right position to set up what may go down as the textbook example of how not to do an ambiguous ending.

Prisoners is the kind of film that mistakes misery for substance and as a result is a mean, sadistic bore. It puts us through the ringer only because it can, using serious issues and concepts like child kidnapping and faith in ugly, exploitative ways. Cinematographer Roger Deakins does great work lighting the thing, but don't be fooled by the film's artifice. It's just another tool the director uses to get you to think this film is more than just a shiny turd. Do yourself a favor and stay away from one of the worst films of the year.

Grade: D

Thursday, October 3, 2013

TREKKIN' IT: THE FINAL FRONTIER

Fair warning: review contains spoilers.

At its best Star Trek has been a standard bearer for intelligent, mainstream science fiction. But the longer it allowed its actors creative control, the more it risked being the victim of runaway egos. The series had done fine letting Leonard Nimoy direct a couple installments, but the franchise was about to suffer it's first bona fide dud with the William Shatner helmed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

 In interviews, producer Harve Bennett, who remains enthusiastic about the finished product, calls the film “Bill's turn,” referring to a contract clause that allowed Shatner a shot at directing solely because Nimoy had had one. That he would try directing a feature isn't surprising, he'd long been looking for ways to distinguish himself beyond acting. In addition to his infamous singing carrier, he had directed a few small plays and a smattering of T.J. Hooker episodes. The same year Final Frontier was released, Shatner published TekWar, the first in a series of cyberpunk novels he co-wrote with an uncredited Ron Goulart. Shatner viewed himself a storyteller and for his feature debut, he set his sights sky high for what he hoped would be the ultimate Star Trek film, one that would simultaneously take the franchise into darker, more action oriented territory whist pumping up the broad comedy and, most staggeringly, answer the question of 'is there a God' with a very preachy 'no.'

That's quite a checklist for a first time film director, but the film cannot be called a failure of ambition because that would imply that Shanter, Bennet and screenwriter David Loughery (Lakeview Terrace, Nurse 3D) had a clear, unified idea of what they were doing. Instead the film is the definition of egotism, going off in a hundred different, conflicting directions, thinking each one will be equally fantastic and perfect, and the resulting film is a complete mess.

The film is not without its moments. The film's prologue – one of the few moments where the film rises above its generally workmanlike visual look, a problem perhaps exacerbated by the films short shooting schedule – lands us on Nimbus III and introduces us to Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), a renegade Vulcan who's brainwashing the local farmers into serving as his own personal army.

From here it gets really convoluted, really quickly. Through some awful dialogue delivered by David Warner (who seems to be in physical pain delivering it), we learn that Nimbus III is a diplomatic outpost in the Neutral Zone separating the Klingon and Romulan Empires from the Federation. The place is even refereed to as “the planet of Galactic peace.” Why then, we might ask, is the conference room where the ambassadors meet in a storage closet behind a seedy dive bar in the kind of town waiting for Clint Eastwood to ride through? It doesn't really matter. The film may go through a lot of trouble explaining Nimbus III, but it's all about to be thrown away. All that matters is that there are important people in the capital city that Sybok will use as hostages so he can steal a starship.

All this exposition is intercut with some shockingly disparate scenes where Kirk, Spock and McCoy go camping in Yosemite National Park. This 'action' climaxes with a campfire scene where the gang teaches Spock to sing “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat.” As a kid I remember kind of liking this, It's patently ridiculous, and the chemistry of the actors almost sells it, but as an adult it feels like little more than a way to fill time while scoring easy fan service.  The fact is that real fans already know that these people love each other, and if the film wanted to remind us of their bond for later in the film, there are a hundred simpler ways to do so that don't stop the action cold. It's never a good sign when the first half hour of a film feels like the first half.

Eventually, the crew is ordered to rescue Sybok's hostages and after arriving on Nimbus III we get a direct to video style action scene where Kirk and Spock ride on blue horses and charge a team of commandos into Paradise City (where the grass is not green and the girls are cats). Eventually Sybok wins and uses Kirk to takeover the understaffed and chronically malfunctioning Enterprise A. At this point we learn two unbelievably ridiculous things, 1) Sybock is really Spock's half brother and 2) The reason Sybok wants to steal the Enterprise is so he can travel to the center of the Galaxy and meet God.

The film uses the family revelation to shake up the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship. It's an admirable idea, but giving Spock an evil half-brother we've never heard of is such an out of nowhere Scooby Doo twist that it's a non-starter, as is the implication that the overly pragmatic Spock might betray Kirk and their multi-decade spanning friendship for an outcast half brother with whom he has an anecdotal relationship at best. Still, the film doggedly peruses the idea that the crew's loyalty is up for grabs as Sybok uses his Vulcan abilities to “remove their pain.” What that means exactly is very inconsistent. At the beginning of the film it seems like he's brainwashing people into joining him. But as the film goes on it tones down the Charles Manson vibe and it suddenly seems like his glassy eyed followers have free will, especially when it comes to characters we like.

This culminates in the film's only good scene, where Sybok attempts to take away McCoy's inner pain. He's forced to relive his father's death, for which he was responsible, while Kirk and Sybok argue as to the best way to deal with our daemons. Sybok insists that we must purge ourselves of the past in order to move forward, hence his whole “give me your pain” shtick. Where as Kirk believes that our past, especially our misfortunes define who we are and should be preserved at all costs. This is the kind of intellectual argument that Star Trek is best at, and the film would have done better to have more of this, but alas the film decides it really wants to meet God instead.

The Enterprise approaches the center of the Galaxy, passing through lots of lightning bolts, energy clouds and other special effects nonsense before arriving at a mysterious planet the crew dub Eden. Sybok and the core Trek trio set down on Eden and search while Jerry Goldsmith's score does an admirable job instilling a sense of wonder. For a moment it feels we just might have something, but then “God” shows up. We should not expect very much from a film that promises a cameo from the almighty, we have such high expectations that it's hard to impress us.

Sticking with the "big, white beard" look doesn't help.
To be fair, the being that appears isn't very well defined, it could be God, the Devil, some kind of alien, or some kind of combination of the three. I take it though that he is meant to be God in some fashion because that's what the finished film has set up, and it never really suggests otherwise. At any rate, he is revealed to be a fraud. After a shockingly short encounter, Kirk outsmarts “God” who seems to be nothing but a snake oil salesman who, like Sybok only wants to steal a starship, prompting Shatner's famous line: “What does God need with a starship?”

That's a good line, but it's the beginning of a thought not the end of one. At this point in the film it's fairly safe to assume that Shatner is an Atheist, which is fine and dandy if that's what works for you, but his film casually brushes off the idea of a God without any thought, insight, nuance or debate. The film had the wonderful opportunity to explore how faith can be corrupted and trap people or even suggest that this being only wants a starship so he too can search for his creator, which would be really interesting. But instead of doing any of those things, the film decides to half-ass the whole Atheism thing and paint Shatner's alter ego as "God's" outright superior: according to this film, God and his followers are either glassy-eyed hicks or hucksters who are easily outwitted by the glorious Captain Kirk, envy of all! That is, of course, before "God" is killed by a photon torpedo delivered by Spock (Trek's go to embodiment of all that is logical and scientific).

Final Frontier had a chance to be something interesting, but mistakes the kernels of ideas for fully formed ones. It wants to have big ideas but would rather go camping. All and all, it would have been best if Shatner had stuck to acting. Time has ensured that film isn't necessarily the lowest point in the series, but it's pretty damn close.

Grade: D

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Trekkin' It directory:
The Motion Picture
Space Seed / The Wrath of Khan
The Search for Spock
The Voyage Home
The Final Frontier
The Undiscovered Country

Generations
Best of Both Worlds / First Contact
Insurrection
Nemesis

Star Trek '09
Into Darkness (spoiler analysis) 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

THE GRANDMASTER

While watching The Grandmaster, Wong Kar-Wai's decade in the making martial arts biopic, I couldn't help but think of the films of Bruce Lee, particularly Enter The Dragon. This is partially because Grandmaster's subject, Ip Man (Tony Leung), went on to train Lee, but mostly because of the contrast in how these films handle action.

The photography in Lee's films were joyously overwhelmed by his physicality. The camera often staying far away, emphasizing his whole body moving as one blurry, unstoppable force. But Grandmaster isn't like that. It's approach to Kung Fu is much more intimate. Wong's camera is interested less in the whole and more in the individual pieces of the body and how they relate to each other. He uses many short close-ups of hands and feet moving into position, an impressionistic technique that, in other action pictures, frequently confuses, but here it provides insight because Wong is showing us strategy. It also helps that Wong is one of the most tactile and painterly filmmakers in the world to the point that he frequently uses step printing and other techniques to make it seem like we can actually see paint smearing on the lens of the camera and the film becomes a beautifully choreographed ballet of singing razor blades, rain drops splashing off hats, falling icicles, crumbling cakes and ritualistically lit cigarettes.

While Wong usually eschews traditional narrative to create his thematic mood pieces, a sort of story does emerge: the film follows Ip Man and Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang), two expertly talented Kung Fu masters who find their destinies greatly altered because of the times they live in. The film begins in the early 1930's when it seems that Ip, a rising star, might be able to unite the Northern and Southern schools of Kung Fu. But his refusal to collaborate with the invading Japanese results in him being exiled to Hong Kong where he suffers terrible poverty and hardship. By the time Wong get's to the 1950's, the old guard is mostly gone and no one even knows Ip's name.

Gong Er's battle is even harder, she is the daughter of a northern grandmaster and an expert of her 47 Hand's style, she even beats Ip Man in a wonderfully conceived bout, but because of her gender she will always be denied her place as the shepherd of her fathers legacy. Her father, clearly bitter about the limits society puts on her, is forced to pass off his legacy to someone the community would accept and suggests she try her hand at becoming a doctor.

Though history has vindicated Ip Man (films about him are almost a genre unto themselves at this point), Wong views both these people as being defined by lost destinies. Indeed all the characters in the film seem to struggle living in the shadow of the lives they almost had. Like many Wong films, Grandmaster is ultimately about people in limbo, making the best of who they are and using love as a way to cope with crushing loneliness.

There are two cuts of Grandmaster out there. The original Hong Kong cut is not especially long at 130 minutes, none the less it has been cut down to 108 minutes for the American market. The cuts are noticeable but not fatal. The American cut, which Wong oversaw personally, adds a great deal of intertitles to help explain/rush past the complex plot, and it often feels like there are holes in the narrative. The Hong Kong version handles the exposition much more smoothly and there are more scenes involving the Gong family and more stuff with secondary characters such as Razor (Chen Chang), another exiled master. Strangely though, the American cut also contains a great deal of footage not found in the Hong Kong cut, some of which seemed essential when I saw it last week. Both versions are fantastic and worth your time.

Grade: A-

Thursday, September 12, 2013

THE WORLD'S END

Few comedies are awaited with as much fervor as those of Edgar Wright who, along with frequent star and co-writer Simon Pegg seem to be vying for the title of "patron saint of Nerddom." While Wright's films, particularly those of the Cornetto Trilogy, are draped in nostalgia and genre thrills, they are unique in modern geekdom in that they don't rest on nostalgia so much as they serve as complex, enjoyably conflicted, frequently hilarious meditations on it.

It's hard growing up, particularly if you've been putting it off for a few decades. Such is the predicament of Gary King (Pegg), the rude, drunken and earnestly desperate protagonist of The World's End, the third and possibly best entry of the trilogy. For King, life never measurably improved on a drunken pub crawl he attempted with his friends when they were all 17.

Twenty-three years later King is suddenly eager to get the band back together and recreate that crawl, which he dubs "The Golden Mile:" 12 pints at all 12 of the pubs in their hometown of Newton Heaven, finishing at the titular World's End. But his friends (played by Wright regulars: Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan) aren't so eager to join him. Unlike King, who lives his life in a shabby flat doing God-only-knows between AA meetings, they've all settled down and joined society. But one by one they're lured back by King's oily charm and the promise of days gone by.

But recapturing their glory days proves difficult, everything seems just out of reach and they can't settle in like they used to. The town feels slightly off, particularly the all important pubs which have lost their individual flair after a series of corporate take-overs: "Starbucking," they call it. There's a nice, quintessentially Wrightian touch, where every time they enter a new bar, the camera repeats the exact same establishing shot in what is clearly the same set with different extras. This persistent offness launches the gang into existential crisis mode. It's as if the world is against them cutting loose. Of course, this being a Cornetto film, the assertion is soon proven true when we learn that the town's increasing plainness is actually the result of a stealth takeover by space robots. 

This film might be the most confident of the series. We get no winking shots of flying saucers or anything to telegraph the genre shift a la Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. As much fun as that was in the previous installments, it's for the best that we don't get it here, as the importance of the pre-shift movie almost dominates the post-shift one. The film takes a lot of time setting up King and the gang to the point that we might all be perfectly content if the film remained Wright's version of The Big Chill. But the shift into Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory works because it all clicks thematically in fun and surprising ways. It's no accident that a film exploring the links between nostalgia and conformity selects automatons as its antagonists.

The film's visions of what conformity means is interesting in that Wright and Pegg don't automatically discount the Starbucked life the robots are offering. Like in Hot Fuzz, it seems as if nostalgia and conformity are linked in Wright's mind. King may prod and tease his friends for working for 'The Man' and living flavorless lives, but it seems like they have more options than King. He may have succeeded in staying away from societal norms, but his freedom and his refusal to let go of his youth has put him in damaging routines that he isn't even aware of. The film sympathizes with his desire to be the ultimate individual while observing that the quest has made him a friendless slave to drugs and alcohol. Ultimately, it seems that King knows he's a fuck-up, but he wants the freedom to be a fuck-up, even if that's not exactly freedom and has disastrous consequences for everyone around him. That's a pretty tough conundrum for a comedy to present but Wright handles it about as deftly as one can handle such a messy worldview. In a dark, telling echo of Shaun of the Dead, the gang doesn't just have to fight robots, but King, who's insistence that they finish the Golden Mile and get to The World's End starts to seem more self-serving and suicidal by the minute.

That multifaceted view of King and his situation is what makes the film so good, and that lens is also turned on King's "friends" who all have their own outlooks on their youth and how the town has changed. Nick Frost does a fantastic job playing against type as the mature one of the group and there's a scene where Eddie Marsan encounters a former bully that's touching to say the least. It is a pity that we don't get the same kind of detail with the character played by the wonderful Rosamund Pike, who is saddled with being "the girl." Pegg and Wright have consistently shown an eagerness to be emotionally honest and mature with the film's they make together, so they owe it to themselves to stop underwriting their female parts.

Still, World's End is fantastic. Wright and Pegg have capped off an already excellent series with their most thoughtful entry without ever losing their sense of humor. The film might be about alcoholism, lost innocence and self-destruction, but it's also a really funny movie about alcoholism, lost innocence and self-destruction. Also the robots are a blast. In a year filled with dumb sci-fi (Elysium, Man of Steel) and moronic looking comedies (does anyone actually want to see The Family?), it's exciting to see a film like this, take on these issues so successfully and emerge as a great ode to the joys and pitfalls of getting loaded.

Grade: A

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Monday, September 2, 2013

ELYSIUM

In 2009, Neil Bloomkamp made sizable splash with his debut feature District 9, with complex characters and a well thought out world, it seemed like a real piece of visionary filmmaking on par with the likes of Paul Verhoeven. Unfortunately Bloomkamp is suffering from the sophomore slump with his follow up, Elysium, an earnest, reductive, pandering, startlingly dumb film.

The year is 2154 and the rich have left Earth to live in the titular, hood ordainment shaped, space station. Elysium is meant to stand in for upper-class America, but unintentionally comes off as Heaven, where beautiful, kinda ethnically diverse people sit around all day by the pool and tan themselves and there is no sickness or pain because every home has a med-pod that magically cures you of anything instantly.

Our unambiguous, White Savior/friend to children hero is Max De Costa (Matt Damon), a lowly Earthling orphan with a dream in his heart to save up enough money to cross that Space Border into Space America. One day while working in a factory, making robots for The Man, Max sustains a heavy dose of radiation that will kill him in five day unless he can get to Elysium.

Getting there is going to be a challenge as Elysium is off limits to the proles on Earth which, in the absence of the wealthy, has become an over-populated, planet sized shanty town. Sometimes people try and sneak into Elysium, but more often than not they're shot down by the stations security chief, Delacourt (Jodie Foster in one of her worst performances), who really hates undocumented migrants for reasons never coherently explained.

Have you figured out the metaphor yet?  Because Bloomkamp doesn't think you have. Max recruits the help of Spider (Wagner Copley), a techno coyote who agrees to help if Max first agrees to a very convoluted heist that requires him to go under the knife and be outfitted with a neural link-up and exoskeleton. But, the exoskeleton is one of the film's many ideas and details it doesn't have time to develop. Yes, the film does look fantastic, particularly the Earth segments and there are few people with a sharper eye for future tech than Bloomkamp but great production design means squat in a word this flat and cartoonish. I'm a real sucker for immigrant stories and blue collar strife, but the border analogy Bloomkamp draws never progresses beyond its initial conception.  Everything feels sketchy, particularly as the action moves to the space station.

Bloomkamp has repeated a lot from his earlier film, both films are races against time with a hero who's physiology is altered against their will and must fight all powerful oppressors, and the similarities get even more specific from there. That's fine, there is a serviceable tradition of director's using newly acquired Hollywood resources to essentially remake their independent (or pseudo-indipendent) breakouts. What's startling is what he chose to not copy, namely the humanity. In District 9 we had a protagonist who was pitiful one second and complicit in the oppression of an entire race the next. That complex relationship between a film's main character and the audience is rare and kind of magical. At the very least that unpredictability gave the action scenes a huge shot in the arm. Elysium doesn't have that. Its characters are cardboard at best, running around, shouting and getting involved in some very badly done action scenes and the one or two moments where Bloomkamp does try to undercut Max are mindbogglingly forced.
 
Instead of treating the genre as a gateway to complexity, he indulges in simplistic, pandering fantasy. In Bloomkamp's mind, the poor are all helpless saints waiting for an able bodied white man to save them, women are damsels and the rich have always had the ability to magically cure all that ails us with a literal push of a button, but choose not too out of pure evil. If the film didn't favor the common man, Ayn Rand would be proud of how reductive this film film is. The film does have an admirable social consciousness, but an allegory this simplistic and lacking in humanity doesn't do any good. Elysium isn't a terrible entertainment, but boy it's a disappointing come down from an ambitious debut.

Grade: C

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

TREKKIN' IT: THE VOYAGE HOME

Leonard Nimoy is a big softy. After the financial success of Search For Spock, he was given greater creative control to direct Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and what kind of film does he make? Not a space combat film like Wrath of Khan or a sterile, alienating thinker like The Motion Picture, but a movie about friendship, teamwork and saving the whales. On paper, it's this film, not Final Frontier, that ought to be considered the big misstep, the one no one talks about. But instead Voyage Home is one of the best, and certainly most delightful films in the series.

Picking up where the last film left off, we find Kirk (William Shatner) and the rest of the crew in exile on Vulcan, deciding to return to Earth and face the consequences for all the rules they broke so they could save Spock (Nimoy). As they approach Earth, things get impossibly goofy: in a reworking of the V'Ger set-up from TMP, the planet is being devastated by a mysterious, alien probe. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) decodes the probes signal as a Humpback Whale song. Evidently, the probe had expected to make first contact with some kind of Whale based civilization and instead only finds the Humans who, in this world, had long ago hunted them into extinction. Consequently, the only way to save Earth is to go back in time and find some whales to talk to the probe. Yes, that is the actual set up and it's a real testament to just how good these actors are that they sell the gargantuan leaps necessary to move the plot along.

After a trippy time travel sequence, the crew sets down in 1986 San Fransisco and splits up into teams. Kirk and Spock case out a local aquarium while the rest of the crew concentrate on modifying and repairing the ship. It's at this point where the film gets to what it's best at: fish out of water comedy. We get a lot of fun scenes of the Enterprise crew trying to adjust to their 20th Century surroundings.The highlight might be Scotty and McCoy trying to figure out how to use a Mac Plus and handing out future technology willy nilly.

The film is unusually democratic in handing everyone screen time. For years Walter Keonig's Checkov has had very little to do but sit around and be the likable Russian (it's telling for a franchise where people are defined by their jobs that Checkov's skill set remains undefined), but here he finally gets his own subplot, scoring some of the films better laughs when his obliviousness to Cold War hostilities lands him in trouble when he has to sneak around a U.S. nuclear vessel.

We also have a small subplot about just how culturally displaced Spock is. He's unable to relate to his crew mates, the 20th Century is even harder. There's an endlessly amusing gag about him being absolutely terrible at swearing, even worse than Kirk, who charmingly thinks "Double dumb ass on you" is a real phrase people say in 1986. Spock's inability to act Human is interesting as he is indeed half Human. Because he was raised in Vulcan culture, he was never that warm to begin with, but he used to be able to fake it just a little. The film makes a point of telling us that the ritual that brought him back from the dead also reset his brain and erased all the years he'd spent trying to reconcile his two sides.

While this is a very small subplot in the film, and a character point rarely touched upon, Spock's regression is the flip of the direction the film's were taking. Like Spock himself, Trek has always had to navigate between brains and heart. At one point Trek was primarily about allegory and big ideas, but that began to noticeably shift during Nimoy's tenure as director, and it's most apparent here. The big ideas in Search for Spock where jumbled and confused, here they're stripped away almost completely so the film can romp around with the crew. No one's going to argue "save the whales" as a goal, and the crew is alarmingly unconcerned with altering timelines. This is the first Trek film that's more about the star-power of the actors than anything else. The human focus is a welcome 180 from where the series started, but in going for the opposite extreme it also sets precedent or the series most indulgent, least enjoyable entries as we'll see with Final Frontier and the mostly ego driven Next Generation films.

Voyage Home is goofy, strains all credibility, but it's funny and it works like gangbusters. While easily the broadest, and most accessible of the series, it's also the boldest departure. Until now, the series had followed the traditional "bigger, darker" sequel model, but after all the heaviness of the last few films, it's nice that the Trek series took a break and made an impossibly fluffy, vacation style movie like this.

Grade: B+

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Trekkin' It directory:
The Motion Picture
Space Seed / The Wrath of Khan
The Search for Spock
The Voyage Home
The Final Frontier
The Undiscovered Country

Generations
Best of Both Worlds / First Contact
Insurrection
Nemesis

Star Trek '09
Into Darkness (spoiler analysis) 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

BLUE JASMINE

Woody Allen is a national treasure. When his films work, they're as beautiful, funny and insightful as anything out there. It's absolutely incredible that he's managed to write and direct at least one film per year since 1982. But that frenetic pace also means we must accept a certain amount of unevenness to his work as proven by his latest film Blue Jasmine.

The film centers around a pair of adopted sisters forced together after years of estrangement. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) married rich but looses everything when her husband (Alec Baldwin) is arrested for some Bernie Madoff-esque wrong doing. She is taken in by Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who lives in a poor, San Fransisco neighborhood with her two kids from a failed marriage to Augie (a well used Andrew Dice Clay).

Allen's attempt to difine the sisters through class distinctions, not to mention their relationships, is often insufferably shallow and repetitive. We get scene after scene of Jasmine being impossibly snooty and constantly embarrassed by her sisters poverty, while Ginger chews gum and carries on in her dislocated Jersey Shore accent. Allen's use of stereotypes is never as grating as it was in Whatever Works, but we could probably have done without Ginger's hotheaded, Italian fiance who's mostly there to rip the occasional phone off the wall. Also, take a shot every time he reminds us that Jasmine's husband was "a real crook who ripped everyone off" and that "she probably knew all about it!"

What Jasmine knew and when she knew is a central question here. It's clear that she's very aloof and has lived most of her life in denial, but at some point her denial becomes unreasonable. At any rate it's clear that she's trying hard to downplay her past to everyone she meets, particularly with a perspective boyfriend she meets at a party.  Her clumsy, comically circuitous attempts at reinvention are some of the best parts of the film, particularly a sequence where she takes a class in computers. Allen is a self-confessed technophobe and one imagines him paying the computer literate neighbor boy from down the hall five bucks to write a block of jargon for the film.

The film does try and add dimension to Jasmine's character by explaining that all the stress has induced some kind of ongoing mental breakdown. As a script device, it's clumsy and melodramatic. Poor Blanchett is forced to wave her secret pills at the screen in the most vaudevillian way possible, but strangely she makes the character work. As Jasmine's reinventions and deceptions unravel, we're left with a sense of just how much emotional damage she's done to herself and her family. It's touching and it's all Blanchett. The script Allen has written for her is bland, pedestrian and cliche but she saves it, in moments even elevates it, but like so many of Allen's films, it often feels like we're watching a first draft.

Grade: C+

Thursday, August 1, 2013

ONLY GOD FORGIVES

Nicolas Winding Refn has made good films in the past. He made a great film with 2011's Drive, but it's no surprise that his new film Only God Forgives falters. Refn's style is so extreme and out there, that it was inevitable that he'd make at least one outrageous failure.

Ryan Gosling stars as Julian, a shy, reserved gangster who runs a Muay Thai kickboxing gym in Bangkok with his sadistic brother Billy (Tom Burke). One night Billy gets himself killed after raping a 16 year old prostitute. At this point Julian is obliged to go out and get revenge but can't quite work up any enthusiasm after hearing about his brother's crimes. This leads to the intervention of his mother (Kristian Scott Thomas), who we learn has a rather, um, Game of Thrones relationship with her sons. She comes in to hire a hit on Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the karaoke loving cop who ordered Billy's death and might be some sort of Daemon or something.

In interviews, Refn has talked up the film as a companion piece to Drive but the comparison is a poor one. Drive had a potent love story and thin characters rebelling against their own thinness in a very satisfying way, this film has nothing but its own style. Sure, Refn's depiction of Bangkok as a nightmarish, hallucinatory Hellscape is effective at times, but to what end? The film isn't really interested in anything other than wallowing in its own seediness and Kubrickian set pieces set to another one of Cliff Martinez's amazing synth scores. There's no meat here and it's very clear from the start that no matter how much it wants to do otherwise, Forgives isn't going to do anything but sit there. Even a climactic, and expertly constructed, fistfight fails to generate interest. The film is just too cold, too cromagnon in its approach. 

Even Gosling, America's foremost expert at saying nothing but communicating everything is a blank here. It's not his fault, as his character has no inner life and has nothing to do but sit on couches, flex his hands and occasionally terrify prostitutes. He doesn't play a character so much as he provides Refn with a life sized Ken doll to pose, same goes for all the other actors save Thomas whose self-consciously shrill, yet engaging performance is the best part of the film.

Strangely, the very same coldness that keeps the film from being good might also keep it off my worst of the year list. The film was booed at Cannes but I couldn’t muster up enough interest to hate the film that much. There are terrible, appalling elements here, the film isn't invested in them enough to appall me. The film is an utter failure, albeit one made by someone capable of doing so much better. The worst part of this film isn't its shallow use of weighty themes or the blank performances, it's watching talented people waste their talent.

Grade: D