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 standard 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