short film reviews, criticism, and occasional musing.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Rust and Bone (2012, France/Belgium)

Jacques Audiard is my favorite contemporary French filmmaker (if you haven’t seen any of his movies, I recommend starting with Read My Lips before moving on to A Prophet, which is probably his best film to date), but Rust and Bone felt off-balance. Marion Cotillard is superb, giving a fantastic performance as Stephanie, an orca trainer whose legs are bitten off by one of her animals. The accident (it’s not quite an attack) happens early in the film, but instead of focusing on her adjustment and healing process, Audiard hones in on the dour Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a bouncer and former fighter whose damage is almost entirely emotional. Unfortunately, Ali’s character is too much a cypher, lacking the intensity of Audiard antiheroes like the hotheaded Thomas (Romain Duris) in The Beat That My Heart Skipped or the bewildered but canny Malik (Tahar Rahim) in A Prophet. Schoenaerts doesn’t have the chops to make me care about what’s happening in Ali’s head, especially when what’s inside Stephanie’s is written all over her face. Likewise, the ending is weak, relying too much on a plot contrivance to sew everything up. Still, it’s worth a watch for excellent cinematography from Audiard collaborator Stephane Fontaine, the mostly-amazing effects to make Cotillard legless, and a few transcendent moments in her character’s healing process.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012, USA)

The part of Zero Dark Thirty that rings truest for me is how much one water cooler conversation spy Maya (Jessica Chastain) has with her colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) ends up illuminating her character. The two are talking about finding sources, getting intel on Al Qaeda. Jessica wonders why they just can’t promise rewards like so many agencies did during the Cold War. Maya counters that this conflict is not about making a better life, escaping the madness of war for peace and stability—these people are true believers, fanatics, and no amount of cash is ever going to sway them. It’s this comment that informs the final shot of the film, and shows Maya’s struggle as maybe not being too far off from that of the men she hunts. Zero Dark Thirty works best for me as this kind of character study, though it spends a lot more time on plot. It’s not that the plot is uninteresting, or even underdeveloped—it just seems so hysterically factual, if that makes any sense. It’s as if Kathryn Bigelow struck out to make the definitive war film for our era, one grounded by a film language so stripped-down that it makes Argo, with its somewhat-similar plot, look like a cartoon. I found The Hurt Locker to be a much more human film, possibly because it tempered its punishing realism with a fictional plot, rather than by a seemingly obsessive need to show things how they happened. And as much as I enjoy a good procedural drama, whatever its base, I am almost never as impressed as I am by a film that invents a new world in order to reflect back my own (see my Beasts of the Southern Wild review, a movie I saw the day before Zero Dark Thirty).

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, USA)

I’ve got to be honest—I HATE the word “lyrical” applied to film. It’s become such a reviewer’s crutch in the past decade, one that I have succumbed to using on more than one occasion. But I’ll hang up my issues for once, because despite mulling it over for several days now, I just can’t think of a better word to describe Beasts of the Southern Wild. If Beasts had been adapted for the screen, it wouldn’t surprise me if the original work were a long-form poem or loose performance piece, something akin to Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf (I refuse to be like Tyler Perry and take the guts out of that title). Beasts may not always make sense, but that could be said of a lot of poems, too, and despite the amount of science fiction/fantasy I read and watch, I haven’t encountered a fictional world that feels this real in some time.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Seven Psychopaths (2012, UK)

Despite the absurd volume of bullets in heads, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is essentially a lightweight affair. Whereas In Bruges was a darkly comic take on guilt and hell, Seven Psychopaths examines similar themes with a banana peel. It’s a slapstick bloodbath, with everyone and his brother in tow (as a Boardwalk Empire fan, I can’t get over that first scene, though the secret star here is, as usual, Zeljko Ivanek).  Colin Farrell, so well-used in Bruges, underplays the hapless straight man against the best Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken performances I’ve seen in years. As Farrell’s alcoholic screenwriter struggles with putting pen to paper, actor buddy Rockwell and his partner in dognapping crime Walken are pulled into his orbit, spinning back out into a great deal of clever wordplay, existential noodling, and not an inconsequential amount of bloodshed. Amusing to no end, Seven Psychopaths still feels like much ado about nothing, particularly as its throwaway ending ruins the promise of the Walken monologue that immediately preceeds it. Now that McDonagh has worked the Hollywood misanthropy out of his system, I’m looking forward to whatever he sinks his teeth into next.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Lawless (2012, USA)

There might be a good movie somewhere in Lawless – perhaps it’s hiding in the material I suspect never made the final cut. With its overstuffed cast and lurching structure (not to mention the ridiculously neutered title), John Hillcoat’s latest film feels like it’s missing a good twenty minutes of connective tissue. Despite the apparent intention to bend Lawless into a more action-oriented film, the final product feels gutless.

There are moments of clarity, however. Hillcoat, working again with his Proposition cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, knows how to play with light and locations, and the outdoor sequences shine. Guy Pearce warrants commendation for showing up a better-than-able cast (I’m not lumping LaBeouf into that group), though I’m sure it’s easier – not to mention more fun – to play a straight psycho than it is a more complex one, as is Tom Hardy’s lot. (Pearce does struggle with his flat Chicago accent more than Hardy his hills one, but perhaps it should be called a draw, as for the second time this summer you can only understand about three-quarters of anything coming out of Hardy’s mouth.) There is one romantic subplot too many, but can someone find Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska a real project together?

The Proposition is one of my favorite films of the ‘00s, but I worry that Hillcoat is not fulfilling his promise, even when reunited with Delhomme and, of course, Nick Cave. Hillcoat’s next film, currently slated for 2013, appears to be some sort of cop drama starring Shia LaBeouf, whom I find distracting in pretty much every role. I’d like to see him strip down with a project as raw as The Proposition. Lawless had promise, but its authorial voice is muted.

Tokyo Zombie (2005, Japan)

Oh, how I wish I could remember who or what recommended Tokyo Zombie. It’s been far too long since I’ve embraced weirdo Japanese cinema (though a recent going-out-of-business sale at the local video store means that a handful of old favorites – Charisma, Tokyo Sonata, The Taste of Tea, Versus – will be revisited soon (and foisted on the husband)). Directed by Sakichi Sato, writer of such Takashi Miike treasures as Gozu and Ichi the Killer, Tokyo Zombie is the manga-derived story of two idiot factory workers who encounter a zombie apocalypse. The idiots, played by Tadanobu Asano in an afro wig and Sho (sometimes Show) Aikawa in a bald cap, are more into their bizarre jujitsu lessons than pretty much anything else, and as such don’t realize the undead uprising has occurred until Tokyo is a lost cause. Once it dawns on them, they’re fairly nonchalant about the whole thing – again, neither is suffering from a surfeit of brainpower – and the hijinks continue until circumstance separates our heroes, leading to a somewhat unfortunate – and strangely mean-spirited – second half. Unsurprisingly, the best analogue I can think of for Tokyo Zombie a Miike film – The Happiness of the Katakuris– though it can’t sustain its madcap zombie action quite as well as Katakuris does. Also, there’s far less singing. But for anyone into weird Japanese film, Tokyo Zombie is most certainly worth checking out.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Bourne Legacy (2012, USA)

There’s a lot that seems right on the surface of Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy – a capable leading man in Jeremy Renner, a smart female one in Rachel Weiss, a bloodless villain in Edward Norton, good use of locations and some early action sequences with snap – but it’s all in the service of very little. In a fatal misstep, Gilroy layers elements of The Bourne Ultimatum into Legacy at the outset and the end, trying to anchor his film with the structure and impact of the preceding one. The device falls flat, underlining Legacy’s inability to stand on its own. Smart casting and flashy Manila motorcycle chases can’t compensate for a film without a plot.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Premium Rush (2012, USA)

Disclaimer – as a city cyclist, I really hate the type of urban riding on display in Premium Rush. Bikers, whether messengers or commuters, who ride into intersections against lights and cause drivers and pedestrians to freak out make a bad name for all of us. And the last thing urban riders really need is more drivers who seem like they’re out to get them.

Premium Rush is a dumb-fun B-movie with one big asset – Michael Shannon. Joseph Gordon-Levitt may get first billing, but Shannon’s the star here, and director David Koepp wisely spends equal time with his cop villain as with his messenger hero. As an actor, one of Shannon’s most enviable skills is his lack of pandering to questionable material. He may be playing a rote baddie in a late-August release about hotshot bike messengers, but he might as well be playing to the Academy (his comedic twist on the character reads more as an inspiration than a stunt). The stunt riding – particularly the low-angle stuff – is fun, and Gordon-Levitt acquits himself well as usual, but Premium Rush is Shannon’s show, and the movie’s smart enough to know it.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, USA)

I’ve read that some critics have liked The Dark Knight Rises more after a second viewing. I had the same reaction with Batman Begins, but the opposite after a repeat of The Dark Knight – the former seemed stronger, though still problematic, while the latter was a slog. With the final film in the trilogy, I wonder if the disparate elements in the narrative hang together better upon a second watch.

It’s not that Rises isn’t entertaining – for the bulk of its extensive run time, it’s a gripping film – it’s that the Batman elements often feel extraneous to the rest of the film. I think I get what Nolan is trying to do here, apart from his typical meditation on the savagery of human nature and the fallibility of our structures and institutions, but I don’t know if it gels successfully. For a movie that’s over two and a half hours long, certain plot points – the romance between Bruce Wayne and Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), for example – feel shoehorned in, and the removal of our hero midway through the action seems as much an excuse for Nolan to focus on the (much more interesting) drama in Gotham as providing opportunity for one of his typically beautiful but leaden symbolic journeys.

As with the prior films, our emotional investment is never in Batman/Bruce Wayne, it’s in the people surrounding him, the most obvious analogue in Rises being Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s idealistic rookie cop. This makes the Gotham uprising elements of the film work particularly well without Batman’s participation – indeed, it was something of a letdown when the Dark Knight reappears to save the day. But perhaps this is what is so fascinating about Nolan’s trilogy in the first place – he’s using a comic book hero to tell a much larger story, one that might have seemed far-fetched without being placed in a fantastic realm. And while, as with many of his other projects, the Batman films are often weighed down with too much bombast and an overwrought symbolic narrative, one thing they cannot be accused of is being empty entertainment.