short film reviews, criticism, and occasional musing.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

2012 (2009, USA/Canada)

How do you make an action film about the end of the world mind-numbingly boring? Let’s ask Roland Emmerich!

First off, it’s extremely important that your movie be as long as possible. Two hours isn’t going to cut it – you need at least two and a half hours, especially so that you can slow things down to a crawl at the point where a more reasonable disaster movie would be rolling the credits or even in line to get out of the parking garage. Second, make sure that you cast a male lead with obvious contempt for the material, one who will be sure to telegraph this feeling in every single frame. That way, your already-bloated run time will feel that much longer because of the inescapability of John Cusack’s smug face. (Bonus points for casting a talented second stringer and making him spout scientific gibberish in an accent not his own. Sorry, Chiwetel Ejiofor, but 2012 was most certainly not your big Hollywood break. I’d go back to making nice with Joss Whedon and David Mamet.) Throw in a couple of moppets in distress, pointless marital strife, a few dozen ethnic caricatures and cultural stereotypes, stunt-cast yourself a black POTUS to detract from the latter, and you’ve got yourself a completely unwatchable mess. Oh, and don’t forget to save the worst dialog in the entire movie for the final exchange. No one’s going to be left in the theater by that point, anyway.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Kids Are All Right (2010, USA)

In limited U.S. release for about a month now, Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right is already being touted as a potential awards-season frontrunner. And in a year as bleak for U.S. films as 2010 has thus far proven to be, I wouldn’t really be surprised if this prediction turns out true, especially given some exceedingly solid turns from Annette Bening (who I didn’t know I missed until now - I don’t think I’ve seen her in anything new since American Beauty), Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and Mia Wasikowska.

Cholodenko’s at her best here, too – though I liked both High Art and Laurel Canyon, Kids shows a more measured, balanced Cholodenko, though the narrative does take a pretty strong bias towards the adult storyline as the film progresses. High Art was buoyed by Ally Sheedy’s performance, without which it would have likely suffocated under the weight of its own self-importance, while Laurel Canyon was a bohemian soap opera, again mostly notable for a stellar turn from its female lead, this time Frances McDormand. And though Kids can at times be too indie-conventional in its structure, it feels airy and relaxed in comparison with the high drama of Cholodenko’s earlier films. The humor is a much stronger current - Kids is fucking hilarious in parts – and the theme that runs through all three films – how we create our own families, for better or worse – is better-developed. Whether or not it deserves all of the critical praise being heaped on it – that might be a question to pose me after another viewing. But it’s certainly one of the best domestic releases I’ve seen this year, and even though the options have been fairly dire, I would hope that no matter the year, Kids would find a deserving audience.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Inception (2010, USA)

Maybe I just have Leo’s crazy dead wife fatigue (Shutter Island, anyone?), but Inception felt to me like a whole lot of wasted energy. Cool-looking and generally fun wasted energy, but apart from the main character’s aforementioned personal issues, Inception really is much ado about nothing – there is no central crisis for anyone but him. The mechanism of the entire plot hinges on whether or not Cillian Murphy’s (Hi, Cillian! Where have you been lately?) industrial scion continues an energy monopoly that Ken Watanabe is not a fan of, while simultaneously mending fences with his dead daddy. Or something. Really, that’s it. Murphy tries to sell it late in the game, but he has no foundation on which to build his big emotional moment. The characters not played by DiCaprio (including standout Tom Hardy, who seems to be enjoying himself on everyone else’s behalf) just go along with the plan for no concrete reason (apparently they’re getting paid, but this is fairly unclear). Perhaps Christopher Nolan should have made a decision at the outset – is Inception a movie about cool dream-infiltration technology that can make and unmake worlds, or is it about Leonardo DiCaprio’s tug-of-war with his crazy dead wife? I know which I’d rather watch.

Plot and story considerations aside, Nolan’s dream world is disappointingly pedestrian. Maybe I’m too much familiar with the dream landscapes of Davids Lynch and Cronenberg, but if the most dramatic thing a mind can create to defend itself from intruders is a bunch of men with guns, then I’d say that mind isn’t trying terribly hard. Then again, perhaps this does come back to Inception's central problem – with everything concentrated so intently on DiCaprio’s struggle, there’s no room to really explore the complexities of the human subconscious. The subconscious instead is mostly relegated to a series of blank-faced pedestrians going about their daily business. I certainly hope that my subconscious is a bit more interesting than that.

(I don’t often do this, but I’ll share a link to A.O. Scott’s review of Inception, which I think is an excellent long-form dissection about Nolan’s technical proficiencies versus his conceptual and storytelling pitfalls.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Predators (2010, USA)

Adrien Brody may be the glummest action hero in the history of the genre (no, Alain Delon doesn’t count). With his hangdog eyes, Christian Bale Batman growl and ridiculous abs, there’s not a lot about Brody’s anti-hero hero that exactly makes sense, but then . . . . this is Predators. Who the fuck cares? Let’s see some folks get disemboweled real good.

One of my gripes about Predators, which, while not particularly inspired, is certainly one of the more entertaining of summer 2010’s dull crop of “blockbusters”, is that it is in fact a bit light on the disembowelings, eviscerations, and other sundry splatter. Why introduce such a team of unlikable jerks if you’re going to deny us, by and large, from the pleasure of seeing their guts ripped from their bodies? (And by all means, feel free to call me out on the seeming self-contradiction between that statement and my review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.) What there is ample opportunity for here, however, is a great game of “who dies first?”, one which I must confess I lost miserably, despite receiving a whopping clue from a friend just before entering the theater.

Though a third-act reveal is rather obvious from the get-go, and Predators largely runs out of gas about halfway through, these things don’t erase the enjoyment of the film’s set-up, which is by and large executed well by director Nimrod Antal. (If you haven’t seen his 2003 film Kontroll, I highly recommend it. Antal knows from atmosphere.) If slightly above-middling action fare is what you’re looking for this summer, Predators might be your best bet. (How’s that for damning with faint praise?) Plus, I bet you’ve been missing Topher Grace and Fat Laurence Fishburne, haven’t you? Who hasn’t?

Dogtooth (2009, Greece)

“I’ve had it”, announced the man sitting behind me as Dogtooth unspooled its final minutes. And while the film still had me firmly in its grasp, it’s obvious that this is one that will divide audiences, most likely from the outset. Three grown siblings live in a house together with their parents, a middle-aged couple who have taken exacting care to separate their children from the outside world, indoctrinating them in a system of rigorous rules, competitions, and even vocabulary. The three (who are never named, nor is anyone else) live in almost complete ignorance of everything that takes place outside the high fence that borders their home, spending their days creating inane games with one another, fighting like ten-year-olds, and, somewhat inevitably, discovering their dormant sexuality (with a little help from a blindfolded outsider).

Dogtooth is both absurdly funny and disturbingly brutal. Sometimes it nearly resembles farce, in that it mocks hyper-controlling parenthood by depicting its ultimate expression. At the same time, it asks the audience to examine the intersections of nature and nurture – the three “children” may never have met more than a handful of people in their lives, never read a novel, seen a movie, or listened to the radio, but certain social rhythms emerge all the same, even independent of the blindfolded outsider’s influence. And once such a wild card is introduced, the learned coping mechanisms of the three are proven woefully inadequate. What is in question as Dogtooth closes is how much the human spirit can bear when all defenses are stripped away.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009, Sweden)

There are some sick, sick puppies in Sweden. There’s a lot to admire in Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s book (which I have not read) – slick plotting, strong acting, and generally captivating filmmaking – but in service of what? Anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander (an excellent Noomi Rapace) seems to be followed by trauma wherever she goes. If I’d led a life like hers, I’d be behind bars of one sort or another by the time I hit 24. And while there’s a lot to like about Lisbeth and her journalistic partner-in-crime, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the film seems almost to revel more in the actions of the depraved who surround them. And while there is certainly some sort of message of redemption to be gleaned here, I’m not sure if it’s communicated strongly enough to answer to some of the more grisly aspects of the story. You might feel somewhat like cheering when Lisbeth takes revenge on an attacker, but does this scene really balance out the prolonged ones that precede it?

I think the key different between The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the films of, say, Michael Haneke (I’m thinking specifically of Funny Games here), is that Dragon Tattoo seems to be much more interested in the cinema of entertainment and less in the investigation of why we sometimes find nasty things to be entertaining. And while I can admire the craftsmanship of Dragon Tattoo, I find myself more interested in the two sequels for whether they continue this particular depiction of women and violence than I am in their respective stories. (And speaking of sequels, what of the pending American remake, purportedly to be helmed by David Fincher? Does Hollywood’s persistent xenophobia extend to remaking a Swedish film with whiter actors? But I digress.) I’m not heartened by what I see in Dragon Tattoo. It may not espouse the hard-core misanthropy of a director like Haneke, or even the Coen Brothers (not to mention Gaspar Noe), but it also uses its violence as window dressing. It’s the kind of movie that I could imagine Haneke pointing at and saying, “see?”