Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: Tracks


When people ask Robyn Davidson why she intends to trek across 1700 miles of punishing Australian desert with only four camels and her dog as company, she dodges the question or falls back on clichés like “Why not?” But even if Davidson is reluctant to spell out her motivation, director John Curran manages to make Robyn’s actions clear by tuning in the camera to her state of mind. In Tracks, the true story of Davidson’ 1977 journey, people are most often framed as mindless, swarming groups which descend on her, shattering her solitude. Journalists, tourists, even friends and family. They are all mobs. The sound design makes little attempt to separate their dialogue into discernable lines, letting them blend into a pack of chattering hyenas. 
Having effectively put the audience on Robyn’s wavelength having her explain herself in words would be redundant. We too are ready to spend some time limited to the company of camels.
The obvious comparison for Tracks is to Into the Wild, the major difference being that where Into the Wild showed Christopher McCandless to be blithely overconfident, even reckless, in the face of nature, Tracks shows Robyn as clear-eyed about the dangers of her expedition. She has done the calculation and simply decided that, for her, it is worth the risk


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: The Guest


Watching Adam Wingard’s The Guest lets the viewer experience what it would be like to fish an unexpected masterwork out of a bargain bin full of trashy VHS horror movies. The film is a superior example of what Rodriguez and Tarantino attempted with Grindhouse, at once a glorious homage to the horror schlock of the late 70’s and 80’s and a skillful subversion of the same. Wingard’s movie walks this tricky tonal tightrope with swagger, oozing stylistic flash and scored with a soundtrack of pseudo-80's synth you will want to make out with. I think it’s safe to say The Guest is going to achieve cult status pretty much the instant the light from the projector hits movie screens.

The plot could be easily summarized as Bourne meets Halloween, but that glib pitch meeting capsule would scarcely hint at the layers of wit built into this movie…

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Genius Idea

Review: The Two Faces of January


When people gripe “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” films like Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January are the kind of movie they mean. It’s adapted from the work of an acclaimed novelist whose books were the source of such beloved films as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train. It features big stars in sumptuous foreign locales. It is made with a careful attention to detail. It doesn’t dumb things down or clutter the plot up with needless action. It is fair to say I was primed to love this movie, yet it never quite jolts to life. At some point my investment in the story passed from suspense to impatience. It never went so far as indifference, but I was pretty far from the edge of my seat. Rather, I was leaned back in my chair, head in my hand, thinking what a classy job everyone involved was doing and admiring the sumptuous visuals and thinking how this was going to end up being one of those reviews that used the word “sumptuous” a lot.
The key problem is that foreign intrigue of the Hitchcock variety requires storytelling that stays a few steps ahead of the audience, and it's easy to keep leaping ahead of January’s characters. Far too much time is spent with characters sitting in cafés, smoking, drinking, and eyeing each other suspiciously, when they should be trying to have sex with or murder one another, preferably both...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Review: The Zero Theorem


Terry Gilliam is an artist one can’t help but root for. The image of Gilliam that comes most readily to mind is one from the great behind-the-scenes disaster documentary Lost in La Mancha. It’s early, before his production has imploded, and the director reviews one of the few shots he managed to get on film for his doomed Don Quixote project. The image of the three men cast as giants lumbering toward the camera delights Gilliam to no end. His childlike glee at the sight of their rolls of fat jiggling in grotesque slow-mo is an image of an artist in touch with the pure, silly thrill of filmmaking. A man who lives for the experience of seeing his cracked visions transferred to the big screen. 
On the other hand, the subtler, less flattering image of Gilliam I took from that documentary is that of a filmmaker capable of being swept up in the joy of the process to the point of being blithely indifferent to the needs of the audience. I remember leaving La Mancha with the guilty suspicion that maybe it was for the best that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote crashed and burned on take off. Better to live with the unrealized ideal than to see one’s dream project fail to live up to expectations. What little footage we see in the film suggests it would have been of a piece with his 21st Century output, which is to say fanciful bordering on incoherent, fascinating to look at but too messy to inspire emotionally investment.

Now Gilliam has given us The Zero Theorem, which is another in a succession of films that suggest my fears about Don Quixote were well founded. Zero Theorem is a film bursting with creativity but it’s all sprawling and shallow, as if Gilliam loaded all his ideas into a truck, backed it up to the screen, and dumped them out for the audience to sift through in search of any interesting bits


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Review: Frank


The audience can be forgiven if it assumes that Lenny Abarahamson’s Frank will be another cookie cutter indie quirkfest. The title character certainly seems at first glance like a contrived package of screenwriting conceits. Played by an actor we have to take on faith is Michael Fassbender, Frank is an artist who, despite a recent stay in a mental institution, still wears at all times a beach ball-sized fiberglass head with a blank Howdy Doody face. Frank is the lead singer of an avant-garde band with an unpronounceable name (the Soronprfbs) and an unlistenable sound. When they perform it looks like five people having a synchronized nervous breakdown. With this shooting gallery of easy targets we sit back and wait for the movie to rain down mockery on its characters, sort of like a Napoleon Dynamite for hipster musicians.
The great surprise of Frank is that it avoids the easy jokes, aiming for something altogether more interesting. Abrahamson accepts these bizarre characters at face value and follows them with thoughtfulness and an open mind, often to funny places, sometimes to bracingly dark ones. It’s a tricky tonal balancing act, but the film rarely steps wrong. In passing up the cheap shots, Frank finds unexpected depth beneath the weirdness

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: The Giver



It’s an amusing irony that Phillip Noyce’s film of Lois Lowry’s beloved middle-school staple The Giver feels like an afterthought following the recent glut of Young Adult adaptations. It was Lowry’s vision of dystopia which helped launch the army of teenage Chosen Ones currently clogging multiplexes nationwide. Now, not only is The Giver late to the party, but the richly imagined worlds of Lowry’s literary descendants have left her story feeling undercooked. I can’t imagine teenage audiences who have spent the past few years steeped in the sprawling, detailed insanity of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books will be rapt with attention watching Jeff Bridges shambling around his library, triggering the occasional lame stock footage montage meant to portray humanity in all its myriad wonders.

Noyce’s film version might have had a fighting shot if it had tapped into the elemental power of the story’s spare allegory, but alas, even with a plotline of this simplicity, The Giver can’t make the pieces fit. The logic begins to fall apart right from the opening narration. We are told that this is a society where all the highs and lows of humanity have been wiped away and people live in a serene state of medicated blankness. Everyone strolls around grinning like they lost a fight with a body snatcher. We meet our hero Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, a monument to blandness) on the day of the great Ceremony where he and his two equally personality-free friends are to receive their lifetime job assignments. Yet no sooner does the narration tell us that this world is free from competition and envy than we hear the trio chatting about how they hope they get a great job, crossing their fingers that they don’t get put on the janitorial staff. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t this indicate that they are A) competitive and B) envious.

Get used to this confusion...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lauren Bacall Animated

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review: Get On Up


The opening scenes of Get On Up are so loose and dynamic they give the viewer reason to hope that Tate Taylor’s take on James Brown’s life story sidestepped the pitfalls that trap so many musical biopics. The film shuffles back and forth through Brown’s life with such breathless energy it’s as if the screenplay itself is possessed by the spirit of Soul Brother No. 1. It’s exhilarating, but the thrill dissipates quickly when it becomes clear that underneath the exploded chronology and the surface razzmatazz, Taylor’s film is operating from the same old biopic playbook. It turns out Get On Up is as square as the squarest prestige Oscar grab, right down to the dumb trope of pinning all of the star’s self-destructive behavior to a childhood trauma.

With the hyper-kinetic structure, not to mention the wall-to-wall James Brown music (which remains irresistible) it’s easy to miss the fact that the Get On Up never musters much insight into its subject. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business was the next logical choice to get the Walk the Line treatment, so here we all are. The script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth opts for an all-of-the-above approach that skips from topic to topic without ever really coming to a point. Here’s James Brown performing in Vietnam. Here’s an unknown Brown stealing an open mic night from Little Richard. Here’s a past-his-prime Brown stoned out of his gourd, waving a shotgun around while wearing a hideous green sweat suit. No one will miss the boring old three-act arc, but the portrait of the man never emerges from the mosaic…

Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: A Most Wanted Man


Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man builds to a single moment where the main character, Günther Bachmann, head of a modern day German counter-terrorism spy ring, comes face to face with a devastating realization. Corbijn fixes the camera on him and lets the moment hang there wordlessly. You can practically see the ramifications shake the character to the core of who he is and what he believed about his place in the world
To let the whole movie live or die on a single moment like that is a high risk/high reward gambit. The fact that Gunther is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman should give you a clue as to why the filmmaker was confident his lead actor could drive it home with the power it required. After Hoffman’s heartbreaking death at the age of forty-six the temptation to go for broke in singing his praises would exist no matter what his final significant performance, but it turns out no hyperbole is required. Hoffman’s last starring role is one of his best. It’s a subtle and satisfyingly layered performance, one that would be worth the price of admission even without the poignant context.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Review: Mood Indigo


My reflex reaction is to be protective of Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, and not simply because the director exists in a permanent state of grace for giving the world Eternal Sunshine. It’s because his latest film is such an easy target. To come branded with the moniker “quirky” is to risk immediate snide dismissal by those who would sooner face a firing squad than offer a stamp of approval to anything with hipster appeal, and Mood Indigo may well be the quirkiest thing that has ever happened. It is the black tar heroin of twee. 
This film is such a perfect culmination of Gondry’s work up to this point, it’s a surprise to learn it didn’t originate in his brain but is based on a novel much loved in France. Every frame is packed to bursting with Gondry’s signature handcrafted effects. Indigo’s hero, Colin (Romain Duris) lives in an apartment that brings to mind a French Pee-wee’s Playhouse by way of the Peter Gabriel’s "Sledgehammer" video (Ask your parents, kids). There doesn’t seem to be a single inanimate object in the place. Colin’s breakfast is a ballet of squirming stop-motion treats, and the doorbell scurries around the wall like an excited pet when there is a visitor. Even the piano is revealed to be a clever gizmo that dispenses cocktails to match the mood of the tune played on it. One cannot accuse Gondry of laziness...