Interstellar

Posted November 9, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: overrated, science fiction

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Is it possible to make a big science-fiction film these days that doesn’t bathe in banalities and sap? Smaller films like Looper or Moon or Under the Skin manage it, but the more a movie costs, the more it has to appeal to the mass audience or risk fatal word of mouth. Christopher Nolan probably commands the most clout of all the big-movie directors, after having made skillions of dollars from his Batman movies and from Inception, and his big new one, Interstellar, cost $165 million and runs 169 minutes — or about a million dollars a minute. Interstellar tries to tackle one of the biggest (and oldest) questions sci-fi has to offer: What will the human race do when Earth becomes uninhabitable? The answer is surprisingly nihilistic and cowardly: Abandon ship. We’ve ruined this planet, let’s go find another to ruin.

I doubt Nolan, who wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, considers Interstellar in those terms. Indeed, the movie stays resolutely apolitical about the dusty dystopia it depicts: nobody says that our crops are blighted and our land assailed by dust storms because of man-made climate change. This, remember, is the director who tapped into Occupy anger in The Dark Knight Rises only to wimp out of it. Nolan, then, is politically unconscious and perhaps conscienceless, a slick imperialist imagemaker who feels the masses are fairly dumb. In the future world of Interstellar, brains no longer matter; people mostly are groomed to become farmers, who work the dry land to grow corn, the only crop that can still grow (though not for long).

One such farmer, a former engineer and pilot known here only as Cooper or Coop (Matthew McConaughey), makes his way to a super-secret fragment of NASA, which shoots him out into space to find, via wormhole, a more hospitable planet. This mission takes longer than Cooper anticipates: over the course of the film’s two hours and forty-nine minutes, no fewer than three actresses play the role of his daughter Murphy at various ages, while Cooper, in an inverse of McConaughey’s Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, stays the same age. (I’m sure I’m not the first to make that joke, but I couldn’t resist.) There’s much chat about the fifth dimension and the singularity and other recitations from the higher-mind quantum-magick grimoire. What there isn’t is much excitement, either narrative or cinematic, until Nolan tries to work some up by throwing in a bad-guy character whose only function is to try to get Cooper and his crew killed a few times. Pretty much everything to do with this character is terrible, especially when he and Cooper are in a death-grapple on some ice planet.

Nolan usually has too much masculine weight on his mind to bother with decent female characters, but such actresses as Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, and Louise Fletcher sneak in some of the emotions the film’s conception is sorely lacking. The Big Truths we’re meant to take away from Interstellar are the usual bromides about humanity and love finding a way (do we care about saving any other species, by the way? On this topic the movie’s silence speaks damning volumes). The movie isn’t very well thought out or deeply felt; there’s no passion in it. Nolan just wanted to make a big epic sci-fi number, and doesn’t seem at all interested in its implications.

The movie has an unacknowledged rotten core of cold nastiness. But that’s what keeps it bearable during the lengthy tech-geek scenes, wherein buttons are pushed and switches are flicked and directives are issued to robots with a humor level of 75% (which puts them at least 25% ahead of Nolan). Interstellar is good on all the same stuff that The Right Stuff and Contact and Apollo 13 were good on, the nuts-and-bolts Popular Mechanics stuff. But it doesn’t earn inclusion in the same sentence as 2001 or even Gravity, a minimalist masterpiece that focused on survival and left the cosmological woolgathering out of it. The movie doesn’t even leave audiences with bothersome questions on the level of the spinning top in Inception. Christopher Nolan, like David Fincher, is a well-appointed mainstream fabulist who uses a great deal of money and technology to no great artistic purpose. And his ideas are very much stale farts wafting through the deep library of speculative fiction.

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas

Posted November 2, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy

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The broad black comedy A Merry Friggin’ Christmas was one of the last movies Robin Williams completed before his suicide in August, and it’s difficult to watch it with this in mind. Williams plays Mitch Mitchler, a bedraggled Wisconsin old-timer who used to be a drunk and emotionally unavailable dad to his son Boyd (Joel McHale). Quite a few scenes show Mitch sitting in his truck or on his son’s front steps looking devastated and depressed. I don’t think Mitch’s demons have much to do with Williams’, but it’s impossible to see Williams in this state without being taken out of the movie — and the largely feeble comedy — on some level. Past a certain point, Williams is expressing desolation and shame and seems all too well-acquainted with them. It casts a sad pall over everything else in the film.

Boyd takes his wife (Lauren Graham) and two kids to the old house in Wisconsin, because his mom (Candice Bergen) wants a family Christmas get-together. Boyd is obsessed with keeping his young son’s innocence about Santa, since Mitch so rudely and drunkenly disillusioned Boyd one Christmas decades ago. Maintaining the kid’s naivete involves spending most of Christmas Eve on the road back to Chicago, where Boyd has stupidly left the kid’s presents. It also involves no fewer than three run-ins with an unfunny highway cop and a near-disastrous encounter with a homeless Santa (Oliver Platt) that really should’ve been fully disastrous if there were to be any point to it, this being a supposedly dark comedy.

Television director Tristram Shapeero (who helmed twenty-some Community episodes, among others), making his feature debut, doesn’t sustain much of a style or a tone; the movie will replace Scrooged or The Ref in nobody’s heart, despite a cast full of ringers (including Clark Duke, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Tim Heidecker). The satirical shots at dysfunctional family gatherings are so tired as to be nonexistent, and at about the halfway mark the script just spins its wheels, going back and forth between Williams, McHale and Duke on the road doing unfunny things and the rest of the family back home doing unfunny things — there’s a drunk-dancing scene with Bergen and Graham sure to mortify fans of both actresses, and there’s pointless gross-out ancient-pickle-eating.

Meanwhile, Robin Williams shuffles around looking angry and depressed — more so than the script would justify. More than once I felt I could sense him thinking “Is this it? Is this what it was all for, me doing a TV show that gets cancelled after one season, and then doing low-budget weak tea like this that’ll barely get a theatrical release? And stuff like this is what I have to look forward to getting up in the morning to act in, until the Parkinson’s takes me apart piece by piece?” I submit that in a better movie none of these thoughts would have been relevant; I would only have been glad to see Williams again. But the man, great as he was, did not always have the greatest judgment in selecting projects. This, sadly, is one of the final examples.

John Wick

Posted October 26, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, overrated, thriller

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Directed by two guys with backgrounds in stunts, John Wick exists more or less entirely as a highlight reel of great action choreography. The titular protagonist (Keanu Reeves), a former freelance assassin dragged back into violence, employs a variety of guns to send his enemies by the dozen to the other side. John is so adept at dealing death that the Russian mob he used to work for refers to him as baba yaga, or the boogeyman. Ah, so John is the Michael Myers of the underworld, the man who strikes terror even in hardened killers? Yet John is also capable of gentleness and love, and these two sides of him don’t really cohere.

John left the underworld when he fell in love, but his wife (Bridget Moynahan) succumbed to cancer, gifting him posthumously with a beagle puppy. Don’t get too attached to the pup, who before the movie is ten minutes old dies under the boots of a Russian lowlife whose father (Michael Nyqvist) is John’s former employer. The lowlife son, ignorant of John’s identity, shows up at his house to steal his vintage Mustang; the puppy is merely collateral damage, and thankfully the incident is only obliquely seen/heard. Still, the pup was a living link to John’s wife, so he’s riled up enough to come out of retirement and kill his way through rows of Russian thugs until he finds the one who, as he puts it, “stole my car and killed my dog.”

That motive is simple enough to have sufficed as the plot fuel for a thirties western, and indeed John Wick is simple. Every year or so we get one of these throwback action-thrillers that dispense with plot complications and simply chug along on steam made of hot blood and gunfire (and, during the climax here, lightning bolts). As such things go, John Wick is less fun than Premium Rush (it lacks quirky supporting performances á la Michael Shannon) but blessedly less pompous and brutal than Drive. The violence here, while bloody, is borderline balletic — not to the extent of the bullet-time of The Matrix or the gun-kata in Equilibrium, but the emphasis is on how comically accurate John’s aim is, how he literally bumps people off as easily as swatting flies. John is a killing machine, but by virtue of being played by Keanu Reeves he’s soulful and human. (A bit on the mopey side, though; Reeves spends the entire movie looking like that Sad Keanu photo that made the Internet rounds a few years back — understandable, given the character’s grief.)

The temptation is to make a case for John Wick as pure cinema, but I can resist it. The directors may know their way around stuntwork and fight choreography, but that doesn’t mean they know how to shoot and edit it; one scene, inside a nightclub lighted like a furnace, is visually illegible. And despite a cast including John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, David Patrick Kelly, and Adrianne Palicki as an assassin named Ms. Perkins, the filmmakers aren’t actors’ directors either. They know how to set their wind-up anti-hero on his path to retributive bloodletting, which turns out to be more than a little anticlimactic, and that’s about all they know how to do. The movie is being wildly overpraised for containing a few nifty gun massacres. I remember when we wanted, and got, more from action movies.

Horns

Posted October 19, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, horror

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It’s rare, but some humans do grow horns. They’re called cutaneous horns, are made of the same stuff fingernails are composed of, and are usually harmless. The sufferers of this malady have enjoyed two heroes at the movies this year: Maleficent, of course, and now Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), the tormented protagonist of Horns. Ignatius, or Ig for short, faces a dilemma similar to that which befell Ben Affleck in Gone Girl: Ig’s girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Juno Temple), was raped and murdered, and everyone thinks Ig did it. As if to solidify everyone’s suspicion, Ig wakes up one hungover morning with the beginnings of horns on his forehead. These horns make people want to burden Ig with confessions of their darkest desires. If this might work to make Merrin’s real killer spill the beans, so much the better.

In his continuing successful effort to break away from a childhood spent as Harry Potter, Radcliffe swears and drinks and smokes and fornicates; Ig is not most people’s idea of a spotless hero even without the horns. Radcliffe brings out a harrowed decency in Ig, though, such that we don’t question his innocence even if we haven’t read the source material — Joe Hill’s 2010 novel, of which the movie is a considerably streamlined (but author-approved) variant. The evil here has its roots in adolescent triumphs and traumas, an area familiar to Hill’s father, one Stephen King.

Because of this story’s very human foundation for supernatural chills, it may be the best work of the French director Alexandre Aja, who previously has amused himself in the grindhouse section of the video store (he made Haute Tension, remade The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha, and produced the Maniac remake). Aja’s work has been impressively bloody, but the blood was cold, hip, self-aware, concerned primarily with technical efficiency. Horns draws out a heretofore unseen compassion in Aja, who dials the grue way down and focuses on the terrific cast he’s hired. For instance, James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan turn up as Ig’s outwardly supportive but secretly doubting parents, and David Morse stops by for another of his affecting portraits of stoic anguish as Merrin’s grieving father, who thinks Ig killed her.

Ig isn’t so sure himself, at times, that he didn’t do it. In a world where a man can sprout horns and make others tell him their least lovely stories, who’s to say Ig didn’t kill Merrin — after all, the last he saw of her was when he was about to propose to her and she coolly broke up with him — and compel himself to forget it? Or what if he’s in Hell already? Well, he more or less is there mentally, anyway. Ultimately, Horns works out not as a grindingly literal demon show but as a metaphor for survivor’s guilt. If David Cronenberg’s The Brood was, as Cronenberg said, his bent version of Kramer Vs. Kramer, then Horns may be Joe Hill’s warped take on Moonlight Mile, that undeservedly forgotten Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle in which he deals with his girlfriend’s death. Straight-up horror can deal with mundane human dramas more cleanly and sharply than even pulp like Gone Girl can. This month is the best time of year to reiterate that.

Dracula Untold

Posted October 11, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, horror

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Before seeing Dracula Untold, you’d do well to take everything you know about Bram Stoker’s iconic character and throw it out the highest window. While you’re at it, chuck whatever you know about Vlad Tepes, the Wallachian prince whose exploits have long been thought, erroneously, to have inspired Stoker’s Dracula. For good measure, forget everything you know about Caligula, although he’s credited here simply as “Master Vampire.” Yes, Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans), ruler of Transylvania (ugh), was turned into a vampire by undead Caligula (Charles Dance). As an origin story, this is slightly less loony than the one offered by Dracula 2000, which posited that Dracula was actually Judas Iscariot.

Over and over again we get sympathetic humanist rewrites of Dracula, who as conceived by Stoker was just straight-up evil walking, a symbol of Victorian English mores threatened by Slavic depravity. Dracula Untold gives us Vlad the Impaler as a generally nice guy — the Impaler! Nice guy! — who loves his wife and his young son, and who only impales his defeated foes to scare off the Turks, whose army far outnumbers Vlad’s. The Turks demand a thousand Transylvanian boys for service in their army, so Vlad heads off to a cave, where Caligula the old-ass vampire hangs out waiting for someone to take over for him. Caligula rather generously allows Vlad a three-day trial period as a vampire. “Try it out for a while,” Caligula says in the funnier, more interesting movie in my head. “See how you like it.”

Vlad likes it. He can become a cloud of bats that destroy a bunch of Turks. He can remotely conduct another cloud of bats to destroy more Turks, at one point making them into a giant fist. The only problems are that he needs blood, and that sunlight and silver aren’t good for him. So essentially Dracula has been refashioned as a supernatural superhero, one who might be part of Universal’s proposed “shared universe” of monsters. It’s as bloodless as a superhero movie, too; this film about the king of vampires boasts less gore than a typical Vampire Diaries episode, and the combat scenes are likewise dry and dull. First-time feature director Gary Shore, who has a background in commercials, apes Peter Jackson’s sweeping battlefield camerawork without Jackson’s sense of strategy, timing, or drama. It’s just a bunch of nonexistent people getting knocked over by nonexistent bats.

Dracula Untold isn’t openly offensive, so I mainly let it wash over me in a wave of blandness until it was done. It doesn’t risk anything; it has no camp, no humor, little in the way of sex. It seems to have been made to appease an imaginary audience of mocking teenagers, who will find nothing here to fuel their fun. It had the odd effect of making me look back on a previous Universal monster mash, the miserable Van Helsing, with a degree of fondness; its Dracula was played with efflorescent wit by Richard Roxburgh, who knew how to do it — play with the accent as though it were taffy, and be more arch than a roomful of drag queens. Luke Evans favors us with that time-honored trope the humble great warrior, and fights his bloodlust even when his own wife offers her neck. The untold Dracula here is a really boring guy who runs into a vampiric Roman emperor and becomes a really boring vampire. Based on what the movie has to tell us, I’d rather have seen Caligula Untold.

Gone Girl

Posted October 4, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, one of the year's worst, overrated, thriller

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Gone Girl is the most loathsome movie I’ve seen in the twenty-eight years I’ve been reviewing films. What’s worse, I’m sure its director, David Fincher, would be jazzed by my reaction. But he shouldn’t be: he has brought considerable craft and resources to bear on a creepy, ugly thing, a pretty hate machine, a bruised corpse on a coldly gleaming autopsy table (which fairly well describes the film’s color scheme). It reduces everything and everyone to shit, and then rubs it in our faces. It’s the kind of movie that Alex the droog from A Clockwork Orange would make about human relationships and marriage, and its nastiness is not mitigated by art of any sort, or entertainment other than a detached buzz over novelist/scripter Gillian Flynn’s laughable plot twists.

Flynn’s script, brimming with l’esprit d’escalier dialogue reflecting a cynical writer’s idea of how clever people talk, sticks more or less close to her novel, from what I gather. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance of his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). It’s a very long movie, at two hours and twenty-five minutes (and feels longer), so it probably doesn’t constitute a spoiler to say that the entire movie isn’t about chasing Amy, and that we shouldn’t trust our initial assumptions about Nick. Yes, if Maleficent was a #yesallwomen movie, Gone Girl is a #notallmen movie. Men’s-rights activists and incipient rapists and abusers should love it.

Much more than this I cannot reveal without blowing the movie’s raison d’être, and many people not culpable for the storytelling or aesthetic choices in Gone Girl have done honest work — including newcomer Carrie Coon as Nick’s sardonic sister and, incredibly, Tyler Perry as a high-powered lawyer who takes Nick’s case — so their work doesn’t deserve to be spoiled. That does leave me some leeway, though, to object to such details as how even the early, supposedly affectionate sex between Nick and Amy carries the sordid chill of the morgue; or how a later sex scene turns egregiously gory (it’s far worse than most violence that the usual moral guardians object to in slasher films but will excuse in this higher-toned Hollywood movie); or how the film depicts low-income motel-dwellers as thuggish thieves without blinking (the gross elitism of the writer and director really stands out here); or how a certain character’s perfidy reaches levels that require the diabolical planning acumen of the fucking Joker. Indeed, Gone Girl gives us Affleck-as-Batman versus Superman a year early: his adversary can do anything, can convince anyone of anything.

So this pulpy tripe — framed, I guess, as meta-commentary on pulpy tripe, which I submit amounts to the same thing — is what’s being peddled as a serious movie, one with not even Mad-magazine but Crazy-magazine-level “satire” of the media that feels a clean two decades off, complete with Missy Pyle as a fulminating Nancy Grace caricature. The paparazzi and news vans descend on Nick’s flyover town as if there were nothing else going on in the country, and we spend too much time watching Nick being groomed for media appearances. You see, Flynn and Fincher (how tempting to refer to these twin sociopaths with the portmanteau Flyncher) are saying, it’s not important in our degraded culture whether someone is innocent, but whether he or she appears innocent and whether the media buys into that.

Fincher’s Zodiac was a true-crime masterpiece of dread and obsession, but it’s clear by now that he’s a top-rank shiner of expensive shoes, a director drawn by technological challenges as well as a general dim view of the world, and after the cheap tricks and galloping misogyny of Gone Girl I’m pretty much done with him. (As for Gillian Flynn, from whom the blessings of this squalid story flow, she can go right to Hell and stay there.) This rancid saga, grindingly unpleasant to the eye and freezing to the touch, seems contrived to titillate audiences with fashionable bleakness, a dash of flesh, a cascade of blood, a wide streak of conservatism cloaked in the cold leather of faux punk rock. If this is what hits the top of bestseller and box-office lists these days, American literature and cinema deserve to burn to the ground. Pass the matches.

The Drop

Posted September 28, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama

resized_99265-the-drop-2_28-18758_t630The Drop is what happens when you take a story by Dorchester crime-fiction bard Dennis Lehane, give it to a Belgian director (Michaël R. Roskam in his English-language debut), and move it to Brooklyn. It retains a certain Boston Irish fatalistic undertone, and feels like a Boston story, and one wonders why it wasn’t set there; certainly Roskam doesn’t make much of the New York locations. Most of The Drop is filmed in a grungy bar or back alleys or people’s roach-trap apartments — it’s New York seen through the dingy bottom of a beer glass. It never pulls back to give us a larger view, as the recent A Walk Among the Tombstones does. Which is not a sin, really; The Drop isn’t a travelogue, it’s a slice of a few people’s rotten lives.

Expanding his short story “Animal Rescue” into a screenplay (which he later also novelized), Lehane isn’t shy about using an abused puppy to sketch in characters: the guy who plucks the pup from the trash, Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), is Good, while the psycho who beat and discarded the pup, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenarts), is Bad. What’s worse, after Bob has taken the dog, a pit bull, into his home and heart, Eric comes around demanding the dog back. Eric used to date Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who’s helping Bob raise the pit bull, whom she names Rocco (Bob prefers “Mike”). It’s not that Eric really cares about the dog; he just wants to drive a wedge between Bob and Nadia.

As if that weren’t enough misery, Bob tends bar at a dive called Cousin Marv’s, overseen by, yep, Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini in a fine swan song), who long ago ceded control of the place to a crew of vicious Chechen mobsters. The Chechens use the bar as a “drop,” a place to stash money until it can safely be picked up. A couple of local doofuses stick up the bar, taking a good chunk of the Chechens’ cash. This attracts the unwanted attention of the cops, represented by Detective Torres (John Ortiz), who seems to exist just to unsettle Bob by casting insinuating aspersions on his Catholicism. (Another holdover from Boston.)

There’s more; the plot thickens, perhaps unnecessarily, filling out Cousin Marv’s relevance to the story in a way that doesn’t especially help the story. I was with it, though, as a damp and depressing city fable about little people who either never made it or made it once, years ago, and then lost it. It’s essentially a small story that expands in meaning in one’s head later on, albeit in neatly literary ways — ah, yes, Rocco the dog is a “drop” just like the Chechens’ money, and perhaps just as dangerous to try to hold onto. Animal lovers who frequent the useful website doesthedogdie.com — “the most important movie question” — may want to know the answer as it applies here, and I cannot reveal it, since our uncertainty about Rocco’s future fuels much of the movie’s suspense. I can only advise you to look up the film on that site. Given the film’s darkness, you may be surprised: The dog, of a much-maligned breed, ends up being an emblem of hope.

The Drop covers most of its men in beards, and Matthias Schoenarts’ facial foliage, black and bristly like a beetle’s armor, wins hands down; he gives an accompanying great performance as a loser heavily invested in maintaining a rep as the neighborhood psycho. Schoenarts comes at his scenes from a weirdly menacing angle (for instance, always sealing his hostile chats with something like “Good to see you” and somehow making that sound sincere), inspiring us to fear for Tom Hardy’s physical welfare — probably a rarity. Hardy does his sweet-and-tender-hooligan specialty, getting the Noo Yawk rhythm down nicely, and he plays smoothly with Rapace and with poor Gandolfini, who deserved many more years of films to which he could lend threat and gravitas as well as wounded humanity. He’ll be missed. I respect The Drop and its makers most for wanting and landing Gandolfini to play a sullen, cynical man crusted over by the defeats of urban life, who nevertheless speaks wistfully of seeing Europe before he dies. The actor himself succumbed in Rome, so at least there was that.


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