Archive for the ‘drama’ category

About Alex

August 11, 2014

large_aboutalex_web_3About Alex isn’t actually about Alex (Jason Ritter), a lonely twentysomething leaving the hospital after a suicide attempt. It’s mainly about his annoying friends from college, who have all drifted into disappointing lives since graduation. When they get the news about their troubled classmate, they converge on Alex’s cabin in the woods, where monsters and demons kill them — wait, no, I’m remembering more entertaining movies. At the cabin, the twentysomethings argue and bare their souls and dance to old music and pass a joint around and more or less re-enact The Big Chill.

Every other review of About Alex has mentioned The Big Chill, and so I was going to do my best not to, but I’m not strong enough. If you hated the yuppie self-absorption of The Big Chill, you will melt into a radioactive heap of rage and loathing in the presence of About Alex. If you liked The Big Chill, well, you’ve already seen it once, right? About Alex was written and directed by Jesse Zwick, whose father Ed Zwick created the sensitively irritating ’80s TV show thirtysomething (a.k.a. The Big Chill: The Series) along with Marshall Herskovitz; both men also produced this film, so we must assume their appetite for whiny entitled twats wasn’t sated two decades ago.

The movie does improve on its ancestors in that it isn’t lily-white. Of the young cast, Nate Parker is African-American, Max Minghella is part Chinese, and Aubrey Plaza has Puerto Rican ancestry. It doesn’t matter a whole lot, though, because none of the characters are written as anything specific. For a minute, I thought Alex would turn out to be a bisexual with a crush on Nate Parker’s aspiring novelist character, but no, there are zero non-heteros in this group.

We watch as the talented cast try and fail to breathe life into overwritten clichés. The most overtly annoying of the group, a womanizer played by Max Greenfield, actually comes off as one of the most interesting, since he gets some much-needed tension going. But he’s also that time-honored theatrical group-dynamic boogeyman the Truthteller — the one who digs out what everyone else is too repressed to say out loud — and in case we didn’t get it, he straight-up tells us: “I’m a Truthteller.”

Nice to meet you, Truthteller. Meet your fellow stereotypes the Neurotic, the Frustrated Artist and His Maybe-Pregnant Girlfriend, the Yuppie Scum and His Too-Young Girlfriend, and Alex, who gets scarcely any traits at all, clichéd or otherwise. Alex is merely a void around which the other characters can circle the drain of timeworn drama. One gets the impression that Alex has been kept alive — unlike the suicide, also named Alex, whose death brought the Big Chill group together — so that About Alex wouldn’t be considered a flat-out unofficial remake of The Big Chill. He certainly serves no other purpose. And even though we get a lame college-flashback bit near the end, we have little sense of why Alex was friends with any of these douchebags, or why they were friends with each other. They’re just thrown together to be even more annoying as a group than they are individually.

Redwood Highway

June 22, 2014

11945_388969124578176_5236639086043232091_nJudi Dench is fantastic, but there are other septuagenarian actresses. One such is Shirley Knight, who turns 78 in a couple of weeks, and who provides the rock-solid center for the perfectly pleasant comedy-drama Redwood Highway. Knight is Marie, a widow and grandmother who passes the days at an Oregon retirement community. The place looks comfy as such places go, but Marie hadn’t planned to die there. She takes off, unannounced and without her resented cell phone, for lengthy walks by herself. This drives her adult son Michael (James Le Gros) nuts; she has a spiky, unstable relationship with him and with her granddaughter Naomi (Zena Grey), who’s about to get married.

The embittered Naomi, who knows Marie doesn’t approve of her fiancé, leaves her a message saying not to bother to come to the wedding. Marie, alas, is not the type who will do what she’s told to do, or told not to do. She sets out on foot, again unannounced, with a backpack and a bit of food swiped from the community snack table, on the eighty-mile journey to the wedding site. The premise may sound similar to last year’s overrated Nebraska, but I assure you this is the far better film, starting with the fact that Shirley Knight — who’s in almost every scene — wipes the floor with Bruce Dern’s monotonously irascible performance. Marie is what used to be called a “tough old broad,” but also vulnerable and eventually grateful for help. Fairly quickly, she figures out she’s not going to be able to make the trip solely on her own steam.

Knight’s Marie may be the sort of stubborn person it’s difficult to have in one’s own life — there’s some degree of sympathy for Michael, who moves heaven and earth to track Marie down once she goes missing from the community — but she’s terrific company for an hour and a half. Marie moves briskly and with purpose, and she speaks the same way to people she isn’t sure of. Knight makes her a tragicomic figure leaning towards comic; Marie doesn’t pity herself, so we don’t either. It helps that with one exception, when Marie happens across a couple of meth-heads at a deserted motel out in the boonies, everyone she meets is nice to her (and even one of the meth-heads doesn’t want to cause her any trouble — she reminds him of his grandma). Redwood Highway thus becomes a fable of kindness. It’s soothing, and no big points are being made for or against Marie or her rural surroundings (another reason I prefer it to Nebraska, which was nasty to everyone and everyplace on the screen).

Director Gary Lundgren picks the supporting cast well. Marie meets a widower played beautifully by Tom Skerritt, who reminds us of his effortless command of decency. There’s one moment when Skerritt rests his head on Knight’s shoulder, and it’s incredibly intimate and romantic even though the plot steers clear of romance. Michelle Lombardo is warm and nurturing as a young bartender who insists on giving Marie a bed to sleep in for a night. Twin Peaks fans will be happy to see Catherine E. Coulson, the Log Lady herself, as Marie’s best friend at the retirement community; her appearance is brief but winningly tremulous. None of these people are ridiculed; the script, by Lundgren and James Twyman, allows each character his or her humanity, and we feel they all have lives outside of Marie’s story, perhaps worthy of their own movies. About Skerritt’s character, who still tends the “artisan art” shop he and his wife once started, I would happily know more. And what about one of Marie’s old flames, a deaf old duffer who lives off the grid with, unaccountably, a Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” sticker in the front window of his cabin?

Redwood Highway moves at Marie’s pace, strong and purposeful, and arrives smoothly at its conclusion. Shirley Knight’s bullheaded performance reassures us that Marie will carry out her adventure, that she isn’t going to expire of a heart attack out in the woods or something stupidly melodramatic like that. Sometimes we don’t want to have to worry about what’s going to happen next in a movie; sometimes we just want to be pleasurably curious about what happens next, and we like Marie and want to be with her on her journey. The film’s synopsis tells us that Marie “discovers that you’re never too old to learn something about life and about yourself”; please ignore that, because it makes the movie sound much more softheaded than it is. It is, among other things, a sharp distaff rejoinder to the male-centered, sour-faced Nebraska; it’s what Nebraska might have been if it had forgotten about Bruce Dern and Will Forte and gone off to follow June Squibb.

The Fault in Our Stars

June 8, 2014

fault-in-our-stars-movie-clipsEvery young generation deserves its own great love story. But does The Fault in Our Stars qualify? I can’t truly be the judge of its greatness; that call isn’t mine to make. (My generation has Say Anything and the Before trilogy, and I can imagine the generation before mine taking issue with that.) I am no longer a teenager, the ideal age at which to experience doomed, star-crossed love — in fiction, mind you, not in life — for the first time. Really, I can only convey to what extent the movie successfully got around my defenses and spoke directly to my inner romantic teenager. Like John Green’s mega-popular 2012 novel, on which it’s faithfully based, The Fault in Our Stars flatters its audience for its hipness to the usual tragic narrative. But when it comes time to push the time-honored emotional buttons, goddamn, the movie works those buttons, pounds them. Even my inner teenager was offended.

The Fault in Our Stars is two-thirds of a graceful romance. The self-deprecating, sardonic teenager Hazel (Shailene Woodley, charming as usual), who narrates, barely holds cancer at bay with experimental drugs and an oxygen tank. At a rather pitiful support group — the movie is rather cruel about the basement-dwelling, Jesus-loving goof with testicular cancer who runs the group —  Hazel meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort), an equally sardonic kid who lost his leg to cancer. They forge a bond out of shared gallows humor; Augustus instinctively senses that Hazel has no time for uplifting bromides, and the two fall with relief into easy chat. They’re smart, well-read teens — Augustus favors adventure paperbacks, though, while Hazel idolizes a cancer-kid novel written by a recluse (Willem Dafoe) who hasn’t published anything since.

The recluse’s novel ends in mid-sentence, and Hazel wants to know what happens after it ends, which is to say she wants to know what happens after she ends. Does the fictional cancer girl’s family go on and find some sort of happiness? Hazel worries about her mom (Laura Dern), worries that too much of her is tied up in being Hazel’s mother and that she’ll be left with nothing once Hazel goes. I felt my eyes sting a couple of times, and Laura Dern owned both of those moments; just the way she runs into Hazel’s room, expecting a disaster, when Hazel has merely exclaimed about a surprising email, is heartbreaking. Dern does a huge amount with very little here; it’s heroically open work from a great actress.

The plot takes the two kids to Amsterdam, where Dafoe’s bitter alcoholic writer hides in a clutter of ignored fan mail and refuses to give Hazel an answer. In my mind, this is the most sensible thing he can do, because there isn’t an answer, but his harshness drives the couple out of his flat and into the Anne Frank house, where they have their first kiss while other tourists applaud. This sort of self-absorption is easily forgiven among (a) the dying and (b) the young, and Hazel and Augustus are both. It’s also an indication that Hazel may not be the most reliable narrator.

The Fault in Our Stars becomes aggressively, almost brutally manipulative in its final stretch. It’s an old-school weepie, all right, and the usual weepers will weep loudly, as they did at my screening. I stayed dry, ticking off all the bullet points. The purest love, the movie says, is not long for this life; true love can only spark between two people who won’t live long enough to get sick of each other (or to have a kid with cancer and to watch their married lives become about medical bills and wolf-hour hospital runs). As long as it stays with the two kids who have suffered far too much to be anything but honest around each other, the movie is fine. But then there’s middle-of-the-night melodrama and a fake funeral and a real funeral — so many attempts to raise a lump in the throat that even the most forgiving viewer may feel a bit throttled. The movie, like the book, may gather a patina of greatness for those who look back on it fondly once safely out of their teens. But both the movie and the book should have had the courage to end mid-sentence.

Joe

May 4, 2014

20140504-211138.jpgDavid Gordon Green, it appears, has sweated out whatever troglodyte fever inspired him to detour into grossout comedies. Hailed as a successor to Terrence Malick (or at least a skilled acolyte) for his 2000 debut George Washington, Green in recent years had fallen in with a bad crowd of dudebros, hitting his nadir with the stoner romp Your Highness. As if putting away childish things, though, Green has rebounded with the seriocomic Prince Avalanche and now the grim Southern gothic Joe. The Malick influence obtains here, too, showing us what it might be like if Malick’s camera caressed the swamplands and itinerants’ detritus of Texas instead of its suburbs and plains. Green, however, gives us more finely-etched characters than Malick can. Adapting a Larry Brown novel, Green and scripter Gary Hawkins hang out in the morning chill and evening swelter of the rural south, observing without comment.

Nicolas Cage, sweating out his own schlocky fever, plays the eponymous Joe as a man weighed down by his own past (violence, prison time) and his temper that keeps threatening to make his past the present. Joe supervises a crew of men who poison trees so that new ones can be planted — a perhaps too on-the-nose metaphor for godforsaken communities like Joe’s, plundered and abandoned and financially butchered. A local 15-year-old, Gary (Tye Sheridan), emerges from the woods and asks for a job on Joe’s crew. Gary seeks money almost as much as he needs a reason to get out of the house, away from his out-of-it mother and his vicious drunk of a father.

Gary Poulter plays the father, Wade, a backwoods boogeyman whose veins seem to be pumping with cold acid; he beats Gary, steals from him, and later does even more irredeemably beastly things. Poulter was one of several actors in Joe who have no previous film credits; a homeless man, he was found by Green on the streets of Austin, and died there before the film was released. If Poulter only had this one performance in him, it was a stellar one to come in with and go out on. Wade is vile, but Poulter somehow locates the sad humanity in him. We’re seeing the wreckage of too much booze crossed with too many bad brain chemicals — the man Gary will probably never be but Joe is ever vigilant against becoming. Two other inexperienced actors — Aj Wilson McPhaul as a sympathetic sheriff and Brian Mays as Joe’s right-hand man on the crew — bring effortless authority and reality to the movie. Joe is full of amazing camera faces, such as a homeless man (Elbert Hill Jr.) who unfortunately crosses paths with Wade. As in George Washington, Green deftly casts local non-actors for the authenticity — the palpable sense of having lived hard — they offer.

Does the movie really need the stinky psycho Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), who has a grudge against Joe and ultimately joins forces with Wade? It threatens to tip Joe into conventional thriller territory, and surrounding Joe with mean men he wants to differentiate himself from is sort of gilding the lily. It gives Cage fresh raw meat to chew on, though, and he consistently underplays. We don’t catch him cartoonishly straining to keep a lid on his rage, as in Wild at Heart or the Ghost Rider movies. Cage here is closer to the ballpark of Nick Nolte in Affliction, forever haunted by the ghost of his own DNA.

Joe isn’t flawless — I’d file it on the “poky but compelling” shelf — but it’s a real movie, for grown-ups, fighting for table scraps in a marketplace dominated by spider-men and x-persons. It arises from a genuine wounded artistic sensibility; it respects talk and sadness and the irresolution of life. It’s also a man-cave movie, where women are whores or drunks and innocence is represented by Gary’s nonverbal sister, though they’re also seen to be living inside an apocalyptic reality created in large part by corrupt and violent men. (What I said about Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor also holds true here: Joe isn’t a feminist work but it really isn’t masculinist either.) Thematically the movie is simplistic but sound — sometimes the two go together — and Green, along with ace cinematographer Tim Orr, finds the beauty in the squalor in which these people love and hate and work and kill. It’s a work of quiet substance.

Labor Day

February 2, 2014

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Remember when Kate Winslet was the best reason to see a movie — when her presence promised fun, spirit, irrepressible emotion? Winslet is not, I hasten to add, suddenly a bad actress; she’s just gone afield, choosing counterintuitive roles. I don’t want to see her suffer; I want to see her laugh and be dazzling. In recent years it’s almost as if Winslet were doing penance for her earlier work, appearing in one dreary Oscar-chaser after another, and Labor Day is the dreariest yet. Winslet plays Adele, a depressed divorcée who barely leaves the house. Her 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) looks out for her, pushing the car’s shifter out of neutral when Adele means to go in reverse. That’s a rather neat metaphor for their relationship: he helps her from being stuck but enables her living in the past. Winslet commits herself to this sorrowful woman, whose agonies, we learn, go beyond mere divorce. (It must be said, though, that Adele maintains a house and raises a child despite no visible job, and later she withdraws what looks like thousands of dollars from her bank account; she must’ve gotten a really sweet deal from her ex-husband.)

All this is just set-up for the real story: an escaped convict, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), approaches Henry at the supermarket while Adele is busy fretting over which brand of light bulb to buy. Frank’s leg is wounded, and he needs somewhere to stay for a few hours. Dazed with fear — though Frank is courteous and not openly threatening — Adele agrees, and Frank ends up spending Labor Day weekend with the two. If you’re going to give up your couch to a convicted murderer, of course, you could do worse than Frank. His demeanor is calm and soothing. He fixes things around the house. He teaches Henry how to throw and hit a baseball. He shows Adele how to make peach pie. He’s the perfect man, perhaps too perfect. He’s essentially a feminine fantasy of a good bad boy (Joyce Maynard wrote the source novel, adapted by Jason Reitman).

The movie doesn’t lapse into manufactured drama, but it forgets to include any real drama, either. Everyone’s emotions seem repressed. Nobody is ever overcome with passion, or joy, or relief, or anything. The characters maintain a dull even keel. The only strong moment in the entire film is when Adele’s neighbor (Brooke Smith), picking up her disabled little boy after having left him in Adele’s care for the evening, gets exasperated at the boy’s struggling vocalizations and slaps him. The boy, of course, is trying to tell his mother that he just saw Frank — the same man who’s been kind to him all day — on TV, which constantly blares warnings of the dangerous criminal on the loose.

Labor Day might be read as a boy’s coming-of-age story (it’s narrated by Tobey Maguire as the adult Henry), a tale about that time his mom met a guy who was a better dad than his real dad. The politics of the piece are null — it could be saying that what this fearful, saddened woman really needs is a real man, and what the flat-affect son needs is a real man as his dad. When we learn the nature of Frank’s crime, it’s set up so that he’s essentially blameless, even though it grew out of his losing his temper. Director Reitman feeds us the past traumas of Frank and Adele in elliptical little flashbacks. They’re two broken people reaching for each other, and that sort of thing.

And so we return to the mystery of Kate Winslet, and why she wants to do a movie in which she sits tenderly holding a dead baby. Life has beaten the shit out of Adele, but I prefer Winslet when she’s beating the shit out of life, and has no need of a man to set her straight on the carpe diem path. It’s twenty years now since she took cinema by storm in Heavenly Creatures, in which she swooned as she announced, “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases — it’s all frightfully romantic!” The Winslet who delivered that line so wonderfully would’ve spat in this morose film’s eye, and its dishrag heroine’s, too. Labor Day doesn’t risk any melodramatic excesses; it sort of sits in a blank, defeated slump. We don’t feel the depth of despair or the spike of joy; it’s a flatline movie. It leaves us with nothing except the aftertaste of our popcorn.

Nebraska

January 26, 2014

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The reigning champ of bleak works of art with the title Nebraska remains Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album. A short-story collection about losers and psychos, accompanied by lonely acoustic guitar and packed in the dry ice of despair, Springsteen’s Nebraska invited compassion for the down and out, the devil’s rejects. Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska, on the other hand, holds its subjects at an aesthetic arm’s length. It’s shot (by Phedon Papamichael) in pristine black and white, and on a wide, wide canvas, emphasizing the flat beauty of the Midwest as it dwarfs the nothing-special people who (barely) occupy it. The movie keeps scoring small, unpleasant points off its harmless characters; it is everything I detest about a certain subspecies of “indie” film. It keeps parading its own unearned superiority.

The protagonist, crankily retired Woody Grant of Billings, Montana (Bruce Dern), has received a letter informing him (he thinks) that he’s won a million dollars. Everyone around Woody — his wife Kate (June Squibb), his grown sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) — knows it’s a scam designed to sell magazines, but stubborn Woody keeps sneaking off to walk the 750 miles to Nebraska to collect his cash. Eventually, David offers to drive Woody there and stop off in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne. We get the sense that the million dollars is only an excuse or an impetus for a deeper desire in Woody to chuck everything and walk away from his disappointing life. But Payne and his screenwriter Bob Nelson have made that life disappointing. The movie’s view of humanity, especially as word spreads in Hawthorne about Woody’s incipient payday and everyone starts to circle him for handouts, is callowly caustic.

We’ve been down this saggy-soul-of-America road with Payne before, in 2002’s overrated About Schmidt, which trained a similar coldly curious eye on Midwesterners. We are assured by the usual fawning press that Payne himself hails from Nebraska and lives there part of the year, so he couldn’t possibly intend Nebraska as snotty city-mouse commentary, right? Whenever possible, people are framed within the wide compositions to render them insignificant; for his other trick, Payne stares head-on at the wizened, stoic codgers and the derisive fatties as they sit in a sparse living room absorbed in afternoon football. These people are damned by their simple values, their bland tastes and interests. Woody seems content enough to sit among them, and David’s attempt to strike out in the larger world — selling Bose speakers at a strip mall — is also sneered at by the movie, as is his brother Ross’s substitute gig as a local-news anchorman. Is there any way for a person in this film to live that would meet with the approval of its director?

When David Lynch took a comparable tour of flyover country with a senior citizen, in 1999’s The Straight Story, he brought out the enchantment and pleasant strangeness of the land and its people. The movie was good-hearted (and ten times the artistic achievement that Payne’s film is) without being sappy. Nebraska‘s heart pumps acid yet also gets clogged with sap, a bizarre and toxic mixture. Waddling about with tufts of duck-feather hair sticking out like a halation of mental disorder, Bruce Dern is monotonously antagonistic, as I’m sure Payne directed him to be; that Woody doesn’t grow or change doesn’t make him any less of a sentimental cliché, since he’s defined mostly by how the exasperated David relates to him (it’s the Rain Man prestige-buddy-road-trip dynamic all over again). Performances don’t matter much here anyway — the actors are coached to flatten their delivery to conform to that of the local non-actors with whom Payne loves to fill the margins of his movies.

A filmmaker who considers himself smart and artistic has no business taking shots at such slow-moving targets as karaoke singers. Ha ha! These rubes are terrible singers and have nothing better to do with their afternoons! I got angrier at Nebraska the longer it trudged on, its ostentatiously bedraggled milieu less and less mitigated by its fashionably stark cinematography. The movie has zero to say about what it shows us; unlike even the troubling rural inner chaos depicted in Werner Herzog’s Stroszek and Harmony Korine’s Gummo — both of which also sported some surrealistic verve and freakshow showmanship — Nebraska has no spirit, no life. It’s just small people with small lives and small vision milling around a gigantic canvas, until Woody gets what he wants, and then the movie ends, whereupon I got what I wanted.

The Counselor

October 27, 2013

the-counselor-michael-fassbenderReaders of Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the script for the convoluted new thriller The Counselor, might ask who this movie’s Ultimate Evil is, the Judge Holden, the Chigurh, the suzerain of the earth, silent and serene. Is it the drug kingpin Reiner (Javier Bardem)? Or the middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), who arranges deals between men like Reiner and men who need a lot of cash? Or even the sallow-faced assassin (Sam Spruell) we see stringing wire across a desert highway, the better to separate a motorcyclist from his helmet and its contents? Or could it be the never-named Counselor (Michael Fassbender), whose naïve dabbling in the drug trade stands to win him either $20 million or despair? Who in this amoral universe knows all, sees all, claims that nothing must be permitted to occur upon the earth save by his dispensation?

There’s an answer to that, late in the movie, and meanwhile we watch as the chess pieces, set in shaky motion, march towards a properly bleak McCarthy end. The Counselor is not so much a thriller, really, as it is a new gloss on McCarthy’s favorite conflict between the evil that knows too much and the good that doesn’t know nearly enough. The key, for those inclined to seek it, might lie in a late-inning phone chat between the Counselor and a cartel bigwig (Ruben Blades), who sounds like a somewhat gentler Judge Holden and speaks obliquely about crossings and events long set in stone. Over and over, the Counselor is himself counseled to avoid the path he wants to follow, and once he’s too far along the road, he is told it’s too late.

The movie is full of odd one-on-one conversations that may exasperate those who want the film to get to the point, but the dialogue is the point. It’s not snappy or clever, but it does evoke Hemingway in its weary fatalism and particularly its repeated assessment of women as a threat to the male Garden of Eden. Without women, you see, there would be nobody for men to impress with diamonds and other flashy indicators of wealth, and therefore no crime, no war. I don’t think the movie itself (or McCarthy) believes this — rather, it’s one more way in which the desperate and stupid men in the film sabotage themselves. The Counselor is not a feminist work — not with the old reliable madonna/whore construct represented by the Counselor’s innocent fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz) and Reiner’s cheetah-owning girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) — but it’s not a masculinist work either. McCarthy is not much into heroes except when he’s writing about the literal end of the world.

The Counselor is vaguely apocalyptic as it is, set in a world where cartel thugs dispatch the unwise with vicious time-activated nooses called bolitos — McCarthy digs sending human beings to their maker with implements that seem designed for use on livestock, as with Chigurh’s cattle gun in No Country for Old Men. (In Cuba, a bolita refers to a lottery ball, and someone’s number comes up here.) The movie is being called violent, but the brutal bits are few and far between; we get what we need to keep our dread fresh. The Counselor has been directed by Ridley Scott outside his usual mode of ladling hot/cold visuals onto the screen to let us know that he, Ridley Scott, master visualist, directed it. As a result, it’s Scott’s best film in quite some time. He serves McCarthy’s story. We get the sense that the script magnetized everyone involved, who felt no need to diddle with anything or show off. The cast hums with a low intensity — there are no Oscar moments here, no disgraceful displays like Hugh Jackman in Prisoners. This film isn’t getting, but should, the grateful accolades that Prisoners got, and shouldn’t have.

How seldom we see the feared cartel monsters, or even the drugs themselves, in this putative cartel thriller. Almost everyone in the movie is on the margins of the trade, profiting from it without getting their hands bloody. This isn’t a noir thriller featuring the poor and desperate, but rather the rich and desperate, desperate to maintain their spot in the hierarchy. The story is simple but told with a terse economy that doesn’t spoon-feed us the narrative. The Counselor is one of McCarthy’s late-period minimalist fables, philosophical in speech but plain in action, unlike the efflorescent wilderness of pain and madness painted in McCarthy’s gravestone work Blood Meridian. “The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die,” says Judge Holden in that book, “but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.” We don’t see many drugs in The Counselor because the people may as well be clashing over rocks or sand or flags. The Judge or Chigurh of the movie is revealed before the credits roll, but ultimately the Judge and Chigurh represent human folly, the illusion of control over events save by our dispensation.

Gravity

October 5, 2013

Sandra-Bullock-in-Gravity-2013-Movie-Image-2We could easily come up with a few legitimate complaints about Gravity. Emotionally, it’s a little pat. The film’s tagline — “Don’t let go” — resolves into that time-honored Hollywood bromide about life always finding a way. And along about the fifth or sixth crisis faced by Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), we may think a better title for the movie might be The Perils of Sandra. Despite its comforting aspects, though, Gravity is a work of techno-art, with images of humbling grandeur and scenes almost painful in the depth of horror they evoke. The film’s climactic reassurances, though welcome on some level after the bone-shaking ride we’ve had, feel a little soft because the true takeaway from the experience is this: Space is very, very unforgiving. Don’t fuck with it.

We’re up there above Earth, floating and bobbing and revolving, along with Dr. Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Stone is tinkering around on the outside of the space shuttle Explorer; this is her first time in space, and she’s nervous and nauseated. This is Kowalski’s last mission, and he scoots around in his Manned Maneuvering Unit, his mood jocular and calming. Then the Explorer receives ominous news: the Russians have blown up one of their own satellites, and the debris is heading for the Explorer with a powerful quickness. As the death-junk approaches, the music (by Steven Price) becomes a menacing paradox, huge yet needlingly intimate. This crap is coming for you, the score says, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Soon enough, the Explorer becomes a piñata, communication to Houston is cut off, Stone finds herself reeling through the inky void, and Kowalski doesn’t have a lot of juice left in his MMU. And you thought you had problems.

At first glance a minimalist survival nail-biter on the order of, say, Cast Away or Open Water, Gravity ratchets up the terror by observing the pitiless logic of physics. In this zero-gravity reality, people bounce off each other and go spinning heedlessly into hard, unyielding objects; the physicality is a little overwhelming — the smallest movement can have massive consequences. For every action, it seems in space, there is a wildly inequal and opposite reaction. To deal with this, career astronauts must possess a certain serenity under enormous danger and a certain outlook on life and death, perhaps born of seeing the world from a literally different perspective than most of us do. Clooney’s Kowalski never loses his cool, continuing to urge Stone on with lulling optimism even when his own situation looks bleak.

Some have lampooned Gravity as “Sandra Bullock screaming for 90 minutes.” I’m sorry if the marketing has made it seem that way — and most of what you’ve seen in the commercials happens in the first half hour — but that’s unfair to Bullock, an amiable comic actress who has been impressive in dramatic roles, never more so than here. Stone is our avatar; we share her fright and her awe. Bullock finds the spark in a woman who long ago, in the wake of a tragedy, gave herself up for dead. Gravity is, in part, about how Stone learns to value her life again, and that’s a bit of a bummer — we intuit her turn rather than feeling it. But that’s not Bullock’s fault; the script only has so much time to flesh out Stone’s background. When Stone starts to feel alive, Bullock becomes more animated; we can almost feel the heat of her flesh where the blood is flowing again. (Maybe it’s intellectual rejuvenation — rather than feeling powerless, Stone has a hallucinatory epiphany that these are mechanical problems she can think her way around and solve.)

Gravity is perhaps the magnum opus from director Alfonso Cuarón, who hasn’t made a feature since 2006’s Children of Men; he spent much of the intervening time working on this film. This director adores technical challenges, technical wizardry; the carnage-spattered long-take chase scene in Children of Men is deservedly legendary, and he lets his shots here sprawl and breathe and gather dread. Gene Siskel’s statement about Who Framed Roger Rabbit (“I don’t know how they did it, and I don’t want to know”) applies just as accurately to the kind of magic Cuarón weaves. Not merely a cold craftsman, Cuarón shares with his confederates Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu a tough-minded humanism: people are imperfect and inhabit a hostile environment but strive anyway, and the striving itself is worth noting and making movies about. Nothing feels sadistic about the way Cuarón tightens the screws on his characters. He wants to view them in extremis — and more extreme than outer space you can’t get — because that’s where the story is. Gravity has some soft spots, probably best blamed on the marketplace demands of making a movie at the $100 million level, but it’s still a masterpiece, with appropriate respect for the vastness of the chessboard and the smallness of the pawns who can navigate it.

Prisoners

September 21, 2013

Capture19You know what you’re in for with the first shot, of a snowy patch of woods in late autumn, while a voice-over intones the Lord’s Prayer. A deer wanders into the frame, and the camera pulls back to reveal someone aiming a rifle. Bang! Christianity and unmotivated gun violence: ain’t that America? Prisoners, the first film in English by the Quebec director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), feels as though it wants to be part of the national conversation; it seems to want to be more than a kidnapped-kids thriller (especially with its generous running time of two hours and thirty-three minutes). For a long time, Villeneuve’s patient formalism and Roger Deakins’ typically luscious cinematography make Prisoners a pleasant, and pleasantly adult, sit. Then it seems to remember that it has to wrap things up neatly (why?), and the last half hour, despite the occasional jolt of excitement, is an embarrassment.

In a drab Pennsylvania suburb, two families get together for Thanksgiving: Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello head over to the (slightly better-looking) home of Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. Jackman, I think, also brings some of the deer his son just shot in the first scene. The families each have a teenage kid and a small daughter. The two small daughters leave the house after Thanksgiving dinner and never return. Prisoners then becomes about how the parents, and specifically Jackman, respond to the crisis. Howard and Davis recede, and Bello zonks herself out on pills — the brief moments of levity the elsewhere-vibrant actresses Bello and Davis share pre-kidnapping have to last us a long time, because the movie turns into The Hugh Jackman Show. The poor man, who seems to have dedicated much of his film career to making us forget he can also be a charming song-and-dance light comedian, rages and suffers and howls and falls off the wagon and generally comports himself like someone even Wolverine might cross the street to avoid.

The police, led by Jake Gyllenhaal as a detective who’s “never lost a case,” find a mentally challenged young man (Paul Dano) who certainly seems to be the kidnapper, but the girls are nowhere to be seen, and after 24 hours the cops have no evidence on him and have to release him. Wolverine — er, Jackman — swings into action, kidnapping Dano, stashing him in a dilapidated, abandoned apartment building he happens to have inherited, and torturing him for information while Terrence Howard mostly stands around looking queasy. Meanwhile, someone else is sneaking around the neighborhood at night and apparently breaking into the Jackman and Howard homes. Could he be the kidnapper? Or how about the old child-molesting ex-priest who has something interesting in his basement?

Denis Villeneuve appears to be fighting this material tooth and nail. He brings a burnish of high burgundy seriousness to the staging, but the plot is irredeemably pulpy and runs on a thin tank of coincidence and convolution. Villeneuve seems to want the film to say something about the American character as personified by Jackman, a struggling carpenter (Jesus?) who fills his own basement with survival supplies and passes easily into righteous fury. Gyllenhaal’s cop, I guess, is there as balance, but he doesn’t do much of anything, and it takes him forever to figure anything out (some detective). The extended running time is there to pile on more and more twists, not to discover anything in the characters. The only thing we learn about Terrence Howard’s character, aside from his not having the stomach for torture, is that he plays the trumpet badly. About Viola Davis we learn not even that much. Spike Lee’s comments about mishandling of black characters in films made by white people are sometimes an occasion for eye-rolling, but after seeing Prisoners you might acknowledge he has a point.

And then the movie gears up for its gripping climax and becomes terrible. The filmmaking remains crystalline, immaculate, which makes the implausibilities much bitterer pills to swallow. Something seems to happen, and then no, it didn’t happen that way, and someone is in custody that the cops like for the crime, but then whoops, someone isn’t in custody any more, and someone goes alone to someone else’s house and at that point, by simple process of elimination, you wait for the big reveal, and it happens, and while you’re still trying to get your brain around the laughable disparity in size between the threatened party and the threatener, more stuff happens and people act stupidly and good god, is this going to be over any time soon? There are two movies at war here: a glum, wintry character drama from the Atom Egoyan mold (say, The Sweet Hereafter or Exotica) and a very-particular-set-of-skills thriller á la Taken. Guess which movie wins, but it’s not even fun on a Taken level, never mind as devastating as Sweet Hereafter. This movie is impeccably-made horseshit.

I Declare War

September 15, 2013

I-DECLARE-WAR-Press-Image-1.-This-should-go-in-guide.-Property-of-IDW-Films-Inc.Back in 1969, writer Sandra Scoppettone and artist Louise Fitzhugh put out a children’s book called Bang Bang You’re Dead. It’s something of a collector’s item now — so many parents and teachers loathed it that it kicked up a lot of controversy. Anyway, the book is a starkly brilliant parable about kids playing war and really hurting (though not killing) each other. The point, made none too subtly for a readership of little boys who liked to play war, was that war isn’t and shouldn’t be a game. It draws blood. I remembered the book while watching I Declare War, a bitter but paradoxically entertaining fantasia about a group of boys (and one girl) who play war out in the Canadian woods. The movie’s conceit is that we share the kids’ imaginations: when they pick up a toy gun or a branch and pretend it’s a real gun or a bazooka, that’s what we see. In visual movie language, they’re really shooting at each other, but only in their heads. No one gets killed, but a few illusions bite the dust.

Shrewdly, I Declare War almost immediately puts us on the side of P.K. (Gage Munroe) and his army. P.K. is small, blonde and tinsel-toothed, an unlikely figure to be a general, but he’s intelligent and has studied military history. He’s serious about winning war games — his base shows off all the flags he’s won. Putting us further in P.K.’s camp is his adversary, Skinner (Michael Friend), an unpleasant “spaz” who’s just out for revenge on P.K. and is willing to torture P.K.’s best friend Kwan (Siam Yu) when he takes Kwan prisoner. Therefore a variety of “soldiers” under both boys’ “command” are cannon fodder to settle an old score between two “nations.” You could read I Declare War as an allegory for just about any conflict the United States has gotten into, or any other country.

As the movie goes on, we realize something about the fair-haired P.K.: he’s a bit of a sociopath. He’s perfectly fine with sending his best friend off to be captured and possibly tortured a second time. We’ve been rooting for him because he’s smart and his enemy is emotionally volatile, but the movie ends up asking what, exactly, P.K. stands to “win” by asking his friends to sacrifice for his own glory. There’s another brain in the group, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), who plays a lot of chess and has her own agenda; she’s technically on Skinner’s side, but isn’t really loyal to him. Jess’s favored weapon is a crossbow, which serves as a perhaps unintentional critique of the heroine of The Hunger Games. The movie suggests that the people best at planning out war games aren’t the best human beings. Skinner, warped by the desire to make a mark in this faux-violent context, comes to seem less like a villain than a victim.

I Declare War has enough downtime to flesh out all the characters, strongly played by a variety of young actors mostly unknown outside Canada. But it flies by anyway, animated by the complexity of the chessboard. François Truffaut famously opined that it was impossible to make an anti-war movie, since war is so innately cinematic and exciting, and indeed the battles here are crisply staged for maximum lizard-brain satisfaction. At times the movie is like Red Dawn with a conscience. Directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson (Lapeyre also wrote the script) perform a weirdly morally complicated contextual juggling act. We know it’s fake, both in and out of the film’s reality — we know the “grenades” are just balloons filled with red paint, the “guns” just wood and plastic — yet here we are, watching adolescents shooting at each other with what read visually as real bullets, and it’s fun. It’s fun in the old primate way it’s always been: the tension of the “good guys” taking cover while being shot at, the gratification of what Hannibal Smith called a plan coming together.

But it’s also not fun, and while nothing much is actually hurt here aside from some feelings, those feelings matter to us because the kids do. As you may have guessed, this is a story, like Lord of the Flies and Stand by Me, that involves kids but is meant more for adults. The language, appropriately enough, is pretty salty. Also like those stories, though, I Declare War is thematically appropriate for pre-teens, who use that language anyway, and who might best benefit from its message. If it were a young-adult book, it’d be stupidly challenged by offended parents all over the country. It’d face the same fear and loathing that greeted that Vietnam-era relic Bang Bang You’re Dead. Why do some authority figures not want children to know about the painful, unglamorous realities of war? Or have I just answered my own question?


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