Archive for the ‘overrated’ category

The Raid 2

April 13, 2014

20140413-183333.jpg2011′s The Raid: Redemption, which delighted fanboys the world over, was a simple siege film with some of the most elaborately brutal martial-arts sequences seen in years. Its writer-director, Gareth Evans, a Welshman working in Indonesia, had envisioned a much bigger and more complex crime drama called Berandal; the financing fell through, so he and his star, the young pencak silat master Iko Uwais, decided on the more controlled and less expensive story of The Raid. Now, on the heels of The Raid‘s success, Evans has reworked the Berandal script as a sequel, putting Uwais’ indomitable cop hero Rama undercover to infiltrate a major gang.

Now, part of the pleasure of The Raid was that it got in and out in 100 minutes. The Raid 2 goes on for almost an hour longer. In this case, less is more, even if the extended length allows Evans more opportunities for bone-splintering fight choreography. The fanboys, of course, will rise to the added beef. They don’t seem to mind overlength, as witness the success of the Marvel movies, almost all of which come in north of two hours (the latest Captain America tips the scales at two hours and sixteen minutes). They might not even mind that a good percentage of the big action numbers don’t even involve Rama. He sort of drifts through what’s supposed to be his movie, yanked into the fray every so often. I imagine the original drafts of Berandal either kept the undercover-cop character largely on the sidelines or didn’t have one at all. If he was an important element in those drafts, he really isn’t one now.

Ass-kicking females are always popular with the fanboys, perhaps so they can claim that the hyper-masculine entertainment they enjoy isn’t sexist. So here we get a character known as “Hammer Girl” (Julie Estelle), whose specialty is killing people with hammer claws. She wears sunglasses and kills with zero perceptible emotion. She never talks (she’s deaf). She’s cool. She’s also not a person. Aside from her, the only women we meet are bimbos in a nightclub, a strap-on-wearing porn actress, and Rama’s long-suffering wife, whom Rama calls so that he can hear the sounds of his son at play in the background. His wife has been waiting for him throughout his two-year stint in prison (so that he can get into the good graces of a mob boss’s son in jail) and however long his post-prison life among the gangsters takes, and mostly his one phone call to his wife consists of silence so he can listen to his male child. Nope, not sexist at all. But hey, we got a girl who kills guys with hammers!

I shouldn’t have expected more, though the ecstatic notices in the geek press must’ve led me on. As a portfolio of martial-arts moves and ferocious carnage that reportedly won an R rating by the skin of its teeth, The Raid 2 is as chunky and adrenalized as the first one. People are pummeled, slashed, stabbed, shot, and otherwise treated impolitely; one lucky fellow gets a big hole shotgunned into his face. The sound of an aluminum baseball bat connecting with a skull is as viscerally cringe-inducing as it’s always been. As with many martial-arts sequences, though, the villains obligingly attack the hero one at a time; only once or twice do we see a group of men ganging up on someone. This sort of thing calls attention to itself as choreography, though I can see that it fills a desperate need among fans of action films, which too often give us computer-generated people fighting. Here, at least, we can see these are real humans risking and taking injury. It’s probably no accident that the martial-arts genre rose at about the same time that song-and-dance musicals were dying. People crave physical elegance and they’ll take it in action flicks (or in stuff like the Step Up series) if they have to.

Acting is not part of the elegance, and Iko Uwais is a conscientious nonactor; there’s more going on with Arifin Putra, who plays Uco, the mob boss’s ill-tempered and spoiled son, whom Rama must befriend. A smoothie of the type that used to be described as “dashing,” Putra brings a charge of decadence and privilege to his scenes. Uco ends up donating blood all over the carpet, along with most everyone else except the unstoppable cipher Rama. Like its predecessor, The Raid 2 doesn’t do anything plotwise that hasn’t been done 7,498 times before; its distinction is its feral, pounding fight scenes. Gareth Evans films them well. But his movies feel more like demo reels than like, you know, movies, much less cinema. He’s being praised for action you can actually see, follow and get excited by, and for telling tried-and-true stories; in other words, he’s being praised for being competent.

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.

American Hustle

December 22, 2013

american-hustle-amy-adams-1“People believe what they want to believe,” says con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) in American Hustle. I wanted to believe in the movie, but I couldn’t, starting with its hard sell that any of its characters are worth much. American Hustle is a loose, borderline-farcical treatment of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late ’70s. The sting took down a number of politicians convicted of taking bribes, including the mayor of Camden, N.J., fictionalized here as Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a good Italian boy with an epic pompadour. The styles and attitudes of almost all the characters are ludicrous; this is another 21st-century movie that invites us to chortle fondly at the sartorial excesses of the ’70s while trying to crank us up with classic-rock needle-drops and aping the cinematic style from the era, particularly its American master, Martin Scorsese.

Oh, David O. Russell must have had a ball for himself directing the film. He gets to engage in any number of patented Scorsese tracking shots; he reunites with no fewer than four favorite actors from two of his previous movies (Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook). But American Hustle left me feeling much the same way Boogie Nights did. In both, dynamic camerawork and epic breadth (American Hustle runs two hours and nine minutes) seem to mock and belittle the bottom-dog subjects of the movies. The problem with biting from Scorsese’s style is that if you lack Scorsese’s passion and obsession — which animate his style and make it feel like the way he sees the world — you’re left with empty technique, and that’s what happens with a lot of American Hustle.

It’s a comedy, but it seems to want to be more, starting with its self-important title (the script, by Eric Warren Singer, was originally called American Bullshit). People in the movie keep justifying themselves by claiming they’re not in it for themselves. Which is a useful satirical element, except that the movie kind of buys into the justifications. Irving Rosenfeld, for instance, balances a home life with flaky young wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) and her son with his relationship/partnership with another con artist, Sydney (Adams). The FBI agent who busts Irving and Sydney, Richie DiMaso (Cooper), is almost insane with ambition to make bigger busts and a name for himself, which he passes off as duty. Carmine Polito makes well-meaning noises about doing everything for his community. Russell half makes fun of these people and half feels sorry for them. They’re just doing what they have to do. Of course, they almost all have stupid hair and funny accents (Amy Adams is the only one who escapes — the camera loves her).

Richie compels Irving and Sydney (who poses as a Brit with banking connections) to help him catch politicians on the take. They produce a Hispanic FBI agent and pass him off as a sheik looking to invest in casinos on the East Coast. Blinded by money, and believing what they want to believe, a lot of powerful men are caught on tape taking the briefcase. (In real life, one man was approached but didn’t bite — Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. Given the film’s ’70s fetish, it’s surprising Guccione, or a version of him, didn’t make it into the movie.) But the scamming scenes go by so fast we don’t get much sense of their logistics or the emotions involved. It seems that David O. Russell isn’t all that interested in the story; all he wants to do is play with the camera and indulge his actors. Sometimes this works and entertains, sometimes not: one of the worst and most pointless scenes of the year has to be Jennifer Lawrence lip-syncing the living shit out of “Live and Let Die.” Other actors’ bits, such as when a desperate Irving and a wary Carmine find common ground, and Bale and Renner perform it flawlessly, are top-shelf.

At such moments, the film’s believe-what-they-want-to-believe motif comes alive. But American Hustle, like Boogie Nights before it, vaults heedlessly between bedraggled comedy and serious-stakes scenes in which the director shuts off the fun. This sort of tonal shift only works when it feels organic, and nothing in American Hustle feels organic; everything has been exaggerated and, in the end, Hollywoodized. Everyone gets what the audience wants them to get. The cast has boisterous personality to spare, but we’re locked outside of it because the film itself has none. Are we supposed to laugh at these people or with them? Russell is part of a generation of smarty-pants filmmakers whose eyes are bleared over — they have no clear vision of what they want to do other than to make cool movies with cool actors. American Hustle is geared towards grown-ups, and that might explain some of its grateful reception among critics tired of superhero movies. But grown-ups deserve and should hold out for better.

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.

You’re Next

August 25, 2013

xsharni-vinson-youre-next.jpg.pagespeed.ic.96791YOdvaA lethal disease sometimes afflicts horror filmmakers. I call it “explainitis.” This disease has been known to erode mystique, decay plots, and dilute true terror. In the best home-invasion movie of recent years, The Strangers, the killers were asked “Why are you doing this to us?” Their response: “Because you were home.” That’s really all you need; any motive more explicit tends to drag shadowy demons into the withering sunlight of logic, and you might as well be watching Murder, She Wrote. (This is why David Lynch, who is not officially a “horror director,” has birthed some of the most frightening moments ever committed to film: he deals in mystery, dream logic. Nothing is scarier than the incomprehensible.)

You’re Next, a horror/siege thriller greeted in some quarters as if it were the second coming of Sam Peckinpah, has a raging case of explainitis. It trucks along efficiently until we have to stop and learn why this is all happening. We begin with a random couple murdered by people wearing animal masks. Then the story proper gets underway, as four thirtyish people, accompanied by their significant others, head to their wealthy parents’ house to celebrate their wedding anniversary. One of the parents is played by genre stalwart Barbara Crampton, making this the second thriller of the year (following Would You Rather, with Jeffrey Combs) in which a veteran of The Re-Animator presides over a dinner gathering that promptly turns brutal. Someone is outside with a crossbow. The whole family, except the unlucky one who happened to be at the window when the first arrow came through, convenes hurriedly in another room, and the cat-and-mouse game begins.

The family is dysfunctional, which means many scenes of bickering before the slaughter commences. One of their number, the Australian girlfriend of one of the sons, turns out to be quite competent at deflecting murderous intentions; Sharni Vinson, who plays her, is probably already being groomed as the next scream queen in a genre that’s been lacking one since Neve Campbell screamed her last, though if Vinson is lucky she’ll move on. She does a great deal of damage to the killers, who become oddly humanized through their pain and frustration. You’re Next flirts with being a meta-horror movie, which can be a way of making a routine slasher flick while making fun of routine slasher flicks. The engine, however, runs like a routine slasher flick.

For a small segment of the audience, the movie will play as a wink to fans of recent indie cinema: one of the sons is played by mumblecore director Joe Swanberg, while retro-horror director Ti West appears as the boyfriend of the family’s sole daughter. The film’s director, Adam Wingard, has collaborated with Swanberg on various projects and contributed, along with West and Swanberg, to the horror anthology V/H/S. None of this meant much to the uninitiated around me in the theater, many of whom were audibly exasperated with Wingard’s over-reliance on shaky-cam even when it isn’t called for (such as a simple shot of a family portrait on the wall). Wingard can set up a decent jump scare, even if none of them really made me jump. There’s some gratifyingly nasty dark comedy. It’s not a dud, but one way or another you’ve seen most of it before.

So is You’re Next really an artsy sheep in wolf’s clothing — i.e., a snide, deadpan send-up of home-invasion thrillers? It’s certainly not being marketed as such, which might explain my audience’s underwhelmed response to it. The motive, when it’s revealed, raises unfortunate questions and reduces the terror to a twisty gimmick that excludes our identification with the victims: Unless you’re one of these specific people, you’re not next — it’s not going to happen to you (not the way it does in this movie, anyway). The family’s patriarch is a retired national-defense worker, so I thought he might have been getting a political comeuppance, but no such luck. The movie is certainly more entertaining than The Purge from two months ago, though at least that film’s premise was more promising (even if it was squandered). If you combined the sci-fi elements of The Purge with the visceral violence and bleak humor (not to mention the crowd-pleasing Sharni Vinson character) of this film, you’d probably have a terrific siege thriller. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (either version) killed this genre and spat on its grave.

This Is 40

December 2, 2012

44692000001_1602507365001_This-is-40-uni-tWho thought it was a good idea to take the two most irritating characters in Knocked Up and devote a two-hour-and-thirteen-minute movie to them? This Is 40, the new dramedy written and directed by Judd Apatow (opening on December 21), follows the squabbling and problems of Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), miserably married with two daughters (played by the real-life daughters of Apatow and Mann). Pete’s small record label is tanking, and Debbie’s clothes shop isn’t doing much better. If you think the movie is going to be about the reality of financial hardship in a shaky economy, though, you’re wrong: The couple apparently can still afford iPads, iPhones, and miscellaneous other iProducts for themselves and their kids. I’m a Mac user, but there are times when the film seems like an Apple commercial.

They can also presumably afford to go out to clubs, take a vacation at a fancy hotel, plan a catered 40th birthday party for Pete, and snipe at each other in the comfort of their too-spacious home — all while they’re in the hole for $80,000. But none of this is the point of the movie, which hammers the point that this technology-addicted family can’t communicate. The older daughter spends too much time on Facebook. Pete hides in the bathroom playing Bejeweled on his iPad. The couple also have problems with their fathers: Pete keeps lending money he can ill afford to lend to his dad (Albert Brooks), while Debbie hardly knows her father (John Lithgow), who left when she was eight. Also, Debbie’s sister Alison, one of the leads in Knocked Up, is absent here and never mentioned (however, Ben, Seth Rogen’s character, is referenced); maybe they had a falling out.

Judd Apatow enjoys a reputation for smart, closely observed comedy, a rep I think he earned with The 40 Year Old Virgin and Funny People (I wasn’t as taken with Knocked Up as many). Here, though, he draws out tiresome arguments, with everyone in the house screaming — the movie is shrill. There’s no surprise in any of the conflicts, no shock of recognition, and the occasional reconciliations feel unearned because the rancor that precedes them is so bilious. At many points we feel we’re seeing the end of a marriage, but Apatow keeps shoving the couple away from divorce, perhaps because a Christmastime release with a bummer ending would get fatal word of mouth. Realistically, we don’t see much reason for these two to be together, even for the sake of the kids, who are also irritating to us and to their parents.

Apatow’s films are generally well-cast, and this is no exception; Melissa McCarthy steals the movie as the mother of one of the daughters’ classmates (stick around during the end credits for some primo McCarthy outtakes), and Megan Fox comes through with a warm and human performance as a staffer at Debbie’s shop. I did think it was weird that the only two non-white characters with speaking parts are scam artists of various natures — Apatow’s universe is as white as Woody Allen’s. And the way poor old Graham Parker is used in this movie — a past-it rocker who can barely sell 600-something downloads of his new album, and who finds himself playing to a sparse club crowd and at a birthday party — struck me as insensitive, though maybe Parker enjoyed poking fun at himself, or enjoyed the paycheck.

This Is 40 is about pretty people with pretty problems; this used to be the province of James L. Brooks, who seems to have passed the torch to Apatow. It remains to be seen, though, whether Apatow can write women as compassionately as he can write men — Debbie comes off as a shrew much of the time, and the only halfway likable female character in the movie works part-time as an escort. Pete is no prize himself, nor are any of the other men, so I guess it’s equal-opportunity misanthropy, but 133 minutes is a long time to sit with people you don’t like. In the final reel, the revelations and reconciliations arrive like clockwork, and the couple prepare for a considerable additional financial burden without, apparently, worrying about how they’ll be able to swing it; indeed, the movie ends with them going to see Ryan Adams at a club, which, unless I miss my guess, is not a free event. To quote Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises: “The rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us.”

The Artist

February 12, 2012

The silent-film valentine The Artist, currently steamrolling towards a Best Picture win at the Oscars in a few weeks, is an enjoyable lollipop of a film. I don’t know that it’s the best of the year, but then I don’t know that the other eight nominees are, either. Away from the hype and the awards, it tells the simple story of a silent star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), who faces a dark night of the soul when talkies encroach. The French do love these fables of obsolescence: the animated film The Illusionist, Oscar-nominated last year, considered the pain of an elderly magician at sea in a world of rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps the Academy loves these fables, too (Martin Scorsese’s birth-of-cinema fantasia Hugo is also nominated). The powerful love to pity themselves when the powerless — the plebes, the audience — reject them for the next new thing.

For about the first 45 minutes, Jean Dujardin has a toothy grin of self-satisfaction bisecting his face. It becomes a little annoying, more so maybe because we realize George is being set up for a humbling fall. A young actress who got a walk-on (or dance-on) in one of his films, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), is rising fast in the new world of talkies. She pities him, I guess, and tries to help him out, but he’s too proud. His long-suffering wife (Penelope Ann Miller) kicks him out of their mansion. He moves to a schlubby apartment, accompanied by his loyal dog and his equally loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell), who refuses to leave even though he hasn’t been paid in a year. I was thinking: Dude, I don’t care if you can’t pay your driver — he can get another job — but your dog can’t get another job, and you’d better be putting some food in his dish.

Ah, but none of this is supposed to be taken literally or even seriously, I know. It is, as I said, a fable. The talkies made many stars but destroyed many others, many of whom just couldn’t tone down their effects — their “mugging” — or had terrible voices, like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain (still, by the way, the movie to beat on the subject of Hollywood’s silent-to-talkies transition). This all coincided with the Great Depression (as we see here), and despair was all too common. Nobody wants to see a movie about Marie Prevost, the silent-film star who was found dead in a hotel room at 38, with bites on her legs from her dachshund trying to wake her up. That kind of story doesn’t win Oscars or get embraced by art-house audiences looking for comfort food. But it was the reality for a lot of people like George Valentin.

I’m not saying I wanted The Artist to be that kind of story, either. But writer-director Michel Hazanavicius toys with despair only to gloss over it. The ending seems a bit neutral: we’re not sure if George is indeed going to have a comeback or if he should just be happy being in front of a camera again with the woman he loves. Or does he? George and Peppy hardly spend any time together, and it seems like more of a mentor-student relationship, as in The Illusionist. There’s not a lot of personality to go around (though James Cromwell speaks volumes with a few subtle expressions, and John Goodman provides some fun as a producer); even the dog only has his one trick (play dead), repeated without variation. The dog is adorable, like everyone else here, but adorability only takes you so far.

Drive

September 17, 2011

If you liked Heat, Michael Mann’s 1995 study of cops and robbers, you’ll probably like Drive. If, like me, you found Heat an overrated, lethargic piece of shit, that may dictate how you feel about Drive, which at least is shorter. Ryan Gosling is an unnamed driver, who performs auto stunts for movies (the film is set in Los Angeles). On the side, he’s a getaway driver for robbers. Gosling, a fine actor, goes minimalist here; he stares, occasionally smiles (closer to a mild smirk, really), says very little. When the driver has to be menacing, he locks eyes with someone and says “How about this,” follows with some threat of violence, and seals it with “Do you understand?” We understand. But there’s not much else to understand about him. He drives. He does bad things. Love makes him want to do good things. He’s so far into dead-cool archetype he’s practically comatose.

Drive is the sort of artsy non-thriller that inspires many critics, largely male, to throw around words like “existential” and drop references to the film’s closest ancestors, Bullitt and The Driver, both of which actually thrilled. For a while, we take some pleasure, as always, in watching someone do something well. The first getaway is immaculately staged, depending less on speed than on sly circumvention. At the end of it, the driver stops in the car park of a sports arena, with the robbers still in the back seat, and gets out and vanishes into the night, walking nimbly around a cop or two. He doesn’t seem to care how the robbers are going to get home with the cops around, and neither does the movie; we assume it’s part of the plan, but the plan is never imparted to us. Later, the driver notices that a neighbor woman he has his eye on (Carey Mulligan) is having car trouble in a supermarket parking lot. We cut to the driver helping her and her young son carry her groceries into her apartment. Did he fix the car? Did he give them a lift home? Later we learn that the car, unfixed, winds up at the same garage he works at, but this sort of confusing transition is typical of this stoic movie.

The driver — to gloss over some plot to avoid spoilers — encounters a serious amount of money. Albert Brooks, playing a former movie producer turned mobster, wants it back. This casting seems terrific, and Brooks’ decision to play the villain more as a former movie producer than as a mobster is sound, but his performance yields neither laughs (which aren’t intended here anyway) nor menace. His gory use of sharp objects at several points in the film lacks credibility; it’s stunt casting, more enjoyable in theory than in practice. This is also true of Christina Hendricks as a heist accomplice, who does as little as the driver speaks. Meanwhile, what passes for the plot is shakily propelled by the driver’s fondness for the neighbor woman and her son. When her husband (Oscar Isaac) returns home from prison, the driver’s fondness extends to him, too, with less than salutary results.

Drive tries very hard to be cool, but undermines this goal regularly with songs on the soundtrack that seem to have escaped from some I Love the ’80s hell. One of them, at the end, repeats over and over, “A real hero, and a real human being. A real hero, and a real human being,” which is either ironic or a rather desperate way of telling us how to feel about the man we’ve spent 100 minutes staring at while he stares at everyone else. And they stare back. Occasionally a few words are said, and then disappear into the stylish L.A. malaise. A man is threatened with a hammer and bullet in a room full of strippers, who meet the spectacle with glazed, frozen expressions. Another man’s head is stomped to pulp on an elevator floor, to the natural shock and revulsion of nobody else in the elevator, not even an onlooker who isn’t all that conversant with brain-spattering violence. A young boy has little or no reaction to his father being beaten up. Drive is full of this sort of hip emptiness, this void of emotion onto which many critics seem ready to project all manners of depth and meaning. It is the autumn’s first golden boy after a summer of lightweight superhero fare, but is truly no richer in thought or spirit than the shallowest comic-book flick.

Super 8

June 11, 2011

Super 8 left me feeling vaguely depressed, because its very existence seems to prove you can’t go home again, and maybe its subtext says the same thing. Set in 1979, the movie follows a group of barely teenage boys, and one teenage girl, as they make their own zombie flick and end up catching footage of a train derailment. Something is inside the train, and the kids’ Super 8 camera catches that, too. Much has been made of the observation that the writer-director, J.J. Abrams, has photographed, edited, and scored Super 8 to look, feel, and sound very much like an early-’80s Steven Spielberg film. Spielberg himself is one of the producers, so one assumes he approves; besides, this particular style — the dolly moves, the shots of people staring skyward in awe — belongs to a filmmaker Spielberg himself hasn’t been in nearly two decades. Spielberg isn’t making ‘em like this anymore, so someone else might as well, right?

Spielberg’s near-patented sense-of-wonder film language, though, was always organic to the stories he was telling; he never struck me as a show-off but as someone who thought visually. Abrams’ attempt to ape Spielberg here does two useful things. First, it proves that it isn’t that easy to do; you need Spielberg’s conviction to seal the deal. Second, it points up that classical film storytelling may be a lost art in mainstream summer entertainment; Abrams tries hard, but he keeps panning and tilting in shots that in no way call for embellishment. Spielberg, in his prime, was no more afraid of boring you than is a kid re-enacting a story with his action figures. He was having fun, and he figured you would, too. (And for the most part, we did.) Abrams is of the new breed, terrified of losing us. In Jaws, Spielberg filmed the famous Indianapolis monologue in simple one-shot and two-shot. He trusted the story to rivet us. Abrams would probably have the camera chase itself in a 360 around the table as Robert Shaw spoke to the other men.

The kiddie-filmmaker stuff in Super 8 feels like the stuff Abrams was most interested in — the kids, particularly the flick’s director (Riley Griffiths), are passionate about what they’re doing, and it reminded me of the real-life teens who spent most of the ’80s making a shot-for-shot remake of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Anyone who’s seen the results of that seven-year experiment has found it completely charming. But the filmmaking passion we see in the kids here doesn’t translate to the actual zombie flick when we finally see it during the end credits. It is, like Super 8 itself, a simulacrum more dependent on fond nostalgia than on sincere engagement with the story.

Elle Fanning, as the girl who lends some grace to the zombie flick, does likewise with Super 8, doing a lot with the little that is written for her. The rest of the cast are moved around like underemoting chesspieces, responding helplessly to the chaos that ensues when an alien is loose in town. The alien stuff here just feels so skimpy and half-hearted, an afterthought. This is not the kind of script that would’ve passed muster with the ’80s Spielberg, which raises the question of why it got a thumbs-up from him as a producer. (Maybe in his youth he was a soft-hearted director — Spielberg became synonymous with “happy ending” for a while — but also a tough-minded producer, and now it’s the reverse.) When the film gives itself over, in the last act, to the alien material nobody cares about, it dies rapidly.

But you can’t go home again. The young hero (Joel Courtney) has lost his mother, and nothing will bring her back or make things the same; his father (Kyle Chandler), the town deputy, seems as grief-dazed as his son is. The glory days are gone; mothers die randomly and Spielberg is no longer in his prime. For about twelve seconds I entertained the notion that the alien running amok, terrorizing the suburbs, was a metaphor for the disaster at Three Mile Island, which we see referenced on a TV at one point. That was the end of a small kind of American innocence, one that trusted in nuclear power as a workable alternative to oil, which, what with Khomeini all over the news that year, was looking less and less attractive. Super 8 looks back fondly on a year that was pretty chaotic to live through, but doesn’t have much to say about that, as it turns out. Nor is the alien an effective metaphor for the overpowering feelings that attend both grief and coming of age. It’s all very passive: the characters don’t want anything except to make their little movie and, later, to stay alive. And in a movie released in 2011, the girl must be rescued and the first black character we see is also the first to die. Now that feels like 1979. Or 1939.

X-Men: First Class

June 4, 2011

There are two major conflicts running through X-Men: First Class. One is interesting, though we’ve seen it before, and one is near-fatal to the film. The first conflict is the ideological loggerheads between two powerful mutants — Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a telepath, and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who can manipulate metal with his mind. Charles is aware that normal humans hate and fear mutants, but wants to help humans anyway. Erik is likewise aware, but gradually decides that he would rather not. The second conflict is one of tone. X-Men: First Class, set during the early ’60s leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, breathes heavily about matters of major historical import — Erik as a boy survived Auschwitz — but also wants to be a poppy summer-fun blast in which mutants sprout wings or blue fur and flit around the sky like fireflies at dusk.

The result is a weird and unstable experience, and I wish I could say I gave in to the lightweight escapism. But when you present me with the Final Solution and the spectre of nuclear annihilation — which actually almost happened, with or without mutants — I have a hard time switching gears for the goofball scenes of young mutants in training, roughhousing with their budding powers. I don’t mean to be a killjoy; I just mean to say that historical high seriousness and retro pulp don’t blend well — you can see the seams. The first two X-Men films, directed by Bryan Singer, took themselves seriously — gloomily so, at times — but at least felt consistent. The stakes were high, and Singer, an openly gay director, plumbed the metaphor of mutants as persecuted homosexuals, but when the action beats came they felt rooted in something personal. Here, the historical import seems like a tacky backdrop for tackier action.

Charles and Erik (who will later triumphantly assume the dorky name “Magneto,” snarkily given to him by Jennifer Lawrence’s shape-shifting Mystique) enter into an increasingly uneasy alliance when Erik’s old foe from the Auschwitz days, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), plans to use his own mutant powers and mutant minions to provoke nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. The resulting radiation will kill off all the humans and empower the mutants. So Charles and Erik build their own team, made up mostly of disaffected youngsters with strange powers; perhaps significantly, perhaps not, of the two mutants of color, one dies early on and one turns to evil.

Michael Fassbender emerges as a cool, 007-like presence, the only real adult in the movie; James McAvoy seems to keep himself amused. For the most part, though, the large cast gets lost in the bombast, and January Jones as Shaw’s telepathic right-hand woman Emma Frost gives yet another dead-eyed performance in which she seems to be reading her lines phonetically. The director (and one of four named writers) of X-Men: First Class is credited as Matthew Vaughn, which I find hard to believe. Can this be the same man who gave us last year’s sarcastic, taboo-breaking superhero satire Kick-Ass (not to mention the enchanting comedy Stardust)? This film is a complete regression for Vaughn, who seemed to be forging a career as one of the few iconoclasts working in big Hollywood movies. There’s more outlaw excitement in any of Hit Girl’s scenes from Kick-Ass than in all of X-Men: First Class.

Save for a few hairdos and JFK on the tube, the ’60s milieu isn’t very convincing; the movie itself, meanwhile, feels as though it were made in 1996 or even 1986. A lot of that is due to Henry Jackman’s painfully cheesy score, but part of it is down to Matthew Vaughn’s passionless, visionless direction. Vaughn was supposed to direct 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand but dropped out two weeks before filming started; did he take this movie on to prove he could’ve done better with the earlier film, or did he forget in the intervening five years why he’d wanted to make an X-Men film in the first place? X-Men: First Class has been getting something of a free ride from the fanboy press, who respect Vaughn for his past films and are grateful that someone tried to make a better movie than The Last Stand and the oafish Wolverine. But loyalty to a director and relief that a film doesn’t stink on ice aren’t enough reason to excuse mediocrity.


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