Archive for the ‘overrated’ category

The Shallows

June 26, 2016

the-shallows-movie-trailer-3-shaIt’s probably in the DNA of shark movies to be hyperbolic — even the legendary Jaws made its great white 25 feet long — but The Shallows endows its toothy antagonist with powers well beyond mere mortal sharks. This motherfucker leaps into the air to take down a surfer in mid-surf; it chomps fearlessly into whale hide, rocks, and finally metal; it leaps into the air again to escape the fiery surface of the ocean. What it doesn’t do is swim around lackadaisically, mostly just farting around until it occasionally bites something, which I imagine is what real sharks do. No, this shark isn’t just a human-killer (making it an anomaly in the world of sharks), it’s a serial human-killer, taking out two men within minutes of each other (making it idiotic in the world of narrative). This shark doesn’t just kill to feed; it kills because, I dunno, it’s an asshole.

The shark is trying to kill Blake Lively. Blake Lively is just trying to make it home alive and prove she can carry a movie almost literally by herself, as her husband Ryan Reynolds did in Buried. But whether Lively can anchor minimalist suspense is a question the movie doesn’t allow itself to answer, because it weighs her down with backstory. And the backstory — her character mourns the death of her mom, which has made her question whether she should continue working on her med degree — doesn’t really play to Lively’s strengths. The backstory is only there to turn the movie into a Chicken Soup for the Soul fable about fighting for life. But would we not feel the heroine’s life was worth fighting for without all the special pleading?

Anyway, Blake is out surfing off the same beach her dead mom used to frequent, and the aforementioned shark, defending its turf (a decomposing whale carcass), bites her. She makes it to a bit of rock, accompanied by a blood-streaked seagull. Using her med-school know-how (leading us to think that if she were, say, a marketing major or something instead, she’d just bleed out 35 minutes into the movie, the end), she takes her earrings and, in tight, nauseating close-ups, “stitches” her wound closed. Is this something doctors can do to themselves without anesthesia? I was reminded of the notorious Stephen King short story “Survivor Type,” in which a doctor marooned on an island removes and eats parts of himself to live another day.

The Shallows also reminded me of a similar and vastly superior nature thriller, Open Water, which had the dark wit to let one of its yuppie protagonists howl into the uncaring void, “We paid to do this!” The new movie, though, has no wit, dark or otherwise; it’s too sappy to be lean and mean. As a fable of endurance, it lacks the visceral tension and based-on-a-true-story veneer of authenticity of 127 Hours. We know Blake Lively will survive as soon as we see her talking to her kid sister and dad via videochat. Indeed, we may easily imagine the heroine going on to a lucrative career giving feel-good talks about how she conquered her demons (grief, nihilism, shark), and you can too for the low introductory price of $49.95.

The backdrop for the sad blond white woman to have her crisis is a never-named beach somewhere in Mexico. Blake encounters five Mexicans. One is an amiable guy who gives her a ride to the beach and refuses payment. Two are surfers who condescend to her. One is a drunk fatso who steals her phone and backpack, and is about to go steal her surfboard when the shark comes calling. And one is a boy, the amiable guy’s son I guess, who happens to find the GoPro helmet camera Blake records her goodbyes on as a sort of message in a bottle. The movie is set in Mexico, I guess, so that Blake is alone among people who can only speak limited English or can’t understand her limited Spanish. Certain orange-skinned pundits and their followers might catch a matinee of The Shallows and conclude that what’s needed to protect great American med students from loser Mexican sharks is a wall — an underwater wall — and the sharks will pay for it, and let me tell you, it will be terrific.

The Danish Girl

February 14, 2016

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Once upon a time, perhaps back in 2000 when David Ebershoff’s novel The Danish Girl hit stores, a movie based on that book about a trailblazing transwoman might have felt fresher. Now, though, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have been in the news, and we’ve seen more challenging and advanced narratives about transfolks. Besides that, we’ve seen actual trans performers play trans characters, both well-known (Cox on Orange Is the New Black) and not (Michelle Hendley in the underseen Boy Meets Girl), so a well-meaning Oscar-bait biopic with a cisgendered male (Eddie Redmayne) as trans legend Lili Elbe smells a little fishy. Shouldn’t an actor be free to play any reality?, some may ask. Let’s reframe the question: shouldn’t an actor of an often persecuted part of humanity be able to tell the stories of his or her own experience?

The Danish Girl recounts the early struggle of Lili (née Einar Wegener) to deal with her male-to-female transition while fighting the blinkered intolerance of her milieu (1926 Copenhagen) and trying not to hurt her wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who supports Lili up to an understandable point, past which Gerda genuinely can’t go with her. Vikander actually owns the movie — she effortlessly conveys the pain of a woman too enlightened to be horrified by her once-husband’s transformation, but too human not to mourn the passing of the man she fell in love with. It’s the clearest inner conflict in the movie, but it’s been done before. So has Lili’s arc, despite the Right Stuff gendernaut angle of Lili’s (allegedly) being the first to have The Surgery.

Redmayne’s frail, hairless frame does much of his work for him; how odd that he should have headlined two elite biopics in a row, the Stephen Hawking movie being the first, both detailing body’s misalignment with mind. (He’s about ready to go make a film for David Cronenberg, whose work is built upon the Cartesian mind-body split.) But he never made me feel Lili’s vertiginous fright and relief at finally presenting as her own gender. That’s because he doesn’t have the material. The movie is too genteel and antiseptic, and eventually it resolves into a dull fable of Being True to Oneself. Someday a transgender writer/director will tell her/his community’s stories on film, and it will be felt from the inside, not observed from the outside, however compassionately. We will learn more from such a film than we could from movies like The Danish Girl made by people who haven’t actually endured Lili’s pain — who don’t have skin in the game.

In my Les Miserables review I hypothesized that the film’s director, Tom Hooper, might be the worst director ever to own an Oscar for directing. After seeing what he’s done with The Danish Girl, I’m no longer sure the qualification is necessary. You can certainly tell a Tom Hooper film at ten paces. That’s the film that’ll be composed with artsy whimsy, generally with people seated way off to the side of the frame and near the bottom, or scrutinized in punishing close-up, and the shots don’t cut together with any kind of grace because of the fancy compositions (sometimes the shots don’t match each other or the camera blatantly crosses the axis), and scenes just kind of start, go on a bit, and end. That’s the Oscar-winning Tom Hooper touch. If you care at all about movies as constructions of time and rhythm as well as image and sound, the aesthetically ugly cinema of Tom Hooper may cause physical revulsion.

Pompous yet banal, Hooper’s style fits this prestigious bore of a movie. For whom has it been made? Trans audiences will yawn — Lili’s story as presented here isn’t good fodder for inspiration. Transphobic bigots won’t see it in the first place, so they wouldn’t be swayed even if the movie were persuasive. So it’s for nice cisgendered viewers (i.e., those whose gender identities align with their bodies) who enjoy watching other people’s pain if it’s done tastefully enough. No blood is shown during Lili’s two dangerous surgeries, so it won’t spoil your dinner; neither will the scene in which two louts descend on Lili in boy mode, leading to the most ineptly-staged beating I’ve seen in years. Being cisgendered doesn’t disqualify you from making a movie about transgender subjects, but maybe being incompetent should.

Carol

February 7, 2016

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Todd Haynes has spent the majority of his career directing films that call back to the golden age of actresses — his muses have included Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, and a Barbie version of Karen Carpenter. Haynes provides primo roles for women at a time when few other filmmakers do. But does he really care all that much about the women he puts onscreen? I value Haynes as an artist, but his art isn’t revelatory or emotional; it signifies feelings rather than sharing them.

The multiple-Oscar-nominated Carol is yet another Haynes meditation on homosexuality in an era (the ’50s) that didn’t tolerate it. (He treated the topic literally in Far from Heaven, metaphorically in several other movies.) Carol (Blanchett) is a well-to-do woman in the process of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Their differences are extremely irreconcilable: despite having a daughter with him, she’s just not that into him, or into his entire gender, for that matter. Carol has previously detained herself with “best friend” Abby (Sarah Paulson), and of late her gaze has fallen upon young Therese (Rooney Mara), toy-store shopgirl and aspiring photographer.

Therese’s artistic proclivities (including tickling the ivories with a bit of Billie Holiday) and dark, severe bangs may remind viewers of the novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose novel The Price of Salt served as the script’s basis, and who admitted that Therese was more or less her avatar. Too bad, then, that Therese’s portrayer isn’t up to the level on which Highsmith operated. Rooney Mara, I fear, is her generation’s Jennifer Connolly, a gothy but inexpressive actress deeply overrated by critics perhaps enamored of her bone structure. Therese is supposed to be a nervous neophyte, but casting this mild, emotionally null presence opposite Blanchett, who emotes ripely in the manner of classic Hollywood divas, is almost cruel. (Blanchett’s peak moment of golden-age noir efflorescence comes when she gets to point a gun and snarl “Where’s the tape, you son of a bitch?”)

Haynes hit his own peak of erotica in his feature debut, Poison, during its Genet-inspired prison sequence, and it’s been down a cold hill ever since. When Carol finally takes Therese to bed, we get oblique fragments of their lovemaking, and it’s as dry and po-faced as anything else in their relationship. Their love involves, as far as I can determine, being somber in close proximity; there are no shared jokes, no mutual interests. Therese is a proto-bohemian without the sullen attitude of one, and Blanchett nicely conveys Carol’s tickled attraction to her, but Mara doesn’t have the tools to do likewise. Therese’s big emotional moments amount to her staring off and sobbing while Mara is obviously thinking of something really sad. (By contrast, consider Kyle Chandler’s empathetic turn as a husband who could come off as a monster, but instead presents as a pained man sunk in incomprehension and insecurity.)

Yet maybe that makes Mara the ideal new muse for Todd Haynes: she signifies rather than feels, and so does he. Carol looks terrific, as all Haynes films do; working in Super 16mm, cinematographer Ed Lachman delivers a master class in the seethe and texture of grain. (In a late moment when Therese and a co-worker are painting her apartment walls blue, the surface looks like the screen of a staticky TV.) But the score, by the usually superb Carter Burwell, sounds like unused music for a Godfrey Reggio travelogue — the tone is a bit too tastefully lachrymose. I’m all for Haynes making throwback dramas that great actresses like Blanchett or Julianne Moore can tear into, but I’d like to think the deluxe emoting they do is in service to anything besides Haynes’ deadpan appropriation of ancient styles and tropes. Tarantino, for instance, works this way but giggles in appreciation; Haynes rubs his chin and says “Interesting.”

Room

January 31, 2016

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If you’ve got a hankering for Oscar-bait misery porn but your stomach rebels against the grue in The Revenant, you might want to know about Room. Those who haven’t read Emma Donoghue’s source novel (she’s also credited with the screenplay) may sit through the first few minutes in a state of alarm as the premise is set up: A young woman, Joy Newsome (Brie Larson), resides in a one-room shed along with her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay); she has been held captive there for seven years, he since birth. So the viewer might exclaim, “Holy crap, are we going to be trapped in this room with Joy and Jack for the entire movie?” No; thankfully, we escape (along with them) slightly less than halfway through. In a further mercy, the film is chaste about showing us the nature of Joy’s relationship to her shaggy captor, known as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). She is his sex slave, and he is Jack’s bio-dad, but we don’t have to look at the rapes or even hear much of it.

Is that a badge of honor, though? Room dabbles in tough stuff, but holds a lot of its details at a remove. It’s not really about the literal imprisonment anyway; it’s more about the mental incarceration Joy and Jack suffer once they have escaped Room. (Joy has built a whole world out of the tiny, shabby surroundings, and the shed is called Room, because to Jack it is Room, the only one.) The second half of the film, wherein mother and son try to adjust to life outside Room, verges on being interesting. But — perverse as it may seem to say so — it suffers in comparison to Tina Fey’s Netflix comedy The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which finds dark humor as well as genuine, hard-won insight in the similar premise of a recently freed captive woman. Room is too busy milking its situation for tears and tension to lower itself to anything so crass as levity. It’s serious, so very serious.

Larson is considered the favorite to take home Best Actress later this month, and I can’t begrudge her that. She takes a juicy part and squeezes it till it’s dry; the real protagonist, though, is Jack (the book was told through his eyes), and Tremblay makes him credibly damaged until the script calls for him to be a tribute to human resilience. There’s an unavoidable strain of snobbishness in the set-up: Old Nick is jobless and has trouble buying supplies for his prisoners, but once Joy and Jack get away from him and into the warm house of her well-to-do mom (Joan Allen) and her boyfriend, the moneyed milieu assures us that all will be well. Joy just needs a little more time to adjust, that’s all. But she’s also understandably lost a large chunk of her humanity during her seven-year captivity, something the movie doesn’t really have the resources to explore. All she needs, it turns out, is some of Jack’s hair.

The film sort of handwaves the fate of Old Nick; we don’t even see him arrested, though we assume he has been. This reticence to show revenge against aggressors (a trait it shares with The Revenant and Spotlight this Oscar season) establishes Room, I guess, as a drama that aspires to be deeper than the usual weepie. Meanwhile, we’re left with such questions as why Jack doesn’t react more strongly to a doctor who, like Old Nick, has a bushy dark beard, or why Jack goes in the yard to play with a boy we’ve never met, or what kind of nightmarishly overprotective parenting Jack can expect from Joy from now on. In Kimmy Schmidt, the bubbliness of Ellie Kemper’s brilliant performance always has a bleak, scary undertone that tells us her experience has made her different from everyone else. Kimmy’s chipper demeanor seems millimeters away from hysteria, and that’s the tension of the comedy. Joy and Jack, realistically, would not ever be okay again. Jack’s bidding farewell to the only world he knew for most of his short life should move us more, dig into our soft spots harder. Room isn’t a flatulent botch like Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, but they coexist in the small subgenre of stories about a child’s suffering that probably should have stayed on the page.

The Revenant

January 17, 2016

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For all the stark realism and ballyhooed “natural light” cinematography of The Revenant, the movie tips its true hand as an aggressively directorial film when the hero, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is so close to the camera that his anguished, halting breath fogs the lens. You see, this is a deathlessly significant work about man’s inhumanity to man against a backdrop of unforgiving nature, but there is a man behind it all — a man of vision and integrity, you serfs — and you’d better appreciate his hard, crucifying labor, and Leo’s, too. See, there he is, suffering before you, steaming up the damn camera lens. Well, which is it? Is this a spiritual document of peerless verisimilitude, or is it filmmaker preening, reminding you that, above all else, this is a movie?

Based on his debut Amores Perros, I’ve been loyal to director Alejandro González Iñárritu for years, but after one bummer after another, as well as last year’s well-acted but show-offy Oscar winner Birdman, it’s probably time to admit that Iñárritu has a loud voice but not much to say with it. At its core, The Revenant is a simple story about Glass, a fur-trappers’ scout left for dead after a bear tears him up. He survives, and spends the rest of the long and winding movie trying to catch up with his chief betrayer, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and presumably put serious hurt on him. By the end, Glass rejects the idea of revenge, though he’s already brutalized Fitzgerald so much — in an ugly, endless brawl — that the movie gets to have its gory cake and eat it too.

Sitting through The Revenant, I kept recognizing other movies in it. The natural-lighting gimmick was done better by Kubrick in Barry Lyndon; the basic story was told before in 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, which took up nearly an hour less of our time; the sometimes discordant score (by Ryuichi Sakamoto among others) recalls Neil Young’s fuzzbox music for Jim Jarmusch’s acid western Dead Man (and this film’s dependence on an Indian helping an ailing white man was already parodied nicely by Jarmusch); and the symbolic heaviness of man against nature got some play in Joe Carnahan’s underrated existential drama The Grey. No grey here; this is strictly black and white, with the half-scalped Tom Hardy practically twirling his mustache as he refers to Indians as “tree niggers” — one of the few things he growls through his Brillo beard that you can understand. (At times, I thought I could discern phrases like “kung fu” and “jolly brisket” in that mop-spatter of sad, orphaned syllables.) Hardy’s Fitzgerald also gets a monologue about how he met a man who thought a squirrel was God; then Fitzgerald killed and ate the squirrel. So he’s not only the Devil, he’s a god-devourer, like Galactus or Darkseid in the comic books.

In contrast to the racist, mutilated Fitzgerald, the thick-maned Glass (he even has all his teeth) has a dearly departed Indian wife and a half-breed son. He’s spiritually an Indian himself, just like Jack Crabb and John Dunbar. Despite that, we are shown that there are good Indians (the Pawnee) and there are “savage” Indians (the Arikara, responsible for the Saving Private Ryan massacre that kicks off the movie, though they too come in handy for the white man later on). Can it be that the critics’ dartboard The Lone Ranger actually boasted a more nuanced vision of indigenous Americans than this lionized sadomasochistic trip offers?

Iñárritu was already working on The Revenant when he won the Oscar for Birdman, otherwise I’d call this the classic post-Oscar folly. Now that it has twelve nominations of its own and is favored to take the big win in a month or so, it seems ready to become a folly atop a folly. There are a lot of elements yanking us out of possible absorption in this supposedly realistic film — a bear that doesn’t look quite real, other shots and sequences with obvious CGI doctoring. And yet the movie doesn’t even get as gnarly as the real story did — the actual Hugh Glass let maggots feast on his bearclaw wounds to prevent gangrene, and Indians sewed a bear hide to his back to cover the gashes. If you’re waiting to see that happen to Leonardo DiCaprio in a $130 million motion picture, keep waiting.

The Film Critic

May 3, 2015

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The only thing more boring than a movie about movies is a movie about a movie critic. I mean, come on: we are not, as a group, enchanting. We do a lot of sitting: we sit and watch movies, we sit and write about them. We are as dull as any other kind of writer, and with the exception of Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael (subjects of past and future documentaries) or, in the realm of music criticism, Lester Bangs, critics are not movie material. There was that ridiculously pandering bit in High Fidelity when John Cusack referred to an ex-girlfriend’s gig as a film critic as “unassailably cool,” but no. It’s not. Maybe it used to be, back in the glory days of the ’70s, but not now.

The Argentinian comedy-drama The Film Critic seems to take place in some alternate universe where people still care what critics think and a harsh review can end a filmmaker’s career. (I’d say the movie is set in the past, but modern tech is used throughout.) The eponymous critic, Victor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd), mopes from screening to screening, complaining about the overused clichés in most movies, particularly romantic comedies. He sits with his androgynous niece Agatha (Telma Crisanti) and roasts the usual Hollywood endings featuring slow-motion running, kissing in the rain, and so forth.

Then Victor meets a woman, Sofia (Dolores Fonzi), who wants the same apartment he wants. At this point, the movie could go one of two ways. It could follow the lead of the film’s American tagline: “What if your life became a movie … that you hate?” Or it could blandly nod to the clichés but put nothing interesting in their place. The Film Critic goes the second and less engaging way. After all, we know quite well that life isn’t a movie. A movie telling us over and over how non-movie-ish its events are seems a bit like special pleading. That Sofia is more or less a non-entity doesn’t help; we don’t know what they see in each other or why they keep each other company for a while other than that they’re in a movie.

Writer/director Hernán Guerschuny apparently thinks the answer to boringly conventionally-structured narrative is boringly anti-climactic narrative. Whatever is introduced in the script, nothing seems to come of it. A moneybags of Victor’s acquaintance offers him money to write a script for him to turn into a movie; nothing comes of it. A filmmaker whose career Victor ruined becomes an eleventh-hour mustache-twirler who breaks Agatha’s heart; nothing comes of it. The city is presumably littered with the corpses of cinematic careers Victor’s withering prose has butchered in their cribs. I don’t know if that’s what it’s like in Argentina, but in the larger world, nobody kills movies except the merciless and largely tasteless whims of the market. Critics can assume neither credit nor blame for the failure of terrible movies, the success of great movies, or, more frequently, vice versa.

The Film Critic could have been a meta-fantasy in which a cynical critic does find himself inside a clichéd Hollywood story that he either loathes or grows fond of. But it isn’t; Victor neither loves nor hates his own story, he just shlumps around inside it. He’s never especially witty or appealing; I don’t think he ever even smiles. He’s a dull protagonist, film critic or not. We don’t care whether he ends up with the equally dull Sofia; the only character of more than passing interest is the niece Agatha, and she gets the short end of the narrative stick. If a movie called The Film Critic is not to be a red cape waved in front of film critics, it should probably be unassailably cool.

It Follows

March 15, 2015

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It Follows is a slow-burn, reasonably creepy horror film with an unusual premise that promotes subtext to text. Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenage girl, has sex with her boyfriend. Soon afterward, he tells her he has passed some sort of supernatural entity to her. She can only get rid of it by passing it along to someone else via sex. Otherwise, the thing, which changes appearance and can only be seen by its victim, will follow her slowly but implacably until it kills her. Mostly, the movie is a stylistic calling card in which its writer-director, David Robert Mitchell, shows how scrupulously he can ape John Carpenter. The comparison only holds sporadically, though. Parts of It Follows are so determinedly slack, and the performances so unaffected bordering on deadpan, that it seems like a mere exercise, not something that trades on legitimate fear.

Carpenter himself isn’t doing old-school Carpenter style any more, so I understand why this movie has been overpraised. It attempts to look and sound different from the usual contemporary horror. Any and all elements of it that make the viewer shiver — its stark widescreen images, its straight-backed slow-walking fiends, its synth score by Rich Vreeland — are pinched from vintage Carpenter, particularly Halloween. So it’s nothing original cosmetically, though it does play at times like a commentary on the have-sex-and-die motif that many pilloried Halloween for popularizing. The terror here becomes so linked to sex it’s practically venereal.

With the occasionally efficacious help of her lackluster group of friends, Jay hides from the following it, or tries to ward it off. Mitchell doesn’t waste much breath on exposition, or explaining the rules of this thing. It’s invisible to all but the person it’s following, but it can touch anyone and be touched, and it can be hurt, possibly killed. In a less laconic movie, we would’ve gotten a five-minute planning scene about how the teens scheme to electrocute the thing in a swimming pool, but here we just watch them setting up the trap with no preamble. How they know that electrocution might even work is left unspoken. The thing also has no backstory. It’s not getting revenge on anyone; it’s not stalking a long-lost sister or observing a holiday. It just exists and follows and kills.

Is it a metaphor, then, for sexual guilt? As I said, the usual subtext of slasher films here becomes text, so it’s tempting to take it back to subtext, but not much seems to be going on under the hood. Mitchell can set up tense and satisfying sequences, but the thing he hasn’t understood about Carpenter in his prime was the way Carpenter started out low-key, to lull us into a voyeuristic rhythm, and then gradually ratcheted up the suspense. Mitchell goes from a scare scene to a slack scene; the result isn’t a tightening grip of horror or a downward spiral towards confrontation, but an alternating jostle of brake and gas pedal, brake and gas pedal.

The movie begins to feel padded out, and not one but two boys offer to take on Jay’s burden, which might have come across as a witty commentary on horny teenage boys nobly volunteering to take one for the team, but doesn’t. Most of It Follows is humorless except for a fart joke early on and the washed-out dialogue between the kids. (Parents are mainly absent here.) We get quotes from Eliot and Dostoyevsky, but no particular insights into the characters, other than an anecdote about the kids finding porno mags in the woods. The movie unfolds in a universe with little or no adult supervision, and the police can’t help; we might have been encouraged to feel the kids’ frightened isolation and helplessness, but instead we just passively observe them while the Carpenter-copy soundtrack goes bloop and zhoom and other noises. I wish I had better news about It Follows, but really, don’t get your hopes up.


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