Archive for the ‘thriller’ 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.

Blue Velvet

April 17, 2016

bluevelvet
David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet, which is getting a limited 30th-anniversary re-release in theaters this year, has lost very little of its juice or shock in three decades. Since it wears the sheep’s clothing of fifties retro, other than the Aqua-Netted hair on some briefly seen high-school girls, not much ties the film to the mid-‘80s, either. It’s just this angelic/satanic hybrid reality, full of dichotomies and abstracted imagery and behavior. Like Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the film has a mystery at its center, but Lynch just uses it as an excuse to swim around inside his own obsessions, which become — and this is his artistry — our obsessions, at least for two hours.

The mystery here activates when college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), walking home through a field, finds a severed human ear. At one point, Lynch’s camera travels into the earhole, and the rest of the movie could be said to be a walkabout inside Lynch’s head. The ear leads to a drug ring, a kidnapped father and child, and the ultimate sadist and masochist — Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who seems to be made out of profanity, and Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who seems to be his not-quite-unwilling sex slave. I really have zero interest in summing up the plot, though, because if there’s one movie that is resolutely not about its plot, Blue Velvet is that movie.

Soaked in Freud and Jungian dream logic, the film proposes a split between darkness and light in which both sides are absurdly, almost cartoonishly heightened. It’s either picket fences or industrial rust, colors that pop in the sunshine or shadows that hide secrets and kinks. Even the dialogue echoes with oppositions: “I don’t know whether you’re a detective or a pervert”; “I don’t want to hurt you, I want to help you.” (With both these examples, the movie proves that there’s no reason both can’t be true.) Frank, enacting his ritualistic tryst with Dorothy (in which conventional coitus, including penetration, seems off the table), flips between being “Daddy” and “Baby” — infantilized by his own thirst for macho domination. Hopper is certainly ferocious as this rough beast, but then he goes beyond that into a weird sensitivity. Face to face with Jeffrey, his opposite number, Frank taunts him by whispering “You’re like me” and then plants some lipsticky kisses on him. The movie is, in part, about how Jeffrey recognizes this kinship to Frank but then rejects it. The question is whether such kinship, once recognized, can be rejected.

Frank’s violently sexual/sexless relationship with Dorothy and his tweaking of Jeffrey seem to proceed from the same impulse that brings him to Ben (Dean Stockwell), a “suave” and fey criminal of some sort. Frank takes Jeffrey, Dorothy, and his amusingly bedraggled posse of ne’er-do-wells to Ben’s for a brief business meeting, and also so that Dorothy can see her little boy, who apparently rejects her. (Is it because he can sense that Jeffrey has “put his disease” in her?) Ben’s pad is full of matronly women with cat’s-eye glasses and bouffants; whatever else it is, it’s the least likely place of criminal business anyone has ever seen. Frank, who abuses and yells at everyone, seems to respect the effeminate Ben, and stands mesmerized and agonized as Ben lip-syncs Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” Frank seems to need this song as much as he needs whatever he huffs from his gas mask. He’s a bastard and a maniac but also infernally human.

Lynch and his invaluable sound designer Alan Splet turn Blue Velvet into an apocalyptic, chthonic noise-scape, wedded to Angelo Badalamenti’s lush, minacious score, whose main melody seems an extension of Bernard Herrmann’s looping music for Vertigo. The movie is perhaps the most conventionally plotted of Lynch’s weirder work — it has clues, narrative beats, a resolution — and that might be why it ranks as many people’s favorite Lynch film, but I think its undeniable technical sophistication also helps put it over for those who would have little patience for Lynch’s later puzzles (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive). It walks and talks like a classically structured movie, and yet it doesn’t; it’s decayed and curled at the edges in so many ways. The movie’s eroticism — the dangerously intimate bits between Jeffrey and Dorothy that pass over into rage and release — is probably still unsurpassed, except perhaps by Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. Rossellini possibly isn’t quite acting; she gives physically of herself totally, and her spiky emotions derive from her literal nakedness.

One of Blue Velvet’s last images, famously, is of a (fake-looking) robin with an insect in its beak, calling back to the vision of Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the local detective’s daughter and Jeffrey’s sometime helper on this “case,” of the arrival of robins to dispel the darkness. The equally famous opening of the movie, with its hyper-bright flowers and fire truck giving way to Jeffrey’s dad’s stroke (I always think the kinked-up garden hose somehow causes the stroke — does anyone else?) and the subterranean black bugs, seems to be the entire movie in miniature, all its themes laid out in pictures — even the TV playing in Jeffrey’s house foreshadows things to come.

The fake robin may or may not triumph over or devour the insect it’s carrying. Entire books could be (and probably have been) devoted to that one bothersome image. But the very final image is of Dorothy, still wearing her fetishistic performer’s wig, in what you’d think is a moment of reunion and rapture, except that something seems to remind her of her bombed-out rendition of the movie’s theme song, and for a moment her expression becomes troubled. Even if the insect is vanquished by the robin, there are many more like it hiding in the grass, in the shadows under the white picket fence. I think Lynch sincerely wants to believe in Sandy and her vision, but Blue Velvet’s position during the “morning in America” Reagan era is neither an accident nor a coincidence; Lynch wants us to look under the shiny surface, as he did at greater length in Twin Peaks. Days are not always sunny, but nights are always dark.

John Wick

October 26, 2014

20141026-182108.jpg
Directed by two guys with backgrounds in stunts, John Wick exists more or less entirely as a highlight reel of great action choreography. The titular protagonist (Keanu Reeves), a former freelance assassin dragged back into violence, employs a variety of guns to send his enemies by the dozen to the other side. John is so adept at dealing death that the Russian mob he used to work for refers to him as baba yaga, or the boogeyman. Ah, so John is the Michael Myers of the underworld, the man who strikes terror even in hardened killers? Yet John is also capable of gentleness and love, and these two sides of him don’t really cohere.

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

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

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

Gone Girl

October 4, 2014

20141004-210353.jpg
Gone Girl is the most loathsome movie I’ve seen in the twenty-eight years I’ve been reviewing films. What’s worse, I’m sure its director, David Fincher, would be jazzed by my reaction. But he shouldn’t be: he has brought considerable craft and resources to bear on a creepy, ugly thing, a pretty hate machine, a bruised corpse on a coldly gleaming autopsy table (which fairly well describes the film’s color scheme). It reduces everything and everyone to shit, and then rubs it in our faces. It’s the kind of movie that Alex the droog from A Clockwork Orange would make about human relationships and marriage, and its nastiness is not mitigated by art of any sort, or entertainment other than a detached buzz over novelist/scripter Gillian Flynn’s laughable plot twists.

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

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

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

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

A Walk Among the Tombstones

September 21, 2014

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONESMatthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) has a way of getting to the point. In A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on the tenth of Lawrence Block’s Scudder novels, Scudder is snooping through a dubious character’s things, and is caught at it by Mr. Dubious, who wields a big knife. Scudder, an ex-cop and off-the-books private eye, takes one look at the guy and knows the knife isn’t about to be used. So instead of provoking him into violence, Scudder nonchalantly but firmly says something to the effect of, Look, I can take that away from you, but I’d rather not have to. Scudder isn’t a fan of brutality, though he has seen enough of it to tide him over several lifetimes. Liam Neeson, here and elsewhere in the movie, speaks and moves with the effortless authority of a man who still, at age 62, can fold you in half without breaking stride, but conducts himself with the grace of a man who would rather not have to.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is grim and sometimes ghastly, but its heartbeat is gentle and patient. Writer-director Scott Frank isn’t a fan of brutality either, though the plot is one of Block’s nastier items, about a pair of psychos who prey on the wives of rich men in the drug business. Such men are disinclined to call the police, and, realistically I guess, they don’t command a Tony Montana-style army. The psychos, too, depend on their marks to race into the situation with unclear heads full of stress and rage. Ultimately, the sickos demand a ransom but then deliver a kidnapped wife back in pieces. They don’t do it for the money, though the money does keep the lights on; they do it because they like torturing women, and the opening credits of the movie begin as a possible erotic afternoon delight and then gradually shade into something darker and more repugnant. Frank catches us leaning the wrong way here, but overall he suggests rather than lingers on the pain of the women.

The movie isn’t terribly concerned with women as anything other than plot motivators (Scudder’s prostitute girlfriend from the book has been omitted), which may draw it some charges of sexism it doesn’t really earn. It’s more engaged with the pain of men, the pain they’re in and the pain they cause. Scudder faithfully attends AA meetings, and a climactic event is intercut with an earlier church stop, where Scudder solemnly listens to a woman listing the Twelve Steps while in the future there is bloody cataclysm in and out of the rain. I don’t think anyone could call the movie pro-masculine; Scott Frank may elide the horrors, but he makes sure we catch enough of misogynist psychopathology to give us the shivers. One scene will haunt me: the two monsters, idling in their van, mesmerized by the sight of their latest prey, who walks the family dog and waves cheerily at them as she passes, while Donovan’s “Atlantis” — surely the creepiest use of it since GoodFellas — oozes from the van’s radio. It’s a terrifying sequence.

Scudder gets by with the help of a sidekick of sorts, T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless kid who uses the library for reading and occasionally sleeping out of the rain. T.J. is black, but as played by Bradley he’s admirably not-cute; we don’t have to sit there and worry about the white man patting his young Negro ward on the head condescendingly — T.J. is tough and smart and helpful in the case. Scudder finds himself in this mess when a drug dealer (Dan Stevens) comes to him seeking justice for his wife, returned in “poor condition” by the psychos. The dealer has a brother (Boyd Holbrook) who came back from Desert Storm a heroin addict and who might be useful if he can get over his own man-pain. T.J. is about the only character we see, Scudder included, who just gets on with things.

The movie is great on such things as addicts’ rituals (two shots and a cup of coffee), the alarming but bracing sounds of a gunfight in full eruption, the sickly quiet after said gunfight, the way a sociopath sits down and eats calmly five minutes after having garroted someone, a whiskey bottle swung into someone’s skull that doesn’t shatter but bounces off with a painful-sounding tonk!, the grotesque indignity of slipping on bloody stairs. A Walk Among the Tombstones, indeed, strikes me as the first great American film of the new season, a stoically gripping opening shot to inaugurate the cooler months, when we adults can bid a temporary farewell to superheroes and robots and go, once again, to movies made for us.

The November Man

September 14, 2014

The-November-Man-trailer-2-750x310Has it really been twenty years since Pierce Brosnan was officially announced as the then-latest James Bond? (Brosnan’s debut, GoldenEye, marks its twentieth anniversary next year.) Now 61, Brosnan seems interested in interrogating the cold 007 archetype from different angles, whether farcical (2005’s The Matador) or serious, as in his new thriller, The November Man. The movie is based on the seventh in a largely overlooked series of spy novels by Bill Granger about Devereaux — no first name, though in the film he goes by Peter — a former agent who keeps getting pulled back in to contend with international crises. Here, Devereaux must protect a woman (Olga Kurylenko) who possesses dangerous information about a piece of rapist slime who’s being groomed for the presidency of Russia.

The newsworthy thing about The November Man, directed with old-school grit and clarity by Roger Donaldson, is how emotional its violence feels — and there’s plenty of blood spilled. The fights and gunshots seem to burst forth out of rage and contempt — and that’s when the good guys do it. Well, “good guys” according to whatever definition means anything in this gray context. Devereaux is brought in by old handler Hanley (Bill Smitrovich, doing his best Peter Boyle), who soon turns on Devereaux, takes over from section chief Weinstein (Will Patton, doing his best J.T. Walsh), and sends Devereaux’s former protege Mason (Luke Bracey) after him.

What we’re never allowed to forget is that the convoluted plot is powered by those who perpetrated war crimes on vulnerable girls and those who want to bring the perpetrators to justice. Devereaux is already nursing a painful personal loss at the callous hands of his employers. Later in the film, he will present a harsh and bloody choice to Mason. In part, the movie is about the misogyny at the highest levels of government and federal intelligence. Usually women in spy movies are bargaining chips or femmes fatale or, with 007, a motivation for the hero to press onward vengefully. Here, Olga Kurylenko is allowed central importance, with back-up from Caterina Scorsone as an agent, Amila Terzimehic as a fierce and unstoppable assassin, and Eliza Taylor as Mason’s warm, cat-owning neighbor.

Brosnan’s Devereaux is cool, abrupt, coiled for action. Not suave like 007, he’s closer to a spy version of Donald Westlake’s Parker, brutal and pessimistic. Combined with Julian Noble of The Matador, Devereaux is Brosnan’s way of telling us that he understands that a 007 in the real world would be a monster, or at least monstrously desensitized. Still, Devereaux isn’t far enough gone to see that a woman who seeks justice should have it. And again, somehow the violence Devereaux commits in the movie feels like an expression of anger at what the world of dirty international politics does to innocence and to women (Devereaux, it’s revealed at some point, has more than one personal reason for being angry). The November Man is structured like a routine spy thriller — and it sure goes like lightning — but it means more than meets the eye.

The Purge: Anarchy

July 21, 2014

20140721-171144.jpg

The disappointing thing about the Purge movies is that the marketing makes them look spookier and more radical than they turn out to be. The first one, from last year, used a promising if unoriginal premise — every year in futuristic America, there’s a 12-hour window of officially ignored criminality — as the backdrop for a standard home-invasion thriller. Now The Purge: Anarchy employs the same concept as wallpaper for an action-thriller that swipes alternately from The Warriors and Escape from New York but lacks the style of either.

As the annual Purge is about to kick off, we meet a variety of civilians preparing for the long night. The mother-daughter duo Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul) plan to hole up in their apartment. The troubled young couple Shane (Zach Gifford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are on their way to her sister’s house. A mystery man (Frank Grillo) arms himself and goes out into the chaos. Eventually all these people wind up under the protection of Mystery Man, whose name, Wikipedia informs me, is Leo, even though I don’t think I heard it mentioned in the film.

Somewhere in there is a revolutionary faction opposed to the Purge, but aside from serving as a deus ex machina (both Purge movies are full of last-minute rescues) they don’t amount to much. More is made here of the Purge essentially being an elitist culling of the 99%, with the rich paying to kidnap or hunt the poor for fun. But the politics of this is callow compared to two other recent dystopian thrillers, Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The action, on the rare occasions that you can make out what’s happening, is uninspired; the putatively ghastly sight of prowling killers in ironically innocent masks is muted when we find out what they’re really up to. Random cruelty, to me, is scarier than conspiracy theories, which arise from the human need to impose order where there is none. There’s certainly order in the universe of The Purge, which makes the conflict comprehensible and dull and politically questionable even if you’re on the side of the 99%.

By virtue of getting out and about, and having a more varied cast than Ethan Hawke and his family, The Purge: Anarchy packs marginally more entertainment value than its predecessor. Ultimately, though, it’s boring to watch and to think about, and sadly, these movies are meant to be thought about. But they’re overtly political in a way that reminds me of a high-school kid who’s just discovered radicalism. The writer/director of both films is James DeMonaco, who may for all I know have a shelf full of Noam Chomsky, but one of the executive producers is Transformers perpetrator Michael Bay, whose low-budget horror-flick shingle Platinum Dunes is behind the films. Bay is decidedly a one-percenter, and I would reflexively distrust anything supposedly radical with his name on it. These movies are like something that would be shown to the poor folks of Panem in The Hunger Games to pacify them, keep them from actually doing anything.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 123 other followers