Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Love & Squalor Top 24 of 2014

This is the absolute latest I've ever released an end of the year recap, and there were times when I thought maybe I'd wind up skipping the final list.  Of all the outside projects I failed to tackle over the course of this hellish semester, though, this list has been one of the biggest, stupidest bits of lingering stress. So, as we approach the halfway mark for 2015, I bring you my list of 2014's best (not necessarily favorite) films.  Though 2014 on the whole felt less inspired than 2013, there were some stellar examples of genre films and a few interesting twists on the prestige picture.  Why say too much, though? We're already this late, let's just jump into it...

Mad Max: Fury Road



...and on the third weekend of Ultron, the crowds turned to what George Miller had made, and they saw that it was good. That it was very good, in fact.  That it was a thing of so rare and well-formed a quality that the masses agreed that this was to be the definition of "bad ass."  For indeed, it was nothing if not that...  

 Maybe I'm exaggerating, maybe not so much. The return of Mad Max has become an event picture in a way no one could have anticipated until fairly late into 2015.  There had been talk, certainly, and rumblings from the cult fandom.  Generally, though, as most were busy examining the spate of Marvel releases under a microscope, Fury Road was thundering around the bend and getting ready to blindside everyone.  At a cultural moment in which the term "action movie" has become synonymous with suited-up superheroes and the destruction of cities, Fury Road boasts both a return to roots and a necessary evolution.  Turns out, it's the movie we need. Yes. A long-after-the-fact sequel to a Mel Gibson series of post-apocalyptic car movies is the movie we collectively need right now.  

Monday, May 18, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2

      


If you dig through the archives and pull up my review on the first Pitch Perfect, you'll find a sour bit of writing about that film's total inability to live up to the strength of its conceit.  It didn't know how to use the strengths it had, the thing was a tonally uneven, unfunny disappointment, there was no real characterization, etc, etc.  Simply put: I didn't like it.  As time went on and that film wormed its way into the good graces of many a bored channel surfer, I found myself really growing to hate and resent it in a way I reserve for only the greatest misfires.  It wasn't just that I thought Pitch Perfect was a spectacularly flat film, it was that for some reason everyone else seemed to love it in spite of its total redundancy.  

I still don't like it. So, yes, it's a little bit surprising that I wound up planted in a reclining theater seat on a Saturday afternoon, ready to subject myself to a litany of one-note jokes and cheesy pop covers yet again. This is perhaps the finest proof that I can offer that I am, occasionally, an optimist. Even after a couple of years spent rolling my eyes over how much folks loved that dumb little movie, I came back because I had a lingering glimmer of some kind of stubborn hope.  My hatred stemmed from the fact Pitch Perfect didn't live up to the raw potential it so clearly had, and which I still believed it could display.  This time? Without the expository burdens of the first movie?  I thought just maybe the sequel would be able to live up to its comedic promise.  So you're wondering...did it get there?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ex Machina



When writing about Ex Machina one must do so with the utmost care. It is a piece of work easily spoiled not solely in terms of its story, but also in how the viewer is predisposed to view it. The film - from the mind of writer/director Alex Garland - offers little more than a sliver of revealable expository action.  Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a rather green programmer "wins" a chance to travel to the secretive compound of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the enigmatic and deeply eccentric tech billionaire at the top of his company.  It is unclear what will happen there, and why he has been brought.  Nathan  claims Caleb will have the chance to be administer the Turing test and face off with his prized invention, a piece of artificial intelligence called Ava (Alicia Vikander) in a series of sessions.  Indeed he does, but as the days go by the conditions within the house seem to change. It is a type of intelligent prison, Nathan drinks to the point of excess, Caleb's bedroom is too enclosed, and Ava seems to be aware of the ulterior motives the lurk in the hearts of the men. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Avengers: Age of Ultron



Part of me feels like the best - and most succinct - way to assess The Avengers: Age of Ultron is to just point a finger back at you. You're either in or you're out. If you didn't like the last handful of Marvel films, this is more of the same. If you're into it? You're into it.  Sure, you may be one of the people who's into it with the caveat that you feel like the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is misused. Or, you're one of the people who's into it but annoyed that there aren't more powerful ladies.  Or, you're into it but you really feel like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a useless character. Or, you're into it but you're like, dude, there were some plot holes...what was happening with those "dream" sequences? Or, maybe you feel like Evan Peters (X-Men: Days of Future Past) should be playing Quicksilver (here played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), there should be more shirtless dudes, more jokes, less explosions, more James Spader voice. Everyone has their conditional "yes, but" for how they would have liked this juggernaut to be, so I'll leave it to the individual think pieces and comics experts to dismantle those instances further.  

My deal is this: I'm totally on board. Would I have liked it more if Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) didn't have to default to a love story?  Yes. Would I have liked it more if she didn't have a moment where she's like "ehhhh, i'm a genetically engineered assassin who can't have children"? Yes. Because I have feelings about evoking motherhood when it doesn't need to be part of a character's narrative and thoroughly do not get why that has to be in that conversation at all.  But did that little conversation severely disrupt my enjoyment of the film? No. No it did not. Because, if we're being honest, I still feel like Black Widow is steadily growing from the flat archetype she first appeared as in Iron Man 2. 

While We're Young



While We're Young is - just maybe - the closest that Noah Baumbach has come to directing a conventional marriage comedy.  It's a friendlier, more approachable, slightly more sub-culturally self-aware Baumbach than we've seen in Greenberg, Frances Ha, or Squid and the Whale, but if so it's perhaps only because, well, he himself is starting to get a little older.

The director has made a career out of wallowing in the intellectually hip milieu. He writes for a 21st century accidental misanthrope, the almost hipster who likes Annie Hall, sure, but, really, would prefer to read "The Kugelmass Episode" for inspiration between writing flash fictions in a neighborhood tea house.  Baumbach's films tend to be tours of the types of anxieties that arise from a certain type of stubborn narcissism, and so it is that when the term "hipster" circulates around them - as it so often does - it often feels both like an indictment and an accident. It's often difficult to tell whether the director sees his characters as accidentally cool or pathetic, but in While We're Young the lines are more definitively drawn as generational gaps: here is the couple that once defined a type of cool, here is the couple considered currently cool.  To call up a formidably uncool reference, let's just say: there's nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey



If you follow me on Twitter, then you already know that one Friday morning way back in February I live-tweeted the act of watching Fifty Shades of Grey in a mostly empty theater.  I was accompanied by a friend, and we made our intentions of laughing and providing general commentary clear from the get-go. While Fifty Shades represented a pop cultural phenomenon too big to ignore, there was no way in hell I would be able to get through it without occasionally (rather loudly) communicating with the screen. I'd read the book in a similar attempt to see what all the fuss was about and had found it to be, well, complete shit.  Granted, I'm a little bit snobbish when it comes to literature, but I'm willing to acknowledge the merits of story even in the event of awful writing. Fifty Shades was weak on both. What I found between its covers was exactly that silly bit of Twilight fan fiction it was designed to be; an illogical, wooden slice of soft core boasting protagonists so out of touch with their supposed generation that it might as well have been set in the Narnia. A college student without a functioning computer or an email address? Is she also a unicorn?

Needless to say, I walked into the theater prepared to be enraged but willing to be begrudgingly surprised. Many a dreadful book has been made into far better film, after all, and Fifty Shades was vapid yet potentially sexy enough to benefit from an injection of celluloid glamour. It was possible - I supposed - that director Sam Taylor-Johnson could have opted to make Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) a little more with it, a little more of a women's studies major, a little more hip to what her paramour was selling.  Sadly, though, hapless "author" E.L. James retained control over the screenplay and the shells of her characters.  From the film's opening moments it became immediately clear that Fifty Shades would not be overcoming any of the inane illogic of the original novel.  So I had to accept that I'd paid money solely to play Statler and Waldorf.  To that end, in providing me with innumerable head-scratching moments, Fifty Shades did not disappoint.  If you want a movie to watch with a game group of sarcastic friends? This should do the trick. If you're looking for an "erotically charged romance"? I'd advise that you look elsewhere.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Cinderella



I often use fairy tales in the classroom as a teaching tool and, specifically, I pick on Cinderella. The reasons are simple: it's a story that -without fail- every college student in America is aware of. It's also one which most have heard, read, or seen in at least two or three variations beyond what they consider the "standard" version.  Flexibility in theme and form is perhaps the real beauty of the fairy tale, and I've taken to asking students in my creative classes to pick apart Cinderella and challenge themselves to write new iterations that manipulate the themes, characters, narrative arcs, and lessons that they see as most integral.  As can be expected, the results are almost always rooted in a basic understanding of one of two twin root systems: the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney.  They dig into the "violent realities of the universe" or they puff the piece full of sparkle and magic- as if the story renders these things mutually exclusive.  What they don't often don't realize is that it does not. That, by its nature, the Cinderella tale supposes a type of human cruelty that reads as its own kind of violence - with or without the eye gouging.

Of course, Kenneth Branagh's version is produced through Disney and uses as its guide the Charles Perrault iteration that built the studio's 1950 animated classic.  Here the mice sew and transform into horses, a pumpkin becomes a carriage, and a girl is pulled from her hardship because of her staunch commitment to kindness in the face of adversity. It's a lovely, traditional affair pulled - if not from old school fairy tales - then from an early 20th century storybook.

Catching Up: A Most Violent Year

The great benefit of some temporal distance from all of these films I'm *just getting around to* writing about is that I now know precisely the outcome of awards season and I can ask, with total and absolute conviction, how it's even possible that A Most Violent Year was ignored the way it was.  Though, at the same time, I guess I'm not surprised.  J.C. Chandor's film is a New Hollywood classic come too late, an aesthetic tribute to a bygone era of New York crime films and morality plays that roots itself in a world of waterfronts, boxy luxury cars, long camel-hair coats, and smokey interiors.  It's a gangster movie that exists with the real criminals lurking just in the shadows, steeping itself in the atmospheric visual cues familiar to their world but grounding its story in financial paperwork and a more numbers-based corruption.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain star as the film's central twosome, married Abel and Anna Morales.  They're in the business of home-heating oil, on the verge of taking their expanding company to the next level.  If Abel can get the money needed to close on a deal, he'll be able to all but guarantee his own dominance of that market.  Problems begin to surface as Abel finds himself under police investigation for corruption just as his low-level employees find themselves victims of ruthless attacks and thefts.  While Anna has fudged some numbers, sure, Abel wants to keep his head above water.  In this, the film becomes a fascinating inversion of its generic constraints, and as smart as it is stylish.  It adopting the look and feel of a type of film, A Most Violent Year finds a way to make a different kind of "business" feel as rife with intrigue and as dangerous as so many we've seen before.  The mundane, workaday aspects of industry are here made chilling, all the more by the backdrop of a grimy, 1981 New York City.  We can see what happens when true corruption creeps steadily towards something far more morally ambiguous, and Chandor succeeds in destabilizing the film's ground throughout. It's often not clear who's in the right or how far the family will go, and the result is a powder keg, and one of the coolest damn movies in recent memory.


Catching Up: Kingsman: The Secret Service

In going to see Kingsman: The Secret Service I'd hoped it would be a fun, poppy palate cleanser to top off a morning spent at the movie theater watching Fifty Shades of Grey.  Indeed, the film is poppy - often sporting unreasonably bright colors and an aesthetic that feels more appropriate for an old school comic book or line of toy cars than an R-rated actioner - but somehow manages to be too much so.  The lines between the heroes and the villains seem arbitrarily drawn, the pop cultural references feel expected and slight, the action sequences aim for humor but frequently succumb to sadism, and by the end of the film it feels like the stakes have been a bad joke all along.  It's an exercise in Anglophilia that, weirdly, seems minimally in touch with British humor.  Subtlety is something Kingsman just doesn't understand, and which it desperately, desperately needs.  Everything is dialed up to such a pitch that it feels like a long, pummeling line that offers fight after fight in the name of instant gratification, thereby prolonging nothing and making the entirety of the film feel like an arduous, exhausting chore.

While it references James Bond, The Avengers, and the Bourne films left and right, it's more of a testosterone-driven version of something like, well, St. Trinian's: loud, bawdy, silly, and gifted with the unlikely presence of a spate of otherwise excellent actors sent to distract from and babysit teenage hooligans.  Here the scene stealer is Colin Firth as Galahad, a seasoned spy who recruits young "Eggsy" (Taron Egerton) to ascend from the working class and train to join a secret, world-saving operation.  While the premise is one with promise, the film lost me primarily in its handling of the action sequences.  To call them stylistically heavy handed is an understatement, and there's such an absurd level of physicality to them that they near slapstick.  In other words; they're not graceful, they're not subtle, they read as both overly choreographed and under-considered. The goal each time is a maximum body count in a minimal number of frames, and the problem with that is we see it repeated over and over and over again.

With the exception of a truly brutal massacre in a Southern church, Kingsman fails to balance the possible wit of its components against a type of lead-footed bloodlust.  Director Matthew Vaughn (of Kick-Ass, of course) tries to pack absolutely everything into an overly extended run time and winds up pummeling the viewer until the set-pieces just aren't interesting anymore.  With some clever editing, this is a work easily salvaged. Unfortunately, in its current cut it's an obnoxious, mildly entertaining bit of brutality.

Catching Up: Maps to the Stars



On paper, a film like Maps to the Stars could be assumed to be another in a long line of Hollywood-produced self-satires. The miscellaneous pieces sound like a series of grotesques, twisted archetypes of tabloid figures we recognize, love, and revile.  Works like Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, and Day of the Locust seem to whisper their influence from the gutters of each shot, and we watch as a young woman, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), arrives via bus to the city of angels.  At first, she's just another small town girl rolling up to the dream factory; a social climber, a bit of a stalker, a mysterious presence.  She wears long black gloves in all kinds of weather, and because this is a David Cronenberg film, we begin to get the sense of some other kind of instability.  This is not a film where the young starlet dethrones an aging queen.  This is something else entirely.

What that is, though, lurks just below the surface for much of the film. To use a simile appropriate to Cronenberg's oeuvre, watching Maps to the Stars is a bit like watching a sexy car crash.  Characters collide, scrape at one another, burn in ways that are unsettling, fascinating, and which ultimately leave a sort of mess of twisted wreckage.  We watch terrible people doing terrible things to one another until the credits roll, and while we couldn't look away, we don't know what it is that we just watched. If it's a satire, it's perhaps not one solely on Hollywood, but one that mercilessly pulls at the flesh of some unclear deeper social problem.  What is being bred in our culture of celebrity? What is this film unearthing? What haunts Hollywood, and what does Agatha's arrival bring to the fore?

Agatha's arrival is one that raises the dead.  This is the closest, perhaps, that we've gotten to true Cronenbergian "body horror" in any number of films.  Maps roots itself in skin and superficiality, in appearances and what lurks directly under them. There's a discomfort that overwhelms the atmosphere of the film and permeates the nasty caricatures Agatha eventually interacts with.  Julianne Moore is the standout here as Havana, a ruthless, desperate actress struggling to maintain her fame mid-career. She's wicked and vulnerable, despicable in the things she says and does even as she's pathetic. She visits a shamanistic guru (John Cusack) who delivers a type of massage therapy dependent, it would seem, on his presence.  His 13-year old son Benjie (Evan Bird) is on the brink of imploding his burgeoning career: he's been in and out of rehab, he sends another child actor to the hospital, and he mirrors Havana's paranoia in that he desperately seems to want to relish the pain of others in cases where it benefits his own success.
All of this makes for a mess worth exploring, and each individual thread in Maps offers a combination of character study and eviscerating satire.  What those threads add up to, though, is phenomenally unclear.  Perhaps this is the point. The film is a walking tour of horrors, the ghosts and nightmares that haunt the surface escapism of an industry.  It's a nasty piece of work, but one that unfortunately doesn't quite seem to know what it wants the audience to understand or to take away.  Still, it's fascinating to observe, and often as bizarrely, atonally comedic as it is nihilistic and sad.





Catching Up: Jupiter Ascending

If you tell me that a film is directed by the Wachowskis, I'm going to watch it. It doesn't matter if it's a Matrix sequel or a live-action cartoon or an ill-advised attempt to adapt a sprawling cross-genre novel, I'll be buying a ticket.  The reason for this is simple: while the sibling directors may not always achieve their lofty goals, they're always trying to do something genuinely interesting. When they pick up a project, they run it as far as they can and throw as much of themselves at the genre as they're able.  In the case of Jupiter Ascending that meant a massive budget, a scale too epic to be properly contained, and such a hodge-podge of allusions and worlds that the film can't be described on paper without sounding wholly absurd: it's a Cinderella story in which a miserable maid named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) discovers she's genetically an intergalactic princess.  Add to that flying space lizard henchmen, a flamboyant trio of villainous space royals (headed by Eddie Redmayne), and Channing Tatum as a gravity defying, hover-skating, half-canine/half-man guardian named Caine and, well, it's easy to wonder how this managed to get a green light in the first place.

We can't dance around it: Jupiter Ascending is indeed as ridiculous as it sounds.  There's so much that teeters between self-aware camp and pure illogic that many will find it difficult to latch on to any part of the narrative.  This isn't a film where we can count on our involvement with the characters to guide us through the chaos of these worlds, and when it's hard to care, audiences disappear. Though the film opens theoretically interesting conversations on ideas like genetics, wealth, and unconventional heroes, they're under heavy layers of flat action sequences and romances without chemistry.  It's too much mythology a little too quickly, but if you're open to the idea of a king-sized space opera, Jupiter succeeds at being entertaining.  It's fun. It's silly. It's self-aware.  It's often lovely to look at.  If I'd bothered writing this closer to my screening of it, I'm sure I could have pulled out some of the smarter threads and switches the Wachowski's are known for. 

As it stands, I can only admit that when I went to see Jupiter Ascending the stress I was under could have made me love anything that was remotely distracting, but with that as a caveat, I rather liked Jupiter Ascending.  At the very least, it's a new camp classic.     

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