UNDER THE SKIN

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By R. David

Viewed April 11, 2014

I’ll concede that true visionary directors are in short supply these days.  Those daring, inventive auteurs not afraid to go against the grain of what is considered traditionally acceptable in film are often dismissed as pompous, pretentious, or just plain weird; yet audiences overwhelmingly flock to the predictable, familiar, and mediocre time and time again.  So, when a bold, distinctive voice submits a challenging and defiantly original film, I always wrestle with a great deal of regret when I can’t recommend it.  Alas, pompous, pretentious and just plain weird is precisely what Jonathan Glazer’s (“Sexy Beast”) “Under the Skin” is.

A sensory experience rather than a mere narrative, “Under the Skin” means to be haunting and intriguing – and  it is for a while – presenting an alien (Scarlett Johansson) who cruises the streets of Scotland in a cargo van, looking for men who will make suitable candidates to invite back to her abandoned country hobble where she joins them in stripping naked and watching as they dissolve in pool of black goo as they approach her, seemingly hypnotized by whatever spell she wields.  Why is anybody’s guess.  Her motivation is never made clear, nor is her origin or the extent of her powers.  The film is essentially a series of these encounters, augmented by the addition of new characters and settings as the story, such as it is, meanders along. 

Glazer’s intent here is obviously to present these events as some sort of fever dream for the audience to decipher for themselves and take away what they will.  Kudos to any film that doesn’t insist on leading me by the hand to its point.  But there should ultimately be a decipherable point, or at least a satisfying cohesion of themes and ideas, and a conclusion that offers some sort of revelation in lieu of closure.  But “Under the Skin” makes the mistake of so many show-offy indies in which the filmmakers come up with a provocative premise, but either can’t or don’t bother to load it with anything resembling coherence.  The movie is nonsensical and, worse, all too obviously proud of it.  You can feel Glazer reveling in every infuriatingly impenetrable sequence he tosses up on screen without rhyme or reason.  “Under the Skin” is moody and ambitious – haunting even (its droning soundtrack and the ominously languid encounters between Johansson and her victims create some real tension) – but there is no pay off to any of it.  Sequences that have you on the edge of your seat end in frustratingly opaque impasses again and again. 

For instance, there is little variation in the scenes where Johansson prowls for, selects, and ultimately consumes her prey, so why the film spends more than half of its running time repeating these encounters is anyone’s guess (Glazer employs cinema verite style to these sequences, supposedly filing real men on the street without their knowledge – that’s interesting I guess, but is neither here nor there in terms of effective, dramatic storytelling).  Worse yet, in one of these episodes she meets a man with a severely disfigured face, and you’d think the physical difference of her subject would yield some narrative payoff (perhaps a change in her attitude or different reason for her engaging him); alas, this variation in character type yields nothing in terms of narrative variation.  Similarly, there is disturbing sequence on a beach that seems to be accidentally spliced into this movie from a completely different film. 

Again, much of this will be interpreted differently by the individual.  One man’s boring repetition or pointless sequence is another’s in-depth commentary, or perhaps at least their fascinating enigma.  Those who favor style over substance and the bizarre over the intelligible will no doubt be elated with “Under the Skin”.  It is moody and visually stunning to be sure.  The sight of a fully-nude Johansson doesn’t hurt either, though to diminish her performance here by solely focusing on her nudity would be unfair.  It’s a coldly fascinating turn that you don’t fully appreciate until you think back on the film and realize how instrumental it was in pulling you through the muddled story and conveying the few emotions and revelations the film does manage.  But “Under the Skin” ultimately feels like so much ado about nothing.  In the final act, there are character and plot developments that come completely out of left field.  It’s hard to make sense of them, and even harder to care about them. 

“Under the Skin” is an intriguing and sometimes stunning mess.  But it’s a mess just the same.  Its slack pace and pompously artistic air don’t help matters.  Maybe if it had a certain manic energy, or even a consistent tone, it would be easier to appreciate for its visceral thrills alone.  But the movie wants you to ignore its narrative structure despite being frustratingly beholden to it.  The film simply can’t have it both ways.  Despite (or because of) “Under the Skin’s” considerable attributes, the result is unsatisfying and disappointing.

2 Stars (Out of 4)

THE DROP

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By C. Merlin

Viewed September 15, 2014

Despite the obvious hype this movie garnered for being the last, posthumous film of the great James Gandolfini (The Sopranos, The Last Castle), it was not the tour de force I was expecting in story, or Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Bronson). The Sopranos, debatably, has been the only series that was able to successfully break free of the “Scorsese” style of New York City gangster that had spawned so many re-hash’s of the same type of characters, some good (A Bronx Tale), and some not so good (Pool hall Junkies). So with a good knowledge of Gandolfini’s acting credits, and knowing that he is capable of other types of roles besides a Brooklyn gangster, I went into The Drop wondering if this would be a re-visitation to The Sopranos, or something totally different. I would assume that Gandolfini had no problems finding work after the critcally acclaimed HBO series. I’m sure with his range he had no intention of playing the grizzled crime boss role for the rest of his career. So this could have been considered his first baby step away from that kind character.

Marv is a dark, brooding, and calculating man that manages to stomp through his middle age years with the reputation that he built up in his youth. However his younger self got too caught up in the glory, let his guard down for just a moment and found himself under the thumb of the very one dimensionally written Chechen mafia. While the Marv character contains the depth of a mysterious past, the antagonist Chechen’s appear to have been written as an afterthought to create conflict with Gandolini’s aged, and brooding thug.

Taking up the bulk of the screen time is Bob, Played by Tom Hardy. Bob “just tends bahr” at Cousin Marv’s tavern, which has become a “drop bar” for the Chechen gangsters. A drop bar is a laundering operation where over the course of the night money is dropped off in envelopes and dropped into the safe as if it were revenue from that night’s drink sales. So clearly Bob is competent enough to handle a money laundering operation but when you see him in his day-to-day life you would be surprised he could even press start on a microwave. Throughout the film Hardy’s character comes off as a bit of a simpleton that has seen the Rocky movies one too many times. He delivers the lines slowly and in a monotone that makes him look like he can barely comprehend the situations at hand. At one point he finds a puppy in a garbage can that belongs to Nadia played by Noomi Rapace (“Prometheus”, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”) which sets in motion a side plot involving a psychotic ex-boyfriend, and an excuse for the camera to shoot heart throb Hardy holding a pit bull puppy. Which can only help their box office ticket sales. To make matters worse, the bar gets held up by gunmen which causes the Chechens to strong arm Bob and Marv into getting it back.

Overall I would give The Drop a B grade. While the pacing was slow and the action was few and far between, Gandolfini’s performance is what makes the movie above average. A man who no longer carries the power he once had, and appears that life has both physically and mentally beaten him into submission. It could almost be considered a sad sequel to the fate of Tony Soprano if your interpretation of the final episode was that he lived and started a new life as a bar owner. Although Bob’s lines have you rolling your eyes at some points during the film, his character leaves you giving the thumbs up to Hardy’s performance as well with an ending that I personally did not see coming.

CHEAP THRILLS

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By R. David

April 11, 2014

“Cheap Thrills” is one of those film titles – and to be sure, films – that challenge the audience to watch.  An enter-at-you-own-risk warning that is also titillating enough to temp the skeptical (the words “cheap” and “trills” in almost any context tend to pique interest), the film is as hard to resist and turn away from as its title.  A horror movie parable for the recession era in which we live, “Cheap Thrills” asks how far you would go to make some easy money. 

The basic premise has been tackled before.  A jobless new father (Pat Healy), on the verge of eviction, reunites with his troublemaker high school buddy (a buff, bearded, and otherwise unrecognizable Ethan Embry) who gets them both mixed up with a thrill-seeking rich couple (David Koechner and Sara Pxton) willing to pay the two men increasingly exorbitant sums of cash if they compete in a series of dares for the couples’ amassment.  Naturally, these challenges quickly cross the line from the banal to the dangerous to the sinister  The movie is cagey about the couples’ motivations for all this.  I’m not sure they are ever really explained, but I’m also pretty sure they are beside the point.  They have too much money, too many drugs and far too much hubris to worry about the ramifications of their boredom-curing games on real peoples’ lives.  Conversely, Healy and Embry are too desperate, too greedy and too angry (at each other, and the hand they have been dealt in life) to know when to quit. 

The screenplay by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga is a bit deeper and smarter than the exploitation-style premise makes this all sound.  “Cheap Thrills” deals in ruminations and ramifications as well as uneasy suspense and queasy, primal violence.  In one of the film’s best tactics, Koechner’s character – though appropriately slimy and manipulative – is not only a convincing and agreeably laidback huckster, but the two men are never held hostage by him or at his mercy.  That they could leave any time they’d like, yet stay even as events spiral out of control speaks volumes about their desperation and temptation; and that is “Cheap Thrills’” biggest accomplishment.  A lesser film would have left its protagonists shackled (literally and figuratively) against their will at the whim of some obvious mad man and mistakenly place all of its potential thrills in their struggle to escape or survive. “Cheap Thrills” makes the case that we – and or our demons – are our own worst enemies. 

And while this may all sound fairly heavy, “Cheap Thrills”, directed by E.L. Katz, never forgets to maintain the air of tacky, tawdry fun its title implies.  It’s a pitch black comedy with genre-horror overtones that also just so happens have some cerebral insight shining through its twisted premise.  The performances by all four leads hit just the right notes, with Koechner and Embry (both winning supporting players for many years now) relishing in their characters’ smarmy nature.

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of déjà vu running through “Cheap Thrills” as this basic premise has been exercised plenty in the past; as recently as last year’s “Would You Rather”.  But almost all of those films inevitably fell victim to the aforementioned lazy horror flick tropes that “Cheap Thrills” so deftly avoids.  It may not be a true original – and it’s certainly not for all tastes (it’s not “Hostel”-level torture porn, but the squeamish need not apply) – but thanks to its clever, insightful script, and exceptional performances, “Cheap Thrills” is an engrossing bit of nasty business just the same.

3 Stars (Out of 4)

NYMPHOMANIAC

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By R. David

Viewed April 9, 2014

Taken as one piece, Lars Von Trier’s two “Nymphomaniac” films – “Volume 1” and “Volume 2”, which I am reviewing together as its intended whole – is a difficult movie to review.  Fitting, I suppose since Von Trier as a director who delights in polarizing audiences.  His films are almost always incendiary and controversial.  Critically speaking, this is what makes them exciting.  You want filmmakers to be bold, unapologetic and challenge genre conventions.  However, ideally they will also find ways to engage their audience rather than alienate them, and win-over skeptics rather than be content to simply speak to their cult fan base each time out.  Von Trier lacks nothing where gusto is concerned, but he seems either frustratingly unwilling or unable to break his own, now-obvious mold. 

“Nymphomaniac” is a perfect example of this dichotomy.  On one hand, it’s fascinating.  The film is by turns funny and brutal, sympathetic and disturbing.  It’s that blending of emotional responses which are at tonal odds that that lends the film a complex and compelling narrative structure.  The film is essentially a series of flashbacks recounting the sexual exploits of a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Von Trier’s go-to lead actress).  She is found beaten in an alley by a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who comes to her rescue.  Joe claims it is her insatiable sexual appetite that has led her to this place.  She tells Seligman her story, explaining she has been obsessed with sex nearly all of her life.  We see her as a curious little girl, a precocious teen, her earliest sexual experiences, including the disappointments and abuse that shape her understanding of what sex is.  There isn’t much shared about her upbringing or home life, other than the fact that she loved her father (played by Christian Slater) and resented her brash mother (Connie Nielsen), but her sexual awareness and eventual preoccupation stems from such a young age and seemingly organic place, Von Trier clearly means to make no excuse for her nymphomania.  It just simply is.  As a teen Joe is played with just the right amount of aloofness by Stacy Martin, who seems to only come truly alive during her sexual encounters.  Point taken.  It is as a young adult when she first meets the closest thing she ever has to a true love in Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), whom she later marries and has a child with; but her sexual addiction always threatens to derail everything good in her life.  We see her lose jobs, ruin marriages, break hearts, attempt treatment; it’s all for naught.  Von Trier drives home the point that nymphomania is an addiction or neurological disorder like any other, unable to be easily stifled.

Most of this makes up the first half of “Nymphomaniac” (“Volume 1”).  It is in the second half where any levity Von Trier was allowing is stifled and we move on to the true dark side of Joe’s obsession.  Like an addict always trying to get higher, she moves on to punishing kink to feed her addiction, and the toll her unquenchable sexual appetite has taken on her personal life leads her to crime, cruelty and murder.  It is also in the film’s second half where Von Trier shows his full hand and reveals “Nymphomaniac” to be as much a commentary on sexual politics and gender roles as a singular character study.  As Joe recounts her exploits to Seligman, she begins to question if her life would be in such dire straits if she were a man with the same urges (though Von Trier doesn’t exactly portray any of the sex-obsessed man she meets as any happier or healthier).

Saying all this, I realize how ambitious and interesting “Nymphomaniac” sounds.  And, indeed, it is both of those things.  But it is also obvious, ponderous and – this might go without saying – overlong.  As no doubt intended, the film’s sex is almost never sexy, but rather almost always uncomfortable, ranging from merely awkward to downright ugly to terrifying.  Anyone watching this film for titillation purposes probably deserves to be shocked and appalled, but Von Trier seems almost perversely eager to disgust.  The actors range from shrill and over the top (Uma Thurman as the jilted wife of one of Joe’s conquests), laughably earnest (LaBeouf), or frustratingly opaque (almost everyone else).  The movie almost doesn’t feel like it takes place in the real world, or at least not present day.  At times I forgot I was watching a contemporary film and assumed I was watching a period piece and would catch myself thinking, “maybe things were different ‘back then’”.  The world Joe lives in and the people she interacts with feel similarly inorganic.  Nothing about this movie, the locations, or the characters feels the least bit organic or indicative of the 21st century.  The film and the performances all have this aloof, alternate reality vibe that makes it hard to fully invest in or identify with Joe and her plight.  Maybe some of this has to do with the film’s budget, maybe it’s intentional on Von Trier’s part; but only Gainsbourg is convincing as a complex, emotional being.  Everyone and everything else seems to just kind of orbit around her in some alternate reality.

I’m sure there’s someone out there ready to argue with me that that was the point and Von Trier’s intent.  Perhaps.  But that wouldn’t make this exercise any more coherent or, frankly, necessary.  This is one of those movies (or two movies) where you look back after nearly four hours and realize you aren’t coming away with anything more than when you went in, and certainly nothing that couldn’t have been covered in half the time.

As it is, Von Trier’s thesis is strong and his ideas are ambitious.  And Gainsbourg’s bravery and contributions to this project can’t be overstated.  But “Nymphomaniac” never grabs the viewer the way it should; and worse yet, fails to justify putting audiences through four hours of sexual cruelty and awful behavior.  The perverse notion that Von Trier is smirking proudly at that doesn’t help either.

2 Stars (Out of 4)

ENEMY

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By R. David

Viewed April 9th, 2014

Revered in some circles, but met with “WTF” disdain in others, “Enemy”  is the strange arthouse thriller director Denis Villaneuve and star Jake Gyllenhaal made just before the two paired-up for last year’s excellent kidnap drama “Prisoners”.  Full disclosure right at the top: I’m in the later camp.  Not because “Enemy” is nontraditional, strange, or a complete mindfuck – no, I enjoy all of those things in a movie.  But like any other genre of  film, those things all need to be done right.  There has to be a point, and all the weirdness should be in service of a narrative that holds up under scrutiny or offers audiences something to hang it all on.  Otherwise it’s just a façade.  A sheep in wolf’s clothing.  Something purporting to be so much more than it is – than it needs to explain – but not having a clue what all that is.  No, a movie isn’t bad simply because it is different, weird or doesn’t provide the audience with answers.  But it is not automatically good because of any of those things either.

Things start off intriguingly enough in “Enemy”, with Jake Gyllenhaal’s dour college professor discovering a bit-part actor in a movie who looks exactly like him.  He seeks the actor out, and sure enough, the guy is his total doppelganger.  They even have identical voices and scars.  Creepy for sure.  Things only get more sordid when both men begin trying destroying each other’s romantic lives, with actor Gyllenhaal setting his sights on teacher Gyllenhaal’ s girlfriend, and the teacher returning the favor by get close to the actor’s wife. 

But what the hell’s going on here?  Good question.

Right off the bat, teacher Gyllenhaal is so morose and actor Gyllenhaal seems so inherently fiendish that there is never a moment of true wonderment between the two men.  Sure they seem super creeped-out by what they have just discovered, but the teacher seems to use it as an excuse to slip further into depressed obsessiveness, and the actor goes off the deep end so quickly, you’re left to wonder if the film is trying to convey he’s always been the nasty sort or if this whole situation has brought something out of him he never knew was there.

It’s one of “Enemy’s” fatal flaws that it either has no interest in exploring these things, or it is simply too concerned with keeping up this front of the mysterious, figure-it-out-yourself mind-bender that it purposely omits any character introspection.  Similarly, the film – and the characters – is almost defiantly humorless about this situation.  There isn’t one moment where the two men share a smile or joke about this situation.  They become adversaries the minute they discover the other exists.  Why, we are only left to ponder and assume.  Is the idea that they are both so screwed up discovering something like this just drives them deeper into their own psychosis?  Do two of these guys even exist, or is the one just a figment of the other’s screwed-up mind?  Things happen in the film where each man interacts with people in the other man’s life, suggesting they both indeed exist, but movies like this always conclude  with that pivotal scene explaining how, “you know all that stuff you thought proved they couldn’t be the same person?  You’re wrong!”

Not “Enemy” though.  It isn’t telling.  But don’t think that means it skips the “gotcha!” ending.  Oh no.  It’s present and accounted for; but like everything else here, it makes no sense and explains absolutely nothing… Or maybe it explains everything.  Who knows?  There are theories out there, and of course the filmmakers have taken the tactic of “it’s up for interpretation, can mean something different to everyone”.  Gee, thanks.  Again, I don’t need or even want everything explained to me in a movie – especially trippy little thrillers like this.  But I need to be able to follow it to the degree that I feel like I have an investment in the characters, their motivations and the consequences of their actions and not feel as though I’m just watching some pretentious director’s abstract jerk-off fest.

You don’t have to completely understand a film to enjoy it.  Plenty of movies are bizarre or frustratingly impenetrable, but the difference is the good ones offer up fascinating scenarios and characters, or they throw the audience enough of bone as to at the very least bring them into the story.  “Enemy” has none of this.  It’s dank to look at, unpleasant to watch, has a story that constantly keeps the viewer at arm’s length, despite a set-up that will have most wanting to follow it, which is even more perverse in a sense. The movie forces you to fight to get close to it and offers no reward for the trouble, unless you consider a haunting sight gag proper pay off for your investment.  Slugging through “Enemy”, trust me, it’s not.

1 Star (Out of 4)

THE GRAND PIANO

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By R. David

Viewed April 5th, 2014

Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is a world-renowned concert pianist who found himself disgraced when he attempted to play the “the most difficult piano piece in the world”, “La Cinquette”, written by his late mentor, Patrick Godureaux, and failed humiliatingly.  Five years later, he has been lured out of self-imposed exile to perform a tribute concert for Godureaux. 

Selznick is already a nervous wreck – despite his obvious staggering talent at the keyboard and the unwavering support of his beautiful movie-star wife (Kerry Bishé) – when, a few notes into his performance, he turns the page of his sheet music to reveal a note scrawled in red ink: “PLAY ONE WRONG NOTE AND YOU DIE!”  The red dot of a laser sight on his chest lets him know this is not a joke.  Via an earpiece stashed at the piano, Selznick is able to communicate with his assailant who informs him he wants him to not only play a flawless concert, but again attempt “La Cinquette” – this time with no mistakes – or he and his wife will be killed.

The fun of movies like “Grand Piano” is two-fold.  Done correctly, these films should be a guessing for the audience as to who the villain is and what their motivations might be.  Could this be someone going to great extremes to restore his Selznick’s confidence?  Could it be Godureaux, not actually dead, attempting to do the same; or worse yet punish him for botching his works?  A jaded fan?  Or is it all in his head?  Secondly, these thrillers also live and die by how cleverly the protagonist finds these answers and navigates his predicament.  Trapping the hero at a piano in front a hundred-plus observers gives Selznick little wiggle room and ups the suspense considerably.

Unfortunately, “Grand Piano” is lax on both fronts.  There is more than one moment where Selznick leaves his piano.  Presumably these are points in the piece where he is not required to play, but more than one of these instances feels like a cheat on the part of the filmmakers because they know it is almost impossible to have their protagonist discover/accomplish much from a piano bench (fair enough, but don’t make that movie then), never mind the fact that allowing it undermines the authority and threat of the bad guy.  And when the would-be killer’s identity and motivations are revealed, they are far less interesting than what most audience members have already likely concocted in their own minds.

Director Eugenio Mira demonstrates considerable skill at creating atmosphere, deftly building tension and generating action and suspense where there otherwise isn’t any.  Credit for this must go to Wood as well.  Feverishly banging away on his keyboard, looking like a convincing concert pianist while still maintaining and convey an air of dread and concern to the audience; it’s another impressive, all-in performance from this underrated actor. 

But ultimately, “Grand Piano” just doesn’t have enough up its sleeve to reward those who might get caught up in its “’Speed’ On a Piano!” concept.  It’s as if everyone involved was so taken by the hook that no one bothered to question the legitimacy of the script or make any effort to punch it up where needed.  In addition to his clearly talented eye, Mira is also smart enough to keep the film rolling briskly along, wrapping things up in just over 80 minutes.  It’s hard to hate a tight, stylish little thriller with good performances and a bravura concept.  But this is another case where the laziness of the script and lack of any truly original inspiration sabotages the film’s quality elements.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

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By R. David

Viewed April, 4 2014

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a major disappointment.  Not only has it garnered rather exceptional notices from critics, but I thought the first “Captain America” film, while not without its flaws, had a refreshingly old fashioned matinee-style energy and Indiana Jones-esque spirit.  If only it could have been a bit less silly and attempt to avoid the tired conventions of the typical Marvel film, I complained.

Well, be careful what you wish for, I guess, because “Winter Soldier” spends so much time trying to convince the audience it is more than a mere comic book film – rather a complex and serious mystery; a James Bond-style action film with something topical to say about the state of the world in which we live, rather than the rabble-rousing cinematic throwback that the first film aspired to be – it loses any sense of fun in the bargain.

Directors (and brothers) Joe and Anthony Russo, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, deserve kudos for their ambitious attempt to present a grounded superhero film as opposed to the usual outlandish offerings that populate the Marvel stable (“Thor”, “Spider-Man”, etc.).  But the fact remains that “Winter Soldier” is only “grounded” in its plotting.  The action sequences and convoluted character tie-in agenda is pure, generic Marvel .  The studio is simply far too invested in the universal appeal of these films and characters to allow any director to really go for broke.  At least while they are still raking in billions of dollars at the box office each year, that is.  Thus, the filmmakers can’t attempt anything nearly as radical and realistically complex as say, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films.  So instead we get an awkward compromise:  a movie with all the usual outlandish, comic book FX sequences clumsily blended with a dreary, overly complex and intrusive story that strives to give the film weight, but instead renders it nothing but tedious.

For a while though things are looking up.  Chris Evens reveals he hasn’t lost a step as Steve Rogers/“Cap”, who is still trying to assimilate into 2014 America after being cryogenically frozen since WWII.  The script gets some solid mileage (and chuckles) from his naiveté and lack of pop culture awareness, but these simple pleasures are constantly overshadowed by the film’s outrageous action sequences (from the generic shoot-out opening, to the silly and exhausting finale – only a SUV chase around the nation’s capital raises an excitement).  And the freewheeling spirit of the original film is only captured in fleetingly brief asides (Cap dispatching an elevator full of thugs).  The rest of the film hinges on lots of plot exposition courtesy of Robert Redford as a SHIELD higher-up spearheading a suspicious satellite ant-terrorism project and various supporting cast members who pop up and spout some inane revelatory dialog simply to tell the audience what’s going on and move the story along to the next beat. 

Oh, and about the story; it’s preposterous.  Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sends Cap and Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), to free a bunch of SHIELD hostages, but Cap discovers mid-mission Romanoff has a secret agenda that involves extracting data for Fury.  Furious, Cap confronts Fury (see what I did there?) who informs Cap about Project Insight, the aforementioned spy satellite program designed to preemptively neutralize foreign threats (if you’re worried that there might be a none-too-subtle commentary on real life military policies afoot, you should be).

But who’s this titular Winter Soldier, you ask?  Well, he kidnaps and presumably executes Fury over the data Romanoff secured.  Cap digs into WS’ true identity and discovers they may be old acquaintances from Rogers’ WWII, HYDRA-battling heyday.

That’s enough plot, you say?  Oh no, no, dear reader.  It keeps going.  There are supercomputers containing this and that discovered.  Romanoff isn’t even Cap’s intended partner in this movie.  There’s a whole other parallel arc with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) as Caps partner and best friend and his “Falcon” wingpack (I wonder if he’ll spend about 20 minutes of the finale showing that thing off?).  Data-mining algorithms are discovered and created, data bases and classified information are jeopardized, double-crosses ensue and moles are revealed.  Ships collide.   Stuff happens at the Potomac River.  A HYDRA test facility is discovered.  There’s WikiLeaks paranoia parallels, Guantanamo parallels, talk of telekinesis…  This movie is completely exhausting.  And if the unnecessarily overstuffed plot wasn’t enough, the action sequences are just as bludgeoning.  They all go the generic and obnoxious shaky-cam route; except for the finale, which is standard-issue Marvel CGI everything. 

There are plenty of good things in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.  As stated, Evan’s finds just the right appealing tone for Cap; and he is surrounded by good performers, particularly Jackson and Redford who are both ideally cast and each seem to be relishing their respective roles (though Jackson can by now play this part in his sleep, he’s still always fun to have around).  And I do admire the filmmakers’ attempts to ground these characters in a real-world espionage potboiler.  The Russo brothers’ directing style suggests a “Bourne” film, while Marcus and McFeely’s script aspires to be a later day kin to 1970s conspiracy thrillers like “Three Days of the Condor” or “The Jackal”.  They even took care to make Cap’s suit more real-life military-esque, and whenever possible the script eschews the heroes’ monikers (Johansson is rarely referred to as Black Widow).  All good stuff.

But the movie just isn’t as complex or interesting as it thinks it is, and it has no idea when to quit – both where the plot and the action sequences are concerned.  It’s all too much – and ultimately, it’s all much ado about nothing.

2 Stars (Out of 4)

BAD WORDS

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By R. David

Viewed March 29, 2014

“Bad Words” is the equivalent of cinematic comfort food.  While guilty pleasures tend to be  films more of the “so bad it’s good” variety – movies that have a winking or knowing idea of their own limitations – films of the comfort food variety are generally familiar, safe and predictable efforts, lodged firmly in their genre wheelhouses.  They aren’t lazy, per se.  Many of these films have a sincere attitude towards their story and characters, and the best ones attempt to color in the margins of their tried and true formula with a few colorful ideas.  Rather than delighting in their limitations or exploiting them for laughs like their guilty pleasure counterparts, the best of these comfort food films try to bring some distinct flavor and originality to the table.

As a fairly predictable genre exercise with its own distinctive energy and tone, “Bad Words” is a success.  Not a total black comedy, but certainly darker than the usual mainstream Hollywood comedy, “Bad Words” doesn’t break any molds or buck genre conventions, but it delights in going through the usual motions with an attitude that’s all its own (similar to other films in this recent, semi-cottage industry of comedies with “Bad” in their title – “Bad Santa”, “Bad Teacher”, etc.).  As a result, the audience always feels a bit off kilter; unsure of how the story will play out, even if the film is technically marching headlong from beat to formulaic beat.

“Bad Words’” ace in the hole is Jason Bateman, making his feature film directorial debut here, as well as staring as 40-year-old Guy Trilby, a hapless and unapologetically misanthropic warranty proof-reader who makes it his life mission to compete against pre-teens in national spelling bees.  You see, Guy never graduated 8th grade, which allows him to exploit a loophole in the contest rules, making his entrance in the competitions fair and legal, much to the disgust (and – in many cases – the outright violent hatred) of the juvenile contestants’ parents.  It doesn’t help that Guy is nothing short of a savant in his command of the English language, easily and humiliatingly obliterating his young competition and never missing an opportunity to add insult to injury by hurtfully mocking each kid he defeats.  The film is purposely cagey about Guy’s motives for all this.  Does he do it for the prize money?  Does he do it to prove to himself and others that he is indeed a smart guy despite never making it past 8th grade?  Or is he simply a damaged individual who delights in destroying the hopes and dreams of others? 

Bateman’s directorial style – an unpolished, tossed-off approach – isn’t much to look at, but it does give the film a dank, hostile edge in keeping with its attitude.  Andrew Dodge’s screenplay is light on originality and surprises where plotting and storytelling are concerned, but that feels almost intentional as his true intent here seems to be discovering how unconventionally he can be in play with genre conventions.  His script also feels tailor made for Bateman and more concerned with giving the star vehicle in which to play to his strengths.  The venerable, likable sitcom star has always had subversive sarcastic streak and “Bad Words” is a perfect thematic showcase for his talents, allowing him to lob biting observations, insults and one-liners like Molotov cocktails.  The film is at its best when it just lets Batman off his chain to do what he does best.  Unfortunately, a story must intervene.  Dodge does what he can to keep the more predictable aspects of the genre interesting, though.  The always winning Kathryn Hahn plays a reporter following Guy’s story as well as his perspective love interest, and young Rohan Chand is charged with playing Batman’s foil – a polite, naïve, wide-eyed 10-year-old spelling wiz – no easy task for any actor, never mind one as young and inexperienced as Chand, but he is a truly delightful performer and he and Batman have an easy and infectious on-screen chemistry.  Again, “Bad Words” doesn’t exactly take chances where either of these supporting characters’ subplots are concerned; but true to the film as a whole, it’s the little nontraditional tweaks Douglas and Bateman add to the proceedings that keep the audience entertained despite trolling familiar ground.

“Bad Words” is a bit to slight and traditional to get really excited about.  But it has a pleasingly relaxed and matter-of-fact style and attitude that makes it hard to resist.  It also offers a bevy of outrageous laughs, and terrific performances across the board, particularly for the three aforementioned principal players.  It’s a solid foundation for Batman to build what will hopefully be an interesting and varied filmmaking career upon.

3 Stars (Out of 4)

 

SABOTAGE

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By R. David

Viewed March 29, 2014

Arnold Schwarzenegger has had a tough time at the box office lately.  Since returning to acting after his decade-long stint as governor of California, neither of his non-“Expendables” projects – “The Last Stand” and “Escape Plan” – managed to find much of an audience in theaters, despite being better than they certainly could have been.  So it is a bit of a pleasant surprise to see Arnold branch out to a certain extent with his latest film, “Sabotage”.   No, he’s not exactly tackling “Macbeth” here – this is still very much a film that mainly calls upon Schwarzenegger to shoot people in the face – but “Sabotage” has the look and feel of a gritty, low-budget, independent film with, ostensibly, an ensemble cast that Schwarzenegger is an equal part of, as opposed to the big-star, superhero focal point he almost always is.  Nor is he playing a winking, comic relief, star cameo variation on his persona he is largely reduced to in the “Expendables” films.  In other words, Schwarzenegger is required to serve the script for once, rather than the script simply being a vehicle that serves him.  Think of his character here as Vic Mackey in “The Shield” and the rest of his crooked DEA crew as his Strike Team and you’ll have a good sense of the type of film and character study “Sabotage” aspires to be.

This is a step in the right direction for a guy hoping to make both a serious career renovation and a successful comeback.  A lot of aging action heroes no doubt think they can all pull off a Clint Eastwood:  Gracefully acknowledge their age without succumbing to it or apologizing for it.  Eastwood’s ace up his sleeve however is that he is actually a powerful, sympathetic actor.  As good as Schwarzenegger can be, true dramatic acting chops seem to elude him.  In “Sabotage” he is cast as a DEA team captain whose wife and son were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by a vicious Mexican drug cartel.  He spends most of his free time watching the video footage of their deaths that the cartel was kind enough to send him after the fact, glowering up a storm – sometimes crying, sometimes watching seemingly numbly out of some sort of morbid obligation.  But for the viewer, neither emotion really rings true.  Schwarzenegger’s brute physicality has always been his best emotive asset on screen.  A sharp stare or twisted smirk radiating off his hulking frame and chiseled jawline was often all it took to tell audiences what was going on behind his steely eyes.  Time away from film and his advancing age aside, this remains the case.  Schwarzenegger is still relatively huge, and he still gets his most convincing emotional mileage out of subtle stares and grimaces.  Anything more excessive still registers as awkward and unconvincing, even if he’s toned down his He-Man shtick (in an effort) to play more age appropriate and vulnerable heroes.

This wouldn’t really be a huge problem if it was the only thing about “Sabotage” that rang a bit false, but this movie is directed by David Ayer and written by Skip Woods.  These two have the filmmaking chops and potential to make genre pictures that work.  The problem is they rarely do.  Projects from each man usually sound exciting on paper, but are often a mess in their execution.   Ayer has some critical cache, but he is one of these directors who literally make the same movie every time out.  See if you can find the common denominator in his filmography:  He wrote “Training Day” and “Dark Blue”, directed “Harsh Times” and “Street Kings”, wrote and directed “End of Watch”, and now he’s given us “Sabotage”.  If you said they’re all about cops, and – more specifically – cops who wrestle with moral dilemmas and personal demons, you would be correct.  I’m not saying these are bad films, or that having a niche automatically means his work should be dismissed (Scorsese made a lot of gangster pictures; nobody’s complaining).  But Ayer is working in well-traveled territory (gritty, urban, crooked cop dramas are hardly in short supply) and his obnoxious habit of getting increasingly more ugly with the violence and artsy-fartsy with the shaky-cam in order to distinguish his works and lend them this air of realistic credibility becomes more and more transparent with each film.  A lot of critics praised “End of Watch”, but it did nothing for me other than cause me to wonder if Ayer was trying to break the record for uses of the term “motherfucker” in place of actual dialog, and concede once and for all that this trend of using shaky cinematography in order to create a sense of urgency and originality where there is neither is indeed the quickest way to pull me straight out of a movie.

Writer Skip Woods is another issue altogether.  One of those true blue Hollywood hacks people always wonder how they continue to get work, Woods has managed to sully four (four!) already established (and mostly great) franchises with his pitiful scripts for “Hitman”, “X-Men Origins:  Wolverine”, “The A-Team” and “A Good Die To Die Hard”.  (In the interest of always saying something nice, I did enjoy his directorial debut “Thursday”…  16 years ago.)  Why someone like Ayer, who seems to be chomping at the bit for critical acclaim, would hook up with someone like Woods, who seems to be doing all he can to become a critical pariah, is a mystery to me.  But here they both are, each up to their usual tricks in “Sabotage”; an ugly, nonsensical bit of neo-violence that, once again, looked and sounded promising in theory, but completely stiffs in execution.  You can see why Schwarzenegger was drawn to the material however.  Ayer is a director of some acclaim and the film keeps him in his action wheelhouse but is, at least ostensibly, not a cartoon.  There are obvious aspirations from both star and filmmaker of making a serious and uncompromising thriller, so Arnold’s on the right track is his thinking. 

But what the hell happened here? 

Woods’ script is only part of the problem.  Schwarzenegger’s team steals $10 million in a drug bust and they each begin getting picked off one by one (each in more gruesome ways then the last).  It’s basically a retooling of Agatha Cristie’s “Ten Little Indians”.  But not only is this plot device derivative, it also forces the movie to stall out, giving time to a lot of conversations that only exist for exposition’s sake, like your average slasher flick.  And like a slasher flick, Ayer really seems to be hell-bent on ratcheting up the gory bloodshed (because that’s more daring, gritty and realistic, he probably figures) .  I’m not one to whine about violence in my action movies.  Generally speaking, the more the better.  And I’m all for unflinching, realistic violence in service of a pointed, realistic film.  But, first of all, nothing about “Sabotage” is very plausible, never mind realistic.  And secondly, Ayer revels in a fetishistic, almost autopsyesque style of violence here that is hardly any fun.  Again, the movie needn’t be a cartoon – I’m perfectly on board with someone making a serious movie about the ugly brutality of Mexican drug cartels – but “Sabotage” is a rabble-rousing, dick-swinging whodunit, augmented with jarring tonal shits to realistic-looking gaping head wounds and viscera-strewn crime scenes.  I’m sure Ayer wants the violence to make an impact, but it doesn’t serve to up the stakes so much as pull the audience out of the film and take note of how humorlessly graphic it all is. 

Typical of Woods, everyone in the cast has a bad-ass, personality-descriptive moniker like Breach, Sugar, Smoke, Monster, and Tripod.  No one in “Sabotage” is a character, rather everyone is a type.  Much of the cast even looks the same – all cloaked in massive amounts of tattoos, muscle tees or tank tops, and tactical gear; their faces hidden behind sunglasses and varying degrees of facial hair – literally rendering many of them indistinguishable from one another.  It’s tough to tell a “Grinder” from a “Neck”.  Good actors are either wasted and underused (Josh Holloway, Joe Maganiello, and Harold Perrineau Jr.) or succumb to the dopier aspects of the script and get dragged down with it (Mireille Enos, Terrence Howard, and Sam Worthington).  It also doesn’t help matters that Woods has apparently never met a bodily function joke he thinks too lowbrow or out of place.

And typical of Ayer, everyone shouts the F-word every chance they get in place of any actual dialogue.  The first 20 minutes of this movie is best watched with your finger on the mute button.  You’ll miss almost nothing as far as plot development is concerned but save yourself a lot of aggravation by avoiding the constant loud, foul-mouthed bickering that really serves no purpose (these guys are hardcore – point taken).  Once the film finally gets into its main story – Schwarzenegger’s team comes under investigation by the FBI for the missing 10 mil, internal suspicions begin to tear the team apart, Schwarzenegger’s character partners with a detective played by Olivia Williams to figure out who’s targeting his crew, and the cartel who killed Schwarzenegger’s family appear – it settles down a bit and “Sabotage” shows a glimmer of the compelling potboiler it might have been if it were possible to take it as seriously as Ayer so desperately wants us to. 

But, to the bitter end, “Sabotage” is confounded by its identity crisis of realistic drama and over-the-top shoot ‘em up.  The action sequences have that gritty sheen Ayer likes so much, but their outcomes, as well as the rest of Woods’ script, are beholden to the strictest of farfetched action movie tropes and clichés, dragging this interesting cast down, which is a shame; especially in Schwarzenegger’s case.  He’s got the right idea in terms of navigating the sort of action film he is best suited for these days.  Here’s hoping he gets a chance to find a film more worthy of his efforts, and soon.

2 Stars (Out of 4)

NOAH

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By R. David

Viewed March 28, 2014

Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is about as crazy a film as anyone could reasonably expect from a big-budget epic with blockbuster aspirations.  Aronofsky has earned a reputation as a daring craftsman with his moody, idiosyncratic – and often haunting – art-house mind-benders like “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan”; and his cultish fan base expect similarly daring experiences with each new project.  However, “daring” and “idiosyncratic” are not exactly the elements big studios are looking for when trying to sell $100 million-plus budgeted blockbuster hopefuls to the masses.  Add to this that even Aronofsky’s highest grossing films have brought in about half of what it cost to make this lavish biblical epic, and it’s a wonder Aronofsky was handed the reins at all, never mind allowed to sneak in many of his trademark peculiarities .  It is an awkward compromise of daring ambition and guarded conventionality which often threatens to derail the film all together, but more often than not makes for a pleasingly odd and unpredictable stylistic hodgepodge.

Russell Crowe is ideally cast as the burly, taciturn Noah.  He’s a man who lives his life in complete, unquestioned service of “The Creator’s” will, who speaks to him not directly, but through haunting dreams.  It’s these dream sequences where Aronofsky gets his most Aronofskyish:  Technicolor images of pulsating fruit, damned corpses, and ominous serpents all slosh about in an apocalyptic drink.  The Creator (the word/name God is never spoken) warns Noah of a coming flood to purify the sinful world and hit the restart button on humanity.  Noah is the last remaining direct decedent of Abel, and while he is a peaceful man who wants for nothing – warning his sons against taking anything more than they are provided or need (even flowers) – he and his family (including his three sons and wife, played by Jennifer Connelly) live in constant fear of the remaining decedents of Cain, a horde of blasphemous barbarians led by the complacently nefarious Tubal-Cain (“Beowulf’s” Ray Winstone).  Because he is perhaps the last remaining truly righteous man on Earth, The Creator casts Noah with the task of building a massive ark, and gathering two of every animal… 40 days and nights of rain… etc.

“Noah” retains the basic plot outline of its Old Testament source material, but it is how Aronofsky chooses to color in the margins, fill in the blanks, and explain the unexplained that makes “Noah” so interesting and, no doubt, polarizing.  His flights of fancy aren’t always successful or convincing, but they are always admirably ambitious.  For instance, giant rock creatures which are actually vessels for fallen angels attempting to find their way back into heaven and The Creator’s good graces assist Noah in building the ark.  And why not?  Surely, Aronofsky figures there is no way one man could build a vessel of the magnitude necessary to house two of every creature on Earth and successfully withstand a world-ending flood.  Giant Rock Monsters is a far more inventive explanation than simply ‘God gave him the power/resources to do so’.  And I suppose giant rock monsters are as good a provided resource as any.

But it is also these deviations that many are likely to take issue with, either because they stray too far from scripture for the faithful, or because they just seem too silly or odd for even the unconverted.  Trying to merge an old school biblical epic with a modern day special effects-laden, disaster flick is a tricky balance.  Aronofsky wins points for trying to update the material and give us an interpretation of the story we haven’t seen the likes of before.  But “Lord of the Rings”-style battle sequences between Noah and the descendants of Cain and made-up conflicts and characters that seem to exist only to bloat the story and the film’s running time feel unnecessary and out of place (Anthony Hopkins pops up as Noah’s magical grandfather for…  some reason).  The film’s final act in particular is a waterlogged slog, with Tubal-Cain stowing away on the ark and Aronofsky turning the climax into a standard action thriller showdown between the good guy and bad guy.

Problems with focus and some ham-fisted allegories aside though, “Noah” is almost always entertaining, even if for many that entertainment will be in a batshit insanity sort of way.  Personally, I don’t need to see yet another straight-laced rendering of this tale.  If you don’t like your biblical stories messed with (or your blockbuster disaster flicks to get too crazy), there have been literally dozens of other film adaptions of this story made over the years for you to choose from.  And no other interpretion of this story has ever really thought this big in terms of exploring themes that parallel many of the issues facing our world today.  “Noah” touches on everything from environmentalism, survivor’s guilt, faith VS empathy and humanity, as well as forcing us to consider the obvious idea that, if God felt the world needed to be destroyed and rebuilt because of humanity’s sinful ways circa 2500 BC, one can only imagine what that says about our fate in 2014 AD.

Many of these ideas get clobbered by “Noah’s” busier production elements, which is a shame, but doesn’t render Aronofsky’s attempts to explore the moral conflict of the legendary character any less admirable.  But like its title character, “Noah” is a film – and Aronofsky is a director – ultimately burdened by too many competing passions and impulses.

2 ½ Stars (Out of 4)