Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review: De Palma (2015)

Baumbach's... um... wait, you're telling me Brian De Palma didn't take one drink throughout this whole thing? Dammit.

Seems as if we're suddenly in an age of bridge-burning, earth-scorching documentaries that confirm our suspicions of Hollywood as an unforgiving bitchtown that fights creativity and meritocracy at every opportunity. That successes are jet engines constructed by tornados and failures are coliseums falling upon one person. You got yer Jodorowsky's Dune and yer Lost Soul, both flashy and exhaustive deconstructions of a specific tragedy. But what about a documentary of one long, difficult career? What about one that's driven by its own subject?

"Documentary" could even be stretching it. De Palma comes across more like the home movies of Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, supplemented five years afterward with still frames and film footage. This is their attempt to at least make some damn money off of this thing, and it's Brian De Palma sitting in a chair and talking. What else? It's a goddamned compelling hour and forty-five minutes.

It turns out that De Palma is the perfect candidate to talk about himself. He can do so with such clarity, such seemingly perfect recall, that there's no feeling that this had to be cobbled together from several afternoons. Baumbach and Paltrow's involvement was only to start the propeller and let the ship drive itself. It would be foolish to think that this could be done for every filmmaker in the twilight of their careers -- who would be as effusive, as honest about their failures? Still. Let's try.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: Mr. Jealousy (1997)

Baumbach's Post-College Years.

There are two concepts at work in this film. One is Every Beta-Male's Biggest Fears Realized, and the other is Man Goes to Therapy as His Friend. The former is certainly enough to make a movie on, but I can't help but lament the backseat given to the latter, a more fertile soil for zany hijinks than simply following your girlfriend's ex around. Payoffs for the subplot shine far too late, at the climax to the main story, upstaging a wholly underappreciated performance by Eric Stoltz.

The movie is more Allen-esque setups than Baumbach-isms, though Baumbach is well-suited to the requirements of non-sequitor jokes, fantasy sequences, irises, and a constant running narration from a god character (Ernie Fusco, maybe?). I will say that his usual fallbacks are missed; they appear in scenes shared with Kicking and Screaming alumni Carlos Jacott and John Lehr, here and gone very fast, and I counted only one Uncomfortable Meeting in the entire film. I wonder, was Baumbach going through an identity crisis? Like the main character? Is he going to start rehashing his childhood after this? Are his films -- dare I say it --- autobiographical?

Stories can't help but lean Biblical, no matter how hard they try not to. Logically, Lester has every reason in the world to be jealous. His life is full liars and cheats, people that confirm his worst suspicions and prove him right at every turn and don't see the irony in their actions. However, Lester is unfortunately in a fiction, where the antagonist resides in his own brain. Gotham creates its own supervillains, so Lester's suspicions create cheaters in other people, where he is more to blame for the infidelity of his girlfriends than they are. Baumbach is aware of this, I'm certain, but it's hard to tell if he thinks this is an endurable lesson or an unending hell. His main characters usually end up in purgatory, in the middle of some internal transformation, headed somewhere. Which direction is always unclear.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

Ah, the resilience of a franchise. Some can survive anything: from the poor decision-making skills of a shitty 20th Century Fox Executive to a drift in Tokyo to a series of seemingly endless JJ Abrams nonsense. No one thought that Mission: Impossible would be among those still standing after the great collapse in the 00s, least of all me. Yet here we are.

Rogue Nation one-ups the previous entry, Ghost Protocol, in a department that was sorely underserviced: the plot. A newly disavowed IMF tussling with its own Hydra/Spectre organization and uncovering its evil plan through globetrotting and barely seeing something to completion is more interesting than a group of agents learning to trust each other while a nuclear threat looms in the distance (and doing those other two things as well). McQuarrie's hand also means that dialogue is snappier, loftier, and less reliant on what was more than likely conjured up on the set.

It loses against Ghost Protocol's big set pieces, sadly. A quiet fistfight in the rafters above Turandot, while fun, isn't as creative as the Kremlin infiltration. The opening plane robbery, while impressive, loses a lot of points when cheapened by an obvious digital effect. And a deep dive into a cold computer server followed by a car chase, while McQuarrie's bread and butter, is 100% not the Burj Khalifa centerpiece.

Along with setting up the franchise's new formula of Heist Sequences broken apart by Dialogue Scenes (and essentially siphoning the Marvel CU's spirit), Ghost Protocol created a back door waiting for Tom Cruise any time he wants to take it. There's a chance that, seeing the end of this era of his life biting at the heels of his very tiny feet, he decided to stay in the franchise as long as he is able to do some of his own stunts. This lack of meta-baggage is unique to this series, imbuing it with a strange immortal glow and frees us all up to have a bit of fun. Well, fun as long as certain people keep their dick-beaters off of it.

At times, it's difficult to tell if Mission: Impossible is a smarter James Bond or a dumber one. Bond is an infectious agent burrowing through a sinister host, bringing down a corrupt entity that underestimates him, with brute force. Hunt is a man groping blindly in the dark, succeeding partially through cunning, luck, and having more than two friends. Mission: Impossible does things that James Bond would never consider doing, but the way things are going now for that series, it ends up being mostly a good thing.

It remains a tough act to follow. Considering the future, what the hell could possibly be next? There are only so many times you can pull the "We're like a family!" trick, and how many Middle Eastern countries could there possibly be? Seven? I don't envy anyone in this position. However, this is why you make more money than I do.

Review: Jack Reacher (2012)

Yay, he's back!

New York Times Bestseller trash turns to gold under the right helmsman, and we live in an age where that is becoming increasingly common as long as your name isn't Ron Howard or Edward Zwick. Auteurs who used to scream "God is dead!" at us in the 90s now work for Apple and Taylor Swift. It's both good and awful.

Jack Reacher's story sets out to do nothing more than tell an easy-to-reckon mystery with a few zingers and thrills along the way. My relationship with the series of books doesn't extend beyond doing an awesome job shelving them at Borders, and knowing from my grandmother that Tom Cruise is all wrong for the title role because he is "too fucking short." The good news is that McQuarrie, in the 12 years he's been writing various cinematic failures, keep all of his tools sharp and ain't afraid to use any of them.

His objective touch works wonders on the film's few big action set pieces and they steal the movie away from fairly unremarkable genre trappings. Enough for most people should be the car chase in the center with absolutely NO music attached to it, just shifting of the gears and the roar of the engine, but the film shines in quieter moments as well (there is a scene at a shooting range with an added sense of impending dread, seemingly for very little reason). The film is bolstered by smaller decisions that, on paper, sound much better than they come across. Werner Herzog does a fine job as the Man at the Top, but can only do so much when confined by the material. In general, that's a pretty good rule for determining the quality of this film. Nice, not perfect.

Ultimately, Jack Reacher functions as a surprise in that it exceeds well beyond its own grasp, and as a sign of man breaking free of his One-and-Done status, I'd be a fool not to take it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review: The Way of the Gun (2000)

Christopher McQuarrie didn't cut the cord entirely to Bryan Singer (good thing -- how else can you meet Tom Cruise?), only enough to unlearn some fairly awful filmmaking habits. Public Access, a film with two ideas stretched to feature length and The Usual Suspects, a film lacking about as much atmosphere as What Lies Beneath and one you'd only watch after finishing Tarantino's First 4 in a weekend, were apparently enough to give him the hootzpa to direct his own film. Good thing he smart, dawg. Well, to a degree... I'd like to hear him explain Jack the Giant Slayer.

The Way of the Gun could be set in the same universe as Pulp Fiction, in a world filled with liars and bastards who live at the expense of total squares and take breaks shooting at each other to talk in smoky bars and dark parking lots. Where the tradition of the treasure hunt runs strong and the Game ends in a draw. Where Order is only an implication.

McQuarrie wisely tells the story without a lot of flash, opting for a coldly procedural presentation. But the story he tells, a simple kidnapping scenario, is complicated by half-stated motivations and a surprising amount of verbal metaphors. A zany pre-credits scene establishes the absence of morality but stands apart in terms of tone, and the soberly staged modern western action scenes that come quickly afterwards end up being an empty promise. With such a killer opening Twenty, it takes a bit of a readjustment to fully absorb the slow-paced chess game that follows, where two inscrutable characters have obtuse conversations the likes of which could only be written by a former private investigator. We are left to figure out a lot of the world's economy by ourselves. What happened in Baltimore? What is this family business? How did everybody meet? Why aren't Diggs and Lehman keeping their romance more secretive? Just where the hell are the cops? And so on.

For being a drama set in a harsh world with very little joy, there is a great amount of joy you feel watching all accounts getting settled through extreme violence and misery. McQuarrie is surely destined to stay at the forefront of our lives for- hey, where'd he go?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review: Love & Friendship (2016)

Dreams do come true, about 25 years later.

I'm not too familiar with Jane Austen -- I only know what the movie adaptations have taught me, that among other things they are Hoiti^Toiti and they require 95% perfect of my attention. Love & Friendship stands apart from my impressions of her story content, and from Stillman for that matter, in the sense that the plot isn't driven by characters failing to communicate with one another but from one character coldly manipulating the others for not-quite-so-nefarious reasons.

Stillman is suited to the time period in the same way Whedon was suited for a modern Shakespeare adaptation. He is no stranger to elegance, subtlety or grace. Whit wisely allows his team of acting powerhouses to do the heavy lifting, and so there's not much to the film other than watching Kate Beckinsale's horrifying plan unfold before us, told in pieces to her best friend Chloe Sevigny (the Disco team is back!), and played in such a way that we can't help but admire the cunning. The film is a showcase of acting talents at its core, lifted further upwards with your constant curiosity at who's ahead of whom, dry jokes that take two seconds to reach their chuckle-points, and one jarring but well-timed gag using subtitles.

As with most of Stillman's work to this point, we have such a good time with the characters and the performances that when we are suddenly dropped into the closing credits, we are left with an intense desire to stay in that world longer. Then we remember that we are surrounded by 2 1/2 hour noise-fests and get whiplash reversing our position. Keep doing this, Whit.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Review: The Nice Guys (2016)

Hope you like Christmas. Shane Black keeps his streak alive of recalling his usual trademarks (even a direct one from Last Action Hero) and gives us the gift of watching two lovable characters fumbling through a classic Schlubs v. Coverup scenario. No one writes reluctant partners, kills off background extras, or puts noir in a new setting quite like Black. Refreshingly, he's also unafraid of putting kids in incredibly adult situations ("Don't say 'and stuff.' Just say 'They're doing anal.'") and completely ignoring our discomfort at that prospect. An action film is an adult venture, but there's nothing that says it can't be fun for everybody.

It's a shame, therefore, that the plotting isn't as tight as Black's earlier efforts, that some jokes don't land and character arcs don't quite thread through the runtime; regarding that in particular, Crowe learning mercy even though describing the time he beat someone with a shotgun as the greatest day of his life and Gosling embarrassing his daughter with his drinking but solving a surprising amount of problems through it (and ending the film that way). These seem to be symptoms of a stretched pilot script, moments that would play correctly along a shorter time span and, at the very least, make a fairly major twist less obvious.

It's charming enough to make it all work. In a shockingly dismal year for Hollywood, The Nice Guys is not a beacon of hope but a torch in a mineshaft. It offers the opportunity for a sigh of relief, and it definitely deserves a sequel even if we all know it won't get one.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: Iron Man 3 (2013)

To succumb to my own bit of mythologizing, Marvel had to realize, along with at least half of their audience, just what a safe, by-the-numbers, boring-ass sequel that Iron Man 2 was, and that Favreau's gradual fade out of the franchise was either a cause or a symptom. It's a problem if even the true believers lament what could have been. Why else say yes to a bunch of seemingly crazy ideas from a madman if you didn't have something to prove?

Given all of the press surrounding Whedon and the tough Age of Ultron production, it's difficult to determine exactly how much leeway Marvel gives its helmsmen. Tony Zou, Every Frame a Painting video essayist and twenty-year old doomsayer, hypothesized on his twitter feed that working for Disney doesn't offer you more opportunities, it imprisons you. Maybe an accurate assessment for Kenneth Branagh, who directed Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit between two Disney properties (one a live-action remake of a classic cartoon). It certainly scans for Jon Favreau (who directed Cowboys & Aliens and Chef before returning to direct a live-action remake of a classic cartoon). Can anybody get a Great Mouse Detective script delivered to Shane Black's office?

Black's personality does shine through in what is still recognizably a modern superhero film. Amid all his usual trademarks (including gratuitous naked breasts, appearing the only way they could: on a giant stuffed rabbit) and noticeably borrowed material from his previous work, this is an immensely satisfying action film. Instead of a dumb, reverse engineering of Stark's heart condition and resulting overconfidence(?), the demons he needs to conquer are much more serious (PTSD standing in for alcoholism and weaving into the soldier-for-hire plot). His journey's progression is earned with his own wit, through losing fights and then barely winning fights and then kicking some motherfucking ass in breathtakingly staged action sequences, ones that rank best in the entire series. Much better than being handed half the cure by S.H.I.E.L.D. and a deus ex solution hidden in a model.

But there are some fairly major flaws as well. The fusion with an 80's action film was bound to result in rejected tissue. The behavior of the villains are cruel enough to be off-putting, entering that Die Hard 2 level of sociopathic violence where killing goes beyond merely the cost of doing business, not Marvel's style at all. The middle section of the movie, Stark solving a mystery in a small town without a suit or an AI with a precocious youngster at his side, barely justifies itself before it concludes. Two decades ago, this would have been the whole movie. These days, we have toys to sell, don't we?

The (required) appearance of the Mandarin bumps into at least one unnecessary villain, one that should have been played by Sam Rockwell, and crowd an already packed movie. So much time is spent on "fun" that basic requirements are moved past too quickly. Clearer rules regarding the Extremis soldiers would have helped -- they seem to be incredibly scary and powerful, but they also can be killed if you hit them in one specific spot? Eh. Iron Man flying away on autopilot after his house is destroyed is a straight-up cheat, as well as the inexplicable disappearance of an Extremis soldier later in the small town. And it seems like Wing Attack Plan R (or whatever) should have been implemented much sooner... yknow, when people were falling out of the sky... or not at all. Oh shit, I forgot already, we have toys to sell.

Perhaps the most divisive entry into the MCU has turned me into somewhat of an apologist, a staunch defender of a movie I only like, not love. I'm telling ya, these giant moving parts may shudder and grind, but the suit flies. It's unfortunate that taking story risks has backfired on them, but I have a feeling that Marvel will be just fine. I hope Shane Black will be too.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Review: Knight of Cups (2015)

Christian Bale, indistinguishable from Ben Affleck and Sean Penn, wanders around the decadent wasteland of the Los Angeles overworld, hopping from girlfriend to topless girlfriend, mumbling something or other about a lifetime of regrets while the latest in filmmaking technology is used to say absolutely nothing. We'd sure feel bad about it if these people weren't so goddamned rich.

It is unsurprising at this point that Malick uses his legacy to strip his own work to its core, down to what is essentially a visual symphony of his own subconscious. Images are strung together randomly, title cards reference material we haven't read, narration is present because something has to be said, and the nudity is there to wake up the audience. Do the investors ever wonder if they were tricked into financing a vacation?

To be fair, there is a spark here that, had he hired the editor of the trailer, could have ignited into a fireball. If the staged earthquake near the start of the film led into the beginning of a plot, if scenes actually connected to those around it, if he had drawn parallels from the balsa wood sets on the WB Lot to the stone artifice of the city itself, if extemporaneous dialogue blurred with actors playing actors reciting lines, if he hadn't missed so many opportunities to build something, there could have been an actual movie here. Malick confining himself to a metropolic prison and drawing connections from metaphysics to the incomprehensible nature of the movie industry practically films itself, but even he couldn't resist falling back on his old standbys: shots of mountains and fields and oceans curving into the horizon and wasting our time with bullshit. More like Yawn of Time, right guys?

This long after 1973, I think I'm finally beginning to understand Malick. The man who always seemed so uninterested in screenplays and storytelling structure is exactly as he seems, no artifice no filter. Myth is biography to him, and that has become his own hell. The manifestations through the narration, actors speaking inaudibly, fish-eye lenses and slow dollys on nature, all of it comes from a man trying to break free of himself, a man hopelessly addicted to the search for meaning but unsuited to the task. Doomed.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Review: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

Shane Black has proved, over the course of a few decades, that once a formula works, it can be used repeatedly and that people don't care much as long as you're only ripping yourself off. Turns out languishing in Hollywood gives you plenty of material about Hollywood, and what didn't get used in Last Action Hero can now be used here. Two mismatched characters forced into what essentially amounts to a marriage, solving a mystery with a powerful Aryan is at the top. Add some murders, dimwitted heavies, parties with topless women, a car ramming into a lake or a house, some saxophone, and set it around Christmastime. Repeat every four years.

There is a difference this time around: Black includes himself in the equation. The additional layer of acknowledging storytelling limitations and constant self-deprecation, along with Robert Downey Jr at the boost phase of a meteoric comeback, breathes new life into what otherwise would have been serviceable action-noir. The plot is so greased and moves so fast that it becomes unpredictable, even skipping over plot holes a la Wages of Fear (how did the body arrive in Harry's bathroom so quickly?) and dialogue charming enough so that it doesn't really matter. Gags-Per-Minute reaches new power levels and a spaced-out main character gradually learns over the course of the film that murder solves most problems. It is immensely satisfying.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Review: Damsels in Distress (2011)

Christians in college, this time. Kay.

Greta Gerwig and her team of blank-faced sprites attempt to improve the morale at their college by implementing a strict regimen of tap-dancing, donuts, and hygiene awareness. Every once in awhile there's a hookup followed by a breakup followed by some dry comments and some more breakups. Surely you get the drill by now.

13 years later and Stillman has lost a measure of his edge. The settings he concocts are usually specific enough to be almost entirely unrelatable, but this one is a real doozy. This can't be anyone's college experience. It seems to be closer to a late-Shakespearian farce, rather than a comedy of manners, but for that to work there has to be actual farce. The plot is instead driven almost entirely by the dialogue, per usual, and fixates on less-than-funny character quirks ("How can you not know all the colors?"), bizarre repetitions ("He's an operator,"x16), and anal sex played for laughs (???). Worst of all, soft close-ups of two characters kissing grossly, get that shit out of your goddamned movie, every last one of you.

It's certainly watchable but fairly uneventful and very disposable, with no closure of story threads and what is most assuredly a waste of talented actors sitting at the ready. It should have been an Amazon pilot for a future TV show, which is probably how that Cosmopolitans project actually came about. Oh but don't bother looking for that or anything, Amazon hates their own work more than they hate the idea that you might want to watch it. Oh, this. Right. Uh... eh.

Review: The Last Days of Disco (1998)

It's bad enough trying to get a book published under your name while living in an apartment with people you dislike, but you also gotta worry about cocaine addiction, tax indictment, and violent punk rockers? Christ, it's so tough being into disco, I had no idea.

It's the 80s! Music is terrible, AIDS is right around the corner and the economy is about to tank. I'm confused, though...  are we uptight or are we loose- aw fuck it, this is a paaaaarty. Why worry? The only looming specter that haunts our characters is the possibility that they won't make it into the club that night. This outright deflection of what is actually the cause of their misery means that The Last Days of Disco possesses much more cynicism than the previous films, that the solution is to overcome themselves and each other. The theme compacts into another microcosm: Chloe Sevigny trades her true feelings for popularity and makes some poor decisions resulting in real high-stakes punishment, divvied by Robert Sean Leonard and his reprehensible outbursts of sudden celibate guilt. Goddamn.

There is a bit of a misstep, come the second half. The way this film decouples its boxcars really reiterates Stillman's disinterest in storytelling structure. After a small time jump, it seems like we're following a completely new set of characters, with new relationships and romantic goals. Those two are together? That guy always loved that woman? ... Huh. It makes it difficult not to think the worst, that there was no way to continue the film on its current course so Stillman had to invent a new one to force it into the satisfying closure he had in mind. Otherwise, you simply have to take his word for it.

At least there still exists the usual dry one-liners and strange conversations about nothing, including a classic argument about The Lady and the Tramp. It's fun at a consistent clip and charming enough to overshadow the large holes. This time.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Review: Barcelona (1994)

Leaving our out-of-touch group of UHB socialites, Stillman's focus shifts inches to out-of-touch American citizens living in Spain. Communication breakdowns are expanded to include political and cultural differences, one that really exposes Metropolitan's climax as a symptom of the American puritan, while critical plot movement happens slowly or, sometimes, entirely offscreen. Taylor Nichols as a stressed-out neurotic doormat and Chris Eigeman as an adorable, genuine patriot embodying a microcosm of unwanted occupation hoist the story on their shoulders, and keep us invested with their petty bickering. The themes nest under a column of air.

And yet...

It's tough to pinpoint what has been lost here, however small it may be. The writing is just as sharp but the thrust is softer. Barcelona is a lot closer to a personal journal; narration comes in jarringly, at unexpected moments, regardless of our need for them, and indicates early on that this moment in time is transitory and a little meaningless. Perhaps the bigger shame is the complete jettison of the original climax, one that would have cleverly tied together the dark subplot running in the background. Fixing the low stakes of Metropolitan was inches away, and for whatever reason, is gone now. In more keeping with the diary entry aspect, the film exits quietly, where once again, the final page turns.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Review: Metropolitan (1990)

The bones of Pride and Prejudice find a new body in New York, 1990, where yet again, two acquaintances fall in love with each other, at different times.

Stillman chucks us into the middle of group of friends and gives us enough credit to leave the introductions between the characters offscreen. While we're catching up with the diagram of how these card-carrying members of the UHB know each other, we observe complex social interactions where the concept of 'fun' lies distant from its practice and heated debates appear initially to end in a fractures, but do not. A strange sort of stuffiness remains in dances, games of bridge, and even in a game of strip poker, during 'orgy week.' Emotional outbursts are directed internally, buried beneath prep-school trivia and golden one-liners that are impossible to repeat to your friends.

Eventually, it's time for the plot to move and we languish in an Eigeman-less limbo, a third act that could have probably progressed in fewer steps with stronger stakes. The group dynamic changes so fast that there is only time to lament its loss, and the characters we are left with realize that they were good buddies all along, perhaps at the same time we do. The film's ending leaves various threads dangling, indicating the final page of a journal rather than the closed loop of a story. Its strongest connected thread is that being poor is no limit to snobbery and wealth is no limit to pain, and it's enough.

Thank you, Austen and Allen. You're welcome, Baumbach and Smith.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Review: Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

Billy Ray's second framework of bureaucratic impotence is built upon the tried-and-true bedrock of a teenage girl's murder (additionally, under a façade of the height of the War on Terror), so you'd think that he would at least have a clear idea of how serious the film has to be. You'd certainly think that, all right, but the problems go all the way past its odd tone down to a clear misunderstand of the material itself, The Vanishing style, and with no begrudgingly respectable supervillain at the center and no epilogue where somebody becomes a lawyer, his house collapses.

A fairly large problem is the storytelling structure. You can appreciate the mystery of not knowing which time period a scene takes place in, using only visual cues to orient yourself, but isn't worth it when the tradeoff is no suspense in the 2002 era when we know the case has to last for thirteen more years. A linear structure is a no-brainer way this could have been avoided but what about the rest of it? The film shifts into strange tonal contradictions on a dime. Julia Roberts plays up the yucks seconds before finding her daughter's corpse, making it seem like this ordeal is punishment. Chiwetel Ejiofer is bitten by a tiny dog in the middle of an illegal search-and-seizure and they talk about that instead of the "clue" they just found. And should this other character really be called 'Bumpy'? You say his name so often.

The questionable decisions stack higher, like adding an annoying sound to signify Nicole Kidman's anxiety or putting Julia Roberts in a terrible wig. Ejiofor, who is talented enough to portray young and dangerous and old and weary with a mere graying of his hair, is wasted on what has to be the most ineffective agent in movie history. There are sudden descents into odd genre schlock; "I don't talk to him. I don't like the way he looks at the horses," is a line that happens. And there's a bit of business involving a huge dick that I won't spoil because woweee.

A very late twist ends up rendering over half of the movie a waste of time, including a preposterous diversion involving comical caricatures of white gangsters. The inclusion of big stars and a PG-13 rating imprison the film in the weird sort of box, where they can't stick the thematic landing or even deliver on visceral thrills. Bizarre bullshit pulls the walls down. Oh, and for an additional bit of discomfort, it turns out David Mamet was right... it's the Jews' turn at the barrel.

Review: Breach (2007)

Seeing Breach requires total shunning of its advertising material, all of which will lie to you and say this is not a character study and much closer to placing a rabbit trap over Satan's head. The reality, confirmed as much in Spycraft by Wallace & Melton, is that espionage is 90% boredom followed by 10% sheer, high-stakes terror. Failures are loud, successes are quiet.

Ray's writing style is a perfect fit for the material, in theory. Breach is more of an actor's playground than a top-down expose on Intelligence, with a poor imitation of a three-act structure. Ryan Phillippe, doomed to these types of plucky up-and-comer roles forever, stands toe-to-toe with Chris Cooper, everyone's favorite terrifying hard-lining traditionalist, while Laura Linney kills it in a relatively thankless role as a no-nonsense case handler. Scenes featuring these three are great in isolation, and filmed in competent, unassuming ways that deserve to be in a movie that does more than frustrate you.

Billy Ray is either trying harder or forced into indentured servitude for The Man, which in filmmaking terms means more moneyshots of DC and Virginia and in scriptwriting terms means more made up nonsense and more throwaway scenes. Not only does Ray feel the need to establish the characters instead of letting the actors do that for him, major set pieces are invented to fill an imaginary quota. The film's memorable sequences, a Palm Pilot download and a car ride, are sufficient caps if we are here to learn about "The Worst Spy in American History," especially if you excise the extraneous marital strife subplot. There is a preposterous climax involving a pistol in the woods at night that is meant to focus the theme to a singular point, and in case you forgot all about that Driver's Test conversation, Cooper spells his motivation out to you verbally a couple of scenes later. It's a shame, really... if you didn't try so hard to bribe me into loving the movie, I probably would have loved the movie.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review: Shattered Glass (2003)

Billy Ray's first directorial effort is lacking anything you could rightly call a gimmick. It is a straightforward, honest portrayal of a real life liar, one that relies exclusively on its cast to do all of the hard work. It was a good call -- motherfuckers are on fire in this bad boy. You can see clearly every reason why Hank Azaria is well-liked and a good editor, why Peter Sarsgaard is disliked but possibly a better one, and why Hayden Christiensen is beloved but using that to extend a grace period to infinity. Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson are in this too, by the way, for maybe ten minutes but man their scenes are so memorable that your brain will swear that they're in it for much longer. 

The content itself is stacked together in neat columns, information that doesn't bog down the film or outstay its welcome. A lot is packed into a very tiny space, in what feels like a small movie when the end comes at an economical hour-and-a-half. Really, only Billy Ray's finale suffers from the speed of it. He writes Sarsgaard back in his coworkers' good graces in a single scene, on the day this all becomes national news, while the purpose of his strange framing device finally becomes clear. His denouement is a sudden drop into the closing credits but it leaves enough room for you to look this case up yourself. Lawyers stare at each other across a long table in a way that The Social Network will echo seven years later.

It's a fun, breathtaking ride. An industry film with no murders, car chases or nudity can feel quaint nowadays (this film's version of an action sequence is a conference call); quaint like the utilization of the Yahoo search engine or the general idea that journalists have any integrity. And you're telling me that the breakthrough for internet journalism was a fact-checking case? The irony.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Review: Self/less (2015)

Is it that the business, by nature, wears people down and turns them into inert husks of the warriors they used to be? Does part of that nature include an element that does everything it can to sabotage the project and its leader? It seems that way when a film is seconds from becoming immersive and is then followed by five decisions that undercut and apologize for getting that close. I would love more than anything to put the blame on the editor, Robert Duffy, because he edited this thing like garbage, but -- goddammit, he also edited Singh's good films, didn't he? So, bottom line, if we focus all points onto one man for success, we must also do the same for failure.

Self/less is Death Becomes Her and The Game, brought to you by Apple and Google. A bunch of nonsense followed by even more nonsense, some inorganic character development that indicate the time for the audience to use the restroom, scene problems solved numerous times by characters running on the other side of a small hill. It isn't the bizarre fuck up that was Mirror Mirror, merely a generic sci-fi actioner that's biggest crime is that it wastes the talent of the people involved.

Some Tarsemyness manages to sneak in. There are brief symmetrical tableaus of characters sitting in beautifully arranged settings that would have played perfectly from there until Singh decided he needed to include every single angle they shot that day. There are sweeping sidelong dollys and montage techniques absorbed via a close friendship with David Fincher, and at least one or two frames of the Living Paintings gimmick. The more surreal approach that Singh is known for (and what we all show up for) could have only helped elevate the material, but is currently out to lunch. Alas, we may have to install another gravestone in the visual stylist's graveyard and put Singh's right next to Alex Proyas.

Review: Mirror Mirror (2012)

Tarsem was unlucky enough to land in the middle of a bizarre Snow White resurgence, and it didn't help that Mirror Mirror's three screenwriters couldn't pound out a single good joke. None of these people know a comedian? No, Nathan Lane doesn't count.

Woof. So what happened here? Well, answers seem clearer, this time. I think somebody had too much faith in their ability to fix problems well into production. Shit's been broke for awhile now, dawg. Even farce, good farce, doesn't follow an 'and then' formula. The Queen despises Snow White. And then Snow White sneaks into the ball. And then the Prince is robbed by dwarves on accordion legs. And then the Prince and Snow White duel. And then the Mirror Queen turns Nathan Lane into a cockroach. And then with a certain amount of terror, you notice you are only halfway through the movie.

These scenes are all paced quickly enough and the film retains a softened version of Tarsem's usual beauty, but it's all irrelevant when nothing seems to matter to the characters within the film. If Roy tried telling this story to Alexandria on that hospital bed, she would have fallen asleep before he had the chance to manipulate her. Shit, everybody's asleep. Even frequent collaborator Eiko Ishioka is phoning it in ("Eh? I don't know, put a bird on her head."). And don't you dare try tacking on a dance number in the closing credits to trick me into thinking I had a good time, I don't care how many letters your last name has. It's a wading pool of drying concrete, getting through this thing. Try making it to the end of the trailer, even. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Review: Immortals (2011)

Scream to us, o nudes, an evocation of old Harryhausen and ignite a flame under that testosterone cauldron inside all of us, the same one that encourages you to fistbump your wife after the closeup of the virgin oracle's butt. The very same that causes her to oblige.

Cribbing from various details of Greek mythology but throwing the details into the pits of Scaldor, we are whisked away on a fast moving adventure that can only insist on a massive scope but remain confined to what looks like about four greenscreen sets. Things move quickly, and then much too quickly, and then much much too quickly. Truly amazing moments stand inches from each other, moments that need at least thirty seconds of separation -- a time lapse or a montage or something -- in order for the story to actually function. How characters travel so quickly or why we couldn't start the film in the salt mines so that Mickey Rourke's war can seem endless, are deemed irrelevant. They occasionally are irrelevant in the face of a violent encounter with a Minotaur, a God of War set piece crushing everyone's head with a hammer, and a Call to Arms speech punctuated with sword smacks to the shield. Sparta where?

Singh is running fast here. The script is barely ahead of the cameras and as such, we lose out on a better constructed story, something the filmmakers deserve as much as we do. Tarsem has allowed improvisation to change the nature of the script before (The Fall's climactic sword fight originally involved the Hypochondriac as villain, not the Actor), so he's no stranger to driving himself completely nutso. It works partially towards the film's benefit that the story is so bare -- it ends up as a fairly accurate echo of a poet's song. Neal Stephenson once used an analogy for squished history, compact information you can breeze past in a line at Disneyland, something you can never unspool and examine. If we are the child at the end of the film, staring at a depiction of Theseus's adventures on a statue, knowing only the highlights and not the ordeal, we are content but long to have actually lived it.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Review: The Fall (2006)

"Why are you killing everybody?"

Films about filmmaking are usually self-congratulatory douchefests designed to inflate art's importance so that nobody loses their job. A way to sidestep that pitfall would be similar to an optical illusion, where the magic happens on the periphery, although I think the result is identical to simply telling a good story. Here, we have two! A man in a hospital bed begins an epic tale to a young child (a western, though not imagined as such) solely to earn her trust and get her to retrieve pills from the hospital's dispensary. The narrative cross-stitching functions completely without the technological excuse in The Cell, only by the imagination of the cutest little girl in the world, and the reality of the hospital and her life influence the casting and visuals of her imagination in monumentally clever ways. The film pulls you in two different directions at first; the more visually arresting is also less important, a tough thing to meet halfway until the stakes of real story increase and Roy's motives become clearer and less tasteful. Tableaus are constructed and discarded, quickly and effortlessly, and we are pulled into a third direction as his tale become dangerous. The brutal squeeze it puts on your heart by the end is a hammer collapsing your chest, where it is hard to tell if we are Alexandria, demanding a happy ending, or Roy, bitter and broken by life's hardships. It's an awe-inspiring achievement with an insane amount of connective tissue weaved throughout the various themes.

You don't need to be part of a hero myth to pull someone out of hell. The movie is incredible, Lee Pace is a motherfucking boss, I cry a bunch. Oh, and look, Bedtime Story again! This guy loves Mark Romanek.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review: The Cell (2000)

Jennifer Lopez and her booty have to travel through Hirst, Nerdrum, Giger, various Tarkovsky films, and the Losing My Religion, Closer, The Perfect Drug, and Bedtime Story music videos in order to find the location of a comatose serial killer's final victim, in a situation so specific that it's hard to imagine the Dreamsharing Institute ever getting its own television show. Nonetheless, our reward for all of those directors learning their craft at MTV at the height of its power is the occasional art film/genre picture hybrid, where it's hard to tell if one side is elevating the other or if one side is a weight dragging the other down.

It would have been so easy for The Cell to be a run-of-the-mill Silence of the Lambs clone where the science fiction element is wasted on someone who doesn't know what they're doing. Tarsem Singh was definitely the person to hire for the dreamstuff, but his craftiness bleeds into areas outside of the money-shots; the killer's victims are given proper, horrific detail, D'onofrio's arrival to the institute is a thing of vaguely unsettling beauty, and the implication of Vince Vaughn's molestation as a child is later used as a seduction technique. We got really, really lucky.

The weights come in the form of clear outside interference, boxing gloves and shoulder pads. A woman's life hinging on Jennifer Lopez's success is infinitely more important than proving her worth to the parents of a comatose child. The dramatization of D'onofrio's ridiculous dragonlike seizures cruelly undercut the kinetic, purely pornographic FBI siege on his home. Dylan Baker's folksy explanations of the dreamcloths to the detectives (therefore, the audience) become embarrassingly superfluous when the director has already done such a bang-up job conveying it visually. And there's not much we can do about the ending, where a connection established with a child pre-murderer through a mercy drowning had to also include a crossbow showdown(?).

There should be a cut of this with the handholding excised. The insane visual effects, the fusion of Howard Shore's Naked Lunch/Se7en score and the inclusion of Fantastic Planet on a television screen all belong in full-throttle surreality, where the genre trappings are cemented closed and the gunshy studio notes are set on fire. You don't have to perform gymnastics for so long (40 minutes) just to get to the juicy stuff, and we can understand braindiving in this universe without too much justification. We came to a goddamned movie, after all.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: The Bourne Legacy (2012)

James Bond went through this already. The series had its popular watershed debut, misunderstandings of it that spawned cash-grab sequels, and recasting that came a bit too soon. All we have to do now is wait for Jason Bourne to drive an invisible car.

This isn't good for us but it could be worse, I suppose... we could be watching Duplicity again. Maybe that's why: this is a For Hire gig. We could congratulate Gilroy for doing a competent enough job or scold him for withholding any personal flourishes that could engage us more. There is a pretty cool gunfight inside of a house and one or two memorable moments (Renner reloading his rifle in a single as a drone explodes in the background) -- rare occurrences that are no match for the time and special effects wasted on nothing, and here and there, the bafflingly stupid (that ridiculous scene where Renner wrestles with a wolf to shove a tracker bug into his mouth... did Gilroy want to avoid the put-the-bug-in-raw-meat-and-let-the-wolf-eat-it cliché that much?). I'd tell you to skip the first hour but then you'd miss out on some Oscar Isaac, and I cannot in good conscience do that.

It isn't like the Bourne series is anything special but it's really beginning to spiral out of control here. There's Earworm Cinema and there's Teflon Cinema. Legacy's incomprehensible plot about supersoldier drugs, its lack of risks and the apologetic nature of its producing staff make sure we won't remember too much about it. Would remaining inoffensive be its own reward, in this case? It is if they have to restart it again in four more years.

That Gilroy/Ray/Johnson parallel weakens. Rian Johnson is still on top and looks to remain there with the help of the Star Wars pedigree, and Billy Ray's trajectory looks more like a slope than a check mark. We should be more concerned about Renner. One of these days, he's going to be more than a sidekick or an A-Lister's ill-timed replacement. Maybe he'll have a franchise of his own.

Review: Michael Clayton (2007)

A strange tiger of a legal thriller that stays a respectable distance from true Lawyer Porn (Anatomy of a Murder). Killer dialogue, an insane inside man muddying the Erin Brokovich style shit at the center, plot elements that proceed in slight abnormal order, and what Gilroy probably meant to do when he wrote The Devil's Advocate. The film is a lot of air; the big scenes are when characters try to interact with each other, yammer on about a metaphorical computer game, or stare longingly at horses and wonder how it all got to this. The smaller moments are when the plot moves. Move too fast and the movie is over.

It's damn good but it ain't perfect. Not only does it suffer from the shitty '4 Days Earlier...' cliché that could have easily been excised with a couple of quick script edits, it treats the idea of a Manic-Depressive committing suicide as WEIRD and a goddamned car bomb as NOT THAT WEIRD AT ALL. Most important of all, Tom Wilkinson burns it down so hard that when his character is absent, the film suffers. Not enough that it matters so much in the end, not with Sydney Pollack picking up the slack and that final shot bringing us home. The integrity is its own reward.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Review: Mistress America (2015)

Gerwig's College Years.

It's tough to recommend a film with a requirement of 'patience,' even moreso when we already know what getting fooled twice means. The first half-hour of Mistress America is a montage of incredibly short scenes with no punchlines (save for the immortal 'Why don't you put pasta up her pussy?'), showing step-by-step the construction of a new family relationship (step-sisters) around errands and social obligations. It doesn't seem to have much of a direction and it goes on long enough to put real fear in your heart. The whole film can't be this, can it?

Then the centerpiece cometh. A huge, snappy dialogue sequence in the center of the movie ropes everything into a tight ball and suddenly, it's working. All that seemingly meaningless shit that had a constant music bed under it like it was Six-String Samurai, that's where the setups were hidden, now getting paid off like dominos in a flurry of Howard Hawksian dialogue bullets. We are railgunned through a second act and before we know it, all we need are 20 more minutes to wrap it all up. AND WE CARE. Satisfaction!

It's good to know that, this many years later, he can still pull off the Highball trick. The Baumbach we know can succeed is alive in his partner. Here's hoping it lasts a little longer.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Review: While We're Young (2014)

Baumbach's Mid-Life Crisis.

An awful couple (thankfully, childless) reevaluates their existence after some young hipsters reawaken them with some terrible, out-of-touch internet monetization ideas and I guess eventually a second act turn happens to no one's surprise because they foreshadowed the fuck out of it. In between are Baumbach's usual- y'know, do I even need to say it at this point? I swear, his story-breaking exercise must consist of "If I were really in this situation, what is the worst possible thing I could do?" and mine those instincts for story beats. Or at the very least, he delights in portraying grossness not yet covered in film. Thus, a scene centered around group Ayahuasca vomiting.

Unfortunately, this is one of those times where Baumbach fails to come through in the zinger department, making this another chore with the occasional outstanding performance (Amanda Seyfried!). And where no overriding plot worked for Greenberg and Frances Ha, it becomes a real detriment with the illusion of stakes, stakes that in a normal movie would supply the third act with an Everest or a Hans Gruber. The momentum is then killed as quickly as it begins and we're to believe that the Kaiju Portal is thematic, that it was solely about Getting Older this whole time and that the Suicide Mission with a Nuke is just... realizing it after a public humiliation. What is this, Wonder Boys? Or Wanderlust? Or some other W film? Eh, get off of my lawn.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Review: Frances Ha (2012)

Gerwig's Post-College Years.

Life begins again. Our scientific observations of flawed creatures turns to the feminine perspective, which is a great way for Baumbach to avoid trampling over material already covered. Cultivating human relationships require different strategies, career choices fail for different reasons and anxiety is absorbed, rarely discharged.

It takes awhile for the film to reveal itself as a much simpler entity: a snapshot of a dying friendship. For a long time you are languishing in a stattaco series of (you guessed it) uncomfortable situations brought on by Metropolitan-tude and a simmering mess of a main character. New York City characterized in My Dinner with Andre as a concrete prison built and happily occupied by its prisoners seems especially true here, even more so when contrasted with a sunny second act trip to Sacramento, glimpses of fun quickly forgotten when the problems return. Will she ever... uh... what was the goal again?

The film is barely about anything else and doesn't possess much of a dramatic arc (absent even an 'ending' where the music rises and cuts to credits on a symbolic throwaway line), but it's delightful. It approaches a classicism that makes you long for an era where movies like this could just be made. I guess they still can be.

Review: Greenberg (2010)

Baumbach's Bitter Middle-Age.

Whatever happened to Grover, the main character from Kicking and Screaming? By now, he's probably a hopelessly adrift prick who owns, proudly, a do-nothing-say-everything attitude with no targeting computer, sometimes tragically blanketing people who don't deserve it and playing Jai Alai with the life of a beloved family pet. He'll have never learned that "doing nothing" isn't a solution, it's the fucking problem, and at this age it ain't cute no mo'. Greenberg resides in an unending hell and deserves it. And this time it's in Los Angeles!

For something that is only a series of uncomfortable situations queued together with little overriding plot to tie it all together, its focus on an insufferable main character, it works. Stakes are kept as low as Greenberg's ambition and he isn't much rewarded or punished for his behavior. Baumbach has reclaimed some of the magic concoction from The Squid and the Whale, only now he is (thankfully) returning to a more classical style of filmmaking after the deluge of low-fi hi-def video handheld shit. All those special effects artists making 200+ shots of a blue light shooting into the atmosphere has freed up the tripods. Good good. And because Baumbach's material is autobiographical, we can look forward to the film he makes about a character who writes a movie with his wife and then leaves her for the much younger lead actress.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Review: Margot at the Wedding (2007)

Baumbach's Middle School Years.

A post-apocalyptic beach somewhere in a Lars von Trier film. We watch a bunch of awful human beings interact for a stretch, every once in awhile focusing on a bug flying into someone's ear or a dead rat at the bottom of a pool or a gutted pig falling onto a dirty kitchen floor... shit that can only make you feel sick, and no sum exists for the experience. Scenes are short, punctuated riffs on a diseased family and the film rots eternally -- The Squid and the Whale from Shadow-Shadow Earth, with familiar parallels to Spanking the Monkey, complete with the non-ending. Without help from Baumbach's normally on-point dialogue save for the immortal "You shit in your shoes and then you fuck 'em," there's very little reason to sit through it. Nicole Kidman is amazing in it and Jack Black gets to expand his acting palette slightly, but honestly, Baumbach is the person who probably got the most out of it, finally achieving sweet revenge on real life analogs by making their dirty laundry public. It is high time he took his own mother to task after all that weird incestuous shit in the last movie, but goddammit, could he have left us out of it?

Review: The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Baumbach's High School Years.

It took almost a decade after Mr. Jealousy for Baumbach to learn how to rush headlong towards the exquisitely uncomfortable, his usual quickfire zingers now having to survive in a toxic pool of human waste -- two terrible people raising two terrible kids in the middle of a terrible divorce. The Royal Tenenbaum's from Shadow Earth. It's strange the cocktail works so well given the territory the film bravely dives into. Kids swear like sailors, talk about their mother giving blowjobs, wipe their cum on library books, try on condoms while pounding tequila, rip off Pink Floyd... y'know, all the universally relatable things. The film moves so fast that it doesn't seem like the director is wiping his cum on us, necessarily, and while the characters may not be particularly relatable, the pacing makes sure that they are not inflicting their shittiness on anyone except for each other. We are observers of these bizarre creatures, scientifically recording their self-destructive behavior. Kafka parallelllllllllll.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Review: Highball (1997)

Baumb- no, er, Ernie Fusco's Post-College Years.

A couple throws three uncomfortable parties on different dates in their cramped New York apartment and an astonishing amount of hilarity ensues. Cribbing from Whit Stillman does have its perks, it turns out, and not only can you prove yourself as a near-equal with quickly realized characters and tight rapid fire Beatles-level jokes, but you can actually end the movie with the most amount of accrued character dignity than anything you'll make in the future. Even with Carlos Jacott playing against type and Chris Eigeman playing exactly on type. The magic performed here cannot be undersold as it exists exclusively in writing and acting and was probably filmed secretly around the production of Mr. Jealousy (in only six days?!), explaining Noah Baumbach's name in the acting credit only. It exists nowhere in the cinematography, certainly -- the first sacrifice to the Gods of Completion demanded that only one incredibly hot light be used at any given time. The last sacrifice had to be its DVD release, the strangest media artifact ever, where the title of the film is upside-down on its spine, where a 'synopsis' counts as a special feature, where there is no artwork on its disc, where the film itself skips backwards two seconds with no interruption in the audio no less than five times. Highball still survives. It's the Primer of comedies.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review: Kicking and Screaming (1995)

Baumbach's College Years.

A comedy with a surprisingly strong purpose. Quirky twenty-somethings exchange hilarious barbs and make observations that hit a bit too close to home. Characters actively ignore the fact that the worst of all possible choices is marinating in the same water with people you used to like but now secretly resent as the protective womb of higher learning shrinks. They are the Cabaret in Berlin. Sure, we're having lots of fun, but staying and doing nothing could be the cause of all our problems.

The group's antics are broken up by flashbacks to a beginning of a relationship that ended when the film began. At first, they don't generate any justification for their existence and grind the film to a halt. It isn't until the fun moments between the characters get rarer and rarer and all we have left is this moment of beauty, the origin story of an insane fluke of a successful cooperation. Ending on this is a bittersweet affair, and reveals the main character as doomed to this formula of accidental joy for the rest of his life. "I just wish we were an old couple," isn't a sweet statement. He wants climaxes unearned. It's pitiful.

Kicking and Screaming joins, with Gilmore Girls, the club of owing absolutely everything to Whit Stillman. Baumbach in particular should thank him and, while he's at it, never stop.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: Upstream Color (2013)

The movie is a rape drug the size of a volleyball.

Carruth takes a different approach to his Primer followup, taking all of that heady sci-fi exposition and going outside-in, primarily through the characters' actions, match-cutting and dream logic transportation. Like his last film (a mere nine years prior), every second is important so you better be paying attention. Unlike his last film, Upstream Color is void of questionable technical decisions. This is still a micro-budget production but there is no parallel equivalent of setting an important dialogue scene in the middle of a goddamned fountain.

A sonofabitch of first act shows us the bizarre life cycle of a hallucinogenic organism and how you can use it to destroy a woman's life. Much of the film afterwards is a near-montage of two characters, still in a strange daze, trying to rebuild. On a faster track with more viscera, this is a horror flick, a painting of an impersonal universe that doesn't care what you've built, what you've lost, or how much you suffer.

The result of all this is an intensely emotional experience, one that arouses your sympathy for human beings and also pigs. It stands against Primer in that regard, a movie you had to really fight through to get any bottom-up sentiment out of, but does lose on any top-down surprises. Watching the slow rise and fall of a confusing relationship is a necessary part of the movie and the direction it heads, while emotionally satisfying, is not so much logically.

Dip me in medicine and watch me smoke.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review: The Monuments Men (2014)

We have already arrived at Clooney's Space Cowboys phase and his team should have told him that in order for this movie to work, the mission needed to involve something bigger, like human life for instance. Involving a number closer to the 345 actual Monuments Men and Women, doing less campaigning for the importance of art, refraining from mentioning consistently that a painting is more important than a life (thus, the paintings are a metaphor and driven home in that money shot of the flamethrower torching the Renoir)... any of that would have worked. Even small measures like telling us where we are when a scene changes or how it fits in context with the rest of the war would have at least functioned as a history lesson. Is this a tax break for the equity he's accumulated? Is the fun he has its own reward for spending a bunch of time and money on NOTHING? Is the director aware that culture comes from people and not the other way around? Somebody should show him Children of Men.

Review: The Ides of March (2011)

No plot? No problem. Put a bunch of selfish people in a room together and there's yer movie. There must be inherent difficulty in centering your story around a political candidate -- you have two choices, one will come across too obvious, the other too harsh. The option they go with means the fictional Democrat can't end up being too evil, so the action he's caught up in is kickstarted by a childish, puritanical overreaction to a relatively benign piece of information. Usually, a tragedy to leverage a weaker man is used fairly early on, not halfway through. This is not enough for a story. Even as a play in a box theatre, I doubt this would work. At the end, do we cheer? Do we boo? Unknown. It's hard to be conflicted about everyone getting exactly what they want when there don't appear to be any stakes on the other side. What the hell happened here? We miss the guy with all the flashy, passionate camerawork in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the guy with the smoky, classical atmosphere of Good Night, and Good Luck. Is that guy dead already?

Review: Leatherheads (2008)

Clooney's version of a tribute to 1920s screwball cinema is more like a spiritual companion to Robert Redford's directorial efforts, specifically the part worship-part indictment of the huckster\outlaw spirit. The film picks no side except for whatever side the director happens to be on at that particular moment. If I had to guess, I'd say he actually hates football, which makes it all the more confusing that he'd strong-arm the script away from an ESPN writer. I guess you'd have to in order to have an inexcusable misuse of John Krasinski at the height of his popularity and a love story approaching Intolerable Cruelty levels of tedium. All of the zaniness and shenanitry, even if it were effective, works against the film thematically when it's put against the dry seriousness of an impending bankruptcy and a massive buyout. These idiots aren't saving an orphanage, they deserve to have their league formalized. The man with the low angles and dark shadows saves them. Well, destroys them if you darken the whole affair by pretending it's a prequel to Concussion.

Review: Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

The director catches fire, quickly. In what it a series of smart decisions made one right after the other, Clooney gathers a remarkable cast of actors -- David Strathairn, the best smoker in the world, Ray Wise, exuding his usual air of world-weary tragedy, and Jeff Daniels, beginning a new chapter of his career of playing characters who stand in front of a lectern and tell you not to do things -- and crams them into tight office spaces and films them with a telephoto lens. It's a slam-dunk marriage to the material itself, immortal by virtue of the very human desire to micromanage civilization. There will always be a McCarthy.
Much of the driving suspense is in what we don't see, the enclosing circle of mass hysteria and the threat of a powerful government swinging its sword with no restraint. The intensity of the first broadcast unfortunately means that the rest of the film can't really measure up. We brush past many months of turn-based combat through televisions and satisfy a subplot that feels more like filler than an example of the witch hunt's body count, stealing money and time away from our star newsman. The film's engine slows to a stop.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Review: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Clooney's flashy, endlessly cynical debut is a mixed bag. Its purpose is to undercut any notions you may have about spycraft (a total crapshoot, where stratagems are improvised just before they are needed and anybody can be recruited) America in the 50s (no such thing as 'the good old days'), television (manufactured joy, made by elitist sycophants) and sex (women don't fuck you because you're good at it), told through one of entertainment's most eccentric eccentrics. Many of the things that make it worth watching are in the final 30 minutes, including vital information regarding our main character that would have gone a long way in humanizing him. The payoffs end up working way too late in the game. Far from incompetent, but mostly a chore that arrests your attention for two minute stretches.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Review: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Two writers work out more of their feelings about their neglectful, conniving intellectual parents. Their surrogates run away with each other, are surrounded by the usual focus on objects, tableau, titular wordplay, and are eventually rewarded for all of the trouble they caused. Surprisingly, when this elevator pitch is cut short halfway through, you realize you could have watched this portion for four more hours (in theory -- looking at you, Standing Up). The story ends up being very simple on the face of it, getting so much accomplished with what seems like nothing but air. No, heavier than that. Maybe propane? It's a sustained joy, feat after cinematic feat tightly packed together.

All these spinning plates that Anderson has over his head begin crashing to the ground towards the end of the film, resulting in a pretty sloppy climax -- a sudden binocular contrivance, a teleporting crowd of kids after a lightning strike that is quickly brushed past, some time devoted to completing an arc in Edward Norton's character that we didn't know existed, a verbal confrontation in a church that sounds a lot like a first draft -- though it doesn't end up ruining the rest of the film, thankfully. It may even works towards its benefit. The messiness contrasts it with The Darjeeling Limited's clean ending. It's okay that these two kids achieve a victory even if they didn't earn it. Life is chaos, and they made love work within that chaos. It's a summer romance that burns hot and bright but -- let's face it -- will run out of fuel come winter. The time they spent together will be a rare moment of beauty they'll remember forever, but is now lost to the tide.