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 fa├žade 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.