Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

Reviews

Review: Thor

I’m sticking by my prediction that Marvel’s upcoming Captain America film will suck as much as its uninspired trailer suggests it will, but I will admit to being very wrong in my preconceptions about Thor, a brash and loud and utterly entertaining addition to Marvel’s superhero filmography.  What it lacks in nuance and subtlety, director Kenneth Brannagh’s film makes up for in charisma, polish, and the kind of brute sincerity one finds in these Hollywood summer megaflicks when they’re done right.

Thor isn’t the best known hero is Marvel’s oeuvre (I came in with almost no prior knowledge of the storyline), and the film is wise in assuming so.  The script introduces the audience to the outlandish backdrop of Norse gods and alien planets and interstellar conflict with a surprisingly assured hand, and by the half-hour mark the expansive worlds and galaxy-sized scenario feel well-defined, a necessity in order for any grand fantasy story to take shape.  And it certainly helps that its a very engaging scenario, rooted in age-old but effective warrior tales and palace soap operas but given a unique visual style and an honest presentation.  Such an array of settings and stagings and color pallettes could have easily overwhelmed a less seasoned filmmaker, and though the esteemed Shakespearian Kenneth Brannagh has never before handled something of this scope, he knows how to handle story elements and how to frame a shot, fundamental skills that other tent-pole helmers like Brett Ratner and Michael Bay handle with considerably less pinache.

And being an actor himself, Brannagh clearly knows that the success of a film relies on the characters, and his film is best served by the performances of a diverse and talented cast dedicated to the material, fantastical and broad as it can sometimes be.  Of course no one is playing for Oscars, but no one seems as though they’re phoning it in either, and quality supporting work is turned by Natalie Portman (juggling intellectual earnestness and school-girl giggliness like no one else can), Stellan Skarsgard, and Anthony Hopkins.

But the experienced cast and mammoth storyline are never too much for newcomer Chris Hemsworth, who plays the title role with charisma and muscular braggodocio the likes of which we haven’t seen much of since the 1980s.  Huge biceps, a six-pack, and long flowing locks were surely high on the casting criteria, but Hemsworth can hold a screen.  The film’s best humor derives from his character’s rather immediate acceptance of his new surroundings.  He’s exiled from his kingdom, abandoned on Earth, but as soon as he wakes he pretty much goes about his heroic business, only occasionally stopping to consider the differences between this place and his own.  In that sense, it’s a simple-minded but refreshing take on what heroes are supposed to do, at least in the movies.  Learn compassion and gain wisdom, sure, but also crack your knuckles and get down to the task at hand.  It’s a fitting thematic centerpiece for the film as a whole, which presents its world with confidence and gets to the heroics as swiftly and efficiently as possible.

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On DVD: ‘Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps’

Crisis Blanding

When watching just about every Oliver Stone film since Platoon, I find myself thinking that he would make a great documentarian.  He has a keen eye for detailed information and possesses the intellect to put pieces together in fascinating and sometimes even convincing ways.  He’s probably capable of producing an examination of the recent financial collapse as incisive and probably more engaging than the Oscar-winning doc Inside Job, and it would eliminate the need to tack on a rote human drama that feels petty and inconsequential when paired with a thoroughly believable chronicle of what may by the first quake in a worldwide economic apocalypse.  Because, strangely enough, its the human drama that scuttles his sequel to Wall Street.  The sad-eyed domestic squabbles of a young rich couple who come out a tiny bit less young and a tiny bit less rich just doesn’t hold the viewer’s attention when propped up against Stone’s well-rendered backdrop of the 2o08 crisis, or even when pitted against the still-formidable shadow of Gordon Gecko, that infamous cinematic creation brought back in sleazy splendor by Michael Douglas.

Shia LeBeouf, who possesses a screen presence and unique charm greater than the sum of his recent script choices, plays a young and talented investment banker working for a big-deal investment firm ( a stand-in for the doomed Lehman Brothers).  The beginning of the films borders on brilliant, as Stone uses his young novice’s perspective to watch the collapse of the supposedly unsinkable firm from the inside.  It’s rousing and terrifying stuff, considering its real-life origins, but the film quickly drifts off into personal drama that just doesn’t carry enough weight.  LeBeouf’s number-cruncher has a earthy heart for environmentalism, advocating investment in cold fusion technology.  An admirable interest, but it never feels authentic.  Neither does his relationship with Carey Mulligan’s character, a liberal blogger who happens to be the daughter of Gorden Gecko, recently released from prison and peddling a book on why he believes the world is fucked from a financial perspective.

Gecko is still an all-time great screen creation, a wondrous deomonstration of the kind of iconic character work movies can do.  And when he’s on screen, even if its in forced reconciliation attempts with his estranged daughter, he’s dynamite.  Michael Douglas slips back into the roll with ease, and it’s remarkable how, though mostly unchanged from a moral perspective, he seems a pedestrian bad guy compared to the heirs to his money model.  “I’m small time compared to these crooks,” he says, and it’s all too easy to believe him.

But he can’t keep the film afloat as a complete work.  There are too many predictable and uninteresting character concerns that seem much less important to the director than casting his lens on the Wall Street meltdown and its future implications.  The problems of his characters just don’t adequately convey the warning buried within his film, instead forcing standard-definition melodrama (and a cheesy title) on some high-def economic observations.


On DVD: ‘Cure’

Cruel Whispers

Horror films have long had a way of cutting right to the heart of what afflicts their culture.  In American cinema you can see it in the incisive critiques of mindless consumerism in Romero’s zombie films, or in a more recent and insistent example, in the Grand Guignol moral slaughter of Se7en, a film that sympathetically considers the need for punishment brought on by modern hyperindividualism in the Western world, even if it scoffs at the righteous methodology of its onscreen monster.   A diagnosis of societal ill also lies at the heart of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, but the cultural contrast is startling.  While films like Se7en shake their heads at a distinctly American glut of the self, Cure casts a critical eye at Japan’s pervasive collectivism, a communal suppression of the individual that the film posits has created a seething couldron of barely restrained violence waiting just under the surface, ready to explode at the slightest nudge.

A spree of brutal murders has taken place in Tokyo, with the victims killed via blood loss after a ‘X’ is carved into their throats.  Stranger still, is the murders are all committed by different killers with no connection to each other and no prior knowledge of the other murders’ M.O.  They are normal people with casual or intimate relations to the deceased, all found close to the crime scene with no recollection of what they have done.  The film is a serial killer flick in tone but has little interest in the whodunnit conventions of the genre.  We know who is causing these murders early on; a amnesiac loner who appears able to push people to kill through a calm method of suggestive hypnosis.  The film is more concerned with how such a creature fits into Japan’s cultural landscape, and how the suggestion of violence to a seemingly calm person on the emotional edge can become a plague, an infectious psychological transmission of bloodshed.  Kurosawa seems to believe Japan is ripe for such a collective bout of psychosis, and much like in Se7en, he considers his monster as an evil person needing of destruction, but whose nature and motives might be edging close to disturbing truth and even necessity.  This soft-spoken hypnotist brings the individual to the forefront, and since the individual is so downplayed in relation to the needs of the collective, that bringing forth is catastrophic. And perhaps the infectious nature of violence is enhanced by a society too interconnected for its own good.

These are some heady ideas for a film like this, and Kurosawa isn’t quite up to answering all of them effectively.  The film also has a measured pace that will hard for some to endure, especially those enamored with the more traditional trappings of the serial killer genre.  But its a worthy long walk in a world still quite alien to American sensibilities, a country still trying to find its bearings after a particularly pervasive and particularly violent collectivism brought on its destruction 65 years ago.  This is a horror film with a lot on its mind, and the foreign nature of some of its concerns makes it all the more fascinating.


On DVD: ‘Animal Kingdom’

Law of the Jungle

Australia’s new entry in the crime genre isn’t given to the bells and whistles of its American cousins.  There aren’t slick montages backed by 70s rock music, nor are there colorful bad guys in three-piece suits spouting unnaturally clever dialogue.  Here is a crime drama firmly grounded in the banal milieu of everyday life, which makes it all the more shocking when hideous violence punctuates the quiet suburban space.

The story is of a teenager taken into a family of bankrobbers after his mother dies of a drug overdose.  His uncles and his grandmother are lying low when he enters their tranquil Melbourne neighborhood, which is a good idea considering the police’s robbery division is likely to shoot and plant evidence later once they have the scent of their prey.  It all makes for an oppressively hostile environment for the young man, a hulking and decidedly uncharismatic character (though the plays to the realism) who tries to ingratiate himself to his criminal relatives while maintaining some semblance of a normal teen life.  It also makes for a hostile environment onscreen, where deception, betrayal, and sudden death lurk in the most unassuming locales, from a peaceful middle-class suburban street to a grocery store parking lot.  The film’s title is certainly apt.  This is a world where desperate creatures struggle to assert their place in the proverbial food-chain, equipped with varying degrees of empathy but ultimately reliant upon brutal instincts of self-preservation.

The boy is in quite a quandry, fenced in from all sides by parties who demand his loyalty and assistance yet offer nothing in return.  The cops are murderous and dirty, except for a humane detective expertly played by a nuanced Guy Peirce, but even he can’t provide the boy with adequate protection.  The uncles are all pretty bad dudes to varying degrees,  especially a sociopathic monster named Pope played by the superb and superbly creepy Ben Mendelson.  But perhaps the most shocking of the ensemble is the grandmother, brought to unnerving life in an Oscar-nominated performance by Jackie Weaver.  She’s cold pragmatism with a smile on its face, a matriarch who has love to give but only to a very limited few (there are subtle suggestions of incestuous emotions between her and her grown sons).  Her character owns the screen whenever she appears, even amongst the skilled and ultra-masculine Australian male cast.

The  film is an actor’s showcase, but that shouldn’t overshadow the sublime work done by first-time director David Michod, who has the good sense to let his tense scenario sit on the slow-burner and who gives his cast plenty of room to work.  He constructs some terrific shots and makes numerous inspired decisions while avoiding the bad ones that often put dents in noble debut features.  It’s a first-class effort, breathing naturalism and a sense of tragedy into a genre that all too often gets lost in artificial excess.


On DVD

Exit Through the Gift Shop


Is it real?  Is it a hoax?  Does it matter?  Famous masked artist Banksy’s thoroughly excellent documentary about the rise of street art and its inevitable “gallery world” perversion examines art in all its essentials; its purity, its resolve, its egotism, and, most interestingly, the possible ridiculousness of the whole damned enterprise.  What at first seems like an enjoyable night time look at the illicit careers of prominent graffiti artists morphs into something of a reverse Amadeus, with a genius trying desperately to wrap his mind around the rise and success of a hack.  What is the line between bad art and great art?  What motivates them both, and what does the reaction of the public at large have to do with their respective merit?  These are fascinating question that Banksy doesn’t come close to answering, but his curiosity and incredulity about the inner workings of his own world come through in every frame, and that makes for some exhilarating cinema.  (5 STARS)

Nowhere Boy


There’s something to be said for defying audience expectations, but in this case that dooms the film to irrelevance.  The story of the teenage years of Beatles frontman John Lennon should make for exciting or at least intriguing filmmaking, but here it just devolves into a mostly uninteresting melodrama about a talented boy’s bad-but-not-so-bad family life.  There are some bits that grab attention (the suggested attraction between Lennon and his estranged mother being one), but this is mostly just a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be.  I like never hearing mention of The Beatles, but the times where music makes an appearance are by far the most enjoyable, and the film should have hemmed a little closer to expectations in that regard. (2 STARS)

The Other Guys


Far funnier than it has any right to be, considering the sketchy writing and bland direction, this buddy-cop comedy relies entirely on an unexpected chemistry between leads Mark Whalberg and Will Ferrell.  The film makes the right choice in reversing types, making Ferrel the mild-mannered straight man and Whalberg the neurotic short-fuse, and the scenes that just sort of ramble on between the two turn out to be the most enjoyable.  The plot is nearly irrelevant, frequently fading into the background, but that’s not really a fault, more a realization on the film’s part of its best element; letting these two guys prattle on about nothing in particular.  (3 STARS)

Despicable Me


It’s tempting to say that merely being a nice, well-intentioned kids’ flick is enough to warrant a recommendation, but in the Age of Pixar, that just isn’t so.  The film has some good voice-acting from its leads, its animation is solid if unspectacular,  and the story of a softened supervillain- cum-adoptive father is touching at times, but the jokes are too often unfunny, and the film is aimed too young for viewers over the age of ten to get much out of it.  When someone raises the bar for the genre, it’s up to its peers to at least come close, and this amiable little film just isn’t close enough.  (2 STARS)

Scott Pilgrim vs The World


I can’t recall many films as fun to sit through as this.  Reaching into a deep bag of flashy pop-art tricks, director Richard Wright hits every single aesthetic mark, creating an incessantly visceral film that somehow never feels gratuitous.  Michael Cera may be playing yet another twenty-something adolescent with a near-speech impediment, but his assumption of steeled determination by the film’s end is hard-earned, and Wright manages to elicit genuine emotion out of this fairly simple boy-fights-for-girl storyline.  A wonderful romantic ode to the desires and neuroses of the video game generation, this is a phenomenally-directed piece of cinematic candy.  (4 STARS)


Review: The Illusionist

Gentle Obsolescence

In an age where technology and trends press forward on a daily basis, so fast that many are left dizzied to the point of not even trying to keep up, the fear of being obsolete is an especially potent one.  It’s a fear addressed with tenderness and nobility in The Illusionist, revered French animator Sylvain Chomet’s latest exercise in stunningly artful retro-animation.  The hand-drawn feature follows its protagonist, a middle-aged stage magician, through the heartbreaking process of being left behind, and though it takes place primarily in 1950s Scotland, it’s representative of a feeling we all have when we’re affected by a creeping belief that the world is passing us by.

In the film, our affable and nameless illusionist moves from one low-paying, sparsely attended venue to another, saddened by the lack of audience enthusiasm for his shows but nobly maintaining a stiff upper lip through it all, even as a fey pop rock band rudely perform encore after encore while he waits with his top hat and overweight rabbit behind the curtain.  It’s only after venturing to a remote Scottish hamlet that he finds someone truly enamored with his art, a young girl who watches his tricks with delight while her fellow townspeople rejoice at the arrival of electric lights and a new jukebox for the town bar.  The girl tags along with him to the urban jungle of Edinburgh, where he acts on his fatherly desire to please the girl by buying her things.  What develops is a touching, somber, and ultimately tragic story of the old giving itself to the new, with the new gobbling up the riches and displaying only a passing concern for the fate of its predecessor.  The girl is enthralled by the Illusionist’s magic only she discovers to more visceral stiumuli of the big city, and though she does show care for her older caretaker, she leaves him by himself when a younger fellow comes along who can satisfy for her material desires and her awakening sexuality.  The noble old man is essentially left in the dust without thanks, and though it’s hard to imagine this narrative being rendered more beautifully on an aesthetic level, it certainly leaves one in a distinct state of melancholy.

And let’s not pass over just how stunning the aesthetics here are.  The hand-drawn canvases and the gracefully rendered characters who inhabit them call back to the most visually accomplished Disney works, such as Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio.  The animation here is simply as good as it gets in the hand-drawn medium.  And the use carefully chosen musical cues to give voice to the emotions of essentially silent characters has the nuance and specificity of Chaplin, letting those feelings immanate from the proceedings.  The narrative itself is slight yet impeccably structured, easily followed and understood, with each new location bringing a new array of complex themes and emotional development.  We feel the combination of resolute dignity and barely subdued consternation embodied in the illusionist, who represents a noble and outmoded brand of masculinity that has all but vanished inside the modern gulf between desperately strained machismo and “enlightened male” neediness.

Nostalgically calling back to this classical male nobility is a worthy endeavor.  But where the film runs into some problems is in its treacherous melding of femininity with voracious modern materialism.  The gender roles here are clearly old-school from the get-go, but the film never tries to push past them, and indeed gives them bitter voice.  The girl seems to believe the new shoes and coats she receives come by way of the illusionist’s magic, and though he plays into this belief while taking on late-night jobs to sustain it, the narrative never builds the girl into anything more than a coalescence of materialistic want.  When the illusionist can longer satisfy her hunger, she simply moves on to someone who can.  The illusionist then takes a job hawking women’s clothes in a department store window, wearing a pink suit while doing so, obviously humiliated and angry.  It’s a careless portrait of the good ole boy buried under a wave of new feminine desire that a critique  just cannot ignore, and it keeps the film from attaining the greatness its other merits bring it so close to achieving.

At the risk of sounding trite, they just don’t make ’em like this anymore.  And while some unfortunate gender politics may keep The Illusionist from reaching the highest artistic echelon, it’s an aesthetic near-masterpiece, with a tenderness that most new animation loses underneath comic insistence.  We get to follow a man that, while disappointed and occasionally dismayed, takes on the incessant turning of the clock with a quiet dignity.


Review: The Expendables

I saw this film a while ago, but I didn’t get around to reviewing it until now, primarily because I couldn’t help but be disappointed with it.  This is a film that pretends to be a true throwback to the testosterone-fueld, fascist action romps of the 1980s, yet it constantly finds itself catering to more modern and politically correct action movie tropes.  The tough guy softening for a politically passionate woman.  The hero coming to some sort of geopolitical enlightenment about the plight of victimized third world countries.  These themes eventually overtake this film, and though those themes are fine if slotted into their proper context, they DO NOT work if you’re making a film supposedly reliant upon the ultra-macho conquest that defined those old movies and made them such guilty pleasures.  It’s as if director and star Sylvester Stallone is trying to atone for all of his blood-drenched 80s transgressions, while at the same time exploiting them to make a buck.  It just doesn’t jive.

There are some effective homages to the over-the-top action set pieces from schlock films of old (the final battle with its endless and apparently harmless explosions is a nice bit of throwback direction), but the sensitive preening and moral posturing of Stallone undercuts any joy the viewer wants to experience.  This film was marketed as a harking back to the cinema days “when men were men,” one that today’s audiences of aging tough guys and younger wusses could admire or laugh at, whichever suits them better.  But it tries too hard to make everyone smile, to ease any guilt modern moviegoers may feel when watching those old fascist and misogynist killfests.  If you want to critique or parody those, do that.  They’re certainly ripe for it, though it’s been done a hundred times in the past twenty years.  But if you want to honor and take nostalgic pleasure in them, do that, and do it straight ahead with no apologies.

Ironically, only Jason Staham escapes with his nihilistic tough-guy cred in tact, and he’s an action creation of the new millennium, risen to stardom well after Sly and Arnie and those of their ilk.  Perhaps that sheds light on the nature of Statham’s popularity.  In an era where even Stallone tries to put some kind of sensitive sheen on his wanton slaughter, Statham is busy given the audience what they want, glaring and grunting and delivering the kind of remorseless vigilante madness we want out of stories like this.  Just watch Crank for a sterling definition of “remorseless vigilante madness”.

Maybe that’s why I still love Statham and don’t particularly like The Expendables.  Statham does what he does directly, with no apologies.  Beneath its musclebound surface, this film can’t decide how tough it wants to be, or even what it is.  There’s a telling critique of the modern American male buried somewhere in there, but it’s buried too deep.  In the end, this is just a film that has too many apologies.