OBLIVION (2013, Joseph Kosinski): 5/10
Sort of a dull downer, takes forever to get going and doesn’t really pay off its labored character development. When the twists start coming in the back half, things do get theoretically interesting, especially as we question the reliability of our narrator (not out of his willful deception, more in that he’s a victim). But things are left sort of thin as Kosinski is far more concerned with his visual detail — which has its pluses, but isn’t enough to make up for the emotional hole, not to mention clunky exposition in the screenplay.
Andrea Riseborough gives the standout performance, but her character is sold short. Cruise has done much better, for this is an extremely rare case of him almost phoning it in. Strange, given that he’s the only person on screen for a large portion of the running time. For a guy who has made a career of working with the best directors in the business, it’s no surprise his weakest efforts are with the few who just aren’t that good (Mangold, Redford, and Kosinski). And now with Liman and Ritchie on the horizon, I can’t say the future is too bright for the once-unimpeachable movie star.
TO THE WONDER (2013, Terrence Malick): 6/10
After DAYS OF HEAVEN, it took Malick 20 years to make his next film, THE THIN RED LINE, which is his masterpiece to date and one of the — if not THE — greatest American film(s) of all time. After THE TREE OF LIFE, it took about a year and change to make TO THE WONDER. In a way, you get what you pay for.
TO THE WONDER stars Olga Kurylenko as a mentally ill French woman who goes about her life without psychiatric help — save for one quick scene where we see she has prescription medicine (which we only see her take when she tries to swallow the whole bottle during a lovers’ quarrel) — and pretty much just spins around through nature, licking trees and swinging her arms up and around like a child. Her boyfriend, Ben Affleck, is attracted to this child-trapped-in-a-hot-adult-model’s-body, probably because he carries a torch for another girl he knew as a child (Rachel McAdams), who likes hanging out with water buffalo. Obviously this romance cannot last, and as soon as she entered the picture, McAdams is gone.
Much like Affleck spends his days caring for Kurylenko, priest Javier Bardem cares for people who are actually sick and dying. Both he and Affleck are looking for love, evidently in all the wrong places. But after one too many fights inside a house or under water in a swimming pool, Kurylenko leaves Affleck to have an affair in a hotel room, which pisses off Affleck so much he smashes the side view mirror of his truck. This drives Kurylenko to lick more trees and step gingerly in puddles.
TO THE WONDER is also the fifth Malick film in a row, I believe, where he has asked, through voiceover, “What is this love that loves us?” Oh well, as soon as he gets some new ideas, as long as he has Emmanuel Lubezki around to film them, I’ll be there.
EVIL DEAD (2013, Fede Alvarez): 5/10
A grim and joyless assault, serving little purpose other than to pummel the audience into submission with gore, dismemberment, and noise. Faithful in many ways to the original (and far less so than to Raimi’s own remake, the brilliant and funny camp classic EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN), but not really in spirit. Although Alvarez has a good eye and camera sense, his touch is much heavier and more somber than Raimi’s, thus there are no smiles to be had. And perhaps that’s the point, but this is more of an endurance test than entertainment. Points are deserved for the metaphor about addiction and kicking addiction, in that being a heroin junkie affects those who care about the user as much as it affects the user herself, and cold turkey withdrawal brings up a lot of nasty demons. But this can only take the film so far, and with nary a joke or sense of irony to leaven the proceedings, the result is pretty numbing.
TRANCE (2013, Danny Boyle): 3/10
For all of you who thought ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND was too sophisticated, too nuanced, too emotional and heart-breaking, too intelligent, or too funny, thank heavens there’s Danny Boyle here to deliver you ETERNAL SUNSHINE FOR DUMMIES. This is a shallow, sappy love story masquerading as a heist film and neo-noir, and it’s all done with a bizarrely tone-deaf attitude that makes me wonder if Boyle even gave a shit about the script at all.
Stylistically it’s not lacking, but that doesn’t mean it’s good — plenty of visuals are here just to be flashy, as if Boyle was trying to do De Palma without ever realizing that De Palma has a reason for every camera move and editing trick. But the real crimes here are the dialogue and story, which are just violently stupid at a rapidly increasing pace. Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson, two very talented actors, are hung out to dry even as they do their best with this subject matter. James McEvoy, on the other hand, may just never have what it takes to be a leading man. Boyle needs Ewan McGregor circa 1998 to pull this character off, and try as he may to recreate young McGregor in McEvoy, the results are depressing.
It’s a vulgar, trashy, slickly-shot C-movie that commits the worst sin a disposable matinee can commit: thinking that it is far more profound than it actually is. This adds a sticky layer of pretension to a film that uses pubic hair as a main plot point and hypnotherapy as a serious criminal weapon.
ROOM 237 (2013, Rodney Ascher): 4/10
One of the theorists in Ascher’s documentary about people who read massive amounts of stuff into every detail of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece THE SHINING points out that the red key sticking into the lock of the titular room says “ROOM No 237,” with the only capital letters being R-O-O-M-N. He claims that the only two words you can make with those letters are “room” and “moon,” thus proving Kubrick’s film is foremost about faking the moon landing. One word he doesn’t seem to realize can come from those letters is “moron.”
And that’s basically the gist of this circus show (though it’s true that this particular crackpot comes across worse than the others), and Ascher makes no bones about laughing at these people for the most part. (He includes audio of one theorist interrupting his analysis to stop a screaming child, ends the film with a guy revealing that he’s been unemployed for some time, and lets the moon-landing weirdo hang himself by indulging in further paranoia about the government watching his every step). So, if Ascher is scoffing at the people with too much time on their hands who have read way too much into THE SHINING, then what is this documentary? It’s obviously not a way to understand Kubrick’s film — it’s a look at the subjects themselves, and letting us marvel at their head-slapping idiocy (in many places — some of their points have a lot of merit, but the ones that are the most valid also reveal little about the film itself; they just point out accurate continuity errors).
This essentially turns the film into a cinephile version of The Jersey Shore: shining a light on buffoons and giving their lunacy a voice. It basically allows one tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist after another to commit one of psychology’s most basic cognitive biases: the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. People who want to look for coincidence and meaning in multiple occurrences of a theme will find them, and ignore all evidence to the contrary. If you are obsessed with NASA faking the moon landing, you’ll find evidence of it in a horror movie starring Jack Nicholson. If you read a lot about minotaurs, you’ll find minotaurs all over this film. It doesn’t mean the film is about these things — it means people are desperate to find meaning in things they can’t understand. Okay, fine. But this revelation about human psychology isn’t particularly enlightening, even when connected to how people interpret films. There is something cool about how once a movie is released, artistic intent becomes lost or irrelevant, leaving the work itself to provide its own meaning. But the best film criticism and analysis discovers things in a film that are universal to audiences — things that communicate and suggest, things that broaden or illuminate a common wisdom that the filmmaker has shared with the world; ways in which an artist has found a way to make something personal or individual become something universal. ROOM 237, on the other hand, is a carnival show about the dark side of film analysis: a parade of deluded idiots who have tragically convinced themselves that whatever crackpot shenanigans are bouncing around inside their brains have been validated by cinema’s great perfectionist master.