Monthly Archives: April 2014

Proxy — 7/10

PROXY (2014, Zack Parker)

A crazy-ambitious psycho-thriller that leans heavily on its Hitchcock influences, but displays a cock-sure sense of tone and nihilism all its own. Once Parker gets bigger budgets and can cast better actors, he might make a really great movie. PROXY, alas, is just a good one.

Alexia Rasmussen — a poor man’s Jennifer Carpenter if such a thing is possible — plays lead character Esther with a strange detachment that I wound up liking quite a bit. It sort of works the way Rooney Mara’s performance in SIDE EFFECTS did; you start off thinking it sucks, but when you learn more about the character you’re like oh yeah yeah. Unfortunately, the other cast members don’t fare so well. Joe Swanberg and Kristina Klebe are called upon to do things that they just aren’t capable of as performers and it threatens to sink the film. Luckily, the plot is so full of WTF moments, and Parker is audacious enough to stockpile his film with a number of dead babies, that subpar acting takes a back seat to formal swagger. The less you know about this the better, so I won’t say much more in case any of you are going to see this (most of you won’t, and that’s probably a good idea — it’s fucked up).

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Joe — 5/10

JOE (2014, David Gordon Green)

After the dreck that was YOUR HIGHNESS and THE SITTER, I thought I’d be delighted to have DGG back in the realm of UNDERTOW-esque drama. But PRINCE AVALANCHE was a too-minor exercise in Texas twee, and now JOE is a well-acted but predictable and hackneyed bit of dark, violent character study. The redemptive tale of a humble Southerner coming to the defense of a young boy abused by his drunk father is a storyline that was starting to become stale around the time of SLING BLADE (which handled it way better), but now it’s totally fossilized. Every beat is preordained, and while DGG’s sense of tragedy sort of requires this kind of inevitability, it sure makes for turgid drama.

Cage is quite good as the title character, as is Tye Sheridan as his protege (though Sheridan did much better work last year in MUD), but it’s in the service of a pointless look at misery among blue collar hicks. What are we to learn here — that child abuse is bad? That violence sucks? That some people can find redemption and children are our future? Gary Hawkins’s script (based on Larry Brown’s novel) provides few insightful lines and even fewer revelations in storytelling. DGG always manages to find some humor and realism in offbeat sequences (and the first half of the film has a few terrific ones), but it’s unclear why he felt this was a narrative that needed to be told yet again, with the same obvious beats. Looks like now I have to root for PINEAPPLE EXPRESS 2 to come as soon as possible.

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Only Lovers Left Alive — 6/10

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2014, Jim Jarmusch)

You wanna feel old? Jim Jarmusch is 61 years old. 61. An ostensible contemporary of Spike Lee’s and Steven Soderbergh’s in the American independent scene of the ’80s and ’90s, Jarmusch had always felt to me like a new, cool, and spritely voice in the film world. But now, alas, he has made his first “old man” movie. And although Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, directed by a 71 year-old, felt fresh and alive (proving that being old doesn’t have to mean being ossified), ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is a somnambulant disappointment.

Leaning on his two leads as huge crutches, Jarmusch spends most of the film inside Tom Hiddleston’s archaic, gothic house in Detroit, where he noodles around with ancient analog technology in the effort to compose rock music that he must feel sounds authentic. He ogles electric guitars procured for him by eager kid Anton Yelchin, and only leaves the house to buy pure blood from a shady doctor (an amusing Jeffrey Wright) because — oh yeah, Hiddleston is a vampire. But this adoration of ancient technology is every bit of Hiddleston’s character (annoyingly named “Adam,” so his wife can be “Eve,” in what is becoming the hoariest character-naming cliche in movies) — when he talks to his wife via video chat, he projects her image onto an old tube TV and plays the audio through amplified speakers. On the flipside, his wife (the equally busy Tilda Swinton) seems to jump at the changing world of technology, using an iPhone and appreciating as much of modern culture as she can. This couple has been around for several hundred years, but it’s how they see that changing world which separates them as personalities and drives whatever story exists.

This all sounds like fertile thematic content for a vampire movie, but Jarmusch resists doing anything bold with it. He’s never been a bold guy or a loud filmmaker; his best moments (in DEAD MAN and GHOST DOG) sit quietly on the screen and exude effortless cool. But there’s a difference between effortless and no effort — and unfortunately due to extraordinarily slow and lugubrious scenes of repetitive blood-drinking (heavy-handedly treated like heroin among the rock-and-roll culture) and sleeping, it feels like the movie just dies on screen. Every time it tries to muster up plot developments (“hey, let’s introduce an annoying sister into the mix… eh, this is going nowhere, let’s move on”) it does them in predictable and dead-end ways. And while the music is really good and some visuals quite striking (not to mention just how strong Swinton and Hiddleston are), ultimately we get nothing profound out of this exploration of centuries gone by and the lasting effect (or lack thereof) of art and culture. Like the aging rockers on screen, wearing sunglasses at night and never laughing, it’s just too cool for its own good.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier — 6/10

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014, Anthony & Joe Russo)

Marvel is getting really good at making Marvel movies. This time around, sitcom directors Anthony & Joe Russo barely bring anything new to the table visually or tonally, only making their presence known by casting their COMMUNITY buddy Danny Pudi in a small role. Otherwise, this might as well be Joss Whedon or Jon Favreau at the helm. Not that that’s a bad thing — the money is all on the screen and the craft is quite good — but I’m starting to feel a lot of deja vu in the theater.

Shane Black certainly made his presence felt a little more loudly with IRON MAN THREE, but even that suffered from a sense of sausage-making. This entry is one of the most entertaining of all recent Marvel films, thanks to no more than ten minutes ever elapsing without some crazy action scene. But there just isn’t anything more here beyond superficial entertainment. No scene on the level of the Evans-Tucci Schnapps conversation in the first CAPTAIN, for example, and no performance as electrifying as Downey’s in IRON MAN. The Russos toss in a few jokes for the geeks — one notable over-the-top one is a nod to Sam Jackson’s PULP FICTION “Ezekiel 25:17” speech, though it’s annoying how elbow-ribbing that is — but then we might as well be asking geek-type questions. Where was Tony Stark or Banner or Thor to help out when Cap and Black Window and whoever the hell Anthony Mackie is were under the gun? Robert Redford has a ball playing what I think is his first villainous role, and I could even see myself wasting another two hours re-watching this on cable in a couple years. But I’ll also forget which one it is — it’s just another episode in a long, expensive, theatrical TV series called THE AVENGERS.

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The Raid 2 — 7/10

THE RAID 2 (2014, Gareth Evans)

A series of incredible setpieces buried in a bloated, poorly written gangster drama. What the first RAID film had going for it was a beautiful economy — one location, one day, no backstory. Just pure action, driven by a video game premise. THE RAID 2 dispenses with those limitations and tries its hand at epic crime, drawing from other Asian gangster movies like INFERNAL AFFAIRS, HARD BOILED, and CITY ON FIRE. Unfortunately, Evans can’t really write the same level of interesting characters or surprising twists, so the dialogue scenes and sweaty attempts at emotional storylines completely whiff. On the other hand, Evans does up the ante with his action scenes, and now there seems to be no limit on the jaw-dropping choreography he can do. His best invention is a pair of comic book-esque villains: one a deaf and half-blind woman who uses two hammers as her weapons of choice, the other her male counterpart who drags an aluminum baseball bat (and some balls for good measure). The violence is out of control — so graphic that it makes SABOTAGE look like THE LITTLE MERMAID (seriously: heads are exploded by shotguns at point blank range, throats ripped out, skulls smashed on concrete, etc.). To a point, the unbelievable gore lends this sequel a mean-spirited edge the first film didn’t have. It’s downbeat and merciless, taking some of the fun out of it. But then again, Evans is so skilled at putting together a fight scene (a hallway scene with the hammers-and-bat duo is only matched by one of the most insane car chases I’ve ever seen on film) that you can’t help but applaud his ambition.

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Under the Skin — 10/10

UNDER THE SKIN (2014, Jonathan Glazer)

As a cinephile who got into movies because of Stanley Kubrick, and basically a person for whom Kubrick is the closest thing to a God I’ll believe in, I’m pretty much the perfect audience for any movie that successfully appropriates Kubrick’s particular style. I’m neither the first nor the last writer to mention that Jonathan Glazer is clearly going for Kubrickian precision with his latest film, UNDER THE SKIN, and so it may seem that it was a foregone conclusion that I’d lap this thing up no matter what. And perhaps it was, and perhaps this isn’t the masterpiece it looks like to me. But I don’t think so. I think this grandiose, ambitious, deceptively small, near-miraculous work of art earns every bit of its praise, and none of that is riding on the coattails of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or FULL METAL JACKET.

Granted, Mica Levi’s hypnotic score recalls the Ligeti, Carlos, and Vivian Kubrick (credited as Abigail Mead) music from 2001, THE SHINING, and FULL METAL JACKET respectively — it, along with Johnnie Burn’s sound design is the primary tool Glazer uses to lend his film a razor-sharp edge. The audio track slices and stabs, then lulls you before the next blade is unsheathed. There’s even a jump scare halfway through that actually jolted me out of my seat due to sound and image being in perfect harmony: Glazer plays you like a fiddle during this, and I can’t remember the last time my eyes were so glued to the screen. I didn’t even want to blink for fear I’d miss a cut. And oh, the cutting — Glazer and his editor Paul Watts (improbably making his feature editing debut with this; is Watts rookie of the year or what?) are so precise with it; each cut is a surprise, just ahead of your anticipation but never moving the story ahead too fast. Glazer even matches his shots so well when there’s a shocking cut — like in a scene when Scarlett Johansson’s lead character (and by the way, her near-wordless performance, the sole focus of nearly every scene, is stunning) is standing in a fog looking around, as the film cuts to her point of view, it just looks like her body completely disappears off the screen because the framing is so steady. And in a dark theater on a big screen, you almost see the outline of her body still dissolving in the frame during the next shot: it’s a gorgeous example of form providing content.

Visually, I could go on and on about the glorious compositions and striking imagery throughout (like ScarJo getting out of a van and disappearing into the fog through the windshield; a baby crawling on the rocks of a beach; naked men floating in a womb-like ooze; a fork lifting a piece of cake; a man’s finger pinching the back of his own hand) but it would take up too much space and I would have nothing smart to say about them other than “wow that shot was awesome,” so let me briefly get to the text here. The story of an alien trying to become human can be read as a parable (or, I guess, fable is more accurate) for a few different things: the inhospitable nature of mankind to women, the cruel indifference of the universe towards humankind, and the inherent loneliness of any kind of existence. But if there’s anything not completely nihilistic to take from this, it’s also in the potential for kindness among humans, living right alongside its frightening capacity for violence as well. Still, love and bonding and family are but pieces of tape on the gaping wound of existential despair, never summed up better than in a microcosmic sequence at a beach, where a dog gets lost at sea, and is followed out into the unforgiving waves by a woman, then her husband, and then a helpful stranger. It’s a brutally sad short story told wordlessly and expertly by Glazer, something I’ll remember vividly for years to come.

The animalistic nature of man, the struggle for individuality, and the harsh effects of the ravages of time and earth are themes you’d also recognize in the aforementioned Kubrick — in films like BARRY LYNDON, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and even THE KILLING. But Glazer isn’t just aping his cinematic idol; he does make his own mark on this movie, fully forming a style that had just started to get exciting with his 2004 film BIRTH. For example, Kubrick may never have been able to find the quiet, heartbreaking moment where the deformed passenger pinches his hand. But it still comes as no surprise that Glazer would be the heir apparent to sir Stanley. 20 years ago, he helmed a video for Blur’s “The Universal,” an incredible song made even better by Glazer’s wholesale recreation of CLOCKWORK. Here it is in all its glory — evidence that someday, a movie as sensational as UNDER THE SKIN would come along:

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Sabotage — 7/10

SABOTAGE (2014, David Ayer)

Opening on a scene of a worn-out, red-eyed, aging Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is watching an act of violence shot on video and playing on his laptop, SABOTAGE quickly states its intentions: Arnold looks like he’s about to cry, and holds his head in his hands. Then the title card comes on.

The slowly-revealed plot eventually provides a backstory for this opening scene, but the reason Ayer used it as his pre-credit sequence is clearly thematic: this is the toll that a lifetime of violence, perpetuated on screen by an action star for the last 30 years, can take. And Ayer does not shy away from violence in SABOTAGE. As horrifically gory as a FINAL DESTINATION movie, Ayer’s follow-up to END OF WATCH (co-written with Skip Woods, who wrote SWORDFISH — another strangely amoral ode to the Bad Guys) contains similar tough-guy camaraderie amongst law enforcement, but this time with more corruption. Yet it finds a way to tell its who’s-the-mole mystery with a healthy dose of graphic violence that has a punishing effect not just on the audience, but on its characters as well.

Mireille Enos is terrific as the lone female among this elite squad of DEA soldiers, but her manic drug addiction causes some scenes of beautifully-played frayed insanity. Opposite Enos is Olivia Williams, almost unrecognizable as an Atlanta homicide cop, who manages to carry every increasingly silly scene with terrific realism — pitted against each other, Williams and Enos turn a film about violence into a film about gender roles in macho action movies.

But in the end, this is Arnold’s movie, and it’s no accident that Ayer uses real photos of Schwarzenegger with Obama and Clinton (nice that the lead actor also happened to be the governor of the richest state in the country, so there was no need for typically photoshopped props) in an effort to tell us this is the guy — he’s been doing this for years, so don’t call it a comeback, and don’t expect the killing to stop. The more people you shoot in the head, the more of a bad guy you turn out to be. And you may have some moral qualms about it, but some people are born to do this, so enjoy it, and live out your days smoking cigars with a glock in your hand. And smile.

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