Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Babadook — 8/10

THE BABADOOK (2014, Jennifer Kent)

It’s tempting to focus heavily on what THE BABADOOK is about, because for a horror movie it’s quite rich in allegory and a strong message about What Everything Represents. And I’ll get to that. But what should not get lost is the technical work on display — this is an incredibly strong piece of filmmaking, from the composition to the blocking to the cutting and the sound design.

The best horror films are known for being good with offscreen space. What we don’t see is usually scarier than what we do. And Jennifer Kent is really smart about uniting the offscreen space scares of the horror material with offscreen space style in its everyday, non-paranormal scenes. In the opening scenes, we hear people speak before we see them — a children’s book is opened and the first shot is a close up of the page, with the mother narrating it, then it cuts to the mom for her reaction to the line, rather than earlier, to see her speak it. Shortly after, there’s a playground scene where a child is climbing a jungle gym and what he does offscreen is begging the camera to cut to him, so every second Kent spends on two women speaking on a bench heightens the tension — which is paid off marvelously by a smash cut to a moment at least ten minutes in the future.

And once the scares start coming, the same style is utilized, but now we’re used to it. We’re familiar with hearing things before we see them. The camera will be on Essie Davis’s remarkable face (her performance should not fly under the radar — it’s pitched so well) when we hear something knock. Or it will be on a policeman’s curious gaze before we see the suspicious hands he’s looking at. Even when Davis is talking to school administrators about her troublemaker son, Kent shoots the three of them in a separated way: only showing them all in one shot when we’re peering over the backs of the admins, Davis centered in the frame as in an interrogation. The rest of the shots are POVs with the admins staring offscreen at Davis, whom we cut to just to see her helpless, lonely reactions.

And Davis being lonely is key to the text of this film which, as I said before, is bold and almost too obvious. Anyone who has seen it has known that it’s about the fears of parenting, about the trouble of doing it alone, about the hate or resentment we often have for children, which then makes us feel horribly guilty for entertaining such dark thoughts. This is not arguable, and the movie leaves no room for dispute — I can’t see anyone disagreeing on what this thing is about. And if it has any flaws, it’s that it feels a little too insecure about communicating this (albeit fascinating and worthy) subject matter, so it underlines it at every step. But it’s executed tremendously, and I’d rather see a heavy-handed film done well than a subtle movie done poorly. And don’t let me undersell the “done well.” This movie scared the ever-loving shitfuck out of me.

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Foxcatcher — 7/10

FOXCATCHER (2014, Bennett Miller)

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” — Mark Twain

I’m always happy when a film based on a true story changes the facts to make a better movie. Who cares that Mark Zuckerberg had a long-time girlfriend throughout his founding of Facebook? THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a better story if he is driven by rejection. So on the surface, I don’t mind at all that the real Mark Schultz was only a year and a half younger than his brother, not ten years like this film makes it seem — nor that the climactic act of violence occurred nearly 8 years after the Seoul Olympics, not shortly after as this movie implies. Bennett Miller clearly feels that he could make a better movie if the facts didn’t get in the way. And maybe he’s right, but unfortunately while the resulting film is good, it still left me a little cold.

Most of the buzz around FOXCATCHER is going to be about the acting, deservedly so. Channing Tatum is terrific as Mark; with his hunched back, stuttering gait, and curved arms, he’s barely above being a knuckle-dragger — and Steve Carrell’s John E. DuPont loves to treat him like either a dog or a monkey. (Unfortunately, Miller overplays his hand: the film is too on-the-nose with this theme, going so far as to have John call Mark an ape to his face, and command him to “stay”). Mark Ruffalo is also quite good as the brother Dave, showing clear confidence that Mark lacks, and that kind of older-brother wisdom that comes when Dave has served as the de facto father to his younger brother (one occasion where the change in age difference has a positive effect). Carrell has a tougher row to hoe — his character is a cypher, he doesn’t have a lot of big scenes and moments, and kind of serves as a lurking mysterious presence, often just kind of staring and disappearing into his own head. But it works to a large degree. His treatment of Mark is like the bizarro wrestling flipside of BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, except instead of being the flambotant Liberace, he’s insular and asexual.

Speaking of sexuality, I’d have liked the film to explore a little more what DuPont’s interest in these young men really was. Beyond the wrestling. He’s admittedly lonely, but because there’s such a visceral, physical appreciation of men’s bodies in motion when you study and coach wrestling, you might assume DuPont wants a gym full of guys he likes. Then again, the heavy-handed horse metaphor (“Horses are stupid”) is an argument that the Foxcatcher team is just John’s stable of toys. Still, the film gets a lot of mileage out of the ways in which men grasp each other — the way the brothers hug both on the mat and off it, and the way these guys approach everything from a handshake to a crossface cradle pin maneuver in the same manner. And the jealousy angle, with the way Dave and John silently compete for Mark’s allegiance and love, makes the entire thing a soup of motivations and emotions. But when all is said and done, I just couldn’t take away anything too substantial from FOXCATCHER. It has moments of great filmmaking; I’m not sure it’s a great film.

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Whiplash — 5/10

WHIPLASH (2014, Damien Chazelle)

Some day filmmakers will figure out how to explore what a movie is about without having its characters sit around and tell you exactly what it’s about. And what’s most frustrating about WHIPLASH is that even with these heavy-handed monologues and contrived story moments dedicated to declaring its themes, it doesn’t even really tackle what it’s about in an interesting way.

Chazelle’s sophomore feature asks the question, “Is artistic success worth the cost of achieving it?” And it asks that by presenting a black-and-white relationship between a tough-love, drill-sergeant teacher and a driven, naturally gifted student. But it doesn’t really care about what makes this issue complex. Does it depend on what kind of art you’re succeeding at? Does it depend on the definition of success? Does it depend on the gradations of the sacrifices you make to get there? How many exceptions are there to this rule? None of that really matters to WHIPLASH. It dismisses the subjectivity of musicianship in one sentence, and only presents one hard-ass teacher who drives former students to suicide. Even more annoying are all the devices Chazelle contrives to get there: a love interest who exists solely to give the lead his regrets, a father painted expressly as the opposite of the teacher but without much of his own agency, and a series of ridiculous incidents geared to over-dramatize the student’s rise-and-fall hardships.

I might have excused all this (and I still slightly do) if Chazelle was an expert director. Indeed, I like how in the jazzier moments he angles the camera askew and jumps the 180 at bizarre times, while in the steadier moments centers his framing in a more symmetrical fashion. But he runs out of tricks early on, and just uses them over and over. Shots from under the drum kit, close-ups of blood on the snare, sweat on the cymbal, and slo-mo shots of grimaces and scabs. He’s also not gifted with actors. Miles Teller is a brilliant comic presence, but here he is forced to abandon his sense of humor entirely and coast on his still-considerable affability and vulnerability. J.K. Simmons has been a fierce villain on OZ, and done terrific comedy in SPIDER-MAN and BURN AFTER READING. But his R. Lee Ermey turn here is overly mannered and just too actor-y to me. Never frighteningly raw. But the biggest letdown for me about WHIPLASH is that for a film about jazz, it refuses to improvise at all.

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John Wick — 7/10

JOHN WICK (2014, Chad Stahelski)

“Why are you still filming?” asks John Wick’s late wife, in an iPhone video he watches during the flash-forward opening scene of this grim, ruthless revenge thriller. Wick lies dying on some asphalt, gaping bloody wound in his side, watching the memory of the only thing he loved, as his eyes close. And we wonder, why are they still filming this? JOHN WICK keeps filming well beyond the moments any morally grounded storyteller would — it keeps its eyes focused on the relentless violence of its narrative, never stopping until the entire nihilistic world is laid to waste.

Chilly to the touch and reeking of gasoline and gunsmoke, this cold-hearted action film doesn’t really care for excess or equivocation. It’s a bullet train with a maniacal pace, loud with sound effects and light on character. As directed and produced by former stuntmen, its chief interest is its choreography, judiciously cutting only when necessary, letting the action happen within the frame as opposed to outside it and between edits. Not even the second unit shots are wasted: buildings are photographed at low angles with imposing colors, while overhead helicopter shots show the city of New York (and the world at large) as a place with scurrying ants, none of whom really matter in the end.

One bad guy begs his friend to stop playing a first-person shooter video game, only to join the real action of the film which mimics that of the game itself. It’s a meta moment that could be considered too tongue in cheek, but recognizes that we’re a species dedicated to killing ourselves, slowly but surely. And the killing here is epic — one shootout in a crowded nightclub would be the stuff of Virginia Tech Massacre-level news stories for years if it happened in the recognizable universe; but in the fantasy world of this film, it’s just another day at the office. And those days move and move and move; scarcely a shot or line of dialogue doesn’t serve an expository purpose — this is a tight-gripped, well-oiled, piston-chugging muscle car of a movie that, despite its overly familiar plot and third act loss of purpose, cracks and hisses at every turn, treating a bullet to the brain like a beat of its heart.


NOTE: Keanu Reeves deserves some attention for his acting. A lot of people, perhaps rightly so, enjoy insulting his attempts at gravity and drama, like when he has to do Shakespeare in Branagh’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (or Van Sant’s MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO) or get emo in DRACULA. They can’t shake his stoner persona from BILL & TED. But acting is as much physical as it is verbal, and whatever he lacks in dialogue delivery (though even that has its charms in films like THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE) he makes up for in action skill. I mean, the guy just looks natural shooting a gun, running through alleys, or crouching behind a bullet-ridden truck. From POINT BREAK to SPEED to THE MATRIX to JOHN WICK, few action stars are as cool and believable. He’ll never get an Oscar nomination for a movie like this, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t great at it.

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Nightcrawler — 7/10

NIGHTCRAWLER (2014, Dan Gilroy)

Disclaimer: I saw this film two weeks ago, and due to intense work obligations, had been unable to write a proper review until now. So this writeup will be brief and a little lacking in the kind of detail I would have liked following my screening. Hopefully I remember enough specifics to make a cogent analysis.

There’s a great, telling moment in NIGHTCRAWLER when Lou is in the control room at a TV station, watching a field reporter on a monitor. The reporter has an IFB in his ear and is being directed by a crew member at the controls with a mic. Upon hearing the reporter speak, Lou shouts at the monitor, expecting everything he says to be heard. The news director has to tell Lou, “He can’t hear you.” But that’s Lou for you: hopelessly ignorant in many ways, blinded by his warped relationship to the media. He doesn’t see a distinction between the news on screen and himself — the line is blurred, and thus he thinks he can just shout into the void and the television will hear him. As a brief window into the mind of this creepy psycho, that moment is pretty perfect.

And boy, does Gyllenhaal nail his performance as Lou. It isn’t just the bug eyes and breathless speech patterns; it’s how he slithers into positions of power with manipulative negotiations. You don’t necessarily buy what he’s selling, but you buy that his adversaries are listening. Lou is ambitious, and his moral values are corrupt — but that, says Gilroy, is the state of the current American dream. Yes, this is a condemnation of the news media — which often crosses over into the territory of creating the news instead of reporting on it — but that’s really just a gloss for a story that’s more about the economy, and the deals we strike to get ahead. Because if it were just about local news, then it would be a little outdated. Who even watches local news anymore? Who gets their information from channel 11? We get it online, on social media, from blogs and YouTube videos. I can’t remember the last time I watched the local NBC affiliate deliver the 6pm stories of the day in Los Angeles. (Though there’s a pretty funny joke in the embarrassingly bland, obsolete name Lou comes up with for his company: Video Production News; it made me smile every time it was uttered in the film).

But I do remember the last time I had to decide between Coldwater Canyon and Lauren Canyon — I make that decision every day. And those details, the ones that have Lou and Rick arguing in their car while chasing ambulances, they’re what gives this story relevance and immediacy. Not to mention Gilroy’s near-exploitative camera work. As a writer, he’s been spotty — TWO FOR THE MONEY is a ghastly pile of studio dogshit (co-starring NIGHTCRAWLER’s Rene Russo, which is not a coincidence; she’s Gilroy’s wife), and THE BOURNE LEGACY set a world record for dialogue containing the word “chems.” But now with more control over his product, Gilroy has let his skills shine. That car chase towards the end is absolutely gripping, edited with immense precision (despite some continuity errors that are who-cares given how relentless the pace is) and dramatically interesting to boot. There’s something a little bit cliche and obvious about criticizing the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality of journalism, but luckily NIGHTCRAWLER has more on its mind.

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Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead — 6/10

DEAD SNOW 2: RED VS. DEAD (2014, Tommy Wirkola)

Tommy Wirkola’s original 2009 DEAD SNOW was a mediocre but promising effort — nice photography of the Arctic Circle landscape, good comic horror tone, but unoriginal plotting and so-so acting — and his sequel is a solid step up. The budget is astronomically bigger, so we get broader setpieces, a larger canvas, and a lot more gore: the body count is huge and thus opportunities for hilarious dismemberments are plentiful. While this one has a lot more jokes than DEAD SNOW, the completion percentage is lower; and when too many of them fall flat, we’re left with far too many scenes of bland exposition (including an incredibly pointless set of characters at a police station that goes literally nowhere) and not enough Martin Starr being hilarious. 15 minutes shorter and this thing would sizzle. But when the jokes land, they land with plenty of gusto. I still wish the Nazi-zombie element here had some undercurrent of political satire or bite to it (pun intended) but Wirkola seems only to have frivolous entertainment on his mind.

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