Friday, May 1, 2015

Reassembled: AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON


Avengers: Age of Ultron is noisy, colorful, brightly lit, mostly enjoyable comic book nonsense. It is, in other words, the latest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that mega-franchise of interlocking superhero series currently dominating a section of big budget filmmaking. This is only the second outing to bring together the now familiar team of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to battle a foe no single hero could take on alone. But because producer Kevin Fiege and MCU screenwriters have allowed a great deal of cross-pollination in the interim, it feels like the Avengers have never left. In fact, the latest picture begins with the team in the middle of a mission, hitting the ground running.

Shorn of the need to endlessly introduce itself, this sequel launches right into its action, letting the group snatch a MacGuffin from the claws of evil HYDRA before the opening title card even appears. We know these characters, how they relate to one another, what their individual problems are, and how their personalities clash. Now it’s just a matter of sitting back and letting the plot carry them away. And, oh, does writer-director Joss Whedon supply the plot. There is a constant churn of incident and spectacle, new introductions, returning side characters, exposition, cameos, and foreshadowing. The Avengers banter, then cross in and out of the main action with their own throughlines, though some naturally get a little buried in the mix. (Sorry, Thor.) It’s dense with nerdy detail, yet aerodynamically simple in plot, ceaselessly hurtling forward.

Their big concern this time around is an evil robot named Ultron (voiced with funny pomposity by James Spader). He was created by Iron Man to protect the world and prevent further damage from cosmic nastiness like we saw in the first Avengers. But let this be a lesson: don’t expose your experimental artificial intelligence to an Asgardian mind-control staff. That’s what turns the robot evil, charging up his mind so much he thinks the only way to save the world is to rid it of those pesky people messing it up. I mean, he has a point, but that solution wasn’t exactly what Iron Man had in mind. At least it’s not another interchangeable grump looking for a glowing crystal or giant laser, which describes every villain in the last half-dozen of these things. Whedon mixes up the formula by finding the heroes the cause of and solution to their outsized problems, struggling to save the world from themselves. The action involves saving civilians from the path of destruction instead of merely letting collateral damage interminably rain down, a welcome change.

To stop Ultron, and his army of other robots he’s making in a commandeered factory, the Avengers trot across the globe, finding large-scale action set-pieces at every turn, each one better then the last. The filmmakers provide token downtime for feelings and expressions thereof – rivalries, romances, and the like – but wastes little time picking up velocity again. There’s a raid on a HYDRA base, a rampage through an African metropolis, a multi-vehicle chase through downtown Seoul, and a fictional Eastern European city imperiled in a clever high-flying climax. Whedon fills the screen with elaborate, CGI-heavy chaos. Laser beams zigzag across the frame as debris falls, sparks fly, robots swarm, vehicles soar, background objects go boom, and superheroes flex their powers. It’s recognizable characters doing their familiar Whedon quipping shtick while boisterously effective – if occasionally incomprehensible – excitement erupts around them. The funniest line comes late in the climax when the least superpowered among them takes stock of his contribution, says, “This doesn’t make sense,” then heads out to do his part anyway.

There’s lots of smash-bang popcorn entertainment to be had here, the screen bursting with dazzling movement, the sound mix booming to match. It’s hard to keep up. There’s also not room for the eccentric character work that’s usually my lifeline in these sorts of things. We meet new characters (a speedy Aaron Taylor-Johnson and witchy Elizabeth Olsen, and Linda Cardellini in a sadly under-powered stock role of supportive wife). We glimpse familiar faces from other MCU productions (Samuel L. Jackson, Idris Elba, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Cobie Smulders). But no one gets much of a chance to make an impact. There's not a lot of acting beyond personality and posturing. We’re too busy bustling to the next conflict, the next explosion, the next dropped thread or portentous reference as promissory note for More Excitement in Future Installments.

The Avengers franchise has fully disappeared into itself. It is the beginning and ending of its entire worldview, able only to refer back to itself or look ahead for future story. It’s a hermetically sealed alternate universe in which no glimmer of the outside world – politics, culture, emotion – is allowed. It’s a frictionless experience, big excitement without a need to think about it beyond the literal visual stimulation and basic story beats. Whedon brings a smidgen of personality, the actors project charm, and the gears of industrial strength effects work their light and magic. The ultimate Hollywood blockbuster as empty calories, Age of Ultron is an exciting experience of sugar and fat, but completely devoid of anything more sustaining. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Man v. Machine: EX MACHINA


Like the best sci-fi of the seductive, suspenseful, smart variety, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina explores heady questions of science and progress in a gripping entertainment. It locks us into a deceptively simple concept and proceeds to get deeper and creepier, turning up unexpected developments, at once great surprises and, better still, utterly inevitable in retrospect. A film of sleek surfaces, silent astonishments, and quiet terror, it’s a beautifully unsettling thought experiment about the speed with which technology might outpace mere humanity, and our matter-of-fact folly in outsourcing so much trust in our lives to the whims of the tech geniuses among us.

Mad scientists these days aren’t the lab coat-wearing, wild-haired eggheads of yore. Now they’re more likely to be billionaire tech moguls, eccentric, brilliant, mysterious, with unlimited resources and unparalleled access to our lives. Oscar Isaac plays one in Ex Machina, using his likability as smarmy charisma. Holed up at his futuristic mansion/research facility in the middle of nowhere, he’s working on a top-secret artificial intelligence project and needs an outside opinion to test it. Enter Domhnall Gleeson, a programmer in Isaac’s vast company. Thinking he’s simply won a trip to this mysterious rich man’s outpost, the programmer is forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement, then shown the object of study: Ava, a humanoid robot with womanly curves, exposed fiber-optic panels, and fleshy face and hands. It’s uncanny, a mechanical person metallic in long shots, persuasively real in close-ups.

The inventor wants the programmer to study his creation, testing the limits of Ava’s consciousness. Is she experiencing real emotions, real thoughts, or is she only coded that way? Garland sets up the film as a series of interrogations between man and machine, normal dialogue turned uncanny by the inescapable sci-fi mysteries simmering underneath. The man tests Ava, is drawn into her reality, her personhood. When the camera pulls close to her face, we can see how real she looks. The more he interacts with her the more she becomes a character to which we can ascribe motive, interiority. But should we? What’s she up to? And, for that matter, can the man trust his host’s intentions for this experiment? The film’s score underlines unease with a constant digital hum murmuring suspense.

What makes this dynamic effective is the striking, complex work of Alicia Vikander, who supplies the robot’s face and, with eerily convincing special effects, fluid movements with a trace of electronic gears in her gait. There’s a bit of Maria from Lang’s Metropolis in her build. It’s a chilly performance with a hint of warmth – of life – behind her eyes that is contextually fascinating. Such a totally credible fusion of writing, acting, and effects, I almost immediately stopped admiring the creation and simply believed. Her expressions seem normal, but carry a dash of suspicion. What does it mean to smile? Is she mimicking? Is she manipulating? Or is she actually emoting? It remains a tantalizing opening question for the audience and for the characters. What is she capable of? I’m sure there’s some satiric point in a story of men who literally build an objectified woman. It’s complicated, and yet unsurprising.

Of course the mad scientist has secrets. What else could you expect when his massive building has power outages, doors swooshing shut, unpredictable keypads, hidden rooms, dark corridors, and rows of locked cabinets. And of course the true subject of the experiment is up in the air – who studies the other, the robot or its creators? But Garland, making his directorial debut after a career scripting great sci-fi features like 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go, creates of the expected plot points a nervy story that proceeds logically and methodically through its twists. It makes great use of a shifting protagonist. Who will escape this increasingly claustrophobic setting, painted in cinematographer Rob Hardy’s darkly smooth surfaces? Who should we root for? Rather than sticking with one rooting interest – our everyman entry point, or the enigmatic mogul, or the compelling robot – it questions aims and intentions of each in turn. Who will escape? My answer shifted with the film’s reveals, as it packed familiar but profound implications in small gestures and artful pulp.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Old's Story: WHILE WE'RE YOUNG


There’s a scene in Noah Baumbach’s bracing character study Greenberg where the eponymous middle-aged curmudgeon played by Ben Stiller finds himself in the middle of a young person’s party. He sits on the couch talking to energetic teens, is intimidated by their confidence, and concludes, “I’m freaked out by you kids.” That’s just one scene in the movie, the broad strokes with which the youngsters are drawn excusable as a concept to push Stiller’s character out of his comfort zone. Baumbach’s new low-key comedy While We’re Young essentially stretches Greenberg’s party scene to feature length, finding a contentedly neurotic fortyish married couple (Stiller and Naomi Watts) drawn into a relationship with easygoing hipsters (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) who alternately attract and repel them.

The film sets up an interesting dynamic, with Stiller and Watts feeling displaced by their generational cohort’s baby-having ways. Friends (like Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz) are disappearing into this different middle-aged demographic, so Stiller and Watts try to fit in with Driver and Seyfried’s crowd despite obvious confusion and discomfort over a lifestyle of twee handcrafted locavore retro-kitsch irony. The older couple still feels young, like they’re only pretending to be grown-ups. But confronting the alluring and confusing ways of the young folks forces them to choose between regressing in a return trip to extended adolescence or embracing the comforting steady grind of adulthood. They try out a new routine and see how it fits, a form of generation gap tourism.

A soft and comfortable film, the result lacks precision. Where’s the well-observed bitterness of Greenberg, or the sweet youthful energy of his previous film, the charming twentysomethings’ comedy Frances Ha? Baumbach has seen the age gap from both sides in better films, so it’s harder to accept the mushy generalizations and broad caricaturing at work here. It's still, in the typical Baumbach approach, full of characters who think they’re one clarifying conversation away from a better, more fulfilling life, and yet keep talking themselves back into corners of their own making. They leave each scene feeling worse than they were before. On some level it works. But here the lines are fuzzy more than sharp. Stiller and Watts make the most of their pleasant banter, able to slide easily into prickly married-life arguments. But Driver and Seyfried float through on a cloud of pixie dust as magical bewitching younger people, contrasts and sometimes foils, but never fully alive.

The young couple is a collection of stereotypes, a jumble of traits meant to make them specific and yet only serves to make them unknowable. He wants to be a documentarian, loves vinyl and VHS, hates social media, raises chickens, and encourages his partner’s burgeoning homemade ice cream business. You can tell on a surface level why that’d be exciting for a couple who otherwise spends their time avoiding pals’ children, chatting about arthritis, academia, and business meetings, and then going to bed early. But there’s no sense of who Stiller and Watts were as younger people, or what they’re trying to reclaim by hanging around these willowy strawmen who drag them to block parties and New Age shaman cleanses. Eventually, as the younger people prove more calculating than they first appear, the plot returns our middle-aged protagonists to the comfort of their generation, suspicious of young people all the more.

The final shots of the film confirm this fear of youth as we watch a baby expertly manipulate an iPhone, then cut back to Stiller and Watts pulling horrified faces. What is this world coming to? How can people of such different worlds coexist? While We’re Young’s not so sure they can, or should. The writing is full of prickly barbs, one part sublimated Borscht Belt and one part relaxed New Hollywood indie, the bright and sprightly Woody Allen-style New York City imagery hopping along bridging the gap. The cast (including a welcome, but small, role for the great Charles Grodin) spits the lines with great aplomb and winning chemistry. But Baumbach’s usual emotional specificity is stale, even strained, here. I saw where he was going, poking fun at youthful affectations and aging insecurities alike, but it never rose past the level of thinly imagined sketch.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Who Blarted? PAUL BLART: MALL COP 2


It has been six years since Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a dull and silly Die Hard-in-a-mall comedy starring Kevin James, was a surprise hit. Never underestimate the box office potential of a January release date and an ad campaign in which a likable everyman falls down a lot. Was there a vast amount of untapped story potential in this concept? No. Did Sony think the box office results of the first would mean there was some small, lingering affection from audiences to be converted into easy money if a sequel was done on the cheap? Yes. So. Here we are. Dumb comedies get dumber, repetitive sequels all the time. Here’s another.

In the first Paul Blart, the big, pathetic security guard bumbled his way into saving his mall of employment from robbers. The new Blart is Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, instead of something like 2 Paul 2 Blart or Paul Blart: The Quickening or Paul Blart 2 the Streets. It takes the man away from his mall to a national convention of security guards in Las Vegas, where he and his daughter (Raini Rodriguez) eventually stumble upon a heist in progress and, surprise surprise, must protect the hotel. It’s another indifferently staged, overlit, lazily photographed underdog story of a guy no one likes somehow saving the day. The bland heist plot is played totally straight (Neal McDonough is the baddie) and everything else is theoretically amusing, but I’m not sure where or why. At one point Blart wrestles a bird. Later, he sees a guy eat a rotten banana. Huh.

Completely predictable and totally devoid of anything resembling a laugh, the empty, mindless movie left me with just one question. Is it better to have no jokes than bad jokes? Scene after scene passed by without any discernable punchlines, sight gags, or stupid asides. I just kept wondering why no one wrote jokes. Surely someone at some point would’ve seen dailies or a rough cut and gone back for reshoots or ADR that could punch up the airless and endless scenes. I mean, you could’ve at least gotten a Foley artist for some last minute flatulence and slide whistles. It still wouldn’t be funny, but at least there’d be something. It’s so lazily slapped together by director Andy Fickman, limply plotted by Nick Bakay and James himself, that it’s best viewed as a paycheck for all involved. And you don’t have to see it for the checks to clear.

By the end, pummeled by the total nothingness of the events on screen, I decided I was thankful no one tried too hard to make this movie funny, if only for the irritation I felt whenever I faintly detected the presence of humorous intent. Every beat is geared towards making Blart a pathetic figure of scorn. I think it’s supposed to make him sympathetic, but most running jokes are built on the premise that anyone who likes him is stupid or ridiculous. That’s not funny. It’s sad, like when his mother is killed off in the opening scene, run over by a speeding truck. Laughing yet? In one scene Blart gets into a fight with his daughter in a restaurant. She’s angry he’s overprotective. He’s eating the crunchiest bread ever baked. It goes something like this. She: “You never listen!” He: Munch. Munch. Munch. Laughing now?

Isn’t it hilarious that he has relationship problems, his mom was run over, his daughter’s pulling away, and he has problems with food? And no one likes him except other condescendingly presented oddballs, and even then only sometimes? There’s nothing that deserves a moment’s thought beyond relief the movie does, indeed, end. But there’s nagging ugliness – scenes glorifying use of force (Tasers, beanbag guns, and a vibrating fork) to take down suspects, a man policing his daughter’s love life above and beyond what’s appropriate, and an implication that fat people should only interact with other fat people – that’s not just empty, stupid, and unfunny, but leaves a nasty aftertaste, too. I saw the movie in a theater with the quietest audience I’ve ever heard. We sat there silently for 90 minutes, then glumly filed out.

Friday, April 17, 2015

It Knows What You Did Last Skype: UNFRIENDED


A group Skype session is invaded by an angry spirit in Unfriended, a clever and timely horror film. It’s set on the one-year anniversary of a high school cyberbullying victim’s suicide. The dead girl’s friends happen to be Skyping with each other this night, talking about typical teen topics – relationships, mind-altering substances, parties, and sex. But a mystery person – a blank profile picture lurking in the corner – has joined their chat. They can’t hang up on it. They can’t click on it. They disconnect and call back. It’s still there, presumably watching and listening. And then the mystery Skyper starts typing threatening clairvoyant messages. Soon the teens are glued to their screens, trying to figure out what’s gone wrong online, as even worse fates befall them in the real world.

The movie is shot entirely through a computer display, the whole frame one character’s laptop screen. Performers are isolated in their own chat boxes, as layers of windows and tabs provide plot information, the roaming cursor drawing our attention to different areas. This all-on-a-computer idea has been done before (a few indies, some short films, and an episode of Modern Family), but never to such sustained and suspenseful effect. On a plot level, it’s a simple cyber-slasher, what Ebert would call a Dead Teenager Movie. But director Leo Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves turn conventional story elements unsettling through modern communications, digging into essential unease with their central gimmick.

We’re locked in on a static shot, with shaking found footage contained in steady windows, shifting frames within frames. The laptop belongs to Blaire (Shelley Henning), who was best friends with the dead girl. By placing the audience between this character and her screen, you have an uncomfortably close view of the action. It feels like an intrusion. We meet her chatting with her boyfriend (Moses Jacob Storm) in a playful mood, planning prom night activities. Their friends (Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, and Courtney Halverson) join in, a standard white teen horror collection of pretty blondes, snarky hunks, and one sloppy dope. But then there’s that mysterious other, menacing messages and all. It’s threatening to reveal secrets, cause emotional and physical harm.

Exposition and dialogue extends to iMessages, Facebook, YouTube, and urban legend forums (Spotify provides the soundtrack) as the teens try to figure out the identity of their intruder and are forced to admit they’re not on the line with a prankster or hacker, but a ghost. This ghost isn’t playing around, either, quickly proving deadly intent by – what else? – flickering lights and knocking on doors. Then it leads them to their dooms in flashes of sudden violence. The film gets a constant unsettling mood and some good scares out of malfunctioning keystrokes, disappearing buttons, and recurring pinwheels. Creepiest are ethereal pixelations of video chatting, where sound slips out of sync and faces freeze, dissolve, or cut to black. The context makes these everyday frustrations suspenseful.

The group of thinly characterized teens is picked off one by one by a malevolent manifestation of adolescent fears and foibles. That’s hardly new genre ground to cover. But the technology enlivens it, making a slick and scary claustrophobic parable of modern day web life. In the news and on our social media feeds we hear about trolls, hackers, death threats, blackmail, bullying, and worse. By now we should be well aware of that which makes the web a vulnerable place. It is a space at once private and public, exciting and terrifying in the way those distinctions collapse.

Unfriended unsettles by showing us the laptop screen as an intimate space violated. In something as simple as bookmarks on a browser (like Jezebel and Forever 21) you can find character detail and a sense of invasion of privacy. The audience is as much a voyeur as the faceless spirit, watching these teens’ private place pulled into public consumption. It’s the lack of control technology allows. They haven’t a clue how this mystery being has access to data they thought was secret. How is that any different than the security concerns and surveillance worries we see reported every day? The row of chat windows on the screen is scary and full of dread because we can see it and because of what we see happen on it. The filmmakers manipulate visual space to recreate standard horror situations in smart new ways. One character hears a knocking outside and wants to go check. “Don’t go out there!” the others shout from their boxes, able only to watch with us as the horror reveals itself.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hollywood Endings: MAPS TO THE STARS


David Cronenberg’s name is inextricably tied to body horror. His first couple decades of filmmaking brought us gooey protrusions, sunken orifices, and unholy amalgamations of oozing flesh as bodies betrayed their owners again and again. In The Fly, Jeff Goldblum fused with an insect in a crumbling mutation. In Videodrome and eXistenZ, man and machine melded physiologies, while Dead Ringers and Crash featured close-ups of metal objects later inevitably plunged into human flesh. And in Scanners, heads explode. These memorably disquieting horror images, playing off the fear of our physical being’s fragility and ability to turn against us with disease and disgust, sealed his reputation as a conjurer of disturbing images.

But his last decade of filmmaking has found a larger body to tease apart and catch mid-decay: society. Look at A History of Violence, a gory drama picture about the lingering effects of murder, or Eastern Promises, a grim Euro-thriller about borders between crime and safety, punishment and brutality, or A Dangerous Method, a period piece of mental anguish at the dawn of psychiatry, or Cosmopolis, with a young billionare on a limo drive through an emotionally and economically deadening New York City. In these films Cronenberg finds violence, yes, but also metaphoric putrefying flesh, seeping sickness deep down in the guts of humanity. His clinical eye finds great drama and the darkest comedy in the damage people do to each other. Certainly, our bodies can betray us. But our actions can perpetuate cycles of damage to all those around us. We fail ourselves when we fail each other, parts of a whole, unpredictable and easily broken.

His latest film, Maps to the Stars, has often been mistaken for a Hollywood satire simply because it’s set in Los Angeles amongst a group of industry types who are, to a person, capable of awful behavior unsparingly detailed in bleakly humorous ways. But what else could it be but some kind of societal body horror when we are regarding poison seeping into the culture? The film looks at damaged people scrambling to work out their psychosexual dramas in public for our amusement on our screens. This isn’t satire. It’s a deeply cynical creepy/comic biopsy, turning up exaggerated rot underneath glamorous surfaces. (Or, at least you can only hope it’s exaggerated.) Imagine Altman’s The Player, but darker, ruder, more lacerating in its oddball effects.

Characters include: an aging actress (Julianne Moore), a hack self-help guru (John Cusack), his stunted teen star son (Evan Bird), the boy’s terse mom (Olivia Williams), a meek chauffer (Robert Pattinson), and a mysterious burn victim (Mia Wasikowska) who arrives on a bus from far away, determined to make it in Tinseltown. They cross paths, some victims of the same tangled tragic backstories (arson, abuse, addiction), others on the precipice of fresh tragedy (mistakes, murders, and Machiavels). Speaking in dryly, believably ridiculous dialogue from screenwriter Bruce Wagner, these people behave like shambling showbiz types, selfish, rapacious id-driven beings. They’ll screw or screw over anyone they care to, while yearning in vain for something to bring meaning to their lives.

Under an intense California sun, Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography so bright it’s practically scorching, performances move with a hollowed-out quality. The guru appears exhausted in his TV appearances, Cusack playing him as a man who doesn’t believe what he’s selling anymore, if he ever did. The middle-aged actress is scrambling to stop falling back down the industry ladder, grasping for a role made famous by her long-dead abusive movie star mother (Sarah Gadon). Moore’s performance is a tightrope walk of vanity and desperation, playing a character at once tragically damaged, overwhelmingly insecure, and monstrously shortsighted, hilarious and heartbreaking. A different sort of heartbreak is the teen star. He has a flat affect common to anyone his age, but his dull gaze shows a boy who has already been to rehab, has access to temptations everywhere, and who thinks he sees ghosts. Perhaps he does.

The characters are running from haunted pasts, with apparitions real, imagined, or half-remembered returning to mock their emptiness. It informs their current pain. They’ve achieved some level of material success, and yet can’t shake memories of and impulses towards abusive behaviors, deceit, addiction, and insanity. The most eerily self-possessed among these desperate people is Wasikowska’s creepy spin on the ingénue role. She drifts into entry-level jobs, interacts with these supposed stars with a calm sense of destiny. She’s moved by prophecy, a sense of inevitable destruction she’ll embrace by film’s end. This confident madness brings out the madness in others, especially as we learn the full extent of her unexpected connections to them. At every step, under Cronenberg’s rigorously sinister sense of humor, the ensemble plays out wickedly funny, unsparingly unsettling sadness, warped, specific, and yet recognizable.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Heart of Dullness: LOST RIVER


Ryan Gosling makes his directorial debut with Lost River, an impressively controlled artful nothing. It’s 95 minutes of misfiring aesthetic signifiers coming from the same impulses that led him to work with Nicolas Winding Refn twice (in the good Drive and awful Only God Forgives). Here Gosling loves to provide striking images, woozy with neon and darkness, blood and fire. There are slow motion tracking shots to nowhere, lingering on hardships, and long looks at extreme violence real and imagined, literal and figurative. Dripping with empty visual interest, it lays out its graphical approach quickly, and then grows monotonous. As for character and story, his screenplay regards them as just more elements of design rather than features unto themselves. As a result, the film is a static, uninvolving slog, shorn free of narrative momentum and symbolic importance alike.

That’s not to say the movie is devoid of ideas. It’s a vague statement on the decrepit state of the American dream at its lowest points. Finding his story among the marginalized and impoverished, Gosling films Detroit’s ruins as a stand in for a fictional city, Lost River, drowned by economic disaster. Residents are fleeing. Structures and infrastructure are crumbling. Exploitation and arson are common activities. A nearby dam was once a promise of progress, but has only left an underwater neighborhood to show for it. In all this decay we meet a single mom (Christina Hendricks) about to lose her home, unable to pay her predatory mortgage. Gosling piles on miseries and films them with a surface beauty, taking aesthetic pleasure in pain.

Hendricks’s sons, a young man (Iain De Caestecker) and a toddler (Landyn Stewart), are smudged and sad. Their neighbors, a mute old woman (Barbara Steele) and her granddaughter (Saoirse Ronan), live amidst stacks of hoarded garbage. There’s a depressed feeling hanging over it all. Where’s the hope, when they’re the last remaining people on the block? Those who’ve remained can barely scrape out a living. A sleazy bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) sees how desperate Hendricks is to make payments and offers her a job at a macabre nightmare burlesque run by a horror-loving madam (Eva Mendes) quick to splash fake blood. Meanwhile, her older son makes money selling copper scavenged out of abandoned buildings and runs afoul of a self-proclaimed scrap metal kingpin (Matt Smith).

This villainous presence – a howling buzzcut weirdo driven around in a vintage car with an easy chair attached in the back – is just one of many oddball elements presented entirely straight-faced.  (I didn’t even mention his habit of cutting off people’s lips with scissors.) There are strange rituals, dreadful recurring symbols, talk of a town curse, a scene where a woman slowly cuts her face and peels back the skin, and a musical interlude involving a creepy rendition of an old Bob Nolan western song. There’s certainly a dreamy animating spirit behind this, tumbling from odd sight to surreal aside. But there’s never a coherent worldview aside from how cool it’s supposed to look and how seriously we’re to take it, sub-Lynchian bafflement without a point.

The actors are mostly left to their own devices, doing as much as they can with as little as they’re given. Gosling doesn’t appear to be interested in using actors for anything other than how his cinematographer Benoît Debie (Spring Breakers, Enter the Void) can place them in the frame. The result is a movie of moments and images without connective tissue logical, emotional, narrative, or political. There are feints towards all of those, but no actual strikes. Gosling proves himself a filmmaker of terrific aesthetic control. He could be a great director someday. But this is a most enervating start. He’s proven he can conjure an interesting look, if one borrowed from Refn, Cianfrance, Malick, and even some directors he hasn’t worked with. If he gets behind the camera again, let’s hope he can find something to say.
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