Thursday, January 31, 2013

Brother & Sister Act: HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS


I’m sure you remember the story of Hansel and Gretel, two little kids, brother and sister, who get lost in the woods and find their way to a cabin made of candy. Inside sits a witch, ready to fatten them up and cook them for dinner. They manage to burn her in her own oven and escape. And that’s that. It’s a nice story, isn’t it? What Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters supposes is that this childhood encounter left the kids with a talent for slaying sorceresses, a talent they take on the road, roaming the countryside from village to village, peddling their ability to liberate towns from the terror of witchcraft in their midst. We pick up with them as adults, walking into a village that has been hit by a string of kidnappings, youngsters spirited away by shadowy magic into the blackest part of the forest never to be heard from again. Hansel and Gretel take the case, promising to slay the witch(es) involved and return the kids to their parents.

Writer-director Tommy Wirkola (of the lame Nazi zombie half-comedy Dead Snow) came up with an inventive twist on a Grimm tale and then stopped there, wanly elaborating upon a simple story until it becomes yet another dour, emotionless action movie. It charmed me at first, in its opening minutes at least, but all too quickly became plodding and predictable, running through its repetitive motions. The violence is splashily over-the-top, giving the characters rapid-fire crossbows, heavy firearms and the standard hyper-competence in murkily choreographed, supposedly improvisatory hand-to-hand combat. Witches are slashed apart in gruesome ways and return the favor by casting spells that cause men to eat bugs and explode or get stepped upon by a troll, which sends what looks like grape jelly splattering under the beast’s boot. And not a bit of it is exciting or involving in the slightest.  

The plot proceeds dumbly and dutifully through one of the simplest, most emotionally and creatively uncomplicated possible versions of this concept. As the adult Hansel and Gretel, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, who are generally appealing actors even in dry material, appear to be going through the motions dispirited and listless. They are without chemistry of any kind, between each other or anyone else in the cast and the movie calls upon them to do very little with what amounts to nothing more than cardboard action stereotypes dressed up in fairy tale drag. Little creative touches – Hansel suffers from diabetes as a result of eating too much of that witch’s house way back when – seem dropped in out of nowhere and come to mean very little in the scheme of things.

Filling out the rest of the cast is a nice group of supporting actors, from Famke Janssen as the Big Bad Witch to Peter Stormare as a skeptical sheriff and Thomas Mann as a village teen with an exceedingly understandable crush on Gretel. Their contributions are nonstarters as well, ground under by the empty spectacle. It’s a goofy movie that refuses to overtly comment upon its own goofiness while at the same time carefully avoiding taking itself seriously. It’s an odd, uncommitted stance for such potentially enjoyable trash to take. As is, it plays like someone went into the editing room and scrupulously snipped out every bit of humor and excitement, leaving only an 88-minute husk of a good idea, a one-joke movie that never even finds the energy to tell it with any skill.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bedtime Stories: TALES OF THE NIGHT


Capturing something of the elemental pleasures of oral tradition in charmingly animated fables told in beautiful animation, Michel Ocelot’s Tales of the Night is as much about the importance of imaginative empathy through storytelling as it is the stories being told. On a dark French night, a boy, a girl, and an avuncular man tell each other stories, looking through books and pulling up images from various cultures around the world. They discuss what kind of stories they want to act out. They want adventure, princes and princesses, love, death, and noble lessons learned, sometimes in straightforward ways, other times through twisty irony. Other times, the storytellers are motivated by a location, a hairstyle or a costume that catches their attention. Maybe they want an animal companion or a certain kind of music. They imagine themselves across cultures, across races, in very different characters and stories, smoothly walking miles in shoes unlike their own.

They’re in complete control of the worlds they create. And what beautiful worlds they are. Ocelot animates it all through simple silhouette figures, the puppet-like people playing out their actions before vivid colors and kaleidoscopic backdrops that form lush jungles, shiny gold cities, dank dungeons and dark woods. The seemingly simple style of animation is deceptively intricate, effortlessly creating whole universes out of big, bold uses of color and geometrical shapes carefully arranged within the frame. It’s a style of animation that’s been around since the earliest days of cinema. Lotte Reiniger’s landmark animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, used similar imagery back in 1926. And, of course, the shadow puppet figures have a visual influence that echoes back through time from Magic Lantern shows and shadow plays to cave paintings flickering by the light of the fire.

There’s a beautiful interconnectedness to it all, a sense of deep reverence for all cultures, all traditions, and all times. The plots of each short film the characters bring to life play out at just the right lengths, varied in pacing and tone, methodically linear and moral. They strike the right balance between surprising and inevitable, each one snapping shut with satisfying thematic finality, like a perfectly calibrated poem. There’s a medieval story of a young werewolf and the sisters who claim to love him. A young islander falls into a strange kingdom where the king offers him a deadly challenge. In ancient South America, one boy dares question a lethal ceremony. An African tribe rejects a young drummer’s talents, so he goes off on his own to hone his unusually helpful craft. A boy who never lies is left in charge of a talking horse. The film concludes with the story of a young man who wants to win the girl of his dreams from the sorcerer who is prepared to use magic to marry her.

Utterly charming, at once gorgeous and playful, Ocelot’s film moves through these stories one by one, creating a sense of paging through a thick, ornately designed picture book, swallowing the whole anthology in one go. Is it, then, too much for one sitting? Hardly. Rather than growing monotonous or repetitive, it grows lovelier, pulling along in a trance-like reverie, engaged and enjoyable. It’s miles away from the animated fare from Hollywood that, at its worst, merely grinds through predictable plots at a manic pace. This is a family film that takes its time, breathes and attempts to do something a little different. Ocelot, who has used a similar animation style in his earlier films like Azur and Asmar, unseen by me, has here cloaked his fables in the meta-device of puling back the curtain, allowing us to see the storytellers and through them embracing the idea of empathizing with the characters in the stories. It’s not just a movie with some nice little stories, although it certainly is that as well. It’s a movie about using storytelling to understand different points of view by watching characters take on various roles, about the importance of not just being told stories, but being actively engaged by them, to allow them to provoke critical thinking and spark curiosity.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Point Blank Payback: PARKER


On the whole, Parker is too clumsily handled to really sing like it should, which is too bad, considering that this adaptation of Donald E. Westlake’s crime novel character has nearly enough pulpy energy from which to work. The surplus of it nearly balances out the deficiencies elsewhere. A great deal of the charm comes from the considerable charisma of Jason Statham in the title role as Richard Parker, a cold, clever criminal who is seemingly unstoppable and, when wronged, will charge after those who did him in with ruthless efficiency. Westlake’s template has been put to use with lead actors in films as diverse as Lee Marvin in 1967’s Point Blank, Robert Duvall in 1973’s The Outfit, and Mel Gibson in 1999’s Payback. Clearly a showcase for charismatic actors of various and diverse kinds, Statham plays this character as a force of nature, muscling through this sharp-edged yet lethargic thriller with a steely focus and impeccable timing.

It all starts with a heist at the Ohio State Fair. Parker and his accomplices (Michael Chiklis, Wendell Pierce, and Clifton Collins, Jr.) lift a couple million dollars and get away with it too. It’s during the getaway that things go south. Parker refuses to reinvest his share of the stolen money in a secondary heist opportunity, which leaves the others no choice but to shoot him and leave him for dead on the side of the road. But, as you might imagine, he’s not dead. He’s alive and kicking, leaving a trail of stolen cars on his way to get the money he’s owed and teach those backstabbers a lesson by out-planning them and heisting their next heist out from under them. To do so, he drives right into a tangle of fun character actors. The likes of Nick Nolte, Jennifer Lopez, Bobby Cannavale, and Patti LuPone do the kind of supporting work that zips in for a scene or two (or a dozen) and relieves Statham of only some of the pressure of holding up the film single-handedly.

With a plot that twists around quite nicely, it finds an uncomplicated nastiness and suspense that settles into the right groove from time to time. There are all kinds of theoretically enjoyable turns of violence and strategy, from double and triple crosses and elaborate ruses to simple improvisatory kills, like when one character stabs his attacker in the neck with a piece of a gun. I especially liked when one character breaks into a building, hides a couple of guns, and then waits for the narrative to eventually deposit all of the characters back in the building for a final confrontation. I’m being purposely vague here, since the bulk of the enjoyment in this movie comes from the who, what, and when of the heavy plotting. In John J. McLaughlin’s script, the dialogue is purely functional and the characters only types. What fun is here comes from the simple pulp pleasures.

That’s all well and good, but the film never really came together all the way for me. I had the distinct feeling that it was a movie that knew all the right notes, but had no idea how to get the tune to come out right. Directed by Taylor Hackford, a man capable of framing a serviceable shot, but who is otherwise held hostage by the quality of the scripts he’s given, the film plays out in smeary digital photography peppered with more than a handful of unacceptably poor quality establishing shots that look like they were shot with consumer grade camcorders in 2003. The simple what-you-see-is-what-you-get framing bobbles the tone and stretches the pacing until I felt like I had to slow down and let the movie catch up. This is the kind of B-movie that needed just a bit more of a push – maybe a rewrite or two? – in order to be as tight and nasty as it was so obviously aiming to be.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Haunt You Every Day: MAMA


Mama is a delicately wrought horror movie that seems to operate from an underlying fairy-tale nightmare logic that makes it all the more scary when we’re occasionally plunged into actual nightmares of warped, fluid imagery and nestled waking-up fake-outs. These visions are what prod the characters towards discovering the nature of Mama and how she can be stopped, if at all. But that’s not until late in the game. For a long time, the title character is hidden away, a specter, a hint, an eerie presence in the characters’ lives. What is she, exactly? Is she a monster? A ghost? It’s unclear for quite a while, but what we see for sure is that something protected two little girls (only 1- and 3-years-old) after they’re cruelly abandoned in a cabin in the middle of nowhere by a despondent father, a father who just shot their mother off-screen minutes earlier.

The film picks up five years later. That man’s artist brother (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) lives with his rocker girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) in a small apartment. They have a mostly comfortable life, happy with one another’s company and without a desire for kids. However, he spends his spare time continuing to search for his missing brother and nieces. It’s still a shock when the girls are found feral, fearful, and full of stories about Mama, their apparently imaginary protector. Their psychologist (Daniel Kash) advocates for their placement in the home of their uncle, providing this freshly constituted family a spacious home on the condition that they agree to allow the girls to be studied. It makes sense to most involved. The girls are damaged by their five years missing, years filled with experiences that remain unknowable to those around them. They’re skittish and hesitant to approach the adults in their lives with anything less than caution.

As the girls’ new guardians feel their way towards a new normal, Mama arrives. We don’t see her, not really, but the long haunting tease brings with it horror tropes. Shadowy shapes that appear in doorways, fluttering insects that crawl along doorframes, and a mysterious accident that sidelines a member of the ensemble all add to the sense of unease. Andrés Muschietti, in his directorial debut, creates a terrific piece of sustained creepiness that’s broadly predictable, but pleasing in the specifics. The way dread twists mournfully into nearly every scene of the film creates a deeper fright than expected. In layered compositions that play upon who we know is in the house and what we’re shown of its architecture bring small shivers that bloom into full scares. A shot that finds a girl playing with an unseen someone in one room in the foreground, while the side of the frame looks down the hall through which, one by one, the other characters walk, is suddenly terrifying. Now that all the characters are accounted for, who is in that room interacting with that little girl?

The film finds fright from the understandable worry that can come from knowing that children adopted out of terrible situations have a past that their new parents might never be able to fully understand. Chastain is remarkable as a woman who is hesitantly embracing her new maternal position. She navigates her evolving relationship with these girls in a halting, nervous way that can’t ever fully reveal itself to them. She must stay strong for the kids, who are the true anchor of it all. These are incredibly controlled and expertly deployed child performances, steady, clear-eyed, and free of obvious ticks and tricks. Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse (as well as Morgan McGarry and Maya and Sierra Dawe in the opening scene) are only impressive. These are girls who are emotionally wounded to various degrees, but can often seem like sweet, average, normal children. It’s in moments of subtle wrongness that the dread kicks in most strongly. The way Nélisse, especially, has of slyly glancing at dead space as if she’s seeing something in nothing in the frame is so suggestive of the haunting these girls have accumulated throughout their five years missing.

By the time Muschietti pulls out the standard horror movie jump scares and other assorted jolts on the way to Mama’s reveal and an extended climactic supernatural struggle, the film grows just a bit more standard than its opening would suggest. But it retains its insinuating, fragile emotional center. I watched some of the last five or ten minutes mouth agape. It becomes a film that’s literally haunted by connections that are difficult to sever. If there’s some kind of happy ending, it’s only because the characters have learned to let go. But a wholly happy ending is too much to ask from this movie that follows its nightmare logic to a suitably scarring conclusion. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Local Hero: THE LAST STAND


I was surprised how welcome it is to see Arnold Schwarzenegger back on the big screen in a starring role. It’s at least as good as it is to see South Korean horror/action/comedy hybrid genre filmmaker Kim Jee-woon's new feature opening wide all across America, come to think of it. That the former’s return and the latter’s Hollywood debut is one and the same is a nice bonus. If only the movie they made together was better. It's the kind of pared down actioner featuring a small setting and big stakes that should make for some nice lean excitement. And sometimes it does. This is a movie of fleeting diversions, but mostly it plays as witlessly flip, excessively violent, and creakily predictable.

The slight plot features a fugitive drug cartel leader (Eduardo Noriega) fleeing capture, leaving a frustrated F.B.I. agent (Forest Whitaker) in Las Vegas. He stays a step ahead of the feds, racing a super fast sports car towards the Mexican border. To get there, he has to go through a sleepy one-stoplight Arizona town where the aging sheriff (Schwarzenegger) and his green deputies (Luis Guzmán, Jaimie Alexander, and Zach Gilford) are dealing with a shady trucker (Peter Stormare) and a missing milk farmer (Harry Dean Stanton). They’re a bunch of stock characters – complete with stereotypically twangy Americana scoring in the background – waiting around for the shooting to start. The film works along parallel paths as a car chase zooms towards a slow small town mystery, cutting between the two, biding its time before the two halves will eventually collide in a whole climax in which every character gets to play a part.

If you don’t think a crazy weapons-museum proprietor (Johnny Knoxville) and a jailed-for-the-weekend drunk and disorderly Iraq war veteran (Rodrigo Santoro) will become important in the lengthy climactic firefight, then you’ve not seen an action movie before. But who would go to this movie without having seen an action movie before? The script cobbled together by Andrew Knauer, Jeffrey Nachmanoff and George Nolfi leaves no room for memorable characters beyond the typecast personas. It’s an uncomplicated movie of dusty setups for obvious payoffs that take their sweet time showing up. In the opening scene, Schwarzenegger is thrown the keys to a shiny new car, its owner telling him “Don't let anything happen to it.” It’s overwhelmingly obvious what condition that car will be in by the movie’s end. There’s a lot of bloodshed coming as well and when the sheriff growls that he “knows what’s coming,” I believed him, because I did too.

Cartoonish and hollow, it is, in tone and genre positioning, a pale American echo of Kim's slapstick spaghetti western The Good, the Bad, the Weird. That’s not a great film, but it’s a similarly convoluted and empty expression of well-staged style. The Last Stand has an admirable looseness about it, a jokiness that sometimes comes across as genuine. I especially liked when Schwarzenegger has a line about one of the villains “making us immigrants look bad.” It’s not often that one of his pictures feels the desire to explain, even in a throwaway line, why a thick Austrian accent is rumbling out of the mouth of an American character. But the ease with which Arnold can command the screen is thrown away by the ways in which Kim’s pacing is off. Jokes misfire through bad timing. The humor is strained, especially when Knoxville gets involved, and the setpieces, though clever enough at times, like when a car disappears into the night by turning off the headlights, or when two men chase blindly through a cornfield, never really becomes more than repetitive. Action beats arrive too slowly, last too long, or end too soon. Plot twists are fumbled. I felt myself straining to have a good time while my affection slowly drained away.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Badfellas: GANGSTER SQUAD


Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is a movie that’s, to borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris, less than meets the eye. This period piece gangster picture is great looking, slickly costumed and impeccably production designed. The sharp cinematography is shiny and Fleischer has a nice eye for visual compositions that’s put to good, crisp use. The color timing gives it all a vivid Fiestaware palate that’s just south of Technicolor. It’s a recreation of 1949 Los Angeles that’s less realism and more a sense of movie realism with dapper movie stars running around town speaking with a rat-a-tat cadence similar to the gunfire they set off from time to time. Unfortunately, this handsomely mounted cinematic world is wasted on a thin script by Will Beall, a document made up of leathery clichés and characterization that leans back on star presence rather than creating anything worth caring about.

The plot’s a loose elaboration on a true story that follows a squad of police officers tasked with a secret vigilante mission to dismantle gangster Mickey Cohen’s criminal operation and free L.A. of organized crime. The grizzled police chief (Nick Nolte) puts Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) in charge of this mission. The team comes together in quick montage fashion. It’s your typical collection of loose cannons, the charming youngster (Ryan Gosling), the aging gunslinger (Robert Patrick), the technical expert (Giovanni Ribisi), and the rest (Anthony Mackie and Michael Peña). I’d complain about how the script so undervalues those last two I couldn’t even explain them with a trope, but I can barely explain any these characters even with the simplest of terms. They’re all only here to look good in a suit and get into brutal shootouts with gangsters

Big bad Cohen, played by an exaggerated Sean Penn under a layer of makeup like he’s playing a Dick Tracy villain, grumbles and growls his way through the film, intimidating all he comes into contact with. We know he means bloody business when the opening scene features him drawing and quartering a Chicago rival between two automobiles, a gross moment that plays out fully in frame behind the Hollywoodland sign. This is a violent movie that quickly sets up its bad guy as very bad, as if that excuses the all out war that the gangster squad takes to him in endless sequences of destruction and death that play out in stylish, flashily filmed takes that sometimes slow into glamorizing slow motion. The squad is made up of guys that stand shoulder to shoulder in billowing trench coats and nice hats; they’re iconographically pleasing, but dramatically predictable.

Token romance brings the most dispiriting aspect of the movie’s wasteful approach to its ensemble, counting on charm alone to paper over lazy plotting and dull, routine character beats. And if anyone could do just that, you’d think it could be Emma Stone, so sparkling in every single movie in which she’s appeared. Not so here, playing Cohen’s girl who has a Gosling on the side. Although she fills her beautiful gowns with a sense of old school glamour, she can’t bring enough sparkle to spark life in predictable scenes in which she’s romantic, concerned, or in danger. Similarly misused is Mireille Enos as Brolin’s wife. She has the understandable yet all too typical scenes where the wife worries about her husband and tells him that his work’s important, but not as important as her. It’s the kind of role we’ve seen a thousand times over and here is nothing more than a blatant attempt to add rooting interest to a flat character.

All dressed up with nowhere to go, this broadly played gangster picture ends up well short of greatness, but since it’s not swinging for the fences it doesn’t quite backfire into terrible either. If anything, it’s a slight modulation away from parody, especially in a finale that ends in a laughably overwrought shootout followed by a credulity straining one-on-one fistfight. For something so stylishly handled, it’s so easily ignored as it plays, a big empty clattering homage to films far better, from similar genre revivals like De Palma’s The Untouchables all the way back to classic Warner Brothers crime pictures of the film’s time period and slightly before. (They could very well be playing a block away from any of the settings on screen here.) Fleischer is a director of great visual zing who burst onto the scene in 2009 with Zombieland, a funny genre riff that I found entertaining at the time, although I haven’t revisited it in the years since. With Gangster Squad, he has almost all the right pieces in place, but it’s a film that frustratingly resists becoming as good as it looks.

Friday, January 11, 2013

History of Violence: ZERO DARK THIRTY


Zero Dark Thirty is a mercilessly suspenseful thriller, a truthy drama that’s powerfully absorbing as it moves to a foregone conclusion. It is recent events turned into instant ambiguous myth, history rendered cinematic while the ink’s still wet. The story electrically told has intense feelings within. Telling of the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, especially when starting by playing a mix of static and audio from emergency responders on 9/11 over a black screen, can kick up a desire for revenge. But this is not a movie in which a swooping, heroic camera with broad, patriotic blasts of triumphalism executes a bad guy. Much like Alan J. Pakula and William Goldman’s handling of the then-fresh Watergate scandal in their terrific 1976 film All the President’s Men, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal play out their procedural through the eyes of the professional people who gathered and sorted inconclusive intelligence, chased down tantalizing leads to dead ends, and sweated out difficult decisions every step of the way.

These are professional people and we are allowed access to their seemingly insurmountable tasks. Detainees are painfully tortured for information that is at best tangentially helpful. Informants meet deadly ends. Bureaucratic shake-ups force shifting strategies. Our guide through it all is a tenacious agent played by Jessica Chastain. She, like Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, her closest cinematic relation, is powered by a steely determination to see this investigation through to the end. She guides, prods, and cajoles her coworkers to push further, to simply get something done, even when the exact nature of the something is very much hidden, unknowable in the murk. An officemate in the CIA’s Pakistan office played by Jennifer Ehle asks Chastain how her needle-in-the-haystack operation is coming along. This is a film in which the needle is always clear, the haystack always in the way, and the argument for much of the time is how to analyze a handful of strands. The film is nearly ten years of setbacks and dead ends that are suddenly energized by unexpected breakthroughs, becoming a stop-and-go rush to a long awaited finish line.

Bigelow makes this into the highest-stakes workplace drama imaginable. Violence is used sparingly in the film, occurring suddenly in the field, away from the halls of power where characters try to make sense of it. The supporting cast is rich with great actors doing quickly sketched, jargon-filled, vivid character work. Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Harold Perrineau, Mark Duplass, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, and James Gandolfini move around the world of the film, some suits, some military, some Navy SEALs. They each have a job to do and set about doing not a mere patriotic duty, but what they feel is best for their own careers and the lives of their coworkers. A life-and-death mystery plays out simultaneously secretly in cubicles of agencies and embassies and in clandestine spycraft, as well as on a world stage. The latter is kept carefully in the background, through glimpses of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech and Obama’s anti-torture comments on 60 Minutes seen only on TVs pushed into the farthest sides of shot compositions, yet their images are still in sharp focus. Year after year, the big picture, the ultimate goal, remains clear; it’s the foreground, the immediate, that grows fuzzy.

Through the accumulation of detail and interplay between interior and exterior spaces, danger grows and recedes. Through tense focus pulls and quietly layered compositions, the film draws tension out of mundane and brings the mundane into moments of tension. So much is instantly felt when a gust of wind allows a pair of black boots to be glimpsed underneath the hem of a burqa. All is not as it seems. Much like the expertly terrifying sequences following a combat zone bomb squad in her previous film The Hurt Locker (also scripted by Boal), Bigelow creates sequences in which little details add up to sustained nerve jangling suspense. In the opening scene – our protagonist’s first day in the field – she’s instructed to bring a pitcher of water to an interrogator preparing to waterboard a detainee. She draws it from slush in a scuffed blue cooler in the corner of the grimy cell. Torture is shown as a process, a technique, horrifying and casual. Later, there’s a scene in which a maybe suspicious car slowly makes its way into a sandy forward operating base, each puff of its dusty exhaust pipe cause for (hopefully false) alarm.

It all builds, of course, to the raid on Bin Laden’s discovered compound, a mission the details of which are both secret and well publicized. It plays out here in a suspenseful set piece expertly crosscut between grubby night-vision, smoothly dim digital photography, and Chastain sitting before a bank of communications devices back at the base. The special effects are persuasive, William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor’s editing and Greig Fraser’s cinematography are crisp and confident, but this is more than mere edge-of-the-seat climactic action momentum. Though it’s certainly that too, an earned sequence of thrills that come partially from exhilarating clarity at last rising up. Rather than building to a bloody, fascistic blast of propagandistic violence, Bigelow plays the violent acts as almost perfunctory. Osama is barely glimpsed. The soldiers maintain utmost professionalism. The aftermath is relief at a job well done mixed with mournful exhaustion.

This is a self-reflexive and sometimes critical look at events that could have been glorified, that could have easily been cheap thrills on a way to a flag-waving triumphant climax. Instead, Bigelow is interested in creating deep thrills, rooted in character, painted in ambiguity and subtlety. This isn’t a movie that’s about a country’s proxies getting righteous revenge. This is a movie about watching a professional, capable agent getting the job done the best way she knows how, with the best information she can get at any given time. It’s ultimately exciting and moving not because of sentimental human-interest material. No, this film is too crisp and focused for detours like that. What makes this film exciting and moving is how sharp and subtle the character at its core becomes. Chastain creates a matter-of-fact, driven hero, continually underestimated, taking ambiguous steps to symbolic victory. This is not a film that tells us how to think about recent history, but rather, through the eyes of a memorable character, shows it in a convincing, exciting tick tock procedural of uncommonly involving suspense and complexity. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Swept Away: THE IMPOSSIBLE


J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible is exactly what it wants to be and you should know what you’re getting into. It’s a film in which a recent real-world natural disaster is recreated in horrific detail. I almost couldn’t handle it. Perhaps the filmmakers couldn’t either, choosing to tell one small story instead of taking in the disaster in all its disturbing immensity. Rather than attempting to tell a wide, generous panoramic story set during the devastating December 26, 2004 tsunami that wiped away miles of Thailand, the film narrows in on the plight of one vacationing European family. It’s through their eyes we see the wall of water drown a picturesque resort in the blink of an eye. It’s their plight we follow in the aftermath as, heartrendingly separated, they struggle to survive, locate medical help, and find one another. This has the effect of lessening the big picture while making it all seem like a particularly bad instance of a spoiled vacation, but the acting is so strong, the filmmaking so powerful, that it’s overwhelming (for better and worse) all the same.

The film’s opening scenes are structured with the suspense of a horror film. Even if you somehow managed to stumble in blind, unaware of the impending tsunami, the opening title cards will quickly let you in on the disaster that’s about to unfold. We meet a nice young family, a father (Ewan McGregor) and mother (Naomi Watts) with a young teen boy (Tom Holland) and a couple of towheaded youngsters (Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast). They check into their hotel. They open their Christmas presents. They swim in the pool and party on the beach. These scenes of comfort and fun are, much like the opening of any slasher film that follows a group of carefree youths into the woods unaware of the masked killer awaiting them, tense. We know what’s about to happen; it’s hard to be comfortable while awaiting the sudden arrival of discomfort.

And arrive it does. Through enveloping special effects, the family is swept away in a scary swirl of muddy waters that overpowers then recedes, before spinning back around to scrape away even more of the recognizable features of the land. Amidst the fallen trees, downed utility lines, and jumbled piles of debris, the mother and her oldest son find themselves entirely alone, cling to what little they can find, and painfully make their way to help. They don’t know where to locate it or even where, exactly, the sudden catastrophe has deposited them in relationship to their hotel and their loved ones, but they continue to move anyways. Rest will surely equal death. Watts and Holland do fine work here as people forced to move forward on instinct and determination alone, the full extent of the destruction and the possible deaths of their entire nuclear family unable to fully sink in while they drag their bruised and bloody bodies to safety.

This is shell-shocked filmmaking that made me wince and squirm. I’m not the most squeamish filmgoer around, but this is uncommonly effective, harrowing stuff that had me asking if this is really what the MPAA is calling PG-13 these days. The camera moves with the young boy, capturing a kind of horror that will off-handedly find grotesque body horror in the edges of the frame, then stop to linger just long enough for the full grossness to sink in, before quickly averting the gaze. Walking behind his mother, he catches a glimpse of her leg with a large flap of skin dangling loose. When he alerts her to this fact, she turns, her shirt ripped revealingly, exposing her chest and her lacerated skin. The boy winces and averts his eyes. Later, scenes at an overwhelmed hospital catch glimpses of ripped and mangled bodies, loose limbs, and drips of unidentifiable liquid. At one point, a wretched retching sound fills the soundtrack as Watts, slightly out of focus in the middle distance, vomits what appears to be plant matter and is joined by a nurse who quickly helps her pull what appears to be a tangled vine out of her throat. Reader, I’ve managed to sit through bloodier films of splatter and gore without once shielding my eyes, but this scene had me looking away, wishing for it to end. I wanted it out of my head.

But I suppose that speaks to the power of Bayona’s filmmaking. This is an overpowering experience. It eventually cuts away from mother and son to discover the fate of McGregor and the two little boys – I won’t spoil it here – and the script by Sergio G. Sánchez and María Belón orchestrates nearly-unbearably teasing moments of sentimental suspense as the various main characters survive, or don’t, and are reunited, or aren’t. In the end, I cried a little, but felt so emotionally mangled by the film that I almost wished I hadn’t. It’s undeniably effective, but the small scope, which, although beneficial, making the devastation personal and slightly more manageable, begins to feel like it’s doing the event itself a bit of a disservice by limiting the full impact.

In the film’s final shots, the camera flies away with survivors, peering back at the destruction while gliding away from the island and out over open waters. It’s a survival narrative that’s ultimately only about escape and not about the ramifications for the people – and supporting characters – left behind. I was more than ready to escape; I was glad to escape. But I wondered if a film less single-minded could have found room to tell a small, simple story without losing so much of the big picture. The ending plays triumphant, but the film was so effective that by that time I was exhausted.


2012 OFCS Awards

We at the Online Film Critics Society have voted and the results for the 2012 OFCS Awards can be found here.

To give you a little taste, I'll tell you that Best Actor went to Daniel Day-Lewis for his work in Lincoln. If you're curious to see all of the winners, be sure to click the link above.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

(Senti)mental: SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK


In Silver Linings Playbook, characters at once sharply drawn and broadly sketched bounce off of each other with personalities informing every bit of dialogue that zings around the room. This film has writer-director David O. Russell squarely in his wheelhouse, orchestrating ensembles through funny quips on their way to deeply felt characterizations, much like his 1996 indie screwball Flirting with Disaster or the family scenes in 2010’s The Fighter. In Playbook, Russell (working from a novel by Matthew Quick) makes broad, yet well defined, character studies out of a plot that’s part recovery drama, part romantic comedy, part sports film and part dance movie. It’s not as complicated as it sounds and goes down oh so smoothly.

The film starts with a woman (Jacki Weaver) checking Pat, her adult son (Bradley Cooper), out of a mental hospital. He’s had a breakdown that matches the collapse of his marriage. Now living with his mother and freshly unemployed father (Robert DeNiro), Pat thinks that if he can put his life back together convincingly enough, he’ll win back his wife. This seems like denial, seeing as she got a restraining order on him. He seems like a smart man, but he’s unable to face his problems head on. His therapist (Anupam Kher) encourages him to stay on his medication, encouragement he’s quick to ignore. He obsessively jogs, reads, and lingers on the edges of his former life. Sometimes he lingers too closely, leading a friendly cop (Dash Mihok) to wander over and remind the family about certain court-ordered distances.

Realizing that living in the past is no help, friends and family set up a dinner at which Pat can be introduced to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a widowed young woman who has been through more than her fair share of therapy. It’s not clear what their relationship will develop into, although it’d be nice if they could find some way to ease their anguish together. Russell frames their tentative steps towards friendship in likably loose scenes of brisk comedy and bracing emotional truths. The ensemble features characters with their own goals and aspirations – DeNiro needs to win money gambling on football games; a mental patient (played by a funny, restrained Chris Tucker) just wants to find his way out of the hospital; Weaver is desperate to see her family whole again – and Russell weaves the strands of plot and character together in a nicely handled balancing act. By the time the movie involves a high-stakes dance competition such developments seem only natural.

Cooper and Lawrence have pleasant chemistry that’s fraught with crackling irreverence. They’re drawn to each other by their inappropriateness, each with a tendency to flatly state what should not be shared in polite company. They have no filters. At their first meeting, he bluntly asks how her husband died. They bond over their shared experiences with antidepressant medications. There’s a certitude to their speech, a hard edge to their movements, and yet a hesitancy in the eyes, as if they’re convincing themselves as much as the rest of the world that they’re okay. She ambushes him while jogging with a sharp “Hey!” They run together until they end up in front of a diner. “Do you want to eat here?” he asks. It’s a date. They speak with the sparkling speed of the wittiest romcoms, but spit each line as if wedging it into the moment, as if the words can’t be contained. Altogether, the strong ensemble inhabit the roles with care and nuance, bringing the broader tendencies of the screenplay pleasingly down to earth with Russell’s casual camerawork assisting.

It’d be easy for the film to turn cutesy or schmaltzy and, though it’s certainly an easy crowd-pleaser, it treats the characters’ mental problems with a degree of seriousness where a lesser film would use them as a simple plot device or, worse yet, an affliction for which romance is a perfect panacea.  No, instead Russell builds a satisfying Hollywood ending that accepts the characters for who they are, recognizes their individual capacities for change, and dares to find them a happy ending that fits just right. As far as the genres and character types Russell’s dealing with are concerned, he’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, but isn’t it nice that he’s managed to make just about the best possible wheel he could?
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