All Is Lost -2013-

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Directed by J.C. Chandor. 106 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Blu-ray)

I never would have dreamed that Chandor’s follow-up to Margin Call, his entertaining (if unadventurous) Great Recession drama, would be anything like All Is Lost. While Margin didn’t rock the boat, this Robert Redford vehicle should make waves for its writer/director even though it sank at the box office.

Yes, I just fucking wrote that shitty, Shalitty sentence.

All Is Lost feels like something a studio would have made a generation, maybe even two generations ago. I had no problem replacing Redford with Henry Fonda or Gregory Peck in my mind’s eye. The one and only member of the cast does a bang-up job of channeling the timeless “man versus nature” plot. Man certainly has a losing streak when facing off against nature, and the film’s title is pretty damn accurate. Still, I rooted for Redford’s futile attempts at survival the whole way through.

Aside from Red’s performance, the film is well-executed exercise of trimming fat from a film. We know nothing about the main character apart from the name of his boat. His name is never uttered (almost nothing is uttered, actually), and the film never tells the viewer what he’s doing at sea to begin with. Chandor wisely understands that if the conflict deeply resonates with an audience, you don’t require much else. Aristotle would be proud.

(Seen and written on 2014-03-04)

Oldboy -2013-

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Directed Spike Lee. 104 mins.

Worth my time? Yes, but my expectations were modest. (Seen for free at Arclight Hollywood)

Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 K-vengeance classic isn’t a must-see by any stretch, nor is it the wet noodle (or raw octopus) that many critics have alleged. As I expected, this new version lacks the can’t-look-awayness of the original. Park, is a master of the sensuous and visceral (as his Stoker demonstrated so well earlier this year). Lee is more accustomed to illustrating his points with musical numbers and angry white dudes. To paraphrase a Mr. Thomas Hardy, Lee merely adopted the revenge thriller; Park was born in it.

The film would have been a disaster if Lee had tried to imitate Park’s sensibilities. Luckily, he makes no such attempt. Even though Lee doesn’t have a style that meshes well with the Oldboy story, there was some fun to be had in seeing his interpretation of the material. I’ve glanced through a lot of critics who have panned the film for being stylistically flat and lacking Lee’s interest, but they’re wrong. Sure, Lee isn’t going to be as enthusiastic about this film as he was about Do the Right Thing, but what the fuck were these folks expecting?

Even a mercenary director can leave an unmistakable mark on a film adaptation (see Lynch’s Dune). Here, Lee sniffs out plenty of opportunities of to ruminate on themes such as:

  1. Absent fathers
  2. White exploitation of successful black men
  3. White men hypersexualizing black women
  4. Frustration at New York’s Asian population
  5. Street-level charity and activism for the underprivileged
  6. The arrogance and decadence of old money and society’s elites
  7. Grotesque imagery of Americana
  8. Hurricane fuckin’ Katrina
  9. More New York than you can shake a stick at
  10. George Zimmerman’s home address is constantly displayed in the bottom-right corner of the frame.

Some of Lee’s flourishes feel silly, but I got a kick outta them. The core cast is solid, and Sharlto Copley is as believable as his cartoonish role will allow. Sam Jackson, of course, is so goddamn Sam Jackson that he instantly grows tiresome, but I suppose I’m resigned to that.

Aside: The two frame stories are gone, but it also eliminates the lazy narration of the original. Call it a lateral move.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-27)

The Unnamable -1988-

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Directed by Jean-Paul Ouellette. 87 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on DVD)

I’ve been reading a lot of H.P. Lovecraft lately, so I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for decent film adaptations of his material. My current search (I first saw Gordon’s excellent Re-Animator and From Beyond years ago) has yet to bear quality fruit.

Lovecraft’s work is particularly tricky to successfully bring to the screen. First, his stories are told almost exclusively from a first person perspective and contain little to no dialogue. Secondly, Lovecraft’s signature was the exploration of aspects of reality that defied description and often human comprehension altogether. When you have a movie titled The Unnamable and its poster shows a creatures that’s easily namable (let’s call it a gargoyle, yeah that works), it probably won’t be a top-notch piece of work.

The Unnamable is just another “Dead Teenager” movie with a few nice Lovecraftian trimmings. I liked that it featured Arkham’s Miskatonic University, the Necronomicon, and featured Randolph Carter (one of Lovecraft’s few recurring human characters) as a main character, but that’s about all the connection it has. The limp ending is a shameless parroting of Raimi’s Evil Dead films.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-09)

The Servant -1963-

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Directed by Joseph Losey. 116 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Laemmle’s Royal Theater, West LA)

Holy smokes, was this movie all sorts of tense, tingly fun. The Servant is the first Losey film I’ve seen – I was vaguely aware of the guy, but he’s been under a lot of peoples’ radars since he was blacklisted some fifty-odd years ago. Now I gotta make up for lost time and gobble up the rest of his filmography.

The Servant is hearty stew of genres – it’s written like a melodrama (Harold Pinter is responsible for the wonderfully misanthropic screenplay), paced like a thriller, and shot like a noir (Losey did lots of noirs during the American part of his career, including an English-language re-make of Fritz Lang’s M). The entire cast has an amazing chemistry between them – maybe the purest concoction of sex and passive aggression I’ve ever seen. The titular Servant (Dirk Bogarde) is a world-class schemer, and I couldn’t look away as he played the other characters (Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, James Fox) like old accordions.

Well, I probably looked away once or twice. The film could stand to be fifteen minutes shorter, but it didn’t damper the viewing experience much.

Aside: In the best possible way, this is the gayest film I’ve seen all year.

(Seen on 2013-09-01, written on 2013-09-04)

The Canyons -2013-

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Directed by Paul Schrader. 100 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at IFC Center, Greenwich Village)

The two films I saw during my recent jaunt to New York City were Schrader’s The Canyons and Griffith’s Intolerance. As far as I know, that’s pretty much all those movies have in common.

Seeing this godmother of Hollywood-Kickstarter hybrids was time well spent for two reasons, neither of which being that the film was any good. First, there’s the novelty of seeing the finished movie after a year of stories documenting its rocky production like it was a microbudget Cutthroat Island. For a while, I was beginning to doubt that the film would ever a theatrical release (or any release at all, for that matter). When I learned that I would be in the vicinity of its single-screen debut, I had to see if it was for real, consequences be damned. It was the cinematic equivalent of digging up Jason Voorhees’ body to see if he was truly dead.

The other draw of the film is to bear witness to how unapologetically trashy and technically inept it is. While Ellis’ predictably misanthropic screenplay makes no attempt to engage the viewer, hearing the lines delivered by the bored Lindsay Lohan and James Deen (along with the laughably bad Nolan Funk and Amanda Brooks) is occasionally amusing. Even more fun is the shockingly amateurish cinematography and editing. At one point, I was convinced that a UPS truck was going to kill Lohan’s character while she ate lunch at a Sunset Stripe café. You’ll see what I mean.

The Canyons is less earnest but every bit as baffling at The Room. My brother accurately described it as “Gregg Araki’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.” If either of those sentences entice you, check it out.

(Seen on 2013-08-02, written on 2013-08-14)

Only God Forgives -2013-

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Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. 90 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Amazon Instant Video)

 Only God Forgives has been trashed pretty unanimously among critics, and in light of this fact, I feared that the film would be to director Refn what To The Wonder was to Terrence Malick, who had previously been batting one thousand. The film doesn’t come close to matching the stripped-down brilliance of Drive, but I found it to be enigmatic and engrossing. Mark me down in the “dissent” camp.

 The film’s poor reviews are right to bemoan the film’s often glacial pacing, but I suspect the negativity was also influenced by the audience’s desire to see another Drive. Refn didn’t make it for them – instead, he made a spiritual follow-up to David Lynch’s Inland Empire. I guess Nic got tired after waiting six years and counting for another Lynch. If you want to get anything done…

 All of the trappings are here: the long pauses riddled throughout dialogue scenes, the femme fatales, the macabre criminal underworld and psychotic characters, and plenty of singing in nightclubs. Even the score by Cliff Martinez carries the influence of Angelo Badalamenti in its notes. Much like Inland Empire, Only God Forgives is a movie that the viewer shouldn’t try to “solve” in a sitting. After all, if you dissect a frog, you’ll understand why it works, but then again, ya killed it.

My recommendation – view the film when you’re already drowsy, and let the nightmare wash over you.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-07-30)

World War Z -2013-

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Directed by Marc Forster. 116 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen for free at AMC Promenade 16)

Considering that its production was plagued with more clusterfucks than Heaven’s Gate, I’m struck that World War Z is anywhere near as good as it is. The movie isn’t great, and there’s plenty for zombie nerds to nitpick, but it’s a solid, genuinely creepy afternoon diversion.

Brad Pitt reminds us that he’s the most consistently good American A-list actor of his generation. Nic Cage and Tom Cruise have had higher peaks in their filmography, but at this point, they’re just too goddamn distracting onscreen (especially Cage). Pitt, on the other hand, can still disappear into a believable everyman as he demonstrated in The Tree of Life a couple of years back. Pitt’s protagonist in WWZ isn’t the most interesting character, but he’s sufficient. Plus, his wife (Mireille Enos of Big Love and The Killing) actually looks within his age range.

The main attraction here is the situation, not the character. The first two acts do a great job of showing civilization collapse in a matter of hours. Pitt goes from Philadelphia (why do zombie movies always start in Pennsylvania?) to Newark (which doesn’t look much worse than it does in real life) to the Korean Peninsula (the North Korean solution to the zombie problem is eerily plausible) to Jerusalem (where the Israelis are putting their 65 years of constant vigilance to good use). For a relatively short film, Marc Forster and his army of screenwriters did a bang-up job of showing the global scale of the outbreak.

The third act, unfortunately, reeks of oh-shit-how-do-we-finish-thisness. After having relative success by keeping the chaos in large environments, the film confines itself to the Hive of Resident Evil. It doesn’t ruin the experience, but it’s a big (although not unexpected) bummer.

Some folks might piss and moan over the lack of gore (a PG-13 film about humanity’s violent end does seem a tad odd), but I got used to it. Also, why should gore be the fulcrum on which a zombie flick balances? George A. Romero has made three super-gory films since 2005, and they all suck. I actually found the absence of F-bombs to be the worst consequence of WWZ’s rating. Come on, now – people would be cussing up a fuckin’ storm in this kind of setting.

– Aside: Did anyone notice the implication that Israel’s downfall comes, in part, from being peaceful and diplomatic toward their Palestinian and Arab neighbors?

– Aside: David Morse is onscreen for maybe two minutes, but he absolutely steals this movie. You can also catch Morse and Pitt in 12 Monkeys, another apocalypse thriller.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-06-26)

Trance -2013-

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Directed by Danny Boyle. 101 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 This is easily the most Boylean Boyle film since he released 28 Days Later over a decade ago. The sentence you just read should be sufficient for you to determine whether or not you would enjoy Trance. But in case you aren’t so familiar with the man’s previous filmography, I supposed I can elaborate a bit.

 In a sentence, Trance is an electron cloud of Eternal Sunshine and Inception orbiting a nucleus of Headhunters. James McAvoy cranks his Scottish accent into top gear as an art auctioneer (or is he?) working in a gang of thieves (or is he?) to recover a stolen painting, the location of which he’s forgotten (or has he?). Double, triple, and quadruple-crosses ensure. By the film’s end, I had lost much of my desire to find out who’s really doing what and why. I still had a good time – after all, Boyle’s films tend to prioritize the journey much higher than the destination.

 The two real stand-outs in this film are the visuals and Vincent Cassel. As I reflect upon Boyle’s filmography, his photography and editing teams have been miracle workers, and Trance is no different. Each frame is as bright and glossy as a Michael Bay film, and I would bet that the average ratio of shots-per-minute would be about the same for both directors. Amazingly, Boyle’s shots are always expertly framed and attentive to the subject at hand, even when the action becomes chaotic and lightning-quick (I actually have no clue how fast lightning travels).

 As usual, Vincent Cassel is great fun to watch as Franck, the brains (or is he?) behind the heist. If you aren’t familiar with Cassel, Trance is a good place to start. Whether he’s an aspiring cop killer in La Haine (1995), a vengeance-crazed boyfriend in Irreversible (2002), a break-dancing high-society jewel thief in the otherwise horrible Ocean’s Twelve (2004), a sadistic Russian mobster in Eastern Promises (2007), or a predatory dance instructor in Black Swan (2010)… you get the idea. Cassel and his so-ugly-it’s-handsome face always delivers the goods.

 – This aside is directed at Danny Boyle, and probably won’t make sense to people who haven’t seen the movie:

 Danny, the sound of the electric razor and the reaction shot of McAvoy’s face was enough. Don’t get me wrong – I certainly appreciated seeing what followed. But from a visual storytelling perspective, it was overly distracting, and I think the scene actually would have been more effective if you restrained your camera. More with less, and whatnot.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-04-09)

 

A Horrible Way to Die -2010-

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Directed by Adam Wingard. 85 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on DVD)

I didn’t know much about this alleged “horror-thriller” going into it, but I wanted to watch it because a) it stars the talented Amy Seimetz and b) it has a freakin’ awesome title. Yeesh, what a letdown this was. While I try to cheer on and all young independent filmmakers, determination alone does not a movie make. Sometime, as is the case in A Horrible Way to die, it results in the dud with the technical incompetence of Uwe Boll and the pathological cynicism of Jennifer Lynch.

I’m puzzled that such a capable actor as Seimetz agreed to her role. Her central character is passive, has almost no active part in advance the story, and exists only to be stalked and tormented for the duration of the film. Not only is the treatment of the protagonist feel sleazy and exploitative, but it’s also boring as heck. Whodathunk that films where things only happen to the protagonist (as opposed to the protagonist making things happen) does not make for an engaging movie?

Sadly, Seimetz is still head and shoulders above her hollow role. The rest of the actors are amateurish at best (despite some of them having extensive credits to their name). AJ Bowen is a supposedly charismatic serial killer with a large contingent of fans, a fact that seems odd because his conveys zero charisma. Bowen’s uncanny resemblance to a young Paul F. Tompkins doesn’t help either (no offense intended at Mr. Tompkins, but it was distracting). The rest of the cast are either stereotypical rednecks or have no personality whatsoever.

If you really want to see a good, film examining the cult of infamy, check out the mircobudget Man Bites Dog. Or you could just borrow your roommate’s DVD of Natural Born Killers. It isn’t all that good, but at least it isn’t boring.

– What’s with the score? That low choral voice sounds like day-spa waiting room.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-03-06)

Stoker -2013-

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Directed by Park Chan-wook. 98 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 When it rains Korean revenge directors, it pours. Less than two months after Kim Jee-woon’s English-language debut The Last Stand dropped, “Vengeance Trilogy” helmer Park Chan-wook jumps into the fray with Stoker. I liked it, but I would warn Park fans not to expect the frenetic pace they may have come from him.

 The film feels less like a manga-brought-to-life and more like the fuckin’ creepiest Wes Anderson movie you’ll ever see. You got the dysfunctional family brought together by crisis, the anachronistic wardrobes, décor and music, and the quirky, precocious girl as a main character. Unfortunately, Mia Wasikowska’s character India is both the film’s foundation and its main obstacle as it strives for greatness.

Wasikowska gives the performance her all, and her screen presence is superb. Sadly, the character devolves into a caricature of psychosis with incoherent and oftentimes contradictory motives and actions. This sort of character mishandling is common as many writers seem to believe that an insane character need not have any consistency. Perhaps first-time screenwriter Wentworth Miller should have thought twice before tackling such a subject.

 The enigmatic-to-a-fault India keeps Stoker from being greater than the sum of its parts. Those individual parts, however, are astounding. The cinematography and editing may be the best yet featured in a Park film ­– each and every shot, without exaggeration, hit the nail on the head. Clint Mansell’s score is one of the best of the year so far, and the sound engineering – India has a bizarre Daredevil-like sense of hearing – is worthy of an Oscar.

 While the script isn’t always meeting them halfway, the cast does a very solid job. Even the usually overacting Nicole Kidman is bearable in her role as India’s bereaved mother. Matthew Goode is great as Uncle Charlie, showing as he did in The Lookout and Watchmen that playing the charismatic sociopath is his bread and butter. Supporting players Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, and Alen Ehrenreich get only a little screentime, but each does a bang-up job.

 Ultimately, this film is like the world’s greatest clown painting on velvet. The end product may not be all that satisfying, but you can’t helped but be wowed by the talent that went into it.

 – Park’s previous films are heavily inspired by (or in the case of Oldboy, adapted from) manga. I wasn’t saying that just because he’s Korean or anything.

 – The screenplay is still better than I would have expected from the tattooed dude from Prison Break.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-03-02)