Monday, September 10, 2012

Recent movies at a glance


For about three quarters of “Cosmopolis,” I was convinced I had a tenuous grasp over the surreal storyline, which boasted a labrynthe conceptual narrative with a startling confidence. It’s not enough that this young, tortured millionaire would be spending an entire day getting through Manhattan traffic for a hair cut -- director David Cronenberg has to shoot the limo scenes with transparently fakey rear projection methods that clash with his high-def photography. The effect almost makes Robert Pattinson (appropriately low energy) the captain of a starship, one that keeps picking up refugees informing him exactly how his empire is running, how much fuel is left in this otherworldly vessel.

Those folks include Jay Baruchel (almost starstruck, though the character is his brother), Samantha Morton (both embracing and puncturing her position as an analyst of “theory”) and Juliet Binoche (who shares her views on what does and does not belong to us while Pattinson is between her legs). Each performer (there are several others, including a weirdly sexy Kevin Durand) has the sort of human connection with Pattinson set up to almost remind him that yes, he is human. Like Cronenberg’s other work, it’s impossible to distinguish where the characters’ bodies end, and their “stuff” begins -- a moment where Pattinson gets out of his parked limo only to walk into a taxi has the sort of conceptual playfulness that 3D films can only faintly suggest, while also confirming that Pattinson is making a lateral move, a gesture that seems as normal to him as extending his arm. The scenes where Pattinson is outside of his transport show a young man outside of his comfort zone -- his actions upon leaving his limo seem dedicated to re-affirming to himself that he has a body, and that it serves several functions.

I’m still trying to figure out the film’s climax, which pits Pattinson face-to-face against a rat-like underling (Paul Giamatti). Their battle isn’t necessarily physical, nor is it a clash of wits, but political and social philosophies. I did not have to read afterwards that Cronenberg had preserved the bulk of Tom DeLillo’s prose, as it was present in the circular way characters talk each other into having separate points of view. It’s a talky movie, yes, and to some, fairly impenetrable, and once that ending scene arrived, I felt like the plate I had tried to balance had come crashing to the ground, scattering my marbles. I don’t think it’s a sin to admit you didn’t fully understand a film, though it is to blame your own misunderstanding of a film on a meticulous filmmaker about a dozen films into a storied career. Which is to say perhaps several critics should have merely placed their pen down before they wrote their confused, indignant reviews about “Cosmopolis” being a “bore.” Cronenberg, to his credit, is also smart enough to know what effect elliptical dialogue would have coming out of the mouth of a teen heartthrob like Pattinson, in a performance specifically designed to be alien and unrelateable. Which, to some, is a closed door, and to others (like most of Cronenberg’s filmography), a key placed in the palm of your hand.

***


Dredd 3D” is a trashy, violent film based on the popular cult comic series, of which I am sadly unfamiliar. My knowledge of the character and his world stems from the considerably lighter “Judge Dredd” which starred Sylvester Stallone in the early nineties. Whereas that felt like an ersatz attempt to make a definitive film about this character, “Dredd 3D” seems more like a minor-key effort of gruesome violence at a decidedly low temperature. Less a concerto and more of a movement, “Dredd 3D” tells a bleak story about our monosyllabic, masked hero and his attempt, with rookie in tow, to escape from an obvious trap in a poor tenement called the Peach Trees housing thousands of baddies ready to get a piece of Johnny Law.

My lack of knowledge of the source is probably the reason for this, but the threadbare script leaves room mostly for blandly expositional dialogue and rote action setups -- I could have closed my eyes and imagined it to be a cheap “Robocop” sequel, though that may say more about “Robocop” than it does me. Regardless, aside from some early satirical elements suggesting the fascist nature of this depleted future world (which we don’t see, aside from a few establishing shots), “Dredd 3D” is a bang-bang shoot-em-up where the hero treats it as just another day, the villainess is too drugged-up to get too angry (she demands thugs to be skinned as if she were ordering a pizza), and the location offers little variety between apartment buildings and narrow hallways. It’s supposed to be the POINT that everyone’s going through the motions: don’t look for action hero swagger, more along the lines of execution-style kill shots. Enjoy.

***

[Rec] 3: Genesis” begins by utilizing the found footage aesthetic of the first two films, as a zombie virus descends on a beautiful wedding, scattering the reception guests and separating the beautiful bride and groom. As the running undead pursue the nephew filmmaker holding the camera, he hides out with a group of survivors in the kitchen. When he makes the genre-standard argument that he must keep documenting what’s happening because “people need to know,” the groom throws the camera to the ground and stomps it to pieces. The good news is, the gimmick is now dead. The bad news is, this is now essentially a Spanish sequel to “Demons.” Not a good kind, but one of the unofficial sequels, with something like four alternate titles.

The first two films, which Paco Plaza and Jamie Bagaulero directed together, were relatively straightforward genre exercises benefiting from the handheld treatment. With Plaza directing on his own (Bagaulero is apparently also working on a solo segment), Plaza acts as if Dad is out of town, and that he can finally have some fun. So the spooky occult leanings of the first films give way to silly supernatural Catholic ideas involving chants and rituals, while he finds an arcane and unconvincing excuse to dress his leading man as a medieval knight. The setups have the spirit of early Peter Jackson, but Plaza bypasses punchlines in favor of rote jumpscares and the old chestnut about our loved ones turned into bloodsuckers. Plaza recovers for a surprisingly poignant fifteen minutes that trade on the expressiveness of gorgeous Leiticia Dolera’s raccoon eyes, but it feels less organically compelling and more like a welcome distraction from typical genre excess.

***

If you’re a stickler for accurate casting, you’ll hate “Ten Years,” which posits that a host of thirtysomething actors, including Channing Tatum, Rosario Dawson, and Lynn Collins, are all attending their high school reunion. You can get away with this with an actor like Anthony Mackie, endlessly watchable even if he’s not given a character to play. But in the case of say, Justin Long, you wait for the other shoe to drop, since his presence isn’t compelling enough to justify such suspension of disbelief. It’s why some actors are convincing as superheroes, and others make you realize that comics are for children. Side note: Justin Long has seriously become a red flag when involved in any film. This one is no different.

Tatum, who spearheaded this film, has proven to be a star this year, but he’s certainly not an actor and the suggestion seems to be that he’s lucked into finding all these compelling directorial collaborators (and, perhaps, that they’ve utilized their commercial instincts in hitching their wagon to the one young leading man that could actually be considered a Man). Freed from that, Tatum and his “Magic Mike” collaborator Reed Carolin called in several favors for this film, overstuffing it with name performers who seem asked to invent a characterization on the fly. The results are mixed: TV actor Chris Pratt embraces chubby-actor pratfalls, while Oscar Isaac transcends the cheeseball crooner he’s forced to portray. But Dawson, as The One That Got Away, has little to do but be luminous to nostalgic ex Tatum, who has to deal with the insecurities of real-life wife Jenna Dewan-Tatum. While Ron Livingston shows up to become a potential Baxter, the problem with the film becomes writ large -- none of these people remotely have problems, and none of their likely improvisational conversations buzz with immediacy or even necessity. Coming so soon after French boomer drama “Little White Lies” (which superficially but effectively covers the same ground), it looks even weaker.

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