Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Last Stand...for what?

Near the very end of THE LAST STAND, two characters examine each others' war wounds. They have both been established as amateur men of the law, part of the last line of defense against a sociopath with a penchant for race cars, whose idea of fun is to drive at 190 mph while he has his posse dispose of any obstacle, human or not, in his path towards the border. It matters little what the sociopath wants, or why the men of law must stop him, because this film, by Kim Ji-woon with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role, seems to be nothing more but one loud shootout where the stakes are low. Scratch that, they stakes are not even low, they are not there. Watching THE LAST STAND, I could not help but clearly see it as just the depiction of a bunch of boys playing with toys. Not guns, toys.

Let's go back to the characters who look at each others' wounds in the end. Their attitude towards all the violence they have taken part of is to look at each other, acknowledge they've been hurt (as in, they've been shot), and compare their hurt in terms they can understand. One says something along the lines wound is from a big gun, while the other replies "please, that looks like it's done by a bb gun".

Their aloof, innocent yet acerbic ignorance summarizes what it feels like to watch THE LAST STAND. Director Kim Ji-woon, who has made various violent thrillers in his native land, delves into the making of not only an action film, but one which revolves around an American small town with supposedly everyday Americans, and in doing so creates a silly grotesque that ought to make one cringe at its breeziness and swag rhythm.
Let me be the first one to say that there are parts of this movie which are fun in their action and funny in their demeanor.It is at points a fun movie to watch, specially in its many breaks from the action to present us with slight touches of fancy, misleading slapstick, and what could pass as folk humor. Those moments point to a personal touch, the beginnings of a rhythm put in place by a director, but are not enough to help him or his cast create anything that feels believable. I do not mean to say that the film should be drab, and since its subject matter is guns (and more guns!) its exposition should be weighty or preachy, but for a film to feel alive the director should at least be inquisitive.

There is a total lack of curiosity towards the people depicted or even at times the action itself. To put it more bluntly, here there is a director who is neigh completely  foreign (culturally, linguistically, stylistically, historically, folklorically) who looks to depict, with various levels of belief, the life of a small American border town without asking himself any questions about it. The first half hour of the film, it feels as if whoever is behind the camera can only tell everyone to "act American, small-townish". The result is the impression that a studio went into an actual small town, got its inhabitants to play pretend as themselves but placed them in a completely distilled parody of the life they are supposed to be leading in their real home. Throw in Arnold Schwarzenegger as the town's sheriff, and let's just's weird, the way a student film is strangely off.

Perhaps this is the only kind of film that a studio thinks could be enjoyed right now anyway. I suppose most people, other than the actual agents behind the camera, who would belong to the culture being depicted could not have helped but feel inquisitive about the action to be displayed and the means it takes to impart such violence with such glee.

Friday, January 18, 2013

"Movies For Adults"

It’s a relief to get out of Oscar season, where there were a lot of strong films, but also movies made that exemplified what Hollywood really wants to do with their product. They’ve aimed a majority of mainstream films at children not because that’s where the money was, but because that’s the ideal mindset for a captive audience, one that cannot grow fickle. The best sort of audience is a captive one, and what’s the point of having a critical opinion if it’s overwhelmed by the excess of Hollywood crowd-pleasing aesthetics?

The difference between “The Avengers” and “Les Miserables” was simply that I happen to personally prefer superheroes to musical drama, but both are the sort of fresh-out-of-the-box contraptions meant to bludgeon an audience into submission. I can happily say I’ve given the film soundtrack to “Les Miserables” a good workout, and I especially like the vocals of Mr. Wolverine Jackman. But you couldn’t bribe me enough to actually sit through the movie one more time, as if there was something to gain from that experience anyway.
Regardless, the art of an actual film made for a very specific, receptive audience, adults, is back in full bloom. It’s a natural response to the overwhelming onslaught of CGI-kiddie toons and teenager-aimed caped adventures, and its boasted strong box office results, if this year’s decent batch of Oscar nominees can attest. And this really isn’t an issue of content, but it’s roughly half the battle: I’m sick of weeding through the time travel bullshit of nerd fare like “Looper” to find moral value (which in that case, I would argue is nonexistent) in an attempt to connect that film with any sentiment or idea that can be defined as a contemporary concern for our world, or even my own hermetic first world existence. So while I may not believe much of, say, “The Silver Linings Playbook,” which has a dubious third act that remained unchanged from a test screening I saw months earlier pointing to what I figured was an incomplete movie, I’m happy to see the film find mainstream acceptance, even if it’s payola on the part of the Weinsteins. Again.

Still, there’s the address of race in the general public thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s biggest film, “Django Unchained,” which conveniently also happens to be a picture of fascinating structure and undeniable visual kineticism. There’s the straightfaced drama of “Argo,” an overrated film that I was nonetheless glad was proudly, nakedly rated R, signifying that, despite its satirical elements, it was interested in playing to people who took history seriously. There’s “Lincoln,” which, broken down, is essentially a story of a bunch of white men in smoky rooms having repetitive arguments for three hours, though Tony Kushner’s script ensures these conversations are level-headed, and free of phony grandstanding (for the most part – it is still a Spielberg film). There were two nominations given to “Flight,” which deals with an addictive personality given in to alcoholism even after unspeakable tragedy. And then there’s “Life of Pi,” the children’s film. That is, of course, the children’s film about faith and religion from Academy Award winner Ang Lee. All the films in this paragraph have made $100 million or more, and “Pi” will likely finish over $500 million worldwide.

I’d like for that to continue into the new year… if the films cannot be good, at least they can reflect real world issues, anxieties and concerns. At least they can be aimed at adults, and spur conversations and debate. At least they can give you more to chew on than “The Hobbit,” which is about to make Warner Bros. another billion dollars despite not being about anything other than some dry magic shit. So I can forgive a few seasonal dumps, particularly because the early year is the most exciting period for true film junkies, especially as “summer” keeps threatening to stretch backwards into April. January is considered a “dumping” period, where studios release films that “don’t work,” but in a glass half-empty sort of way, I prefer to think of these as films that “almost” work. Either there’s one key alchemic element missing, or they’re 3/4ths of a good movie that completely fold upon themselves. Which means Allen Hughes’ “Broken City” fits just right.
Long considered a “hot” script feted by the Black List, “Broken City” shows the exploits of a p.i. who attempts to uncover the truth about the supposed infidelity of the mayor’s wife. It is my understanding, through airtight completely undeniable accurate anecdotal evidence, that writer Brian Tucker saw his acclaimed script re-written many times, and regrettably the seams show. Instead of being a riveting account of a corrupt system with sharply realized character moments, it instead feels like a screenplay stolen from James Gray’s desk, with the post-it note reading “DOESN’T WORK – JG” removed. Maybe it’s the casting – the unmistakable New England accent of Mark Wahlberg somehow feels like the most authentic miscue of this New York City-set drama, which features a tanned, George Hamilton-y Russell Crowe as mayor, with Welsh wife Catherine Zeta-Jones hob-nobbing with the opposition’s aid, the inherently Midwestern Kyle Chandler, looking like he has never read a subway map in his life.

Halfway through “Broken City” I was startled. Here’s a major studio film starring huge names that not only has a leisurely pace and not-end-of-the-world stakes, interested not only in institutional corruption but also character digressions, like Wahlberg attending the premiere of his actress girlfriend’s new movie and finding intense discomfort in watching her disrobe for another man onscreen. And then after zoning out for a good ten minutes, I asked myself, why are you thinking about the next time you have to do laundry, and when during the commute home it would be best to stop and buy milk? Maybe it’s because Hughes is the wrong choice for the material; the girlfriend’s movie, some touchy-feely crap called “Kiss Of Life,” wouldn’t even pass muster as a parody on “Entourage.” When Wahlberg has an angry reaction at the afterparty, it’s impossible to ignore that the outburst is perfectly synched to DMX’s “Party Up,” which ends at the close of the scene.

It’s likely Tucker’s original script made more sense after this point, where Wahlberg descends into a drunken haze, only to escape from his self-abuse thanks to a dramatic phone call, which spurs him to sober action moments later. Not only is his drunkenness completely surmountable, but his relationship becomes an afterthought, no further screentime given to his girlfriend, and no mention to possible Sundance sensation “Kiss Of Life.” It’s a bummer, because that phony plot strand completely overshadows the accurate, borderline primal attitude of Wahlberg’s character, who slumps in his chair at the film premiere. Anyone who has had to suffer through a mate’s vanity project with entirely too much on their own mind can relate, and it’s a perceptive bit of acting from the normally-untamed former head of the Funky Bunch. To say I liked “Broken City” because of moments like this is misleading, but I certainly appreciated it.

Similar pleasures are to be found in Steven Soderbergh’s final theatrical effort, “Side Effects.” It’s best to walk into the film without knowing much, and because it’s a bit early (the film is released next month), and because I’d like to discuss it further later, I’ll tread lightly. The film begins with bloody footprints across the floor of a gorgeous Manhattan apartment, at once announcing what “Side Effects” will be, a successful melding of the erotic threat of a De Palma film and the territorial paranoia of the work of Roman Polanski. From there, the first half hour begins to share the story of a young urbanite (Rooney Mara) struggling to get through life while awaiting the release from prison of her insider-trading convict husband (Channing Tatum). He’s eager to get back out into the world to support himself and his wife, but her recurring episodes suggests not everything is right with her.
What follows is the steady hand of Steven Soderbergh twisting the narrative in ways he never has before, constantly shifting perspectives and allowing for a film in which every scene is not what it seems. Suffice to say, that first half hour takes a straight-faced examination of the perils of actual depression and the medical industry’s desire to exploit the common symptoms of everyday sufferers. I was intrigued not only by the content of this segment of the film, but also how it kept me intensely invested, depicting mental illness as a terrifying specter lingering over this girl’s life. And then, a right turn. And another. And then one more, none of which I will discuss (though I’m sure other critics will in great detail, because most of my colleagues are assholes).

Steven Soderbergh was one guy who could be counted on to make films for adults, sometimes two per year. His coming retirement has made few sadder than myself, as each of his diverse films was considered an event (perhaps a JJ post is forthcoming…). But if this trend in pictures aimed at adults continues, perhaps there is a void that can be filled. To hope for another Soderbergh is to miss the point about Soderbergh – each of his films attempted something new, each felt relevant, contemporary and immediate. Each was a film for adults. We can never have too many of those.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Ten Worst Movies Of 2012

10. Hitchcock
There’s nothing worse than that sinking feeling you get when, a half hour into a movie, you realize that they aren’t joking. That the embrace of cheap artifice and glib laughs is actually meant to be sincere, and it’s not some sort of elaborate conceptual joke or spoof. Consider me stunned that we were supposed to take this dime-store psychology approach to Alfred Hitchcock seriously, give or take a few laughs, usually at the expense of how gay Anthony Perkins is. Even the jowly, dubious makeup on Anthony Hopkins is a misfire, as he delivers all his lines by quite obviously arching his back, growling and bearing his teeth, which further emphasizes a poor impersonation as substitute for performance. That may be a fitting metaphor for this howlingly-obvious attempt to plumb Hitchcock’s psyche during the making of “Psycho,” which boils down to the fact that he didn’t appreciate his wife (Helen Mirren, animal wig), letting her stray into the hands of an oily writer (Danny Huston, always awful). “Hitchcock” is tone-deaf, a tacky disaster with nary a single solid performance or clever line, and zero insight into the actual making of “Psycho,” which no longer seems like the work of an artist at the top of his game, but according to “Hitchcock” was more or less a self-directed accident.
9. Red Dawn
The bulk of “Red Dawn” feels overly conceptual, like an avant-guarde filmmaker attempting to boil an action movie down to its very essence. The problem is that “Red Dawn” is the debut of skilled second-unit action director Dan Bradley, who previously concerned himself with bodies in motion, cars, cranes, planes and trains. And Bradley reveals his notable shortcomings not only by shooting the action incomprehensibly, assuming sound and fury will do all the work, but he’s a non-starter when the momentum slows – poor guy just isn’t used to dealing with people. As such, this overtly racist narrative falters on its own when we’re forced to care for the characters, particularly braindead Josh Peck, who looks like he’s just filling the screen until someone more exciting comes along. Credit Bradley for an audacious passage-of-time montage that conveys absolutely no sense of time passing, however: as the Wolverines head to the woods to learn self-defense and weapon skills, it could be days, weeks or even months in which these Central Casting teens (complete with blacks and Hispanics, quietly pushed to the back of the group) train to fight the villainous interlopers. Who seem Chinese, but are actually North Korean. With help from Russia. Or something. Whatever.
8. This Is Forty
7. People Like Us
I want to say this has nothing to do with race, but that would be a lot easier if these films had less-definitive titles, like “Insufferable L.A. Couple” or “Terrible Dickhead Has Lame Secret.” But since they insisted on being inclusive, I can only recognize how exclusive they really are. The former, the worst of Judd Apatow’s “joints” thus far, uses our familiarity with Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s semi-unhappy couple (and it’s not a strong familiarity for most of us) to skip the usual Apatow-esque charming-screwup introductions, landing us right in the middle of a series of yelling matches between shrill, obnoxious Mann and spineless, apathetic Rudd. It’s the sort of movie that someone only makes when they’re rich with fuck-you money, when they expect you to see a fluctuating mortgage onscreen and assume that the solution isn’t to eliminate spending freely, but to tighten up their diets, which involves tossing perfectly good food into the garbage instead of taking it to a shelter or perhaps even a less-fortunate loved one (does anyone think Lena Dunham’s record company employee is paying her rent with any ease?). More importantly, several of Apatow’s ringers aren’t here to improv their way out of here: for a supposed comedy legend, Apatow’s fourth directorial effort simply isn’t funny in the least, attempting to wiggle out of poorly-written corners with some Charleyne Yi schtick, or bumbling Jason Segel gag, or even some roundabout discussion of “Lost” that gives absolutely no insight as to why the show is popular and/or hated (though John Lithgow’s furrowed brow accidentally speaks volumes).
From those terrible assholes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci comes “People Like Us,” which is meant to be their atonement for penning “Transformers” and “Star Trek” variants all over Hollywood. Here, the duo reveal their knowledge of real people comes exclusively from movies, with insufferable Chris Pine as a rich boy who inherits a large sum from his dead father, but who can’t bring himself to tell his secretly estranged sister. Of course, he’ll still introduce himself, non-romantically entering her life under the aegis of just being some friendly stranger that only exists in movies. Poor Elizabeth Banks, who has to perform this hoodwinked character with every shred of her dignity – there may be no better actress stuck in worse movies right now. I made a crack on Twitter about how co-star Mark Duplass probably hung out on set bragging about using the budget to make twenty movies exactly like this, and just as crummy, and he went after me. Telling that he expected me and him to be able to join forces in an “indie brotherhood” of sorts; this is the sort of movie that assholes make in their off-hours.
6. Battleship
It takes a lot of guts to go full retard as Peter Berg did with “Battleship,” a honest-to-God adaptation of the board game that I still can’t believe exists. This naval warfare movie, which wouldn’t even leave the pitch meeting as a joke on “The Critic,” suggests that a little bit of military might goes a long way, even for such a screwup as tail-chasing Taylor Kitsch, still infatuated with the general’s daughter even after ending up falling ass-backwards into the Naval Academy. It’s snobs vs. slobs on the high seas for a while, until aliens land, getting pissy when we decide to strike the first blow. What follows is CGI nonsense of the highest order, with absolutely no point of view, no perspective, and no thrills. The aliens are completely indistinct characters with opaque motivations, and our heroes are vengeance-driven jerks out to measure their dicks instead of save the world. The first half manages to hit some candy-colored sweet spot as far as incompetent, grisly sci-fi action, showing that Berg, for all his blank machismo, knows what he’s doing behind the camera. But soon the plot gets bogged down in logistics and MacGuffin-chasing, leaving poor Taylor Kitsch to yell coordinates at other soldiers (including Rihanna, because of course) in a large scale version of the game. If you’re going to be that ridiculous (ending the film with “Fortunate Son”!), maybe you should have had the balls to have SOMEONE say “You sank my Battleship.”
5. The Campaign
How do you screw this up? The new media marketplace seems to suggest that funny people be funny all the time – it’s not enough to do some amusing movies, you have to also provide yuks on YouTube, Twitter, television specials, and cameos in other peoples’ movies. So, I suppose, there’s a built-in excuse for why Funny Or Die regulars Will Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis didn’t even bring their D-game to this attempt at shooting fish in a barrel. Despite being separated by Democrat and Republican party lines, there’s not much that distinguishes Ferrell’s brassy lout from Galifianakis’ dimwit rube politically, which pushes all the “smart stuff” to the side in favor of these two goofballs openly mocking and thrashing at each other, while the Motch brothers (a toothless parody of the Koch’s) pull the strings from the sidelines. “The Campaign” is one of the few comedies that would benefit from a PG-13 rating instead of an R, as most of the gags seem to hinge on a not-particularly-well-timed “F” word, the film employing vulgarity as a crutch to the point where it’s just boring. And being released in the midst of a ludicrous election cycle which saw several candidates make a mockery of the Republican party, it couldn’t even measure up to what we were seeing on our television every night.
4. This Means War
Distinctly desperate-to-please and succeeding in absolutely zero ways, the stupefying failure “This Means War” tries to be something for everyone, not understanding how exactly it’s insulting each specific demographic. By trying to be female friendly with a lady “player” at its center (Reese Witherspoon, lost), it only makes her oblivious to the fact that she’s actually a pawn in a dick-measuring contest. By trying to be an action picture, there’s very little combat, with villain Til Schwieger only emerging as a threat in the last ten minutes. As a workplace comedy, it looks as if CIA agents Chris Pine (obnoxious) and Tom Hardy (uncomfortable) work inside a goddamned IPod and do almost nothing all day. As a slapstick comedy, it’s impossible to note that, in both of them pursuing this woman, they’re using sitcom techniques (oh no, the sprinklers!) in an absolutely absurd abuse of taxpayer money. As a romance, it turns its lead female into an object to be “won” by two jerks who lie to her, with the assumption that audiences will root for her to end up with one of them despite Pine and Hardy having more chemistry with each other. But if this were a Target commercial, I suppose it would be alright.
3. Act Of Valor
The best thing about “Act Of Valor” is that it’s really only a few degrees removed from a parody. Maybe it’s the heroes with devoted wives at home, descending onto a terrorist’s yacht populated by supermodels in bikinis, who literally vanish when bullets start flying – do they evaporate? Perhaps it’s the terrorists, members of Al Queda, working with Mexican drug cartels, with ties to the Russian mafia, who probably tried but couldn’t also get the Yakuza involved as well. Or maybe it’s the horrifying supposed-to-be-awesome visual of a couple of “bad guys” turning a corner, only to be greeted with a relentless hail of gunfire, the type of brute force that separates our state-of-the-art heroes from the peasants with shotguns they’re literally dismantling. “Act Of Valor” isn’t a movie, it’s a showreel: for the military, for the War on Terror, and for the directing team the Bandito Brothers, who must have flipped a coin to determine whether they’d make “Act Of Valor” or shoot hardcore porn.  
2. American Animal
Writer-director-star Matt D’Elia is the one-man wrecking crew behind this, one of the year’s most defiantly obnoxious pictures of the year, a towering tribute to egotism which D’Elia would likely argue was “beside the point.” In this claustrophobic comedy/drama/torture chamber, D’Elia plays a rich young man who inherited a fortune and has spent it staying inside his roomy two-floor studio apartment, doing whatever he pleases under the auspice of “puttin’ on the ritz.” Each moment is an opportunity for him to perform to a nonexistent audience, via costumes, “funny” voices and absurd proclamations, regardless of how anyone reacts. The assumption is that this has finally reached a head when similarly wealthy roommate Brendan Fletcher announces he’s got a job that starts the next day, prompting D’Elia’s newfound aggression and antagonism. Except that Fletcher’s performance suggests that he did not forsee this: the film’s attitude seems to be that D’Elia is the world’s most obnoxious man all the time, but Fletcher’s dialogue and actions make it appear as if D’Elia’s behavior is some sort of out-of-the-blue surprise. Which makes perfect sense, given that “American Animal” is a beyond-intolerable performance film dedicated to seeing D’Elia romp around in his underwear, tell jokes without punchlines, and generally act like a foul wart of a human being, logic be damned. The saddest part of it all is that three other actors had to witness this bullshit in person.
1. The Hunger Games
Absolutely dunderheaded in every way, Gary Ross’ disastrous adaption of the YA novel pussyfoots around literalizing the horrors of violence at the heart of the story, which is weird because everything else feels so obvious and spelled-out as to become redundant. Each scene in “The Hunger Games” slogs forward with almost no purpose, few with any payoff, as characters vacillate between extremes – Haymitch is an unclean, drunken jerk who is also sometimes a super ninja, and excellent at politics! Meanwhile, Ross’ world-building falters immensely, as he fails to show how life in the Districts is any different from a CMT music video, nevermind how impoverished representative Katniss (a too-old Jennifer Lawrence) doesn’t even bat an eyelid at the improbable food spread in front of her once she volunteers for the Games. The cities themselves seem populated only by fashion rejects from a Lady Gaga concert, all CGI in the background while we’re stuck inside endless marble rooms to witness the pathetic politics of the game play out, particularly within the unconvincing romance between Katniss and dwarfy camouflage-master Peeta. Oh, and let’s pick your favorite minority character: is it the black fashion designer who boosts Katniss’ confidence and fits her for a terribly-unconvincing CGI fire dress? Is it the black little girl who breaks the rules of the competition to save Katniss for almost no reason whatsoever, paying for her kindness with her life? Or maybe it’s the male black teenager who vows not to harm Katniss because of the kindness the girl showed towards her, only to quickly meet death himself? Man, black people sure love Katniss Everdeen.