Wednesday, December 18, 2013

La residencia (or The House That Screamed): Quasi-Lesbian Fascist Hijinks

This entry comes to you courtesy of Final Girl's December Film Club. Viva Ponder! Spoilers for the whole movie.

Yesterday I was given the opportunity to watch La residencia, a slice of late-60s Spanish-produced horror that has exerted considerable influence on the genre despite its cult status. The film is excellent, calling on antecedents from earlier in the decade such as The Innocents and Psycho; it is a delicate (if not soapier) depiction of the madness that germinates in isolated, sexually repressed minds. Its brutality is minimal but perversely poetic, and although its unconventional structure owes a debt to Hitchcock's earlier masterpiece, writer-director Narciso Ibanez Serrador's invocation of Fascist imagery and methodology gives his work a critical charge all its own. Produced and released during the twilight hours of Francisco Franco's dictatorship, Serrador's flirtation with strategically deployed nipples and incestuous kissing speaks to the crumbling of Spain's heavy cultural censorship, a product of an authoritarian environment quite like La residencia's titular boarding school. The moral is universal, though: save for its noticeably vintage fashions, La residencia is atemporal, and thanks to its spirited English dub and multicultural cast, the movie, although it takes place in France, could ostensibly be staged anywhere.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The 2013 Horror Digest, Part 3: The Killer Inside Me

I was really busy this week and I only wrote four entries instead of the typical five. I'm sure you are all beside yourselves about it. If you're curious, the omitted film was World War Z, which is probably my favorite blockbuster of the year. Who would have thought?

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane will probably be remembered more for its nightmarish release history than its content, a seven-year cautionary tale that catches Bob Weinstein in one of his more tone-deaf moments. Unshackled from the horror trends of 2006, a year glutted with remakes, sequels, and cheap torture flicks, Mandy Lane was cursed with a negative box office prognosis and bounced from studio to studio until the Weinsteins inexplicably purchased it again in 2013. That the film went on to double its budget in a limited international release may be a result of this sensationalized hype, but wouldn't it be nice if we could shelve the drama and give credit where credit is due? Mandy Lane, directed by the same Jonathan Levine behind this year's Warm Bodies, is a stylish and intelligent teen slasher sensibly rooted in the insecurities of its youthful cast. Mandy Lane (Amber Heard, better here than ever) is a stunning high schooler routinely hounded by boys, one of whom dies trying to impress her. Her enigmatic charm tarnished, she becomes something of a recluse, breaking out of her shell only long enough to attend a remote countryside party with a few acquaintances. As horror dictates, most of these teenagers are raging assholes, but Mandy Lane is sensitive enough not to fully place the blame on them. Their maladaptive behavior is instead shown as an extension of their self-hatred, manifested through body image issues and challenged masculinity; the film at large is a treatise on the corruptive influence of sexuality, and how complex the lives of the young grow when conscious attraction is introduced to them. Levine's emphasis on failed flirtation and body-shaming creates an embarrassed, uncomfortable atmosphere, one that the film only escapes during the moments where the gang forgets their sexual agendas and just has fun. The script is pitched a bit feverishly so as to facilitate the horror elements, which has led to reviews decrying its generic nature, most of them ignorant of the fact that this is a genre film and thus created in service of the aforementioned elements. It would be a different story if the ideas were stale (which they're not, as few teen horrors have such capably explored empathy for their victims) or if the execution was botched (which it wasn't - the movie looks gorgeous and the kills are solid). In their defense, Mandy Lane's greatest failing is that it can't fully reconcile the medium and the message, most noticeable in its clever but wobbly ending. Levine more than acquits himself with excellent craftsmanship, a talented cast, and the best damn soundtrack I've heard from the genre in years. Where else are you going to get a spread like Peaches, Beethoven, "Sister Golden Hair," and this lovely Bobby Vinton cut? Cool in 2006, cool in 2013. B+

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The 2013 Horror Digest, Part 2: Beasties/Boys

Berberian Sound Studio

Since horror is so dependent on culturally recursive imagery, often scaring us with things that we know we'll be scared of, it proves itself a fertile ground for namechecking, parody, and homage. None of these intrigue me more than the giallo homage. Despite the fact that Italy's wackiest subgenre is characterized by arrhythmic narrative structure, unpredictable editing, and shot after non-sequitur shot, films attempting to pay their dues to such a singular cinematic phenomenon often employ these techniques too academically. Berberian Sound Studio, arriving three years after staid but enjoyable Amer or Dario Argento's God-awful Giallo, mostly manages to avoid this. Toby Jones plays a sensitive introvert who, having only designed sound for nature documentaries, finds that his new overseas gig producing gory sound effects for an Italian horror movie exacts a high emotional and mental toll. This movie has no aspirations toward true giallodom, instead borrowing giallo's delightfully squishy sound design (what do you think that produce is for?) and baroque low-key lighting to grant style to a mostly conventional narrative. Berberian Sound Studio is a far cry from generic shock horror, though, instead a sinister character piece as portrayed masterfully by Jones and facilitated through a series of increasingly oppressive interpersonal encounters. The problems set in during the final fifteen minutes, when the house of cards finally collapses and our protagonist finds himself in a set of alien circumstances that do little to illuminate what we've already seen of him. Far from the Berberian Sound Studio that wet its hands playing in the blood of giallos past, the ending swings wide and fails both in the typical and atypical realms the rest of the movie bounces between. It has its own intrigue if you're into random things (see also The Lords of Salem), but thrust like a knife into a carefully written screenplay, it makes sadly little sense.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Friday the 13th of Friday the 13ths

Friday the 13th has a well-earned reputation as one of the most venerable horror franchises in history, but despite its formidable box-office success, its entries were mostly derided by critics and treated as slasher movie junk food. That junk-foodiness is so much of the appeal, though: this is a series of incredibly low density, even less than contemporaries Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street. They are intellectually disengaged, basally pleasing movies, providing all of the notorious bottom-of-the-barrel thrills that the genre trafficks in. They're always short, always ridiculous, and typically entertaining on at least one level, with some really unfortunate exceptions. Ascending from "fucking dreadful":

Jason Goes to Hell (1993)

This is how Jason Goes to Hell makes me feel. It is pure profiteering garbage, a desperate bid from New Line to wring a few more dollars from Friday the 13th's corpse after acquiring it from Paramount. Not a drop of passion or talent went into crafting this cheap, muddy, incomprehensible mess, a movie that is often so poorly lit that you can't even see who's getting killed or how Jason's doing it. Aside from one technically impressive but overlong scene of a face randomly melting, this is 100% skippable. The theme song is hilarious, though, a sure sign of Harry Manfredini's complete disinterest in the franchise:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The David Cronenberg Sinister Beauty Parade

David Cronenberg films are led by men almost universally, but nearly every one of them features at least one compelling female role as well. Often these roles are enhanced by his eye for women who are darkly alluring, polished surfaces that give way to warped thoughts (much like the movies themselves). A few I've noticed lately:

Lynn Lowry, Shivers: The prototype, if you will; a blueprint for a newborn artist. Lovingly filmed right in the middle of an expository dialogue about "a parasite that's a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will hopefully turn the world into one beautiful, mindless orgy." Lowry is a commanding presence in a movie that often finds its time divided amongst a bloated cast, but her lilting, eerie final monologue puts her above and beyond the rest.

Genevieve Bujold, Dead Ringers: Probably a top 5 performance for Cronenberg's oeuvre, Bujold's turn as an over-the-hill actress with a Master's in sexual depravity is both perverted enough to enliven the obsessive, sociopathic Mantle twins (Jeremy Irons, also top 5), and human enough to challenge them. Her face and voice and body leave her unable to deny this intense dysfunctional connection, no matter what words come out of her mouth. 

Judy Davis, Naked Lunch: Small picture, but you get the idea. For a while in the early 90s, Judy Davis was the go-to gal for auteurs looking to cast a cold, vastly intelligent woman. Naked Lunch is convoluted and sort of exhausting, but Cronenberg at least has his gift for prosthetics to give visual life to an inscrutable story, and the good sense to frame it autobiographically by dragging elements of crazy-ass William S. Burroughs' life into the narrative. Davis, despite a limited role, serves as both the catalyst for Peter Weller's delusion and his singular erotic obsession, the remaining vestige of an increasingly foreign life left behind.

Sarah Gadon, A Dangerous Method + Cosmopolis + Maps to the Stars: Cronenberg's newest muse and the only woman with whom he has collaborated repeatedly, Sarah Gadon's conventional beauty exudes more than a fair share of menace. There's an air of inaccessible power to her, something that both Cronenberg (frigid heiress in Cosmopolis, Hollywood matriarch of old in Maps to the Stars) and his son Brandon (Antiviral's celebrity to end all celebrities) have employed with considerable results in the last few years. Her career is young yet, but she's an intelligent woman with excellent taste in auteurs, so the prognosis for a rich filmography is promising.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Trouble With Harry

At the peak of his popularity in the mid-2000s, Harry Knowles was making $700,000 a year through his self-proclaimed film nerd sanctuary Ain't it Cool News. No critic from now until the end of time will dream of collecting that sort of cash ever again. This astronomical success is, much more than any virtues of his own, a testament to the inestimable value of being in the right place at the right time. When Knowles founded Ain't it Cool in 1996, there was simply no competition; not even fellow early tech adopter Roger Ebert had the same magnitude of online presence that The King of Filmgeekdom commanded. Studios trembled in his shadow - a Knowles pan spelled certain devastation for a film, and his word is credited with the financial failure of such classics as Batman and Robin and Rollerball.

Here's the rub, though: Harry Knowles is a sexist manchild who, even at the height of his powers, was only able to generate dialogue amongst readers half his age. His "films are awesome!" credo holds its own valuable optimistic appeal, but in Knowles' case the awesomeness of a film is generally correlated to how much the studio heads kiss his ass at the junket before he watches it. Everyone's gotta start somewhere, and I believe that people of dubious principle can mature with time and reflection. But what happens when you don't develop? What happens when those studios you once cowed grow savvy to how easily bought you are, how derelict your journalistic integrity is? What happens if you've been writing the same crass, nonsensical bullshit for the last seventeen years of your life? Feast upon this juicy morsel from his Blade 2 review, all the while remembering that this is how an actual person felt about Blade 2 (NSFW!):

Friday, August 30, 2013

The 2013 Horror Digest, Part 1: I'd Sell My Soul for a Good Opening Weekend

I don't know if you guys have noticed, but 2013 has been pretty good to horror so far! At least to its box office - the quality of this year's offerings have been a mixed platter, typical of any studio slate, but the real revelation is the genre's renewed, almost instantaneous bankability. The Conjuring had one of the highest opening weekends for an R-rated film of all time; the only other R-rated horror film to make so much money so quickly was Paranormal Activity 3. The Purge multiplied its budget by thirty. Evil Dead nearly broke $100 million. And those are just the R-rated flicks alone - World War Z took in major bank overseas, for instance. Mama did well, Dark Skies did well, Warm Bodies did well even though it shouldn't have. Maybe my 2011/2012 prognostications about the future of adult horror were preemptive, or maybe there's been some kind of worldwide attitudinal shift that's gotten mainstream audiences so interested in all this depravity. Could it be a growing notion that our world is falling apart?

There's been a noticeable preoccupation with economic decay in many of the movies released this year, almost certainly a reflection of our nation's dire straits. This isn't a new trend to film, cropping up as early as Great Depression musicals in order to pair common audience anxieties with a gleeful, utopian worldview. To see these fears interlaced with the horror genre, however, is particularly exceptional. Three of the films below deal with financial crises, at least in passing, and the other two feature protagonists overcoming major drug addictions. The prevalence of such heavy subject matter in a genre with few escapist tendencies is strange, but as with any regularly employed cultural trend, its incorporation is livened or worsened by the skill of its creative team. The movies below, for the most part, depict these issues thoughtfully enough to merit their inclusion. Except for Evil Dead. Fuck that shit.

Antiviral [Netflix]

You would have to be a lunatic to desire fame in the 21st century. Paparazzi may seem intrusive enough as it is, but images of an otherwise average person going about her routine don't cut it anymore. Social technologies like Twitter have entitled millions of people to a feeling of constant connectivity to their idols; such an increased degree of exposure is a double-edged sword, because now any teenage shitheel can anonymously slander or threaten you whenever his shriveled heart desires. The Internet has left us all living in public, but to many, the life of a celebrity is hardly a life at all. Antiviral ups the ante on these already sad circumstances by depicting a near future where celebrity culture is the only kind of culture, a world in which the ultimate expression of adoration is paying hand-over-fist to be injected with the viruses of these beautiful people. These "celebrities" don't even sing or act, simply serving as proprietary pathogenic vessels for corporations to make money off the unwitting. Huckster Syd March (Caleb Landry-Jones of X-Men First Class, deliciously cold) peddles these germs for the omnipotent Lucas Clinic, but unsurprisingly the big guys aren't paying their workers too much in times like these, so occasionally he'll steal viruses and sell them on the black market. Unfortunately, Syd never accounted for this society's insidious idea of copyright protection, and so begins his great adventure. Brandon Cronenberg, inspired by an offhand remark in a Sarah Michelle Gellar interview, has created a world in the image of his father's work that is populated by obsessions entirely his own. This fame-forged dystopia is brimming with hardship, but its citizens are too doped up on entertainment to understand what a hard life entails except by relating to celebrity "Ordeals," manufactured traumas like having a camera zoom up your rectum (broadcast on the news as, of course, the Aria Noble Anus Ordeal). Beautifully shot and conceived, Antiviral nonetheless betrays its director's inexperienced hand, as the clever concepts and shifts in understanding are occasionally explained more closely than they need to be. Nonetheless, Cronenberg delivers a portrait of manic devotion that is not only contemporary (Miley, One Direction, Lady Gaga, et al.), but indicative of a society suffering a much greater structural disease than any one human might carry. B+

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Elysium, Technocracy, and a Curious Case of "Heavy-Handedness"

Minor spoilers follow.

Elysium, the sophomore effort of South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp, continues a tradition of socially conscious action film established by his previous critical darling District 9. Moving away from D9's apartheid allegory into questions of class and privilege in the year 2154, Blomkamp can't be faulted for his ambition: how many blockbuster filmmakers are this invested in delivering a product with a substantial message? Most critics haven't seen it so reasonably, and although the response to the film has been one of lukewarm enthusiasm, many of its champions qualify it as well-made action (and it really is!) that is "hazy" and "on-the-nose" while detractors write it off as having a substantial base for an insubstantial result, as if one of the goals of an action film should not be to provide action. There's a vocal dissatisfaction with the movie's supposed unsubtlety in mirroring the American healthcare system, which is perhaps a result of critics' zeal to prove their understanding, but the multiple subterranean issues of technological superiority that inform the whole movie are completely ignored. Without understanding the face of a world shaped by technology's ubiquitous hand, Elysium might seem "hazy" or "blank," but Blomkamp demonstrates a sophisticated (if unevenly expressed) understanding of the forces that guide our economic and cultural development in an increasingly unstable time.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fear is Fascinating: Clock Tower and the Gnarled Evolution of Survival Horror

A work of horror art most always calls upon a collection of familiar, archetypal anxieties, sculpted into worst-case scenarios with sinister faces. Cabin in the Woods says it best when it labels its retinue of monsters as "remnant of the Old World," all of them nightmare visions continually filtered through the collective conscious. The ingredients remain the same; the alchemy is volatile, subordinate to the aesthetic and cultural trends of the time, the artist's command of his or her subject, and perhaps most critically, the medium in which it is presented. Video games have had an exceptionally difficult time nailing down the formula for a variety of reasons that only seems to multiply as their technology develops.

Horror in gaming is often described as "survival horror" because, well, it falls on You the Player to survive. Easier said than done when the games of this genre deliberately leave you understocked and unprepared for whatever threats are waiting to bury you. Combat and restorative items are either nonexistent or in short supply, an emphasis is placed on spatial awareness and puzzle solving, and danger lurks unrepentant at every turn. These design principles can be found in games as early as the NES's 1989 Sweet Home, a tale of madness and infanticide Nintendo found too gruesome for their delicate American players, and were popularized by Capcom's 1996 Playstation hit Resident Evil. The problem is that the ludic cornerstones of the genre - deprivation, helplessness, resource conservation - run counter to what a vast majority of contemporary gamers now find satisfying in their virtual experience, and as such survival horror has significantly dwindled in popularity. There have been a few attempts to resurrect it, such as breakout hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but recent entries in old-guard franchises Resident Evil and Silent Hill have been met with disdain or disinterest.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sharknado and Pacific Rim: 21st Century Living for Monsters

Sharknado, SyFy's newest media Hail Mary, premiered on Thursday to squarely average ratings and a deluge of Twitter lurkers desperate for attention. I've already touched on the caveats of intentional camp programming, and this soulless nonsense doesn't deserve many more words than that. Bad movies are typically funny if they're unexpected and unintentional; when you have studios like The Asylum churning out mirror-image screenplays differentiated only by beastie, the thrill of discovery is gone. All you're watching is a movie that has successfully managed to be bad, a workmanlike mimicry of incompetence that begs for ridicule at every turn. Laugh at the man cutting an airborne shark in half with a chainsaw! Mock the newscaster's awkward voice! Groan at "We're gonna need a bigger chopper," just to show your friends that you understand the reference! Sharknado and its ilk are films forged in pure cynicism, the antithesis of what makes a work of art into camp.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Top of the Lake: A Devil's Heart

Top of the Lake is a mystery, in case you couldn't tell by that picture of Elisabeth Moss peering at some foul secret or something through the trees. Not that "mystery" tells us much anymore about narrative art, since any plot line by nature must have some mysterious elements in order to keep it compelling, but typically we associate it with a crime, suspects, motives, alibis...the whole collection of modular pieces that suit the needs of its storyteller's message. All of these elements are necessarily in service to unraveling or shading the central mystery, though a skilled craftsman can distract from this mechanical approach. Jane Campion's deft creative hand guarantees that Top of the Lake – equal parts rape-murder riddle, gender polemic, socioeconomic dissection, and character study – wobbles only minimally, despite the wealth of content on hand. A densely plotted six-hour miniseries brings outstanding attention to its swerves in storytelling, especially when they're as portentous as a bottle labeled “ROOFIES” or as inexplicable as a character being pardoned almost immediately for stabbing someone in a bar. Though consistently compelling, Top of the Lake is also noticeably sloppy, which ultimately diminishes the genre framework that Campion chooses to work in.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Deadly Premonition, Mass Effect 3, Bioshock Infinite: Three Choices, No Choice?

Bioshock Infinite, Ken Levine's newest stab at bringing some life to the AAA gaming landscape, has spent the last month enjoying impressive critical and public acclaim. As a game, it is a machine as well-oiled as you could hope to ask for, a first-person shooter etched from thoughtful gun combat and a Vigor system that complements it stylistically and ludically in equal portions. There has been some streamlining, but we're in a gaming climate that streamlines as a matter of course, especially by a franchise's third iteration. Narratively, Infinite hosts a plague of discontents, ameliorated partially by the game's insistence on exploring them through the story's subtext. To simplify drastically, Levine claims through Infinite that narrative video gaming will always be subject to a series of technological restrictions. It's a wonderful idea for a game to grapple with, but it doesn't always work out. Leigh Alexander has done an excellent job at delineating some of the friction that Infinite encounters as a narrative-based game, but some of her arguments are predicated on the notion that the original Bioshock unified narrative and gameplay seamlessly. It is unrealistic to expect every act of brutality in a game of this genre to maintain a sense of commodified mortality; for all that atmosphere and all those piquant Objectivist flourishes and all the hullabaloo about “Would you kindly?”, the first iteration is still a game where you mow down underwater zombies in the hundreds. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Egress from the Winter 2013 Graveyard, or Finally Some Interesting Movies Come Out

Spring Breakers
Try as you might to disassociate yourself from the parts of Spring Breakers that have already entered our cultural consciousness - Disney bikini ass boobs murder gun fellatio piano James Franco??? - there's really not much else to the movie, so you kind of have to accept its lack of substance out of the gate. It is almost totally repetitive, probably a deliberate decision when you take Harmony Korine's enfant terrible status into consideration, but there's a method to this droning madness. Korine's subjects are four girls who flee college toward this soulless liturgy of party-party-party-party-party, under the pretense of "finding themselves" and "changing their boring lives." That this is achieved through scene after scene of constant drinking and carnage, all set to a Skrillex soundtrack, is a fairly transparent irony. But Spring Breakers has a sneaky streak, realized primarily through the fates of these young women. These supposed heroines are delinquents in training, securing their travel funds by robbing a Chicken Shack with sick ferocity. They knowingly exert seductive power over local crime lord/hip-hop demicelebrity Alien, played by James Franco with a degree of conviction that suggests actual interest in this project. And if Franco is involved and intrigued, you can only imagine what kind of raunchy, dopey, entry-level Social Welfare 101 nonsense this unholy alliance will birth. He and his cohort stumble through a series of bizarre events, all linked by the connective tissue of booze and tits on the beach of St. Petersburg and all ending in totally unexpected ways. When the end finally arrives, seemingly half an hour too late, he and the girls splinter from each other in unexpected ways in a climax designed for neither a vindictive nor a sympathetic audience. Selves are found, lives are changed, but these inevitabilities are livened by the details. Harmony Korine's message may be somewhat obvious, but his delivery is not, and the thumping machine that is Spring Breakers chugs on regardless of what anyone thinks of or expects from it. B-

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ni no Kuni: lemme get those digits

The JRPG is a troubled genre in a wild and unpredictable medium. Not one generation ago, the PlayStation 2 was host to everything from obscure one-shots (Ephemeral Fantasia, Tsugunai: Atonement) to celebrated series (Suikoden, Final Fantasy) and just about everything in between. Looking over Sony's RPG offerings for PS3 is a much more dismal enterprise. Most of the notable titles seem to be American-developed actioners with RPG elements, while the Japanese games are uninspired, halfhearted, or DLC packs for Hyperdimension Neptunia. Nearly every new IP released this generation was met with relative indifference, but the franchises have been hit just as hard. Suikoden is MIA, Tales has never been worse than the dismal Graces f, Star Ocean has lost its way completely, and Final Fantasy XIII is Square-Enix's signed confession that they've forgotten what made the series so great.

When Mass Effect 3 came out, I took the successes of the game to mean that the JRPG was obsolete. The genre was born with Dragon Quest to textually represent concepts that were too graphically complicated for the NES's eight bits, but twenty-seven years later we don't exactly have that problem anymore. (On that note, menu-based RPGs are still finding some popularity on handheld devices, which remain partially bound by these limitations.) ME3 revises the systems of its Japanese antecedents with a highly effective show-don't-tell attitude, streamlining combat and character development elegantly. Do you miss combat menus? They're there, but only when you need them to be. Bummed at the presence of skill trees instead of vital statistics? They fulfill very similar functions when you think about it. This quickened approach is in line with what the populace has come to expect from video gaming, but there are few titles that have managed to combine this satisfying sense of speed and immersion with the robust micromanagement that made these games so appealing in the first place. That's the sweet spot Ni no Kuni hits.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

No Kingdom Lasts Forever: Enlightened

This kingdom. This amazing kingdom we have made. This monstrous kingdom. Its castles are magic. They are beautiful. They are built on dreams and iron and greed. They are inorganic and cannot sustain. No kingdom lasts forever. Even this will end. And life and Earth will reign again.

I try to avoid talking about myself when I write these posts, primarily because I'm here to highlight media that catches my attention, not the toiling of a disenfranchised quarter-lifer. Most of you are probably within a year's distance of completing college, one direction or the other, and you already know what our lives are like.

But Enlightened resonates with me. So much of the show's appeal to me is a byproduct of how frankly it addresses some serious issues with our world, on both interpersonal and international levels. For those unfamiliar with Enlightened, which is likely most of you given the show's criminally low viewership, it tells the story of disgraced corporate drone Amy Jellicoe. After a manic breakdown and a revelatory stint in a new-age rehab center, she attempts to enter the world once again, her rage and confusion layered over with a new insurmountable optimism. Goal Number One: overnight reform of her previous employers, rapacious megacorpoation Abaddon. Abaddon, we come to learn, is Evil Capitalism incarnate, destroying the environment and inciting violent civil unrest and producing toxic products with no concerns but for the bottom line. They take delight in crushing the little guys and buy off politicians. Anyone who isn't Amy can infer the tremendous challenge present in realizing this degree of change.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

2013 Oscar Extravaganza - Seth MacFarlane Presents Three Hours of My Most Flamboyant Nightmares

A big question for the cinema this year, presumably ignited here by Andrew O'Hehir, was whether or not it was dead. I say it is not. At this point in our lives, it is likely that our discussion of contemporary film has slowed, yes. This is all part of the simplification of the form: movies are, as capitalism demands, increasingly industrialized and thus visibly homogenized, but that didn't stop studios from releasing some surprisingly satisfying fare. It's just that most of it is juvenile and we aren't juvenile anymore. Between a spate of typically strong indie efforts, as well as numerous underrepresented and mostly unseen genre flicks, this was actually a decent year. Certainly nothing that merits the apocalyptic cries of Internet culture journalists.

Something that does not help this argument is the Oscars. In the last decade they have fallen somewhat out of vogue, their ratings considerable but still falling from previous peaks. They are routinely mocked by just about everyone watching, be they notable pundits and Twitter laymen. Once the most visible accumulation of notable events in the preceding year's film output, the glitziness of the Oscars has never felt less like a way to celebrate movies, but rather the increasingly burgeoning mantle of celebrity culture. Oscar has never been about the films, of course, nor the performances therein. The problem is that even in a year where the categories are relatively strong, the illusion doesn't hold up anymore - the ceremony is often too frothy and hokey and out-of-touch to accurately represent the championing of some Very Serious Drama. At a point in our lives where most of us are probably too grown up to derive much enjoyment from the Academy's three hour barrage of in-jokes and lame skits, it is increasingly up to us to develop our own film culture, which some simply don't have the time to do without the Oscars' guiding hand. No shame in that. I will probably always watch these goddamn things, because I love the formulas and analysis that go into championing a Best Screenplay, Actress, Picture. I just don't place much faith in them, regardless of the quality of their selections.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Maybe give Community a chance to breathe, guys?

Who's missing?

Salvo 1

Salvo 2

Salvo 3

Salvo 4

Look at all of these proclamations of a slow death! Community's season premiere was tonight, and to hear some of the big critical voices tell it, the episode was the first horseman of what would be a disappointingly average season. The once-adoring fanbase, based on 320 AVClub ratings, bid it a similarly dismissive B-. "History 101" was a rough sit sometimes, don't get me wrong, but seeing a sitcom falter to find a new take on necessarily predictable characters is something typical to its fourth season. Parks and Rec did a little; Archer is feeling it right now; 30 Rock sure as hell did, especially in its sixth. Community itself was stretched a bit toward the end of its third season.

Let's not damn the genre, but the medium: nearly every show sustains these hallmarks of decay, especially considering how the very act of running and producing a show is such a volatile task. In a way, avid watchers of the show had primed themselves for a potential disaster right out of the gate. Dan Harmon was gone, Chevy Chase was pissed, and there was little satisfaction when we learned that the premiere would be something as trendy and cheap as a Hunger Games parody episode. When you love something long-running like a television show, you owe it to yourself to be objective about the changes that accumulate around it; losing its distinct auteurial voice and the illusion of interpersonal harmony were two that just didn't register well with most people. Harmon was crucial to the show's vision, and without him the best I was hoping for was a muted (at least relative to Community standards), sweet bowing-out.

This was not muted, nor was it particularly sweet. It was oddly loud and those end-of-the-episode affirmations, powerful if sporadically graceless, fell heavily here. The laughs were there, but minimal. The Hunger Games stuff was dire as expected, and barely had anything to do with The Hunger Games in the first place. The subplots accomplished nothing. Bearing all of this in mind, it's important to remember is that the show's season premieres, as Sepinwall points out in that second article, have never been its strongest episodes. Each season takes such a radically different perceptual tack from the one that precedes it that they need these episodes as a sort of readjustment time. What aired tonight was a public examination of the show's anxieties, an entity fully aware of the impossible space of satisfaction it must fill. Abed's regressions into his own mind, spurred by anxiety or disunity in the real universe, reveal a similarly pitched but entirely artificial multi-camera sitcom. We see the sort of show that Community was always concerned about becoming, a gradual distillation of something much smarter, and its recognition that a sitcom must broaden in order to become more commercially viable should shade the initial flatness as ground to grow upon. There are elements of an arc here, a multileveled examination of the necessity of change - hell, the episode is called History 101, begging for an understanding of the genre's failings - and that's enough for me to not write the season off as some thoughtless back 13 of a dying sitcom.

I understand the desire to take this attitude toward the show; it isn't a particularly flattering one, but it's common to just about everyone. Those who are able to systematically demonstrate why what they once loved isn't good anymore feel they are proving, simultaneously, both their love for the original show and their disdain for the assumed breach of principle that this new and inferior version has brought about. "Kill your idols," in this critical climate, has become a proving ground. Art evolves through criticism, but not through melodramatic proclamations of a show's death upon its first episode of a season.

Harmon is gone but not forgotten. Community still knows this. Let it have its say.

Sneaky July update: Season 4 was essentially a disaster, start to finish. Some cute moments, a few nice ideas, and exactly one big laugh. The rest is poorly-made, exsanguinated comedy flotsam. So you can disregard this entire entreaty, I suppose.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

"You Wanna Suck a Brontosaurus Dick?", or How is American Horror Story Good?

There's a huge difference between horror comedy and horror camp. The names alone should leave this division apparent; it's all a matter of intention. As a positive example of the former category, let's look at Drag Me to Hell, by far the genre's most successful entry in the past few years. It's goofy, but it's also sad and sinister, with a really cruel perspective on karma informing the story. The comedy works because it supports the absurdity of the horror. Horror camp, meanwhile, is often produced as a result of singular horror elements that are not executed well enough but are treated as if they are. Susan Sontag's Notes on Camp delineates the relationship between two oppositional creative impulses in a camp work: "the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice." And as Sontag says, "intending to be campy is [probably] always harmful" - look at the repetitive, tedious deluge of Z-grade failures produced by SyFy, who are content to throw us paint-by-numbers shittiness and have the temerity to pass it off as a good time. Troll 2 is an awesome example of unintentional camp, a prime example of why bad horror movies brought us so joy in the first place and why intentionally bad horror movies are usually just desperate in comparison. It clearly meant something to the people creating it, but their complete lack of talent rendered it "artificial" to anyone watching.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Disappointments of 2012

Not meant to be read, as always, as a "worst of" list.

(The worst movie of the year is Taken 2.)

10) Django Unchained 

Perhaps I'm measuring this by an unfair barometer. Quentin Tarantino is America's premier cinematic provocateur and one of our most vivid auteurial voices, and although this doesn't guarantee quality product, he generally creates something that merits discussion at the very least. Here, though, all I'm seeing is the same old handful of tricks scrawled out over a new historical setting. Anachronistic musical selections, often cribbed from other films? Check. Gleeful ultraviolence? Check, though it feels watery compared to the man's other films - must be that overthick fake blood, gushing lethargically with every gunshot. Like Paul Thomas Anderson with The Master, Tarantino offers us something that demonstrates a continually growing sophistication of theme and tension, but is by design constrained by disheartening adherence to tried-and-true aesthetics and structures. Django Unchained has its share of charms, but their human expressors are Tarantino's least interesting set alongside Death Proof. Kerry Washington's role is utterly pathetic. Leonardo DiCaprio is fun playing against type, but I'm not exactly sure what Tarantino saw in him that demanded his placement in the role, short of that impish grin. Christoph Waltz is reliable if not repetitive in his darkside gentility, Jamie Foxx is good, and Samuel L. Jackson is an especial standout, but Tarantino's dialogue and scenario creation are much less memorable than his self-plagiarism demands. The ideas are there and tantalizing, but it's as if he floundered in finding some way to express them while expressing himself at the same time.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

My Favorite Films of 2012

10) The Raid: Redemption

Roger Ebert gave this movie one star on the basis that it is pandering to a built-in "fanboy audience," appealing to us solely on the basis of our "reptilian complex," and does it all by approximating the critical capacities of people who enjoy the film to those of cats and dogs. Okay, whatever, The Raid: Redemption has a stupid plot. The characters are non-existent. I'm sure it would all have been better if a capable writer had helmed the thing. None of this matters because it is 101 minutes of unflinching martial arts action and it looks awesome. Listen, I will lament the dearth of thematically interesting, character-driven genre films for days, but sometimes you just need to watch a professionally trained martial artist kill two men with a door. There is no shortage of creative material out there with which to stimulate your cerebral neocortex, but hanging razor-sharp action filmmaking - of which there is so little these days! - out to dry because it's not tickling your intellectual fancy is completely absurd. In spite of us plebeians, he managed to find an ideologically challenging action film in Taken 2, which he awarded 200% more stars. ("Not to worry; this is only PG-13-rated hanging upside down and bleeding to death." MOTHERFUCKER NO ONE WENT TO TAKEN 2 FOR PG-13-RATED BLEEDING TO DEATH.) It's never taken a lot of effort to poke holes in Ebert's argumentation, but is this seriously the consistency of critical thought we've come to accept from the most prominent film reviewer in the world? Who watches the watching men?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2013 Review/Ranking Index

Go Now!

Laurence Anyways (A-): Enormous, buoyant, effortlessly expressive depiction of lives lived in many different margins. Meticulous attention to visual detail pays out both humor and heartbreak. Dolan's gift for turning "ordinary" queer narratives into extraordinary visual artifacts grows. Interview frame maybe unnecessary?
Upstream Color (B+): Ravishing technique. Sound design fits delicately balanced compositions like a glove. Evokes immense feelings of loss, depersonalization. Plot less favored by elliptical delivery than Primer. Seimetz excellent, but Carruth lacking as performer.
12 Years a Slave (B+): An embarrassment of riches, divided (perhaps too thinly?) amongst an extremely talented cast. Ejiofor's restraint, physiognomy remarkable. Contrast between beautiful compositions and scenes of stomach-turning brutality is riveting. Pitt's scenes feel like the product of a compromise. 
Antiviral (B+) (review, best of 2013): A huge surprise. Chilling sound, visual design. Landry Jones a delight as reptilian non-hero. One of the sharpest takes on digital-era celebrity/culture that I've ever seen, though a little overexplanatory. Continually expands on its premise in thoughtful ways.
Frances Ha (B+): Greta Gerwig holding it down for Sacramento! Balances optimism and reality without heaviness, right up to its inspiring ending. Loose structure and brief cutaways are appealing. A maturation of the admittedly tired little-artist-big-city story.

Go See It

Like Someone in Love (B+): More Kiarostami car adventures! Set design and mise en scene are aces, expertly laid images that open themselves to clever manipulation. Rich characterizations and performances. Not sure if its rigid intellectual quality is a perfect fit for its notion of love as an unbound force.
Before Midnight (B+): Concept, like marriage, shows signs of age. Edited too gently; Hawke and Delpy's energy is sometimes mismanaged. Still, feels like a vital and insightful contribution to adult cinema, just as its predecessors were.
The Bling Ring (B+): Sofia Coppola's best editing, shooting...probably just her best. Chilling use of light: dollhouse, nightclub, and in jarring passes, harsh reality. Excellent employment of montage. Formal virtues mostly, but don't completely, forgive the thinness of the source material.
The Place Beyond the Pines (B+) (review, best of 2013)
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (B+) (review, best of 2013): Effectively layers horror plot points over teenage insecurities over the implacable challenges that come with newfound sexuality. Fondness for its subjects, or at least the last moments of their innocent youth, enriches an age-old morality tale. A few lazy cuts and camera tricks. Great soundtrack.
You're Next (B+/B): Vinson a final girl for the ages. Excellent set and sound design, though shaky-cam is distracting early on. Otherwise solid script occasionally sacrifices plausibility for narrative flow. Fun, energetic, a little bit irreverent.
Ginger and Rosa (B): A smart little story about being young and impressionable when your world is full of conflicting ideologies. Fanning Minor is dazzling. Unexpected turns into High Drama leave a peculiar aftertaste.
Crystal Fairy (B): Funny, poignant half of director Silva's diptych about alienation and the dissolution of identity in an oppressive foreign setting. Hoffman, Cera and the Silva brothers all excellent. Visual language is confident yet occasionally cryptic. Climactic trip leaves something to be desired.
Computer Chess (B): Delicious period detail. Headiness and respect for audience knowledge is a plus; jargon demystifies when viewed allegorically. Still rhythmically flat, difficult to approach. Its most evocative moments veer wildly out of tone. The Man Who Wasn't There's bookish little brother.
World War Z (B): Surprisingly powerful imagery, especially in close-up and long shot. Impressive sense of geopolitical scope. Good action, despite tame gore. Ruptures in editing and sequel-ready ending, likely results of troubled production history, occasionally frustrate. 
The East (B): Plenty of challenging questions, admirably critical view of self-righteous anarchism. Bracing plotting. Glossy, overthought moments clunk into the question of how entertaining such an anti-corporate movie should be. Too diffuse to have much localized value as a "message movie," but it beats Cloud Atlas at its game.
Berberian Sound Studio (B): As expected, lovely sound design, perhaps the most reverent aspect of this giallo homage. Toby Jones navigates neurosis and emotional malaise masterfully. Ending falls flat, calling on very little of the psychological tension that precedes it.
Elysium (B): Blomkamp reins in the excesses that ultimately scuttled District 9's ambition; never loses sight of its end goal. Richly realized world and military-political systems with contemporary resonance. Damon great as unassuming hero, battered time and again by The Machine. Exciting action, though shaky-cam tires a bit. Plagued by a few storytelling bubbles.
Only God Forgives (B): Hyperviolent, suggestively sexualized power fantasy, staged in a red alien Thailand. Film's treatment of its genre arch and incisive and more than a little bit silly. Does not approach anything resembling humanity or human behavior, leaving the experience feeling like a bad dream.
Blue Jasmine (B): Not a ringing triumph for Allen, but certainly for his cast. Actors dull the sting of heavy parallel characterizations and clumsy cutting to flashbacks. Blanchett essentially creates the film's tone of nauseated melancholy, but Hawkins and Cannavale give it brio. A decent look at classism, but what kind of San Francisco is Ginger surviving in?
From Up on Poppy Hill (B): A sensitive, good-natured tale that keeps its eye on historical context. Conflating the role of fatherhood with the realities of sending men to war, even peripherally, leaves a considerable impact. The music is a bit overbearing.
The Conjuring (B): Rough dialogue patches mostly eclipsed by some committed performers. Communicates far better through light and sound. Suspense builds naturally; balances a surprising number of narrative elements admirably. Fun in the moment, but may not hold up.
Iron Man 3 (B/B-): Eye-popping action, as is Marvel's wont. Maturity of theme and self-exploratory questions regarding decadence and image are necessarily upset by mandated cheesiness for the kids.  Ending feels incomplete. The best iteration of the Iron Man character yet.
The World's End (B-): Messy. Aliens serve Wright's plot less effectively than zombies and maniacs did for him. Good start, as strong a middle as possible with misjudged sci-fi trappings, weak ending. Fun action, game actors, some great jokes.
Byzantium (B-): Involving macabre tone, excellent acting, smart ideas about immortality and creating "time" for yourself. Well-planned use of gender as narrative catalyst. Lumping nearly all the exposition into the second act seriously sways the momentum. Flashbacks within flashbacks, full of names and faces that take a long time to matter. (Byzantium/byzantine?)
Magic Magic (B-): Last five minutes feel unnecessary, poorly judged. Blunt, unusual but engaging performances from Temple and Cera, the latter guiding obnoxiousness into sociopathy with notable skill. Anxiety captured well by claustrophobic spaces. Baghead with production values.
Pacific Rim (B-)
Dark Skies (B-): Insightful hash of contemporary anxieties, given a decent if repetitive genre spin. I always welcome unintentional humor, but the film is competent enough that occasional lame lines and cheesy shots clash with the experience. A fine example of PG-13 horror for teens who can look past the goofy stuff. 
Stoker (B-): Dizzy, unpredictable imagery generates an intriguing dialectic with protagonist and subject matter. Superb craft in service of redundant script. Wasikowska a question mark, though plays a sharp Teresa Wright to Matthew Goode's Joseph Cotten. Love those opening credits.
Spring Breakers (B-)
The Grandmaster (B-): Many virtues, many problems - hard to tell whether the 20 minutes lost in re-editing might remedy the latter. Constant slow motion, instead of romanticizing, eventually exhausts. Bounty of interesting narrative ideas brings attention to their unfulfilled potential. Zhang never fully convinces as a kung-fu legend. Gorgeous cinematography, choreography; earth-shaking fights.
The Hunt (B-): Harrowing, well-acted but sometimes implausibly plotted trial in the court of public outrage. Actions and motivations occasionally don't make sense; Mikkelsen, though quite good, can't always sell creaky characterization. Feels more powerful than it should.
The Call (B-): Slowdowns and freeze-frames a bit gaudy, sort of like a recent Danny Boyle film without the psychedelics. Has its ups and downs as a thriller, but never loses momentum even in the face of silliness. Berry good (!), Breslin unavoidably shrill.
American Hustle (B-): Energy and tone are brisk and delicately balanced at the cost of structured storytelling. Generic con plot doesn't feel worth keeping up with when placed alongside fun morality shifts and character flourishes. Excellent performances, especially Adams.
Trance (B-)
This is the End (B-): Funny, if inevitably masturbatory, dissection of five prominent comic personalities. Some more successful than others - what the fuck was with Hill's character? First half hour best highlights the movie's strengths: analysis of social interplay, culture clash, Hollywood narcissism. Graceless exposition leads to bloated second act.
Gravity (B-): Script succeeds only at hurrying Bullock, viewers from one visually remarkable crisis to the next. Despite being thematically foregrounded, the human elements are slapdash and never seem to matter much. Bullock is dubious and Clooney brings nothing. Tense start, but ultimately unsurprising. Cumulative power does some good in alleviating frustrations.

Go Ahead

Resolution (B-): Complex if heavy-handed metanarrative may deserve a second watch, may also be supported by shaky deductive reasoning from its characters. Plot-pushing "clues" don't always make sense. Good characterization, decent acting. A few striking shots on a microbudget.
Side Effects (B-): Mara compelling despite unimpressive support from the rest of the cast. Good ideas behind the camera, but Soderbergh's balmy golden digital is starting to tire. Themes never land, plot ultimately feels less than the sum of its parts.
Black Rock (C+): Well-acted thriller with a rarely seen emphasis on female camaraderie, despite shortage of actual thrills. Not much to think about or look back on after the story is told. Worth watching, if only because it's so short; lack of substance would be unsustainable over 100+ minutes.
The Lords of Salem (C+): Zombie's technical maturation is clear: film looks good, sounds great, but his writing remains entropic. An okay stab at portraying horror as a local phenomenon, abetted by mass casting of genre icons, that results in zero payoff. Repetitive first hour, senseless final act. Sheri Moon Zombie intriguing but limited.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (C+): Lawrence excellent in this role, as before, but whole film lacks dramatic spark. Scenarios seem contrived to avoid the looming question of "revolution" and its costs; Katniss is rarely asked to make tough choices, seriously contemplate, etc. Already overlong, it ends just when it starts to pick up traction. Costuming has improved.
V/H/S/2 (C+): Overall quality of filmmaking has improved, and is less hostile toward women. Lacks the grungy aesthetic of obsolescence that made the first one so powerful. Frame story ends in flaming disappointment, again.
August: Osage County (C+): I related, possibly too much, to theatrical self-pity as a trait passed through generations. Occasionally funny, but its attempts at emotion are diluted by its incessant need for dramatic overdrive. Hard to appreciate any specific actor when they are all asked to perform at the same wavelength. Flatly filmed.
Closed Circuit (C+): Lusty middlebrow legal thriller; feels uncomfortably like a romantic espionage fantasy for adults who wish their white collar jobs were less boring. Interesting, topical ideas but not much character. Use of high-angle shots gives courtroom scenes an imposing edge. Eric Bana in a barrister's wig is darling.
What Maisie Knew (C+): A mixed bag. Cheesy music, sloppy storytelling leave strong acting and premise hobbled. Skarsgard and young Aprile are MVPs, full of palpable chemistry. Parents, especially Coogan, too caricatured to really bring the ending home.
Dead Man Down (C+): Lots of character, charming if overdetermined symbology. Story is disappointingly unconsidered when placed alongside mood, rhythm. Rapace's best; Farrell sleepwalking, as is sometimes his wont.
Admission (C+): Intriguing thesis about who deserves a top-tier education too often gives way to bad jokes, shaky characterizations. Rudd and Fey warm but lack comic chemistry.
Mama (C+): First hour is both playful and sinister, acted sensibly. Several very strong setups unfortunately bring attention to poorly-realized space and production design. Bad CGI monster in the final act essentially ruins the movie.
Prince Avalanche (C+): David Gordon Green's callback to George Washington lacks most of its strengths: unification of setting and milieu, consistent characterization, impact, consequence. Explosions in the Sky is way too overproduced for natural quietude. Vividly pretty, at least. 
Beautiful Creatures (C+): Likeable leads given realistic dialogue with personality. An 100% superior alternative to Twilight for a teen. Questionable use of Viola Davis; plot offers interesting issues of morality, too bogged down in mythic window dressing.
Carrie (C+/C): Moretz not horrible, but usually kind of obvious, paling in comparison to Sissy Spacek. Side characters hardly contribute anything. Prom's bombast too overworked, not sinister enough, a desperate bid at creating a memorable ending setpiece rather than an expression of Carrie's anguish. Well-made but empty.
The To-Do List (C): Flabby editing sabotages a talented cast's comic timing. Conflicts are half-baked and joke setups heavily telegraphed, but both are just effective enough to warrant watching. Smart, inclusive sex-positive message. Much flaunted period setting doesn't really add a lot.
Prisoners (C): You get what you pay for with Deakins. But the symbol-heavy, repetitive, cryptic screenplay betrays his handsome setups. Calls upon many kidnapping film antecedents without bringing much of its own character. Acting starts and remains top-notch.
Furious 6 (C): Overextended between way too many characters. Plot is rooted in all of the uninteresting parts of the Fast/Furious canon. Car stunts slackening a bit but martial arts cover for them. Becomes suddenly and violently weird at times, often to amusing effect.
Lovelace (C): Not much complexity. Vibrant colors/music, high energy are fun for a while. Film's supposed disinterest in titillation/exploitation stands in contrast with the small period of Lovelace's life examined; doesn't cut deep enough either way. Smoothed-out portrayal of subject, in middling biopic tradition. Seyfried's decent, despite dodgy accent.
Maniac (C): Looks good; POV gimmick is sloppy but works sometimes. Wood, badly cast, tries his hardest. Cheap pop psychology is a disappointing substitute for the grimy randomness of the original. Unrealistic setpieces and victim behavior.

Go Away

Nebraska (C): Dern excellent, naturally. The rest just feels so maudlin. Obtrusive music, glossy landscapes wear down quickly by force of constant repetition. Forte is not expressive enough for this role. Warm moments that never cohere into a worthwhile whole.
Man of Steel (C): Wondrous pyrotechnics stimulate as planned, but quickly grow tiresome. Exhausting pace, coupled with lousy dialogue in the movie's few quieter moments, guarantees an early checkout. Hand to hand combat looks sluggish when augmented with CGI stunts. Toothless. 
Dracula 3D (C): Decent by the standards of Dario Argento's twilight hours, but by no others. Simultaneously fun and depressing to watch him debase himself so thoroughly. Cheapness highlighted by abysmal direction. Some of the images might have been striking in more competent hands.
Room 237 (C): Film nerd porn, and pretty shameless too if that's your thing. Individual interpretations all fall flat, supported by flimsy evidence and confounded by lack of context. Lack of compelling or complicating imagery fails to produce a point of view. Overall effect of the doc capably teases out The Shining's alien nature, though.
Much Ado About Nothing (C): Whedon's actors have their charms, but Shakespeareans they are not. Acker is inconsistent, Denisof straight bad; together they are void of chemistry. Awkward staging and blocking leaves most players standing around uncomfortably, unsure what to do with their hands. A few lively scenes, but mostly indistinct.
To the Wonder (C) (review, 2013 disappointments)
Kiss of the Damned (C): Well-shot and lit but lacking atmosphere. Milo Ventimiglia cannot carry a movie. Soundtrack works double-time to vitalize drama, which cheapens the handful of musical sequences that are actually quite good. A 70s vampire throwback was a great idea but this just doesn't get there.
Passion (C): de Palma's situation eerily similar to Argento's: relegated to cheaply-filmed Europudding trash that few people see and fewer people like. Ludicrous musical nods to Hitchcock, inconsistent lighting, smutty lesbian depravity betray any pretensions of artistic merit. Still hits its mark occasionally, mostly thanks to McAdams and Rapace.
Disconnect (C): Constant visual emphasis on computer interfaces and chatting is uncinematic. Lifeless, perfunctory dialogue. Use of "hyperlink" structure to connect each story feels heavy-handed. There's a good movie to be made from the idea of technology as a depersonalizing agent, but this isn't it.
Hours (C-): The role as written should not have gone to Walker, though few actors could make their way through such mountains of schmaltz. Screenplay beats creak under the weight of supporting the conceit. Lifeless invocation of Hurricane Katrina. Scenes well-blocked, with an undeniably effective final shot.
Evil Dead (C-) (review, 2013 disappointments): Shockingly stupid characters, bad acting, abysmal plotting. Gore is impressive and over-the-top enough to suggest aspirations of parody, dismissed fully by lack of wit or charm. The prosthetics artists rescued this one from a direct-to-video fate.
Somebody Up There Likes Me (C-): Grating, shopworn quirk mashed indiscriminately into dour misanthropy. Unappealing lead. Characters caught hitting the exact same emotional notes over and over. Occasionally clever wordplay and a few funny shots.
Rush (C-): Terminally dull races with nary an interesting shot to be found. Sound mixed way too loudly, perhaps to overcompensate. Tacked-on ending leaves most of the movie feeling like filler. Fine work by Bruhl. 

Go Fuck Yourself

After Earth (C-): The likely death of Jaden Smith's misinformed acting dream; he resembles a young Hayden Christensen. Some well-staged action scenes, despite regularly cheap special effects. Decent themes, awful plot and dialogue. M. Night Shyamalan has no tonal range except for melodramatic quiet, which works about 10% of the time.
The Great Gatsby (D+): Savaged by bad casting: DiCaprio as a charismatic man of calculated mystery, Maguire as anything resembling an interesting person. What Luhrmann considers "cinematic" stands in direct contrast to the material's worthy qualities. Overactive camera high on gaudy, big-budget spectacle creates a nauseating look.
Warm Bodies (D+): Inconsistent, mostly thoughtless attempt at putting a cute face on a slackening zeitgeist. No meaningful engagement with the genre it mines so shamelessly. Malkovich is terrible in a terrible part. Talented young actors, a few smile-worthy jokes.
The ABCs of Death (D+): Sparse good images and ideas (courtesy of D, L, O, T, X), adrift in a hundred awful ones. Unavoidably hamstrung by a bad conceit. Wide variety of races and cultures is refreshing, though.
The Fifth Estate (D): Just as Assange's letter reckoned: a thinly veiled assassination attempt on subversive action that nonetheless tries to profit from it. "Revolution" is swathed in conditional positivity, good until it compromises the people it's meant to disenfranchise. Narrative aims to discredit noble intent through self-righteousness. Assange, WikiLeaks, et al. painted as singularly damaging by film's end. Short-sighted, profiteering trash.
The Last Days on Mars (D): A horribly written Alien ripoff, mired in science fiction flavors of the month. Senseless lighting and editing choices. Plot bends over backwards trying to accommodate the most banal of storytelling contrivances. Acting proficient but perfunctory.
The Purge (D): An inkling of a good idea, given no deeper thought whatsoever. "Monologue, then unexpected death" trick gets old after the second time. Every member of the family deserves to die for different, equally moronic reasons. Hideous production values.
The Canyons (D): Intentional meaninglessness that, through failures of technique and drama, remains meaningless. Will be remembered en masse as (impressively) lurid pop culture detritus. Deen sometimes in sync with character's darkness; Lohan an uncomfortable, distracting stunt cast.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (F): Ugly, unappealing product, through and through. No joy to be found in lifeless action scenes, bad action-parody joke lifts. Should have been shelved forever.