Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Disappointments of 2013

10) The Canyons 

Blech. This movie is gross and dumb and not fun at all. Paul Schrader owes Stephen Rodrick a fruit basket for that piece in the New York Times. Lindsay Lohan is one of entertainment's most tragic figures, painted in front of hundreds of millions of faces as a child star too weakened by her own vices to function, and Rodrick was wise enough to pour that narrative into a greater piece about failure in the film industry. Schrader, who once wrote with Scorsese, unable to get funding and forced to make micro-budget smut with Lohan and James Deen! It would be easier to feel sympathy for him if he hadn't chosen to film a Bret Easton Ellis script, or if the movie itself wasn't lit like a dive bar and completely lacking in even a single distinctive image. Ellis' script is overwrought hokum, as always, his gallery of drug-addled amoral nudes doing and saying nothing of interest. As for La Lohan herself, it's a bad performance, its marginal trainwreck appeal mostly drowned in mawkish amateurism, but it's fairly low on the list of things wrong with The Canyons. It would probably be easiest to list what's not wrong with it: it has boobs, and Deen's dead sociopath eyes are just right to play his menacing Hollywood wannabe role. And that's it. Any other compliments might cause you to actually watch the film, because admittedly it's quite a curiosity. I would recommend reading Rodrick's article, far more generous to the movie than it deserves, and then never thinking about this sorry black mark on the name of independent cinema again.

9) After Earth

No, I never expected After Earth to be good. I finally put Shyamalan on my shit list after The Last Airbender, a probable Worst Movie of All Time made even more awful because he followed it up with this steaming load of self-delusion. I'm not sure what compelled me to watch this movie, other than irrational sci-fi lust; I'm not a Will Smith fan, I'm definitely not a Jaden Smith fan, and I knew that the two of them would be playing characters named CYPHER and KITAI RAIGE, yet there I sat, learning about ghosting and Nova Prime and watching $130 million slowly burn before my eyes. Why did Smith Sr. hire Shyamalan, whose inability to convey any tone other than melodramatic quiet let this movie down completely? He's apparently wanted to work with him for years, but Willie apparently hasn't been on IMDB in a while because the director's golden days are clearly behind him. After Earth isn't the execrable, whitewashed nonsense that The Last Airbender was, and its poorly written story actually has a decent father-son dynamic at its core. There are a couple of worthwhile action scenes and the special effects are good about as often as they're not. The brunt of the blame lies with Jaden Smith, an obnoxious young man who has no business in show business and who couldn't have given a good performance if John Cassavetes was directing him. Between his whiny, spit-filled line delivery and his total lack of facial control, Smith Jr.'s only discernible Hollywood analogue is Hayden Christensen, whose career consisted of five or six sub-par performances in annoying roles before it faded away. If Will had any good sense, he would gently remove Jaden from his preordained role in the Pinkett-Smith Media Empire v2.0 and enroll him in a non-Scientology school before he really humiliates himself.

8) Prisoners

It's always nice to see Roger Deakins get a little recognition for his consistently excellent work. Remember that time Skyfall lost Best Cinematography to Life of Pi, a movie that was 80% green screen? Give the poor bastard an Oscar already! This beautiful nonsense netted Deakins his 11th nomination, well-deserved but kind of a throwaway because a) Gravity had that shit in the bag and b) Prisoners is doomed for obscurity, a bloated diminuendo of a thriller that will only be remembered in the context of film's attempt to assert its dominance over television by becoming really long and expensive. It has a promising start, but writer Aaron Guzikowski's idea of plotting is simply to add a bunch of plot twists and then embellish each of those plot twists with a ton of symbols and use the symbols to springboard into new plot twists until he's written a film that is convoluted to the point of implausibility. Over 150 minutes, Guzikowski and Denis Villeneuve wander so far away from the film's initial concern, a question of suspending morality in the service of defending one's family, that the reveal of the kidnapper feels way too hard-fought for how utterly irrelevant it is. Prisoners might be a decent choice on a rainy day, but I would recommend sticking to all of the other movies that it rips off: Se7en, Zodiac, Silence of the Lambs, Mystic River, Mother...

7) Rush

Never has a car film managed to be so loud and so boring at the same time. It actually made me miss Speed Racer. Watch a Fast and Furious movie instead.

6) Furious 6/Fast and Furious 6/whatever

Just not this one. Furious 6 took the wrong approach after Fast Five, which, for those of you who haven't yet experienced it (and please do, because it is a really good movie), ends with the protagonists committing a brazen act of theft so destructive that it ostensibly causes dozens of casualties and billions of dollars in property damage. IT IS NUTS. Watching it happen, and watching the barely-restrained "ohshiiiiit" expressions on our heroes' faces after the fact, you can't help but feel a shift in your attitude toward them. These down-to-earth, family-centric Christians level Rio de Janeiro by attaching a ten-ton bank vault to two cars and dragging it through the city at top speed. It doesn't make any sense, naturally, but it is a breathtaking climax to the film, unfortunately short circuited by the reality of the carnage they wreak. Furious 6, curiously, does not acknowledge this heist at all. In fact, The Rock actually offers them amnesty for their past crimes if they agree to help him with one...last...job. No! These people have so much blood on their hands! I can accept cars flying through the air and inconceivably long tarmacs, but combining them with a rosy view of larcenous mass murderers is a bridge too far. If, for some reason, you're not watching these films as a carefully measured series of moral compasses, Furious 6 still comes up short compared to most of the other Fasts and Furiouses. Even liberated from the pesky shackles of physics, the car stunts demonstrate a serious case of diminishing returns, as there's only so many ways for metal and plastic to drive past or into other metal and plastic before it starts to lose significance. 6 is also unexpectedly and unfortunately plot heavy, perhaps because of its status as an "inbetwequel," and since the antagonist has to make our newly tarnished heroes look good by comparison, Luke Evans' character and performance coast past menace straight into embarrassing bombast. The martial arts are surprisingly good, mainly thanks to Gina Carano, and there are a few swerves into unintentional comedic weirdness that give the film some character, also thanks to Gina Carano. (She is an amazing fighter, but her acting choices are out of this world.) Otherwise, Furious 6's excesses can't stave off the creep of franchise decay, rendering this entry in one of our most diverse and exciting blockbuster properties awfully tone deaf.

5) The To-Do List

The big problem with The To-Do List isn't its cast, despite Aubrey Plaza's disappointingly average performance. It isn't the script, mostly lame with a few cute laughs and a hearteningly sex-positive message. It is the editing, through which Paul Frank savages the contributions of a game, talented cast. Jokes and reaction shots are often lingered on for crucial seconds too long, sucking the air out of the comic timing (which needs all the air it can get) and giving the film a lurching quality that is exacerbated by Plaza's typically droll presence. Not every comedy needs to have a quick pace or rapid-fire line delivery, but those qualities might have gone a long way in glossing over Maggie Carey's inconsistent characterizations, namely Ultimate Virgin Brandy Klark, a straight-A student whose good ideas include asking her librarian what a rim job is and eating poop out of a public pool. Mediocre material can be elevated by a harmonized cast, but because the rhythms of each scene are so uneven, the interactions never feel natural. The To-Do List is also hampered by its placement in the 90s, which does nearly nothing to enrich the film and instead reads as a crass ploy to cash on millennial nostalgia. Carey acts as if the decade is itself the punchline, haplessly deploying Macintosh Classics and "Two Princes" and Scrunchies as if there's something inherently funny about seeing or hearing things that were popular twenty years ago. Her incorporation of women's lib gives the movie a little more meat, as Klark's quest for sexual freedom is set around the same time as third-wave feminism took form, but even that is given a few throwaway lines and never explored again. Plaza has some good work under her belt already, so her weak performance in this weak movie isn't the end of the world; nonetheless, no cumming-of-age comedy starring one of Hollywood's most sardonic young wits should ever have felt so tame.

4) Passion

Whoa. This cost thirty million dollars. It looks like it was shot on an iPhone. There's a tiny chance its ugly digital filming is intentional, because Passion is tangentially about innovation and the smart phone industry, but I'm more inclined to believe that Brian de Palma is on the Dario Argento track: both artists long past their prime, desperately throwing techniques and images that worked for them in the past at the wall without really comprehending why they worked. Consider the split screen, used to provocative effect in de Palma's films as early as Sisters, here slapped across the climax of Passion without any discernible purpose. One side of the screen is a performance of Afternoon of a Faun, the other a four-character stalking that flits in and out of an apartment building while failing to generate any suspense at all. Split screen is a striking technique that immediately invites its viewer to determine why it is necessary, but its use here hardly means anything worthwhile. There's no relationship between the ballet and the characters, unless you want to extrapolate your brains out and suggest that it's meant to delineate the choreography of humans in pursuit of one another. Most likely it is just simple contrast, a quiet night out at the ballet juxtaposed with a violent confrontation. This scene, as with most others in Passion, proves that de Palma's pretense far outreaches his execution, and although his talented actresses try to salvage what they can, this remake of 2010's Love Crime is unexceptional lesbian pulp dressed up like an art film that isn't actually artistic. Mistaken identity, psychosexual depravity, the disintegration of memory - de Palma's done it all before, twice as well, on nicer cameras, and without his regular composer Pino Donaggio shamelessly riffing on Bernard Herrmann in the process. Joyless nonsense.

3) To the Wonder

I'm a pretty huge Terrence Malick fanboy. Badlands is riveting; Days of Heaven a warm dream; The Tree of Life, the most transformative moviegoing experience I've ever had. To the Wonder is gorgeous, as if it could be anything else, but it simply doesn't have the focus or resonance that Malick's other films have. Javier Bardem and his pious ruminations on the state of humanity are totally adrift, Rachel McAdams shows up for ten minutes only to disappear, and Olga Kurylenko twirls a lot and licks water off of trees like an idiot. Actors in his films rarely have any idea about the story they are participating in, or even if they will be in the finished product, and the scattershot approach he takes to editing and sequencing has never been more apparent. The images rarely cohere with the narrative, which is of paramount importance in a Malick film since they communicate so much more than the dialogue or narration, and most of the human figures here are bereft of expression. Ben Affleck certainly comes off the worst: never an actor known for his expressiveness (or, well, any kind of performative talent), he has no recourse but to hide his face from the light and hope Malick does the heavy lifting for him. There's no chemistry between him and Kurylenko, which makes the supposed dissolution of their marriage ring false, and Kurylenko's mumbled French voiceovers pondering "what is this love that loves us?" can't stoke a flame that's barely there. Malick apparently has three movies in post-production that are slated for release this year, news that would have thrilled me in 2012 but which now gives me pause. Perhaps, at the age of 70, he's realized that he doesn't have much time left to create art, but if these three films are anything like To the Wonder, then he should consider consolidating and focusing his efforts into a fully realized project like his earlier masterpieces.

2) Evil Dead

I try not to watch trailers exactly because of movies like Evil Dead, marketed by a reel of their few highlights savvily enough to mask their deficiencies. Horror remakes are very rarely good, so I'm not sure why I let myself be fooled by all that nasty makeup and juicy prosthetics work. Those elements are at least strong enough to get you through the movie, if you're a real gorehound, but Fede Alvarez can't match them on a single other level. His writing is the worst offender, even after a Diablo Cody treatment, because it's way too serious to mimic Sam Raimi's patented horror-comedy style and yet its attempts at sinister obscenity are outright laughable. His direction is fair but with a surprising bent toward sloppiness, most egregious during a basement brawl in the film's final half hour. Unable to shoot a decent action scene in such a small space, Alvarez decides it is satisfactory to intercut closeups of Evil Dead Lady's flailing face with shots of her victim inexplicably being thrown into walls. Is she suddenly telekinetic? Many of Evil Dead's scenes treat violence in this superficially brutal manner, explicit in its depictions of rent flesh and severed limbs but too afraid to commit to the visceral nature of these injuries for longer than a second or two. Alvarez claims that the film was given an NC-17 upon its first submission to the MPAA, and I imagine the resultant cuts have a lot to do with securing a wide R-rated release for the film, but after acclimating to what the makeup artists are capable of the violence starts to feel unusually tame. Just because you can afford to put 70,000 gallons of fake blood in your movie doesn't mean it belongs there!

1) Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon's greatest gift as a director and showrunner is the ability to solicit unexpected, complex performances from actors that few others would ever give a chance. His exceptional eye for casting idiosyncratic roles has launched countless careers. Taking on Shakespeare, whose words have been tirelessly analyzed and reinterpreted for over five centuries, reads outwardly as an ambitious personal challenge; how will Whedon and his troupe fare when the words aren't his own? Instead of mounting a conventionally middle-budget production of Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon instead adapted and shot the play quick'n'cheap as a sort of catharsis after completing The Avengers, a creative impulse that I can't fault him for but also one that does quite a disservice to The Bard. Using his own Santa Monica home was the first misstep, as its pleasantly furnished suburbia-plus charms are ill-suited to the needs of the players. Quite often they find themselves looming around one another at arbitrary distances, blocked in unappealing medium-close shots and unsure of what to do with their hands. Casting his friends was another, and watching a majority of them struggle to bring any deeper meaning or personality to their roles is a stark reminder that Whedon's benevolence as a writer didn't necessarily prepare them for Shakespeare. Amy Acker, as Beatrice, is passably charming, though her affect is way too airy for the venom she spits at Alexis Denisof's Benedick to have any impact. Denisof is a wash through and through, offering flat buffoonery and little else. Nathan Fillion comes out looking great as Dogberry and Sean Maher's John successfully evokes cold, sinister calculation, but nearly every other performance is either forgettable or shallow. Finally, aside from a lovely party scene in the first act of the film, Much Ado About Nothing lacks any visual or directorial distinction, as if Whedon thought it would be enough to simply point the camera at the actors and let them go to town. It might be unsporting to be so critical of a film that was shot in twelve days, but Joss should know best of all the value of observant casting, and Much Ado About Nothing's complete lack of it is its death knell.

Other crap

Man of Steel: I hope whoever put together the trailer for this made bank, because that was the best this movie ever got. Loud, garish, insubstantial pap that nonetheless looks awesome, except for the sluggish hand-to-hand combat. Anyone not named Michael Shannon badly delivers bad dialogue. The sooner the world can finally come to the realization that Superman sucks, the better.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Low dramatic stakes, and it ends just when it's beginning to get juicy. Katniss felt almost irrelevant. I guess it's all setup for Mockingjay, when all of this brouhaha about revolution will apparently come to pass, but I had a tough time separating this movie from the culture the series decries.

Gravity: Not for me. Film is a visual medium, of course, and I'm a sucker for a big pretty blowout. Beyond the cinematographic spectacle, I was left cold for a variety of reasons: Bullock's so-so performance, the absurdly over-the-top score, uninteresting characterizations, and an overall aesthetic failure to make space scary for the reasons the movie claims it's scary (aside from the enormously tense first act). Its popularity and success are understandable, even encouraging, but I needed some other kind of substance.

Room 237: It really made me want to watch The Shining again, so there's that. It also introduced me to this delightful ridiculousness, which I hope to read in full someday if it isn't a trap to steal souls and put them in phylacteries. Other than that, Room 237 barely approaches the depth and craftsmanship of Kubrick's film, offering no point of view of its own other than a wobbly feint at the end about how unbalanced these people might be for - gasp! - deeply analyzing a film. Not that most of the analysis is particularly deep, primarily focused on minute visual details and expanded out through increasingly tangential evidence. But conflating cinephilia with mental illness, especially when director Rodney Ascher offers no other context for his subjects' lives, is troubling.

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