Compliance

Craig Zobel’s Compliance starts with a title card that blares BASED ON A TRUE STORY. This is necessary, because without it, most viewers would dismiss the plot out of hand. No way did actual people with jobs and car keys do these horrible things to a girl because a voice on a phone told them to, a voice that turns out to belong to some random perv. But they did, and what Compliance does is take you, step by agonizing step, through the process, until it all feels horribly plausible. But if it were simply a modern replay of the Milgram experiment, the movie wouldn’t merit much more than a shrug: really good performances (especially by Anne Dowd as Sandra), an appropriately sweaty look, but… so what? People are willing to do awful things if an authority figure tells them to. Film at Eleven. Compliance goes a crucial step further, evoking the social and economic conditions that make such absurd abuses even easier. Zobel fills the movie with lurd close-ups of the dirty asphalt, flickering fluorescence, and piles of discarded packaging that defines the fast food environment. The dialogue is littered with subtle but undeniable references to just how tenuous everyone’s employment is, and how much employees and managers in the service industry relies on a tightly regimented, bureaucratic structure that doesn’t allow for independent decision-making. As soon as “Officer Daniels” invokes the name of the regional manager, Chickwich manager Sandra is putty in his hands. The final reveal of Officer Daniels’ real job brings home just how corrosive the need to live for the fleeting happiness of the disinterested horde can be.

“You’re going to have to be a good actor.” That’s what Sandra says to her 19 year old employee Becky to get her to allow an impromptu strip search, the first of a series of increasingly horrible humiliations. And that’s what working in the service industry boils down to, doesn’t it? Acting. Slapping a rictus grin on your face, hiding every personal thought and feeling, conveying the sense to a parade of strangers that their desires are the most important thing in your life, the service industry is the most potent alienation factory since the Fordian assembly line. Alienating you from others, because of both of you know that the face you’re presenting is a job requirement, and alienating you from yourself because one of the central tenets of retail management is to give individual employees as little responsibility and decision-making ability as possible. The ideal service industry worker simultaneously cedes control of her exterior to the whims of the customer and her mind to corporate headquarters. The Customer is Always Right, Your Boss is Always Rights and, in a worst case scenario, the Police are Always Right.

 

Man, I’m not liking ANYTHING lately…

Killing Them Softly

Yes, the shoehorned ‘commentary’ on the 2008 financial crisis is cheap and distracting, but c’mon! We’re talking five minutes of screen time, max! The rest of the film is a tersely directed, awesomely grubby bit of pulp awesomeness, courtesy of the great 70s crime writer George V. Higgins. The dialogue and performances are gritty and down-to-earth (James Gandolfini plays the least glamorous hitman in film history), but some of the killings are highly stylized. It’s jarring, but also effective. The effect is to make the deaths of two-bit criminal dipshits oddly poignant.

The Loneliest Planet

There are some people, film critics mostly, who find the image of silent figures trudging across a mundane landscape thrillingly cinematic. I am not one of them. This movie is a character study of non-existent characters, which has one (interesting) idea, but does little with it beyond obsessively collecting details that don’t accumulate into anything even mildly interesting.

Life of Pi

This is essentially “Castaway” with with a different banal spiritual message. Some (but not nearly enough) of the 3D imagery is striking, but for the most part, Ang Lee find a new technology with which to bore the audience into oblivion.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Exactly as interminable as everyone says. The High Frame Rate somewhat less distracting as everyone says (close-ups and wide angle shots are mostly fine: medium shots with lots of movement look jarringly soap opera-y). The film’s problems extend well beyond Peter Jackson’s notorious inability to edit himself. There are, by my count, three separate possible protagonists; Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield. In any high-adventure film, that’s two too many. And none of these characters, not to mention any of the six hundred other dwarfs and wizards in the mix, have any real personality traits beyond their immediate motivation. The only really memorable scenes are the escape from the Goblin King (although that eventually wears out its welcome, thanks to an over-reliance on long distance shots and a resemblance to the ending of “Temple of Doom”) and Bilbo’s riddle-duel with Gollum. That’s the only moment of genuine emotional resonance in nearly three hours of marching and elfin committee meetings. I wonder how Jackson plans on resolving the action sequences in the rest of the series, because he’s already used up all the deux ex machina resolutions he could plausibly employ in one movie. 

Holy Motors

There’s a scene in the wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat in which Jake “The Snake” Roberts, recounting his glory days on the circuit, talks about becoming bored with having sex with groupies (“ring rats” in the parlance). He eventually needed to up the ante, staging three ways, four ways and orgies just to get the same thrill he used to get from a one night stand in Des Moines with a Denny’s waitress.

That phenomenon is the best explanation I can think of for rapturous critical response to Holy Motors. Most film critics have seen the same tired formulas played out again and again, the same story beats, the same themes and conflicts, the same ‘audacious’ set pieces, the same snappy dialogue, the same quirky eccentricity. As such, NOVELTY becomes the one thing they most prize in a movie. Please, they subconsciously plea as the opening credits roll on the latest, just give me something I haven’t seen before! On that score, Holy Motors delivers. But to me, claims that the film has emotional power or narrative energy or even visual splendor seem beamed in from another dimension. The allegorical content isn’t particularly novel or interesting, and the central conceit (it’s another goddamn movie about making movies!) guarantees that the emotions are all kept at arms length. Not to mention the glacial pace or the blunt fact that it’s dingy and visually uninteresting (except for those crazy get-ups, of course!). It’s certainly different, though, and after watching the boy meet the girl for the umpteenth time, that’s probably enough.

Lincoln

There’s an easy critique to make of Lincoln. It’s the latest in a long line of popular retellings of the Civil War that puts white men at the center of the narrative, marginalizing the very people who fought and died for the recognition of their own humanity. It’s more pernicious endorsement of the Great Man theory of history and all its attendant, authoritarian implications. This is an easy critique because it’s essentially correct. If someone condemns Lincoln because they are too distractingly annoyed by this, I completely understand, and there’s really no arguing with that reaction.

But I think rejecting Lincoln for this reason is like hating Back to the Future because time travel is impossible. If you have any interest in seeing a Steven Spielberg movie about the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, you have to accept the premise that it’s going to focus on Abraham Lincoln. Spielberg is one of the greatest screen stylists in history, but he is a deeply conventional in his thinking. He has the imagination of a white suburban baby boomer who grew up wholly enamored of America’s civic mythology, where figures like Abraham Lincoln (like the citizen soldiers of the Second World War) loom like gods. It’s Lincoln that he feels a kinship, who he can project himself into. Asking him to tell the stories of slaves or ex-slaves when there’s mythic, world-historic, brilliant, soulful Father Abraham just standing there waiting to have a definitive screen portrayal is like asking him to make a torture porn movie. To paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, you go to the theater with the Spielberg you have.

So if you accept that you’re going to see a lot of “Lincoln” in Lincoln, and that the film’s focus on the passage of the 13th Amendment by the House of Representatives in early 1865 also means a focus on shouty white guys with beards, the question becomes: does it succeed within the framework of its constraints? On a technical level, Lincoln is an all-around triumph. Spielberg’s direction and John Williams’ score are both uncharacteristically restrained. There are a few moments where the urge to overemphasize gets the better of them, but these wince-worthy swells of string are blessedly few and far between. For the most part, Spielberg lets Tony Kushner’s superb script and the powerhouse performances speak for themselves. And speak they do, with thunder. Daniel Day-Lewis gives what it probably the greatest performance of his career as Lincoln, bringing forth layer after layer of depth to a character who is usually thought of as a marble god of Republican virtue. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is folksy, warm, tormented, erudite, scheming, rage-filled, dismissive and cold. He is, in short, human. Sally Field has fewer registers to play, since she is mostly confined to venting her grief at her husband, but her Mary Todd Lincoln still manages to rise above a caricature of Victorian feminine hysteria. Even the minor parts are filled with excellent character actors. Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes are brilliant choices because they’re the kind of actors who only really look credible in 19th Century garb. They look like they stepped out of a daguerreotype. But James Spader, who plays the leader of their band of political bagmen, is one of the most contemporary-looking dudes around, and he seamlessly transforms into a Victorian political roustabout with the help of a few fine waistcoats and a bitchin’ handlebar mustaches. The standout in this stellar field of supporting characters, though, is Tommy Lee Jones as Republican congressional firebrand Thaddeus Stevens.

The focus on Stevens is more than just an excuse for Tommy Lee Jones to give a masterclass in epic curmudgeondom. Thaddeus Stevens, whose views on racial equality were as radical as any man in congress, spent nearly a hundred years after the war being vilified by ‘respected’ historians as a frothing maniac and would-be tyrant. Now, he’s basically the only white American of the period who could show his face in polite society today. He’s essentially the audience surrogate, the only white guy in this sea of white guys with a modern racial sensibility. Stevens’ conflicts with Lincoln illustrate Lincoln’s mastery of compromise and political maneuvering, but also, subtly, the president’s essential racism. Spielberg and Kushner don’t focus on disillusioning viewers who may still think of Lincoln as the embodiment of racial progress, but they don’t shy away from it. It’s part of their greater project: to contextualize Lincoln, for good and ill. Abraham Lincoln was a man of his time, but what we see, again and again, as he takes huge political risks and bears the unfathomable burden of the war’s horrifying and ever-mounting body count, is a man of good faith attempting to transcend his time. It’s an admirable and inspiring attempt, but it’s not altogether successful, and the century of race terrorism and economic deprivation that the slaves and children of slaves freed by the 13th Amendment is grimly suggested by the pervasive, casual racism of many of the secondary characters, a racism shared, on some level, by Lincoln himself.

That’s where Day-Lewis’ genius performance makes its most indelible mark: by suggesting both Lincoln’s profound ambivalence on the question of black rights and also his ceaseless, earnestly questing mind. It’s not a hagiography, no matter what the trailers look like. It’s an honest, thoughtful attempt to crack open the granite Rushmore image of the “Great Emancipator,”to see the rumpled, heartsick and ceaselessly earnest man underneath. 

Regardless of craftsmanship, though, Lincoln is really, really problematic from the standpoint of offering a truthful, insightful history of abolition. The 13th Amendment, while important, was really the codification of a process of emancipation that had been going on in the Confederacy since Ft. Sumter, a process driven by the slaves themselves, who abandoned their fields and took up arms and basically refused to allow slavery to continue in areas where Federal troops held sway. No government on earth had the power to place those people back into bondage even if they’d wanted to. And yet…

I loved Lincoln, and there are plenty of technical reasons to justify that love, but in reality, that love is tied inextricably to my Civil War nerd youth, who was horrified by slavery and saw the war to end it in near-religious terms. The mileage of any other viewer, especially someone who is sick to death of seeing our collective American history filtered through a Well Meaning White Male lens, may vary significantly.

The Bay

Barry Levinson’s stab at the found footage horror genre is notable for the way it challenges two of the genre’s most persistent and annoying conceits. First, the idea that, no matter what horrors the characters witness and what kind of danger they find themselves in, they will NEVER STOP FILMING. Second, and more important from an epistemological standpoint, the notion that a single camera, wielded by a single character, is going to somehow capture every aspect of a given horror phenomenon for the benefit of the audience. The Bay is a curated collection of footage from a myriad of sources, put together by a young journalism intern who witnesses the overnight decimation of a small town in coastal Maryland. News cameras, police car dashboard cams, security cameras, skype calls, are knitted together to tell the story. It’s a novel and welcome approach, and the film’s mixture of stark body horror and environmental critique is effective and bracing. The weakness of the premise is the lack of a real protagonist, and a plot that peters out without the sort of high-octane goose that ends most horror films. Even if you’re sick of found footage horror movies, there are still plenty of reasons to check out The Bay.

Skyfall

I think I’m over Daniel Craig’s “tortured” Bond. I mean, I was already over it in Quantum of Solace, but that movie had so many problems besides the Bond characterization that it was easy to forget in the interim. “Skyfall” takes the inner anguish of Bond and brings it even more to the foreground. Bond may have finally gotten over the death of Vesper Lynn in Casino Royale, but he’s still marked by the founding trauma of his parent’s death. So, like most action heroes in the post-Nolan era, Bond has been turned into Bruce Wayne, complete with a dusty, haunted Wayne Manor (the titular “Skyfall”). It’s all very grave and absolutely overloaded with thematic references to obsolescence and memory and the crumbling Empire. Very Sam Mendes, who, wouldn’t you know it, directs. The seriousness is so overbearing that even the Bondian repartee lacks fizz, but Mendes at least knows how to engagingly direct an action sequence, which he has all over Quantum director Marc Forster. But competent action scenes, along with a gloriously loopy Javier Bardem as the villain, are pretty much the only reasons to watch, unless you enjoy James Bond working through his mommy issues (Judi Dench gets a workout as both plot device and symbolic maternal figure).  There is one group of people who should definitely watch Skyfall, though: any women thinking about sleeping with James Bond. If you have sex with Bond, you’ll have the life-expectancy of the slutty girl in a slasher movie. And he won’t even really knock himself out trying to save you!

The Complacency of the Zombie Aficianado

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcwTxRuq-uk&feature=youtu.be

So the first trailer for World War Z came out, and there was much gnashing of teeth among the nerderaty.

Fans of Max Brooks’ book (I’ve read it three times and will probably read it again) have been complaining for months about the fact that the movie abandons the film’s retrospective, post-apocalyptic conceit in favor of the classic “one man’s race against time to stop the end of the world” concept. Now, I’ve actually never minded that particular betrayal of the source material. As much as I love World War Z and would love to see a faithful screen adaptation, there’s simply no way to turn the book into a conventional three act drama. J. Micheal Straczynski’s relatively faithful first draft of the screenplay is available on the internet for any dork to read. This particular dork read it and was pretty underwhelmed. Stracynski tries to get around the inherent anti-climax through a flashback-based climax that does not even come close to delivering a conventionally satisfying third act. If you know as soon as the movie starts that a.) civilization nearly collapses, and b.) humankind bands together to repel the zombie menace, there’s no real way to inject drama into the second half of the movie. It might work as a series, but as a 95 minute piece of theatrical entertainment, something has to give.

So I don’t mind that the film version jettisons the conceit of the book. Other, less book-obsessed zombie fans have been bitching about the goofy-loooking CGI “ant zombies” portrayed in the trailer. I’m more on board with this criticism, in that it means that World War Z might end up looking like I Am Legend, another “zombie” movie undermined by crummy special effects. Still, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to F/X. I remember thinking that the Avatar trailer looked like a shitty Sega Dreamcast game, then finding myself blown away by the visual splendor of the movie itself. 

But mostly I’m incredulous at the “meh” reaction this trailer is getting. Folks are rolling their eyes and going “seen it” and fake yawning and acting unimpressed. What the fuck ever. All I know is that the one thing I’ve always wished to see in a zombie movie, that moment when the zombie hordes descend on civilization and tear it to shreds before our eyes, has never before been dramatized on screen, and that the World War Z trailer is chock-fucking-full of that shit. Maybe we’ve all imagined the scenario: we’re shopping at the mall or (per the trailer) stuck in traffic, mired in quotidian ritual, and BOOM! Zombie hordes descend on bovine humanity, punching a hole in the mundane with a decayed fist. That vision, which I, personally, have always longed to see on the big screen, has never been dramatized, thanks to budget constraints and plot concerns. Some internet asshole called the trailer “28 Days Later with the guy from the Chanel commercials.” But 28 Days Later begins AFTER the zombie apocalypse! Just like the vast majority of zombie films, unless they focus (like most of the Romero films) on a small group of people dealing with the first wave, unconnected with the outside world. Are you telling me that you didn’t wish that the Zack Snyder remake of Dawn of the Dead hadn’t abandoned those frenzied first ten minutes in the guts of Armageddon for the sterility of the mall?  If so, go ahead and bitch about the World War Z. For myself, I’m just giddy that I’m finally going to see the destruction of the social fabric by a teaming army of the undead splashed across the big screen. 

I just wish it wasn’t PG-13.

Cloud Atlas

This movie absolutely should not work.

It’s awkward and unbalanced and painfully earnest. The makeup effects are distracting at best, painfully embarrassing at worst. There’s no real attempt to connect the different vignettes on a visual level.  It’s dramatic arc is shaped like Dick Cheney’s EKG. The tone whiplashes from heart-wrenching melodrama to broad slapstick so quickly you’ll pull your back out watching it. There are black slaves in the South Pacific and white people in  yellowface.

Despite all of that, Cloud Atlas is a deeply felt, deeply moving film that drills to the core of the human experience.

In fact, one of the reasons that the unabashed sentiment and dewy-eyed idealism of Cloud Atlas connects is due to the fact that the filmmakers  are so willing to risk eye-rolling and mockery to get their point across. You can tell that the Wachowskis and Tom Twyker really believe in David Mitchell’s book and in the message of interdependence and mutuality. They believe it enough to have Tom Hanks mumble in future-slang when he isn’t doing a terrible Irish accent or wearing giant buck teeth and give their creation over to the snarky, cynical internet hordes, all in the hope that somebody somewhere will look up from their twitter feed long enough to actually feel something.

Moar Quick Hitz

Argo

Argo isn’t “great” by any stretch of the imagination. The grafting of thriller plot and character conventions onto the bones of the actual true story maybe be necessary, but sometimes it’s so obvious as to be distracting. But it’s very entertaining and sturdily made. Ben Affleck is turning into one of the best directors of “adult” movies in Hollywood. Most movies nowadays are geared either towards twelve year old boys or pony-tailed arthouse types. Argo, like The Town and Gone, Baby, Gone is solid, smart and well-executed, and aimed for a middlebrow mass audience that is increasingly ignored by movie studios. Kudos, sir!

Taken 2

It’s not as ferociously propulsive as the first one, but it tries to make up for it more frenetic camera movement and editing. The car chase is better than the first one. Liam Neeson also kills more Albanians in this one (these Albanians are easier to kill than Trade Federation droids). If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’re going to like. 

Quick Hitz

V/H/S

I like anthology movies. They’re inherently uneven, but the upside of that is that, if a particular segment is dire, you don’t have to wait long for the next one, which might be great. Unless every segment is basically the same: poorly shot “found footage” featuring vile and/or boring characters and cheesy special effects. Then they suck. Like this one. Although the first segment, “Amateur Night,” written and directed by the “Radio Silence” collective deserves a better movie to surround it.

Sinister

This is the kind of horror film where the main character, despite being confronted by increasingly spooky stuff happening in their house in the middle of the night, refuses to turn on any goddamn lights. There’s a ceiling for how good this kind of movie can be. There’s some good stuff in Sinister, but the reliance on cheap shocks and the complete lack of narrative tension keeps it from approaching that ceiling. 

Seven Psychopaths

When In Bruges, Martin McDonagh’s feature debut, came out in 2008, it seemed from the trailers to be a refugee from the mid-90s, when Quentin Tarantino ripoffs like Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico littered Blockbuster shelves. Vapid, overly-clever movies about wise-cracking killers, littered with pop culture references and grotesque, casual violence. But In Bruges ended up being a brilliant, bracingly emotional critique and subversion of that whole approach to the crime genre. The trailer for McDonagh’s sophomore effort, Seven Psychopaths, once again hearkened back to the dark days of Immortals and Knockaround Guys. Only this time, the actual movie’s resemblance to Aldi-brand Tarantino is much stronger. It’s pretty funny, and there are tons of great performances, but there’s a gimmicky hollowness at the center of it. Funnily enough, the reason Psychopaths doesn’t work is the same reason Bruges does: Colin Farrell. Farrell’s performance is fine, but his character, a drunken, blocked screenwriter, is a black hole at the center of the movie, whereas the guilt-wracked hitman in Bruges gave the movie moral weight. Psychopaths fancies itself a meta-commentary on film violence, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of penetrating insight. The real heart and soul of the movie is provided by Christopher Walken, who reminds a generation of filmgoers who only see him as a collection of tics and mannerisms that he’s actually a fantastic actor.