Category Archives: Film

Film: Mood Indigo

Michel Gondry deploys his unique visual sensibility with aplomb in Mood Indigo (2013), a colorful and creative romp ultimately undercut by the icky twists of fate in its plot. This surreal, absurdist urban fantasy starts out as a joyous romance, then descends into grimdark bleakness — and while there’s a method to its narrative, the underlying message is clumsy and anti-women.

Wealthy bachelor Colin (Romain Duris) lives in a magical Paris apartment, designing bizarre steampunk inventions and eating the marvelous creations of his lothario chef-stroke-lawyer Nicolas (Omar Sy). The only thing missing from his life is romance, so with the help of Nicolas and his best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh), he heads out to a party to win one: the lively and beautiful Chloe (Audrey Tautou). Transcending his charmless awkwardness, Colin finally wins Chloe’s heart, and their courtship is a feast of outrageous visual humor and left-field eyeball kicks. But shortly after their marriage, Chloe develops a strange respiratory ailment. Her condition, exacerbated by Colin’s carefree financial irresponsibility, slowly bankrupts him and gradually transforms his world into a dystopian nightmare.

Initially the film garners a lot of good will with dazzling effects, unexpected turns, and quirky visual humor. I found Colin annoying and unlikeable, but the sheer absurdity of the world mitigates that and makes his antics watchable. Blending live action with stop motion and other scene-twisting effects, the first half of the movie is winning, especially when Tautou enters the frame to soften Duris’s rough edges. The “biglemoi” dance scene had me grinning from ear to ear.

But once the lovers get married, the downward spiral begins, and if that’s a coincidence, it sure is poor script engineering. I get the sense that outwardly, Gondry is interested in making a barbed satirical point about class:  how the wealthy live in a reality-warping bubble that colors (literally, in this case) their view of the world. Once the money drains away, and they’re down in the shit with the disadvantaged, suddenly the world doesn’t look so rosy. All this would be fine if the message hadn’t been structured around the romance. Colin’s descent is tied inextricably to Chloe, who enters his life, makes him briefly happy, and then ruptures his bank account and gradually drains all the joy out of living. Meanwhile Chick, the film’s other upper-class twit, ultimately meets his downfall when his obsession with a philospher drives his long-suffering girlfriend Alise (Aïssa Maïga) into a murderous rage. If the film is supposed to be criticizing the men, it fumbles that message with icky gender politics, making it appear that if they just hadn’t tied themselves to women everything would have been fine. This is either clumsy, subliminal misogyny, or a deliberately ugly subtext. Either way, it scuttles an otherwise interesting and visually clever film.

Related Posts:

Film: A Most Wanted Man

When I first heard Philip Seymour Hoffman would be starring in a movie adaptation of a John le Carré novel, I got very excited – it seemed about time the paths of these two luminaries should cross. As it turns out, A Most Wanted Man (2014), Hoffman’s last major lead performance, couldn’t be a more appropriate send-off for one of Hollywood’s legendary actors. It’s also a surprisingly good adaptation of one of le Carré’s lesser known late works, coming at the source material from an unexpected angle.

In Hamburg, Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) is a downtrodden German intelligence officer tasked with battling the war on terror. When a young half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg, Bachmann and his team go into action monitoring the illegal arrival. Despite pressure to swoop in an arrest Karpov, Bachmann has a longer game in  mind: he wants to track Karpov’s movements and see what he’s up to. His patience pays off when Karpov recruits an idealistic young lawyer named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) to help him get in touch with a shady British banker, Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). It turns out Karpov has inherited vast sums of laundered Russian mafia money – a circumstance Bachmann decides to spin, methodically, to his advantage in his targeting of a suspected terrorist financier, Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi).

The film was directed by Anton Corbijn, who also helmed The American – a similar film in a similar milieu. But whereas The American seemed more interested in style and visuals, A Most Wanted Man is clearly more focused on performance and plot. The result is a much more satisfying film. It’s rife with le Carré’s trademark themes and elements: intricate plotting, characters torn between idealism and cynicism, understated spy craft, thorny geopolitical conflicts. Andrew Bovell’s script inverted my expectations, though; I seem to recall the novel being more from Tommy Brue’s point of view, but the story has been cleverly retooled to focus on Bachmann’s man-hunt and subsequent maneuverings, and it makes for a more focused and intriguing story.

Or perhaps that’s simply the impact of Hoffman, who delivers an exquisite swan song here, playing classic spy-world stuff: the experienced, disillusioned veteran intelligence officer who knows how to play the game brilliantly, even if he can’t always remember why he’s playing it. Whether subtly flirting with his colleague Irna Frey (Nina Hoss), butting heads with rival Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), or cagily exchanging information with an American CIA officer (Robin Wright), Hoffman is utterly convincing, exuding gravitas. He’s even more impressive at rest or saying nothing, the failures and disappointments of his career – only hinted at in the script – written all over his every nuanced gesture. He doesn’t just play Bachmann, he inhabits him, and it sells the film.

Which doesn’t make it a perfect one, alas. As with The American, I didn’t find much energy to Corbijn’s artistry. The slow, deliberate build-up contributes to the emotional effect, but it’s at the expense of narrative momentum. Then again, it makes the brutal door-slam of a finale all the more powerful, even if the message is strident. Reservations aside, it’s still a very, very good spy film, especially worth watching for Hoffman’s intense, brooding, weighty performance. He will be missed.

Related Posts:

Film: Seconds

On first viewing, years ago, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) made a powerful impression on me. I’ve been wanting to revisit it, and while it didn’t wow me with the same intensity this time around, it’s still a remarkable film: a creepy, slow-building Twilight Zone SFnal mystery and a full-blown assault on the spiritual emptiness of the American Dream.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a taciturn, married banker, both upper-middle aged and upper-middle class, and he should have everything he wants in life. But he’s a tepid man leading a tepid life, and his lot feels hollow, a condition exacerbated by bizarre phone calls from an old friend named Charlie (Murray Hamilton). The problem? Charlie’s dead. He’s also hellbent on luring Arthur into a shady underworld operation that will give him a second chance at true happiness, quite literally remaking Arthur into a new man: Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson).

Shot in stark, eerie black-and-white, Seconds is a quirky, unsettling vision, and its first half is a strange and gripping what-the-hell-is-going-on puzzle. Randolph delivers a masterfully uncomfortable performance as he steps hopelessly through the creepy rat’s maze, manipulated by a ruthless, morally bankrupt corporation into ceding his very identity. The film’s grip weakens somewhat when the transformation is complete, perhaps because it resolves the propulsive surface mystery. The middle stretches, during which “Tony” takes up with an attractive young woman named Nora (Salome Jens) in Malibu as part of his new life, deliver the film into a less pointed, more psychological zone as Tony finds that the makeover didn’t exactly quell his existential crisis. Perhaps deliberately, the film feels more aimless here, but Hudson’s terrific, raw performance as this erratic “new” person feeds nicely into a chilling finale. Definitely a product of its time, Seconds is also ahead of it with its offbeat, dark humor, haunting visuals, and its fierce, relentless critique of vapid American culture.

Related Posts:

Spy 100, #57: The Fourth Protocol

From the last gasp of the Cold War comes The Fourth Protocol (1987), a polished but unexceptional thriller. In the Soviet Union, a well placed Russian agent named Valeri Petrofsky (Pierce Brosnan) is given an assignment so top secret he has to kill the man who delivers his instructions. His mission: go to England, rent a flat near a U.S. Air Force base, and assemble an atomic bomb.  Fortunately for the British, political in-fighting puts one their shrewdest agents, John Preston (Michael Caine), in position to sniff out what’s happening. He’s too insubordinate to win over his pompous superior, but fortunately his more intelligent colleague Sir Nigel Irvine (Ian Richardson) deploys him off the books to stop the threat. Can he counter Petrofsky’s plan? Well, yes, of course he can.

The Fourth Protocol starts promisingly, with effective visual story-telling, twisty spy world politics, and a generally intriguing slow-build. It’s also got a good soundtrack from Lalo Schifrin, whose noticeably unnoticeable music always works well with this kind of material. Alas, the film wears out its welcome.  Much of the early-going is unrelated character set-up, and once the main plot takes center stage, nothing particularly unexpected happens and the action unfolds rather clinically. Caine is in fine form and Brosnan is okay, but otherwise the actors struggle with the stilted dialogue, especially the miscast Russians; Ray McAnally makes for an unconvincing KGB bigwig, and Ned Beatty isn’t much better. The trappings are well handled, and the final twist is classically cynical spy world stuff, but overall it’s a flat, distancing affair.

Related Posts:

Film: Under the Skin

The degree to which you enjoy Under the Skin (2013) will probably depend largely on how much you enjoy experimental, arthouse “what-the-hell-is-going-on-here” movies. Also, you might want to bring a high threshold for being creeped out. Warning: I love this type of thing, and I found it intense, riveting, and rather unsettling.

This film does have a plot, but it’s rather a submerged and inchoate one…it follows a mysterious woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, across the Scottish countryside as she preys on unsuspecting men. What she does to them is deeply disturbing, and speaks to her peculiar condition. But she’s not fully in control of her fate: what she’s doing is a by-product of her nature, and also, perhaps, influenced by the oversight of an equally mysterious biker (Jeremy McWilliams) to whom she’s connected. She seems compelled, or duty-bound, to play her role, but ultimately she goes off the reservation.

Under the Skin is chilling, moody science fiction horror that relies largely on visual story-telling and masterful sound design to create a stark, unforgiving atmosphere. I found it impossible to look away, and not just because of Johansson’s alluring performance. The cinematography is impressive, from the landscapes to the set designs to the utterly unnerving visual effects, and the film quietly lets the action and imagery unravel the film’s mysteries; the dialogue, much of it improvised and heavily accented, is almost incidental. It makes for something of a visual puzzle, then, but it’s enhanced immeasurably by the audio: even the most static, mundane scenes are given tension by the sound and music, leveraged like weapons against the viewer.

As for the narrative itself, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Sometimes the film seems fraught with hidden meanings and metaphors, but in the end, it seems a simple SFnal story, its mechanics rendered mostly explicit. I didn’t actually care to fully decipher it, though, too caught up in its fascinating moments and dazzling techniques. Director Jonathan Glazer has created a cult masterpiece, here, in the offbeat vein of David Lynch or Nicolas Roeg. I loved it.

Related Posts:

Film: Snowpiercer

Miraculously, I managed to stumble into Snowpiercer (2013) with no preconceptions whatsoever. Well, beyond a general sense of positive buzz, that is…so imagine my surprise when I spent the first hour rolling my eyes and glancing at my watch. Then something curious happened: a switch flipped, and the film weirdly redeemed itself. In the end, I still think it’s a bloody awkward mess of a movie, half awful and half good. And yet, in a possibly accidental, unexpected way, it’s also kind of brilliant.

In the future, a climate change experiment goes wrong, plunging the world into a new ice age. Humanity goes extinct with the exception of those who were lucky enough to board the Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually circumnavigates the globe, defiantly serving as a last bastion for the survivors. The train is a closed ecosystem, and within it, a caste system emerges, with the privileged elite in the front and the lower-class waste in the back. It’s a brutally unjust set-up, and one that Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) is determined to overthrow. Using intelligence smuggled back from mysterious allies, he and his team – including his sidekick (Jamie Bell), a woman whose son was stolen from her (Octavia Spencer), a security specialist (Song-Kong Ho) and his daughter (Go Ah-sung) – lead a revolution to rush the front of the train, overthrow the dictatorship, and take over.

Taken literally, of course, the SFnal world-building is preposterous, so the script goes to great lengths to make it absolutely explicit that we are squarely in Metaphor Land: the train is the Earth, the passengers are humanity, yeah we get it. The approach is artless and obvious, a pretentious allegory that makes Elysium look masterfully subtle. Its message-y ambition feels like a sham, draped as it is across a plot that is – at first, anyway – blunt, hopelessly linear, and ultraviolent. The pacing is wildly uneven, and the tone is all over the map, from silly to super-serious and back again. Is this a brutal war epic, a dark comedy, a skiffy adventure, or an arthouse experiment? Perhaps it’s all of them at once, but if so, it doesn’t seem strategic or in-control about it; instead, it seems to be trying ideas randomly and keeping everything, whether it meshes, clashes, or both. By the midpoint, I couldn’t wait for it to end.

But as the party makes it way further and further toward the front of the train, Snowpiercer increasingly embraces its gonzo central concept, and somehow that saves it. With each train car they enter, the visionary metaphors get more outlandish. There’s this weird scene with Alison Pill, who is gleefully terrible as a school teacher brainwashing upper-class children with dogmatic Republican values. I hated the scene, but it kind of turned the film on its ass, escalating The Crazy in a way that serves the vision. The character start to matter, the blunt force trauma of the metaphors stops hurting, and a whole begins to take shape from all the unlikely parts. Even the film’s unsuccessful attempts to reverse engineer its implausible world – explaining the machinations of the train with too-late, sort-of cleverness – suit the kludgy nature of it. Then, as the final confrontation nears, Evans delivers this intense, shattering monologue that kind of aligns everything, Ed Harris turns up to drill home the final message, and it ends with a heartbreaking, breathtakingly beautiful final image.

What an absurd, fascinating mess it is – and that plays right into its ultimate, clunky metaphor, doesn’t it? Like the Earth, like its people, like life, Snowpiercer is at once terrible, awesome, disposable, and essential. Could it be its uneven grasp of craft actually works to the theme? After much consideration, I both loved and hated the film, and I’m very, very glad I saw it.

Related Posts:

Film: They Came Together

The formulaic Hollywood rom-com gets a satirical skewering in They Came Together (2014), an uneven but generally funny affair that leverages an impressive cast of Burning Love, Parks and Recreation, and Saturday Night Live vets. Joel (Paul Rudd) is a corporate drone for a candy company. Molly (Amy Poehler) runs a cute, indie candy store. When Joel’s company targets Molly’s labor of love shop for annihilation…well, you get the idea. They hate each other, they like each other, they hate each other again, then they like each other again. It’s destiny! You know the story.

Michael Showalter and David Wain’s script surrounds its comically no-frills star-crossed lovers with the romantic comedy genre’s every clichéd character, from Joel’s morally bankrupt girlfriend (Cobie Smulders), to his posturing asshole work rival (Michael Ian Black), to Molly’s sassy black girlfriend (Teyonah Parris), and on and on. It’s a genre ripe for parody, and They Came Together eviscerates it with gleeful abandon. At its worst, it’s clumsily on the nose; at its best, it’s, uh, subtly on the nose. And to keep things interesting, it throws in an outrageous gag out of left field every now and then. Definitely not high art, but it’s a great deal of fun, with a huge cast of talented comedy veterans.

Related Posts:

Film – Danger: Diabolik

Now here’s an enjoyable slice of stylized, sixties cheese. Based on an Italian comic, Danger: Diabolik (1968) is an amusingly retro crime caper with a dash of period political commentary. Diabolik (John Phillip Law, who looks pretty sharp in his skin-tight spandex costume) is the James Bond of master criminals. His favorite target is the government; his favorite accomplice is his beautiful girlfriend Eva Kant (Marisa Mell, who looks pretty sharp with her clothes constantly almost falling off). Diabolik and Eva have a science fictional secret lair with a fleet of sports cars, his-and-hers showers, and a rotating bed they bury in stolen money. Diabolik has made such a fool of the police that Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) comes up with a new strategy to rein him in: he turns up the heat on an organized crime kingpin named Ralph Valmont (Adolfi Celi). “It takes a thief to catch a thief,” Ginko says, promising to lay off Valmont if Valmont can deliver Diabolik. Let the heists, chases, and double-crosses begin!

Danger: Diabolik is dated, poorly dubbed, awkwardly paced, sexist, and silly. But it’s a great deal of fun, full of sex symbol eye candy, crazy psychedelic visuals, and groovy Ennio Morricone music. Director Mario Bava recaptures the comic book feel nicely, and while the trappings are largely wish-fulfillment fantasy, there’s an intriguing countercultural vibe to them – the greedy, indulgent antiheroes are also gleefully dismantling capitalism, after all. Of course, you could remove the plot entirely and it would still be fun watching Law and Mell slink around their preposterous hideout, making eyes at each other. Hardly a cinema masterpiece, it’s great in an ironically watched, lazy afternoon, one-step-removed kind of way.

Related Posts:

Film: Elysium

The problem with Neil Blomkamp movies, in my little two-film sampling, is that he doesn’t know when to quit. Like his debut District 9, Elysium (2013) is about thirty minutes of a good film surrounded by an hour and half of relentlessly brutal sci-fi action. It’s a visual feast, but I got so bored with its monotonously frantic battle scenes that I started writing this review just to give myself something else to do while the plot played out.

In the future, Earth is a Mad Maxian cyberpunk dystopia, so the rich, mostly white people build the space habitat Elysium, a One Percenter utopia. Downtrodden orphan Max da Costa (Matt Damon) always dreamed of making it to Elysium some day, but with the cards stacked against him, he fell in with a criminal crowd. The film opens as he’s trying to walk the straight and narrow, working the line at a robotics factory. When appalling safety conditions at the plant illustrate the film’s heavy-handed class warfare theme – uh, he gets a lethal dose of radiation – he suddenly finds himself with five days left to live. Only the magical autodocs of Elysium can save him: but how can he get there? Fortunately he’s got a criminal hacker connection named – of course – Spider (Wagner Moura), who might be able to make it happen. Provided, of course, he does One Last Job. But oh what a brutal job it is, and with unexpected complications.

When a film wears its metaphors on its sleeve this baldly, it’s kind of hard to take things seriously. But Elysium, with its tragic injustice and fraught, victimized heroes, takes itself very seriously indeed, bludgeoning its obvious message home with a sledgehammer. Fortunately, it’s fun to look at: from its nightmarish vision of a future Los Angeles that had me scrambling for Craigslist, to its perfected orbital suburbia, to all the little skiffy details in between, it’s got eyeball kicks to burn. And it’s got Matt Damon, who’s pretty good at the whole nonstop, violent action hero business. I wanted to like it.

But, uh, no. Its plot is, alas, a succession of well executed but hollow combat sequences that use plot coupon duct-tape to integrate Max’s fight for survival with the efforts of a nefarious Elysium overlord named Delacourt (Jodie Foster) to initiate a coup and really ramp up the fascist awful. Foster is Razzy-worthy here, trying on a weird British accent to prove her villainy  – and if that doesn’t work, she throws in the odd French phrase. But wait, doesn’t she stand in for the ruling elite of western capitalism? Surely she should have stuck with American – this metaphor is broken! Anyways….also on hand is Blomkamp veteran Sharlto Copley, who plays a villain named Kruger so comically ruthless he might as well be a Borderlands 2 boss. Seriously, he carries a sword and has a forcefield. I can see the cut-scene now:  KRUGER! (Like Freddy Kruger…but worse!) Oh, and by the way, there is one other female character, if you were wondering: Frey (Alice Braga) is Max’s childhood sweetheart who, of course, has a sick kid and gets captured by the bad guys.

It’s pretty much a vacant, bombastic skiffy spectacle, then, with ill-fated symbolic ambition, a contrived, unconvincing plot, and a random grasp of its SFnal mechanics. I would love to have seen its production values applied to a different movie entirely.

Related Posts:

Film: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

A promising-looking period fantasy, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) ultimately only proved to me that Luc Besson’s sense of humor doesn’t work for me in English or French. With a tone similar to The Fifth Element, it’s an imaginative but messy kitchen sink of unfunny humor and incongruous fantasy tropes.

Adèle Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin) is something of a French, female Indiana Jones: capable and adventurous, she’ll travel to the ends of the Earth to help her sister, who is desperately ill. Her plan – reanimate the mummified remains of a brilliant Egyptian doctor. (Uh, yeah, okay…) Unfortunately, her partner in this endeavor, Dr. Espérandieu (Jacky Nercessian), decided to practice his death-raising talents by mind-controlling a pterodactyl he hatched in a museum exhibit by sheer force of his mental will. For this, he’s been thrown in prison, of course. So Adèle needs to rescue the doctor to save her sister – while repeatedly butting heads with a police inspector and a big-game hunter who’ve been hired to capture the rogue pterodactyl. Got all that?

After a scattered but promising opening, wherein the film looked to be a playful fusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Amelie, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec rather quickly goes south. Its humor misses the mark, and its plot is pretty much a zany kludge designed to set up setpiece eyeball kicks. The production is certainly attractive, and so of course is Bourgoin, who executes Adèle’s energetic hijinks with aplomb. But in the end it’s more diverting than absorbing: silly background viewing with subtitles.

Related Posts: