Category Archives: Film

Film: Blue Ruin

Revenge movies generally aren’t my cup of tea, perhaps because they’re inherently thin thematically; how many ways can you say “revenge is bad?” For some reason my recent viewings are putting this aversion to the test, though, for just as Munich proved that context can make a revenge plot worth watching, Blue Ruin (2013) proves that exceptional execution can do the same.

Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is clearly a man with a dark past, which has left him broken, eating out of dumpsters and living out of a defunct car. When he learns that a mysterious figure from his past has been released from prison, it activates Dwight like a sleeper agent: he heads back to his hometown in Virginia to track the man down. His plan: simple revenge, an act he’s been waiting years to carry out. But Dwight, for all his resourcefulness, is a neophyte to violence, and even as his plan succeeds, there are angles he can’t see in time to keep the situation from spiraling out of control.

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin is a riveting suspense film, full of classic, visual story-telling that lets the action do the talking. The message is simple enough, but the narrative escalates crisply and logically from one effective setpiece to the next. A no-name cast does a convincing job, and in fact the players’ unrecognizability lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings. It’s all led by Blair, who does an exceptional job bringing his unlikely antihero to life: an unremarkable man raising his game to face the extraordinary, catastrophic circumstances he’s brought upon himself. He’s easy to get invested in, even as the story condemns his every fateful decision.

Is there a point beyond the obvious moral: that an eye for an eye never solves anything? Perhaps not. But Blue Ruin is smart, well oiled, and assured, with just enough surprises and subtly built character to ensure the journey transcends its expected destination.

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Film: Nymphomaniac (Parts I & II)

So now I’ve seen the notorious Nymphomaniac (2013). Perhaps my past experience with von Trier’s provacative shock tactics has inured me, but I didn’t find it as outrageous as I was expecting, despite its frank discussions and graphic depictions of sex and violence – which, since this is von Trier, are intertwined. But really, most of the film involves two articulate actors having a long philosophical conversation, and it’s emblematic of von Trier’s genius that the viewer is gradually, painstakingly seduced into listening. I felt as if I was peeking behind the curtain at a very private story, and the effect is characteristically thought-provoking.

Long suffering von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg stars as Joe, the title character: a woman found beaten and bloody in an alley by a kindly old gentleman named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Seligman takes Joe into his home, and when he finds her morose and self-critical, she decides to tell him her life story: a lengthy, tragic account of her lifelong, destructive addiction to sex. Joe’s tale is both a cathartic exercise, and an impromptu therapy session, as the two character’s viewpoints provide differing angles of interpretation on Joe’s singular experience.

As usual with von Trier, I came away both dazzled and bemused, with a conflicted impression. His visual style is unrelentingly grim, but also darkly beautiful at times; his subject matter is unforgiving and explicit. He pushes buttons to provoke reactions, in this case challenging preconceived notions about sexuality and gender – and, through shock and awe, forcing the viewer to confront questions they might not otherwise have asked. It’s hard not to imagine Skarsgaard’s character as the von Trier stand-in: the manipulative auteur, happy to speculatively mansplain his heroine’s reactions to her own life story. This is discomfiting, but also kind of the point. And at the same time, Seligman struggles to be the objective sounding board, morbidly fascinated by the salacious and sordid details. Seligman, like von Trier, enjoys talking about the things society might not find polite.

For me, the message managed to be both a muddle and ballpeen hammer to the forehead – my primary gut reaction was repulsion, and yet I still watched with rapt attention, mesmerized by the craft and contemplating the artistic intent. The acting, especially from the ever fearless Gainsbourg and game-for-anything Skarsgard, is first rate. There are some particularly good supporting turns as well, most notably from Uma Thurman, whose emotional performance is raw and cringe-inducing. Unfortunately, Shia LaBeouf is along as a major love interest for Joe; his character, Jerome, serves as Joe’s Achilles’ heel. Perhaps it’s LaBeouf’s performance, or maybe it’s his weird celebrity reputation proceeding him, but Jerome hardly seems worth the fuss.

Unsurprisingly, one must leave one’s inhibitions and squeamishness at the door for Nymphomaniac, and it takes some work to appreciate it. As von Trier movies go it’s no  Melancholia, but it is an interesting film in the disturbing manner of Antichrist or The Idiots: an awkward watch through slitted eyes, from which you can’t quite turn away.

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Film: Europa Report

It was only a matter of time: the “found footage” craze meets the SF space mission in Europa Report (2013), an uneven affair that can’t quite reconcile its inherent sense of wonder with its obligatory terror-in-space plot. It’s about a six-person team of astronaut-scientists who journey to Jupiter’s icy moon of Europa, to try and confirm whether the watery planet harbors any life. Half archival footage, half documentary, the film recounts in alinear, mystery-building fashion the terrifying experiences of the crew, and their ultimate scientific discoveries.

The film possesses effective science fictional moments, and the international (if mostly white) cast – Christian Camargo, Sharlto Copley, Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvist, Karolina Wydra, and Daniel Wu – does a fine job enacting its dramas in the claustrophobic, bottle-showy interiors. When it ventures outside the ship, there are eye-widening visuals and effects, and some classic “Cold Equations” SFnal dilemmas. In general, it’s a respectable effort.

Unfortunately, it’s also beset by an ungainly pace – for a ninety-minute film, it sure feels long – and the scientific mysteries ultimately revealed are not terribly surprising. It could just be that I’m inured to the familiar tropes of the “horror-in-space” subgenre, but I think the real problem is that this movie seems more interested in its form than its substance…like maybe the filmmakers are so focused on the techniques they’re using that they lose sight of the narrative, bringing things to a flat, underwhelming stop. It’s certainly not without merit, but ultimately disappointing.

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Spy 100, #12: Munich

In an often-grim genre, Munich (2005) may well be one of the grimmest films yet. Based on actual events, Steven Spielberg’s high-profile spy drama revolves around the tragic kidnapping and murder of nine Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, Germany. That shocking incident leads Mossad, the Israeli intelligence organization, to launch a retaliatory counterstrike against the Arab terrorists who carried out the atrocity. To lead the team is Avner (Eric Bana), an unlikely choice for a globe-trotting assassin – which is exactly the point, since they want him completely deniable. His mission is so black ops that he has to resign from the Mossad in order to undertake it. But once he goes dark, he and his colleagues carry out their vicious, methodical revenge…only to find complications at every turn, and drastic consequences for every crossroads decision.

Munich is impeccably crafted, full of impressive period detail and artfully executed suspense and action setpieces. And it’s a powerful cautionary tale about how revenge can escalate from the notion of a simple exchange to a complicated skein of neverending violence. Bana, an actor who usually strikes me as inexpressive, does a good job with his conflicted character, and he’s supported well, most notably by his teammates Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Hanns Zischler. It’s not an easy watch, nor is it a cheerful one, but as a realistic deglamorization of the spy business, particularly as it pertains to the complex geopolitics of the Middle East, it’s a powerful and harrowing vision.

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Film: Guardians of the Galaxy

Consider me among the many who felt that Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was a weird choice for expanding the Marvel cinematic universe. Now that I’ve seen it, consider my skepticism erased. Knowing very little about these characters, I went into the film expecting nothing except that it would probably be pretty good. But it’s much better than good — in fact, it’s among the best of the Marvel films, probably better than The Avengers.

Abducted from Earth as a young boy, Peter Quill aka Starlord (Chris Pratt) is a goofball thief on a mission to retrieve and sell a powerful, mysterious orb. Alas, the orb (read: universe-shaking MacGuffin) has other suitors, most dangerous among them the ruthless Kree leader Ronan (Lee Pace). Quill’s attempt to sell the orb lands him in prison with Ronan’s treacherous assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a genetically engineered raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a giant tree-creature named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and a violent maniac named Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). Cast together by fate, this ragtag group forges a tenuous alliance in order to make their fortune and achieve their individual goals. But as they learn more about the orb’s vast powers, and its potential for wreaking havoc on the galactic order, they start to come together as a team to serve a greater purpose.

The movie starts a little slowly and distantly, but soon escalates into a wicked fun adventure full of laugh-out-loud humor, heart, and gorgeous science fiction visuals. In the comic books, Marvel’s galactic adventures never resonated with me the same way their Earth-based stuff did, but much as the Thor films made Asgard accessible, Guardians does the same (even better) with Marvel’s alien worlds and interstellar civilizations. Getting invested in the plight of these distant worlds did not take long.

But where the film exceeds most is in introducing and building its characters: an increasing strength of the Marvel films. The team is basically your classic band of outlaw misfits, but the script digs a little deeper, giving each of them powerful moments that render them all the more sympathetic and real. Pratt brings his usual, effortless comic timing and physical humor; Saldana and Bautista are both physically formidable and quirkily likeable; Groot is an absolute hoot as the team’s Chewbacca-figure; and Rocket, a character I expected to find annoying, is probably the most nuanced and entertaining character, given terrific voice by Cooper. The narrative builds their created-family rapport organically and convincingly, and for a big-budget film so whimsical and kooky, it’s a surprisingly inspiring narrative, regularly delivering emotional, verklempt-making moments…right before hilariously breaking them down.

As is often the case in these affairs, the villainy feels a little incidental. Pace’s effective Ronan is your standard universe-threatening sociopath, and his underlings — most noticeably Nebula (Karen Gillan) — aren’t given much to do beyond bringing the violence. But it’s hard to find much else wrong with the film, a winning, spectacular adventure and another impressive feather in Marvel’s cap. Loved it!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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