Category Archives: Film

Film: Jubilee

jubileeHulu has a metric fuckton of bizarre Criterion movies available for streaming, and leave it to me to start with one of the weirdest: Jubilee (1978), a stream-of-conscious punk rock dystopia. This plotless melange of guerilla filmmaking has an incongruous Shakespearean frame: Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre), with the assistance of an occultist, conjures a spirit guide who transports her forward in time to a dark future that looks an awful lot like 1970s London. There she witnesses the anarchic behavior of her nation’s future, through the antics of a chaotic gang of artists, arsonists, layabouts, and musicians who wallow in a dying culture of media saturation and societal decay.

Nothing says “anything goes” like seventies cult cinema involving the British punk rock scene; Jubilee is random, uneven, paceless, and full of transgressive behavior and nihilistic political theory. It’s also got raw punk music from musicians like Adam Ant, Toyah Wilcox, and Sioxsie and the Banshees, among others. (Ant and Wilcox have substantial roles in the film.) While vast stretches of its running time are dull and amateurish, it does have a surprising cumulative effect as its mumbly blend of political commentary, grimy visuals, eccentric performances, and half-baked SF tropes spin inexorably into tragicomic nightmare. A broad viewership likely won’t respond to this relic, but it does earn its cult notoreity and I got a kick out of its grungy, experimental camp.

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Film: That Man from Rio

thatmanfrom rioI went way off the board looking for a movie to watch this weekend, and found That Man from Rio (1964), a quasi-Hitchcockian adventure travelogue that thinks it’s devilishly charming, but is not. It does catch the eye, though, thanks to stunning cinematography that showcases the amazing scenery of Brazil.

When a valuable statue goes missing from a Paris museum, it quickly becomes apparent that someone’s attempting to reassemble the set to which it belongs. The only person who knows where the second statue is hidden is Agnès Villermosa (Françoise Dorléac), the daughter of one of the scientists who originally found the statues. Naturally, the thieves kidnap her to help them find it…which prompts her bumbling, zany fiancé Adrien Dufourquet (Jean-Paul Belmondo) to trail after her. He follows them across the ocean to Brazil, racing chaotically to rescue her and solve the mystery.

This is one of those fast-paced, cheesy, technicolor movies of the 1960s that desperately tries to cash in on the formula of North By Northwest. Alas, its lacks that movie’s clever charms, and worse, the film’s gender politics make Hitchcock look like Anita Sarkeesian. Adrien’s erratic heroics display a sociopathic disregard for any innocent bystander in his wake — picture 24′s Jack Bauer by way of Jerry Lewis, a colossal comedic misfire. And the plot is basically a MacGuffin surrounded by contrivances.

So it’s a mess, but kind of an attractive mess, thanks to the appealing Dorléac and some eye-popping visuals. The breathtaking vistas of Rio de Janeiro and, more interestingly, the then-nascent city of Brasília provide a vivid widescreen backdrop; it makes for a neat time capsule. It also has an erratic stream-of-consciousness flow that does have infectious, anything-goes plot turns, like Adrien’s fast friendship with an adorable shoeshine boy named Sir Winston (Ubiracy De Oliveira), who randomly becomes his right-hand man. Belmondo may be no Cary Grant, but I grew to respect his physical presence as he enacts a number of spectacularly dangerous high-rise stunts and realistic and painful-looking fight scenes. On points this one failed for me, but it was at least weird and different enough to keep me diverted while I was folding my laundry, and does possess some quirky assets. A curious relic.

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Film: Deadpool

deadpool_movie_poster_by_tldesignn-d9ofd43The Netflix series Daredevil, with its dark storylines and neo-noir ultraviolence, originally struck me as a glimpse at the seedy underbelly of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But as it turns out, there’s a level below that one, a darker, bloodier, raunchier level, and that’s the gleefully incorrect Deadpool (2016).

Clever, crass, meta, and alinear, Deadpool tells the dizzying, antiheroic story of Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a former Special Forces killer who makes his living as an intimidating thug-for-hire. Wilson is an unlikeable jerk, but he delights in taking it out on even bigger, more unlikeable jerks. Wilson’s match-made-in-heaven romance with snarky prostitute Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is interrupted by a cruel twist of fate, which leads Wilson into the employ of Ajax (Ed Skrein), an evil scientist who wants to unleash Wilson’s inner mutant. And thus, Deadpool — one of the MCU’s most entertaining assholes — is born.

Deadpool manages to both embrace and subvert the very formula that made it possible, and as such it’s a refreshing change of pace for the MCU…if you can use the word “refreshing” to describe something so rude, bloody, and full of taboos. It’s an R-rated Marvel film, filled with gratuitous language, nudity, and graphic violence, and while in some ways that makes it a departure from canon, it also feels like an inevitable consequence of the super-powered world in which it’s set. While meta in-jokes and fourth-wall breaks set it aside, it still benefits from the origin-story paces and messy, chaotic finale structure of the usual MCU fare, making it both of its milieu and beside it.

In retrospect, I found myself asking: do we really need another white, male antihero? The answer is a resounding no, and yet I find myself curiously defensive of Deadpool, who is slightly out of step with the antihero archetype. In a universe increasingly cluttered by similarly motivated heroes, Deadpool is an aberration, holding up his middle finger to them all…an unforgiving, foul-mouthed wild card. Ryan Reynolds seems game for anything, and goes all in on the role to hilarious effect. He’s matched kink-for-kink and quirk-for-quirk by Morena Baccarin, who is typically fantastic, although I wish her character hadn’t been quite so girlfriended. (Irritating to learn that her character was based on a superhero in her own right; sadly there’s no evidence of that here.) They’re surrounded by a pro forma smattering of C-list Marvel characters who serve their various heroic, villainous, and comic-relief functions well enough.

Deadpool doesn’t break much new ground, and its smarmy offensiveness is likely to repel certain viewers, but it’s a funny, disgusting, in-your-face romp and I found it gloriously diverting.

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Film: Female Agents

220px-Femmes_de_l'ombreWhile its inexplicably poor English title doesn’t do it justice, Female Agents (2008) is a compelling World War II spy film about, well, female agents. (I guess someone decided Les Femmes de l’ombre — “Women of the Shadows” — was too…eloquent?) Inspired by real events, the film depicts a daring operation to rescue a British geologist from the clutches of the Nazis before he can reveal the Allies’ D-Day invasion plans. Executing the mission: a Dirty Dozen-like crew of female agents, led by the daring Louise Desfontaines (Sophie Marceau), an experienced SOE officer. Louise recruits former cabaret dancer Suzy Desprez (Marie Gillain), ex-prostitute and convicted murderer Jeanne Faussier (Julie Depardieu), and untested demolitions expert Gaelle Lemenech (Déborah François) to parachute behind enemy lines. There they’ll rendezvous with radio operator Maria Luzzato (Maya Sansa) and, together with other French Resistance operatives, liberate the imperiled geologist from a German army hospital — all before a shrewd Nazi officer named Heindrich (Moritz Bleibtreu) can interrogate the truth out of the scientist and uncover the Allies’ invasion plans.

Female Agents is loaded with quality: it’s got production values to burn, gripping action, interesting historical detail, and first-class verisimilitude. But its primary asset is that it’s a war epic with a refreshing focus on female characaters. Certain directorial choices, alas, veer into unnecessary male gaze; in this respect it occasionally reminded me of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. But by and large it’s a moving and tragic portrait of brave women coming together under impossible circumstances, anchored by superb performances from the entire cast — especially Marceau, who is stellar. Its brutal, heartfelt narrative is reminiscent of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, a comparison I wouldn’t make lightly– certainly not as eloquent or quite as shattering, but derived from the same powerful stock.

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Film: Time Lapse

Time-Lapse-2014-movie-posterOnce again my soft spot for science fiction cinema of the low-budget, thought experiment variety has paid off. Time Lapse (2014) doesn’t look like much at first blush, but it escalates impressively into a compelling Twilight Zone-y bottle show. Its creepy echoes linger long after the final credits.

It revolves around a trio of young roommates in a low-rent apartment complex. Finn (Matt O’Leary) is a starving-artist painter, who moonlights miserably as the complex’s superintendent to make ends meet. His responsible girlfriend Callie (Danielle Panabaker) is an aspiring writer. And Jasper (George Finn) is a shifty layabout with a gambling problem. They share a congenial but impoverished existence, but their fortunes change dramatically when the old man in the apartment across the courtyard disappears. When they go to his apartment to check on him, they find a huge, mysterious-looking camera pointed at their apartment across the way, and a wall covered with Polaroids of the three of them, all shot from the same angle through their living-room window. But this isn’t just creepy voyeurism: to their surprise, they learn that the camera has been taking a picture every day, exactly one day into the future…and what they see starts to inspire, and eventually control, them.

The film’s opening minutes are unimpressive: its spare interiors, tiny cast, and limited scope betray its economic limitations. A handful of awkward early line deliveries make it look like this might be a clumsy, second-rate affair. But it recovers from these missteps quickly once the simple SFnal premise is discovered, decrypted, and explored. Soon enough the material improves, the cast rallies to it, and the film becomes surprisingly gripping.

The story unfolds in nifty, stake-raising episodes, as each new grainy Polaroid poses a new mystery for them to solve. A major plot thread, naturally, involves gambling: Jasper’s greedy future self starts posting race results in the window to line his pockets. But knowing the future, it turns out, ultimately enslaves them to it…driving them, each in their own way, a little bit mad. This spirals the proceedings from a playful examination of the trope to chilling, noir twists and turns.

Unfortunately the story’s ingenious resolution kind of spits on one of the characters, but I was quick to forgive that and other blemishes in light of the film’s structural cleverness and ominous vibe. Sometimes financial constraints lead to creative solutions, and Time Lapse makes the most of its meager raw materials, spinning them into something special. A modest but spellbinding watch.

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Film: Interstellar

interstellar-posterIs there anything more dispiriting than a widely acclaimed movie that’s virtually unwatchable? Interstellar (2014) is the kind of self-involved mess that only a 900-pound auteur can generate, a bloated, pretentious excuse for a science fiction epic that drowns its incoherent story in an ocean of imbalanced noise. What a trial!

On a dying Earth in the future that consists entirely of Midwestern cornfields, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot and frustrated engineer who’s been forced to redirect his talents toward the world’s most pressing problem: food. His farming career is interrupted when a strange gravity anomaly in his house delivers to him, in binary code, the coordinates of a NASA facility hidden in another nearby cornfield. Turns out there’s a secret project underway to send a scientific team into space, through a wormhole in Saturn, to search for a habitable planet — before life on Earth becomes unsustainable. It’s a chance to save humanity, and Cooper jumps at it. With no training whatsoever, he  assumes command and leads the expedition into an interstellar realm full of cosmic mystery.

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have written good scripts, but oh boy, this isn’t one of them. Full of thin world-building and random scientific babbling, it’s a tedious, unstreamlined blend of quasi-philosophical musing, clumsy exposition, and nauseating love-will-save-all mysticism. As if sensing this, the score drowns the dialogue in thundering sound effects and circular, anesthetizing Hans Zimmer music. In retrospect, this may in fact be a cagey decision, like smothering a recipe’s failings in salt and butter to distract from iffier ingredients. Alas, Zimmer’s score isn’t salt and butter. It’s full of overblown, grandiose sentimentality that somehow slows the pace of scenes that are already interminable. So, deliberate strategy or otherwise, it’s quite possibly the worst sound design in cinema history.

The cast, which includes Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, and Matt Damon, is full of firepower struggling vainly to bring life to unconvincing dialogue. The tone is one of unrelenting pathos for a dying humanity that I cared less and less about with each passing minute of its three-hour running time.

Yes, there are stunning visual effects and occasional moments that push the old sense-of-wonder buttons. But  this is a terrible movie, and worse, it’s a terrible movie that thinks it’s a brilliant one. Alas, simply believing you’re 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t make it so.

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Film: Inside Out

Disney-Pixar-Inside-Out-Movie-PosterOh, Inside Out (2015). Wow, I didn’t know what I was in for with this one. What a heartbreaking, beautiful movie.

Pixar’s latest opus is a clever and inventive literalized metaphor: inside the mind of a young girl named Riley (Kaitlin Dias), five entities serve as Riley’s emotional nerve center, helping her through her daily life. The dominant emotion is Joy (Amy Poehler), whose goal is make sure Riley is always happy…an objective often challenged by her coworkers Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Still, the emotions have an effective working relationship…until Riley’s parents move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco. The move upsets everything, sending Riley into depression…and throwing the emotions’ lives into utter chaos.

Inside Out’s worldbuilding is wildly creative, a colorful and ever-surprising extended metaphor for the inner workings of a person’s mind. The script smartly enables its personified emotions to wander about in the various corners of Riley’s consciousness — long-term memory, abstract thought, imagination, the subconscious, etc. — and each new step comes with terrific eyeball kicks, sight gags, hilarious jokes, and heartfelt sentiment. It captures, in empathetic and insightful fashion, the way depression and stressful change can make our emotions go out of control. And while the metaphors are blatant, they’re also smart and funny and touching. Anyone who’s ever had the blues will find something to relate to here.

This movie gets its hooks in early and works its magic throughout. A visually stunning, emotionally charged film that constantly had me on the edge of tears. Highly recommended!

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Film: MI-5 (Spooks: The Greater Good)

mi-5One of TV’s best spy shows returns in MI-5 (aka Spooks: The Greater Good) (2015), a surprisingly effective coda to the series. Generally I’m trepidatious about resurrected franchises, and in light of the original series’ continuity-shattering cast turnover in its waning years, I wasn’t sure how much emotional investment I’d still have for this fictional universe. But it works, thanks to a smart script that deploys a thoughtful theme amidst the requisite adventure and intrigue.

Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), still stubbornly at the helm of MI-5, is supervising the transport of notorious terrorist Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel) into custody when the operation goes horribly wrong. An agent is killed, Qasim escapes, and Pearce takes the fall. Cut loose from the service, Pearce fakes his own death…a move that alarms MI-5’s remaining leadership. What’s Harry up to? To find him, they enlist decommissioned officer Will Holloway (Game of Thrones’s Kit Harington) to track him down. What they don’t know is that Holloway plays right into Harry’s hidden agenda: preventing a terrorist threat, and saving MI-5.

The Greater Good doesn’t satisfy on the level of MI-5′s best seasons, but for fans of the series who hung around until the end, it makes for a solid epilogue. For those who are wondering, other original cast members return: season ten’s Erin Watts (Lara Pulver) and Callum Reed (Geoffrey Streatfield), and of course good old Malcolm Wynn-Jones (Hugh Simon). But their appearances amount to cameos; in terms of series continuity, the movie leans almost entirely on Pearce. (No offense to  Tim McInnerny, who reprises the scheming Oliver Mace with even more snarl and venom than usual.) Since for me MI-5 was always stronger when it focused on the officers, with Pearce as their inscrutable overseer, I was nervous about the dearth of familiar faces. Fortunately the writers know what they’re doing , and build Pearce’s legacy as a fierce, stubborn survivor into the theme. Meanwhile the physical action is carried by newcomer Harington, whose Will Holloway, a failed Pearce protege, feels nebulous at the start. Ultimately, though, the fact that he’s an unknown quantity in the MI-5 universe works in the film’s favor, and is indeed central to narrative strategy. Other new performers that make a solid impression are Jennifer Ehle, as a steely member of MI‑5’s upper echelon, and Sense8′s Tuppence Middleton, as an ambitious junior officer enlisted by Holloway to help .

The film likely won’t stand alone for the uninitiated, but fans will enjoy The Greater Good’s stew of spy genre elements: fights, chases, dead drops, tradecraft, misdirection, surveillance, mole-hunts, hacks, terrorist threats, and life-and-death decisions. But the build-up is merely good; the film is ultimately elevated by its denouement, which speaks to Pearce’s difficult journey through the series — and the viewers’ journey alongside him.

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Film: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterA long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I cared about the Star Wars franchise. The original trilogy was powerful formative science fiction, and surely a huge influence on my early interest in the field. Much as the youthful me loved it, though, the twenties me was so repulsed by The Phantom Menace that I more or less flounced on the series and never looked back. But now we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), easily the most anticipated film of the twenty-first century, and there was just too much buzz; seeing it felt like being officially indoctrinated into the pop-culture zeitgeist.

Decades after the events of Return of the Jedi, a new imperial menace has developed: the First Order, rising from the ashes of Darth Vader’s empire to once again threaten the Republic. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished, and the Resistance feels his Jedi powers may be the key to saving the galaxy. To that end, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has acquired intelligence that could lead to Skywalker’s return. Unfortunately the First Order, led by the vicious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), moves to intercept. Rather than yield the information, Dameron entrusts it to his droid BB-8, who ultimately crosses paths with two unlikely young heroes: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a subsistence scavenger on the desert world of Jakku, and Finn (John Boyega), an AWOL stormtrooper trying to forge a new path. Together they must convey the crucial intelligence into the hands of the Resistance so that the First Order can be defeated.

When news of this franchise’s re-launch came out, I was pretty sure I would see the film, and that I would either love it or hate it. I was wrong: it was neither a home run nor a strike out for me, but rather a solid, stand-up double, successfully conjuring moments of the old magic, but with elements that made me all too aware of the market-driven, blockbuster blueprint it was following.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens resurrects the props and furniture and general world-building of the original movies quite effectively. Glimpsing the old uniforms and weapons and spaceships, not to mention the familiar characters, was a powerful nostalgia trip. So great to see the legendary Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and especially Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) back in action again. But it was the new characters — Finn and Rey and Poe — that really lured me back into the universe, and are the most likely to keep me there. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac are all fantastic and I’m very excited to see them carry the franchise into the future. Unsurprisingly, the film is a visual feast, from its special effects to its spectacular battle scenes. John Williams’ themes can still raise hackles on the back of my neck, and there are genuinely powerful, emotional moments. I can see why people were blown away.

But I was not. I was held, I was entertained, but I was just one step removed from total immersion. At first I thought it might just be the plot’s lack of originality; The Force Awakens, as has widely been discussed, is a note-for-note cover of A New Hope in many ways. But I don’t think that bothered me nearly as much as the specifics of the plot’s execution: little throwaway lines and moments, cagily calculated to remind us how much we liked those original films. It’s an effective strategy, but, perhaps jaded by the prequels, I wasn’t fully susceptible to being manipulated by its fan-servicey charms. This is a reaction I’ve had to J.J. Abrams’ other shared-world efforts (Mission: Impossible 3, the new Star Trek movies); he’s generally skillful at repurposing legacy properties, but his work always reminds me that he’s doing that, which tends to jar me out of the experience.

On some levels I feel this reaction is a overly Scrooge-y, though. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun ride that successfully resurrects the iconic science fictional language of my youth, while also rinsing the foul taste of the prequels out of my mouth. But hopefully the next episode will make more interesting and unexpected narrative choices, as I’m excited to see Ridley, Boyega, Isaac, and Driver move the franchise in brand new directions.

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Film: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

mission-impossible-rogue-nationThe original Mission: Impossible’s inexorable downward skid coincided with the rise of the villainous “Syndicate,” a vast organized crime outfit that would plague the IMF during its final few seasons. In Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), the Syndicate rears its ugly head yet again, and is once again symbolic of a franchise on the decline. This isn’t just a terrible Mission: Impossible movie, though; it’s a terrible movie, period.

The indestructible Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has gone rogue, and is chasing down leads on “the Syndicate,” a mythical international crime organization made up of presumed dead and disavowed agents from around the world. Hunt’s search for evidence is complicated by the fact that back in Washington, the Impossible Missions Force, defended by William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), is under fire from political firebrand Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). While Hunley is shuttering the IMF and trying to track down Hunt, Hunt is luring his friend and colleague Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) back into the field to support his vendetta against the Syndicate, an investigation that hinges on the shady cooperation of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a possible deep-cover ally.

Rogue Nation vainly attempts to reconstruct the successful chemistry of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, bringing back familiar team members, and at least trying to retain the team-first vibe established by Brad Bird in the previous episode. Alas, the script lacks Ghost Protocol’s cleverness, possessing just a fraction of the humor and five times the clunky exposition. Indeed, from a dialogue perspective this may be the worst outing in the series, full of explanatory tongue twisters and spy-fi cliches; it is, at times, utterly painful to the ear.

The script also lacks structural finesse. It follows the tried-and-true strategy of escalating, episodic setpieces, but is not nearly as successful at stringing them together. The film is at its best when it shuts up; suspense setpieces in Vienna (a pseudo-Hitchcockian opera house slow-build) and Morocco (a convoluted data heist) benefit from dialogue-free, visual story-telling. Even so, while I liked what was being attempted in these sequences, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the execution.

The best aspect of Rogue Nation is Rebecca Ferguson, easily the most successful of the films’ female agents. She’s far better than her material, and makes for a credible and charismatic super-spy. Alas, the camera needlessly ogles and objectifies her throughout, and her very character calls attention to another central failing of the script: the overlooked fact that Ilsa is Rogue Nation’s natural protagonist, relegated to supporting screen time. Her key role in taking out the Syndicate is ever overshadowed by the unsubtle, one-step-behind interactions of the IMF boys’ club.

Forgiving the unforgiveable sins of the first Mission: Impossible movie has been an impossible mission in itself, but Ghost Protocol at least gave me a glimmer of hope that the franchise might be trending in a good new direction. Alas, Rogue Nation has exploded that good will, leaving me once again eager for Tom Cruise to relinquish his cash-cow stranglehold on the series. Never have I longed more for a property to be rebooted.

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