Category Archives: Film

Film: Advantageous

advantageous-2015-1If only we could decommission Michael Bay’s entire oeuvre and redistribute the budgets to smart science fiction films like Advantageous (2015). This earnest little independent could have used a few more dollars for visual polish, but otherwise it has plenty to recommend it.

In the near future, unemployment has become so dire that job prospects for young people entering the workforce — especially women — have become next-to-impossible to find. Middle-aged Gwen Kho (Jacqueline Kim) is one of the lucky ones, or so it seems: she’s the public face of an innovative biotech company, hoping to leverage her lucrative position to the best advantage of her talented daughter Jules (Samantha Kim). But when the company decides to go in a different direction, she’s faced with an impossible choice: throw away her daughter’s future, or keep her position, at great personal cost, by irrevocably altering her identity.

Alas, Advantageous doesn’t have an effects budget sufficient to fully realize its futuristic ambition. But it more than makes up for this with an intelligent script, thoughtful sociopolitical subtext, and an insightful vision of dystopia-in-progress. Samantha Kim is a very promising newcomer, while Jacqueline Kim effectively carries the narrative load. James Urbaniak, Freya Adams, Jennifer Ehle, Jennifer Ikeda, and yes, Ken Jeong, are all solid in dramatic support. Yes, the narrative pacing flags from time to time, and the tone is relentlessly solemn. But by and large it’s classy, satisfying science fiction, a haunting, feminist spin on Seconds that makes the most of limited resources.

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Film: Chappie

It’s official: I’m done with Neill Blomkamp. Chappie (2015) may be the most annoying film I’ve ever seen.

The streets of near future Johannesburg are patrolled by droids created by technology megacorp Teravaal. The droids are the brainchild of whiz kid Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who, in his spare time, also works on artificial intelligence programs. An unfortunate series of events leads Deon to implant his latest program into the chassis of a damaged police droid, which gives birth to Chappie (voiced by Sharlto Copley), the first sentient AI. Alas, Chappie falls into the hands of a desperate criminal gang, who raises Chappie as one of their own in order to deploy him in a last-ditch heist to save their skins. Ultraviolent chaos ensues.

This is deeply stupid science fiction. The only checkmarks in the “pro” column are reasonably competent performances from Patel, Hugh Jackman, and Sigourney Weaver, and I suppose the CGI is decent. But otherwise this is a profoundly irritating movie: tonally monotonous, full of shrill acting and relentless, emotionally empty violence, and noisy, nuance-free spectacle. Blomkamp’s early promise expired in the first twenty minutes of District 9; it’s been all downhill since then. Avoid this crap movie like the plague.

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Film: Inherent Vice

When Joaquin Phoenix and Katherine Waterston started mumbling their way through the first scene of Inherent Vice (2014), I had such a hard time hearing them I had to turn on the subtitles. Now that I’ve seen the whole movie that way, I’m not sure I’m any better off than if I’d continued struggling to decipher their dialogue over the drone of our air conditioner. This film, adapted from a novel by Thomas Pynchon, is a quirky, baffling snarl.

Phoenix portrays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead private investigator in 1970 L.A., hired by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Waterston) to save her current lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) from a heartless get-rich quick scheme. Motivated by his unresolved feelings for Shasta, Doc inserts himself into the mystery only to land in a dense quagmire of conflicting players with murky motives. A visit from an ex-con (Michael Kenneth Williams), the disappearance of Wolfmann, and the death of one of Wolfmann’s neo-Nazi bodyguards combine to land Doc in the sights of his police nemesis Lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). And everything is further complicated when Hope Harlingen (Jenna Malone) hires Doc to track down surf-sax player Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), whose clandestine work as a federal informant has him on the run, and seems somehow entwined with all the other shady goings-on. This further fuels Doc’s paranoia-laced, drug-addled scheming and angling across a crooked urban landscape.

This incoherent PI tale lurches through several other plot contortions, but after a while I stopped keeping score and just immersed myself in its weird, glacially paced scene-building and grungy ambience. I’d be hard pressed to say I enjoyed it, but I did find it a peculiar and diverting watch. Paul Thomas Anderson is an indulgent auteur, but his work is nothing if not interesting, and Inherent Vice is surely that – a deeply bizarre mess embellishing its noir detective trappings with countercultural paranoia, conspiracies, period politics, and a mumbling cast of distinctive oddball characters. It feels like Robert Altman adapting Philip K. Dick at his least accessible, and the results, while grimly amusing and visually arresting, are ultimately not all that satisfying.

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Film – Mad Max: Fury Road

MM-Main-PosterHow to articulate my reaction to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)? Well, on the one hand it’s profoundly stupid. On the other hand, it’s stupidly profound. However you slice it this is a singular creation, perhaps disposable, but also oddly essential – a movie of its time.

In a radioactive, post-collapse world a pocket of survivors lives under the vile, ruling hand of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a repressive dictator who controls a rare source of fresh water and subjugates his people with ruthless abandon. The action begins when one of his trusted drivers, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), goes rogue during a convoy run. Driving a massive war rig, Furiosa has smuggled Joe’s enslaved wives out of captivity, determined to deliver them to freedom. Entangled in the ensuing escape is Max (Tom Hardy), a “blood boy” whose destiny crosses paths with the escaping women – and gives him a chance to redeem himself for a murky failure of his past.

Make no mistake, Mad Max: Fury Road is one long car chase. Comprised of lengthy, brutal action sequences, it’s a dystopian travelogue through an interminable futuristic desert, with Furiosa and Max leading a spirited resistance to Immortan Joe’s small army of vicious pursuers. On this level it’s a chaotic mess. The violence is bloody, the pace is relentless, the physics are suspect, and eyeball kicks never cease. And unfortunately character is at a premium. Hardy makes a decent action hero; Theron one-ups him, both in terms of formidability and charisma. But their characters aren’t so much people as they are emblems. I cared about them as a team fighting insurmountable odds, but there’s no depth there.

Which is probably deliberate. Because while it may be one long car chase, it’s also one long metaphor – an untraviolent, hilariously silly, often unsubtle metaphor. Consider this: wealthy old men literally trickle down their riches to the desperate masses. They wield an army of uninformed white (really white) men to perpetuate their rule. They’ll do anything in the name of gas, bullets, or power. And they treat women as property. It is, in other words, our world, painted in crude brushstrokes on the violent canvas of the blockbuster action film – a genre it has undertaken to slyly subvert.

This is a fiercely progressive film wearing the clothes of a reactionary, conservative genre. There’s a peculiar joy in watching it dismantle the tropes of testosterone-fueled cinema. The male heroes here are the ones who finally recognize the vileness of the status quo and decide to stand up to it. Take pasty skinhead warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who crumbles under the toxic masculinity of his culture, only to finally see through it and change his tune. And then there’s Max, the nominal protagonist, but more heroic in the way he supports Furiosa and her mission. The viewer’s heart is ultimately with Furiosa, and her charges, and their efforts to overturn a status quo that has long victimized and diminished them. There’s a level of crafty subtextual discourse to the film that renders its shallow characters, harebrained logistics, and simplistic plot surprisingly triumphant.

Of course, to absorb all that you have to get past the audacious idiocy of its details. I laughed for the wrong reasons as well as the right ones. But even the eyerolls come with a bonus spark of sociopolitical commentary. Or at least, that’s my take: I’m still not certain if I’m giving this one too much credit, or not enough. You know what they say: there’s a fine line between clever and stupid. Mad Max: Fury Road has plenty of both.

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Film: Night Train to Paris

Even though you haven’t seen Night Train to Paris (1964), you pretty much have seen it. This blend of slangy noir and Hitchcockian wrong-man plot is over-familiar even for its time, but it’s a passable, mindless entertainment that flies by at sixty-five minutes.

Alan Holiday (Leslie Nielsen) is a PR man for an airline with old ties to US military intelligence. His New Year’s Eve is interrupted by the arrival on his doorstep of femme fatale Catherine Carrel (Aliza Gur), who enlists him to help her and an old spy colleague make last-minute travel plans to Paris. In the end, though, the actions of a dastardly enemy agent force him to take the trip himself. Posing as a fashion photographer’s assistant, Holiday joins a train full of partying passengers heading from London to Paris; hijinks, treachery, romance and action ensue.

Night Train to Paris doesn’t have an original bone in its body. Its budget is low and its slim script is stretched to its limit. But it’s quick, painless fun, especially for fans of Nielsen’s later brand of deadpan slapstick who might be curious to see him earn his stripes in a jazzy, black-and-white B movie from the mod sixties.

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Spy 100, #2: North By Northwest

When I first watched North By Northwest (1959) nearly thirty years ago, I had no idea the path it would be sending me down. This classic comic thriller from Alfred Hitchcock was my first spy film, and possibly the most influential single film on me as a writer, even convincing me briefly that I wanted to write screenplays. With the possible exceptions of Brazil and The Great Escape, I’ve probably viewed this film more than any other, and this latest rewatch did nothing to change my mind about it: definitely one of the best spy films of all time, and still one of my favorite films ever.

The “wrong man” in this quintessential mistaken identity plot is New York advertising man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a slick, fast-talking bachelor without a care beyond refilling his glass and placating his acerbic mother (Jessie Royce Landis). Thornhill’s day at the office sends him to a business lunch that goes off the rails when chance leads enemy agents to mistake him for a man named George Kaplan. He’s kidnapped and driven at gunpoint to “Townsend” (James Mason), a suave, sinister fellow determined to interrogate the man he’s convinced is Kaplan. Naturally Thornhill is baffled, but his confusion is mistaken for brilliant play-acting, and the heavies attempt to kill him in an arranged “accident” that he barely escapes with his life. When he explains the circumstances of his adventure to the authorities, nobody – not even his mother– believes him. So he inserts himself into the intrigue even further by investigating the mysterious George Kaplan – a decision that backfires when an escalating sequence of events turns him into a fugitive from justice and an amateur spy.

I envy anyone who hasn’t seen North By Northwest, which is easily one of Hitchcock’s greatest entertainments. Oh, elements of its production certainly don’t hold up to modern standards – this time around, I spied a few more seams showing – but it’s important to remember that when it came out, Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were basically writing the book on this kind of blockbuster. It’s a funny, suspenseful American travelogue that carries Thornhill, and later femme fatale Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), from New York to Chicago to South Dakota, peppered with witty dialogue, unforgettable suspense setpieces, and impeccable visual story-telling along the way. Hitchcock’s filmmaking craft peaked in the fifties and there’s evidence of his mastery in virtually every frame, from the carefully shot and edited chain of events that thrusts Thornhill unwittingly into the enemy’s sights, to the brilliant cropdusting sequence, to the climactic, cliff-hanging finale on Mount Rushmore. Grant is perfect in a complex comedic lead, Saint shines as his love interest, and Mason and Martin Landau provide the requisite slimy villainy. (Really, does anyone play this kind of role better than James Mason?)

I’m certain a modern viewer coming to this film may find fault with its outdated aspects, but for me the viewing experience is ever rooted in my formative interpretation. I love North By Northwest, and the number two slot on this best-of list seems like the perfect spot for it.

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Film: Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

I’d like to think that if I had seen Birdman (2014) before Oscar season, I would have recognized it as the obvious Oscar-bait it is. This is a movie by Hollywood, for Hollywood, from its show-within-a-show depiction of actors under pressure behind the scenes, to its impressive (if calculated) one-take cinematography, to its scenery-chewing dramatics, to its simultaneous critique and celebration of artistic excess. I might have been annoyed by this if it hadn’t been so compellingly executed, for this is an exceptional production with a strong, intriguing narrative, superb acting, and interesting commentary about the weird chaos of modern life. I watched it fully immersed and in the moment, only growing disappointed when it continued two endings beyond all the goodwill it had generated.

Michael Keaton stars as fading movie star Riggan Thomson, who has channeled a desperate comeback attempt into a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” This is a man with baggage: a recovering drug addict for a daughter (Emma Stone), unresolved feelings for an ex-wife (Amy Ryan), an ongoing relationship with a co-star (Andrea Riseborough), and, most of all, an unyielding desire to recapture the stardom he achieved decades earlier in a superhero franchise called Birdman. As the production moves into preview week, the arrival of difficult new co-star Michael Shiner (Edward Norton) puts his complicated life under even more stress – and leaves him questioning his every life choice, not to mention his own sanity.

First of all, Birdman is riveting stuff, a runaway train of escalating dramatics that shows off its talented cast – all of the above, plus Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and others – to terrific effect. It blends madness-of-the-arts themes with fantastical elements, interesting thoughts on celebrity and social media, and ambiguous realities. I found it all highly entertaining and thought-provoking, and wasn’t at all distracted by its unique cinematic style: the film splices together a series of extended takes into one long, sinuous narrative that ricochets through viewpoints without cuts, a flashier, more ambitious experiment in the mode of Hitchcock’s Rope. It’s seamlessly done, even when copious special effects come into play.

It’s all great stuff, by and large – especially the acting, for which the cast (especially Keaton) are rightly lauded. But it fails, tragically, to nail its ending…which, for me anyway, unraveled much of my appreciation of the experience. About twenty minutes before the film ends, it sticks one landing –  a false ending, basically – then continues on to a second, less-good ending, and then arrives at its actual ending, which is worse than either of the previous ones. It’s  as if the filmmakers were so absorbed in the magic of their creation – perhaps rightfully so – that they didn’t quite know when to quit. As the movie winds down, then, the spell wore off for me; I had time to consider its techniques and identify its Hollywoodisms, coming away with more negatives than I may have actually experienced. I still think it’s very much worth watching for fans of fine acting and ambitious filmmaking, but it’s a shame the destination doesn’t live up to the journey.

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Film: Whiplash

Whiplash (2014) is a film about the extreme lengths people will go to achieve greatness. It’s the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), an ambitious young jazz drummer at a prestigious New York music conservatory who wants to be the best. His first encounter with the scathing, legendary jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) – the man to impress at the school, with a career-making reputation – leaves him full of doubt. But Fletcher sees something in him, and singles him out to join his best-of-the-best jazz band. Andy is on top of the world…until Fletcher’s abusive coaching pushes him to his limits, and beyond.

Anyone who’s as ever pursued a creative calling with passion – especially in the music world – will find Whiplash a riveting, suspenseful, and emotionally difficult watch. The nerves, the competition, the compulsion to be the best and the odds against ever achieving that…these elements are almost painfully well realized, and left me at once sympathetic with Andy’s struggle and wanting to beat some sense into him. It is a streamlined and utterly engrossing film. Teller is convincing and accessible as the uncertain but driven Andy, and Simmons is perfectly cast as the foul-mouthed, horrible Fletcher. The production is assured, and the jazz score is intense.

Alas, it has its problematic side. Granted the jazz music world is probably male-dominated, but this is another film about greatness that also “happens” to be a film about men. The only substantive female role is Andy’s girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), who is dismissed as a distraction; I wanted this to be thematic commentary, but I’m afraid it’s just Hollywood tokenism. More annoyingly, Whiplash purports to critique the appalling behavior of its characters, but really it’s slyly celebrating it– if not, in fact, condoning the problematic theory at the core of its narrative.

I’m torn on this film. It is exceedingly well done, and the ending – Andy’s final performance – is masterfully engineered and highly satisfying. The climactic scenes left me breathless and moved me deeply. But, strong as its narrative is, I wish it had been more sure-handed with its messaging, which muddles its cautionary tone with a dispiriting, mean-streak aftertaste.

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Film: Ex Machina

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015) is probably one of the best science fiction films ever made: smart, thoughtful, well-acted, beautifully shot, and ingeniously structured. Above all, it’s a thought-provoking examination of artificial intelligence, human psychology, and gender. It’s unfortunate, then, that it winds up falling prey to the exploitation it purports to critique – deliberately, perhaps, but in a distracting manner that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young computer programmer for a futuristic, Google-like search engine giant, wins a drawing to spend a week at the remote mountain estate of the company’s reclusive genius founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Flown by helicopter to Nathan’s facility, Caleb quickly learns the reason for the visit: his job is to test Nathan’s lifelike robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), to find out whether its AI consciousness can pass the Turing test. The week begins innocently enough, as Caleb meets the miraculous Ava and begins to judge her capacity for human interaction. But as the sessions continue, Caleb learns that something odd is going on at the facility, and his investigation spins off in dark, mysterious directions.

Ex Machina is confident and engrossing, building its human and science fictional mysteries with subtle, effective reveals that pull the viewer inexorably through a maze. It’s visually stunning, but the driving force of its execution is performance. Gleeson shines as the film’s quietly decent hero, while Isaac’s gloriously sleazy Nathan is played to perfection. Vikander, too, is impressive, making Ava feel ever more unknowable and alien as the film progresses, even as she looks more and more human. The plot is thoroughly satisfying, carrying the viewer from innocent intrigue to jaw-dropping discomfort as the unsettling truth is exposed in increments. It’s tight, smart, and powerfully executed in almost every respect.

But late in the game, Garland falters. The film builds, quite deliberately, to an examination of the inherent problem of an artificial person’s potential for being exploited. Ava is Nathan’s creation: not just objectified, but literally an object, and technically a prisoner. As this realization dawns on Caleb, it dawns on the viewer as well, and thrusts them rather effectively into the uncomfortable spaces of Garland’s message. The script drives this twist quite purposefully, and there is an ethical underpinning to it, thematically. But the direction, I think unnecessarily, indulges in the behavior it’s ostensibly critiquing by lingering rather leeringly at the nude robots with whom we’re supposed to sympathize. Films of this nature tread a fine line: are they critiquing exploitation, or actually exploiting? Ex Machina steps over that line and stays there several frames too long. The ogling also breaks the suspension of disbelief; an otherwise immersive story suddenly becomes, transparently, a movie with the seams showing, in which a male director is clearly manipulating his actresses – while, perhaps hypocritically, berating one of his characters for committing the same crime.

That’s a troubling scar, alas, but the surface of the film is otherwise flawless. Garland does, indeed, command this material and one comes away wondering if this one sleazy decision is part of the grander plan: to get the audience to think about the implications of its SFnal premise, and by extension how that reflects back on the uneasy truths of our reality. The best SF does this, and at the end of the day Ex Machina earns that badge.

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Spy 100, #3: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

In my view, the list’s top three selections are unassailably awesome spy films, but it’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) that may be the most perfect. This classic of noir intrigue, based on John Le Carré’s breakout novel, is an elegant masterpiece of convoluted spy fiction plotting. It may not be the most purely enjoyable film on the list, but it’s certainly the tightest, craftiest, and most brilliantly realized one, and its influence still lingers fifty years later.

Based in Berlin, Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is a station chief for British intelligence. When the last of his agents is killed trying to cross the border, he’s called back to London and put out to pasture by his boss, Control (Cyril Cusack). Or is he? As it turns out, Control has one last operation in mind for Leamas: selling him to the East Germans as a defector, in order to implicate the enemy’s top man, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck), of being a British spy. The elaborate, subtle charade involves Leamas’ faked expulsion from the service, a meager new job, and a descent into embittered alcoholism. It also entangles him in an unexpected romance with a co-worker, Nan Perry (Claire Bloom). But ultimately Leamas hits rock bottom, and when he does, enemy spies come out of the woodwork to recruit him. The devious British plan is in effect, but it turns out to be even more devious than Leamas ever imagined.

Shot in stark, elegant black and white by director Martin Ritt, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an absolute classic of dark spy fiction, and surely one of the genre’s most ingenious narratives. Ritt’s take is quite faithful, and represents a rare instance of a film matching the quality of its source material. The script doesn’t pander or over-explain; it simply immerses the viewer in its sordid, mysterious world, stringing together stately sequences that paint a gradual picture, which finally explodes into focus during the final act. In the process, it serves as an unforgiving, vicious rejoinder to the glamorized, wish-fulfillment exploits of James Bond and his suave, spy-fantasy ilk. At the heart of it all, Richard Burton is ferocious as the embattled Leamas, giving one of spy fiction’s most memorable figures an unforgettably riveting performance.

Viewers searching for colorful, escapist spy action will bounce right off of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but diehards attracted to the genre’s murky gray areas and ethical ambiguities will find it an absolutely essential watch.

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