Saturday, October 31, 2015

Our Brand Is Crisis+Burnt (2015)

Cinema polymath David Gordon Green wants to direct every kind of movie from Malickian sun flare panoramas (George Washington, All The Real Girls) to boob comedies (Your Highness and his undisputed masterpiece The Sitter) to road trip 70s throwbacks (the little-seen Prince Avalanche) to Great Actor character studies (the mighty Joe and effete Manglehorn). Now he’s doing his political satire with the George Clooney-sanctioned Our Brand Is Crisis, based on a ND (Notable Documentary) and starring Sandra Bullock, in a role originally meant for Clooney, as “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a vaunted campaign strategist brought out of semi-retirement to run the hopeful ascent of shady Bolivian pol Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) whose opposition is spearheaded by her arch-nemesis Pat (Billy Bob Thornton). The problem is…quick, count how many political satires actually work? Besides, say, The Candidate and, I don’t know, Bullworth, the list is pretty anemic, with movies like Wag The Dog and the recent The Campaign ratcheting up nothing but the smugness of their creators trying to score direct hits and emerging with thin movies and even thinner politics. Crisis works best as a drama and behind-the-scenes exposè, with Jane’s collaborators (among them Zoe Kazan, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy and Anthony Mackie) providing a rich sea of character actor idiosyncrasies. What doesn’t work are the jokes, like hijinks involving animals and dud smear commercials. This has to be the least personal film of Green’s career. He shoots Bolivia like it was anyplace (contrast this with the tactile dread Denis Villeneuve brought to the Mexico of Sicario) and even his usually rich cinematographer Tim Orr hefts up bland Sorkinlike imagery. Still, Bullock’s obsessive grandstanding isn’t a further hindrance—it recalls her underrated turn in the 2009 comedy All About Steve, which was better than her overrated Red State porno The Blind Side—and de Almeida gives a rather thankless role a degree of smarmy depth. Thornton looks like he’d rather be off playing music, and he deserves his own immersion-film like Green gave Cage and Pacino. As it is, Crisis scratches the surface, which Green refused to do in even his crudest paeans to the mainstream.


Burnt (formerly Adam Jones, formerly Chef till it sat in development for so long that Favreau took the title) is a minor film with a major performance by Bradley Cooper. As the formerly titular Adam Jones, exiled star chef who emerges from a past of drug use and fucking people over to start a restaurant in London that will hopefully net him his third Michelin Star, Cooper essentially plays an American Gordon Ramsay—indeed, Ramsay is an executive producer—and, like the notorious celebrity chef, has freakouts and one epic breakdown in the kitchen that heightens the film to must-see status. As someone who has watched hours of Ramsay I always wondered what a great actor would add to his litany of cusses and rage, and seeing Jones after a bad service chewing out his crew (including fellow American Sniper holdover Sienna Miller) makes for an explosion of personality worthy of placement besides real cinematic explosions in Zabriskie Point and The Fury. Yes, the movie begins in a way that makes it feel like it’s own sequel, and the romance and Jones’ redemption strike one as tacked on and unnecessary after screenwriter Steven Knight’s typically astute attention to the details of milieu (he also wrote Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises and last year’s great Locke). Yet Cooper’s mastery keeps Burnt compulsively watchable. The food is gorgeously filmed too. Jones wants his work to be perfect, “not ‘good,’ not ‘excellent,’: perfect” and so does Cooper. Unlike Our Brand Is Crisis this movie doesn’t feel overly fussed over and prodded. Burnt doesn’t have too many cooks in the kitchen. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Jem And The Holograms (2015)

I have to preface this by admitting I have absolutely no relationship to the cartoon that Jem And The Holograms is based on. Sorry. Anyway:

What freezes choreographer/directors? The likes of Kenny Ortega and Adam Shankman always make the most anonymous, joyless films—their understanding of dance never translating to the passionate demands of cinema—and now Step Up sequel guy Jon M. Chu can be added to the list with his Hasbro franchise launch Jem And The Holograms. Aside from the neon fairy tale cinematography by Alice Brooks Jem is oddly slack and dour, Pop without pop.

Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples) lives with her biological sister Kimber (Kimber? Emily VanCamp lookalike Stefanie Scott) and foster sisters Shana and Aja (Aurora Perrineau and Hayley Kiyoko) all being raised by her aunt (tense-faced Molly Ringwald). After an opening montage honoring Youtubers (the endearing ones who make music and Vlog, not the cultural pit of video game commentators) we’re introduced to Jerrica and her tight-knit brood. Peeples, with her true blue eyes and huge, kissable lips, is quite likeable, but her sisters lack appeal and throughout the movie we, like the evil record executive (Juliette Lewis), want Jerrica to go solo.

She’s discovered after donning Liquid Sky makeup and calling herself Jem—based on her deceased father’s nickname for her—in a video that Kimber (Kimber??) uploads to Youtube, making her an overnight sensation. She’s soon whisked away to a series of pop-up shows in Los Angeles with a cutesy robot named Synergy that her father invented in tow. Half the movie chronicles Jem and her sister/bandmates’ rise and struggles, and half is the WTF subplot of Jem following Synergy’s clues to a maudlin dénouement that recalls this year’s mushy mystery Paper Towns.

Jem doesn’t rock as hard as the girl group classic Ladies And Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains. It’s not in the same league. That film connected teen angst with the raw release of performing it out and Jem’s concert scenes are as spontaneous as Synergy’s beeps and programmed graphics. Jem’s songs have no lift; this music is just factory Itunes downloads. (The most memorable song in the film is Hailee Steinfeld’s transcendent masturbation anthem played as incidental music during a red carpet scene.) The best musical moment comes during an impromptu singing session under a pier that Chu thankfully milks—it’s really wonderful—but then we’re back to family sentiment between actors who don’t begin to pass as family members and Jerrica’s flirtations with Rio (What is it with this movie and names? Ryan Guzman), scion of the bigwig record company that signs Jem. 

This reads like a vicious pan, but leaving the theater I didn’t feel any remorse for having seen it, and a late film montage of Youtubers saying how Jem helped their lives is a decent if naïve fantasy of internet democratization. Peeples is agreeable and Lewis is a nasty, catty pleasure, as she usually is. It’s sobering also to see a setup for a follow-up movie when you know the film you’ve watched has bombed. (Pan was the same.) I guess Kesha will never have a chance to go after Jem. A sequel to this movie will always be just a hologram. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Steve Jobs (2015)

I can picture The Onion on Steve Jobs, a large headline reading “Steve Jobs Was A Hero” with the subhead “Was Steve Jobs An Asshole?” A glut of biopics and documentaries have offered dissenting viewpoints, but you can tell which direction Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle bend while watching their new film. As the genius behind items you’re probably using right now, Michael Fassbender plays someone who views himself as a deity if not God himself. Strutting and sniping before his Macintosh, Next and IMac computers, with a mouth as innovative as each invention he presents in the film’s framing device (three product launches, a new machine for each of Sorkin’s acts) Fassbender’s Jobs is a dense, troubled inferno of a man.

Aaron Sorkin writes dialogue the way John Dillinger shot at cops. He’s better when he doesn’t like his characters—Sorkin becomes unbearably precious and didactic when he does—and he clearly has an almost personal set of grievances for Jobs, who denied paternity of his daughter Lisa (played by three different, and talented, actresses during the course of the film), cut down, ignored and used his colleagues (including Seth Rogan as former right hand man and amiable milquetoast Steve Wozniak) and destroyed seemingly every relationship he had save the one with his chief excecutive Joanna Hoffman, played by the usually sturdy Kate Winslet with an oscillating Polish accent.

Sorkin’s script for The Social Network is a masterclass in construction, but the movie was great because David Fincher’s visual expertise sanded over Sorkin’s television thinking and added weight to his words that made them cinematic. Danny Boyle, a hackish director who long buried his promise under cottage cheese aesthetics and pedantic noodling, infuses the screenplay with effects like subliminal inserts, melodramatic music queues and an adherence to Sorkin’s patented “walk and talk” that accomplishes nothing more than showing what Thomas Schlamme would do with Panavision.

Steve Jobs is saved—indeed, it becomes Boyle’s best movie despite his worst intentions—because of the superb acting by Fassbender, Rogan, Jeff Daniels (as Apple CEO John Sculley) and Katherine Waterston as Steve’s baby mama. Waterston has been a constant stunner ever since her breakout role as the melancholic beach bunny in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and she’s deepened her art in Alex Ross Perry’s moody psychodrama Queen Of Earth and here, where as Chrisann she’s liable to explode in hysterics at every dickish thing Jobs says to her. 

A late film verbal battle royale between Jobs and Wozniak, played out in front of an auditorium of sycophantic underlings, is the best scene in the movie, primarily because Boyle trusts Sorkin’s searing words (“It’s not a binary. You can be caring and gifted at the same time,” Woz tells Jobs) and doesn’t try to sabotage them with his “look ma, I’m directing” sensibility. Daniels, settling phlegmatically into his current career typecasting as the tired-eyed businessman (it’s basically the same role he had in The Martian) displays resigned sadness at having to balance one man’s erratic high functionality with the bottom line. Rogan taps into the searching vulnerability of his more dramatically inclined performances, and the great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg issues a cutting putdown that you know will stay with Jobs forever.  

“I’m poorly built,” Jobs tells one of Lisa’s iterations, though he doesn’t believe it himself, at least that’s how Fassbender, one of our finest, plays the moment. He’s above Sorkin’s dramatically uncomplicated mythologizing of real people. The genius/asshole but-who-ultimately-betters-the-world theme was developed with higher art in The Social Network; this feels like spare parts. As a movie it’s poorly built. But Fassbender, man. His commitment unblinking, his Bob Dylan worship lustily specious, his transformation in dress and personality in the journey from the dressing room to the stage efficiently calculated to project another person to his literal worshippers, all these elements coalesce into one of the year’s top acting achievements.

Steve Jobs is stirring but superficial, and undercuts itself by including flashbacks which offset the sweaty real-time feeling of the backstage squabbles. Left to his own devices Boyle is pathetic at worst, and his transitions and tryouts—breaking the “reel” (an effect stolen from Monte Hellmann’s Two Lane Blacktop) and projecting images onto walls as Steve speaks to their importance in his vision—remind us of effort, and we can see him sweat. We can hear Sorkin sweat too, making everything punchy and a tour de force. (He compared himself to Chayefsky at the Oscars, which is like Ronald McDonald judging himself superior to Gordon Ramsay.) Steve Jobs is so often excellent that the failures make one angry. It should have been TV.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Final Girls (2015)

Eli Roth made two of the best movies of the year with The Green Inferno and Knock Knock, and aside from their satirical pleasures and crackerjack filmmaking the double feature offered terror that wasn’t grounded in ghosts. My preferred horror is caused by people, not spirits, and after the box office failure of Roth’s Hostel 2 and the success of the lame Paranormal Activity the scales have unfortunately balanced in the ghosts’ favor. It’s too early to see if Roth’s great twofer will cause a renaissance, but Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls honors the reign of movies that dominated the 80s and influenced Roth.

I gulped in dread during the opening of The Final Girls. Yes, there was a tribute to the low-res company logo of Vestron Video, but Schulson stages parody footage of 80s Slasher movies, specifically the invented Camp Bloodbath. It’s all there: horny girls shouting “woo” before getting dispatched by this movie’s campfire killer Billy Murphy, along with cheeky taglines (“Kum-bay-nooooo!”) all underneath fake “Grindhouse” print scratches which look totally false against digital videography. I thought we were in the realm of Robert Rodriguez’s blind homage trips or the smug genre disgrace Cabin In The Woods.

Then the film got substantially better. Max (Taissa Farmiga from American Horror Story, younger sister of Vera) is still grieving over the loss of her mother Amanda (Malin Akerman) in a car crash three years before. See, Amanda played Nancy the fresh-faced, virginal “good girl” in Camp Bloodbath, and now a fanatic of the series, self-professed “Bathematician” Duncan (Thomas Middleditch, sublime on Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley) asks her to attend a screening of the first Bloodbath. She reluctanctly agrees to go, along with her friends (including Alia Shawkat and Nina Dobrev) but after a fire in the theater the leads escape through a hole in the screen, effectively landing inside the movie.

It’s like Last Action Hero or Pleasantville with Jason Voorhees. Every 92 minutes—the perfect length of an old Slasher—the action restarts in a loop, and Schulson finds inventive ways to enforce the logic of being lodged in a movie: if Max and her friends run away they immediately return to the action, and when Nancy delivers a monologue about Billy’s origin the room liquefies into a portal opening into the fifties. One particularly resonant image has Max looking up at the evening sky where the end credits of Camp Bloodbath run like programmed clouds.

What’s missing is the forbidden sleaze of these movies, the gratuitous nudity and piquant gore. The Final Girls is PG-13 so we’re not in the truly evil realm of Buddy Cooper’s The Mutilator, which is ingeniously vile. But this movie has other offerings. The dynamic between Max and her non-mother is moving and suggests that the relationship between movies and real life has a membrane that begs to be torn down and can even reunite the living and the dead.

It also genuinely reveres Slashers and sees their usual motley of regularly assorted characters as pop archetypes. (Comedy Central star Adam Devine is funny as the horny bro, better here than he was fist-pounding De Niro in Nancy Meyers’ The Intern.) And Farmiga gets the line—“You fucked with the wrong virgin”—that has been on the lips of every actual “Final Girl” in underground film history.

The gimmick of being transported to your favorite movie is an engaging metaphor for obsessive fandom. It isn’t as purely enjoyable as Schulson’s Harold And Kumar sequel, and has the residue of On Demand disposability, but The Final Girls is unexpectedly soulful and in the last third photographed like the American slasher giallo that never was.


This movie got me reflecting on my lifelong relationship with Slasher movies. I would have been a Billy Murphy fan. As a child I imagined the Jason series as a utopia of overflowing female nudity and cherry-red blood. Rewatching the 4th Friday The 13th chapter I was startled by the waste of human life and the time it built up characters (like Crispin Glover’s Jimbo) only to furiously end them and never mention their arcs again. The Final Girls isn’t a real Slasher but it refreshingly meditates on the off-screen history of these movies, the quotidian post-shoot lives of the actors and the magic the idea of Slashers holds for young viewers. That magic doesn’t burn as bright for me anymore (the Roth films offer more riches than mere gorehound-pleasing) but The Final Girls brought some of it back with new dimensions.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Experimenter (2015)

Harold Bloom once judged John Updike as being a minor talent with a major style and I think that applies to Michael Almereyda, the director of the cerebral new biopic/character study Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story. His work is unassuming, modest in ambition and tightly edited. His fiction features include the strange vampire noir Nadja and the sleek modern day Hamlet, and he’s also produced documentaries, including 2009’s affecting mosaic Paradise, a travelogue that encompassed everything from the set of Malick’s The New World to late portraiture of Manny Farber. Paradise was my favorite Almereyda until Experimenter, a movie that goes by so quickly (a svelte 90 minutes) you may not notice just how thorny and strange it is.

This resembles Mark Rappaport’s essay films more than medical movie treatises like, say, the heinous Awakenings. Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) narrates directly to the screen while standing in front of rear-projection backgrounds and still photographs standing in for sets. Every time conventionality seems ready to pounce—mainly in the form of Milgram’s wife Sasha (Winona Ryder)—Almereyda layers on the meta.

In Rappaport’s great trio of documentary essays, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, From The Journals Of Jean Seberg and Color Me Lavender, actors narrated the subterranean relationships in movie history while standing in front of frozen film clips and the artificially obvious. Sarsgaard acts as a Rappaportian guide, taking us step by step through his controversial social psychology tests. Twice as he’s pacing through a hallway addressing us an elephant walks behind him in one of Almereyda’s further audacious touches. What does the elephant mean? Well, what do the experiments (which I won’t go into here because you can easily Google them) reveal—about cruelty and base human nature?

No actor can be as interesting or dull as Sarsgaard, and he’s on fire as Milgram, his furrowed, piercing eyes (and later film beard that looks as fake as most of the film’s interiors) registering cold delight in what his work unveils. Your perception of his success or failure has a lot to do what how you view humanity. Was Milgram wrong in deceiving his subjects? As the experimentees we’re treated to a wealth of good actors (John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin, Taryn Manning, Anthony Edwards) all allowed terrible epiphanies about what they’re capable of and how they approach or defy authority. The cold, barren headquarters where Milgram operates is in effect the only “real” place in the movie—houses and cars are flimsy stages because to Milgram the only location that has definition for him is the controlled academic dungeon where he is overlord and potential savior. 

I call Almereyda “minor” because his work, fine as it often is, doesn’t make great claims for itself, it doesn’t try to swallow you up. When he comes at you with a formal surprise it’s a genuine shock, like those ostensibly administered to the “learner” (Jim Gaffigan) in the experiment. Soderbergh would likely darken this material, but Almereyda keeps the spectrum breezy, clipped, pithy, like an objective report for the archives. “1984 was also the year that I died,” Milgram tells us with the throwaway casualness of an anecdote. Nothing, not even mortality, is as genuine or important to Milgram as what he gets from other people.

Winona Ryder’s career still hasn’t quite recovered from her shoplifting incident (come on, it’s just stuff!) and seeing her is always welcome even though she doesn’t leave much of an imprint on Experimenter, which is the point. Stanley Milgram isn’t one for domesticity. He briefly mentions his daughter but then digresses with “but at this part of the story she hasn’t been born yet” or words to that effect. His real children, his real marriage, is in the twitch of face and reaction brought on by those administering painful punishment, or what they think is punishment. There’s pathos in that, but the movie is too fleet-footed to dwell. Experimenter is an experiment itself, fooling us into thinking we’re watching something slight. Yet we think about it, and its volts accumulate. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Assassin (2015)

His camera doesn’t pan, it floats. His narratives leave things out for the sake of meditating on the enigmas of life and human personalities. His triumphs, which include The Puppetmaster, Three Times and Flight Of The Red Balloon are the equal of anything by Bresson, another master of soulful austerity. Only Lav Diaz’s scenes put me in as much of a trance as Hou Hsio-Hsien’s, and while Lav owns the year with his two knockouts Storm Children: Book One and From What Is Before (both tragically screened once in this country), Hou’s new film The Assassin nears that standard. Nobody besides Diaz and Godard is making better cinema right now.

Set in 9th century China, The Assassin lingers on the aura of impending violence until that violence cuts aggressively through the air. It’s the story, or rather the languorous study, of Yinniang (Shu Qi) a girl taken from her home by a nun as a child to be trained as a killer for profit. When she’s grown, Yinniang is tasked with ending the life of Tian (Chang Chen), a young nobleman. The problem is, they were childhood sweethearts before she was taken off, as he tells his bride (Zhou Yun). Yinniang lingers around his palace like a living ghost, biding her time until she decides whether she can bring herself to dispatch him or not. A description of the story may deliver more clarity than the telling of it, as Hou films and edits with elliptical grace.

The longest scene of exposition is delivered in a wide shot with a veil separating the characters from the camera; when the veil, like the past, is lifted and we see the people clearly, bludgeoned by the dread clarity of the present tense, the moment is a visual essay on the nature of time more than it is simple background filling-in.

The action scenes don’t work like they do in movies like Hero and House Of Flying Daggers—the movie isn’t about them. When conflict escalates, the confrontations are swift, harried, even a little awkward, not unlike the human impediments slowing down the action (as it naturally happens in life) in Bresson’s Lancelot Of The Lake. Blood doesn’t spray as it would in a Miike or Lady Snowblood, yet Hou’s cutting in these sequences is breathless. The sound of Yinniang’s blade hitting its target is just as visceral as a shot of the inevitable gash would be. Hou is capable of action but doesn’t indulge it in "awesome" terms, as Yimou does. He’s an artist probing for human truths and thematically limning the indifference of nature, providing the most rapturous color photography of landscape since Assayas’ Clouds Of Sils Maria.

A final meeting between the assassin and her master is framed on a hill with the sky’s debris closing in, a grand composition reminiscent of the later sections of Godard’s Contempt. Like Godard, Hou is a poet of moments: the looks between the assassin and her love as they duel, the slow motion slitting of a throat in black and white, a group walking through marshes with their cattle under the exciting din of Lim Giong‘s music. Watching this extraordinary film you wouldn’t think Hou has taken an unfortunate 7-year absence from directing; he must have been planning every inch of The Assassin the whole time.   

The acting is superbly controlled. The actors in Hou’s films always seem to collaborate with his generous camera, and like his other period efforts (The Flowers Of Shanghai, the middle portion of Three Times) the performers blend into the costumes and set design without being lost to them. Chen is especially poignant with his wide, expressive eyes and dignified facial hair. As the assassin, Qi‘s steely face never quakes into betraying the emotional divisions that are ripping her up inside. As Lady Tian, Yun plays a woman who reveals herself to have just as much mystery as her lord’s potential assassin. And as Jiaxin, Yinniang’s trainer, Fang-Yi Sheu exudes an icy sheen that lacks her protégé’s buried but existent vulnerability. Their stories are conveyed with knowledge of the wonder of faces and almost balletic movement.

What will Hou give us next? I don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for another film, but I can go a few years because his current offering is inexhaustible.   

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Crimson Peak+Pan+Goosebumps (2015)

Mia Wasikowska is a beautiful chameleon. She has the star spangled eyes and cream features that’s catnip to high-end literary movie producers who make her Jane Eyre and Emma Bovary, but she soars—and seems to be having the most fun—in more perverse ventures. She was at her best (and the best thing about) David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars, and her triumph to date has been as the murderous India Stoker in the garishly entertaining movie of her name. Now she’s Edith Cushing, amateur novelist and glossy socialite in Guillermo Del Toro’s new “One-for-me” Crimson Peak. It’s unfortunate that Del Toro didn’t cast her as the evil, incestuous Lucille (Jessica Chastain), sister of Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who courts Edith, marries her after the mysterious death of her father, and takes her to the sprawling, ruinous Allerdale (groan) Hall. Wasikowska can play evil better than Chastain, and Cronenberg and Park Chan-Wook (director of Stoker) used her with far more Bad Seed finesse. Crimson Peak is handsomely mounted but stale and rambling. It reminds one less of Mario Bava than Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland (Mia’s breakout), which isn’t a good thing at all.

The film never recovers from its earliest blunders, like having the ghost of Edith’s mother come to warn her of Crimson Peak twice within the first twenty minutes, and bogging the scenery down with prim Period Piece jabber that unconvincingly streams from the mouths of the principles (including Jim Beaver as Edith’s father and a wasted Charlie Hunnam once more doing his faulty American accent). Crimson Peak is a bad period piece and an even worse horror movie. Once Edith marries Thomas she, and the audience, become stuck in the mansion where the set design and lavish color photography do most of the heavy lifting. The actors are stranded by Del Toro’s misplaced enthusiasm, and the screenplay (co-written by veteran Matthew Robbins) galumphs through tame bodice rippings and a foggy central mystery. Ironically, Del Toro’s most purely enjoyable and streamlined movie was 2013’s Pacific Rim; I liked it far more than his “personal” projects like Pan’s Labyrinth and the horrendous Hellboy series. If Rim is what he has to do to make movies like Crimson Peak he should do more of them because they bring out his true talents as a mainstream entertainer rather than as a “visionary.”

There are three kinds of Jessica Chastain movies: the good (Tree Of Life, Take Shelter), the bad (Intersteller) and the actually unwatchable (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, A Most Violent Year). Crimson Peak isn’t unwatchable—Del Toro knows how to shoot, color and frame a movie, and it’s very tempting to bathe in the delectable reds and serene snowfall dancing to the ground in the mansion’s interior—but it is definitely bad, with final scenes that are dire in their lack of imagination. I would think Del Toro would have advanced beyond the “talking killer” device. I was never a big Hammer Horror fan (I always preferred Roger Corman’s Poe movies) and at its worst Crimson Peak recalls the expository blandness of the dullest Hammers. He should have studied Bava harder to find a way to get his effects with little talk and more brevity (at 80 minutes a movie like Whip And The Body accomplishes more than Del Toro’s film does in a bloated two hour runtime).

With Crimson Peak Del Toro tarnishes what he loves and stifles the talents of a promising performer. You wouldn’t even know that Tom Hiddleston is the exciting thespian of The Deep Blue Sea, War Horse and Only Lovers Left Alive by the evidence of his simpering turn here. Not that Hiddleston can be blamed—Del Toro cares more about Doug Jones in a variety of costumes than he does his more than capable leads. In his jumble of actors and narrative Del Toro proves himself to be one of the most profoundly overrated of the Ain’t It Cool Saints. 


Pan turned out to be a very apropos title as the movie sunk like a cannon-torn pirate ship, though I like it, as I also liked director Joe Wright’s Hanna. (He should stick to trash material instead of his high-lit aspirations.) It never matches the razzmatazz invention of its early scenes, like a battle between WWII-era bombers and a flying ship that could have been thought up by Pynchon (it indeed is a combo of Gravity’s Rainbow and Against The Day) as well as a cadre of orphan miners singing Nirvana along with the evil Captain Blackbeard (appropriately hammy Hugh Jackman). Nevertheless, Rooney Mara and the John Huston (or is it Daniel Plainview?) sound-alike Gerrett Hedlund make for spirited guides through the busy remainder, and some beautifully conceived flashbacks along with Cara Delevingne as a trio of topless mermaids help make Pan a movie Pauline Kael might have also called a Bliss-out.It's also far better than the similar, and wretched, Oz: The Great And Powerful and the anachronisms better Baz's, as the movie is infinitely better than anything he's done that I've panned.


Goosebumps is wondrous. As a child I always responded to the book cover illustrations more than the actual content of R.L. Stine’s writing, which is fitting because Rob Letterman’s homage to the popular young adult horror author takes those elegantly detailed pop cartoons—abominable snowmen, talking ventriloquist dummies, evil garden gnomes—and sets them off like Gremlins when its revealed that Stein (Jack Black, in his best since Bernie)’s powerful imagination makes the monsters real and they must be contained in locked manuscripts while Stein and his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) keep a reclusive existence in a small nowhere town. This is discovered by Zach (Dylan Minnette), a normal kid suffering in silence from the death of his father and moved to Madison, Delaware by Mom (Amy Ryan, starring in the second terrific movie I’ve seen over the last two days). This is a pungent writer’s fantasy, made cinematically expressive in shots of the actual ink of the books taking tactile shape and morphing into the various beasts (reminding the marathon viewer of exposition deployed through living woodcuts and water sprites in Pan). Goosebumps is deftly wrought entertainment with exhilarated pacing and fine comedic turns by people you didn’t expect to show up (Ken Marino, Jonah from Veep), but in the treatment of Stein’s most beloved creation it levitates into the realm of moving profundity. One of the heroes doesn’t know they’re a product of Stein’s imagination, and the moment where another character realizes this comes when elegiac moonlight seeps through the invention’s body, making it glow transparently. This is gothic lyricism miles beyond Del Toro’s lax ideas, as well as one of the most poignant commentaries on the magic and cost of writing that I’ve seen in years. Letterman provides the kind of Americana romantic crush poetry that Joe Dante used to effortlessly pull off before seemingly losing all his gifts in this year’s more-abominable-than-the-snowman Burying The Ex. Rob Letterman is the new Joe Dante, and is a fulfillment of the claims Del Toro’s fans overheatedly make. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Bridge Of Spies (2015)

Why Spielberg? I’ve been asked that before and I’ve wondered that before. As a graduate student in film I’ve seen great hostility expressed towards the most famous director in the history of cinema, and my enthusiasm for his work is something I’ve had to keep close to my chest in order to avoid being laughed out of academia. Yet I love Steven Spielberg’s movies and his latest, the Cold War mini-epic Bridge Of Spies, is no different.

This is a luminous cavalcade of brisk suited G-Men raiding rooms, espionage meetings in trashy motels, classrooms showing bombed out propoganda, the wilds of divided Berlin where insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks, playing his usual Magical White Man role) speeds around to negotiate the prisoner exchange of a captured soviet agent (Mark Rylance) with two imprisoned Americans, a crash-landed soldier and a detained academic. Spielberg’s immaculate craft and unparalleled knack for bringing out the ideas and essence of his material through shot composition, camera movement and the precise color-noir of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is in full bloom here, though detractors will find much to detract, specifically Hanks’ shade-free characterization and Spielberg’s infusion of music after nearly an hour without it. Hey, I always liked Capra Corn, and Spielberg Corn is always brocaded with a tough-minded view of the world’s foibles and ironies.

What Hanks lacks in complexity Rylance fulfills in a quietly stunning performance as the dual spy and austere amateur painter Abel. During a tour de force opening, silent save for the horn honks and outside bustle of 50s Brooklyn, Abel is seen working diligently on a self-portrait, walking to the subway—hey, is that someone following him?—and picking up a dispatch in the park. By the time he utters his first line, “Visitors?”, at arresting officers, the question Why Spielberg has already been answered. Despite the hatred thrown his way by virtually the entire country, Donovan defends him and Spielberg consequently does too. “The human part, the only part worth knowing,” were the sign-off words for the great HBO series Oz and that dictum is the philosophy for both director and lead character. 

Abel is a spy for the other side, but he’s also a human being, and as in his problematic, lesser Abraham Lincoln movie Spielberg leapfrogs over history’s wrong side. Bridge Of Spies has the entertaining levity Spielberg denied himself in Lincoln, a failing because Spielberg works best when he allows himself humor (excepting A.I., his grand tragedy of pornographic aesthetics). Bridge includes the kind of solemn talky sequences that were perhaps too much employed in Lincoln—though Spielberg certainly makes talk cinematic, as Preminger did—but, as opposed to Lincoln, these moments are alleviated by glint and crackle, such as Jim’s almost screwball quest to find a man named Vogel while coming up short with German mothers almost Fassbinderish in their puff and heft. 

The screenplay, unlikely co-written by the Coen Brothers, stomps out any of their natural comedic flair like it was bugs in the carpet. I suspect the Coens did this themselves, working like a record producer to bring out the best that Spielberg is capable of. When, at the final swap on the titular snow swallowed bridge, Abel tells Jim that “This is your gift” and then repeats it, it’s the Coens using sentiment they would boot from their own films but in the Spielberg context it works as well as E.T.’s profoundly mundane advice to Drew Barrymore to “be good.”

E.T. is a good place to start when connecting Bridge Of Spies to the rest of the Spielberg canon. It is also the story of sending a marooned alien home, and though Spielberg would probably group this in with his capital-H History films (Amistad, Schindler’s List, Lincoln) it is an adventure story, a cloak and dagger Indiana Jones fable. Light and dark duel as they did in Spielberg’s “childish” entertainment (which is paradoxically his most mature work); the complex visual palette—dismissed as “mournful” by Armond White, who strangely accepted the oppressive drainage in Minority Report—makes color into a character, from the warm interiors of Jim’s home life and skeptical spouse (Amy Ryan, used in a way that’s progressively subtle) to the washed out Quintet winterscape of Berlin (which Donovan enters like Indy entered the Temple Of Doom) and the blue hued a.m. diners and bellicose top secret military hangers in between. 

He stages a plane crash that, while powerful, includes a brilliant visual joke that’s so gimcrack you might miss it. He is still playing with form and possibilities: a masterstroke of a cut takes us from the courtroom where an utterance of “all rise” sparks a swift transition to children in a classroom giving the pledge of allegiance. It’s the most purely audacious cinematic moment since Godard’s divided split screen in Goodbye To Language 3D. A dissolve between two faces vital to the narrative is held so the faces stare at us, and on a big screen and in the thrust of the story to follow that dual-headed composition issues a pictorial essay on fate that only movies can pull off.

A secret thread of the picture is the treatment, or rather non-treatment, of women. Secretaries close doors for big secret male meetings and the most resonant shot of a female is when we view one of Abel’s paintings as he’s led out of a cell, though Ryan’s wife seems to fight against the tide of the era, especially when she asserts herself, agreeing with a colleague’s warning of the “cost” of what to Donovan has become a mission. Spielberg is shy of women but he is also critical of the “man’s world” that leads to frightened children and forced suicidal practices. I’d rather a director be shy and smart in regards to women than moralizing about how they have to “clean themselves up” (it’s hard to domesticate Amy Schumer, but Apatow managed).

While Spielberg’s best handling of this kind of heightened airport novel was in the mighty Munich, he achieves a more affecting conclusion than that film. On the subway after having success in the Berlin trade-off, Donovan looks out the window to see kids jumping over a fence, instantly causing him to remember the murdered Germans trying to climb the dividing cement wall during his sojourn there. Spielberg holds on a shot of Hanks staring dumbfounded out the window, recalling the framing device of De Palma’s Casualties Of War where, also on a train, Michael J. Fox saw a vision that brought the dread and terror of overseas malfeasance to our “safe” shores. Bridge Of Spies is rich and wise, the work of a director gracefully entering his “Old Master” years. Like Abel’s work, it is a self-portrait of its creator and his engagement with history, humanity and his own elevated art.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Forbidden Room (2015)

The Forbidden Room reminds me more of John Ashbery’s poetry than it does other movies. 

Co-directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, this relentless cine freefall actually has a co-writer credit for the 88 year-old poet, who is cited for penning the bookending PSA spoof “How To Take A Bath.” Ashbery’s poems never end where they start and poetry critic Helen Vendler once wrote about his “eel-like darting.” Maddin and Johnson are eel-like darters throughout these two-hours of digressions and narrative wormholes, coquettishly sustained even though all the gags (primarily the moustache jokes) didn’t entirely agree with me. Regardless, this Technicolor odyssey plays, like the best Ashbery reads, as the revenge memory of cast-off things, in this instance cinematic trash in forgotten movies that play at 3 in the morning and feature submarines, jungles, squid theft, motorcycle crashes, amnesia and skeleton leotard laffs. Ashbery and Maddin have been recently displaying their collage art in galleries and The Forbidden Room is a moving, bleeding extension of that work. The frame digitally fissures as the ominous and the absurd are pumped through a revolving door (or is it subconscious mansion?) where lumberjacks, flapjacks, broken bones and Udo Kier all densely dance. If this isn’t the best Maddin (I think that would probably be 2008’s My Winnipeg) it is certainly the most Maddin.

Breaking down a list of the cast would be pointless because each character (“Margot!” “The Loyal Servant!”) is introduced in silent era title cards along with the actor’s name. There are people we recognize—Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Mathieu Amalric, Maria De Medeiros, Kim Morgan—and many we don’t, and as a pileup of idiosyncratic facial expressions this film rivals German’s companion carnival masterpiece Hard To Be A God (though Maddin’s canvas is far less monochromatically gruesome). Mostly, though, this is a director’s movie, or director-as-poet’s. “Pucker your ankles” a poem in Ashbery’s new collection Breezeway begins. But before we have balance, before we can say “who’s ankles?” he’s on the next thing, just as Maddin pitches an amnesiac woman (“Margot!”) into a nightclub and then interrupts matters to focus on a sweaty patron (Kier, in one of many roles) obsessed with the female posterior and getting brain sugary (“A little off the top”) to cure himself. 

After the disappointing Keyhole, where Maddin’s invention veered into self-parody, The Forbidden Room offers a rejuvenated artist. I think it took his collaborations with Ashbery to help Maddin let loose. Keyhole was hampered by a reliance on a single narrative while The Forbidden Room keeps blossoming and not only avoids being repetitive or numbing but, again like Ashbery’s poetry, makes us question our relationship to linearity and timeline in the art we absorb.

If movies are all A B and C this one is all A’s and C’s; indeed towards the end one of Maddin’s travelers finds a tome called “The Book Of Climaxes,” and as he reads it we’re treated to a blistering montage of end-of-film kisses and hot air balloon collisions. Like a knowing young woman at a school dance, The Forbidden Room avoids being pinned down—that eel-like darting again—but if it “means” anything this insanity is a benign challenge to our preconceived process of watching a movie. David Lynch did the Russian Doll conceit with more emotional heft in the metropolis of Inland Empire but Maddin isn’t after audience commitment or catharsis. Stuff just happens: a blind mother receives answers from her son via phonograph recordings, endless expository text flies on the screen, advancing nothing, slashes of Maddin’s oeuvre make themselves known (there’s the towering mother figures of Brand Upon The Brain!, the balletic genre deconstruction of Dracula, the period anti-detail of Archangel, the identity politics of My Winnipeg, thankfully not much of Keyhole) and Ashbery’s influence reigns supreme.

Like Godard’s most recent film, The Forbidden Room is a labyrinthine roadrunner. Call it Goodbye To Storytelling—hello to new possibilities, new rooms.