From the Archive — Primeval and Bats

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Sometimes I wish I’d had a silly online outlet for tapping out my impressions of visual entertainment back in the days when my household regularly hosted small, snarky crowds for double features of cinematic misfortune. Sadly, I have no old review of Shadow Conspiracy to share. Technically, Bats was included in one of those original evenings, but I didn’t remember that when we put this combo together several years later. An attendee of the first go-round reminded me, noting it was paired with Lake Placid. Anyway, this very loose reflection was written for and posted at my former online home.

Last night’s Bad Movie Night was more of an impromptu affair than our previous exercise in movie masochism. Our first feature has been on our DVR for a couple weeks now because any movie attached to a poster with that many discarded human skeleton bits on it is a movie that my partner-in-all-things is going to need to watch at some point. After deciding we didn’t have the mental wherewithal for our patiently waiting Netflix DVD and indulging in several minutes of a familiar good movie, we decided it was time for some cinematic ugliness.

We pressed play on Primeval (Michael Katleman, 2007). It begins efficiently enough. The filmmakers have only cursory interest in pesky things like character development and backstory. Instead, they introduce the characters and give them a reason to jet off to Burundi to track down a gigantic killer crocodile. That no-nonsense approach stops when the trio of bickering unlikely adventurers touch down in Africa. More characters get introduced and the filmmakers keep taking stabs at media, social, or geopolitical commentary like a disaffected teen trying on so many interchangeably bland tops at the local ShopKo. When the discernible I.Q. of your film is in the Pauly Shore range, you’re probably better off spending time considering your freakishly large reptile than the smothering danger of man’s inhumanity to man played out across the savanna. That array of jokes that revolve around the way that “croc” rhymes with “cock”? That’s your strong suit.

Avoiding the crocodile is a little more understanding as it moves into the spotlight for its star turn in the second half and the low-budget CGI emerges in all it’s snowy shimmer. The actors do their best, but since the cast is assembled from the sort of aspiring-to-the-B-List, happy-to-be-working variety folks who usually populate these films, best is a very relative term. For all I know, Dominic Purcell is a broody sensation on Fox’s “Prison Break,” but he’ll always be John Doe to me, which means that any of his numerable moments of exposition earns some extra giggles in our household. You can also pass time by considering how recently it was that Orlando Jones was considered someone on the way up in Hollywood.

For the second film (double features are a necessity on Bad Movie Night) we could have gone to one of the sorry standbys. Before pulling that ripcord, we checked the various cable channels to see if there may have been a fortuitous showing of something that would pair nicely with Primeval, which leads us to Bats (Louis Morneau, 1999).

Bats stars Lou Diamond Phillips (perhaps thinking about the days when Oscar votes weren’t an unlikely result of his efforts) as a Texas sheriff working with a foxy chiroptologist to combat an invasion of super-intelligent bats created by every moviegoer’s favorite evil warden. These adversaries with glowing red eyes and glistening fangs seem about as formidable as that rubbery photo above indicates. At one point, Phillip’s character snarls about being up to his chest in bat shot. He could have been speaking for anyone watching the film.

From the Archive — In the Valley of Elah

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For many, Paul Haggis will forever be the person who directed the most egregious Best Picture Oscar-winner of the past twenty-five years. He’s not. That honor belongs to Ron Howard. I’ll over no further defense of Crash at this time (although I’ll admit I can) and will instead note that Haggis’s follow-up directorial effort is a solid film and boasts a couple tremendous performances. This review was written for my former online home.

The sophomore directorial effort from Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah, takes on the Iraq war with a pointed urgency. More specifically (or more broadly, depending on how you look at it) the film grapples with the cost of war on the people who wage it, those who love them and the very psyche of the country immersed in it. Like Haggis’s Oscar-grabbing Crash, the film is heavy with ambition, examining a multitude of layers in addressing the social ills it puts in its sights. Unlike Crash, it largely overcomes any tendency towards oversimplification or, worse, manipulating the characters and the situations to craft scenarios that state the filmmaker’s thesis with a leaden thump. Instead, it tells a wrenching story with grace and integrity. Even when a scene rings a bit false, it at least feels like it’s still part of the story at hand rather than a Crash-like attempt to show off every bit of the politicized pinwheel.

The story focuses on a man who finds out that his enlisted son has one missing after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Not one for adjusting to others’ paces when a problem needs solving, he loads into his pickup truck and begins investigating the situation for himself. The film is structured as a mystery, with the discoveries of new details regarding the son’s disappearance going hand-in-hand with discoveries about the life the son was leading. The father is played by Tommy Lee Jones as man of conservative dignity, addressing the topless waitress in a topless bar as “ma’am” and unwilling to be seen in his undershirt. Watching him encounter the seediness his son moved through is to realize the film is less about clues to this young soldier’s death and more about clues to his damaged life.

Jones gives a great performance in the lead role. I’ll grant that I only have so much authority to make an decisive statement on his recent career, having remorselessly bypassed many performances, but I still feel confident calling this the finest work he’s delivered since getting a shiny little statue several years ago. Jones subtly shows the crumbling belief system of his character as time and again his personally held truisms about his son, the military, the country and his own approach to the world are proven tragically, hopelessly wrong. Jones has never been shy about infusing some bombast into his characters and there are few actors more capable of spinning warped line readings into revelatory character moments, but here he withdraws and plays everything tight and perfect, showing his inner wounds through his eyes. Charlize Theron is excellent, too, playing a police officer who gets drawn into the case and struggles against the inherent sexism in her department.

That last detail, however, also represents one of the weaker elements of the film, the portions where those who bristle against Haggis’s social-statements-by-numbers soapboxing will find ample evidence that there’s still plenty of weight left in those heavy hands of his. While some of the scenes with her hostile cohorts have the snap of genuine exasperation in the way they depict the reflexive nature of the misogyny, enough others stumble along as undercooked nonsense from a screenwriter laboring to make a point. There are other less glaring moments, as well, but the most significant test of patience may be the final shot. It is the obvious close of the film from the moment it is set up in the first act, and the gesture depicted underlines Haggis’s arguments with blaring emphasis. This is a major punctuation mark attached to the end of the film, as if Haggis has closed with a graphic of a exclamation point. As opposed to the glistening fakery of the cleansing snow at the end of Crash, though, it still feels in character and holds enough hard truth to make it feel less like a manipulation and more like a man coming full circle, returning to a moment from the beginning of the journey that changed him forever.

From the Archive — The Orphanage

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It appears director J.A. Bayona is on his way to a second straight week at the top of the box office. To a large degree, that’s attributable to being handed the keys to the right ongoing cinematic venture. I can’t speak to the quality of the latest edition of Dinosaur Land, but when I reviews Bayona’s feature debut, it sure looked to me like he has some impressive skills. This was originally posted at my former online home.

Picturehouse Entertainment has made sure that producer Guillermo del Toro’s name figures prominently in promotional efforts for the new film The Orphanage, undoubtedly hoping that some of the moviegoers that made 2006’s dark fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth into a modest hit will exchange dollars for tickets to see this Spanish-language film. Fans of Pan aren’t necessarily going to have an automatic affinity for this film, but those who recall del Toro’s exquisitely bleak dalliance with the dark with The Devil’s Backbone may be another matter.

Like Backbone, The Orphanage is a moody, elegant ghost story which makes great use of simple, unsettling imagery. This film follows a woman who brings her husband and adopted son back to the orphanage where she grew up, fulling intending to revive the imposing structure to make it into a sort of group home for special needs children. The fates (and filmmakers) have different plans. Screenwriter Sergio Sanchez and director Juan Antonio Bayona use long hallways, creaking doors and enveloping shadows to great effect. There’s a clear understanding that the sort of cheap jolts are commonplace in U.S. horror films isn’t nearly as potent as long, agonizing considerations of deep-set, unidentifiable noises or probing eyes staring out of a rudimentary mask. The suddenness of an unexpected figure jumping from the dark may get the adrenaline rushing. The smothering anticipation of something horrific emerging will haunt dreams. (That’s not to say they’re completely immune from the temptation to shock as at least one moment relies on mere surprise to make it work, and it winds up as one the film’s weaker points.)

A film like this also benefits immeasurably from good acting, usually not a priority for those who craft films likely to be labeled “Horror.” In the lead, Belen Rueda is completely committed to finding the honesty in the supernatural goings-on. She plays the grief, desperation, personal fortitude and fear of her character with a grueling exactitude. Even when the film shows some narrative strain–the unconvincing skepticism of other characters or plain familiarity of the storyline–Rueda wrenches it back into effectiveness with the conviction of her acting.

Bayona is very strong and creating mood and ever better at developing tension. The film may occasionally falter in ways typical of the genre, but Bayona’s elegant shot construction (the beautiful cinematography is by Oscar Fauna) and assured visual storytelling help smooth over those rough patches, including the unnecessary coda which washes away the mild ambiguity of the scene that immediately precedes it and should have been the film’s closing note. Thanks to the honorable efforts of Bayona and his collaborators, The Orphanage is sharp and deep and, yes, scary.

From the Archive — Eastern Promises

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This italicized portion usually contains some modern pontificating on the earlier writing presented in this weekly feature. In this instance, though, I have no annotations. This review was written for my former online home.

David Cronenberg’s last film was called A History of Violence, which would be an apt title for his latest since that is as good of a description as any for what is tattooed on the skin of the Russian gangsters at the center of the story. The inked markings are intended to be a map of their villainous accomplishments and stature within the organizational pecking order, and, through the lens of Cronenberg, it makes for an immediately imposing image, a sharp signal of the brutality that can emerge at any moment.

Of course, The History of Violence could be comfortably assigned to any number of Cronenberg films or maybe his career as a whole, so Eastern Promises is just fine as this new film’s title.

“Just fine” is also a decent summary for the film as a whole. A medical emergency brings a midwife played by Naomi Watts into contact with the Russian Mafia in London. Secrets emerge, family strife is laid bare, an infant’s future lies in the balance, and it’s largely sedate, predictable and–most shocking given the director–a little pedestrian. It’s not bad, by any means, but nor does it get under your skin. It improves in its last third with a few genuinely surprising twists that go a long way towards making the earlier portions more intellectually satisfying even if it doesn’t inspire a sudden emotional investment.

One thing that’s fully rewarding is to see a fresh entry in the collaboration between Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen. Just as Violence represented unprecedented accomplishment in Mortensen’s lead performance, so too is Promises another new pinnacle. He plays a criminal foot soldier who is both a stolid observer and a careful contributor. Mortensen takes this seemingly passive role and infuses it with a flinty inner life. Even before Promises sparks to life in its final third, Mortenson’s creativity is a cue that the film holds more potential than is apparent.

From the Archive — Superbad

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Emma Stone and Jonah Hill have been nominated for the same number of Academy Awards. Stone’s win obviously gives her the edge in any tallying up of awards acclaim, but it remains an odd alignment given that any reasonable assessment of the two pegs Stone as the stronger actor. I wish I could boast that I celebrated Stone’s acting when I wrote about Superbad ages ago. The evidence is clear, though. Much as I found her winning, I didn’t feel compelled to cite her work. As always when it comes to features with Judd Apatow’s name on the credit, I devoted an overabundance of words to my mixed emotions around his clear influence in the finished product.

It’s amazing how quickly this Judd Apatow brand has developed. Just a few years ago he was best known, if he was known at all, for serving as producer on a batch of television series that were woefully underappreciated, even though they just got better and better and better. Now he’s the anointed savior of big screen comedy, the guy who single-handedly is rescuing moviegoers from the entrenched safety of tepid, PG-13, mirthless constructions in favor of wildly profane expressions of the id, wringing high comedy from the minefields of modern masculinity. This perception is now so entrenched that the new film Superbad arrives with nary a mention that creators other than Apatow were deeply involved, even though Apatow is only credited as the producer of the film.

In a way that’s understandable as Superbad feels more directly related to Apatow’s own directing efforts The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked up than other films he’s signed his name to as producer in recent years. The tone is recognizably in line with Apatow’s own, his primary theme of the tug of war between maturity and ribald boyishness is vividly in place, and it has the suddenly familiar parade of old Freaks and Geeks friends, including the scary old drunk guy from “Beers and Weirs.” And it’s hard to believe that Apatow didn’t have a hand in helping Freaks and Knocked Up cast member Seth Rogen shape the screenplay he wrote with a high school friend into something that could entice a major studio. Maybe the really remarkable thing is that Apatow has developed such a clear signature with so few film outings.

Superbad is a familiar comedy about high school buddies looking for sexual conquests as graduation and a world of nothing but changes looms. It is delivered with a bit more intelligence, far more daring, and aspirations to something more lasting than the films that haunted the late hours of HBO in the mid-1980’s. While very funny, it’s also somewhat scattershot. There are stretches that spin with improvisational glee, but could also have used a little pruning. Director Greg Mottola employs a technique that’s clean and open. He draws it all in and orchestrates certain sequences very well (a nightmare vision of what happens when you’re still throwing high school parties fifteen years after graduation is especially notable). A little added panache in the editing room might have bolstered the whole film. There are plainly portions of the film where Mottola doesn’t seem to know that he’s already delivered his joke and it’s time to move on.

In the leading roles, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera both play on established personae to great effect. Hill is the same sort of aggressive, exasperated character he played in Knocked Up, and Cera’s incredibly sincere Evan lets him use the awkward stammers and other verbal card shuffles he honed to perfection on Arrested Development. The contrast between the styles is sharp and strong enough to enhance their comic teamwork even if it makes it a little hard to see the hearty friendship that is central to the movie’s emotional pull.

Since I’ve already (like everyone else) extensively considered this film’s placement in the Apatow oeuvre, here’s one more thought. Both Virgin and Knocked up seem to argue that the warm comfort of romantic relationships in better than the the dispiriting cycle of male friendship atrophied into redundancy. Superbad is the counterargument. As the boys connect with charming, highly understanding and forgiving girls, their friendship is symbolically and sadly sacrificed. Visually it is literally depicted as a descent. Maybe the film’s viewpoint is unique, after all.

From the Archive — Atonement

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Since I recently lobbed a few ill words in the direction of Joe Wright’s latest Best Picture nominee in which the evacuation of Dunkirk figures into the plot, I’ll look back to a far more admiring assessment of an earlier effort from the director. Atonement was also a Best Picture nominee in which the evacuation of Dunkirk figures in the plot. How about that? And ten years ago, because of the same film, little Saoirse Ronan was also getting ready for her first trip to the Oscars. 

Atonement is a terrific book, so artfully taking advantage of the storytelling opportunities unique to the medium of the novel that the prospect of adapting it to any other form seems destined to disappoint. So much of the appeal of the first portion of the book derives from author Ian McEwan expertly switching perspectives among his character on a busy and, ultimately, momentous day at a British estate in 1935. Beyond providing a rich understand of each and every character that populates the novel, McEwan’s approach is especially apt given the devastating turn of events hinges on matters of perspective and perception. Then the closing passage of the book uses a simple but crafty technique to thoroughly upend the reader perception of the action that has come before it. Dragged into the more constrained realm of film, is there anyway that Atonement can actually maintain its resonant poignancy?

The answer is “not quite.” That doesn’t mean, it turns out, that the novel can’t be reformulated into something nicely rewarding. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright have seemingly approached the material with some degree of McEwan’s devotion to wringing every possibility out of the chosen medium. Throughout the new film version of Atonement there is a clear-eyed creativity in letting story elements emerge. The scene in which the son of the estate’s housekeeper types out a salacious note is presented in a way that is clean and crafty. Later when the film turns to a wartime setting, Wright shows that the payoff of all those fussy, pointless extended tracking shots in his prior film is that he can pull off a technical tour de force with a single shot stride through the busy beach at Dunkirk right before the British evacuation. Like the similar efforts in 2006’s Children of Men, the shot has real purpose: enhancing our understanding of the mayhem of that day by plunging us into at as free from the clarifying safety of an edit as the soldiers in the sand. When the camera finally rests, surveying the vast sea of humanity it has just navigated, the impact is formidable.

There is smart attention to key details throughout, such as the purposefulness of thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) stalking through her house, her forceful precociousness signaled before she has spoken a word by the hard pivots she uses to take corners, that physical detail revealing the precise efficiency of a dedicated mind. Dario Marianelli’s score merits special attention as well. The simple but riveting choice to incorporate the sound a typewriter hard at work into the music, essentially serving as the percussion to the score. It’s a very unique approach to the sonic landscape which has the added benefit of enriching the narrative payoff at the close of the film.

There are moments here and there that don’t quite work, mostly the result of the necessary compression from 370 pages to two hours which makes a few pieces of story either too truncated or robbed of their fascinating uncertainty. These are the exceptions, however. For the most part, Atonement represents a troupe of collaborative creators working at the top of their craft.

From the Archive — The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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The nominations for the ninetieth Academy Awards will be announced this coming Tuesday, which I will, by self-set tradition, use as impetus to begin counting down my selections for the ten best films of 2017, six weeks or so after practically everyone else has already completed the task. While I’ve never been one to take umbrage with the notion of ranking films (in fact, I find it to be a useful exercise in sorting out my intellectual and emotional reactions to the art in question), I do dependably burble about my mixed emotions when it comes to the instinct to find prevailing trends within a cinematic year. Now, I write up an introductory post to serve that purpose, a step I realized I required when, ten years ago, I let the observations invade the review of an individual movie.

It will take a minute to get to the film at hand. Do bear with me.

I’ve mentioned before that I find pieces that identify trends in cinema to be faulty. While I believe that filmmakers are aware of and influenced by what their peers are up to, especially those who push the envelope most majestically, there are also artisans who are operating independently trying to get the most of the material they’ve chosen to work with. Influence takes time and any evidence that members of the vast, sprawling film community are simultaneous preoccupied by any given topic or stylistic approach is more likely to be simple coincidence than some grand mind-meld. This aren’t the old studio days and Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Haynes aren’t bumping into each other at the lot commissary to chat over Monte Cristos about how to best employ the latest editing techniques. The patterns in film are there because we imagine them to be there, just as assuredly as a smear of ink on a white card doesn’t actually depict a phallic-shaped monster. Stephen Holden can write in the New York Times about Sweeney Todd as a commentary on “the age of Al Qaeda”, but he can keep that rabbit hole for himself and any other hatters mad enough to follow him into it. The great films of 2007 exist in 2007 because of the vagaries of release schedules, not because some benevolent movie god grouped them there because they matched up nice thematically.

This is on my mind in part because this will almost certainly be the last lengthier review I post before embarking on my own annual excursion into backwards counting, admittedly another sort of fruitless grouping. But it’s also because I find myself throwing my better judgment down a flight of steps and marveling at the wildly inventive messiness that serves as the common denominator to some of the year’s most gratifying films. The audacity of the shifting identity study that is I’m Not There feels completely kindred to the anti-plot verisimilitude of The Savages or the resolute ambiguity of Zodiac and it’s easy enough to anthropomorphize the films enough to imagine them staring on admiringly at the fully intentional tonal spin-out of There Will Be Blood‘s cataclysmic final scene. You can say these filmmakers are challenging the rules, but it’s more like they’re operating as if rules never existed.

One last, but central, reason this is on my mind is that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly represents another entry in this list. Tally up another one for questionable choices that are the very point of the film, an overt awkwardness that fuels the film’s considerable power. In some ways, it feels like Diving Bell is the epitome of this sloshing creativity. Of course, part of the reason it feels this way is because it’s the most recent film I’ve seen that I can hold up as an example.

Director Julian Schnabel works with Oscar-winning The Pianist screenwriter Ronald Harwood to adapt Jean-Dominique Bauby’s 1997 memoir about living with “locked-in syndrome” after a catastrophic stroke. Bauby was about as paralyzed as a human being could be, effectively limited to movement in only his left eyelid. Eventually, a painstaking method of communication was developed which involved others reciting a modified alphabet to him until he blinked at a certain letter, spelling out his words piece by piece.

For a significant length of time at the beginning of the film, maybe the first reel or so, Schnabel places the audience inside Bauby’s inert form. The extended opening plays out as stylized point-of-view shot as physicians and therapists bend over the bend and give dour pronouncements, countered only by the internal voice of Bauby which has no means to reach the world. It is a cheeky filmmaking trick and it goes on for too long, well after the point has been made, the discomfort imparted as well as it can be to people who can bobble their legs on cushioned theater seats for personal assurance that they remain mobile. And yet, once Schnabel abandons this limited perspective (timed to coincide with the point in the narrative when Bauby has decided to stop pitying himself for his condition), it opens the film in ways that otherwise may not have been achieved. It is in part relief, but it’s also the welcome schism of contrast. The world of the film, still painfully confined, seems oddly free and diversions into fantasy are more welcome because they’ve been earned in the stasis of the opening. As with the films namechecked above, the fearless riskiness engages the mind with a dizzying challenge.

I can’t say that every choice of Schnabel’s yields the same rewards. His attempts to make the metaphors of the title visually explicit are an unnecessary distraction. We don’t need an image of Bauby in a diving suit floating motionless in a blue expanse of watery nothingness to understand his isolation after a heartbreaking phone conversation with his housebound father. It’s an exclamation point that drains the emotional impact from the scene.

Subtlety is only an occasional guiding principle here. Schnabel, from the overt technique of the opening to the flights of imagination he allows Bauby to the occasional shots clearly framed with an artist’s eye (red hair whipping in the wind comes to mind), is engaged in a manifest dialogue with the audience. There is no attempt to make the directing choices invisible to the viewer. Instead, they are there, big and bold, pushing you to consider them as they are happening on screen. You’re not intended to fall into the narrative, immersed in character and motivation and mood. You’re to admire the technique and assembly of well-chosen frames as if it were unspooled from the metal reels and strung up on gallery walls. The movie is a challenge, at times maybe even to the very way we watch movies or consider their impact. That may keep the movie from becoming a full-fledged achievement. The paradox is that it’s also the aspect that makes it so intellectually thrilling.