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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Film Review - SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS

2009’s surprise smash Sherlock Holmes, which reinvented Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective into a hyper-aware bundle of anti-social neuroses and peculiarities, was a decent enough film hobbled by a number of problems. Director Guy Ritchie was saddled with a script heavy on exposition and world-building, but light on actual mystery and depth. While Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, as Holmes and Watson, infectiously batted their roles out of the park, the picture separated them – to great detriment - for too much screen-time. It also failed to supply a memorably dastardly villain or a lively love interest.

My hopes were high that, with its gorgeously ugly steampunk Victorian London universe up-and-running, and the key figures firmly ingrained in the public consciousness, Ritchie would use his sequel to actually spin a ripping yarn worth telling. Alas, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is an obnoxious, confusing slog of a motion picture; one that mistakes bombastic franticness for charm, revels in tiresome snarky smugness, and criminally wastes one of literature’s most indelible bad guys. It’s a prime example of lazy franchise filmmaking; taking what everyone loved the first time around and cranking the dial mercilessly up to 11.

Picking up a few years after the initial entry, the movie opens with Sherlock (now with even more enhanced psychic powers!) on the trail of fiendish mastermind Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), a cold, sinister intellectual who may have a hand in a series of anarchic bombings that threaten to kick-start war in Europe. Unfortunately for the crazed detective, his trusty right-hand man, Watson, is about to embark on his honeymoon with the lovely Mary (Kelly Reilly), and firmly resists helping to unravel the truth from the uber-tangled ball of conspiracy theories and misdirection. However, an action-packed visit to a gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace) soon brings an abrupt, explosive halt to Watson’s romantic plans. The delightful deciphering duo are then launched on an extensive cross-country fact-finding mission, where they face unbelievably dangerous cliffhanger predicaments, and, ultimately, find themselves drawn ever closer into Moriarty’s sinister web of deceit and murder.

In theory, the script for a Sherlock Holmes adventure should operate like clockwork, with all of the seemingly disconnected plot threads fusing together into one grand, climactic “A-ha!” moment of glorious revelation. Whereas the 2009 film sort of half-heartedly toyed with that trope, A Game of Shadows’ terrible script, by Michele and Kieran Mulroney, basically abandons the concept all-together! There isn’t a great deal of mystery here at all - only an endless series of convoluted happenings obscuring what is essentially a very, very routine villain scheme. Sure, there’s a last minute reveal, but it’s a shameless cheat. It depends solely on introducing never-foreshadowed elements that the audience has no chance of predicting. The film really wants to play like a Victorian-era Indiana Jones/James Bond adventure, with its characters skipping across locations willy nilly, carried almost solely by a string of dynamic action sequences. Problem is, those series depend on fast-paced, broad-stroke storytelling to succeed. Holmes, on the other hand, is simply at odds with that mode of high-flying adventure because it’s fixated on the minutiae of each moment, exhaustively explaining every new development and detail. Call it Cinematic Square Peg, Round Hole syndrome, if you will.

To complicate matters, director Guy Ritchie's stylistic skills have always far outweighed his ability to convey a satisfying narrative. His best efforts – Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – are jolting, showy snapshots of attitude, visual virtuosity and scruffy, street-level cool. Here, though, working with a script that’s as incoherent as the last two Pirates of the Caribbean pictures, he flounders, unable to mould this overlong, shapeless mess into a compelling whole. That said, working with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and production designer Sarah Greenwood, he has made a fairly striking mediocrity. Victorian England has rarely looked as wonderfully cluttered and ominous (you can practically smell the filthy cobblestone streets and soot-covered extras). And, although his livewire energy seems absent from the majority of the movie, Ritchie does still find a handful of moments to shine, among them an artillery-shell-packed jaunt through the forest, a nifty battle inside the cabin of a steam engine, and an amusingly awkward horse-riding montage - scored, improbably, to Ennio Morricone’s hee-hawing theme from the 1970 Clint Eastwood western Two Mules for Sister Sara.

It bears mentioning that Downey Jr.’s Holmes is beginning to creep perilously close to Jack Sparrow-ville. He’s fun in short bursts, but becomes grating when standing centre stage for too long. In A Game of Shadows he runs wild, consuming everyone in his presence, save Law’s suitably aggravated Watson. This picture desperately needed well-rounded supporting players to add flavour and build the series’ mythology into something nuanced and involving. Steps have been taken, with the addition of Moriarty and Holmes’ spy brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry – a winking, jovial presence in search of a purpose), but these characters aren’t given enough to do. Despite an effective last-act verbal chess match with Holmes, Moriarty never feels like the iconic villain he should be. Harris has a diabolical exactness that’s largely underutilized, and we never really get a good sense of the true malevolence he’s capable of unleashing. As for poor Noomi Rapace – cinema’s fierce original Lisbeth Salander – she’s stuck here in the type of useless, one-dimensional role many gifted imports must slum through on their debut trip across the pond. May her future burn brighter.

Draggy and nearly devoid of joy or thrills, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows soullessly vacuums up the accumulated goodwill generated by its predecessor, leaving only an uninspiring promise that a third instalment is definitely in the cards. The fact that the film is helpless to mine good escapist entertainment from such rich, fertile source material is baffling and, to be honest, more than a little concerning. If Ritchie and Warner Bros. really want this franchise to endure, they’d best make it a priority to avoid screenplays this ridiculously clueless.

1.5 out of 5

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Film Review - SHAME

When we first meet Brandon, the haunted sex addict played by Michael Fassbender in British director Steve McQueen’s potent second effort, Shame, he resembles a living corpse. Impassive, alone and spent, he lies silently in bed staring at the ceiling above, vacant eyes registering only exhaustion and crushing boredom. He might as well be gazing into the dark reaches of his own broken soul. Subsisting on an obsessive daily diet of mechanical casual sex with prostitutes, masturbation and internet pornography, Brandon’s like a tragic modern day vampire; devoid of feeling or vitality, living simply to unenthusiastically feed his own base compulsions.

Like all serious addicts, Brandon’s devastating sickness has begun to infect the normal aspects of his existence as well. Although he holds a lucrative job at a generic Wall Street office, his suspiciously virus-plagued work computer, and penchant for consistently arriving late, has started to grab the snaky attention of his boss – and singles club wingman – David (James Badge Dale – unrepentantly odious). Even worse, his expensive, sterile New York apartment has been invaded by long-absent younger sibling Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a clingy, damaged basket-case whose fragile wrists are alarming roadmaps of deep psychological anguish. The reappearance of his sister – and her ensuing improper relationship with David – opens excruciating, unspoken wounds for Brandon, further propelling his self-loathing tailspin into excess, and forcing him to face the suffocating torments of his past.

For McQueen, Shame is an extremely fitting follow-up to his great 2008 debut Hunger, which, in often excruciating detail, portrayed the grim fate of Bobby Sands, the republican inmate leader of Ireland’s infamous 1981 prison hunger strike. Whereas that movie featured a protagonist – also played by Fassbender – strictly denying himself all temptations, this new film veers boldly in the polar opposite direction, showing us a man who dives headfirst into them and refuses to come up for air. There’s a fearlessness to Shame’s depiction of sex addiction that’s coldly effective; McQueen fills his picture with countless scenes of graphic sexuality and nudity, but drains them of any sense of eroticism or passion. After the initial shock wears off, we’re slowly drawn into Brandon’s headspace, greeting each ensuing perfunctory sexual encounter with an increased sense of detached apathy. The film doesn’t titillate, it numbs.

As overwhelmingly unpleasant as the picture gets, the director - who has a prominent background as a visual artist - once again proves to have an magnificent ability to transform revolting human misery into breathtaking passages of pure cinema. Among its many wonders, Shame contains two extended dialogue-free sequences, set to Harry Escott’s gloomy, ominous tick-tock score, that are astonishing visual poetry. The first, which occurs early on, sees Brandon seducing a lovely commuter on a subway train with little more than a strong, unremitting gaze. As the tension builds, the film cuts away to random explicit excerpts of his regular routines, providing us, in just a few absorbing minutes, with both a vivid layout of the character’s world and his no-nonsense approach to seduction. The second follows Brandon on a night-time prowl around the city on a ravenous, self-destructive hunt for gratification and – he hopes – a much-longed-for moment of peace. It’s a heartbreaking bit of filmmaking.

Just as in Hunger, there’s repeated use of long single-shot takes in order to draw out the complexities of the characters. During the film, Brandon goes out on a date with an attractive co-worker, played by Nicole Beharie, and, in their real-time verbal, and sensual, interactions, we’re given first-hand witness to the debilitating effects of his affliction. For him, sex is no longer (if it ever was) about intimacy or a profound human connection. Instead, it’s been distorted into a selfish act of personal satisfaction, with women acting merely as a prospective fuel source. Equality has been erased from the equation entirely. Despite rarely being without female companionship, he’s never anything but utterly alone.

Michael Fassbender continues to warrant recognition as one of our most courageous and exciting up-and-coming actors. Most will know him best for his commanding performance as the iconic villain Magneto in last summer’s X-Men: First Class. However, it’s his smaller efforts – playing Sands in Hunger, or an incestuous step-father in 2009’s Fish Tank – that reveal the murky depths he’s willing to travel to in order to serve an artistic vision. There’s no ego or artifice in his performances, only steadfast dedication. Here, he performs numerous scenes fully nude, exudes raw animal magnetism, and doesn’t shy away from appearing grotesque or unlikeable. He has a fantastically disturbing moment with Mulligan where he playfully leaps on top of her, and transitions into a frenzied madman so instantaneously that the audience sucks in its breath in discomfort. Brandon may be something of a monster, but with Fassbender inhabiting his uncomfortable skin, he’s a fascinatingly complex one, who wholly involves us in his pitiful, wrenching journey.

Certainly, this is primarily Fassbender’s show, but apparently no one told Carey Mulligan, who delivers an extremely juicy supporting turn. Following her co-star’s committed example, she makes Sissy into a compellingly ravaged portrait of barely suppressed misery. Her biggest showcase scene comes in the form of an extended musical performance, where her character – a struggling nightclub singer – performs “New York, New York” with all the starry-eyed optimism of a retired streetwalker. While Mulligan has a knack for playing vulnerable, she’s never really been called on to be this pathetic or irritating before. We immediately realize why she’s such a toxic factor in Brandon’s life, but still yearn to grasp the trauma that so thoroughly shattered her.

Shame is – to state the obvious – not a film for every viewer. It’s grueling and aching, filled with unforgettable images of emotional and moral decay, with precious little relief. McQueen has crafted an important picture that transcends the sensationalistic “controversial” tag some will slap it with, and offers thoughtful, provocative insight into the nature of sex, addiction and oppressive long-term guilt. After all, individuals like Brandon do exist. And this picture helps us, if only a little, to understand their pain.

4.5 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Film Review - MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

The genius of Marilyn Monroe was that she never appeared to be trying. Whether delivering a saucy punch-line, uttering breathy come-ons or cooing and slinking her way through a seductive musical number, there was never a sense of performance. She simply was, seemingly happening upon her dialogue and tantalizing body language through some kind of divine inspiration. Under the watch of master directors like Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Seven-Year Itch) or Howard Hawks (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), she was an unstoppable force, rendering those on-screen around her invisible. Even junky, hopeless material couldn’t suppress her radiant talent. In the feeble final Marx Brothers comedy Love Happy she managed, in a mere sliver of screen-time, to upstage renowned scene-stealer Groucho Marx – a feat few mortals would dare attempt, much less accomplish.

Now, almost fifty years after her untimely death, she dominates the screen anew – courtesy of sublimely talented conduit Michelle Williams – in My Week with Marilyn, a so-so coming of age/showbiz drama that squeaks by on our affection for the fallen icon. But just barely. Based on the (rather dubious) memoirs of documentarian Colin Clark, the film highlights one turbulent key week in the starlet’s life, during her 1956 stay in London shooting The Prince and the Showgirl under the strict direction of lauded thespian Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh).

Acting as our avatar into this exciting moment in cinema history is Colin (Eddie Redmayne), the gawky “youngest in a family of over-achievers,” who scores an (uncredited) 3rd assistant director gig on the The Prince after procuring lodging for Monroe following a production setback. Starry-eyed and naive, but motivated by an unquenchable love for filmmaking, the aspiring artist has a prime seat in the eye of the hurricane as Monroe frolics into town and plunges the set into chaos. Accompanied by her maternal acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), the insecure, ill-prepared star quickly draws the ire of the classically-trained Olivier, who has zero patience for America’s new Method approach to acting. He wants only to harness her boundless charisma as a means of reigniting his dusty screen image.

As tension builds, and the production is put on hiatus, Colin unintentionally winds up becoming Monroe’s confident, and partner in a chaste quasi-romance. This irritates many of the power players, including the actress’ protective, seen-it-all press agent Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper). However, as her brand new marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) becomes strained, Marilyn begins to spiral into an abyss of pills and drink. While Olivier struggles to maintain control of his picture, and frets over whether his main attraction will be able to bring the necessary on-camera fireworks, Colin fears that the sweet girl he’s come to love will be consumed by the fog of depression hovering around her.

As the tragic blonde bombshell, Williams is an unlikely, yet wholly convincing choice. With her delicate, angelic loveliness and quiet, melancholy, she’s a pro at inhabiting damaged souls – recently evidenced in Shutter Island, Blue Valentine or this year’s frustratingly enigmatic misery-western Meek’s Cutoff – but here she also embraces, and owns, Monroe’s bubbly erotic innocence. Although the actress doesn’t exactly look like the legend, it’s often astonishing how fully she disappears behind her subject’s endearing wide-eyed stare and come-hither vocal mannerisms. She nails a musical opening, lip-synching the sultry lyrics of “Heat Wave,” and flawlessly channels Marilyn’s magnetic ability to work a room in a wonderful scene set at a press conference. But it’s the small moments that really sell the illusion, like how she teasingly calls to Colin from a bubble bath, telling him to “Wait a while, crocodile,” or how, even at her lowest, coy amusement flickers in her dazzling eyes. It’s a tough task, to avoid the perils of pure imitation, but Williams manages to create not an idealized carbon copy, but a fully-realized human being with dreams, fears and deep emotional wounds.

Sadly, Williams’ revelatory work is at the service of an underwhelming screenplay. There are compelling stories to be told in My Week with Marilyn, but very few of them have anything to do with Colin Clark. Redmayne, with his leering eyes, vaguely reptilian features and smarmy social-climber air, is a tepid nonentity of a lead, with all the charisma of watered down oatmeal. The character obviously serves a necessary function, providing us access to the film’s truly intriguing figures, but his by-the-numbers, dramatically inert character journey dominates so much of the run-time it threatens to topple the picture into the bleary dregs of Blandsville.

The remainder of the cast is on-the-ball, albeit criminally underutilized, with many vanishing from the picture by the halfway point. Dame Judi Dench is a sweet, funny joy in her handful of scenes as actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, the set’s loving mother figure who goes out of her way to make Marilyn feel welcome, and Julia Ormand portrays Vivien Leigh with striking elegance and humanity. A warm Emma Watson is wasted in a go-nowhere part as a costumer who catches the attention of Colin. Though she at least gets some resolution, unlike Toby Jones’ cynical publicist Arthur Jacobs, who barely even registers as a character. Only Branagh’s role has any meat, and he relishes digging in. A pompous tyrant on set, Olivier is at his most poignant when he sits in the dark, silently watching daily rushes, and admitting – in a voice both mournful and wondrous – that Monroe makes everyone else on-screen look “permanently ten feet under water.”

Helmer Simon Curtis directs with unflashy restraint, enlivening the proceedings through subtle visual tricks. He frequently lights Williams more intensely than her co-stars; a nice shorthand for emphasizing just how much brighter Monroe’s star shone than those around her. Additionally, Colin and Marilyn’s two most important meetings are set in idyllic pastoral environments, and he and cinematographer Ben Smithard do a nice job creating gorgeously serene natural paradises that complement the exquisite natural wonder of Monroe herself.

Ultimately, though, My Week with Marilyn is the most frustrating kind of film; one with limitless potential, a fascinating historical background and a crackerjack lead performance, which takes the easy road, settling for shallow whimsy and safe, unimaginative storytelling. No film about this captivating, eternal sex symbol – who created an invigorating, vivacious stir wherever she appeared – should be this flimsy, tame and, frankly, forgettable. In the playful parlance of Marilyn herself, it’s too much whoop-dee-doo, not enough boop-boop-a-doop.

2.5 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Film Review - THE DESCENDANTS

The Descendants is a film you just want to bask in. Playful, poignant and leisurely, it’s the kind of story they don’t tell enough of these days; an insightful, intimate character study populated by well-meaning people who want only to do right by those they love. So rare it is to come across a movie that allows its characters to simply exist, liberated from the rusty mechanics of plot contrivance, and talk to one another in an intelligent, frank manner. One that allows its abundance of humour to spring from behaviour and human truth, as opposed to eruptive bodily functions and dumb sitcom-level misunderstandings. When this picture flickers to a close, its characters don’t vanish into the dark, they follow you right out of the theatre.

The latest unofficial entry – following About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004) – in director Alexander Payne’s droll series of films focussing on flawed men who gain a new lease on life after emerging from a rut, The Descendants explores how grief can upset, and ultimately strengthen, a family. An atypically un-suave George Clooney stars as Matt King, a Hawaii-based lawyer and land baron, whose wife (Patricia Hastie) is left comatose after a speedboat racing accident. Their marriage, we learn, hit a rough patch long ago. Matt’s been consumed for years by a tremendously lucrative land deal, which will result in the sale of his family’s countless acres of lush, untouched tropical real estate. His long hours have forced her to essentially raise their two daughters single-handedly.

Things soon take a turn for the worse. Matt is informed by his wife’s doctor that her condition is deteriorating and, in accordance with her living will, they are going to remove her from life support. With mere days left until the inevitable, he brings his rebellious older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), home from private school to help take care of her sensitive prepubescent sister, Scottie (Amara Miller), while he makes the necessary preparations. However, the teenager quickly leaves Matt shell-shocked when she reveals that her mother had been engaged in an affair around the time of the tragedy. Bombarded by raw, conflicted emotions, Matt, accompanied by his children – and Alexandra’s beefy, slightly dim friend Sid (Nick Krause) – embarks on a draining, difficult mission to break the terrible news to his spouse’s family, friends and mysterious lover.

Payne, an unobtrusive, low-key director, has long had a spectacular, and apparently effortless, ability to convey genuine interpersonal dynamics, and The Descendants finds him riding a career high. Collaborating with his three perfectly-cast leads, he has fashioned one of the more believable, compelling on-screen families in recent memory. The Kings may be functionally dysfunctional, but they are also smart, funny, resourceful people who truly care for and respect one another, and realize that they have to stand united in order to endure their tough situation. Payne allows their story to unfold at a deliberately calm, unhurried pace, drawing us personally into their burgeoning reconnection as a familial unit. The effect is so powerful that by the time the touching, perfect final shot arrives, you can’t help but wish you could spend another two hours in their wonderful company.
The script, by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash – adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings – takes delightful amusement in shooting down our ingrained assumptions about its characters. In a lazier film, Woodley’s Alexandra would be portrayed as a stereotypical antagonistic brat, snidely bickering with her father before a last minute heartstring-pulling reversal. Instead, the writers know well that, when called upon, emotionally turbulent teenagers are capable of great leaps of maturity and selfless sacrifice. They also give fascinating depth and dimension to their considerable stable of supporting players, including Robert Forster, who earns the film’s biggest laugh as Matt’s fiercely proud father-in-law, and Beau Bridges, as a leading member of the King clan who is hugely invested in the land sale. Heck, even Sid, juvenile and awkward as he may be, ain’t such a bad kid after all!

Rising to the classy occasion, George Clooney gives one of his most accomplished performances. Long celebrated as one of our top-ranking modern movie stars, it’s rare anyone takes the time to acknowledge what a giving actor he is. A less secure performer might vie for attention, surrounded by a cast of this pedigree, but Clooney is confident enough to play understated and let his co-stars steer the scene. You can sense real trust between him and his inexperienced on-screen daughters, Woodley – who has a blindingly bright future ahead of her – and Miller, and his performance benefits immensely from their natural shared chemistry.

It’s worth noting how much of Clooney’s stand-out work is nonverbal. There’s a fantastic moment in a bar and grill where, after receiving some shocking news, Matt temporarily disengages from everything around him. In Clooney’s anxious, dazed mannerisms, you can feel him fighting valiantly to maintain his composure. Conversely, he hilariously drops all shreds of his characteristic cool is an inspired comedic bit frantically racing down the street in flip-flops. Payne calls on him for true fireworks, though, in a pair of scenes in his wife’s hospital room, the latter of which will likely receive considerable (and deserved) airtime at the next Oscar ceremony.

Given the craftsmanship and sophistication on display in The Descendants, it’s a hard to figure out how the unnecessarily longwinded opening narration ended up tacked onto the first fifteen minutes. Rarely has such a dizzying amount of exposition been dumped in such a breathless amount of time. It seems strange that Payne – a helmer who can be counted on to have faith in his audience – would choose to include such a shockingly on-the-nose voiceover.
Still, it’s easy to forgive such a brief misstep when there’s so much to treasure. To watch this picture is to witness a masterful filmmaker joyfully fashioning a brand of beautiful entertainment that only he’s capable of achieving. Coming in the last few weeks of a troublingly spotty year for quality cinema, The Descendants is a sunny little cinematic oasis that’ll leave you feeling charmed, moved and beaming ear-to-ear.
 
4.5 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Film Review - J.EDGAR

Clint Eastwood is not exactly a sure-fire bet as a director. Since striking sweet, sweet Oscar gold with 1992’s instantly iconic western Unforgiven, his output has often sling-shotted wildly back-and-forth in quality, from high grade populist art to bloated, unremarkable awards bait. While the former Man with No Name appears unconquerable on-screen, behind the camera that just ain’t the case. He has a notorious Achilles’ heel for poor scripts, and is known to race headlong into production with first draft efforts. That’s all fine and dandy if he’s holding Million Dollar Baby or Letters from Iwo Jima under his arm. But hand him Midnight in the Garden of Good or Evil or Changeling and things get uglier than the last act of a Dirty Harry thriller.

Sad as it is to report, his latest, the star-studded J. Edgar, lands with a hollow thud in the sorry latter category. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, the legendary FBI first director, the film falls prey to almost every damning pitfall of the biopic genre. Meandering, underbaked, and almost entirely devoid of depth or emotion, Eastwood’s movie plays less like a cinematic narrative than an exhausting series of historical “greatest hits” moments stretched over a punishing 135 mins. I’ll be utterly gobsmacked if there’s a more tedious prestige picture this year.

Unspooling in pointlessly jumbled chronology, J. Edgar loosely traces its subject from his earliest days as an eager young agent in the 20s, feverishly trying to pin down convoluted Bolshevik conspiracies, to his lonely final days five decades later, sternly recounting his autobiography to a series of interchangeable typists. The film skips over the oft-covered gangster wars of the Depression, instead primarily using the Lindbergh kidnapping as a means of recounting Hoover’s obsessive personal quest to improve methods of evidence retrieval and to establish a fingerprint database. His visionary ideas transform the Bureau of Investigation from a dead-end organization into the top crime-fighting agency in the world, in the process elevating J. Edgar to an untouchable status enjoyed by precious few.

Although the details of Hoover’s personal life are sketchy at best, Eastwood’s film paints him as a socially inept loner, clinging to the apron strings of his dominating mother Anna Marie (Judi Dench) for much of his life. He has only two other confidents: loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and second-in-command Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Tolson, the movie argues, was also Hoover’s clandestine lover, a man of infinite patience who spent an inordinate amount of social time with his high maintenance superior.

Undeniably, there are multiple nuggets for a fascinating motion picture strewn throughout J. Edgar. However, the script by Dustin Lance Black – who previously penned an infinitely better biopic with 2008’s Milk – jumps around too much to gain any momentum. This film desperately lacks a coherent throughline; it’s a confusing series of half-formed ideas, grafted onto a flimsy narrative structure, that never bond into anything substantial. There’s no drama to this story, only exposition, dull minutiae and bloodless recreation. No concrete reason to care about Hoover’s (heavily fictionalized) on-screen life or his valuable achievements. There’s a brief tantalizing bit where a supporting character references J. Edgar’s aggressive, and extremely successful, tactics for rewriting his and the FBI’s role in popular culture through comic books and movies. Couldn’t Eastwood have cut out a handful of dreary sequences of Hoover dictating his life-story and fleshed out fascinating material like that?!

It must be said, DiCaprio delivers another boldly effective performance. Speaking in a contemplative, precise drawl that ejects every word like the clack of typewriter keys, he’s calculated and icily internal, greeting his closest colleagues with all the affection of a computer. Even when he’s buried under a liberal slathering of slightly rubbery old age makeup, the actor manages to bring more to this enigmatic, insecure and unlikable character than the movie frankly deserves. In a better film – one that figured out how to make J. Edgar interesting – DiCaprio would be an easy lock for a Best Actor nomination.

The character of Hoover could have been explored more satisfyingly if the picture hadn’t short-changed the key players surrounding him. Armie Hammer has a genuinely strong presence, but his Clyde Tolson is an utter blank. It’s nearly impossible to name any characteristics that describe his personality beyond “loyal.” Like Naomi Watts’ underutilized secretary, he’s just there for DiCaprio to bounce lines off of – a limited function which proves disastrous in the love story-heavy second half. On the flip side of the equation, Judi Dench brings lioness-like severity to her role as Mama Hoover, and owns the film’s single best scene, bitterly recalling one of J. Edgar’s homosexual childhood classmates. However, despite her alleged impact of her son’s life, she receives depressingly little screen time.

Eastwood may not be able to breathe any storytelling life into J. Edgar, but he’s certainly fashioned a beautiful looking dud. He and his frequent cinematographer Tom Stern return to the chilly deep black and silver colour palette of Flags of Their Fathers, elegantly complementing the period costumes and sets, and imbuing the movie with a handsome noirish atmosphere. It’s fitting that Hoover, a man of a thousand secrets, always seems to have his face partially concealed by shadows.

At one point, J. Edgar says “What’s important at this time is to re-clarify the difference between hero and villain.” It’s a powerful statement, and one that should be loaded with rich subtextual meaning. There are intriguing parallels between Hoover’s tale and our own turbulent times and one can’t help but wish a bolder, riskier filmmaker than Eastwood had been able to sink their teeth into this story. Maybe then we’d leave the theatre deep in conversation instead of stifling yawns of indifference.

1.5 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Film Review - MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a truly uncomfortable, fear-soaked experience. A chilling examination of the fragility of the human psyche, viewed through the vulnerable eyes of an irreparably damaged woman who has forgotten what it even means to be human, this cult survivor tale mercilessly drags the audience down a numbing spiral of sadism, abuse and sorrow. However, those able to brave the ominous, upsetting journey will be treated to the most terrifyingly plausible horror movie of the year.

The picture stars Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, an attractive, quiet and troubled 20-something, who – in a moment of rebellious strength – flees the constricting confines of a fundamentalist cult. Alone and without any resources, she reunites with her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), and is invited to their posh, remote summer home to mend. However, the idyllic scenery and familial support do little to calm Martha’s shattered nerves, and she soon begins reliving tormented memories of being systematically broken down by her former master Patrick (John Hawkes). As Lucy and Ted struggle to comprehend their loved one’s bizarre, erratic behaviour and moods, Martha finds herself slowly becoming trapped inside an inescapable prison of crippling paranoia.

Viewing the film, it’s impossible not to be shaken by the omnipresent sense of dread hanging over the proceedings at every turn. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a skilful exercise in unrelenting suspense, and writer/director Sean Durkin – making his feature film debut – impressively sustains the film’s unnerving tone throughout. He and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes have created a gorgeously ugly-looking picture, teaming with foreboding atmosphere, which feels eerily reminiscent of Wes Craven’s uncompromising early efforts. They’ve stripped away all beauty and serenity from their locations, allowing us to familiarize ourselves with the alienating, comfortless world Martha’s become lost in. Heck, even Lucy and Ted’s luxurious summer house is all but swallowed up by the bleak, Herzog-ian forest surrounding it.

As commendable as the direction is, though, all might have been for naught if Durkin hadn’t found his crucial lead actress. Newcomer Elizabeth Olsen is, simply put, a revelation. Frequently silent, she brings a raw, wounded defencelessness to the role that’s difficult to watch at the best of times, and downright distressing in the more sickening scenes of cult brainwashing. While we know nothing about Martha’s past, we empathize and genuinely care for her, and it’s painful to see her being exploited. In her scenes with Paulson and Dancy, she masterfully walks a fine line between childlike innocence and frustrating obliviousness. We sympathize with their aggravation – such as when Martha climbs into their bed during a late night romantic session – yet completely understand why Olsen’s character would behave in such an odd manner. Pay close attention to the film’s last, and very best, scene, where the camera lingers intensely on Olsen’s face and she wordlessly communicates all we need to know about Martha’s foreseeable future. It’s haunting work.

Just last year, in his Oscar-nominated turn in the wonderful neo noir Winter’s Bone, John Hawkes created an unforgettably menacing lowlife you couldn’t imagine ever approaching. Here, he does something trickier; he makes his nasty cult leader so charming and persuasive that you can’t help but be won over by him initially. Hiding his aggressive, manipulative nature behind an appealing mask of soft-spoken flirtatiousness and laid-back cool, Patrick is an exceedingly loathsome villain and Hawkes again delivers tenfold. We witness the slow emergence of his true self – transitioning from a loving, guitar-playing father figure, entertaining his flock with soulful impromptu ditties, to a heartless sexual predator – right alongside Martha and it’s a riveting, bloodcurdling sight to absorb.

It’s too bad Durkin’s screenplay doesn’t flesh out the rest of the cast as well as Olsen and Hawkes’ characters. Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy have strong chemistry, both together and with Olsen, but their roles feel underwritten. An argument could be made that Durkin wanted us to share Martha’s lack of personal connection to them, but at a certain point we’re supposed to invest ourselves in their plight and it doesn’t quite click. You can’t expect an audience to become concerned with the fate of two undefined people they never really get to know. Similarly, it would have been nice if some of the other cult members had been given dimension. As it stands, they’re mostly glorified extras devoid of interesting characteristics.

Still, Martha Marcy May Marlene’s slight script deficiencies are easily overshadowed by the measured power of Durkin’s direction and the two gangbuster central performances. This is a film guaranteed to crawl under your skin and remain trapped there – existing forever alongside the most indelible on-screen horror images you’ve bared unfortunate witness to. Consider this review a fair warning. And an enthusiastic recommendation.

4 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Epi-Cast: Episode 32 - "Send In... The Cloon!"

Everything. Turn-turn-turn. There is a season. Turn-turn-turn... Oh, hello there! Didn't see you come in. Now that the leaves of fall have erased what little remaining joy was left from the summer months, your loyal pals Cam and Tom have a little Epi-Cast action in store for you! What kind of action, you ask? Well, if we told you here there'd be little reason to keep reading or - heaven forbid - download the episode. Patience is a virtue, my dear friend.

Epi-Cast: Episode 32 - "Send In... The Cloon!"

Since the serious films of autumn are starting to roll out, Cam and Tom drop the jovial jocularity and weigh in on George Clooney's fourth directorial outing The Ides of March. How should you vote with your wallet? They'll tell you - in glorious depth! Additionally, Cam steps into the ring with Real Steel, gets brainwashed by Martha Marcy May Marlene and, uh, watches The Thing. Tom, for his part, arrives late to the party with a scathing review of Green Lantern and a glowing recommendation for John Michael McDonagh's The Guard. Plus, in a Trailer Park Encounters segment both giddy and vitriolic, the duo check out the latest previews for The Avengers, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The Grey and This Means War. It's all so much wacky fun that it'll leave you gasping frantically for more!

To download, simply right-click and save on any of the episode titles above. Then you are free to indulge in one of the wild worldwide web's most majestic mp3 treasures.

P.S. We are, of course, available on iTunes! Simply do a store search for "Epi-Cast" and, GIZMO-STRIPE!, you can subscribe to our feed and receive instantaneous downloads whenever we bother to upload a new episode. Oh, and we are the "Epi-Cast", not the "Epicast." It's very unlikely  that profound interpretations of the Bible will be included amongst the silliness.

P.P.S. Don't hesitate to leave a review on our iTunes page. As always, we sincerely welcome your hyperbolic praise/earth-scorching venom.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

One-Sheet Showcase - THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION (1984)


Category: Confusing

Pity the poor 20th Century Fox marketing staff members that were forced to brainstorm a coherent advertising campaign for this 1984 satirical sci-fi cult fave. I mean, having endured The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, I know very well that it's the most foolish of fool's errands to try to sum it up in a sentence or two. A doctoral thesis? Maybe. But a single tag-line? Ha! Good luck, bunky.

That said, a good argument could be made that the approximately 73 lines of context-free description they jotted across this teaser poster are actually more confounding than the movie itself. I mean, who did the team think this poster would appeal to? Who did they think would take the time to stop and spend half an hour reading it in the theatre lobby? It's head-spinning to even try to visualize what it's selling (Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems? Penny Priddy? Za?!), and the lone image is just abstract enough to be utterly meaningless to anyone who hasn't seen the movie.

I'm assuming Fox was hoping to appeal to the geek audience (hence the prominent "Major Marvel Comic" plug, although I'm fairly certain Buckaroo's funny book adventure sales were anything but major), but was that really a smart market to target? Even in this era, where Comic-Cons rule the land and superheroes storm the multiplex, geek dollars only carry so much weight. Just ask the filmmakers behind Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass. Solely targeting them in 1984? Insane. Perhaps that's why Buckaroo only Banzai-ed itself to a 6-million-dollar domestic gross. Ouch.

To be fair, the studio did ultimately release a more general audience-friendly theatrical poster, but when it comes to motion picture branding, first impressions are everything. If you don't burst confidently out of the gate, the public catches on lickety split and shifts their attention elsewhere. Call it the Green Lantern effect, if you will. Back on August 10, 1984, you had three big new movies to choose from: the kids and spies adventure Cloak & Dagger, the Commie-busting teen actioner Red Dawn and this bewildering unknown quantity. Which one would you have chosen to skip? Audiences at the time arrived at the same conclusion.

Which isn't of course to imply that Buckaroo Banzai is a terrible movie (although it's pretty far from a good one), just that when it comes to successfully selling a movie a clear hook makes all the difference. The no doubt capable creators of this one-sheet never figured their picture's out. Instead, they crafted a hilarious mess of convoluted nonsense and off-puttingly weird imagery.

Huh. Who says Hollywood doesn't occasionally practice truth in advertising?

Friday, September 09, 2011

Film Review - SHARK NIGHT 3D

As far as aquatic monster thrillers go, Shark Night 3D doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table. It’s mostly a reheated chum bucket of standard genre tropes served up as late summer celluloid filler for the undiscerning. However, it does make one valuable contribution worthy of enthusiastic notice: it finally offers the Cookiecutter shark its moment to bask in the spotlight.

Long ignored by the world of exploitative B-movies, the Cookiecutter shark is an ugly little fellow with a truly unusual method of attaining food. The creature suctions itself onto the bodies of prey with its mouth and then spins in circles, using dozens of razor-sharp triangular teeth to saw loose chunks of flesh. Round, cookie-shaped chunks of flesh. Awesome, huh?! And, if that isn’t impressive enough, their bioluminescent bodies – which lure unfortunate victims into their gory, ninja-like sneak attacks - earned them the genus name Isistius, after Isis, the Egyptian goddess of light. That’s a pretty badass distinction for a carnivore that measures a mere 50 centimetres.

Ol’ Cookiecutter doesn’t get much time to shine in Shark Night 3D, but it makes every single horrible second count. Watching a school of the diminutive swimming night-terrors turn a screaming college student into a bloody human jigsaw puzzle, I couldn’t help but let out a cackle of twisted appreciation. Frankly, this flick badly needed more moments like it!

The picture stars Sara Paxton (no direct relation to Bill) as, uh, Sara, a haunted pixie-ish co-ed with a Mysterious Past, who invites a group of hilariously diverse movieland stereotypes to her family cabin in the Louisiana Gulf. There’s the Slutty Goth Babe (Katharine McPhee), the Black Football Star Who Escaped the Projects (Sinqua Walls), the Football Player’s Sexy Latino Girlfriend (Alyssa Diaz), the Horny Goofball (33-year-old Joel David Moore), the Campus Stud (Chris Zylka) and the Sensitive Nerd (Dustin Milligan – who, like all nerds, is really just a male model with glasses).

Note: If you’ve ever seen a by-the-numbers horror movie before, you’ll be able to scan the above list and easily determine who the first two attack victims are.

On the way to the lake, the criminally attractive friends run afoul of Sara’s ex-boyfriend Dennis (Chris Carmack) and his loathsome pal Red (Joshua Leonard). They’re a pair of racist hicks with a serious hatred for higher education, who object to Sara attempting to escape her small town roots. However, after a couple “boating accidents,” it becomes painfully clear the peaceful lake is thriving with several species of man-eating shark. Thus, in order to avoid becoming dinner, the opposing parties, along with jovial local lawman Sabin (Donal Logue), are forced to quit their squabblin’ and join forces to flee the Gulf’s toothy new residents.

While Shark Night 3D is being marketed as a straight-forward shark thriller, the script by Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg is actually more of a sub-genre mash-up, blending together elements from several different horror movie breeds (which I dare not spoil in fear of ruining major plot twists). Unfortunately, the three primary sub-genres depend on a certain level of creative depravity and go-for-broke lunacy in order to succeed, and Shark Night 3D’s blood-spattered potential is utterly neutered by its PG-13 rating. Outside of the creepy Cookiecutter sequence, none of the kills have any real impact. Oh, there’s plenty of red in the water, but they’re abrupt and frustratingly brief, with precious little gore or flailing-limbed hysteria. Even the fairly ingenious third act revelation explaining how the sharks wound up in the lake is hopelessly dulled by the filmmakers being unable to milk it for everything its worth.

The film’s harmless, bland vibe can also largely be laid at the feet of helmer David R. Ellis, a man who has become infamous for failing to live up to expectations. After grabbing the attention of genre fans with the outrageously over-the-top Final Destination 2 and the fun, if inconsequential, Cellular, he stiffed on two sure-fire camp-tastic concepts: the much-hyped Snakes on a Plane and 2009’s terrible The Final Destination 3D. Now, against Herculean odds, he's managed to make sharks boring. Despite featuring almost a half-dozen varieties of the fearsome fishies, none of them have even the slightest wisps of on-screen personality. They’re under-utilized, cheesy-looking blurs of CG that just dash in and out of frame. At the beginning of the movie, Ellis even lazily attempts to recreate the iconic opening of Jaws – for what has to be the millionth time – and it is borderline embarrassing. Obviously, his options have been limited by the MPAA, but if you can’t find cool new ways of shooting an attack sequence, you have no business wading into the water.

He also makes the critical error of attempting to pad the opening hour with pointless zany montages and diversions in an effort to stretch the picture to feature-length. There's a sluggishly-paced boat chase that seems to drag on for eternity, and a wakeboarding segment that's about as exciting as sitting on a dock and watching others enjoy themselves through binoculars. And, as if lulling the audience into tedium isn't unforgivable enough, neither of these listless timewasters have any effect on the story or characters. 

The cast is largely forgettable shark bait, even by generic horror flick standards. Donal Logue goofs off amiably in a poorly defined stock role, and Sinqua Walls is strangely fascinating due to the fact his football player makes a series of decisions so amazingly stupid that they defy rational human thought. Only Chris Carmack, as the heroine’s sinister former flame, makes a lasting impact. He’s effortlessly charismatic, and projects genuine menace. It’d be great to see the actor cast in a smarter and more daring film that allowed him to really get nuts.

Given the state of the economy and current ticket prices, there’s no good reason you should venture to the multiplex to experience Shark Attack 3D. There’s not much here you can’t see in a dozen crappy DTV killer shark movies, and the 3D is virtually non-existent. Coming almost exactly one year after Alexandre Aja’s giddy Piranha 3D – which rung every last drop of schlocky perversion and winking naughtiness from its dopey premise – Ellis’ movie feels tired, trivial and antiquated. After all, if there’s no frenzy to go along with feeding, what's the point?!

2 out of 5

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Epi-Cast: Episode 31 - "Podcast of the Planet of the Apes"

Okay kids, party time's over. Put away your surfboards and short shorts and start gathering up your school books! Time to prepare for another 10 months of soul-crushing study and crippling mental exhaustion. But before you do that, rejoice in the fact that another Epi-Cast has landed plum in your lap to entertain you as you sob the next few days away. If you're looking for a laffy, daffy means of aural escape, this podcast is the ticket, baby! 

Epi-Cast: Episode 31 - "Podcast of the Planet of the Apes"

Summer movie season may be over but there's still fun to be had picking through the wreckage. In this most exhilirating of episodes Cam and Tom journey to that horrible Planet of the Apes and debate where Rise of the Planet of the Apes ranks in relation to the rest of the venerable franchise. In addition, Cam reviews the horror remake Fright Night and Kevin Smith's Red State, while Tom finally joins the party and talks about X-Men: First Class and Joe Wright's indie actioner Hanna. In an exceptionally bicker-happy segment of Trailer Park Encounters, the duo dissect Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, George Lucas's Red Tails and Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Beware, much hooting, hollering and chest-thumping lies ahead. Enjoy!

To download, simply right-click and save on any of the episode titles above. Then you are free to indulge in one of the wild worldwide web's most majestic mp3 treasures.

P.S. We are also available on iTunes! We kid you not! Simply do a store search for "Epi-Cast" and, WHY-COOKIE-ROCKET!, you can subscribe to our feed and receive insta-dl's (Geek-speak for downloads). Oh, and we are the "Epi-Cast", not the "Epicast." Profound interpretations of the Bible will probably not be given here. (I added the "probably" because it's truly impossible to predict Tom's oft-random thought patterns.)

P.P.S. Don't hesitate to leave a review on our iTunes page. As always, we sincerely welcome your glowing praise/earth-scorching venom.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Epi-Cast: Episode 30 - "Let's Get McCracken!"

Is it just us, or has this season's pack of blockbuster releases been pretty dire? Sure, X-Men: First Class and Bridesmaids were great, and Thor was pretty fun, but Green Lantern? Cars 2? Transformers: Dark of the Moon? The Hangover 2? Pirates of the Caribbean 4? Yuck. Let's face facts, people: this is, so far, not shaping up to be one of Hollywood's proudest summers. And we as a society can only put so much faith in Captain America and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2...

Thus, to relieve ya'll of the mid-summer cinema gloomies, Cam and Tom are back with an Epi-Cast episode which covers a couple spectacular alternatives to the typical, glossy 200 million dollar 3D crap clogging up multiplexes at this very moment. You're welcome.

Epi-Cast: Episode 30 - "Let's Get McCracken!"

In this podcasterific dose of sophisticated discourse, Cam and Tom attempt to delve into the mysteries of Terrence Malick's mesmerizing and ambitious The Tree of Life, yet find themselves stumbling to even synopsize this modern masterpiece. Don't fret, though, much appreciation and awe is nonetheless expressed. They also arrive late to the party with a joint review of The Hangover Part II. As solo acts, Cam dutifully slogs through Transformers: Dark of the Moon and cheerfully recommends Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, while Tom catches up on his home video releases with Adjustment Bureau and Paul. Plus, in the latest Trailer Park Encounters, the duo clash over Spielberg's War Horse, are caught slightly off-guard by the teasers for Pixar's Brave and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and debate the literary accuracy of Paul W.S. Anderson's The Three Musketeers. They also whine for an extended period of time about James Blunt for some reason... Anyhoo, it's more of the usual hijinx for cinephiles young, old and in-between! Enjoy!

To download, simply right-click and save on any of the episode titles above. Then you are free to indulge in one of the wild worldwide web's most majestic mp3 treasures.

P.S. We are also available on iTunes! We kid you not! Simply do a store search for "Epi-Cast" and, XANDER-BERKELEY!, you can subscribe to our feed and receive insta-dl's (Geek-speak for downloads). Oh, and we are the "Epi-Cast", not the "Epicast." Profound interpretations of the Bible will probably not be given here. (I added the "probably" because it's truly impossible to predict Tom's oft-random thought patterns.)

P.P.S. Don't hesitate to leave a review on our iTunes page. As always, we sincerely welcome your glowing praise/earth-scorching venom.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

One-Sheet Showcase - ALLIGATOR (1980)


Category: Cool

As anyone who reads this blog knows, few things tickle my fancy more than a good creature feature - preferably gory ones involving aquatic predators. In the years following Jaws, there was no shortage of the dang things, and Lewis Teague's Alligator was one of the better efforts. Written by the talented John Sayles - the scribe behind Joe Dante's 1978's cult classic Piranha, who would go on to pen and direct 1988's Eight Men Out and the critically lauded 1996 neo-noir Lone Star - Alligator is a bloody blast of wry humour, creatively depraved gore and general lunacy. It also features the invaluable Robert Forster in a self-effacing turn as a Chicago cop who spends as much time obsessing over his male pattern baldness as investigating gator attacks.

In short, it's a damn entertaining B-movie, and well worth checking out. It's cheap, too! 

The picture also produced one heck of a great poster. Unlike the majority of the Jaws clones, which just copycatted the 1975 smash's iconic art-work, Alligator actually managed to inspire a one-sheet that stands on its own. Although it still places its toothy star front and center, this poster projects a darker, more lurid vibe than Spielberg's originator, and feels more in keeping with the exploitative horror and sci-fi movie advertizing of the era. Thus, it makes for a fantastically cool - if not quite accurate - piece of promotional art.

I love the sewer tunnel-shaped framing of the central image. Given that much of picture involves Forster and his edible co-stars wandering around Chicago's bowels in search of the man-eating beastie, it's appropriate that the poster imagery depicts how the creature could appear to someone who took an unfortunate wrong turn. The artist manages to make the lurking alligator look like it almost belongs in the dank, uninhabitable environment, while still capturing it's alarming otherness. Notice, too, how the eyes are immediately drawn to the monster's frightening toothy grin. It looks less like an inhabitant of the natural world, than an unstoppable, almost supernatural, presence slowly emerging from fog and darkness.

Like many of the best 80s horror one-sheets, it projects an image that is both nightmarish and exciting. It's so striking, in fact, that it even makes up for the goofy title font choice. Unlike the actual movie, which is more campy and fun than scary, this Alligator poster has no shortage of bite.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Film Review - TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

Transformers: Dark of the Moon defies criticism. It is what it is, and, by this point, you're either on-board or you're not. Those who enjoyed 2007's Transformers or 2009's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will once again be treated to well over two hours of CG robot mayhem, relentless violence, broad humour and heavily made-up Maxim-esque actresses. Michael Bay doesn’t attempt to upset the applecart; he delivers exactly what fans expect from him, and closes out his gargantuan, tin-headed trilogy with enough fireworks to fuel a century's worth of Fourth of July celebrations. Although I can respect Bay's tireless attempts to expand the already-massive scope of the franchise, and gleeful dedication to detonations, I still feel left out in the cold. Watching Dark of the Moon, I didn't experience the visceral sense of irritation I did for the first or second film so much as faintly amused indifference. Sure, the effects are state-of-the-art and the action is well-executed. But why should I care?

It remains fascinating how little Bay is interested in the Transformers. Oh, there are plenty of the towering, mechanized aliens in the film, except few of them have a personality, much less dialogue. We've spent three films with Autobot leader Optimus Prime and what do we really know about him? That he fights for good, dislikes Decepticons, and is sorta friendly with Shia LaBeouf's character. Outside of Peter Cullen's booming voice, he brings very little to the proceedings and exists to recite solemn platitudes, war cries and dull exposition, and chop down bad guys. And, sadly, he's the most well-rounded non-human character. The rest - including the popular Bumblebee, who has maybe 15 minutes of screen-time - are technically impressive background ciphers, defined by their funny accents and powers (or, in one case, inexplicable resemblance to Albert Einstein). If you had told me in 2007 that the villainous Megatron's character arc would culminate in him donning a cape, sitting quietly on the ground for an entire battle, and being verbally ridiculed by a Victoria's Secret Model, I'd have called you batty. Yet, here we are.

Once again, the plot is absurd. The film opens in 1961, the year of the great Cybertronian war between the Autobots and Decepticons, as the heroic Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy) attempts to flee the planet with a top secret weapon. Unfortunately, during his escape, he is shot down and crash lands on Earth's moon - a momentous event that instigates the space race between the Americans and the Russians. As we all know, the Yanks emerge victorious and, during the legendary 1969 landing, Neil Armstrong is ordered to investigate the downed craft. Among the wreckage he discovers is Sentinel's corpse and the all too important MacGuffin, and brings the latter back to the U.S. government where it remains hush-hush for over 40 years...

Flash-forward to an undisclosed time in the relative present: the Autobots work for the government, under the rule of head honcho Mearing (Frances McDormand), running covert anti-terrorism missions (how covert can a mission involving gargantuan robots really be?!) all over the globe, while the disgraced Decepticons hang out with zebras and elephants in the African Savannah. Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) has graduated college, been awarded a medal for bravery by President Obama and, oddly, is unable to find any means of employment. He's supported by his loving British girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), who works for shady venture capitalist Dylan (Patrick Dempsey - an unexpected riot in a stock role). Unbeknownst to the jealous Sam, Dylan gets him a job at a tech company run by the eccentric Bruce Bazos (John Malkovich), where he comes across classified information regarding powerful Transformer hardware buried on the dark side of the moon. Soon, it's a mad dash between the government and the Decepticons to retrieve the crucial technology, called "pillars," which may well spell doom for the entire planet.

Many took issue with the previous Transformers film for its incoherent story which, according to Bay, was an ill-fated result of the Writers Guild strike. I sincerely look forward then to hearing him defend the script for Dark of the Moon, by Fallen co-writer Ehren Kruger. Not only does this picture contradict sizable chunks of the groundwork laid by its predecessors, very little of the film stands up to rudimentary critical thinking. Why, for example, does the government not return earlier to excavate Sentinel Prime's crashed ship? I'd imagine, at the very least, the alien technology could have been worth checking out. Why does a certain character not accept the Matrix of Leadership - an item which can resurrect dead Transformers - from Optimus Prime? Why does Carly push for Sam to assist in the Autobot cause, only to become infuriated minutes after he does? Further, anyone able to logically explain Dempsey's character's motivation and decisions deserves to be heroically paraded around town on a float to great fanfare.

Yes, I know, I know. Transformers movies aren't about story, they’re about skull-quaking action. That's all well and good, however it's difficult to generate any type of emotional reaction to epic special effects battles when their reason for occurring makes so little sense. There is an hour-long sequence in which the city of Chicago is utterly demolished (Why Chicago, you ask? There's no good answer to that question, other than the fact that, thanks to The Dark Knight, the city has become the go-to locale for large-scale summer-movie heroics) that is truly ambitious and daunting in scale. Nevertheless, because the previous 90 minutes of build-up is so messy and ridiculous, the climactic set-piece's impact is severely diminished. It doesn't excite or exhilarate, it just happens.

Bay also makes a curious creative decision with his human characters: they’re all portrayed as being insane. Not, like, quirky insane, but full-on foaming-at-the-mouth-and-ready-for-the-mental-ward insane. LaBeouf, usually the dependable grounding force for the series, is now an entitled jerk who has no less than three scenes where he devolves into a spastic, screaming lunatic. Returning once more are John Turturro's kooky former agent character, now a crazed author with unrepressed passion for McDormand's borderline incompetent g-woman, and Julie White as Sam's lusty mom, who this time discusses her son's, um, organ size and the importance of cunninglingus. Never one to be out-weirded, newcomer John Malkovich appears to have spent his time on set ingesting narcotics, and is really terrible in a truly mesmerizing way  (one has not lived a full life until they've seen Malkovich tickled into submission by a Transformer). Rounding out the peanut gallery are Ken Jeoung, as a hyper-agitated tech nerd with critical info, who drops his pants and forces LaBeouf into a toilet stall, along with Alan Tudyk, who plays Turturro's gay German assistant as if auditioning for a Sprockets movie. Even the lower-key characters played by Dempsey and Huntington-Whiteley behave in ways no rational human being ever would. There's a place for broad caricatures such as these but, when the fate of the universe hangs in the balance, a certain level of gravitas is needed in order to build tension. By cramming Dark of the Moon with grotesque oddballs, the filmmakers undercut the dramatic stakes and rob their epic of a pulse.

The childish raunchy humour from Revenge of the Fallen has been toned down; though Bay's other obsessions are still unmistakeably present, including fetishistic depictions of military gear, obvious product placement, blatant allusions to real-world historical tragedies and a borderline-creepy penchant for immature misogyny (Huntington-Whiteley's entrance consists of an leering handheld close-up of her underwear-clad derriere as she navigates her apartment). That said, he delivers the (surprisingly brutal) overkill enthusiastically and, due to the picture being shot for 3D, his robot-on-robot fisticuffs are - for the first time ever - actually comprehensible. Gone are the days of the bewildering blurs of fractured grungy grey chaos; this time around we can usually tell who is hitting who, and with what object. Thank heavens for small miracles.

It'll be interesting to see where the Transformers franchise goes from here. The property has become too profitable to abandon, though Bay and LaBeouf have both stated that they're done with the series, and this film sends a significant portion of its characters to an early scrap yard grave. My hope is that the inevitable reboot cuts down on the unnecessary bloat and makes a conscious attempt to bring the Autobots and Decepticons to the forefront and give us a reason to feel affection for them beyond nostalgia. Bombastic end of the world scenarios can be a lot of fun when there's dynamic, genuine personalities involved. It’s too bad no one behind Dark of the Moon seemed to understand that.
 
2 out of 5

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cinematic Consumption - DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH

Death Wish V: The Face of Death (or, according to the fine print on the cheap DVD art, "Faces of Death") begins as all films should: with abundant footage of naked models getting dressed intercut with shots of Charles Bronson strutting like Tony Manero down the streets of New York to terrible dance music. Now, you may think gratuitous nudity in the credits is shameless, but don't worry! It all serves a valuable purpose. See, Bronson's character is going to a fashion show overseen by his girlfriend, Olivia (Lesley-Anne Down). Hence, director Allan A. Goldstein isn't aiming to titillate, he's trying to educate by giving us a fly-on-the-wall documentary-like glimpse into the daily realities of this swanky industry. Besides, who are we to question the man's art? Who are we...?

Ultra-classy opening aside, though, The Face of Death is a pretty shoddy affair. Despite being released in 1994, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a straight-to-video cheapo cash-in from the previous decade (which is surprising, as I was always under the impression that any movie featuring a "Special Guest Appearance" by Saul Rubinek must cost a king's ransom). The cinematography is flat and grungy, and I'm not sure the production ever bothered to hire anyone to cover art direction. Although, someone must have dreamed up that bizarre clothing factory warehouse, which came complete with an acid pit and a high-speed conveyer belt that leads into a wood chipper. Are these things common in clothing factories? They must have some mighty insane workers comp cases.

This fifth Death Wish instalment opens with Bronson's vigilante architect Paul Kersey (whose face really does, at this point, resemble the Grim Reaper) settled down in happy domesticity. He has a hot fiancé 30 years his junior, and a soon-to-be stepdaughter (Erica Lancaster) who adores him. But, because the universe loves making a cruel cosmic joke of the poor dope, happiness is again violently taken away from him. His lady love's sadistic (and impotent!) mobster ex, named Tommy O'Shea (Michael Parks - dependably loopy), finds out Olivia is planning to rat him out to the feds. So, to dissuade her, he orders flamboyant, dandruff-plagued hitman Freddie Flakes (Robert Joy) to dress in drag and smash the poor woman's face into a mirror. Repeatedly. Then, just to be a jerk, he waits until she's recovered and returned home before showing up and shooting her off the roof.

Kersey is shattered, obviously, and demands to know why the law hasn't busted O'Shea yet. They put on their sad faces and tell him they've been trying for - wait for it -16 years! Since that's an unacceptable amount of time to spend failing to arrest a man who frequently murders people in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses, the ass-kicking senior citizen tells the cops to take a flying leap, grabs his gun and sets out to kill his enemies in wildly over-the-top ways. A task which he accomplishes swimmingly.

Following the series' previous bombastic entry, The Crackdown(!) - in which Kersey killed approximately 1,692 bad guys - The Face of Death is remarkably subdued and more in tune with the first film. It's nowhere near as good, but there is a conscious effort made to make its hero's battle more small-scale and personal. O'Shea really only has a small handful of goons so, instead of wall-to-wall shoot-outs, the film's runtime deals primarily with the outlandish scenarios Kersey concocts to send his foes screaming into the nether. Poison cannoli, anyone? Or, better yet, how about death by exploding remote control soccer ball? (Speaking of which, did those actually exist? Why would you want a remote control soccer ball? You can't kick it because that would damage the circuitry, and the novelty factor would be remarkably short-lived.) Of course, it all ends with a gun battle in the clothing factory. Gosh, I hope someone remembered to put a lid on that acid pit...

The glorious excess of the villain deaths are The Face of Death's greatest strength, as well as it's most crippling weakness. They're easily the most entertaining part of the movie, but they are so ludicrous that they completely null the film's attempts to be taken seriously. It all results in a tonal mess of a motion picture that, while more watchable than a couple of the other sequels, doesn't congeal into anything of particular worth. After 20 years of wishing gruesome death on the guilty, Death Wish V finally sees Paul Kersey limping off into the sunset. And boy, oh boy, does he ever look tired.

2 out of 5