Archive for the ‘2010s’ Category
[REC] is probably one of my favorite horror films of all time (even if its demonic-possession-blood-disease premise is absurd even by zombie movie standards) and one of the few entries in the increasingly maddening found footage sub-genre that I can actually stand. Its slow build-up of something being very wrong in this quarantined apartment building is downright awesome, leading to one of the most frightening, and earned, endings I’ve ever seen in a movie of this or almost any genre. [Rec] ², its sequel dealing with the direct aftermath of the first film, in the same apartment building with a new set of emergency responders waiting to be served up to the infected, had its moments but was essentially more of the same, with added emphasis on explaining the, again, ridiculous premise that took away from the what-the-fuck-is-going-on-here air of mystery of the first film. Apparently the filmmakers heard my complaint, so how do they rectify the second film’s slight stumble? Why, by completely abandoning the found-footage structure (except for the first few minutes’ wedding reception – needless to say, the best part of the film) and everything that made the first film so incredibly unnerving, creating what I guess is, what, a parody of the two more serious films that came before? If not, this was nothing more than a typical zombie movie with effects and gore from any “Walking Dead” episode and some extremely strange humor, completely jarring when considering the two films that came before this (alright, I laughed at the character/running gag of SpongeJohn, the children’s entertainer hoping to avoid copyright infringement, but even that was hideously out of place in this series and even this genre). The premise is a promising one, as amateur footage from a relative and a professional wedding photographer depict a wedding that goes swimmingly, which in this kind of movie only heightens the tension that something, eventually, will go incredibly wrong. And when it does, the chaos is satisfying, a group of survivors hole up in the kitchen, and…the camera is thrown to the ground, we’re transitioned to a traditional film format for the rest of the duration, and the combination of gore, elaborate kills, and odd humor make this little more than an “Evil Dead” or “Dead Alive” knock-off, with characters doing an awfully good job of taking this downright apocalyptic situation in Ash Williams-style stride, rather than the no-names from the first two films with whom we could nonetheless identify simply due to their collective sense of mutual claustrophobic terror. Some of the action and gore and kills are fun to watch, sure, but they’re merely images I’ll forget in a day or two, whereas the mere sense of dread I got from the first film, while indescribable as an specific image or sound, is something I still have sensory memories of to this day, years after watching the film. I suppose the filmmakers had the right idea trying to revive a series that was close to becoming stale. If only they didn’t do it in a format even more stale than the found-footage format that [REC] pioneered.
It was, curiously, a line by Liam Neeson in “The Grey,” of all films, that came to mind as I watched the emotional unravelling of “A Late Quartet”‘s world-famous string quartet when he describes “men unfit for mankind.” Of course, Neeson’s character in that film was describing “Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes,” while the men (and woman) of this film are gifted, famed musicians who have devoted 25 years of their lives to not only the perfection of, but more importantly the unification of, their craft. To put forth such beautiful music, they have had to shun their individual talents (and, thereby, egos) in favor of making a melodic whole, as well as any semblance of personal lives and continually push back each of their neuroses, insecurities, and foibles as the music comes first, letting those flaws first fester and then grow inside each person until they can no longer be contained. The catalyst of that lack of containment comes when Peter (Christopher Walken), the group’s cellist and oldest member, announces that he likely has the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease and will soon have to step down. Now, when this well-oiled machine finally faces its first true threat of breaking apart, the endless rehearsals and the music can no longer serve as a band-aid with which the quartet can mask their previously-disavowed flaws. Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) almost immediately brings up, seemingly out of the blue, a suggestion that he and first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) switch between first and second chair going forward. He’s not fooling anyone; the idea has been smoldering in him long before Peter’s grim announcement. Violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), Robert’s wife, must confront her failings as a wife and mother who has mostly forsaken loving relationships for her work – a pitfall of many a professional musician, as she explains to her enraged daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a burgeoning violinist in her own right…who happens to be carrying on an affair with Daniel, the youngest member of the quartet – initially gruff and cold as he tutors Alexandra, now reduced to a romantically-blubbering schoolboy when Alexandra’s bed comes into the equation. I should have no business becoming so absorbed in such melodrama, professional insecurities and romantic tribulations and triangles so well-trodden in lesser films, and yet, the power of these melodramatic sub-plots comes in seeing how each member of the quartet seems so clueless on how to navigate these uncharted waters. They are, indeed, unfit for mankind, or rather, unfit for and unprepared to handle mankind’s desires, hatreds, flaws. The perfection of Beethoven and Shostakovich has done anything but prepare them for the imperfections of being human beings – Peter’s physical decay and mourning of his recently-deceased wife, Robert’s crippling talent-based insecurities and yearning for yet more fame and glory, Juliette’s inability to love, Daniel’s sudden hyper-ability to love – all separate facets of the human experience that they’re just now confronting, as their 25-year shield against such dreaded horrors finds itself dissolving.
As the film progresses, we get tidbits of information here and there concerning the quartet’s relationships and how its members came together – just enough to make us realize that there is a complicated history here, to allow us to speculate on so many different levels. As we learn that Robert and Juliette were practically forced to marry when Alexandra was conceived, Robert uses this fact when confronting his wife about her long-standing emotional distance. When we learn that Peter was in a previous quartet with Juliette’s mother, psychological possibilities abound. Peter is already, clearly, the wise, revered patriarch of the group, but is he literally so, literally a father figure, to Juliette? Does he see himself that way, and indeed towards the others? There are so many more questions to ask about the interpersonal relationships of these four people that the screenplay only hints at the answers to, and you can only come to one reasonable conclusion – 25 years is a long time. A long time in which to play music together, and shun important outside influences – together. For better or worse, they’ve always been able to return to the music, to work off of each others’ personalities and talents to become a whole, made literal by their effortless eye-based communication-without-words during performance that has clearly taken years to perfect. They’re one, a family, overseen not by a quartet’s traditional “leader,” the first violinist, but by the older, wobbly-handed cellist. Christopher Walken sheds his self-parodic image to portray a man with such dignity and grace as I have rarely seen in any movie character. While his fellow musicians flail about in a puddle of their own neuroses, Peter confronts his Parkinson’s on a treadmill with bizarre doodads hooked up to his body with nary a complaint or flash of shame, or sits mournfully in his study listening to a recording of his late opera singer wife, imagining her singing before him. When he explains the nature of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, opus 131 to his students or tells them about his humorous encounter with famed cellist Pablo Casals, his appreciation towards his chosen art form can be felt on a deep, poetic level. Robert, Juliette, and Daniel no doubt love the music they play – you must in order to achieve their level of talent and fame over so long a period of time – but Peter has gained an introspective admiration for his work, his life, that his younger collaborators have simply not yet achieved. But, if their reaction to Peter’s actions during the performance that bookends the beginning and end of the film is to be believed, if they revere their elder statesman’s heroic acceptance of his fate and his person as much as I do, they’ll get there. They soon may, like Peter, become people as beautiful and complex as the music they play, if they aren’t already, flaws and all.
If there’s a way to perfectly translate the feel of a cheap, trashy novel sold in a drugstore with the cover torn off into a film, Lee Daniels has found it. The bright colors and lighting, the jagged yet stylish editing, the period music, it all gives this the feel of a low budget B-movie from the 70s, while more importantly evoking a sense of (lurid) place to glorious excess. When sweat pours off of John Cusack by the bucketful as he bends his wife over a washing machine and fucks her, we feel it. When Zac Efron awakens one morning and comments that he stinks, after his jellyfish-stung face was pissed on by Nicole Kidman, we smell it. When Cusack’s backwoods uncle and possible alibi nonchalantly guts an alligator while being interviewed, entrails splashing onto the ground, we taste it. By watching this movie, you are transported to this shitty Florida town circa 1969, and you will want to take a shower.
And by the way, this wonderfully revolting barrage on the senses happens to have some great characters with great motivations as tangible as the humidity, sweat, piss, blood, cum, and swampwater that the camera delivers to you. Or, at least when it comes to the main character. Zac Efron’s Jack, the champion swimmer-turned-college kickout tagging along with his newspaper reporter older brother to investigate a possibly innocent man on death row, is a desperately unfulfilled loner, who needs to latch onto anyone or anything, as long as it gives him a sense of purpose or at the very least engages his senses for a minute or two. That he falls head over heels for Nicole Kidman’s Charlotte, the pen pal-turned-betrothed of the man on death row, is therefore unsurprising. She happens to be beautiful, she happens to be flirtatious, she happens to be there. Nevermind, to him at least, that her outward personality and mannerisms are, to put it nicely, pretty much in line with someone who would fall for and marry a crude, cruel prisoner based solely on words on a paper. Jack’s reasons for falling for such an ostensible loser, other than out of sheer loneliness or boredom, remain vague, and that’s just fine; it’s all about subjectively experiencing that longing from his point of view, rather than objectively deducing the reasons for it. This is where those audacious song choices and jump cuts and shots and poses that make even the most vile aspects of this time and place attractive and appealing (quite a feat) make their mark. That this hyper-subjective music and editing and slow-motion and what-not are used in a striking fantasy sequence as Jack imagines Charlotte exiting her apartment in a wedding dress, and then too in the periphery of the decidedly non-fantastical image of Jack getting pissed on by his foul-mouthed love at the beach, this style seems to both accentuate Jack’s inner world of romantic, whimsical machismo, and ironically comment on his grimy real life. Reality and fantasy seem to be blurring, namely Jack’s imagination-enhanced muse vs. the white trash she actually presents herself to be.
Really, the only other character with any kind of depth is Macy Gray’s Anita, the housekeeper for Jack’s family. Not only is she literally the narrator, but we arguably see the story through her eyes even moreso than through the supposed protagonist Jack’s. Just as was the plight of anyone daring to have black skin in those days, Anita is invisible to her employers on a good day, or downright belittled on all the other days. All the while, the ever-present look of disdain on her face and her snarky commentary tells us that she’s just simply watching, and judging, the players in this unseemly morality play that’s unfolding around her. We may be able to see the world as Jack sees it, but make no mistake, Anita is the audience’s stand-in. It makes sense, then, that the relationship between the two of them is the most warm and human in the story, one that’s lovingly contentious and ultimately of mutual respect in a world where respect towards oneself and others is as foreign a concept as taking a shower. I just wish everyone else was, if not a pure stereotype used to fuel the setting, then just glossed over, namely Jack’s brother Ward. Ward’s motivations for finding the truth about the prisoner Hillary Van Wetter, and in fact anything about him really, remain vague until late in the story, which is a shame as Matthew McConaughey plays him as an outwardly confident and affable investigator who clearly has searing inner turmoil and pain bubbling within, but to have that turmoil explained away in one shocking encounter in a hotel room was a letdown. True, it’s wise to maintain Jack’s point of view, thereby making Ward something of an enigma, but, eh, I dunno, more could’ve been done with him, because instead of any kind of insight into Ward, we get an overabundance of commentary on racial issues in 1960s Florida, namely when it comes to Anita and to David Oyelowo’s Yardley, Ward’s black, British colleague also investigating Hillary’s incarceration. Many dirty looks and cruel comments by the white man a la “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” later, and the point becomes old, fast, in a story and setting that’s otherwise too thrillingly trashy for such messages to be so outwardly espoused (although one late reveal about Yardley’s true nature, further driving home the racist society angle, is very funny and unexpected…). Much of the storytelling around this is sloppy, sometimes for good, sometimes, most prominently in this particular regard, for bad. John Cusack’s Hillary is just as underdeveloped and caricatured, but at least with him it’s wholly appropriate. From the start, Hillary is little more than a hard-breathing, sweaty, violent, cruel monster, truly an ogre keeping the princess locked away in the tower, or in this case the musty swamp, without a shred of humanity or characterization. He is, then, the utter personification of the sights, sounds, and attitudes of this over-the-top story and setting: every fear and insecurity brought on by this place that Jack must overcome is embodied by this man, in a terrifying finale that feels like so much more than rescuing the damsel in distress. In the end, “The Paperboy”‘s lessons are as messy as its narrative: not so good a thing for the latter, utterly vital for the former.
For its duration, even as the focus not-so-subtly transitions completely from Rooney Mara to Jude Law, this is an unnerving, uncomfortable portrait of depression, and to a lesser extent a critique of our miracle pill-popping culture. Lesser, because the film deemed it necessary to shove it down its audience’s throat. Granted, the main players in the story are cogs of this industry, so obviously they’d be talking shop, but when every other word out of the mouths of Jude Law’s Dr. Banks and his colleagues in both medicine and the business side of pharmaceuticals concerns this funny-named antidepressant or that, the point is driven home early on, and the rest is monotonous overkill. But, when that critique of an industry’s over-reliance on a tiny pill becomes embodied by Rooney Mara’s depressed and suicidal Emily, we get Soderbergh at his very best. Muffled sounds, muted colors, and claustrophobically close and low-angle cinematography box this woman, her husband newly-released from prison, their previously-affluent lives shattered, into an stifling prison cell as invisible as her husband’s was visible. This is a deeply sick person, who any half-competent person will tell you cannot be cured with a simple dose of Ablixa, and one knife and blood-strewn apartment later, that point is driven home.
And then the last 15 minutes happened.
A lot of people will despise the big twist, most likely for its utter implausibility and how it practically undoes the aesthetically dynamic portrait of a mentally damaged woman. The biggest problem is its implausibility, how 7093274320987432839 things had to go right for this dastardly scheme of greed and lust to work out, and that Law & Order: SVU, 11th hour revelation-esque implausibility does to a degree distract from an overall message the film is trying to put across. But, if it does indeed completely alter Emily at the snap of a finger, if anything it’s even more of a testament to Soderbergh’s skill as a filmmaker, to so convincingly depict the mental agony of a character through simple filmmaking techniques, only to find out that Soderbergh, and Emily, fooled us the whole time. You could even argue that it was a necessary 180 for the character, a final step in completely transitioning the flawed protagonist role from Emily to Dr. Banks. Before we know the truth about Emily, Dr. Banks’ search for the truth is a draining one for the man, as embodied by his increasingly-visible stubble, increasingly-invisible home and professional life, and simple things like Jude Law’s hunched posture when being grilled by both the cops and the powers-that-be in the psychiatry field about his treatment of Emily. Even before the truth totally comes out, and particularly afterwards, it’s hard to deny that Dr. Banks’ obsession is more about his own self-preservation than the fate of his maligned patient, yet we’re still drawn into his plight, in a wouldn’t-YOU-want-to-save-your-own-skin? kind of way. This is one of Jude Law’s best performances, as a man who’s initially well-meaning but ultimately tangled in the flaws of his branch of medicine and his own very human desire for a quick solution and money, and ultimately fixated on saving himself above anyone else, with just enough of a twisted desire to see justice done to make his shoes big enough for us to fit in.
I think the plot twist’s ultimate benefit is its greatly expanding the scope of the film’s message. What began as a critique of legal drug culture, right down to those shrill and insulting TV ads, becomes a critique of the entire psychiatry industry surrounding those drugs. As a seemingly manically-depressed woman murders a loved one while in a drug-induced stupor, an industry’s lazy and profit-driven over-reliance on a quick fix has failed one whom it has sworn to help. As it’s revealed that that manically-depressed woman is actually a sociopath who has gamed the system and won a ticket to a mental facility, safely ensconced with the Get Out of Jail Free Card that is the double jeopardy law, so too has that industry’s failure extended to our legal system. Ultimately, that plot twist beckons us to go back and watch the whole thing again, both to pick up on clues like the camera focusing on the cop’s nametag, and to see how much Soderbergh screwed with us in general. If this is indeed his final film as he claims, it’s unfortunate we’ll never again see something new from the man, but at least we’ll have an opportunity to watch something a second time and find something new after all.
Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)
The last third or so, when shit gets real and they have to get out, is proof enough what a joke it is that he wasn’t nominated for Best Director. Suspenseful to no end despite knowing how it’ll end up if you know the true story (clichéd to point that out, I know, but it still applies). I usually can’t stand when people in a movie theater applaud when the heroes prevail at the end, but I found myself waiting and wondering what everyone was waiting for when the plane got into the air, and was relieved when it happened. Pretty good sign of quality filmmaking from my point of view. There was just the right amount of screentime devoted to the Americans holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s home – not too much so that they’d develop, and be defined by, genre stereotypes, not too little so that they’d be nothing but macguffins. I just wish the movie as a whole didn’t rely quite as much on humor as it did…this is an amazingly improbable, ridiculous true story; that improbability and ridiculousness should speak for itself (plus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a running gag get as old and irritating as quickly as “Argo fuck yourself” did).
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)
Its perceived glorification of independence and the will to survive sometimes strays distastefully towards, instead, pigheaded obstinacy and an irresponsible shunning of outside assistance, especially when you’re dying, you know you’re dying, and your little kid’s gonna be alone in a fucking swamp when you’re gone. Despite that, though, you have a feeling that little Hushpuppy will be alright. Her father Wink can be a prick, can be hard and stern, but when living in said fucking swamp, that’s the father he needs to be. Putting aside qualms about the reasons Wink and the other Bathtub inhabitants so virulently shun the outside world, their methods of survival are fascinating and exciting to watch. Those titular beasts were stupid, though. Let this captivating setting, and the ability of this little girl to both tune out and adapt to/survive the outlandish challenges of that setting, speak for themselves, without the empty symbolism of imaginary, prehistoric animals.
Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, 2012)
Moderately disappointing by Pixar standards, which still makes it better than almost everything, ever. My disappointment probably comes from the fact that the end didn’t make me outright cry like the last three fucking Pixar movies did, but the bear vs. bear fight was great, an exciting and fitting climax to the evolution of the relationship between Merida and her mother. Pixar’s technical and visual prowess just keeps getting more astounding (look no further than Merida’s hair), and putting a strong, self-reliant woman in the forefront was refreshing, and yet, things like the narrative being interrupted by a song and the 11th hour spell reversal happy ending (I regarded the end of this similarly to Marlene Dietrich’s famous “where is my beautiful beast?!” reaction to the end of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast) made it seem like this was relying on Disney tropes of old. One step forward, one step back for the genre.
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
There’s Tarantino’s signature genre-mimicking, embellished here by the last third or so essentially being nothing but blood and gunfire, and then you throw in perhaps the most intriguing and motivationally complex character of Tarantino’s career in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, and you have a downright brutal satire of slavery (not so current) and racism (much more current). I didn’t even mind that the scene with the Klan’s misadventures in hood-wearing might’ve gone on too long and stretched the joke out too much, was still a well-timed instance of straight-up humor in a film of brutal imagery (i.e. the Mandingo fight…I’m still not sure what made me wince more, the fight itself, or Calvin’s hooting and hollering as he watched his property fight to the death. Was a challenge to not look away, and an absorbing challenge at that) and even more brutal subject matter…a laugh-so-you-don’t-have-to-cry kind of subject. To have comedy and atrocity mesh so easily and feel so natural together, you have to be one hell of a filmmaker, which Quentin Tarantino has again proven to be.
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)
Second-best film of 2012 featuring a character named Mr. Bilbo.
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
The raid was fantastic – perfectly filmed and edited, a textbook on how to hold the audience’s attention; the 80 hours preceding it were somewhat of a bore. Usually don’t consider it a very good sign when it’s so easy to spot an actor’s Oscar clip (when Chastain about chews Kyle Chandler’s head off, her neck vein about to explode).