Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Monday, March 28, 2011
Noun - A form of art that depicts objects or scenes from everyday life and employs techniques of commercial art and popular illustration.
Noun - A filmmaker, usually a director, who exercises creative control over his or her works and has a strong personal style.
With SUCKER PUNCH limping through this weekend, ultimately not only losing to critical negativity but also the top box office slot, much has been said not only about the film, but about its director, one Zack Snyder.
However, I don’t quite think that the discussion has been framed correctly.
Formed in the ‘50s by the writers behind the iconic Cahiers du Cinema, Auteur has become the word with which many film critics and historians have connected with the highest quality of art, and the highest rank of artists. Placed alongside names like Bergman, Hitchcock, Fellini, and the like (or unlike, as the theory would be inspired to say), the title of “auteur” has not only signified an artist with a singular title, but also, one who makes the purest and highest quality of art.
Zack Snyder, as much as one person may appreciate his work, doesn’t quite live up to that billing.
That said, the title of auteur fits right at home next to his name, and in quite an interesting way.
Seemingly inspired by the iconic art movement, where as a name like Olivier Assayas may be the “Punk Rock Auteur,” Zack Snyder is the film world’s pop art iteration of the title.
Snyder embodies through his work, particularly SUCKER PUNCH, a film that for all intents and purposes distills Snyder’s style into a potent potion of misunderstood filmmaking, the idea of pop art. A movement started as a response to consumerism, pop art and pop art artists use previously used materials (and in Snyder’s case, genre tropes, more on that in a moment), removes it from its respective context, and subverts it, in whatever way the artist feels works best.
For Snyder, while he may not use previously used images (I’m thinking something like Godard’s LE HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA), he ultimately uses many concepts, tropes, or ideas from the public conscience or genre conventions. Take the first true action set piece in SUCKER PUNCH, particularly the trench sequence. Using almost Kubrickian-style tracking shots, the action is seemingly ripped straight out of a film like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, where nameless and literally faceless villains are being shot in various ways, explosions surrounding the camera and the person it follows, and a claustrophobic sense of enclosure.
Snyder, in many instances, is the opposite of a Kubrick style filmmaker. The best signal of this dichotomy is this. While you can literally tell both a Kubrick and a Snyder film from its contemporaries, where a director like Kubrick is ultimately inspired by his own work, Snyder is the polar opposite. There is a moment within A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, where you see a copy of the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY soundtrack sitting in the record store. This is a single that Kubrick had given up being influenced by the past, and instead is now fully his own filmmaker. However, Snyder appears to be the opposite. Even in his choice of source music, it’s rarely ever the original piece (even the Smashing Pumpkins track used in the trailer for WATCHMEN is a neo-rehash/remix of a previous track, with its own history, given its use in a Schumacher BATMAN film), but instead some sort of remix or cover.
Take the opening of SUCKER PUNCH for example. Using a cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” the asylum where our lead is placed (The Lennox House) is named after the band’s lead singer, Annie Lennox. It’s little notes like this, that prove while Snyder may not be the world’s most gifted filmmaker, there is truly not a single filmmaker like him.
Overall, say what you will about his films, but director Zack Snyder is as true blue an auteur as there is around. Take a single frame out of any of his films (sans DAWN OF THE DEAD, a film that looking back now, is a much more intriguing film given Snyder’s follow-ups), and you will be hard pressed to name another filmmaker that could have shot them. SUCKER PUNCH is a wonderfully interesting distillation of not only concepts that the director has been working through throughout his career, but also his style. A visually arresting, if horribly paced, look at creativity, the freedom it instills, and free will as a whole, SUCKER PUNCH is also the cinematic manifestation of an artist working through his own mind, and everything that makes it up.
He may not be (and truly isn’t) the greatest of filmmakers, but when it comes to auteur theory, he holds the pop art flag proudly.
Friday, March 25, 2011
While I’m not quite sure he’s the type of filmmaker the originators of the concept known as Auteur Theory dreamed would have fit the bill, it goes without saying that director Zack Snyder does just that.
At least it should, after sitting down and watching his latest film, the action packed fever dream that is known as Sucker Punch.
Chock full of every aspect of a Snyder film that makes up a Snyder film, ranging from empowered women to the discussion of free will, Sucker Punch is the cinematic manifestation of what in writing circles is known as the “vomit” draft of a piece. Getting down everything that Snyder’s 14-year-old brain could put down onto celluloid, it’s been polished into a visually striking, if not perfectly paced, look at free will and the ability that art has to truly free anyone and everyone.
Best described as the proverbial wet dream for director Snyder, Sucker Punch may seem like simple eye candy including dragons, scantily clad blondes and 20 foot tall metallic samurai, but it’s far, far more.
The film follows a young girl, Baby Doll, who is institutionalized by her awful stepfather after the death of her mother, and accidental death of her little sister. Shown a way to retreat to an alternate reality, she learns to not only cope with her past, but make it so her future is a lot more free. Teaming up with a foursome of fellow inmates in the asylum, they head out to attempt and escape the facility and the evil people who run it.
While he may not get any screen time, the film’s biggest star is the man behind both the medium and the message, Snyder.
Coming at an interesting point in the director’s career (after a relatively overlooked animated feature in Guardians Of Ga’Hoole, and before his take on Superman), Sucker Punch looks, feels, and even sounds like the manifestation of everything that Snyder stands for as a filmmaker. Visually, the film ooze’s Snyder’s style. Featuring copious amounts of slow-motion, the film is a candy colored piece of pop art that while it may seem a bit disjointed, is held together firmly by the duct tape that is Snyder’s direction. Using great editing and clever (if a tad bit overused) camera tricks, the viewer flows into and out of each specific world or reality without much of an issue or much confusion. Great action set pieces are all throughout this film, featuring some really well done action choreography, and more so, great use of geography during these set pieces. The viewer rarely feels confused within a fight sequence, and while there are a few brief flubs (particularly near the end), it’s overall really well done, and adds a lot of depth to the film.
Same goes for his use of themes, some new to the director, but some not so much.
At its core a film about free will, the themes of this film may shove a bit too hard into the viewer’s face come the film’s final moments, but it’s an absolutely thrilling look at both free will, and the ability for art to lead to freedom. Before retreating to her alternate universe, Baby must hear music, so that she can dance, which is her transport to this new world. From there, she’s as free as one can get. It’s this freedom through performance or art, that makes this writer think that this film is much more than just a candy coated fever dream with a penchant for short skirts and bullets. Also, the film as a whole plays very much like a personal film for Snyder, who as a filmmaker, comes off as one who simply uses the medium to free himself and the thoughts that he has. It’s a really interesting film that doesn’t harp on its themes too hard, leaving the door open for those to simply enjoy the action, or dig quite deep if one so chooses to.
And it helps when you get such entertaining performances as the ones Snyder has gotten here.
Primarily a female led cast, the on screen star of the film has to be Emily Browning, who may not ultimately be asked to do all that much (her performance comes off as a tad bit one note), but gives a really convincing, and ultimately emotionally engrossing performance. There is something about her and her performance that just truly draws the viewer in, and it has nothing to do with the style of dress that Snyder has her wear. It’s ultimately a really interesting narrative, and benefits greatly from the help of this really fantastic performance.
Being the only real bit of masculinity in the film, Oscar Isaac is enjoyably menacing and just downright despicable here as the evil Blue, the ring leader of things behind the scenes. He’s such an awful guy, that while it may seem like a chance for Isaac to Robin Hood-style ham it up, he gives it this slight level of brooding evil, that it really works. Again, it’s quite one note, but it works for the film as a whole.
And then there is Baby’s crew. Led by the second in command, Sweet Pea, the supporting cast here includes Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung. Cornish and Malone are the best of the bunch, playing the sister team of Sweet Pea and Rocket. Both give really fantastic performances, and play as the neo-emotional core for the film, particularly when the proverbial crap hits the fan. The final act is very much centered on their relationship, and it’s both believable, and really moving. Hudgens is wasted here, as is Chung, both of which are relegated to the closest versions of eye candy the film really has cast wise. Carla Gugino plays Dr. Vera Gorski here, and is arguably the film’s weakest link, giving a really cartoonish performance, one that didn’t necessarily have to be what it ultimately ended up being. Silly accent and everything, the performance just felt a bit too cartoonish, and for a film like this, that’s saying a lot. Finally, Scott Glenn and Jon Hamm both give tiny performances here, the former being the most charming, and the biggest breath of fresh air.
That said, the film isn’t without flaw.
Overall, while the film as a whole is one that works both aesthetically and intellectually, the film does have a few issues. A few set pieces here have some issues with pacing, which as a whole seems to be an issue with the film holistically. The film is not without engaging aspects, but it’s these brief lapses in overall pacing (I’m looking at you end of second act/start of third), that really takes the viewer out of the film. Also, near the end, the film’s themes begin to be told to the viewer, instead of simply shown through the narrative as a whole. Toss in a few poor performances, and the film is much more mixed than one would previously have hoped.
However, it’s tough to say that these flawed ultimately effected my experience.
Overall, while it may be so in spite of itself, Sucker Punch is an awe inspiring visually charged piece of filmmaking that is wholly original, and wholly Zack Snyder. From a soundtrack chock full of fantastic remixes and covers to a style that takes things like samurais and ogres, tosses them into a blend, and then uses the remnants as paint to toss on this canvas, Sucker Punch is a piece of modern pop art from the modern day pop art auteur. An interesting look at free will and art, the film may ultimately be deeply flawed, but to say that it’s not an engaging and truly deep piece of filmmaking would be to do this film a great disservice.
Far from perfect, Sucker Punch doesn’t truly try to be. It’s a rough, in your face piece of filmmaking, and one that, if you give it a chance, will leave you talking, not only about what the hell you just saw visually.
GRADE ------ B
Friday, February 4, 2011
While there may not be a better combo of credits to promote a film with, economically, than the names James Cameron and AVATAR, apparently that doesn’t mean anything qualitative.
Receiving a producing credit on the film, SANCTUM marks the return, of sorts, to the film world for the man who this time last year, was basking in the glory of the highest grossing film ever made, the aforementioned blue cat person sci-fi film. And while AVATAR is ultimately a fun film, SANCTUM not only features a dreadfully cliché narrative like the film that made this one possible, but it ultimately fails on a wholly cinematic level.
Directed by Alister Grierson, SANCTUM follows a group of adventurers, as they attempt to explore one of the world’s last yet-to-be-accessed cave system. Featuring a cast of relatively smaller named actors, the film has all the makings of something really intriguing. The mixture of James Cameron producing, interesting visuals, and inherent tension from the fact that it takes place in a cave, should have meant easy cinematic math, resulting in an answer equal to or greater than a solid piece of cinema, right?
Yeah, this isn’t that.
Ultimately, the film’s biggest flaw comes within the narrative. Based on a screenplay penned by John Garvin and Andrew Wight (who also gets the story credit on the film), SANCTUM isn’t necessarily a poorly written film. There are a few great moments of character development here, and while it itself is also part of the film’s overall problem, the relationship between the father and the son, script wise, works.
That said, the relationship is completely trite, cheap and cliché, that while it may work conceptually, it does nothing to set itself apart from films of its ilk, and it also says nothing about father/son relationships or how they work. It’s a fine piece of writing structurally, but even there, you see the series of events, and after the first mishap, the film pans out like a quarterback screaming out to a receiver to prepare to catch a pass. You’ll be the cornerback more than willing to pick it off early, walk out, and feel much better for not having waited to see what you expected to happen come true (sorry, I’m in a Super Bowl type of mood).
Grierson himself does save a lot of this material. The inner cave shots, of which make up the majority of the film, are really breathtaking, despite some hackney CGI. However, it is the underwater shots that really save the film. They look absolutely fantastic, and have a great sense of depth and scope to them, ultimately making the film seem far broader and far more interesting than it actually and truthfully is.
The film’s cast dismantles much of his work however.
You know you are in a bit of trouble when Ioan Gruffudd is your biggest star, and he makes good on that very worry. He stars as the financier of the expedition, a free spirit named Carl, and gives one of the most laughable performances I’ve seen in some time. It’s tonally all over the place, but with his arch completely telegraphed by the writers, you feel no emotional connection to him or his plight. Alice Parkinson is completely cartoonish as his girlfriend Victoria, who gives line readings like she’s giving a sermon, just without the conviction. Richard Roxburgh and Rhys Wakefield play father and son Frank and Josh, and while they themselves give fine performances for what they are asked, their characters seem to come right out of a screenwriter’s text book. Dan Wyllie is ultimately the star, but is absolutely wasted here as the comedic relief, George. It’s a really fun performance, that gets no room to breath.
Overall, this film doesn’t do much cartoonishly wrong. However, it has no pretentions at doing anything of much at all. It’s a horribly cliché film that seems to be ripped right out of the pages of any Screenwriting 101 textbook. Cameron may have had his hands on the film, but if so, I’d really like to see his work, because he and this film’s crew botched a pretty easy equation of cinematic entertainment.
SANCTUM – 4/10
Sunday, January 30, 2011
In Darren Aronofsky I trust.
With only five films under his belt (Black Swan being the director’s fifth film), director Darren Aronofsky has both become the most viscerally interesting director of his generation, as well as one who seems to grow, change, and shift with each new picture.
Moving from the MTV-style punk auteur who created such energetic looks into obsession as Pi and the brilliant Requiem For A Dream, Aronofsky has not only made one of the decade past’s most epic and misunderstood masterpieces in The Fountain, but done much more.
His latest, the haunting look into the world of ballet that is Black Swan, sees the second film in this new, neo-neo realist, almost Dardenne Brothers-like cinema verite style that has now become his staple. Toss in a collection of top tier performances, and you have a film that’s not only the year’s best, but an absolute Masters class in style and genre.
Black Swan stars Natalie Portman, and follows a veteran dancer, Nina, who must come to terms with finally getting the role of her dreams, The Swan Queen. A “brilliant” ballet director, played by Vincent Cassel, has cast the dancer in a “real, stripped down, and visceral” take on the classic Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ballet. However, the “sweet girl” must ultimately come to grips with her inner “Black Swan,” which ultimately starts to slowly take a toll not only on the dancer’s body, but more so her mind, particularly after a new girl is brought into the company by the director.
A mixture of Roman Polanski style psychological horror, In My Skin style body horror, and the 16mm auteur style seemingly rooted with Aronfosky’s own essence, Black Swan is a visual treastice on the artistic experience. It’s also much more than that. It’s the best film of the year.
Part of the trilogy of films that I’ve deemed Aronofsky’s “Mind, Body (The Wrestler) and Soul (The Fountain)” trilogy, Black Swan is the quintessential psychological horror film. The atmosphere instilled here by the director is so perfectly realized, that while much of what happens on screen truly does happen, more times than not the viewer is left contemplating if they too have gone a bit off the edge. A simple look at a painting, a brief glimpse at a passing woman, or movement within the background of the stunningly grainy frame, you are never quite at ease within this world.
Featuring the director’s patented behind the shoulder tacking shot, Black Swan is seemingly a manifestation of many things that he attempted to touch on both thematically and visually within something like his previous film, The Wrestler. Very much about a person completely giving oneself over to his or her craft, Black Swan is a stunningly intense feature. However, it’s Nina who proves to be the most interesting piece of thematic material.
Inherently, this film is about the artistic experience and the ability for one to truly become lost within his or her respective art. That said, with our lead, the film also proves that to become a truly great artist, there must be a sense of self destructiveness, or at least an ease with that concept. Ultimately, without being at ease with the idea that this art may ultimately take more than your time, one can never truly touch either their inner most darkness, nor the precipice of true art.
It’s this sense of danger, and something being just a tad bit off, that keeps the viewer both inherently engaged within this narrative, but also engaged with what is taking place within the frame. Aronofsky never quite shows the viewer his complete hand, always leaving something off about each frame. Be it an operatic sound cue, or the sound of faint words being uttered somewhere within the depths of our troubled protagonist, this is a masterwork in both thematic depth, and the setting of true, haunting atmosphere.
Oh, and the acting here is really damn good to boot.
Giving a career defining performance, Portman plays Nina as not only a truly brilliant dancer (doing much of her own dancing as well), but as a girl so inherently unable to give herself over to life. Not darkness, but life in general. Still living with her mother, Nina is a frighteningly weak woman, looking for nothing more than cold, clinical perfection. There is so much depth within this role, and while it could have ultimately been played far more theatrically, there is a sense of truth given to this role, that makes it truly the year’s most raw and energetic performance. Oscar should be knocking at her door anytime now.
The supporting cast is also top notch. Barbara Hershey turns in an Oscar worthy performance as Nina’s trouble mother, who herself was a gifted dancer, until she ultimately had to choose her daughter over furthering her career. There is this off putting dichotomy between being an overbearing mother, and yet one so heavily steeped in jealousy that when the bomb under the table finally goes off, it’s one hell of an explosion.
Mila Kunis is equally as great here as the sexy and free-spirited Lily, and is absolutely on fire here. She’s not asked to do much thematically, but what she does perfectly is play the absolute polar opposite of our lead, which ultimately leads her to becoming the thing that pushes our lead over the mental edge. Kunis is absolutely stunning visually, which makes her role in Nina’s change all the more believable. This woman must be absolutely stunning to get such a worrisome woman to drink the night before her big day, and while that’s in the bag for the beautiful actress, the fire she gives this performance is absolutely pitch perfect.
Winona Ryder is great here as the aging Beth Macintyre, and rounding out the cast is Vincent Cassel, who becomes the film’s weak link. He isn’t asked to do much, but what he does is gives a performance that feels like a performance. In a film that looks and feels so visceral and raw, the performance is ultimately out of place in this neo-neo-realist thriller. He fits the role perfectly; just visually off-putting enough, and truly convicted in the dictum he spouts, but is undone by a script that doesn’t quite do the character justice.
That said, it’s truly Darren Aronofsky’s motion picture.
Drenched in Polanski-like dread, Black Swan is much more than a thriller, thanks to its director. With a frame that’s as visually alive as it’s stunningly choreographed ballet sequences, the film dances so poetically on the edge of ultimately becoming camp. Featuring absurdist moments of body horror, and equally jarring moments of true dread, Aronofsky’s hand is so intensely assured here, that one has to think that he himself has already come to terms with the artistic experience.
Darren Aronofsky’s sly re-telling of the ballet of the same name, Black Swan is a horror film unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Small and intimate, the film deals with themes ranging from what it means to create art and what that entails, to something far more minute like a mother-daughter relationship. With a claustrophobic cinema-verite touch, Black Swan is simply the best film of the year.
Aronofsky leapt off the artistic edge. And we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful landing.
With various biopics hitting on both the great side (Ali pops into mind) and less-than-great side (Walk The Line is a perfect example of this) of the quality spectrum, there may not be a single more difficult task within the world of film than attempting to make a single entities’ time on this earth interesting cinematically.
However, in the hands of someone like Danny Boyle, the life, or at least one moment within that very life, of canyoner Aaron Ralston has, conceptually, the makings for a film that would land on the plus side of that sliding scale. You have a single moment of one man’s life, a stunningly gifted filmmaker, and a harrowing tale of true human strength and perseverance, all with one of today’s more interesting actors, James Franco, as the top billed acting talent. How could this ever possibly go wrong one would think?
Well, despite becoming something of a pop culture entity, with various reports of patrons fainting during festival and theatrical screenings of the film (and even more reports of ambulances being placed outside of those very screenings), it has also become one of this year’s most upsetting disappointments of the year.
127 Hours, the latest film from director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire), follows a mountain climber named Aron Ralston, who after heading out to the canyons outside of Moab, Utah, becomes trapped after his arm becomes stuck between a canyon wall and a boulder. Ralston, who neglected to inform those in his life where he would be during the trip, then must resort to whatever measure he possibly can to free himself. The film is based on Ralston’s autobiography, Between A Rock And A Hard Place, and has become one of 2010’s biggest Oscar players.
However, it’s also one of its bigger messes.
The real star of this film is James Franco, who not only gives the single greatest performance of his young career, but gives far and away the year’s best male performance, at least at this point. Ralston is a truly charismatic young man, who is not only an adventurous young soul, but one who doesn’t fit within the normal constraints of the real world. The rugged terrain of a mountain or canyon are the places this free spirit calls home, and those he comes across, like two perky young girls he meets during the extent of this film, are simply fleeting moments of social interaction.
Those very words are oozed out of every pore by Franco here, who brings a completely fleshed out take on this man, and in turn, gives us one of the most breathtakingly heartbreaking performances of the year. Drenched in so much energy, and yet so much regret and melancholy, the film may seem like your run of the mill Gatorade commercial at the outset, but with the film’s true narrative starting once the boulder falls, the film shifts into something holistically flawed, but performance wise, utterly stunning.
Rounding out the film’s main cast are a trio of actresses; Lizzy Caplan (Ralston’s sister Sonja), Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn, the latter two playing the hiking duo of Megan and Kristi, two young girls Aron meets before becoming trapped. While none of these three are given anything to do (particularly Caplan), both Mara and Tamblyn add a bit of life to a film that while it may not need it, definitely enjoys its company. Other than that, the film is the James Franco show, and for that, it’s wholly worth your time and money.
That said, the film’s other point of interest, director Danny Boyle, doesn’t quite live up to his end of the deal.
Following up his rather cliché and uninteresting pile of slop better known as the 2008 award winning film Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle continues his streak of MTV style filmmaking that while entertaining, does this film, much like it did Slumdog, a complete disservice. The equivalent of a Mountain Dew commercial on steroids put together by a doctor on acid, 127 Hours is a visual feast of a film, that is ultimately undone due to the overwhelming style that Boyle instills in this film.
The primary flaw in the filmmaking here is twofold, but falls under one deciding factor: artifice. Featuring a cavalcade of jarring cinematic staples like obnoxiously off-putting product placement, and the ever present dream sequence, the film ultimately feels just like that, a film, thanks to Boyle’s love for overbearing moments that are as cliché as anything that word’s ever helped describe.
127 Hours opens perfectly. You get a beautifully poetic coda, set to some lively music from Free Blood, looking at people going about their days, in the hustle and bustle world known as their lives. Then, we jump into that very same thing, but for Ralston, a man who doesn’t deem it important to hold himself to those boundaries that others do. However, from there we get a series of moments ranging from simply cliché dream sequences, to truly silly moments of premonition, that instead of adding to the overall experience, remind the viewer that yes, this thing that is in front of them is indeed a film. Toss in an equally intrusive score from composer A. R. Rahman, and you have the makings of a relatively mediocre mess of a exercise in hamfisted filmmaking.
That all said, the film is ultimately saved by not only a great, Oscar-worthy performance, but an equally fantastic script. The film is inherently about human nature and the extent to which any of us would go to not only live and see our loved ones again, but to try, in any way possible, save the relationships that make us human, and that comes across perfectly in this film. It may be the great performance, but the screenplay, from Boyle and writing partner Simon Beaufoy, is quite stunning. Dual cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak (the former continuing his career long streak of brilliant visual pieces such as Antichrist and In The Mood For Love) and while the film as a whole may be a mess, there are more than enough to warrant a viewing.
Overall, 127 Hours ultimately succeeds and being a stunning performance piece, but fails equally at being an interesting and visually compelling piece of filmmaking. Featuring a brilliant performance from Franco, and equally stunning cinematography and writing, the film isn’t a dreadful watch, just a true disappointment best saved for a rental. With all the makings in the world to be one of the best biopics cinema has yet seen, instead of leaving me thinking about what I had just seen, I was left thinking what could have been if it were in someone else’s hands.
Werner Herzog is calling, he wants the film he was born to make back.
127 HOURS – 7/10
Go see something good!
One of those very films, at least conceptually, is Hans Petter Moland’s latest effort, the Stellan Skarsgard-starring neo noir, A Somewhat Gentle Man. I mean, it’s really just simple math: interesting filmmaker, plus great lead actor, has to equal a solid film, right?
Well, when it comes to A Somewhat Gentle Man, it does. But only slightly.
Gentle Man follows a recently released convict, named Ulrik, who is released after serving 12 years for murder. Coming out, his world has changed holistically. He must deal with his crew, an ex, a few new women, a snitch, his son, and his forthcoming grandchild, which all have decisions that must be made. Some decisions are easy, so are difficult. However, this film follows this somewhat gentle man’s return to what we all call life.
The film’s star is the man behind the camera, and the style and aesthetic he crafts here. Oozing a sense of noir style that would make the Coen brothers blush with flattery, the film is very much in the vein of films like Fargo or specifically something like Miller’s Crossing, in the best way possible. A very cold and seemingly sterile film visually, there isn’t much going on within the frame, except straightforward visuals, that revel in being lo-fi stylistically. Really a breath of fresh air for what has been so far a rather bloated and unbearable obnoxious first month of 2011. The violence is completely and utterly blunt in the best and most visceral way possible, as is every line within the film, and it is this Coen-esque style, from palette to framing, that makes the film utterly compelling on a solely visual level
That said, the film also has a flaw within its core, which is almost insurmountable.
Within this really compelling bit of pulp narrative, the use of sex is nearly offensive. Seemingly mocking the sexuality of one of its characters, it is this character that is ultimately used as nothing more than a glorified plot device, which instead of being funny, is nearly offensive. Thankfully, a relationship that isn’t dreadful also plays a part of the film, which is actually one of the film’s strongest suits.
The film’s true strong suit however, is its wonderful acting.
Spearheading the film are a trio of really great performances. Skarsgard is great as the brooding, and yet truly “gentle” Ulrik, in one of the more interesting performances he’s given in quite some time. He’s one of today’s most interesting thespians, and while he is often relegated to films like Mama Mia, it is his work in such films as this that truly prove that. Jannike Kruse is the film’s real star, giving a wonderfully sweet, warm, and truly compelling performance as Ulrik’s love interest, Merete. Rounding out a great cast is Jan Gunnar Roise, as Ulrik’s estranged son, Geir. The relationship between Ulrik and Geir is ultimately the film’s most compelling aspect narratively, as it’s one of the only relationships that truly feels fleshed out. There is a sense of undying love between the two, maybe a mutual respect, that when the action begins to fall within their relationship, it’s utterly heartbreaking.
That said, the film ultimately fails itself at the very outset.
While wonderfully deadpan, the film’s screenplay and overall narrative is the physical embodiment of mediocrity. There is a great sense of dark humor that only sees brief moments of life, with the film relying on its lifeless sense of sentimentality to truly move the plot and the characters forward.
There is something to be said for a narrative like this. We as humans have an inherent sense of control over our given lives. However, what happens when that life falls into the hands of outside forces? That is, at this films core, the main thesis being discussed here. And while there are great glimpses into a world like that, such as the relationship between father and son shown so brilliantly here, we are instead given this absurdly limp and thematically sterile noir comedy, which prays on simple and uninteresting plot points to draw attention and emotion out of the audience.
Overall, the film isn’t a poor one. Featuring a fantastic collection of performances, the film’s visual style is overly compelling, doing the film more than a fair share of favors. A great turn by Stellan Skarsgard spearheading this film, fans of noir and dark comedies will find quite a bit to enjoy here. However, as a whole, the film doesn’t quite hit the mark. Jettisoning its inherently existential premise for a series of sentimental moments connected by straightforward line readings and one nearly offensive female character, the film ultimately leaves you feeling as though you missed out on something. Or not that you missed out on something, but something is wholly missing. A heart. A brain. Something is missing from this limp, cold, lifeless corpse of a film. Something at all. Something to make this film more than a disposable piece of cinema. Something to give this film traction. Something.
A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN – 5/10
Go see something good!
Best known for his 2004 film Mysterious Skin, the filmmaker is back to his relatively dark and darkly comedic world after a brief departure into lighter fare with 2007’s Smiley Face, this time, with a tale of sex, corruption, more sex, and the occult.
Oh, and some more sex.
His latest film, Kaboom, has just hit theaters, and follows the story of an 18-year-old college freshman who, prior to his 19th birthday, stumbles upon a conspiracy in a Southern California seaside town. Written and helmed by Araki, the film has found comparisons to narratives like Twin Peaks, which, along with a top tier cast of up and coming thespians, definitely peaked my interest.
And for once, my high expectations were not completely shattered, as this may very well be Araki’s best film since his stunning masterpiece, Mysterious Skin. It’s an absolute mind-bending winner of a film.
The film’s true star is not quite Araki’s direction, but it’s the skill he has behind the pen. Like an interesting mix between a show like Skins and film like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the film lacks the off putting nature of angst that makes a show like Skins nearly unbearable for those who lack prescription drug problems, and while it may lack the creativity that makes a film like Fire Walk With Me the classic that I truly believe it to be, it’s the film’s sense of humor that makes this an absolute must see.
The film’s narrative itself isn’t all that new. A series of murders have been taking place in a seemingly innocuous town, and our lead, along with his right hand girl and his love interest, go on the trail to hunt down just what exactly is going on. However, the film is richly written, in both its darkly comedic dialogue as well as its low-key sense of science fiction, which makes this otherwise cliché narrative, truly out of this world. There is a sense of in your face, almost punk rock audacity that while causing for a few stale beats, particularly near the end when the exposition begins to truly set in, ultimately makes this film far more charming than your run of the mill indie film. Truly a punk rock science fiction thriller, the film is in your face, uncompromising, and an absolute blast.
However, all would be for naught if it weren’t for this film’s cast, which may feature three of my favorite performances of the past 12 months.
Thomas Dekker stars here as our ambisexual lead, Smith, in a revelatory performance. While this performance oozes emo angst that would make a Hot Topic patron blush in self referential disdain, the performance is also full of comedic moments, all of which are delivered with this wonderful sense of brutal bluntness that really adds this level of depth to an already deep acting picture. Not a world shattering performance, but he’s charming as all hell, and for a film like this, that really adds a lot.
However, it’s the ladies that have this writer fawning over this film.
Joining Dekker are Haley Bennett and Juno Temple as Smith’s best friend Stella, and his new “love” interest London respectively, and both give absolutely amazing performances. Temple is the perfect free spirit here, with a sense of confidence that even leaves the viewer willing to walk up to a stranger and make out, and the banter between Bennett and Dekker may be some of my favorite interchanges I’ve seen in a very long time. Bennett is a perfect opposite to our lead, and really shines in her subplot with a witch, Lorelei.
Araki’s visual sensibilities really allow the action on screen to shine as well.
The director's frame is definitely a loving one, llingering on our leads as if they were that person we eye from across the bar, and sly uses of editing, particularly near the end, really give hope that one day, Araki will reach outside of his comfort zone, which he is directly settled in with Kaboom. Kaboom is vintage Araki in both his blunt use of the camera, and his audacious use of narrative and narrative structure, that even though the things on screen seem absolutely bonkers, there is this lingering feeling that leaves you wondering if a conspiracy like this could actually exist. It’s a really compelling, if not all that inventive piece of direction, that is ultimately more audacious than it is creative. And I loved every minute of it.
A sci-fi fever dream of an ode to screwball comedies, Kaboom is more than just your run of the mill, brooding indie film. It is an audacious look at sex, sexual experimentation, and what it’s like to be a teen, searching for something to cling on to. Some may dismiss this film as nothing more than Araki being Araki, but Kaboom is much more than that. It’s fun, funny, full of an audacious heart, and one of the most compelling sci-fi films I’ve seen in a very long time, despite a final 20 minutes that seems to be more exposition than inventive explanation. Simply put, this is 2011’s first true must see film.
Kaboom – 8.5/10
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And then there are films like The Rite. Films that not only have no true reason for existence, but also shove your face into the mud that is the pile of dung left in the wake of Hollywood studios giggling all the way to the bank after dumping a load of cinematic crap right onto the proverbial chest of filmgoers. Films that take admittedly interesting plots, and turn them into unwatchable pieces of celluloid so easily, that you are left thinking that the filmmaker and the people involved have it out for the public.
Films that just simply do not work, on even the campiest of levels.
Films like The Rite.
Directed by Mikael Hafstrom, The Rite follows a young American priest, who, despite is floundering faith, decides to travel to Italy to study with the hopes of becoming an exorcist. After meeting a wayward exorcist, the young man must not only battle his own thoughts on faith, but some shockingly cliché and trite moments of wannabe horror.
When talking about horror films, while most of the focus may be on the ability of the film to truly scare you, what makes a good horror film just that, is the ability for the film to be economic in every sense of filmmaking. From the use of plot and dialogue, to the nature of the scares, the more economical the film, the better, just ask someone like Wes Craven. Red Eye is the perfect example of this.
And The Rite is the worst.
The film’s biggest flaw is that most of the film is simply either wholly cliché, or simply superficial. From the use of subtitles in a very specific and jarring classroom scene (the scene itself is used as nothing more than a plot point to bring our two students together), to entire scenes (I’m looking at you whoever added a scene of our lead pissing while being gawked at by a religious statue), the film is hilariously long. Clocking in at 112 minutes, the film could have stood the loss of a good thirty minutes, without much of an issue.
However, the longer length would have been understandable had the film been narratively or thematically compelling. The film relies heavily on previous exorcism films, even mentioning a point from one of the genre’s most iconic, and then scoffing at it, showing the audaciously large balls that this film unjustly believes it has. Our lead is unconvincing in his wavering faith, particularly when the falling action begins, and he is shown truly behind the curtain and to what’s going on here. The film leaves no doubt as to what has happened, thus giving us a clean ending, which for a film focusing so heavily on the idea of what it means to have faith, and what faith itself means, is really uninteresting and neo-repulsive.
That said, the film’s biggest sin may be placed on the film’s cast as a whole.
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue and Alice Braga, the film lacks any performances worth their weight in method preparation, and while Hopkins does bring it home near the end (particularly with a thrust of the back of his hand near the end of the film, which is one of the film’s first and only inspired moments), it’s far too little, much too late. O’Donoghue lacks any depth as our lead, and is about as convincing in this role as yours truly would be in the role of a wooden block. Actually, that is the perfect role for O’Donoghue, come to think of it. Alice Braga is fine here, as she’s always a joy to watch on screen, but her character as a whole has little reason to exist, thus making all of her moments seem wholly false, and entirely superficial.
Director Hafstrom does the film no favors either. Visually as cliché as the film is narratively, The Rite has poor set design, and this sense of sterility in both its visual style directorially, as well as its style cinematically that really leaves you at arm’s length from the film. Clinically framed, Hafstrom does very little within the frame to excite the viewer, and does even less to leave you on the edge of your seat. For a horror/thriller, this film lacked any terror both on screen, and in the viewer’s mind, which is ultimately a problem found at the film’s very core.
Despite a few choice moments near the film’s conclusion, The Rite is one of the most superficial and long winded horror/thrillers I’ve seen in some time. A horror film without much horror, and a thriller without a single thrill, a film so focused on the concept of the questioning of faith, did instill that very thought in my mind. However, instead of questioning my religious faith, I was left questioning my faith in the world of modern horror filmmaking. Hell, humanity seems a little less honorable after this damn thing.
THE RITE - 2/10
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Whether it be producing credits on films like The Orphanage, or his upcoming writing credit on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, del Toro has taken his insane amount of and truly turned it into something of a father figure, furthering on the careers of young, up and coming filmmakers.
The latest to get the del Toro bump, Sebastian Cordero, is back with his follow up to his well loved sophomore effort, Chronicles, and while it may seem to just have del Toro’s name attached as a producer, not only is this film covered in del Toro’s light touch, but it’s also a genuinely well crafted, engaging, and well acted thriller. Rage is shares quirks with films like Cronos as much as it does the erotic voyeuristic thrillers of Brian De Palma.
Rage follows the story of a construction worker who, after accidentally killing a man after confronting him about recently being fired, hides in a mansion where his girlfriend is working as a maid. A story of rage on the truest plain conceptually, the film is a romantic thriller that looks at what happens to a man who literally loses everything, ranging from relationships with his girlfriend and the outside world, to ultimately the sanity that makes you and I human.
However well conceived the film truly may be though, all would be undone if it weren’t for this collection of really fantastic performances.
Starring Gustavo Sanchez Parra as our film’s lead, Jose Maria, the film relies on his performance from the very outset. Thankfully, he knocks it out of the park. The film is drenched in this sense of melodrama that extends into the performances, but they as a whole, particularly Parra’s, feels so real within this given world. This man has literally lost everything that makes him human, and while it may be slight in the grand scheme of things, you get this great sense of true building rage within this performance, that is simply just lights up the screen. He himself is the bomb under the table in this film, and its one hell of a time watching it slowly tick down to zero.
Playing his love interest is the wonderful and beautiful Martina Garcia as the maid, Rosa. She is perfectly cast in this roll, and while it’s hard to believe that a woman like this would stick around for a man who had killed a man, there is a sense of truth within the performance (and a certain plot point definitely helps the plot move forward), that really gives way to a great counterpoint to the overtly brooding performance from Parra.
Rounding out the cast are four really great supporting performances from Alex Brendemuhl, Concha Velasco, Xabier Elorriaga, and Iciar Bollain. The four of them play the family that Rosa is the maid for, and they really give this sense of reality to this otherwise hyper-melodramatic story. Great supporting performances can really hold a film together, and these four are the general glue that keeps this film from falling into the realm of high class telenovela.
That said, the premise, and often the writing, don’t hold the film to that relatively high standard.
Written by Cordero, and based on a novel penned by Sergio Bizzio, the film is an inherently compelling narrative, the writing here doesn’t do it any favors. Often putting the film’s main thesis right into the ether that the film creates, Cordero doesn’t quite take the same sense of subtlety that he does with his frame as he does here in the script. A script ripped straight out of a Lifetime movie, the cast here has to pull more than their fair share of weight, and while it ultimately works as a campy B-thriller, Cordero doesn’t do himself any favors on the written page.
That said, he does save himself visually.
Seemingly taking cues from both del Toro and a filmmaker like De Palma, Rage has this sense of up front and real world brutality that gives the early films of del Toro their sense of raw filmmaking aesthetic. Pair this with a voyeuristic sense of thrilling eroticism, and you have a low-key thriller that takes more than its fair share of cues from the aforementioned filmmakers. In the dingy world of thrillers, the film gives the viewer a breath of fresh air both visually and thematically, bringing you a visually visceral look at a man losing his sanity and his humanity.
Overall, while the film may lack a screenplay that is worth its weight in pulp, the film thrives on a fantastic collection of performances, as well as an assured filmmaker at its core. A breath of fresh air in the world of feature film thrillers, Rage is a relatively single location film that makes the most of its creepy location and relatively intriguing themes.
While it may not be the strongest film ever made, but for fans of thrillers, this is definitely a must see picture.
Rage – 7.5/10
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