Archive | June 2014

Baby You Can’t Drive My Car (The Rover, 2014, David Michôd)

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As anyone familiar with it can tell you, the cinema of Australia has a flavor all its own. Indeed, I can hardly think of another country with such a unique cinematic language; the sun-baked aridness, the strange argot, the sense of menace just underneath everything. With The Rover, we have a kind of Aussie cinema meeting of the minds: extremely promising new director David Michôd, whose nervy 2010 debut Animal Kingdom was one of the best and most intense crime thrillers of the past several years, working off of a story he co-wrote with fellow Australian hot commodity Joel Edgerton, directing ever-reliable Australian actor and past collaborator Guy Pearce in a post-apocalyptic automobile-obsessed setting on loan from Mad Max. With all this in mind, it’s possible I got my hopes up a bit too much, but the end result just isn’t quite as awesome as all that seemed to promise.

The film opens with Pearce’s anonymous protagonist (apparently named Eric, though I’m not sure they ever call him that in the movie) parking his car outside a dingy streetside bar to do some drinking and brooding. As he does so, a trio of bandits fresh off a botched robbery crash their own truck and, not ones to pass up an opportunity, steal Eric’s car. In what is pretty unquestionably the best scene in the movie, Pearce manages to revive their crashed truck and enter into a car chase that breaks every rule of movie car chases, slowly and deliberately giving malicious pursuit as Antony Partos’ wailing, metallic score whinnies like a dying horse and brings the tension to an unbearable boil reminiscent of the best scenes in Animal Kingdom. It doesn’t end up working out well for him though, and the group gets away, leaving Pearce with little idea of where they’re headed. Luckily for him, early in his travels he comes across Reynolds (Robert Pattinson, sounding a little like Boomhauer from King of the Hill), the wounded fourth member of the crew who the rest of them, including his brother Henry (Scoot McNairy), left for dead. Reynolds is a bit slow-witted and helpless, and the violent, imposing Eric is able to muscle him into leading them back to the stolen car he seems to care so much about.

There’s something really interesting to the stolen car angle; like a lot of Australian movies and a lot of post-apocalypse movies, The Rover is heavily influenced by the American Western (with all their horizontally-defined shots of desert landscapes, rare is the Aussie movie that doesn’t feel like it owes a debt to John Ford). And any student of the genre knows the extreme abhorrence reserved for horse thieves. But by giving the focus of Eric’s unrestrained rage and violence to a revenge quest so petty and based on commodity, the film manages to give some added grim potency to the resource-starved, post-societal-collapse setting.

Unfortunately, apart from the beginning and end of the movie, the possibilities of this theme aren’t really explored in any kind of depth, and in the middle, all we get are the unlikely duo of Pearce and Pattinson bouncing around aimlessly from uninteresting vignette to uninteresting vignette. And the usually rock solid Pearce isn’t much help; depicting reactive, animalistic hurt is something of a specialty of his, but he ratchets it up a bit too far here, and the end result comes off a bit like self-parody, specifically a parody of his performance in John Hillcoat’s excellent neo-western The Proposition, the non-Mad Max movie that this one aspires the most to be. It’s not a bad performance, per se, but I’m trying to come up with a Guy Pearce performance I like less and I really can’t.

Much better, surprisingly, is Pattinson, who at first just seems like a twitchy non-entity, but as the film goes on he does a great job of depicting the character’s increased comfort around his captor through some wonderfully unselfconscious childlike mannerisms; a moment of him simply drinking out of a bottle of water alone in his room is as heartbreaking as such a simple action could possibly be, and it’s almost solely due to Pattinson’s work here that the movie has anywhere near the emotional impact that it strives for.

There are other consolations, too. The music is absolutely excellent – I’ve already mentioned Partos’ great score, and as a big Tortoise fan, it was a pleasant surprise to hear a couple of choice cuts from their early catalog sprinkled throughout. And one particular use of bubblegum pop late in the film ranks as the best use of such music in recent cinematic memory. The sound design overall is great, from the emphasis placed on the menacing growl of the cars’ engines to the long stretches of peaceful quiet that are all too often interrupted by startling violence. And the excellent cinematography by Natasha Braier combined with some frighteningly on-point production design make this… well, “a treat for the eyes” is certainly not the right turn of phrase for a movie that depicts so much matter-of-fact horror and ugliness, so lets just say it’s very well done. One tracking shot involving a series of roadside crosses might be one of the most memorably bone-chilling moments in this particular subgenre.

Still, there’s just something missing here. As I mentioned, there’s a lot of padding in the middle. As road movies go, this one is particularly aimless, and not in a way that serves the effect. For all Michôd tries for Lynchian bizarreness at the pit-stops on Pearce and Pattinson’s road trip, none of them leave much of a lasting impression. And for all the cruelly hopeless violence and the overreaching ponderousness of the climax, the movie never really feels like it has much to say. Michôd even goes so far in one scene as to have Pattinson tell Pearce “Not everything has to be about something,” but that feels a bit like a desperate dodge. I don’t mind a healthy dose of bleak in my movies – was I not just heaping praise on Animal Kingdom and The Propositon? – but the bleakness in The Rover might end up feeling as pointless to those in the audience as it does to the film’s nihilistic protagonist.

We Can Dance If You Want To, We Can Leave Your Friends Behind (The Dance of Reality, 2014, Alejandro Jodorowsky)

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We live in the era of the comeback. The internet has consolidated and concentrated the interest in things that were once niche cult artifacts and provided a chance for artists who may have found little commercial success at the time to come back and capitalize on the growth in that cult appreciation over time. And for Alejandro Jodorowsky, the mad cinematic wizard behind El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre, the man who the term “cult film” may as well have been invented for and who hasn’t directed a feature in over twenty years, the time for a comeback is perhaps past due.

The film opens with a clear attempt to dispel the thought that this particular artistic comeback is just a cash-in; gold coins rain down in front of the camera to the tune of Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” as Jodorowsky gives a monologue on greed as a societal motivator and a still image of the 85 year old director fades in over the coins in a somewhat chintzy effect of the kind you might see on an old episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

I’m sure a spiritual dude like Jodorowsky would not appreciate my snark or my cynicism, so I’m going to get it all out of the way early, for I really only have one big complaint to level at the film. And it’s not even a complaint I feel great about making! I understand that it has indeed been 23 years since Jodorowsky has directed a movie, and I understand that this is in large part a financial issue. Jodorowsky has expressed a severe distaste for what he sees as the money-grubbing nature of the film industry, and film financiers get understandably nervous about sinking money into the kind of truly bizarre, who-even-is-the-target-audience-for-this movies Jodorowsky makes; we’re long past the days when John Lennon and George Harrison tossed Jodorowsky a million bucks to make The Holy Mountain just because. And far be it for me to bag on an artist who refuses to compromise his vision, BUT… The Dance of Reality kinda looks like shit.

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. Jodorowsky’s knack for impressively hallucinatory set design and striking, confrontational framing is as strong as it ever was, even if The Dance Of Reality wears its budget on its sleeve more than his past movies. The problem lies with the cinematography; I’m about to reveal how little I know about shooting on digital, but let’s just say that this movie looks like it was shot on very cheap digital, and everything has that kind of compressed, plasticky look of daytime television. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the movie looks like a soap opera, but it looks enough like one that I had to frame this sentence that way. This would be something of a stumbling block for any movie, but given how beautifully shot Jodorowksy’s past movies were – particularly El Topo and The Holy Mountain, whose sumptuous cinematography by Rafael Cordiki is still somewhat underappreciated – it hits like a punch in the stomach, and combined with some mercifully brief but no less embarrassing use of CG effects near the beginning, it pains me to say that this is Jodorowksy’s worst-looking movie.*

Ah, but I did say I was going to get the bitching out of the way early, so let me reiterate: the digital cinematography is my only complaint about the movie, which is, in all other aspects, one of the most exciting and fun times I’ve had at an art-house film in quite a while. It pleases me to say that age has not softened Jodorowksy one bit; between the explicit sex and violence, the occult weirdness, the multiple graphic onscreen depictions of urination, the carnival atmosphere, and the twisted psychological material involving parentage, we’re very firmly in old-school Jodorowksy territory. Maybe moreso than ever before, in fact, for the story concerns young Alejandro himself (Jeremias Herskovits) growing up in the seaside Chilean town of Tocopilla, cared for by his mother Sara (Pamela Flores), who solely communicates through operatic singing, and his father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky, very much the spitting-image of his pop, and giving one of the best performances in any Jodorowksy film), a stern violent brute who takes a very specifically Stalinesque approach to running his family. The film has a weird two-act structure (which is actually kind of common to Jodorowksy – El Topo and Santa Sangre are similarly structured), whereby we follow young Alejandro’s tumultuous upbringing for the first half before abruptly switching focus to Jaime, who in a fit of Marxist fervor leaves his family on a suicidal bid to assassinate General Carlos Ibáñez (Bastián Bodenhöfer) that goes very differently than planned.

That’s really all the plot summary the movie requires, for while it has perhaps a more solid narrative through-line than the director’s past works, it’s still very much about letting the sensory and emotional experience wash over you (the movie is significantly aided in both respects by the quite beautiful score by Adan Jodorowksy – pops likes to keep it in the family, as you can see). The movie carries us through ugly beauty and beautiful ugliness and every permutation of those things you can name. While there’s a lot of past-Jodorowsky here (a less charitable reviewer might call the opening half a retread of Santa Sangre, although to me it’s reframed enough to feel fresh – and hey, it’s not as if we’ve been swamped with Santa Sangre knockoffs these past twenty years), a lot of it is new, as well. It feels like his most overtly political film, for one, with the nature of Jaime’s tyrannical exploitation of socialist ideas to suit his own inner violence being given a hefty workout, complete with a quite brutal portrayal of the torture of dissidents under Ibáñez’s regime. And at the same time, it may well be his most personal film, with the elder Jodorowksy appearing as a kind of phantom observer at key moments – the last of these, in the closing shots of the movie, is a surprisingly tender and sentimental moment, and though he has since insisted that The Dance of Reality will not be his last movie, it makes for as appropriate a farewell as anything ever could.

I was going to close this much the same way as I closed my last entry on X-Men: Days of Future Past: by stating that this is a movie where you almost certainly know whether or not you fall into its target audience, and you will probably act accordingly no matter what I say. But on second thought, if you’ve made it to the end of this review and you don’t know whether or not this movie appeals to you, I urge you: give it a shot. Jodorowksy movies are a precious commodity – we don’t get them often, and we may never get another again. Being afraid of them is like being afraid of dancing. Try it. You might like it.

*Disclaimer: I have not seen Tusk or The Rainbow Thief, but neither has anybody else.

Time Enough at Last (X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014, Bryan Singer)

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The X-Men film franchise started with success and high hopes in the early 2000s, where it managed to flourish for a few years in the early stages of the superhero movie boom before descending into sheer inanity. This makes the franchise a sturdy supporter for an entry where, on both a textual and subtextual level, the returning cast and crew of the original X-Men has to travel back in time to stop the worst from happening – the worst, of course, being X-Men: The Last Stand.

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Opening title card.

We open in the near future of 2023, where the world has become a very grim place for human and mutant alike. The shape-shifting, mutant hunting robots known as Sentinels have herded those mutants and mutant sympathizers that they haven’t already destroyed into death camps (the Holocaust imagery here feels a bit tasteless and unearned, much as it did in many of the comics this film draws from) and they’ve been giving the last remaining X-Men a particularly rough go of it lately, mounting a series of attacks that they’ve only escaped by the skin of their teeth via some last-second time travel.

I’m not going to spend any time explaining the time travel, being that the movie stops dead in its tracks about ten minutes in to do so through a particularly ungainly slab of exposition. Long story short, the team has decided that their last, best hope is to send the consciousness of ageless mutant Wolverine (ageless Australian Hugh Jackman) back into his body circa 1973, the year when mutant radical Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinated the Sentinels’ creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), igniting a firestorm of anti-mutant sentiment. There (then), he can find disillusioned mutant headmaster Professor Xavier (James Macavoy) and imprisoned mutant demagogue Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and together try to stop Mystique and steer humankind into a less extermination-happy future.

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Screenshot from X-Men: First Class.

Being that this is a movie about traveling back into the past, I’d like to take a minute to talk superhero movie history: in the ’90s, Batman was pretty much the only game in town (having taken the torch from the Superman films after they plummeted into Golan-Globus lunacy). 1989’s Batman was a stunningly massive success, making back its $48 million budget almost ten times over, plus a staggering $750 million in merchandise sales. It was also, notably, the darkest piece of superhero media non-comic readers in 1989 were likely to encounter, something many viewers were uncomfortable with, even moreso after Tim Burton’s violent, bondage-tinged sequel Batman Returns. The franchise was then handed off to Joel Schumacher with the directive to make it more family-friendly. Skip ahead to 1997’s Batman & Robin, a gaudy vomitorium of camp excess and dopey one-liners that, despite turning a profit, was still considered a disaster big enough to nuke not just the Batman franchise, but possibly the entire superhero genre.

Marvel Comics, whose previous (and only) theatrical release had been the megaflop Howard the Duck, perhaps saw an opportunity in the death throes of DC’s big cinematic cash cow. After first testing the waters in 1998 with an adaptation of C-list property Blade, which became a surprise success, Marvel gave Usual Suspects wunderkind Bryan Singer directorial duties on X-Men, which became one of the highest grossing movies of 2000. Like the Burton Batman films, the double-whammy of Blade and X-Men was dark, violent, and clad all-over in black leather. Flash-forward to 2008, when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight came out and put the 1989 Batman to shame, both in terms of a truly staggering billion-dollar box-office take and a tone of such overwhelming bleakness as to make the darkest of Tim Burton’s visions look like something out of an episode of Sesame Street.

What I’m trying to get at (in an overly wordy, roundabout way) is that the big tone-setters across multiple phases of the superhero movie – a genre that, in its original medium, is more often bright, colorful escapism – have been dark, ultraserious affairs indeed. And many of the recent films that have tried to copy this po-faced seriousness have fallen flat on their faces in doing so – see Mark Webb’s dull, navy-blue tinted The Amazing Spider-Man or Zack Snyder’s ludicrous cacophony of disaster porn Man of Steel. And while I’ve already harped on the grimness of the future scenes in DOFP, the overall impression I had walking away from it was glee that a superhero movie had the courage to be wacky and out-there again, ground that hasn’t really been tilled since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies.

And like Raimi at his best, Singer has a real knack for combining these wacky superhero concepts with genuine pathos without losing his footing. I’m thinking specifically of a scene where the young Xavier and the old Xavier (the always game Patrick Stewart) use the unstuck-in-time Wolverine’s brain as a kind of time-traveling Skype to allow the two Professor X’s to have a face-to-face chat – a scene that, against all odds, has a genuine emotional impact.

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Dinklage and Jackman share a tense moment.

Then there are the moments that are just plain fun, the most instant-classic of which being the mid-film mini-arc dedicated to petulant speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and his breaking-into-and-then-back-out-of the Pentagon, one of the most purely entertaining sequences in a tentpole action film in some time. Really, all of the action sequences are top-notch, including a multi-mutant confrontation at the Paris Peace Accord and a final confrontation involving a football stadium crashing into the White House lawn (editor/composer John Ottman is in particularly fine form here, with some nifty splicing in of imitation Super 8 footage in the former and some impressive cross-cutting between the film’s past and future timelines in the latter). And the film’s laissez-faire attitude towards the mechanics of time-travel combined with its gleeful use of ’70s signifiers (the film does an altogether much better job of evoking the ’70s, from the costuming and set design to the cinematography and soundtrack choices, than X-Men: First Class did of evoking the ’60s) are altogether welcome.

Overall, while this is probably not the best of the X-Men films (I’d still hand that one to Singer’s last crack at bat, 2004’s X2: X-Men United), it feels like the most well-balanced. Singer’s always had a knack for creating well-etched, standout supporting characters – this is as evident in The Usual Suspects as it is in his first two X-films – but at times this has come at the expense of giving his leading characters things to do (remember how stranded Cyclops was in X2?). Not so here, where everyone gets their time to shine. It’s a huge-ass cast, so I’ll just give a few quick highlights: As mentioned earlier, Evan Peters steals the show with his amusingly impatient portrayal of Quicksilver, and if they haven’t locked him in for a bigger role in the upcoming sequel, someone messed up. Peter Dinklage gives a great villainous turn as Boliver Trask, an unusually layered take on the mad scientist figure, the type of guy who can profess genuine admiration for mutants and a burning desire to harvest their spinal fluid and brain tissue in the same breath without seeming to realize the contradiction (there’s a bit of Peter Cushing’s classic take on Baron Frankenstein here). The “most-improved” award goes to Jennifer Lawrence, who is much more comfortable in the role of Mystique than she was in her last go at the character, possibly because she’s given much more interesting things to do. And James Macavoy and Michael Fassbender maintain the level of excellence they brought to the otherwise middling X-Men: First Class.

As for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, while he’s still the nominal protagonist here, as he was in five of the six previous X-Men films, he’s given a somewhat scaled back role here, both in terms of his screen time and his importance as a plot-mover, that allows the rest of the cast room to breathe and helps keep this movie feeling like same-old-same-old. The time travel conceit even allows the movie to use a pre-metal-skeleton Wolverine for the majority of the running time, which works much better as a way to raise the stakes than the ill-defined healing factor loss in last year’s The Wolverine – seeing the character genuinely struggle to take down one medium-sized plastic robot is a bit bracing.

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Deleted scene featuring Josh Brolin as Thanos.

Anyway, I’ve rambled more than a little, so to be brief: this is clearly one for the fans. Much as with the comics, the labyrinthine convolutions of the plot are probably more than intimidating to the X-Men virgin (that is to say, virgin to all things X-Men; not virgins who like the X-Men, which is a very different demographic). Still, if you’ve enjoyed any one X-Men movie, chances are very high you’ll enjoy this one. It has a just about perfectly developed sense of what to keep and what to discard from previous entries, and the result is a superhero movie that feels lean and mean despite a nearly 2.5 hour running time. At this point, you know whether you’re in or not, and if you fall in the first category, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.