Several factors have combined to make updating burdensome, not least my general ennui, which does indeed feel more like an actual gulag every day. But, enough about my bullshit problems. I've still managed to watch a few movies lately. This isn't an exhaustive list, obviously, but I promised myself I wouldn't let a 2016 release slip by without reviewing it if I actually took the time to watch it. Thus do I present these four semi-brief reviews: Imperium, The Innocents, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Knight of Cups.
IMPERIUM (Daniel Ragussis, 2016)
After a derailed train points to the theft of a shipment of cesium-137, our empathetic and intuitive hero, FBI Agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe), is sent undercover amidst neo-Nazis to ferret out the domestic terrorists who intend to unleash a dirty bomb attack upon an American city and use the catastrophe to bring about the race war they've always wanted.
You'd like to start a review by saying something like, "Imperium is at its best when..."
Obviously, that's when you suddenly trail off and realize you have absolutely nothing to say about it that sounds anything at all like a real compliment, and this is the case even though there's hardly one thing that's badly, overtly wrong about the movie—at least once you get past all the smaller nitpicks, here and there.
Not that those nitpicks are nothing. For example, in our empathetic and intuitive hero, Nate Foster—I swear that phrase must be written in the treatment, and the script comes perilously close to just saying it out loud, in actual fucking dialogue—we get what seems like it must be the billionth artless recapitulation of the Clarice Starling arc, something that will never get old in Silence of the Lambs, and something that will (apparently) never be done well ever afuckinggain. In this instance, we find Imperium abandoning the inefficient concepts of "subtlety" and "nuance" in its bid to rush-characterize our protaongist, presenting the FBI office he works for less as a disciplined police force and more as a frathouse with a stricter dress code. It's an effort that winds up making America's premier law enforcement agency appear to be only slightly more professional than ISIS on Archer—and possibly less competent. The one point they score, and it was the only point they needed to score, was at the expense of our post-9/11 tunnel vision, for it seems that only the empathetic and intuitive Nate Foster, along with his handler, Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), can conceive of the mere possibility that it was anybody other than a bunch of radical Islamist brown people who might've stolen all that delicious cesium.
Those aforementioned qualities of subtlety and nuance aren't in big supply throughout Imperium's runtime; the very closest it ever gets is what I suppose writer-director Daniel Ragussis thinks is a clever reversal of expectations, in the form of a white supremacist nutjob (Sam Trammell), who (gasp!) has a job, lives in the suburbs, loves his children, keeps his rabid racism on the down-low, and somehow doesn't even have a giant swastika tattooed on his face! Incidentally, if you can't figure out where this movie is heading within seconds of his introduction, then you've got no sympathy from me, bud.
At the center of it all, we have Daniel Radcliffe, apparently continuing his program of working exclusively with directors who share his given name. It's kind of hard to imagine whatever else it was he saw in Ragussis' screenplay. Maybe it was just one more chance to shed the Potterness of his persona; perhaps it was the potential to play in the same sandbox of capital-I Importance that Ed Norton did, in American History X. (And yet, of course, as an undercover agent who's only pretending to be a Nazi, Radcliffe's very nearly completely boxed in when it comes to grappling with any of the human motivations behind historical evil.) Either way, the result is an intermittently mediocre performance that peaks completely at "merely effective," notably in a scene where he has to quickly come up with a reason why it might be a bad idea to murder a Hispanic man on the street in broad daylight, especially when he and his skinhead buddies have literally just stepped out of a liquor store with some booze that they'd paid for with a credit card. It's possibly a better scene than that summary makes it sound.
But, as noted, this is mostly nitpickery; the film doesn't want to be anything more than a somewhat socially-aware thriller. And it mostly plays. The overarching problem here is that everything about it is so unnecessary—and, not to put too fine a point on it, so meagerly rewarding. Imperium is the most cautious, anonymous film I've seen the whole year—maybe in several years—and I'd say it felt like television (network television), but honestly even that's not a comparison that it completely survives. Practically nothing in the entire movie hits you and makes you say, "This is poorly made," but that's when you realize it simply doesn't feel "made" in the first place. Its absence of personality is positively palpable—sometimes, it's even oppressive, particularly when the screenplay keeps putting words into the characters' mouths that suggest that this was supposed to be some kind of an examination of the subjectively-experienced trauma Nate is meant to be undergoing. It is, obviously, not that: subjectivity is missing entirely from the film; the cold, cruddy objectivity it actually delivers feels like a mere demonstration that the director was capable of creating a functional object; and style must have been a four-letter word, considering that the quotidian cinematography, editing, performances, and dialogue all soon merge into a slurry of indifferently competent mediocrity. Hell, Imperium doesn't even really handle time very well. We've got, on one hand, a ticking clock scenario; on the other, we have what's supposed to be Nate's grueling process of "becoming the enemy." (In point of fact, these Nazis are pretty damned easily bamboozled by a shaved head and hilariously obvious lies.)
The closest Ragussis gets to anything like flair is when he ham-handedly injects quick-cut montages of white supremacist imagery into the film—Klansmen, Nazi rallies, and the like—barraging the viewer with ugly images of white hooligans playing dress-up. In other words, the operating mode of Imperium is barren sterility, and when the director finally tries to punch it up, he winds up making a feature film that's distinguishable from a high school kid's YouTube video about tolerance purely because you get a close-up of a former wizard looking constipated at the end of it. So if I had said it's like TV—which, again, it isn't, because even something as determinedly-formulaic as SVfreakingU reveals a vastly superior command of cinematic language as a form of artistic expression than Imperium ever does—but, anyway, if I had said that, what I'd have meant was this: you watch it, you don't necessarily mind it, and yet you still feel vaguely bad about it, because when you're done, there's not a single thing about it that lets you so much as pretend that it wasn't wasting the shit out of your time. There are far worse films that have been released this year, to be sure; and yet, in its way, Imperium discredits the idea of movies more than any of them.