Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Reviews from gulag: It's been a year since I haven't hit double-digit updates in a month, and, God knows, upwards of four people must be relying on me

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.

Score:  5.01/10

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Super Week, part V: This is an imaginary story... Aren't they all?


Personally, I adore it, but wouldn't it have been improved by a giant mechanical spider?  (If not, then how about a pair of better actors in the lead roles?  No?)

Directed by Bryan Singer
Written by Dan Harris, Michael Dougherty, and Bryan Singer
With Brandon Routh (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane), James Marsden (Richard White), Tristan Lake Leabu (Jason White), Frank Langella (Perry White), Sam Huntington (Jimmy Olsen), Marlon Brando's digital ghost (Jor-El), Parker Posey (Kitty Kowalski), and Kevin Spacey (Lex Luthor)

Spoiler alert: high

Monday, August 22, 2016

Super Week, part IV: Global thermonuclear war


Bad?  Hell, maybe it is, by some half-imagined objective standard for what it means to be "good."  But Superman IV is the furthest thing from unwatchable, and remains to this day one of the most faithful adaptations of the idea of "the superhero comic book" as has ever been brought to the screen.

Directed by Sidney J. Furie
Written by Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, and Christopher Reeve
With Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Mariel Hemingway (Lacy Warfield), Sam Wanamaker (David Warfield), Jon Cryer (Lenny Luthor), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), and Mark Pillow/Gene Hackman (The Nuclear Man)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Super Week, part III: Superdick


If for nothing else other than evening out the tone of the franchise, Superman III should be congratulated—even if it only got evened out in favor of idiotic hi-jinx.  The point is, at least it feels of a piece with itself, and that's some kind of improvement over the patchwork of Superman II.  Obviously, however, nobody in their right mind would ever describe it as an actual better movie.  Or would I?

Directed by Richard Lester
Written by David Newman and Leslie Newman
With Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Annette O'Toole (Lana Lang), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Richard Pryor (Gus Gorman), Pamela Stephenson (Lorelei), Annie Ross (Vera Webster), and Robert Vaughn (Ross Webster)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Super Week, part II: So this is Planet Houston


Notice how all my themed weeks take at least two to get finished?  That's what they call a "running gag."  Anyway, Superman II: charming in its crappiness.

Directed by Richard Lester and Richard Donner
Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, and Tom Mankiewicz
With Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Sussanah York (Lara Lor-Van), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Ned Beatty (Otis), Valerie Perrine (Eve Teschmacher), and Sarah Douglas (Ursa), Jack O'Halloran (Non), and Terence Stamp (General Zod)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Monday, August 15, 2016

We killed you once already, damn you!


When a movie comes along that's this pointedly indifferent to one of its own central jokes, you just aren't going to wind up loving it; but that doesn't mean you can't still like it an awful lot, and respect the hell out of how well it handles its other central joke.  Can you handle your sex almost annoyingly juvenile, and your ultraviolence surprisingly awesome?  Because that's Sausage Party.

Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon
Written by Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg
With Seth Rogen (Frank), Kristen Wiig (Brenda), Jonah Hill (Carl), Michael Cera (Barry), Ed Norton (Sammy Bagel, Jr.), David Krumholtz (Kareem Abdul Lavash), Paul Rudd (Darren), James Franco (The Druggie), and Nick Kroll (Douche)

Spoiler alert: mild

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Super Week, part I: Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, kindly couple


The legend is reborn onscreen, and it's a wondrous thing, believing a man can fly.  But that doesn't mean that Superman holds up in every respect.

Directed by Richard Donner
Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, and Tom Mankiewicz
With Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Susannah York (Lara Lor-Van), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Valerie Perrine (Eve Teschmacher), Ned Beatty (Otis), and Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor)

Spoiler alert: if I spoil any of it for you, relax, we'll just go back in time to when you'd never read the review

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Play "Freebird"!


Forget the hype!  Suicide Squad isn't the worst movie of the year.  No, sir: it merely sucks in all the ordinary ways.

Written and directed by David Ayer
With Will Smith (Floyd Lawton/Deadshot), Margot Robbie (Dr. Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn), Joel Kinnaman (Col. Rick Flag), Jai Courtney (Digger Harkness/Captain Boomerang), Jay Hernandez (Chato Santana/El Diablo), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Waylon Jones/Killer Croc), Karen Fukuhara (Tatsu Yamashiro/Katana), Adam Beach (Christopher Weiss/Slipknot), Viola Davis (Amanda Waller), Jared Leto (The Joker), and Cara Delavingne (Dr. June Moone/Enchantress)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Friday, August 5, 2016

Yes, he died for your sins, too (but, if we're being honest, mostly Batman's)


Well, let's leave aside the fact the sole good thing to come out of this movie's hilariously awful name is the subtitle of a Deadpool miniseries currently being published by Marvel ("The V is for VS"!).  Let's also leave aside all the grating little issues that seek to tear down the towering edifice of this film, one brick at a time.  Because if we do leave that aside, it's certainly the best superhero film of 2016 so far (including the one that came out today)and by no small margin, too.

Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer (with a lot of distant assistance from Frank Miller, Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, and Roger Stern, amongst others)
With Henry Cavill (Clark Kent/Kal-El), Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Gal Godot (Diana of Themyscira), Jeremy Irons (Alfred Pennyworth), Laurence Fishburne (Perry White), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), and Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor)

Spoiler alert: high
Content warning: this one clocks in at about 2900 words, because three years later, and I still can't talk about Superman at a length that wouldn't make any cognitively normal person run for the hills; does it help any if I say that it's also a long movie?

Monday, August 1, 2016

And then Vin Diesel shows up and KICKS HER ASS (just kidding, but that would've been more fun)


It provides a few solid, semi-scary visuals, but Lights Out is almost completely dysfunctional in every other respect, to the extent it doesn't even work upon the elementary level it's pitched at, which is nothing more than a container for those solid, semi-scary visuals.

Directed by David Sandberg
Written by Eric Heisserer (based on the short film by David Sandberg)
With Teresa Palmer (Rebecca), Gabriel Bateman (Martin), Alexander DiPersia (Bret), Maria Bello (Sophie), Andi Osho (Emma), Billy Burke (Paul), and Alicia Vela-Bailey (Diana)

Spoiler alert: moderate