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

THE INNOCENTS (Anne Fontaine, 2016)
In December 1945, we find Poland still reeling from the shocks of World War II and the country's occupation by the victorious Red Army.  Mathilde Beaulieu, a medical student in the French Red Cross (Lou le Laage), is surreptitiously enlisted by a nun to come back to her convent to help with a problem shared by seven of their number—pregnancy.  As it turns out, this convent was overrun by Soviet soldiers, and the women there raped.  But because the results of this crime would bring shame and dishonor upon the nuns, they have kept it secret.  Mathilde, though reluctant, agrees to help—even though she cannot understand what keeps these women bound to what appears to be a hypocritical religion and an uncaring God.

As Imperium bored with a lack of style, The Innocents bores with a surfeit of it; and, as unproductive a criticism as it is, The Innocents is just shockingly fucking boring for a movie that treats with a subject that, for better or worse, ought to at least command your attention, and the biggest reason (if not the only reason) is what it looks like, and it "what it looks like" is paint drying, a phrase I actually use somewhat literally.  It is a movie where 80% of the action takes place within an impoverished convent, and where 80% of the characters are nuns wearing the same or nearly the same habits, and so it is endless blue-and-white figures sitting in the drabbest possible white rooms, just talking—usually pretty calmly (considering the situation), while also having an unpleasant tendency to avoid the heart of any particular matter that's been raised during their conversations.

What you learn instead is that The Innocents' cinematographer, Caroline Champeteir, and her director, Anne Fontaine, clearly care a lot more about all the sculpted, painterly lighting schemes they can create in rooms lit only by shafts of light and candles, and in the rigorous geometric placement of their anonymous nuns within the frame, than they ever manage to care about color, or camera movement, or how to manipulate the focal plane, or even just plain nuts-and-bolts storytelling.  (For example, there is a straight-up hideous shot/reverse shot sequence right smack in the middle of The Innocents, where it appears for all the world that Champetier only figured out how to rack focus on the camera ten seconds before she shot the fucking thing, and even the "proficient" version of this scene would still be kind of awful.)  The point is, that despite a few exceptions like that one, The Innocents is a movie where any given frame tends to look really, really good, in a terrifyingly austere way; but it's also a movie that, when all those frames are strung together for almost two hours, one can perhaps be forgiven for resenting it, in the same way one might resent being locked in one room in a museum.  Maybe the closet where they keep the less popular Vermeers.

The numbing effect of the visuals is exacerbated, of course, by an agglomerated human element that never quite resolves into a group of actual humans.  The Innocents operates under the dangerous presumption that its premise (and its apparent belief in its own importance) is enough to get you to care, and while it can indeed get by on "abused nuns" for a spell, it's mostly the existence of women behind the camera (and the film's studied abandonment of much sensationalism) that gives you any assurance that its initial, hyper-reductive approach to its characters was not intentional—that is, that The Innocents didn't ever mean to create a cast of women whose most salient trait is only the ability to get raped.

But intentionally or not, it sort of does that anyway, permitting the nuns of the convent to bleed into one another so badly that you never get to know anything more about most of them other than what particular canned psychological defense strategy they're employing in the wake of their trauma.  (Mathilde is a little more interesting, but not very much.  She's differentiated by her communism and by her dress, but she exists in the same naturalistic shadows as everybody else.)  Of the nuns, only two ever really manage to completely emerge from the blue-and-white mass of the convent.  But even in those two cases, you still learn only enough to know they have dimensions, as opposed to what those dimensions are.  (It's telling, perhaps, that my girlfriend, who furiously disagrees with me on The Innocents, turned out to have been confusing two of the nuns in our after-the-fact discussions of the film.)  And, in the climax, The Innocents essentially collapses entirely—like everything else in the picture, it's a climax that is underplayed nearly to the point of abject ridiculousness, a moral abomination met with resistance that can best be described as "polite, but firm," and is resolved by way of a scheme that would probably register as zany, if only the film weren't so relentlessly (if appropriately) dour.  Personally, I kind of hated it, and I hate it even more because I have to feel like a bad person because I hate it.  Meanwhile, other people like it.  Well, whatever.  Good for them.  I'd rather just watch Ida again, a movie about Polish nuns that I actually enjoyed.

Score:  3/10

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (Travis Knight, 2016)
When the daughter of the Moon King falls in love with the samurai Hanzo, and they have a son whom she names Kubo (Art Parkinson), she is forced to flee her father's wrath with the infant in tow.  The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) manages to dispense with the human Hanzo and pluck one eye from his grandson's very skull—but Kubo and his mother escape, and survive in hiding, with the lad told in no uncertain terms that he should never be caught out after dark, for nighttime is when the Moon King—and the Moon King's agents, Kubo's nefarious and creepy aunts (Rooney Mara)—can see him.  But the loss of her lover and the life of monotony in its aftermath have taken their toll on Kubo's mother, whom we find far too close to the brink of catatonic depression to stop the boy from staying out too late one night, after a big day of showing off his magical singer-songwriter skills.  When his aunts arrive to collect the eye his grandfather missed, Kubo's mother only barely manages to intervene in time, and presently dies in the process of defending him.  The last reserves of her magical powers are expended upon animating a monkey statue (Charlize Theron) to be his guardian.  Now, Kubo and the Monkey must embark upon a quest to collect the armor that his father Hanzo once sought for himself, for it is only with the proper weapons that they can hope to overcome the Moon King and his mighty wrath.  In the process, they get an origami homunculus version of Hanzo, and a samurai who's been turned into a giant beetle (Matthew McConaughey).  Their party thus organized, our heroes fight magical battles to stay alive, until at last the Moon King descends to take matters (as well as Kubo's sensory organs) into his own hands.

Kubo seems like the sort of thing that ought to get a full review, doesn't it?  I saw it in theaters; I was excited about it; it's the new Laika stop-motion animated film; it's fitfully quite spectacular.  But there's a lot working against this film being in any way truly memorable—hell, there's a lot working against it being so much as temporarily affecting.  (Here's a fact that doesn't sum up the movie in any meaningful way, but does serve to get it off on the wrong foot: it doesn't bother showing what might've been the coolest thing in the whole film, the infant Kubo's eye getting torn from his head.  Not even in a PG-friendly way.)

Anyway, Kubo tries to balance its fragile, old-fashioned fairy tale with a modern sensibility, and winds up serving neither master well: it's never quite timeless and serious-minded enough for one to be able to completely forgive its been-there, done-that arbitrary quest plot (complete with a couple of twists that are so seriously predictable, that they kinda hurt); nor is it actually funny and modern enough for one to accept it as a riffy old lark--even though Matthew McConaughey, giving his worst performance in years (he plays "Matthew McConaughey," and not even necessarily "Matthew McConaughey as a samurai beetle"), clearly wants to drag the whole movie right into the 21st century, with predictably lousy results.  (Meanwhile, however, Charlize Theron is so coldbloodedly severe as our hero's monkey protector that she often manages to wrest the film back from McConaughey and his allies, almost managing to keep it on an even keel.  It's certainly no coincidence that the very best parts of the movie by far are right in the middle, when it's just Kubo and the Monkey, while the other best parts tend to involve the Monkey all by herself, playing off Rooney Mara's appropriately spooky pair of evil twin sisters.)

But Theron isn't the whole show here: McConaughey may well manage to practically ruin Kubo with the sheer quantity of his stoner-inflected anachronisms, but it's George Takei, in his practically-a-cameo appearance as a villager, who manages to smash the film into little tiny pieces with just one line.  (Incidentally, in this movie about Japanese people, his presence only underlines the sheer blinding whiteness of the rest of its production.)  Anyway, George Takei shows up, and you've already guessed what he does: someone told him to utter an "Oh my," and, because he's being paid, of course George Takei did so.  And all you can think about when it happens is "Who the fuck thought that this was a good idea?  A total idiot?"  It's very nearly maddening: Kubo goes to great, great lengths to create an honest-to-God mood; and then, every few minutes, it throws all of that hard work away, only to start anew, never quite getting there again.

Visually, the film can be a feast: as a technical exercise, it is damned near flawless, which is surely keeping with Laika's reputation.  (There do remain problems, just not technical ones: when it comes to design, the film fluctuates wildly between the really good and the plainly wrongheaded.  For example, what anybody was thinking when it comes to the visual conception of Beetle is hard to say indeed, since he's got one bafflingly human-looking face considering his tragic backstory—once Hanzo's faithful retainer, he was cursed by the Moon King, and thereby transformed into a living mockery of Hanzo's clan emblem.  Oh, I know: it's not really all that baffling.  Ultimately, Beetle has the word "compromise" written all over him, from his non-horrifying countenance right down to McConaughey's dire comic relief lines—and his even more direly Woodersonian delivery of them.)

So, we have action sequences that seek to showcase what Laika can with its technology, and for the most part they do succeed, but they too wind up undermined in their design—there is a giant skeleton monster in this film that feels far more like the conceit of a boss in a video game than it does a proper monster in a proper adventure movie, and to the extent the beast is even comprehensible as a concept, it still feels arbitrarily slapped together.  (Only one bit works completely on the levels of both drama and filmmaking, and that's the Monkey's showdown with Kubo's aunts.)  But then, a lot of what happens in Kubo feels arbitrarily slapped together, including its climax, which presents itself as humane and soothing and righteous, yet is also completely morally indistinguishable from the very thing it apparently sought to avoid, as if its writers didn't actually notice what it was they were doing.  It probably doesn't help that it's also an ending that doesn't make much sense, nor does it help that it's an ending that painstakingly avoids any real sense of sacrifice, making everything about it ring far more hollow than it should.

And that leaves a giant, sad irony right at the center of the film.  I'd be doing us all a disservice if I didn't mention it: Kubo leans heavily on the idea of storytelling, like it's trying to give Neil Gaiman a run for his money.  It talks the talk, to be sure: it is utterly convinced of its own importance, its own meaning—for lack of a better word, its own immortality, as a tale of tales, or a tale of tellers.  But Kubo's so damnably easy to forget, that it's hard to do much more than pity it, as you remark, "Nice try, guys!  I definitely liked the part where the moon women floated around and were kinda scary."

Score:  6/10

KNIGHT OF CUPS (Terrence Malick, 2016)
Rick is a screenwriter in Hollywood.  He's still reeling from the death of one of his brothers, and the shattered family relationships this death has left behind; meanwhile, he's apparently fucking his way through the entire female half of the human race as a form of therapy.  It turns out, however, that he's in a Terrence Malick film, and that means that they're really symbols, each of them signposts on a mystical journey that also happen to have breasts and vaginas.  Luckily, however, it is still a Terrence Malick film—and that means that, in the end, Rick will experience a newfound closeness to nature and to God.  Or he'll just repeat the cycle over and over until he dies.  Hard to say.  (It's a Terrence Malick film.)

I am not in the business of reviewing Terrence Malick.  I'm not entirely sure why anybody is.  (I mean, one of the major features of the man's work has tended to be that words simply aren't enough—and that goes double if they're prose.)

So you can approach the filmmaker one of two ways, I guess: you can (try to) write dissertation-length exegeses of his metaphors and themes, or you can be a lot quicker with your work, and tackle the way that he and his now-usual cinematographer, the legendary Emmanuel Lubezki, create their dreamlike tableaux of their chosen subject, which has always been the beauty and sadness of the interaction of human beings with each other and with the natural world around them.  I'll go with the latter, because let's be clear, I love old Terry Malick, despite the fact that his style is kind of the apotheosis (ha) of everything I tend to dislike about art films.  Perhaps that's because he's simply so fucking good at it, and so sincere, that it just doesn't matter.  No, Malick's style always feels so much more like honest mysticism than the usual narrative obscurantism that gets trotted out for the sake of "art."

So, yeah: I love Malick, and if I love Knight of Cups, then it's gotta be down to the something special that comes about when Malick and Lubezki play around with their cameras and with their elliptical editing.  After all, Cups is premised on the idea that Christian Bale—possibly cast solely because his name is "Christian," and Cups is explicitly indebted to A Pilgrim's Progress—just isn't getting much happiness out of his life.  This is still true, even though his life, at least so far as we see it, consists mostly of having sex, in rough chronological order, with Cate Blanchett, with Imogen Poots, with Freida Pinto, with Teresa Palmer, and with Natalie Portman—none of whom are actually characters any more than Christian is.  They're thinly drawn and thinly played, even by Malickian standards, with the sole possible exception of Blanchett's pained ex-wife.  (Also, our Christian is rich.  And kind of famous.  Boy, I sure hope he feels better soon.  I'm so sad about his dead fucking brother!  Boo-hoo!)

Anyway, that Malick and Lubezki can still tap into their old standby of deep spiritual yearning with this material is no mean feat, but the twin scaffoldings of Rick's grieving process and Malick's semi-parsable symbolic tarot card conceit give just enough structure to a film that's even less narrative-bound than Malick's usual work.  (Call it Pornyanisqaatsi, if you like—although it's never that raw, it is at least a solid 20% naked and semi-naked women frolicking, childlike, amongst Lubezki's ever-fluid cinematography.  But it's terrifically fascinating, the movement of human forms within Cup's frame; and I, for one, cannot say I'd be totally opposed to seeing some Malick-Lubezki hardcore.)

Yes, there really ought to be a better reason to love a movie than "textures," but that's Cups for you, which is indeed a study of the textures of humanity's urban habitats, centering its action upon Los Angeles with a stopover in Las Vegas, and a repeated motif of the shore, perhaps the closest thing that Angelenos have to untrammeled nature.  But that's where Cups gets interesting, beyond its individual metaphors—Malick has spent his career exploring the interface between people and nature, the material and the spiritual, and that was a career that sort-of culminated in The Tree of Life, which posited that a man's sad feelings about his dad's parenting style were just one of the manifold inevitable results of a fourteen billion-year plan that encompassed the universe itself, and perhaps that human life, even all life, is altogether a never-ending attempt by God to find balance between strength and kindness.  In his next film, To the Wonder, he turned his attentions to suburbia, and the results were minor; but Cups renders the golden thread uniting Malick's filmography more legible this time around.  The skyscrapers and mansions and phony backlots of LA, and the glitz of Vegas, are just one more expression of nature; and, like everything else in the material world, they are at once a cage that imprisons our better, spiritual selves—and thus they're likewise just one more outcropping of the pantheistic God that Malick supposes lives beneath the surface of everything, and which he's spent decades trying to get a photographic glimpse of, sometimes damned near succeeding.  Cups invites you to ponder this—and to see our world in the same desperately searching way that Malick himself must see it.  But it's a gentle kind invitation, lulling you into a happy trance with its idiosyncratic digital vision of life as it is lived on this rich man's version of Earth.  It also probably helps a lot if you get stoned first.  But I'm clean, and I still managed to dig it.

Score:  8/10


  1. I love reading you rip art movies a new one, so The Innocents got my engine charged. Imagine my surprise when Terrence Malick slipped past the gates. I just can't crack that guy.

    1. You know, The Lobster notwithstanding, 2016 has been a pretty good year for arty, indy-type movies. It's either that or I've just gotten lucky. I mean, you've got Swiss Army Man and Hunt For the Wilderpeople headlining the twee, heartfelt comedy field; Embrace of the Serpent is a much, much better example of socially-aware engagement with history (without raising the issue of Nate Parker being a bastard, one hopes that The Birth of a Nation will do the same); and, when it comes to interesting exercises in form, you've got The Neon Demon, Knight of Cups, and The Witch.

      I'd never foist Malick on anybody, but the guy does what he does better than anyone else. Not a lot of competition there, but still.

      (Are Brian De Palma movies art films? Honest question. I mean, Dressed To Kill is. Femme Fatale definitely is--it's The Mulholland Drive that isn't kind of boring. But then, they're sort of art films for The People.)

  2. Both you and Tim complained about Matthew McConaughey's voice, but I didn't even recognize it for the first five minutes or so. Maybe I'm just a bad film watcher, but for that reason it didn't bother me at all.

    I liked Kubo a lot, but as I was going through the process of reviewing it, I kept picking up on deeper and deeper flaws. I still enjoy it immensely, but I think it's been disqualified from my top ten of the year unless NOTHING else good happens in movie theaters in 2016.

    1. And I didn't notice George Takei at ALL, because I am a pop culture dunce who has never seen an episode of Star Trek.

    2. It trades on his latterday public persona, tho. It is soooo blatant.