Archive for July, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

In the 2011 superhero movie derby, “Captain America: The First Avenger” emerges near the head of an underachieving class, capitalizing on its World War II timeframe and the accompanying sense of nostalgia inspired by the black and white simplicity of Allies vs. Axis. Punching the lights out of “The Green Hornet,” “Green Lantern,” and fellow masthead-mate “Thor,” “Captain America” comes in second only to the more sharply conceived and self-aware “X-Men: First Class,” another Marvel property enlivened by period pizzazz.

Director Joe Johnston recaptures the retro vibe of serialized style apparent in his 1991 feature “The Rocketeer,” although no amount of scrubbing will fully erase the stain of last year’s “The Wolfman,” a career nadir. Johnston’s workmanlike staging complements the leisurely origin story, an element as de rigueur to any comic book movie as the retooled costumes of the pulp icons. Skinny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the epitome of self-sacrificing, Greatest Generation patriot, buffs up and bulges out with the aid of Dr. Abraham Erskine’s (Stanley Tucci) “Super Soldier Serum,” but before the weaponized New Yorker makes it behind enemy lines, the script sets up a delightful diversion showcasing both the original red, white, and blue tights and Cap’s theatrical flair for slugging Adolf Hitler in the mouth.

Johnston is slightly less successful once Captain America disobeys superiors like crusty Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and fashions a one-man rescue mission into soon-to-be nemesis Red Skull’s (Hugo Weaving) HYDRA facilities. Rogers is encouraged by Erskine to think for himself, and the advice leads to the soldier’s insubordination within the ranks of the U.S. military machine and also snuffs many potentially interesting characters and relationships as the Sergeant York-like hero goes-it-alone. The Captain’s hand-picked crew, including pals like Dum Dum Dugan and Bucky Barnes, scarcely functions as a coherent unit, and the story misses its opportunity to craft Dirty Dozen or Magnificent Seven bonhomie.

Even more disappointing is the immobilization of Steve’s crush Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the stiff upper lip Brit officer from the Strategic Scientific Reserve. The only woman in the movie with more than a few seconds of screen time, Atwell suffers the “best girl’s” standard fate: removal from the central action sequences and a personality largely based on providing emotional support to the male hero. I suppose one could be grateful Carter gets to squeeze off some machine gun rounds and avoid the need to be rescued by Captain America, but why banish one of the very best things the movie has going for itself? Carter’s false modernity is represented by a handful of coded actions (i.e. a wicked hook to a sexist grunt) that fail to establish her as a genuine equal to her colleagues.

“Captain America: The First Avenger” has been fairly and appropriately lauded for its idealized remembrances of the 1940s, but its computer-enhanced action set pieces argue that perhaps it is not old-fashioned enough. Many have said that Nazis make the best movie villains, and there is no lack of Third Reich mysticism driving the Skull’s obsession with the “cosmic cube,” referred to here as the tesseract (the “jewel of Odin’s treasure room” also functions as an unwelcome Thor tie-in). The late appearance of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury sets both fanboy/fangirl hearts aflutter and the proverbial stage for 2012’s Avengers movie, although there must be more true believers out there who would rather watch Cap sock it to the Fuhrer than struggle to adapt to a world 70 years in his future.

I Saw the Devil

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Ji-woon Kim’s “I Saw the Devil” has been likened to so-called “torture porn” titles including “Saw” and “Hostel,” but the appellation unfairly equates a thought-provoking police procedural/revenge thriller with an inferior set of mostly empty-vessel peers. Unquestionably, “I Saw the Devil” embraces explicit depictions of pain and suffering with a gruesome level of exacting detail common to the contemporary Korean horror cinema, but Kim’s genre-expanding duet between a remorseless serial killer and the government officer tracking him is strong stuff for anyone willing to gaze into twin hearts of darkness.

Min-sik Choi, whose international cult status was established by his memorable performance in “Oldboy,” plays the sadistic Kyung-chul, a nightmarish bogeyman whose “kidnap and kill” modus operandi recalls Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb in “The Silence of the Lambs.” When one of Kyung-chul’s victims turns out to be the daughter of a retired police chief and the fiancée of special agent Soo-hyun (Byung-hun Lee), the latter embarks on an odyssey of meticulously plotted retribution that Kim uses as a means to question the cost of payback on the one seeking satisfaction.

“I Saw the Devil” represents Kim’s most technically assured effort to date, and despite the extra weight of a 144-minute running time, the director establishes a rhythm and pace that invites the viewer to consider the purposefully outrageous, logic-defying series of choices made by the protagonist. Kim laces the film’s many physical encounters with the sinewy, visceral immediacy of close-quarters struggle (one bravura sequence is surely an homage to the elaborate in-car choreography designed by Alfonso Cuaron and Emmanuel Lubezki in “Children of Men”), and the faint of heart will recoil at the relentless close-up shots of blunt force trauma resulting in pulsating arcs of hemoglobin.

Along with phenomenal cinematographer Mo-gae Lee, Kim endeavors to bring the ugly and the beautiful into proximity, and “I Saw the Devil” is a clinic on image-making expertise. The stylized production design, particularly as evidenced in the lairs of Kyung-chul and his grim, cannibal-butcher acquaintance, showcases rainbow hues that glow with an acidic awareness of ironic discrepancy. Kim also capitalizes on his growing confidence in spatial dynamics and arresting compositions, a significant pair of assets in a movie so dependent on cat-and-mouse combat.

Despite Michael Atkinson’s accusation that Kim is both “uber-hack” and no good with nuance, what separates the filmmaker from many other practitioners of gore is Kim’s ability to humanize victims in such a way as to prevent the viewer’s purely prurient, guilt-free pleasure at the spectacle of their abject humiliation. Instead, our voyeuristic complicity stirs up a great deal of aching discomfort. Like fellow South Koreans Joon-ho Bong and Chan-wook Park, as well as Japanese mischief-maker Takashi Miike, Kim approaches genre-derived storytelling with a sense of elasticity that makes room for big stretches and leaps of the imagination. While the old concept “it takes a madman to catch a madman” has been tested countless times in noir cinema, Kim’s “I Saw the Devil” finds success in its management of startling, even risky, strategies, including a disturbing level of identification with the murderer. Once experienced, “I Saw the Devil” is hard to forget.

Road to Nowhere

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Cult filmmaker Monte Hellman, now approaching eighty years of age, returns to features following a two decade absence with “Road to Nowhere,” an atmospheric noir more interested in the line between illusion and reality than any half-baked crime employed to turn the gears of plot. From the opening title sequence, which credits the fictional characters populating the movie, to the deliberately cryptic snippets of information doled out to maintain interest, “Road to Nowhere” won’t generate the rabid following enjoyed by Hellman’s fantastic, career-defining “Two-Lane Blacktop.”

“Road to Nowhere” mostly tracks the progress of Hollywood-based Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan), a laid back artist whose iceberg indifference suggests an unlikely degree of dispassionate aloofness for a feature filmmaker, during the production of an account of a North Carolina-set felony that involves enough murder, financial malfeasance, identity switching, record doctoring, and double-crossing to make even Phyllis Dietrichson’s head spin. Haven’s own faculties are seriously impaired by his infatuation with initially reluctant ingénue Laurel Graham (Shannyn Sossamon), the actress who may or may not be the very person whose misdeeds inspired the fictionalized script adaptation.

This farfetched concept sounds like a device straight from David Lynch’s playbook, but “Road to Nowhere” ultimately lacks the ambition, imagination, and audacity of films like “Lost Highway,” “Mulholland Drive,” and “Inland Empire.” Hellman’s interest in the gimmick also waxes and wanes throughout the unhurried collection of chronologically jumbled scenes that connect some of the dots, and the presence of a snoopy insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) and a local blogger (Dominique Swain) fails to add much spark or urgency to the resolution of the mystery.

Many viewers are likely to become impatient with Hellman’s creeping pace, and the director’s trick of pulling back to reveal a camera crew shooting a scene that we have been led to believe has unfolded outside the devilishly opaque drama is used so often that a “boy who cried wolf” weariness settles over the whole enterprise. Independent and student moviemakers will relate to several of Hellman’s on-set asides about the challenges of a life spent shooting pictures, and the director’s supply of battle scars lends zesty verisimilitude to the depiction of cinema as a dream factory.

The movie’s unfortunately apt title teases at Hellman’s endgame, a heady brew of cinephilia that trots out a steady parade of inside jokes and references to movie stars then (Louise Brooks) and now (Scarlett Johansson). Hellman’s friend and collaborator Steven Gaydos, who provided the screenplay, is the executive editor for “Variety,” and industry fixture Peter Bart appears as himself in a cameo weirdly evocative of “Entourage.” The low-key Mitch Haven, as he makes the movie within the movie, unwinds with “The Lady Eve,” “The Spirit of the Beehive,” and “The Seventh Seal,” schooling his femme fatale muse with bromides on the indescribable genius of shining lights like Preston Sturges, Victor Erice, and Ingmar Bergman. When Haven croaks that Bergman’s masterpiece has “never looked better” following some iconic clips of Antonius Block challenging Death to a game of chess, you can’t be sure if the joke is on the fatuous character or the trusting viewer.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Monday, July 4th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Saying that “Transfomers: Dark of the Moon” improves upon or redeems the catastrophic hellishness of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is like suggesting it is preferable to drown than to be eaten alive by a Great White. Sure, you don’t suffer the horror of being torn limb from limb, but you still end up dead. Michael Bay’s third overlong toy/car commercial and military recruitment exercise is unsurprisingly ugly, strident, and stupid. It is also thoroughly repetitive and almost never fun for more than a few seconds at a time. Shia LaBeouf returns as Autobot pal Sam Witwicky, although the movie’s insensible plot conspires to keep him away from Bumblebee and company until the government really needs him.

A goofy prologue suggesting that the Apollo program was Transformers-related would be amusing if Bay wasn’t so humorless and serious in his presentation. “Dark of the Moon” is the second summer movie to revise a major aspect of Kennedy-era history, but at least in “X-Men: First Class,” Matthew Vaughn had the sense to stick to archival footage of JFK. Bay can’t resist staging shots that require much digital hocus pocus and a Kennedy lookalike, and the result is a walk through the uncanny valley of the shadow of death.

Is there anything to recommend “Dark of the Moon” to wary viewers? In a word, no, but the joint presence of Frances McDormand and John Turturro makes a giant sucking sound as Coen Brothers fans are reminded of movies with wit and intelligence. Impervious to embarrassment, Bay also rushes headlong into a series of visuals that mine national tragedies for jacked-up CG thrills. The tasteless homage to the Challenger disaster takes the blue ribbon, as a space shuttle carrying banished Autobots explodes just after liftoff while a tearful Sam watches.

By the time the metal-on-metal carnage of the big final battle begins to unfold in downtown Chicago, impatient viewers will mistakenly breathe a sigh of relief that the end is nigh. Fat chance. Bay drags out the climactic fight until it has taken the shape of a separate feature-length movie divorced from its interminable preamble. When it comes to Mr. Bay and his Transformers, more is always more. Why have only Optimus Prime when you can have Sentinel Prime?

There are plenty of writers who have called out Bay’s weak anti-critical thought arguments that the franchise is about having a good time, but Paul Brunick’s brutal, sarcastic “Revenge of the Fallen” review in “Film Comment” applies to “Dark of the Moon” with just as much force. Simply “Mad Lib” swap the titles and exchange Megan Fox for Rosie Huntington-Whitely and most of the 2009 essay could be republished today. Brunick identifies Bay’s willingness to “graft the Transformers’ intergalactic mythology onto a noxiously reactionary, weirdly neoconservative worldview,” and questions the director’s overt misogyny. Brunick’s piece, focused on the jingoism of Bay’s worldview, skipped a discussion of the filmmaker’s talent for racist stereotypes, a hat trick Bay completes in “Dark of the Moon” with ease.

Never mind the silly much ado about nothing over the claim that Bay literally recycled footage from “The Island,” since first frame to last of “Dark of the Moon” feels, looks, and sounds identical to the previous pair of “Transformers” along with most everything Bay orchestrates. The only real surprise would be to discover that Bay hadn’t reused material, since his ideas and stylistic flourishes have played on an endless loop for years.