Archive for January, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Monday, January 28th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Was there any doubt that “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” was going to be a terrible movie? Dumped in the January wilderness reserved for the weakest cinematic product, Scandinavian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola’s busy spin on the Brothers Grimm ejects most of the folktale’s ideas of interest. Surprisingly, Wirkola finds no use for the themes exploring cannibalism and abandonment, opting instead to visit the siblings as grown-up mercenaries who have developed a talent for dispatching evil crones. The edible house of confection remains (in one of the movie’s only artful touches of production design), but this revisionist concoction, with its endless supply of rapid-fire weapons and punky leather duds, aims for the same kind of territory covered in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

Wirkola, whose low-budget horror-comedy “Dead Snow” attracted some kind of cult following (whatever that means in the fractured, narrow audience slices of the post-YouTube landscape) with its zombie Nazis, obviously intends for the audience to laugh as much as cringe at “Hansel & Gretel,” but the numbing repetition of blood and guts rocketing toward the camera’s lens is tired by the third time it happens, and downright annoying once you lose count. A few gore-free gags flirt with the alleviation of audience malaise – the woodcut-style images of missing children on bottles of fresh milk is worth a smile – but Wirkola shows little interest in developing any of his characters beyond their most basic impulses.

Jeremy Renner’s performance has reviewers scrambling to paint a picture of disaffection or phone-it-in boredom, but maybe his diabetic Hansel’s blood-sugar is just low. As Gretel, Gemma Arterton is given a little more to do in subplots involving the misogynist gang of thugs led by corrupt, dunderpate Sheriff Berrigner (Peter Stormare) and a gruesome, hulking ogre named Edward (Derek Mears). Famke Janssen, playing head witch Muriel, hasn’t been particularly gracious describing her role in interviews, indicating she took the part for the cash. The rest of the movie could use a little of Janssen’s honesty.

A grown-up brother/sister team based on iconic fairy tale figures carries the screenwriting challenge of establishing chemistry without suggesting incestuous feelings, and Wirkola mostly avoids the Luke and Leia weirdness. One scene, in which the siblings are reunited following a heavily plotted separation, sets off the  creepy alarm, but the leads are both given, more or less, subplots involving love interests. Hansel gets naked and submerges in healing waters with a helpful white witch in a moment that Andrew Barker cleverly describes as a “pretense for skinny-dipping [that] makes Prince’s Lake Minnetonka line seem like the height of subtle seduction.” Less appealing is Gretel’s fawning suitor, a stupefied superfan ready to cop a feel when Gretel is unconscious.

The whole thing reeks of desperation, and the liberal use of anachronistic catchphrases laden with profanity might have worked if the action wasn’t an endless display of relentlessly similar combat scenes. As the movie builds toward its showdown climax, a set-piece involving a convention of witches from surrounding territories, the filmmakers proudly show off a gallery of nasties, but it is too little, too late. The outcome is guaranteed, the action beats come from a kit, and the viewer is so far ahead of it all that some will make for the exits before the tacked-on epilogue.

Rust and Bone

Monday, January 21st, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

For those willing to accept the often blunt beauty-and-the-beast theme that has been a go-to story device far longer than the movies have been around, Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” can be as bracing as the ocean swim taken by Marion Cotillard’s Stephanie, a Cote d’Azur marine park killer whale trainer whose legs are amputated following a freak accident on the job. Based on Craig Davidson’s short story collection of the same title, director Jacques Audiard uses the film to examine brutishness, grief, the limits of the body, and the intersection of physical and psychological pain.

Cotillard’s star power looms over the movie, but the principal figure is Matthias Schoenaerts’ Ali, a miserable, aimless tough who, along with his young son, relocates to his sister’s place in Antibes long after his luck has run out. Ali’s emotional maturity is no greater than his kid’s, and Audiard sets up a minefield of opportunities for poor choices as Ali takes dead-end gigs as a club bouncer and as an assistant to a shady, quasi-legal surveillance tech. Before long, Ali finds his way to underground, bare-knuckle street fighting, an activity we imagine he would undertake even if it didn’t pay out in cash. Without functioning on the operatic level of “The Master,” Schoenaert’s character is every bit as crude and unlikable as Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell.

Cotillard’s Stephanie is as complex as Ali is primal and pitiless. They reconnect during Stephanie’s rehabilitation and even though the circumstances of their acquaintance might outwardly point toward the contrived banalities of the most sentimental melodramas (she’ll help him, he’ll mend her), Cotillard easily transcends any limits the material might place upon her. Following a matter-of-fact agreement to initiate a sexual relationship merely as “friends with benefits,” Stephanie, who wants to know if “it still works,” is as surprised as we are to discover deeper feelings – apparently unreciprocated – for Ali.

Among other things, “Rust and Bone” functions on one level as an unlikely love story, and while the enjoyment derived by the audience in watching the fractured, broken couple lurch one step forward and two steps back may not always match the pleasure Audiard takes in the accounting, “Rust and Bone” has a way of setting its hooks. On paper, the content of the narrative would be at home in the silent era, but Audiard pulls off the unlikely feat of rehabilitating many of the weakest tendencies of stories about disability, about fighting, and about parental responsibility.

Audiard deliberately withholds some of the interiority that would reveal more of Ali and Stephanie to us, but the lack of viewer privilege serves to reinforce Ali’s ugly, tactless shortcomings as father, brother, friend, and lover. We wonder briefly whether Stephanie, wallowing in the abject and flirting with self-pity (she has “gauche” and “droite” tattooed on her thighs), possesses enough self-awareness and self-possession to realize that adjusting Ali’s basic instincts is a fool’s errand. It’s a safe bet that Ali’s inability to express any great measure of empathy for Stephanie creates the conditions by which she can comfortably interact with him. There, and elsewhere, the masterful Audiard is more than capable of finding the sweet spot between the flesh and the spirit.

Zero Dark Thirty

Monday, January 14th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Residing somewhere inside the cacophony of the debate over whether Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing “Zero Dark Thirty” legitimately “endorses” torture is one of the most elementary functions of drama: the depiction of a thing does not necessarily indicate the dramatist’s affirmation of that thing. In the Theban trio, Sophocles sought to examine, among other ideas, the conflict between divine law and human law, but we don’t spend much time accusing the tragedian of championing incest or parricide. Bigelow would have erred by not addressing the “enhanced interrogation” techniques applied to the so-called enemy combatants detained after 9/11, and her film, stylistically dependent on a high degree of believability, at least allows us to ask whether it takes a bad person to catch a bad person.

With its clinically procedural structure, deliberate jargon, and nimble editing, “Zero Dark Thirty” belongs to the tradition of political and military thriller that reflects back to the viewer what he or she seeks to find. Compare two voices in the “New York Times.” Manohla Dargis says, “[This] juxtaposition of the abuse and the massacre suggests, in cinematic terms, that torture does not save lives.” Frank Bruni wrote that the depiction of torture as placed in the film “produces information vital to the pursuit of the world’s most wanted man.” There is something undeniably involving about a movie that can simultaneously be described as pandering to the Obama administration and the one led by George W. Bush.

The rhetoric surrounding the suggestion that the filmmakers somehow managed to obtain access to classified information is potentially as fascinating as the torture question, but Bigelow’s dedication to the detailed reconstruction of the compound raid itself – the climactic showstopper that the audience eagerly awaits as a satisfying narrative payoff to the grind of the connect-the-dots timeline that takes up the majority of the film – carries with it a set of challenges. Even if one accepts the claim that Bigelow carefully withholds opinion via the impassive, mask-like visage of Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent Maya (not to mention the spare use of Alexandre Desplat’s score), the final section of “Zero Dark Thirty” vibrates with the awesome, frightening power of America’s military machine.

As soon as the fire-eating Navy SEAL team members are first briefed on their top-secret objective, “Zero Dark Thirty” crackles with the age-old sense of America’s dizzying military superiority. Bigelow’s use of point-of-view, night vision green imagery via handheld photography places the viewer shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers. Given the outcome of Operation Neptune Spear and the manner in which it is imagined cinematically, I would venture a guess that applications to any corresponding military programs will not be in any danger of decline.

I for one do not believe, like Peter Rainer, that Bigelow has made an amoral film. As a work of contemporary historical fiction, we can wring our hands that people will watch “Zero Dark Thirty” and accept it as the document of record on the death of Osama bin Laden. Similar arguments about “history according to the movies” were offered when Oliver Stone explored a network of theories both plausible and ridiculous in “JFK” in 1991. With its release so soon after the events it dramatizes, “Zero Dark Thirty” feels very much like a movie of its moment. I wonder how we’ll think and talk about it two decades from now.

The Impossible

Monday, January 7th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

A troubled, manipulative disaster spectacle with a problematic point-of-view, “The Impossible” imagines the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake through the eyes of a wealthy white family whose Christmas vacation is interrupted by a horrific natural catastrophe that would become – based on total lives lost – the worst tsunami in recorded history. Long on the powerful emotions that come with the woman-versus-nature conflict and short on the vision that would provide a breadth of context for the estimated quarter million dead, “The Impossible” employs state-of-the-art special effects to accomplish one of the bizarre things big-budget filmmaking manages so well: placing the viewer with uncanny verisimilitude inside the heart of an event nobody would want to experience firsthand.

Unlike several of the disaster-suspense thrillers popular in the 1970s, “The Impossible” skips the narrative device in which a large group of survivors representing a variety of economic backgrounds is followed, instead turning its attention to the five members that make up the nuclear Bennett family (their nationality switched from Spanish). Considering the events depicted in the film occur in Thailand, director Juan Antonia Bayona makes a colossal error in virtually ignoring the native inhabitants in favor of the tourists. Structurally, the movie divides its time between Naomi Watts’ seriously injured Maria, who manages to stay with oldest son Lucas, while Ewan McGregor’s panic-stricken Henry looks after the two youngest brothers.

Clint Eastwood’s weird 2010 misfire “Hereafter” dramatized the same historical event in one of its interlocking storylines, and the depiction of the tsunami’s arrival in that film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. Given its greater emphasis on the particulars of the disaster and the skill with which the filmmakers imagine it, “The Impossible” is almost certain to replicate that feat. The HBO/BBC miniseries “Tsunami: The Aftermath,” another fictionalized account of the earthquake, attempted to tackle wider political issues, but like “The Impossible,” was criticized for its lack of interest in the flood’s native victims.

Regardless of its “true story” pedigree, “The Impossible” stumbles with several scenes and moments that throb with naivete, condescension, or both. Worst among these artless insults is a nighttime reverie in which Geraldine Chaplin, who also appeared in Bayona’s effective horror-suspense nightmare “The Orphanage,” discusses the life and death of stars while comforting one of Bennett boys. Another trick, de rigueur in the genre, demands a few split-second near-misses as the family members come within an eyelash of reuniting in the chaos of the disaster’s aftermath. Predictably, there are also instances of cruel selfishness interspersed with moments of generosity and compassion.

Even though more award season buzz has been directed toward Watts than McGregor, the talented performer’s onscreen time is limited by her character’s predicament: a life-threatening leg gash that places Maria at the threshold of death’s door once the adrenalized rush of negotiating the roiling hell is surmounted. While McGregor is given a juicy scene in which he places an emotional phone call, Watts spends the second half of the film in pre-surgical limbo (as Kevin Jagernauth effectively puts it, “If there is an Oscar for moaning in pain, Watts will certainly be a lock”). Similarly, the viewer is immobilized, in shock and feeling helpless until “The Impossible” fulfills the promise of its title.