Archive for April, 2013

Oblivion

Monday, April 29th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals key plot information. Read only if you have seen “Oblivion.”

Director Joseph Kosinski, working from his own currently unpublished graphic novel, borrows from so many science fiction texts that genre fans might well pass the unsustainable running time of “Oblivion” tallying the allusions. From any number of episodes of “The Twilight Zone” to quotations of “WALL-E,” “Solaris,” “Moon,” “Minority Report,” and the unavoidable indebtedness to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kosinski’s shaky simulacrum labors as a visual concept-in-search-of-a-story that took multiple scribes several rewrites to complete. Many of the harshest critiques have been levied at star Tom Cruise, who continues to look and behave some fifteen to twenty years younger than the July 3, 1962 date on his pilot’s license, but the real trouble with “Oblivion” is the huge, empty vacuum of nothingness suggested by its title.

Long after viewers have sifted through messy exposition belabored by long stretches of redundant voiceover, “Oblivion” adopts a “Matrix” meets “Terminator” view of enslavement or death delivered by artificial intelligence. A gigantic tetrahedral station unimaginatively nicknamed the Tet fills in for HAL 9000/Matrix/Skynet as the movie’s symbol of sentient machinery gone awry. Cruise’s Jack Harper, in partnership with communications officer/lover Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), works on a desolate Earth to service and repair the intimidating drones that patrol the huge platforms slurping up resources needed to sustain the Tet. No matter how many midnights he skinny-dips with Victoria, Jack cannot shake visions of life before the fall, even if he erroneously believes humans have retreated to the safety of a colony on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Olga Kurylenko, who was three years old when “Risky Business” was released in 1983, plays Julia Rusakova, an astronaut whose frequent appearances in Jack’s dreams portend even deeper significance when she shows up in the flesh aboard a crippled NASA craft. Julia’s arrival shifts the narrative focus of “Oblivion” to a series of creaky revelations that include both the AI shocker and an opportunity to feature Jack versus Jack fisticuffs in a clone showdown. Throw in retreats to Jack’s secret cabin and the mysterious “Scavs,” led by an underutilized Morgan Freeman, and the recipe of “Oblivion” stirs in too many ingredients to be palatable.

Kosinski’s fondness for elegant design rescues “Oblivion” from total catastrophe, but like his debut “Tron: Legacy,” the beauty is only pixel deep and bereft of intellectual sustenance – especially notable when Jack succumbs to that most laughable of action tropes: outrunning the fireball. The vehicle effects work, however, and Claudio Miranda’s frequent, IMAX-ready wide shots frame landscapes that provide the necessary scale for the dragonfly-shaped, iPhallic “bubble ship” flybys. Along with the EVE meets Beholder firepower of the spheroid drones, the sleek, Bell 47 helicopter-inspired “bubble ship” is the film’s most interesting and memorable character.

The post-apocalyptic dystopia of “Oblivion” contains all kinds of markers to lace the unfamiliarity with a sense of the uncanny. Aviator sunglasses and a New York Yankees baseball cap are joined by other iconic symbols of American culture, including “Planet of the Apes”-style glimpses of a half-buried Statue of Liberty and the inexplicable presence of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” as a symbol of who knows just what – a reference to Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001” novel, maybe? The danger of inviting a painting like “Christina’s World” to the party is the risk that some viewers will notice its artistic superiority. I can imagine spending two hours revisiting Wyeth’s canvas. “Oblivion,” not so much.

The Place Beyond the Pines

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals key plot information. Read only if you have seen “The Place Beyond the Pines.”

Derek Cianfrance trades the time-jumping, one-on-one marital discord of “Blue Valentine” for the more determined triptych of “The Place Beyond the Pines,” an expectedly moody and atmospheric examination of paternal failure and inescapable generational torment that nods to sources as wide-ranging as “Roustabout” and “Miller’s Crossing.” Selling the movie on the promise of Ryan Gosling as a death-defying motorcyclist who robs banks to provide for the baby he didn’t know he fathered, Cianfrance delivers a “Psycho”-style shock when Gosling’s Luke Glanton is killed just as the audience has grown accustomed to his reckless larceny. The murder of Luke by police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) provides the first of two significant narrative turning points in which Cianfrance divulges his agenda.

It turns out Cross is no less ruthless than outlaw Glanton, but the privilege afforded him by his upbringing as the offspring of a judge allows room for political ambitions that don’t necessitate armed robbery. Cianfrance might be trying to comment on class (as in societal pecking order) and class (as in character that transcends financial disadvantage), but the film is guarded and cagey on matters of good and bad fortune, morality, and personal responsibility. In his aggressive demolition of the film, Ed Gonzalez calls “The Place Beyond the Pines” a “daisy chain of physical and emotional violence that sacrifices emotional specificity to often-purple marriages of sight and sound.” In light of the director’s way with actors, not all viewers will be this perturbed by Cianfrance’s storytelling proclivities.

In the third story arc, Cianfrance focuses on teenagers AJ (the son of Avery) and Jason (the son of Luke). The director lavishes a surprising amount of attention on AJ (Emory Cohen), a frustrated bully who postures behind the phony affect of mannered slang and grating false bravado. Following the lead of many a soap opera, the boys become friends without knowing that AJ’s dad shot and killed Jason’s dad. AJ’s ugly personality is so pronounced one cannot help but wonder how he managed to develop into a cur, especially when raised with means by Rose Byrne’s sympathetic Jennifer. We’re not supposed to like AJ, but it’s hard not to wonder what happened in the fifteen years skipped over by the director.

In assigning point of view, Cianfrance shortchanged Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine” and does the same thing to the often invisible women of “The Place Beyond the Pines.” As the mother of Luke’s child, Eva Mendes manages to squeeze every possible drop of humanity from her suffering, noble Romina. Since Cianfrance doesn’t offer, we have to speculate as to the reason Romina would be drawn back to Luke when she has begun building a new, stable life with Kofi (Mahershala Ali), the one male in the film who might be a whole dad. Mendes is every bit as good as the men – maybe better, since she is given so much less emphasis and has fewer scenes in which to make an impression.

In “Blue Valentine,” Cianfrance demonstrated his keen ear for music, and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” from Mike Patton’s score to needle-drops of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and the climactic placement of Bon Iver’s “The Wolves (Act I & II),” marry Gosling’s tough persona to the ineffable cool of song, not unlike the heat generated much the same way in “Drive.” Coincidentally, Springsteen (“State Trooper”) and the very same Bon Iver track were cued up in Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone,” a superior study of a troubled man not fully equipped to be a father.

To the Wonder

Monday, April 15th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

The mixed reviews that have followed the near inevitable accounts of film festival boos and cheers for Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” report that the prestige filmmaker has paddled even deeper into the sea of idiosyncratic cinematic storytelling marked by the obscurity and inscrutability of deliberately withheld information and violations of the artist-audience contract. Because of chronological proximity, “To the Wonder” will be compared to the “The Tree of Life” more than to Malick’s earlier movies, even with the presence of several of the auteur’s longstanding thematic interests and storytelling devices. It might be a stretch to define the plot of “To the Wonder” as a love triangle, seeing as Malick has no use for plot and that one side of the triangle is little more than a “Giant”-inspired interlude.

In close collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick continues to refine the visual sensibilities that include subjective, swooping and dancing camera arcs, and the almost non-stop continuity interruptions and jump cuts that stitch together the bits and pieces selected from miles of footage collected during the shoot. Additionally, Malick retains his trademark use of whispery, fragmented voiceover narration, which provides as much or more verbal communication than any truncated slivers of interactive dialogue. “To the Wonder” features zero in-depth, sustained conversations and many have remarked that you probably see more shots from behind Ben Affleck’s taciturn Neil as he looks at something than images of his face.

One of the reasons Venice Film Festival audiences chortled at Javier Bardem’s yearning Father Quintana almost certainly has to do with Malick’s unwillingness to deliver a character via the expectations of the classical Hollywood cinema. The miserable priest ministers to prisoners and parishioners, wealthy and poor. He speaks of Christ’s presence, but the holy man wrestles internally with struggles as traumatic and personal as those faced by Bergman’s Tomas Ericsson or Bresson’s cleric of Ambricourt. To be sure, however, “To the Wonder” is nowhere near as satisfying as “Winter Light” or “Diary of a Country Priest.”

Affleck and Bardem are bigger stars than Olga Kurylenko, but what constitutes point of view belongs to her displaced single mother Marina, a fragile young woman made all the more alien when she accepts Neil’s invitation to leave Europe for the monotonous McMansions and Sonic Drive-Ins dotting the otherwise vast and empty Oklahoma landscape. Malick is now in his late 60s, but the years seem to have sharpened his appetite for the visual appreciation of the unknowable feminine. One reading of the filmmaker’s construction of Marina finds the old master out of his depth, infantilizing and disabling his character via what might be described as exotic othering. Marina’s blank slate condition frustrates and confuses as she lurches from childlike playfulness to violent outbursts called forth by some imprecise mental anguish.

The distinctions between the stoic and action-averse Neil and Marina’s constant twirling, whirling, and spinning suggest that Malick holds to old-fashioned and outmoded conventions that gender male “madness” as a matter of melancholic, Hamlet-like intellect and female “madness” as the biologically and emotionally codified erotomania of Ophelia. In one scene, Neil and Marina visit the office of an OB/GYN who recommends the removal of Marina’s IUD following unspecified but implied cause for concern. Marina is also informed that a hysterectomy will not be necessary. What can we make of this or of anything else that we see when Malick conceals so much more than he illuminates?

On the Road

Monday, April 8th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Any film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” would have a tough time living up to the unrealistic expectations ascribed to the cult book, and Walter Salles’ decent effort at least stays between the ditches. Neither an embarrassing letdown nor a transcendent prize, the movie – much like Salles’ version of “The Motorcycle Diaries” – uses really beautiful people to impersonate larger than life figures who might not have been quite as physically glamorous. Salles perhaps makes an argument that “On the Road” is not, after all, unfilmable, but aside from a few judiciously selected quotations, the movie sorely misses the rhythm and poetry of Kerouac’s words and voice.

The legend and reputation of “On the Road” cast a skyscraper-sized shadow over the film. The devoted will await every arrival of a figure immortalized by JK (as in, “there’s Viggo Mortensen playing Old Bull Lee who was really William Burroughs!”). The uninitiated might be less charitable, given Salles’ fondness for sticking all sorts of ace thespians in one-off scenes of economized duration. Along with Mortensen, the support ensemble includes Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Elisabeth Moss, Terrence Howard, and Steve Buscemi, who, other than Dunst, mostly disappear in a blink.

The principals are allotted enough screen time to develop some semblance of character and both Kristen Stewart as Marylou and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty suggest glimmers of the magnetism and charisma that so attracted narrator Sal Paradise to each. Both performers leave a more lasting mark than Sam Riley, whose portrayal of Kerouac avatar Paradise is unobjectionable if unexceptional. Hedlund’s enthusiasm suits the grinning hedonism of Kerouac’s fictionalized version of Neal Cassady, although Salles, working from a script by Jose Rivera, holds Dean at a distance that somewhat diminishes the impact of the character’s fate and prevents the viewer from seeing him as anything more than a symbol of childlike/childish insatiability.

Not surprisingly, the inherently masculine point of view gives Salles some trouble and the director struggles to see the women of “On the Road” beyond the narrow option limited to sexually available vessel or bitter, nagging anchor. In one of the movie’s saddest scenes, the selfish and perpetually irresponsible Dean invites wife Camille to go out on the town, even though he knows she has no choice but to stay home with their baby. For all the heat generated by the rejection of societal norms, the birth of the Beat universe as canonized in popular culture marginalizes the contributions of women.

The post-WW2 period detail is effectively communicated via the costumes and cars if not the coiffures, but “On the Road” could use a more liberal dose of the Benzedrine, booze, and marijuana-fueled orgies that represented such a shocking rejection of conventional behavior in that small window of time before rock supplanted jazz as rebellion’s aural stimulant of choice. Even the experimental sexual bi-curiosity is presented with chaste, white glove decorum that never delivers on an early Signet edition’s cover copy come-on promising to tell us “all about today’s wild youth and their frenetic search for experience and sensation.”

Room 237

Monday, April 1st, 2013

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Following a small avalanche of conspiracy theories that explore, among other things, Native American genocide, the bureaucracy of the Holocaust, the myth of the Minotaur, and a faked Apollo 11 moon landing, one of the interview subjects in the delightful “Room 237” addresses what is perhaps documentarian Rodney Ascher’s central question – why Stanley Kubrick would deliberately make “The Shining” so complicated – with the reply, “Why did Joyce write Finnegan’s Wake? It’s a way of opening doors from a hermetically sealed reality into possibilities. It’s also a way of trapping someone like me.”

Few directors have sustained the level of cult-like devotion inspired by Kubrick, and the most engrossing subject of Ascher’s film is not the plausibility or veracity of the “hidden in plain sight” clues attributed to the notoriously meticulous auteur, but rather the way in which film spectatorship can make room to empower both viewer and artist via the imaginary conduit that links fan and superstar genius. These connections are even more common in the wake of Twitter feeds, like buttons, and blogs – as evidenced by the rabbit-hole exegeses of Kevin “Mstrmnd” McLeod, a Kubrick disciple who reportedly declined the invitation to be interviewed for “Room 237.”

Ascher’s movie opens with a lengthy and detailed disclaimer that disavows any endorsement by the Kubrick 1981 Trust, Kubrick’s family, Warner Bros. Entertainment, “The Shining Filmmakers,” and Kubrick himself (despite the fact that Kubrick has been dead since 1999). This sets the stage for both the film’s farfetched claims and the rather stunning extent to which nearly the entire enterprise is stitched together out of clips from “The Shining” and many of Kubrick’s other films, as well as titles as unexpected as “The Thief of Bagdad,” “All the President’s Men,” “Spellbound,” and “Apocalypto.” In one piece of visual editorializing, Ascher includes a glimpse of Stephen King as the doomed yokel Jordy Verrill in “Creepshow.”

The King versus Kubrick subplot manifests in the alteration of Jack Torrance’s Volkswagen Type 1 from the red of King’s novel to the yellow of Kubrick’s film. The seemingly minor change is complicated by the movie’s inclusion of a wrecked red Beetle seen post-collision with a semitrailer, an image that suggests to many viewers a symbolic announcement that Kubrick intends to make the movie version of “The Shining” his own. Ideas like this one, along with arcane deliberations on purposeful continuity errors ranging from disappearing chairs to reversing carpet patterns, are shared via Ascher’s nine-chapter organization.

Ascher’s decision to not show any of his five primary interview subjects focuses attention on the scenes taken from “The Shining.” The images are so detailed, so abundant, and so often re-contextualized, one marvels at the extent to which Ascher tests the limits of the doctrine of fair use. During the festival run of “Room 237,” a number of writers addressed the possibility that copyright claims and legal headaches might prevent the film’s wider distribution, a story parallel to recent discussion surrounding Randy Moore’s “Escape from Tomorrow,” shot at Walt Disney World and Disneyland without permission.

Every Kubrick devotee should have no problem settling on a favorite theory from the range of hypotheses shared in “Room 237.” One of the most appealing segments looks at maps and floor plans suggesting that Kubrick designed an Overlook Hotel schematic that places windows where they couldn’t possibly open to the outdoors. This element of “Shining” scholarship has been thoroughly documented, and Rob Ager’s online videos on spatial disorientation are an excellent companion to “Room 237.”

Another wildly creative expression of textual potency lives in the “Dark Side of the Rainbow” style synchronicities that emerge from screening “The Shining” simultaneously forward and backward with both video channels superimposed, a rather absurd notion that yields some hallucinatory jolts. These, and so many other improbable points of view, argue that “The Shining” ranks high on the list of sources that have inspired some serious pop culture apophenia, and if you haven’t sampled the goods, make a reservation to visit “Room 237.”