In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, there’s a shot of a man walking across a bog, depicted from the perspective of a silent observer looking down into the water and seeing naught but a reflection of a shadow barely present in the water, threatening to disappear at any moment. Beautiful and expressionist-tinged, it potently captures, better than any word ever could, the reality of race in America – African-Americans torn down to whispers of human flesh almost unobservant to the white eye, seen only through the prism of mirrors and reflections when you’re really looking at something else, glimpsed only in fleeting, peripheral moments by powerful forces who don’t want to acknowledge the presence of race. Continue reading
Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyer’s Club is a relentlessly traditional film. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s screenplay is one of the oldest stories in the book, and they subscribe to the most limited, well-worn version of it. A hard-living, hard-smoking, hard-drinking Texan man, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a relentless Type-A Alpha Male of the classical American persuasion who discovers in 1985 that he is HIV positive. Surrounded by an external culture of unmitigated masculinity and an internal predilection for homophobia, he struggles mightily to come to terms with the diagnosis, weighed on most heavily by his belief that only homosexual men can have HIV (the de facto opinion among the general population in 1985). Continue reading
Photographed by canonical cinematographer Conrad Hall near the end of his long and varied career, American Beauty is a luminously, exasperatingly gorgeous motion picture. It also makes you feel a little sick for caring about cinematography at all, especially when it is put to use excusing and gussying up Alan Ball’s amateurish, ruthlessly self-apologetic, largely confused screenplay. Ball is a fully capable writer – his television shows have their place in a society currently convincing itself it is in the midst of a sort of Golden Age of Television. But he has never been particularly suited to the cinematic medium, and his exercises in concision truncate and confuse what is given episodes upon episodes to expand itself on the small screen. In particular, he has a severe difficulty managing tone, shooting from sickeningly sentimental monologues about modern society to cruel and unusual acerbic put-downs of a great majority of its cast, not to mention the paltry, piece-meal questions raised by his simplistic treatment of the modern middle-class. American Beauty is a troublesome, troubled film, and all the beauty in the world can’t make up for a screenplay as hurtful as this. Continue reading
To dispense with formalities: The Sixth Sense is not that good, but nor is it that bad. Its writer-director has never been a man subject to well-manicured, non-explosive statements – probably because he has never himself been prone to non-explosive statements (he did, after all, cast himself as a writer who saved the Earth in Lady in the Water). In his early days, he was, to his followers, a filmic genius, a genuine auteur in an age with precious few singularly great filmic voices. In recent years, he has become a filmic landfill, a genuine auteur for evil in an age with precious few singularly awful filmic voices. Everyone, regardless of what they think of him, seems to not understand the meaning of putting on the breaks. Either wonderful or despicable, he is a director who inspires opinions of great magnitude regardless of direction.
To some extent, both magnitudes are over-stated. His recent slate of films have managed the insurmountable task of consistent awfulness, but he is not the worst director in the history of cinema. Still, claims of his badness are more fitting than claims of his goodness. Even his best works are, if we are being honest, merely solid showpieces for a frequently confused writer with a better-than-average visual sense that at its best moments manages to convince audiences they are watching a better film than they really are. Case in point: The Sixth Sense, which is a sometimes sharp, occasionally sterling, often misguided work most notable for the frankly bizarre fact that it managed to rake in almost 700 million dollars at the global box office. Being a supernatural thriller, mind you. Ahh, movie-goers were different in the far-flung past of 1999. It dances vision of when The Exorcist (a similarly overrated film, although not as confused at the level of basic writing as The Sixth Sense) exploded into theaters in 1973 and ushered in a new age of respectable auteur-driven horror films for public audiences. But then, 1973 really was a different, pre-Jaws and pre-Star Wars, time culturally and filmically. 1999 is practically still in the womb. It was just yesterday, or so it seems at first glance. Continue reading
Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium is a better film than its follow-up, Chappie, but it is also a more distressing one. Chappie is inept at the level of bare functional mechanics, but at least it feels like the product Blomkamp wanted to make (and, admittedly, proof that he does not much understand storytelling or tone at all). Elyisum, meanwhile, has the musty odor and schematic corporatism of the product he thought he was supposed to make. While Chappie is a fearlessly stupid product of personal vision, Elysium is an antiseptic epic (an antisepic, if you will) masquerading as a unique work of social parable and world-building. It is ungainly and poorly focused, using dirtiness as a cheap aesthetic trade-off in lieu of genuine emotional effect, and it is largely willing to trot out themes about inequality and social rebellion in increasingly arbitrary, insulting ways. That is, before it turns said themes into paltry excuses for lazy action entertainment, and Matt Damon. Continue reading
There is nothing to to ruin a film like a Famous Actor and a Famous Person mixed into a stew. As Phyllida Lloyd desperately wishes to prove, it seems, legitimately incompetent direction doesn’t even come close to causing that much hurt compared to the genuinely uninspired and violently sedate biopic genre from which this film was birthed. If nothing else, at least her casual inability to point a camera at people talking affords the film a somewhat tilted-axis, twitchy vibe that is miles more interesting than anything actress Meryl Streep or writer Abi Morgan accomplish at any point in the film. Lloyd single-handedly turns something that might have been a great bore into a more magnetic form of badness, and thus a more watchable film. Continue reading
Two openings, if you will:
There are those that would have you feel The Imitation Game is a bad film because it is historically inaccurate. This is a red herring, although there is a valid point lying in wait. The specifics of the story The Imitation Game presents are in fact bad, but they are not bad because they are inaccurate. This biopic of Alan Turing would be dead-on-arrival if everything it depicted was the complete truth, and it would be dead-on-arrival if everything in it were a bald-faced lie. It is a tired, cadaverously old-fashioned tale of the harms done by a stodgy, conservative society that is itself, as a film, as stodgy and conservative as any of the characters it depicts.
To play a different game from our opening about the people who dislike the film for misguided reasons: those who like it can seldom muster a claim beyond “it tells an important story about an important man”. We can all agree on the latter. Alan Turing is an important man, and it is probably important that his story be told. But The Imitation Game does not tell an important story, and more importantly it does not tell any story importantly. It is too busy telling a story in the driest, most divested, least lively way possible. That a film tells the story of an important human being is a red herring for it actually being a good film, as great a red herring as a film being historically inaccurate is for disliking it. Alan Turing was an important man, and The Imitation Game does that important man a grave disservice. Continue reading
Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is in a curious bind, right form its get-go. The appeal of the film is clear: in an age of revisionist blockbusters halfheartedly attempting to find some new slant on a classic story, even a desperately bad one, Branagh’s vision is remarkably old-school and pure. Fair enough; I like a classical story as much as the next person. But classical is not an excuse for lazy, and Cinderella veers so close to being wholly and entirely indifferent that it’s almost a travesty of cinemagic, although nice little touches shine through until the end, keeping the film afloat. As it stands though, Branagh’s vision is cannibalized by the very fact that ought to save it: its insistence on its origins in fable, its classical myth-like quality free of airs that ought to make it devoutly timeless. As it is, the classical quality just barely turns it into a milquetoast Oscar production, and nothing is more boring than a film using old Hollywood styles without any idea how to translate their magic to the screen. Continue reading
Many have gone out to bat for Foxcatcher’s particularly dour format of carefully positioned gloominess, and they are right to focus on the film’s meticulous craft. It’s a stolid, compartmentalized film, assured and close to perfectionist in its specific, highly detailed character, its rigid delineation of human frailty, and its formal precision backing up an intentionally cold-and-clinical dissection of American inequality. Grotesque millionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carrell) fancies himself an American hero and plays with Olympic wrestler Mark Scultz (Channing Tatum) from beginning to end, but director Bennett Miller would not have you think of it as play. Through his eyes, the film is as detached and despondent as humanly possible, perhaps fitting for the films’ themes of mechanical people sleepwalking their way through life with bored non-momentum. Yet style and story clash and never occupy the same film, smothering clinical precision with the film’s weepy, drippy “important story” narrative and sacrificing the sweat and spit of genuine emotion for a staid waxworks show. Foxcatcher is a perfectionist film, but it gives perfectionism a bad name. Continue reading
It’s a known quantity to criticize our corporate masters for breaking apart book adaptations for the sake of profit, and this is an avenue of criticism I tend to shy away from. If the individual films, broken apart, are compelling, I don’t much care for the “completeness” of having a “full” adaptation of a source in one film. And complaining about cliffhanger endings have always seemed a red herring to distract from actually discussing the film. But good god is Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay hurt significantly by being cut in half. Or, at least, this first part is. While The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire weren’t perfect films, they were never unwieldy. Snug filmmaking was the order of the day, except when they sought to make good on their pop-Terrence Malick aspirations and linger on the poetic depression of the earth, which was itself lightly satisfying in its own way. Continue reading