Monday, March 02, 2015

The Devil, You Say?

Daniel Radcliffe in Horns

Alexandre Aja is a director who is never likely to live up to his promise. I'm not a fan of his signature film, Haute Tension, but I could see the talent involved with its making. Before it immolates itself with an unearned twist ending, it's a razor sharp horror movie, one that knows the value of suspense while keeping an instinct for the jugular. Nothing he's made since then has been as assured, though I do have a soft spot for the cheap pulp thrills of his remake of Piranha. I don't know why I expected more from his latest film, Horns (2013), but I did. It has a good cast and a droll source novel. In principle, the elements are all there. Somehow, Aja fumbles it all.


Horns follows the troubles of one Ignatius Perrish, "Ig" to his friends, who wakes up one morning to find that he's growing a pair of horns. Devil horns, as it so happens. Worse, the people around him are suddenly compelled to confess to him their darkest compulsions, including the woman with whom Ig has been sleeping. Ig can influence them to act or not act on them. Ig is thought by everyone he knows to be guilty of raping and murdering his girlfriend, Merrin, though he escaped trial on a technicality. The horns let Ig know what people really feel, even his parents who outwardly support Ig, but inwardly wish he would just go away somehow. That Ig is innocent never enters the minds of anyone he knows, save for his brother and his best friend. The horns are useful to Ig because they provide him with a tool with which to find the actual killer...


Daniel Radcliffe in Horns

The only sequence in Horns that matches the dry comedy one finds in Joe Hill's novel finds Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) seeking medical help for the horns. He's terrified that they might be cancerous or something equally toxic, so he looks to have them surgically removed. As he waits in the reception area, a woman with a shrieking daughter spills her disappointment at him, while the duty nurse tells Ig that she wishes someone would take the child in hand. It's a compelling fantasy, to which the irritation everyone often feels with unattended children can relate. The doctor himself wants to dope himself up before treating Ig and fantasizes about fucking his comely nurse. When Ig wakes up from the anesthesia having NOT been operated upon, he finds the doctor and the nurse enthusiastically copulating next to the operating chair. This part of the film gets it. This is essentially a comedy of manners, one in which the governing restraint of civilization is removed to let people follow their basest urges. This is something of which the rest of the film is unaware. The rest is all so serious about pursuing the murder investigation plot that it doesn't realize that that plot is a Maguffin. It doesn't matter. It's only a framework on which to hang scenes like the doctor and nurse going at it.


It's disappointing.


Juno Temple and Daniel Radcliffe in Horns

Worse, the plot itself is utterly banal and the filmmaking reeks of "filmed in Vancouver because it's cheap." This is another in a long line of films in which the manpain that motivates the plot comes from a fridged girlfriend. It's a revenge film, sure, but it's also a film in which the motivations trickle down from a sense of entitled patriarchy. One never gets the feeling that Ig and Merrin had an equal relationship, only that Ig seems awfully possessive of her. The sexual nature of the crime insures this. That the villain of the piece--assuming that Ig himself is not the villain, in spite of the horns and pitchfork--is a rival for Merrin's affection makes her into a chip in a game between men. It's not endearing and you've seen a thousand other films like it. Even allowing for this, the story structure of the film seems scatter-shot and truncated at the same time. This is a film built around flashbacks, which interrupts the flow of events such that it never builds a head of steam. Worse, it never lets scenes develop farther than establishing plot points, while rushing from scene to scene pellmell without letting them breathe, or, worse, without pausing to explain certain things. Horns mistakes plot for story. This is a big mistake, given the thinness of its plot.


Daniel Radcliffe has turned into a fine actor as an adult. His performance here is good, American accent and all, even while the film does him no favors. Radcliffe channels demonic charm well and he might play an effective villain in some future film.The supporting cast--including Max Minghella, Juno Temple, David Morse, Kelli Garner, James Remar, Kathleen Quinlan, and Heather Graham--fares less well. Graham, in particular, features in scenes that would be ripe for comedy, only to become a throwaway character. Her fame-hungry lying witness wants a funnier bunch of scenes. In the book, she gets them. But Aja doesn't allow any comedy to develop  here. His conception of the film is as Very Serious Business.


Aja prefers a horror film, it seems, but for a filmmaker who cut his teeth on particularly brutal horror films, he seems to have lost his instinct for the jugular here. Although it's rated "R" for language and sex, it's curiously chaste when it comes to violence. Oh, the violence is there, but it plays like an unpleasant but necessary task more than it does as set pieces designed to disturb. It also fumbles the monster at the end. In an era in which special effects can cover a lot of sins, Horns comes up small on this front. Design is everything in contemporary effects and this film has poor design.


Ultimately, this is a film that miscalculates when choosing its tone. It's naturally a comedy that resolutely refuses to become a comedy. The disconnect results in a film that's as frustrating as it is disappointing.












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Sunday, March 01, 2015

Ministers of Grace

Bosch -- Christ Carrying the Cross

My first impression of Calvary (2014, directed by John Michael McDonagh) was that it was deadpan religious noir. It's a film that attempts to reconcile the mission of the Catholic church with the wickedness done by that church's ministers. It falls into the category of noir because it's a crime film of sorts, one particularly concerned with a fall from grace. Its concern with states of grace is more (little "c") catholic than is normally the purview of noir, but its fall from grace is an equally dark descent. The punch, when it comes, lands with a brutalizing force even to a mocking unbeliever like me.


My second impression was that it was the cinematic equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch's "Christ Carrying the Cross," which has a central figure carrying the weight of the world through a crowd of leering grotesques. Bosch's painting has always had multiple interpretations, depending on the worldview of the critic. Is it deeply spiritual? Is it an irreligious mockery? I tend to think it's the former. Calvary provides a similar dichotomy, but it's more clearly an expression of spirituality. It's an argument for the necessity of the church in an increasingly secular and sinful world, and an indictment of the Catholic Church's utter failure in the face of its own mission.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Jumpin' Jupiter

Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum in Jupiter Ascending

While I was watching the Wachowskis' new film, Jupiter Ascending (2015), I realized that Andy and Lana Wachowski are acutely aware of their own career arc. Given that they've helmed a series of big budget fiascoes (commercially, anyway), this might be the last time they get to play with a megabudget production. As a result, they've crammed all of the ideas they have for big budget spectacles into this one delirious package. As you can imagine, this results in a dense film with overlapping moods and elements that are at odds with each other. It's a mess, sure. That much was suggested by its delayed release, moving from prime summer real estate into the wasteland of February, where orphaned productions go to die. I would be lying if I said that didn't like it though, because as fun times at the movies go, this was more fun than I was expecting. A lot more fun.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Imitation of Life

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game (2014, directed by Morten Tyldum) aims to right an historical wrong. It postulates that the mathematician, Alan Turing, was responsible for winning World War II, or at the very least, was responsible for shortening the war by several years and saving 14 million lives and preserving the remaining cities of a shattered Europe in the process. Further, it is outraged at the thanks Turing got for his trouble. This is all couched in a biopic that is formally adventurous only when it serves its thesis, though that may well be often enough. In any event, it has good actors, which is always a plus when faced with those terrible words, "Based on a true story..."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Gray Men, Gray World

Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man

When I was sixteen, my parents gave me an omnibus edition of John le Carré's Karla novels (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People). I still have it and I have a handful of le Carré's other novels, but I never fell in love with le Carré. His stories are cold and distant, filled with gray men doing gray things in gray offices under gray, overcast skies. Or, at least, I imagine the skies as overcast. Le Carré's books are anti-thrillers. They are often Kafka-esque traps for their characters. Most of the films based on le Carré are similarly dreary, though stocked with magnificent actors playing drab. When the Cold War ended, it was replaced by the equally dangerous War on Terror. The actors on the world stage have changed. The game generally has not, which is how le Carré has remained so relevant. So it is in A Most Wanted Man (2014, directed by Anton Corbijn), in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the head of a small anti-terror unit in German intelligence. He's a defeated man, which makes the fact that this is the last role Hoffman played before his untimely death bittersweet.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Rhythm Method

Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons in Whiplash

Back when I was just out of college, I had a conversation with some friends over a game of spades about what you would have to score on the rhythm ACT to play with various bands. We suggested that you needed about a 12 to play most rock and roll. You needed about a 33 to play with P-Funk. You needed about a 4 to play with the Sex Pistols. You needed to ace the thing to play with James Brown. That conversation, now twenty-something years in the past, flashed through my mind with crystal clarity while watching Whiplash (2014, directed by Damien Chazelle), a film that's all about precise rhythms. It's also a film about the sociopathy that often goes with creativity, particularly as it intersects with the kind of perfectionism geniuses often pursue. It's one of the most electrifying films I've seen in a goodly long while, a coming of age film played as a psycho-thriller. It's a head-cutting film in the musical meaning of that phrase.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Rethinking the American Canon

Maya Deren in "Meshes of the Afternoon"

Sometime last year, I finally started tagging posts in which I write about films by women. There is well-documented bias in the film industry marginalizing women filmmakers and my thinking is that part of the way to counteract this is to actively seek out and write about films by women. My friend, Willow, over at the excellent Curtsies and Hand Grenades is doing exactly this right now and while I'm not going to go to the same lengths, I AM going to be consciously watching more films by women this year and beyond. (Dudes: don't worry. Your dominance of the film industry means that I'll write about plenty of the dude films you like, too. Hell, I probably can't avoid them).

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Revenge of the Nerds

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 (2014, directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams) is suggestive of why Disney bought Marvel a few years ago. They see potential blockbusters in odd corners of the Marvel catalog. This one is completely unlikely. The original is borderline obscure. Indeed, the source material isn't very good, coming as it does at the tail end of Marvel's 90s-era dark age in which everything was a steroid inflated version of extreeeeem grimdark. I doubt that there was ever anyone clamoring for a movie version of Big Hero 6. The movie bears only a cursory resemblance to the comics, which is all to the good. This is a case where the movie version is so much better than the original that by all rights it should completely eclipse it.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Hindsight is 20/20

Kelly Rilley and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary and Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant

It's customary for people who write about film to do retrospectives this time of the year. I'll make up a top whatever list eventually, but I'm still waiting on a few films to make their way to me. Meanwhile, the list I'm keeping of potential candidates for that list continues to grow. A lot of people were disappointed in 2014 (particularly movie studios, who are seeing their revenues crater in the United States in the wake of some expensive flops). I'm not one of them. To my mind, 2014 was an exceptional year. These are the films I enjoyed this year:

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

December Potpourri

Hilary Swank in The Homesman

I'm behind on my reviews again. Here's a round-up of what I've seen recently:

Friday, December 26, 2014

There and Back Again

Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

There's a scene near the very end of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014, directed by Peter Jackson) that highlights the sheer folly of splitting J.R.R. Tolkien's novel into three gargantuan movies. The major events are over and Bilbo Baggins has returned to The Shire only to find that his greedy relations have taken possession of his house at Bag End. He catches them in the midst of auctioning off his household belongings. After chasing them off, he surveys the damage and finds his handkerchief. This is a call-back to the first movie, when, at the outset of his journey with the dwarfs, Bilbo tries to halt things so he can go back for his missing handkerchief. The only reason I caught this is because a friend of mine invited me to one of the marathon showings of all three movies. Otherwise, I would have missed the symmetry of this scene because An Unexpected Journey would have been two years in the past. As it was, the object of the callback was still nine hours in the past, nearly forgotten. Tolkien's quaint adventure story has become such a massive white elephant (white Mumak? Maybe) in these movies that niceties like handkerchiefs often get overwhelmed.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Superhero Blues

Michael Keaton in Birdman

Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu), like many of the director's films, sometimes lets the technique of its making overshadow its subject matter. Iñárritu has been a Mannerist from his first film onward, so this is no surprise. What is surprising is the technique Iñárritu has chosen. His other films have shattered narratives; they are Cubist mosaics in which multiple story chronologies define fragments of the whole. Birdman, by contrast, is downright classical in its adherence to the unities of dramatic time and space. There's a practical reason for this. Most of the film is constructed to look like one long uninterrupted take. And that's only the start of its cleverness.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

If That Mockingjay Won't Sing...

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1

The third film in the Hunger Games series suffers dramatically from being only half a movie. I mean that literally. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014, directed by Francis Lawrence) is all rising action without payoff, a function of the producers' decision to split the adaptation of the series' last book into two movies. This tactic may have enriched the makers of the Harry Potter movies and it will assuredly enrich the makers of these films, but it hobbles the penultimate film in the series. After a terrific second film, it's a hard comedown.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Beyond the Event Horizon

Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar

I was having a conversation with some movie friends of mine last week when I opined that I don't think Christopher Nolan knows what a movie director actually does. That's a pretty provocative statement about a filmmaker who is arguably the most commercially successful director of the last decade and one who has a considerable and fanatically devoted cult from whom I am sure to catch some grief. But hear me out.


The things that Nolan does well are things that producers have traditionally done well: wrangling talent, managing technical departments, casting, overseeing editors and composers, and so on. But when it comes to actually blocking actors and sets and camera movements in the film frame and telling them where to move and how to deliver their lines? When it comes to the basic act of directing a film in front of rolling cameras? Man, that cat is barely functional. He's fortunate that his metier is in big action spectaculars where a lot of these deficiencies can be papered over by the need to construct storyboards and animatics for the action sequences and special effects. Left to his own devices, his idea of drama is placing an actor in a medium two-shot without a companion and dumping exposition as a fucking soliloquy. When left to construct action sequences, his default is the run and gun style that doesn't require a sense of filmic space. He's not good at this stuff.


More, Nolan views films as puzzles. This goes all the way back to Memento, but it reached its zenith with The Prestige, which is a puzzle that cheats, and with Inception. These are puzzles to be solved for their own sakes, and, y'know, that's fair. It's a defensible aesthetic. I like puzzles. It's perhaps inevitable that Nolan would make ambitious hard sci fi, because that stuff is all about puzzles. Science is the pursuit of puzzles and their solutions. There's an atavistic pleasure that all humans feel when they figure something out. The harder the problem, the sweeter its solution feels. Providing that thrill is an experience that movies rarely provide, except in tricky mystery thrillers.


When I say that Nolan is a better producer than director, that's a challenge to the prevailing notion that directors are the authors of films. It's true that film is a director's medium, but that doesn't mean directors are always auteurs. David O. Selznick comes to mind. So does Val Lewton. So this shouldn't be taken as a slight, necessarily. But his neglect of the art of directing for the other crafts of filmmaking does make for deeply flawed films.


I'm not entirely sure what to do with Nolan's newest film, Interstellar (2014). It showcases all of Nolan's failings as a filmmaker while emphasizing all of his strengths. It's ambitious, I'll give it that much. There's a lot to like, actually. It has good actors and phenomenal production design and more rigor when it comes to actual science than is usual for science fiction movies (faint praise, given the magical nature of movie physics). When it wants to make grand statements, though? That's when it tumbles down into that black hole at the center of the narrative. Its metaphysics often struck me as silly.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Race Relations

Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams in Dear White People

Dear White People (2014, directed by Justin Simien) is a portrait of entitlement and privilege as satire and farce. That it's set at an Ivy League school where privilege and entitlement are incubated is right and proper, because this isn't a film where the obvious oppression of economic iniquity fits in. That's a fish in a barrel, one that would lend itself more to a polemic than to a wry satire. Instead, this aims at less obvious, though no less pernicious targets, including a deconstruction of the sometimes rigid expectations of black identity.