Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Viewing Log: September,17, 2014

I don’t consider myself the type of person to let a movie pass or fail on the merits of its final moments. I’m tempted to grant Lars Von Trier’s "Nymphomaniac: Volume II" the honor of being the exception to that imaginary rule. The finale here proposes to shock us with its sudden reveal about a seemingly ethical character’s dishonorable night moves, but anyone who has ever seen a film by the scalawag knows that he’s in love with the idea of challenging our preconceived notions of kindness, especially if the said surprise causes the viewer soreness or indignation. The character in question is not as much a character as a harbinger of principles (atheism, Fibonaccian connectedness, open mindedness, asexuality), and the finale only serves as a lazy and hypercritical toppling of these ideals. It’s odd because the entire premise is built upon the notion of a nonjudgmental societal decontamination, while the ending discharges the ultimate judgment. But because both of the leads appear to embody the director’s paradoxical personality, it’s at least sorta interesting to listen to him argue with himself. Still, for all of the sporadically interesting banter the film is depressingly chained to a biopic formula that’s frankly boring. For a guy who thinks cinema should be a rock in the shoe (whatever that means) he seems content to grant us narrative ease to help swallow his trademark brand of betrothed cynicism and humanism. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that anyone previously introduced to his work won’t be surprised by its pokes at provocation. This doesn’t only include the labyrinth of non-simulated trysts, but also some of the more interesting ideas hiding amongst the not so interesting taunts. The ideas, as spoken by Gainsbourg’s narrator and Skaarsgard’s listener, hold some genuine shock and insight that all fade by the finale. I know that it’s supposed to ultimately shame the prudes and hypocrites who might be tempted to judge her for her condition and actions (He’d scold me for using the term condition) but his suspicion towards our collective capacity for decency has already been the focus of a Lars von Trier film or three. I get it dude, my notions of purity are fundamentally impure. I can only be truly pure by surrendering to my nature. But you know what would be truly shocking? It would be truly shocking if this sermon ended with someone doing something decent, like letting another person get a good night’s sleep.
 “Oculus” is a movie about a mirror that kills people without much of an emphasis on reflection. Though part of the mirror’s wicked gift is to hold you in a trance, never more demoralizing than in the final moments, it’s more of an evil presence that kills everything around it by making you do one thing that actually ends up being another far more terrible thing. Part of the plan is to mess with a person’s perception of the objects and people around him/her. For instance; a guy tries to take off his band aid but it just keeps appearing back on the end of his finger, so he takes out a staple remover and goes to town on his “band aid” which ends up being his finger nail. Another show stopper involves an apple and a light bulb. Though the movie isn’t above icky thrills, it’s more interested in past traumas occupying the same dimensional space as present day reality, a nice reminder that the power of our past nasty experiences may still be obscuring our view of the world. Mirrors reflect, but they also distort perception as perception is ultimately based and influenced by life itself. Soooo, the wicked surface-within-a -surface toys with the fragile minds of the brother and sister protagonist, warping their ability to stay rooted in reality. Often they find themselves just standing still and staring off at wall or a plant, as many of its victims simply died of dehydration caught in a fatal daze. The mirror also plays off of the defenseless feeling of childhood, and the way those feelings are so easily triggered in adulthood. It should also be noted that this movie, like so many others, owes a lot to “The Shining” and its depiction of invasive paternal madness. For many of us, watching our parents fall out of love with us and then try to kill us is the worst and most terrifying scenario out there. Though “Oculus” is ultimately torn between grossing us out and getting under our skin, it’s commendably patient and steadfast in its unique (at least for a mainstream horror film) editing structure. By the final twenty minutes we are watching the origin story draw to a close right around the same time the current tale does. Maybe I was invested enough in the protagonists to root for them, because I was displeased with the pitiless cherry on top. But I’m sure that my opinion will bend with my mood.
 I get it, our local theaters are uncomfortable. The Art Mission is tight and the seats are too close together, and one wonders if the projection is just a utorrent download transferred to a DVR. Plus, they are well aware that their primary market is older folks who would likely patronize “The Help” or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” before something like “Under the Skin” or “Only Lovers Left Alive.” It’s not their fault; it’s us Binghamton youngsters who would rather bump chests on State Street than see a good “art” film. The Cinema Saver is probably the best bang-for-buck option with digital projection for like two to three dollars, but the establishment is kind of grimy and the floors have never gotten rid of that stick. Plus, you typically go to see all of the movies you didn’t deem worthy enough to see at either Regals or AMC, which ends up being a pleasant surprise from time to time but more often results in a meh experience altogether. Plus, it’s absolutely freezing in the winter. Regals has a five dollar deal on Tuesday, but their seats don’t recline and the digital projection isn’t quite as crisp as the theater I’ll soon complain about. I guess my major gripe with AMC is this….. I paid $24 to see “The Drop” on Saturday. This wasn’t a 3D showing and I saw it locally in a theater that used to charge $6 for a ticket. So why did they suddenly double their prices? My friend Jesse said that it was because they charged more on the weekend. Since when, and how does that justify jacking up the price of admission on a non-3D movie? Oh well, I guess my point here beyond wailing and mourning the loss of $24 was to say that it might have inadvertently put some initial pressure on this modest Lehane adaptation to move faster and with more aspiration. Like most the author’s work, it deals with lonely and hurt men whose desolation is the direct result of morally dubious decisions made earlier in life. MichaĆ«l R. Roskam gets to the root of this, or rather allows his leads to air out their regret and dissatisfaction without hinting towards the writer’s signature “reveal.” It’s not as shocking this time around as it has been in the past, especially since it’s not meant to call much that happened before into question, and that’s a nice change of pace. “The Drop” is based on Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue,” and you get the sense that it’s been stuffed and stretched to feel fuller and more realized than it actually is. I think that the lack of cachet is part of the charm here, as well as the performances. This was, of course, James Gandolfini’s final role, and a nice one to leave us with, though it mostly elaborated on a familiar persona, albeit a more sniveling one than the character he is most known for. Hardy is as good as I’ve come to expect (Lawless excluded) but could have played down Bob’s accent a bit. Some of his dialogue is clumsy, making him seem slow and timid, which is supposed to come back to bite certain characters (Matthias Schoenaerts, in what I would consider the best performance of the movie) in the ass. It’s also nice to finally see Noomi Rapace in something good (though I liked Passion just fine), even if she’s reduced to damsel in distress. I know I’m really not saying anything personal or original here, so I’ll add that it was nice to see a film in which people decide to look out for a defenseless puppy, especially since said puppy is adorable and through its presence we get to know a thing or two about a man willing to face the impending forlorn internal consequences when he gets the drop on someone who threatens to harm people or animals in distress. Bob’s a puppy with bite. It’s not as revelatory or profound (yes, I think Shutter Island is profound) as Scorsese’s Lehane adaptation, nor is it as infuriating, silly, or tragic as Eastwood’s, but in Roskam’s hands it’s a pretty slick little crime drama. Just don’t pay $24 to see it. 
 Another final performance, this time watched on a Tuesday for half of the price. “A Most Wanted Man” deals with what we now consider “post-911” issues. I’ve never really found a fitting opportunity to use that term, part of the reason being that it seems exclusive to America alone, disregarding the fact that the complicated turmoil we’ve found ourselves in has existed in other countries for far longer than 11 years. In Aton Corbijn’s film, adapted from a novel by John le Carre, we weave in and out of different cells of people presently entwined in the cloak-and-dagger world of Hamburg, Germany. Like “The Drop,” “A Most Wanted Man” features a final performance from an acting giant taken from us far too soon. In both cases I’d argue that we’ve seen better work, but mostly because we’ve seen them delivering juicier dialogue. This is not to say that Corbijn’s or Roskam’s movies are bad, but neither has the depth of better adaptations of these respective writers (Tinker, Tailor and Shutter Island to be specific). I commented to my friend that this one felt like “le Carre lite.” I guess I meant to say, unfairly and dismissively, that this film wasn’t as concerned with the cataloguing of details as Tomas Alfredsen’s masterpiece. I was completely absorbed in that movie’s visual/narrative specificity and I felt like I learned more and was better attached to its labyrinth of characters. Here we have a similar group, albeit smaller and with more concentration on three or four primary individuals. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is an espionage agent in charge of a clandestine group in charge of gathering intelligence on supposedly dangerous men and women entering Germany. They duke it out with other agencies championing other goals and motivations, each supposed to working towards the greater safety of the world, but unified they end up getting their lines crossed and mixed up. This results in blunders that affect the citizens being investigated, and in some cases, the victims of those whom Hoffman’s Gunther Bachmann’s agency investigated for good reason. Here a Chechen Muslim refugee with a sorted/shrouded past catches their eye, the eye of his superiors, an American diplomat, and an immigration lawyer. Together their warring objectives ruin lives and probably make none of us more or less safe in this tricky world we live in. This is a deliberately timely film made all the more pertinent with each tit for tat act of brutality waged abroad and at home by stupid religious men and the slick bureaucratic opportunists who claim to hunt them. Though the film slips up from time to time, no scene sillier than the one in the bar where Bachmann punches an abusive lover/husband for getting rough with his wife, it does a good job delineating le Carre’s extraordinary flair for detail and information. And the finale is one of the more proficiently desolate finales that I’ve seen in recent years. I honestly felt devastated by it. It both calls into question the cost of our theoretical protection as well as our definition of treachery, and how much will be missing from our “cultured” society when and if this ever subsides. Who will survive and what will be left of us?
 I engaged myself in a very brief debate about “The Lego Movie” with a friend. Actually debate is the wrong word as I immediately conceded to their point. Now I’m taking my concession back. I said that this movie was scatterbrained and my friend pointed out that its steady imagination and narrative pace would require a focus that most films haven’t even bothered to muster. I get what he was saying. This is one busy movie, with enough information packed into a single frame to sustain eight or nine scenes in any of the previous movies mentioned. The emphasis that I took from it was the constant bombardment of jokes, most of which landed, much to my surprise. But the through line here gets lost in the mix, buried beneath the chaos, which is actually a good thing because the narrative thread here is pretty weak stuff. Take the finale where things turn to live action.  These scenes with Will Ferrell and his son were built to suddenly acknowledge the children who have no idea what half of the jokes mean as well as bestow significance to the commonplace hero’s world. It’s like being at a party where you are ignored by the host for the entire evening only to suddenly be pulled aside to talk about your ex out of a sense of guilt right before going back to being tossed shade. Once the frenzied velocity dawdles, the movie nearly falls apart. But like I said, I laughed pretty hard at this movie, especially pretty much everything Morgan Freeman said. I think it’s also fair and essential to praise the movie’s visual attributes. Like I said before, this is one lively movie, packing each frame with visual gags to go with the verbal ones. It’s also beautiful to stare at, and it clearly drained the time and energy of a group of freakishly talented people. So while I may have docked it a half a star, which is probably something worth revising, I still think it’s scatterbrained and that’s a big part of the reason I liked it.  
PS: I've been watching a ton of older films, specifically from 1949 and 1957. Maybe I'll write about some of them soon.