Saturday, April 27, 2013

Theater of the Absurd: Pain & Gain

Since last year’s Contraband, it seems like it’s been wall-to-wall Wahlberg in trailers for movies about tough guy special forces operatives or tough guy heist masterminds or tough guy playboys who talk to teddy bears. With his muscles, I suppose there’s something convincing about Mark Wahlberg as a tough guy, but there’s something about his round, boyish face and his single-note, golly-gee, blank-eyed acting that doesn’t seem true to the tough guy persona. I can’t stand Mark Wahlberg, and I only go to his movies out of desperation, but I have to say he is perfect as Daniel Lugo, the narcissistic, body-building fitness trainer who decides to eke out a big slice of American prosperity by kidnapping a rich client, Victor Kershaw, (Tony Shalhoub) and torturing him until he signs over all of his assets.

This outrageous, unbelievable true story of greed and stupidity in the sleazy world of glitzy Florida wealth and decadence is mostly entertaining in its outrageousness and absurdity. Wahlberg glibly delivers manically hyper monologues as he articulates his absurd schemes, and you can’t help but be entertained by the writing and Wahlberg’s dominance of the whole amazing story. Anthony Mackie is also excellent as Adrian, an obsessive body-builder, but Rebel Wilson steals his scenes in her hilarious portrayal of a penile dysfunction therapist who becomes Adrian’s wife. As the third member of the criminal trio, Paul Doyle, Dwayne Johnson becomes tedious in his role as a born-again ex-con body-builder who turns to cocaine to hide his guilt.

The film sags in the middle as too much time is spent torturing Kershaw in a sex-toy warehouse, and later as Kershaw suffers in a hospital room he shares with a patient with explosive diarrhea, and as Doyle squanders his ill-gotten gains on cocaine to hide his guilt, robs an armored car guard, and loses his big toe, while Lugo tries to build up his image as an upstanding wealthy citizen by training neighborhood kids and starting a neighborhood crime watch. The film’s hyperbolic details seem gratuitous when the bizarre trappings of the event are riveting in themselves.

But Ed Harris, as ex-detective Ed Dubois, picks up the pace and brings the story back to reality as he takes on Kershaw’s case, which is too fantastic for police to believe, and eventually collects the evidence that brings the three bad guys to justice. During the closing credits, news photos show us the real faces, settings, and actual props (the chain saw used to cut up bodies and the oil drums that contained the severed parts) from the true story, and although this is kind of cool, the film has already convinced us that the madness of blind greed can actually lead stupid humans to the absurdly disgusting extremes to which this trio of “doers” goes in an attempt to nab their part of the American capitalistic dream.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Lonesome Planet: Oblivion

I love science fiction movies. Ever since I was a boy when I would catch the “Creature Feature” on TV after school and my mother said I couldn’t watch anymore when she came down and saw some guy melting (head made of wax) from radiation, I have always been drawn to science fiction movies as some sort of tempting forbidden fruit. Of course, the first science fiction movies I saw and loved were 1950s classics like The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. During the 60s, I remember being blown away by Planet of the Apes.

But you wouldn’t call me a sci-fi geek. I don’t follow the serialized Syfy Channel shows; I don’t go to conventions; I don’t read the sci-fi book series; I have no graphic novels. I’m not a passionate enthusiast of the Star Trek world, and I consider Star Wars more fantasy than science fiction.

As for books, I love a classic one-off science fiction novel. I don’t like the books that lead to a series. I thought Ender’s Game was a bore, and that expels me right away from the geek pool. Recently I read and enjoyed 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson, a novel that sets its story on or in the environmentally transformed planets of our solar system, not on imagined planets whose worlds take science fiction more into the realm of fantasy. My favorite science fiction novel of the past ten years or more has been The Windup Girl, by Paulo Bacigalupi. I especially like these books because they are whole worlds contained, and they don’t lead to a series.

And that’s one thing I like about Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion. It’s a one-off story without the threat of a sequel, and you get the whole story in its nutshell. I am also a sucker for stories set on a post-apocalyptic Earth. The abundance of such films lately suggests we don’t see much hope in the future. But I never tire of seeing New York City, always emblematic of our entire country, in some state of post-apocalyptic disrepair. Here, the ubiquitous Empire State Building is buried up to its observation deck! Wow! That’s a lot of shifting sand! And we catch a glimpse of Liberty’s dismembered hand in a gorge. A key sequence takes place in the New York Public Library, which is now underground, an element that reminded me of the post-nuclear wasteland in Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971). Also, I dig the sci-fi re-positioning of the classic Robinson Crusoe character to a wasted Earth.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Modern Epic: The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines, directed by Derek Cianfrance, unfolds like an epic novel, Dickensian in its scope, its twists of fate, and its connections between characters from various social statuses, as it explores the bond between fathers and sons over a period of seventeen years and examines choices and consequences, honesty and dishonesty, and vengeance and acceptance. Set in Schenectady, New York, the film starts with the poignant portrayal of Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a wayward loser who does motorcycle stunts for a traveling carnival. When Luke, his arms covered with tattoos, his T-shirts full of holes, discovers that he has an infant son, he is spurred to act the father to the boy and to provide for the mother, Romina (Eva Mendes), but temptation leads him to make money by robbing banks, relying on his supreme confidence as a skillful motorcyclist for his getaways – the film’s most thrilling moments. But the pleasure I derived from viewing this film came from its many surprising layers and its shifting points of view, so I won’t ruin it for you by saying anything more about the plot.

Suffice it to say that this engrossing saga is well worth seeing. The cinematography closes in on the details of an ice cream joint and pulls long for vistas showing the piney ridges beyond the town - the place beyond the pines. I love the shot that follows Luke through the glitzy activity of the carnival. I also like the shot of Luke, framed by the colorful lights of the ferris wheel, after he parts with Romina in Schenectady; the same lights framing him when he is in a different town. Meanwhile, skillful camera angles and sharp editing inject the motorcycle sequences with tense excitement. The musical score, laced with forebodingly deep notes that call to mind the ominous scores of Bernard Herrmann, intensifies the drama, while the acting is excellent across the board.

Reminiscent of Marlon Brando when he mumbles shyly to Romina, Robert de Niro when he lashes out in anger, Steve McQueen when he jumps on his motorcycle and rides like hell, Gosling is engaging as the cool loser Luke Glanton (great name for an outlaw!) who tries to transform himself into a responsible father by ironically robbing banks. Eva Mendes, as Luke’s former lover, and Bradley Cooper, as a policeman, are both excellent. As Robin, Luke’s partner in crime, Ben Mendelsohn does another memorable take on the kind of greasy low-life he has played in Animal Kingdom and Killing Them Softly. Finally, Dane DeHaan is touching and believable as Luke’s adolescent son. Although the film’s final third slows down and wanders somewhat into predictable melodrama, The Place Beyond the Pines is the most enjoyable epic I’ve seen since . . . since . . . uh, since, well, I can’t remember the last epic I saw. Epics are a dying genre, but hopefully the solid structure and the stimulating vibrancy of this well-made saga will inspire other ventures as ambitious and satisfying as this one.

(Also - the dramatic poster is my favorite poster of the year so far.)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Man of Steel: 42

During the Great Depression, the American film industry saw the need for many a happy ending finding its way into the films of the Golden Years. Now might be another era that needs a gloriously innocent, uplifting, entertaining movie once in a while. After the ghastly carnage Monday at the Boston Marathon, a sporting event beloved by running enthusiasts the world over, there may well be a place for a movie as heart-warming and uplifting as 42, the story of how Jackie Robinson bravely faced vicious racism and became the first African-American to play in the previously all-white major leagues.

Directed by Brian Helgeland, the film is a beautifully made production, but the solid strength at its core is the sincere, soft-spoken, thoroughly invested performance of unknown actor Chadwick Boseman, as Jackie Robinson, who draws your attention throughout the film. And if Boseman’s Robinson is like the unblemished hero in a classic 1930s bio-pic, then the exquisitely charming Nicole Behaire as Robinson’s wife, Rachel, fits right in like an angelic Olivia de Havilland. Unfortunately, there’s Harrison Ford, whose hamming as Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey goes far beyond overacting into the realm of absurdity, but he redeems himself, for a moment, during his touching and understated “I love baseball” speech. Meanwhile, the art direction always makes 42 a feast for the eyes, and lovingly rendered baseball parks like Ebbets Field are golden settings for the suspenseful game re-enactments.

Inevitably, the film is filled with episodes of disgustingly cruel racism, but Robinson’s courage and pride tower over bigotry and, suitably and predictably, the film rises to a heroic climax accompanied by a blaring, triumphal musical crescendo. It’s the kind of triumphal moment we will see repeatedly this summer as superhero blockbusters flood cinemas across the country. But 42 has a jump on this year’s comic book fantasies. Without mechanical suit or display of superhuman violence, Boseman’s Jackie Robinson is a true superhero who kicks butt and defeats his enemies by playing a game to the best of his ability. In the film’s finest moment, Robinson leaves the plate after suffering ceaseless taunting from the racist manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he is caught in a tense dilemma: turn his rage upon his tormentor or walk away. This memorable moment may well be the best moment in any superhero movie this year.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Streams of Unconsciousness: Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder

Both Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder move through their stories, if you can call them stories, in a dreamlike stream of consciousness - or stream of unconsciousness.

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color involves a career woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) abducted by a thief who uses mind control induced by a parasitic worm to get Kris to sign over her assets to him while he keeps her under his power, copying pages of Walden, turning her written sheets into paper chains, and taking nourishment from water and ice. When she gets away from the thief, she is drawn by amplified sounds to a sound editor/pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig) who transfers her parasitic worm to a pig. Later, she meets a lonely divorced man named Jeff (Shane Carruth), who shares memories with Kris and has most likely undergone the same worm-mind-control scam.

In this tale, or non-tale, of paranoia, conspiracy, love, and the interconnectivity between humans and the natural world, Carruth links vignettes and dreamlike images: colorful exotic flowers in a stream, pigs, worms, a flock of birds, Kris diving for rocks in a swimming pool, passages from Walden, all of which constitutes a world in which love and unity are crucial in the face of man’s misuse of nature. Perhaps. As a love story, Upstream Color is touching, as when Jeff and Kris watch a flock of birds at twilight or when they hold onto each other protectively in a bathtub. Sometimes Carruth seems self-conscious in his performance, as he does directing himself in Primer as well, but Seimetz is intriguing in the role of the enigmatic Kris, and she, along with Carruth, establish the relationship of Kris and Jeff as a desperate effort to find solace and resolution in a threatening world of pigs and paranoia.

With much less of a story than the extremely fascinating time-travel head-twister Primer, which I consider fairly straightforward in comparison, Upstream Color provides a lot for you to scratch your head over. I was engrossed by a few scenes in particular - the one involving Walden and diving for rocks as well as the initial mind-control scenes. Still, Upstream Color doesn’t have the compelling, driving force of Primer, as befuddling as that film might be.

Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder also explores the theme of love as it follows the seesaw relationship between a man named Neil (Ben Affleck) and a French divorcee named Marina (Olga Kurylenko). In dreamlike fashion, this non-story follows man and woman visiting Paris and Mont Saint-Michel; man and woman moving with Marina’s daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), to a sterile tract home in Texas; man and woman in love; man and woman drawing bitterly apart; Marina returning to Paris; man falling in love with a former sweetheart, Jane (Rachel McAdams); man leaving Jane when Marina returns to America.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Cabin in the Woods: Evil Dead (2013)

I suppose Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981) is clever in a low-budget sort of way. It’s a good movie for amateur filmmakers to watch. They can get ideas for employing simple devices to create an effect. They can also bolster their confidence by observing that they could probably do a better job than some of the shots and editing in this film. In one sense, the film is so bad it’s good. In my opinion, it’s so bad it’s boring.

Whatever Fede Alvarez’s remake of Evil Dead is, and I am still pondering how to describe it, it is definitely not boring. One thing for sure, the acting is much better, and that moves things along much more expeditiously. Another thing for sure, it may not be the scariest movie you’ve ever seen, but it is definitely one of the goriest – and painfully so. Watching, I didn’t jump in fright so much as I winced in vicarious pain as the possessed Mia (Jane Levy) slices her tongue in two along the edge of a blade, as Olivia (Jessica Lucas of Cloverfield) slices her cheek ("Why so serious!"), as Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) cuts off her arm with an electric carving knife, as Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) pulls a hypodermic needle out from under his eye (Le Chien Andalou!), or as David (Shiloh Fernandez) gets shot with nails from a nail gun. Ouch!

Not fun, but there’s some fun in identifying and predicting the later use of the weapons and potential weapons that appear at first as innocuous props: the dusty old shotgun; the electric carving knife (as if 20-somethings would use one to carve a roast – as if modern 20-somethings would serve rare roast beef for dinner!); and the industrial-sized nail gun (to repair a small wooden cabin!?).

As for blood, there are buckets of it, so much that the film goes so far beyond disgusting that it paralyzes your ability to be disgusted. Wow! We subject ourselves to that for entertainment? Interesting. But, I have to say, I found the movie quite suspenseful. I was on the edge of my seat because I wanted one of the hapless young people to get away, one of the dumbies stupidly spending the weekend in a moldy cabin in the woods that has dead cats hanging in the cellar and a book of ancient demon-craft bound with human skin wrapped up in barbed wire clearly indicating that it should not be opened.

Yes, the film is suspenseful, as the demon from hell inexorably pursues the resurrected Mia and she fumbles to get a chainsaw started (the demons can be offed by 1) live burial, 2) burning, and 3) dismemberment), suspenseful until Mia gets her arm stuck under the Jeep (as if the soggy ground is firm enough to pin her hand against the weight of the vehicle) with the chainsaw just out of reach, and then the editing is ponderous, the suspense is ruined, and all we're left with is geysers of blood. "Feast on this!"