Monday, July 04, 2016

On Gary Ross' Free State of Jones

There’s very much that’s right about Free State of Jones, including being a movie that’s right on time right now. Its fervent belief that history is never black and white, but allows for all sorts of gradients in between depending on the angle you take to approach it, is tailor made to break out from the partisan cages of modern days. Gary Ross, whose script for Dave and whose previous directorial outings Pleasantville and Seabiscuit all explored the somehow unbreakable spirit of America in fighting against the odds and letting good old-fashioned grit and honesty take the lead, comes at the true tale of Newton Knight’s ragtag Civil War commune that defied the Confederacy with an almost Capra-esque hope: deep down, there’s a lot of good in America, if only Americans can rise towards their better angels. Knight, a Southern farmer who realized quickly that poor white Southerners were being used as Civil War cannon fodder to maintain the status quo, is a classic working class hero in the David-versus-Goliath tradition, standing up against the elite aristocracy of slave and land owners with a “don’t tread on me” attitude.

But this is one moment in history where no better angels were enough to save the freed slaves of Jones County, Miss., and this is one film where Mr Ross’s old-fashioned classicism lets him down badly. Though he has a cracking tale to tell (vouchsafed by a good many respected historians), and a suitably rugged hero to pull it through in Matthew McConaughey (simmering with Southern charm and stubborn determination as Newton Knight), Mr Ross gets lost in the swampy quagmire of predictable dramatic beats, compressed into an overlong highlight reel that seems to have lost most of its connecting tissue in the editing.

There’s an ill-advised parallel subplot set in the 1960s, with Knight’s grandson in court fighting a challenge to his marriage for supposedly being “of 1/8 negro blood” — since much of Free State of Jones is about the disenfranchisement of a working class by an elite, much more than about racism alone (even though it is an important part of the tale), this comes across at best as superfluous padding. Disjointedly jumping through the story’s chronology without supplying much in the way of context, its characters mostly reduced to walking archetypes whose sincerity is always one step short of inspirational bromides, Free State of Jones is a would-be wholesome tale of revisionist history where only its (white) hero seems to have a minimum of three-dimensional consistency. Everything else seems reduced to historically accurate but dramatically inert dioramas, carefully but bloodlessly reenacted, making this nicely mounted production the well-behaved cousin to the brash, feral, visceral approaches to the theme of Civil War/Reconstruction South of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave or even Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained; network drama or Masterpiece Theatre rather than edgy cable drama.

Mr. Ross, last seen steering the initial moments of the Hunger Games franchise, is usually not this ponderous, but here seems to settle for a purely functional history lesson whose value is never in doubt, but that is presented in the dullest, most conservative way possible, with all of the idealism but none of the energy of its lead character. It’s aware of the importance it may have for the current partisan debate about Southern history and identity, but it also subsumes any artistic merits it may have to its importance and message, close enough to being well-meaning Oscar bait (only it doesn’t come from any of the studios’ specialty units but from STX, a young upstart studio looking to fill the adult “mid-budget tier” the majors seem no longer interested in). It’s one of those films that may be “good for you”, but that as cinema isn’t simply good enough.


CAST Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell; DIR/SCR Gary Ross, from a story by Leonard Hartman and Mr. Ross; DP Benoît Delhomme; MUS Nicholas Britell ; PROD DES Philip Messina; COST DES Louise Frogley; ED Juliette Welling and Pamela Martin; PROD Scott Stuber, Jon Kilik and Mr. Ross; STX Entertainment (US), Huayi Brothers Pictures (CN), Bluegrass Films (US), Rahway Road Productions (US) and Larger Than Life Productions (US) in association with IM Global (US), Route One Entertainment (US), Union Investment Partners (KR) and Vendian Entertainment (US), 2016, 139 minutes

Sunday, June 26, 2016

On Now You See Me 2, The Conjuring 2, Independence Day: Resurgence and Finding Dory

Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s rant a little bit more about how Hollywood has this death wish to kill the thing it loves — which in this case means doing a crapshoot to try and bring back the magic of a box-office hit by coming out with a sequel that super-sizes the original while completely passing by what made it fun. I have nothing against sequels per se, but the cases in point kind of ask the question: did we really need another film if all you’re going to do is wreck what was good about the first?

Yet, there’s more to it than meets the eye. In the case of Now You See Me 2, it might come across as a rather cheesy pun, since it’s all about sleight of hand, illusion and big-ticket magic — but whereas Louis Leterrier’s 2013 original caper movie was clever enough to not take itself too seriously and was quick on its feet, Jon M. Chu’s sequel seems to have substituted big-ticket mechanics and meta-self-awareness for the original’s breeziness, effectively super-sizing the original. There are more twists and turns; more magic; more traveling; more reversals. But one thing there’s sadly less of is imagination, compounded by the big mistake of “re-writing” the original film to make it conform to the idea of a possible franchise (there is, apparently, a third film already in the works at Lionsgate).

The key problem is the absence of Mr. Leterrier, the former Luc Besson alum who injected the right amount of old-fashioned airiness into the original, thus more than making up for his attempt at resurrecting The Hulk with Edward Norton and remaking Clash of the Titans. Mr. Chu fails to come at all close to the quicksilver footwork of Now You See Me, plus directs a couple of the most incoherent action sequences this side of Michael Bay — so much for making his name with the dance-inflected Step Up films. In this case, super-sizing doesn’t work: the original Now You See Me never let you forget that it was all outlandish but good-natured fun, but just piling up more stuff in two hours does not equal the same amount of more fun. It’s trying too hard and you notice all the stretch marks.

With The Conjuring 2 the problem lies elsewhere. Certainly not in the sequel aspect — director James Wan is an expert in setting up franchises, as seen with Saw and Insidious; also, horror films are tailor-made for sequels, and The Conjuring’s inspiration in the case files of true-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren is pretty much guarantee that the series could continue indefinitely (should Warners want to). There’s still a sense that Mr. Wan is super-sizing the sequel, which runs an unwieldy 130 minutes sans credits and occasionally spells things out a bit too much.

But then, after the director’s triumphant ascension to A-list status with the seventh Fast & Furious, there’s clearly a sense that Mr. Wan is returning “home” to the genre he made his name in and using his newfound leverage to pull The Conjuring 2 out of the horror ghetto. All fine and dandy, but it would have been a lot more welcome with the original Conjuring, a much nimbler and leaner film. The need to set things up for those who didn’t see the 2013 original, in an extended prologue that pays up later in the film but could have been handled at shorter length, adds to some of Mr. Wan’s recent statements in interviews to suggest he’s actually aiming to follow in the footsteps of genre exercises by 1970s auteur directors like William Friedkin (The Exorcist) or Stanley Kubrick (The Shining). 

But the seriousness he’s chasing may be slowing the sequel down. It takes a while until the Warrens (the always welcome Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, returning from the original) actually travel to suburban London, where the Enfield two-up-two-down of a divorced mother of four (Frances O’Connor) is prone to inexplicable events that seem to particularly affect middle daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe). This is a welcome return to the old-fashioned pre-1990s conventions of a slow, mood-conjuring set-up (yes, yes, we know Poltergeist is a reference, it already was in the original.) But I can’t stop feeling Mr. Wan may actually be taking it too slow, making everything seem too ponderous or too significative, adding ballast or bombast rather than nuance.

Nuance should never be expected from German expat Roland Emmerich, who started out, like Mr. Wan, doing nifty little B-grade genre films that gleefully see-sawed between the ingenious and the trashy. The runaway success of 1996's Independence Day made him a big-leaguer, and he’s been squandering the earned good-will ever since in schlocky all-star disaster stuff like the rote The Day After Tomorrow and the utterly laughable 2012, with the occasional “serious” entry (The Patriot, Anonymous or last year’s howlingly received Stonewall) thrown in for good measure. No wonder the opportunity to revisit Independence Day must have seemed too good to pass up, especially with the unavoidable feeling that Fox is looking for another in-house franchise to complement Planet of the Apes after losing Star Wars, botching up Fantastic Four and trying to keep the X-Men from returning to Marvel.

No matter how much Fox may need it, that is unlikely to happen with the dismal Independence Day: Resurgence. Mr. Emmerich may have invented the visual-effects-mayhem Summer blockbuster with the original Independence Day, and he may admittedly have brought back single-handedly the 1970s disaster movie, but if he wants to be the next Irwin Allen he really should try harder. Most of his post-Godzilla work has been composed of spectacular setpieces anchoring threadbare “will this do?” plots, and Resurgence is no exception: the centerpiece is the arrival of a continent-sized alien spaceship come to finish the job of terrestrial annihilation left undone by the original film’s “advance party”, whose mere movement within the Earth’s atmosphere pretty much destroys civilization as we know it. It’s so sternly presented, despite its inherent overblown quality, that you ask yourself what exactly Mr. Emmerich and his four credited screenwriters (among which Basic and Zodiac’s James Vanderbilt) were thinking. Or were they?

Independence Day: Resurgence isn’t merely super-sizing an original that really didn’t need such a work; it was never going to be able to recapture the goofy B-movie fun of the original, but what’s shocking is that it’s not even trying. Despite the presence of a number of returning stars (and Jeff Goldblum is always welcome), Will Smith’s absence is all the more felt because neither Jessie Usher (playing his son) nor Liam Hemsworth have an iota of his charisma, though the script gives them nothing to work with. Above all, it seems as if all anyone cared about on this set was their paycheck at the end of the week; all it super-sizes is the cynicism and hackwork of a Hollywood where the idea of content is king but that idea merely corresponds to hollow packaging passing itself off as content.

Where does all this leave, then, Finding Dory? In a very tight spot. Pixar’s latest feature has all the requisite ingenuity, warmth, wit, heart and technical prowess you have come to expect from the US’ premier animation outfit. It’s no simple sequel to the classic Finding Nemo, nor a cynical cash-in on the earlier film’s popularity, though it’s only after new characters are brought in as it enters its second act and the forgetful Dory (Ellen de Generes) actually returns home that Finding Dory freewheels into some sort of mildly deranged slapstick caper movie, set in a California aquarium and propelled by the curmudgeonly “septopus” Hank (voiced to perfection by Ed O’Neill). From then on, returning helmer Andrew Stanton and co-director Angus MacLane assemble a lovely, classic meditation on the notion of family and the acceptance of the other; one that feels less like a sequel and more like its own man, as most of Pixar’s achievements.

And yet, despite all that’s wonderful about Finding Dory, I could never shake off the feeling that there really wasn’t any need to return to Nemo’s ocean universe; the tale of the memory-impaired blue tang who goes in search of her past and her identity could have been told in any number of universes without a pre-existing franchise attached (Pixar’s 2015 one-two punch of Inside-Out and The Good Dinosaur did just that with no loss of quality). But, to quote from a great screenwriter, it’s Hollywood, Jake. The Disney money-making machine is what it is — and at least Finding Dory is a proper well-made film, not a contrived monstrosity like Alice Through the Looking-Glass. But for how much longer can the center of American studio filmmaking shy away from taking risks as it gets more and more caught up in its obsession with financials and recouping?


CAST Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, James Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman; DIR Jon M. Chu; SCR Ed Solomon, from a story by Mr. Solomon and Peter Chiarelli; DP Peter Deming (widescreen); MUS Brian Tyler; PROD DES Sharon Seymour; COST DES Anna B. Sheppard; ED Stan Salfas; VFX SUP Matt Johnson; PROD Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Bobby Cohen; Summit Entertainment (US) and K/O Paper Products (US) in association with TIK Film (CN), 2016, 129 min


CAST Patrick Wilson, Vera Formiga, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente; DIR James Wan; SCR Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, Mr. Wan and David Leslie Johnson, from a story by Messrs. Hayes, Hayes and Wan; DP Don Burgess (widescreen); MUS Joseph Bishara; PROD DES Julie Berghoff; COST DES Kristin M. Burke; ED Kirk Morri; VFX SUP Ariel Velasco Shaw; PROD Peter Safran, Rob Cowan and Mr. Wan; New Line Cinema (US), Safran Company (US) and Atomic Monster (US) in association with Ratpac-Dune Entertainment (US), 2016, 133 min


CAST Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher, Travis Tope, William Fichtner, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Judd Hirsch, Brent Seiner, Sela Ward; DIR Roland Emmerich; SCR Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods, Dean Devlin, Mr. Emmerich and James Vanderbilt, from a story by Messrs. Devlin, Emmerich, Wright and Woods; DP Markus Förderer (widescreen); MUS Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser; PROD DES Barry Chusid; COST DES Lisy Christl; ED Adam Wolfe; VFX SUP Volker Engel; PROD Messrs. Devlin, Kloser and Emmerich; Twentieth Century-Fox (US), Centropolis Entertainment (US/DE) and Electric Entertainment (US) in association with TSG Entertainment (US), 2016, 120 min


VOICE CAST Ellen de Generes, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West; DIR Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane; SCR Mr. Stanton and Victoria Strouse with additional material by Bob Peterson, from a story by Mr. Stanton with additional material by Mr. MacLane; DP Jeremy Lasky and Ian Megibben; MUS Thomas Newman; PROD DES Steve Pilcher; ED Axel Geddes; VFX SUP Chris J. Chapman; PROD Lindsey Collins; Disney Enterprises (US) and Pixar Animation Studios (US), 2016, 97 min

Friday, June 17, 2016

On Pablo Larraín's The Club

The last 15 minutes of Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s 2010 film Post Mortem are a harrowing test of endurance for the viewer, one that confronts head on the evil that men do and its apparent justification. And while that film, like Mr Larraín’s international breakthrough Tony Manero and its lighter follow-up No, dealt primarily and directly with the history of Chile under the Pinochet regime, its suffocating, relentless claustrophobia carries on intact into the modern-day setting of The Club.

An expertly, disquietingly modulated ensemble piece set during a few days in a remote cottage by the Chilean coast, Mr Larraín’s fifth feature is a pin-prick sharp, none-more-black look at the frailties of mankind as seen through the distorted lens of religion. But the tale is universal enough to apply to Wall Street, workplace relationships, social engagement, any sort of environment where conformism is the norm. The four men sharing a simple, daily existence in the cottage, forbidden to have any contact with the outside world, turn out to be priests who have fallen foul of the hierarchy for different reasons, and a new arrival, closely followed by a mysterious stranger, quickly throws their routine into a disarray that is not just psychological.

Without spoiling the plot points (and this is one film whose compact, intense impact depends a lot on drip-feeding its unfolding revelations), suffice to say that the silent confrontations between these defrocked men of the cloth and the efficient, organized higher-up who comes in to defuse the crisis disprove any well-meaning ideas: morality, righteousness and humanity prove to be very relative concepts in their hands. Not one of these characters, inside or outside the unspoken gates of the cottage, is innocent, but neither are they fully guilty, nor better or worse than any of the others. They’re all inescapably imprisoned in their own personal nets of guilt and regret, and for all their sins not one of them is an inhuman monster or an irredeemable villain. 

Hidden away by a church hierarchy attempting a sleight-of-hand diversion to avoid facing up to its responsibilities, these men realise where their power lies, and they also understand how penance and atonement are mere abstract concepts standing in for the need of owning your deeds and your thoughts, and for the realization of their inability to escape them. 

What’s most striking about The Club is its cold, clinical resignation to a sort of affectless limbo, a deaf, white-noise desperation. Working in widescreen with a series of unusual focus and lighting choices expertly deployed by the great DP Sergio Armstrong, that see-saw between a grayish, diffuse, almost drizzly light and a somber, nocturnal palette, the director ellicits from a cast drawn from his usual repertory company intensely truthful performances. These are people whose belief in God, as misguided as it may have been, was also a requirement to survive the truth they witnessed in their daily practice, and its awkward juxtaposition with the rose-tinted platitudes the church wished to project. 

Mr. Larraín’s films have always, in a way, borne witness to the specific context and historical experience of Latin America, but The Club widens that witness onto a hot contemporary topic while refusing to simplify it into well-meaning intellectual platitudes. Instead, it multiplies its viewing angles until the viewer himself comes out feeling dirty, soiled, hopeless, yet aware that demonizing the other is entirely impossible. That means we would have to demonize ourselves. And that is why the priests of The Club are hiding in plain sight: let he who lives in a glass house cast the first stone. 


CAST Alfredo Castro, Roberto Farías, Antonia Zegers, Marcelo Alonso, Jaime Vadell, Alejandro Goic, Alejandro Sieveking, José Soza, Francisco Reyes; DIR Pablo Larraín; SCR Mr. Larraín, Guillermo Calderón and Daniel Villalobos; DP Sergio Armstrong; MUS Carlos Cabezas; PROD/COST DES Estefania Larraín; ED Sebastián Sepúlveda; PROD Juan de Díos Larraín; Fabula, CL, 2015, 97 minutes

Monday, June 13, 2016

On Gaspar Noé's Love

I have to say I admire Franco-Argentinian enfant terrible Gaspar Noé’s headstrong, take-no-prisoners filmmaking. Irréversible was one of the most visceral physical experiences in my film-going life and, while I didn’t think Enter the Void was much of an achievement, at least it strived for a transcendence that not many directors go for these days. But, really, Love is so much of an ill-judged misfire that even I find it hard to defend it.

Its lead character Murphy (American actor Karl Glusman), an aspiring filmmaker with all the right influences and posters on his bedroom (Pasolini, Lang, Scorsese, Warhol…), seems to channel Mr Noé’s own ideas about film and life — you can’t shake the autobiography from it even if you could, and it’s undoubtedly a sincere, heartfelt project. But whereas the previous films had at least a semblance of structure and plot merged with the director’s desire to create immersive experiences, there’s no such luck in Love, designed from a start as a fragmentary window into the brief but intense love affair between Murphy and art student Electra (Swiss-born actress Aomi Muyock).

Told out of sequence and directed in static, highly theatricalised scenes, Love is essentially a primal scream from two extremely confused and utterly objectionable characters. Murphy and Electra have so little idea of what they want that they end up destroying their affair through sheer selfishness, adolescent petulance, wilful ignorance and total disregard for the other.. Its “can’t live without her/can’t live with her” tale reminded me of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue, but Ms Muyock is no Béatrice Dalle and Mr Glusman certainly no Jean-Hugues Anglade. Their performances are awkward to the point of non-existence, unhelped by the squirm-inducing dialogue full of self-help bromides and by the tiresome clichés of mad-love dramas.

This might not be as much of a problem if there was something in the handling that transcended such dramatic obviousness; but there isn’t. Though shot in beautifully stylized 3D by Mr Noé’s usual accomplice, the great Belgian DP Benoit Debie, who constructs extraordinary visual dioramas, Love was designed from the start to show all aspects of a romantic affair, including graphic, NSFW sex scenes shot not as pornography but as naturally as an argument or a night out. But that idea of integrating sex in a dramatic narrative — such as some observers thought would happen in mainstream cinema after the porno-chic triumph of Deep Throat in the mid-1970s — flounders in the absence of said narrative and in the awkwardness of these very self-conscious performers, making Love a misguided experiment, as infuriatingly vacuous as it is mind-numbingly long (there is really nothing in it that justifies a running time over two hours, though Mr Noé has never been known for his brevity).

What makes Love even more infuriating is that you see, every step of the way, what the director wants to do, as much as you see him fail miserably at it; it comes across as an unfiltered message from the unconscious id, an explosive ejaculation of a talented filmmaker’s uncontrolled desires that bursts out aimlessly. It comes the closest I’ve ever seen to Vincent Gallo’s entropic, masturbatory Brown Bunny — yes, that bad — and even if Mr Noé should be praised for pushing boundaries and challenging the viewers, you wish he would harness his obvious talent to give his visual trips a more emotional, lasting weight.

FR, BR, BE, 2015, 135 minutes; CAST Aomi Muyock, Karl Glusman, Klara Kristin; DIR/SCR Gaspar Noé; DP Benoit Debie (widescreen, 3D); PROD DES Samantha Benne; COST DES Omaima Salem; ED Mr. Noé and Denis Bedlow; PROD Mr. Noé, Édouard Weil, Vincent Maraval, Brahim Chioua and Rodrigo Teixeira; Les Cinémas de la Zone, Rectangle Productions, Wild Bunch and RT Features in association with Scope Pictures

Thursday, June 09, 2016

On Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert

It’s fascinating to see just how universally reviled Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert has become — some have called it the director’s worst film ever, others point out a rose-tinted exotic romance is entirely out of character for the often envelope-pushing director. As far as I’m concerned, coming to the film nearly a year and a half after its Berlinale premiere and after reading all the howling reviews, Queen of the Desert does come up as a very minor Herzog, but one in keeping with the director’s themes and interests.

Based on the real-life story of early 20th century British adventuress Gertrude Lowthian Bell, a woman who measured herself with the stiff-upper-lip chauvinism of the British Empire and became central to its Eastern politics before dying in 1926, Queen of the Desert is all about the quest for ecstatic truth that is at the heart of the director’s work. The curious, restless, corset-busting Gertrude seeks her own ecstatic truth in the sands of the desert, in the man-vs.-Nature extremes Mr Herzog himself is known for chasing. But here, that search takes the shape of a sweeping colonial romance centred around the men in Gertrude’s life — minor diplomat Henry Cadogan (a horribly miscast James Franco), Lawrence of Arabia himself (a raffish Robert Pattinson), officer Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) — and that puts the film somewhere between Lawrence of Arabia and The English Patient.

That derivativeness is the key surprise and the key problem: Gertrude is certainly no traditional British Edwardian stay-at-home socialite, and Nicole Kidman plays her as a free-spirited, strong woman, a leader of men if you will, whose gutsiness and take-charge attitude are a liability in society but become an advantage in the desert. This Gertrude is a modern woman whose mere presence is a lightning rod, and the casting of Ms Kidman is perfectly judged, as is her performance of elegant, icy steeliness. But despite the poise, the confidence emanating both from Ms Kidman and Mr Herzog’s view of her, there’s no reason to wrap it up in a sand-colored box of chocolates underlined by Klaus Badelt’s horrendously treacly, sub-Maurice Jarre score — and in that bland smooth derivativeness, coming from a director better known for his angular, more jarring propositions, are contained the shortcomings of this handsome presentation.

Maybe Mr Herzog wanted the prettiness of the Morocco and Jordan locations to make Ms Kidman’s strength stand out even more, but he seems to have become so caught up in the romance of the colonial exploration that he succumbs to the ecstasy of the desert landscapes and of the spectacular vistas a bit too quick and a bit too easily. In so doing, he seems to overlook his own script’s problems — its fall into the episodic, a disconnected succession of setpieces suggesting a longer piece brutally hacked down or forced to fit a standard. All of this is somewhat inexplicable if you realise Mr Herzog brought in his usual team of DP Peter Zeitlinger and editor Joe Bini — and you’d never expect them to do “standard”.

It would, nevertheless, be unfair to not point out that, as minor as Queen of the Desert may be, there are still pleasures to be found in it — his way to keep the camera constantly moving, on its feet, almost as if it were being windswept like the sands of the desert, or as if it mirrored Gertrude’s own restlessness, always in motion. And I can’t help but think that this film that seems so out of character may very well be Mr Herzog experimenting deliberately, to see if he could pull off a “commercial” project. At any rate, it’s fun to think so — and the director is certainly contrary enough to attempt it.

US, 2014, 128 min; CAST Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, Jay Abdo, Robert Pattinson; DIR/SCR Werner Herzog; DP Peter Zeitlinger; MUS Klaus Badelt; PROD DES Ulrich Bergfelder; COST DES Michele Clapton; ED Joe Bini; PROD Nick Raslan, Michael Benaroya, Cassian Elwes; Benaroya Pictures and Elevated Films in association with 120dB Films, Sierra Affinity and Palmyra Films

Thursday, June 02, 2016

On Shane Black's The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys may not be the best buddy movie you’ve ever seen, and certainly not even the best Shane Black movie he’s ever done. But that’s like saying that vanilla ice cream isn’t good just because it’s not chocolate. In these days where all Hollywood thinks about is minting money from carefully assembled franchise factories with as little surprise and as much in-built recognition factor as possible, we should embrace every little spiky non-Cinematic-Universe movie that hugs you like a long lost relative you only see at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs; that eccentric but cool cousin you’re never really sure you want to see but whose company you still end up thoroughly enjoying every now and then.

Really, is there still anyone out there who does not wish his every entertainment to be full of spandex, CGI and super-powers? But, for that matter, is there still anyone out there who actually yearns for a proper self-deprecating comedy-slash-procedural, other than battle-scarred movie critics stuck between the devil of big-budget-super-hero-spectaculars and the deep blue sea of hardcore-paint-drying-auteurism? The dismal US box-office results for The Nice Guys seem to answer that question with a big in-your-face NO.

But I, for one, am pretty happy that Mr. Black went ahead and roped in Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling to star in his all-over-the-place crime comedy, only to let Australian 15-year-old pipsqueak Angourie Rice steal the film blind from under their feet. Ms Rice plays Holly, the preternaturally grown-up daughter of widowed alcoholic PI Holland March (Mr Gosling), who milks his wealthy, aged and generally much befuddled L. A. clients in order to make rent. And it’s Holly that keeps it together and on point when Dad and goon-for hire Jack Healy (Mr Crowe) join forces to find out why is the college activist Amelia (Margaret Qualley) being chased by very unsavory characters.

Amelia is the macguffin that leads the hapless duo into the film’s hardboiled/neo-noir mechanics, Holly is the engine that keeps it running while Messrs Crowe and Gosling have at it like brothers from another mother who’ve only just met. Anthony Bagarozzi and Mr Black’s script is a preposterously convoluted combination of hardboiled homage and cop show send-up, starting off in the Philip Marlowe mode of world-weary cynicism that veers slowly into mystified laidback bemusement. This is probably why a lot of people are evoking Paul Thomas Anderson’s deconstruction of the detective novel in the marvelous Inherent Vice as what Mr Black is aiming at here.

While I allow that they’re somewhat kindred spirits, especially in the seventies background and general coolness, The Nice Guys isn’t really aiming at 1970s “new Hollywood” irony. Despite its setting, what it really is going for is the 1980s buddy movie where Mr Black cut his teeth scripting Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, but coming at it more from the angle of Walter Hill’s epochal 48 Hrs. or Peter Hyams’ seriously underrated Running Scared: easy going entertainment that didn't necessarily take you for granted.

Now, let’s be very honest: none of this makes The Nice Guys a great film. It isn’t a great film by any stretch, and it’s not even as good as Mr Black’s directing debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Overlong by at least 20 minutes, over-busy, over-plotted and halting in its stop-start rhythms that seem to pause for yet another Gosling/Crowe (admittedly generally very funny) comedic set piece, the film can be too throwaway for its own good — as if the director wasn’t taking it seriously enough, though the plot’s Chinatown-ish connection between political lobbying and pornography suggests the its exact opposite. Also, the seventies setting can occasionally become too much of a crutch — like if wah-wah funk guitars, bell-bottoms and gas shortages were shorthand for what Mr Black is trying to evoke.

But the truth also is that the tale being told doesn’t really belong in the always-on 21st century; it’s pre-cellphone, pre-internet, pre-soccer-mom-minivan, pure mythical L. A. sunshine noir forced into a tanning salon on waking up from a nasty, stomach-churning hangover. The problem with that isn’t as much Mr Black’s or even the film’s as is the landscape it’s coming out on: The Nice Guys assumes a smart audience that can relate to the film’s references and identify them correctly, but does anyone even remember what a noir is after the genre has all but been waylaid by the studios and forgotten by the casual moviegoer? When police procedurals, detective dramas and crime stories have been left to small screen franchises like NCIS or Law and Order or to the cheap, pre-sold direct-to-VOD-bypassing-theatrical packages that make the most of Nicolas Cage, Morgan Freeman or Bruce Willis’ current paychecks?

It’s easy to lose an audience and very hard to build it back up after you let it go. And something like The Nice Guys, with its quasi-celebratory nostalgia for a pre-digital model of genre film (beautifully photographed by the great Philippe Rousselot), seems a quaint, almost quixotic attempt to get it back. Its sly slapstick humour and narrative playfulness within the genre constraints are probably best suited these days to the quieter, more casual pleasures of home viewing than to the bottom-line pressure of weekend box-office — and I have no doubt that this could become quite big once it hits the so-called “ancillary” markets (television, VOD, streaming, download).

But it’s in the big screen that The Nice Guys, for all its shortcomings, really belongs — its unabashed celebration of celluloid as an eye-opener and world-changer, in what is the film’s single most inspired plot point, makes it something to savour in the big screen, where it rightly belongs. 

US, GB, 2016, 116 min; CAST Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya da Costa, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Kim Basinger; DIR Shane Black; SCR Mr Black and Anthony Bagarozzi; DP Philippe Rousselot (widescreen); MUS John Ottman and David Buckley; PROD DES Richard Bridgland; COST Kym Barrett; ED Joel Negron; PROD Joel Silver; Silver Pictures, Waypoint Entertainment and Bloom Media in association with Lipsync

Monday, May 23, 2016

On X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass and The Correspondence

Here’s the gist of this: anyone who complains that Shane Black’s highly enjoyable The Nice Guys isn’t “good enough” (it isn’t, but that’s so much beside the point it hurts) literally deserves an endless diet of cookie-cutter Marvel Cinematic Universe and Disney fairytale makeovers (they’re the same thing by now, I suppose, since they’re all from the same supposedly money-spinning machine). This is all the more obvious seeing as the newest instalments of these assembly lines, Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse and James Bobin’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, are such crashing bores. 

To be fair, X-Men is the one Marvel franchise outside the reach of the company (having been licensed to Fox at a point where there was as yet no overarching masterplan in place) that has managed to maintain a semblance of personality and consistency among the monolithic identikit tributaries. But Apocalypse, by now the fourth series entry directed by Mr Singer, follows the same highly predictable arc of every other super-hero film so far: X-Men come together to fight dangerous threat to people of Earth (here the ur-mutant, all-powerful En Sabah Nur) in massive city-destroying battles (here it’s Cairo that bites the dust), while looking suitably dour and serious while doing it and battling their own personal issues.

This was, of course, one of the key things that made super-hero movies so interesting 20 years ago — realising these heroes were as broken and doubtful as we were — but by now it’s become simultaneously massively overused and massively underused. In Apocalypse, which is set in 1983 in the continuum that started with Matthew Vaughn’s insouciantly enjoyable prequel X-Men: First Class, you have a supremely talented cast that includes Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and Oscar Isaac but with practically nothing to do other than show up and emote soulfully in between CGI-laden strife and destruction.

I used to think — based on The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil and Valkyrie — that Bryan Singer was, frankly, a more talented, ambitious director than he’s turned out to be. But even Simon Kinberg, the go-to writer and producer involved with the series for a while now, has been involved with more interesting stuff (like Ridley Scott’s The Martian or the Neill Blomkamp films) than Mr Singer, whose only recent non-X film was the non-starting Jack the Dragon Slayer and seems to have gotten stuck in the X groove. Cue Wesley Morris’ beauteous New York Times thinkpiece on the inherent evilness of superhero movies as a modern equivalent of a soul-sucking assembly line of purely utilitarian movies whose single-minded intent is make money for its producing studio. Apocalypse is certainly presented with as much professionalism as Hollywood can muster, but, really, just how much more can one filmgoer’s diet depend on superhero movies, especially when even the prestige stuff isn’t making much of an effort?

Case in point: the handsomely mounted but utterly pointless Alice Through the Looking Glass, a sequel to Tim Burton’s equally forgettable take on Alice in Wonderland that helped start off Disney’s newest franchise, real-action takes on the studio’s animated library. The only notable entry in the series so far has been Jon Favreau’s lively Jungle Book; Mr Burton’s version of Lewis Carroll’s classic read too much like a watered-down candy-coloured version of his traditional Gothic sensibility, but he never actually meant to direct the sequel that is now inevitably following, handed to Brit James Bobin, a former TV comedy director given his big break on the two recent Muppets films.

Mr Bobin’s second-tier status scans perfectly with the usual “hired hand” requirement for these big-budget productions, but the problem is not so much with his perfectly functional handling as it is with the idea that Alice in Wonderland required a sequel that has practically nothing of Carroll’s work in it. This Alice is an original script by Disney “staff” writer Linda Woolverton that seems custom-built to fit the studio’s line of strong female “princesses” — the grown-up Alice is here a dashing sailorwoman that blithely ignores Victorian London’s glass ceiling — but has little to nothing to do with Carroll’s books other than the title and a couple of borrowed characters, sending Alice traveling through time to save the Mad Hatter’s family and in the process effectively showing an “origin story” that explains Wonderland.

Now as we all know Wonderland is not to be explained, and that someone at Disney decided it should be (and in a film whose heroine, played by the very wonderful Mia Wasikowska, is still third-billed behind the effectively supporting performances of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen) is enough to explain what is so utterly wrong about Alice Through the Looking Glass: that it simply exists when there was no need for it, and that the film itself, despite the lavish care put on it and the obvious talents of the many involved, is unable to come up with a creative justification for its sheer existence.

One last example, if I may, comes from Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, he whose Cinema Paradiso became a worldwide sensation on the back of its Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. While Mr Tornatore has certainly aimed for further international success, he has never repeated the result. (To be honest, I liked it when I first saw it, but time has not been kind to it.)

The Correspondence, spoken in English and set in the UK, is a metaphysical weepie shot with all the glossy detachment of a fashion spread; its one good idea is to tell its love story between astrophysicist emeritus Jeremy Irons and his thesis student and off-campus lover Olga Kurylenko as a modern-day epistolary novel, substituting text and video messaging and emails for letters. The trick is that Mr Irons dies within the film’s first 20 minutes, yet his passionate messages to Ms. Kurylenko keep arriving; is he truly dead, but if so who is sending them?

To quote from Dr Sheldon Cooper, it’s grand malarkey with a side of poppycock, and many of the best weepies out there trade in exactly that kind of preposterousness. But Mr Tornatore wants to be taken so seriously that the po-faced, sweepingly dramatic handling merely underlines how gimmicky the whole thing is, even with an inspired score by Ennio Morricone (who still hasn’t lost his touch and actually comes up with the exact delicate lyricism the director never finds) and Mr Irons’ regal voice. That the film lies squarely on the shoulders of the lovely Ms Kurylenko but fails to give her anything worthwhile to work with, resulting in an awkward performance, is the clearest sign of what’s wrong with Mr Tornatore’s film: it’s an illusion with nothing to support it or take away from. Much as most of the big-budget stuff coming out of Hollywood these days.


US, 2016, 143 min; CAST James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn; DIR Bryan Singer; SCR Simon Kinberg; DP Newton Thomas Sigel (widescreen, 3D); MUS John Ottman; PROD DES Grant Major; COST DES Louise Mingenbach; ED Mr. Ottman and Michael Louis Hill; SPFX SUP John Dykstra; PROD Mr. Kinberg, Mr. Singer, Hutch Parker and Lauren Sjuler Donner; Twentieth Century-Fox, Bad Hat Harry Productions, Kinberg Genre Films, Hutch Parker Entertainment and The Donners’ Company in association with TSG Entertainment and Marvel Entertainment


US, 2016, 113 min; CAST Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Mia Wasikowska, Matt Lucas, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Barbara Windsor; DIR James Bobin; SCR Linda Woolverton; DP Stuart Dryburgh (3D); MUS Danny Elfman; PROD DES Dan Hennah; COST DES Colleen Atwood; ED Andrew Weisblum; SPFX SUP Ken Ralston and Jay Redd; PROD Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd and Tim Burton; Walt Disney Pictures, Roth Films, Team Todd and Tim Burton Productions


IT, 2015, 122 min; CAST Jeremy Irons, Olga Kurylenko; DIR/SCR Giuseppe Tornatore; DP Fabio Zamarion (widescreen); MUS Ennio Morricone; PROD DES Maurizio Sabatini; COST DES Gemma Mascagni; ED Massimo Quaglia; PROD Isabella Cocuzza and Arturo Paglia; Paco Cinematografica in co-production with RAI Cinema