Thursday, March 26, 2020

Pompeii / **1/2 (2014)

Had I still been a naïve teenager obsessed with the mythos of ancient volcanic disasters, a movie like “Pompeii” would have provided one hell of a visual wet dream. Here is an ambitious production mounted in the tradition of old Hollywood epics, stretched beyond the scale of a mere screen, and hitched to that dependable staple of disaster films that seek to show us an array of grandiose visions that are both terrible and awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, time and experience often separates us from simpler pleasures, relegating our measurements of entertainment to comparisons of other, more sophisticated endeavors. A read-through of the premise immediately conjures up all those conventional comparisons: among other things, the story contains a main character obsessed with revenge while fighting for his own life in public arenas (“Gladiator”), ancient roman political intrigue (“Troy”) and a blossoming romance between young faces that are separated by class divides (“Titanic”), all set in the foreground of a catastrophe looming in the distance (any number of well-known blockbusters of the past thirty years). Take away all those call-backs, and what you are left with is basically a competent action picture that retreads to the safety of its formulas, primarily because it doesn’t have the desire, much less the thought, to pursue more challenging avenues.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Dirty Love / zero stars (2005)

During a schmaltzy greeting card monologue in the opening scenes of “Dirty Love,” the heroine informs us that “love is unreal,” before launching into a scene of hysteria after she has discovered the love of her life in bed with another woman. Most people scarred by that sort of discovery, at least in a comedy, would usually plot some sort of devious revenge. Rebecca (Jenny McCarthy) opts to make her grief an incompetent public spectacle, which will include her approaching sex workers for job applications, showing up to public gatherings on the arms of awkward losers, and avoiding run-ins with her ex in various locales, like a grocery store while she is tripping over her own menstrual blood. Are you still listening to this? These are the sight gags of a filmmaker who has watched a plethora of outrageous comedies but has only memorized out-of-context punchlines, relegating everything that he does to a one-note show of languid showmanship. Even then, most narrow concepts could be forgiven if they produce laughs, however shallow. John Asher’s junkyard of a film, unfortunately, only inspires the sorts of groans usually reserved for painful indigestion.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Lonely Lady / 1/2* (1983)

Forget, for a moment, all the dreadful things you have heard about “The Lonely Lady.” Dismiss the conventional criticisms that peg it as one of the more pronounced turkeys of its time, ranging from the shoddy acting to the implausible premise. Absolve yourself of any knowledge of Pia Zadora’s strange rise to fame, or how her entire participation in this mess came to be. Resist the urge to read through some of the cringe-inducing dialogue, avoid the temptation to blame shoddy makeup or inept scene staging, and ignore all attempts at understanding the long and notorious back-story. Those notions will only color your view. Oh, an exhaustive list of problems could be assembled about the movie in question, and few of them would be arguable, but those traits in themselves do not quantify all the reasons this film endures so vividly. Something more precise, more glaring, had to be wrong with what was on screen. After lumbering through a recent viewing, I believe I finally deciphered the key distinction: that this may be the most shamelessly evasive drama ever written.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Summer of 84 / *** (2018)

Any teenage boy who owns a pair of binoculars is destined to see himself as a private investigator. He uses them like an infallible window into the unknown, a dagger that pierces a hole through comfortable exteriors to study the inner workings of people with seedy private lives. Hitchcock used this ideology to fuel the voyeuristic tendencies of his hero in “Rear Window,” and now young Davey Armstrong adopts it while he spies shamelessly on his neighbors during the warm nights in “Summer of 84.” His first glimpse is innocent: harboring a crush on the girl next door, the lenses provide him a bird’s eye view of her upstairs bedroom, usually while she is in various stages of undress. Later, after news breaks that the disappearance of a dozen young boys in the county is linked to a single culprit, they become the instrument that will guide his quest against the cop across the street, whom he suspects may be the serial killer in question. The key difference, perhaps, is that voyeurs are content to watch without involvement., whereas Davey turns his endeavor into a quest that includes stalking the outer perimeter of a man’s house, going through the trashcans and even digging up a backyard in search of corpses.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Marriage Story / ** (2019)

Aficionados of Noah Baumbach’s eccentric brand of hard-hitting family comedies will find themselves right at home in “Marriage Story,” the latest in his resume of accessible mainstream opuses. The rest of us would argue it could have used three key additives: a better script, more focus on the pain, and less insufferable leads. That is not to discredit or undermine the abilities of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who are competent in the material, but to emphasize the corner they are painted into. Here are two likable actors swimming upstream in a current that wants to drown them in detestable melodrama, and for nearly every scene they occupy shared space, we find ourselves praying for psychological intervention. They are cloying, arrogant, and deluded. Towards the middle act, well before the two come to a head in a heated exchange about unresolved feelings, they are offered advice from brutally honest lawyers as to what steps to take in maintaining custody of their young son. The more proactive argument ought to have been obvious: why do either of them deserve to supervise a goldfish, much less an impressionable kid?

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

THE TEN BEST FILMS OF THE DECADE

I began the 2010s uncertain of my place in the slipstream of film criticism, and closed it out firmly lodged somewhere between enthusiastic and mystified. Whatever emotion I experienced sitting in a theater, be it involved in something celebratory or a feeling of total despair, the movies never abandoned me; they persisted like stubborn reminders of what is important about the art form, whether it was in a literal sense or in some twisted ironic way, even as some might have represented everything wrong about this strange little industry.

The decade supplied ammunition for both arguments. It was the time of new and exciting voices like Yorgos Lanthimos and Christian Petzold, and of lazy underachievers like Uwe Boll. It was the age of billion-dollar blockbusters, and tiresome trends yielding colossal flops. Established filmmakers plodded along in a career trajectory that allowed for new and exciting ventures. Some promising newcomers like David Robert Mitchell, meanwhile, diversified their portfolio between solid entertainments (“It Follows”) and disastrous aberrations (“Under the Silver Lake”). But all the same we showed up, watched, and responded with our constant passion as moviegoers. A great film was never far from grasp at local art-house movie houses; so, too, was a bad one inevitably playing in the mainstream chains, where it stood a better chance of rising to notoriety, unintentional or otherwise. The common bond among all of them, you could say, was their ability to remind us that there is a bigger world outside of the Walt Disney brand, whose choke-hold on the financial market of moviegoing has cast an impenetrable shadow going into the next decade.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Hell House, LLC 3: Lake of Fire / **1/2 (2019)

Two-thirds of the newest “Hell House” picture is the work of a man who is intrigued by the undiscovered. After finding comfort in the throes of low-tech visual manipulation and nuanced camerawork to achieve great thrills in the middle of a haunted hotel, he comes to “Lake of Fire” energized by what felt missing: the very need to expand on the possibilities of his great source. A brief confessional on camera emphasizes this urge: a cable show host, Vanessa Shepherd, contemplates the strange nature of Abaddon, New York, and how unsolved supernatural events have apparently extended beyond the hotel itself. Why are they are never covered in the local press? Because, of course, they aren’t as glamorous or sensational. Unfortunately, her reveal is interrupted by a bystander while on location and she is never able to finish the thought. But the seed is firmly planted in the audience, who watches on patiently while a business tycoon invests money and resources into turning the former hotel into a seasonal theater. The goal: to create an interactive Halloween performance of “Faust” inside a building rich in supernatural history. Perhaps “Faust,” about a struggle of a man’s temptations between God and Satan, ought to have been the key warning. Wouldn’t the many deaths and disappearances have been enough to sway away most sensible people from participating here?

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Parasite / **** (2019)

The vicious cycle coalescing beneath class systems is a detail that draws much ire out of Bong Joon-ho, whose films all suggest a world where life and routine is usually mandated by where you fall in the system privilege. Not content to simply show sides of the structure clashing, he abandons them into a philosophical clarity that sees rot and cynicism as shared values; just as the wealthy are set in the method of clinging to their narrow vision, so do the impoverished embrace the seedy underbelly to propel their obligatory agendas. Both, perhaps, are what contribute to the ambiguous implication supplied by the title of “Parasite,” where a filmmaker never quite indicts a single target. Yet the argument inspires all the expected questions without direct answers. Are the characters in a wealthy family the victims of what will eventually transpire, or are they inconsolable leeches of an imbalanced society? Are we expected to see the poverty-stricken Kim family as sponges for all the trouble they are dealt, or as survivors adapting rapidly to the unpredictable whims of the hierarchy? The challenge offered in this audacious and engrossing little film barely reflects its deeper nature, which plays less like a standard narrative and more like a living organism adapting scene after scene to a volatile habitat of strange and mystifying nightmares.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Psycho" Revisited


Abnormal even among the more challenging horror films of today, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” abandons its central character arc for a much more unexpected second just as the plot begins to wade deeper waters. There is an observation made in the preceding scenes that suggest that possibility – namely, a moment when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) realizes almost prematurely that she must return home and give up the money she stole from her employer – but our wildest notions of the conflict could scarcely predict the outcome of her abrupt escape down a rainy highway. Most of the familiar rules in horror were far from being accepted as part of the formula handbook, but a constant among the early prototypes was the use of one primary character as a source of study. Yet here she was, a mere 48 minutes into a film, showering at a rundown motel owned by an eccentric loner, and being snuck up on by a shadowy figure destined to stab her to death. If the shock of the incident remains startling for its perfect technical modulation – meticulous edits, a piercing soundtrack, out-of-focus details that obscured the numerous wounds – then its broader effect came entirely down to audacity. No other mainstream film up to that point committed itself to such nerve to shatter the comfortable borders of a story, and to this day it remains peerless among a growing arsenal of broadening genre standards.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Lighthouse / ***1/2 (2019)

On the edge of a rock hugging the violent sea, a weathered lighthouse affirms the mission of two men stalled on a mental tightrope. They plod day and night through a routine that always leads to one outcome: ensuring the illuminating glow of the tower never dims, even as the most turbulent storms loom relentlessly overhead. But a day comes when the winds shift, casting doubt on their own perseverance; a nor’easter draws down like a force of punishment, until their demeanors – one sardonic, the other silent and morose – collide on each other with disturbing gravitas. On the other side of the struggle is only more of the same: a cycle without relief or certainty, unless the primary conviction is to stilt the moods of those eager viewers watching below the projector’s light. Their feelings, I reckon, might parallel what some of the early audiences thought upon first seeing “The Shining,” also about people who were driven mad by isolation. Did the slow plod through a tonal labyrinth, too, undermine their defenses enough to amplify the horror of the climax? Were they submissive to the visual attack, and did it negate any questions of logic they might have had? Robert Egger’s eerie, hypnotic new film mirrors many of those possibilities and finds something rather interesting buried beneath: an imagination that escalates its visions into the fantastical and absurd.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Joker / *1/2 (2019)

Long before mental health awareness pigeonholed the Joker personality as a damaged loser prodding psychological wounds, Bob Kane’s villain existed somewhere between the cynical and the sardonic, like an instrument of showy destruction joyously sticking a thorn into the sides of his opposition. If the early comic book readers never quite saw him as a great monster, it’s because the material was emboldened by the irony of the façade; the clown makeup and the ridiculous cackle were behaviors of cartoon personalities rather than straight madmen. But now we have crossed into the space where graphic yarns have lost that distinction and have become living embodiments of the terror within. With that the villains of Gotham City have gone through a considerable transformation, starting with the Tim Burton “Batman” films, where criminal minds were founded by childhood trauma rather than a simple need to be devious. Christopher Nolan’s adaptations took this prospect even further; gone were the absurdist production designs, and in their place were tangible forces of darkness that seemed as if they were walking past us on any ordinary city street. The most profound modern realization of the Joker belonged to “The Dark Knight,” where Heath Ledger took the idea beyond the source’s own possibility and showed us a broken personality whose chaotic tendencies were like a roadmap leading back to a mind wrought with personal hell. Alas, now we must contend with Todd Phillips’s miserable “Joker,” about a man who knows no humor, slogs through a world riddled in corruption and limitation, and finds escape in unleashing the sort of gratuity and destruction usually reserved for cynical horror films.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Ad Astra / ***1/2 (2019)

The most reflective moment in “Ad Astra” takes place just outside the orbit of Neptune, seen hovering in the distance like the most vulgar mood indicator in a sci-fi film since the ominous planet in “Solaris.” While its energies don’t directly influence the emotional demeanors of those nearby, their attitudes have all but foregone a similar deep melancholy: a recognition that there may be only deafening solitude in the great emptiness that is space. Up to that point, James Gray’s mysterious film foreshadows that statement via a morose internal monologue by his lead star: Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), an astronaut who has abandoned a family on Earth to take to the same stars his father disappeared into decades before. But when he must confront the man he feels abandoned him, what can they say to one another? Was his father’s sacrifice really all terrible given that Roy has followed the same trajectory? Aboard the rusting ship that once housed a crew seeking intelligent life, two men lose the desire to form a cogent reasoning and can only submit, quietly, to a discovery that ought to have been obvious all along. What is not as discernable, at least until those final scenes, is how Gray will fill his audience with the same sense of dread. If we come to science fiction to understand the unknown and make it palpable, here is a movie that suggests we are naive in assuming greater secrets beyond our own corroding existence.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Burning / *** (1981)

Is Tony Maylam’s “The Burning” a dead teenager horror film at all, or an ambitious homage to giallo masquerading as a slasher? The possibility occupied my brain while the material on screen lumbered along slowly and conventionally, positioning itself for a checklist of obligatory sequences that we come to expect of genre vehicles. The key difference is slight yet noteworthy: instead of recycling the sort of artificial showmanship that usually informed most of the violence in the early horror franchises, the movie creates a rather convincing aesthetic of gore, right down to the gaping wounds in a neck and the severing of someone’s fingers. The blood, meanwhile, splatters in the same ambitious fashion usually seen in the films of Mario Bava, who often used it more like a substance for a paintbrush. Where does an otherwise aimless descent into superficial formula staples get the gall to be so painstaking about its own visuals? Or the patience, for that matter? Maylam’s benefit may be that he, unlike any number of stand-in cameramen pretending to be legitimate filmmakers in that time, took the time to study up on his peers in order to best them at their own routine.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

It Chapter Two / *** (2019)

In theory “It: Chapter Two” ought to be a straightforward document about a monster’s final encounter with seven surviving teenagers destined to destroy him, but in truth it’s more about the pain of buried memories – about how grief and torment have been so great that survivors have placed protective barriers over their recollections, even as they are forced to relive them in order to understand their relevance in the present. Not 10 minutes into this long-awaited sequel and the distinction is firmly established: as the members of the Losers Club gather after 27 years of life experiences away from the horrors of their childhood, they discover a great significance in drifting consciously into flashbacks, as if peering through photographs that conceal necessary answers. Clues and perspectives rush to them in a torrent of emotion, arming them with what will turn out to be the right defenses to conquer their lifelong enemy. But who is the real barrier here: a menacing clown that feasts on defenseless loners, or the unresolved fears they have suppressed for nearly three decades? It is part of the skill of a good horror movie to reflect on its subjects throughout any ordeal thrown at them, and much like its predecessor, the new film is a well-made attempt to dissect the nightmares that come with being young and impressionable in a world riddled with cruelties.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Condemned / zero stars (2007)

Ten convicts. One game. Nine must die. The victor walks free. This isn’t an inherently flawed plot description if viewed through the lens of a well-intentioned eye, but the offense that is “The Condemned” exploits it for nothing more than lurid, gut-crushing violence – and in the process becomes one of the most deplorable moviegoing experiences of my life. The very idea of describing these scenes fills me with a dread I rarely recognize – you know, the sort that comes rising from the pit of your stomach when you’re in the throes of danger, or about to witness something causing agony or pain to another? If that’s just a taste of what is possible, then imagine what the poor suckers involved in the movie were thinking. Did they connect with this idea in any substantial way beyond their monetary greed? Was it sold to them as a sincere attempt at understanding our perverse voyeurism? Or were they all part of an elaborate joke being played on the victims known as the audience? I mourned their innocence just as much as they must have wept over the decimation of their careers. Towards the end, a single character stares angrily in the direction of the source of chaos, and he asks scornfully, “are you really trying to save them?” “No,” she retorts, “I was trying to save you.” How strangely comical it must have been for anyone to utter those words in the same room as a director and writer who ought to have seen them as self-reflective.