Friday, December 14, 2018

The House That Jack Built / *** (2018)

For some well-versed in the unremorseful extremism of Lars von Trier’s films, “The House That Jack Built” will play like business as usual. Others still may observe it as an exercise in arrogance and perversion, well exceeding the necessities of its premise. Both perspectives skirt the more devious intention lurking beneath. Sure, this is a film that walks, talks and personifies the idea of what a serial killer must be – right down to the rigid and perceptive way he uses his victims as set pieces in an elaborate show of self-proclaimed artistry – but beneath those disturbing exteriors is a critical essay about how a filmmaker with cynical worldviews sees himself in a reality that tries desperately to stifle his chaotic creations. To him, Jack is a self-projection, and his victims the willing cattle of a slaughter they seem subconsciously willing to submit to. Most important directors at some point in their career will create these sorts of on-screen avatars to symbolize their ideology, usually for the sake of revealing themselves to an audience caught up in misconceptions. Von Trier’s distinction comes from less generous conceits: he relishes this chance to play on your aesthetic limits and doesn’t care how you will respond.

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs / **** (2018)

A cheery outlaw kicks back in the saddle of a wandering horse while singing a whimsical melody. A foreboding figure enters a bank, attempts to rob it, and is thrust into a series of repeating encounters with a hangman’s noose. A crippled orator with exemplary memory skills is peddled across the frontier by an impresario with dark ulterior motives. An old man, seeking fortune, sets up camp in a beautiful valley to discover its great secrets, even though it may be at the cost of his safety. Siblings join the Oregon trail with monetary agendas, only to be thwarted by disease and unlikely circumstances. And a carriage carrying five strangers wanders through the desolate hills before diverting them, quite literally, into the middle of an existential crisis. Somehow, someway, all these narrative threads matter enough to the Coen brothers to make up the six stories of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” an anthology that claims to be about the varying sorts of personalities populating the Old West. But I suspect the agenda runs deeper for them than that. And as I sat and observed their yarns, dumbfounded by some and enthralled by others, I looked beyond the zealous wonder of their film to sense a transcendent undertow, as if they were summarizing the entirety of their careers in episodes that each play like the different ideals they carry in an aesthetic arsenal.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

A Star is Born / **1/2 (2018)

The premise of “A Star is Born” began life as an ode to the conflicting values of celebrity, where newfound stardom depended on incidental discoveries while veterans were being eroded by destructive behaviors. Then came the prospect of remakes, beginning in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, where those notions began wearing the mask of more elaborate Hollywood polish; through the embellishment the core thesis was diverted into the sort of song and dance you see in cheerful studio musicals. By the time it arrived at the doorsteps of Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand for their 1976 adaptation, there was little point in pretending there was a deep meaning left in the material – now they were vanity projects masquerading as star vehicles, where the changing reputations of its characters played second fiddle to a foreground knee-deep in showmanship. All the same, the show was rousing enough to drive ticket sales, and the third “Star” film was the number two box office success of its year (bested only by the original “Rocky”). Some good came of the Streisand version, admittedly, because her dedication to performance held captive the awe of onlookers. And there is a good deal of that sort of merit in this fourth version of the story, too, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as songwriters who meet, collaborate and fall in love before retreading to that all-too-familiar formula. But it is formula all the same, and one I have little patience for. And like its predecessors there’s only so far any aspiring filmmaker can take this rather basic setup.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Grinch / *1/2 (2018)

Some realities are a given without being vocalized. To explain what otherwise ought to be common is to unravel the momentum of a good observer. Think of Dr. Seuss’ immortal yarn about the Grinch, for instance. Was it ever in doubt to the average reader – even a novice one – that the villainous ways of the furry green disruptor were not sourced from an internal trauma? Or that his envy, his thorough dislike of the holiday, could not be understood unless it involved some form of relentless exposition? Our youthful minds simply accepted his agenda for what it was: a gloomy impulse to cloak a fear lurking beneath a gruff exterior. Any doubts were clarified, quite literally, with a climax that broke away his cynicism. That’s because Seuss knew the power of the young mind well enough to not insult it with the burden of excess. But now his beloved creation comes to the hands of filmmakers who have lost sight of the nuance, the shrewd irony, of one of the great holiday lessons. “The Grinch,” a new CGI cartoon that adds a fair amount of insights, is the concoction of overpaid simpletons who have opted for a more literal subtext and undermined the very spirit of the source in the process.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Hunter Killer / *** (2018)

There is not a single moment contained in “Hunter Killer” that would negate our skepticism of an obvious political thriller formula. Assembled across 122 minutes of dialogue and action are the faces of actors frozen in conventional suspicion, overly insistent dialogue, shallow retorts, narrow escapes, elaborate shootouts, 11th-hour rescues, and villainous forces exercising their egos in military board rooms while large screens in the backdrop seem to flash frenetic warnings. That most of the plot takes place aboard a submarine sneaking through enemy waters is hardly a stretch of imagination, either, and even when there is a moment where something distinctive might transpire – in this case, during an exchange where Russian survivors must choose to cooperate with Americans, their sworn enemies – the plot retreads safely back to the confines of a safe resolution. When you combine the elements, what you get is, in essence, a retread of the underlying idea of “The Hunt for Red October.” And yet I sat there, in full consideration of these prospects, and realized I was having a far better time than I ought to have.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"The Essential Cinemaphile: 1998-2018" To Be Released This December

Arriving this December, “The Essential Cinemaphile” is an anthology of essays two decades in the making. Featuring articles and essays across 20 years from online film critic David Keyes, this collection narrows his body of work down to the very best of his output.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Venom / **1/2 (2018)

For a solid third of its running time, “Venom” keeps pace with a premise that has almost ingenious ramifications. The hook comes when Eddie Brock, a San Francisco journalist regarded for his activist approach against corrupt corporate entities, is thrust into a situation that exposes him to an alien parasite, and they bond – both anatomically and intellectually – while outrunning hitmen hired by a local capitalist. Immediately the mind is filled with all the obligatory curiosities: how does the alien “symbiote,” a shapeless heap of goo, manage to communicate with its host in its native language? Why is it more ideal for it to use him rather than any number of other potential hosts to achieve its agenda? Does he have any weaknesses, or is he basically an object of chaos without limitation? Any basic knowledge of science will instantly supply plausible enough answers to negate the skepticism, and we watch admiringly as two personalities banter with one another like peers engaged in a war of sarcasm. But then their union is thrust into a series of action sequences that are shot like senseless riots; while this “Venom” is rushing through the busy streets trying to outrun a wave of gunmen, the photography whooshes frantically without stability, blurring the details until we can barely register what has transpired. What use is there, ultimately, in spending time with a fascinating anomaly like this if the mere notion of his physical ability is undermined by an image that knows nothing of pace?

Thursday, October 11, 2018

BlacKkKlansman / **** (2018)

Ron Stallworth never perceived himself as having a “white voice,” but something about its candid inflection transcended the stereotype of black men speaking in the “jive” style of the early 70s. Spike Lee emphasizes this with unassuming assurance in the early scenes of “BlacKkKlansman,” showing us a man who is anchored by no particular sense of manner or distinction; he is simply an everyman seeking a place in the world, without much regard to whether he might be crippled or undermined by his ethnic background. Others are consciously aware of his presence, primarily, by the conditioning of their upbringing, but that’s of little surprise; he may be one of the only African Americans in a backwards Colorado town to ever walk into a police headquarters seeking a career in law enforcement. Some will come to regard him favorably after his capabilities are made known, while others will use their ignorance to blind them to his accomplishments. And though the film will tell the story of a man whose skill allowed him to successfully infiltrate the top ranks of the Ku Klux Klan, this is primarily about how injustice rebounds like an unpredictable pendulum, especially when it is controlled by men living in arrogance of their own privilege.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The House with a Clock in Its Walls / *** (2018)

The young hero of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is one of the more unfortunate examples of the literary trap we now know as young adult pathos. He adopts a trend that can be described as such: if you’re a prepubescent eccentric who engages better with daydreams then actual people, it’s inevitable for the story to make you the victim of immense grief before dropping you into a life-threatening adventure. And in the tradition of the displaced orphans of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” poor Lewis Barnavelt arrives at the opening of the tale not eager or excited by what he is about to experience, but crippled by the horrific knowledge that his parents recently died and left him in the custody of a virtual stranger. How can he possible be roused to enthusiasm, then, by the strange and ambitious whimsy going about all around him? Are the likes of an eccentric uncle played by Jack Black and a female accomplice played by Cate Blanchet enough to undermine his sorrow? Or is the pain under the surface the sort that negates all the wonder and joy that ought to come with the discovery? A straight document of these events might contrast the of the scenario with the psychological disconnect of the characters, but what fun would that be when a world of magic possibilities is just waiting to be unleashed?

Monday, September 24, 2018

We Are Still Here / *** (2015)

Families trapped in the throes of grief have been lured in by more haunted houses than you can fathom, and in nearly all cases their tragedies supply an emotional shield that supernatural horrors mistakenly see as an exploitable weakness. Perhaps that’s because ghosts and demons just don’t understand how human nature works – that for every terrible event or shocking impulse, a person’s sense of fear is tightened by an exterior that hardens with time, allowing its wearer to face an abyss that couldn’t possibly match the pain they’ve experienced. There are some, however, who wear their suffering like an open wound, and certainly the evils of an alternate plane are eager to feast off whatever they can. Meanwhile, the dangerous entities that lurk in the house of “We Are Still Here” have a more sinister agenda: every 30 years they awaken from a slumber and devour the souls of any family living within its halls, as vengeance for a terrible act that was committed on them a century prior. Apparently, time does little to diminish grudges, especially when you’re in a dimension that ought to be free of earthly attachments or emotions.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Unbroken: Path to Redemption / zero stars (2018)

“Unbroken: Path to Redemption” is a film that begins and ends with one fatal mistake: forgetting to tell its actors that they are accomplices in a cheap, patronizing melodrama. All the dramatic cues are there, and many of the faces convey an eagerness that is admirable, but every simpering scene of false sincerity moves to the rhythm of some shallow after-school special, where most of the conflict is resolved by broad strokes and nonsensical flash-forwards. For this, yet another aberration in a growing list of exercises by director Harold Cronk – and one that shamelessly follows a far better retelling of this story from only four years prior – the offense is greater: he takes a potentially meaningful discussion point about the traumatic aftermath of war veterans and reduces it to an arrogant demand for Christian unity. That some of it plays as convincing to these on-screen players indicates he has assembled a plausible ensemble to sell his message; that he doesn’t bother to supply them with a shred of intellectual context makes the film not only bad, but irresponsible and corrupt.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Meg / ** (2018)

A band of rich investors, marine biologists and deep-sea divers gather aboard an underwater laboratory in the middle of the pacific to plunder the secrets of the deep, and while searching through a new hidden habitat they inadvertently unleash one of the murkiest special effect creatures seen this side of the Anaconda. Among them, a wisecracking daredevil who once assisted in an ill-fated rescue emerges as the lone force of reckoning who can challenge it in the open waters, where it threatens to destroy an entire eco-system (not to mention feast on the swimmers of public beaches). His sarcastic demeanor, of course, comes as a lighthearted contrast against the more sobering faces of the others, who regard their predicament like slabs of bait waiting for a noon feeding. And why wouldn’t they? The story will rarely provide them, after all, with a chance to flee the danger or head for land, because that would negate the opportunity for them to become casualties in the hungry jaws of a monster. Assemble any number of these clich├ęs together and you create the cheerful delusions of a modern creature feature; supply them further with a studio budget and familiar names, and you get something resembling “The Meg.”

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Greatest Showman / **1/2 (2017)

Hugh Jackman is one of the great gifts of the modern movie experience, and “The Greatest Showman” may very well be the fullest expression thus far of his impeccable performance talents. Here is a film tailor-made for those theatrical sensibilities, full of color and song, engaging his deep need to entertain an audience in nearly every frame he possesses the screen. While some of that can be sourced to the power of the visuals – which certainly provide their own sense of wonder – it’s hard to imagine any other person standing in this role, with this much pep, and this sense of dedication. Legend speaks of the men and women who would sacrifice their own security just for the sake of inspiring the gleeful response of a viewer, and Jackman proves, well above his peers, that he is the pilot of a destiny to forever marvel those who come to share his company. Who could ask for more in these generic times, when entertainment is decided less by individual vision and more by collaborative illusions?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Rock of Ages / * (2012)

Sometimes the great tradition of rock musicals comes down not to whether songs are staged with gusto, but whether they have been conducted with hands that understand the rebellious culture underlining them. Many of the key anthems of the 80s reflect a stranger possibility: they were written in that very narrow window of hair band trends, where the angry political motivations were temporarily subdued by sex, booze, and the harmless pomp of radio accessibility. No one complained all that much because a great spirit continued to move through the guitar riffs, and the bands were a testament to the versatile power of the genre. Those who were active listeners in those years, when the likes of Def Leppard and Bon Jovi were at the height of their popularity, often recall them with fondness. But what would they think of the attitude now, so many years later, when films like “Rock of Ages” paint a much more simplistic portrait of the times? Would they be comfortable with the fact that a handful of well-known songs have essentially been grinded through a karaoke jukebox? Or that the attitudes behind them have been reduced to one-note farce? Or that people who were alive (and even active) in those years have allowed themselves to be associated with the vulgar thinning of the standard?

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Blockers / **1/2 (2018)

There is a scene in “Blockers” I hardly expected to see in a comedy – even a deranged one – and with any luck there will never be an attempt to replicate it. The lead-up is innocent enough: a trio of parents have infiltrated a party on prom night hoping to stop their teenage daughters from having sex, and along the way are cornered by a cluster of drunk boys who demand proof they are not actually undercover cops. They bargain by committing themselves to a drinking contest. The contender will be one of the fathers, an overprotective hulk played by John Cena. Unfortunately, the challenge is aptly referred to as “butt chugging,” in which a funnel and a hose are hooked into a contestant’s rectal cavity, where the beer will absorb into the body faster. Cena’s discomfort is but a mere momentary distraction from how the remainder of the scene plays out, which moves against the trajectory of the conventional toilet humor. Who came up with it? Did they sense, well before execution, that this was an outlet for edgier comedy? One imagines early story conferences consisting of a cluster of people passing around a joint, searching for the most random ways possible to instigate a shocked laugh in the audience.