Monday, June 30, 2014

Lessons from Criterion:
"Diabolique" by Henri-Georges Clouzot

Before “Psycho,” and well before our minds were agitated by the uncertainty of details in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” there was the ominous nuance of “Diabolique.” Ideas this stark and unflinching were rather slow to penetrate world cinema in the days monopolized by glitzy melodramas and directors always treading in safe creative trenches, but once the chilling presence of homicidal impulses had taken route in the imagination of auteurs like the French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, those behaviors colonized the movie screen in precipitous succession. From that moment on, it was not enough for stories to simply view murder from detached fascination, or with the misplaced context that was obligatory of very unspeakable morals (in those years, murderers in movies were either hardened criminals or outright psychopaths, and certainly not sympathetic). Here was one of the first pictures of its kind to instill the concept into the minds of common individuals, who were driven by fear and anxiety rather than primitive instinct, and rattled by the ambiguity that followed them in an uncertain aftermath. And just as staggering as it was to discover these compulsions possessed by identifiable minds, no realization was more astounding than the notion that such forces could be stirred in women, who were usually the victims of such endeavors.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Kill Your Darlings / ** (2013)

Take heart in the knowledge that you likely understand as much about the origins of the Beat Movement as the average Joe walking past you on the street. Though its influence has saturated most of our modern luxuries, the founding figures of a generation of trendy literary provocateurs have all but been obscured in the crowded halls of artistic rebellion. Even their names now seem to exist as lost relics. Jack Kerouac. Allen Ginsberg. William S. Burroughs. These were identities to be reckoned with in the days of cultural order, when society was in the captivity of conformists, and the arts imprisoned by the frills of old traditions. To them, the true poets – and, inevitably, all artists – were the rebellious creatures in the street, disturbing the ranks by finding inspiration through drugs, speaking in hip euphemisms, and exhibiting apathy to rules and political matters in a world that alienated their basic principles. And yet as infrequent as those names are mentioned in the reverb of modern artistic freedom, do not doubt that their strategies linger on; if that were not the case, what would a “Beatnik” be today if not a voice for the creative and outspoken?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow / *** (2014)

The centerpiece of “Edge of Tomorrow” is not the familiar battle sequence on a beach that promotional spots have been hyping up, but something slightly less obvious: an anomaly in the narrative timeline that allows characters to operate as if figures in an ambitious video game. Set somewhere in a future of vast military prosperity, world governments have united  in order to take down a race of parasitic aliens known as the “Mimics,” whose adaptability against the organized tactics of human civilization makes them both formidable and cunning. Halfway into the movie, our understanding of their unrivaled victory comes to light: the central power of the aliens, controlled from an organism known as the “Omega,” is an ability to alter time itself so that they can constantly leap backwards and alter the course of events in order to stay one step ahead of their rivals (think of how video games usually return you to the last save point after your character has died). And then, in an obligatory twist, one of the creatures carrying this ability is killed in combat by a character played by Tom Cruise, and the power, transferred through DNA, unwittingly falls into the hands of the humans – for how long, no one is really sure, as that would diminish the tension required to fuel the plot for the remaining duration.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Filth / * (2014)

There is no small irony in the central office of Edinburgh’s police bureau containing a poster for “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  Instantly distinguishable through a myriad of psychotic images that pound away at you with the force of a violent criminal, the proverbial thumbprint of the great Stanley Kubrick weaves through most of “Filth” unrestrained, leaving behind the echo of despair that seems directly lifted from his great “A Clockwork Orange.” Even the main subject, a corrupt and unstable vessel of hostility named Bruce (James McAvoy), directly recalls the Alex character from that film; as he abuses his way through the grind of life unchecked while absurd fantasies overtake him, there is the sense that his path has been written, quite clearly, in the same familiar shadows that Malcom McDowell danced in for his own devious performance. Does that suggest there is a reason to mimic the Kubrick ideals even now, so long after his imprint was left behind? If it does, then it is clear that no one involved in this movie studied much in the way of basic film composition, much less the stylistic undertakings or powerful subtexts of the greatest of film directors. At one point, when a therapist refers to the disintegrated Bruce as nothing more than “filth,” there is no profound realization; instead, all you want to do is nod your head in hopeless defeat.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Afflicted / **1/2 (2014)

Two twenty-something friends, both driven by different facets of adventurous desires, decide to leave behind their hum-drum lives and go backpacking across the globe for one full year, documenting their journey as part of an ambitious video travelogue that will be streamed over the internet. One, an aspiring filmmaker, shoots all the details with the utmost gusto; the other, a guy who has just been diagnosed with a rare brain condition, sees the trip as the last potential hurrah in a life starved for more excitement. For them both, the camera is a vessel that is capturing and then preserving the memories they set out to make, and as their exploits carry them through a plethora of new and exciting sensations, their joy is slowly devolved into a series of horrific events that creep up on them during what should be a rousing excursion through European nightlife. These are not two guys who have watched very many horror movies, I reckon.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Carnage / ***1/2 (2011)

Roman Polanski’s savage, insistent “Carnage” finds provocative challenges in that all-too-familiar conundrum: what happens when a conflict between violent kids winds up in the hands of the parents? Does their involvement bring about understanding, or is it all amplified by the heated passions of would-be protectors? The early scenes suggest with thickened discomfort that pleasantries are just a rotten custom. The dispute: a boy injures another on the school playground, busting his lip and knocking out some teeth with striking force using a large stick from nearby. What provoked the outburst? Two sets of parents have varying perspectives on the events, but no one is willing to admit total fault – obviously so, otherwise that would imply they have made mistakes in raising their teenagers. No, here are four individuals so stubborn and adamant about where they stand that their interactions build to a swell of uneasiness, and as they engage in 80 observant minutes of passive-aggressive debates, character deconstructing and then brutal drunken arguments, a certain sadistic reality settles in: few recent movies have been this perceptive about such immediate human conflicts, much less this funny.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West / **1/2 (2014)

So much comedic skill trickles from the brain of Seth MacFarlane that it comes as a surprise to see it all circumscribed in a movie as half-realized as “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” It might have helped if he had stuck with the sitcom format. Certainly this premise was instinctively attractive on paper; after creating rousing cartoon comedies in “Family Guy” and “American Dad” and being the guiding influence of 2012’s hilarious “Ted,” here was the right man to helm a parody on the old west, where targets are ripe for the picking and clichés abundant enough to inspire terrific laughs. But what a miscalculated muddle it all amounts to, lumbering around on screen like a lethargic underachiever in a school of high-aiming competitors in the era of immeasurable gross-out comedies. At one point the main character makes a passive admission that underscores the movie’s very own energy level: “I’m not the hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt.” It turns out he’s not very reliable at doing that, either.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Maleficent / *** (2014)

A movie like “Maleficent” is probably too safe and traditional an endeavor to deserve a performance as striking as that of Angelina Jolie’s, but lo and behold there it is, absorbing all in its path in a frame filled with images seeped in misleading allure. A talented actress with consistent versatility in roles, she doesn’t so much step into a well-known persona as she reinvents it, putting a pointed emphasis into the hidden dimensions of her character through a behavioral distinction that utilized focused gazes amidst flashes of shrewd dialogue and wry humor. To see her is to be thoroughly enraptured by her presence – so enchanted, in fact, that there comes a moment where one wonders if she even knew how uneven the script in front of her was, or if she simply got too caught up in the embodiment to care. The result does few favors to the story but adds resonance to the long-standing reality of our most gifted movie thespians: if there is one glimmer of hope lost in a sea of clichés, a true professional can indeed turn it into a powerful guiding light.