Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: The Final Curtain

Few things calm the turbulent waters of the world better than the presence of a good movie. They are an act of release, a culmination of visceral desires to liberate audiences from the confines of ordinary existence in order to propel them towards mental or emotional enlightenment. Good ones can educate about the paths we neglect to walk, but greater ones will show us the way to them, like roadmaps to a destination of one’s better self. And in more paradoxical scenarios, some can even rouse the fires of rebellion burning within, giving us windows into places and people that are on the razor’s edge of negative extremes. A balance of both is key in establishing some level of connection to our personal structure, and who would we be if we didn’t know how to deal with the downtrodden as equally as we do with the fantastic and absurd?

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lessons from Criterion:
"The Exterminating Angel" by Luis Buñuel

"When the spider dies, the web unravels."

The enormity of collective alienation is one of many central themes driving Luis Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel,” and within that suggestion exists a mystery of unfathomable density that continues to incite varying degrees of confusion and dread, sometimes in shared measures. What gives it a decidedly potent edge has less to do with the conceptual audacity of the idea and much more to do with the delivery. Nothing going on in the film – save for key dialogue exchanges that occasionally frame the crisis – comes from a dependable perspective; like witnesses twisted by the absurdity of a predicament, the camera sees things as if displaced from certainty, and the screenplay relays details in broad strokes that merely imply what might be occurring. Are there supernatural elements at play? Is the title, a biblical reference, inferring greater energies are at work? Or are there only simple explanations staring back at us dressed up in the misleading strokes of minimalism? Because so little of what occurs to this ensemble of characters happens in a conventional sense, there is no clear way to decipher agendas, reasoning or solutions. Our eyes meet the gaze of a screen that stares back with a resilient poker face, and sparse are the opportunities for us to gauge the general intention – assuming it amounts to something so easily classified.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens / ***1/2 (2015)

“The Force Awakens” begins with the same note of wonder that first roused audiences of “Star Wars” to excitement four decades ago: with a lone shot of space interrupted by the quiet arrival of a menacing ship. It glides into view just as abruptly as many others do in modern science fiction epics, but one belonging to George Lucas’ world of Jedis and Sith lords carries a certain chord of prominence: it means that viewers are once again being enticed by places and characters they have come to regard with the utmost enthusiasm. That’s because the very existence of this series represents two very important landmarks in modern cinema: 1) the birth of the notion of movie blockbusters; and 2) the most thorough expansion of our moviegoeing imaginations, which had previously been limited to the narrow visions of a film industry not yet revolutionized by plausible special effects. Some often wonder how any singular sensation could persist for so long and so consistently, but it has never faded from memory, and now comes a seventh chapter in a series that refuses to wander quietly into the night, even as the experience of going to the theater has broadened to provide countless offerings just as ambitious.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Danish Girl / ***1/2 (2015)

The first appearance of the mysterious Lili Elbe occurs at a public social in the Danish suburbs, where locals have turned out to engage one another in sumptuous discussions about art. Her friend, the talented Gerda (Alicia Vikander), is attempting to break into this medium, but is facing a steep challenge: she paints human portraits, and such material is seen as blatantly ordinary for potential investors. As she passes through the scene in a gentle sweep of charismatic involvement, men stare at Lili like sharks circling a fresh catch. No one has seen her before, and it is scarcely a wonder as to why they are so enraptured: aside from being extremely beautiful, she is also incredibly shy and nervous, which seems to add fuel to their burning passions. It never dawns on them that the woman they are gazing at with lustful insinuation is actually a man, a well-known landscape artist rising quickly to the peak of his potential just as he begins questioning the nature of his own identity. Do they quietly know the reality, or are they looking only through the lenses of false pragmatism? And when a handsome stranger (Ben Whishaw) offers to whisk her into a private setting for an opportunity to get to know her, is his intrusive dialogue an admission of comprehension, or is he oblivious to the truth?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Macbeth / **** (2015)

Shakespeare’s grim and challenging “Macbeth” is not a story for the easily rattled, and rare is the movie adaptation that is able to comprehend the depth of those principles in the language of thoughtful cinema. Greater interpretations of his work don’t bother conforming to narrowly defined purposes, but they are often elusive; for many, the bard’s paradoxical implications are told in a custom that violates the quintessential structure of movie narrative, and thus present obstacles too great to overcome. Those who have become fluent in his teachings have somehow grappled those boundaries into an arsenal of bendable values, and on occasion we will even encounter a retelling that rises above those conventions (two of the more recent are Julie Taymor’s “Titus” and Branagh’s “Hamlet,” easily the benchmark). But if they are the byproduct of years upon years of intense research and careful comprehension, then that club must now welcome Justin Kurzel, who has not made a great film about the Scottish king but has essentially crafted the defining interpretation of his long and horrifying descent into madness, and done it with production wizards that perceive the details through a texture of grand artistic value.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Sisters / **1/2 (2015)

Siblings are frequently at each other’s throats in the premises of mainstream adult comedies, but when you cast Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in the roles, it’s almost impossible to bow to those conventional pressures; they are too likable to be seen in any capacity beyond lighthearted antics. That’s exactly what one can come to expect of “Sisters,” their newest film, which tells the story of a pair of 30-something women – one slutty and irresponsible, the other accomplished and pathetic – who are asked to unite in order say goodbye to a lifetime’s worth of old memories, and wind up creating a slew of chaotic new ones in the process at their childhood home. Because their individual – and mutual – dexterity is so well-known, one could hardly expect anything less. That is just as much of a routine as it is a platform for wild and crazy gags, of course, but the virtue of theirs is that they bring a certain infectious edge to the table, inspiring just as many smiles as chuckles. They are also consistently funny without forcing the attempt, and nearly every moment that they are on screen is one of blissful delight.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Home Alone / *** (1990)

A holiday movie that encourages us to recognize details as nostalgic projections is a priceless commodity, but an endeavor that embellishes them into blatant absurdity can carry a charm all its own. One could charge Chris Columbus of understanding that prospect with clairvoyant accuracy when he made the notorious “Home Alone,” especially considering how it has endured for so long in public favor. Though it was clearly made and released with cynical intentions on part of a money hungry movie studio, the eyes of overzealous young dreamers are drawn incessantly to its simplistic values even now, and as one generation of mischievous kids grows beyond the cartoonish frame of reference of the material, another simply arrives to replace them. Two decades after it dominated the international box office, the idea continues to carry an almost parasitic charm, as if the underlying subtext of young Kevin McCallister’s military-style antics are like narrative devices of adamant rebellion that refuse to fade quietly into the night. That doesn’t place it beyond the restriction of its narrow intentions, but it does give it an edge that holds certain nostalgia over us today, especially as the awareness becomes clearer that good holiday films tend to have no meaningful shelf life.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Krampus / *** (2015)

“Krampus” begins with a potent shot of irony, in a slow-motion sequence where cheerful holiday music plays over the questionable antics of angry retail shoppers stampeding through a sale. Their faces divulge the intoxicating dangers of commercialism, and the employees exhibit fear and injury with almost comical severity. To the director, this is what Christmas time has become – a display of extreme contradictions, in which the implication that good tidings must come in the form of expensive material possessions has changed our outlook to one of abundant pessimism. You wouldn’t ordinarily suspect that kind of forethought to worm its way through any sort of holiday movie in this day and age, but it is there, I am sure, to underline his more sensational motives. The characters in this movie are ready to drop the formalities of tradition and come out swinging against one another – even in the context of Christmas get-togethers – but a listening ear from beyond has picked up on that frequency, and is ready to unleash an arsenal of its own horrifying doing. Nothing is worse during the holidays then one’s loss of hope, because it brings out the shadows of devious energies ready to unravel all that we take for granted.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Saving Christmas / zero stars (2014)

He begins his diatribe as most do in the precursors to holiday yarns: seated at the front of a crackling fire, a Christmas tree in the backdrop and stockings hanging from an elaborate mantle façade. His smug, unsavory smile cloaks a disgust for inclusive perspectives, and his words – clearly improvised – rattle on about the contemptuous nature of differing opinions. No, these are not the joyful invites into a world of good cheer and worldly connections; they are the damning indictment against any person in the audience who has ever shared a more broad view of the holiday meaning, especially one that includes considering anything beyond fundamental Christian values. If these warnings had come from anyone less devoted to the cause than Kirk Cameron, we might have just assumed innocence, or even irony. But knowing that they belong to this, a self-proclaimed authority of the teachings of Christ, is to find oneself trapped in the embrace of a self-indulgent ideology. The concept itself would be dimwitted if it weren’t so dangerous.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Disturbia / *** (2007)

The main character in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” a photographer with voyeuristic curiosity, was by many measures the most sophisticated of modern movie heroes. An everyday observer whose intrusive behaviors mirrored the sentiment of curious moviegoers, he made the sorts of discoveries that have become the anticipation of the audience, and countered the reveals with a clever brand of wisdom, caution and investigative proficiency; by all reasoning, he seemed to follow a routine that is as ideal as it is effective. So potent was his prowess for studying the full disclosure of others that when it came to building the chutzpah of protagonists in similar stories over the years, most filmmakers turned to him as their primary source of inspiration. But seldom before – save for fringe endeavors and television remakes – has anyone made an active attempt to retell the entire underlying experience of L.B. Jefferies in any implicit detail. There simply has been no need for it. And in the age where his initial discoveries play like minor offenses compared to what is possible, why would anyone spare the time to reach that far into the standards of old for anything, least of all a mere characterization?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Horrible Bosses / *1/2 (2011)

“Horrible Bosses” begins with a smart premise about a group of friends exacting revenge on a slew of corrupt professional supervisors, and then slowly but gradually descends into the meandering embrace of excess, stupidity and tragic comic timing. By this point, you recognize the trend more than you should: it has almost become customary in movies like this for friends who are down on their luck to get involved in some kind of conflict that causes them to react with eccentric flair (not to mention dialogue that could be uttered by any simpleton standing in line at a convenience store). What provokes filmmakers to still find those generic quirks amusing is its own issue – but why did actors like Jason Bateman, Colin Farrell and Kevin Spacey, so clearly in a league of their own, agree to partake in such a shoddy exercise of those qualities? Did story conferences leave anyone optimistic that they were dealing with material that was funny, or did they just assume that the charisma of their co-stars would be enough to offset the reality that the jokes were trying way too hard?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Nine to Five / ***1/2 (1980)

Audiences leap at the chance to share a bond with characters that mirror their everyday struggles, but few have been quite as focused (or resonating) as those that occur in the workplace. Colin Higgins’s “Nine to Five,” one of the more popular films set in office culture, is as relevant in that sentiment as it is funny. Many ought to have expected it to fade into oblivion following a mildly successful response back during its initial theatrical run, but like a stampede of epiphanies it carries on even now, rousing its viewers to assertive cognizance and inspiring a plethora of filmmakers to mirror the perspective (one of the more famous, Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” can probably be seen as an indirect remake). To the audiences of the time, the three central figures were the informed embodiment of feministic measurement; today; their situations and dialogue are reflections of the tiresome grind that has become the average American workforce, a routine of artifice and pleasantries that mask an inner disgust for corporate politics. It is one of those rare movies that goes beyond judgment because of how accurately it forecasts the nihilism in our collective professional morale.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 / *** (2015)

13 poverty-stricken districts stand united against the fascist endeavors of their totalitarian government, but only one face among them rouses the populace to the pinnacle of rebellious enthusiasm. Her name is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), and over the course of two years of dangerous encounters with manipulative politicians and blood-hungry tributes, she has stood firm and defiant against a system that sought to dispose of her, and after besting her superiors in an elaborate game of slaughter they helped to create, her survival is a testament to the buried courage of a circumscribed class system. Did she open their eyes to the possibilities of hope, or were her actions merely a reminder that they had become submissive to the trials of their oppressors? Both thoughts consider the sources without identifying the certainty, but no bother: they have now come to a moment of strategy that insists they must march against the Capital in violent protest, otherwise they are doomed to a slow and painful fate that upper class sensationalists would only be too eager to exploit in front of the cameras.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Brooklyn / **** (2015)

The gulfs between the comforts of home and strange new adventures in the outside world are often the most paralyzing on our emotional well-being, but underneath those uncertainties are the chances to discover who we are meant to be. John Crowley’s “Brooklyn,” a movie as moving as it is well-made, regards those gestures in the embrace of something rare: an impulse of simplicity. If the trend of the times is projected by the entertainment it yields, then it is no wonder such an idea seems so foreign to us right now; it is no longer just enough to tell a basic story about the inner challenges of mere characters, because audiences would rather rest in the embrace of more complicated – and action-driven -- endeavors. Perhaps that suggestion lends credence to the necessity of an arrival like this, though. At the core of all the worldly nonsense that fills our vision, we embody an existence where we must love, experience and find happiness amongst the noise. Here is a precious little movie that removes all those outer distractions, and recalls the resonance of basic faces that have no greater goals other than to, you know, find their place in a world where it is hard to hold onto grand aspirations.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Dial M for Murder / *** (1954)

Dubious agendas populate the fabric of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder,” but not all of them are stirred from reactionary impulses. One would believe otherwise in the film’s earliest scenes, which offer a certain scandalous insight; in them, dialogue between a ravishing beauty (Grace Kelly) and a dapper gentleman (Robert Cummings) implicates them in a mutual affair of intellect and romance, a reality that may or may not be directly obvious to her husband, the distinguished but smarmy Tony (Ray Milland). Ambivalent of any potential awareness, they play it cagey through the entire masquerade, and even exchange banter with Tony as if to imply there is little more than just social commonalities that exist between them. But all the same there are cracks in the façade, because some unknown person is writing mysterious letters to poor Margo, threatening to reveal her infidelity to her husband. The identity of that enigmatic figure is little more than a blip in the thought process of the audience, because they know better; their director, the grand master of manipulators, will inevitably double back on this observation in a subsequent scene, in which Tony meets with an old friend to discuss the elaborate murder of his wife, to occur the following night of their interaction. Is he just reacting to the illicit deception occurring right in front of him? Of course he isn’t, because that would undercut the broadened sensibility of Alfred’s characterizations. Later movies may have made the act of murder much more incidental, but in this time and perspective, men were always in full possession of their homicidal tendencies.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Ruthless People / ***1/2 (1986)

The gift of perverse curiosity was the tool from which a broad supply of ‘80s entertainments acquired their creative wings, and “Ruthless People,” about a kidnapping gone completely bonkers, is one of the unspoken benchmarks of that notion. So little of the movie is actively recognized in today’s conversations about the good old days of film slapstick, but in recognizing its core values in modern contexts, we discover many of the critical origins of what can now be looked at as dark comedy. That’s because unlike the movies of the time, it was a picture that reached far beyond the thrust of mere misunderstandings or embarrassing situations, and actively involved us in the lives of unpleasant sorts who created havoc and had to, rightfully, endure their disruptive (and often hilarious) consequences. But what nerve did we have finding any of it funny, much less watchable? It’s because the screenplay implored the use of individuals who could handle their plight with savage responses, and maintained a certain sense of shrewd likeability even as the world around them was collapsing in an ambitious display of illegal trickery. No person who saw it all those years ago could deny it contained some audacious and gargantuan laughs, and few today would be able to make it through without at least volunteering a few lighthearted chuckles, even in the face of immense modern desensitization.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lessons from Criterion:
"The Magician" by Ingmar Bergman

A fair selection of identities in the Ingmar Bergman canon serve as metaphorical projections of the director’s own inner workings, but none confront his thinking as directly as Dr. Vogler does in his mysterious “The Magician.” The great French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, a champion of those cathartic sensibilities, once referred to it as his “first self-portrait,” and perhaps in that statement it is apropos to consider the central implication in greater context. While the emerging artists of international cinema were still discovering their identity in the 1950s, their endeavors reflected a negation of the melodramatic tendencies of Hollywood, and instead sought to challenge the sweeping deceptions by telling stories that existed close to their eager (and often weathered) hearts. The examples left behind by Ozu, Clouzot, Kurosawa, Goddard, Fellini and even Truffaut were the embodiment of that sentiment, an anchoring dose of evidence in perpetuating the concept of auteur theory. But by the time Bergman got involved in the movement, it was no longer just a matter of recognizing those sentiments in a mere yarn; to him, they had to be visualized in the sincere faces of his actors, all of whom didn’t so much occupy space in a narrative as they exemplified a personal thesis within the framework of his meditative thought process.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Peanuts Movie / *** (2015)

Despite the reality of our times to sensationalize family entertainment in massive amounts of color and whimsy, some tiny part of us longs for the days of simpler values. They allowed us to get to the center of narrative philosophies, in which storytellers had something compelling to say, and pitched them home in the hearts of characters we found great commonality with. Those possibilities are at their most precious, I feel, in cartoons; made within the milieu of childhood considerations, they gave young adventurous eyes the chance to comprehend the imaginative depth of the world around them, how to deal with tragedy or danger, and what they could do to instill joy in themselves and others. It is, by all measures, the medium where experienced voices come alive and new ones can be made, usually without the unrelenting nihilism that is prevalent among the modern masses. Only recently did those ideas begin losing their shape in the rush of new technology; as computers improved the dexterity of the images, such yarns lost the nerve to get beneath the surface. The long term consequences are, unfortunately, running silent; as such endeavors continue to drive home box office business, movie studios are exacerbating a growing problem among young minds, which have been taught to be won over by pomp and circumstance instead of plots that might speak to their emotional development.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre / **1/2 (1974)

Though it was invented for distinctly opposing purposes, the chainsaw has been the central breakpoint in the eras of horror filmmaking. Before it came to pass as an instrument of chaos in Tobe Hooper’s violent and disturbing “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” movies about frightening situations were usually filled with supernatural jolts or ominous forces in the shadows, usually as a means for inspiring nervous fun; on rare instances, some of them rose above the confines of lurid fantasy in order to regard their situations with certain realism. But the introduction of this single tool into the mix, a weapon of brutal force and ridiculous overkill, indirectly gave birth to the modern customs of the genre’s more masochistic voices, and within a decade it created what we now refer to as the “slasher” picture, in which all of the outlying terror is marginalized to situations in which ambivalent victims – usually teenagers – are lined up and knocked off in very bloody ways. Over time the popularity of those values gave added rise to an underlying beast in more creative overachievers, and today it’s virtually impossible to see any movie about murderous rampages without squirming somewhere in the process. So much has been visualized in the sadistic torture of the human body that the imagination has no room for interpretation, and our nerves have been deadened from the impact of repetitively harsh sensations.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The New Revolution

We are both blessed and befuddled to be part of the growing accessibility of knowledge. What once must have been sought out in the corners of obscurity is now constantly at our fingertips, and our incessant thirst for information has been quenched by a rush of new devices plugged into the outer-reaches of cyberspace. The advancement of modern technology is, by all measures, the new frontier of the human existence. Fifteen years ago it was seen as remarkable that anyone with a home computer could plug into a worldwide network to exchange ideas and communication; now, even those realities seem primitive, and with the advent of tablets and smart phones people can now swap data while constantly on the move, never losing sight of their busy lives even while the Internet stretches their conscious focus.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Conjuring / ***1/2 (2013)

Our weary eyes have peered into nearly every dark corner of every rickety old house that has ever been seen in a horror film, but when it comes to the jaunt occurring in James Wan’s “The Conjuring,” there is cause to question our preconceived understanding: it is, in a rare instance, an excursion of undeniable freshness. That is not to say it is a particularly original one, mind you, but the nature of its focus challenges us to consider the possibilities of multi-faceted perspectives. Elusive among many modern ghost stories, this movie thinks outside the box, merges multiple concepts and carries an audience through an arsenal of thrills that are not cheap, swift or overly stylized by visual excess. And that is noteworthy given the limited dexterity of its excessive filmmaker, too; previous at the helm of “Saw” and “Insidious,” Wan has grappled consistently with the beast known as modulation, and frequently succumbs to more sensationalized standards. Does he prefer to second-guess the desires of his audience, or does he not trust his ability to work under the arc of a mild temperament? Here is a film that gets him precisely on the right track, and does so under the guidance of a compelling story, solid characterizations and an underlying menace that genuinely seems like it wants to reach out and cause us discomfort.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Goodnight Mommy / ***1/2 (2015)

There is a great secret hidden in the fabric of “Goodnight Mommy,” and its disclosure is of such stirring capacity that the film devised around it mandates two dueling perspectives: the inkling to provide useful clues and the urge to dodge obvious ones. It’s a tricky balancing act for any movie that must walk the fine line of ambiguity before a disruptive climax, but here is one that does both without calling attention to the inevitable. It doesn’t even seem to realize where things are headed. For nearly ninety minutes, we are paralyzed in the quiet embrace of a strange and dubious series of circumstances, and questions fill us with underlying perplexity. Who are these characters? Why are they so distant with one another? What is causing them to act out: unfounded fear, or a detail that we are missing that they refuse to discuss? And then, in a moment that is virtually unexpected, the dialogue brings us into a moment of clarity that is as shocking as it is profound, causing us to question not only the actions that come before, but how we chose to respond to them in the first place. Many a motion picture will attempt to pull the rug from underneath us, but seldom is it yanked with this much potency, or with such a lack of obvious foreshadowing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Insidious: Chapter 3 / *** (2015)

What a relief is must be to Leigh Whannell, the man behind the screenplays of half a dozen recent horror films, to finally arrive at the pole vault position of film creation. Already well versed in the many methods of urgent storytelling (not to mention some on-screen depictions of them), his love of this volatile genre has percolated through an arsenal of endeavors in the last decade, suggesting his appetite for all things devious in an indirect fashion while supplying him critical outlets for his creative chutzpah. While results vary from thoughtful to over-the-top, they all nonetheless point towards an inspiration that is faithful to the subject matter at hand. Like Wes Craven and Clive Barker, you can sense his underlying passions based on the enthusiasm of his work. So it is often a wonder that no one in the last ten years has given him the chance to helm such a movie from the director’s chair. And now, of all things for him to finally cross that bridge on, the reins get turned over to him on the set of this, the third entry into a movie series that he helped create.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Last House on the Left / *** (2009)

So there I am, staring down at a showing of the modern remake of “Last House on the Left” – yet another attempt to take the horror successes of the past and reinvent them with modern sensibilities – when a funny thing begins to happen. I start getting actively involved. No, not in the sense of hurling silent protest or exemplifying disgust at what is going on, but in a regard of more serious contemplation: this was not going to be one of those perverse Hollywood byproducts meant to stretch the possibilities of desensitization. Perhaps it has become our nature to expect the worst of such scenarios when major studios decide to visually upgrade notable achievements of the previous generation – they have certainly supplied enough evidence of that trend – but never in my most cynical dreams did I expect to walk away from the experience of this particular outing without feeling some sense of anger or sadness. This is a genuine film, well made and precise with its intentions, and considerate of the acknowledgment that there is a psychological art to the criminal mind beyond the visualization of senseless torture and death.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Crimson Peak / **1/2 (2015)

Literary theory dictates that ghosts must exist for one of two primary reasons: to harvest negative energies or to herald important warnings, both usually directed towards ambivalent onlookers. The foundation of their existence can vary depending on a story’s tone, but almost always the root causes are the same –violent tragedies have left them in a state of otherworldly confusion. One of the more humorous ironies is that few characters contemplate those possibilities when they come face to face with such apparitions, often assuming that they are capable of only the worst fates. Perhaps the principles of some modern interpretations have violated those quintessential rules – the more seasoned architects believed that ghosts can only haunt, not attack or harm – but who is to say they could really be any worse than the living beasts that walk among us already? The reality is that they are byproducts of a world with much more menacing energies, and their refusal to leave is indicative of more singular agendas; they must endure for the sake of either redemption of vengeance, lest they be doomed to walk through eternity in a fog of aimlessness and despair.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Insidious: Chapter 2 / *1/2 (2013)

A shameless cliffhanger is the biggest disservice a film can offer to a prospective sequel, and that’s exactly what happens to the foundation of the whacky “Insidious: Chapter 2.” You remember the situation well, I’m sure: at the conclusion of the prior endeavor, a key character in the urgent rescue of a young boy was (potentially) possessed by a restless malevolent spirit, resulting in the tragic death of a critical asset to the supernatural fight. When its identity was implied via a picture taken on a digital camera, the screen faded to black and left us with the essential focus question: what happened to all those who are now stuck with a menacing monster? The director, James Wan, is used to that gimmick; after helming the first “Saw” installments – which prided themselves on such last-ditch trickery in order to propel interest through a slog of sequels – he has grown accustomed to the notion of saving the biggest reveal for the final moments. That is acceptable in a series that uses the ploy to audience expectation, but it doesn’t work here, and what both he and his writer have done is given us a follow-up that doesn’t play so much as an isolated story as it does an extended climax.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer / ***1/2 (1986)

The bone-chilling opening scenes of “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” carry a very ominous subtext: several of them replicate actual crime scene findings of real-life homicide. In their presentation is a pattern that amplifies their findings to the pinnacle of unnerving reactions; the camera cautiously swerves into view of deceased victims frozen in poses of terrible death, and the speakers vibrate with the muffled sounds of their final moments, most of which include horrific screaming as they are violently attacked and murdered. They are not necessarily related to one another, but a common bond does unite them – namely, they are victims of the same man, a creature of corrupt morality who must feed on the power of other’s fading life essences. What drives men like him to the brink of that urge? That is always the question, it seems, in a genre that must consider the antagonists directly. Some do so because their internal suffering has made it their only satisfying outlet. For a rugged loner like Henry, the notion of causing death seems merely to be an act of passing time in an existence that slogs along without purpose or joy.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Visit / *** (2015)

The greatest pain – and often the most penetrating terror – frequently comes from sources near and dear, arriving at the epicenter of our awareness when our outlooks are shattered by underlying torment. Sometimes that misery can be construed into something of a sympathetic nature, but more often than not it is built on the threshold of dangerous inner demons, and is so horrific to face that the discovery is just as jarring as it is dangerous. The acknowledgment that even treasured friends and family could put us in that sort of danger only amplifies the tension – as much as it is unfathomable to find oneself at the heart of uncertainty, it’s intriguing to consider the forces that encourage us to think past such forbidden barriers. What drove the killers of the “Scream” pictures, for instance, to torment poor Sidney Prescott when they were so relatively close to her in her tragic personal life? Was the force of religious fundamentalism really powerful enough to undermine the motherly instinct of Mrs. White, who would eventually turn against young Carrie in an act of insane violence?

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Evil Dead / *** (1983)

A good horror film is not necessarily dependent on a marriage of specific qualities, but can be simply so because the enthusiasm of its creators fill the screen with almost perverse allure. “The Evil Dead,” one of the most celebrated of the classic canon, falls distinctly into the latter category. When it was first unleashed onto unsuspecting audiences well over 30 years ago, few could regard it with serious conviction; it was one of the first films of its respective genre to earn the dreaded “X” rating, and the consensus was – even among those who were completely sold on the content – that it was one of the more visually reprehensible exercises of its time. Yet it endured across the gulf of evolving artistic standards, eventually gaining prestige among a slew of genre fanboys that elevated it to cult-like importance in the subsequent years. Their reasoning: within its macabre and grotesque images are the foundations for some of the most spirited personalities of the horror pantheon, two of whom would not only go on to work together on equally popular sequels but would also lead rather fastidious careers in the Hollywood limelight. To them, the movie plays like an entry point into the infectious minds of their favorite overachievers, who did exactly what they wanted and offered no apologies.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Green Inferno / ** (2015)

A great many films of questionable motives went on to inspire the career of Eli Roth, but one that raises more questions than others is Ruggero Deodato’s “Cannibal Holocaust.” Often branded the most depraved horror movie of its time, it was the pinnacle of cynicism in its respective genre, a breakpoint in the cultural zeitgeist that heralded a level of gratuity that went far beyond the standards of any existing filmmaker. Up to that point, audiences could at least depend on an underlying fantasy of primitive special effects and coarse production standards to undermine the authenticity of what they were seeing. People going to those movies had fun because they knew what they were witnessing was an act of elaborate artifice. But the arrival of a sub-genre of cannibal-oriented scarefests – usually in the hands of very motivated international artists – robbed them of their one level of security, often shocking observers to the point of mental exhaustion. Deodato’s own picture remains the most notorious of that standard because it went far deeper than any other endeavor of its kind; in many cases, what you were seeing on screen was more than just a mere act for the camera.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Insidious / *** (2010)

Renai Lambert is not exactly fond of her family’s new home. An old construct of drafty corridors and rickety staircases, it groans with each puttering footstep, and echoes with haunting reverb as the noises of her young children carry over a nearby baby monitor. Eventually, she begins to sense presences walking among the shadows – of what, she is unsure, but with the passing days they drift closer, sometimes close enough to make eye contact. Then, in a moment that seems to transpire without correlation, her young son Dalton slips into a coma following a fall in the attic. But doctors are stumped by the predicament; there is no brain damage, and no hint of direct trauma. What caused him to drift out of this world and into one of eternal slumber? Over the course of three long months of searching for answers, they become obvious in rapid fashion; the strange apparitions drift dangerously closer, threaten the safety of their prey all while wreaking physical havoc on their quaint little abode. Most movies about ghosts wandering the halls of old houses demand that such business be investigated and resolved at the source of the house, but James Wan’s “Insidious,” a rather effective little horror film, may be the first in which the screenplay asks its victims to move away halfway into the conflict.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Mad Max / *** (1979)

In awe of George Miller’s  recent “Mad Max: Fury Road” – and the precision of craftsmanship that went into its ambitious chase sequences – I found it essential to return to the first source of that inspiration, a small and inexpensive movie that began life as a shell for one director to pour his distinct vision into. The first endeavor about the wandering avenger Max – then an agent of justice who had yet to endure his inevitable personal tragedies – was a broad and coarse character study without the refined world that we recognize as post-apocalyptic (though it did, in fact, open after the end of a devastating war). What separated it from a host of other law-enforcer-turned-punisher vehicles of that time, however, came down to a principal of technical values; it was not one of those pictures that blurred the coherence of a story in the jumbled images of nonsensical action, but one that celebrated the danger of the open road in photography with impeccable clarity. The majority of the picture seems to exist as an open protest of the time’s shoddy trend, and there is not a moment where we suspect the man handling the cameras isn’t willing to be right there in the middle of the chaos along with his subjects, potentially in the hands of incredible danger. In those first images are the seeds that would go on to become the elaborate shows of the later films of this series, arguably brought to a furor of artistic perfection in the most recent.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lessons from Criterion:
"Watership Down" by Martin Rosen

At the heart of every resonant childhood fable is a creature of nobility, wandering cautiously through the minefields of danger without surrendering to defeat in a contemptuous domain. In recognizing that prospect through chronicles of ambitious animals, few have been as captivating as rabbits. How do such small, seemingly inconsequential beings become profound avatars of such purity in conviction, though? Is it some unseen source of wisdom they possess, or something evolutionary? Writers have spent generations grappling with those perspectives in a wide array of subjects, but seldom have they been as consistently generous – or as deeply affecting – as those involving the lives of shy, burrowing rodents. Their eternal plight in an existence against bloodthirsty predators seems to provide an apt context in recognizing the lost qualities of our primal instincts, and there is dialogue in “Watership Down” – the greatest story ever written about a rabbit – that frames them in the embrace of an eloquent aphorism: “All the world will be your enemy, prince of a thousand enemies. They will catch you, and kill you… but first, they must catch you!”

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser / ***1/2 (1974)

Minds do not always harvest congenial reactions when they are exposed to foreign realities, especially when they are so grossly detached from them for lengthy tenures. That is one of many significant functions of “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” Werner Herzog’s stirring fable about a young German who mysteriously wandered into Nuremberg square on a warm day in 1828, and right into the clutches of a culture that would leave him in the throes of permanent alienation. His origins are of inexplicable depth, and yet help to emphasize the challenge of exploring such strange surroundings. For the first two decades of his life he was chained to the wall of a dungeon in an undisclosed area, and was never permitted to learn or experience anything beyond the comfort of a bed made of hay. He could barely walk, speak nothing coherent and had no knowledge of simple human interaction. Where did he come from? How did he escape? As perplexing as his arrival – and subsequent integration – came to be, perhaps they were just minor exercises compared to the nature of his ambiguous upbringing, which seemed to cast its own dubious shadow on his brief time in civilization before it ended just as mysteriously as it began.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

There Will Be Blood / **** (2007)

A good cinematographer will reveal the spirit of a film by framing its subjects in virtuosic complexity, but a more gifted one will use the magnetism of a profile to infiltrate an entirely different sphere of reckoning. One must wonder if such inspiration is what follows those who come to photograph Daniel Day Lewis, one of the most captivating presences that has ever graced the movie screen. Never one to shy away from roles that stretch his remarkable dexterity, it becomes more than just a simple use of focus when a camera is drawn to his face; he seems to pull it away from all peripheral distractions, like a magnet of passion who must penetrate to the core of psychosis and expose its features in a head-on glory. As both a symbol of gentle courtesy and a figure of power and corruption, he quietly celebrates the nature of his characters in devious assurance. So it is little wonder that film photographers – usually so dominating on most movie sets – seem to regard his power with submissive awareness. And if such minds are genuinely in synch with the possibilities of their material, they would not be wise to ignore the opportunity of a golden standard.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Notes on a Scandal / ***1/2 (2006)

“People have always trusted me with their secrets, but who do I trust with mine?” Barbara Covett asks this key question in one of the many voice-overs that litter Richard Eyre’s “Notes on a Scandal,” but her announcement comes on the cusp of more menacing intentions: namely, the destruction of one woman’s own way of life. Most films would be eager to delay such devious realities, but not this one; it is clear from the first moments that much trouble is going to occur, and all of it in the hands of women whose emotions overpower their reason. Given the severity of their situations, one couldn’t argue much with caving to that temptation, either. When we first meet Barbara – a grumpy school teacher who recites her thoughts as they go into a revealing diary – she is merely a cautious observer in the lives of ordinary sorts who grind through their boring routines. Her silent disgust of them is impenetrable; descriptions escape her mouth that are sardonic and nature and often cruel beyond measure. But does anyone really know how she feels? Of course not, because that would undercut her opportunity to get closer to the newest teacher on the faculty, whose own secrets will come to be the fuel for a sly game of manipulation between them both.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Taking of Deborah Logan / *** (2014)

The mind may be a tool of immense possibility, but in a weakened state it can also become the nucleus for chilling prospects. Horror movies have gotten exceptionally convincing at supplying that rationale in order to validate some of their menacing ideas, but they come to an intriguing crossroads in “The Taking of Deborah Logan,” in which the source of terror appears to originate in, of all possible places, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. She is an elderly and kind lady of proper upbringing who lives out in the great countryside, and when a trio of college students come to document her case for a filmic dissertation on the saddening nature of the illness, their cameras seem to burn a hole through the fabric of their expectations (not to mention the blinders of her caregivers). Sure, a terminal case like this can make any normal person do a number of incoherent things… but is Alzheimer’s itself entirely responsible for violent tendencies? Self mutilation? Or worse yet, moments of delusion in which a house might react with violent warning? Strange things are gradually overtaking the Logan family, and here are cameras that are unwilling witnesses to a plot that will have everyone involved questioning the validity of what they experience.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Wes Craven, 1939 - 2015

“Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”

That quote – as well as many morsels of seasoned wisdom, both on screen and off – is now all that is left of the man that once was the gifted Wes Craven. Gone at the age of 76 due to brain cancer, the assemblage of dedicated fans that he acquired over the course of a prosperous 40-year career must now unite in contemplative pause, jolted by the shock of his sudden passing all while trying to remain in perspective of celebrating an extensive backlog of notable film accomplishments. Many referred to him as the “Master of Horror” during the height of his popularity, and perhaps that title is as apropos as any singular classification can be; he was a pioneer that brought foreboding ideas to the height of their fearsome possibilities. What was a scary movie, really, other than a collection of grotesque visuals meant to inspire momentary outburst in local multiplexes in the early years of cinema? When he took hold of the concept, he did the unthinkable: trapped it all into a context of shuddering realism.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Precious Wisdom from a Silent Balcony

From the first moment that movie criticism awakened these youthful senses, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert have been at the driver’s seat of my creative aspirations. In life, they took on an almost mystical essence as figureheads of a quiet destiny; while they years have chugged along, the remains of their influence reverberate with the kind of astounding richness that settles within, and adds drive to an evolving perspective. That their careers – and their interactions – now remain frozen in a stasis of countless YouTube videos and ongoing personal discussions is as inspiring as it is haunting, and for nearly every week of my adult life I have ventured into their world for more thoughtful insight. That world seems much smaller now that their guidance in informing our future has been silenced by mortality, and yet they remain a symbol of the enduring work ethic of movie journalists. How they did it for so long, and so tirelessly, is a prospect few of us can begin to comprehend, much less compete with.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Purge: Anarchy / ** (2014)

Sometimes a long stretch of time between two horrible moments can transpire in a rapid flash (at least if they are planned for). A good year or so went by between the arrival of the first and second “Purge” movies, but I would wager that our fearful anticipation could never match that of the characters, many of whom are not so much witnesses to dreadful realities as they are victims earmarked for extermination. For them, a year must move by in a blink of awareness. That’s because they occupy space in a world where the politics of power forces are interlaced with the cruelest (and most narrow) perspective of Darwinian superiority. Every year, on one night for a straight 12 hours, the “New Founding Fathers” of America commence the annual “purging,” a nationwide ceremony in which all crime is legalized and ordinary people are given the opportunity to “free the beast” from within, assuming they aren’t killed by someone else possessing an even more bloodthirsty urge than their own. What that means – at least in the movies – is that the human race becomes a living example of corruption in action. Who are the ones who take advantage of their rights? Who is more successful? In a world landscape where lower income classes are circumvented by the pull that comes with having money, the rich must become the target of study in a picture like this, otherwise there is little need to ponder how else a situation like this might play out in a genuine civilized society.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hedwig and the Angry Inch / **** (2001)

Perhaps it is just a cruel irony that drag queens and transsexuals, often reduced to caricatures and sneered at by mainstream society, adopt makeup patterns that allow them to appear so lively. Under the elaborate image of sharp eyebrows, heavy eye-liner and broad smears of lipstick and rouge, the face often hides melancholy; they are usually carrying the sorts of secrets that can only be escaped by acting out, usually in theatrical impulses or with biting sarcasm. That is not necessarily the absolute truth when it comes to their presence in queer culture, but it is surely the most prominent running theme of John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” To contemplate that prospect is to open a gate in which we can begin to understand the fractured mental state of the hero, a man who has endured harsh pain and betrayal at the hands of treasured loved ones, and yet wanders into his nightly performances with frontal ambivalence; he is going to sing his heart out, tell stories and always do so with flamboyant gusto. Behind the scenes, unfortunately, very little of that carries over, and in an existence that is made miniscule by negative public perceptions, a thorough portrait emerges that is sad, haunting, dynamic and even rousing. We are not just experiencing the life of a person here; we are embodying his agony like friends in powerless observation.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Lessons from Criterion:
"The Killing" by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick was a mere 27 years old when he undertook directing responsibilities for “The Killing,” but his overwhelming sense of perspective was indicative of a natural-born talent reaching the frenzied thrust of possibility. Seldom (at least up to that point) had a relatively new face in the world of film so audaciously risen to the demand of such ambitious challenges; with a small budget and an even tighter shooting schedule (not to mention no personal salary), his endeavors yielded a picture of reputable prowess that declared his impending importance over the coming years. For a time as volatile as the late 50s, that was more profound than it was revelatory. Because Hollywood was fairly impenetrable in the days of dominant personalities like Cecil B. DeMille and Billy Wilder standing behind the camera, how far could a lowly aspiring photographer from New York realistically go? Against all odds and a plethora of obstacles that would have instigated mental collapse in a host of others, here was a man who possessed distinct vision, controlled every element of his composition and orchestrated an end result that was as sharp as it was methodical. In its gorgeous frames rests one of the greatest prophecies of modern cinema: the coming of the most important filmmaker of his generation.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Tangerine / ***1/2 (2015)

Our natural instinct to consider Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” from the perspective of an unlikely buddy comedy is, perhaps, not at all surprising. There is consistency in the film’s tone that suggests it is exactly what the filmmakers were going for; throughout the Hollywood misadventures of two transgender prostitutes on the hunt for a cheating boyfriend/pimp, an abundance of quips and one-liners are hurled at the screen in rapid supply, usually bookended by instances of flamboyant flair or uproarious confrontations filled with attitude. We laugh frequently – sometimes out loud, at other times uncomfortably. But then the movie’s true nature comes to light in a final two minutes of sobering conviction, in which we are reminded that in all things, none of what these two leads endure here should be at all hilarious. Why does the movie seem to mislead in that way? I suspect given the times we live in, the twist is metaphorical for how we look at the transgender minority in this country. It’s easy to find comedic value in the presence of someone who walks through life like they are play-acting, but maybe, just maybe, they do so because they are hiding darker realities: namely, the realization that they remain such glaring outcasts in a very slow trek towards social acceptance.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Tusk / 1/2* (2014)

Mere words cannot adequately describe Kevin Smith’s “Tusk” – only obscene gestures. In the lengthy pass of time we spend discovering bad movies, so rarely does one come along that fills our heads with such toxic impurities, and does so on part of some cheeky in-joke that only the director and his close buddies seem to understand. Based entirely on a dare that originated from one of Smith’s very own podcasts, what exists on screen is an exercise in random debauchery, a self-indulgent vomitorium that knows no limits of tact or plausibility, and misses every note in orchestrating an effective rhythm in carrying its bizarre ideas forward. The greatest tragedy, I suspect, is the intention. What gave Smith, a guy with a fairly established directing career, the shameless conceit to put any of this on screen? Did he really find it funny (or worse yet, scary)? A great many disgusting things occur in abundance here for the majority of the 100-minute running time, but none of them even approach the discomfort we feel in knowing just how pathetic these filmmakers look. One hopes they all remind themselves that they were once good at their professions before sinking further into this maw of stupidity.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Ant-Man / *** (2015)

Somehow the setup always amounts to the same structure: a brilliant mind in a giant business organization experiments with something that can alter human gene structure, and inadvertently gives birth to a superhuman being that becomes targeted by a corrupt villain within the corporation. It is the tried-and-true formula of many a comic book series in the Marvel Universe, and minus subtle variations the results yield stories about unlikely heroism in the presence of innocents who barely understand their immense possibilities. That was certainly the selling point of turning “Spider-Man” and “Hulk” into film adaptations, and now comes one of the more obscure examples in the Marvel line: “Ant-Man,” about a guy who puts on a special suit that, bewilderingly, transforms him into a tiny object no bigger than an insect. What was such a suit made for? To hear this bizarre plot tell it, such a creation would allow the corporation to build an army of tiny soldiers to sell to the military, who would be skilled enough to undermine the operations of enemy nations without ever being seen by their opposition. Right, because men the size of ants are really agile enough – even in a super-strong suit – to completely destroy the momentum of national enemies possessing weapons of warfare.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Mirror of Perspective

I am slowly emerging from the shadows of the worst period of illness in my life. Never one to resist the attractions of common viruses, 2015 stuck me with three (four, if you can residual contagions). The first, commencing on Mother’s Day after a visit with sickly family members, was the Norovirus. A crippling cold came just a month later. And three weeks after that, I developed a throat infection – later discovered to be bacterial in nature – that quite literally paralyzed me in the clutches of fever and weakness. We thought it might have been strep throat, but after symptoms dissipated in four days, I paid the idea little regard (no one near me contracted anything, either, which violates the principle of strep as a very contagious infection). But then that relapsed further into heavy breathing problems, uncontrollable body sweats and a concerning heartrate. For the first time in most of my adult life, I was fearful that I might have contracted something life-threatening.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Mr. Holmes / *** (2015)

The general perception of Sherlock Holmes is that he was a man of impeccable observation and droll sensibilities, often wandering through his story arcs with tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. His legend is embellished further by rather silly devices of presence: a deerstalker hat that was traditionally worn by men in hunting parties, and a long pipe that was as absurd as it was overkill. To any who might have read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s yarns about the British detective and his loyal sidekick Watson, his was a persona that leapt from the pages as if a cartoon trapped in live action backdrops. And yet we admired him tremendously in spite of his more zany values, mostly because he legitimately was good at what he did, and we believed he did it all for the sake of bettering the world. Those core qualities are replicated in the underlying narrative current of “Mr. Holmes,” but something starker has crept into those realizations. Old age changes men as fast as the tide changes a shoreline, and what once was the visualization of an all-knowing detective has become a portrait of a frail man seeking penance for wrongs that seem to cast ominous shadows.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Minions / ** (2015)

“I would wager a movie entirely about their antics would be welcomed immediately by moviegoers… They are simply too amusing to ignore.” – Taken from the review for “Despicable Me 2”

When one forecasts an idea without thinking about possible repercussions, he gets exactly what he deserves. Though it might have been contrary to the tone I was going for, I initially spoke highly of the Minions in the “Despicable Me” films as a way of finding silver linings in the clouds of mediocrity; never did it dawn on me, especially after the above proclamation, that a film about said ensemble would legitimately come to fruition, especially so soon after their most recent theatrical appearance. But while our youthful imaginations gravitate towards comic relief in feature cartoons because of how natural it all seems to worlds full of energy and color, could an idea like this have really amounted to something passable in a stand-alone fashion? These quirky, strange yellow underlings amuse us as consistently as Saturday morning cartoons, but never for much more. They occupy the screen with demeanors that suggest momentary distraction, reminding us how much quirk can go on in the peripheral of a whimsical animated adventure.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Pixels / *1/2 (2015)

Though it ought to have inspired something tremendously amusing, “Pixels” functions like a rally of egos down at the story conference workshop.  A hypothetical image begins to formulate in our heads very early on, in which a gathering of middle-aged comedians come together, wax nostalgia over the forgotten innocence of ‘80s boy culture, and then share in a moment where their love of old arcade games bonds them. In a moment that must have transpired like most spastic nerd fantasia of its kind, you can predict the ensuing dialogue: “What if characters in a movie sent a time capsule of those games up into space, and it was discovered by aliens who perceived it as a threat instead of a gift? Surely there’s an idea for a movie here somewhere!” Roughly one out of ten people in a focus group would respond to that premise with some level of colorful enthusiasm, while the rest of us would, I’m sure, solve the problem entirely by asking one rebuttal question: “why don’t we just go play the old video games again instead of subjecting them to something completely absurd?”

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Spy / *** (2015)

The biggest risk in film comedy comes down to a principle in writing: with the right personality carrying the material, a screenplay may not always have to embellish the essential platforms. Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig have tried their luck with this prospect over the course of several movies in the recent years, but at long last they have struck gold in “Spy,” a film that celebrates their union in an ambitious display of excitement and cheeriness that fuel a healthy arsenal of very funny wisecracks. Most of them do not originate from basic written composition either; if one were to read them directly from a script page, they would scarcely register as anything beyond half-amused scowls (or worse yet, a few muddled guffaws). But Feig, probably sensing that his work would once again wind up in certain hands, does something almost prophetic by staging them in a way to tap right into his lead star’s charismatic chutzpah; not only does she use his setups as effective outlets for wit or physicality, but in many ways sees them as a tipping point in liberating herself from the conventions of basic comedic principles. This isn’t one of those run-of-the-mill sitcoms stretched to an unendurable length, but a very sharp and pointed espionage romp that frames everything precisely, and then allows its dynamic ensemble of actors to deliver the material with a fresh sense of gusto.