Monday, April 30, 2012

What I've Been Watching -- April 2012

War Horse (2011) dir. Steven Spielberg ***1/2

Damn you, Steven Spielberg, for doing this to me again! Just when I thought I was immune to your sentimental, heartfelt, populist brand of cinema, you reeled me back in again with a movie about a boy and his miraculous horse. Damn you, man! War Horse is an epic tale about a very special horse named Joey, who goes from underdog farm horse to a decorated veteran of World War I. On his journey, he goes from owner to owner, changing everyone’s lives along the way with his old fashioned perseverance and animal charms. Spielberg’s film is a throwback to the halcyon days of David Lean and John Ford with sweeping vistas, iconic hero shots, and a sincere, sweet tone that would no doubt be laced with a modern cynicism by a more current filmmaker. Part of Spielberg’s charm as a director is his unwillingness to be cynical and jaded. He wants us to love his characters and his story. Even the minor characters, from Arthur’s drunken father to a German farmer trying to take care of his orphaned granddaughter, are given respect and admiration. As seen through the eyes of the horse, these people are just people – it doesn’t matter what side they are on – and Spielberg captures this perspective admirably. His keen eye for details and shot selection are so seamless and effective that even when the plot delves into absurd territory, like Joey running through a battlefield and enduring rope after rope of barbed wire like an equine Christ, he makes you not only believe what you’re seeing, but open your heart to it as well. My only criticism of War Horse is the score. Usually, I’m a fan of John Williams’ work; he’s a legend, but this score feels uninspired. Not only does it sound like a re-hashing of his better work, it’s often mixed into scenes in quite a heavy-handed way. Spielberg’s visuals carry the day, though, like Joey himself, propelling us through this fine film with the speed and strength of a stallion.

The Rum Diary (2011) dir. Bruce Robinson **

Johnny Depp reprises his caricature of Hunter S. Thompson in the character of Paul Kemp, a wannabe journalist searching for his “voice” in 1960’s Puerto Rico in this adaptation of Thompson’s first novel. Kemp comes to Puerto Rico and joins the staff of the San Juan Star amidst major conflict both within the offices of the paper, and outside in the country. He quickly finds himself in the conflict of interest when a local PR guy, Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), tries hiring him to write publicity puff pieces about an offshore island paradise his development group is getting ready to exploit for significant profit. Kemp, tempted by alcohol, drugs, and Sanderson’s smoking hot girl, Chenault (Amber Heard), can’t seem to get his head on straight and finds himself trapped in a war for his soul. The film might have actually been good had it not been so deathly dull for the majority of its running time. The problem is that Depp’s performance is so laconic that it borders on apathetic. Kemp doesn’t develop any strength of character until the movie enters its third act, and by then no amount of crazy Giovanni Ribisi shenanigans or Amber Heard’s beautiful lips can salvage what amounts to a drunken train wreck. This is not to say The Rum Diary is without solitary pleasures. There are some terrific moments, such as when Kemp attends his first cock fight, a funny car chase ending with Kemp using 420-proof alcohol as a flamethrower, or when Chenault gets crazy drunk and enacts some early moments of Dirty Dancing at a blues dive. These moments, though, are surrounded by a plodding story that features Aaron Eckhart trying his damndest to make real estate scamming interesting, Richard Jenkins fighting with journalistic integrity and a bad toupee, and Depp trying to stay awake. Apparently, Johnny Depp spent several years trying to bring this book to the big screen. It’s well documented how close he and Thompson were as friends. But the passion Depp felt for this project just doesn’t show, and that is heartbreaking.

The Raid: Redemption (2012) dir. Gareth Evans ***1/2

In part because of hacks like Michael Bay and Brett Ratner, pure action films have really become diluted, characterized by postproduction shaky-cam effects, green screen disconnection, and overly complicated plot being pushed forward by flat characters. Gareth Evans turns to Indonesian martial arts and gives us a modern action film classic in The Raid. Why the movie has the subtitle “Redemption” here in the United States makes no sense to me, as the film does not have the issue of redemption on its mind at all. What is on its mind, though, is providing the audience a simple, engaging story that serves as a foundation for some of the most exciting martial arts sequences I’ve seen in recent years. The story follows Rama (Iko Uwais), a rookie cop on a SWAT team whose team is called upon to raid an apartment building on the bad side of town to take down an evil drug lord named Tama (Ray Sahetapy). Fifteen stories of thugs, drug addicts, and Tama’s badass henchmen await the unprepared SWAT team. The actors in this film are not professionals, but are professional fighters, and it shows. Evans avoids forcing his actors to deliver emotionally complex dialogue, but has them deliver on some outrageous action. It’s in his staging of these sequences, the closed shots, and the intuitive editing that bring us the emotion of the moment. In addition, unlike many action films where each sequence feels like it has to be bigger and better than the last, Evans allows the stakes of the action to increase without having to necessarily increase the number of players, or the amount of destruction. The fact that this foreign language action film has crossed over into American theaters that don’t specialize in foreign fare is evidence that people are looking for more personal action films that draw them into the action while still delivering the goods.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) dir. Troy Nixey **

An uninspired mess that hits every haunted house cliché beat for beat with the syncopation of a child banging on pots and pans in the kitchen. It also features a singularly awful performance from Katie Holmes whose ability to read a line is on par with untrained high schoolers trying to read lines of poetry in a textbook. Holmes is so bad that at one point I said aloud, “You know what would make Katie Holmes’ performance better in this movie? A boob job.” She is so bad that she is frequently upstaged by Bailee Madison, the child actor at the center of the film’s plot. Her character’s name is Sally, and she is feeling abandoned when her party-hardy mother sends her away to live with her career fixated father, Alex (Guy Pearce) in a creepy old house with monsters living in the basement. Her father is dating/married to/living with an interior decorator named Kim (Katie Holmes), and Sally doesn’t like her. Eventually the creatures in the basement start whispering to Sally, and like all horror movie kids, she actually wants to play with the creepy disembodied voices. Eventually we see the bodies belonging to those voices, which is why we go to monster films, and that is the moment the movie transitions from typical haunted house film, to worthy of ridicule. It takes a kitchen sink approach to the story, tossing parts of The Haunting, Poltergeist, Fall of the House of Usher, and every other haunted house film into the story like an overwhelming salad mix. Part of the movie’s appeal to me was the involvement of Guillermo del Toro as the producer. After all, he is responsible for the twisted, breathtaking fantasy creatures of Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and The Devil’s Backbone. These little gremlins look like the turd droppings from the back end of his imagination; they are about as inspired as human excrement. The only reason this movie isn’t worse is the direction of Troy Nixon, who – a couple pointless, laughable shot choices aside – is quite good at building tension within scenes despite the re-heated script.

The Woman (2011) dir. Lucky McKee **1/2

Lucky McKee made one of my favorite horror films of the aughts, May, about a misanthropic young woman who stitches together body parts from murder victims to create a doll that could become her life companion. It’s a sad, haunting, disturbing film, and served as an announcement that a new voice in horror film was on the scene. In terms of having a strong directorial voice, McKee’s The Woman, doesn’t disappoint. The film is confident and unusual in the way it handles its horrific narrative. A rural lawyer, Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), finds an unusual wild woman while hunting in the nearby woods, and decides to capture her in order for his family to “civilize” her. By “civilize,” though, he means humiliate, torture, and molest. It’s a great concept for a horror film, and provides McKee with great opportunity to explore issues of gender roles, mannered behavior, and the nuclear family. Unfortunately, McKee and collaborator Jack Ketchum (The Girl Next Door) don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said before, or said better. The Woman fails to provide a male character who rises above anything other than patriarchal stereotype. Cleek, from the moment we meet him, is the traditional alpha male father figure, so it isn’t surprising when we discover he beats his wife, molests his oldest daughter, and has nothing but bad intentions for the mysterious woman in the woods. Had he been more complex – or at least played more ambiguously by the awkward Bridgers – the film might have provided us with a reason to see why Cleek’s choices might be good ones. Instead, the women all become victims of the dominant male, which is about as cliché as it gets in a horror film. Yet, despite this problem at the heart of the story, McKee knows how to build suspense and set-up some devastating sequences that do more than shock, such as the scene in which Cleek and his passive wife clean the woman up, or when Cleek’s creepy son decides to pay the woman a visit alone. As a whole, The Woman is a failure, but it has some very exciting parts.

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