Thursday, September 27, 2012

Crisp Criticism - "Arbitrage", "Ruby Sparks", "Resident Evil: Retribution", "Hit and Run", "Bachelorette"

Arbitrage (2012/US)   *

A troubled hedge fund magnate desperate to complete the sale of his trading empire makes a calamitous error.
An interesting but customarily tame wall-street picture. It is a credit to Gere’s charisma that he makes a totally iniquitous character likeable.

wd – Nicholas Jarecki                                                                                             
ph – Yorick Le Saux
pd – Beth Mickle
m – Cliff Martinez
ed – Douglas Crise
cos – Joseph G. Aulisi

p – Laura Bickford, Justin Nappi, Robert Salerno, Kevin Turen

Cast: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta, Nate Parker, Stuart Margolin

Ruby Sparks (2012/US)

A novelist struggling with writer's block becomes infatuated with his new female character, whom he wills into existence.
A film with a script that thinks it originality incarnate; in reality, it merely steals the most original aspects of a mountain of other, better films.

d – Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
w – Zoe Kazan
ph – Matthew Libatique
pd – Judy Becker
m – Nick Urata
ed – Pamela Martin
cos – Nancy Steiner

p – Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa

Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Toni Trucks, Deborah Ann Woll, Elliott Gould, Alia Shawkat, Jane Anne Thomas

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012/US)

A resistance movement battles against a corporation of the undead.
Another in a puzzlingly successful series of action-horror films that are undoubtedly stylish yet never particularly interesting or intelligible.

wd – Paul W.S. Anderson
ph – Glen MacPherson
pd – Kevin Phipps
m – tomandandy
ed – Niven Howie
cos – Wendy Partridge

p – Paul W.S. Anderson, Jeremy Bolt, Don Carmody

Cast: Milla Jovovich, Sienna Guillory, Michelle Rodriquez, Aryana Engineer, Bingbing Li, Doris Kodjoe, Johann Urb, Robin Kasyanov, Kevin Durand

Hit and Run (2012/US)

A former getaway driver jeopardizes his Witness Protection Plan identity in order to help his girlfriend get to Los Angeles.
A senseless, loud little movie told in ugly images and crass dialogue. Any evidential point is absent from the screen.

d – David Palmer, Dax Shepard
w – Dax Shepard
ph – Bradley Stonesifer
pd – Emily Bloom
m – Robert Mervak, Julian Wass
ed – Keith Croket
cos – Brooke Dulien

p – Andrew Panay, Nate Tuck, Kim Waltrip                         

Cast: Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell, Kristin Chenoweth, Tom Arnold, Bradley Cooper, Ryan Hansen, Beau Bridges, Michael Rosenbaum

Bachelorette (2012/US) *

Three friends are asked to be bridesmaids at a wedding of a woman they used to ridicule back in high school.
An extremely peculiar film, with a harsh, abnormal tone that is difficult to describe. Many of the characters motives are unclear, and their behaviour, ludicrously beastly. Despite this, the film remains funny throughout.

wd – Leslye Headland
ph – Doug Emmett
pd – Richard Hoover
m – Andrew Feltenstein, John Nau
ed – Jeffrey Wolf
cos – Anna Bingermann

p – Brice Dal Farra, Claude Dal Farra, Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Lauren Munsch

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden, Kyle Bornheimer, Rebel Wilson, Adam Scott, Ann Dowd

Friday, September 14, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012/US)

by Julien Faddoul

* 1 star

d – Benh Zeitlin
w – Benh Zeitlin, Lucy Alibar   (Based on the Play by Lucy Alibar)
ph – Ben Richardson
pd – Alex DiGerlando
m – Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin
ed – Crockett Doob, Affonso Goncalves
cos – Stephani Lewis

p – Michael Gottwald, Dan Janvey, Josh Penn

Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Jonshel Alexander, Marilyn Barbarin, Kaliana Brower, Nicholas Clark, Henry D. Coleman

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a con-job. The con in question, however, is so exquisitely implemented and so deeply layered in cinematic philosophy that I can’t help but bow in respect to the con-artist in question for pulling the sting off. I am certain of this because of its reception. When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, many felt they had witnessed a unique, magical and truly original piece of work. I see a cinematic achievement equal to that of a perfume commercial. I see an emperor without any clothes.

Strangely, I am somewhat repulsed by my own reaction to the film. I think this is because I sincerely believe that everyone concerned with the film made it with the best intentions. But one of the nasty sides of the miracle that is creation is the fact that one person’s innocence can snowball into a group's malevolence. Movies take such a long time to make that along the away self-interest and arrant egotism replace absorbed inspiration and artistic intent. This is a modern artistic attribute, at least in cinema. It is also characteristic of first-time filmmakers, as is the case with Benh Zeitlin, who directed, co-wrote and co-composed (at age 29). I understand and I sympathise. Making one’s first feature film is an incredibly daunting and fearsome undertaking and the manifestations of that can be dire. Artistic opportunism is a deadly, deadly sin that most of us have committed at one time or another. So, truly, I sympathise. Nevertheless, I was the one who got stuck with having to watch the movie, and my reaction is my reaction.

Set in the fictional section of New Orleans called "The Bathtub", the picture focuses on 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis). She is a striking figure, with her big head of hair and her little gumboots. She narrates the tale using her imagination for aggrandizement, such as conjuring up conversations with her mother, who is dead (or whatever). Hushpuppy's father Wink (Dwight Henry) is constantly preparing her for the end of the world. At one point, he simply disappears. It is later revealed that he is incredibly sick. (He has what I like to call "movie sickness", in which the only symptom is lethal coughing for no apparent reason). Then the rains come and the entire town floods. Wink and a few stubborn residents come together to help each other survive. The film is based on the play Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar, who co-wrote the screenplay.

This con is an intensely elaborate one with many different sections. The first section is plagiarism. Not inspiration, not homage, but mere theft. To call this film original, which many have done, is profoundly shocking and quite disturbing to me. The list of films that Zeitlin borrows from include Days of Heaven, Whale Rider, The Color Purple, George Washington, Where the Wild Things Are, The Tree of Life, Aguirre, Wrath of God, The Shining, The Piano and, most importantly, every single film that Hayao Miyazaki has ever made. This section is Mr Zeitlin’s one piece of foolishness as a con-artist. The phrase “reminiscent of the works of” is a tired one, but nonetheless, apt.

The second section is the film’s political agenda, which for me, is contradictory to the emotions the film is attempting to convey. When Pauline Kael first saw American Beauty, she accused it of “sucking up to educated liberals at every plot turn”. I feel Mr Zeitlin’s film makes a point only when it is suitable emotionally. Only when it “feels” right. The rest of the time, it hides behind the unconscious bravado of ambiance and sub-stratospheric imageries. Any movie set in New Orleans nowadays must have a Hurricane Katrina element to it, and all the politics that are associated. Mr Zeitlin is careful not to mention anything specifically but we do see white city people trying to forcibly evacuate the residents of The Bathtub that wish to stay. The movie takes a side on this issue, whether it wants to admit it or not.

The third section is the emotion itself, which I found barely lucid and never earned. Mr Zeitlin seems adamant in displaying The Bathtub populaces as brave, life-loving survivors. Why? The film is not really interested in their culture, or in their heritage (whatever that would be). We instead get countless scenes of heavy drinking and hedonism incarnate. But, again, what for? Their reluctance to do anything rational is never really explored. If Mr Zeitlin wants us to see everything through Hushpuppy’s eyes then the drama embodied would contain less inertia and more ambivalence. Both are bad, but the latter less so.

The fourth section are the characters. Early in the film, Wink is shown treating his daughter with alternating cruelty and disregard. Later on, he seems almost over-protective of her, treating her with pure parental devotion. Nothing whatsoever occurs between these two states that would explain this. And when I say nothing, I mean not enough. The cast itself is entirely non-professional. Mr Henry is quite good in the role, as is Miss Wallis, who is forceful and assured, but their characters and their relationship seems half-baked. They behave and emote only when the theological passageway of the film dictates it. They lurch from one emotional high-point to the next, in an attempt to keep the audience on a bellowing verge, so you cry without really knowing why you're crying. This is also aided by the film’s score composed by the director and Dan Romer, much of which is quite lovely and extremely serpentine, as well as Hushpuppy’s narration, in which it is impossible to not be reminded of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Well, maybe it’s not that impossible.

The fifth and final section is the mysticism, a requirement for any artistic con. Without revealing too much, the film contains a motif of a heard of beastly aurochs (hence the title) that are echoes of Hushpuppy’s imagination, and will later on be the guiding force of a blurring of fantasy-reality that occurs for Hushpuppy. This motif is about nothing. It is aimless mysticism that thrusts the film from experimental failure to arty rot. Of the entire con, this is Mr Zeitlin’s most egregious and unforgivable sin.

Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn’t tell its story, it sells it. It is just as much a product as Twilight or Transformers, and it sells its product as good as any commercial would. The only difference is the market that it is being sold to, which in this case is highbrow film lovers, most of whom are apparently as senseless as anyone else. Mr Zeitlin is an extremely, extremely smart young man who has left me in a state of frozen admiration. He has pulled-off this con superbly and will go on to receive accolades from critics and audiences alike.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Compliance (2012/US)

by Julien Faddoul

0 stars

wd – Craig Zobel
ph – Adam Stone
pd – Matthew Munn
m – Heather McIntosh
ed – Jane Rizzo
cos – Karen Malecki

p – Tyler Davidson, Sophia Lin, Lisa Muskat, Theo Sena, Craig Zobel

Cast: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey, Ashlie Atkinson

It was 1963 when psychologist Stanley Milgram created his electric “shock generator” with 30 switches. The switch was marked clearly in 15 volt increments, ranging from 15 to 450 volts.  He also placed labels indicating shocks level such as “Moderate” (75-120 Volts) and “Strong” (135-180 Volts). The switches 375-420 Volts were marked “Danger: Severe Shock” and the two highest levels 435-450, was marked “XXX”.  This “shock generator” was in fact phony and would only produce sound when the switches were pressed. 

40 subjects (males) were recruited via mail. In the test, each subject was informed clearly that their payment was for showing up, and they could keep the payment no matter what happens after they arrive. They were introduced to a fellow subject (who was in fact a confederate acting as a subject). The two subjects (the real subject and the con-subject) drew slips of paper to indicate who was going to be a “teacher” and who was going to be a “learner”. This lottery was rigged, and the real subject would always get the role of “the teacher”.  The teacher saw that the learner was strapped to a chair and electrodes were attached. The subject was then seated in another room in front of the shock generator, unable to see the learner. The subject was instructed to teach word-pairs to the learner. When the learner made a mistake, the subject was instructed to punish the learner by giving him a shock, 15 volts higher for each mistake.  If the subject asked who was responsible if anything would happen to the learner, the experimenter answered “I am responsible”. This gave the subject a relief and many continued.

These experiments that Milgram conducted were all I could think about during Compliance, a new film that had its premiere in January of this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The point of the experiments was merely to see how ordinary people complied with authoritative orders and the feeling of not being held responsible for their actions. They were used as part of the fallout of the Holocaust. You can freely view these experiment tapes online, or even in high school psychology classes. This film however, written and directed by Craig Zobel, should be cut up into guitar picks. Rarely have I been so unmoved, so jaded, so downright drowsed to the point of infuriation by a film that is based on such a fascinating true story.

The true story is this: Sandra (Ann Dowd) is a fast-food restaurant manager having an already bad day when the phone rings. She's told she's speaking to a policeman. Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) asks if Sandra has a young blond woman working up front. She does: Becky (Dreama Walker), who is 19. The cop then tells Sandra a woman in the police station is complaining that Becky stole something from her purse while it was on the counter, and he can see her doing it on a security tape. Said story occurred on April 9, 2004, when a call was made to a McDonald's restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky by a man claiming to be a police officer. This led to, through a series of escalating and incredibly careless circumstances, a forced sexual assault on the 19-year-old.

I’ve been somewhat, how can I put this delicately: repulsed(!) by the controversy that surrounded this film at Sundance earlier this year. Many viewers apparently walked out of the screening because they were either a) far too stirred by the film that they could no longer take it or b) felt deeply offended by the embarrassment they felt the actors (Walker in particular) were put through. This entire dialogue is absolutely venomous. It as given the movie far too much credit has a cinematic piece. If the film was either a) or b) it would be about something. Compliance isn’t. It’s not confronting, problematic, depressing or offensive, but much, much worse: its dull.

The huge, fatal, horrifying crux of the film is provided by Mr Zobel himself in a title card before the movie begins (in fact even before the title itself). It reads “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS” in gigantic letters. The second I saw this, my blood began to boil, for I knew what was to come. Not one single character progression, not one single escalating scene convinces on any level. I kept saying to myself “how could every character, every decision, every action be so utterly stupid”. But none of that matters because it’s “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS”, so any accusation of implausibility is immediately vetoed. This is a despicable artistic attitude that has become quite fashionable over the years and I would very much like it to stop. It doesn’t matter if any piece of art is based on a true occurrence or not, the piece must still be about something.

This allows the actors and director to let the characters to be as stupid as possible without concern. The true story itself is often used as an item of American stupidity. But I could not help but feel in every brain cell I had that these were not characters behaving stupidly, but rather stupid devices in a stupid script by a stupid director. The raw footage of Stanley Milgram’s tapes is far more compelling than Mr Zobel’s film, not only as an account but also, hilariously, as a piece of cinema.

Compliance is too contemptible for words. It’s so ridiculous, so unserviceable; it has so little to offer when neighboured with, not only the real life examples of such cases, but also the cinematic ones that have preceded it. I am completely baffled by the attention it has received from both critics and audiences. Most of whom feel the film is about asking the audience what they would do in such situations. I see it has a textbook example of every that is wrong the cinema today. Get me a guitar.