The Double

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Film, 2013

The Double has a lot of things going for it in terms of craft, including gorgeous compositions and color, smooth, languid pacing, and nuanced, effortless performances from its main cast (even if the camera movement goes a little overboard occasionally). Unfortunately, it’s all in the service of a feature-length ode to “but I’m a nice guy.” Eisenberg’s Simon is a sensitive soul invisible to those around him, his greatest wish to be noticed and appreciated by Wasikowska’s Hannah, who is more interested in Simon’s confident, successful double, James. How dare she, oh the horror. Honestly, if I never see another filmed POV of a man looking longingly at a woman, as if she’s a desirable object to be attained, I’ll be extremely happy. The movie does directly acknowledge the fact that its protagonist is a huge creep, an outright stalker, but ultimately we’re meant to wish for Simon’s desire to be fulfilled. It’s a notion that, despite the absolutely lovely decoration, comes off as very ugly.


Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer_poster

Film, 2013

Snowpiercer has a cast filled to the brim with brilliant, entertaining actors and a director whose back catalogue is, for my money, closer to perfect than any other working director’s. Despite this, I didn’t go into it with high expectations, mostly due to some pretty dull trailers. And my fears were confirmed. Whereas Bong Joon-ho’s previous films are delightfully entertaining with complex themes so subtle that engaging with them is basically optional, Snowpiercer is as direct and hard to move around in as the train it takes place in. I can see how the stripped-down nature of the concept could seem like an exciting one for an action film; A train full of Earth’s last survivors where poor people live in squalor in the back and rich people live in decadence in the front, and the journey from one end to the other. It’s a concept that travels along with its plot, and has momentum built into it; It’s probably the most inherently action oriented concept for a movie since Speed. And the themes of class are sound, they’re astute and well constructed. But after seemingly endless monologues from multiple characters who exist only as mouthpieces for said themes, you start feeling sorry for the dead horse Boon-ho is beating long before the end of the movie. This is a movie where they dress Tilda Swinton, hamming it up like never before, like a cartoon character and then make her endlessly deliver dialogue like “We must occupy our pre-ordained position.” and “Know your place.” Stating this outright once would have been hand-holding, but practically all the dialogue in the film is merely restating it. Then you have to sit through Ed Harris explaining it all again like three or four more times.

Who can say why Joon-ho decided to abandon subtlety for Snowpiercer. It sure wasn’t for a wider appeal, not in his home country anyway. He’s basically the James Cameron of South Korea, helming many of the top-grossing films in their history. Was it a concession to the English speaking audience, this being his first movie primarily aimed at them? (If so, that blew up in his face- the US distributor was apparently worried that this movie wouldn’t play well domestically and crippled its distribution when Joon-ho wouldn’t let them re-edit it.) Did he just simply want to try something new? At the moment we don’t know, but it feels like the release of the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty; A whiff so hard from someone previously so consistently excellent you can’t help but struggle for an explanation.

Adding insult to injury are the action scenes. The one or two that work, work because they’re excellent ideas, not because they’re presented especially thrillingly. The rest of the action scenes, the bulk of them, present us with no specific action, just signifiers of action; frames filled with people swinging objects at other people with no apparent effect or consequence. Noise. The action in The Host, the most action-oriented of Joon-ho’s previous films, worked as anti-action; It was a monster movie in broad daylight, everything happened slowly, there were very few surprises. It radiated subversive glee. In a movie as direct as Snowpiercer, if the action doesn’t carry the weight, the whole affair doesn’t land with a thud, it lands in a puff of air.


Evil Dead (2013)

evil-dead-poster-hi-res

Film, 2013

The biggest reservation people seem to have about the new Evil Dead, people in my circle of friends anyway, is that it’s not funny. It’s a valid reservation. If the idea of Evil Dead without the humor- which is to say, a boilerplate gore movie- doesn’t appeal to you, then don’t see this movie. There’s nothing in it for you. But the part of that reservation I don’t think holds much water is that an Evil Dead film without humor is inherently pointless. While the humor and personality of the originals is what gave them a wider appeal, I think it’s worth remembering that the original Evil Dead film was not funny. The original Evil Dead was an attempt to create an extreme gore film. That attempt was eventually subverted when the original filmmakers’ sense of humor and distinct personality proved impossible to suppress, steering the films in an, admittedly, much more worthwhile direction. (Not to mention the third film, Army of Darkness, and Bruce Campbell’s increasingly hammy public persona permanently softening the reputation of a series of films that had previously been primarily known for the original’s X rating and being highly controversial in England.) But the new Evil Dead is an attempt to deliver on that original promise of unadulterated, grueling terror. And true to the original intent of the series, it is gruesome, repulsive, and shocking. Depending on whether or not you’d consider that last sentence to be a mark against or for the film, you will either hate or be thrilled by it.

I don’t mean to imply that the new Evil Dead is completely devoid of personality. Its demented supernatural elements and the over-the-top nature of the gore imbue it with some character, although much less than Sam Raimi’s direction and Bruce Campbell’s performance injected into the originals.

The writing is also, for a movie of this caliber, surprisingly competent. The character work is half good and a clever plot device, namely that the protagonist experiencing withdrawal from a severe cocaine addiction, manages to finally find a reasonable excuse for keeping the kids at the cabin way past when shit starts getting weird.


Stoker

Stoker-International-Poster

Film, 2013

I was a little apprehensive about Stoker going in, only really being a fan of one of the three movies by the director that I had seen previously (loved Lady Vengeance, was indifferent toward Oldboy, and hated Thirst). At first I found it difficult to stomach Chan-wook’s visual poetry and glassy-eyed melodrama. This could be due to the fact that I might not be as open to that style when presented in English. And while that’s on me, the problem was exacerbated by the performance of the lead actress, often a dead fish, and by Kidman playing it a little too artificially. But once the fluff started to become weighted by the evolving mystery, I was enthralled by the proceedings, hook, line, and sinker. And as with any Chan-wook film, there’s no shortage of carefully orchestrated, effective sequences and moments. There was a bit of sound design where India drinks a glass of wine that really took my breath away, the montage where she rejects Uncle Charlie’s offers of assistance was a welcome bout of levity, and the sequence centered around Philip Glass’s stunning duet really does the piece justice. The movie ultimately draws its power from showing us ghoulish monsters, every bit as unnerving as vampires or ghosts, presented as mere humans.


The Ward

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Film, 2010

The Ward, horror film luminary John Carpenter’s first film after a ten year gap, is set in the year 1966, takes place in a mental asylum for young hotties that’s haunted by a ghost, and that’s it. It kind of feels like a letdown for Carpenter to return to the field with something that would have felt slight even if it were released during the time of his most prolific output, but on the other hand The Ward is simply boilerplate Carpenter. If you’re let down by getting exactly what you’re told you’re getting out of this thing by virtue of it having Carpenter’s name over the title, then that’s on you. If put in the context of modern mainstream horror this thing is shot really well, respects the audiences intelligence enough to let them sit around for a while while the tension builds, and contains a few striking images. I’ll take it, happily.


Searching For Sugar Man

Film, 2012

What is the appeal of a story like this, of someone suddenly discovering they’re “bigger than Elvis” in another part of the world? Of long overdue recognition being paid? Is the thrill similar to that of a revenge story? Do we, as one interviewee in this documentary suggests, connect it to our own fantasies of having fame suddenly thrust upon us? Might we even fantasize about being the person who makes the discovery that such attention is warranted? The answers to these questions in relation to the musician Rodriguez, his work, his story, and his personality, don’t mean a fucking thing, because every dollop of absurdly grandiose praise heaped upon him in this movie is totally warranted. His music is phenomenal, rich with emotion and meaning, and fully capable of living up to its self-made claims of altering minds (a claim backed up by its role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa). You’d have to be a pretty terrible filmmaker to flub this story. And since most filmmakers are in fact terrible, we’re lucky this story ended up with ones who aren’t. The film is certainly too stylistic and emotionally manipulative, to the point of eliciting laughter from the theater audience I viewed it with during a few earnest scenes, but these popcorn qualities have brought it to a wider audience. And that audience gets to see this incredible story fairly intact. So enjoy it world. The internet has made it all but impossible for anything like this to happen by accident again.


The Avengers (2012)

Film, 2012

  • This is a movie that, to both its credit and its disadvantage, comes with a lot of baggage. It’s the latest in a series of films that, despite incremental cosmetic changes, are all firing with the same cylinders. Whatever your feelings are about those films, you’re bringing them to this one. Although I love talking and thinking about the Marvel superhero films, I’m pretty ambivalent toward them. I compare my feelings to someone who loves sports stats, having an opinion on who got traded to what team and speculating about why that is or isn’t a good choice, but has little to no interest in actually watching sports. I find myself spending most of these movies being distracted by their murky narrative structure and being mortified by terrible, terrible jokes (Captain America being the biggest exception thus far). So how did The Avengers stack up for me? It was bad in the same ways as the previous films, but not as bad. I focused really hard on the narrative and was able to decipher what was going on, but I could see how someone watching more casually could have easily gotten lost, and the jokes more often than not triggered only moderate eye rolls. Overall I think The Avengers actually benefits from a general lack of ambition, perhaps having used all of its ambition on the massive amounts of money and coordination the film must have required, and hedging its bets when it came to things like jokes that consist of more than a cliche and a nod or villains that aren’t squarely generic. Because what happens as a result is this weird thing where, because they didn’t try and fail to do anything risky, and the spectacle was so smooth, I found watching the movie to be very, very easy. It would have been harder to stop watching it than it was to continue watching it, if that makes any sense, and all the complaints I might have had about the storytelling or jokes just kind of floated away. The end result, upon reflection, is a movie I feel pretty neutrally about. I found myself comparing it to Spider-Man 2, my favorite one of these. Spider-Man 2’s low points are far lower than anything in The Avengers, but it’s much more ambitious, and my favorite parts of Spider-Man 2 mean much more to me than anything about The Avengers.
  • One thing that I thought was really interesting about this movie was its big standout moment, when The Hulk beats the tar out of Loki. What we’re cheering at here is The Hulk, a big dumb brute, pummeling Loki, a literate Shakespearian figure. In the world we’re living in, where popular culture is all but dictated by the taste of nerds, the jock is the underdog we’re rooting to victory.
  • The Avengers is a really paint by numbers superhero affair. Superhero comic book readers will recognize it as a bare-bones presentation of the archetypical big superhero crossover story. It made me wonder if these films are going to follow the same evolutionary path that their comic book counterparts did. This trick is only going to work so many times, and I wonder where they’re going to turn when it loses its magic. Will people be ready for a big superhero deconstruction piece in a few years? I bet someone’s realizing that they should have held off on making that Watchmen adaptation just a little bit longer.

Beyond the Black Rainbow

Film, 2010

So there are a few hurdles the audience has to clear in order to enjoy this movie, but you couldn’t fault anyone for not being willing to clear them. The most predominant issue is that Beyond the Black Rainbow is all style, no substance. There’s no shortage of stunning photography on display here, and the filmmakers have absolutely nailed their chosen aesthetic and vague storytelling technique, but there’s no significant intellectual component to this that I was able to detect.

But if the style is gripping enough, a lack of content can sometimes be compensated for, at least somewhat. To that end, Beyond the Black Rainbow was, for me, mostly passable. The photography is stunning, with no shortage of tricks utilized and no subtlety left on the table. The compositions are striking, the color is bold, and the soundscape is like a rich painting. All of these things serve an aesthetic meant to resemble late 70’s/ early 80’s genre work, especially Kubrick’s.

But this type of extravagance is most effective when bolstering your investment in story, and I was left pretty cold here in that regard. I had trouble finding anything to invest myself in. The lead character is a distant mystery full of repressed fury who I was unable to identify with. The story surrounding him, revolving around a conceptually generic, menacing science institute, left little to wonder about. It’s seemingly sole subject, a young girl, might have been a good place to let the audience find their footing, but she has relatively little screen time. Only once she makes her escape did I start to become invested in the story, but it was too little too late.

Mostly, you are in awe of the filmmaking, but only in a way you can look at and respect, not in a way that is emotionally effective. There are a few powerful scenes, but they mostly work on a purely sensory level, triggering our instincts to tell us to be scared or disturbed. Only once does the movie manage to link the two, when the test subject learns the identity of the facility’s macabre guardian, and a connection is made. Other than that, this movie is for photography and 80’s genre film fetishists only, but they are bound to appreciate it.


The Innkeepers

Film, 2011

  • I liked this movie a lot. The biggest reason, I think, are the performances of the two leads. Especially the female lead, Sarah Paxton. Her character is completely real, an actual person who has strengths and weaknesses and a distinct personality instantly recognizable as genuine. The whole movie is hangs on enjoying watching her, and it hangs well.
  • The filmmaking is strong, and mostly of the “when you do a good job, no one will ever know you did anything at all” variety. There is one distinct quality however- long, anticipation building pauses. The filmmakers seem to take special glee in letting you know something’s coming, but putting it in an unexpected place that scares you anyway. If you’re in the appropriate atmosphere to get caught up in these moments, they’re a lot of fun.
  • My one complaint about The Innkeepers is that it’s too linear. There’s nothing unknowable for us to cast our imagination into.
  • It would be hard for someone who doesn’t watch a lot of horror movies to see why this is a good one. In a genre where rote filmmaking and general tastelessness are the default, it’s a rare treat to see a well crafted and well acted horror movie actually capable of freaking you out and making you jump.

Life During Wartime

Film, 2009

  • There’s a common thread between the work of Life During Wartime director Todd Solondz and cartoonist Daniel Clowes that I haven’t quite defined, but I think is pretty evident. It has to do with their frequent portrayals of deeply flawed and deeply unglamorous characters. I have a bit of a struggle with this type of material. On one hand I enjoy it, as both are great storytellers. On the other hand, I feel awful after absorbing it. Clowes has said something along the lines of people who can’t handle this type of material being weak willed narcissists, and that feels true to me. But on the other hand I’m going to die someday, and it’s sometimes hard, especially in the moment, to see the merit in making myself feel like this.
  • My favorite aspect of Solondz’s work is how he takes our kneejerk reactions to stereotypes and uses them against us. He seems to know exactly how any combination of broad characteristics including race, gender, or social standing will make us feel about them, and then uses it to make us feel awful, either by punishing or rewarding the characters that will hurt us the most (with some deliberate exceptions).
  • The contrast is blown all over the place in this movie, and it ends up looking kind of cheap. Deliberate?