Saturday, May 24, 2014


(Gareth Edwards, USA, 2014)

It seems as though as I age (which fact has lately been especially present in my mind, given my recent BDay) I become less tolerant of the mayhem so avidly delivered by massive-scale action movies.  All of the destruction and suffering: more and more, these films seem to me - with their countless glimpses of anonymous victims being dispatched en masse - to be an adroit expression of some troubling cultural pathology.  "Disaster porn" is feeling more pornographic, lately, for whatever reason; rather than assisting me in suspending my disbelief, I can't help but be reminded of the potential real catastrophes we all face in this troubled, warming world.  I imagine those risks, what all of this chaos reflects psychologically, even spiritually, and the experience quickly becomes a real bummer. 

Godzilla delivers Godzilla.  The beast is rendered with love and high VFX craft, and his appearances are reliably, satisfyingly awesome.  But much of the rest of the film is a wash; the story begins in the key of the hysterical and winds down in the listless.  People have been slagging Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and it's true that he doesn't have much of a character to play, but Bryan Cranston is more poorly served by the director/screenwriters, charged with emoting enough for this film and several sequels.  He acts his heart out, but can only chew scenery.  It's a lot of jagged raging to no end, other than to indicate to the audience that this movie is "serious" because it employs serious Actors doing some serious Acting for approximately 1/35th of the run-time. 

That said, there are some truly majestic moments to be found.  It's too bad they couldn't have appeared in a better film.  Like so much studio mega-fare, it falters by aiming for, and hitting, the middle; it's neither rambunctiously silly and over-the-top, nor is it half as serious as it wants to be.  The audience I saw it with, in a nearly sold-out screening, clapped and cheered at several key moments, all of them involving the titular monster, and it was clear that what was relished most was the huge, lumbering, fun of Godzilla being Godzilla.  The rest is superfluous, mostly.  

Making G the hero/savior -or at least the lesser evil of the evil monsters - is an understandable move, and not intrinsically wrong, but it felt unsatisfying in this case. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

American Hustle

(David O. Russell, USA, 2013)

All in all, it's a strictly lightweight affair, but it packs in more freewheeling fun per square-inch of screen than most features in recent memory; in his aggressively witty way, Russell has crafted a near-masterpiece of cinema.

It's true that it's missing a vital component of depth; the film's flaw, which keeps it from reaching the heights of greatness is the stubborn insistence on aiming just shy of high.  What makes this particularly noticeable is the apparent perspicuity of Russell, whose best stuff, even when very funny, can be positively lacerating.  Watching him scrap his way into the mainstream has been fascinating, and his very careful calibration of his anarchic sensibility to certain formal conventions is a feat of dazzling deftness, even if it eventually results in an underwhelming experience.  Therefore, it's easy to see Hustle as very personal for the director, even if it eventually takes the form of self-flattery: like his grifter heroes, he's someone who's worked tenaciously to make a space for himself in a harsh, competitive world. 

As the con artists say, you have to be in it "from the feet up;" only a total commitment to the role you're playing will suffice.  Russell commits himself utterly in this unabashedly sentimental story, but his conviction is so complete that he winds up winning over the audience, even through the various excesses of the narrative.   At the same time, the whole film hums with a giddy self-consciousness; it might be the most meta movie of the last decade.  The theme of performance is underlined so many times that it would be absurd if it weren't the raison d'etre for the whole enterprise.   The action is basically a succession of acting showcases, and everybody brings their A game.  It's rare to see such an orgy of thespian excess, and it would be a complete disaster if it weren't cast with such top-notch and eager players.   In scene after scene, the actors find themselves to be kids in a candy store, with dialogue that crackles in its manic loopiness, and they all jump gamely in, and the results are very satisfying indeed. 

Lots of the cinema-making is noticeably derivative of 70s Scorsese, but Russell does have a way with the camera, and once again, his willingness to throw himself into the material redeems even the most shamelessly secondhand of creative choices.  And there are some sublimely poetic moments; as much as the phrase "pure cinema" sets my teeth on edge, Russell achieves lovely synergies of music and moving image that recall just that shopworn phrase. 

Only Lovers Left Alive

(Jim Jarmusch, UK/Germany, 2014)

A night-bound ramble in the Jarmuschian style, in which the dominant, elegiac mood - you could easily call it a funk -  is colored by bone-dry humor and some trenchant observations about the thorny criss-crossings of love, life, and Art.  It's also Jarmusch at his most classical, hewing to a straightforward story with contrasting characters.

The movie has several moments of loveliness, but there are moments in which the allergy to sunlight - to any adequate amount of illumination, really - felt oppressive.  It's possible that the projection, which was, of course, digital, was too dim.  I've encountered this problem before, and it's a major bug, giving obvious lie to the idea that DCP will usher in an era of easy, push-button standarization, free of the vagaries of individual theaters and projectionists.  If the damp, faded imagery was entirely intentional, than I have only Jarmusch to blame, but I suspect this isn't the case. 

Besides these external nuisances, there's a lot to dig into with Only Lovers.  Again, it's Jarmusch at his most formally classical, and his handling of the storytelling is masterful in its laconic, down-tempo precision.  Adam and Eve's romantic woes resonate, as does the sense of timeless familiarity that they embody, allowing Jarmusch to riff poignantly on the mysterious nature of all great romances.  Swinton and Hiddleston - what a name for a duo, by the way - play beautifully off each other, conveying the unfathomable depths of their centuries-long affair with simple glances and gestures.  It's a wonderfully understated co-performance. 

The film is haunted by history, and what's striking is that despite it's characters spiraling regard, even obsession, with the past (which, wisely, Jarmusch identifies as being a first-cousin of narcissism), what weighs most oppressively is the burden of the present historical moment.  The coming catastrophes (there are a few barely-oblique references to climate change, such as when Eve asks Adam if the "wars over water" have begun), the sense of human culture as having finally exhausted itself and hunkering down for the end, is present in almost every frame.  Adam is the chief voice for this largely defeatist (but entirely understandable) view, and Eve does a good job of pinpointing the ways that this is a selfish capitulation unworthy of him, but the overall tenor of the picture seems to side more with his male pessimism. 

Only Lovers's droll coda, however, also manages to bring these moony fancies down to Earth, as our vampiric heroes, guardians of culture and, to some extent, martyrs for all that is humanly beautiful, yield to their more basic appetites.  In their weakness, they also reflect our strength, and the possibility of rising to meet the needs of the moment.  Their fate and ours - the undead and the living - are, after all, inextricably intertwined.  

Jarmusch slyly punctures his own pretensions of preternatural hipness (which he amusingly casts as supernatural, even) by illustrating the hidden pitfalls of living such a fastidiously curated life.  Adam and Eve know all the best that culture has managed to create - in some cases, they knew the creators personally - which means they feel it the most painfully when all the rest of human activity bulldozes over the treasures.  To develop a taste for the best means daily countenancing all that doesn't measure up, and all the wonder that will never get its due.  On the other hand, such an attitude - the Smeagol-like preciousness about valuing beauty and "keeping" it - has a dark side as well: the hollowness of connoissuership.  To be present in the bounty of the moment, to truly be attuned to the beautiful in a constant, active sense - is to be committed to a kind of lightness, a willingness to let go and thus free up time and space for discovery.  Eve personifies this ideal, and it's easy to see how many times she must have saved Adam, and herself, from despair.  In the end, she's the true hero of the story, and she embodies the heroism that permits survival in the face of overwhelming circumstances.  In the world today, it's positively brazen to think this way, and it's an inspiration that Jarmusch is willing to.