Sunday, April 27, 2014

Review: Blue Ruin

Image courtesy of Radius-TWC.
Jeremy Saulnier's "Blue Ruin" is an intense, grim revenge drama that is driven by a strong central performance, some solid visual choices, dark humor and a nerve wracking sense of dread. It has drawn some comparisons to early Coen Brothers films and while I certainly wouldn't put it in the same league as "Blood Simple," it's a pretty gripping experience and, perhaps, a sign of great things to come for its director, whose debut, "Murder Party," is unseen by me.

The film's mostly silent first 15 minutes or so follow a seemingly homeless drifter named Dwight (Macon Blair), who breaks into people's homes to take showers and sleeps in the titular vehicle. He is brought to a police station, not for arrest but to be notified that the man who murdered his parents is being released from prison.

In what would typically take up the course of an entire movie, Dwight follows the released convict after his release and, in a particularly grueling scene, kills him in a dive bar's bathroom during the film's first 30 minutes. Shortly after realizing what he has done, Dwight becomes obsessed with the notion that the convict's family - a violent clan of nasty folk reminiscent of some of the characters from "Winter's Bone" - might seek retribution and for good reason. He warns his estranged sister, who flees town with her young kids, and waits for the dead man's family to come seeking payback.

"Blue Ruin" is brutal, but only in short bursts. The film is not littered with wall-to-wall violence as it would likely have been if a major studio had produced it. Rather, the film builds tension slowly and when violence inevitably occurs, it's pretty shocking.

During one particularly unbearable sequence, Dwight breaks into the home of those stalking him while they are out for the day and waits. And waits. And waits. At one point, a light on a timer clicks on, which nearly gave me a heart attack.

If there's any criticism to be made of "Blue Ruin," it's that the movie is an example of what you see is what you get. In other words, there's no deeper thematic relevance to the revenge story here that you might find in the work of, say, Quentin Tarantino.

But as a tense genre exercise, it's a bit of a doozy. "Blue Ruin" will likely result in frayed nerves and a promising future for its director. Those who enjoy their thrillers bleak and dark won't want to miss this one.

Review: Locke

Image courtesy of A24.
Steven Knight has written some wonderful screenplays, including Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things" and David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises," so it's fitting that his directorial debut "Locke," one of two films he directed last year that are being released this year, is primarily dialogue-driven.

In the film, Tom Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a construction manager and family man, whose life crashes down in real-time over the course of an hour-and-a-half as he drives to be present for the birth of his child, who was conceived during a one night stand with a woman he hardly knows.

The picture is mostly set in Locke's car as he drives, holding conversations with the woman, who is in a "fragile" state as we are told, and his wife, to whom he breaks the unpleasant news. All the while, Locke is attempting to work out the details for the concrete pouring of a massive, multi-million dollar building for which he is supposed to be present the following morning. This includes dealing with his boss, who is furious that Locke won't be there to conduct the pouring, and a co-worker who will now be in charge, but who is presently three sheets to the wind.

For a movie about a man on his phone in the car, "Locke" manages to squeeze in a decent amount of tension. And the picture mostly works due to Hardy's committed performance. Locke is a man who has clearly made mistakes, but Hardy makes him sympathetic, despite his flaws.

The biggest stumbling block of the film is that Locke's issues are resolved - which is not to say solved - during the film's brief 85 minutes, perhaps a bit too conveniently. I'm not giving anything away by relaying this information. The problem is that the weighty dramas with which the character is dealing are too complex to be wrapped up, no matter whether it's positively or negatively, in that amount of time.

Despite this, the film is often a tense experience, especially as Hardy's character continuously looks away from the road during his discussions. I kept waiting for the man to crash his car. Knight is a terrific writer and he clearly has talent behind the camera. "Locke" is a good movie, but I believe something even better could be in store for the filmmaker down the road.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Review: Transcendence

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
"Transcendence" has all the ingredients to make a good movie, but it often feels curiously lifeless. The picture is directed by Wally Pfister, who has acted as director of photography for most of Christopher Nolan's films, and boasts a cast that includes Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara and Paul Bettany.

The film is the type that warns of the dangers of technological reliance - a genre that has included everything from the "Terminator" films and, on the B level, "Ghost in the Machine" and "The Lawnmower Man."

In the film, Depp plays a brilliant scientist named Will Caster who survives an assassination attempt only to find that the bullet that struck him was laced with a sort-of poison, so he uploads himself into a computer to enable his personality and memories to spend an afterlife in the digital realm.

His wife (Hall) is ecstatic, but Caster's colleagues (Bettany and Freeman) are skeptical, believing with good reason that the entity with whom they are communicating online is not Caster, but rather a computer program that has become self-aware or found something within itself resembling a soul.

In no short amount of time, this computerized being has inserted itself into highly classified places and used nanotechnology to heal disfigured people whom it uses to build an army. Needless to say, the film gets bogged down in these plot elements, all the while having a strangely flat feel to it. It's not that the film's talented cast doesn't bring life to it, but rather they are given very little to do.

Since Pfister is a long-time director of photography - and a good one at that - "Transcendence" looks good. But the picture's ideas are muddled - on the one hand, the film wants to portray the dangers of becoming too reliant on technology and, on the other, it takes great pains not to make Caster into a villain and the filmmakers fall back on that typical Hollywood method of portraying one or two characters as the source of the problem being critiqued, rather than as an overall societal ill.

For a better example of a movie uneasy with our ongoing reliance on technology to do everything for us, watch Spike Jonze's wonderful "Her."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: Oculus

Image courtesy of Relativity Media.
Mike Flanagan's "Oculus" is much scarier than any movie about a haunted mirror has the right to be. It's not exactly the best horror movie of the past couple of years as has been suggested by a handful of critics, but it is pretty inventive and often spooky.

The picture opens with a young man named Tim (Brenton Thwaites) who is released from a mental hospital some years after his father murdered his mother and he, in turn, shot his father. Tim's sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), picks him up from the hospital and from the moment we see her, we can tell she is on a mission.

Kaylie is convinced that a mirror owned by she and Tim's parents - as well as numerous others who owned the creepy old looking glass throughout the ages who met untimely demises - is haunted and that it played a role in the family's tragedy. This might sound silly, but Flanagan takes great pains to avoid absurdity, delivering a surreal atmosphere that leaves viewers unsettled and, often, purposefully confused.

Tim naturally wonders whether his sister is as delusional as he once possibly was and, clearly, this turn of events is the last thing he needs after being let out of the hospital. Kaylie and her brother travel to their former home, where she has the mirror on loan from the antique auction house where it is being held. This is the only slightly unbelievable element in the film, which is funny considering that the picture is about a haunted mirror.

Kaylie warns Tim that the mirror plays tricks on the imagination. You may think you are speaking to someone on the phone in the home's front yard, for instance, when in fact you are talking to no one on your phone in the kitchen. And so forth. This is used for maximum effect in two particular scenes - one involving an apple that will make most viewers cringe and, another, involving a pendulum-type of object that would likely force some revision to Chekhov's gun theory.

There are, of course, a few of the type of jump scares that have become increasingly prevalent in horror films. You know what I'm talking about. A person looks around and there's nothing there. They look around again and suddenly some sort of creepy being is standing right behind them and accompanied by a loud clang on the soundtrack. "Oculus" is at its weakest when relying upon this device.

But mostly, it's a clever horror picture with some genuinely creepy moments, a sinister tone of doom throughout and fine performances not only by its two leads, but also by Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff as Kaylie and Tim's parents.

So, while "Oculus" may not reinvent or reinvigorate the horror genre, it's a pretty decent entry.

Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Jim Jarmusch has dabbled in a variety of genres, including samurai crime dramas ("Ghost Dog") and westerns ("Dead Man"), but rather than adapting to the various requirements of the genres, each of his films feels distinctly Jarmuschian.

So, essentially, the director's latest - "Only Lovers Left Alive" - happens to be a movie about vampires, but it's far from a horror movie. Rather, the film is set in the rules of Jarmusch's world - from the downbeat characters to the eclectic choices of music - and just happens to have two bloodsuckers as its protagonists.

These two vampires are not your garden variety - in fact, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have not taken human victims in several centuries, but rather pick up their blood supplies from a lab assistant (Jeffrey Wright) and none other than Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who bemoans how William Shakespeare received credit for all of his written works, respectively.

Adam and Eve are married, but unexplainably live on opposite sides of the world - he in a dusty old mansion in Detroit and she in Tangier. She decides to visit him after he goes through a round of suicidal depression and the two spend much of their time cooped up on Adam's house, decrying the state of humankind (they refer to them as "zombies") and how man has destroyed the earth and ruined its culture. Adam is a musician whose wall of sound-style of music is composed and mostly unheard by anyone, although his one human pal (Anton Yelchin) attempts to convince him to get it out into the world.

If anything, "Only Lovers Left Alive" is the story of two - well, not quite - people viewing our present time as a world on the downslide. It is simultaneously a romance, of sorts, about these two - let's call them - beings who are lonely and a little lost in the world, but grounded by each other.

On the one hand, this is a solid picture - moody, witty and strangely moving at certain points. And yet, it's not among my favorites of Jarmusch's work, which include "Stranger Than Paradise," "Dead Man," "Mystery Train" and "Broken Flowers."

Both Hiddleston and Swinton have magnetic presences - he, morose but good hearted and in need of inspiration, and she, still able to find joy in life after several hundred years of existence. There are a few additional plot lines here - Eve's troublesome sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turns up unexpectedly and throws a monkey wrench in the lovers' plans, but it's mostly a minor diversion. The duo then later heads off to Tangier and the picture ends with a curiously funny, but slightly difficult to read, act.

Jarmusch is a true original, one of American cinema's most distinct voices. "Only Lovers Left Alive" has a purposefully languid pace, but I don't mean this as a critique. If you find yourself on its wavelength - as I did - you'll be duly rewarded.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. II

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
And so Joe's (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tale of debauchery and downfall continues as she relays her various conquests to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the philosophical - as it were - virgin who discovered her beaten in an alleyway and brought her into his home, where she narrates - throughout the course of Lars Von Trier's two-part movie - her occasionally sordid tale.

The first film, which is the slight better of the two, followed young Joe (Stacy Martin), whose sexual adventurousness included picking up men on trains and sleeping with her boss (Shia LaBeouf), with whom she now has a young child at the beginning of the second film.

At the climax - sorry, couldn't help myself - of part one, Joe has lost her capacity for sexual sensation and, at the beginning of volume two, Jerome (LaBeouf) has encouraged her to engage in some extracurriculars to get her groove back. This leads to one of the first of the film's awkward scenes as Joe and two African men - completely nude with the camera placed just so - negotiate the terms of a "sandwich," which I'll leave to your imagination. This scene then leads to a discussion of the word "Negro" between Joe and Seligman that is forced and uncomfortable, not because of its subject matter but in how it is handled.

Even more uncomfortable is a later scene during which Joe encounters a pedophile, prompting her to tell Seligman that the 95 percent of people who are born with tendencies of pedophilia, but do not act on them, should receive a medal. She goes further to compare her sexual "outlaw" status with the pedophile's. Von Trier is a great filmmaker ("Melancholia" or "Breaking the Waves," for instance) who occasionally peddles in provocation ("The Idiots") just to shake up the bourgeois. In the case of these two aforementioned scenes, he misses the mark and comes off as too obvious.

However, many of the film's other scenes are provocative and manage to get under the skin. Joe's sexual adventures first began as a method to seek pleasure, but soon devolve into a need for pain. During a series of sequences, Joe meets with K (Jaime Bell, giving this film the much needed jolt delivered by Uma Thurman in the first volume), a masochist who ties up his "clients" and delivers brutal spankings and slaps, but does not have sex with them. During one absurdly funny scene, he gives a wrapped Christmas present to Joe that turns out to be... well, I wouldn't give that away.

During the film's final third, before which Von Trier toys with audience expectations during a scene involving a baby and a window that recalls his 2009 film "Antichrist," Joe gets involved with criminal activity, brings on a protege who becomes a lover and a reunion, of sorts, with Jerome occurs. While these sequences are perfectly well executed, they feel a little out of place with the rest of the film. However, Joe's comparing herself to a deformed tree leaning on a mountain, which is seen during one of the film's more beautifully shot scenes, rings poignantly true. This being a Von Trier movie, the film ends on a cynical and bleak note that most will not likely see coming.

So, while the film earns points for its ambition, daring and courage from its actors, "Nymphomaniac Vols. I and II" are not among Von Trier's best films. Rather, I'd put the two movies alongside second tier entries such as "Antichrist," which was gorgeously shot and truly shocking, and "Zentropa." I liked these films, but didn't feel quite as spellbound as I did during "Melancholia," "Dogville," "Breaking the Waves" or "Dancer in the Dark." That being said, anyone with a serious interest in cinema will not want to skip out on them.

Review: Under the Skin

Image courtesy of A24.
It's a sentiment I am rarely able to express, but I can say without much doubt that Jonathan Glazer's absorbing, haunting and flat-out strange "Under the Skin" is surely unlike any other film you've seen before.

Sure, some of its themes - should we agree on them, that is - resemble everything from Nicolas Roeg's "The Man Who Fell to Earth" to Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" and the mesmerizingly confounding opening sequence, perhaps, pays homage to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." And yet, there's really no other film to which I can say this one is similar.

This should come as no surprise as Glazer's previous two features included a gangster movie - "Sexy Beast" - quite unlike any you'd probably come across and the bizarrely moving "Birth," the 2004 film in which a young boy tells Nicole Kidman that he is the reincarnation - or something to that effect - of her dead husband.

In "Under the Skin," Scarlett Johansson - in a performance quite unlike any other in her body of work - plays a nameless being that we can assume is not from this planet who drives around Scotland, picks up men who believe they are heading back to her place to have sex and then, well, let's just say these men - or their flesh, bodies, something - serve some higher purpose unknown to us. Much like David Bowie's water-seeking alien in "The Man Who Fell to Earth," Johansson's extraterrestrial figure is serving some sort of mission here on Earth.

The film kicks off with an obelisk-type structure and a shot of outer space. We then hear words being formed as if for the first time and the opening of an eye. Our alien is being created - or something along those lines. Once on our planet, she takes the figure of a woman and picks out some clothes, which include tight-fitting jeans and a fur coat. She commences to drive her van around, picking up Scottish men who follow her back to her creepy shack in the middle of nowhere, strip naked and end up in a pool of liquid, in which they are unable to move. During one particularly imaginative - and horrific - sequence, one of the men in the pool of goo finds out what happens once you have been submerged in it too long.

Johansson's alien observes all things without feeling human emotions. This is most strikingly observed as she watches a tragic scene unfold on a beach where a young child is drowning. A baby left alone on the sand will most likely unnerve you long after the movie is over.

But slowly, this extraterrestrial begins to seemingly long for the experience of being human or, at least, sympathize with it. This occurs first after she picks up a horribly deformed man who, when realizing that she intends to take him back to her place, pinches himself and asks if he is dreaming. Later, the alien is assisted by a man on a bus who senses that she is in some sort of trouble.

But just as our otherworldly being witnesses the good in mankind, she also comes into contact with its potential for evil during an ironically horrifying sequence toward the film's end in which the alien, a sexual predator by all accounts, meets the wrong man.

"Under the Skin" is a strange, but unforgettable, movie. Its visual style, narrative rhythms, use of dialogue or the lack thereof, sound and eerie score, modest but striking visual effects and overall tone make for a hypnotic, creepy and occasionally even moving picture. This is certainly not a movie for everybody - but the adventurous, who crave offbeat and unique moviegoing experiences, should drop what they are doing and seek this out. Glazer's dreamy - or is it nightmarish - ode to the human experience, but from an outsider's perspective, is one of the year's must-see movies.