Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Innkeepers

I haven't seen a lot of horror films in my time, but I've grown familiar with the hallmarks of the genre like any general fan of cinema has. So let's just say after viewing "The Innkeepers" I found myself scratching my head over Ti West's ascendence in the indie world. I haven't had the chance to catch "The House of the Devil," to be sure, but West's new film is astonishingly bad and almost completely devoid of pleasure. I felt deprived a humor and horror fix. I may sue.

West starts with a very stale premise and does essentially nothing to enliven it. He then provides us with a grating, quasi-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, hotel staffer heroine named Claire, high-strung and annoying as played by Sara Paxton. Revolving around her are a series of badly scripted parts, only one of which works even slightly: Luke (Pat Healy), Claire's tart fellow inn employee, who gets all of the film's halfway decent lines. It sucks that even Luke's character has to devolve into cliche at a certain point. But that's just the nature of the film. West is said to draw heavily from modern horror classics in a sort of nostalgic way. I'd say it's gotten to the point where his own voice is smothered by devotion to conventions. And these conventions aren't even good ones.

So a inn is being closed after a last weekend, and Claire and Luke are taking a few more guests (including a famous actress-cum-psychic, played by Kelly McGillis) while also investigating the hotel for paranormal activity. Sounds like this could be kinda fun, eh? I certainly thought so. But the film is only occasionally mildly funny, and only occasionally mildly creepy. None of the plot hijinks work, and thus I was left drumming my fingers, waiting for what I assumed to be a backloaded scare barrage to bear its teeth. If you think the last 15-30 minutes of "The Innkeepers" are even remotely terrifying, I'd say horror is not the genre for you. Every scare (except for a final, very cheesy one) is tipped off either by the poor positioning of the camera or a character's prolonged reaction. Anyone looking for hardcore frights should steer entirely clear. "The Innkeepers" is to its genre what "The Trip" was to its own: it makes you wonder what "scary" or "funny" really means anymore. D

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

2011-2012 Oscars: Causes To Take Up

I'm nowhere near as involved this year in the Oscar prognostication business as I have been in previous years. My impulse to catch every nominee (my policy before) has dwindled exceptionally. I only saw the films that I really cared about seeing, some overlapping, some not. So, at this place in time, I'm really most interested in singling out the performances and works that deserve attention (that didn't get nominated) and deserve to win. I can't speak at length or in any sort of depth about the more critically maligned works ("Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, "The Help") as well as a couple I just haven't gotten around to seeing due to where I live ("Hugo," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"). I actually haven't seen any of the Best Actress nominees, now that Tilda Swinton has been bumped.

Nominated Causes:

THE TREE OF LIFE - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography

Oh baby. Best film of the year nominated for best film of the year? That's what I call a good surprise. I'm glad that Fox Searchlight did what they could to bring this into the game (as for "Margaret," such wonders were not pulled off). If this film fails to win an award out of these three, I'll be very, very disappointed - Cinematography at least is a must. I doubt it'll take the gold, but who knows. I'm not sure if the film editing Oscar prediction still works (i.e. that a film must be nominated in that category to win big), but I'm hoping that it doesn't. This is a truly terrific film that deserves only the best.

George Clooney, The Descendants - Best Actor

My favorite male performance of the year, along with one that was unfortunately snubbed (I'll get to that later on), was given by this man, who almost made "The Descendants" into a worthy film. No other performer drew me in quite as much. He got off to a rocky start, but from a certain point onwards, I was hanging on his every emotion. I have yet to see Demian Bichir in "A Better Life," but I feel fairly confident in championing Clooney over the rest of the field (though I do like Jean Dujardin very much as well).

Christopher Plummer, Beginners - Best Supporting Actor

An Oscar-y performance, to be sure, but a devastating, human one that also fits in room for sweetness. People may criticize the McGregor/Laurent section (unjustly, in my view) but most are warm to Plummer's extraordinary work. If he wins, it'll be a great moment for someone so deserving.

Berenice Bejo, The Artist - Best Supporting Actress

As lukewarm as I am on the spectacularly overhyped film she's in, I must say that Bejo gives quite the charismatic supporting performance. She provides, along with Dujardin, the spark to keep the film from being insufferable. Quite a task, pulled off nicely; it's not her fault that the movie doesn't reach heights.

Asghar Farhadi, A Separation - Best Screenplay

So the campaign for Farhadi to get some writing honors did work. I've been underplaying this movie since I saw it at the New York Film Festival, with extremely high expectations that weren't exactly met (as it is a brilliantly-acted yet flawed piece). However, the punching quality of the dialogue provided much of what I liked about "A Separation" as a whole. I wasn't nearly as moved by "Midnight in Paris" or "The Artist," and I expect the same for "Margin Call" and "Bridesmaids."

FOOTNOTE - Best Foreign Film

Don't think we have to worry about "A Separation" losing to fellow SPC slate-mate "Footnote," but I'd be oh so happy if that were the case. Apparently the supposed lack of stakes got to some people, who've deemed it "forgettable" and "insignificant," but I found the film's ideological pull too strong to dismiss.

PINA - Best Documentary

The best use of 3-d I've seen yet. Not sure if "Pina" is a great "documentary" per se, but it's an excellent film experience, and I'd be glad to see it recognized in any category.

Snubbed Causes:

Michael Fassbender, Shame - Best Actor

Oscar chickened out at the last second on possibly the strongest performance of the year. I've felt less confident about it watching out-of-context trailer clips, but, boy, when I saw it at Telluride, I was blown aback. Far superior to Gary Oldman's work in "Tinker Tailor," and better also than Brad Pitt's in "Moneyball." I wonder if a Steve McQueen film will ever receive an Oscar nomination. I wonder if an NC-17 film will ever receive another Oscar nomination. A nod for Carey Mulligan or Nicole Beharie would have been nice as well.

Shailene Woodley, The Descendants - Best Supporting Actress

I care a little bit less about this than other snubs; however, Woodley is better than everyone in her category except perhaps Bejo. A second power supply for "The Descendants."

THE TURIN HORSE - Best Foreign Film

Better than every nominee in its category. Better than almost every best picture nominee. Of course, it couldn't get nominated, though. It's too rough.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Kill List

I'd say I understood about 50-65% of the dialogue in Ben Wheatley's "Kill List," which perhaps seems like a disqualifying factor. But it's not my fault that a) the actors have thick British accents and that b) the sound recording is utterly atrocious. Maybe people who catch everything that's said will enjoy this movie more. However, some of the biggest pieces of this extremely disturbing work can be easily understood: a brutal beating by hammer, much hand slashing, a simply horrific final scene. I haven't seen a movie this genuinely debased in a while. Then again, I don't watch a whole bunch of horror films.

Wheatley has the materials for an unforgettable movie here. He unfortunately can't pull them together very well at all. The film is almost entirely backloaded. The first 45 minutes of the film meander under the pretense of character development. Then, after a certain point, things begin to ratchet up. That's all great, but at that point the filmmaking gets even lazier conceptually (plus a lot more incoherent) and only manages to work viscerally. Only the last 10-15 minutes, as seriously messed up as they are, shock something into the film. The only problem is, they also don't really hold up dramatically (i.e. it's near impossible to tell what the hell's happening at times; it feels too purposely obscured).

We follow retired, aggressive contact killer named Jay (Neil Maskell) who continuously lashes out at his wife with less and less regard for his young son. Their financial resources have been drying up ever since his last hit and his memories of his profession as well as his time spent in Iraq are beginning to really harass him. A dinner party with his work partner and best friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) seems inserted to show the wildly fluctuating moods: everyone gets drunk, but not before Jay flips out and throws the table over.

Work must be found, and soon enough, Jay and Gal get employment from an unnamed Client (Struan Rodger). They're sent off to a kill a few folks, the reasoning behind their being targets getting hazier and hazier as the film goes on. Jay starts getting angrier and angrier and less able to control himself when he's bearing down on his victims.

I can't say much more than that without giving the whole thing away. The ending came as a mix of "Ok..." and "Ho-ly shit," the two pole reactions that viewers seem to be clinging to. If the movie had been better assembled, it could be some sort of lurid fascination. Instead, as a mixed bag, it's somewhat of a letdown, not giving enough to justify what it puts on display. I'm curious to read more of the ideas people have about it, though. C-

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Forgiveness of Blood

A downscaled look at a violent Albanian family conflict told through the eyes of the oldest boy and girl, Joshua Marston's "The Forgiveness of Blood" is less concerned with the specifics of the instigating situation than with the aftermath. We don't even know if those involved in the brutality are guilty, but we sure know what it's like to be an oldest son who can't go outside to school. This approach provides for an interesting but often unexciting film that at times hits its stride but at others only hints at development.

A road, owned for years by one part of a large family prominent in a small town, gets blocked. A father gets very, very upset and brings his brother along with him to take of matters with this flagrant-seeming cousin. When this new owner winds up dead, the uncle gets thrown in jail and the father has to go on the lam. To avoid more blood spilling, Nik, his sister Rudina, and their two younger siblings are forced to stay indoors until a settlement is reached between the two sides.

Nik, used to chasing girls and riding around on motorcycles, is now forced into a father figure role and also into intense boredom (which he at times tries to escape). Rudina, due to unwritten rules about not being able to harm females, is elected to take on the job of selling bread to help the family out. Both are stifled by these limitations, and a lot of the movie is in observing how fortunes can turn so fast. One minute you're asking your father if you can go shopping with your friends, the next you're trying to sell your horse to make ends meet.

The ending comes as a mildly devastating shock but hits a note maybe a bit too flat. The whole enterprise isn't overwhelmingly strong, but the soft-focus-heavy cinematography (becoming a staple of Marston's films) and screenplay (a solid choice for the award at Berlin, though "A Separation" may have been better) help keep things together. B-

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Bennett Miller's "Moneyball" is very much about baseball. Admittedly it's less about the actual games than what goes on behind the scenes. Still, I'm surprised that people thought that the film was hardly a sports movie. As a huge baseball fan, it was a treat to get an approximation of off-the-field politics involving many players that I know pretty well. That doesn't make it a great film or anything (it ain't, ultimately), but it must be said that there were pleasures.

Following general manager Billy Beane's (Brad Pitt) radical, sabermetric-influenced re-imagining of his Oakland A's ballclub following a disappointing 2001 season, "Moneyball" examines what makes a championship team. The scouts believe that using practical knowledge of the game trumps all other strategies. Others, such as Peter Brandt (Jonah Hill), think that paying close attention to statistics can yield an incredibly fruitful organization. Both sides definitely have their ups and downs.

Juxtaposed against the present is Beane's past, where he, as a top prospect, took a major league contract over a full-ride to Stanford. When he lost his confidence in the big leagues, he was left with little and went on to become a scout. It is mentioned a couple of times that Beane's intense adoption of sabermetics possibly is an alley for him to stick it to the scouts who lured him into what would become a dead-end occupation.

Elements typical of baseball movies abound, with some solid, at times delightfully obscure baseball action included. The ending, as well as the played-out game of the long winning streak, are pretty anticlimactic and feel somewhat limited. There are definitely spots of euphoria, however.

Pitt turns in a duly championed performance, not quite as excellent as some have attested but quite good all the same. Hill is not too shabby either, retaining some facets of his usual persona while stepping into slightly new waters. And it's great to see the singularly chipper Spike Jonze in a bit part as Beane's ex-wife's (Robin Wright) new husband, who mispronounces Jason Giambi's name. Speaking of the family-oriented business, the scenes with Pitt's daughter are touching but perhaps a little overdone. They sometimes, though, reach the same sort of romanticism (a term much invoked by Pitt) as the baseball, which I see in retrospect as pretty intentional. Though it is at times drab and derivative, I'm glad "Moneyball" is able to tap into this grace at all. B-

Friday, January 13, 2012


On paper I think "Carnage," taken from Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage," sounds pretty interesting: a real-time, devolving argument between two couples who fight each other verbally rather than physically and who begin to see how really screwed up their marriages are. However, Roman Polanski follows up his excellent "The Ghost Writer" with one of the thinnest and least necessary motion pictures of the year. Superficial, monotonous, and strung together, "Carnage" is a tired, flat film almost entirely limited to an apartment that's supposed to be in New York (though with Polanski's house arrest, it wasn't shot there). As a result of that, it's pretty thematically limited as well, and the only kicks one can expect to get out of this come via the occasionally funny script.

Zachary whacks Ethan in the face with a stick in a park, and the parents want to sort things out. Ethan's, Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), invite Zachary's, Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), over to settle matters and what seems to be a simple chat to set up positive interaction between the boys turns into much more as the guests stay to eat apparently horrific cobbler, drink coffee, spew bile, drink, and, to the annoyance of everybody, answer countless phone calls.

Sure, some of the satire works at times, and the performances are decent, but it's not really worth it. Whit Stillman does this sort of thing better. "Carnage" is certainly not worth spending a bunch of money on, especially if you're someone who doesn't see a ton of movies. C

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Dangerous Method

Though initially as captivating as Keira Knightley's performance, "A Dangerous Method" fails to sustain interest for 99 minutes. Just at about the point Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein begin their intense affair, the film experiences a sheer drop-off in interest due to a more relaxed, less clinically focused pace and a feeling of fulfillment: now that what was inevitably going to happen happened, what now? The failure of director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Christopher Hampton to answer that question compromises what's actually a very solid 45 or so minutes and turns the remainder of the film into somewhat of a rote, hyper-cerebral chore.

That the movie works at all is thanks to Michael Fassbender, for the most part remarkably subdued here, and Knightley, for the most part remarkably and uncharacteristically out-of-control here. I've never seen Fassbender give a bad performance, but I've had my doubts about Knightley and whether she can really make a film watchable. Here, she veers sharply out of her normal range and tries something intense, with Russian accent and all. I'm not sure if she hits every mark, but as flailing, stuttering, and deeply passionate Sabina, Jung's most valued patient, she certainly leaves a big impression.

The film opens with her kicking and screaming, having to be restrained on the way to the hospital where Jung works, which sets the tone for the film's charged opening half. Jung wants to use his eventual friend and then bitter rival Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen)'s new idea for therapy, psychoanalysis or "the talking cure," and chooses Sabina as his first subject. It works very well, as it unearths unsettling truths about her damaged psyche (like how she likes to be beaten). Jung is pulled in by her indisputable magnetism, away from his rich and frankly pretty boring wife Emma (Sarah Gadon), especially when a psychiatrist he takes on as a patient (Vincent Cassel) emphasizes his distaste with monogamy.

Adapted from a book and then a play, "A Dangerous Method" is extremely dialogue-heavy, which works just fine at the beginning but ends up getting to be a little bit too much towards the ending. The film is also awkwardly edited and sequenced; very few scenes feel as if they follow each other naturally. I also felt as though it got increasingly less characteristic of Cronenberg as it went on. Some say it's not like him at all, but for me the beginning seems like a pretty snug fit in his oeuvre (even though I've only seen "A History of Violence"). Later on, however, as the score gets more and more generic and the plotting more and more disjointed, "A Dangerous Method" hardly feels distinct at all. C+

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mission : Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Though there is tension in Brad Bird's "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," the stakes for the most part feel glazed over. The heroes and the villains feel so far removed from what they're to affect (missiles blowing shit up) that the film is only engaging on the level of their immediate actions. I suppose that's sort of obvious, but the remove at times is large enough to be disconcerting: for one, a character is thrown out of a window and the film soon forgets her significance in the plot, even though she's said by Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) to be an "asset," and for another, the Kremlin's getting totally trashed is pretty underplayed.

I've only seen Brian De Palma's original "Mission: Impossible," which I largely enjoyed a while back, so I can't impart except via a small bit of outside knowledge about any cross-series references. This one is mildly satisfying, if not entirely morally coherent, mainly due to the magnetism of the four main actors, playing the last remaining agents of the IMF. It's fun to watch Cruise (even after all the freakouts he's had offscreen), and Paula Patton is solid in the only main female role of the film. But it's especially enjoyable to see Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg in somewhat irregular roles. Renner was very impressive in the excellent "Hurt Locker" a couple years back, so I'm already attuned to his talent; to see him kick ass in a different sort of action picture is a pleasure. And previously to now I just couldn't stand Pegg, beloved for his Edgar Wright and Nick Frost collaborations. I'm glad that he's finally found a good vehicle for his jokiness; he makes much of the film in my opinion.

Maybe I was overexposed to the material going in, but I feel less impressed than most at many of the talked-about scenes. The sustained Dubai section is masterfully executed looking at it as a whole, but in certain bits (especially with Cruise scaling the wall) it doesn't live up to expectations. (I did appreciate the last car chase a lot, though.) There's less to the whole film than there appears to be, disappointingly enough, with a bland bad guy who turns out to be played by none other than Mr. Swedish Mikael Blomquist, Michael Nyqvist. And, with the smiley, airbrushed coda, the surreal tidiness of the film and the mission is jolted to the next level (read: not a good place). "M:i-4" is an appealing venture (I smiled), and a sometimes aesthetically pleasing one (Robert Elswit has some good moments shot-wise), but not ultimately a worthwhile one. The actors click, valuably; little else does. C+