Thursday, November 2, 2017

Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)


Baumbach's Embarassing Dad Years.

Consequences of an incestuous family come home to roost in Shadow Earth's The Royal Tenenbaums 2, where all of the kids have grown up and have kept themselves busy by churning out anxious little copies of themselves. Will our characters something-something in time?

Hoffman, substituting the Jeff Daniels role while wearing Brian De Palma's wardrobe, remains an insufferable burden on his ex-wives and children (Sandler, Stiller, Marvel), where his lack of social awareness forces them to micromanage his behavior and ride the bull for as long as they can before the patience of the universe wears thin. Moments of joy are fleeting, moments of frustration linger, and a car gets beaten up. Standard fare, really.

Taken in the short view, it's hard to know if these experiences are transforming the characters into stronger individuals or further galvanizing them into one mess of a family, doomed to forever live under the high-maintenance shadow of their father. Transformations are internal and never-ending; in Baumbach's films, the transformations may never begin. The hopeful message of the ending casts the Meyerowitz siblings as a buffer generation between their children and their grandparents, that as long as they can contain their neuroses, the next generation is saved. Okay... the joke's on them when their kids unknowingly create another Hoffman.

Baumbach is building a Cinematic Universe of Discomfort with only slight maneuvering of continuity. Books become sculptures, adoptions become births, ping-pong (paddle-that-cock) becomes pool, Pais becomes Eisenberg becomes Stiller becomes Sandler, and Laura Palmer is rescued between every film. The performances are so good and the situations so infuriating that a complete and utter lack of movement doesn't matter. This is far from the filmmaker's best and an admirable distance from his worst, but I do appreciate this new age of Baumbach where actors remember they can act and film remembers how to be film.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: Dunkirk (2017)


Dunkirk is a war film of an unusual sort, one that frustrates as it entertains, though not in equal measure. Nolan's usual trademarks (quick pacing, gimmicky time manipulation, non-sensationalist cinematography) blast us through an intense, rarely-portrayed moment in history -- a retreat! -- while deftly avoiding the trappings of the genre (heavy-handed character development, an all-powerful antagonist with a scar on his face). Its ballsy approach breathes life into what has become routine, a genre that wears out its welcome the older Braveheart gets. Loving everything about Dunkirk would be a whole lot easier... if we didn't have, er, History to ruin it.

It is perhaps a mistake to lean too far into glorifying the Event instead of merely portraying it. Without a flashback scene or one where someone stares longingly at a blood-stained photograph of a wife and child, the main character is the Dunkirk Evacuation itself and with it the baggage of any bottom-up artistic licenses. Cillian Murphy is the lone survivor (???) of a torpedoed ship because the story requires him to be. French and British soldiers holding the line are needlessly simplified as the result of a German tactic of not "wasting precious tanks." In the film's most egregious scene, three different war film clich├ęs collide in one tugboat. It's a shame, as with Interstellar, that Nolan simply can't go whole-hog on an objective POV. Somebody just gots to have a crowbar.

Poor decisions like these accumulate to lessen the overall impact of the film. The "miracle" of the real-life evacuation is the result of solidarity, the protective instinct of soldiers and civilians, which is difficult to convey when the story conspires to tell us otherwise. Not that this could please everyone, but those most displeased should be British soldiers, who only have deserters and shell-shocked madmen portraying them -- unless, of course, you're in the RAF, then you're safe.

So, at this stage in his life, Christopher Nolan has a number of achievements under his belt that anyone could count as proof of "doing enough." The next step in his plan, mimicking the career of Steven Spielberg, is a lofty goal but hey, if anyone can do it...

*waits patiently for Nolan's kids movie*

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review: De Palma (2015)


Baumbach's... um... wait, you're telling me Brian De Palma didn't take one drink throughout this whole thing? Dammit.

Seems as if we're suddenly in an age of bridge-burning, earth-scorching documentaries that confirm our suspicions of Hollywood as an unforgiving bitchtown that fights creativity and meritocracy at every opportunity. That successes are jet engines constructed by tornados and failures are coliseums falling upon one person. You got yer Jodorowsky's Dune and yer Lost Soul, both flashy and exhaustive deconstructions of a specific tragedy. But what about a documentary of one long, difficult career? What about one that's driven by its own subject?

"Documentary" could even be stretching it. De Palma comes across more like the home movies of Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, supplemented five years afterward with still frames and film footage. This is their attempt to at least make some damn money off of this thing, and it's Brian De Palma sitting in a chair and talking. What else? It's a goddamned compelling hour and forty-five minutes.

It turns out that De Palma is the perfect candidate to talk about himself. He can do so with such clarity, such seemingly perfect recall, that there's no feeling that this had to be cobbled together from several afternoons. Baumbach and Paltrow's involvement was only to start the propeller and let the ship drive itself. It would be foolish to think that this could be done for every filmmaker in the twilight of their careers -- who would be as effusive, as honest about their failures? Still. Let's try.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: Mr. Jealousy (1997)


Baumbach's Post-College Years.

There are two concepts at work in this film. One is Every Beta-Male's Biggest Fears Realized, and the other is Man Goes to Therapy as His Friend. The former is certainly enough to make a movie on, but I can't help but lament the backseat given to the latter, a more fertile soil for zany hijinks than simply following your girlfriend's ex around. Payoffs for the subplot shine far too late, at the climax to the main story, upstaging a wholly underappreciated performance by Eric Stoltz.

The movie is more Allen-esque setups than Baumbach-isms, though Baumbach is well-suited to the requirements of non-sequitor jokes, fantasy sequences, irises, and a constant running narration from a god character (Ernie Fusco, maybe?). I will say that his usual fallbacks are missed; they appear in scenes shared with Kicking and Screaming alumni Carlos Jacott and John Lehr, here and gone very fast, and I counted only one Uncomfortable Meeting in the entire film. I wonder, was Baumbach going through an identity crisis? Like the main character? Is he going to start rehashing his childhood after this? Are his films -- dare I say it --- autobiographical?

Stories can't help but lean Biblical, no matter how hard they try not to. Logically, Lester has every reason in the world to be jealous. His life is full liars and cheats, people that confirm his worst suspicions and prove him right at every turn and don't see the irony in their actions. However, Lester is unfortunately in a fiction, where the antagonist resides in his own brain. Gotham creates its own supervillains, so Lester's suspicions create cheaters in other people, where he is more to blame for the infidelity of his girlfriends than they are. Baumbach is aware of this, I'm certain, but it's hard to tell if he thinks this is an endurable lesson or an unending hell. His main characters usually end up in purgatory, in the middle of some internal transformation, headed somewhere. Which direction is always unclear.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)


Ah, the resilience of a franchise. Some can survive anything: from the poor decision-making skills of a shitty 20th Century Fox Executive to a drift in Tokyo to a series of seemingly endless JJ Abrams nonsense. No one thought that Mission: Impossible would be among those still standing after the great collapse in the 00s, least of all me. Yet here we are.

Rogue Nation one-ups the previous entry, Ghost Protocol, in a department that was sorely underserviced: the plot. A newly disavowed IMF tussling with its own Hydra/Spectre organization and uncovering its evil plan through globetrotting and barely seeing something to completion is more interesting than a group of agents learning to trust each other while a nuclear threat looms in the distance (and doing those other two things as well). McQuarrie's hand also means that dialogue is snappier, loftier, and less reliant on what was more than likely conjured up on the set.

It loses against Ghost Protocol's big set pieces, sadly. A quiet fistfight in the rafters above Turandot, while fun, isn't as creative as the Kremlin infiltration. The opening plane robbery, while impressive, loses a lot of points when cheapened by an obvious digital effect. And a deep dive into a cold computer server followed by a car chase, while McQuarrie's bread and butter, is 100% not the Burj Khalifa centerpiece.

Along with setting up the franchise's new formula of Heist Sequences broken apart by Dialogue Scenes (and essentially siphoning the Marvel CU's spirit), Ghost Protocol created a back door waiting for Tom Cruise any time he wants to take it. There's a chance that, seeing the end of this era of his life biting at the heels of his very tiny feet, he decided to stay in the franchise as long as he is able to do some of his own stunts. This lack of meta-baggage is unique to this series, imbuing it with a strange immortal glow and frees us all up to have a bit of fun. Well, fun as long as certain people keep their dick-beaters off of it.

At times, it's difficult to tell if Mission: Impossible is a smarter James Bond or a dumber one. Bond is an infectious agent burrowing through a sinister host, bringing down a corrupt entity that underestimates him, with brute force. Hunt is a man groping blindly in the dark, succeeding partially through cunning, luck, and having more than two friends. Mission: Impossible does things that James Bond would never consider doing, but the way things are going now for that series, it ends up being mostly a good thing.

It remains a tough act to follow. Considering the future, what the hell could possibly be next? There are only so many times you can pull the "We're like a family!" trick, and how many Middle Eastern countries could there possibly be? Seven? I don't envy anyone in this position. However, this is why you make more money than I do.

Review: Jack Reacher (2012)


Yay, he's back!

New York Times Bestseller trash turns to gold under the right helmsman, and we live in an age where that is becoming increasingly common as long as your name isn't Ron Howard or Edward Zwick. Auteurs who used to scream "God is dead!" at us in the 90s now work for Apple and Taylor Swift. It's both good and awful.

Jack Reacher's story sets out to do nothing more than tell an easy-to-reckon mystery with a few zingers and thrills along the way. My relationship with the series of books doesn't extend beyond doing an awesome job shelving them at Borders, and knowing from my grandmother that Tom Cruise is all wrong for the title role because he is "too fucking short." The good news is that McQuarrie, in the 12 years he's been writing various cinematic failures, keep all of his tools sharp and ain't afraid to use any of them.

His objective touch works wonders on the film's few big action set pieces and they steal the movie away from fairly unremarkable genre trappings. Enough for most people should be the car chase in the center with absolutely NO music attached to it, just shifting of the gears and the roar of the engine, but the film shines in quieter moments as well (there is a scene at a shooting range with an added sense of impending dread, seemingly for very little reason). The film is bolstered by smaller decisions that, on paper, sound much better than they come across. Werner Herzog does a fine job as the Man at the Top, but can only do so much when confined by the material. In general, that's a pretty good rule for determining the quality of this film. Nice, not perfect.

Ultimately, Jack Reacher functions as a surprise in that it exceeds well beyond its own grasp, and as a sign of man breaking free of his One-and-Done status, I'd be a fool not to take it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review: The Way of the Gun (2000)


Christopher McQuarrie didn't cut the cord entirely to Bryan Singer (good thing -- how else can you meet Tom Cruise?), only enough to unlearn some fairly awful filmmaking habits. Public Access, a film with two ideas stretched to feature length and The Usual Suspects, a film lacking about as much atmosphere as What Lies Beneath and one you'd only watch after finishing Tarantino's First 4 in a weekend, were apparently enough to give him the hootzpa to direct his own film. Good thing he smart, dawg. Well, to a degree... I'd like to hear him explain Jack the Giant Slayer.

The Way of the Gun could be set in the same universe as Pulp Fiction, in a world filled with liars and bastards who live at the expense of total squares and take breaks shooting at each other to talk in smoky bars and dark parking lots. Where the tradition of the treasure hunt runs strong and the Game ends in a draw. Where Order is only an implication.

McQuarrie wisely tells the story without a lot of flash, opting for a coldly procedural presentation. But the story he tells, a simple kidnapping scenario, is complicated by half-stated motivations and a surprising amount of verbal metaphors. A zany pre-credits scene establishes the absence of morality but stands apart in terms of tone, and the soberly staged modern western action scenes that come quickly afterwards end up being an empty promise. With such a killer opening Twenty, it takes a bit of a readjustment to fully absorb the slow-paced chess game that follows, where two inscrutable characters have obtuse conversations the likes of which could only be written by a former private investigator. We are left to figure out a lot of the world's economy by ourselves. What happened in Baltimore? What is this family business? How did everybody meet? Why aren't Diggs and Lehman keeping their romance more secretive? Just where the hell are the cops? And so on.

For being a drama set in a harsh world with very little joy, there is a great amount of joy you feel watching all accounts getting settled through extreme violence and misery. McQuarrie is surely destined to stay at the forefront of our lives for- hey, where'd he go?