Thursday, July 18, 2013

World War Z

Let's address the haters right from start.  World War Z is completely bloodless, and that's ok.  In fact, if I was able to choose between this film, and the same exact thing with buckets of gore, I would choose  It's scarier and smarter for it.  Characters on screen even go so far as to laugh at the implication of "zombies."  The film is about an efficient virus, actively engaged in natural selection as it spreads from person to person, its only goal being global contamination.  Eating brains and gnashing into jugulars is not appropriate or warranted in a film like this, I don't care what Max Brooks's book says, and I commend the filmmakers for not turning this into another forgettable gore-soaked fanboy fantasy to be forgotten the next day.

I have two general requirements for a good time in a movie theatre, seeing something I've never seen before, and if that's not possible, seeing the familiar done with great skill, both as far as content and execution are concerned.  A blockbuster, PG-13, zombie apocalypse film starring Brad Pitt, containing roughly five set pieces, and scenes of massive CGI crowds pouring through the streets, and climbing over each other into giant pyramids, fits that bill perfectly, as does the realization that director Marc Forster bested both Zack Snyder and Danny Boyle at the whole animated zombie thing.

World War Z is about a deadly global outbreak of a mysterious virus that turns its victims into rabid creatures with only one purpose, to infect as many people as possible.  Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, an ex-United Nations investigator who uses nepotism, through relationships with active government agents, to effect an evacuation for himself and his family safely to an aircraft carrier, only to be persuaded to head a globe-trotting hunt for a cure when he is threatened with being kicked back into the war zone for being non-essential to operations.  It's an effective set-up, as it simultaneously creates empathy for Lane, and addresses the current social hot button of government privilege.  What follows is a series of set pieces, from Korea to Israel to Wales, as Pitt battles ferocious hordes of the infected, picking up one piece of the puzzle at each destination of how to best fight them.

Pitt is probably the best I've ever seen him here.  His face is anything but a blank stare, and especially towards the end, when director Forster runs head-first into the notion that the film is a one-man-against-the-world narrative construct, by stripping away the dialogue and presenting Pitt all alone in a building full of zombies, his stare through the glass at a contorting "zombie" speaking volumes of love for his family, duty to the world, and terror as a human being.  There isn't much in the way of exposition, and many critics have pointed to this as a fatal flaw, giving the audience no reason to really care about Gerry Lane.  But I disagree.  World War Z's narrative flow is painted in broad strokes, carried by the aforementioned emotions, and the initial set-up is more than enough.  Far better-acclaimed films have gotten by on less, that finding out what Lane's favorite breakfast cereal is, or learning about specific horrors from his past would just be a distraction from the film's rhythm (I hate that damn scene in Gremlins when Phoebe Cates talks about Christmas past - I tune out completely); and plus, it's all right there on Pitt's face, and in his actions when he saves the soldier in Israel.

Director Marc Forster's contributions lie in the details.  This is the first time I haven't thought fast-moving zombies were lame.  There's something about Forster's infected hordes; they actually seem to be infected, possessed by something that makes them relentless, almost super-human, and far more terrifying than previous films where they just seemed like actors running, enhanced with jump cuts and the kind of hyper-real cinematography used by Janusz Kaminski during the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan.  Forster favors kinetic, disorienting action for sure, but he uses it in short bursts, as punctuation in a film beautifully paced, at just the right times, separated by intense, loaded conversations between characters, all in different parts of the world, and always seeming to be one step ahead of the audience.  In other words, just when you start to decipher what Lane and the locals are saying, and put it all together, Forster lets the horror in.  World War Z is so skillfully crafted it joins the ranks of films with similar undulating rhythms of build-up and release that I could watch over and over again, like Back To The Future and The Shawshank Redemption.  It's not going to win Forster any awards, but if this were my film, I'd much rather have someone tell me they've seen my film twenty times than have a statue on my desk.

Another beautiful touch is an early scene as Lane's running to safety with his family, and his daughter's talking "subway" bear is activated and begins to count to twelve, and Forster uses it so Lane can learn exactly how long it takes for someone to turn once they've been bitten.  It's exciting as hell, and smartly returned to later on, in another scene where decision and action on the part of Lane builds his character far more than exposition could.

Much has been written about World War Z's troubled production history, going over budget and having its ending re-written.  From what's on screen you can't even tell, except for an obviously decimated role for Matthew Fox, who isn't even named, isn't given any dialogue that can be heard above the crowd, and doesn't even show his entire face at any point.  That's ok by me; I saw enough of him in Alex Cross to last a lifetime.  And speaking of the reshot ending; I loved it, for the reasons stated above.  Most films save the biggest set piece for the end.  The end of World War Z embraces cinema over story, a Splinter Cell-style stealth maneuver where how things happen is far more exciting than what is happening; it's naive to dismiss it as anti-climactic, to mistake intentional defiance from the norm for poor structure.  The end of the film positions it right back where it started, squarely in the realm of character.

World War Z is the best summer action blockbuster I've seen so far in 2013.  It's the only one I've wanted to experience again, immediately upon leaving the theater.  I'm glad Paramount has green-lit a sequel.  I'm sorry the haters couldn't enjoy the ride.  World War Z is one of the greatest contributions to the zombie canon ever filmed.  It's an action movie first and foremost, borrowing genre tropes to give audiences a spectacle unlike anything seen before, and I couldn't have asked for much more than that.

The Purge

The Purge  is the name given to one 24 hour time period during which all crime is allowed, and all hospitals, police, and other emergency services are shut down, in an annual event sanctioned by the United States government and embraced by its citizens, instituted some time in the future by the country's "New Founding Fathers."  The reasoning behind it, as James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) explains to his family on the eve of one such "purge," is an opportunity for people to rid themselves of a year's worth of pent-up frustration and anxiety over whatever societal or economic pressures befall them.

If that sounds ridiculous it's because it is, but that's the least of this film's problems.  The Purge is an obvious indictment of the Libertarian movement in the United States, which at times seems to favor personal liberties above all else, including public safety, and the "new founding fathers" references a constitutionalist branch of the movement that seems to constantly bemoan activities of the current administration as antithetical to that document upon which the country was founded.  If you are not aware of these things prior to seeing the film, your experience, as obviously intended, will be diminished; The Purge is the first horror film that demands watching an hour of CNN or spending time trolling on Facebook as a prerequisite for understanding it.

But can it really be called a horror film?  At its core The Purge is yet another home invasion film, as Sandin's son feels bad for a homeless man about to be beaten to death and proceeds to deactivate their state-of-the-art home security system, which Sandin makes a living selling, prompting the "purgers" outside to target their house.  But throughout, the film suffers from such wildly opposing tones, it cannot make up its mind whether it wants to be a horror film, an action-thriller, or a political allegory, and winds up being an awkward jumble of all three.  Director James DeMonaco does manage to pull off some engaging action sequences, one involving Hawke single-handedly fighting a group of purgers with a shotgun and a pinball machine, and he does manage to eke out a somewhat effective, if overwrought, message, but with a running time just shy of ninety minutes there just isn't enough time to follow through with anything, and large tonal shifts are left just hanging there, with no appropriate segue.

Whichever one of the film's schizophrenic ideas you are in the mood to see, no doubt its marketing campaign made you chomp at the bit with anticipation.  Strangely enough the film itself seems to want to please everyone, ironic considering its anarchic conceit.  Much to the surprise of this film's one-sheet in particular, however, The Purge is not at all scary, and although the Sandin family endures much hell through the night, the real victims here are the film's audiences, who afterwards won't be able to tell if they've just seen a home invasion thriller or what basically amounts to the world's first cinematic adaptation of an internet meme.

** 1/2 out of *****

After Earth

There's no dispute that M. Night Shyamalan has become the favorite whipping-boy of critics and fairweather fans alike, beginning almost ten years ago with his 19th century tale, The Village.  The grumblings that began with that film have only amplified over the years, culminating in the director being awarded Golden Raspberries for his work on The Last Airbender.  It's gotten so bad, After Earth is the first film I've seen where I can't decide whether the decision to place all the credits at the end is an artistic decision, or one of self-preservation.  The director's bad press has even provoked continued astonishment that his films are even able to be funded.  And it doesn't seem like After Earth is going to change that any.  Overnight the film plummetted to just barely double digits on Rotten Tomatoes, echoing the prevailing sentiments prior to its release, about how atrocious it would be.

But is it as bad as people are saying?  Not hardly.  After Earth is an extremely competent, allegorical tale with basically only two actors, which smartly exploits the grandiosity of the sci-fi genre to effect its modest goal of bringing a father and son closer together, perhaps in real life and in story.  Artists have been mining science fiction since the very first recorded work of literature as a backdrop upon which to frame tales of the human condtion.  It works because of its limitless possibilities, a perfect environment for small stories, rooted in our attraction to the harmony of opposities, and After Earth takes full advantage of this.

1000 years in the future, Earth has become unihabitable by mankind.  Due to our irresponsible actions and ruthless pillaging of Earth's resources everything on the planet has evolved into a killing machine, creating a hostile environment.  Even the air cannot really be breathed anymore.  It's a fascinating concept, and one that almost seems a continuation of the themes explored in the director's villified film, The Happening, a fact that in this critic's eyes commands utmost respect.  It's like a giant middle-finger to all that film's detractors, very rare in a Hollywood where the reaction to one's last film tends to dictate the next.  The premise of After Earth could certainly lead to any and all amount of special effects, a blockbuster-sized epic in a world where "MORE is more" is the preferred mantra.  But for Shyamalan it is the environment upon which to tell his human story, the story of a father and son, separated emotionally by a past tragedy, who crash land onto Earth, and must each overcome their personal obstacles when the son has to journey across the vicious terrain to reach the tail end of the craft and retrieve a distress beacon before a critical injury takes the father's life.

After Earth also appears to be dragged through the mud for its acting, mostly on the part of Jaden Smith, Will's real life son.  Some of the reviews I have read even seek to blame the acting on Shyamalan.  The truth is, holding the acting in this film up to the standards of typical films is to miss the point.  For me, the fact that this is a real life father and son is an inescapable and heavily relied-upon reality that helps to massage the rough edges of Jaden's acting.  This is a character wracked with fear and completely immature.  It would not have been in the film's best interests to coax an Oscar-worthy performance out of Jaden.  I'm not sure at this point in his career it's even possible, and I would argue that replacing him with a better actor would cause the film to lose more in underlying cohesion than it would gain in credibility.

Those who criticize this film for being a vanity project, or being just about a father and son, or for not much happening have also missed the point, and appear ignorant of the larger tradition at work underneath the surface.  I posit, that had this come from any other director, more people would be singing its praises, but under Shyamalan's care it is naturally assumed bad and then picked apart for no other reason then to support that assumption.  There is no trick ending.  So get that out of your head right from the start.  Sorry if you think that is a spoiler, it's not; but rather a notion long since overdue that audiences be disabused of.  At ninety-minutes, the film is over pretty quick, and when it is the audience is definitely in a different place than they were at the start.  After Earth is a capable and confidently executed story that works as both a science fiction parable and a feel-good family film.  It is worth seeing and worth more to ponder about afterwards.  Whether you spend that time lamenting missed opportunities or reliving the experience was probably telegraphed by your feelings on the film's director before you even sat down in the theatre.

**** out of ***** stars

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Iron Man 3

The difference in quality between the first Iron Man and the second is probably greater than that of any sequel and its original, throughout the history of film.  After the complete disaster of Iron Man 2, which was basically an inversion of the first one, awful for the very same reasons that made the first so great, it was clear that the series needed to go in a different direction, a fresh start away from Jon Favreau's lazy direction, and Justin Theroux's cash-grab of a screenplay that made the sequel seem like it was conceived inside a boardroom.  Enter Shane Black, a screenwriter for decades, responsible for some of the wittiest action films of the late 1980's and early 1990's, Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, who was somehow gifted this opportunity to both write and helm Iron Man 3, and who succeeded admirably.  Iron Man 3 kicks off both 2013's summer blockbuster season and Marvel's Phase Two in style, without sacrificing substance, an explosive thrill-ride for popcorn enthusiasts that still doesn't approach the level of the original, but then who says that needs to be a bad thing?

Shane Black is the perfect author to pen dialogue for Robert Downey Jr's sarcastic, playfully narcissistic superhero, packing the film with more slightly irreverent, bullseye one-liners than can possibly be retained on an initial viewing.  He's also not afraid to extend his signature zaniness into other areas, and other characters in the film, like when Stark takes out an entire room of bad guys, and turns to face the last one, who throws down his weapon saying "I never really liked these guys anyway; they're weird," or digressing for a moment here and there to have his characters argue about a giant bunny rabbit Stark purchased for Pepper's birthday.

But we're not paying good summer money to see endless shenanigans, and in films that take chances like this it's always a danger for them to eclipse the action and drama, diminishing whatever happens to be at stake.  And while the narrative does unfortunately take a backseat occasionally, what transpires never crosses the line into utter boredom.  The story involves villain Aldrich Killian (a terrific Guy Pearce) tapping into wounded soldiers' brains and "upgrading" them to allow for spontaneous regeneration and, um, the ability to breathe fire and generate tremendous heat, hot enough to melt iron.  Uh oh, Iron Man.  It is all pretty ridiculous, and far-fetched, and comic-booky (the nerve), and part of me did lament the film's reluctance to delve into reality a little more, as the original did, which for my money remains a perfect example of the seamless integration of plot and character, with the added bonus of a socially relevant storyline that will never be dated.  

Well, they can't all be one of the best films ever made.  But for two-and-a-half hours I was content to go where Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. wanted to take me.  The film is clever, and exciting, and funny at usually all the right moments, never threatening to take me out of the story.  It is also the first Marvel film, besides The Avengers of course, that felt like part of a larger universe, due to its consistent references to the Joss Whedon film, partly as an explanation for Tony Stark's onset of panic attacks, an interesting, if not entirely useful, added dynamic to his character.  By the end of the film I think the film thinks it has covered more ground than it did in terms of the evolution of Tony Stark's character, but in all honesty the original Iron Man had such a magnificent and complete arc I have no idea where they could possibly go next.  I'm just glad they thought about it enough to at least try for Iron Man 3.  There is no over-crowding here, like in the second film; all characters are given adequate screen time for what they do, even with respect to secondary villain The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), whom the film dispatches with quite brilliantly.  The action does occasionally drag a bit, and Stark's never-ending supply of Iron Man suits teeters on the ledge of lazy writing, but it's never a deal breaker, and the assault on Stark mansion is one of the most glorious displays of destruction Hollywood has ever filmed.  And finally, FINALLY, Gwyneth Paltrow is allowed a moment to shine.  She's no longer solely the damsel in distress, and it is truly a delight to watch the stunning actress kick some ass, and then deliver what is probably the best line in the film.

Iron Man 3 isn't going to change the world, or reinvent the superhero film.  It's content to blow stuff up and crack wise through a serviceable, intermittently deft storyline.  While I'll admit, the entire film could have been acted in pantomime and interpretive dance and I still would have preferred it over Iron Man 2, co-writer/director Shane Black does go above and beyond the basic requirements, never insulting his audience's intelligence, which is usually pretty hard to come by inside a movie theater during the summer months.

**** out of *****

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Iceman

Michael Shannon is a force of nature. A force of freaking nature. He's been called this generation's Robert De Niro, but to call him that is frankly to do him a great disservice, and to unnecessarily and tacitly pre-destine him to a late career full of half-assed cash-grabs and relentless mediocrity. That, and he's better now than De Niro was back then. He is usually the best thing about any film he is in, and his performance as contract killer Richard Kuklinski, otherwise known as The Iceman, in director Ariel Vroman's biopic, should go down as one of the greatest in the history of cinema, and I hope he is remembered come award season. His Kuklinski is today's Travis Bickle, every bit as reserved and restrained, and every bit as grandiose and larger than life because of it. Unfortunately though, the film itself does not hold a candle to Taxi Driver, or any of the films that made De Niro a household name among both cinephiles and casual audiences. Hopefully with his turn on Boardwalk Empire, and occasionally popping up in Hollywood genre exercises like Premium Rush, he is becoming more popular among the latter. Sadly, The Iceman will go practically unseen.

Even more sadly, I have a hard time arguing against that point, because I can completely understand why. From the getgo The Iceman introduces Kuklinski as a cipher, and though I hate to state the obvious, ciphers don't usually make for gripping stories, and this most pedestrian criticism is something Vroman's film never manages to rise above.  When we first see Kuklinski it is in the 1960's, and he is on a date with Deborah (Winona Ryder, as we've never previously had a chance to see her), a christian girl from the neighborhood, who will eventually become his wife and mother of his two daughters. He works dubbing films in the porn industry, and tells Deborah he works for Disney. We see him slit the throat of a man who mouths off to him over a game of billiards, and the impression is clear that this is not the first time, but rather just where we happen to pick up his story. A skirmish with the mob who is behind the porn distributor he works for, late one night at the office, leads to his next occupation as a professional hitman, when mob boss Roy Demeo (an always welcome Ray Liotta) notices his vacant, souless stare while getting smacked around, and sees a world of potential. 

What follows is a highlight reel of Kuklinski's most notable moments, including the highly publicized revelation by the real Kuklinski of a time when he allowed a victim thirty minutes to pray to God to come and save his life before being murdered. These moments are woven into an occasionally convoluted tale of mob double crosses, threats and intimidations, and basically everything we've seen done countless times before, and much better. The story of The Iceman is pure direct-to-video material, recalling films like Goodfellas, which shows the intrusion of a gangster's occupation into his home life as perfect as any film ever could, without ever forging its own cinematic identity.  No, that's up to Michael Shannon, who single-handedly delivers for this film every star in this review. 

Shannon's read of Kuklinski is every bit as souless and empty as one would imagine. There are moments though, when he allows something else to crack through the hardened exterior. The film makes a token bid to explain Kuklinski's behavior through flashbacks of abuse at the hand of his father, and perhaps as a narrative justification for his refusal to kill women and children. But Shannon isn't content to let the screenplay deal with that alone, evident in a handful of scenes which are nothing short of a master class in screen acting. Sitting in a car outside his house, while his daughter slowly approaches to see what's going on, Demeo threatens Kuklinski for taking outside work, and suggests that one of his henchmen get out of the car to chase the girl away. Shannon becomes animated in very small ways; a spark of life creeps across his face, and his lower lip begins to quiver uncontrollably while he repeats over and over, "don't let him touch her." Cut to Demeo, and a mixture of terror and incomprehensibilty coming across his face while he tells his goon to stand down. There is no reason for Demeo to stand down; few actors living today could have pulled that turn of events off so believably. The scene is a testament to Shannon's gifts as an actor.

But those gifts are not without their consequences, and for as wonderful as Shannon's performance is, the rest of the film is kind of left twisting in the wind because of it. Films like this usually have some other character, an audience surrogate, to become personally invested in, and through which to raise the emotional stakes. The Iceman has no such character, it is all Kuklinski, pretty much all the time. There is his wife, and Winona Ryder is as close to a revelation here as she's ever been, but her character is too often relegated to willful ignorance to ever really amount to anything. Remember in Goodfellas, when Karen Hill pulled a gun on Henry Hill? The cool reality of the logic of her complicity talked that scene down from the ledge. There is nothing like that here. The only time Deborah steps to Kuklinski is when he begins to grow distant after being fired by Demeo. He flies into a rage that quickly ends with her throwing herself at him and apologizing, not because he's violent or abusive towards her, but just because she is weak.  No fault of her character of course, but it saddles the film with a lack of anyone for the audience to turn to. And because of that, Kuklinski becomes the focus of our sympathy (we can't help it - we seek it out in stories all the time), and serves to undo much of the transformative work Shannon undertakes.

I blame Vroman, who it's pretty clear was out of his league with this film. His last film was the direct-to-video Marisa Tomei vehicle, Danika, made six years ago. Yeah, me either. The Iceman has that same direct-to-video feel, a film that, with a different actor, would have been a complete toss-off, destined for the budget bin. Put someone like John Cusack in this film, and it never would have seen the inside of a theatre. I am happy that Michael Shannon found his way to this role. The Iceman doesn't come anywhere close to eclipsing Revolutionary Road or Take Shelter, the actor's finest moments, and in infinitely better films. In a sense The Iceman suffers from an identity crisis of sorts, as it's too plot-oriented to be a character study, and too focused on Kuklinski, to the deficit of every other character, to be a truly gripping drama. But Michael Shannon makes the film unique in its own right, injecting it with purpose and respectability. 

The Iceman did not change my life, but it reaffirmed my belief that this is Michael Shannon's time, on the verge of becoming the greatest working actor today. When the summer dust settles, and after the film quickly fades from being buried in multiplexes among the summer blockbusters, I hope people will discover The Iceman on home video, or online, and go "hey, it's that guy." Because that guy...deserves everything he has coming to him.

*** 1/2 out of *****


Rarely has a film taken me to the brink of perfection so deep into its second act, only to almost entirely self-destruct in the final twenty minutes. I had extremely high hopes for Mud, this backwoods mystery/character study, from the very first time its trailer recommended it to me as the best American film at Cannes, and its director, coming off a high wave of critical acclaim from his last film, had clearly been riding shotgun with his muse. Armed with a bigger cast, a bigger story, a bigger running time, it should have been a slam dunk, but alas, the bigger they are the harder they truly fall, as the film ultimately proves just how American it is by degenerating into a flurry of contrived plot machinations that sacrifices its own redemption for the quick and easy redemption of its main character. 

A few years ago director Jeff Nichols astounded audiences with Take Shelter, a quiet, uncompromising tale of a man quickly slipping away from reality. Played by Michael Shannon, Curtis LaForche is a construction worker who one day begins to have apocalyptic visions forecasting the end of the world, and he is not certain whether they are real, or symptoms of schizophrenia, the disease which claimed his mother many years ago. I bring this film up for two reasons; one, as a plea to those who haven't seen it, if you take anything away from this review, please remedy that as soon as possible, and two, as a point of comparison to where Nichols is as a filmmaker a mere two years later. Mud, his third film as writer/director, revolves around a similarly quixotic central figure, though one who clearly knows who and what he is, part of the mystery for the audience to unravel for sure, but also necessitating a different narrator. Enter the children.

Mud follows Ellis, an Arkansas boy living with his parents, who are on the brink of divorce, in a nearly-condemned houseboat on the river. One day he journeys across open water to a small island with his friend Neckbone, where they find a boat mysteriously trapped overhead in tree. As boys would, they lay claim to this boat, but living inside is a man who calls himself Mud, on the run from the law and a gang of thugs out for blood. Mud enlists their help to communicate with an estranged girlfriend back in town, and to bring him food and assist with getting the boat in working condition, so he can escape. Ellis agrees to help, out of a sense of adventure at first, but soon, as the events of his own life begin to inform his relationship with Mud, it becomes a deeply personal commitment.

I am not kidding when I say the entirety of the first two acts of this film is flawless, both in terms of the performances and the execution of its complex, multi-layered storyline. Nichols is a first-rate director, who coaxes phenomenal performances out of his actors. Tye Sheridan's pitch perfect turn as Ellis, I'm not afraid to proclaim, will probably dog his entire career as its peak. Matthew McConaughey, continuing in the footsteps of his unbelievable 2012 career renaissance, effortlessly embodies the titular character both in the concrete and abstract, an old soul rooted to the ashes from whence he came, the dirt from the Earth clinging to his skin like a badge of honor, drenched in sweat, as much from the hot Arkansas sun, as from the pursuit of his dreams, a girl he would do anything for. Take Shelter's Michael Shannon even makes an appearance, and the most out of his brief turn as Ellis's friend Neckbone's uncle. Nichols deftly weaves his characters, especially Ellis, into one of the most beautiful coming-of-age mysteries ever put on screen, drawing just the right moments from the boy's home, social, and extracurricular life, to successfully build Mud towards a satisfying, much-deserved, emotional and diegetic resolution. Unfortunately that's the exact moment the film comes apart at the seams.

Somewhere during the latter part of Mud's second act, the emotional story begins to out-pace the narrative, and at the moment it reaches its apex, about an hour and forty minutes in, something happens which sets in motion a chain of events that put the film on autopilot, and a  regression to the most hoary of plot contrivances, which in any other film would be mildly disturbing, but which here, in light of all the work that was done to get to this point, is tantamount to a complete betrayal of the audience's trust. If you've seen the film, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Perhaps you didn't mind it; I found it to be the worst thing Nichols could have possibly done. The last half hour of this film is in complete and total bad faith, and weakening the foundation of a film that begins as strong as this one, for me, brings everything crashing down. 

There are occasional hints of the film's undoing throughout its second hour.  There is Ellis's repeated visits, without incident, to a hotel room that was quite explicitly acknowledged as being heavily monitored by bad guys.  More troubling is how the clearly established POV of Ellis is broken to show the bloodthirsty gang plotting its next move. Watching it, I didn't understand this stylistic decision; I noticed it immediately, and upon reflection it added absolutely nothing to the story, except to develop the characters of people who ultimately would just add more plot to an already convoluted third act.  The only reason I can see for this, is for the film to satisfy the demands of having a much wider release than Take Shelter. Mainstream audiences want to see action, guns drawn and blazing, and it is with great sadness that Mud succumbs to this desire. If it could ever be said that the amount of restraint in the beginning of a film is proportional to the number of bullets fired at the conclusion, to that I say Mud delivers in spades.

I hear that Nichols's next project will re-unite him with Michael Shannon as the lead, in his first film for a major motion picture studio. I urge him with all my heart to follow the lead he developed with Take Shelter, to not be content with the mediocrity on display here in Mud, to follow the story wherever it needs to go, and not where the audience, and a double-digit-million-dollar-box-office-gross, want to take it.

** 1/2 out of *****

Monday, March 4, 2013

Side Effects

With Side Effects, the prolific auteur and indie-film vanguard Steven Soderbergh has announced that he is retiring from directing feature films, capping one of the most versatile and original filmographies ever seen from an independent filmmaker, who managed to eke out an existence within the studio system that mostly afforded him complete artistic control over his films.  That's not to say all of his films are great.  Rather, he was that rare bird in Hollywood, always smarter than his material, and aware that sometimes one has to do the dance in order to do what you really want.  Like John Sayles before him, who would use the money he made script doctoring studio pablum to fund his more personal projects, Soderbergh wallowed in dreck like Ocean's Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen, but then turned around and made a black-and-white nod to German expressionism, and a five-hour biopic of Che Guevera, in the controversial figure's native language no less, and a documentary about Spalding Gray.  Yes, the man who directed twenty-eight motion pictures in only twenty-four years, including several episodes of television drams, is apparently folding up his director's chair, and with Side Effects, his new thriller set against the world of prescription medication, he goes out on top, crafting the very best out of all twenty-eight, and in this critic's eyes, even besting Traffic, his 2000 moment of Oscar glory.

Side Effects is more rewarding the less known about it, insofar as its narrative continues to evolve, focusing on different characters, and different ideas of what it might be about, all which become seamlessly interwoven.  Basically, at the point which we are introduced to the characters, Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) is being released from prison for insider trading, with his wife Emily (Rooney Mara) and mother (Ann Dowd) anxiously awaiting a return to the life they used to have.  But not too long after his release Emily tries to commit suicide by driving her car head-on into a cement wall, and it is soon revealed that after Martin's imprisonment, issues of depression began to surface, inspiring periods of heavy medication.  She meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) while in the hospital, and becomes his patient, allowing him to prescribe for her different types of medication to find the one that works best for her.  They finally settle on Ablixa, which unbeknownst to them has the unfortunate side effect of sleepwalking, and everyone's life soon gets turned upside-down, including Dr. Banks's, whose ethics and judgment as a doctor begin to come under the microscope, when after one such sleepwalking episode Emily fatally stabs Martin.

The beauty of this film is in how many different thematic strands it is able to juggle at once.  It begins as a thriller about an ex-con who might be getting back into a life of crime.  It then becomes a film about depression, and the potential addictive nature of pharmaceuticals.  It then becomes a cautionary tale about the power and greed, and far-reaching influence of the pharmaceutical industry, in a similar vein to Soderbergh's own Contagion from a few years ago.  And it then becomes a mystery/thriller, but I won't mention any specifics about that.  Ordinarily I might criticize such a film for biting off more than it can chew, tackling one too many issues that pull the film in too many directions to care about any one.  But Soderbergh, and everyone else involved quite easily prove that it doesn't have to go that way.  Writer Scott Z. Burns, who unfortunately succumbed to this problem with Contagion, grafting human emotion onto a far-fetched scenario of a widespread outbreak, succeeds marvelously here because rather than trying to find the personal commentary within a national emergency, he instead begins with the personal, a woman grappling with depression, and then colors the drama with broader strokes of greater significance.  Soderbergh proves a master of suspense, to such great extent that it is regrettable he didn't explore genre films more through his career, as here he finds a perfect rhythm to scenes that very easily could have favored one storyline, or underrepresented another.  It is worth noting that Soderbergh edited the film himself, under the alias of Mary Ann Bernard, which is his mother's name.  Soderbergh also demonstrates a flair for visual motif, perhaps borrowing a few tricks from Hitchcock, the master himself, by manipulating the film's actual focus, or rather, by not adjusting it.  Characters move into and out of focus within the same shot as they walk toward or away from the camera.  First this is used with Emily, becoming a metaphor for her drastic mood changes, where bouts of sadness seem to come from out of nowhere, and later becoming a metaphor for a potential lack of clarity about something from her past, and gradually, as the film opens itself to the other characters, they are also shot this way, especially when patients and partners begin to turn on Dr. Banks, and his motivations suddenly become not so crystal clear.  Normally, rack focus would avoid this, as is done invisibly in most Hollywood films; when it is not done it begs the question why.  Shot also by Soderbergh himself, under the alias of Peter Andrews, his father's name, Side Effects is ultimately the work of someone in complete control artistically and technically, and one of the very few remaining auteurs working in Hollywood.  To take on so many roles and responsibilities behind the camera, with a film that is to be released wide across the country, filmmaking has to be in your blood, and the collection of scenes that make up Side Effects unfold like second nature.

One final, and no less important reason for the film's success, is Rooney Mara.  After spending five years on various television projects and minor films, Mara burst onto the global stage in 2010 with a starring role in The Nightmare On Elm Street remake, and a minor role in The Social Network, as Mark Zuckerberg's "Rosebud," the girl for whose affections he still craved even after becoming the king of the world.  Following that came an iconic turn as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher's remake of The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo, which is now becoming a franchise of its own.  And already now she is in the midst of filming suddenly prolific Terrence Malick's new untitled project.  Mara is a revelation in Side Effects.  The character of Emily is a very deliberate one, and Mara possesses the uncanny ability to turn her emotions on a dime, restraining the conflicts within herself without losing them completely, and then releasing them when they are called upon later.  The real beauty in her performance is in how she embodies Emily's trajectory throughout the film, that left me with the inabilty to imagine any other actress in the role.  That's the sign of a great performance, and Mara is largely responsible for elevating this film to five stars.  Even if you happen to figure out where the film is going, she digs so deep into Emily that you go along for the ride anway, quite happily. 

I loved Side Effects.  It is a generic, run-of-the-mill mystery at its foundation, but Soderbergh, Burns, and the entire cast and crew of Soderberghs have gone so far beyond the film's genre trappings, and have crafted a true work of art.  People have been calling the film a minor effort from Soderbergh, good but not great.  I urge them to take a second look.  Genre films are engrained in our collective psyches as audiences.  They are fantastic forums for filmmakers to take something people have seen a thousand times and make them fresh, as if their stories are being told for the very first time.  For me they are the greatest form of escape from the more rigorous, challenging art films that usually adorn my annual top ten lists.  Most genre films today are content to merely get by, and get your money.  Particular attention should be paid, however, to a flawless example of one.  In many ways they are the hardest form of film to create, as one scene out of place, or a slight interruption in rhythm could severely affect audience involvment.  Side Effects is that rare example, and will stand up to repeat viewings for as long as it takes for Soderbergh's next career evolution to reveal itself.

***** out of *****