Calvary & Frank Reviews  

Posted by Zachary Zahos in , , , ,

Calvary review here, Frank here — both at The Ithaca Voice. A pair of deeply flawed films, but to my surprise I prefer Frank over Calvary.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For Review  

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez
Released in 2014

How would you react if you walked into your baby brother’s bedroom to find him flailing around a razor-sharp katana sword? With horror, I hope. Now, how about if he was just rapping the trigger to a toy machine gun, shouting lines from Predator? You’d laugh, though you might also worry that he’s watching too many R-rated movies at his age.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For thinks it’s packing all the shock and danger of the former scenario when it’s nothing more than a clearinghouse for obscene and tedious fantasies scraped together by over-stimulated little boys. I laughed, for one, at the sheer idiocy of it all, which means there’s a bit of that “so bad, it’s good” appeal here, but as a piece of art or even coherent entertainment, Sin City 2 is a lifeless, often insidious failure.
Before I get to last week’s bomb, let me deflect with another question: Did you like the first Sin City, from 2005? I did, back in the day, but I am now reluctant to revisit it. Because while this overdue sequel traffics a formless script and some criminally underwhelming combat scenes, its worst offense has more to do with the cheap and sadistic worldview of Frank Miller’s graphic novel universe, a through line in both this film and the last. Deformed, or else mutilated, men take pleasure in snuffing out the lives of rabid frat boys, gamblers and security guards, doing so slowly so as to drink in their suffering. Directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez (Machete) deploy violence not to confront (à la Cronenberg), gross out (Verhoeven) or indict the viewer’s sick pleasure in it (Hitchcock), but to titillate. There’s no divide between the ravenous on-screen anti-heroes and the presumed straight male viewer, who savors in the parade of scantily clad or nude women as much as the splashes of white, red and yellow blood.
Credit to Eva Green, then, for owning her psycho femme fatale Ava Lord to such an extreme that, naturally, the men behind the camera have no clue what to do with her. Ava wears no clothes for about half her screen time, which will be worth the price of admission for some, and she uses her chiaroscuro-bathed body to seduce both allies and enemies. Her enforcer Manute (Dennis Haysbert, replacing the late Michael Clarke Duncan) tells scorned lover Dwight (Josh Brolin) that Ava is “a goddess” who “makes slaves of men.” She uses the same men again and again, which is awesome, but Miller and Rodriguez shackle us to the perspective of Dwight, a deathly bore, whenever she is on screen and so prop her up as a slice of buxom crazy. A better movie would follow Ava around, ruling shit, for the full duration, but that would require an actual story and a bit of feminine empathy, and besides, that’s why we have Lucy.
In case you haven’t gathered, I am not laying down the expected plot summary for this movie because it is a) needlessly complicated and b) entirely predictable. Miller’s script checks in on four characters — Dwight, Marv (Mickey Rourke), Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Nancy (Jessica Alba) — as they avenge, revenge and drone on in purple prose-infected voiceover that laughably feigns poetic insight. One violent scene ends with Johnny saying, “Death is just like life in Sin City.” Dwight’s first words rip off, of all writers, Edward Bulwer-Lytton: “It’s another hot night. Dry and windless. The kind that makes people do sweaty, secret things.” This is all delivered straight, in a brooding, tough guy, Robert Mitchum-mocking way. It’s macho nonsense for the child who never reads.
And the action isn’t even that good! You would think Rodriguez would be dependable for visceral, anti-humanist thrills, but he barely photographs human movement here. Punchy sounds like bone snaps attempt to hide stilted camerawork and hyperkinetic editing; in lieu of fluid, graceful combat, Miller and Rodriguez resort to the stomach-churning tactics of the YouTube Pooper. Furthermore, the utter disregard for human life backfires, in that there are no stakes, and thus no excitement, in watching bad and worse people slice each other apart. The directors have clearly seen some classic Hollywood film noir and would be eager to parrot the “film noir equals cynicism” cliché. But what they exclude from Sin City is the melancholy hiding behind Mitchum’s cigarette smoke and Bogart’s sunken eyes. To include melancholy is to admit weakness, and we all know a boy with a plastic rifle in his hands is the most fearless person in the world.
Final Verdict:
1.5 Star Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

A Belated Introduction  

Posted by Zachary Zahos in , , , ,

I find myself in the sixth semester of writing this column, otherwise known as the sixth semester where no one knows what I’m getting at, least of all myself. I’m not one for introductions, which explains why, back in January 2012, I inaugurated this biweekly soapbox not with a “Hello” or an overview of my ideas and interests but with a piece on the divine and cinema’s attempts to depict Him/Her/It. I was proud of its title: “Oh, God.” So intellect, much serious. Wow.

I have since learned that growing up demands a bit of dumbing down. Just because I announce, “Today, I write about GOD!” or “The Kardashians and Facebook are killing America!” (my second column) does not make me a smart or challenging or worldly writer. It just makes me David Brooks — you know, smug.

It’s good to lighten up. As far as movies go, that means I temper expectations equally when seeing a holier-than-thou, Oscar-ready biopic about, say, a rodeo AIDS activist or Transformers 4. Both movies simplify, condescend and manipulate; the difference is that most critics will buy into the former, likely because of its Important subject matter, while stringing together a selection of groan-worthy puns aimed at the latter. Call a spade a spade, but if you have a raging vendetta against Michael Bay, try to think of the last time you disagreed with the Tomatometer.

Independent, self-aware, specific critical thought: That’s what I am getting at here. The enviably levelheaded film and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz issued a rallying cry earlier this year with the piece, “Please, Critics, Write About The Filmmaking.” In it, he took a swipe at many of his colleagues for ignoring formal analysis in their writing; blog posts and newspaper reviews alike tend to devote more time to plot summary, box office talk or else cherry-picked sociopolitical tirades against a movie or television episode than careful attention to what makes a movie a movie (camera angles, editing patterns, mise-en-scène). It’s not that you should ignore plot, business and politics; indeed, the most valuable, responsible critics (to name just a few: Seitz, Nick Pinkerton, Tasha Robinson, Mike D’Angelo) intersect them all in vital, nuanced writing that is never just about a movie.

The best critical writing is useful, in some way. It should be entertaining, humble and even poetic, but the word I keep coming back to is “useful.” I know no greater compliment than when a friend or total stranger tells me they learned something from reading a piece of mine. I thought I was just spitting opinions here; how am I teaching anyone anything? Well, when you tether those mercurial value judgments to some notes on style, historical context and life’s Big Questions, your useless opinions begin to take on some weight — so long as you come across with humor and honesty, more human than textbook.

This is all a roundabout way to say that, for my time remaining here, I have a plan for this column. With this entry as an introduction of sorts, I plan to turn this mess of pop culture digressions and Liam Neeson appreciations into a focused, ongoing series about the act and nature of criticism. Some working titles for future columns include “How to Read a Movie,” “In Praise of the Mixed Review” and “The Wrong Way to Like Movies.” Pretty pompous headlines, I’ll admit, but one needs to appeal to the click-bait gods somehow these days. I hope to open up about the way I see things and, in the process, find the words for some personal, maybe even rigorous system of aesthetic and moral judgment. It goes without saying that I’ve yet to pin down this system myself.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about shortcomings of my writing that have thrived in this column space, among them hyperbole, preciousness and even weird bouts of anger. I aspire, now, to sanity. I’ll dig into questions that irk all art obsessives (Marrying formalist criticism with appreciation for a film’s emotional effect is a current thorn in my side) but keep in mind that, in the end, we’re all in this game of opinions together. I respect dissent and I hope you can respect those contrarian streaks of mine, too. I know that I know nothing, etc., though I hope in due time you’d be inclined to disagree.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be found at its original location here.

Boyhood Review  

Posted by Zachary Zahos in , , , , , ,

At The Ithaca Voice. This review is another long one, with special emphasis on the idea that this is a "relatable" movie — which it is, but is it more? I think so, very much so.

Lucy Review  

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Directed by Luc Besson
Released in 2014

Lucy is an exhilarating liberation from sense — a slender, manicured middle finger to anyone who carped about Gravity’s jetpack physics or reassessed their love for a movie after watching one of those “Everything Wrong With…” videos on YouTube. To say this movie has plot holes or is “so dumb” is to say nothing critical at all; those are platitudes, facts, technical specifications. Watch Lucy on its own terms and enjoy a rare collision of 21st century style and themes with old-school, no-nonsense narrative economy. It moves faster than you can think and it’s all over in — have I mentioned?? — 90 minutes.

Scarlett Johansson is Lucy, a pretty much average, intellectually at least, American studying abroad in Taiwan. When we first meet her she is in the middle of some boring back-and- forth with her boyfriend until — being the scumbag his wiry beard and tinted shades telegraph him to be — he handcuffs a mysterious suitcase to her wrist, for immediate delivery to a Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik, of Oldboy fame). Jang’s henchmen knock her out, surgically insert the contents of the case — a bag of blue crystallized drug called CPH4 — into her lower tummy and, for added macho awfulness, one of the goons gropes her while she is chained in a dingy room. Since she is a strong female protagonist, she wards him off, but since this is also a screw-the-patriarchy kind of action flick, he retaliates by kicking her in the abdomen. The bag inside her leaks and an animated camera flies through her arteries as blue crystals spill into her bloodstream, lighting up like fireworks and sending her into a convulsive, floating fit. But she survives, and Lucy 2.0 is born.

From this point on, Lucy does not waste a single gesture, glance or step. The drug in her system fuels her brain to reach its untapped potential — to go beyond our brain’s paltry efficiency, which Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman, Hollywood’s go-to for making nonsense sound smart) hypothesizes sits at 10 percent. In the midst of this initial action, director-producer-writer-animorph Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element) cross-cuts to Norman lecturing before a rapt university audience (i.e., us) about the possibilities of using 20, 40 and eventually 100 percent of the human brain. Telepathy, extrasensory perception and other powers he admits belong in the realm of science fiction could be tapped into, and sure enough Lucy wields all these and more as she avenges her kidnapping, quarantines the rest of the world’s CPH4 supply and, I don’t know, attains the infinite sum of universal knowledge. References to 2001: A Space Odyssey abound, and rarely does an action film overreach so spectacularly.

Besson throws everything at us with his hypermontage style. Footage of cheetahs stalking prey, laundry machines and dividing cells pop up sporadically for associative, not quite subliminal effect. It’s a bit much, but then so is the whole movie. The leaps of logic — to say nothing of the laws of physics — enhance the film’s kineticism, naturally, and even make sense, thematically. This is a movie about a woman who evolves to attain a divine plane of omniscience, and better she do things impossible, bizarre and batshit crazy and leave us scratching our heads than…not. On Letterboxd, Jake Mulligan writes eloquently, and soberly, of how this is one of the only true “superhero movies” ever made. I’m all on board, and my only annotation is that ludicrous genre fare such as this may be the only proper vehicle for cinematic explorations of divinity: The only way to do it right is for it, in the end, to not fit together so neatly, and better have fun doing so than harden our theater seats into pews.

There are also car chases (note, plural) where coupes screech across asphalt on their sides and taxis catapult with a flick of Lucy’s wrist. But what makes Lucy good cinema and Transformers 4, Michael Bay’s undeniable talents aside, just a headache? Brevity is the soul of wit, and so Besson’s quick cuts keep action scenes short, breathless, lethal. And because of this tactical precision in the editing room, and a relatively conservative (or perhaps unnoticeable) use of special effects, Besson maintains a sense of plausible reality in spite of all the implausible going-ons. You will laugh throughout, and rest assured that is intended.

If I am overrating Lucy at all, it is because I am considering it in the context of Hollywood movies today, and especially their norms for screenwriting. The industry now values the likes of Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who suffocate any momentum their stories stumble upon with relentless qualifiers, asides and blatant exposition so to keep the plot hole warriors on IMDb at bay. In the end, movies like Prometheus, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and the new Star Treks are overlong, pedantic and, yes, still rife with all sorts of lapses in character motivation and logical continuity. Action cinema just takes itself so seriously these days.

There’s a moment in Lucy that takes place in an airplane bathroom, and it comes out of nowhere. I love that the movie made no attempt to explain it or incorporate the power she attains until the very end — and even then, only implicitly. This movie is uncut, color-coordinated nonsense  revolving around an ass-kicking heroine, but it’s also a bit more: As the story plows to its end, Lucy gets smarter, kills less (that’s for the boys to keep up, as the futile battle scenes at the end commiserate) and supersedes her physical female form. Godard famously said, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” to which Lucy agrees, only with some crucial additions.

Three makes a trend, for Scarlett Johansson’s last three projects, outside of those in the contractually-obligated Marvel machine, mark a conscious redefinition of her image. Objectified and fantasized over more than most, she has now played three non-humans in a row with Her, Under the Skin and Lucy. Once the drug takes in this film, she remarks in soulless monotone how she no longer feels fear, pain or desire: “All things human fading away.” Besson fixates on her with many loving close-ups, but for once you feel she has found a director and a project that meets her on her own terms.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Venus in Fur Review  

Posted by Zachary Zahos in , , , ,

At The Ithaca Voice. This film is a worthy complement to Certified Copy — for the time being, I can think of no higher praise.

We Are the Best! & Night Moves Reviews  

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We Are the Best!
Directed by Lukas Moodysson
Released in 2014

We Are the Best! ends with a riot, as a rowdy audience hurls awful profanities at our three young heroines, Bobo (Mira Barkhammer), Klara (Mira Grosin) and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), in the middle of their punk rock set. But it’s undeniably a happy ending, one that literally gives voice to the film’s exclamative title and shrugs off the hostility met by politically charged music to, instead, exalt the joyous highs of friendship.

Best friends Bobo, a reserved tomboy, and Klara, a wild id with a mohawk to prove it, look around their Stockholm middle school and only see conformity, objectification, blondes. They turn to punk music, naturally, and bounce lyrics off one another for their first song, “Hate the Sport,” while walking laps ordered by their gym teacher for not following the rules. Like most coming-of-age fiction, We Are the Best! runs through a lot of boring rules just begging to be broken, but what makes this film not only stomachable but intelligent is how these girls come across as the right mix of precocious and flat-out annoying. They hide behind “the rules” to steal a practice room from a bunch of metalhead jerks (their band is called “Iron Fist”) and shrink from messing with them head-on, but they do so to prove a point. They don’t even know how to play instruments, but now they have a space to learn, dammit. Still, they need to learn, which is when loner Hedvig, a gifted classical guitarist, joins the picture.

At first I thought I was in for a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, times three, that would interrogate the weird drive in these worldly adolescents to make a statement, however on-the-nose it may be, through music. We get a little bit of that, as Hedvig imposes some discipline like “chords” on Klara’s atonal wailing and a maturation becomes visible. But director-writer Lukas Moodysson finds the relationships between these girls more interesting than their amateur music, which is a smart, if also somewhat safe choice. Boys enter the picture, which is at first a cute and necessary (given the boyish looks of these girls, especially Bobo) subplot that lapses into convention before long.

More vibrant is the time these girls — all played phenomenally, perfectly by their respective actresses — spend together. Moodysson's camera has a tungsten-tinged, handheld aesthetic that recalls Lars von Trier, and there is a moment when Bobo accidentally cuts her hand, screaming in pain, and that brutal Nordic realism threatens to surface. But it turns out to be just a flesh wound, quickly bandaged, and Klara and Hedvig flank her for a group hug. “I don’t want to die,” Bobo says. An extreme response, perhaps, but those words were just under the surface, waiting for a rapt audience of two.

Night Moves
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Released in 2014

Kelly Reichardt is a name anyone who follows American independent film should know, considering she is not only one of the best female directors out there but one of the best, period. But if you have not seen Meek’s Cutoff or Wendy and Lucy, chances are you have heard of Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning, the stars of her latest film, Night Moves. Along with Peter Sarsgaard, the two play eco-terrorists plotting, in hushed whispers, to blow up a Oregon dam. While Fanning is just fine in her limited role, it is Eisenberg who you will remember. With very little dialogue to work with — Reichardt is known for “slow cinema” — Eisenberg proves that he does not need Aaron Sorkin-penned putdowns to hold your attention; all he needs is a tic, a hunched walk, a cold stare. He is creepy, intense, but above all contained. The obscurity of this movie guarantees he will go unnoticed come Oscar season, which goes to show how useless those awards are in the first place.

As barren and nocturnal the film’s ambience may be, this is also a oddly funny film. Reichardt does a lot of heavy lifting in the editing room, cutting from a grave piece of eco-propaganda to Eisenberg’s stone face once he is finished watching it. Even a man willing to topple infrastructure in the name of the environment knows a piece of brainless fluff when he sees it. The same goes with Reichardt. Her film ends on a willfully opaque note, but its premature conclusion guarantees that Eisenberg’s statuesque update of Psycho’s Norman Bates will stalk the corners of your mind, and maybe vision, for some time to come.

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