Saturday, August 30, 2014

Calvary & Frank Reviews

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.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For Review

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.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Belated Introduction

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.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Boyhood Review

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.