April 22, 2014
Tribeca Film Festival: Days 3 & 4

Enjoying the somewhat peculiar charms of the Tribeca Film Festival, I’ve taken in a host of films on my first three days. Here are some of the highlights.

April 19-20, 2014

Starred Up (pictured) A brutal but thoroughly enthralling prison film from England, directed by David MacKenzie (Young Adam, Spread, is highlighted by its performances, and none more so than lead Jack O’Connell who plays an angry, hyper-violent troubled youth with the perfect amount of swag and pathos. The film does lean towards some of the clichés of the genre (Rupert Friend plays the obligatory therapist who sees some hope in the kid), but with this strong a showing from O’Connell and co., you don’t mind so terribly much.

Black Coal, Thin Ice: Chinese director Yi’nan Diao brings us this celebrated jet-black noir from his homeland, which won top prize at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, but you will certainly need to be prepared for its tonal peculiarities. The story involves a detective who gets caught up in a baffling case involving body parts being strewn all over the countryside, and the mysterious femme fatale who may or may not have something to do with it, but along the way, there’s bouts of strange comic violence, a long-discussed dry cleaning accident, and much ice skating.

Silenced: An important doc from James Spione about the disturbing trend under the Obama administration to issue forth charges under the Espionage Act against government whistleblowers (only 11 Americans have ever been charged under it, and 8 of them have been under the current administration). The film focuses on two of these individuals — one, a former CIA agent who spoke out against the “enhanced interrogation techniques” utilized by field agents, and suffered a complete career derailment as a result; the other, a former high-ranking official at the NSA, who called attention to the illegal wiretapping of Americans, and paid an extremely heavy price. You don’t have to be partisan to be appalled at the government’s methods of punishing those who speak out against its moral effrontery and reckless disregard of the Constitution.

Brides: A moving Georgian film about a young wife having to make hard choices when her husband is sent to jail for a long sentence. Tinatin Kajrishvili’s portrait of a complicated woman forced to weigh her competing impulses of caring for her new husband and finding her own physical joy with others never takes the easy or obvious path, and as a result, the film carries a good deal more heft than it might have. The long closing scene, which involves a conjugal visit that is a good deal more sweet and caring than carnal, feels absolutely perfect.



April 19, 2014
Tribeca Film Festival: Days 1 & 2

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Enjoying the somewhat peculiar charms of the Tribeca Film Festival, I’ve taken in a host of films on my first three days. Here are some of the highlights.

April 17-18, 2014

Goodbye To All That: A thoroughly charming film from writer/director Angus MacLachian (Junebug) about an amiable married man named Otto (Paul Schneider) whose wife (Melanie Lynskey) suddenly blindsides him with a separation, leaving him and his relationship to his young daughter in a sort of limbo. It’s something of a comedy — part of the film’s conceit concerns the various nutty women Otto gets tangled up with as a newly single man — but with the skillful touch of its celebrated director, it’s also able to shift into heartfelt drama. Some of the female characters are pretty much stuck on single-note keys (including that of his ex-wife, to the film’s detriment), but there are enough dazzlingly realized moments between both genders that it works quite well anyway.

Art & Craft: Beguiling and witty, this doc from a trio of directors (Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker), concerns the curious case of Mark Landis, a skilled artistic mimic whose shtick involves forging a well-known artist’s work and then “donating” the piece to a museum as the real thing. The film follows both Landis, at work on his elaborate deceptions (one of the guises he uses to donate the works is as of a priest), and Matthew Leininger, a former museum registrar Landis once duped, who is hot on his trail. Somehow, the film allows you to pull for both of them. 

Gabriel (pictured): A showcase for the considerable chops of Rory Culkin — yes, finally, we are at the youngest of the Culkin brood — who plays the titular character, a sweet, somewhat mentally unbalanced young man who, shortly after being released from the hospital after being committed, goes on an ill-advised, shaggy dog quest to find a girlfriend from some years ago in hopes that she will give his ever more unhinged life distinct meaning. Lou Howe’s film starts with Gabriel as a distant cypher but deftly spins his audience ever more deeply into his mindspace. 

1971: A must-see doc about an infamous break-in into an FBI regional field office in Media, PA, by a grassroots group of operatives known only as the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, and their subsequent releasing of those incriminating documents to newspapers and media outlets all over the country. Never caught, the group has only recently come out of hiding and admitted to the crime — a game-changing event that eventually forced the formerly all-powerful FBI into serious reform. The film doesn’t make the connection overtly, but the echoes of the current Snowden affair are absolutely unmistakable.

Garnet’s Gold: Another enchanting doc about an eccentric man doing something slightly extraordinary, Ed Perkins captures the whimsical joy and sadness of his protagonist, Garnet Frost, as he goes on yet another madcap adventure to return to the particular spot in the Scottish highlands where he almost died twenty years before — on a search for buried treasure. Garnet is a fascinating character, equal parts mad, creative genius and tragically lonely misanthrope. If this film stands as the most noteworthy achievement in his slightly underperforming life, then so be it. 

Zero Motivation: A mostly winning military comedy from Israeli director Talya Lavie about an administration unit of young Israeli female soldiers and their various conflicts and conundrums along the way of their two-year conscription. With its penchant for outrageous characters, long-suffering CO’s and slapstick farce, it plays a bit like a ’70s Hollywood comedy, with just enough verve and inventiveness to stay interesting. Consider it a kind of Private Ben-Jamon.

April 19, 2014
Movie-O-Meter: Ranking The Weekend's New Releases | Ticket

April 18, 2014
Film Review: Under the Skin

Dir. Jonathan Glazer
Score: 8.0

Atmospheric darkness is a character unto itself Jonathan Glazer’s nervy, sci-fi thriller. Figures emerge from and spill into pitch blackness as a matter of course, and the film even opens from black with only a small pinprick of light in the center of the frame. Glazer’s film plays a bit like noir, with a comely, hard-edged dame making eyes at various weak-willed men with a fearsome ulterior purpose in mind, but where this avant-garde film ends up taking them is somewhere altogether unexpected. 

The dame in this case is Scarlett Johansson, who plays Laura, a mysterious, dark haired alien form, arrived at Earth (or, perhaps constructed here, it remains unclear) to skulk the streets of Edinburgh in a white van, searching for men foolish enough to think she could be sexually interested in them. She takes them to a remote brick building somewhere on the outskirts of town and leads them into one of the film’s many pitch black rooms. There she casually begins to strip, still walking away from them, and they each follow suit, stripping down and hurrying towards her before the shimmering, mirror like surface beneath their feet turns viscous liquid, sending them deep into a oily tomb. 

Just why this is all necessary is never explained. Nor is Laura’s true purpose — other than to ensnare men, lead them into her lair, and deposit their bodies into the vat of liquid. The film is based on the (purportedly) equally baffling novel by Michael Faber, but to dwell overly on the film’s many unanswered questions is to perhaps miss the billowing trees in the beautifully dour Scottish forest. 

With very little dialogue, absolutely none of which could be termed “expository,” Glazer and his skilled production team, working off a script he co-wrote with Walter Campbell, give us just enough hints of the story to follow along with reasonable clarity. Relying on a sort of narrative archetype — the humanoid who first simply apes the beings it’s trying to emulate before finally succumbing to the emotion of human empathy, and going on the lam from its merciless handlers — Glazer needs never give us full explanations for the plot, such as it is, to hang together. 

And to be sure, Glazer, who earned deserved high praise for Sexy Beast back in 2000, is working from the sacred texts of the avant-garde sci-fi films of yore, calling to mind such equally stunning and perplexing films as 2001The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Liquid Sky (the latter, a bizarre tale about aliens coming to Earth and discovering the power of human sexuality, could have been a source text). The beauty in the form is the creative, visionary power of the genre: If one is to witness things that have not been invented yet, in a time that has not yet taken place, you need to be able to take a monstrous leap of imagination, which offers daring filmmakers like Glazer the opportunity to really push the limits of cinematic storytelling. 

Aiding greatly his cause is lead Scarlett Johansson, who uses the film as a vehicle to show her burgeoning versatility and highlight her welcome lack of Hollywood starlet vanity you might expect from a woman so praised for her beauty. Driving at night alone in a van, she attempts to pick up men in order to trick them into the pitch black room. Reportedly, many of these scenes were unscripted, shooting with non-actors using hidden cameras (a sort of twist on the infamous drive-and-pick-up bit with Burt Reynolds and Heather Graham towards the sad end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights). In these scenes, Johansson turns from stone-faced alien to full-bodied Hollywood charm bracelet in a flash. The non-actor men, naturally, have no inkling they’re talking to a world-renowned Hollywood sex symbol, until it’s far too late for them to do anything about it. 

The seduction scenes in the reflective black room are also revelatory, and not just in the sense that Johansson repeatedly strips down for them. As attractive as she is, she appears very close to attainable, almost Rubinesque, flat-footed and pale, staring at the men impassively as they slowly sink down — erections still intact — into the shimmering liquid. As much as she’s on-screen, this isn’t a glamour shoot, but having a star of her caliber and fame, tooling around Scotland, speaking off-the-cuff with wholly unsuspecting rubes is most certainly an artistic coup. As distinctive as the film’s visual poetics are, Johansson carries the film on her slender shoulders. 

Just what everything means can be happily debated by starry-eyed cinemaphiles for years to come, in yet another example of a film we should all be thankful got made in the first place, entirely due to Glazer’s enormous dedication to the project: He was reportedly working on it for more than a decade. The result of his tireless efforts is a hauntingly effective vision, laced with a slender undercurrent of emotional viability that gets its hooks solidly into you. After all, just because something melts into darkness doesn’t mean you can’t still feel its presence after its gone.

April 15, 2014
Interview: 'Oculus' Director Mike Flanagan

April 11, 2014
Film Review: Rio 2

Dir. Carlos Saldanha
Score: 4.5

Do CEOs of huge conglomerated companies simply not have any children? If they do, what do you suppose they go to when they take their kids to the movies? They surely can’t take them to the standard Hollywood animated kids’ flick: Almost universally, huge, autonomous corporations are the catalyst for everything that goes wrong in the characters’ lives. Consider: In WALL-E, we had the diabolical Buy N Large Corp.; in The Lorax, it was the now-regretful Once-ler and his family’s corporation; and in Coudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 the culprit (as usual) was Live Corp. Not saying we should shed any tears for these people — I mean, with their annual take home and bonuses, they could probably just film their own animated specials if they so chose — but it’s got to be difficult to take the kids to a Saturday matinee and have them cheering for the giant, evil corporation to go down in flames before the first box of Sour Patch kids has even been opened.

This film, the inevitable follow-up to the mildly amusing original, involving a squadron of extremely rare blue Macaws facing off against an illegal logging operation in the Amazon rainforest, is hardly an exception (though at least the evil concern here appears to be run by a single wealthy man and not a huge company of suits). After all, if any child does even a modicum of research online about stripping the Amazon, they will quickly find out the names of the faceless multi-national conglomerates behind the real razing of the forest.

As far as the film is concerned, we start several years after domesticated Macaw Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) has found Jewel (Anne Hathaway), the love of his life, in Rio. They have started a family with three hatchlings, one young female who is wise and practical, one wild male who loves practical jokes, and one teen (?) female who finds everything lame. As the film begins, Blu’s former owners, the naturalists Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) and Linda (Leslie Mann), accidentally discover a flock of the ultra rare blue macaws deep in the jungle, the very same jungle that an evil oligarch (Miguel Ferrer), is presiding over his illegal logging operation.

You can pretty much see where this is headed: Jewel prompts Blu, their family, and ultimately several of their friends, including Pedro (Will i Am) and Nico (Jamie Foxx) to head to the jungle in order to meet with this strange new flock. It turns out, this flock is lead by Jewel’s father, (Andy Garcia), long separated from his daughter by some previous altercation with human beings. As a result, he’s distrustful of them, which flies directly in the fact of Blu’s willful domesticity (he insists on carrying around a fanny pack filled with human entrapments such as breath mints, tooth paste, a GPS and a swiss-army knife). Meanwhile, just to complicate things further, Blu’s arch enemy, the dulcet toned Nigel (Jermaine Clement), reduced to flightlessness in the previous film, tracks down his adversary in the jungle along with his friend, Gabi (Kristen Chenoweth), a poisonous frog who is madly in love with him, seeking hearty revenge.

The film never much rises above the bare minimum of what is expected out of it: There are lots of the same sorts of jokes floating around, mostly concerning Blu’s neurotic ineptness when it comes to living in the wild, and nearly every character that got play in the original is dutifully rolled out to get their quick laugh-lines, but the whole enterprise feels less than inspired. It could be the plotting, which is all too quick to get to the point without adding any truly unexpected element; it could also be that writer Yoni Brenner, working from a story by Don Rhymer and director Carlos Saldanha simply didn’t have all that much else to say about the characters than what was already covered in the original. It’s not without its minor charms (the colorful animation sequences are easy to take for granted in this day and age, but there are still some shots set in the Amazon that are visually pretty stunning), but it never bothers to expand on anything beyond it’s previous scope, other than to add the three fairly banal kids into the mix.

In place of real inspiration, then, the writers have resorted to a heavy-handed moral approach with the material. Don’t get me wrong, as a concerned environmentalist, I’m happy to have more propaganda decrying the destroying of the rain forest for kids to have to ponder, but it feels a good deal less impassioned than a necessary cog in order to turn the plot crankwheel a few more revolutions.

To test the theory, I asked my daughter and her friend, the two adorable 8-year-olds I brought with me to the press screening, to tell me what the lesson of the film might have been. My daughter was unsure what I meant by “lesson” (which maybe suggests something about me as a parent), but her friend thought for a few seconds and then suddenly brightened: “That everybody gets along?” she said. Back to the drawing board, enviro-friendly screenwriters.

April 11, 2014
Film Review: Oculus

Dir. Mike Flanagan
Score: 5.9

All film genres have their tropes; it’s just that horror has them posted like large, bobbing buoys in a restless sea. From watching countless such flicks, we can extrapolate the following to be self-evident:

pets = dead
skeptics = proven wrong
moving into a new house = huge mistake
approaching ghostly visages in skimpy nightie = only acceptable method
man left alone to write = very bad idea
antique black cedar mirror = big trouble

This isn’t to suggest Mike Flanagan’s occult thriller is some lazy, rote dog of convenience. The film is carefully observed and actually pretty creepy — but it’s difficult to see it, and many other films of its ilk, and not get distracted by all the connections to the films like it that have come before.

In order to really unsettle an audience, you need to pull their collective chairs out from under them: The true seminal horror films of any age did just that (think Psycho, Alien, The Shining, The Silence of the Lambs, The Blair Witch Project) taking an idea an audience thinks its well prepared for, only to switch gears on them in as shocking a manner as possible (shower scene, chest burster, etc.) and leave them scrambling to make sense of the new paradigm suddenly thrust upon them. Of course, in order to do that, you need to be able to imagine horror outside of its already firmly established conventions (which change somewhat from culture to culture, hence the early effectiveness of J-horror and French horror flicks in the last decade).

Your other option, of course, is a good deal simpler: Take an existing set of tropes and, like a classic romance flick, tease out the details so it becomes something both familiar and vaguely new at the same time.

When the film opens, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), is just being released from a psychiatric ward, where he’s spent the last eleven years trying to come to grips with a terrible trauma inflicted upon him and his older sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan). When they were children, their father (Rory Cochrane) started to slowly go insane shortly after the installing a peculiar, antique mirror in his office, in the posh house the family had just relocated. Before too long, he kills their suffering mother (Katee Sackhoff), after torturing her for days, and coming after the children until young Tim (played by Garrett Ryan) finally shoots him in order to protect his sister (played as a girl by Annalise Basso). Released and finally free, Tim quickly reunites with Kaylie, now 23 and engaged to a wealthy auction manager (James Lafferty) at the firm they both work, but she’s still obsessed with that evil mirror and clearing her father’s name.

Acquiring the evil mirror from her auction house, she sets up an elaborate means of gaining revenge: Putting the mirror back on the wall of her father’s office in front of a veritable installation of video cameras, computers and a fail-safe anvil drop in order to capture, on tape, the evil of which she’s convinced that bit of reflective glass is capable.

What Flanagan does, quite effectively, is put us in two more or less simultaneous timestreams: their first encounter with the mirror as kids with their parents, and the present, where the emotionally subdued Tim, thoroughly therapized, tries desperately to convince his sister her mirror conspiracy theory is entirely in her head. The director slips back and forth from the two, often overlapping a bit of dialogue or sound effect in his segue, so that it’s not always immediately apparent which era we are witnessing, and things get ever more compressed together.

The effect is suitably unnerving, at least for a time (though the question must be asked why she doesn’t just throw a brick through the thing before its sufficiently powered up enough to defend itself). We flow back and forth through the horror the siblings experienced as kids, with both of their parents suddenly going off the deep end at once, and their current situation, with the mirror throwing illusion after illusion at them in an attempt to manipulate them into doing its bidding.

Along the way, we get a fascinating history lesson from Kaylie on the subject of the mirror, which has been killing and torturing would-be owners for the better part of four centuries, amassing a significant list of grotesque kills (45, to be exact, she tells the camera helpfully) at every stop. Which is significant, because a good deal of the film’s macabre power lies in Flanagan’s having cultivated such a long and well-thought-out backstory for his demon mirror. It’s this attention to detail, a willingness to put in the intellectual effort in order to disturb us, rather than just rely on lame jump-camera shots and buckets of blood to do the work of scaring us silly, that allows the film to resonate.

Along the way, Flanagan also gets to strike a blow against cognitive therapy (Tim’s studied rationalization eventually turns completely against him), and work by its own rules so as not to guarantee a cuddly ending. Like 2012’s Sinister, the film earns itself a little extra credit by not retracting its claws and going soft at the end. Flanagan sticks to his guns and gives us something creepy to chew on. It’s by no means seminal (though, as these things go, I certainly wouldn’t doubt a sequel in the works), but it’s just careful enough to be effective, more than one can say for the vast majority of the blood-spattering genre.

April 11, 2014
Film Review: Cuban Fury

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Dir. James Griffiths
Score: 4.5

Let me put my cards on the table early on this one and say that films centered around dance — tango, ballet, hip-hop, you name it — usually leave me pretty unmoved. This is especially true if the dancing is meant to represent a good deal of the film’s, er, thrust, and not just as a backdrop for a more involved character study, or artistic allegory (ie. Black Swan). Part of it is certainly my own dancing heathenism — surprising no one, dancing just ain’t really my thing — but there is another, more defensible reason: It all too often takes precedence over everything else the film has to offer, and therefore serves as a twirling crutch for all those invariably more complicated and vexing elements such as narrative drive and character coherence.

Sadly, James Griffith’s British dance-off comedy falls squarely into the latter category. It essentially has one joke — a big, heavy bloke who works in industrial machine parts, played by the ever-genial Nick Frost, is actually completely smitten by Latin dancing. It turns out, he used to be a champion salsa dancer in his less heavyset youth, and, in trying to impress his beautiful, new American boss, played by Rashida Jones, he slowly goes through the painful process of attempting to reconnect to his corazón in order to dance again. Like it’s large-sized star, the film means perfectly well, and is amiable enough, but a bland script by Jon Brown, and a paint-by-numbers plot that involves several significantly convenient coincidences and characters ruled by stereotype, pretty much leaves it flat-footed and standing in the corner.

To begin with, it’s exactly the kind of vehicle you would see Will Ferrell starring in, only he would amp up the ridiculousness of the character, and make the stakes seem far more melodramatic than necessary (see Casa de mi Padre for direct evidence). Frost isn’t that sort of larger-than-life fellow, his charm has always been as the good-on-ya best friend to whatever maniac his good friend Simon Pegg has dreamed up for himself. He has to play pretty close to the vest, which allows for solid side work, but becomes more difficult as a leading man.

He plays Bruce, a former schoolboy Salsa champion who, on the night of what should have been his coronation at a national dancing contest, gets singled out by a group of young thugs and has the sequins literally beaten off of him. Discouraged and bitter, he quits the scene to the disappointment of his teacher, the great Ron Parfitt (Ian McShane).

Years later, he’s gone into middle-age with very little to show for himself. He has his industrial mechanics job (and a coffee mug that says “I Love My Lathe”), a handful of friends who get together with him and discuss in detail how none of them are progressing in their sexual lives, and an obnoxious co-worker named Drew (Chris O’Dowd), who delights in calling him fat names and instantly comes on to their pretty new boss, Julia (Jones), when she suddenly takes over the department.

Thing is, it turns out Julia is actually also a Salsa nut, so Bruce gets up the gumption to try and slip on the inch-high suede shoes once again in order to impress her. You can pretty much take it from here — no, please, I insist — as the film does not leave a single fat gag or obvious plot obstacle wanting en route to solving all things for everybody through the sheer power of dance.

Which would be perfectly fine, I suppose, if it were a funnier movie. But despite working very hard to entice you, there really isn’t much here except a thin gruel of fat jokes, gay Arab dancer jokes, and a few brushes with physical comedy. Without terribly much to do, Frost does his best to fill the screen with his character’s pathos, and while he remains largely sympathetic, he’s rarely able to transcend the leaden frame with which he’s been given to work. There simply isn’t enough here to keep us going all the way to the climactic Salsa show-down. Frost is game, and damn if he isn’t lighter on his feet than you might imagine, but no amount of hip thrusts or twirling can entirely make us forget the largely flavorless build-up it took to get us here.

April 11, 2014
Film Review: Draft Day

Dir. Ivan Reitman
Score: 4.8

If you have the misfortune of being a Cleveland Browns fan (and I say this lovingly as a long-suffering Eagles guy), you have a pretty central question to ask yourself before watching this film about a fictional Browns GM wheeling and dealing on one of the biggest NFL days of the year: Do you take pride in seeing your team’s colors and (partially fabricated) history on display for the world to see as an acknowledgement of your pain, or do you recoil at being the subject of a film whose principle theme concerns the gullibility and misery of being in Cleveland and rooting for the hapless Browns?

The question matters, because the GM, Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), remains inscrutable to the point where we’re not even sure if we’re meant to be rooting for him or not. On the morning of the draft, he agrees with the GM of the Seahawks (Patrick St. Espirit) for an earth-shattering trade: Three consecutive first-round picks for the top pick in 2014 (in this fictional NFL world, the Seahawks, apparently, didn’t just win the Super Bowl), and consensus franchise player, QB Bo Callahan (Josh Pence).

Only things get raggedy from there. For one thing, his coach (Dennis Leary), hates the move and does what he can to short-circuit it, for another his secret girlfriend, Ali, (Jennifer Garner), the team’s cap manager, keeps pressing him about their relationship, which is about to take a drastic change, to say nothing of his staff (Timothy Simmons, David Ramsey and Wade Williams) who like the move but hate the cost, and the team owner (Frank Langella) who wants only to make a big splash on draft day and to hang the consequences.

We follow Sonny through the day’s tortures and pressures only to see him completely reverse course more than once. The question the film never seems terribly inclined to answer is just what we’re meant to make of a GM who makes a bold move in the morning, regrets it by midday and then does whatever he can to circumvent it that night. The film, clearly sanctioned by the NFL, and featuring numerous talking heads from ESPN and the NFL Network, hopscotches around the league, taking us into the jock-opulent décor of GM offices as far flung as Seattle, Kansas City, Buffalo and Jacksonville in order to provide crucial authenticity, but in the end, the story cooked up by screenwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph doesn’t very much add up.

Still, there’s a kind of sizzling energy in the air. Director Ivan Reitman, a steady hand at comedy, has a way with managing the chaos and false bravado of the war room, with the myriad of back stories, tensions, and emotional history all locked into a tiny compartment together. We briefly follow the fortune of three draftees and their families and agents, which gives the film a bit more space in which to stretch. It’s just a shame they choose to do so little with it.

You have to wonder what a better writer might have done with this material — I could imagine David Mamet taking to these intricate negotiations like a shark to a bucket of entrails — but what we’re left with feels just about half-baked. Between bouts of expository dialogue and wonky football-speak, very little of which comes out sounding authentic, like the would-be dweebs in Twister trying to talk scientifically about storm fronts and the Saffir-Simpson scale without a clue in the world what they’re actually saying, the character work itself is fairly primitive and largely uninspiring, despite the film’s dramatic swells of music that very much try to suggest otherwise.

The truth is, by the end, we still have no idea if Sonny has been brilliantly playing cat-and-mouse the entire day, or has somehow been made to be the luckiest GM on the planet by complete accident. As a Browns fan, you also have to wonder if the only way the team will ever escape its inexorable morass is by being liberally sprinkled with Hollywood fairy dust.

April 11, 2014
Film Review: The Raid 2: Berandal

Dir. Gareth Evans
Score: 6.8

One of the unexpected side benefits to the strict gun-control laws in Indonesia is the creative ways in which action films there must portray their hyper-violence. You don’t get the heavy artillery scenes of American shoot-em-ups, instead you have martial arts masters wielding everything from crescent blades to twin hammers, whaling away at one another in balletic fashion.

And never more resplendently than in Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his much-heralded The Raid: Redemption, a film with a simple premise — a group of Jakarta special tactics police invade the high-rise stronghold of a drug baron and, over the course of two bloody hours, fight their way to the top floor — with unexpectedly vibrant style and verve (and a star-making turn by the young Iko Uwais), and a rash of memorable, if non-traditional villains, including the pint-sized but utterly ferocious Yayan Ruhian. 

The new film is as complex and far-reaching as the first one was simple and brutal. Evans, who wrote, directed and edited both films, has seen fit to expand his film to include several meaty themes amidst the incredibly well-paced carnage. He has taken many of the characters of the original and placed them in a much larger and more connected world of crime, savagery and betrayal. 

A short while after the events of the first film, we find young Rama (Uwais) in an even deeper bind than before: In order to protect his wife and child, he is forced to go deep undercover to infiltrate the crime network of Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo) by becoming close to Bangun’s hot-headed son, Uco (Arifin Putra), who, naturally, is in prison. Rama gets arrested and sent down to Uco’s prison, helping the smooth gangster survive a chaotic assassination attempt. Once out, several years later, he gets taken in by Bangun, only to see the flammable relationship between the capo and his son go from bad to worse, which draws the attention of Bejo (Alex Abbad), a half-Arab operator from a rival faction, looking to rise up the ranks with the impressionable Uco’s support. Naturally, all hell eventually breaks loose, and Rama is left to his own devices, fending off different rivals and the internal strife of the Bangun clan. 

Working with gifted DPs Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, Evans’ film has the look and feel of a classic drama. The film opens with a static long shot of the countryside outside of Jakarta, the lush green fields shimmering under a menacing and overcast sky. As the eye follows the narrow patchwork of dirt roads that criss-cross the land, you finally land on a squared-out grave, freshly dug by a group of Indonesian cartel thugs. Cars eventually pull up before the mound of dirt, and it is only then that Evans’ camera gets close up with its subjects. 

It’s a trick that Evans repeatedly uses to maximum effect. The film is dense and convoluted, but his action sequences — some of which are absolutely stunning in their elegant viciousness — are paced with precise deliberateness. Before the film’s first major fighting sequence, begun in a small prison toilet stall no less, Evans lets the scene build in intensity and drama, slowing down the film’s pulse even as it threatens to go into cardiac arrhythmia. He focuses his lens on the pounding on the stall door, the screws loosening under the barrage, and Rama’s growing fury, before finally letting the door explode in under a cavalcade of bodies and letting Rama run roughshod over them. In a later scene, mostly shot inside a cavernous bar — where Ruhian’s diminutive Prakoso must fight his way out of a massive ambush — we suddenly switch tableaus to a narrow alleyway outside the bar, covered in a peaceful spread of virginal, white snow. The shot holds for a long beat or two, just to the point where you begin to wonder what it is you’re seeing, before the back door suddenly swings open and Prakoso, bloodied, badly wounded and still under pursuit, emerges, stumbling into the once peaceful setting. 

Evans is also smart enough to realize how important it is to have noteworthy villains for Rama to have to face. An entire extended sequence of the film is devoted to showing a trio of assassins (a deaf girl deadly with the aforementioned hammers and her brother, equally as efficient with an aluminum baseball bat and another master martial artist), hard at their craft, such that when Rama finally confronts them, the stakes have been raised considerably.

That the film also displays admirable thematic linkage through the course of its superior battle sequences is also an unexpected glory. It’s littered with fathers having to make very difficult decisions in order to protect their families, from Rama’s young son whom he doesn’t get to see for years at a time to Prakoso’s ex-wife keeping him away from their child because of her shame at his choice of employment, to Bangun’s difficult relationship with Eco, a situation that powers the film’s breathless action climax.

It is not without fault. As good as it often is, and with a surprising dedication to its more expository scenes, the film still feels too long by at least half an hour. You can appreciate Evans’ desire to get everything he can up on the screen, from fantastical fighting sequences, to wrenching emotional moments between Rama and his wife, but it still would work better slimmed down ever so slightly. But this is essentially a minor quibble for an epic action flick such as this. After all, the nature of the action genre is indulgence, and it’s safe to say, with this fantastically satisfying film, Evans earns our lenience.

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April 4, 2014
Film Review: The Unknown Known

Dir. Errol Morris
Score: 6.7

To get a quick insight into the mind of Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense in the G.W. Bush administration, in documentary auteur Errol Morris’ latest ‘hang-by-their-own-rope’ opus, consider the title of the film itself. It comes from one of Rumsfeld’s many, many memos that he sent out over the course of his political career, which began in 1962, as a republican congressman for Illinois, and lasted until 2006, mid-way through W’s second term, when the struggling Secretary was finally let go by the administration, following both the embarrassing lack of WMD that he proclaimed was in Iraq, and the hideous torture scandal of Abu Ghraib, which he presided over.

The memo in question posits the variables of “known known” and “unknown unknown” as far as national security goes. The third variety is this “unknown known” which, early on, he goes on to describe as “things you think you know, though it turns out you did not,” perhaps suggesting, several years after his resignation, a more thoughtful approach to the idea of military intelligence. Only, towards the end of the film, after we’ve heard the man’s endless compartmentalizations, his carefully glib re-definitions, and his general lack of institutional awareness for more than 90 minutes, does he suggest that what he meant by that term was actually the opposite: That we know more than what we think we do. Even further questioned, he sticks to this new resolution, cutting against the meaning of even his own dictation.

This is not the first SOD Morris has examined in such a way, his 2003 film The Fog of War focused on the ruminations and ultimate self-recriminations of Robert McNamara, the infamous SOD for President Johnson’s Viet Nam quagmire. Ever the insightful provocateur, what Morris has gleaned about these very public figures once out of office is they have a strong desire to show their side of the story, letting down their political reticence in the process. All you have to do is give them a platform and a bit of prodding and they will all too happily reveal themselves before a camera.

The film more or less follows a brief chronology of Rumsfeld’s career — with highlights including his Nixon years (getting moved to the State Department just before Watergate hits), screwing over George Bush, Sr. and sticking him on the C.I.A., and taking office with his enemy’s son when W. took control of the White House, all the while explaining himself in the same garrulous tones that made him such a bon vivant with the D.C. press corps, and equally loathed by many of the military leaders toiling under him.

Rumsfeld has a thing for memos, it turns out. He guesses that he wrote more than 200,000 over his four and a half decades in public office. Some of these very specifically deal with his desired definitions for words, and word combinations. Like any successful marketer, he knows the power of obfuscation, thus, in this way the brutishly harsh term “torture” becomes merely “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Ever the political animal, he is insistent that the language used in official releases matches his softened, oft-mealy descriptions.

Morris, who makes damning use of recurrent tropes and visualizations as Rumsfeld speaks, can occasionally be heard off camera, prompting the former SOD with follow-up questions, but is mostly content to let Rumsfeld orate his own disaster. One recurrent visual helps establish Rumsfeld’s aforementioned theory on known and unknown: As Rumsfeld drones on about the importance of intelligence, Morris cuts to long, attractive shots of the shimmering waves of what appears to be the Atlantic, as if to suggest the depth and incomprehensible volume of fathoms as to what we do not know. Later, he makes equally powerful use of a small snow globe, to indicate Rumsfeld’s endless propensity gathering his every thought on an official memo (known in government circles as the “blizzard”), especially when it comes to the WMD and torture scandals that eventually took him out of power.

But, truth to tell, Morris doesn’t have to do terribly much: Rumsfeld, slick and self-satisfied, furnishes plenty of enough of his own pompous outrageousness with a shrug of self-regard and a leering smile — one where upon he slightly lifts his upper lip just past his front teeth — with which he closes many of his most damning sentences. The picture of the self-aggrandizing autocrat is nearly complete. After all is said and done, Morris asks Rumsfeld the obvious question of why he agreed to this documentary process in the first place, to which he responds with one last leering smile: “That is a vicious question — I’ll be damned if I know.”

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