Archive for category Thriller

Assault on Precinct 13

Assault_on_Precinct_13_Mondo_Poster_2011

“Rio Bravo” via a gristly a 1970s crime thriller.

There is a moment more than halfway through this film, when the beleaguered survivors inside an understaffed police station are besieged by seemingly endless waves of a progressive multicultural youth gang, which exemplifies what is great about “Assault on Precinct 13.” The sequence is a cacophony of broken glass, bullets, and dead bodies, as the motley crew of police, administrators, and convicts desperately try to fend off their attackers, who at times almost leap into their line of fire. Suddenly, the invasion stops. The bodies disappear. This sudden quiet and stillness becomes deafening and oppressive, which more frightening than the siege itself. The film is a gnarly mixture of  frenetic, grimy, chaotic action and stunning moments of anticipatory, dread-building ambiance.

Like most successful action films, “Assault” strips its narrative of everything but the bare essentials, focusing instead on mood and visceral thrills. Essentially “Rio Bravo” placed in the decaying urban sprawl of 1976 Los Angeles, several people find themselves held-up in a nearly-defunct police precinct by a nebulous and expansive gang of hell-raisers called “Street Thunder” that are intent on murdering them all. Ostensibly the attack is retribution for the deaths of six of their brethren that were killed the previous night while robbing a shipment of automatic weapons, but their motivations are more amorphous and abstract than simple revenge. Their bizarre tactics suggestion something more symbolic.

“Assault” doesn’t waste much time on character study either. There is just enough screen-time invested in this rag-tag assortment of characters to give them basic definition and personality, without wasting it on frivolous backstory and nuance. There is the newly-promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) who has been given the task of overseeing the final night of a soon-to-be-closed police precinct in the middle of a Los Angeles ghetto, a couple of secretaries played by Nancy Loomis and Laurie Zimmer, a prison warden named Starker (Charles Cyphers) transporting prisoners to a state correctional facility but who is forced to make an emergency pit stop when one of his charges gets sick, prisoner Wells (Tony Burton) and Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Josten,) and a man named Lawson who directs Street Thunder’s attention towards the precinct when he enters the building after killing one of their own members, which was itself a retaliatory killing on behalf of his daughter.

These are characters almost exclusively defined by their situation, because nothing creates tight emotional bonds like bullets being shot at you, but that doesn’t make the performances any less compelling. In particular, despite the fact that ones a cop and the other is a convicted murderer, the brilliantly named Bishop andNapoleon become the best of buddies and carry the film with their love of sardonic humor and mutual respect for one another. Collectively they are mystified by the strange behavior of the Street Thunder gang, which seems to have an infinite supply of members and supernatural abilities. When they aren’t attacking in droves like a zombie hoard, a thick ominous cloud of mystery and portentousness lingers in the air. There is probably a compelling metaphor to be had from this metaphysical take on a gang  problem(perhaps representing the insipid and incessant nature of the gang situation in L.A.) but for the purposes of this film, it is very effective.

“Assault” is John Carpenter’s second film as director, and at times it feels like it. The film is rough, raw, and unpolished, but I mean that in the best way possible. When ice cream truck drivers and little girls are getting shot in broad daylight by a gang that seems to have thousands of member, it isn’t the kind of film which should have airtight direction. This is a nasty, pulpy, 1970s action at its gritty finest.

4/5

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American Psycho

American Psycho

A surreal thriller with the heart of a comedy.

“American Psycho” is one of the more unsettling films about impotence, male sexuality, violence, the oppressive superficiality of 1980s culture, and weird, vain executives obsessed with business cards and the integrity of their pores. That shotgun list of thematic topics only scratches the surface of what this film is “really” about. This is because the “plot” consists of a string of outrageous murders which or may not actually take place and which is littered with character’s whose personalities and motivations are buried under thick layers of social construction.  If pressed, I’d probably read the whole thing as a bizarre escapist fantasy of a seemingly powerful white male whose personality and virility is rendered inert by being trapped in a dreary, anonymous life which is devoid of any agency or obstacles, but with a film as ambiguous as this, most any reading is fair game.

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a white, male investment banker in New York City that is fixated on his own appearance and at least has extremely violent impulses, whether or not he acts on them. Of that much in the film, I think we can be reasonably certain. Beyond that, we are forced to try and distinguish between a version of events which is the product of Bateman’s extreme and dark fantasies or a frightening reality in which Bateman has the privilege of committing a grizzly series of murders without consequence, or some combination of these two. There is evidence to support any of these interpretations, so the better question is, doe it matter which version of events we go with?

I’m not sure it does. Taken literally, Bateman is a sadistic serial killer who offs a ludicrous number of people, including co-workers, hookers, friends, and even some cops. Whether out of white collar solidarity, ignorance, or mass anxiety about their own mental health, Bateman is never forced to answer for his crimes. Willem DeFoe plays a detective investigating missing executive Paul Allen (Jared Leto) that should easily have been able to at least implicate Bateman in the murder, but instead seems more interested in feeding Bateman alibis. Bateman even confesses all his crimes to his lawyer, who passes off Bateman’s confession as a joke and insists none of the murders happened. Try as he might, no one is willing to acknowledge Bateman’s actions, which constructively is a failure to acknowledge Bateman’s agency altogether.

Treating Bateman as a thoroughly unreliable and indeed insane narrator brings us to more or less the same place. In this version, Bateman is so ineffectual and inert that he doesn’t have the gumption to actually hurt anybody, so he slips into Macabre daydreams in which he can enact his sadistic desires. This explains why nobody is all that bothered by a string of bodies at the end, because they don’t exist. Either way, nothing Bateman does “matters.” Not even in his fantasies.

So what then are we to make of this unresolvable ambiguity and Bateman’s extreme violence, “real” or imagined? Perhaps it is about interpretation. Bateman, like us, is wrestling with the ambiguity, and is no more successful at resolving it. His response is admittedly more aggressive than ours, but insofar as he attempts, or believes he attempts to make his actions correspond to “reality,” (or from our perspective, the narrative,) he can’t. Nothing he does corresponds to anything. It all reflects back to Bateman as an empty form. He has no identity (unless you count the generic, stolen lines of conversation that Bateman offers up as an “identity.”) In fact, his appearance is so like his colleagues that the only expressive outlet they have is virtually identical business cards. Combine this with an equally empty existence devoid of meaning or consequence amidst a dreary culture of false White Collar drones, and “American Psycho” is a sort-of postmodern satire of America.

Alright, I’ll admit it. Most of that last paragraph was aped badly from a conversation I had with one of my good friends, who is a P.I.T. (or “Professor-In-Training” if you aren’t into made-up acronyms for made-up words.) Even if the idea of a “postmodern satire” sounds pretentious or incoherent, the emphasis in deconstructing this film should exploring why the plot is ambiguous, rather than hypothesizing the ambiguity away. As for the experience of watching this film, major credit to Christian Bale for brilliantly toeing the line between dark comedy and pure sadism. “American Psycho” probably wouldn’t work with any other actor.

4/5

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Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Ghost Protocol

The Five Guys of the “Mission Impossible” movies.

With each film having a different director, the “Mission Impossible” series plays out like a burger chain constantly shifting management. Each one is attempting to deliver more or less the same thing, but each one tweaks the ingredients and the recipe ever so slightly. Like  the other films,”Ghost Protocol” is just a cheeseburger, but with Brad Bird manning the grill, you’re definitely getting one of those high-end fast food burgers, “with strength.”

The trick seems to lie in knowing just what people want from a “cheeseburger,” or to get away from this lame metaphor, an action-centered spy thriller. We want a cast of attractive stars to root for that are also capable of seeming to possess extreme competence when it comes to clandestine activities. We want an efficient plot which fluidly delivers exposition while giving us enough stakes to imbue the film with intirugue without getting bogged down in too much characterization or needless backstory. Most importantly, we want several well-executed, gadget-filled action scenes at a number of exotic locales. “Ghost Protocol” ticks all those boxes.

Leading the way is Tom Cruise, who frankly looks a bit bored and tired in his fourth appearance as IMF secret agent Ethan Hunt, with his face permanently stuck in an “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit” position. Cruise’s ambivalence is incorporated into the film nicely, though, particularly with the help of a running gag about the repeatedly failings of their top-of-the-technology and things not going as planned. Rounding out the team of IMF good guys are Simon Pegg as the resident computer geek and comic relief, Paula Patton as the lone woman on the team, and Jeremy Renner as a sort of Ethan Hunt-in-training, on the reay should Cruise ever feel the need to leave the franchise.

The narrative is an old Cold War standby. A nefarious figure code-named “Cobalt” is trying to instigate nuclear war. This involves framing the U.S. for a terrorist attack on the Kremlin and launching stolen nuclear missiles. The sticky political situations initiates “Ghost Protocol,” which just means Ethan Hunt’s team is left on their own to save the world, instead of getting the usual bang-up assistance they get from IMF headquarters. There are stolen launch codes which need to be found, assassins which need to be dealt with, and databases that need hacked into. All standard sorts of things.

The real star of this film is the fantastically directed and almost non-stop action. The film starts with a chaotic prison riot orchestrated by Hunt’s IMF team to break him out of a Moscow prison. Following that is a sequence in which the team breaks into the Kremlin, a breathtaking heist and switcheroo in and on top the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the infiltration of a server room at a fancy party in Mumbai, and a surprisingly exciting showdown in parking garage. Bird injects all these sequences with a compelling mixture of humor and tension, resulting in a string of grin-inducing spy antics.

Nothing about “Ghost Protocol” is transformative or groundbreaking, but it is satisfying nonetheless. Brad Bird knows how to entertain. With virtually no screen time wasted, it is a clinic in efficient storytelling with no ambiguity about what it hopes to accomplish. It is just a straight-forward, no frills spy thriller with quality ingredients and cooked to perfection.  If that sort of thing is the kind of  thing you are looking for, than this is the thing for you.

4/5

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Road House

Roadhouse

A weird, incomprehensible, idiotic, and wonderful mess of a film.

The “so bad its good” movie is one of the stranger phenomena in film. I’m not sure when exactly ironic love for movies began, but I’m even more perplexed by what that kind of love really means. It is sort of like watching an overweight, uncoordinated middle-aged guy attempt to dunk a basketball but fall flat on his face while missing the dunk. (All the better if a trampoline is involved.) It is mostly hilarious, watching that guy look so inept while falling short of his goals, but there is a bit of sadness mixed in with the laughter. It is a condescending kind of love, because we are sort of celebrating failure, but that love is nonetheless sincere. We are genuinely grateful that the guy attempted to dunk in the first place.

Like most metaphors, this one is imperfect. A bad film happens not by clumsiness but a series of deliberate, and poor choices. So in “Road House,” for example, someone chose to include a bit of dialogue explaining that Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton (no last name), despite being a careerist bar bouncer, went to N.Y.U. where he studied Philosophy. (“You know, the meaning of life and all that shit.”) Another line of dialogue in comes from a chief lackey for the bad guy who says to Dalton, “I used to fuck guys like you in prison.” Someone wrote or improvised that dialogue and someone else approved their inclusion in the final cut. I’ve probably never heard a more delightfully absurd character detail nor a more psychotic and insane combination of self-aggrandization and threat. (I mean that guy was proud of what he did in prison.) What measure of madness and brilliance prompted those choices? These snippets are some of the only scraps of information we get into these characters backstories, yet they hardly explain their bizarre decisions and the baffling situations they find themselves in.

This isn’t a film that is all that interested in its characters. Even “Zen and the Art of Nightclub Bouncing” Dalton is a facsimile of a more traditional action protagonist, with his painful past and vaguely-defined Eastern spirituality which medicates it. Taking shortcuts with characterization is an old standard with action films, but usually the payoff is…action. “Road House” has mostly a dearth of action, with the occasional brief and bloody confrontation thrown in to give us just a little taste. (Someone gets their throat ripped out in this movie. Their throat!) Even the final confrontation offers little of the thrills which the film relentlessly builds to.

Instead, it meanders into a mostly incoherent plot which I suppose can be construed as some sort of parable about the power of local cartels to defeat the aggressive business tactics of national chains. The aptly named Brad Weasley (Ben Gazzara) is the oppressive business magnate who injected economic life into a small Kansas town, but not without a spiritual cost. Weasley lords over the town like the king of a very small kingdom and extorts money from all the local businesses and dictates to everyone what is what. Normally, those at the top of the economic food chain try to placate the masses in order to keep them complicit in their own oppression, but not Weasley. He terrorizes the “little guys” who don’t bow down to his authority, going so far as to take a monster truck to a car lot owned by an independent-minded auto dealer. Eventually all this posturing escalates to lethal levels, cajoling Dalton out of his pacifism, who was really only in town to clean up a local road house anyway and had no reason to get involved. Weasley could have had it all if had simply minded his own business. Why not give Weasley a coherent worldview and reasonable motivation to do what he does?

There are more weird choices in this film to discuss, including a romance involving Kelly Lynch which is more contrived then something out of “The Bachelor” and Dalton’s mentorship by Sam Elliot, but why bother? I won’t come any closer to figuring out this film’s perspective. That is, I think, really where the love for bad films come from. There is something refreshing in a point-of-view you don’t really get. “So bad their good films” are like having a friend who constantly has baffling opinions like “Culture Club is one of the top 3 bands of all time, behind only Disturbed and Elvis Presley.” You honestly can’t tell if your friend is crazy or brilliant, but that friend believes what they are saying wholeheartedly. Having those people in your life is awesome, and so is “Road House.”

4/5

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Monsieur Hire

Monsieur_Hire

Sexual chemistry between a middle-aged voyeur and a young exhibitionist is the best kind of sexual chemistry.

Nobody does odd romance quite like Patrice Laconte, whose authentically idiosyncratic lovers manage to find their perfect match in a world of busted and disingenuous relationships, despite the odds. The rub, of course, is that rather than the end of their problems, meeting each other usually is the start of the them. “Monsieur Hire” plays much the same, with the creepy voyeurism of the titular character meeting the wry exhibitionsim of his young neighbor, with tumultuous results. As for what does this nutty relationship means, I’m baffled.

Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc) is one of those absurdly French creations, a man who is exceedingly odd but utterly contented in his oddness. No matter how people perceive him, he carries himself with the air of a man steeped in self-importance and dignity. A reclusive bald, portly middle-aged tailor living on his own, Hire does inscrutable things which I’m sure are wrought with some kind of meaning which is lost on me. More specifically, he has a collection of pet mice, of which he periodically picks one, kills it, and chucks into a river. Why? I dunno. Probably some kind of visceral metaphor for the futility of existence.

His female counterpart is Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire,) a young country girl living in a flat with wide open windows which curiously lack anything resembling blinds. Hire sees literally everything that goes on at her apartment, because when he isn’t working or killing mice, he just stands next to the window and stares at her, or follows her when she goes out with her dubious boyfriend/fiance Emile (Luc Thuilier.) If this sounds horrifying, it isn’t for Alice. After seeing Hire’s face in the window thanks to a timely lightning bolt on a stormy night, Alice realizes that she gets a sexual thrill from being watched by Hire. Knowing this, she begins tantalizing him in various ways, from dropping tomatoes in the hallway to having wild sex with Emile with Hire gazing at them from afar.

This “romance” plays out amidst a murder investigation in which Monsieur Hire is the chief suspect, largely because of his serial-killer vibe and lack of an alibi. Hire is too obvious a culprit to have actually done it, but the detective suspects Hire knows more than he lets on, a la “Rear Window.” Plus, like everybody else, the detective seems to genuinely dislike Monsieur Hire, and the investigation gives him a chance to harass Hire and otherwise pry into his, voyeurism and creepiness aside, rather dull personal life.

Most of this film is a mystery to me, probably because I lack the cultural and cinematic language skills to decipher it. I spent most of “Monsieur Hire” wondering what I was supposed to get out of this quasi-love triangle between a middle-aged voyeur, a young exhibitionist and her rapscallion of a fiance. These aren’t exactly relatable characters, and it isn’t as if this is a film in which you root for the “lovers” to end up together. So, mostly I just watched the film in stupor, while occasionally scratching my head. Don’t mistake me, however. This film’s strangeness is commendable, and the film oozes style and sexual energy, even if it is unseemly. Hire and Alice’s relationship is ultimately unsustainable. This is likely true for all passionate romances, but the acuity of their fetishes makes it more explicit that sexuality alone isn’t enough form the basis of a long-term partnership. Nevermind the romantic impulses which drive them towards poor decisions. Sometimes love don’t feel like it should, I guess.

3.5/5

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The Day the Earth Stood Still

Day_the_Earth_Stood_Still_1951

A film afraid that “Dr. Strangelove” might just actually get everything right.

If you’re like me, you prefer your Christ parables packaged up all nice and neat in the sci-fi genre. Separated from the narrative stickiness and all-around chaos in the Bible, sci-fi Christ is free to focus on his Universalist message of peace while avoiding the potentially inflammatory assertion of Christ’s divinity and framing his humanist ideals in a modern and more practical context. (Like say, nuclear-threat filled era of The Cold War.) Few films do this any tidier or more effectively than “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” a film which taps into 1950s sci-fi campiness in order to offer a prescient warning against the destructive potential petty human in conflict in the atomic age.

The fear with a film like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is that its retrograde special effects and clunky storyteling will get in the way of an otherwise compelling narrative, but that isn’t the case here. The economical plot, surprising visual effects and proficient cinematography compliment the rather simple narrative. The film wastes little time getting into the action, beginning with several news stories documenting the abrupt landing of a literal U.F.O. on the lawn of the National Mall in Washington D.C. While the ship itself looks like a metallic-version of Saturn floating through the air a la 1950s sci-fi aesthetics, it has dimensions and a physical presence which makes it look more authentic than much of its more recent progeny, like say, the Star Wars prequels.

Panic, hysteria, and excitement all accompany the arrival of the spaceship. The military surrounds it with artillery, tanks, and legions of soldiers with guns anxiously pointed the spaceship’s direction. Eventually the ship opens up, producing a walkway on which an alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) approaches. Despite manifesting his peaceful intentions in very clear English, the situation is tense. This is a moment which has been replicated numerous times in the decades since this film was released, but never quite as organically. The fearful and curious anticipation felt in that moment is as palpable and as genuine as I’ve seen in a film. This is especially true for one nervous soldier, who fires on Klaatu simply for holding out a strange object which turns out to be an innocuous communication device intended for the President. In the aftermath, a humanoid robot named Gort exits the spaceship and begins to lay waste to the U.S’ military, but even while flailing on the ground with a bullet wound, Klaatu retains enough composure to shut Gort down before anybody is hurt.

Healing quickly in D.C. hospital thanks to an advanced balm that he brought with him, Klaatu is questioned by the President’s secretary, Mr. Harley (Frank Conroy.) Klaatu will gladly share his reasons for visiting Earth, but that information is too important to just tell the United States. Klaatu requests a meeting with the leader of every nation on Earth, but for reasons having to do with Cold War politics, this turns out to be impossible. Curious about Earth, Klaatu then sets out on his own to learn more about humanity and to formulate his method for getting his message out to the world. Aftering finding a room to rent, Klaatu meets World War II widow Helen Benson (Patrica Neal) and her young son Bobby (Billy Gray), who help him see the better side of Homo Sapiens. Meanwhile, the U.S. government institutes a city-wide manhunt to capture him, so threatened are they be his inscrutable abilities.

The reason for Klaatu’s visit is the chief mystery of the film, but it is not hard to guess what he has to say. One need only look at the amazing regenerative powers and seeming technological miracles that Klaatu performs to liken him to the Messianic upstart in the New Testament. This isn’t a promotion of the Christian faith, but rather the use of science fiction to parse out the parts of Jesus’ sermons which profess ideals to which most humans, Christian or otherwise, should and in fact do agree with, with the added consequence of nuclear annihilation for all should we come up short in meeting that ideal. It is no accident that Klaatu arrives after we became capable of harnessing atomic energy. In using science fiction to secularize and generalize the ideals of Christ while warning us of what might happen if we don’t, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is as prescient  and as profound a parable as someone like me could hope to see.

4/5

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The Body Snatcher

body_snatcherA darkly comic tale about the lingering horror of guilt.

Thank goodness for Boris Karloff. But for his performance as the insinuating, insidious John Gray, this film might have descended into a bland tale of remorse and moral ambiguity, complete with an all-too-sappy subplot involving a little girl in a wheelchair and some stolen corpses. As it is, Karloff injects a good deal of humor and danger as a living embodiment of guilt, haunting and taunting his old pal, the duplicitous “Toddy” MacFarlane.

The head of a medical school in 1871 Edinburgh, Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) has the unenviable task of procuring cadavers from which his students can learn anatomy. There are laws in place to provide for a steady stream of bodies from a local morgue, but there simply aren’t enough. MacFarlane makes some dubious arrangements with one John Gray (Karloff), a cab driver by day and grave-robber by night to keep the school well-supplied, justifying the arrangement as being in the interest of scientific progress.

John Gray, however, is more than a mere shady character whom MacFarlane is forced to work with. The two go way back to when MacFarlane’s career was in its infancy, where Gray acquired a dark secret about MacFarlane which lets him more or less do whatever he want to MacFarlane in the present. Not that he does all that much. Mostly he just calls him “Toddy,” speaks in a foreboding sarcasm, alludes to vague threats and otherwise shows up at MacFarlane’s house unannounced, all merely to watch him squirm and twitch uncomfortably. While this might not seem all that bad, Gray’s lingering malignant presence is slowly driving MacFarlane mad.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the inclusion of the Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) character, who as a young and idealistic medical student working as an assistant recalls the untainted version of MacFarlane from long ago. Fettes’ primary concern is getting an operation for poor Georgina Marsh (Sharyn Moffett), a little girl who became paralyzed because of a carriage accident and can be saved by an operation that only MacFarlane can perform. The only trouble is, MacFarlane considers himself a teacher, not a surgeon, and thus refuses to help. Let me not forget poor Bela Lugosi, stuck in a thankless and barely recognizable role as a janitor at the medical school, who is in the film primarily to be murdered brutally by John Gray.

As a horror film, “The Body Snatcher” is intermittently effective. (There is a particularly evocative scene involving the singing of a poor beggar walking through a foggy street, singing which comes to an ominous and abrupt ending.) As dark comedy though, the film is quite good. The humor stems from MacFarlane’s fidgety inability to let go of his own sordid nature which gives Gray the opportunity to torment him, and the sinister glee which Gray derives from doing so. As looming and suggestive a presence as Karloff is in the film, the string of slights he offers are more silly than threatening. If MacFarlane only met Gray with equally dismissive snark, he could take all the fun out of picking on him, but then that wouldn’t be very fun, would it?

3.5/5

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Gravity

gravity-movie-poster (1)

“Just” a master work in innovative spectacle and audience manipulation.

The visual brilliance of “Gravity” is every bit as sublime as you have heard. It is a technical marvel, with breathtaking cinematography, an incredible use of sound (bombastic score aside,) and easily the best use of 3-D by any film that I have seen. The film generates constant suspense and thrills, resulting in the most visceral cinematic experience of 2013. It should be seen on the biggest screen possible. While it is perfectly fair to point out that there isn’t much to “Gravity” beyond this, so what?

The film is admittedly short on narrative and what little there is almost entirely a preamble to the action. The setup is as simple as “two astronauts are stranded in space by an accident and must find a way back to Earth.” Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and NASA journeyman Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are working on repairs to a space station when the destruction of a Russian satellite causes a chain reaction creates a deadly field of debris which wreaks havoc on the space station, destroying most of the shuttle and everyone on it, save Ryan and Matt. With communications knocked out and no other options, the duo proceeds to the International Space Station with the hopes of getting a ride back to Earth.

Even without more, that premise has enough thematic weight and psychological resonance to get us through the end of the film.  Not that the quest to stave off the inevitable march of death even in the midst of a literal void of nothingness which threatens to crush with its vastness and infiniteness, with the struggles of these humans looking puny but beautiful in contrast to the vastness of Earth, is anything to sniff at. The film puts in a little more, sliding in a backstory for Ryan in which her daughter died sometime ago as the result of a freak accident. While this is intended to make Ryan more relatable as a character while magnifying her internal conflict between hopefulness and hopelessness, it perversely has the effect of making her less relatable while overstating the film’s point. This is a bit frustrating when Bullock gives one of the best performances of her career. Exuding both a fierce determinism and paralyzing fear, Bullock oscillates between confidence and vulnerability like a human whose natural instincts threaten to consume her but whose an extensive training which back at her fear like the immune system fighting off an infection.

It is an odd thing to criticize a film for too much plot, but such is the splendor of “Gravity” that its brief detours into narrative are a minor blight on the otherwise flawless veneer of the film. Almost every seen in the film involves weightlessness, and it all looks superb. As he has in past, Cuaron indulges in frequent long takes, letting us savor the 3-D-augmented sequences in which objects float at the forefront of the frame, or flinch anxiously as Ryan and Matt flail about trying to grab onto anything to keep them tethered to a structure, their arms making their bodies marginally more useful than a bag of rocks. This visual feast is accompanied by a soundtrack which contrasts dense operatic scores with deafening moments of unsettling silence.

Whatever merit there is to the idea that “Gravity” functions as metaphor for humanity’s search for meaning adrift an empty universe,  its real pleasures are tangible and less ideological. It is more interested in stimulating the senses than the mind. When a film offers up a visual aesthetic and sensory experience that is as delightful and grandiose as “Gravity’s,” you don’t really need much else.

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The Conjuring

The_Conjuring_5

A boring recap of the best in horror from the last forty years.

Make no mistake, “The Conjuring” is pure manufactured horror product, packaged with the usual bits of familiar tropes and jump-inducing tricks as all the other subpar knockoffs of better horror films. Nevertheless, I had hoped that this would at least be an efficient and well-made abovepar knockoff, but after a somewhat promising opening sequence, the film drops any pretext of originality and rotely regurgitates the notes and beats of earlier and much better horror films, with less than middling results.

“The Exorcist,” “Amityville Horror,” and “Poltergeist” are just a few of the horror staples which “The Conjuring” generously “borrows” from, which in and of itself isn’t the greatest of cinematic crimes. After all, ripping off better horror films is old hat in the horror film business, and some of these ripoffs are a lot of fun. It also isn’t just the cheap way the film uses quiet moments and darkness to suddenly hijack our autonomic system with loud bangs and flashing images of creepy things. Jumping and shrieking are often part of the fun with horror films. No, “The Conjuring’s” problem is that it is just incredibly dull.

The film starts out on a high note. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play Lorraine and Ed Wilson, a couple of paranormal investigators in early 1970s New England. A la James Bond, the film begins with the Wilsons on a sort of side mission unrelated to the main narrative, in which they help a couple of nurse roommates that are being taunted by demon who is using an admittedly unsettling doll to toy with them. While this introductory sequence allows the Warrens to establish some of the supernatural rules,  the accompanying flashback reveals just how the doll has been terrorizing the two women, and is easily the most (and really only) disturbing moment of the film. This is largely because this sequence relies on atmosphere and mood to build anxiety, without any jumps to alleviate the tension. We never see the doll move. The horror comes from the possibility that the doll can move and that at any moment, it might.

From there, the film segues into the main thrust of the plot and hits the autopilot button. Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their cadre of daughters move into a remote house in the Rhode Island country, looking for a fresh start. What a bunch of rubes. When they arrive, strange things start to happen. Their dog refuses to come in the house. It dies overnight. Clocks stop. There are strange smells and noises. Pretty soon, it becomes obvious the house is haunted. The Warrens get involved. Wouldn’t you know it? Terrible things have happened there long ago. Blah blah blah.

Like most of its brethren, “The Conjuring” informs us that it was inspired by the real life case that the Warrens were involved in, as though somehow the possibility that such a thing happened in life is horror enough to make the film scary. It isn’t. (The Warrens were indeed actual paranormal investigators, Ed has since passed away, but Lorraine is alive at 86,) “The Conjuring” is kind of like a high school student nonchalantly reading a speech in class that he cobbled together from “The Gettysburg Address,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, and audio clips of Winston Churchill, only he removed the words he didn’t understand, secretly hoping that you won’t notice. Unfortunately for “The Conjuring,” I noticed.

2/5

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High Sierra

high-sierra-movie-poster-1941-1020416082

Even for gangsters, it’s not so much what you do as how you do it…

It is oddly reassuring that even in 1941, very few career gangsters reached old age. “High Sierra” couples a lot of old standards-that one final heist, the inescapable nature of criminality, the long-term fatalism of the gangsterism- and injects a rather startling amount of melodrama into the whole affair. In retrospect, this is a bit trite and soppy, but it nevertheless is a fitting elegy for the waning glamour of criminality post-Prohibition, largely because it stars a very likable Humphrey Bogart as an aging schlub who desperately struggles not so much to avoid his fate, but to retain his sense of self in the face of it and because of the film’s infectious affection for its dopey cast of old-timers, outcasts, and losers, clunky manipulation or no.

    Fresh out of prison in Indiana, notorious bank robber Roy Earle (Bogart) is ready to turn over a new leaf. Literally. He wanders into a park, caresses the vegetation, breathes in the fresh air, and becomes excited for a brand new day, awash in the simple joys of life. Despite Roy’s shining new attitude, his violent past comes lumbering forward to exclaim the film’s unspoken mantra, “Once a Gangster, Always a Gangster.” His old friend and now bedridden former accomplice Big Mac (Donald MacBride) spent a lot of money to get him out of jail, not so Roy could rebuild his life, but so that Roy could supervise a heist for him. There is a resort in California that needs robbing, and Roy is just the man to see it through. For Big Mac, this heist is less about the money than it is about nostalgically reliving the old days one last time before his illness claims him.

   On Roy’s crew are two young hotheads Red (Arthur Kennedy) and Babe (Alan Curtis) that are eager, but hasty. They’ve seen the gangster films but can’t emulate the swagger they’ve seen on-screen. They know the moves but don’t have the cool to execute them. They have massive egos but don’t have the criminal resumes to back them up. All these problems coalesce with Marie (Ida Lupino), a feisty young woman brought into the crew for unknown reasons and whose mere presence instills constant bickering and brawls between Red and Babe, despite her obvious unrequited affection for Roy.

   Film criminals in the era of the Hays Code didn’t exactly have very good post-film prospects, but this film dangles some hope for Roy’s salvation in the form of a romantic subplot involving a young woman named Velma (Joan Leslie). The tragically club-footed Velma is part of a downtrodden Midwestern family heading West for better employment opportunities. Roy falls for her instantly, going so far as to take it upon himself to see that her club-foot is fixed and paid for. Velma though, has a fiance back home, meaning Roy finds himself smack-dabbed in the middle of a love triangle, with Marie on one end and Velma on the other.

   The film really, really wants us to feel emotional about these characters. Not only does it give us a club-footed woman to push our pity buttons, we also get a tragedy-seeking pup that fiercely follows Roy everywhere, a skiddish inside man that pleads for his life when things don’t go quite as planned, and a tear-filled showdown on top of a (Sierra) mountain. With a tagline that says, “No man ever reached greater heights…to wait for death!” it may not be a shock how this film ends. Yet for all his toughness, Roy’s tragic flaw isn’t his criminality, his brutality, or his lack of morality, it is his loyalty. A more ruthless and vicious Roy might have avoided the fate that befell him, but like a devout first mate staying on a sinking ship with his captain, Roy insists on remaining true to people and processes which presumably lost their edge almost a decade ago when the booze became legal again, but then Roy knew that. The moment that car showed up to take him to Big Mac, the look on Roy’s face says he knew what was coming. All that was left for him was to play the part one last time.

3.5/5

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