Mr. Brooks (Bruce A. Evans, 2007)

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“Oh, poor Mr Costner; he tries so hard” – Lisa Simpson
Honestly, I think people are being really quite mean about Kevin Costner in this. I only believe he’s a serial killer slightly less than I believe Michael C. Hall is one and I watched, like, seven and a bit series of Dexter before finally giving up! Mr. Brooks is a strangely ambitious, if ultimately unsuccessful, film about the eponymous, admired philanthropic businessman (Costner), undergoing a relapse into his serial killing addiction, the voice and face of whom is portrayed by William Hurt. Blackmailed into allowing a tag-along, he begins to worry his daughter who may also be a killer… and then Demi Moore’s a millionaire cop, getting chased by an escaped serial killer… whilst getting divorced… honestly, there’s a lot of threads, none of them are all that satisfying.

The strange, unsuccessful, ambition mentioned above largely rests on the way Mr. (not going to lie, that unnecessary period is killing me) Brooks flip-flops stylistically between genres in a way that feels, rather than impressively postmodern, even more distracting than the way The Dark Knight Rises constantly flip-flopped between letterbox and IMAX. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bulk of Mr. Brooks is a fairly standard David Fincher rip-off, with phlegmatic dolly shots, roaming stately homes of minimalist design, à la Panic Room and Gone Girl, but then someone will all of a sudden discover a dead body, presented as an almost carbon-copy of Se7en. Moore’s Detective Atwood at points encounters her escaped serial killer, at which point the entire film shifts uncomfortably from “psychological thriller” to pure, and frankly stupid, action film territory, not unlike one of the newer, regrettable, Die Hard sequels for a maximum of 2 minutes, before quietening down again. Her divorce, naturally, looks like what would happen if Joel Schumacher tried to direct The Squid and the Whale.

The film is not without merits – Costner and Hurt really are very good, and I do think that, much like Christine, Mr. Brooks makes a genuinely good go at using a horror/thriller format to represent the psychological and personal realities of addiction very well. What’s most interesting, though, it Mr. Brooks‘ ability somehow to be at once not very exciting at all, but still just engrossing enough to make you wonder what’s going to happen next. All in all, the film is an utter mess, but still, a slightly fun one.

 

**

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The Mask You Live In (Jennifer Siebel Newsom, 2015)

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The Mask You Live In is a solid and vital, if unadventurous, documentary on the crossover between gender performativity and toxic masculinity and the societal feedback loop that cultivates it / which it cultivates. Its primary tool is an impressively varied set of talking heads and interviewees, the former including neuroscientists, behaviourists, sociologists, sports coaches, social workers and psychiatrists; the latter including reception-age children, high-school kids and young male felons with life sentences. Mask‘s strong point is looking at current affairs and developing recent discussions on pop culture – for example video games – and contextualising the young men – young boys, even – and their engagement with misogynist and hyper-masculine representations of violence as the only means of conflict resolution and rage as the only emotion – if any – worthy of expression to a degree which Anita Sarkeesian has somewhat often fallen short.

It’s a trippy and affective experience, watching such a film as a young woman, raised in childhood to be someone’s son and, perhaps it was as someone with such a relatively unique perspective that I noticed the morals of the film being disappointingly simple – essentially a “don’t do that.” It was a little jarring that it focused so often on language relating to queerphobia and misogyny, but didn’t bother too much to pursue the narratives of queer young men. It was a little tiring to see such an un-nuanced attitude of suspicion and blame towards sex work, including but not limited to pornography, to the extent that there were points at which it did become difficult to see too much distance between Mask and any other special news report. Much like a special news report, Mask mixes agenda with information in a way that, whilst not teaching me very much I didn’t already know, it did have me jotting down the names of some of the consulted experts to find out about any related TED talks etc – without a doubt the most impressive of these is Ashanti Branch.

Problems aside, The Mask You Live In‘s heart is indubitably in the right place and it comes away with considerably more wins than losses. We must just look at this film as the beginning of a much longer conversation.

 

***1/2

The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003)

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My stance with the obnoxious whiners, both the ones for and against what is so often frankly mislabeled “political correctness” ever in flux, my opinion on The Human Stain‘s own argument is not unlike the opening joke of Annie Hall about two elderly Jewish ladies complaining about the awful food, and in such small portions: it is all at once desperately stupid, and isn’t made at all strongly enough.

It is almost universally acknowledged that Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman are woefully miscast in this film. I mean, obviously, Nicole Kidman, a nigh-perpetual charisma vacuum, appears miscast in pretty much everything but the casting of protagonist Coleman Silk is at least slightly interesting, if still pretty lousy. Better qualified and more dedicated people than me could explore the potential racial-identity-oriented implications of having the young Coleman Silk played by a man of Afro-Carribean and Jewish descent (Wentworth Miller), and the old Coleman Silk being played by a man with neither, with regard to Silk’s choices regarding his familial and racial disconnection, but I don’t feel all that comfortable exploring it right now, myself. What I shall instead say is that, despite my general lack of interest in Miller, I think he does a pretty fine job, all things considered, both of portraying Silk on his own terms and also reflecting Hopkins’ mannerisms enough to make one a believable younger version of the other. However, this only further establishes something of a star-power-dynamic, as the latter’s performance is a wholly workaday Hopkins-as-Hopkins which, especially in the context of the May-December relationship between Silk and Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), makes The Human Stain appear an overly-serious dummy-run for the equally underwhelming Allen comedy You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

The catalyst for the lacklustre narrative, Silk’s loss of his academic post on account of his use of the term “spooks,” meaning “ghosts,” being seemingly intentionally misconstrued as “spooks,” meaning “Black people,” is wholly dependent not on the clandestine racial origins of the speaker, but the lack of level-headedness of his colleagues, given the clarity of context of the word, situated in the phrase “do they exist, or are they spooks?” This is ever so slightly alluded to, right near the very of the film which, given what’s just happened at the climax, everyone essentially goes – “who cares?” However, the bulk of the film is essentially predicated on a deeply inane “freezepeach” babble: “What do you mean I can’t use a racial slur? What if I’m secretly Black? Didn’t think of THAT one, didya?” An argument made predominantly by the whitest of white men.

Nicole Kidman is, of course, awful but, to be fair, so is her character. The Wentworth Miller-led flashback sections are, without a doubt, the most engaging, but are entirely cheapened and embittered by the fact that what is actually a fairly compelling story of one man is being used, inappropriately and poorly, as smoke-and-mirrors for a completely fatuous argument. The tensions surrounding Faunia and her obnoxious PTSD outbursts, one-dimensional allusions to childhood molestation, dead children, and her not-at-all-menacing menacing ex husband (Ed Harris), beyond being dull and grating, also distract from the point the story is trying to make. The result is, rather than complexity, The Human Stain merely gains confusion.

The Human Stain suffers through its underuse of good actors in good roles, overuse of good actors in bad roles, and overuse of bad actors in bad roles, never with enough conviction or narrative drive to express its point to the extent that it could be described as a “commentary” or “satire,” and it’s a stupid point anyway.

 

*1/2

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

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Retrospectively, it’s pretty much impossible not to look at The Ides of March and not see it as existing almost purely as the personification of the gestative period between two crucial political thrillers: Michael Clayton and House of Cards. However, whilst both Clayton and Cards stand as testament to the fact that thrillers made of 90% conversation and a maximum of 10% murder can, through artful use of cynicism, irony, misdirection and deception, still turn the dial up to 11, Ides of March never really goes far above a middling 5 or 6.

Clooney’s direction is competent if uncharismatic, and the editing’s looseness does little to dissuade the typical parodic critiques of Gosling’s dispassionate performance. However, the capital-A Acting is without a doubt as consistently impressive as you would expect from a line-up of Clooney, Gosling, Seymour Hoffman, Tomei and Giamatti, with Rachel Wood very much holding her own. Still, the characters all feel too archetypal for the cast to find anything particularly new or interesting to, other than be good on the back of their talent alone. Combine this with a story that never really has anyone acting comparatively that badly, nor the repercussions (save for one character, whose fate is written on their forehead from the get-go) that punishing, and you soon see that the stakes just plain aren’t high enough to demand any serious attention be paid to it. No matter how well acted it may be, a House of Cards with its teeth removed is, at the end of the day, just a lot of grey.

 

**

 

Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)

 

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Dear White People is a genuinely funny, brilliantly acted and assuredly relevant dramedy that follows student politics in the lead-up to an altercation between students of colour and the attendees of a blackface-themed Halloween party on campus.

Whilst Dear White People cannot be said completely to shy away from the label of “issues-related” or “social problem film,” its fictional Ivy League backdrop and all-round exceptional performances allow for its collective-protagonist-driven roaming narrative and crescendo of property damage (the physical violence against white people in the scene in question is as absent as systematic violence towards Black people is present) to act as a witty parallel to Do the Right Thing, rather than simply trying to “update” it. Justin Simien has gone on record as not wanting to be called “the next Spike Lee,” and nor should he. But he has also name-checked Do the Right Thing and it would be dishonest to act as though I hadn’t noticed similarities.

The well expressed (if – at moments – a little stagey) socio-political discourse to one side, Dear White People‘s strength – its vividly multi-dimensional narrative, carried by 4 stellar leads and a fabulous host of supporting cast, acts paradoxically as its weakness. The desire to see so many characters have a legitimate story – as Sam (Tessa Thompson) herself says, with development and a background other than their race – in a 108 minute film does somewhat result in none of the characters quite fully having that.

Troy (Brandon Bell) is given the most background (due to the presence of his father, also the Dean of Students, played by the ever wonderful Dennis Haysbert) but, whilst a fine character, is arguably the least interesting/evocative of sympathy, on account of his seemingly greater degree of fiscal and class privilege. His conflicts are by far the most addressed, in my opinion at the risk of the film’s pacing. However, it’s not simply that I feel there are scenes that should have made it to the cutting room floor; rather, I feel certain there are scenes lying on the cutting room floor that could do with re-entry.

The film’s rhythm does leave a little to be desired – whilst we enjoy the company of all the film’s characters, their motivations for suddenly dropping and/or picking up (for want of a better term) “the cause” are left consistently partially obscured. I want to know more about Lionel (Tyler James Williams)’s inner tensions between his Blackness and his queerness that seems to keep him away from the BSU. I want to hear more about Sam’s book, her radio show, her films, her family, her relationship with Troy. I want to see more Coco (Teyonah Parris) in the film just generally – she has nowhere near a big enough role, and the film could have easily done with some tightening up to fit her in. I should add, it’s not just an overabundance of Troy that needs tightening up – there are several filler scenes of Lionel just kinda hanging out that could easily have been done away with in favour of more story and character development. Plus, there was this reality TV plotline that added so little, I’m honestly not sure why it existed, beyond showing off the fabulous Malcolm Barrett?

Still, Dear White People has left me panting for more of a good thing and that is not the same as it being an unsatisfying watch. It is funny, it is righteous, it is angry, it is well-written and deals with serious topics of history, identity, and society, balancing just the right levels of irreverence and clarity to make Dear White People a sophisticated yet unpretentious, didactic yet un-preachy, exceedingly worthy campus social satire.

***1/2

Lost River (Ryan Gosling, 2015)

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Watching Lost River, I couldn’t help but get an eerie feeling of déja-vu. After half an hour or so, I realised that it’s more or less one of the film scripts I wrote in my bedroom at age 14 up till the moment where my laptop had the good sense to die forever, depriving the world of more derivative, albeit aesthetically harmonious, twaddle.

It is instantly apparent that each and every one of the characters are entirely picked from a deck of instantly recognisable archetypes but, strangely enough, not a one of them is fleshed out enough even to fulfil the required tropes. Granted, for this it makes the characters less obnoxious than the overbearingly paint-by-numbers archetype list to be found in so many films from Birdman to Calvary, but that’s but there is more than one alternative to glitzy 2D character writing that isn’t frustratingly 1D character writing. Lost River‘s aimless approach to in media res means that we’re never really given insight into any motivations, allegiances or conflicts, and the nearly-last-days universe, for all its neon cool, just isn’t interesting enough forLost River‘s lack of tight plot to be made irrelevant by immersive experience, à la Hard to Be a God.

To be sure, I have occasionally wondered what Ryan Gosling’s blu-ray collection looked like, and I’m glad to have Lost River take me from J through M (Jodorowsky, Korine, Lynch, Mallick) as well as confirm for me that he’s seen and enjoyed Stalker at least once, but I cannot help but resent him for recycling these auteurs in such a dull, privileged way. I say privileged, because there are films that have managed to borrow unmistakable elements from, say, Lynch on what seems to have been a fraction of this film’s budget and make a simple, pleasant watch. Enemy is a fine example of such a film. Lost River, by contrast, feels simultaneously somehow too simple and too complex at the same time, Gosling never quite sure what point he wants to make, but never having the nihilism of the majority of his considerably more existential influences to allow it to have no point with dignity.

It’s heartbreaking to think Gosling believed he was making something good and new with Lost River and it’s sickening to think some stupid teenager will honestly believe this is the peak of filmmaking. I certainly hope they discover the source texts for every rip-off in this film and realise how much more there is to explore than Lost River.

**

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

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First watched and reviewed June 30, 2015

Surreal, funny, tragic, and profoundly moving, I can’t think of any film that takes you on such a long journey in such a relatively short amount of time as It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Hertzfeldt makes perfect use of the illustrative medium and, though I usually find myself very much aligned with the André Bazin / Dudley Andrews way of thinking (that animation, by definition, cannot be cinema), the 35mm medium and bewildering and beautiful in-camera effects of which Don Hertzfeldt makes most skilful use renders Beautiful Day an exception to this rule, creating new examples of what we considered lost in the age of CGI: Cinema Magic. Old school and entirely new all at once,Beautiful Day is already an historical treasure that will surely only gain more praise and followers as time rolls on.

*****

Filth (Jon S. Baird, 2013)

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If you loved Bad Lieutenant, Trainspotting, The Libertine and Training Day, you’ll be… really kinda bored by Filth.

For a film that covers some of the most covered territory there is for a film cover, Filthcomes across as desperately pleased with itself, which – rather than the, frankly run of the mill “grittiness” – is the thing that actually makes this film so hard to like. The ending is decent but in its attempt to mix grungy bleak humour with pathos as is Irvine Welsh’s wont, Filth ends up somewhat undermining both. Shirley Henderson and Eddie Marsan are delightful to watch as ever and it’s nice to see Jim Broadbent in full Terry Gilliam mode but again: there’s nothing new going on here. James McAvoy plays the lead Bruce Robertson admirably, but he’s no Harvey Keitel; he’s not really Nicolas Cage.

The strongest element of Filth, however, is without a doubt Bruce’s ladder-climbing duplicity, saving the film by dragging it out of “British Bad Lieutenant” territory and into “Edinburgh House of Cards.” Even so, Bruce’s constant cheeky winks towards the permeable fourth wall soon get grating and, much like the film itself, lose all impressiveness quite rapidly. Fairly fun, but has little-to-no replay value in comparison to the list of far superior predecessors upon which it is so obviously based.

 

**