The lasting mystery of “Transcendence” is why it fails so completely, starting with its title. It could have been called a dozen other things, including “Singularity,” “Technophobia,” “Perturbia,” “Who, Me, Frankenstein?” or, maybe, “An Inconvenient Bust.” The first feature by cinematographer Wally Pfister (“Inception,” “Moneyball,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) suffers from a script aiming for present-tense future shock that mashes up an unholy hybrid of movies past and clichés everlasting, notably “The Lawnmower Man” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” Eight, ten minutes in the only hope was for the movie to gain a pulse and become deliciously bad. I slouched further in my seat. [Plot details follow.]
My first exposure to Jim Jarmusch’s magical “Only Lovers Left Alive” was in thrall to jetlag, and I got its vivid, if woozy sense of the circularity of life, art, dance and the revolution of 45rpm records against the desolation of Detroit, Tangier and a musician’s gear-decked digs. What goes around goes around. And goes around. Five months later, clear-headed, early in the morning, his romance between two undead lovers of words and music, Eve and Adam (Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston), took the shape of something better, greater, and perhaps the bard of the Lower East Side’s most personal and finest film. Superficially a vampire story—and one that portrays the soft rush of ingested blood like the hard rush of injected heroin—“Only Lovers Left Alive” is also a moving meditation on shifting roles in long-term relationships, on “zombie” culture outside the cluttered, cloistered lair, on the eternal promise and disappointment of youth. Read the rest of this entry »
Based on Alice Munro’s short story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” Liza Johnson’s indie drama-comedy “Hateship Loveship” shows a side of Kristen Wiig that’s always been in plain sight. Under the exterior of a comedienne, with crack timing, has always nestled the heart of a Serious Actress. She invests. But as Johanna, a shy woman introduced into a complicated Iowa household as a caregiver, Wiig is surrounded by an all-star cast of short-story-style eccentrics and needy, damaged souls that outshine her crabbed performance. Ordinariness doesn’t suit Wiig: Johnson’s understated progression of incidents in her story seems hardly to have a dramatic pulse.
Jonathan Glazer’s third feature, and his first in nearly a decade, “Under The Skin,” reduces Michel Faber’s 300-page-plus 2000 novel to a quintessence: how would an alien see our world if it were to walk among us, if it were to hijack a human form and harvest us by exploiting elemental desire?
The form the unnamed creature assumes is Scarlett Johansson’s, and in the production and post-production of the movie, plot and narrative peeled away in favor of sound and image, and the alien’s encounters on the real-life streets and nearby beaches of Glasgow, Scotland. It’s maximal minimalism, of the kind of heightened sensation you’d expect from the maker of “Sexy Beast” and “Birth.” In a way, his character is the ultimate consumer, shopping for men among the faces on the street, who will be literally taken by desire?
“Oh, yeah?” Glazer says, smiling slightly, on a recent Chicago visit. Then she is, too, as she begins to take pity on her prey. “Yeah, there is something interesting about the fact that for someone to live, someone else has to die.” Read the rest of this entry »
The world of David Gordon Green’s “Joe” is all I ever knew and feared of my upbringing. Not my family, no, but some of my extended extended family, cousins second and third removed, and certainly in the lanes and miles that radiated outward from this small blot on the countryside. I did not come from those people in Kentucky but they lived down the road only a piece. Based on a novel by late Mississippi hardscrabble writer Larry Brown, and adapted by Gary Hawkins, a former professor of Green and director of “The Rough South Of Larry Brown,” Green encapsulates the ragged raw character of a stripe of dispossessed rural whites, their expressed, spoken condition as near an ache as to vernacular poetry. (In its obituary of Brown, the New York Times called the writer a chronicler of “the painful hope of the rural poor.”) Joe, played by Nicolas Cage in full ripe melancholy, is an ex-con who pines nearly every day for the sanctity and sanity of life behind bars. Read the rest of this entry »
A filthy, nasty thrill ride, “Cheap Thrills” is the rudest defense of Traditional American Values in all too long. Brazen post-Haneke-Pinter-Tarantino misanthropy runs deep in a gutter. Man wakes up in the morning, he’s forgotten his dreams of being a writer, his wife and young child beside him—“The past six months have been amazing, I love the shit out of you”—as he sets out on his work day, finds an eviction notice on the front door over almost $5,000 in back rent, which he crumples on his way to his machine shop job, where he’s quickly “downsized.” So, down to the bar, where he (stolid yet supple everyman Pat Healy) runs into a disreputable cohort of five years back (Ethan Embry) just as he’s had enough of a snootful to face his family. Enter: a couple on her birthday (Sara Paxton, the unhinged but wondrously controlled, controlling David Koechner), with a pocket full of cash and increasingly humiliating, then mutilating “Jackass”-style challenges, first at the tavern, and later at their fine home overlooking the mute, glittering panoply of Los Angeles by night. All that happens is bloody and fucking awful and it’s a wondrous display. Read the rest of this entry »
“On your left,” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) says on a run, rushing past a man who will become one of his closest allies in the warfare to come in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” For someone who will never master the intricacies of the “Marvel universe” of cross-pollinated properties and storylines, an almost immediate satisfaction in the fine craft of directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (“Community,” “You, Me And Dupree”) came from how closely allied this superhero adventure is to 1970s American movies, down to the superb casting of Robert Redford, the face of 1970s paranoia classics like “Three Days Of The Condor,” “The Candidate” and “All The President’s Men,” as the enforcer of 2010s universal spying on the world’s citizenry. Read the rest of this entry »
It used to be you couldn’t predict which Halle Berry you’d get in a new movie scurrying into and out of theaters: the Oscar-winning Halle Berry of “Monster’s Ball” or the genially unhinged Halle Berry of “Gothika.” Pretty much these days, you can count on “Gothika” Halle. In “Frankie & Alice,” (2010), a decade-long passion project for Berry, working from a screenplay credited to Cheryl Edwards, Marko King & Mary King & Jonathan Watters, and Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse and Oscar Janiger & Philip Goldberg, British television director Geoffrey Sax amps the melodrama, heedless of the insufferable tonal shifts in writing and performance. Even starting with the simple outline of the saga of a go-go dancer with multiple personality disorder in 1970s Los Angeles—true story!—Berry is up for the game. (Call it “Three Faces of Oscar.”)
Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac Volume 2” (rendered onscreen as the internet-unfriendly “Nymph()maniac”) extends the chockablock low-to-high-and-back-again smorgasbord of the first half of the “international version” of his latest provocation. Charlotte Gainsbourg takes center stage as the adult “Joe,” after Sophie Kennedy Clark’s enactment of her memories of sexual initiation in the opening salvo. (Distributor Magnolia Pictures notes, “The international version is the only version of the film that has been released commercially anywhere in the world. There is no ‘American’ version of the film—the film being released in the US has not been altered or censored from the international version.”) The approach remains episodic, with bursts of inspiration succeeded by musings on music and math that on first viewing seem to convolute more than complicate. It’s a novelistic approach that becomes more appealing as the stories unfold. And despite bold imagery and frank chitchat, there’s nearly nothing erotic about either installment. Read the rest of this entry »
While Lars Von Trier has taken a press “vow of silence” after his unfortunate remarks about Nazis to a Cannes 2011 press conference for “Melancholia,” the very form of his newest film(s), “Nymphomaniac” is in itself a succession of formal provocations that speak loudly. And that’s not even getting to the content of the first installment, “Nymphomaniac Volume I” yet. (“Nymphomaniac Volume II” is released in Chicago theaters April 4.) “NI” debuted for Christmas in Trier’s Danish homeland, and debuted in the U.S. at an invited preview at Sundance. The Danish version, longer by twenty minutes or so and more sexually explicit, debuted internationally at the Berlin Film Festival; the American “NI” has been on video-on-demand for a few weeks, and “NII” will follow the same release pattern. At some point, the two films will be available in their longer, five-hour-or-so version, which, it’s been reported, Trier handed over to others at some point to trim even to that length. That’s a long preamble to indicate it’s not length that counts, however, but instead Trier’s earnest attempt to chronicle one fictional woman’s sexuality and feelings toward fathers, while being tended by another older man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who counters her stories with his own about fancies like fly-fishing, making analogy and metaphor, Scheherazade-style, of what’s inside her literally fevered mind. Read the rest of this entry »