Blackhat – Michael Mann (2015)

I went into Blackhat more than aware that the reviews were tepid to say the least. In fact, most thought it an outright stinker. But Michael Mann has never failed to disappoint before; all he ever need do is pour his special sauce over shots of cities at night, and I’ve been satisfied. Hell, I even thought Miami Vice (the film) was pretty great. Well, it must be said that Blackhat is a very odd film. Mann goes out of his way to keep his sauce bottled, using shaky-cam “docu-style” video instead of Steadicam, and keeping the music, always one of his strong suits, to a bare minimum. Plus, the topic is not exactly his métier, and he definitely feels in old man mode when trying to juice up cyber espionage into something not only watchable, but even explicable. (The actual portrayal of the attacks, while not uninteresting, look like a cross between Tron and that sequence in Scanners where Cameron Vale mind-melds with a modem). The acting is very sedate to the point of clunkiness, and 45 minutes in, things were sagging. Not horribly so, but it just seemed that Mann was way out of his element and struggling, albeit mightily.

Then in the last hour, coincident with most of the digital detritus clearing away, good ol’ fashioned flesh and blood analog issues roared back, and the director was in his element. Call it existential bromance revenge if you must, that is the base alloy, but it is assuredly more than that. Yes, the last hour redeemed everything. Mr. Mann can still shoot action, and make it matter, like few others, and although the cyber-caper underpinnings kept poking through (“He’s using his $75 million to buy tin futures, the bastard!”), and although Chris Hemsworth is not up to the standards of a Colin Farrell, in the end, not even the random deaths of peaceful Indonesian festival-goers could undermine this one. No neon, not many cool electronic tones, and a style more ham-handed than assured, but still gripping and oh so worth it. Nobody has done to-the-death payback like Mr. Mann since Don Siegel.

Three stars out of five

In unrelated news, I also had a chance to see the trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey before the show. It is rated R for “some unusual behavior.”

Whiplash – Damien Chazelle (2014)

Whiplash is my second favorite film of the year (top honors go to Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition). I skipped it earlier in the fall, as it centers on drumming and a striving student / taskmaster teacher relationship, neither of which I’m overly enamored with as subjects for a narrative. I’m glad I gave it a chance, and was able to see it on the big screen. In some ways, it is reminiscent of cult classic Breaking Away (which I’ve always had a warm fuzzy for), but is less character driven and more concerned with questions of the line between art and madness and the will to power underlying such strivings for “greatness.” It features a clash of the titans that keeps you guessing as to how it will resolve, but boy oh boy, when it does, it provides more pure cinematic catharsis than anything mainstream of the past year (even topping Snowpiercer). A few bits of the musical montage verge on the cheesy, especially in the climax, but unlike many films, the editing does actual work. The resolution is brilliant (especially the final few shots) and should leave audiences breathless and feeling great. I hope it finds a wider audience on video, as it is perfect Oscar material – serious, intelligent, and crowd-pleasing all at once.

Four and a half stars out of five

Interstellar – Christopher Nolan (2014)

Interstellar is certainly Nolan’s most ambitious film, in every dimension: emotionally, visually, narratively. The seriousness with which it takes itself is impressive, and I did find it very affecting in parts – the middle third manages to weave some good old fashioned suspense into the larger issues of time, loss, and planetary decline, pinging back and forth between the personal and the cosmic very ably. Nolan also makes allusions to other existential space classics (2001, notably) in the visual register in an intelligent way. That said, the script has more than a few nods to a mass audience (although hardly as bad as it could have been in terms of explanatory dialogue), and the resolution was quite disappointing. I don’t want to spoil anything, but he certainly doesn’t avoid any of the unsatisfying “closed loop” metaphysics common to most movies about time travel. At least it has more weight than the downright stupid and pretentious ending of Inception. Still, it is well worth seeing, and Nolan’s best film; he’s not a major director in any sense but attention and clout, though. (I do appreciate his allegiance to shooting on film however). Enough with movies about saving the world – it’d be refreshing to see a major budget devoted to the question of how we might live in a world beyond saving.

Three and a half stars out of five

Inherent Vice – P.T. Anderson (2014)

I saw P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice on Friday, with a very game audience at the Angelika, and had a blast. It does a great job of capturing the feel of Pynchon, as well as the semi-benumbed miasma of drugged-outedness. Great performances by all, with pop-ups from everyone from Michael K Williams to Belladonna to Eric Roberts, but I especially liked Josh Brolin as sad sack Bigfoot (“motto panukeiku!”). Of course, this is Phoenix’s show, and he carries it off hilariously, doing more with mumbles and long drawn out hedging groans than anyone else could have. I would guess that how you feel about the movie depends on how you feel about Pynchon, as the movie is all “dialogue” and the “action” is difficult to follow. (I have not read the book, but would wager this is realistic not only to it, but to the world of drug-fueled conspiracies generally). Like a lot of Pynchon, there is not much of an emotional core here, but no matter, this is one to see for the performances. Tons of fun, it felt an hour shorter than it is. Anderson has grown on me as a director; his early films range from the over-rated and slightly dull (Boogie Nights) to the overly-long and truly awful (Magnolia) to hit-and-miss twee (Punch-Drunk Love), but since There Will be Blood (still his finest hour) he’s redeemed himself.

Three and a half stars out of five

Foxcatcher – Bennett Miller (2014)

Foxcatcher didn’t set my world on fire, although it did set my sinuses on fire, so I’m probably less inclined to love it simply because of that fact. It’s a film to see for the performances, they’re all good, particularly Channing Tatum, playing an unloveable (although sympathetic) lunk with more nuance than you’d expect. Bennett Miller gets extra points for building the story slowly, using locations well, and for not relying on (or even including) any non-diegetic music. I think his background in documentary has made his fiction films stronger, as Capote surprised me as well. A bit long, but surprisingly, I found it stuck with me throughout the week.

Three stars out of five

The Babadook – Jennifer Kent (2014)

The Babadook has to qualify as the most over-rated film of the year. I really don’t understand the hype around this one. Horror film? No. Psychological thriller? Barely. It’s pretty much a straight allegory of the grieving process, and a damned literally minded one at that. If Freud’s Dora had a kid, this would be her song (as writ by screenwriter Freud of course). The film is so bloody straightforward there are no cracks for interpretation to slip in, and certainly no room for scares. The “horror” aspects of the movie are so cliché and banal I can’t believe critics are eating them up (bugs coming out of the wall, lights flickering, creepy voices, skittering J-horror style monster, etc etc etc). More offensive is that the director seems pretty high on her own supply, acting as if she’s reinvented the horror film by putting it on “serious” footing – in interviews, she compares it favorably against big studio horror sequel dreck, and acts like she has just invented psychological horror. What, we’ve never seen a film before concerning a mother ambivalent about her own child? We’ve never seen a horror film with “symbolism?” Perhaps such things are less frequent in American cinema of late, but certainly there is a rich history in Europe of psychological horror, and maybe she’s heard of our Canadian friend Mr. Cronenberg? It is well made, for sure, but I found it pretty boring and on the whole pretentious – a few dark humor chuckles here and there, but no scares, and no need to think about the film after the fact, as it is so… damned… literal.

One and a half stars out of five

I don’t like pooing on a female director, so in compensation I’d direct interested viewers to Netflix to see Joanna Hogg’s first feature, Unrelated, an exceptional and comparatively quiet drama about struggling through the passages of life, trying to define yourself before the clock runs out. Psychologically astute, nuanced, and unlike Mr. Babadook, the implications and resonances grow in proportion to the viewer’s observational perspicacity. This is one of the best films I’ve seen in quite a while. The performances are great too. All three of her features are streaming, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing the other two (Archipelago and Exhibition). Check ’em.

Force Majeure – Ruben Östlund (2014)

Force Majeure got little buzz at Cannes, and looked a mix of serious drama and satire, so my hopes were low. Happily, it turned out to be underrated; the satire is balanced by psychological nuance and writing that mines the territory in relationships between the trivial and the weighty. It’s an effective satire of the “Dad impulse” (over-explaining coupled with under-performing) but manages a level of modernist-style symbolism that both keeps the film itself from triviality and elevates it to Euro art film territory (which it easily inhabits). It works on multiple levels. Not amazing, but very solid and memorable.

Three and a half stars out of five

Goodbye to Language – Jean-Luc Godard (2014)

I’d recommend Goodbye to Language even if it were horrible, simply because it is Godard in 3D. It is not horrible, however, and resides aesthetically somewhere at the middle point between Godard’s relatively more “normal” late narratives and his video work a la JLG/JLG and Histoire du Cinema. His use of 3-D is easily the most interesting I’ve seen (in a “mainstream” release), and the film is quite funny too. Spoiler alert: the juicy fart Foley work in this rivals the Wet Hot American Summer DVD for over-the-topness.

Four stars out of five

Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy (2014)

Today I saw Nightcrawler. The Gilroys somehow make interesting films that move me not an iota (Michael Clayton being the exception, but it was still just one small iota). It makes an interesting companion to Gone Girl in its focus on the perverse (and erotic) American fascination with images, and is worth seeing for Gyllenhaal’s performance. It lacks visual interest, though, or any ability to affect via cutting or narrative structure. Like many of their films, it seems low key and interested in detail, but ultimately builds to little more than a character study. As that, it’s not bad, but for a supposed thriller, there is little lurking inside except night and sleaze.

Two stars out of five