Saturday, October 3, 2015

You Think Capsule Reviews Are Dead In Our Time? Well Listen Up, Chump!

New movies! New movies! Capsule reviews! Capsule reviews of new movies! Callooh! Callay!

The Martian (d. Ridley Scott) - I had thought, at one point, and bizarrely, that there was a period in his career during which Ridley Scott wasn't especially productive. That there were like four or five year gaps between films. This is not the case, as my five seconds of "research" reveals to me. I guess I thought this because there's a kind of dead zone in his filmography that even some folks like myself, an enthusiastic born-again fan, haven't bothered exploring. I'm thinking about 1492: Conquest of Paradise and White Squall and G.I. Jane. That kind of stuff. And later Body of Lies and A Good Year. He's made several films I've never seen, and I feel like they almost don't even exist. Or count, somehow (maybe they're very good, I obviously don't know). But he's always worked steadily, and the fact that Ridley Scott has made four films in the last four years isn't actually all that unusual. What might count as noteworthy, at least, is the fact that the first three of those four -- Prometheus, The Counselor, and Exodus: Gods and Kings -- have more or less been critically reviled. Prometheus is a film that seemingly the whole world was excited to see, and the whole world was disappointed by. The Counselor, which boasted an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, a great writer who, I suspect, is beloved by more people than have actually read him, was said by one major critic to be the worst film ever made. Both of those films have their pockets of defenders, but even those people seemed to back away from Exodus: Gods and Kings. No one liked that one.

Well, I liked it. I also loved Prometheus (review here) and The Counselor (review, plus anger, here), both of which I consider among the best films Scott has ever made, up there with Alien and Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down, and among the best films of the decade. Given my feelings for his recent work, you must understand how satisfying it is for me that Scott's newest film, The Martian, is shaping up to be one of the most beloved films of the year. Which, I'll grant you, The Counselor, with its "your choices have created a literal Hell on Earth, now look at it" ethos was never going to be. So The Martian, a big old crowd-pleaser, might be somewhat calculated on Scott's part. Or maybe he's just eclectic. He always has been before, why stop now?

The Martian is based on a blockbuster science-fiction novel by Andy Weir -- it's a novel I started and stopped pretty quickly, because Weir's prose gave me the shakes, though the premise, when thought of in the context of what I know Scott is capable of, was very exciting to me. It's basically this: sometime in the future, there's a manned NASA mission to Mars. The crew is all out on the surface of the planet doing their work when a storm they thought was several hours away, and weak, suddenly proves to be much closer and quite strong. In the rush to get back, in the midst of the storm, one astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist, is hit by debris and lost to the maelstrom. His spacesuit is punctured, too, which means he's basically dead. So with great reluctance, the rest of the crew, led by Michelle Lewis (Jessica Chastain), leaves him, boards their ship, and launches towards home. But through a type of luck as freakishly good as the bad kind that almost killed him, Watney survives. The storm passes, and he finds himself alive, though injured, and with the base he and the rest of his now-departed crew had previously occupied intact. He's alone, but there's some food, and some water, and equipment. In addition, he's a botanist, and he has some potatoes, some Martian soil, and some human shit. He starts growing potatoes. Then, through one thing or another, he and NASA begin communicating with each other.

I can't detail how all of this comes about, but this isn't a One Man Alone film. I mean, he is alone, but about half of the film takes place on Earth, and there's a big cast. There's Jeff Daniels as the director of NASA, there's Kristen Wiig as the head of NASA's public relations (which is getting a workout under the circumstances), Sean Bean as the earthbound flight commander for Ares III (the mission in question), Benedict Wong as the head of Jet Propulsion Labs, Donald Glover as the awkwardly ingenious astrodynamicist who figures out some important shit, and plus, the rest of the Ares III crew, who eventually become rather important, such as Michael Pena, Kate Mara, and no offense to the rest of them, but etc. You get the idea, I think, of the kind of cast at work here (it's a very racially diverse one, too, which I think is an unmistakable theme here: "Wouldn't it be great if we could get here one day"). I knew the gist of the film, so this was all expected. What I didn't expect was that The Martian would be close to a remake of Ron Howard's 1995 film Apollo 13. Now how do I summarize all of this, because I have two more of these to write.

Well, to begin with, if this is even where I should begin, Scott, or screenwriter Drew Goddard, or possibly original novelist Andy Weir, saw the similarities to Apollo 13 (film and historical incident) and decided to lean into it, because at least one line (possibly two) from the earlier film is quoted in The Martian: such-and-such is a "steely-eyed missile man." This is pretty much necessary, I think, because the similarities are unavoidable. But once past that, how does The Martian hold up? Fairly well, I'd say. It has its problems, and its goofy stuff. There's a bit where Ejiofor's character realizes something important and says, while in the depths of NASA headquarters, "I need a map." Of Mars, he means, so he and another NASA person played by Mackenzie Davis rush to the cafeteria to grab a map of the surface of Mars off the wall. I feel like two NASA employees in NASA headquarters whose work is entirely focused on Mars missions would probably have images of Mars' surface close to hand and wouldn't have to think "Hey is there one in the cafeteria, maybe?" But I understand the idea behind the scene. Rather than showing two people sitting at a table doing math, let's show them being resourceful off the cuff, and let's add the color of a cafeteria, and so forth. I get it, but it's an impulse whose employment can shred the naturalism it's meant to build up. There are a few moments like this in The Martian.

But, in the end, so what? As powerless as I am in the face of Apollo 13, for all its many faults (and they are, indeed, many), so too am I powerless before The Martian. And The Martian doesn't insult its audience by manufacturing a villain, as Howard did with his ridiculous depiction of that film's flight doctor as some sort of stick-up-the-ass dickhead who everyone hated, because hey, this is a movie, there's gotta be a villain, even if the villain is only trying to do his job well. The Martian doesn't have that. There's no villain. Characters disagree -- Bean and Daniels have some good stuff in this regard -- but it's not a case of one of them is wrong and the other is right and the audience has a rooting interest. It's easy to understand both of them, but the point is that everybody is trying to work together for the best result, and the best result is, how many people can we save? This is irresistible. Hence the large and recognizable cast. It's wonderful, and fun, and even exhilarating, if you're in the mood for it, to watch all of this play out.

I regret to say that Wiig, who I like, is the weak link (surprisingly, she sometimes feels like she's in a very low-key comedy sketch, which, of course, doesn't fit; I'm not sure this is her fault), and that the scene where Glover explains his plan to Daniels aims for comedy and completely bricks it. But Glover, otherwise, isn't bad, and the character-actor wing of this film, which is vast, is generally hugely appealing, with Benedict Wong, as the frustrated but unbending chief of JPL, standing out as the most specific human being in the whole production. If there's one thing a film like The Martian needs, it's naturalistic performances from those actors playing the ground-floor, meat-and-potatoes scientists who're trying to get things done. Wong does that better and more consistently than any other single actor in the film. I loved him. He's perhaps my favorite actor in the film.

Next to Damon, anyway, who is terrific (Wong might still be my favorite, but let's keep moving). Very early on, Damon as Watney has to deal with a serious injury. His training has to kick in, and he has to, essentially, perform surgery on himself. Watching this scene I thought "Well, pretty clearly, Matt Damon isn't in this much pain. But if I didn't know how movies and acting worked, I would believe that he was in agony." I was always thoroughly convinced by Damon, and by Watney's plight. The food issue, the potatoes, the ketchup, the rationing, the Vicodin...I was in there. I loved it, I thought the humor of Damon's performance, which is essential, and the desperation, which is also essential (watch him count potatoes during a storm on Mars), the cracked's great, the detail of it, the sound of it, the humility plus the scientific wherewithal which backs that up...Damon plays it all. It's not quite a one-man show, somehow. Leaving aside all the other characters with whom he can't directly interact -- Scott and Goddard (and Weir probably) set Damon up with an out: he can talk to a camera, which can function as a person, in terms of performance. But that's still acting by yourself, and Damon is great. He's a movie star, but terminally underrated as an actor. It's his movie, and he brings it home.

Love & Mercy (d. Bill Pohlad) - Now a director who has had a pretty significant gap between films is Bill Pohlad. His first film was Old Explorers from 1990. His second is Love & Mercy, which got a wide release this year. In between that, Pohlad did plenty -- he served as a producer on a variety of films, including 12 Years a Slave and Wild, for example -- but I do find this sort of creative career interesting. I have no particular theories about it, mind you, though I suspect it's gratifying for his life as a director to quite suddenly be on the upswing. Who could have expected it, after all? Although the idea of a biopic about The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, starring Paul Dano as the young genius Wilson and John Cusack as the middle-aged, deeply troubled Wilson of legend must inspire some fantasies of being noticed finally, one way or another. You're asking for something, making such a film, and what Pohlad has delivered, the film just described, has been rather widely embraced as if not one of the best films of the year, at least one of the better films of the year.

Among the reasons why Love & Mercy has been so well-received as an off-book biopic is its structure. About half the film takes place in the 1960s, as Paul Dano's Brian Wilson was gearing up for the epochal Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, then extending through that album's release and the mental and creative breakdown that coincided with the writing and orchestrating of Wilson's legendary (almost mythical, if a solid version of it hadn't finally been released) album Smile. The other half of the film is set in the 1980s, after Wilson had become the Howard Hughes-esque oddball who it became somewhat hip to make fun of for a while. He lived in bed, he wrote songs about vegetables, this is what fame does to the arrogant. That was the popular idea for a while, and one of Love & Mercy's not insignificant achievements is to make it clear that Brian Wilson isn't just some dick who went made with excess, but he is in fact a genuinely troubled man who needed help, and finally got it.

On the other hand, among the things that Love & Mercy can't really swing, is being a truly interesting biopic. Yes, structurally it's somewhat unusual, but really, it's not that interesting, and besides the Paul Dano sections are fairly standard-issue. Which is strange, because from what I've gathered it's those sections, the bits where Brian Wilson is in his heyday, the almost otherworldly genius whose sense of sound was (is) so unlike anything else in pop music, that have most earned the film its regard. And yet, in these scenes you have Mike Love (Jake Abel) returning with the rest of the band from a Brian Wilson-less tour of Japan to find the relative craziness of Wilson's plans for Pet Sounds, and thereafter engaging in typical "Brian these songs aren't fun, the Beach Boys are about fun, you have betrayed the band, we shall never succeed, O! desolation!" shenanigans, not to mention the father of the Wilson brothers, Murry (Bill Camp), himself a record producer and unsupportive, at best, of his most talented son, saying "No one will ever remember you, my son, who is the leader of the soon-to-be forgotten music band known as The Beach Boys!" You'll detect a note of sarcasm, and yes I've altered these lines to strengthen my hilarity, but those lines, only with fewer words, exist in Love & Mercy. Is that the worst of it? I'd say no. Later, as Brian Wilson's walls begin to fall, we see Paul Dano sitting on the edge of his pool, having gained some weight, staring at nothing, the voices and musical arrangements taking over his head by now, while his wife (Erin Darke) calls out to him about his infant daughter "Brian, she's smiling! She smiled! She has your smile! You should see her smile!" With all of this having already been done and said, I see no reason why director Bill Pohlad shouldn't have thrown in the line "Your famously troubled masterpiece is called Smile!" at the end there.

It's the Cusack scenes that I find have been critically ignored, or somewhat maligned, but I don't agree. I think this is Love & Mercy at its best. Not necessarily because this is the stuff that turns the biopic on its ear -- Love & Mercy is really just a 160-minute boilerplate biopic with the middle part scooped out -- but because the three central performances are so good. Paul Dano has enjoyed most of the praise so far, but it's Cusack, an actor I've both really liked and been really frustrated by in about equal parts for many years, who really knocked me out. Dano's good, but he's an actor who's still full of tics, whereas Cusack, no stranger to tics, is well into maturity now, and has learned how to do a lot with a little. And remember, he's playing a mentally troubled character, which often brings out the worst in actors. But not in Cusack. The gist of this section of the film is, Brian Wilson has become a shut-in whose career is being managed by his psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who's controlling and exploiting Wilson with pills. Wilson meets a young car saleswoman named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). They fall in love, she sees what Landy is doing to him, and she fights to extract Wilson from this terrible, potentially fatal situation.

But Cusack is outstanding. Really outstanding. So are Banks and Giamatti, for my money -- I think Banks is generally pretty terrific and has a way of instantly communicating whatever will make the audience either hate or sympathize with her. She has a very classic way of sketching these things out -- it's almost broad, but not quite. She'd have been at home in the 1950s while still working just as well in 2015, which is a rare thing, for which she's of course been taken for granted. Giamatti, on the other hand, is I believe a great actor who has very often been miscast (there's no way he belonged in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but then again, other than Andrew Garfield, who I don't fuckin' trust, but never mind about that, who did?) but when he winds up in the right part has an intensity that also seems, like Banks' style, current and a throw-back. Giamatti is an old-fashioned performer, in a way. He can really go big, and that seems to be his inclination a lot of the time, occasionally, though by no means always, to his detriment. Love & Mercy is one of those instances when his instincts line up exactly with how the character should be played. Landy's a monster, a manipulative little shit, and actually one of the best scenes is between Giamatti and Banks. Banks isn't buying his shit, and he knows it, and it's a great stand-off where nobody is saying what they think. There's also a really stupid scene that should have been re-written, where the two have a real showdown, and in which Giamatti is great, let of the leash to be hateful and scream "Slut! SLUT!" at a closed door, but which is ruined by Pohlad's insistence on making the setting "colorful." It's like the cafeteria scene in The Martian, in fact; the scene takes place on the showroom floor of the Cadillac dealership where Banks' character works, and nobody cares or does anything. This might be fine, but after Giamatti storms off, Banks' boss shows up to casually ask "Now what're you gonna do?" I don't know but what you should've done is called the damn cops, bud. It's a weirdly dumb scene that is nevertheless played very well by its two principals.

But anyway, Cusack is the show here. He's outstanding. This is his best performance in years, and I say that because he seems to get across a depiction of a mentally unhealthy genius being controlled through pills by an unscrupulous greed-monkey that feels exactly right. And obviously I don't know how accurate any of this is -- everybody who's ever managed my music career has been pretty cool, thank God -- but what Cusack does here is hugely convincing. There are a number of scenes that worked for me. One is during a double date (of a fairly perverse sort) in which Cusack as Wilson can't stop himself from revealing terrible facts about his childhood while not understanding that this might be viewed by others as inappropriate in a restaurant with another couple nearby, but Cusack plays that social disconnect just right, which is to say, he doesn't play it. He lets the actors around him play it, which they do ably. In another scene, at a barbecue hosted, apparently, by Giamatti's Landy, the problem of what Wilson wants versus what Landy will allow, and the triviality of it all, is made stark to Banks' Melinda, but it's Cusack, trying to both grab what he can't have and then being docile, because of the pills, in the face of a horrifying onslaught from Giamatti, that drives home the problem. Because he does so little, and Banks sees that. She sees that he's not reacting enough. An argument might be made by some that Cusack shouldn't get the credit for this, that Banks and Giamatti should (and they should), but you could only make that case if you didn't watch the scene. What Cusack does is a marvel of, not stillness, as you might expect, but rather of not reacting to the moment as a mentally healthy person would. He should be openly ashamed or embarrassed or angry, but he's none of those. Yes, context plays a part, but context can't act. Cusack can.

Later, in the third scene, Cusack plays full paranoia, which is a more expected route under the circumstances, but which he pulls off with such sweaty desperation -- because Wilson is still with it enough to understand that he might be driving Melinda away -- that I became uncomfortable. To boil it down, I was finally able to appreciate Brian Wilson at his best because Cusack so perfectly played him at his lowest.

The Green Inferno (d. Eli Roth) - Speaking of oddly paced careers! It's like this is a whole theme that only got rolling because I was wrong about Ridley Scott. Well, such is life. So one might be tempted to say about the career of Eli Roth, a filmmaker who for a couple years was being pegged as some sort of leader among American horror filmmakers. Beginning with the horror comedy Cabin Fever in 2002, Roth seemed prepped to light things up with Hostel in 2005, a film that at least boasted an intriguing premise (look it up), but which he, in an act which I think we as a people might now reasonably describe as "typical," chose to follow up with a sequel to same. The interesting thing, depending on your mood or general approach to life, is that Hostel: Part II struck me, and others, as rather better (as it struck still others as rather worse, the term "torture porn" became a thing, etc., let's skip all the way past all that useless nonsense) than the first film. Eli Roth has a director's eye, and a sense of the eerie even in his non-supernatural stories. See, for example, the pool scene in Hostel: Part II, for atmosphere, and see, as well, the scene in Hostel: Part II where the hostel clerk tries to warn our protagonist, during a party, of her potential fate. It's very creepy, and more than that, well-judged. But Eli Roth has a tendency to throw all this stuff away, and not even count them among his achievements: it's the ripped out eye in Hostel and the cut-off dick in Hostel: Part II that he tends to cite as the kind of thing he's doing right. Such business has led me to remark on numerous occasions that Roth is a quiet horror director trapped in a shallow gorehound's body.

Though it's interesting to me, and I promise you, not in a shitty way, that Hostel: Part II seems to have sunk his career a little bit. It didn't take, in other words, and he's struggled since then to get another film off the ground. He's worked for other people (see Inglourious Basterds), but he hasn't been able to do much with his own stuff, until in 2013 -- six years after his previous feature as a director -- word got out about an entirely Roth-ish project, one that had actually been written, shot, and edited, called The Green Inferno, a film which would recall for the, well let's not say "discerning," but the, and actually let's not even say "informed," but the horror fan who's watched whatever slid by their face, such appalling horror "classics" as Cannibal Holocaust (I saw that one) and Cannibal Ferox (I haven't bothered, and won't). Among the many things a film like The Green Inferno made in a year like 2013 by a writer/director like Eli Roth might promise, I thought when first I heard of it, was a certain kind of political "hey lookit me!"-ism on the part of the asshat making this shit, which I'd be less aggressive about if I hadn't listened to any part of Roth's solo commentary track on the home video release of Hostel: Part II. You tell me how far you get into that one. Bringing that up would be unfair if The Green Inferno didn't promise to be the angry liberal-activist college student nonsense of that commentary track made flesh. This would all be fine on one level -- Roth certainly wouldn't be the first left-leaning filmmaker to take on horror, and indeed in the current horror climate he's simply toeing the company line. But if he's gonna have that kind of head on him, he'd better know what he's fucking doing. I saw The Green Inferno today, and I am not convinced that he does.

So the story of The Green Inferno is this: a college student named Justine (Lorenza Izzo) attends a class wherein she learns for the first time about female genital mutilation, as practiced in certain African and/or Muslim nations. She's outraged, and wants to help, so through Jonah (Aaron Burns), another student who has a crush on her, she finds her way to an activist group led by Alejandro (Ariel Levy), whose goal, at the time Justine finds them, is to fly down to a segment of the Amazon rain forest, chain themselves to trees, and thereby stop the evil corporations from bulldozing anything. Not quite in the same league as trying to stop female genital mutilation, and I'm undecided on the matter of whether or not this point was lost on Roth. I'll let it go, though. So they fly down, they chain themselves to trees, they're arrested, but that doesn't amount to much. They're ready to fly home. Something happens to the plane. At this point, Roth, who had heretofore approached The Green Inferno as something he didn't need to do anything particular about, decides suddenly to direct, and the plane crash is actually visually unique. Apart from the bits which remind me of the plane crash from Alive, Roth seems to me to have hit on a new way to film a plane crash. It won't knock your eyes out necessarily, but it's dynamic, and watching it I thought something along the lines of "Oh well okay, here we go, this is a movie."

And indeed, from this point forward, The Green Inferno does feel more like the work of someone who had an idea to make a film than it had previously. To what end, though? It's honestly hard to know where to begin; I guess the first point would have to be that Roth's inspiration is being drawn, primarily, from a terrible movie: Cannibal Holocaust. That film is not a filmmaker's film, it's a film made by someone who wants to shock. So the artistic impulse, the creative, formal drive, is dead almost from the beginning. And visually, The Green Inferno is a big nothing, a point-and-shoot exercise that draws whatever visual panache it has from the Amazon jungle setting, the filming and manipulation of which (everybody does that shit, I'm not judging) Roth and his crew were fortunate enough to, I'm guessing, blackmail somebody into paying for.

Beyond that, anything cinematic comes from character design. Those who survive the plane crash -- Justine and Alejandro, to begin with, but there are others -- are captured by a cannibal tribe. If The Green Inferno manages to instill a queasy discomfort in the viewer, my guess is that most viewers would feel it during the scene in which the survivors are herded by red-stained natives out of their boats (there's more to all of this, I'm simplifying it, plus, hey, enjoy the surprises!) into a village filled with people whose culture is quite apart from our own, and what the presence of a cluster of know-nothing college students would mean to such people, and what they'd want to do about it, when they have every ounce of control in their hands, because this is rather terrifying. You can deem someone who has that reaction, or can imagine that reaction, any number of things, but I'd invite you to give it a spin yourself. Anyway, Roth does this part pretty well, but then again he's just aping Ruggero Deodato, who, at least in Cannibal Holocaust, isn't even a good filmmaker.

But I was saying that, visually, character design becomes a highlight in the film, and I think it does. The natives look good, the ones who're meant to be especially scary are especially scary while still seeming to exist in this world, and the terror the remaining characters, who are locked up in a wooden cage, feel seems more or less authentic. This authenticity is probably the result of the film's first major gore scene, which I guess I won't "spoil," but whatever, we know what film we're watching, you can guess what the deal is, and even thought parts of this scene involve digital effects, it's pretty effective. I actually thought, gorehound though I am not, "Well, given what kind of film Roth has announced this will be, with his series of vigorous blurts, I'd have to concede that if The Green Inferno continues down this track, he might actually be on to something." Something that would be nothing like original, of course, but something. I needn't have worried, though, because the only track The Green Inferno continues down is the one that kills off its characters one by one, while at the same time indulging in diarrhea jokes (I'm actually serious -- we're supposed to laugh when a young woman who is terrified that she's about to be horribly murdered gets the shits). Politically it's a mess. I don't think Roth knows what his own politics are in this situation, other than that he doesn't like naive college activists. Well, neither do I, but so what? Plus, when he has the most vile character (this is a guy who jerks off in the cage basically right after another character has died because he says it's important to relieve tension, which means nothing about the character or the politics or the, God save me, "satire," and only reflects back on Roth's desire to be what he considers transgressive, which also just happens to be the same thing that a hyper fifteen-year-old boy would consider transgressive), when he has the most vile character, I say again, say something along the lines of "You don't believe the government knew nothing about 9/11, do you?" it's hard to not think that Roth is actually on board for this. I'm not saying he's on board for all the vile shit this character does, but the weak-ass conspiracy cynicism, yeah...Roth's on board for that. All of which means that by virtue of thinking it's "about" "anything", and by having the ideas ("ideas") it has in its stupid empty head, The Green Inferno adds up to being among the most shallow horror films one might stumble into, which, in 2015, is pretty goddamn shallow.

And that's what I'd say if the movie had ended well. Or not well, but rather, reasonably. But it has a post-credits sequence that made me audibly sigh, because the gist of the plot that's hurled at us in those last seconds is that Eli Roth has turned around, pulled down his pants, and begged us shamelessly to allow him to make an even dumber sequel. Let us join forces and not let him.


Jesse Furgurson said...

I don't think Roth was ever a leftist in any meaningful sense. His politics are whatever's in the air at the moment that'll give him an alibi for gorehoundery, which at present is dudebro disdain for "social justice warriors."

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you on Cusack. I don't understand all the Dano palaver, other than that's the Brian Wilson everybody wants back but Cusack is the Brian Wilson you're gonna get. Larry A.

John said...

In that spirit of loving human kindness, tolerance, and utter decency that I like to consider myself a living example of, I have just deleted a series of increasingly nasty responses to your indefensible slams of the sheer cinematic genius that is Cannibal Holocaust. (Yes, I do mean it.)

bill r. said...

Well, I didn't see those in my "pending review" moderation thing, so I would have never known about them if you hadn't posted this. Anyway, we've talked about CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST before. You and I don't agree on that one.