Saturday, 30 March 2013

Girls Against Boys, dir/wr. Austin Chick, st. Danielle Panabaker, Nicole LaLiberte

After a particularly bad night on the town that includes being dumped by her middle-aged and married lover and a couple of rapes (one actual, another attempted), bartender Shae is comforted by colleague Lu at work before the pair suffer a complete psychotic break and set about gleefully murdering those that have wronged them, from the unsympathetic cop to whom the violation was reported, to the rapist himself (and his friends) and even the decent date who did no wrong. It's hard to tell for which sex this grubby film is more demeaning, whether the heeled and hot-panted pair depicted as men-hating yet curiously still eroticised and objectified, or the men who're nothing more but misogynistic sexual predators. The absence of any shading which this film seems to proudly wear as a badge of distinction, swiftly rules it out as having anything remotely serious to say regarding the fertile ground of gender ethics. The eye-for-an-eye agenda that Girls Against Boys purports to endorse is undone in the way the revenge is depicted with as much savagery. Never mind I Spit On Your Grave, this bleak, nihilistic film spits over almost everything.

Oz the Great and Powerful, dir. Sam Raimi, scr. Mitchell Kapner, David Lindsay-Abaire, story by Mitchell Kapner, based on The Oz series by L. Frank Baum, st. James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff

The central hypothesis of Oz the Great and Powerful and to an extent 1939's The Wizard of Oz - that of initial egotistical showmanship and sham transformed and utilised for good, and then ultimately exposed - is a good deal more meaty a concept than the kid-friendly, technicolour wonderland and anaemic good vs. evil narrative served up here. Cinema is historically chock-full of accidental heroes and although the likes of Harry Potter has done heaps to illustrate to children that heroism has its sacrifices and tough calls, one feels that such out-and-out narcissism and duplicity displayed by a pre-wiz Oscar Diggs (Franco) would have served the film (and its audience) better had it been fully explored as a weightier character failing. But a kids film this is, and apart from some serious Raimian nachos-in-face scares, theres very little that offends or indeed engages. Mila Kunis as Theodora and later, Westerly-regioned witch, seems to be having the most fun of all, and fumes and cackles with appropriate gusto. Weisz as her sister Evanora lends a gravitas to what amounts to little more than a glorified pantomime villain, and Franco as the Derren Brownian Oz, is all too unendearingly smug. The highest grossing film of 2013 so far Oz the Great and Powerful may be, but one suspects there may be better things to come for kids in the shape of Despicable Me 2, Dreamworks' Turbo and Pixar's Planes.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Killer Joe, dir. William Friedkin, wr. Tracy Letts, st. Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon, Thomas Haden Church

Only after witnessing Killer Joe's deliciously vile resa dei conti will you get the smutty "totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story" tagline. Let's just say that student James Lally's recent post and accompanying picture regarding finding a wrinkled kidney in his KFC Wicked meal isn't the only reason I'm giving the Colonel's special recipe a wide berth. The violence on display here, not without its own controversy, is grim and savage. Additionally, the film's inky-black comedy irrationally makes it harder to justify when compared to, for instance, Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, whose depiction of violence towards women is very much part of the film's genesis-of-trauma narrational fabric. Here, a wry comment on dysfunctional 'rednecks' as the poster puts it, seems more troubling in its usage of brutality. The tale of Killer Joe is classically familiar - a group undone by their own deceit and nascent inclination to screw one another over once an elixir (in this case, a cash sum) becomes available. The family's bumbling stupidity and ineptitude as they attempt to implement the plan to kill their absent mother/ex-wife for her Life Insurance plan becomes a no-brainer for 'Killer' Joe Cooper (McConaughey), a bent copper with a sideline in on-spec assassinations whom the family employ to do the deed. McConaughey plays Joe as an out-and-out hurricane of warped monstrousness, a complementary sparring partner for the likes of Max Cady. Making up the family, Hirsch and Hayden Church play the Son and Father, Chris and Ansel, and recent BAFTA Rising Star Award recipient Temple plays the daughter Dottie - a disturbing confusion of Southern coquettishness and childlike innocence - whom Joe claims as a 'retainer' in lieu of an up-front payment. Killer Joe is disturbing and compellingly unwholesome, but also rings out as a curiously hollow morality fable due to its extensive pervasion of voyeurism and unsettling tragi-comic persuasion.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Smashed, dir. James Ponsoldt, wr. James Ponsoldt, Susan Burke, st. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally

Kate Hannah (Winstead) lives with her husband Charlie (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul) in a perpetual fug of intoxication and weakened bladder control. He's moneyed via his parents and seemingly has no higher interests than Pilsner and Playstation. Kate however, does work, as an engaging elementary school teacher under principal Barnes (Mullally). When she comes in one morning, horribly hungover, she blames her condition on a fictional pregnancy, and soon finds herself too swept along with the tide of affection and support from her boss (herself infertile) to come clean. Ponsoldt's film is more concerned with sobriety and AA as a slow lifting of the veil on a previous wrecking-ball existence as opposed to an instant, one-stop montage-heavy cure-all. Time spent sober for Kate allows surveillance of a wasted life and time spent rebuilding a career and packing away destructive relationships. In many ways it's the beginning of the disease. Winstead is a credible drunk, presenting the same equable calm that made Ramona Flowers so cool and Dr. Kate Lloyd such a believable unflappable accidental heroine. When she does let rip - in late-night inebriation or post-meeting solemn reflection - it's real and mid-powered rather than showy and full-on. There's not much else on offer here save for the central Kate-centric storyline, and Mullally and Offerman (playing one of Kate's colleagues) distract - well known faces in TV comedy as they are - inhibiting total absorption into their narratives. Smashed then packs a punch, but you can't shake the feeling time is called before it has a chance to really get going.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

28 Hotel Rooms, dir/wr. Matt Ross, st. Chris Messina, Marin Ireland

Like its (possible) namesake - Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs, in which a couple's heady and charged string of carnal collisions is played out against the backdrop of the 9 indie gigs they frequent - Matt Ross' 28 Hotel Rooms spins a similar familiar yarn of illicit attraction and urgent Afternoon Delight snatched in the rare moments between the living of habitual lives. Messina and Ireland play an author and corporate jet setter respectively, their work taking them around the country from hotel to hotel where they live out their lives in a twilight world of piano-bar jazz and room service. Flirtation soon gives way to companionship, a salve for their mutual loneliness, before slipping into something altogether more passionate. Before long, the pair are in full-on relationship mode complete with morning routines and fights over who wants what. The danger and inherent catastrophe of relationship within relationship (they both have other halves) is palpable and ludicrous, and yet Messina and Ireland share a genuine chemistry that discharges them from the crime of purposeful unkindness. Practically a total two-hander, the film presents the 28 hotel rooms as not only linear chapters of their evolving relationship, but also as airless five-star clinks; outside the hotel walls, the connection they share is formless and deniable. Only we know that that's not how attraction works. We though, have the benefit of being able to act on it should we choose. What 28 Hotel Rooms lacks in character study, it makes up in process deconstruction, evaluating love as a crippling drug rather than a blissful and controllable state of being, and viewed as a perceptive little one-acter, gives a whole lot of bitter-tasting food for thought.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Side Effects, dir. Steven Soderbergh, wr. Scott Z. Burns, st. Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum

Call it extended leave, sabbatical, retirement or voluntary redundancy, the release of Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh's 23rd feature, coincided with news that the director was to step down from film-making. Whatever his reasons - lack of excitement, disillusionment with the industry, a desire to forge a new career as a painter - one's apprehensive about the old adage that suggests you're only remembered for the last thing you did, and as perceptive and intelligent as Soderbergh often tends to be behind the lens, for every Videotape, Solaris or Ocean's 11, there's a Good German, Ocean's 12 or Ocean's 13. Thank goodness then that Side Effects is a palpable hit, chock full of winning performances and marrying together a kind of retro-90s-thriller sensibility with a contemporary style and concept that taps into current pharmaceuticals-as-commerce fear and advancement. Rooney Mara and her deceptive stoicism is pretty much a dead-on casting choice as Emily Taylor, a gamine slip of a wife whose husband has just been released from prison after serving four years for insider trading. After accidentally on purpose running her car into her basement car park wall, she's referred to psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Law) who attempts to diagnose her depression and prescribes the new SSRI wonderdrug Ablixa. Generally I make it a rule not to be much impressed by Law's body of work. There's an artificiality about the way he delivers even the most intricately woven dialogue that never fails to take me out of the moment. Fortunately, he's on rare form here, ably assisted by Scott Z. Burns' other-worldly screenplay that puts Banks firmly in the middle of an increasingly nightmarish maelstrom of deception and duplicity. 'Hitchcockian' will inevitably be a term used to describe the sense of claustrophobia and malevolence that rage against our protagonist, but the tone owes more to Cronenberg or even Argento - Thomas Newman's twangling guitars and Goblins-style music-box instrumentation respectively evoking sonic markers of both directors. Certainly there're some neat visual nods to physical - or at least internally chemical - disfigurement. Side Effects then, if it is to be Soderbergh's swan-song, ends a career - or at least an era - with much narrative and technical artistry on display, and plenty of stimulating subject matter to chew on. So no cause for concern; Soderbergh's cinematic epitaph is assured.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Tall Man, dir/wr. Pascal Laugier, st. Jessica Biel, Jodelle Ferland, Stephen McHattie

Forgetting for one moment the terrible title and awful poster design that utterly mis-sells this twisty thriller (or maybe that's the point), Pascal Laugier, whose previous efforts include the hellish yet compelling Martyrs, has crafted a very fine, very dark drama that riffs on small-town-set, supernaturally-tinged urban legend mythos. The film is set in the suitably named Cold Rock, once a thriving mining town that has been left to cultural and sociological decay following the closing of the mines and the downturn of the economy. This is, in fact, one of the most terrifying things about the movie; how a town can waste away, destitute, clawing with its fingernails on to the last vestiges of any sense of community or salvation. One wonders if the whole population might just disappear one morning Roanoke-style. Who would notice, or even care? In the midst of their townsfolk works fresh-faced do-gooder Julia Denning (Biel), the local nurse who's stayed on after her husband - the town physician - passed away. But, as you might have gleaned from the hooded figure that looms over Biel on the promo image - there is a malignant force that's abducting the local kids. Lore puts it down to The Tall Man, a shadowy figure that comes for the children out of the woods and the many, many miles of underground caves and disused, un-catalogued mines. So far, so X-Files. Actually, the whole production screams out as one of Mulder and Scully's more interesting episodes, in which exploration of the darker recesses of humanity evoke a fear and discomfort more palpable than any study on aliens or spectres. From the British Columbia bleakness and the presence of William B. Davis, to Todd Bryanton's Mark Snow-like atmospheric synthy score, there's a feeling that The Tall Man feels like a really good 46 minutes stretched to 100, but the predictable interest-losing payoff that inevitably concludes these kinds of films is smartly and ingeniously side-stepped in a way that feels like composition rather than an evasive manoeuvre.