Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Playing Catch-Up (Part 2); or Short Takes on Cabin in the Woods, Lawless, Lincoln and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Although I do tend to object to short reviews on principal, sometimes I really can’t help it. I’m still saving up the time to write overdue pieces on things I actually things to talk about (Looper, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Rust and Bone I’m looking at you – among others). Perhaps, though, my general loquaciousness will be better served by aiming for succinctness. I will say, I couldn’t endorse my usual 99 word write-up in the case of any of these films because even as I’m too lazy to devote full reviews to them, I’ve still got shit to say.

Snippet “reviews” ahead – some overdue since September. Woe is me. Enjoy.

(This is all in effort to rid myself of the reviews that have been piling at Paolo’s urging.)

"The Gods Love No One": directed by Drew Goddard; written by Joss Whedon
Against my better judgement – scratch that, I’m just kidding. Isn’t that just about the worse way to start any critical non-think-piece? But, I digress. There are more than a dozen films I’ve liked more than The Cabin in the Woods this year but there are less than half a dozen which I had as much fun sitting through. This potentially unwieldy mixture of horror, comedy, thriller and silly has many issues working against it – like any film which decides to take on larger-scale issues there’s always that potential of there being too many open loops to justify the reality of their immediate conceit. But, it seems like such a killjoy thing to consider with The Cabin in the Woods not (just) because I’m having too much fun to care, but because the film sort of precludes any righteous indignation of potholes by ultimately blowing everything up. Literally. Five types head to a cabin…in the woods for a retreat. It seems they’re in a typical horror movie until the underlying horror of their existence turns out to be deliberately generic with more sinister overtones. Shenanigans ensues. And who doesn’t love shenanigans?
Even as someone not especially invested in the horror genre, there is still great fun to be had in noticing the sly winks which Whedon and Godard partake in throughout the film. Is this the godsend meant to irrevocably revive the genre? Who’s to know. But, The Cabin in the Woods manages to be more than a series of potentially recurring nods and winks by actually having legitimate stakes in its worlds. The types of the five at the cabin don’t give the players definitively much to play around with, but the actors are still intent on turning in relatively full performances whilst still having fun. Best-in-show is easily Fran Kranz who plays his role as the buffoon with actual panache making the ultimate sleight-of-hand(s) towards the end feel both earned and effective. And then the final, final, dénouement of what-to-do actually manages to make good on emotional dexterity by making you care about who’s left to survive. Is that final monologue from the special guest star a bit too obtrusively clunky to be taken in earnest? Certainly. But, if the world is heading to a close….wouldn’t we expect some heavy-handedness. And in a world of excess, isn’t this glorious excess?

"Just like you to believe your own legend…": directed by John Hillcoat; written by Nick Cave 
It is impossible to deny that this filmis gorgeous. In spite of all its gorgeousness, though, Lawless unfolds with a strident element of self-consciousness. It’s not quite to the detriment of the film, considering that this subtle embarrassment is in keeping with its occasionally callow protagonist but it’s initially disconcerting. So much that I’m tempted to nix my byline and begin again – because of all its gorgeousness Lawless unfolds with a strident sense of self-consciousness. Three brothers do their best to keep up their illegal moonshine business in the twenties is well trodden ground, but that’s not a knock against the film, either. The initial reserve dissipates to genuine feeling in the second half as the film reveals significant (and at times surprising) care for its characters. Because so many beats ring familiar the characters are not especially profound in their own right (although Cave’s screenplay serves them well). But, even if those characters aren’t deep the actors are committed. Hardy glowers impressively, Pearce is necessarily smarmy, Chastain is radiant and LeBeouf is especially on-point. True, there’s an element of the fanciful evokes throughout – especially towards the end – but this is very much a boyish fable. There’s been a lot of narration in the cinema this year and I’d hesitate to pronounce Shia’s as the finest but its sparse use is never a detriment to the film. It adds to the film feeling calculated, but a parable emanating from the romantic Jack could not be anything but…
Hillcoat’s “first director” tics might be responsible for both that self-consciousness and the film’s occasional tendency to feel calculated. And, the beautiful Lawless has an overarching hint of of frigidity which accompanies its technical aspect. It’s not so much that it’s heartless, but it comes across as so immaculate that amidst all the bloody machinations everything almost seems just a bit too pristine. For the era there’s a significant lack of grime. It’s hardly the worst of criticisms, and if any technical aspect goes unscathed by this impenetrable nature it’s Margot Wilson’s costumes. AMPAS’ costume department is usually good enough to remember good work done in less fêted films, and I desperately hope that they remember the work here. Wilson takes as much care with the men as with the women and there are two particular outfits (one on Chastain, one on LeBoeuf) that deserve the moniker of “iconic”. (Also, they’re shot so gorgeously they seem even more perfect.) It’s an iconicity the entire film may not have when it’s easy to ask yourself just what Lawless has to say about anything. Its musings on brotherhood are not newfangled, neither are its observations on love, the law, or friendship – but they’re all sincerely handled and tastefully rendered. If the biggest criticism I can think of is Lawless flirts with greatness but only ends up being good…that’s a win in my book.

my thoughts on the civil rights' drama and the other end-of-the-world drama below the jump...


 "Shall we stop this bleeding?": directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Tony Kushner
Loath as I am to begin a review with a “comparison”, in many ways I feel the same way about Lincoln this year like I felt about War Horse. Somewhere, somehow there is a hoard of persons for whom this film will sing, and for whom singing praises to it will seem natural – but I’m not person. And, it’s curious because the legal procedural aspects of the film are much more my “thing” than the roaring landscapes of War Horse were. So, in that regard Lincoln is a – minor – improvement in things Spielbergian. But, even I am mildly taken aback by how little invested I found myself being in the machinations at work on screen. If I care to search for the hammer to hit the nail on the head I’d probably come up with some dissertation on the way that estimable plots (Lincoln trying to abolish slavery) do not necessarily lead to estimable art forms. It’s an argument difficult to run away from, when serious things are put to film – is the onus on you to forgive your lack of love for the film because it endeavours for greatness? It is a slippery slope. Ultimately, even as I observe so many things in the fabric of Lincoln that seem ripe for the fêting, I can’t truly admit to being one of those that was significantly moved.
 And, it’s a shame because in addition to seeming to be up my alley – large ensemble, performers I like, respectable themes – it just doesn’t click for me. If I grudgingly accused Lawless of almost being too pristine I’d have to indict Lincoln for being much too placid. I will admit, Kushner’s script does not go as deep as I would I’d like – although, even I’m drawing blanks as to what depth there is to explore. Perhaps, I’d have cared for a film called Mary Todd, but that’s an unfair criticism – for one, it’s gauche to say I’d like the film more if it wasn’t that film. More problematic for me is Spielberg’s direction. Not to engage in a cyclical comparison but if I liked War Horse less last year, I was impressed with Spielberg’s direction more, then. Visually, lovely photography and all, much of Lincoln unfolds for me as an exercise in the rote. Whereas almost everything about Lincoln seems carved from the same respectable but oftentimes much too placid mettle Sally Field’s vaguely unhinged Mary Todd is a welcome burst of light. She’s the shining beacon of the film for me – for countless reasons. She seems least interested in telling history and in that way is focused completely on serving her own creation. And because of that lack of interest in historical platitudes is willing to be as stimulating as can be. I’d hardly call Lincoln a bad film, but I can hardly say that I was greatly stimulated. I liked it in parts, but not often and not enough. To put it as eloquently (as if) as I could, the admirably mounted Lincoln feels like a cake that's been made with care but in the eating I find it both overcooked, but raw in the middle? (But, I still ate it up.) A paradox? You betcha, but who said movie reviewing was easy?

C+ (B-?)

"I mean, they're not for everyone, you know?": directed and written by Lorene Scafaria
The worst thing about Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is that, ultimately, it has few real surprises in store for you. It trudges along just as you expect, leading to just what you expect. And even if the ultimate surprise comes when you'd given up on it when it comes, you think - Oh, I expected that. Is this a legitimately objectionable trait, though? I hesitatingly say no because the film itself takes such great pains to be charming and effervescent throughout. And it succeeds. With the end of the world announced in two weeks Dodge’s wife takes off and he realises he let the love of his life get away once upon a time. He sets off in search of her….but why? Does he truly believe this is his true love? Or has the promise of the definitive end made him realise how little he has in his life? It’s vexing, but not surprising that the film doesn’t take much interest in answering that. Especially when he teams up with the younger, lither, and sillier Penny who will accompany on his journey. They set out on a journey to find true love…for him. Beneath the winsomeness there are deeper, untouched issues of whether that love at the root is only an end-result because of the tragedy forthcoming. And in not examining the unseemly roots of the romance it ignores questions it teased us with at the beginning. What is it about the end that makes people so desperate to find something to cling to? It’s entirely possible, though, that answering these questions would have made for a wholly different, and probably less lithe, film.
The pacing is occasionally suspect and this in unsurprising when the comedy and the romance is borne out of the unavoidable tragedy. The writing, though, is more dependable. There are scenes which end up working better in vignettes than as part of the whole, but the moments of profundity, or just insane humour within, are worth it. And, the cast (teeming with great actors in bit roles) is a dream. They’re all either having fun or doing earnest work – and in some cases you’re lucky when they do both. And Keira is particularly lovely to watch. For ruminations on my “why does Keira Knightley only do period pieces” go HERE. I’d imagine that there was much hullabaloo to be made of her movement away from the periods. I’m less enthused about her monumental movement to contemporary films (erroneous) than I am at her return to comedy. Her first notable film diversion was her comedic work in Bend it Like Beckham and the occasionally airhead ways of Penny is somewhat compliant with that. It would be disingenuous to say that the film flounders until she shows up (in fact, there’s an extended party sequence before she does that works better than many things which come after); BUT, she’s a constant joy from the moment she does. Also, extra points for her on-point line-reading of the truly bizarre– “I won’t steal anything if you don’t rape me.” It’s not truly funny, even within context, but her intonation makes me smile. It’s in that sort of way that if you squint, or go in with blinders on Seeking a Friend for the End of the World might seem like not quite, quitefunny. But, it’s a gentle, warm, strange creation. I’m probably still seeking a truly working end-of-world lark, but this is sweet enough to tide me over in the interim.

So, did you catch any of these end-of-world excursions? The civil rights drama? The moonshine lullaby?


Squasher88 said...

Aww, I was sure you would love
Lincoln. Oh well, I guess it doesn't click for some folks.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

shane i thought i'd like it too which made me a bit sad. it seemed so tailor made for me and my love of those talky dramas. ah, well, at least i loved sally.

Squasher88 said...

Interesting that you love Sally. Most people feel she's the weak link of the film. I've even heard people suggest she's Razzie-worthy!

Paolo said...

Lol I think we take turns in productivity. I probably won't be writing a word after Christmas.

Watching Lincoln tomorrow night if plans are a go and I'm looking forward to Sally Field too. Will let you know later if I like her or all of it. I'm sure about the latter, obvs.