Monthly Archives: May 2012

Haywire (** 1/2, 2011)


Steven Soderbergh, one of my favorite directors, can now check off the super-spy action thriller box on his checklist. A kind of workaholic wunderkind, he has not only put out eight films of stunning variety in six years–including a four hour biopic of Che Guevara, a disease epic, and the conclusion to his casino heist trilogy–but he is also on record as a relentless consumer of books and film.  Watch for his drama (comedy?) about male strippers coming out this summer.

Haywire begs the question of whether or not the man should slow down and let his projects gestate a little longer.  To its credit, the film is a classy action flick with a unique hook:  it stars MMA sensation Gina Carano as a tough and beautiful spy who can more than handle her own in a fight.  This makes for some great fisticuffs, gloriously displayed with minimal editing and no shaky camera movements (that I noticed).  It demonstrates what an action film can be when stunt doubles don’t have to be edited into unrecognizability  (I’m looking at you, ScarJo).  Visually, Haywire wins; Soderbergh’s eye for color and line makes it possibly the most stylish action film in recent memory.


What Carano–and by extension the film–lacks, however, is screen presence.  As a professional non-actress she can hardly be blamed, but throughout her face remains mostly blank and so does our identification with her and her character.  Soderbergh tries to counterbalance this hollowness by importing the reliable screen presences of half a dozen actors (interestingly, there are no other women to speak of in the film)–Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton–but what would be a crackerjack ensemble cast in any other film can’t seem to make up for Carano’s blankness.  It’s a direct counterpoint to The Hunger Games, a lackluster film buoyed by a very strong central performance.

The plot is told mostly in flashbacks, as Carano’s character explains her situation to a young man who is giving her a ride, and it involves the U.S. government hiring her services through the contracting agency she works for to protect an Asian dissident in trouble in Barcelona.  There is a double-cross, of course, and she finds herself on the run and needing to clear her name.  It’s incidental, but stylishly told.  Soderbergh’s work here has all the clear markings of a well made film, but the lead lacks the emotional gravitas needed to make you care.  It’s a very pretty picture in need of a soul.

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Contraband (***)


This little noticed crime thriller starring Mark Wahlberg has the same basic shape as 2000’s Gone in 60 Seconds:   family member owes criminal money, former pro criminal gone clean returns to crime to save their life.  Substitute drugs and smuggling for cars, Wahlberg for Nic Cage and Giovanni Ribisi for Christopher Eccleston and–voila–you get Contraband.

I think enjoyment of this movie boils down to your feelings on Wahlberg himself.  If he annoys you, you have your answer.  If, on the other hand, you find his sublimely existential exasperation with everyone and everything to be a reliably charming shtick, Contraband might be for you.  The film follows Wahlberg’s character from New Orleans to Panama and back, during which he must smuggle a large amount of counterfeit money (he refuses to mule drugs).  He has a relatively short time to pay off the debt incurred by his young brother-in-law who dumped Ribisi’s cocaine right before customs officials boarded his boat (“Even I get boarded sometimes…”).


“He has no use for smugglers who drop their shipments at the first sign of an Imperial cruiser.”

The film throws all kind of obstacles in the way of this objective, from shifty Panamanian criminals on land to a hostile ship captain at sea (J.K. Simmons!).  It remains taut and entertaining without ever devolving into a shoot-em-up.  It’s a solid throwaway diversion, artistically meaningless but it  does exactly what you wish your average movie would do:  tell a story well and keep it interesting.

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Men in Black 3 (***)


The easiest way for me to recommend Men in Black 3 (which opened yesterday) is to say that the queasy feeling I had in my stomach ten years ago while watching Men in Black 2 was completely absent.  I laughed.  I didn’t check my watch (phone).  It kept me in my seat and amused for its running time.  Unfortunately, what I can’t say about the film is that it captured the giddy excitement I felt fifteen years ago watching Men in Black for the first time, the entertaining electricity of Will Smith’s late 90’s hipness and the innovative, eye-catching special effects which out-stripped his previous alien blockbuster Independence Day.  It’s the trilogy’s middle film in overall quality.

The film opens with the utterly weird and off-putting villain Boris “The Animal” (Jemaine Clement; yes, him) whose escape from prison and subsequent time travel set the film in motion when he goes back to 1969 and kills (junior) Agent K.  Agent J must of course do the same in order set things right.  It becomes Smith’s movie from that point on, even though the events are ostensibly about K.  Most of the film features Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men, W.) doing an impression of Tommy Lee Jones (a really good impression) as a younger man.  It almost seems like Jones, 66, didn’t want to do the physical work of an action movie and so they came up with a time travel plot in order to shoehorn in a younger actor playing the same character.  If so, the incidental nature of the plot doesn’t seem undercooked, but rather adds a new, um, dimension to MIB storytelling.


Going to 1969 of course means a chance for to put all kinds of freaks and tweaks onscreen, but fortunately the film doesn’t try to squeeze too many jokes out of the hippies-are-weird-kind-of-like-aliens box.  There (then?) we are introduced to my favorite character in the film, a sweet-natured fifth-dimensional being named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) who, like Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen, can see all possible permutations of time and space–past and future–at once.  I couldn’t help but imagine that Stuhlbarg was selected for his character from A Serious Man, as though he had been fused with his enormous theoretical physics chalkboard explaining Schrödinger’s cat and transmuted into a sillier character no less put upon by cosmic improbabilities beyond his control.  His character accompanies J and K in their attempts to keep things from going to hell–a possibility frequently hinted at by the functionally psychic alien.   Even though he sometimes functions plot-wise as a kind of deus ex persona, he brings an extra twist of utter alien-ness to the film that kept things interesting for me.

The film ends with an epic confrontation between good guys and bad, of course, but this time it’s on top of the Apollo 11 rocket right as it’s about to take off.  How things wrap up isn’t as important as the fact that, despite falling short of the original, director Barry Sonnenfeld and team have kept things mostly funny, sometimes unsettling, and deeply weird.  When it comes to a Men in Black movie, that’s all we’re really asking for.

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The Hunger Games (***)


This review is late in the game, as The Hunger Games came out in March, but that’s life when you have primary responsibilities tied to a school semester.  If you’re not familiar with the book or movie, know that THG is a genre-defying bit of YA fiction, an orwellian-survivalist-action-scifi-feminist-drama about a land formerly known as the United States split into twelve “districts” and ruled with a strong arm by “The Capitol”.  In order to unmistakably assert their dominance, every year the Capitol collects two children (male and female) between twelve and eighteen and put them in a several miles square arena in which they must fight to the death on live television.  Twenty-four go in, one is left standing.

The Hunger Games is an unimaginative adaptation of a thrilling, involving and inventive book:  the source material makes it work almost in spite of itself.  Director Gary Ross has no previous experience with large scale action flicks or effects-driven pictures, and as a result this film is at its best when it’s stuck in the shantytown the protagonist hails from or when it’s detailing the nitty gritty of survival in the Appalachian wilderness of the games.  The film captures some of the weirdness of Capitol culture, disconnected from the survival and oppression common to the districts, but its vision of the Capitol overall is dull and lacking detail.  Some of the effects could have been done on a high end PC; some of the Capitol sets look like Target hired Andy Warhol to design their disposable dorm room furniture.  The action in the arena works dramatically, but it’s visually incoherent, chaotic and hard to follow.  Ross is right in step with the contemporary trend of shaky camera + fast edits = excitement, when it would be helpful just to have a clear, steady shot showing us the staging of the action we paid to witness.  When your subject is kids killing each other, you don’t need embellished cinematography to make it interesting.


As far as I’m concerned, the beginning and end of this movie is Jennifer Lawrence, who has been given a meaty, complex character in Katniss Everdeen and has compellingly brought her to life.  I just wrote yesterday about how she is perfect for the role; the mixture of soulful and grim keeps you transfixed.  The book is from her perspective, the film virtually from over her shoulder.  This limiting of perspective, which helps the reader to accept the weird and disturbing events as they come, works for the film, which practically begs not to be taken in by way of comprehensive reflection.

I am left with the question, what’s going on in The Hunger Games?  I haven’t read the second and third books (but will this summer), and there are hints in the movie about what direction the series is headed in.   But, more broadly, what is Suzanne Collins getting at?  I think globalization ranks first, given that the whole structure of the fictional world is based on a wealthy and detached society which exists at the expense of the many whose lives are in some way spent on supporting it.  The second would have to do with the way war preys on the young and disenfranchised, who are whisked away forcefully to fight people they don’t know for reasons they don’t care about (unless they’ve been socialized by their own respective “Capitol”) and then praised as brave heroes by the people and families who can afford to keep their kids out of harm’s way.

Many have highlighted the reality television aspect of the games as being some sort of cultural critique.  I think it has to do with the way our detached affluence affords us the luxury of fascination with our own self-indulgence.  Could there be a better reductive symbol for the absurd hypocrisies of late Western democracy than Kim Kardashian?

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Winter’s Bone (****, 2010)

Ree on the Homestead

Dirty South

I tend to think of the culture of the American Southeast existing on a fluid polarity between Colonel Sanders and Fred Durst.  Well, it’s fluid in at least one direction:  some antebellum gentility can be shown to have blind idiotic rage lurking underneath its surface.  There’s not really anything genteel about the rest.

Winter’s Bone (2010) takes place in an unspecified part of the Ozarks, a poor hill-country region spanning southern Missouri and northern Arkansas which no doubt goes to church but seems forgotten by God anyway.  One wouldn’t know God was around given the people and events encountered by Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) in this film, a 17 year-old surrogate parent-cum-gumshoe who must seek out her breaking bad dad or lose the property she lives on with her siblings and helpless mother.  She has to wade through the undesirables of the “community” in order to ferret out information, knowingly placing herself in harm’s way for the sake of her family.  These are some right nasty hillbillies, and their intransigent wickedness has even the law on edge.


Garrett Dillahunt, who played the Deputy Sherriff in No Country for Old Men, receives a promotion to #1 hick enforcer for this film.

The film is a formal successor to Brick, which transplanted the speech patterns and plot of 1940’s noir film to a contemporary high school, and the spiritual successor to No Country for Old Men, which channeled the hard-bitten culture and landscape of its setting into laconic fodder for its crime-and-consequences myth-making.  Winter’s Bone, however, has a fiercely independent character to it even beyond these films in its refusal to stylize its subject material.  At first I was reluctant to rate the film so highly, then I realized my only qualm was the emotional distance that aesthetic formalism could have provided.  The film is in your face, putting you right alongside the strong-willed but always vulnerable Ree.  There’s nothing pretty to gaze at here, no Burton-esque gothic cuteness or mesmerizing imagery to gussy up the content.  I can almost hear the film saying:  “World’s ugly, yall.”

Whereas as a film watcher I usually favor and am entranced by the clean lines and compositions of film imagery–whether a carefully-controlled mood palette such as in Brick or sharply-realized moments like a pointed flash of lightning on the horizon during one of No Country‘s chases–this film is ugly and is almost aesthetically dull.  It doesn’t have the faux-graininess (or narrative pretension) of “found footage” films, but the film almost feels like cameras were simply set up in these rusted-out locales and left to capture what happened.  It is a hard-boiled detective story of the ethnographic variety, with no artistic formalisms to distance us from the subject material.


It’s no wonder that Jennifer Lawrence, whose character is in every scene I can recall, was chosen to star in The Hunger Games after headlining this film.  Her Ree is tough, vulnerable, smart, and tender towards her siblings–almost as if the role was written with Katniss Everdeen in mind.  Like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, her quest to find her father (ever the elusive embodiment of a secret, a la Harry Lime or Terry Lennox)* puts her in conflict with a number of people who know something but don’t want to tell anything, a menagerie of surly hill people suggesting at times a broke, illiterate and toothless counterpart to the Corleones.  She’s wandering her own smoky Chinatown, Los Angeles seedy types replaced with Durst-ian hayseeds.

You may have guessed at the overall bleakness of the film and, while I wouldn’t dare give away the ending, I do want to say that this is not a nihilistic film which cosmically whimpers into the darkness like No Country or wallows in existential horror like Chinatown.  The journey, nee the location, is the destination here, with plenty horrors along the way to chill the bones.

*These are characters from The Third Man and The Long Goodbye, respectively, whose disappearances drive much of the conflict and action for their films’ mystery-unraveling protagonists.

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