Sunday, May 18, 2014

Review of 2013: The Intriguers (ft. Cate Blanchett, Emma Watson, and moody vampires)

So far in the Manifesto's continuing Review of 2013, we've looked at the worst movies of the year, the least memorable, and the most overreaching. The films highlighted in those posts all fail in different ways, but they share a central theme: They're all bad. (O.K., some are more innocuous than bad, but that doesn't make them good.) The good news is that we've now reached the point where I can discuss movies that I actually liked. When you boil film criticism down to its essence, it's really a pursuit designed to respond to one specific question: "Should I see this movie?" Tastes obviously vary, but going forward in our review of 2013, the answer is, happily, "yes".

First up is what I'm dubbing The Intriguers. All of these films are flawed, not unlike those pictures highlighted in my posts on the year's Failures. But these movies are sufficiently intriguing—some explore the boundaries of the form, others push back against typical narrative constraints—that their ambition, while not entirely fulfilled, makes them worth seeking out.

All Is Lost. And so we begin with arguably the most ambitious feature of the year. J.C. Chandor's monumentally challenging depiction of an old man and a raging sea, All Is Lost doesn't even pretend to be like other movies. It features a single actor (Robert Redford, giving it his all), dialogue is virtually nonexistent, and backstory is nowhere to be found. All of this makes All Is Lost fascinating on an intellectual level—there's something exhilarating about watching a movie that exists defiantly on its own terms—but it doesn't necessarily make it good. Redford is credited as "Our Man", and the implication is that his journey is both specific (Chandor dispassionately shows him toiling at the mundane tasks involved in salvaging his submarined yacht) and universal (Our Man typifies humanity's persistent struggle for survival in a cruel and merciless world). That's fine in theory, but are we really supposed to care all that much about a man we know absolutely nothing about? It's all the rage these days to decry backstory as fatty and irrelevant, but I imagine I would've been more invested in—and, dare I say, less bored by—Our Man's plight if I knew where he was sailing and why. Still, All Is Lost remains an impressive directorial achievement, and it's a stunning departure from Chandor's debut, the brilliant but relentlessly talky Margin Call. Perhaps next time, Chandor will split the difference and deliver a film that features both action and words.

The Bling Ring. Sofia Coppola is a child of privilege—her father made a tidy profit on a little mob movie from the '70s you might have heard of—and she's interested in how her own half lives. But while The Bling Ring chronicles the crimes of a band of pampered, bratty teenagers, it's less about wealth than celebrity, and our culture's ongoing obsession with the rich and famous (emphasis on the latter). The real-life miscreants dramatized here stole thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise from starlets' homes in the Hollywood Hills, and while their robberies make for fairly compelling material, what's really interesting about The Bling Ring is how Coppola views her subjects with a curious mixture of judgment and admiration. It's easy to mock both celebrities and those who worship them, and there is something faintly pathetic to these youths' utter obsession with status (to say nothing of their casual disregard for the law). But their actions also seem to be the logical extension of a society that prizes glamour and fame, and one senses that Coppola sympathizes with her protagonists' desires to dress like the stars.

The Bling Ring thus nimbly straddles the line between satirizing celebrity and succumbing to it. It's a tricky balancing act, but the movie mostly pulls it off, thanks partly to its verisimilar depiction of suburban Hollywood (yes, that's Paris Hilton hanging out at the frame's edge in an early scene) but also to Coppola's assured, polished craft; her filmmaking chops are so natural, you'd think she inherited them. (In one exquisite scene, two teens are shown in a static longshot raiding various rooms in Audrina Patridge's villa, the camera silently providing a voyeuristic thrill as we watch bumbling, burgeoning criminals at work.) It also benefits from strong acting from its very young cast, most notably a terrific Emma Watson as a manipulative hedonist who's less evil than merely bored. Miss Watson has been famous since she was 11, which makes her casting a sly, meta move, but she also has genuine talent. She may be a celebrity, but as The Bling Ring proves, she's also something far more valuable: a star.

Blue Jasmine. This much you know: Cate Blanchett is very, very good in Blue Jasmine. She commits completely to every crumbling facet of her character: the noxious entitlement, the casual condescension, the escalating desperation, the faltering sanity. It's a stunning, haunting performance. But Woody Allen wants Blue Jasmine to be more than just a star vehicle—he wants it to be a lacerating study of American classism. Yet the movie isn't quite as cutting as Allen would like. Representing working-class Joes has never been his strong suit, and Allen's depiction of middle-income San Francisco rings false. He also unwisely places each of the film's male characters squarely within a rigid stratum; they're either refined and immoral, such as Alec Baldwin's fraudulent aristocrat, or they're wild and rough-and-tumble, such as Bobby Cannavale's blue-collar schlub. It's a clumsy, facile contrast, one that undermines Allen's point and distracts us whenever Blanchett isn't on screen.

Fortunately, she's on screen quite a bit, and she simply mesmerizes us with her gradual descent into madness. It could have been unpleasant to watch such a beautiful woman disintegrate before our eyes, but Blanchett makes her revolting selfishness riveting. Here is a woman whose sanity is slowly slipping from her grasp, yet in her eyes, it's not her fault—the real problem is that everyone else is beneath her. The movie is too, but she carries it all the same.

Byzantium. Vampires are a dicey proposition these days; between Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and True Blood, undead bloodsuckers have long since reached the saturation point in popular culture. Thankfully, Neil Jordan's Byzantium offers a fresh take on the age-old creatures of the night, one that reimagines vampires as weary nomads, constantly on the run and struggling to reconcile their immortality with a ruthlessly modern and evolving society. (In this sense, it's of a piece with Jim Jarmusch's latest effort, Only Lovers Left Alive, which I saw last week and which the Manifesto will hopefully discuss at some point in 2014.) The movie's plot is nothing special, though it does feature some playful mythology and impressive spurts of violence. Byzantium is more notable for its mood. Jordan envisions vampirism as neither blessing nor curse but more as a perpetual state of drudgery, one in which physically powerful demons must nevertheless hunt for basic necessities—a home, a food supply, meager companionship—in addition to searching for deeper meaning.

Jordan's success in conveying this eternal malaise is thanks largely to his two lead actresses, both perfectly cast: Saoirse Ronan, with those alien pale-blue orbs for eyes, proves a natural at inhabiting the supernatural, while Gemma Arterton practically pops off the screen, her fiery energy contrasting nicely with Ronan's more contemplative soul-searching. What's more, Jordan, who made it big with Interview with the Vampire so long ago, again proves himself adept at delivering knockout Gothic imagery; his languid approach might lull you into a false sense of security, but then he'll arrest you with ravishing beauty, be it a waterfall rushing red with blood or a shadowy cave where literal and metaphorical darkness lurks. Byzantium isn't quite a resurrection, but it's enough to instill confidence that this particular vein of cinema—once so rich with allegorical horror—hasn't been drained just yet.

The Counselor. The Counselor features all the trimmings of a crackerjack thriller. There's the loaded plot, replete with double crosses, botched drug deals, and a hero in way over his head. There's the top-flight cast: three dreamy leading men—the reliable Michael Fassbender (on the verge of going supernova), the wily Javier Bardem (zigging when you expect him to zag), and a very fine Brad Pitt (committed, thankfully)—along with two bona fide babes in a hammy Cameron Diaz (munching scenery) and a woebegone Penélope Cruz (out of her depth). And there's consummate veteran Ridley Scott behind the camera, staging set pieces with typical elegance and flair. But don't be fooled. The dominant voice in The Counselor is not Scott's, nor any of the actors'; it's that of Cormac McCarthy, America's foremost purveyor of human wickedness, dabbling in screenwriting for the first time. In McCarthy's nihilistic worldview, man is beset by evil on all sides, and all efforts to evade society's corruptive rot are futile. The Counselor thus attempts to transplant McCarthy's unyielding nihilism into the context of a modern thriller, where the baddies fire philosophical monologues along with shotguns.

It doesn't quite work. Sure, there's something admirably subversive about denying viewers a climactic showdown between hero and villain and instead replacing it with a portentous speech in which the villain calmly informs the hero that—to quote another film featured in this post—all is lost. But that subversive quality doesn't make the scene any less dull, or any less obviously the handiwork of a prose author better suited to hammering words on a typewriter than imbuing those words with visual life. Scott may want you to have your cake and eat it too, but McCarthy wants the cake to turn to ash in your mouth.

Still, despite McCarthy's best efforts, that cake can be tasty, especially for those moviegoers with appetites for precision violence and choreographed mayhem. Scott may be overshadowed by his screenwriter, but he remains a competent stylist, and much of The Counselor is riveting in terms of pure execution. Decapitations abound, cars chase one another on dusty desert roads, and—in the film's most memorable and controversial scene—Diaz fucks a Ferrari. It doesn't add up to much, which is both the point and the problem. But the story is in the telling, and in the end—to paraphrase the hero of one of Scott's more populist pictures—you will be entertained.

Part II coming soon.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part II)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

No comments: