Miguel Penabella | 28 December 2012
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Dir. Peter Jackson, 2012
For the most part, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey succeeds in immersing us into its captivating fantasy world, depicting Tolkien lore – goblin kingdoms, vengeful orcs, squatting dragons, necromancers, trolls, rings, riddles, and more – woven into a larger narrative arc. J. R. R. Tolkien’s original source material presents a boundless world of imagination, and Jackson certainly knows how to engross audiences in his maximalist fantasy spectacle. Unfortunately, The Hobbit greatly suffers from the director’s predilection for technical gimmickry and imprecise over-direction, eroding the entire cinematic experience despite the presence of a potentially solid film underneath the heaping mess. The main cast does a fairly commendable job – specifically Freeman, McKellen, and Serkis – but Peter Jackson himself frequently delves into self-indulgent fan service meant to expand the story of a single book into three films, piling on unnecessary baggage from the back appendices of Tolkien’s unimportant supporting mythos. The film’s lighter tone in comparison to the darker, war-centered Lord of the Rings trilogy naturally fits with Tolkien’s adventure-centered tale, yet Jackson often alludes to his superior films in employing familiar musical leitmotifs and shots solely meant to conceal The Hobbit’s middling presentation and remind us of the Lord of the Rings’s far superior direction. Lastly, the high frame rate (HFR) technology that Peter Jackson intends the film to be viewed represents blockbuster filmmaking at its worst, parading cheesy gimmicks that diminish the grandeur of the cinematic image. Coupled with Jackson’s insufferable choice of heavily using CGI effects instead of his praiseworthy practical effects of Lord of the Rings (and his earlier horror flicks), The Hobbit makes the terrible mistake of mistranslating the language of blockbuster cinema spectacle. In pairing CGI graphics that creates a false reality and HFR that heightens actual reality, Jackson unintentionally creates a visual disarray that emphasizes the cheapness of his images, making his direction seem all the more stuffy and pandering.
Although the source material contains less grand-scale spectacle than The Lord of the Rings, Jackson treats his Hobbit trilogy as though it’s just as elaborate. A straightforward adventure book as short as The Hobbit shouldn’t need a trilogy of overlong films lest these movies become derivative of the main trilogy back in the early 2000s. The basic plot revolves around the tale of young hobbit Bilbo Baggins of Bag End (Martin Freeman) and his reluctant companionship with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and twelve raucous dwarves (no, I’m not going to list them off) to reclaim their ancestral homeland Erebor, The Lonely Mountain. Despite an initially averse Bilbo after a particularly unruly dinner party, he eventually concedes to the promise of adventure. With the leadership of the brooding Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the pseudo-ensemble of fourteen characters treks onward towards the elusive dragon Smaug who guards the mountain, while also coming across plenty of obstacles along the way. The Hobbit offers plenty of details, locales, and characters to deepen the grandeur of Tolkien’s rich Middle-Earth world, and Jackson has an undeniable enthusiasm in pulling us from the theater and into his cinematic space. In his Lord of the Rings trilogy, the director makes a convincing case as to the immediacy of Middle-Earth, presenting his chainmail, costumes, and prosthetics with an eye for handmade detail. This meticulous passion for weighty realism makes his fantasy all the more immersive because of its avoidance of false CGI graphics that can only approximate reality. Instead, Jackson’s props and sets exist in the physical world, allowing his actors to interact naturally with the fantasy environment for an earthier presentation. And yet despite Peter Jackson’s proven ability to create immersive environments out of wood and clay, his decision to employ mainly CGI effects and digital trickery squanders the majesty of his vision for Middle-Earth, primarily in The Hobbit’s treatment of high frame rate technology.
HFR already confounds the moviegoing experience with The Hobbit’s myriad of theater formats: the IMAX 3D version, the IMAX HFR 3D version, the non-IMAX 3D version, the non-IMAX HFR 3D version, and the modest 2D version. Peter Jackson intends the film to be viewed with HFR and 3D, and this preference proves to be an excruciating stylistic wreck. Upon the first seconds of the film, the HFR jumps out immediately, making every tiny action appear all the more fluid and realistic with smoother frame transitions. Admittedly, this HFR technology would suit handsomely in a costume drama like Lincoln or The King’s Speech, in which the tighter shots mixed with the smoother movements of the technology would create an aura of live theater. Nevertheless, HFR has no place in the long shots and sprawling vistas of The Hobbit, turning grand cinematic spectacle into a half-hearted videogame cutscene. When the camera moves in really close to the film’s characters, everything in the shot clashes – the crisp digital picture, the 3D depth of field, HFR’s look of sped up animation – and makes Jackson’s images look unintentionally cheapened. The decision to dash his film with the “realism” of HFR in a world that should be shrouded in a mysterious fantasy aura simply removes us from total immersion and suspension of disbelief. The high frame rate results in paradoxically making the film look too realistic in all the wrong ways. Rather than improving the look of Tolkien’s bountiful fantasy world, Jackson only reminds us of the cinematic process; the crispness of the images feel so real that we’re no longer looking at Middle-Earth, we’re looking at the movie set of Middle-Earth. Certain scenes look more like a stage production than a film, especially in the film’s early history lesson of Smaug’s attack on dwarven lands. Costumes, sets, and props become more apparent than ever as mere tools of the film rather than as diegetic items found within the world. The crisp movements that a heightened frame rate creates squander the value of static CGI backdrops, emphasizing the tackiness of artificial reality instead of neatly blending in. Instead of smoothly combining practical effects and CGI wizardry as Lord of the Rings did, Peter Jackson leaves The Hobbit worse off with his immaterial prevalence of CGI effects and reality-heightening HFR, allowing audiences to differentiate between physical objects and pixels all the more easily.
To worry about the crispness of the image is to focus on precisely the wrong aspect of cinematic realism; Lord of the Rings focused its realism on the props, costumes, and practical effects themselves to allow its characters to fully interact with the world of Middle-Earth. In The Hobbit, the 48 frames per second (fps) locates every single detail with greater clarity, but it also cheapens all the fantastical elements of Tolkien’s world into cinematic artificiality. Furthermore, the jump from a century of 24fps to 48fps creates a jarring effect of motion interpolation (or “the soap opera effect”), underlining the realistic movements of the actors while the CG-rendered effects look all the more out of place. As the film trudges onward, the high frame rate eventually recedes out of your waking consciousness, but this indiscernibility of HFR only reveals how pointless the gimmick really is. Unlike 3D, which can heighten the cinematic experience – improving depth of field and creating a tangible sense of space (I argue in favor of 3D in this article) – HFR becomes thoroughly unimpressive because there’s just no use in contributing to film art. Many critics and audiences have simply stated that they’ve become less attuned to the technology as the film wears on, and this purposelessness of the technology other than creating a controversial debacle over the course of blockbuster filmmaking leaves The Hobbit’s execution all the more disordered.
Coupled with the 3D CGI effects of The Hobbit, the film abounds with cluttered digital images to overload the senses. Jackson’s diverse color palette leaves the film looking crisp and clean in its digital production, through not necessarily as eye-pleasing as the muted simplicity of Lord of the Ring’s shades of pale blues, forest greens, and browns. Trading practical effects and physical mise-en-scène for fake CG production design, Jackson forgets the ingenuity of forced perspective, elaborate set design, and costumes in favor of the tacky overabundance of digital pretension. His CGI orcs look more like something out of a second-rate videogame than a grand cinematic experience, and the higher frame rate that approximates the smoother kineticism of videogames doesn’t help out Jackson’s cause either. The final sequence in an underground goblin city conveys its manic tone very well, but the sequence is ultimately a visual cacophony of mishmash action that looks like a small-scale videogame than big screen cinematic spectacle. The one-armed pale orc represents the worst example of Jackson’s bizarre CGI penchant in this film, electing the film’s main villain with the most screen time as an artificial CGI creation than a practical effects character like the orcs in Lord of the Rings (which look far more definite and terrifying). Contrast this clashing CGI/practical effects behemoth with the rock giant boxing match in the rain. This sequence carries the grandeur of imposing cinematic spectacle because these colossi are indistinct shadows in the thunderous rain, concealing the fakery of CGI and fully blending in with the rest of the environment. Moments like this reveal where Guillermo del Toro’s original script shine through (I imagine this fight is what Pacific Rim will feel like) since this sequence never appears in Tolkien’s original book. Nevertheless, Peter Jackson’s takeover of CGI effects largely accentuates the problems of fake production design instead of neatly disguising it, and worst of all, Jackson never really cares much for the characters that comprise his story in the first place.
An Unexpected Journey isn’t particularly welcoming in the first place, a thought that Jackson resounds in his indulgence into Tolkien-savvy pretentions: name-dropping plenty of textual allusions, historical events, locations, and people not even relevant to the action at hand. Although The Hobbit still miraculously manages to engross us into the world of Tolkien, Jackson doesn’t persuade us enough that all this over-information is necessary to his agenda; his numerous distractions simply comes across as pandering allusions not meant for the universal demographic of hefty blockbuster films like The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings triumphs because Jackson remembers that while Middle-Earth is a captivating land of popcorn escapism, his characters are far more interesting filmic elements with the potential to explore genuine human drama. With The Hobbit, Jackson indulges too much in world building for a setting already uniquely defined; there are only a few moments where the humanism behind it actually emerges. At nearly three hours, the film already feels like the extended edition, containing plenty of digressions into non-relevant sideplots and historical allusions that fragment the overall story into an episodic structure than a concrete whole. Jackson basks in his source material, infusing his film with an extended history lesson of Middle-Earth and scenes that merely feel shoehorned in. Scenes like the Shire prologue that witnesses cameo appearances by Ian Holm and Elijah Wood or Radagast the Brown’s (Sylvester McCoy) cryptic forewarning of Sauron’s return serve as reminders of the greater story at play, but these moments are just extra baggage for an already over-inflated narrative. Indeed, Peter Jackson spends a protracted first hour merely loitering around Bilbo’s home, overstaying its welcome just like his unruly dwarves. Once the actual traveling starts, the film conveys a palpable sense of adventure and wanderlust, especially in the film’s many travel commercial-esque helicopter shots of the glorious landscapes of New Zealand.
Once gears begin churning along and the main narrative is on its way, The Hobbit begins to resemble shades of Jackson’s superior direction in The Lord of the Rings. A shot of elder LotR characters in a single frame – Ian McKellen’s world-weary Gandalf the Grey, Cate Blanchett’s ethereal Galadriel, Christopher Lee’s Saruman the White, and Hugo Weaving’s Elrond – makes for a brilliant shot and signifies the magnificent line-up of characters in the broader Middle-Earth universe. But first, An Unexpected Journey must trudge through the insufferable line-up of main characters at its core: the dwarves. Led by a fairly commendable Richard Armitage as the brooding Thorin Oakenshield, the rest of the dwarves come off as one collective character rather than finely individuated personalities. Unlike Jackson’s fantastic handling of a massive ensemble cast in The Lord of the Rings that isolated secondary, even tertiary characters to make their mark tonally and aesthetically – the mud and clay orc leaders, the ominous Witch-king of Angmar, the splendid character arc of Éowyn – Jackson doesn’t transcend his source material in favor of greater cinematic characterization. Thorin’s numerous dwarves remain indistinguishable from one another (likely even more than in Tolkien’s fleshed out pages), and because they’re underdeveloped characters, we don’t really care for their safety in the heat of battle either. There’s no sense of tension with every action sequence because these characters are so disposable, sometimes even serving as pure comic relief. The dwarves don’t convey a palpable sense of touching friendship like the fellowship of The Lord of the Rings, just a bland sense of can-do camaraderie. Of course, some actors have their moments. Richard Armitage, while spending the majority of the film being an unlikable and stubborn bully without enough background to justify his actions, still maintains an aura of an enigmatic cipher. All the other dwarves are merely caricatures: there’s the one with the hat, Bofur (James Nesbitt); the Merry and Pippin doppelgangers, Fili and Kili (Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner); the old one, Balin (Ken Stott), and the rest are distinguishable not by their personalities but by their beards.
On the other hand, Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen deliver incredible performances. Freeman continues his superb acting stint after BBC’s much-lauded Sherlock television miniseries (also the home of Smaug’s Benedict Cumberbatch), radiating an endearing charm in his great comic timing and fondness for the simplicities of home. The actor slips into the world of Middle-Earth perfectly, taking reigns from the excellent Ian Holm in the original trilogy with a more compelling leading role than Elijah Wood’s Frodo. His rendition of Bilbo Baggins includes numerous mannerisms and quirks that make him grumpy, bumbling, funny, and sometimes even courageous. McKellen has plenty of fun as the cunning and charismatic Gandalf the Grey, acting as if a day hasn’t even passed between his original stint as the character in 2001 while still maintaining a sense of growing world-weariness.
Despite the strength of these two prolific figures, it’s Andy Serkis who steals the show again with his full role commitment as the bitterly dissociative Gollum. When Bilbo descends into the damp caverns where Gollum makes his home, the frenetic action of the second half cedes and The Hobbit really begins to resemble a movie. With little emphasis for visual effects except for the motion capture work that Andy Serkis has already mastered, Peter Jackson presents a simple shot-reverse shot game of wits between Bilbo and Gollum as they trade off riddles in the dark. Even the high frame rate diminishes because of the frozen execution of the scene; instead of pointing attention to the look of the movie, it’s Freeman and Serkis who push their own acting talents to the foreground. The film slows down and freezes on this moment, taking its time to unravel the foreboding playfulness behind Gollum’s game of wits. Serkis disappears wholeheartedly into the role once more, conveying the tragic antihero’s desperation and utter worry with true authenticity. In the film’s singular moment of outright humanness, The Hobbit witnesses Bilbo ready to cut down Gollum for good, and yet the look of defeated sadness in Gollum’s eyes betrays the emotional crux that humanizes the scene. Rather than focusing on the franchise’s world of fandom and excess, the film fleetingly holds on a single shot that conveys the emotion necessary to keep the film afloat. It’s simply marvelous.
Nevertheless, the overall scope of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey arrives with a multitude of problems, revealing Peter Jackson’s loss of directorial blockbuster focus in a changed cinematic world. Many elements detract from the overall cinematic experience, including his worthless high frame rate presentation and dodgy use of CGI effects for a story in which its characters are ultimately uninteresting in the first place. And because of these numerous setbacks, The Hobbit fails to recapture that perfect blend of human drama, fantasy spectacle, inventive effects, and the creativity of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but a scene like the one shared between Bilbo and Gollum points to the slight potential of this new series. The Hobbit lies in the shadow of better direction, and yet Jackson hints at greater redemption waiting around the corner. For the most part, The Hobbit’s welcoming immersion into a familiar universe substantiates the film’s existence just enough, and if anything, this fairly unexceptional title inspires in the mind a next installment worth looking forward to. As a standalone title apart from the grander franchise, An Unexpected Journey ends up with a disjointed narrative and an untidy, gimmicky presentation. Adventure and merriment transpires during the course of its nearly three hour running time, and yet all Peter Jackson has to offer is half-hearted direction for a new trilogy that already feels stale.
Miguel Penabella | 27 December 2012
Resident Evil: Retribution
Dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2012
Resident Evil: Retribution, like its predecessors, suffers from stuffy writing tailor made for humdrum B-movie actors to give abominably wooden performances. The film also offers a ludicrous, nonsensical plot with little intelligence necessary to justify its highly stylized action sequences in this fifth installment in director Paul W.S. Anderson’s seemingly endless series. These complaints have been parroted over and over again by numerous critics who have nothing else worthwhile to say, sinking Retribution’s Rotten Tomatoes score to a measly 31%. That Retribution is a silly movie should be a given; audiences shouldn’t need a critic to inform them how terrible its dialogue and performances are, especially when unnecessary pop-cult entertainment such as the Resident Evil series has reached its fifth title. Such criticism only delivers stale complaints that have appeared endlessly, adding absolutely nothing to the ongoing discussion of film art. Instead of focusing solely on ridiculing Anderson’s usage of stock characters and genre clichés, I’ll be focusing instead on his genre experimentation of narrative syntax and aesthetic standards in an attempt to unearth true genre artistry underneath the garbage that most other B-movie directors are doing. If one eschews the formulaic derision of critics who cast aside directors like Paul W.S. Anderson as nothing more than low art drivel, one can discover the moments of subtle self-awareness that reveal Anderson’s confidence in his craft. Indeed, there’s enough reflexive self-awareness in Resident Evil: Retribution to even surpass Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s extensively praised The Cabin In the Woods, and yet both films operate under the same conventions of genre filmmaking. Nevertheless, Retribution offers more meaningful commentary in its metaphoric foregrounding of the filmic process, making visible the mechanics of filmmaking in order to interrogate B-movie genre conventions and destabilize the nature of cinematic fiction and reality.
Criticizing Retribution’s plot and character development as one-dimensional means focusing on exactly the irrelevant elements that comprise Paul W.S. Anderson’s films. After all, this man is likely the only director with the tenacity to envision a Three Musketeers film with a crass steampunk-inspired setting, flamethrowers, and giant CGI airships. And yet despite his silliness, he manages to turn nihilistic violence into digestible pop filmmaking without the gall of pretension, locating an endearing simplicity with his husband/wife tag-team approach to filmmaking (he frequently casts his wife Milla Jovovich with a starring role). Admittedly, Anderson has had abysmally rough patches – Mortal Kombat and Alien vs. Predator – but after a four-year absence and a return to the basic language of genre filmmaking with 2008’s Death Race, all self-seriousness drops in favor of maximalist B-movie flicks served with an implied nudge and wink. Instead of trying to write “intelligent” material for his films, Anderson seems to have realized that wooden dialogue and B-movie clichés are simply part of the genre’s syntax, allowing him to focus his artistic merit on the style, presentation, and cinematography to justify the worth of exploitative camp. At the fifth film in the Resident Evil series – fifth! – Anderson returns behind the camera after his equally reflexive Afterlife, disrupting and subverting classical conventions of genre cinema to upend audience expectations of character identification and narrative. Unlike most genre filmmakers working today, Paul W.S. Anderson remains one of the boldest experimenters of his craft, eschewing the traditional language of B-movie clichés for something unexpected and new. Revisionary criticism will hopefully come to re-evaluate Anderson’s work as film theorists have reclaimed the B-movie films of Seijun Suzuki as high art (Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter), grindhouse films made postmodern discourse by the likes of Quentin Tarantino (Shogun Assassin, I Spit On Your Grave), and even the films of Paul Verhoeven made genre standards (Starship Troopers, RoboCop, Total Recall).
It’s telling that Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil: Retribution was released the same day as Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, as if coincidence (or film distribution folks with a sense of humor) tried to link the worlds of arthouse and contemporary grindhouse to reveal that these two are not so different from one another. Indeed, both Anderson films partially deal with expanding the notion of film art, but Retribution comes in the form of least common denominator escapism. Continuing its adaptation from the video game series, Anderson transforms the language of gaming into unhinged kinetic cheesiness, dropping his immaculate heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) in a massive facility run by the evil Umbrella Corporation. Like The Cabin In the Woods, this facility represents a reflexive playground in which various rooms stand in as individual levels like that of a globetrotting videogame. As Alice attempts to reconvene with a rescue team masterminded by villain-turned-inexplicably-good-but-who-cares Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), the various rooms signify a set of killing fields manipulated by the evil “Red Queen” computer program. Thus, the program and its unleashing of the zombies that audiences want to see stands in as Paul W.S. Anderson himself, manipulating the film’s environment to suit the needs of genre entertainment. The mock settings inside the facility – Tokyo, New York City, Moscow, and suburbia – all resemble elaborate movie sets because they are movie sets, signifying a bit of self-awareness that transforms what would be a cliché narrative into reflexive popcorn spectacle. Much later into the film, Anderson’s camera lingers on an assembly line of endless Alice clones in line for experimental slaughter by the computer program, reflecting on the disposable nature of stock B-movie and videogame characters as mere templates to place into new contexts and recycle until its worth diminishes.
In the hands of a less competent B-movie filmmaker, such nihilism would ruin the escapist experience, but Anderson takes this cynical outlook and turns it into worthwhile pop filmmaking. The setup of various rooms as “killing stages” emphasizes the falsity of the series, allowing for unabashed globetrotting everywhere from Times Square to the Red Square without the need for deeper narrative justification. This lack of self-important pretension makes Retribution pure popcorn exploitation, but it also reveals the falsity of filmmaking itself. Anderson points out the computer-controlled lighting, artificial rain, and carefully constructed mise-en-scène like a zombie version of The Truman Show or Synecdoche, New York, with the filmmaker foregrounding his filmic elements to satirize game and film design as scripted and systematic. Paul W.S. Anderson spends less time on pointless narrativizing (honestly, who cares in a film like this?) and more time on simply making Milla Jovovich’s Alice one of the most badass action heroines ever, transcending the staged nature of the Resident Evil games. The film’s self-awareness extends beyond its consciousness of film sets and even Alice’s “S&M” getup to allow for reincarnations of bygone characters, specifically Michelle Rodriguez’s Rain Ocampo. With each passing room comes the resetting of characters like videogame NPCs, and Anderson toys around with Rain in resurrecting her (Rodriguez dies as much as Sean Bean) for various roles. The film specifically imagines the character as either a mundane suburban woman driving a hybrid car and ironically supporting gun control or as a heartless killer hell-bent on eliminating Alice for good. I like to imagine the real actress as a personality somewhere in between.
Paul W.S. Anderson has the most fun in Resident Evil: Retribution than any other film he’s done, experimenting with the genre and applying the language of counter-cinema to make what would be a tired B-movie series fresh and constantly expanding. The bombastic opening sequence attests to this forthright experimentation, envisioning an explosive action sequence played in slow-motion reverse. Nevertheless, Anderson remains discontented in this extensively stylized assault on the senses, so not only does he has his cake, he eats it too in upping the film’s excess. He replays the scene again in regular time after a ludicrously extended recap segment to bring audiences back up to speed in the narrative, and there’s admittedly a guilty joy in watching Anderson choreograph his action like a bastardized Zack Snyder film. And yet Retribution does all this showing-off for a distinct purpose. In presenting the film without exposition, Anderson keeps his audience on their toes, and his deliberate continuity breaks, elliptical method of storytelling, and self-aware reflexivity only heightens the crispness of a series already approaching its sixth installment. After the film’s frenetic opening sequence and recap, Retribution pulls the rug out from under its audience, abruptly entering into a Dawn of the Dead-like suburbia with a mundane domestic drama that features a housewife version of Milla Jovovich raising her daughter Becky (Aryana Engineer). This complete disregard for everything immediately before the scene dislocates and takes us by surprise, suddenly throwing audiences into a new context without forewarning.
Retribution’s suburban setting makes total sense in the grand scheme of the franchise, because mundane middle class suburbs are exactly where Resident Evil found its foothold, with kids playing these hyper-violent games in the sparkling placidity of Anywhereville, America. Paul W.S. Anderson simply visualizes this paradoxical clash literally, his hideous zombies intruding on the unexciting domesticity as Zack Snyder did in his Dawn of the Dead remake. That Anderson would deliberately confuse his audiences with such jarring elliptical storytelling reveals the director’s emerging confidence in his skills. In one scene, Alice even serves as a mouthpiece for the director to convey his genre mastery, instructing the suburban Rain Ocampo that using a gun is “just like a camera: point and shoot.” This simple set of instructions is exactly what Anderson does for his heavily stylized actions sequences, borrowing from the videogame source material and turning it into his own artistic playground with which to exercise unrestrained aesthetic experimentation. Anderson’s action images are recurrent, featuring his heroine somersaulting through the air while doling out violence with bright lighting, fantastic 3D rain, and incredibly deep shots. The filmmaker has a clear sense of cinematic space that allows him to break conventional stylistic rules and push the boundaries of action aesthetics and cinematography. For a B-movie, Retribution’s cinematography remains top-notch, following its precursors’ predilection for one-point perspectives that would make Stanley Kubrick proud. Early scenes featuring Alice in an Umbrella holding cell visualize Anderson’s eye for symmetrical precision and harsh white lighting, creating genuinely eye-catching images as his heroine erupts into combat.
Even the film’s usage of product placement contains a thematic twist, with the aggressive positioning of logos like Rockstar Energy, Sony, and GameStop mirroring the Umbrella Corporation’s own saturation into everyday life within the film’s diegetic universe. Thus, the pairing of the evil Umbrella logo next to a Pepsi logo likely reveals the director’s own feelings towards unhinged corporatism, aligning his fictional company with the likes of Weyland-Yutani or Cyberdyne Systems. Nevertheless, it’s Retribution’s action sequences that warrant the most praise, comprising expert choreography and masterful editing that invites audiences into its visceral kineticism rather than estranging them. The film cuts in sync with the action, offering glorious long shots of its fast-paced combat instead of shakycam incomprehensibility or insufferable close-ups like the action sequences of The Amazing Spider-Man or Battleship. Anderson keeps a nice rhythm to his shots that divulges an incredible understanding of Soviet montage, painting his glowing white hallways seemingly lifted directly from Beyond the Black Rainbow with zombie blood. Throughout the series, narrative has never really made much sense, but every single action sequence has always maintained a level of dynamic coherence that reveals where the filmmaker’s interests truly lie.
Although it may have taken many years for Paul W.S. Anderson to perfect his genre filmmaking abilities, the filmmaker has finally managed to grasp a unique style and mise-en-scène. Like his peers Rob Zombie or the late Tony Scott, Anderson crafts lean, visually impressive, non-pretentious, amusing pieces of popcorn entertainment that are better off avoiding characterization and plot for the sake of stylistic presentation. Undeniably, Resident Evil: Retribution’s action choreography looks and feels coherent, with impeccable framing and composition to bolster the filmmaker’s own role as a true contemporary B-movie artist. Adding on a sense of self-awareness only contributes to the guilty fun of Retribution, pointing out the falsity of filmmaking and the campiness of genre formulae. With these distinct stylistic tendencies recurrent and definitive of the director, the only final conclusion I have left is that (weirdly enough) Paul W.S. Anderson has undeniably joined the ranks of a B-movie auteur.
Miguel Penabella | 26 December 2012
Dir. David Cronenberg, 2012
To follow up my review of Holy Motors, here’s another essay on a film also revolving around a surreal, lunatic odyssey in a limousine across a city. Trading Paris for New York City, director David Cronenberg tells a straightforward, unassuming narrative of billionaire playboy Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) and his head of security (the stocky Kevin Durand) traversing across an increasingly dire-looking Manhattan to get a haircut across town. In this tedious creep through the city, Cosmopolis chronicles the various comings and goings of the people that comprise Packer’s life over the course of a single day. The film is a minimalist and fragmented take on modern society, with Cronenberg’s bizarre conversations in and out of the limo representing a Marxist and aesthetic discourse both mindfully pretentious and excessively stylized. It’s a film for our times, entering into an ongoing dialogue on modern capitalism and the millennial generation with a tone that’s neurotic as the characters that comprise its narrative. Audiences may find the dialogue-heavy film oblique and impenetrable, but the bizarrely mundane feel of it all presents the unraveling of mankind, the future, and cinema itself.
Cosmopolis has a simplistic setup, but Cronenberg quickly delves into staged abstraction, commenting on life in the 21st century and the hollowness of millennials now running the world. The various people Packer comes across – including characters portrayed by the likes of Juliette Binoche, Paul Giamatti, Samantha Morton, Jay Baruchel, Emily Hampshire, and Mathieu Amalric – all hint at a growing restlessness that has plagued the world. This anxiety derives from an unstable economic system on the brink of collapse; nobody quite understands what’s happened, but Cronenberg conveys an illuminating clarity on modern civilization while remaining abstract on a superficial level. Taking liberties from the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo on which this film is based, Cronenberg aligns Cosmopolis with the modern world to reveal the estrangement of capitalism from human life, technology from reality, extreme wealth from the everyday. The film’s surreal odyssey through Manhattan takes place in a chaotic world quickly hurtling towards dystopia, yet the uneasy tone feels undeniably immediate and existent. Characters converse in heavily stylized exchanges full of economic and philosophical jargon that distances them from the unraveling reality outside the limousine, betraying Cronenberg’s cynicism towards those who are causing the instability in the first place. Every single interaction confounds with impenetrable, cryptic dialogue, mirroring our own linguistic distance from those economists and politicians who have evaded public responsibility for running the world to the ground. Cronenberg abstracts dialogue to the point where language itself becomes damn near hostile and confrontational, and he leaves audiences with the choice to either take effort in piercing through the veil or simply remaining apathetic.
Like Cronenberg’s previous effort A Dangerous Method, the period piece on psychoanalysis told psychoanalytically, Cosmopolis presents the cold distancing of relationships and the disorder of the diegetic world. Filming remains largely confined to the interior of the limousine, and Cronenberg’s camera takes in the rich technology that plasters the walls and armrests with touchscreens for virtual communication. Eric Packer always stays a step removed from the intimacy of humanity, often conversing through his gadgets or casually maintaining a detached façade during face-to-face conversations. Nothing can overcome Packer’s aura of arrogance and egotism, lacking a capacity for social responsibility and instead wasting away in lethargic opulence. In showing the malaise of the 1%, David Cronenberg masterfully fashions a film for the 99%, replicating our time through the lens of caricature to unearth deeper truths.
Since the 2000s, David Cronenberg has withdrawn from his characteristic body horror and towards the contemporary monsters that distress everyday human life. His horror still exists, albeit with a matured, introspective manner that has his afflictions take on different forms altogether. In A History of Violence, these monsters are the innate Darwinian savagery of man. In A Dangerous Method, it takes the form of sexualized disarray. In Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg presents the disorder of unchecked modern capitalism. Part of the director’s capitalist commentary derives from cinema’s tradition of Marxism, but like A History of Violence, Cronenberg is more interested in analyzing capitalism through a Darwinian school of thought. The film portrays capitalism as animalistic and violent, with Pattinson’s Eric Packer emulating the vampirism of his Twilight stint, albeit in the form of the voraciously insatiable Dracula. Packer sits in quiet, frozen gratification as the chaos and violence erupts around him even though the disarray negatively impacts him as well, taking sick pleasure in the assassination of the head of the International Monetary Fund and an Occupy Wall Street-esque demonstration quickly escalating into a French Revolution riot. And unlike a screenwriter like David S. Goyer who cautiously preserves the values of the 1%, Cronenberg portrays the excessively rich as estranged to the point of inhumanness. Packer deals with abstract work of digital stocks and currency without any physical labor or product, leaving his job description completely vague throughout the film.
Vagueness runs through the film with aplomb, as Cronenberg’s dark, twisted philosophical dialogue on capitalism and the contemporary world intertwines with the violence occurring outside the limousine. Samantha Morton’s character, the “chief of theory” Vija Kinsky, waxes philosophical about uncontrolled markets and the instability of time’s acceleration. She asserts, “all wealth has become wealth for its own sake… money has lost its narrative quality,” while the film’s Occupy/French Revolution-like backdrop spins out of control, revealing Cronenberg’s forewarning of the potential consequences for irresponsible capitalism run amok. In its fragmented exchanges of dialogue, Cosmopolis unveils the language of capitalism as tied to violence, noting the “destruction” of old markets and exploitation as a kind of Darwinian survival of the fittest in true Cronenberg fashion. He even makes this language literal, with Packer explaining, “the logical extension of business is murder.” Cosmopolis’s world bursts with clashing violence and volatility, like a doomsday prophecy turned into an unstable dystopian Manhattan with shades of our current society. Make no mistake: while Cronenberg operates under the setting of an indistinct future world, he’s clearly discussing our ongoing condition of unbalanced cyber-capitalism and protests against these grandiose visions of technology and wealth. Cosmopolis represents one of the first films addressing the economic recession, Occupy Wall Street, and the millennials who comprise these events, portraying its vague characters outside the limo as desperately trying to delay a catastrophic future where capitalism ignores the horrors of the present. The creeping passage of the limo through the gridlocked chaos escalates as the film trudges on, and through the tinted windows and television screens can be seen looters, assassinations, people setting themselves on fire, and plenty of rat imagery not unlike that of the French Revolution. And for a brief second, Cronenberg visualizes his underlying message with a scrolling digital sign, reading “a specter is haunting the world… the specter of capitalism.”
All the while, a rich technocrat like Packer remains completely out of touch inside the secluded confines of his limousine. Totally detached from even the street level of New York, the cabin of the limo feels like a quarantined hermetic seal from the real world, recalling a similar theme of technology’s isolation from reality in eXistenZ. Instead of the ongoing upheaval outside, Packer diverts all attention to the currency markets that seem to run 24/7, constantly fluctuating and headed towards disaster. The boyish Robert Pattinson proves a miraculous choice for the role, with his smug and youthful face representing the decline of capitalism itself. His ego makes him impulsive and reckless, often witnessed spending his money on lavish goods like Rothko paintings and military aircraft just to call it “mine.” And yet Packer isn’t oblivious to his exponential loss of money but simply indifferent, with his eerie coolness about everything betraying a sense of self-destruction. Holding his own against veterans like Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti, Pattinson’s frigid delivery feels as deadened as the ancient vampire he plays in the Twilight films yet even more sexualized than ever, albeit in a predatory way. Cosmopolis radiates sex and desire, and the unsettling undercurrent builds into moments of climax like in Cronenberg’s own hypersexualized 1996 psycho-thriller Crash. Sex is the topic of many conversations, and the camera often lingers on convulsing bodies and sweat to visualize the ravenous nature of millennial economics. Sarah Gadon’s character Elise Shifrin provides one of the most memorable lines in the entire film – “I smell sex all over you” – with a delivery both sexually riveted and repulsed.
As in many David Cronenberg flicks, the director pairs his sex with a dark and brooding tone that mirrors the ominous look of his mise-en-scène. Although the action of Cosmopolis mainly transpires inside the claustrophobic confines of Packer’s stretch limousine, the various shots Cronenberg employs keeps the film looking fresh and captivating, everywhere from deep focus long shots that seem to elongate the entire cabin to voyeuristic angles looking from below. The constantly changing exterior through the windows further contributes to the growing restlessness, and the window’s tint alters light and color altogether to dissociate audiences from the escalating chaos that lies just outside. Howard Shore and indie rock band Metric craft a dark electronic soundtrack reminiscent of Cliff Martinez’s undulating synths in Drive and Contagion, further burying the unnerving nature of the film under layers of icy electronic music. And yet despite all the cold, alarming remove that Cronenberg focuses his attention on, Cosmopolis finds moments of mad hatter goofiness such as Packer’s persistent worry about his “asymmetrical prostate” and a scene of slapstick throwback concerning a prankster smacking Packer’s face with a cream pie like a fictional Noël Godin dissident.
Nevertheless, Cosmopolis remains a visceral and alienating film that cuts to the heart of modern capitalism and violence even as it distances from audiences with its circuitous language and moments of maddening bizarreness. The film’s final segment locates Packer sitting down with an agitated Paul Giamatti as hysterical ex-employee/stalker Benno Levin for another perplexing talk. They discuss the realities of aggression and the need for violence to have a burden or purpose. Amidst the relentless abstraction of the film’s language, this purpose for violence suddenly becomes clear, representing the last bastion of desperate action against the desolation of Cronenberg’s dark, dystopian cyber-capitalist world. Over the course of the film’s protracted odyssey, Cronenberg stalks this singular act as the only natural reprieve and source of clarity amidst the shrouding specter of self-destructive capitalism, so it’s only natural that Cosmopolis ends with a whimpering bang.
Miguel Penabella | 25 December 2012
Welcome to the second tier of my comprehensive rundown of my 100 favorite films, counting down 80 to 61.
Miguel Penabella | 23 December 2012
Dir. Leos Carax, 2012
Since his 1999 film Pola X, French director Leos Carax has remained largely dormant aside from his contribution in the triptych collaborative film Tokyo! alongside Michel Gondry and Bong Joon-ho. Holy Motors represents the auteur’s first major picture since Pola X, and what Carax has to offer is a truly preposterous work of unapologetic art that signifies a madman’s comeback. Striking a careful balance between deliberate arthouse pretension and a sincere director’s vision with a true love for filmmaking, Carax’s fragmented narratives within Holy Motors creates a lunatic open-endedness for a film that’s unpredictable, occasionally awe-inspiring, and sometimes even beautiful. The bewildering images onscreen convey the sheer ambition of the project, a sort of encapsulation of Carax’s subconscious run amok. Filtered through the eyes of a surrealist with a subtext on the death and potential rebirth of cinema, Holy Motors follows a madman’s odyssey through Paris as if the underlying id beneath James Joyce’s Ulysses were visualized on the big screen. Céline (Édith Scob) chauffeurs the cryptic Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) in a stretch limousine around Parisian streets as Oscar takes on the personas of nine widely different characters of varying genres altogether, relegating the film as a holistic yet fragmented work of different vignettes that come crashing down in the last quarter of the film. Taking place over the course of a single day, the film plays out like a reimagined Ulysses that’s completely off its rocker, but true genius often comes part and parcel with lunacy.
Holy Motors retrospectively evaluates the historic ebb and flow of cinema, opening with a clip from some of the first ever images of motion pictures: Étienne-Jules Marey’s proto-film of a man stretching, literally shot with his photographic gun in the late 1800s. The film then turns its eye on a catatonic audience in a movie theater, mirroring our own impassive eyes falling upon Carax’s images. For the rest of the film, this audience remains largely absent onscreen, though Carax assumes our ubiquitous presence haunting his main protagonist as he performs his nine absurdly vaudevillian acts to please his invisible audience. After these puzzling images of Marey’s film and the unresponsive audience, Holy Motors wanders into Leos Carax himself waking with a start, thus linking cinema with dreams as surrealists like David Lynch have done time and time again. Undoubtedly, Holy Motors is a work of surrealism with its thesis partly concerned with the film theory assertion of cinema as intimately linked with dreams. The movie’s own contemplation of bygone styles of film recalls the ceaseless flow of daydream, unconsciously studying a century of cinema from today’s drastically different perspective of the medium. In examining the very nature of film art, Holy Motors reveals both the limitations of the medium and the boundlessness of art itself. With less of a focus on narrative and more emphasis on an expression of the powers and effects of art, Holy Motors’s existential malaise presents cinema on its death knoll with the medium’s inevitable rebirth just waiting to emerge.
Shot digitally, the film seems coldly removed from the original images of cinema but Leos Carax slowly chips away at the divide between generations. Like a celebratory panegyric, the film’s own open-endedness embraces all aspects of movies (from filmmaker to spectator) and performance art with an enthusiastic fervor. The film is many movies all in one, with Monsieur Oscar’s individual vignettes taken from melodrama, romance, musical, comedy, hitman movie, kitchen sink drama, motion capture work, and so on. Carax’s usage of digital cinema captures Denis Lavant’s all too human acting with a piece of machinery, yet the director presents the actor’s scenes as something not unlike theater, where no obstacles lie between audience and the live act to make for pure performance art. This bizarre approach to moviemaking yields an acting tour-de-force from its cast, especially with Denis Lavant’s phenomenally physical movements and gestures that flavor each of his nine different characters with a unique identity and tone. Disappearing into each of his roles perfectly, the actor conveys the importance of human physicality amidst an age of cold, digital technology that transcends Carax’s own duplicitous use of digital filmmaking techniques. Lavant’s theater-like performance to an absent crowd recalls Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” monologue, with Carax portraying everything in his film as part of a larger performance where reality itself becomes cinema.
The film plays out as an odyssey complete with interludes inside Céline’s limousine, one dreamy vignette lapsing into another, sometimes without an apparent beginning or end. The film simply slides into its various identities as Oscar puts on the persona of his characters, delving into the worlds of comedy, sci-fi, and musical with effortless grace. This overarching theme on the instability of identity spills onto the film’s own commentary on the constantly fluctuating forms of cinema. There are numerous deaths throughout Holy Motors, but of course death remains merely another part of the act: the film simply starts up a new vignette to signify rebirth and continuation. Just as Oscar collapses his personas and gives rise to new ones, so too does the cinema (and art in general) as it conforms to changing modalities of time. Carax underlines how movies constantly die and reform under new identities – silent cinema ceding to talkies, black and white ceding to color, fullscreen to widescreen, 2D to 3D, analog, digital, VHS, DVD, blu-ray, so on and so on – to make the point of the impermanence of art. With a myriad of new technologies and styles taking over older ones, certain modes of filmmaking will ultimately disappear from the spotlight and performance will change to suit the needs of whatever new form arises. Certainly, Holy Motors resembles little of Étienne-Jules Marey’s early images, yet both works fall under the ever-expanding umbrella of film. Thus, while Leos Carax entertains the idea of our current form of cinema nearing its death, Holy Motors is also about rebirth and life, because as long as there are beholders, art will always create beauty.
Roughly midway through the film, Monsieur Oscar converses with a nameless character played by Michel Piccoli, a film industry suit straight out of Mulholland Drive who worries about the disappearance of both the movie camera and the audience altogether – “What if there is no beholder?” The exceptionally physical performance of Denis Lavant emphasizes the significance of human actors amidst digital imagery, safeguarding authentic humanism against the abstraction of commercialized digital filmmaking. Nevertheless, the characters of Holy Motors remain anxious over the changing forms of cinema, and their fear of a disappearing camera only holds truer in reality with directors like James Cameron and Peter Jackson conforming to the falsity of CGI filmmaking. Even the disappearance of the beholders of beauty – the audience – rings true with the film’s own absent audience save for the deadened stare of the spectators in the initial scene. To Leos Carax and the characters of Holy Motors, they ultimately conclude that the show must go on so long as beauty can be created in art, and Oscar sets off on his bizarre journey through Paris.
The miniaturization of the camera makes life itself seem like the movies, and Holy Motors runs down various forms of the medium throughout its running time, from its early progress to its current state of decline. One of Oscar’s early performances reflects this decline: the actor dresses in a spandex suit with motion capture sensors, performing his routine physical acts in a completely barren room. By showing the process of performance under motion capture and CGI technology rather than the final product after post-production, Carax underlines the hollowness that modern cinema now operates under. A contortionist also enters the darkened room to match Lavant’s acrobatics, and the two eventually enact the most physical of performances – sex. Yet despite the passion of the two performers, the isolated digital context lacks the energy of real filmmaking before an actual camera, sets, and lighting, feeling crude compared to the actual act of performance. However, Leos Carax acknowledges the inherent falsity underlying all of cinema, shifting his characters’ performances into an interrogation between real and “reel” life as the narrative quickly falls to ambiguity. Part of this ambiguity stems from Denis Lavant’s deep role commitment that makes his various performances unclear as to what is dietetically real and what is just part of the act. Holy Motors itself casually sinks into the film’s own deliberate unreality, blending reality and fiction into an ambiguous whole by the end of the movie. Carax indirectly interrogates cinema’s lies in one vignette where a domestic drama version of Oscar chastises his “daughter” when he discovers that her personal narrative of the night’s events prove to be a fabrication. Reality becomes unclear in Carax’s cinema, and Lavant’s engrossed role perfectionism makes it hard to differentiate the act and the real world.
René Magritte’s famous painting “The Treachery of Images” comes to mind in addressing Carax’s obfuscation of his narrative. The painting depicts a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” written underneath: This is not a pipe. Holy Motors represents a kind of reapplication of Magritte’s treacherous imaging, making visible the carefully constructed process of filmmaking in order to reach a similar conclusion. In place of a pipe, films present reality; Carax makes the cautious reminder as many other likeminded auteurs (Michael Haneke, for example) have done: this is not reality. So what exactly is reality’s relationship to cinema? Holy Motors points out the metaphysical complications of discerning reality from film, containing plenty of visual allusions to the fakeness of image-making, such as a digital fireplace and Oscar’s many disguises. Indeed, both Oscar and the audience get lost to the fictional, Carax-created world where reality blurs with cinematic life and traditional ways of filmmaking (big cameras, tangible mise en scène, physical acting) are simultaneously immediate and obscure. Audiences know that Oscar’s various performances are all an act, yet the initial death of the character comes as a shock even as he unblinkingly stands right back up to move on to the next scene. Carax further complicates his narrative with the introduction of popstar Kylie Minogue’s duplicitous character, who in her shared scenes with Oscar make obscure her relationship with him. Do they have a history together, or are they merely strangers acting out their roles? Who dies in the film, or is death and killing simply part of the act?
Denis Lavant’s various assortment of characters – an acrobat, a beggar, a feral sewer-crawler, etc. – unquestioningly carries out their acts without any discernible plot within the movie to tie all scenes together. Soon, Oscar begins to think of his work as tiresome routine appointments, though the actual visual product of his performances is absolutely deviant from anything that could be considered routine. Take for example the aforementioned feral sewer-crawler persona, a filthy man who emerges from a manhole and marches through a cemetery set to the original 1954 Godzilla theme. Leos Carax doesn’t just reference for the sake of paying tribute, however, because Holy Motors also contains plenty of meta self-referencing to reflexively probe its own syntax. For example, the Kylie Minogue song “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” plays in a scene right before Kylie Minogue herself appears as a main character in another scene. Édith Scob dons a mask towards the end of the film that recalls her famous face-mask in Georges Franju’s 1960 Eyes Without a Face, a film she played the starring role in. Even Lavant’s own sewer character is a reprised role from another Carax work: the brief segment in the aforementioned film Tokyo!
Such moments of self-referencing suggest Carax’s invitation of the audience to participate in his film’s performances, a thought bolstered by his decision to make visible an actual diegetic audience in the first few minutes of the film. This closer relationship between artist and audience makes Carax’s inherent commentaries within Holy Motors feel all the more personal. When Oscar stumbles upon a fashion photographer constantly muttering “beauty!” (and nothing else) amidst his curiously aloof model (Eva Mendes), Carax implies our current one-dimensional, superficial attitude towards art, photography, and fashion. The photographer, upon seeing the disgusting costume of Oscar’s feral character, can only excitedly exclaim a single word over and over again: “weird!” When Oscar suddenly abducts the model to the humorous chagrin of bystanders, Carax portrays him fashioning a makeshift burqa for a mannequin-like Eva Mendes, once again repurposing an art form to changing modalities and contexts. Moreover, this bizarre sequence, along with many others scattered throughout the film, also carry a tinge of comical absurdism. A later scene finds Oscar meticulously creating a new hitman persona only to completely botch his job (evoking David Lynch’s funny hitman sequence in Mulholland Drive) even though the character appears to play both hitman and victim.
These bizarre scenes turn Holy Motors into a film that can be undeniably fun even as Leos Carax interrogates ambiguous, open-ended topics that investigate the entire breadth of cinema. The sudden emergence of an accordion parade midway through the film is especially glorious, conveying Carax’s own infectious enthusiasm for film. This moment of sublime gusto is necessary for a work as dense and ambitious as Holy Motors, signifying that the best way to experience Carax’s strange film is to simply sit back and let his images wash over you. There’s simply too much packed into the movie’s otherworldly voyage through the unknown, and the lack of a traditional narrative only makes Holy Motors that much more ambitious and fascinating. Both a death ode and a hopeful glance towards the inevitable rebirth of cinema, Holy Motors rekindles the spark for the future possibilities of film art by glancing forwards and backwards in time. Without hesitation, Carax presents enigmatic yet captivating images for audiences to peek into his strange, unknown world. For Carax, this unknown world inhabits a film, because as Holy Motors demonstrates, all the world’s a screen.
Miguel Penabella | 19 December 2012
As part of my 2012 rundown of my 100 favorite films, I proudly present the first tier, counting down 100 to 81.
Miguel Penabella | 18 December 2012
Dir. John Hillcoat, 2012
Digitally shot in an autumnal stretch of Georgian countryside, Lawless carefully unites pop filmmaking and historical drama with characters that serve as living documents themselves. With Nick Cave penning the script alongside his usual collaborator John Hillcoat as director, the true story behind Lawless makes for a superb crime epic and a dark period piece that surveys the legendary aura surrounding cinematic gangsters. Following Cave and Hillcoat’s previous work in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead and The Proposition, this film similarly portrays violent, half-mythic men and the relationship between law and order in savage lands. Thus, Lawless resembles a formal Western not only in the film’s dusty Southern cinematography but also in its depiction of larger-than-life men that overstate their criminal ego in pursuit of legendary status. Nick Cave chips away at the legend that surrounds the film’s protagonists – the raucous Bondurant brothers – to demystify cinematic gangsters and analyze how unrestrained egoism aggravates interpersonal violence. Take for example seasoned actor Gary Oldman as the elusive big-city mobster Floyd Banner. An early scene witnesses him singlehandedly blasting away a car with a tommy gun, brandishing his weapon with a deadened eye and a cigarette hanging loosely from his lips like an archetypical gangster legend. This kind of grandiose entrance suggests a pivotal role in the narrative (especially with Oldman’s bankability), but Banner is more of a ghost throughout the rest of the film, his name only heard in excited gossip except for one other grand appearance. Instead, Lawless presents Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) as the reckoning weight that the Bondurant brothers must revolve around. Rakes pursues a destructive, blood-spattered campaign less in the name of justice and more just to prove that the Bondurants are not indestructible as people claim them to be. This obsession naturally leads to eruptions of total violence, including one particularly sadistic attack on the youngest Bondurant, Jack (Shia LaBeouf). Despite the film’s breakdown of cinematic gangster violence, Lawless is still altogether a pop gangster flick, a sort of genre precursor to Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad complete with anachronistic music (The Velvet Underground as re-imagined by a folk band) and moments of pure popcorn glee.
Thanks largely in part to Boardwalk Empire, the collective cultural consciousness of Prohibition Americana has moved from jazzy speakeasies to hardboiled gangsters. Drawing on the tradition of classic gangster pictures like 1987’s The Untouchables and 1931’s The Public Enemy, Hillcoat presents a story bound in blood, fame, and liquor. Lawless portrays its characters as monolithic creatures that populate these kinds of archetypical gangster flicks, now relocated in the tranquil backwoods of bootlegger country, the very source for all the violence that spills onto the streets of America’s cities. Alcohol, bloodletting, and flourishes of hillbilly culture run through the film as it does in Matt Bondurant’s book The Wettest County In the World upon which the film is based. Telling the story of brothers Forrest, Howard, and Jack Bondurant (Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, and Shia LaBeouf), Lawless filters its sprawling crime saga through the eyes of the moonshiners over those who wield the Tommy guns. Nevertheless, Lawless still operates under the familiar language of the gangster genre, primarily following Jack’s coming-of-age to mobster prominence under the shadow of his older, already established brothers like a historical antecedent to Goodfellas or The Public Enemy. The Bondurant brothers operate a lucrative moonshining business along with the numerous other underground distilleries that light up the countryside “like a Christmas tree,” but with the arrival of the aforementioned Deputy Rakes comes along the corruption, extortion, and intimidation from the city. While the two older Bondurants struggle to maintain the fear and mythic aura that sets them apart from the rest, Jack finds himself dragged into the world of predatory men and their world of stark, gritty violence painted on an idyllic country landscape. Lawless certainly doesn’t let up on its blood gushing, containing images of throats slit open, men beaten with brass knuckles, and so on. Nevertheless, Hillcoat has the insight to spread his violence apart during the film’s nearly two-hour running time, allowing audiences to immerse in the pastoral locale before suddenly amplifying his action for full impact.
Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme frequently shoots in a magnificent wide-angle lens that locates characters in full context of their surroundings, placing the film’s men alongside the countryside that defines them. Barren, wide open landscapes that serve as establishing shots dot the film (thanks largely in part to guidance by Roger Deakins and the late Harris Savides), while Delhomme takes precious time to detail the deadened woods, rickety houses, and sawdust sprinkled interiors to fully immerse audiences in the film’s specific time and place. Still, Lawless is more concerned with the vicious yet charming gangsters that live in these forests, with Hillcoat and Cave capturing a dissertation on violence and coming-of-age masculinity. Hillcoat’s sprawling countryside serves as a land of violence where boys become gangsters and the Bondurants deal out fear and intimidation while believing in their own egoistic legend. Shia LaBeouf finally unveils his true acting capacities after a string of poor role choices, conveying a youthful gawkiness while still believably feeling undervalued by his older brothers. Harboring an inner drive that slowly allows him to work his way up the criminal ranks, LaBeouf somehow makes his character seem simultaneously respectable and ridiculous, posing for pictures that make him look like a wannabe gangster much like those you’ll find in today’s social media sites. Inversely, Jack’s budding romance with the local preacher’s daughter Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) feels charming because of the film’s steady pacing of their relationship, and proves Wasikowska’s growing presence as a prolific young actress to keep an eye on. As for the older Bondurants, Tom Hardy holds his own against tested actors like Oldman, Pearce, and Chastain, conveying an awkward charisma during rest periods and suddenly erupting into an unbreakable shell during moments of action. Numerous scenes shared between him and Jessica Chastain carry a tremendous tension, contrasting the far more lighthearted frivolities that define LaBeouf and Wasikowska’s scenes. Unfortunately, the superior roles from all the aforementioned stars overshadow Jason Clarke’s Howard, casting him to the sideline as a supporting character.
While Oldman stays out of the spotlight for the majority of the film, it’s Guy Pearce who takes center stage with his fearsome yet seemingly innocuous visage. Pearce’s Deputy Rakes initially displays himself as soft-spoken, clean cut, and eerily unruffled, only to shatter this early pretense for the merciless, temperamental sadism that defines his villainy. Often resorting to brutal acts of unflinching violence, Rakes underlines the disparity between the crooked cities of the time period and the far more levelheaded “hillbilly” country folk. Hillcoat frames his pastoral countryside as tied to religion, family, culture, and tradition while his city gangsters convey a repulsive sleaziness. Of course, Lawless makes sure to never fully side with the country folk either, reminding audiences of the period’s racism (separate fountains for whites and non-whites) and demonstrating the capacity of the land’s seemingly harmless moonshiners for acts of gory mutilation. Gritty, commanding, and sprawling, Lawless is ultimately a worthwhile trip into the violence and egoism of the Prohibition-era backwoods despite its shortcomings. The fierce, devoted acting from all involved sets this film apart from many other genre entries this year, and coupled with the strong direction and sharp writing from John Hillcoat and Nick Cave, Lawless contains a cinematic heft that’s hard to ignore.
Miguel Penabella | 17 December 2012
With the Sight & Sound releasing their decennial top films poll this year (the top 250 can be found here), I’ve found myself drawn to extensive list-making myself. Throughout the past few months, I’ve undertaken a half-interested attempt at 365 films in 365 days and a good chunk of the films I watched during this period appear on this list. Bolstered by my experiences in various film courses that have broadened my movie tastes both foreign and classic, I’ve finally condensed this list down to a sheer hundred. Nevertheless, the entire process ruminating over my personal favorites proved absolutely infuriating because of the sheer number of titles that abound throughout cinema history, and at the ripe age of 19, I’ve only seen the smallest percentage of what the world has to offer. There’s just so much to research, screen, re-screen, and critique that my mind just melts at the thought of claiming all of film history within one lifetime. Perhaps I’ll revisit this list next year and laugh at my choices, a handpicked selection of 100 titles that perfectly captures my tastes and attitudes on cinema at this point in my life. Hopefully next year my favorite 100 films will be radically different, because a man who views the movies at 20 the same as he did at 19 has wasted 1 year of his life (with apologies to Muhammad Ali).
Admittedly, making this list and re-acquainting myself with films I love was quite a pleasure. Writing about them was even more fun. I desperately tried to limit my selection to one entry per director, but I obviously rescinded my own rule because Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Luc Godard, Terrence Malick, and Quentin Tarantino each have at least three appearances. Anyway, I recognize that list-making may ultimately belittle art into mudslinging competition, so I hope that this “New Order” (with apologies to Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris) instead serves the purpose of enlightening others with great films to explore for themselves. And plus, I couldn’t be more pleased to extol the titles that are worth this kind of appraisal, especially when it comes to something as rejuvenating and monumental as these following titles. So to kick off this rundown of my 100 favorite films of all time (with further installments to be posted the rest of this week), here’s ten honorable mentions that just missed the definitive list.
Miguel Penabella | 16 December 2012
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012
Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild represents a certain brand of magical realist filmmaking that contains a distance from factual, ugly truths in order to convey both sociopolitical critique and deeper cultural delights. This formula of adhering to fantasy metaphor to indirectly interrogate an uglier real-life event – much like in Guillermo del Toro’s handling of the Spanish Civil War in Pan’s Labyrinth – bears fruit in Zeitlin’s film, reframing the disastrous aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina within the confines of an imaginative, absorbing fantasy world. The indie darling triumphs as a debut film, winning numerous prizes at Cannes (notably the Caméra d’Or) and Sundance (Dramatic Grand Jury Prize) and standing out as one of the most ambitious and daringly original works of American cinema. Trading real life woes for the realm of metaphor, Beasts of the Southern Wild presents a starry-eyed yet starkly earthy film that comments on the damaged Louisianan psyche of a post-Katrina landscape. Zeitlin highlights the simmering anxiety beneath the jovial façade of his characters, mirroring the very real social malaise concerning the eradication of cultural identity and innocent camaraderie as byproducts of post-Katrina New Orleans.
The aim of Beasts of the Southern Wild appears to be an ethnography of life down in bayou areas of Louisiana, though Zeitlin blunts the real-life parallels by reframing his film in an obscure post-apocalyptic setting. The director and his collective band of filming crew known as Court 13 really travelled to marshland communities in Louisiana in order to adapt Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, candidly photographing their movie in unadorned, dingy locales apart from the pleasures of modern life. Set in the ambiguous world of “The Bathtub,” a colorful marshland that perseveres apart from civilization beyond monstrous levees (a dangerous border zone akin to Game of Throne’s “Wall”), Zeitlin presents a fantastical setting without a specific place or time. The film carries a post-apocalyptic feel because of this ambiguity, as if life has simply moved on beyond a disastrous event while only remnants of a more stable, pre-disaster life exist in rumor, much like what I imagine life in New Orleans is like for many who’ve weathered through Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, the Bathtub feels immersive in its ramshackle aesthetic, consisting of buildings and makeshift watercraft strewn together from arbitrary parts and scrap metal to sustain human life. The world of the Bathtub looks ugly and unkempt, but it’s also candidly human and lovingly crafted despite its disheveled appearance. Beasts of the Southern Wild conjures a world where traditional lines of race, age, and gender are nonexistent, uniting its inhabitants in a last bastion of culture, poverty, and leisure totally separated from the rigid world of old civilization beyond the levees. Starring a ragtag band of non-professional locals as the vagrants and ne’er-do-wells living in the film’s waterlogged shantytown, Zeitlin constructs a pseudo-realist post-apocalyptic folk utopian film that’s ambitious as this description sounds.
The film opens with a sparkling bacchanalia consisting of fireworks, feasting, and merry spirits energized and enthusiastic. During this scene, Beasts of the Southern Wild hits its feel-good peak, a stimulating flurry of upbeat emotions partly due to Dan Romer’s rousing folk soundtrack that sounds like a mix between Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons but mostly to Zeitlin’s lively band of characters. Almost always drunk and looking beaten down by poverty and their harsh environment, the citizens of the Bathtub are nonetheless constantly loving and jovial despite their raggedy appearance, and Beasts’ opening festiveness only highlights their carefree ecstasy of life. Though the film never hits a high-note that matches its opening, Beasts of the Southern Wild still carries an inspiring, buoyant tone that may at times feel formulaic in its spurring of emotions but still has a worthwhile, interesting story and style that definitely never feels bland.
The film follows the exploits of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who in an early scene narrates in voiceover, “They gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.” Her declaration lays claim to her rebellious vibrancy amidst her world of soggy wetlands and formidable upbringing. Wallis delivers voiceover narration as the camera shadows her day-to-day activities, including prying open shellfish in lascivious close-up, roaming around with livestock and other vagabond children, attending a dilapidated folk school, and living in her ramshackle house full of trinkets and junk apart from her father who lives a stone’s throw away. The first half of the film resembles the spontaneity of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, both films pointing their camera at random misfits having fun, dancing, and eating while a child narrates vague, philosophical musings about doomsday prophecies and humanity’s place in the universe. Quvenzhané Wallis triumphs with her role as Hushpuppy, supplying one of this year’s best child performances alongside the kids of Moonrise Kingdom and even surpassing them with something worth an Oscar nomination. Her distinct vernacular feels as lived-in to her role as the rickety buildings look, providing a memorable young character akin to Linda Manz’s in Days of Heaven. Levelheaded, knowing, and unapologetically human, Wallis owns this movie. Zeitlin writes her ruminations on environmental decay and humanity’s conflict against nature with Wallis’s own graceful subjectivity, carrying an effervescent spontaneity necessary to maintain her youthful immediacy. The film matches this very personal voiceover with objective images of global warming, industrial ruins from an earlier world, and over-pollution spilling in from a distant past. This juxtaposition isn’t particularly subtle, but Wallis herself overcomes this setback, elegantly conveying humanity’s connectedness to nature and to one another through the lens of innocent yet insightful child’s eyes.
Additionally, Beasts of the Southern Wild witnesses an astonishing performance by fellow newcomer Dwight Henry, conveying a full range of emotions as Hushpuppy’s tough-love father Wink. His tragically human quality seems to imbue the entire film with Zeitlin’s touch of stark humanism amidst the arduous wetlands of southern Louisiana. Henry and Wallis’s performances are as stripped down as the environment itself, locating only the earthy essentials as they carry on with their everyday routines. Benh Zeitlin’s outdoor compositions lend a genuinely natural, untainted visual plane to accompany his actors’ equally natural performances, and Beasts of the Southern Wild is certainly a genuinely beautiful film. Ben Richardson’s gorgeous cinematography recalls the post-Katrina landscape of flooded marshlands and half-destroyed homes, approaching a neorealist style of a post-disaster setting like Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 movie Germany, Year Zero and its ruined Berlin. Nevertheless, Richardson’s shots of destruction and rot also carry an aura of undisturbed serenity, passing along a feeling of beauty even as the camera documents drunkards, prostitutes, and tramps living in filth and debris. This lasting beauty serves as one of the film’s greatest feats, defiantly casting a sublime aura in the loving expressions, surviving hope, and humanity amidst Zeitlin’s grubby characters living in grinding hardship.
Capricious weather patterns in the Bathtub ultimately build to an unruly hurricane meant to stand-in as Hurricane Katrina, as many residents of the Bathtub elect to hunker down and brave the storm. Benh Zeitlin chooses to indirectly address the real-life tragedy by operating in the realm of magical realism, mixing in folklore with his monstrous aurochs that look straight out of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (both miracles of practical effects) and the candid shakycam realism of his shots. By filtering a narrative tinged with dark misfortune through the lens of a child protagonist and elements of fantasy, Beasts of the Southern Wild most clearly resembles Charles Laughton’s 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, though Zeitlin furthers his agenda with biting social commentary. Last year’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also attempts to address a traumatic national collective memory but with less-than-stellar results, and Beasts triumphs because of its far more compelling setup and originality. Although this film operates as a piece of magical realism, memories of Hurricane Katrina hit close to home when the residents of the Bathtub deny the dangers that await them and choose to stay in a place doomed to sink. When Hushpuppy and Wink venture out of their home midway through the film into the waterlogged Bathtub, the eerie calmness betrays an innocence now lost amidst the wreckage of the storm. Zeitlin and his cinematographer film shots of ruined, flooded houses, images that burn into collective memory because these are actual locations hit by the real-life Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately, Zeitlin’s characters slowly emerge from the storm like damaged goods, left speechless amidst the devastation but more resilient as a united community than ever.
An encroaching helicopter past the midway point of the film feels completely out of place in Zeitlin’s idyllic swampland community, but it’s here that his implied dystopian community now spills over onto the world of the Bathtub. The land beyond the levees always remains vague and unclear because of the film’s subjective viewpoint through the eyes of Hushpuppy, making the helicopter feel as though it’s intruding into a world it doesn’t belong to. When residents of the Bathtub fear for their livelihood as strange men and women arrive to relocate them to a safer place, their fear feels palpable and genuine because of Zeitlin’s presentation of a subjective, first-person narrative. This forced assimilation into the cold and foreign world beyond the levees feels far scarier than the encroaching government in District 9 because this film is primarily focalized around the eyes of a young child with a worldview completely separated from the world beyond the Bathtub. “Civilization” also appears genuinely formidable, with giant smoke stacks, power plants, harsh interior lights, and sickly individuals resembling a locale completely removed from the earlier cheeriness of the Bathtub. Like the damaging aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina, the relief efforts have proved dodgy and indifferent towards the victims of disaster (just look at the Superdome and its poor conditions during the relief effort), and Zeitlin proposes that the destruction of regional identity, culture, and camaraderie are disastrous byproducts further overlooked in aid efforts.
Obviously, many complaints have been raised that Benh Zeitlin portrays his impoverished Bathtub residents in a problematic light because they deny healthcare, education, and safety that his civilization offers them. In its latter half, Beasts of the Southern Wild portrays institutionalized relief as harmful to the region when it overstays its welcome and denies sympathy with the people of the Bathtub, but Zeitlin is far from assuming his characters as merely ingenuous. Take for example Wink’s ultimate recognition of the benefits that institutions can offer the Bathtub and his willing surrender of old world culture and values for the continuation of his human life. Through Wink, Zeitlin conveys the inherent thought that an older way of life is dying in favor of a cold, indifferent modern world, but the Bathtub residents are trying to keep their culture alive in their children despite that inevitability. He teaches his daughter values he wants to preserve beyond his lifetime: strength, compassion, and resilience, values that the Bathtub itself inherently contains. Beasts of the Southern Wild is more levelheaded than an ordinary piece of outsider art, with the film ultimately concluding that institutions aren’t so much a destroyer of communities as they are just uncertain in how to approach the marginalized as effectively as they should.
Part Spike Jonze, part Terrence Malick, Beasts of the Southern Wild conveys its childlike wonder and innocence just as impressively as its inspirations have done, a virtue largely attributed to the powerful performances by Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. Concluding with a scene in which Hushpuppy stares into the eye of the charcoal black aurochs, the film closely resembles the end of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, noting both the ephemeral nature of the human experience and moments of otherworldly sublime. Benh Zeitlin completely inhabits his film, filling it with a glorious folk soundtrack and a wondrous cast and crew to join his admittedly spectacular landscapes and post-apocalyptic folk vision of harmony. And most importantly, the artistry of this film resides in Zeitlin’s admission of the collective voice of post-Katrina Louisiana coming through, enrapturing audiences in their enthusiasm for an old world culture and making its lore absolutely magnetic. The film is credited not only to Benh Zeitlin but to the collective Court 13, and I’ll argue that it also comprises all of the people whom Beasts of the Southern Wild is about: those ashen faces of people who have dealt with hell and came out of it stronger and more resilient than ever.
Miguel Penabella | 13 December 2012
We are now entering the twelve days of Christmas, so holiday shopping is now at its last desperate stretch before December 25th. But what to get your favorite cinephile or gamer? Both are probably in a daze after rushing to experience the last few great titles that 2012 has to offer, and what they want for Christmas may still be a total mystery. Well look no further, because Free Tea has ten must-haves for the 2012 holiday season. This year, we’ve got box sets, books, videogames, and more. So to start off 2012’s “A Year In Review” series, we proudly present the Free Tea 2012 Holiday Gift Guide.
10. Tarantino XX
This box set is a curious release. We like the Mondo-inspired art design of the packaging and the comprehensive blu-ray rundown of Quentin Tarantino’s twenty years of filmmaking, including (weirdly enough) the Tony Scott-directed True Romance, Death Proof, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Jackie Brown. Two bonus discs offer five hours of special features, but unfortunately, Tarantino XX lacks the much-anticipated Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, the stitched-together, comprehensive mega version of both Kill Bill films. Still, if you’re willing to drop serious money for a friendly Tarantino fan missing these films, Tarantino XX is the way to go.
09. Killing Is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line by Brendan Keogh
2012 marks a significant release in gaming criticism with Brendan Keogh’s Killing Is Harmless, a thorough critical analysis of the military shooter deconstructionist Spec Ops: The Line. While only in PDF and EPUB formats, the book raises significant questions on videogames and the open-ended moral consciousness of Yager’s masterful work of art. The launch price of $2.99 remains valid until December 21st, so act quickly before time runs out!
Seller: Stolen Projects
Price $2.99 (limited time)
08. Fear and Desire (Blu-ray)
Previously only available on seedy bootleg copies and terrible online uploads, this archival restoration from a 35mm print by the Library of Congress brings Stanley Kubrick’s 1953 debut back to the limelight. Thanks to Kino-Lorber, this release includes zero digital touch-up, a feature worthy of both praise and contempt. Although it’s interesting to have a film presented “as is” from its original print, a group like Crtierion at least rids the grainy specks and debris that have ruined the image with modern technology. Oh well, this release of Fear and Desire still beats literally every other previous rendition of Kubrick’s lost masterpiece.
07. Lawrence of Arabia: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition (Blu-ray)
The monstrous four-disc 50th anniversary collector’s edition of the 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia represents the definitive home video restoration for this film. Packed with a restored blu-ray version of the film, a bonus supplements disc, a full CD soundtrack with previously unreleased music, a limited 70mm film frame, and an 88-page coffee table hardcover book, this edition of Lawrence of Arabia is an elegant box release that will nicely compliment any cinephile’s collection.
06. Feminist Ryan Gosling: Feminist Theory (as Imagined) from Your Favorite Sensitive Movie Dude by Danielle Henderson
Adapted from her Internet meme of the same name, Danielle Henderson’s coffee table book presents a hilarious rundown on feminist theory paired with random photos from the photogenic Ryan Gosling. Included are a number of blog favorites and approximately 80% of new material to comprise 120 full-color photographs/entries. Appropriate for any Ryan Gosling fan.
Seller: Barnes & Noble
05. Mass Effect Trilogy Collection
Finally packaged in one neat collection, the Mass Effect trilogy collection comprises all three of Bioware’s epic sci-fi series in one definitive set. This home release comes with gorgeous box art to make up for the individual games’ horrendously plain artwork and is available for both the PS3 and Xbox 360. For anyone who hasn’t played the Mass Effect games yet, this collection is worth the price.
Seller: Best Buy
04. Any Film from the Criterion Collection
But especially the new releases, which include the blu-ray versions of Brazil, The Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi), Following, Rosemary’s Baby, Heaven’s Gate, Rashomon, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights). Each of these releases – as well as the hundreds of other independent, foreign, and classic films in the Criterion catalogue – come with glorious original artwork and worthwhile film criticism with its packaging. Believe me: any film from the Criterion Collection is much appreciated for any serious cinephile out there.
Seller: The Criterion Collection
03. Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection
This collection is a set worth waiting for, spanning over thirty years of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography with films including Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds, Rope, and many others for a fifteen disc total. Only North by Northwest and Psycho have been previously released on blu-ray, so this set is a must for any film collector. Packaged in a stunningly beautiful cardboard sleeve with original artwork for each film, this masterpiece collection may be expensive but definitely worthwhile for anyone looking to invest in classic Hitchcock.
02. The Walking Dead by Telltale Games
Winner of 2012’s game of the year by the Video Game Awards (if that’s worth anything to you), Telltale’s The Walking Dead is nonetheless one of the finest videogame titles of this year. Previously released in narrative installments of a total of five episodes, the recently released physical copy comprises all the chapters in one seamless package. For those looking for a last great gaming title for the year, look no further than this critically acclaimed hit worth every penny for its fairly low $30 price tag.
01. Bond 50
Bond 50 comprises everything: a massive 23-disc blu-ray set that celebrates fifty years of James Bond from Dr. No to Quantum of Solace. Fully restored with high definition clarity and sound, Bond 50 is the definitive home release box set with ALL of the bonus content from previous home releases carried over to this one. And to add a special touch that really sells Bond 50 as the finest box set of the year, a special spot reserved for Skyfall’s eventual blu-ray release is reserved in the packaging to make room for all the Bond flicks at the series’ 50th anniversary.