Archive for March, 2018

Film Review: Free Fire

March 30, 2018 Leave a comment

Free Fire (2016; Directed by Ben Wheatley)

After an early-career period of gritty but underseen Britside crime films, bewhiskered English director Ben Wheatley has assumed a decent critically-noticed profile as crafted of tense and graphic bottle-episode movies. This phase began with the black-and-white A Field in England, about 17th-century Civil War soldiers bickering and slaughtering each other in a pasture, and followed it with the J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise, about a luxe apartment building whose privileged residents descend into chaos.

Given this genre-film niche Wheatley has carved out of depicting strong personalities clashing with verbal heat and violent physicality in confined spaces, Free Fire seems an almost-too-obvious next step. Portraying the sharp banter and deadly gunplay that ensues when a 1970s-vintage arms deal in a Boston-area abandoned factory goes disastrously south, Free Fire is a dead-simple movie in concept and only slightly more complex in execution.

The buyers in this deal are led by IRA-connected Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), and supported by bumbling local Irish-American relations Stevo (Sam Riley), an imprudent chatterbox, and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), a good-natured simpleton. They are buying semi-automatic arms for the Republican cause from a smarmy South African dandy named Vernon (Sharlto Copley, because who else could match that description?) and his ex-Black Panther partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). The go-betweens are smooth criminal-world operator Ord (Armie Hammer) and the inscrutable Justine (Brie Larson). Initial personal friction (the boastful Vernon is a bit much to take, even for his partners) worsens when the wrong merchandise is proffered, and then a slow-burning fuse is lit and eventually explodes when Stevo and Vernon’s henchman Harry (Jack Reynor) turn out to have had a violent altercation over the former’s abuse of the latter’s cousin in a neighbourhood bar the night before.

Triggers begin to be pulled and bullets begin to fly, and bare survival for all involved becomes the modus operandi, with the added bonus of a suitcase full of cash to any who manage to endure the fusillade. Wheatley and his co-screenwriter Amy Jump come up with a series of exchanges and scenarios to keep the most-of-the-movie-length shootout fresh and engaging (ie. Martin brings along a couple of snipers as secret back-up, one of which Ord recognizes; a phone starts ringing in the building, with the promise of calling for aid, etc.). That said, exciting as it generally remains, Free Fire never wins back the enervated momentum it whips up at the commencement of the shooutout, especially as the participants are hobbled by an increasing number of wounds and are reduced to crawling along the dirty floors and attempting to dispatch their similarly-crippled foes.

This sort of potboiler is hardly prime material for political applicability (and outside of some Troubles-related insults being thrown around, Free Fire offers none) or for fine performances, but some of the actors manage some decent-to-strong work, with Hammer especially all movie-star confidence and swagger as the cool, collected, witty Ord. There’s also two memorably transgressive applications of John Denver’s “Annie Song”, both as left-field footsteps-of-doom anticipation of calamity and as post-calamity ironic summation. It’s an enjoyable trifle that is soon forgotten, however, and Wheatley seemed to be moving in quite an opposite direction as a filmmaker with his recent work. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of violent, clever fun like Free Fire, but for a director beginning to indicate that he is capable of a great deal more, it feels like a bit of a step back.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: A Cure for Wellness

March 22, 2018 Leave a comment

A Cure for Wellness (2016; Directed by Gore Verbinski)

What a tantalizing clutch of opportunities A Cure for Wellness decides to waste. This is a one-sentence summary verdict that could be applied to almost every movie Gore Verbinski has directed since he burst to prominence with the first (and still best) Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of the Black Pearl (that “almost” qualifier is set aside for the consistently brilliant and subversive animated western Rango). What’s notable about A Cure for Wellness is how Verbinski – working from a story he co-wrote with Justin Haythe, who alone is credited for the screenplay – manages to squander his creation’s potential in entirely novel ways. After spending an act or two building up a creepy, unsettling gothic-horror atmosphere with intelligent care (he did direct The Ring, after all) and seeding a fast-flowering hybridized critique of capitalism and health and wellness culture, Verbinski closes his film with a lurid “twist” of rape-incest sensationalism and an operatic inferno-lit climactic battle between his protagonist and his hideous-visaged villain like something out of a second-rate Frankenstein flick.

What leads to that deflating compromise of a climax, though, is generally absorbing, often crisply and beautifully shot, and sometimes even inspired. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a rising young sales exec at a massive Wall Street finance firm whose board has eyes for a power-move merger/expansion but requires its missing CEO, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), to both sign off on the deal and take the legal fall for certain accounting irregularities which Lockhart himself had a hand in. To stave off jail for himself, Lockhart is compelled to retrieve Pembroke from a remote mountaintop castle spa and “wellness center” high in the Swiss Alps (specifically inspired by the setting and thematic milieu of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a reference point that is typical of Verbinski’s highbrow artistic and intellectual influences).

Stymied in his haste to fetch Pembroke back to New York by the bureaucratic diffidence of the spa’s staff and then laid up in a patient room after breaking his leg in a spectacularly visceral car crash, Lockhart begins to learn more about the operation and its dark history. A medieval baronial castle, the whole structure was burned down two centuries prior by locals angered by the Baron, a pure-blood fanatic who renounced God, sought to marry his own sister (who was killed in the fire), and may have been performing gruesome experiments on the peasants for his own nefarious ends. One of the almost-uniformly elderly patients is an amateur historian (Celia Imrie) who suggests to Lockhart that these past horrors have a connection to the superficially-pleasant curative-waters institution run in the castle by Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Lockhart meets and befriends the only other young patient, a budding teenage girl named Hannah (Mia Goth) who is called a “special case” by her guardian Volmer, but he also begins to experience strange and disturbing visions of eels swarming in the aquifer waters, and encounters ever more nightmarish things as he ventures ever deeper into Volmer’s health centre.

I’m usually loath to specifically spoil any such thriller’s big plot twist, although A Cure for Wellness seems particularly keen to spoil itself by utterly telegraph its hardly-shocking turn. Verbinski leaves a trail of breadcrumb clues the size of wholes bread-loaves, and embeds persistent Freudian oedipal symbols and suggestions throughout his movie. Lockhart’s high-powered trader father committed suicide in front of him, while his mother crafts fragile feminine music-box ballerina figures in her retirement home, waiting to die; she does so, apparently simultaneously with Lockhart’s car crash (caused by a galloping stag, masculine-coded iconography which recurs in Volmer’s office and around the castle premises), and he dispassionately attends her cremation, although he is evidently unconscious for days after the crash (perhaps this is a flashback, but the editing is a bit vague on this point).

Elsewhere, in Hannah’s first two scenes with Lockhart, she is shot consistently mirrored in reflective pools, anticipating her mirroring relations to the Baroness’ horrible historical fate. A similar, even trippier doubled image immediately follows the title card, as Lockhart’s bridge-traversing train and its dualized reflection snap to unity as it careens into the black maw of a mountain tunnel (a callback to Alfred Hitchcock’s notorious sexual innuendo image at the close of North by Northwest, with similar penetrative implications in mind, doubtlessly). Most suggestive of all is a sequence of Lockhart’s post-crash hydration therapy at the spa, which sees him submerged in a metal tank as if a fetus in a womb, sperm-like eels swarming around him while his distracted minder self-pleasures to the sight of a nurse’s bare chest (in a later horror-movie moment, these sperm-eels gain ingress to Lockhart’s body via a tube thrust into his mouth, a disturbing quasi-fertilization).

One supposes, indeed one can be very nearly certain, that all of this Freudian imagery and psychological disquiet is intricately linked to Verbinski’s conception of ambitious capitalist striving as a virulent sickness that must be therapeutically purged. This is purportedly the purpose of Volmer’s alpine retreat and its hydrological treatments, to “cure” wealthy aged global plutocrats of the constricting stress and anxiety of grinding overwork that goes hand-in-hand with vaulting success in neoliberal capitalism (and that, in the film’s otherwise-uncontextualized opening scene, claims the life of the analyst whom Lockhart replaces at Pembroke’s firm, and whom the latter expected to be sent to retrieve him).

But the truth of Volmer’s centre is that it is the nexus of a final, self-serving system of corporeal consumption, literally processing patients into an elixir of life that fuels a multi-generational continuity of arcane incestual perversion. The ceaseless, frantic locomotion of the new world is thus chemically transmuted into the vital sustaining nutrients for the twisted, atrophying fantasies of the old world. The machine that carries out this process is, of course, a faded old-world relic, the alpine spa retreat where the unwell “take the waters”; an American member of the board of Lockhart’s employer scoffs at the continued existence of such facilities as inherently vestigial in its old-fashioned-ness. Volmer claims to “cure” the damaging assumptions of the hegemonic socioeconomic order at his time-capsule enclave, but he only leeches off of it to feed an undead evil that sleeps in its chest cavity and beats on like a tired old heart, pumping poisoned blood out to its twitching, reliant extremities.

A Cure for Wellness, sadly, never really rounds out this potentially deep and broad critique of capitalist elites and wellness culture (the latter is used very much as a mechanism for probing the former). In much the same way that the comprehensive critique of the colonialism of the Old West in The Lone Ranger (the huge-budget failure of which sent Verbinski scurrying off to Europe for backers of this production, which also flopped badly) became swallowed, partly digested, and ultimately neutralized by the Hollywood action-blockbuster monster and the historical assumptions of the Western genre, A Cure for Wellness loses its intellectual criticisms in grotesque horror-movie shocks (what function, really, is the dental-torture Marathon Man homage serving, for example?) and the generic trappings of the gothic thriller. It also drags on too long, and its frothy ending is particularly bad, a definite deflation that undoes nearly all of the exquisite arrangement of symbols and ideas that precedes it. I stated at the outset that Gore Verbinski manages to squander the potential of A Cure for Wellness in fresh ways, but perhaps its failure is unfortunately archetypal of the director’s work, of the particular manner in which his vision and ambition lead to a certain unwellness when manifested in genre-movie form.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #37

March 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Young Pope (HBO; 2017)

From Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino, the crafter of the rapturously gorgeous The Great Beauty, The Young Pope is a visually beautiful series headlined by a career-pinnacle performance from its star Jude Law, who plays an under-50 American pontiff with arrogantly old-fashioned autocratic and revanchist ideas concerning the Vatican’s management of the contemporary Catholic Church. Still, it’s narratively and thematically uneven and inconsistent, even as it productively challenges Catholicism’s current trajectory.

Blowing into the august halls of the Vatican like a scalding wind, this new Pope – Lenny Belardo is his birth name, and he assumes the papal name of Pius XIII – presents as a youthful iconoclast. If he never quite reaches the rebellious absurdities of the internet’s roiling, riotous Young Pope memes, in-text Pius comes much closer than one might have believed when, in the early stages of the limited series, he lights up a cigarette in the Papal Palace in contravention of John Paul II’s prior non-smoking edicts, saying, “There’s a new pope now.” The opening titles distill this essence into even more ludicrous form; you almost don’t have to watch the show if you watch them.

His refusal to appear in public, autocratic pronouncements, and desire to root out all homosexuality in the Church clergy frustrates and confounds the Cardinals, particularly his one-time mentor Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) and the Cardinal Secretary of State, the sly, subtle, self-promoting Napoli football fan Angelo Voiello (a superb Silvio Orlando). Even close allies – such as Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised him in an orphanage after he was abandoned by his hippie parents, the core psychological trauma that Sorrentino returns to time and again to explain Lenny’s perspective – doubt his direction, and he himself even doubts his belief in God.

Sorrentino and his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi shoot their re-created Vatican City with sun-drenched magnificence and rich baroque lustre, incorporating earthy continental sexuality and magic-realist touches (such as the kangaroo that Pius receives as a gift and lets loose in the gardens, a symbol of some element of his psyche or faith or doubt that is difficult to firmly pin down). The dominant issues facing the modern Catholic Church – homosexual clergy, the celibacy oath, priest child abuse, secular unbelief, charismatic salt-of-the-earth miracle-workers, worldly capitalism and politics, the increasing importance of the developing world among its global flock – are addressed and sometimes even prodded out of complacent positions. Belardo and Spencer even hold a straight one-on-one debate on the Church’s position on abortion in the Sistine Chapel, which while a touch direct, does at least lay out the germane internal thinking on the issue among the theological elite.

Whatever points (be they so pedantic or more elegant and subtle) Sorrentino is seeking to make about Catholicism of the moment, they dissolve into Jude Law’s commanding central performance. Belardo’s psychology and beliefs are not always crystal-clear, and personal losses through the series shift the brazen dictatorial caprice of his initial days towards a more publically-acceptable light-poetic inspirational persona. But Law keeps us always focused on the man he is at his core: a seeking orphan, a figure of solitude, and perhaps a leader touched by special divine favour. Even a Pope, perhaps especially a Pope, can be a lonely man.

Altered Carbon (Netflix; 2018)

A handsomely-budgeted serialized adaptation of the first of Richard K. Morgan’s science-fiction novel series, Altered Carbon presents like Blade Runner with the fuzzier margins of design and world-building busily filled in. It has very different ideas in mind, however.

Altered Carbon is set in the late 24th Century, and finds humanity dwelling in a fascinating new multiple-lifetime reality: for centuries, individual human consciousness has been contained in talisman-like data packets known as stacks, allowing a single person’s mind and memories to outlive the lifespan of their physical body (the relative disposability of which has led them to become known as sleeves). This has almost countless implications on human relationships, philosophy and religious belief, laws and politics, government and socioeconomic differences, many of which Altered Carbon draws out in good time.

Following a former supersoldier turned defacto detective named Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) who is “spun back up” from decades of disembodied imprisonment in order to solve the murder of a super-rich man (James Purefoy), Altered Carbon is far more interesting and thought-provoking in its early world-establishing episodes, before its genre-fiction plotting and graphic violence grasp the controls. Exploring the myriad implications of stacks and sleeves proves a richer experience than the adolescent melodrama of the narrative, and if Netflix continues to adapt Morgan’s books, such world expansion can be expected to be its primary allure.

Categories: Reviews, Television