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Sunday
Jan272013

IDS Rising (2012)

Put Your Sister to the Test

All I really gotta do is live and die, but I'm in a hurry and don't know why.

--Alabama

In the last four years, Cory Udler has written, directed, edited, and released four feature-length independent movies and one vignette for an upcoming horror anthology.* That's a feat anyone should be proud of, and exhausted by, so it's no surprise he's taking off 2013 to get his life back. When he blazes back onto the scene someday, I hope it's with a better movie than his latest, IDS Rising. I respect the hell out of Cory, but he's one of the most frustrating filmmakers I know.

IDSR, the third chapter in his Incest Death Squad trilogy, picks up during the final moments of part two: serial-killer siblings Jeb and Amber Wayne (Greg Johnson and Carmela Wiese) and former journalist-turned-serial-killer Aaron Burg (Tom Lodewyck) die after a tense Mexican stand-off that results in, among other things, Aaron's heart being ripped out of his chest. We soon learn that Amber is still clinging to life, and the film unfolds as a Christmas Carol-style journey through her past.

As victims, allies, and even the Devil himself (Blade Braxton) kick Amber down memory lane, we're treated to several Usual Suspects-style revelations about characters and situations from the previous films that we only thought we knew. Udler's screenplay retains the fire that makes all his stuff worthwhile. Look past the title and gruesome subject matter, and you'll find rich characters that use sex and violence to avoid coping with their frailty. Particularly in IDS Rising, Udler takes all of his creations to task for the crutches that ultimately led to their collective demise--from a warped faith in God to weakness in the face of temptation. The damage is so complete in part three that no one is recognizable as the version of themselves from the first movie.

This time around, though, the production seems anxious, as if Udler needed to get the film out of his system before taking a break. Gone is the whiz-bang joy of watching an auteur squeeze blood from a nothing budget. Instead, we're left with a movie heavy on close-ups and light on invention. IDS2 kept me wondering not only how Udler had pulled off such faithful, stylistic homages to Rob Zombie films, but also where he would take his visuals next. IDS Rising is conspicuous in its locations' plainness, especially when portraying supernatural space.

When watching a scene that takes place in Hell, for example, I should be focused on what the characters are doing, rather than wondering whether or not the filmmakers paid to shoot in a high school boiler room, or snuck in, gonzo-style, during an away game. Likewise, the opening scene between Amber and Aaron, as compelling as it is to listen to, would have been much better served by a black-box-theatre-style backdrop than the dimly lit suburban apartment in which it was clearly filmed. If I dig really deep, I could probably justify both of these creative decisions, but in a movie as weird and well-thought-out as this, story-wise, I expect a far more ambitious execution.

Case in point, there's a horrific but sickly funny scene in which Jeb, at the behest of his demented father Job (Michael Katzenberger), beats his mother to death with a shovel (she's played with delirious, kept-woman denial by Heather Renken). Set in a wide open field to an upbeat, old-timey radio song, the glee with which Jeb goes about his business is at once reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs and American Psycho. As a character, he's deeply conflicted: only a few scenes before, he'd (yikes) had sex with his mother--now he was "doing the Lord's work" by bludgeoning a helpless woman who'd been tied to a chair.

In this instance, Udler's imagination makes his limited resources wildly interesting. Instead of shooting another dank-basement scene, he chooses to turn what could have just been an establishing-shot location into a set piece that recalls the brazenness of IDS2 and the stylistic strangeness of his previous film, Mediatrix. That movie also had its problems, but I still rank it slightly above this one--thanks largely to Udler's MVP, Lodewyck, and his gutsy co-star, Paula Duerksen.

Contrast that pairing with Loedwyck and Wiese here. She's either one of the best or least impressive actresses I've ever seen. Her line delivery is so flat and un-actorly that I can't believe she's actually the star of three motion pictures. I really want to give her the benefit of the doubt, mostly because the non-verbal aspects of her performance are really something. It could be that she's just really good at playing a horny, brain-dead hick, but my litmus test for recommending independent films has changed a bit over the years--meaning I can no longer justify giving an actor a pass when there's so little evidence to justify it.

Fortunately, she has plenty of solid support. Katzenberger, whom I was unkind to in my Mediatrix review, does very well here. He plays a great, showy sleazebag and religious hypocrite (one of Udler's favorite thematic muses), providing the perfect template for Jeb and Amber's screwy behavior. Melissa Jo Murphy also pops up as Aaron's deceased fiancée, Andrea--another fine example of a character whose tragic evolution is the trilogy's selling point.** The hightlight of IDSR, though, is Matt Kenyon, a newcomer with a major spoiler of a role. All I'll say is that you'll find no greater contrast to Wiese's questionable talents than the scene in which she comes up against a kid who effortlessly sells the hell out of his bit part.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I'm thanked in IDS Rising's end credits. Cory and I have maintained an infrequent correspondence ever since I began reviewing his movies. I hope I'm not betraying any confidence by saying that at various points in IDSR's production, he said he was making a near-critic-proof movie, one strictly for the fans. I appreciate that passion, that determination, but I question the wisdom of spending hard-earned money and countless hours on a picture whose aesthetics alone will likely drive off anyone who isn't already on-board with the series.

In my opinion, those who dismiss the Incest Death Squad movies, sight-unseen, are missing out. But in Udler's rush to find closure with these characters, he's created a movie that almost feels embarrassed limping across the finish line. I might be in the minority of fans for whom he made this movie, but I don't come to these pictures for blood and boobs. I come to be entertained (and even moved) by a filmmaker who could take on any of the so-called big-league genre directors if given half a chance, a substantial budget, and CAA's Rolodex. Still, it's hard to convert newcomers, let alone the people who could make big things happen for Udler and his crew, when the lead actress is a dud and the blood looks like strawberry syrup.

The antidote to bad horror movies and shitty remakes of great ones is a combination of vision, guts, and the ability to tell a compelling story. Udler has all of those things, but he'll never make it out of Wisconsin by shooting himself in the foot like this. Instead of rushing to deliver a picture every year, he might try making one every three years. With a greater budget, expanded resources, and enough time to hammer the kinks out of material that showcases his full potential as an artist, there would be no stopping him from conquering Hollywood. Knowing Cory, that's the last place he'd want to work, but they desperately need him out there.

Goddammit, so do we.

*Later this year, he'll put the finishing touches on Ed Gein, D.D.S., which will debut as part of Hole in the Wall.

**It's too bad she was tucked away behind really cheap-looking "skin mask" makeup. One of the series' constant pitfalls is the filmmakers' lack of investment in half-way convincing violence. With the exception of Aaron's open chest wound and veiny face, IDS Rising continues a puzzling tradition of shoddy gore in a down-and-dirty murder series.

Tuesday
Jan222013

The Last Stand (2013)

Everything Old is New (And Practical!)

I didn't miss Arnold Schwarzenegger during his eight-year acting hiatus, but I'm glad he's back. True, his big coming-out party happened across two Expendables movies, but Jee-woon Kim's The Last Stand is more than a cartoon shoot-'em-up or nostalgia bomb. It's also better than most of the movies Schwarzenegger made in the decade leading up to his governorship of California.

Maybe the actor's time in office softened his bulldozer persona. Maybe the ensuing scandals reminded him and everyone else that "The Terminator" not only has a shelf-life but a battery life, too. Whatever the case, Schwarzenegger's performance here is surprisingly reflective and touching--with, of course, frequent reminders that he's also a larger-than-life badass. I attribute half of that to the star, and half to Kim and screenwriter Andrew Knauer (with assists from Jeffrey Nachmanoff and George Nolfi). The Last Stand is at once a return-to-form for hard-R 80s action movies and a commentary on the gross vigilantism that makes many of them seem quaint now.

Schwarzenegger stars as Ray Owens, a former L.A. narcotics officer who retired to the sleepy border town of Somerton, Arizona and became its sheriff. Owens' quiet life is interrupted one morning when the FBI informs him that Mexico's most dangerous drug lord has escaped custody and is headed his way. Following a brief, bloody encounter with Gabriel Cortez's (Eduardo Noriega) advance team, the sheriff gathers the remaining members of his department--plus a townie/ex-marine played by Rodrigo Santoro--and seeks help from a local weapons enthusiast named Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville). Together, they close off the two main roads into Somerton and take on Cortez's army of paramilitary thugs.

The plot really is that cookie-cutter, down to the ultra-loose characterizations and predictable order of the action's escalation. Does Forest Whitaker play a grumpy FBI agent who spends much of the film yelling at Owens over the phone? You bet he does! Does Luis Guzman pop up for his billionth role as "that funny Mexican guy"? Si! Does Cortez take a nosedive off a makeshift border bridge following his bloody confrontation with Owens at the end?

No.

And that's part of what makes The Last Stand worthwhile. In these kinds of movies, even if the hero has taken a moral stance against killing, the villain always ends up splattered against a street, a car, or a canyon floor. Yep, that's a spoiler, but knowing the outcome in this case might keep you engaged during the climax. Pay attention to Cortez's desperate, angry face as he tries to weasel his way past Owens' bruised tower of principle. There's no doubt in the audience's mind that the good guy will succeed, but Kim and Noriega put us firmly in the head of a villain who believes he'll make it home. Owens remains committed to not letting his enemy off easily. He takes an insane amount of punches, kicks, and stabbings in a fight he could have ended much sooner, all to make sure that Cortez rots in a deep, dark hole.

There are a handful of other little surprises that should silence your internal snark alarm early on--mostly having to do with the conventions made popular by Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies. If that's not enough for you, perhaps the lack of obvious computer-generated stunts will be a draw. Aside from the atrocious climactic set piece, which I'll get to in a minute, The Last Stand features some pretty thrilling car chases, building spills, and squib-poppin' gun violence. Like Jack Reacher, the characters in Kim's movie are fetishists of all manner of artillery. The grand arming-to-the-teeth montage is kind of gross if you've still got Sandy Hook on the brain, but the filmmakers do a great job of backing the protagonists into a corner from which the only way out is to go over the top.

Now, for the drawbacks. If, like me, you approach every new movie fully switched-on, you'll have to tiptoe through a minefield of problems in order to enjoy this thing. From the poorly shot crane magnet that lifts the armored truck carrying Cortez during his escape (I honestly don't recall ever seeing what it was attached to), to Peter Stormare's puzzling accent (perhaps best described as Swedish redneck), to the time-padding interrogation of a low-level thug that goes absolutely nowhere, The Last Stand provides frequent reminders that, despite being a commentary on big, dumb action movies, it is still, at heart, a big, dumb action movie.

Which brings me, finally, to that climax. Ugh. Following a suspenseful and really exciting car chase through a cornfield, Cortez and Owens duke it out over a canyon linking Arizona and Mexico via bridge. The preceding fifteen minutes was well-photographed, believable, and fun to watch. As we follow Cortez out of the field and into a small valley leading to the bridge, the setting opens up to reveal a barren landscape straight out of No Country for Old Men. But when Owens is revealed a moment later, standing between Cortez and freedom, he's standing on a pathetic bridge set filmed entirely against green screen.

All the good will Kim and company built up with their practical effects and stunt work is undone in an instant, and the unconvincing fight drags on for over five excruciating minutes. The worst part is that this could have been a Casino Royale-worthy, high-stakes/high-altitude brawl if the budget hadn't been blown on things like Johnny Knoxville's stupid Viking helmet (that's speculation, but there's waste all over this picture). The punches and strangulation feel real, but the blatant stage lighting and halos completely sapped my enthusiasm.

Believe it or not, I'm not the biggest fan of meta-criticism. But in special cases like this, I like to step outside the review and talk about information peripheral to the actual movie. I was really bummed to see The Last Stand bomb last weekend, debuting in tenth place. Had you told 1991 Arnold Schwarzenegger that one day he'd lose out to a French musical, a drama about bitchy co-dependents, and a three-hour dwarf fantasy--all of which had been out for over a month, by the way--he probably would have killed himself.

I wonder if this poor showing has anything to do with today's troubling news that he's slinking back to The Terminator franchise. It's too much to hope he'll reconsider, or at least not turn his back on different kinds of roles. In one light, Ray Owens is a goofy character who loves Schwarzenegger-style one-liners; in another, he's a reluctant warrior--a wise, old man who sees the second half of his life as an opportunity to do realize completely different dreams. Likewise, I thought this movie would be a turning point for the actor. Unfortunately, it looks like the lesser, dumber version of him will be back.

Thursday
Jan172013

Mama (2013)

Maternity Suit

Horror filmmakers have a friend in Guillermo del Toro. It would be enough for him to inspire genre fans every few years with bizarre little masterpieces like The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, but he also uses his clout to get other people's passion projects off the ground. Granted, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was garbage, and I didn't see The Orphanage, but the movies he produces always look like they could take place in the universe he established. That's definitely the case with Andrés Muschietti's Mama, which alternately suffers and soars under the del Toro brand name.

The film stars Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Annabel and Lucas, a Virginia couple struggling to live the rebel artist lifestyle well into their thirties--she as a drummer in a punk band, he as an illustrator. One afternoon, Lucas is informed that his twin brother Jeffrey has gone missing with his two young daughters; this after murdering several co-workers and then the girls' mother, apparently due to stress from the financial crisis. Five years later, the girls turn up in a wooded cabin, with no dad in sight and exhibiting the feral behavior of wild animals.

Lucas convinces Annabel to help him raise Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nélisse), lest they wind up as wards of the state or in the custody of their cold Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat). Kindly Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) offers the couple use of a large, hospital-funded house in exchange for the ability to study the girls' behavior. Upon moving in, the family discovers an unexpected fifth housemate: "Mama", the grouchy, misshapen spirit protector who helped the girls survive for half a decade.

Following a sufficiently nerve-wracking setup, Mama's story devolves into a ninety-five minute cliche checklist. Muschietti and co-writers Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti hit all the "creepy kid movie" mile markers, from spooky crayon drawings to doomed nosy adults to washed-out flashbacks that reveal the shocking truth about an unrestful ghost.

On the page, eighty percent of Mama is tired. In the same way that most "Based on a True Story" pictures are filtered through Hollywood's bullshit three-act-structure template until they no longer resemble relatable experiences, Muschietti helps water down his own material to the point where the final product is almost unrecognizable from the eerie short that got del Toro's attention in the first place. True, it has been grafted into the full-length movie, but the demo's spirit is mercilessly suffocated by the surrounding narrative fluff: the two-minute Mama is full of mystery and ingenuity; the feature could have been written by anyone.

The writing informs the visuals, as it should. Unfortunately, that means we must wade through the supernatural, black-goo-bleeding walls from The Apparition; the creepy, otherworldly messenger under the bridge from Absentia; and the CGI witch-monster from every other such horror movie since Regan MacNeil busted out that stupid spider-walk in The Exorcist's extended cut. As played by Javier Botet (with twitchy digital enhancements), "Mama" is alternately a horrifying specter and a sympathetic, confused beast, which makes her far more interesting to think about than to look at.

Maybe it's silly to think Mama's production designers, concept artists, and animators purposely copied the imagery from the movies I listed above. But their striking similarities suggest that either the well is running dry in movie-monster land or the studios want their quick-fix moneymakers to be as uniform and un-challenging to audiences as cans of Pepsi. Great horror movies are effective because we're just not ready for them. They are upsetting in darkly original ways and don't follow the templates of their contemporaries or predecessors. By those (very reasonable) standards, Mama is not a good horror movie.

But it's a pretty compelling drama, which is why I recommend checking it out, eventually, on home video.

Talk about a surprise, eh?

Yes, you should see Mama; just don't rush out to the theatre this weekend. Where the story and imagery fail, the performances reveal characters that might have flourished in a better screenplay. The child actors are terrific, playing shy, freaked-out kids who never come fully out of their shells. Because of trauma and abandonment, they are pure instinct and over-protective, unconditional love. On the opposite side of the coin, Annabel is the developmentally arrested child who rejoices when her pregnancy test comes up negative, and must be dragged kicking and screaming into the world of responsibility. She reluctantly becomes the nurturer, committing to something greater than free time and failing rock dreams. Chastain brings more heart and realism to this for-the-paycheck horror movie than to her Golden Globe-winning turn* in Zero Dark Thirty.

Mama's real selling point is its ending. I won't spoil it for you, except to say that I haven't left a theatre with such heartache in a long time. What begins as a by-the-numbers, put-the-demon-back-in-the-box conflict ends as one of the most depressing yet oddly touching things you're likely to see in 2013. The final moments are gut-wrenching. Just before the credits, I felt a dull ache in my jaw, which had been hanging open for two minutes.

It's here that Muschietti comes closest to making the kind of film del Toro is known for. Had he poured a tenth of that ballsiness and originality into the rest of the movie, Mama would surely have put him on the same map as his mentor. I imagine box office receipts will determine whether or not we see more of this filmmaker. On one hand, I'm game. On the other, I can't wait to see what the next artist who gets del Toro's big-league invitation has to offer.

*God is dead.

Tuesday
Jan152013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

The Canadian Girlfriend Experience

Let's get this out of the way: I don't believe the official story of Osama bin Laden's death. In the days following President Obama's announcement of a raid on the 9/11 mastermind's compound, as many contradictions as details came pouring out of the White House--troubling stuff from an administration who'd coasted to electoral victory on tight communication and organization.

In one version, our brave Navy SEALs were caught in a harrowing firefight as they made their way through the building. In another, they sniped a couple of low-level henchmen who could barely grab their guns. By one account, bin Laden used a woman as a human shield in a tense stand-off with soldiers. By another, he was dispatched quickly while peering around a corner. A dramatic photo showed the President and his national security team allegedly watching real-time video of the mission, though CIA director Leon Panetta later revealed that the feed had gone dead as soon as the soldiers entered the building.

The toughest pill to swallow came when people asked, "Where's the body?" Some believe that the whole operation was a sham, and that bin Laden either died years earlier, or was dragged to a CIA black site for harsh interrogation. I have as much reason to believe these theories as the so-called approved accounts--which is to say, no reason at all. Here's the litmus test I used in coming to that conclusion:

If, like me, you were a hard-core liberal during the early 2000s, who thought everything the Bush administration did (especially in prosecuting the War on Terror) was at best nefarious, and at worst fucking evil--would you have accepted the following as W's answer to "Where's the body?"

"We killed Osama bin Laden last night. Men on the ground took photos and sent them to us for verification. We'll never show you those pictures because they are too gruesome for a nation obsessed with CSI, Dexter, and the Saw franchise to stomach. Also, we immediately dumped his corpse into the sea, in keeping with what we're counting on you to believe is a valid interpretation of Islamic tradition. Trust us. We got him."

I'm guessing the answer is "no", as it should be. We've been asked to accept the whole story on faith, much like the apocryphal junior high kid whose super-hot Canadian girlfriend is too busy with her European modeling career to visit the States as much as she'd like to. This is why I tuned out politics almost entirely to focus on something far more believable and significant: the movies.

Hey! What's this? Oh, it's Kathryn Bigelow's "true story of the greatest man-hunt in history", Zero Dark Thirty. So much for realism. Indeed, so much for entertainment.

You won't be surprised to learn that I went into this film with a lot of baggage. I didn't expect Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal to change my mind, necessarily, but I'd hoped they'd at least prosecute their story with dignity and a desire to captivate. Instead, they've proven themselves deft propagandists of the highest order: Zero Dark Thirty is so bland and deliberately confusing that becoming the new Official American History of the raid can have been its only purpose.

The filmmakers count on moviegoers' ignorance of everything I opened this review with. It's the only way they can justify introducing Maya (Jessica Chastain), the hard-as-nails CIA analyst who will stop at NOTHING to kill Osama bin Laden. If you spent last summer plumbing The Dark Knight Rises for meaning, it's likely you didn't read anything about Chastain's character being a composite of several people who worked the case for years. Pairing this with an opening title card assuring us that the movie is based on first-hand accounts of people in the know, Bigelow and Boal successfully plant a true American hero in the public consciousness. 

Sadly, she's not very heroic. Maya is a shrill, single-note vengeance machine. I'll give Chastain the benefit of the doubt and assume that most of her unlikability in this film has to do with Bigelow's direction and Boal's awful screenplay. The actress was the highlight of The Help, injecting a wounded-firecracker personality into a movie that was all clichés and melodrama. Here, she's called upon to obsess over killing bin Laden without any stated motivation.

Not once in Zero Dark Thirty's two-and-a-half-hour run-time do we hear about an aunt who died in Tower Two, or a moral code that her dearly departed mother instilled in her growing up. Maya is simply a bloodhound who wants bin Laden because she wants him. Even that might have been acceptable if Boal had included some context for Maya's life: a neglected husband, a kid who doesn't understand that mommy's trying to make the world safer for her to live in. Since the filmmakers have deliberately abandoned realism, couldn't they also have headed in the direction of relatability--or at least believability? No, Maya is always on the clock, cheerily pouring over surveillance footage, diving into manila folders, and popping up to observe torture first-hand.

What's so strange about this cartoon-character protagonist is that she sees her co-workers as cardboard-cut-out foes. One of the few things Bigelow got right in this production was having a hand in hiring a terrific supporting cast. Jason Clarke steals the show as Maya's torture mentor. He's good at his job, but oddly charismatic, down-to-Earth, and conflicted about his line of work. At one point, he decide he's "seen too many naked dudes" and heads to Washington to get into politics. You have no idea how badly I wished the movie had followed him.

Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong also do fine work as CIA higher-ups caught in the untenable position of having to track bin Laden for the better part of a decade, and then switch tactics as political will and facts on the ground shift away from the original mission. There's a very interesting confrontation between Chandler and Chastain in which he says much of the intelligence he's seen indicates that bin Laden either died years earlier (hmmmm...) or had been relegated to figurehead status by a new generation of Al Quaeda who had their own agendas to execute. This nearly short-circuits Maya's programming, compelling her to break the glass ceiling she'd installed in her own mind. She'll get bin Laden, no matter how many ineffectual men she has to push out of her way. And by "get", I mean kill--not interrogate, or put on trial, or trot out on the world stage as an example of America's moral superiority and unparalleled detective work.

From my vantage point, Maya's co-workers have every reason to ignore her; not because of gender, but because she's unpleasant, accusatory, and inappropriate at every turn. During a meeting with Panetta (James Gandolfini), in which her team presents an aerial photo of the bin Laden compound, the CIA director asks who she is. "I'm the motherfucker that found it," she says defiantly, as if she'd been treated like one of Calvin Candie's table servants until that point. This is but one example of a dozen in which Maya brings a big, swingin' dick to a eunuch convention.

Let's skip the rest of the movie and get to the "good part". While Zero Dark Thirty is packed with side-missions, back-room deals, and more important-sounding but ultimately inconsequential names than you'll hear in a C-SPAN role call, the level of excitement rarely reaches that of a sub-par episode of 24. By the way, for as much crap as that series got for its depiction of the War on Terror, it was leagues more intelligent, morally complex, and gripping in execution than Bigelow's dead devotional.

But, yes, onto the blood-lust. Maya tracks bin Laden's courrier to a house in Pakistan. She convinces her superiors to send in the SEALs and take out the target. We meet a couple of the guys, played by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt--two actors I normally like, but who are terribly miscast here. Or perhaps just poorly written. There's a bit too much "bro-ness" in their portrayals of guys prepping for and going on a dangerous mission. As much as I despised Act of Valor, that movie at least provided a template for an American warrior's solemnity--and these guys don't fit.

I shouldn't be too surprised, I guess, because the film's climactic mission has all the subtlety and coherence of a multi-player video game. The SEALs descend on the compound in "stealth" helicopters, which I'm meant to believe are incredibly quiet--yet which I can hear in the theatre's sound mix as giant, noisy machines that would surely wake up a quiet neighborhood in the middle of the night. It's not until the explosions and gunfire that we see lights turn on next door. Anyway...

The action is so confusing that at one point I thought there was a third helicopter. People are dropped off in various places and scurry about in different parts of a compound whose scale and floor plan alternate between that of a crappy two-story apartment and Fort Knox--all while its residents are either still sleeping or slooooowly walking to their gun caches.

Like all Middle Easterners in this movie, bin Laden and his henchmen are portrayed as murderous idiots. Instead of taking up a tactical position, one stands in front of a door with a machine gun. Another falls for a SEAL calling out his name in the darkness: BAM!--shot while peering around a corner; the same happens with UBL, too. Later, as the "good guys" sweep the place for hard drives and other terror-plotting evidence, the soldier who brings in bin Laden's body bag stops in the living room to look morosely at a husband and wife who'd been gunned down. It's a weird beat, seeing as this elite killer has probably seen way worse things in his career of murdering people.

The movie ends with Maya having confirmed "her" trophy kill and sitting in the back of an empty cargo plane. The pilot asks her where she wants to go, and we get the oh-so-original hold on Chastain's face as she realizes it's not just a matter of physical destination, man--it's, like, a spiritual question, too.

Whoa.

Again, if we'd been given an actual character to care about here, maybe the scene would have worked. As it stands, Maya is a program who's just been rendered obsolete, a Terminator who's succeeded in killing John Connor and must now wait for its eight-hundred-year battery to die out.

It's odd that Bigelow and Boal choose to end their film on this note, as they've left a very conspicuous piece of business laying on a slab in a nearby hangar. They never address the disposal of bin Laden's body. We end with the end of Maya, as if that means something. To borrow a quote from Real Genius, Zero Dark Thirty is all science and no philosophy, a revenge picture that sees the act of vengeance as the ultimate victory--no explanation, introspection, or cleanup necessary. We, the audience, are not meant to remember such trivialities as the burial at sea; the bizarre sight of spontaneous, patriotic mobs popping up in American cities on the announcement of bin Laden's death; or the odd details that the administration couldn't seem to get right in sharing the "truth" about their greatest military success.

From a technical standpoint, the film is hard to beat. It's bland, and will remind you of the dozen TV shows and movies that the creators steal from liberally, but it looks great and feels authentic. But so did The Three Stooges remake. And I don't see that one on anybody's "Best of" lists, or gaining credence as an important motion picture. Whether as puppeteers or puppets, Bigelow and Boal have convinced lots of people that Zero Dark Thirty is good. It scares me to think of how many more will believe it's true.

Wednesday
Jan092013

Broken City (2013)

All Snore, No Core

On Sunday night, I experienced A-list celebrity power firsthand. Mark Wahlberg and director Allen Hughes dropped by Chicago's Kerasotes ICON theatre to press the flesh before an early screening of their new movie, Broken City. My friend Neal and I spent over an hour people-watching, as an ecstatic mob of people answered trivia questions, waved hand-made signs, and debated whether to stuff-surf their vintage Fear DVDs or glossy photos from Ted over the rising human tide once Marky Mark showed up.

About twenty minutes before the screening, a DJ announced that Wahlberg was on his way upstairs. Everyone's attention turned from the roped-off red-carpet area towards the escalators. For awhile, I couldn't make out the actor's face, but his perfect hair bobbed up and down in the distance. I was struck by the way in which people were drawn to him--not just leaning in for pictures or a quick scribble, but physically attracted to his body like a swarm of mobile flesh magnets.

Hurricane Wahlberg swirled towards me, and every molecule of free space collapsed as if the room were a lobby-sized vacuum-storage bag. Seconds later, our faces were inches from one another. I had nothing to say, and no ability to grab my camera. So I shrugged and half-smiled, and then he was gone-- whisked sharply to the left by security and his screaming fandom chariot.

Had Broken City been a quarter as compelling as its star's entrance, I might be able to recommend it. As it stands, the warning signs you or I might have felt while watching the trailer are, sadly, indicators of a so-so film. From that creeping "I hope they didn't give away everything in the previews" sensation (they did) to the January release date (never a good sign for an "issues" drama involving so many heavy-hitters), Hughes's deceptively empty thriller wants to be Vertigo, but plays like a middling Law & Order episode.

Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, an NYC cop on trial for shooting a Latino teenager to death. Mayor Hostetler (Russell Crowe) and Police Chief Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright) quickly bury evidence that Taggart executed the teen as revenge for raping and murdering his friend's sister. In exchange for his freedom, Taggart agrees to step down from the force--but not before accepting Hostetler's eternal gratitude for bringing "justice" to his fine city.

Seven years later, Taggart is in dire straits. His private-investigation service is on the rocks, and he's forty grand away from having to shut down. In swoops the mayor with a fifty-thousand-dollar PI job: he suspects his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of having an affair, a fact that must be verified and dealt with before the following week's election. Billy takes the case, and uses his keen detective skills to solve what turns out to be straight-up infidelity. He collects his check, and heads off into the sunset with his beautiful actress girlfriend, Natalie (Natalie Martinez).

I'm kidding, of course. After a beautifully simple, character-driven setup, Broken City devolves into a flashy conspiracy film in which friends turn out to be enemies, enemies turn out to be good guys, and good guys either turn up dead or devastated. The main problem is that Hughes and first-time screenwriter Brian Tucker pull a mid-movie bait-and-switch, in which all of the engrossing, snappy dialogue is abandoned in favor of superfluous plot pile-ons, predictable action scenes, and so many names flying about that the climactic revelation is nearly impossible to follow--much less care about.

It's a shame, too, because the film looks great. As much as I hate the cliche of a movie's setting becoming a "character", in this case it's true. Hughes, cinematographer Ben Seresin, and production designer Tom Duffield show off the Big Apple with great affection, not only providing lavish shots of famous exteriors, but also imbuing everything from Hostetler's office to the end of a hotel bar with a distinct, hard-to-pinpoint "New York" vibe: lavish, lived-in, comfortable, and somehow menacing. In the first half of the film, I had as much fun watching the characters' surroundings as listening to their scheming.

Unfortunately, Broken City suffers from a recent movie epidemic, which has plagued films as diverse as Jack Reacher and Step Up: Revolution: all of the scheming--and attendant murder, intrigue, seduction, and pummeling--are in service of a lame reel estate swindle. I won't go into it, because you're probably already tired. Suffice it to say, I've yet to encounter a recent "thriller" that was sexy or interesting enough to sustain audience interest once the conspiracy was revealed to involve a crooked land deal. Perhaps if Hughes and Tucker had spent less time in posh surroundings and more in the endangered slums that Hostetler and a sleazy business partner (Griffin Dunne, terrific and tragically wasted here) have their eyes one, the stakes would have felt more substantial.

Instead, we're left with performances that might have been great in the hands of a better writer, and two hours of loose threads that, sadly, feel like they are three cuts away from an Oscar-worthy edit. Wahlberg, Crowe, and Wright bring just the right amount of zing to their characters until the script strands them with nothing to do but crawl to the end credits. Barry Pepper surprised the hell out of me as Hostetler's mayoral opponent by creating what may be a brand-new archetype: the bleeding-heart, millionaire douchebag. I was never sure where his character was going--normally a compliment, but considering the film's uneven tone and sporadically dropped themes, I wonder if this was a happy accident caused by great acting and unfocused writing. 

This same lack of purpose also robs a triumphantly tragic ending of its impact. In a better film, Taggart's grand sacrifice would have been the capper to a nicely understated redemption tale. Instead, you're less likely to root for the hero than to get hung up on what the pre-climax's ten minute mayoral debate scene had to do, really, with anything else in the film.* Just as I'm left to wonder why a movie with such great talent behind it requires drive-by promotion in Chicago on a Sunday night. Like Hurricane Wahlberg, I have a feeling Broken City will breeze in and out of theatres next week, leaving audiences half-smiling and shrugging in its insignificant wake.

*Yes, I know why Hughes and Tucker included it--and you will, too, if you watch this thing--but there's no reason the scene couldn't have been about seven minutes shorter. And, no, I didn't time the debate, but it drags almost as much as Michael Parks's interminable sermon in Red State.