Review: Girl Model (2012, Redmon & Sabin)

Always lingering in the back of the mind while watching the new documentary Girl Model is the opening sequence, featuring scores of barely-clad teenage girls in Siberia being strutted forth like cattle in order to be critiqued as they fight for the decidedly awful position young Nadya Vall finds herself in.

Girl Model takes a cinema vérité approach, which just happens to be my favorite kind of documentary. It may have a distance that prevents a true excavation of the issue at hand, but the tip-of-the-iceberg strategy works better because of the narrow first-hand look that we do get. We don’t have to be geniuses to conclude that these are not regionally restricted issues. I’ll take a documentary that is constricted but more intimate over a broad but deeply investigational doc any day of the week.

At 13 years old, Nadya is a blank slate. She describes herself as a plain “grey mouse”, but she’s at an age where everything is unformed, as up for grabs as it gets. She doesn’t know who she is or who she wants to be; but is at that point where possible answers to such big picture questions will begin to emerge. What she does know is that home life is unfulfilling and she wants to expand her horizons, experience the otherness of city-life and help support her family. Nadya isn’t exactly compelling subject fodder, that is precisely what makes her cipher-like representational qualities all the more resonant. She’s just one out of a never-ending number searching for a needle in a haystack. Lucky for her, she fits the pre-pubescent aesthetic the Japanese market so preciously covets.

The involvement of her parents is a tricky one. Sure, they love and care about her. Yet they pin their hopes of rebuilding their house on the money they expect their daughter to make abroad. They do not suspect being had, but the central action of sending their barely teenage daughter to Japan by herself is hard to justify and even harder not to judge even if modeling is seen as an ‘only way out’ option to strive for.

The well-oiled scamming machine these modeling agencies demonstrate is more than a little reprehensible if not at all surprising. And surely Noah Models represents neither the best nor worst of the bunch. Certain agencies must at least adhere to some kind of respectable age range and/or not employ largely exploitative contractual obligations. On the other side of the coin, modeling scout Ashley Arbaugh speaks of the elephant in the room, underage prostitution, as something that is relatively commonplace for agencies to engage in simultaneously. Of course, in typical Ashley fashion, she absolves herself of complicity by stating that while she knows of this trend within the industry, she stays away from those kinds of transactions. She then doubles back, pondering whether modeling at that age is somehow harder than prostitution. Ahh, but that’s Ashley for ya; more on her later. The central issue at hand in Girl Model is in the title; 13 is an irreparably damaging age for girls to be throwing themselves, and all of their hopes and dreams, into this industry.

This  vérité approach of directors David Redmon and A. Sabin make the topic’s girth of humanistic and developmental evils readily apparent. Nadya is abandoned at the airport, left to figure out where she is staying despite being in another country alone and unable to speak the language. For two months she is schlepped around to go-sees where she is judged and subsequently not chosen, all while being further isolated by the language barrier. She does intermittent photoshoots but is not paid for them (despite being supposedly promised a minimum of $8,000 worth of work in the contract) or given any access to the people who hired her. Her apartment is dingy and she is left to support herself, putting her and her family into debt. The contracts at the agency are purposely elusive, and in English, giving Noah total control and the model none. Nadya is depicted as a deer caught in the headlights for the film’s entirety. Exhausted, confused and hurt, she just wants to go home.

Ashley Arbaugh, who suggested the subject of the documentary to the directors, is an odd duck. An odd and almost impossibly self-absorbed duck who sees the doc as a twisted vanity project. As a teenager, she tried her hand at modeling, going to Japan just like the girls she recruits. She loathed it and kept a video diary that, as far as the chosen clips suggest, support her claims of misery. Yet she stays in the industry, now making promises she knows will not be kept to other young girls. Her business associates are troubling men. One is Tigran, a skeevy slimeball of a man who has convinced himself he is educating these girls in a biblical kind of calling. He goes so far as to bring the “hard-headed’ ones to the morgue to look at fallen youths and occasionally to witness an autopsy…? Yeah, I couldn’t tell you the logic behind it either; everything about him is vague. His appearances are bizarrely manufactured in a way the filmmakers cannot get a handle on or control (based on interviews with the directors, this was certainly the case). His agency, whatever part he has in it, is a machine. All we know about a Japanese businessman we meet is that he evades questions that are asked of him by the documentarians and that he, as Ashley says with clear discomfort, “likes girls”.

Ashley is a diametrically opposed combination of completely narcissistic and a hot mess of insecurity-driven denial. Most of her used interview footage has her talking about not being passionate about what she does, her hardships in the industry, and that her associates do not know or care what she does as long as she “brings them the girls”. She is a fascinating figure, not for the reasons she would hope for, who makes a living lying through her teeth to others and herself. What makes her even more of an oddity is the way she evidently thinks her present-day confessionals reek of honesty, when in fact they just read as an ever-contradicting headspace of self-justification. Hell, she can’t even face the cameras at any point in the film, always obliquely looking off into space, talking herself out of moral quandaries.

The money and flexible schedule is worth it to her, even if it comes at the cost of living in a haze of denial. Her glass house is empty and barren with nothing on the walls. She very much lives in her own world, at times speaking of things that must only make sense to her. Those creepy-ass dolls for one thing, which have a normalized place in her universe. Not to mention the endless snapshots of models feet. Does she have friends? Or are her only interactions with her business partners? Granted, we’re only seeing one sliver of this woman’s life, but gracious me does hers feel like a lonely existence going off the evidence provided.

The highlight of the film comes when the two halves of the fly-on-the-wall narrative intersect. Ashley goes to check in on Nadya and fed up roommate Madlen. It is the only time we see her check in on the girls, but it is unclear what other kind of contact they have with members from the agency. It is the kind of awkward scene that comes around once in a blue moon. It is so awkward that uncomfortable laughter became a side effect. There is something morbidly funny seeing Ashley squirm, trying to save face by purposely misreading Madlen’s somewhat broken but serviceable English and subsequently having nothing to say. And there is also something morbidly funny in Madlen purposely exploiting the awkwardness, trying to make Ashley uncomfortable while shooting her death-stares.

The end of Girl Model suggests an inevitably morose and frustrating continuation of the cycle. Were Nadya’s experiences not all bad? Does she just think there are no other options? Unsurprisingly, Nadya (who hasn’t seen the film but heard of its content) and the agency are appalled with the way they were depicted. There were even some disturbing allegations thrown around that feel like mud-slinging, but bare mentioning all the same. Rachel, a 23-year old model, pops up in the film from time to time to frankly discuss the problems that plague the modeling industry.

Many others like Rachel have defended the film saying it struck a personal and familiar chord with their experiences and confirmed the accuracy of the issues addressed. Girl Model unsettlingly tackles the unregulated meat market aspects of modeling with a digestible tip-of-the-iceberg approach that slaps a face on the roles of the recruiter and the recruited.

There are a couple of fascinating interviews with the directors, who talk about the struggle of making a documentary while having the controlling Ashley Arbaugh as a middlewoman:

Review: Sinister (2012, Derrickson)

IMDB Summary: Found footage helps a true-crime novelist realize how and why a family was murdered in his new home, though his discoveries put his entire family in the path of a supernatural entity.

Horror films tend to firmly root themselves in their respective subgenre of choice. Sinister is a kind of hybrid film that blends current trends of found footage with peripheral creaky house thrills rolled up in a supernatural mythology package. Taking place almost entirely in one setting, its eeriness operates on several different levels, the most startling of which is the grainy Super-8 reels that Ethan Hawke’s hopelessly narcissistic character happens upon.

The slow burn investigation hashes out the discoveries in digestible doses. A lot of the expositional backstory in these kinds of films can become quickly convoluted, somehow being overly complicated and all-too familiar. Ghost wants revenge? No way! But Sinister keeps the mystery going and comes up with a tale that’s familiar in its Horror 101 structure, but is still just original enough to remain compelling. It slowly ratchets up tension using escalating repetition. In the case of the Super-8 films, we know what is going to happen in each one, but the suspense is driven through the question of ‘how?’ and the unsettling normalcy that occurs at the beginning of each. Every time Hawke hears creaks and bumps, something slightly more alarming occurs each time. And as the film progresses, his two children become more and more affected by their surroundings.

Grounding, and in fact elevating, all of this is Ethan Hawke who has a habit of making films better with his presence. His casting is crucial since a lot of Sinister is a one-man show. Can he just be in everything? Playing the only developed character, (the others can be boiled down to loyal and concerned wife, creative daughter and typical teenage boy) the writers do something pretty shrewd with his characterization. Ellison is trying to build his ‘legacy’, as he arrogantly puts it. His only true-crime bookselling smash was ten years ago. Two duds later and he’s back at square one, only with added desperation. He moves his family into the house where the crime he’s investigating took place, without telling them by the way. Basically the fella’s an asshole.

The screenwriters use his arrogance, drive and desperation to act as the answer to all of those ‘What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t go in the attic you fucking idiot!’ exclamations we so often have in horror films. Where other films use par for the course logic to excuse its characters’ ceaselessly poor judgment, screenwriters Scott Derrickson (also director) and C. Robert Cargill make us understand why Ellison makes the very silly decisions he does.

There is one type of scare employed in Sinister which did not work for me; the ever-popular creepy children. It is employed pretty heavily towards the end, which causes some of the tension to somewhat evaporate. The spooky kid trope can really get under the skin but the problem is it so rarely works. And what’s worse is that it is used all the time. Writers seem to think that dead-eyed innocents are an automatic scare-tactic win but it demands precise execution. In this regard, Sinister doesn’t have the goods and it becomes distracting at points. But it has so much else working in its favor for this to do too much damage.

It must be said that the throbbing industrial score by Christopher Young is easily one of the best scores I have heard this year. It pulsates through each scene, subtly switching it up in some surprising ways. Derrickson’s use of darkness, space and sound are consistently disquieting.

Sinister is without a doubt the scariest film I have seen in quite some time. It finds ways to disturb without resorting to gore and much of its imagery makes quite a lasting impression. It had me actively stressed, often dodging center screen with my eyes in jittery anticipation. Only when I left the theater did I realize just how tense my body had been throughout. When a film can get me that on-edge, all shortcomings be damned. Sinister more than gets the job done.

Review: Looper (2012, Johnson)

With three films under his belt, it’s clear that Rian Johnson loves to tinker with genre form, structure, presentation and expectations. With 2005’s Brick, an audaciously bold vision of Hammett-style noir set in the emptied outskirts of high school suburbia, Johnson presented two tried and true genres and welded them together to create something that had not been done before. It was a concept that could have and should have fallen to pieces for, well, pick a reason. But it didn’t. His third film Looper sees a repairing of the director with now bona-fide star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This time, they take on sci-fi, using high concept to ask questions about cycles, or loops if you will, of violence, selfishness and stepping outside routine monotony to look at who we have become and the choices we make.

Looper gets the world-setting out of the way in its first act with expositional narration delivered by Levitt with grade-school lesson preciseness. The basics are this; the year is 2044. Time travel has not been invented yet but it will have been in 30 years only to be immediately outlawed. Since circumstances make it impossible to get rid of a body in the future, the criminal underworld send those they want gone back to 2044 to be killed by ‘loopers’.

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper. He spends his days executing, taking drugs that are administered via eye drops and partying at the club that his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) owns. Being a looper means you make serious change, which from the looks of things, cannot be said for the greater populace. He is saving up to go to France. Lately, contracts are increasingly being terminated as loopers are being forced to kill their older selves, thereby “closing the loop”. This means they get a ginormous payday, an early retirement and the knowledge that they have 30 more years until they bite the dust.

The story kicks into gear when Bruce Willis, playing the older Joe, is sent back but escapes with a questionable agenda of his own. The younger Joe has to track down his eventual self so he can save face with Abe and his goons who are now after him.

The near-future Johnson creates is shrouded in big-picture ambiguity and is brought to life by minutiae and the immersion into an underground subset of life in 2044. The technology has progressed but has a tinkered rusty old-world feel to it. The gadgetry and panoramic views that can potentially drown out other sci-fi is smartly nowhere to be seen, mostly because the budget does not support it. Looper keeps small-scale dystopia in check throughout, throwing expectations out the window by having the second half set far removed from what we commonly think of as sci-fi settings. In fact, it comes to feel more like a ‘protecting the ranch’ kind of Western.

The marketing for Looper reminded me of the marketing for Brave. Both decided to focus on the basic ideas, and exclusively cover the first third to first half of their products. There were audience members who are thrown by the turns each film takes. Frankly, we need more marketing of this kind. While there are problems that emerged for me upon reflection, the unpredictability of most of the film was thrilling. It is a sensation that does not come around often, that sense of not knowing where a film is going. There are a couple of sequences that took me by such surprise that I felt like a kid in a candy store. There are moments when Looper had me gleaming. Most of this can be attributed to the non-formulaic storytelling, but some of it can be credited to how the film was sold to the public. It is proof that we rely far too much on what we see from trailers and that trailers have for the most part lost the art of intrigue. I hope more marketing campaigns take this route in the future.

Johnson and Levitt have gone on record talking about the cycle of violence the film comments on. It humanizes the concept by pointing out that at the center of violence in the abstract, you have people making decisions. What is this catalyst and how can it be changed? What drives a sense of responsibility? Would our actions be unrecognizable to our former selves? Johnson successfully walks that fine line between indulging in onscreen violence without it compromising what he is trying to say.

Johnson’s cinematic eye consistently excites me, particularly in the way he uses the horizontal streak of the frame for maximum effect. By using widescreen to have multiple planes of movement happening at once, he utilizes back and forth stationary panning to follow the action as opposed to a more traditional cutting technique. This touch can be seen quite a lot in Brick as well. He calls attention to the different ways action can be shot and cut by having the scene where Willis escapes Levitt shown twice. The first time the camera is right up with the action, employing point-of-view shots and expected cutting choices. The second time we see the scene the camera is placed far away and the awkwardness of the scuffle is caught and even played for laughs. It’s a delightful moment that calls attention to how thoroughly formal elements dictate how we perceive what happens onscreen.

The hiccups in Looper feel more marked because it gets so much so right. This is one of the best films I have seen this year, and certainly a sci-fi flick for the books, but it cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

The older version of Joe, played by Willis, faces a surprising antihero-based dilemma. The groundwork is laid for a captivating older Joe and Willis brings what he can to the table. But the script increasingly treats him like a lazy subplot presence as opposed to a co-lead who is facing very tough decisions, confronting the fact of what he is willing to do at a chance for self-preservation. His role starts out strong; the diner scene between him and Levitt is probably the film’s highlight and I would have sopped up the glory of that scene more had I known it would sadly be the two actors’ only significant time onscreen together. Then older Joe is quickly demoted to provide a forcibly injected pacing jolt and to try and justify the existence of Piper Perabo’s wholly disposable character.

The ideas introduced are carried through to the end, but the character focus shifts too dramatically. Despite always keeping the younger Joe’s arc in eyesight, the central focus of Emily Blunt’s Sarah and Pierce Gagnon’s Cid (both doing fabulous work) cannot help but take away from the impact of the younger Joe’s conscience building. Sarah is introduced with a nice touch that immediately pushes her into a level past ‘love interest’ (a category I’d argue she does not fit in the first place). Johnson gives her perspective and right off the bat she becomes a character with feelings, motivations and backstory in her own right. If only the film could have succeeded at keeping Joe’s arc in the foreground throughout all of this.

The climax highlights how the two Joe’s become a footnote in their own film. The telekinetic piece of the Looper world puzzle (10% of the population has TK…?) is the only bit to feel out of place, and yet it becomes central to the story. Joe steps into a story bigger than him and the addicting dichotomy between the two Joe’s becomes underexplored. While I love the jagged curveball that Looper throws at us, Johnson struggles to keep what was introduced at the beginning in focus and the centrality of the two Joe’s, especially Willis, is somewhat compromised as a result. These shortcomings, while notable, do not change the fact that Looper remains an invigorating genre-affirming piece of science-fiction.

Review: Dark Shadows (2012, Burton)


When I say that Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows isn’t quite the disaster he spewed forth with Alice in Wonderland, don’t mistake that even for the faintest of praise. It’s merely a testament to just how awful his 2010 fantasy revisionist film is. While Dark Shadows shows an uptick in his visual palette, the improvements end there. Here he takes a 1960’s campy soap and transforms it into an at times excruciating misfire that is headlined by an incomprehensible script by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Tim Burton’s interest in storytelling has been, for the most part, pretty low on his priority list. He is more into atmospheric world-building that fits both his imagination and a consistent evocation of his long-standing influences. By now, he is treading muddy water, refusing to attempt creative expansion and is bogged down in increasingly unsalvagable scripts. It is clear now that Sweeney Todd was not a return to form, but evidence that he still has life in him provided he has solid material to work with. Sadly, this is now rarely the case.

There’s a reason that most reviews of recent Tim Burton fare include a by-now mandatory Burton-centric rant. The handful of his films that I will always cherish are enough for me, and many other youguns who grew up with his work, to remain masochistically loyal to him. He’s sort of like the Weezer of filmmakers in that way. Batman Returns essentially represents my childhood; it has so much added personal meaning for me that it is in many ways the Burton film that means the most to me. As a stereotypically moody adolescent I worshiped Lydia Deetz and tried to recreate her bedroom by nailing sheer fabric to the ceiling, putting up an imaginary fortress fit for an angsty queen. At 12 years old, Sleepy Hollow was the first R-rated film I saw in theaters. The day I saw Ed Wood for the first time I was 13 and I loved it so much that I watched it 4 times in a row, still the only time I have done that. And then there is the discovery that the older I got, the funnier Pee Wee’s Big Adventure became. And so that loyalty persists, despite my better judgment.

There is infinite possibility in the advent of CGI which is more often that not wasted by the absence of balance. Once Burton started working with and embracing CGI, his work lost that indefinable something. His visuals now veer towards the opposite of idiosyncratic, disabling his calling card. There was something about the concrete physicality of his worlds. What he does with shapes, sizes and structures; those marks feel largely absent. The way he used to employ effects (Large Marge anyone?) quite literally popped. CGI gives him a broader paintbrush and he uses it to showcase the wider landscapes of his worlds. But the result is a look that, beyond the often still memorable room-based production design, is transparent and flat. AKA the antithesis of his films looked like in pasttimes.

The final problem is the mutually assured destruction pairing of Burton and Johnny Depp. The two continue to bring each other down, a statement that long ago I never thought I’d have to make. Basically studios give Burton boatloads of cha-ching cha-ching to make shit adaptations of whatever the piqued interest of the year is. Then Burton ropes Depp in, pays him boatloads of cha-ching to play dress-up and create increasingly rote variations of the same bag of eccentricities. Depp used to be non-conformist, always taking chances and making interesting choices. Now he is conformist and predictable and is being paid absolutely ludicrous amounts of money for it (he’s the highest paid working actor). Somewhere along the line he stopped playing characters and we are left with bad makeup, a vaguely British over-enunciated accent and garish flailing mannerisms.

So what about Dark Shadows? Let’s start with the story. In the 1700’s, young Barnabas Collins and his family travel to Maine and make a name for themselves by successfully taking over the seafood business. He gets involved with a witch named Angelique (Eva Green), but his feelings for her are surface-level. His heart truly lies with young Josette (Bella Heathcote). When he spurns Angelique, she hypnotizes Josette into throwing herself off a cliff and turns Barnabas into a vampire in addition to chaining him in a coffin and burying him underground. This all happens in the first five minutes.

In 1972, a young woman named Victoria, who happens to look exactly like Josette, arrives in Collinsport to be a governess to young David (Gulliver McGrath). We meet the many Collins descendants and learn that Angelique still lives in the town and is the family’s main competitor in the seafood industry. At the same time, Barnabas is unearthed by construction workers and has to adjust to the 1970’s, meet his family and face Angelique.

The story consists of languorous exposition and subplots that are introduced and then dropped with no warning. Oh, and then randomly picked up again when it’s convenient. The dialogue has zero punch or wit. The pacing is akin to a hobbled man walking and the film’s identity crisis is apparent throughout. Perhaps most disconcertingly, we are never given any reason to be invested in anything, and I mean anything, onscreen. The rushed prologue tells us a lot and thinks that equals effective storytelling. Economic maybe; but effective?

There’s no throughline with the characters and no established family dynamic, and this is a film that wants to be about family; at least that is what it tells us. There are way too many characters that screenwriter Smith has no idea what to do with. They register on the most basic of levels and by the skin of their teeth at that. The actors are given no room to individualize their work. Eva Green is the only one who manages to do something with her character. The always welcome Michelle Pfieffier is one of many actors wasted. Depp is exactly what you would expect; recycled and gaudy. Helena Bonham-Carter manages to be semi-effective with a couple of later scenes. The worst of the bunch is Chloe Grace-Moretz who showcases the traits of hers I have always had a problem with; the entirety of her performance consists of an over-pronounced snarl.

An example of the unforgivably clumsy storytelling is the handling of Bella Heathcote’s Victoria, played by the kind of wide-eyed ingenue with just-so styling that Burton loves. She is introduced during the opening credits as Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin” plays, thereby automatically earning the ‘Best Scene in Dark Shadows‘ award. It turns out she is only being used as a gateway, not as a character in her own right. Once she is used to get us introduced to the wacky family, she is unceremoniously hung out to dry. The governess pretext is just that; it never remotely comes into play. She disappears for a hefty 30-40 minutes only to be jarringly reintroduced so she can out-of-nowhere express her feelings for Barnabus. And once again at the end so she can be saved.

On some level this is how the film treats every character, though none so dismissively as Victoria. A pattern of zero characterization and flung-in backstory appearing solely to justify their existence in a half-assed effort to give them something to do.

The humor has one mode, ‘weren’t the 1970’s funny?’, that proves Dark Shadows inability to commit to anything or handle its identity crisis. The jokes themselves are either corny observations or short exchanges with log-like landings that are delivered half-heartedly and take on the low energy level the pacing dictates. Worst of all, the jokes are bad. Really bad. Smith could have found genuine humor in the fish-out-of-water plot or imbued comic timing with scenarios, situations or in the dynamics between characters. The best he could do are piss-poor kind-of jokes that first and foremost do not compromise the overall non-tone. Since this is how Dark Shadows deals with each genre courting; the result is that the film has no discernible tone at all.

This lack of genre commitment means that Dark Shadows is too frightened to throw itself into anything but ‘well I guess it could count as soapy’. The original show is oft described as a campy soap. The film does not commit to camp. It commits to soap only in plot details, not tone. Nor does it commit to comedy, as discussed above, or horror. By trying to be a wispy hint of everything, we are left with not much of anything. A poorly written, indeterminately characterized not much of anything at that. Yes, the costumes and production design are notably satisfying; and that’s basically what Burton and his regular collaborators bring to the table at this point. We can only hope that Frankenweenie represents some kind of return to form, however fleeting that may be.

Review: Detachment (2012, Kaye)

Synopsis: A substitute teacher who drifts from classroom to classroom finds a connection to the students and teachers during his latest assignment.

In Detachment, eccentric director Tony Kaye’s examination of the everyday minutiae of an urban high school, picked his form of attack–full-scale assault—and decided that was enough. He crams so much horror and extremity into every scenario he presents that the film has no room to breathe. There is a train-wreck quality that keeps this consistently watchable but not for the reasons Kaye wants. A ‘what will he throw at us next’ pull resides. He uses the guise of the school education system as a cipher for a no holds barred sustained shrill that is always pitched at 11, and unfortunately cares only about being pitched at 11.

Now this is Tony Kaye we are talking about. Clearly subtlety was never in the cards. Instead of exploring what lies behind the risible mulch we are subjected to, he focuses on the endless existential crisis of Adrian Brody’s Henry Barthes. Barthes floats from school to school, careful not to stay in any one place for too long. Seething anger lingers underneath his exterior, but he is able to present a serene demeanor in the classroom that is purposely difficult to penetrate.

Henry keeps everyone at arm’s length. Why is he so ‘detached’? Besides the fact that he witnesses everyday atrocities of all kinds, grainy flashbacks, at every opportunity, clue us into Henry’s past. The repetition of it never further illuminates; like the rest of the film, it is a trussed-up sledgehammer. And so we watch him wander through life, wondering where it all went so wrong. Otherwise he spends his time staving off desperately unhappy teenage girls who cast him in the role of savior. Woe is him.

Brody is effective here, making the most of having something to work with, a luxury none of the other actors can claim to having. The centrality of Brody’s character suggests the actor’s complicity (he boasts an exec producer credit too) in aiding Kaye’s self-indulgence. The director and star leave everyone else out to dry in what amounts to a bunch of interchangeable glorified, and at times embarrassing, cameos. Surely there was more material with an ensemble roster this strong, but their roles are collectively whittled down to nothing. Somehow all of the performances outside of Brody from the veterans to the ingénues are distractingly gaudy. All of the acting fits into one of two possible molds; a stilted table read or some kind of amateur theater exercise where the goal is to scream oneself into a state of hysteria.

I can appreciate the tangible wrath fueling every frame of Detachment. In its way, it is a refreshing antidote to the arms-length caramel gooeyness that plagues other plight-of-educators films. One thing going for it is that it is a never dull assault you will not quickly forget. The undeniably high IMDB rating suggests it is having an impact on many who see it, a good thing for sure. Normally I would never name-drop an IMDB rating in a review, but 7.7 with 13,000 votes? That is high. But Kaye’s unparalleled miserablist wankfest favors hyper-stylized rage over any kind of story, idea or purpose.

Review: Oslo, August 31st (2012, Trier)

Oslo, August 31st opens in the Boston area for five shows between August 29th and September 3rd at The Museum of Fine Arts and for a limited engagement at the Somerville Theatre starting August 31st.

Norwegian director Joachim Trier burst onto the international film scene in 2006 with Reprise, a stylistically inventive debut about two young writers which alternates between overindulgence and the flashily sublime. Overall, the film left me cold but with the internal understanding that yes, I would make it a point to see all of Trier’s future output. His second feature, Oslo, August 31st, capitalizes on the evident potential seen from his debut as he reins himself in for a more subtle, somberly reflective work that is markedly more rewarding.

Set over the course of one day, Oslo, August 31st follows Anders, played by the marvelous Anders Danielsen Lie of Reprise, over the course of 24 hours. 34 years old, he leaves his drug rehabilitation center for a day to attend a job interview. He takes the opportunity to reconnect with his past, roaming around the city visiting old friends and relatives.

There is something ever-so-slightly vague about Anders’ existential quandary that, despite the specific nature of him and his struggles, cannot help but propel a similarly existential spirit in the viewer. It pulls you along in its ability to promote simultaneous self-reflection, without losing the story it wants to tell. By the end it becomes clear that in a subtle way, Oslo August 31st feels as if it is representing something bigger than itself.

A very early scene depicts Anders unsuccessfully attempting suicide by drowning. A consequential unshakable sense of fragility follows Anders around for the rest of the film. We know that with every encounter, with every stroll through Oslo, a question is eating away at this man; what’s the point? This might sound miserablist but it strikes such a sincere tone as to avoid becoming a mess of self-indulgent sulk.

What makes Oslo stand apart from other ‘drug addiction’ films is that it is not about the struggle to stay clean. It is about what one is left with after the fact and questioning the point of continuing. Anders has money, friends, family, looks and talent. But when addiction comes to define and ruin, at the end of the day, what is left when a layer of disconnect invades him, his former haunts and his interactions with others? That ever-palpable ‘why bother’ and the honesty with which it ponders this question is what stood out for me most in Trier’s sophomore effort.

Anders spends the day looking for some sort of sign to continue living. A series of conversations and experiences bring him closer and closer to his fate. A planned meeting with his sister does not materialize. His job interview is at first promising and then awash in the self-destruction that eats at him. He continues to call his ex-girlfriend and leave messages for her even though she is in New York. A party where old friends abound reminds of lost time and a place he cannot get back to.

There is a stand-out early sequence in which Anders makes his first visit of the day to see an old friend. Thomas (Hans Olar Brenner) is now married with a kid but the two friends used to live it up with booze and drugs as they intellectualized with each other. Those days are gone and after a scene with Thomas’ wife, the two speak alone. It becomes clear that while Thomas may be in a conventionally better place in his life, he has lost something. He is somehow unhappy. And he cannot reach any real level of insight when it comes to Anders. By the end of the scene it feels like neither can really do anything for the other though each vaguely wants to and it is heartbreaking.

Thankfully the film doesn’t victimize Anders. We feel badly for him and want him to pull through but it is also evident that he has screwed over many a friendship and family member in his efforts to fuel his addiction in the past. While the audience is given tidbits of backstory, each encounter he has only supports the immediate understanding that these are very complex and history-filled relationships. He wants to want to live, but he just cannot seem to find any reason to keep going.

It also serves as a love letter to Oslo. There are two scenes that broaden the scope of the individual experience of living in a city. The capital is highlighted throughout as Anders wanders the streets like a ghost of himself. Trier uses the setting to make a point about the collective memory a city holds for its many inhabitants. For all the good and bad times that come with it, the result is the magical significance of a city unattainable by any one individual but enjoyed, despaired and contributed by all.

The juxtaposition of broadening the Oslo experience and then focusing on Anders highlights the importance of each individual life and the joys, heartache and crises that come with it. Many films that try to do this sentimentalize or overtly make this point, but again, Trier strikes a perfect note here. Bleak but not miserablist. Gently nostalgic without a drop of saccharine. Oslo, August 31st overcomes the many pitfalls of the addiction drama, making for a haunting and contemplative existential journey through Norway’s capital over the course of one day.

Review: The Raid: Redemption (2012, Evans)

A future goal of mine that I will try to intermittently work on over the year is being able to write reviews that are a bit shorter and more concise. The two reasons for this are that I would be able to get a slightly higher quantity of reviews up and it is a skill I have yet to attain that I feel I should. This is not because I have oh-so-much to say, because I rarely do; it is just a skill I have never been able to master. If I can write one short review a week I will be satisfied.

IMDB Summary: A SWAT team becomes trapped in a tenement run by a ruthless mobster and his army of killers and thugs.

The value of standout choreography (whether that be hand-to-hand combat or choreography of a car chase or giant set-piece) in an action film cannot be overstated. It is the make-it-or-break-it element of this genre. A critical synergy must be reached between how the scene is conceptualized, what is shot, and what is shown through the editing process. If any one of these is subpar in execution, which happens in most cases with editing, the scene collapses.

Then a film like The Raid comes along and pulls the rug out from under us, soaring above a primarily low precedent. When action choreography is this spectacular, it has the power to ruthlessly trample over any glitches the film may have had going against it. This is applicable to The Raid.

Let me make this clear; there was no point when I truly cared about anything plot-related going on here. Welsh director/writer/editor Gareth Evans tries to give us reasons to care but they don’t gel. Star and martial arts expert Iko Uwais has an undeniably empathetic quality to him which he maintains even when obliterating everyone around him. But that only goes so far. The film stays on one wavelength throughout its entirety and the story is so simple it is barely worth mentioning.

But the action scenes featuring hand-to-hand combat are, in a word, awesome. Evans features the Indonesian martial art called Pencak Silat, with stars Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (to say Ruhian is a force of nature is an understatement) largely responsible for choreography. All of this gives The Raid a leg up. Audiences get to see a type of fighting unfamiliar to them which is immediately refreshing. Having experts like Uwais and Ruhian acting allows for the circumvention of stunt doubles. Consequently, Evans’ main editorial priority is not splicing together stunt doubles and actor footage, but figuring out how to best showcase Pencak Silat and the stellar choreography on display. The edits Evans makes are frequent but logistical and energizing; miraculously not an ounce of visual translation is lost in post-production.

This is the reason to see The Raid. It drowned me in brutal and extremely grisly violence and managed to place a big appreciative beaming smile on my face. It may be all the film has to offer, but the rarity of these exhaustive and thrilling action scenes is more than enough. It deservedly has a lifetime of cult followings and midnight showings in its future.

Review: King of Devil’s Island (2011, Holst)

Originally posted on Criterion Cast April 1st, 2012

There are a considerable number of films featuring adolescents driven to the far reaches of suffering in reform schools, correctional facilities, institutional homes or rigid private schools. At this point, many stock characters have been established; the newcomer who shakes things up, the stern and unwavering headmaster, the martyr and of course the ultra-evil authority figure.  All of these and more can be found in King of Devil’s Island, director Marius Holst’s bleak as bleak can be tale of what happens when power goes awry.

Like several others in a similar vein (such as The Magdalene Sisters to name a more recent one), King of Devil’s Island is based on a true story. It depicts Bastøy Island in 1915 Norway, a reformatory secluded from the rest of the world where it housed wayward boys from the ages of eleven to eighteen. The environment is hopelessly desolate and frigid. One can feel the sharp stinging chill of the air while watching. There is no escape. It is frighteningly simple to get shipped to Bastøy; one character is sent for stealing out of a church donation box. Once there, it is exceedingly difficult to obtain release, taking many years. The workload is dire and labor-intensive and they are underfed. The punishment and abuse are dealt out at a moment’s notice and retain the status quo of cruelty expected in films of its kind.

In short, you would not want to find yourself here. But inmate newcomers Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and Ivar (Magnus Langlete) sadly do. Erling, a harpooner who is rumored to have killed, immediately starts plotting an escape plan. Ivar, who is much younger, experiences the worst possible form of welcome by unwittingly attracting the attention of house father Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner). The admission procedures strip them of their clothes and name. They emerge naked in front of their fellow students, part of the nomenclature with their new identities C-16 and C-5.

Bestyreren (Stellen Skarsgard), the school’s governor, is far too resolute in his misguided sense of reform to consider how damaging his methods are. Finally, there is student leader Olav (Trond Nilssen), who emerges as the heart of the film. He is inches away from being released after six arduous years. But as tensions rise, he must question whether or not securing his release is more important than standing up for the injustice he witnesses.

Stories of justified adolescent uprisings are always going to be engaging, to me at least. Marius Holst’s paint-by-numbers film is entirely predictable yet still manages to be a justly moving experience. Holst moves beyond the empathy implicit in the basic storyline, emphasizing the stark environment and the human elements buried deep within the struggle. Almost every frame is entrenched in hollow blues and grays. This may seem an obvious aesthetic choice but, again, Holst moves beyond the obvious with his execution. It is a rich film to look at, but the environment is never glamorized. This is a truly miserable place, and the visuals all support this.

Unfortunately, there is not much room for the actors to wiggle around in their archetypes. Unsurprisingly, Skarsgard manages quite a bit with a character that is so deeply mired in stern self-denial, that the film does not allow him even an honest moment with himself.

It is the child actors though who come through strongest. The governor says early on that at Bastøy “the past and future don’t exist. There is only present”. The film follows this proclamation relatively closely, focusing on the youths roles in the here and now of their predicament. Even without learning much about him, Helstad always makes sure we see Erling’s motivations come from immediate and tacitly sensed injustice.

Trond Nilssen’s Olav lends the film its most humanistic element. He has spent six years adapting to life at Bastøy. He has obeyed and proven a faithful inmate. There is a sort of reliance he has on the way things work at the school. Sure it is brutal and harsh, but if something were truly aghast, appropriate action would be taken; right? Surely he can expect his word, after six loyal years, to be worth something. From the moment we set our sights on Olav, we know where his arc is headed. Nilssen cancels out any negative effects of our awareness; the arc is all in his eyes and he is heartbreaking in the film’s successful through-line.

The strength of Helstad and Nilssen also force the friendship between Olav and Erling into the forefront of the film’s memorable aspects. The final ten minutes are inescapably emotional.

Filled with somber strings and heavy-handed and repetitious symbolism to drive home this grim tale of rebellion, King of Devil’s Island never feels substantial but is never less than entirely involving. When the uprising arrives it is shown as desperate and humanized rage. These kids do not turn into monsters and Holst smartly never allows that to come across. Holst is less interested in what happens when the breaking point is reached and more interested in the journey to that moment. The King of Devil’s Island is about unmonitored hierarchies of power and the disturbing results that can yield from a sharp schism between those in control and the unlucky defenseless.

Review: 21 Jump Street (2012, Lord and Miller)

IMDB Summary: A pair of underachieving cops are sent back to a local high school to blend in and bring down a synthetic drug ring.

“21 Jump Street” is a gaping hole in my pop-culture knowledge. I knew of its existence and that it had something to do with cops. I knew it launched Johnny Depp’s career and that it featured Richard Grieco who remained a stagnant fixture in the 80’s. But that is it. I have never seen an episode and was unfamiliar of even its basic concept. When the news of its reboot came about, my reaction was likely that of many: yet another shrug-and-eyeroll combo with a reiteration of the oh-so-original thought that Hollywood has run out of ideas. From my limited understanding, not even the basic genre, tone or characters are kept here. It is a reboot mostly in name only.

Yet, lo and behold; 21 Jump Street is a mostly fantastic film. Save for a third act that comparatively falls apart at the seams, this is an engagingly uproarious and surprisingly sincere comedy that is taken to the next level by the pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

The first half is almost shockingly good. The pacing is razor-sharp and it clicks along with an at-times remarkable speed. Take the first five minutes which manage to accomplish what some films fail to do in their entire runtime. It establishes Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) in their respective high-school personas. Schmidt was a 2005 unpopular Eminem wannabe whereas Jenko was your typical douchebag jock. This sets up a really refreshing role-reversal that will take place later on when they return to high school as undercover cops. Years later, they encounter each other when they train at the academy. Jenko is dim and needs help with the exams while Schmidt cannot power through the physical training. They begin to help each other out; through montage we see the roots of a clearly meaningful friendship which has a genuine immediacy that carries throughout. All of this resonates within the first five minutes, making everything that comes after all the more absorbing.

21 Jump Street contains a manic energy akin to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (screenwriter Michael Bacall had a hand in both screenplays) without the kinetic comic-book visuals. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller of the perplexingly well-received Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, quickly establish a gleeful fluid mania that permeates through everything. Early on they show how they will use the camera and music to present something in a more subjective fashion, only to pull back and show the amusing reality. It works every time.

Two sequences that do this perfectly are arguably the films two funniest sequences. The first is the pair’s first attempted arrest. The second is the pair’s drug-addled excursion during school hours. The latter switches back and forth from a first-person perspective, showing how they experience the various effects of the drug (whose supplier they have been assigned to track down), to a third-person perspective which displays just how ridiculous they really look. I can honestly say I do not know the last time I laughed this hard as this played out.

There is something about the experience of high school that is captured here, inducting it into the pantheon of memorable high school films. It helps that Jenko and Schmidt graduated high school in 2005, the same year as me, giving it an added dose of personal resonance. It presents high school as a toxic environment where peer approval not only reigns above all, but legitimately defines you as a person. Going back to high school terrifies Schmidt whereas Jenko is thrilled with the assignment. But the tables have turned. The high school experience has changed enough in seven years allowing Jenko to be unpopular and allowing Schmidt a place in the school’s top clique.

High school is its own universe and 21 Jump Street gets this. It capitalizes on the idea that going back after a number of years would be somewhat surreal. It is surprising just how much we feel when Schmidt, in his newly acquired popularity, distances himself from Jenko, who is looked down on by the popular crowd for his low intelligence level. This role-reversal allows for both the story and performances to go in some nicely unexpected directions.

As far as the two lead performances go, the brilliance of the Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum, pairing cannot be overstated. In the end, they make this film the success it is. They raise the bar for onscreen comedic pairings in our modern times. These are no exaggerations. Together that not only possess perfect comedic timing, but their ‘bromance’ (hate the term, but if it applies anywhere, it applies here) feels completely authentic and is respectfully played straight. When Tatum says he would take a bullet for Hill, it isn’t played for laughs.

To think of Hill in Moneyball and then in 21 Jump Street is a bit jarring. It is evident at this point that he can filter himself into a variety of different characters. Here, his character is equal parts insecure and misguided; but he’s also very intelligent. He isn’t really playing a ‘type’ here; Schmidt is a well-rounded character navigating through the confusing times of high school for the second time. It is very easy to overlook Hill’s considerable talents, but we shouldn’t. And here is hoping we do not start taking him for granted any time soon.

As far as Channing Tatum goes, his work here has single-handedly made me a fan. Saying he is revelatory may be an overstatement, and yet to simply say he shines would be an understatement. There is no straight man between the Hill/Tatum pairing. Not only does Tatum go for broke with the comedy, but the majority of the humanistic elements fall on him. The vulnerability on display is flat-out moving and he sells the hell out of all the facets of his character. This role represents a turning point in his career.

The last third of the film does not destroy everything that came before, but it certainly threatens to. There are still laughs and earnest storytelling to be had, but an unskillfully apparent chaos comes into play. The controlled tightness unravels and an unappealing messiness takes over.

The action scenes are somewhat incoherent. In concept there is a lot of potential, but the execution fails to translate what could have been exciting and vibrant set pieces. It does not help that distractingly subpar post-production work both in effects and sound somewhat take away from the experience. And while the crisp editing works in non-action scenes, it weakens the majority of the chase and fight scenes. This is a great comedy that also happens to be a weak action film.

21 Jump Street remains self-aware throughout, acknowledging its own lack of originality. But it never allows that one-joke gimmick to define the film; far from it. This is a mostly great comedy (and how few comedies can even be defined as ‘mostly great’ these days?) that thrives on being hilarious and sincere in equal measure. The rocky road the central friendship takes is clearly just as important to the filmmakers and actors as the laughs. Only time will tell, but I predict that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum will go down as one of the best onscreen pairings of our time. Yep. I said it.

Review: The Woman in Black (2012, Watkins)

There is an ornate decaying delicacy that comes with the period haunted house film. The Woman in Black is a classic back-to-basics Gothic tale that boasts an impressively patient and confident execution of familiar tropes, successfully piling on spook after spook. This may be all the film has to offer, but it garners enough satisfaction to ward off disappointment.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young widowed lawyer with a son. He is given an assignment (which his job hinges on) in a secluded English village where he is to sort through the estate of a deceased woman named Alice Drablow. The villagers are troubled by Arthur’s arrival. He gradually learns that many of the villagers have children who have died, including two hospitable citizens’ played by Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer.  It is only when Arthur is alone, in the entirely isolated and haunted estate of Eel Marsh, that he is able to put the pieces together amidst a ghost who means harm.

The vast majority of ghost stories are all essentially the same. There is a ghost. This ghost has been somehow wronged in their former life. The ghost wants to invoke suffering to others because of what they were forced to endure in life. This suffering could be targeted at nobody in particular, at a specific type of person, or at the ghost’s perceived wrong-doers.

With this in mind, it is imminently clear what is going on in The Woman in Black after about thirty minutes. The trick is to have this not matter. It does matter here, and in that case, the story needs to be stronger. To be an effective ghost story, the basis may be obvious (because at this point they almost certainly will be), but the particulars should be more vague, and at least as intriguing as what can be easily ascertained. The Woman in Black lacks the mysteriousness in story that it puts forth as having.

The story’s shortcomings are largely made up for by the macabre atmosphere and revivified use of tropes that go far in filling the void.  The scares themselves are not unfamiliar, but they work because of the impressively sustained ambiance that figures in far beyond the ‘jump’ moments themselves. James Watkins makes the entire journey one long successfully sustained spook.

Gothic tropes are heartily embraced with an appreciation for creaky doors and hallways, madwomen, shadows and fog, and a grandiose and decaying house that reign supreme over any character or story element to be had. Watkins wrings out a lot with a little; without him and an impressive technical crew (the production design here is stellar), this would have been entirely forgettable as opposed to the somewhat satisfying film that it is. A special kudos to those responsible for the props, who conjure up what is easily the most unsettling collection of antique wind-up dolls one is likely to ever see.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Daniel Radcliffe’s first post-Potter role and I am one of those, being the Radcliffe fan myself. Sadly, there is nothing much asked of him, and it is hard not to ponder if an actor who can make something out of nothing (there are not many that can) might have been able to lend some much-needed gravitas. For one, Radcliffe is oddly callow here as a lawyer with a four-year old son. He spends his time mainly reacting to creepy goings-on within the broadly defined quietness of his character. It does not help that the characterization of Arthur Kipps hinges entirely on the continuous lamenting over the death of his wife, and the constant reminder that he loves his son and wishes he could spend more time with him. This is all he is given to do and he is serviceable.

The problematic end, which I will not explicitly spoil, is impossible to overlook for its painful mawkishness. This kind of ending has always been a personal pet peeve, for the pitiful strain it reveals in insuring that the audience is sent off with a modicum of the ‘happy ending’, no matter what the contradicting circumstances. It is corny, evasive and cowardly.

The Woman in Black is in some sense following the type of film that nobody watches for plot or characterization. There are plenty of horror films, indeed many, that offer nothing in story and are heralded for their aura alone (many Hammer Films included). I was tempted to stride towards the ‘but it wasn’t meant to’ line of reasoning. But The Woman in Black seems to want to simultaneously intrigue with its story. The film neither backs up its plot-oriented ambitions nor goes forward with a bold proclamation of plot scarcity. The result is a potentially involving tale lost as well as a residue of intention that leaves an unfulfilled mark. But its primary reason for being, the resurrection of Gothic atmosphere and tropes used effectively is something The Woman in Black has in spades, and this is almost enough.