Billy Gray

Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews’ Category

Django Unchained

In Movie Reviews on January 17, 2013 at 5:05 am

django-dicaprioWhen we first see Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, he’s riding a horsedrawn carriage topped by a big sculpted molar. Schultz is a bounty hunter posing as a dentist, but the toothy avatar might also wink at the enduring role toothaches have played as metaphor for deeper cosmic pain in movies from Citizen Kane to Affliction.

Healing is at the core of Django Unchained, a slavery revenge fantasy and Tarantino’s second straight take—after the Nazi romp Inglourious Basterds—at antic revisionist history of profound global traumas and, as importantly, the movies.

Trundling around the Deep South two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained can’t be as explicit about the corrective power of cinema as Basterds, which was littered with references to German propaganda flicks, lionized a fictional Weimar movie siren and climaxed with Nazi higher-ups being gunned down from behind the screen at a red carpet premiere. (If Basterds’ release had coincided with the Aurora theater shootings, it would have been edited beyond recognition and/or shelved for months.) Read the rest of this entry »

The Master

In Movie Reviews on September 20, 2012 at 4:37 am

The Master is most electric during its opening scene. Jonny Greenwood’s ominous string score blasts to discordant life over a wide shot of a naval frigate’s crisp wake. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is among the seamen who cavort on a South Pacific beach. He introduces himself by explaining a fiery method of dealing with crabs—isolate the public lice on one testicle and set the hair on the other aflame—and murderously chopping up coconuts. He breaks to hump a voluptuous sand sculpture after leering at the lymph with his supple frame practically bent in two as if having Quasimodo’s wet dream. Director Paul Thomas Anderson briefly cuts to an officer masturbating into the ocean before it’s back on the ship, where Freddie drinks some sort of gasoline cocktail (back oh land he opts for paint thinner) before passing out on the mast tower.

Freddie is adrift and headed either for ruin or redemption. (A love interest back home in Massachusetts is Freddie’s millstone and Anderson’s MacGuffin.) But the sense of foreboding established in the first few minutes dissipates as Anderson finds the steady hand Freddie’s ingested Molotov cocktails—“poison”—render unattainable. After a series of failed odd jobs including mall photographer and farmhand—in a nod to Days of Heaven he kills a fellow worker and flees—he stows himself away on a yacht belonging to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an irrationally charismatic writer-philosopher-shaman, and filled with his family and admiring disciples. In one of many poised shots that soothe after the opening, the ship sails beneath the Golden Gate Bridge into an ochre sunset. Lancaster and his subtly domineering wife Peggy (Amy Adams) take Freddie under their wings as they cross the country and the Atlantic proselytizing their belief system, which is heavy on reincarnation, confession and purging of past trauma and roughly analogous to Scientology. Read the rest of this entry »

Norway Out: Oslo, August 31st

In Movie Reviews on July 6, 2012 at 8:44 am

Joachim Trier’s beautiful dirge, Oslo, August 31st, opens with a jumble of unflattering shots of the Norwegian capital. Unlike Manhattan, the voiceover narration isn’t a declaration of love for the titular city; it sounds more like divorce court proceedings, or a plaintive couple’s therapy session, and consists of a dozen or so strangers’ thoughts spliced together. They recall lost loves, misspent youths and phantom landmarks. The montage closes with a building demolition.

Soon you realize you were listening to a rap session in a halfway house for drug addicts. Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) joins the group, soaking wet, after an aborted suicide attempt—like an ADHD-riddled Virginia Woolf, he weighs himself down with rocks and walks into a stream, but bursts to the surface before the job is done. This is not a man who should be leaving the isolated rehab clinic and heading to the city unsupervised, least of all for a job interview that would test an eagle scout’s resolve.

Before the interview Anders buzzes up to an apartment. You think it’s his dealer, but it turns out to be a friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner, packing a wallop into his brief screen time), who cut ties with the chemically charged rave scene well enough before Anders to be a husband, father and academic writer unashamed to inject e Proust into casual conversation. Thomas is perturbed by Anders’ unannounced visit—his wife chalks up the morning beer to him wanting to look macho in front of Anders when really he needs whatever sedative he can snag. Read the rest of this entry »

Slash and Burn

In Movie Reviews on May 2, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Joss Whedon is married, more or less happily, to hokey genre entertainment: he knows sci-fi and horror like the back of his hand, and clearly loves them, even as he mocks and dissects their trappings, hoping to refine them through deconstructive criticism. He made his name with the TV adaptation of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a revered gothic-comic take on the forgettable Valley Girl film spoof he wrote. “Buffy” peppered the vampire-as-sex metaphor with sly high school soap opera. With “The Cabin in the Woods,” which Whedon wrote with director Drew Goddard, the fanboy favorite tweaks the slasher flick formula. But unlike “Buffy,” “Cabin” is too slick and abstracted to work as horror or satire, adding to the case that po-mo horror should have begun and ended with “Scream,” or at least its first inferior sequel.

The trouble starts early. A cheesy Freemason-esque credits sequence is broken by a cut to two geeky co-workers chattering in the cavernous antiseptic office space built for every corporate satire film set.  Cue freeze-frame and blaring ominous score, then cut to a group of nubile idiots—meathead, floozie, semi-virgin, brain and stoner sage—packing for a weekend in the woods. Clearly, we’re in for an arch, bumpy ride that will make little to no sense beyond its central lampoonery. Read the rest of this entry »

Long Day’s Journey

In Movie Reviews on April 20, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Terence Davies’ “The Long Day Closes” is short. But the absence of narrative leaves you guessing when the impressionistic remembrance of childhood will, or should, end.  Despite an endearing lead surrounded by charismatic supporting characters and bathed in poised, fitfully striking cinematography, the closing credits come as a pity and a relief.  This is a coming of age movie devoid of saccharine, ham-handed present-day narration elucidating the life lessons distracted viewers missed, and, more impressively, nostalgia to underscore the passage of time and overwhelm the mnemonic portrait.

A pastiche of memory, effortlessly conjured by the mind, is hard to transfer to paper and film. Davies’s recollections wind through and hover over the shambles of post-War Liverpool, where 11-year old Bud (Leigh McCormack) lives in a row house with his kind, wistful Mom (Marjorie Yates), who’s alone for unexplained reasons, though one suspects she’s a war widow, and three significantly older siblings he’d like to count as gallivanting peers. On Christmas and birthdays, the home is bright and boisterous. Otherwise, the dark barely cloaks the squalid. It’s a similar picture outside. The opening shot of a narrow Liverpool street dwells on rubble, while other images revel in tidy independent shops and communal merriment. (The film came out in 1992, when both of these were already near extinction.)

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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

In Movie Reviews on December 28, 2011 at 12:20 pm

There’s just one onscreen murder in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” David Fincher’s return to the serial killer genre. It’s bloodless, and committed by an innocent out of self-defense. Despite the film’s low body count, its nasty images outnumber pleasant ones. Its heroes smoke incessantly (in an inversion of recent rules limiting depictions of smoking to unsavory characters, the villain abstains), cheat on their spouses and putative orientations, and ruthlessly undermine the notion of its setting—Sweden—as the idyllic modern welfare state. There’s also an anal rape sequence co-starring the biggest dildo in Scandinavia en route to the indictment that latent Nazism and the decline of private industry account for Sweden’s manifest ills.

The Swedes will love it, because “Dragon Tattoo” is adapted from the first book in Steig Larsson’s blockbuster Millennium trilogy, texts so Swedish and of such immense popularity they’ve likely supplanted the Bible to become a post-foundational text in their secular native land. “Dragon Tattoo” introduces journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and cyberpunk security hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Forced into exile on libel charges, Blomkvist is summoned to the remote island of Hedestad by the wealthy Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), ostensibly to ghostwrite his memoirs but really to determine who killed Vanger’s niece, Harriet, 40 years ago. Blomkvist recruits Salander, a perpetual victim of men, to join the case. Read the rest of this entry »

I’m Still Here

In Movie Reviews on September 20, 2010 at 11:10 am

It’s hard to swallow criticisms of celebrity that come from celebrities. But only stars who have experienced stardom have the right to complain about it. It’s a paradoxical perk that the famous inevitably deploy to gripe about the undeserved perks that fame affords them.

Woody Allen made Celebrity, a movie lambasting, well, you know. Britney Spears sang “Piece of Me”, a tune about the travails of global superstardom in the TMZ Era. It helped revive Spears’ career and land her dozens of magazine covers. Now Joaquin Phoenix stars in I’m Still Here, a “maybe, maybe not” documentary about the actor’s undoing by the corrupt and phony business of being famous for losing his identity to the cameras. Friend and fellow movie star Casey Affleck directs, and diligently films everything short of Phoenix’s bowel movements. Don’t worry; Affleck does shoot Phoenix’s friend/hanger on Antony taking a crap. It happens to land on Phoenix’s face. Read the rest of this entry »

Animal Kingdom

In Movie Reviews on September 10, 2010 at 2:41 pm

The criminal underworld is a murky place.  It’s filled with gangsters with ulterior motives; scheming molls; tenuous, shifting allegiances; and well-laid plans gone awry. The Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom doesn’t attempt to sort out this mess. But instead of feeling accurately inaccurate, David Michôd’s film winds up more muddled than its thorny subject.

A good gangster movie needs a protagonist to corrupt. Here it’s J (a stolid, forgettable James Frecheville), whose mom ODs in the opening scene, leaving him in the care of his drug-running, gun-toting extended family. The cops are after J’s uncle, “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn), who comes out of hiding to have the usual ragtag crew of fools do his sinister bidding. This includes gunning down a couple of police officers after the authorities shoot Barry (Joel Edgarton), an underling who was on the verge of giving up the game and becoming an upstanding citizen. Needless to say, things go downhill until the very last frame.

Animal Kingdom plays like a highlight real of mob saga components. Cocaine is hoovered. Blood splatters over rental-white walls. And inane Top 40 songs make for jarring background music to the violent mayhem. But the film doesn’t feel like a knockoff. It might have been great, instead of very good, if it had. Read the rest of this entry »

Winter’s Bone

In Movie Reviews on August 25, 2010 at 12:01 pm

There’s a banjo in Winter’s Bone. And one scene that could be a primer on how to deep-fry a squirrel you shot in your backyard. But Debra Granik’s Appalachian drama otherwise skips the backwoods genre tropes Deliverance established 38 years ago.

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is 17. Her dad is on the lam. Her mom is a mute. And her younger brother and sister depend on her for basic survival. The authorities will seize the house she runs unless her father shows up for trial. He’s a notorious meth cooker. “My dad would never blow up a lab. That’s what he’s known for,” Ree says at one point in her perilous quest to find him down along Arkansas’s northern border.

But Granik and Anne Rosellini’s terse screenplay doesn’t treat crystal as a novelty whose intricacies must be explained to urbane indie audiences. I’m not even sure the characters utter the drug’s name. Instead there are oblique references to labs, tweaking, cooking and bad batches. It’s not a blasé take on methamphetamines, but a realistic one. And the sparse dialogue extends to the movie’s more prosaic moments, namely the interactions between Ree and her ruined family, struggling friends and shattered acquaintances. Read the rest of this entry »

Cyrus

In Movie Reviews on July 1, 2010 at 3:54 pm

2010 is shaping up to be the year of two parallel, inverse cinematic developments: the fall of the blockbuster and the rise of mumblecore.

Traditional multiplex fare like Robin Hood, Sex and the City 2, Prince of Persia, The A-Team, Jonah Hex and Knight and Day bombed, some of them cataclysmically. Indie-minded and microscopically-budgeted movies like Greenberg and, now, Cyrus won’t make as much money in their entire runs as those big budget failures did in their opening weekends. Still, the healthy financial and solid critical successes of these little guys (starring some big names) denote mumblecore’s move from art house, or even IFC, screens and Film Comment pages to the major leagues.

Cyrus comes from writers-directors Jay and Mark Duplass, two of mumblecore’s earliest and most influential practitioners. (The regrettably named movement goes further than other indies in eschewing big studio gloss and genre tropes with movies so barebones and modest in scale, setting, plot and dialogue as to make prime Sundance-era material—from sex, lies and videotape to, gulp, Spitfire Grill—look like exercises in Heaven’s Gate-level bombast. Read the rest of this entry »