Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

You can’t blame a movie for trying, and oh, how hard Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) tries; wildly, valiantly, messily, constantly. It tries so hard, and with such inconsistent success, that one might argue it tries too hard, but that’s a silly criticism that no self-respecting Abel Gance fan could endorse, and we at Sad Hill Media are resolutely pro-Gance.

A fairer argument would be “It tries too hard where it fails, and hard enough where it succeeds.” To its credit, one of the film’s many amusing meta quirks is that it's just as prepared to face the humiliation of public failure as its protagonist: Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, who more or less disappeared from public view after playing Batman in the early 90s, and here attempts a serious artistic comeback), a dwindling movie star, who more or less disappeared from public view after playing Birdman in the early 90s, and here attempts a serious artistic comeback by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. From that casting, the gist of the movie’s game is pretty clear: satirize show-business personalities and their egos in the public eye, with real-life know-how implied by metatextual nods in the film’s cast and screenplay. Given the slowly falling star of director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu since the wild acclaim of his debut Amores Perros, one can’t help but think of his own career; this resemblance is no doubt also intentional, if not necessarily autobiographical.

It’s set up as a critical self-satire, in a sense, one distanced from the movies mostly by the Broadway setting, but unlike Sunset Blvd. or , Birdman isn’t really all that excoriating. For all the barbs that Riggan and his cast and family throw at each other in the chaotic days leading up to the play’s premiere, Iñárritu is determined to redeem and humanize them all. All, that is, save for a businessman, a film critic, and the public at large, the harshest judgment of whom the film saves for its final sequence. One of Birdman's more unfortunate traits is that it paints an arts community where only the suffering, imperfect artists themselves have noble causes or motives at bottom, and the rest are preening or pompous leeches. Ironically, that makes Iñárritu and co. far more cynical than Fellini or Wilder.

That’s not the film’s main thesis, thankfully, and so it can be mentally backgrounded in favour of where the film’s strengths (and other flaws) lie: as a freewheeling, sympathetic character study. Keaton’s central performance is showy, but in a way that’s resolutely tuned to the showiness of the film around him, and he pulls off enough surprising character beats and turns that it’s easily the best thing I’ve seen him do. The supporting cast is strong all round, albeit sometimes the film’s tonal wishy-washiness seems to leave them a little at sea sometimes — the film doesn’t quite carry off its frequent and murky shifts between comedy and melodrama.

A lot of that is probably down to a lack of formal discipline. Much has been made of the single, unbroken shot that constitutes the vast majority of Birdman, which so far has been most commonly read as the heightened stream of consciousness of a man losing his mind. But if there is one unifying trait here, it isn’t internal subjectivity, but aggressive omniscience: Iñárritu’s camera seems to see every important moment of every character’s life in this theater house, eliding the passage of days with an elliptical pan, then showing a character’s hallucinations, then showing an intimate dialogue between Riggan and his girlfriend in a fairly objective mode, then snaking away from Riggan to an adulterous interlude, then to another adulterous interlude, then — well, it certainly makes its point about fidelity in the theater world.

The point is that the camera does and sees whatever it damn well wants to, and on one hand it’s a thrill to see a master innovator like Emmanuel Lubezki go so hog-wild as only he conceivably could. On the other, all this constant creative exuberance tends to stuff the running time a hell of a lot fuller than it could or should be. There’s not much of a formal arc to the cinematography’s craziness — it peaks with an astonishing movement through Times Square long before the film is due to climax — and that can often make the proceedings more hysterical than moving. But still, we’re talking about Lubezki here, and that means there are few images in Birdman that don’t carry emotional import, that don’t dazzle with their technical and expressive bravura, that aren’t throwing in new flourishes, even if it can get a little unsurprising in its surprisingness.

At least the film is of a piece in its messiness; the script runs through big, dramatic beats with characters far too often and too early, often robbing otherwise-good performances of the sense of development and discovery. It has an unfortunate habit of revealing someone’s foibles and redeeming them well before the halfway mark, and then topping those logical culminations with increasingly contrived interpersonal complications (usually adultery). There's more than enough material here to fill a very dense movie (much, much more), but for all the density, the histrionics lay so much bare so soon that the movie is front-loaded, and little resounds at the end.

Yes, this is overload with abandon, a movie jammed so tight with extremity and self-conscious stylization that it squeezes out much of whatever points Iñárritu was trying to make. Despite this — despite a schizophrenic mix of classic orchestral music and a jazz drumming score, despite its failure to deliver on its themes, despite an ending that is not really earned and comes off more glib than ambiguous — it’s hard to fault Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) for bringing too much to the table when so many of its parts are so good, even if it doesn’t make for a proper meal.

by Will Ross

Ten feature films in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has solidified its scope and range more than perhaps any franchise of comparable scale has before, and for all its flaunting of effects and catastrophes, it’s proven a very narrow range indeed. Though blockbuster series have fallen under the close watch of branding before, the MCU may be unique in the sheer intensity of its efforts; in spite of their “universal” moniker, these films never venture farther from each other than the aggressive rubber banding of their continuity allows.

For the most part, both critics and the public seem to have accepted this, and when discussing the series’s merits, standards are kept in a vacuum: Captain America: The Winter Soldier was generally praised as a major stylistic departure for taking a couple camera cues from Jason Bourne movies. Marvel has set and distributed its own grading curve. It doesn't insist so much that it be taken on its own terms as it does on the a priori merit of those terms.

The latest entry is fairly self-contained, and though this frees it from the other films’ irritating pan-referential cameos, Guardians of the Galaxy is quick to remind us of its trappings: the film begins before the studio logo, showing the origin of a little boy visiting his hospitalized, dying mother. After her melodramatic death, he runs outside in tears, a UFO descends to abduct him, and up comes the Marvel Studios logo with accompanying fanfare; a clearer, more open proclamation of “this movie is primarily characterized by its studio,” I have never seen. It’s a ghastly intrusion of financial structure into art (the intrusion, most tellingly, is for “MARVEL STUDIOS”, not a more understandably titular “MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE”), but in a way it’s honest: these movies have constantly signposted their blockbuster appeal, and enough people have paid $10 to see Marvel throw money into a mold so that it makes sense to self-legitimize their ethos of marketing corporatized product.

That makes it very hard to see where James Gunn’s direction succeeds and fails on its own agency and personality, and where he's just running the gauntlet ordained by Kevin Feige. Guardians is very much modeled on The Avengers: a rag-tag group must learn to set aside their differences and co-operate to stop a galactic wannabe-god who’s acquired an ancient artifact that grants world-conquering power. Like Avengers, its solution to its bizarre ensemble is to take a more comedic tack with its characters, though despite being heavily pushed as the goofball entry in the Marvel canon, it’s far more reverent than Joss Whedon’s refreshingly light handle on the material.

Here, most of the outlandishness comes less from the bizarreness of the characters than their newness to the general public; let’s remember that the film features Peter Quill, a human man (Chris Pratt), Gamora, an alien who is exactly like a human except for being green (Zoe Saldana), Drax, an alien who is exactly like a human except for being grey and strong (Dave Bautista), Rocket, a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and a dumb humanoid tree named Groot (Vin Diesel). Only two of those are at all goofy for Marvel, and they’re not that much a stretch.

What’s more, only Rocket and Quill have much character to begin with. Though Guardians moves efficiently to form its band of misfits, the chemistry is more or less set when those two sardonic wisecrackers get together, and happily, they are not identical personalities. The rest are just foils: Drax is a slightly nicer, slightly less dumb Hulk, Groot is a much nicer and even dumber Hulk, and Gamora is plainly just the romantic interest. Indeed, Saldana’s is a pitifully thankless role. Her sole purpose is to be the object of desire (and occasional expositor) in an adolescent male power fantasy, and if you think I’m being cynical, consider her conspicuous exclusion from the film’s merchandise.

That can all be just fine (well, the Gamora thing would still sting) in an effective, exciting action adventure that doesn’t foreground its characters, but Guardians doesn’t deliver there. Being a Marvel joint, there is absolutely no sense of physical danger whatsoever (it’s not even a spoiler anymore to say nobody worth half a damn ever dies in these movies, despite their emphatic continuity). It doesn’t come off aesthetically, either; few of its moving parts show much unity or discipline, or divergence from the studio's cursed house style. The soundtrack choices are rote passages from classic rock standards, the visuals are an overloaded with colours and a busy, unfocused camera, and the action scenes are toothless collections of disjointed beats (save for one brief moment involving spacecraft ramming through each other that ranks as the film’s only grounded, inventive piece of choreography).

There’s a good handful of inspired comic moments — mostly quips and straight-man reactions from Quill and Rocket — and the sense of timing and delivery in these moments is easily the film’s strongest point. But even these are more standalone, scattered jokes than a consistent sense of humour tying in with and advancing the story, so the film banks pretty hard on its “forming a team and putting aside selfishness is good” message. And, fine, that’s an okay message, but it’s a little hard to invest in that without the rest of the film working to earn our interest. There’s so little real thoughtfulness afforded to anything in Guardians of the Galaxy, except how to maximize its pull on demographics and create merchandising opportunities. The flashes of good ideas are subservient to the whole, which, as usual, never had a chance to really soar when it was towed all the way by the Marvel machinery.

Nov 29, 2014

The Babadook (2014)

by Will Ross

It’s so rare that the subject of mental illness reaches the attention of mainstream movies that it’s important to seize upon the topic when it’s brought up, especially because it’s even rarer that the subject is treated well. Sometimes, that’s understandable: it’s deathly hard to dramatize a condition with no external symptoms (short of sinking to histrionics, as any number of anguished monologues will show). Sometimes it's less understandable, no more prominently in recent memory than the bizarrely off-base depiction of bipolarity in Silver Linings Playbook. I’m passionate enough to care, but seasoned enough to dread the subject when it’s introduced, usually with expository clanking and the proselytizing reverence of an under-informed outsider. The Babadook never gave me that chance, and the most important thing about it may be that it doesn’t dislocate the audience from the sufferers of mental illness, and it never exoticizes nor romanticizes the experience or the act of overcoming it.

Granted, the film seems to begin with the same wary eye towards the mentally ill that so many other horror films have, opening up on an already-strained family: almost seven years after the death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis in an intense and brilliant performance) struggles with the day-to-day pressures of raising her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). She falters with bills, she endures the depressing tedium of her work, and she copes with Sam’s intensifying inability to distinguish reality and fantasy (he crafts monster-killing weapons and brings them to school). Most importantly, she obviously has not gotten over the trauma of her husband’s sudden death, suffered in a car crash while he drove her to the hospital during childbirth. The event still so sharply defines their family dynamic that Sam has never celebrated his birthday on the actual date of his birth, the day being implicitly set aside for mourning.

As things unfold, Sam’s obsession with fashioning weapons to kill monsters worries his teachers, his friends, and his mother more and more, until he is rejected by the former two and increasingly resented by Amelia, who herself bears no small amount of ostracization on his account.

So the stage is well-set for an intense family drama, but even someone going in blind could quickly predict The Babadook’s genre from its creepy, surreal opening dream sequence, its steely, desaturated pallette, and its unsettlingly hushed soundscape. But unlike virtually any other writer-director of horror, first-timer Jennifer Kent doesn’t insist upon her genre; she only connotes it in order to set up her audience for what’s coming. In the meantime, Kent uses her framing to box in Amelia, and the cutting to pile on mishaps and misfortunes just a touch faster than the poor mother can cope with or respond to. The editing and camerawork don’t trumpet their craftsmanship, but always quietly work to some subtle, apprehensive end, such that we are constantly aware that something really, really bad is going to happen.

You can spot it as a horror — one working in the best tradition of scaring you well before anything especially horrifying happens — without too much trouble, but it shifts most incontrovertibly into its genre when, for his nightly bedtime story, Sam asks to be read a book from the shelf called Mr. Babadook. At first, it's charming. Then, page by charcoal-drawn, pop-up page, the supernatural, cloak-and-top-hat-wearing creature of the book’s title grows more and more frightening. Soon it becomes clear that the book’s Seuss-ian rhymes describe a demonic spirit of the soul-eating variety, and are probably not the best thing to read to a child who genuinely believes in monsters.

The stage is set, and when Sam’s monster paranoia intensifies and Amelia finds shards of glass in her soup but not her son’s, the dominos of their already strained relationship begin to fall. Paedophobia is far from a new concern in horror, but as her son’s maddening obsession with the Babadook torches what little social capital Amelia had left, she starts to spot glances of the Babadook’s top hat, cloak, and long-clawed gloves, and this is where the movie starts to become something really special.

For starting here the film begins a crescendo of committed ambiguity, and as she sees more and more of the book’s monster, Amelia’s ever-faltering smile and whisper of a voice give way to hardened anger and embittered growls, and a growing suspicion forms that she is fast losing her own grip on reality. It’s never really clear if the supernatural threat is genuine (and the film, wisely, keeps the Babadook mostly in shadows), or if her own traumatized depression, unchecked and dismissed by friends and family, is sending her off a long-awaited deep end. The Babadook begins to work complex changes of perspective with surprising fleetness, first between the maybe-imagined visions and objective reality, then, more subtly and impressively, between Amelia and her son, who for all his frightful habits begins to seem less and less frightening than his mother.

Then comes the final act, where most horror movies — especially ambiguous ones — rarely stick the landing. The very long and eventful night that the movie spends with its characters in their house is straightforward, and in some ways familiar. But the machinery of Kent’s script and direction click into place to create a climax where we know that there are some things that really do happen, and some things that the characters may only believe is happening, but the dividing lines become as blurry for us as they are for the characters. Soon we realize that the most terrifying thing about The Babadook is not that this murderous, soul-eating monster might be real, but that it might not be real. The film’s perfectly balanced parallel readings push and pull at each other, and as they do the film twists deep into those psychological fears that any horror filmmaker will purport to exploit, but which few have the formal intelligence and dedication to sieze.

It’s a film of truly fearsome intelligence, packing a head-spinning number of ironies, double meanings, and perspectival ambiguities into its 90 minutes, most of them intertwined and neatly resolved, but with enough loose ends to keep you on edge and poke at your psyche well after it’s over. Its family dynamic and climax of supernatural imagery recall The Exorcist, The Shining, and other classics, and its central maybe-mad mother figure brings it closer to The Innocents than anything else. But The Babadook does something that I’ve never seen a horror movie do: it breaks down the characters' fantasies and their real experience until they are not only indistinguishable, but functionally identical. If the horror genre has given us a better, more responsible depiction of mental illnesses and the anguish of coping with them alone, I’ve yet to see it.

Nov 27, 2014

Citizenfour (2014)

by Will Ross

There is typically little critical distinction between the reception of documentaries that are groundbreaking, thoughtful, and expertly crafted, and documentaries that are basically competent. Last year Leviathan and The Act of Killing swept into the open arms of critics as two firm representatives of the former. After that I hoped for a recalibration, for critics to stop permitting so much latitude in formal qualities and structure, to stop rewarding documentaries simply for taking on interesting subjects. Such has not been the case, as 2014 docs with admirable goals but unremarkable execution have been received like the second coming — Jodorowsky’s Dune, Life Itself, and now Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, which wastes no time announcing its middling presentation.

“This film is the third in a trilogy about America in the post-9/11 era,” the film’s opening title card informs us, and for all of its prominence, this piece of information does not significantly inform anything that follows in the next 113 minutes. For one thing, it’s never significant that this is part of a trilogy, nor that it’s the third part. For another, it could not be more redundant to characterize a film about Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks as “Post-9/11”. That sentence, ending that title card, presenting that information, is a small choice, but it’s the first chance the film has to frame itself, the sort of choice that separates accomplished storytelling from a strain for significance.

At bottom, Citizenfour is a parade of conversations about privacy. The film sticks to footage shot by Poitras and company as events unfolded, most effectively in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden met with Poitras, Glenn Greenwald, and Ewen MacAskill to plan and execute the first of the leaks. It’s striking how composed he is — how confident in his principles, how accepting of his personal sacrifice. In one scene, a news report detailing imminent criminal charges against Snowden plays low on the soundtrack as he nonchalantly asks for advice on how to trim his beard. While Poitras is unequivocally on Snowden’s side (so am I) and may have had a stake in portraying him favourably, there’s no mistaking the genuine courage of his convictions on display, even as he unplugs phones and throws cloths over himself and his laptop to avoid the myriad of ways he could be spied upon. The strength of character on direct display is Citizenfour’s greatest asset, with the generally articulate phrasing of its subjects in a distant second.

The film itself is less articulate. As I said, Citizenfour is a series of conversations, in court rooms, hotels, meeting halls, news programs, etc., and while every conversation has something relevant to say about the issue — extreme government oversight, liberty, apathy, etc. — there’s not much linking them together here except for their chronological order, and a droning, irritating “this is a paranoid thriller!” electronic buzz (lifted from a Nine Inch Nails track where it actually works pretty well in context) providing a sketchy dramatic suture. Poitras also uses emails and instant-messaging sequences with Snowden as frequent interstitials, shown in stark white text on a black background. Sometimes it’s read by a chilled, monotonous voice; sometimes it’s silent, punctuated by keystrokes.

The problem with all these paranoid-thriller tropes is that the vast majority of the movie around them is simply not a thriller. It doesn’t have the intensity, the clarity of stakes, or especially the tight craftsmanship for that.

Poitras forgoes the flexibility and immediacy of handheld cameras typically suited to this sort of subject, instead mounting cameras on tripods for almost every scene. There are ways to do this well, but besides getting the multiple angles needed to cut and compress scenes with seamless Hollywood style (perhaps an inappropriate choice for a documentary that trumpets transparency), Poitras just doesn’t know how to use her tools. For a seasoned documentary filmmaker, her team is not very good with cameras: tripod shakes, jerky pans, focus issues, and poor framing plague the film so much that if there was a stylistic motivation for using tripods, it’s obscured under the poor craft on display.

That lack of focus extends to the editing. Though Citizenfour can identify interesting moments and conversations, it can’t seem to build them together into something more than the words that are spoken, can’t seem to give a sense that it’s building a thesis or a scope or a pattern of thought beyond what is transmitted on the surface of Snowden’s speeches. Not that that would be saying much — as the film progresses, there are more and more scenes where subjects repeat information we have already heard, with only small additions or a change in location distinguishing their content.

Citizenfour goes through a crisis of identity right before our eyes. It doesn't give us new information, and actually assumes we are familiar with its subject, so it’s not an introduction or explanation. Yet it’s too verbose, too laboured in its endless detailing of privacy breaches to function as thriller that the e-mail interstitials clearly want it to be. I sympathize with its intentions, but its form has little to praise. It is timely, has an interesting subject, and was bravely made, and that is not enough to make it a good film.

Nov 24, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

by Will Ross

For the first forty minutes or so of Interstellar, it looks sure to be Christopher Nolan’s worst film yet. Hans Zimmer’s score piles on an intense drone over the otherwise peaceful scene-setting, running long cues through multiple scenes and emotional beats with absolutely no nuance or variation. The sci-fi exposition is both unnecessarily guarded (would it be so bad to even allude to why all of Earth became a giant dust bowl? Or give some substantial sense that this dystopia affected the world outside America?) and schizophrenically over-specified (the reveal that textbooks have been modified to say ‘We faked the moon landing!’ raises a lot of questions and ideas that the film never shows interest in exploring). And for all the time we spend with the family at the heart of the story, their characters and relationships are one-note: the paternal Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), an ace pilot who never got to make anything of his skills and dreams of exploration (“you should have been born 40 years earlier, or 40 years later,” a character says, probably barely suppressing a wink at the camera), his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain), who is into science and super attached to her dad, his son Tom (Timothee Chalamet, later Casey Affleck), who is a little dim but a pretty chill guy, and the grand-paternal Donald (John Lithgow), who is, uh, a grandfather. The script, co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, hammers away at these traits endlessly as it opens up a myriad of go-nowhere plot strands.

And there’s no technical saving grace to fall back on. Nolan’s visual direction is never incompetent, but it’s resolutely bland. The substitution of Nolan’s regular cinematographer Wally Pfister for Hoyte van Hoytema — whose work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ranks among my very favourite film visuals of the 21st century — seems to prove that the director’s pedestrian visuals were never Pfister’s fault: Hoytema does well enough with his lighting set-ups, especially given that he seems to have had, like, a million billion angles to light for, but he’s clearly hamstrung by Nolan’s resolute need to cover almost everything with medium close-ups.

All of that is apparent before what might be the worst thing in the movie, a small decision that is nonetheless so self-evidently wrong that it demands a full paragraph: inexplicable cutaways to 16mm documentary footage of grizzled seniors talking about what life was like on this post-apocalyptic, dust-ridden Earth. The extent to which this footage makes no sense in its narrative or aesthetic context cannot be overstated; it doesn’t provide significant exposition, it clashes drastically with the rest of the film, and its obvious diegetic source is such overt foreshadowing that it obliterates much of the tension before the plot even gets going. And the use of 16mm is self-parodic. I know that Nolan is a staunch defender of film over digital, but does he really find a dust-bowl apocalypse easier to imagine than digital cameras becoming — check that — remaining the default format for filmmaking, and especially documentaries, in the distant, resource-barren future? That the footage is spliced in from an actual Ken Burns documentary about the Dirty Thirties only makes it stranger, and it’s the only major gaff in Lee Smith’s ordinarily heroic cutting.

Well, the only gaff besides not jettisoning the vast majority of the first act on Earth and moving us into space as soon as possible, because that’s when Interstellar gets focused and turns from a half-assed expository mishmash into a big, idea-loaded sci-fi fantasy. Cooper and a team of astronauts are joined by the lovable robot TARS (whose variable emotion settings are the single most interesting trait of any character, and also completely at odds with the film’s themes) to fly into a wormhole that has opened, through which initial probes have revealed potentially habitable planets to replace Earth. The mission: confirm at least one planet’s habitability and deliver the info back to NASA on Earth, where Murphy and one astronaut’s father (Michael Caine) hope to learn how to control gravity.

Which, yes, is as silly as it sounds. The key word up there is “fantasy”, and I cannot stress enough the extent to which you should not take to heart the first two acts’ hard sci-fi posturing. Yes, there are lots of great sciencey ideas in the space exploration sections, especially those exploring the relative time between Cooper’s crew and the Earth they leave behind. But at the story’s heart are unexplained, even fantastical premises that you kind of have to just go with. A lot of plot points seem to be contrived only to allow another sci-fi idea to click into place later, and the Nolan brothers’ script is a lot dopier than it thinks it is, but, contrary to all the science-physics hoo-ha that gets thrown around, it’s a very simple plot, and it’s free of the mind-knots of the infuriatingly labyrinthine structure of The Dark Knight Rises. That makes it accessibly dopey. Even lovably dopey.

The characters are still all one-note, but Interstellar stops harping on that so much (save some groaningly bad lines from Anne Hathaway’s astronaut about love and evil), and finally gets to where Nolan’s passion clearly lies: big conceptual set pieces. They’re actually pretty exciting, though the visual blandness stays locked into cruise control, communicating concepts and actions with little-to-no compositional or aesthetic expressiveness. There is one visual motif, a camera mounted on the side of the spaceships as they fly around (like those videos with GoPros lashed onto the side of a bicycle, or the car-mounted cameras in Bullitt), whose constant repetition I simply don’t understand, and in general the highly positive reception to the space visuals is confusing to me. Yes, they’re technically impressive, but come on; we’re only a year out from Gravity reminding us that technical feats are nothing compared to technical feats in service of master visualists. I can only think of one truly memorable composition from the whole movie, an extreme-wide shot of two astronauts wrestling that perfectly emphasizes their remoteness and desolation in both a literal and figurative sense. But this is a big, ambitious sci-fi epic; one truly great shot is not an impressive count.

The fact that those effects-heavy scenes have any kind of affect or physicality is largely down to Lee Smith, whose editing takes the unimaginative camera coverage and uses it to precisely lay out complex, rapid beats, stacking Nolan’s customarily complex (and customarily problematic) intercutting sequences and building momentum seemingly effortlessly. A few qualms aside (I assume “Hey Chris, let’s cut the whole first act” wasn’t on the table), Smith mostly nails the quieter sequences too; not easy, considering Nolan seems to have less and less idea of how to shoot dialogue in a more-than-functional way. He even throws in a couple of elliptical fades that emphasize the ever-looming threat of relative time. Ah, fades! Remember when those were allowed in blockbusters? Lee Smith. Love that guy.

But as much as Smith remains the unsung saviour of Nolan’s aesthetic coherence, a little credit for that success must also be given — I can’t believe I’m saying this — to Hans Zimmer.

In recent years each of Zimmer’s scores takes on new production angles, from the throbbing dubstep of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the overpowering drums of Man of Steel, to his umpteenth self-plagiarism of “Journey to the Line” set to under-arranged strings in 12 Years a Slave (a score whose positive critical reception is utterly mystifying to me). These conceits usually seem less suited to their subjects than to Zimmer’s own flights of fancy, so it’s either a more thoughtful approach or dumb luck that brought Zimmer to a schema that actually works here: a Phillip Glass-inspired use of repetitive piano and organ, with flourishes of brass or strings here and there, and percussion laid down with an intensity appropriate for the given scene.

None of that is anything to write home about, but for Zimmer, who in the past few years has written some of the most putrid scores I have ever heard in mainstream Hollywood films, “nothing to write home about” is practically a revelation of restraint and precision. There are still major issues: it often gets caught in a ridiculous arms race with sound and dialogue (the sound mix, as usual, is one of the worst things about a Nolan film); it reveals too many of its themes and motifs on Earth to really musically develop in space; and at times Zimmer’s trademark underdeveloped melodies step in to wander around distractingly. Still, “generally effective window-dressing” is a far cry from “Zimmer’s score crippled the film,” and hopefully that marks a turnaround for a once-impressive composer whose ideas these days rarely run beyond huge dynamic shifts and production gimmicks. There’s even one cue for the film’s action climax (titled “Coward” on the soundtrack album) that I would say is his best in years, building a gradual crescendo from dread-laden percussive clicks into organ arpeggios that climax in a pretty sophisticated key change. It’s a good cue, and a reminder of the strengths that used to make  Zimmer’s scores worth a damn before they were overwhelmed by his melodic weakness and production fetishism.

That action climax, incidentally, is a major turning point for the film for reasons I daren’t hint at, except to say that it’s when the movie goes from fairly dopey to off-the-chart aw-ya-big-dope levels. It partially undermines the movie’s own themes and rules, but after the disastrous opening there was never a chance of this thing being a cohesive, so it’s not that hard to swallow and enjoy the sudden change of pace (even if it does keep you at emotional arm’s length).

That’s actually Interstellar’s saving grace in general: it’s hard not to enjoy a film that is pouring so much energy and creativity into a completely sincere, uncynical goal. For as much as Nolan’s post-Memento work has only suffered by its greater resources and bigger canvases, Interstellar is a good reminder of why I’d rather give blockbuster carte blanche to a messy, inconsistent, but completely heartfelt artist like Nolan than the studio-molded cynics who usually get that privilege.

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Jul 21, 2014

The Raid 2 (2014)

by Will Ross

When I reviewed The Raid: Redemption, I was quick to point out that the action as wasn’t wall-to-wall as the popular narrative went — the bulk of the film is spent between the guns-and-fists hyperviolent action, and that shed light on a major problem: the story blew. There was so little detail or motivation or personality afforded to the characters in The Raid that it made the action a little more difficult to invest in, even if its over-simplicity also formed a partial justification for the film as a camera/fight choreography showcase, and a damned impressive one at that.

The runaway success of that film permitted its creative team to make their dream project, Berendal, and, after being retrofitted as a sequel to the first film, it was written, filmed, and completed as The Raid 2. And, despite a lengthier development and hugely increased budget, its problems are the same as its predecessor, only worse: the story is equally empty yet more protracted and grandiose, and for all the slashing, headbashing, and gore of the fight scenes, they are emotionally bloodless.

Raid 2 opens by immediately discarding the plot elements and character relationships from Redemption, obviously because writer-director-editor Gareth Evans never wanted the film to be a sequel in the first place. That’s amusing as a kind of “fuck you” to the sequeldom bestowed/imposed on Evans’s baby, but it may have been wiser for him to take the shreds of character development from the first film into this one, because lord knows The Raid 2 needs all the help it can get.

Immediately following the events of the first film, supercop Rama (Iko Uwais) is recruited to go undercover. In prison, he befriends and saves the life of Uco (Arifin Putra), the son of Jakarta kingpin Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). After his release, heinfiltrates Bangun’s organization and aims to put a stop to police corruption. Relevant details don’t go much farther than that; Rama has a family that is apparently in danger (especially if he doesn’t go undercover, though this is never satisfactorily explained), but that doesn’t really come into play.

If Rama himself has any personal doubts or misgivings about the pressures of undercover work, he never shows them, as Uwais wears the same expression of stolid intensity through most of the film. Not that more is asked of him by the boilerplate script, which has no developing themes or characters in sight. Most of the action is driven by Uco’s lust for power, which leads him to engineer a gang war behind his father’s back, but the script never grants him depth beyond violent ambition. Rama, meanwhile, is seemingly only present to provide the film its requisite superhuman fight scenes; the film does all but diddly-squat with the undercover angle.

And requisite the fight scenes are. When the film isn't gleefully detailing expert killing, it's clearly, awkwardly engineered around getting to those fights. When they do happen, there are absolutely no emotional stakes nor plot development nor narrative payoff to them. They simply begin, proceed in ever-more-complex and ever-emptier technical virtuosity, and then end, with nothing really changed or gained except the most basic win-condition of brutally murdering your enemy.

And when they do end (and that can take a very long time), it’s back to the story, a totally different beast that Evans clearly cares about only fractionally in comparison, if the visual direction is any sign. The Raid’s dialogue scenes are staged with almost no verve or original intent beyond some self-conscious angles and palette choices, and their boring construction is a signpost for their disposability in comparison to the elaborate action staging.

One area of craft, however, remains consistent throughout the film: the sound design, which is incredibly repetitive. It uses the same “drop out all sound except a low-end rumble” trick dozens of times across its length, is filled with cinematic booms, and frequently ends scenes with intense, noisy, constantly crescendoing electronic score before cutting to another scene with a loud “BANG”! There is a scene that uses the Sarabande movement from Handel's Keyboard suite in D minor (in what seems to be a bizarre, misguided tribute to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon), and it is one of the most misplaced uses of non-original music I’ve seen in years, completely at tonal and stylistic odds with the rest of the film.

So, the film features energetic technical showcases of violence in the context of a boilerplate, undernourished gangland drama that exists only to permit the former. But the narrative’s decreased depth and increased length and self-seriousness makes the technically superior action of this film morally and emotionally inferior to that of the first film. The violence in The Raid: Redemption was already drifting into uncomfortable fetishism, but the lower proportion and video-game referencing nature of its “one-building, level by level” premise made it easier to accept as a display of technical showmanship and spectacle first and foremost. But to approach The Raid 2 on its own terms is to approach it entirely differently than its predecessor, because the scope of the sequel’s narrative and higher story-to-action ratio suggests Evans has real narrative ambitions.

Fine. But that means that the violence in The Raid 2, which is more interested in the limits and destruction of the human body than ever, should inform and take cues from those ambitions. Instead, it presents extremely graphic, low-consequence, high-body count violence. The film is amoral, not only in its indifference towards violence, but in its disdain for the human being as anything but a weapon or target. Raid 2 is obsessively interested in digging deep into its characters, but only in an all-too-literal way. There is only flesh and bones here, no soul at the center.