Blue Ruin (2014)

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Jeremy Saulnier has excellent cinematic instincts. Patience is perhaps his strongest suit, and it’s eminently on display in Blue Ruin, his sophomore directorial feature, a quiet film for which the phrase “slow burn” might have been coined. It would be all too easy to slap the label “revenge thriller” on this fine film, or “rural noir,” or “mood piece,” and it’s true that it’s all of these things—the story is straightforward and familiar, something we’ve seen a thousand times before. But it’s how Saulnier goes about telling it—he writes, directs, and photographs everything we see here—that makes Blue Ruin a cut above.
     Watching it, I was often reminded of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, a film that came out of nowhere, made interesting cinematic decisions, introduced us to Frances McDormand, elevated M. Emmet Walsh, and showed Dan Hedaya in a whole new light. The violence, when it came, was brutal and unflinching, and the film’s reinvented style wowed us.
     Blue Ruin is like that. Not everything goes according to plan—as in life, there are dead ends. We don’t know these people—Dwight and his sister Sam, played by Macon Blair and Amy Hargreaves—yet we believe in them and are convinced of the futility of their situation. The estranged siblings’ conversation in a restaurant, for example, would have felt completely different, completely wrong, had it been staged between, say, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. (That is, however, Eve Plumb as one of the menacing Clelands, but it’s been years now and Kris Cleland no longer resembles the bubbly Jan Brady.)
     Saulnier makes smart directorial choices, and his vision is as straight as a die. He hints at possibilities that may or may not prove significant—garden tools, misplaced keys, a sympathetic cop, a big favor from an even bigger friend (the likeable Devin Ratray). He clinically captures the realities of doing without, thinking on one’s feet and getting even, with precision and panache. And boy does the film look good—Virginia’s blue morning fog, the muted hues of Dwight’s rust bucket Bonneville, blackish blood pumping on the floor of a bathroom stall. I’m avoiding talking about the plot specifically because you should experience Blue Ruin as it unfolds, settling uncomfortably into the situation yourself, recognizing the protagonist’s drive into inevitability. Saulnier and his keen cast set about the task at hand and their focus is impressive, with no extraneous asides, bit characters, or sub-plots. There is Blood, clearly, and it is Simple, but the pared-down Blue Ruin is neither homage nor remake. It’s a real barn find.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Listen to Me Marlon (2015)

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“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  —Don Vito Corleone, The Godfather
     “Stella! Hey, STELLA!” —Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire
     “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” —Terry Malloy, On the Waterfront
     “Go, get the butter.” —Paul, Last Tango in Paris
     When fifteen hundred American Film Institute jurors voted on their top one hundred memorable movie quotes of all time, taking into consideration how often they use the phrases in their own lives (“cultural impact”) and/or how much they evoke the memory of a treasured American film (“historical legacy”), quotes from Marlon Brando characters ranked second (The Godfather) and third (On the Waterfront), topped only by Clark Gable’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Brando’s position on that list—and in the movies in general—cannot be overstated.
     Mr. Mumbles is a nickname he came by honestly, but Brando has, without question, left an indelible mark on cinema, from his larger-than-life portrayals of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and Jor-El in Superman, to Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls and Carmine Sabatini in The Freshman (a parody of his Don Corleone role). Early in his career, Brando earned Best Actor Oscar nominations an unprecedented four years in a row for ’Streetcar’ (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), and On the Waterfront (1954). And, of course, he famously declined the 1972 Best Actor statuette for his towering performance in The Godfather as a statement against Hollywood’s mistreatment of Native American people.
     So when we learn that throughout his lifetime Brando made hundreds of hours of private audio recordings, none of which had been heard by the public, our interest is piqued.
     Selected sound bytes from those audio tapes form the soundtrack of Listen to Me Marlon, Stevan Riley’s fresh yet ultimately frustrating documentary about the iconic Hollywood star. What kind of person makes hundreds of hours of private recordings throughout their lifetime anyway (the actor died in 2004)? A sad man, yes. Brando’s father was abusive—he’d slap his son around for no good reason—and his mother, who taught him to love nature, was the town drunk. A bad man? Sometimes; Brando’s hell-raising exploits are well documented in tell-all books such as Bad Boy Drive by Robert Sellers. But a deep man? Not from what we hear him say.
     And that’s the film’s biggest disappointment.
     While it’s lovingly constructed as a rich mosaic of film clips, candid photographs, archived television interviews, and other newsreel footage, the film’s raison d’etre is the revelation of the unheard Brando. Unfortunately, his words, recorded in part as a self-hypnosis technique, are less compelling. Even in a radio interview when he’s asked if he enjoys his profession, Brando inanely replies: “I think that people do what they enjoy or else they don’t do it. People do what they want to do. If there are adverse conditions surrounding my work they are not adverse enough to make me change activity.” Frankly (my dear), Rhett Butler said it best at the end of Gone with the Wind, and Clark Gable’s words are an apt if sad summation of Riley’s ill-advised exercise in style over substance.
     Listen to me, Marlon. You’re lovely to look at, but there’s little worth hearing here.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Monsters: Dark Continent (2015)

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As a war movie (specifically, a washed out, in-your-face assault-on-the-senses snapshot of American troops going about their dusty, dirty business in a war-torn Middle East), Monsters: Dark Continent is persistently grim, grueling, and grimy. But as a creature feature, a sequel to 2010’s Monsters, it’s a bust. What monsters we do witness are very much on the periphery of the picture, waving their giant squid-like tentacles about, occasionally taking a hit from an impromptu bombing raid—distant, away, superfluous. In ’Dark Continent, these undocumented aliens have taken a backseat to military search-and-rescue missions, with their very real threats of IEDs, featuring mucho machismo and fleeting reminiscences of family life back home. Oh, the monsters have evolved somewhat, I suppose. Occasionally we’ll see herds of gazelle-like variants galloping across the arid desert landscape, clearly going somewhere. But they only appear to interact with us humans when us humans get in their way, as happens from time to time. Otherwise they just lumber and wave and gallop and (Monsters 3, anyone?) fly, with no identifiable point or purpose, posing no particular threat or scientific interest, at least from the vantage of the grunts on the ground. Gone is the portent and the political subtext that made the first film so intriguing. Gone, too, is director Gareth Edwards, on to bigger things, 2014’s Godzilla reboot, and better things (perhaps), one of the new Star Wars anthology films for Disney. Monsters: Dark Continent has been foisted off on rookie Tom Green (XVII according to the Internet Movie Database, not Tom Green III of Freddy Got Fingered fame) and screenwriter Jay Basu, who try to focus on the dark continent part ala Kathryn (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) Bigelow. Had they ditched the monsters part completely they might have made a better movie, just not the one we paid to see.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Black Sea (2015)

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Initially, Black Sea is b.s. And then, for two preposterous hours, it’s more of the same. Also initially, Jude Law’s Scottish brogue is spot on. But he gets lazy and it drifts. I swear he sounds more South African at one point. Australian at times? Definitely. There is an Australian onboard, Ben Mendelsohn, the psycho in both Animal Kingdom and The Place Beyond the Pines. He plays a psycho here too—The Psycho. He’s one of a dozen men, half British, half Russian (where do they find so many dual nationals with submarine experience at such short notice I wonder?) pulled together by Law’s gruff and ready ship’s captain to salvage a missing U-boat said to contain $482 million in Nazi gold. Bullion, of course. There’s a grown man named Scoot—he provides The Insurance—and Eastern Bloc-heads played by Sergey (Kolesnikov) and Sergey (Puskepalis) and Sergey (Veksler). That’s right; it’s a ragtag band. It’s cardboard characters like Cookie and The Virgin and The Old Geezer with Emphysema getting irreparably waterlogged when exposed to brine. It’s we’re getting too old for this ship. It’s spam in a can. It’s blips on the sonar and pressure mounting and bulkheads buckling and close-quartered tension of the underwater variety. It’s directed by Kevin Macdonald, the same man who made the exemplary docudrama Touching the Void and the harrowing Olympic hostage doc One Day in September and the brutal Idi Amin biopic The Last King of Scotland, and who should know better. Every cliché in the book is uttered seconds after you’ve called it. It’s laughable dialogue and predictable plotting like this—prissy rich boys butting heads with salty seamen highlighted by Cap’n Robinson’s occasional, sepia-tinged moonings over his golden age—that altogether scupper Black Sea.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Unfriended (2015)

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OK, I admit it. I’m a sucker for the single, unbroken take. Some of my best movie-going experiences are single, unbroken takes: Hitchcock’s Rope, for example, or The Player, or Birdman; parts of Atonement and Hard-Boiled and Children of Men and Touch of Evil; all of Russian Ark. I mean, think of the preparation.
     The new unfolding-in-real-time horror Unfriended is not, as it turns out, a single 83-minute shot but you’d never know it, as the drama unfolds via a “static” shot of a computer screen—with windows opening, closing, and popping up as necessary—and the camera never cuts away. Your appreciation of the film will no doubt depend on how plugged in you are; those less intimately acquainted with Google, Facebook, YouTube and their ilk (yes, I’m talking about you, Grandma!) will likely take away less from the experience than a teenager who spends 24 hours a day connected to social media.
     The computer in question belongs to California teen Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) who, as the film opens, is engaged in a Skype conversation with her boyfriend Mitch and friends Jess, Adam, Ken, and (later) Val. Only there’s someone else listening in; they can tell this from the generic avatar that displays alongside their webcam images and which, try as they might, they can’t seem to disconnect. As the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that this individual has hacked the account of their recently deceased friend, blames the online party for the girl’s suicide (resulting from a shaming video posted online), and is out for revenge. Violent revenge, of course; “billie227” threatens to kill anyone who hangs up… and, means it!
     What sets Unfriended apart from your typical teen slasherdom is the virtual setting, first and foremost, but it’s also meticulously prepared and surprisingly credible (to a point) in its Internet-obsessed topicality. Who hasn’t been frustrated by spinning cursors and annoying pop-ups and functions that no longer function? Unfriended utilizes all of these devices to excellent effect. The kids are all right too; they’re alternately cloying, smart, and scared. Director Leo Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves have between them crafted a nifty little shocker that may make you think twice before entering an online chat room, especially if you’ve been particularly vicious to someone lately.
     By the way, don’t watch this film on a computer. You’ll get totally confused.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Mr. Turner (2014)

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Like 1999’s Topsy-Turvy, a biopic of the lauded musical theatre pairing of librettist William Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, Mr. Turner is a finely reenacted if longwinded history lesson from director Mike Leigh, a filmmaker better suited to observing lower class social dramas from the comfort of his kitchen sink.
     Thanks to Academy Award®-nominated lenser Dick Pope, Leigh’s biopic of eccentric British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) mostly looks like a Turner painting, with its “chromatic palette and broadly applied atmospheric washes of paint” (David Piper’s The Illustrated History of Art). But, like Leigh’s Gilbert and Sullivan spectacular before it, some two and a half hours of admittedly grand-looking screen time proves to be mostly dull as plainsong, with no real inspiration—let alone drama—to keep the audience from constantly shifting in their seats.
     Timothy Spall, in the title role, grunts like a pig, eats like a pig, and ruts like a pig. And then he grunts, eats, and ruts some more. And in between he paints a few pictures.
     But it’s those very pictures that are, thankfully, worth a thousand grunts and snuffles; Leigh painstakingly recreates the settings for many of Turner’s most illustrious works, including “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838,” “Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway,” and “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps.” Pope was robbed on Oscar® night; Emmanuel Lebezki took home the Best Achievement in Cinematography statuette that evening, and most of his work on Birdman was shot in the claustrophobically endless and poorly-lit back stage corridors of a Broadway theater, albeit often in a single take.
     As expected, the performances in Mr. Turner are uniformly excellent, including Dorothy Atkinson as Turner’s long-suffering housekeep and sexual convenience, Hannah Danby; Marion Bailey as Sophia Booth, the Margate landlady Turner marries and shacks up with in Chelsea on the sly; and Paul Jesson as Turner’s revered father, William. But not a lot happens per se, and in and among the aggressive swatches of ochres and umbers, Turner remains somewhat of an enigma.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Chappie (2015)

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It’s been said that a filmmaker has one great film in them, with every subsequent project a variation on that theme. That certainly appears to be the case with South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, who impressed many (myself included) with his debut science fiction feature District 9, followed it up with the disappointing Elysium (District 9 on steroids, with MATT! DAMON!), and has now crafted another familiar-feeling film in Chappie.
     The budget here is less than half that of Elysium‘s, and that includes the combined salaries of Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, and Dev Patel. Chappie feels more personal this time around—and works on that level, despite detractors dismissing it simply as Robocop meets Short Circuit (there’s more than a smattering of The Iron Giant‘s “I am not a gun” philosophizing in here also). As not just the voice but the endearing personality behind Chappie, a decommissioned law enforcement droid, Sharlto Copley truly gets inside his character, with the Weta Workshop wizards providing the convincing exoskeleton.
     Supporting the gruesomely-mulleted Jackman, Patel’s nerdy A.I. programmer, and Weaver’s continued caricature of herself (a far cry from Alien‘s Ripley) are the Cape Town rappers Yo-Landi Visser and Ninja (collectively known as Die Antwoord). That casting decision proves to be an effective one; they work mostly because they seem all wrong for the film, bringing humor, pathos, and primary-colored weaponry to the project. But when people are mean to our mechanized hero, or kicking the circuit boards out of him, Chappie is one sad motion picture, with Blomkamp’s depiction of man’s inhumanity to man never more blatant, despite the anachronistically hopeful ending.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com