2015 log (3)

(27 Feb – 5 Mar) House of Cards – Season 3 (2015, John David Coles, Tucker Gates, James Foley, John Dahl, Robin Wright & Agnieszka Holland)
[ First of all, don’t worry: no spoilers ahead. I only wanted to use this space to briefly try to pin down why I love this Netflix series so much. The smart writing, the sharp direction, the solid performances… Yes, yes and yes, but quite a few series feature those things as well. What mostly sets “House of Cards” apart might be the evil genius of Frank Underwood, as played by the amazing Kevin Spacey. I can’t think of another TV show in which the protagonist is not only an antihero, but a downright villain… And yet we still root for him! Also, this villain isn’t a gangster or a serial killer, he’s the goddamn President of the United States! ]

(6 Mar) Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) 50
[ The opening montage really took me by surprise, with its barrage of fucked-up imagery : a tarantula, a sheep being bled to death, a nail being hammered into a hand (Jesus’?)… And was that a subliminal shot of an erect cock? Who’s the projectionist, Tyler Durden? Then there’s a curious scene with a boy, followed by the cacophonous title sequence and, finally, a first non-experimental scene setting up the story of Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who has lost the ability to speak, and of Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse taking care of her. After that, it’s pretty much just the two of them, one silent, one who talks a lot. And I mean a lot – Alma even has a long monologue that’s repeated twice in a row. Despite the gorgeous B&W cinematography and sometimes striking editing, “Persona” feels very theatrical. It’s also generally dead-serious, humorless and well, dull. Pure Bergman, from what I understand. I’ve only seen “Cries and Whispers” and this so far, and I can’t say I’m a fan. Oh, the man was clearly a brilliant filmmaker (his sense of shot composition alone sets him apart), but the films of his I’ve seen so far leave me cold for the most part. ]

(7 Mar) The Vow (2012, Michael Sucsy) 31
[ What a dumb, dumb film. Young married couple has a dumb car accident, which causes the wife to lose her memory of the last few years, up to before she met her husband. And then… Well, a lot of dumb stuff happens. A love story dealing with memory loss can lead to a masterpiece, like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, or at least to a pleasant diversion, like “50 First Dates”. This, though, just doesn’t work. Did I mention that it’s dumb? The only reason I made it to the end of this is because the leads are played by the charming Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum, who I could watch in just about anything. ]

(9 Mar) Cronos (1993, Guillermo del Toro) 28
[ It begins with a somewhat intriguing prologue, followed by rather clunky scenes involving an old antique dealer (Federico Luppi). The introduction of Ron Pearlman piques our interest, obviously, but the first act remains mostly dull, despite some creepy moments. Half an hour in, nothing much has happened, which is problematic in a 90 minute film. We slowly discover what the Cronos device does, the old antique dealer uses it a few times and gets roughed up by Pearlman because of it… Eventually, at around the hour mark, this fully becomes a horror/fantasy film for reasons I won’t reveal. But don’t expect much thrills, scares or anything. Just a few more creepy moments, amidst a lot of boring, pointless sequences. I didn’t know Guillermo del Toro had such a lame film in him. ]

(10 Mar) End of Watch (2012, David Ayer) 45
[ I’ve yet to see the war film “Fury”, which seems like a change of pace, but I’ve now seen David Ayer’s first four directorial efforts and they are all quite similar: gritty, violent, excessive crime stories. Christian Bale elevated “Harsh of Times” into something very intense and gripping, while Keanu Reeves and Arnold Schwarzenegger failed to make respectively “Street Kings” and “Sabotage” as involving. In “End of Watch”, it’s up to Jake Gyllenhaal to try to save the day. As always, Ayer takes us to some really unpleasant places, depicting a cartoonishly hellish world where thugs (all of them Blacks and Latinos) constantly shoot it up like it’s the Old West and where cops, like Gyllenhaal’s character and his partner played by Michael Peña, are risking their lives every second of every day. Plus, the film happens to be shot in a found footage/guerilla filmmaking style that’s more obnoxious than anything, with lots of shaky-cam and hyperactive cutting. It’s a really easy movie to hate, except that Gyllenhaal is fascinating to watch, as in all his recent pictures (“Prisoners”, “Enemy”, “Nightcrawler”). Anna Kendrick is also a breath of fresh of air as his girlfriend. Alas, that’s not enough to make up for the badly shot one-note nastiness of most scenes. ]

(11 Mar) The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent) 85
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]

(13 Mar) Top Five (2014, Chris Rock) 69
[ It opens with a great walking-and-talking scene in which Chris Rock and Rosario Dawson exchange witty banter, followed by a slick montage telling us everything we need to know about Rock’s character, a standup comedian turned movie star who, after struggling with personal problems (including alcoolism), wants to be taken seriously, which might be difficultconsidering he’s about to marry a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union). Dawson plays a journalist following him around NYC for a day to do a profile on him… On the day his new film comes out? And she has him go up to her apartment to get her recorder because the interview was just set up half an hour earlier? Again, on the day his new film comes out? Needless to say, the premise is very contrived, but I was willing to get past that (and various other narrative inconsistencies, which there are tons of) because of the smart and funny dialogue and the surprisingly good direction by Rock, who also gives a winning performance, as does Dawson, with whom he has nice chemistry. Oh, and for what it’s worth, this is one of the dirtiest mainstream movies I’ve seen in a long time. Nearly everyone on-screen is foul-mouthed and there’s a sex scene with two girls that’s all kinds of nasty. And how about that bit with Dawson’s boyfriend? Damn! ]

(14 Mar) Miraculum (2014, Daniel Grou – Podz) 57
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]

(20 Mar) The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006, Justin Lin) 44
[ “The Fast and the Furious” was a starmaking vehicle (pun intended) for Vin Diesel… Then came “2 Fast 2 Furious”, sans Vin Diesel, but still with Paul Walker… And now in “Tokyo Drift”, both original stars are gone. Enter Eminem look-alike Lucas Black as Sean Boswell, who in the opening sequence, races a high school jock. The prize? The jock’s girlfriend (and her pink slip?). This first car chase is sharply shot, tightly cut and totally over the top… And it leads to Sean being sent to live in Japan with his father (Brian Goodman). There, he soon hooks up with fellow expat Twinkie (Bow Wow) and discovers that Tokyo also has its underworld of modified cars, illegal racing and bimbos. Which is a good thing, because the pseudo-dramatic scenes with buddy Sung Kang, with the villainous Brian Tee or with romantic interest Nathalie Kelley are badly written and Black’s angry-young-man performance gets tiresome. Thank God director Justin Lin, who took over the series starting with this episode, gets to orchestrate a few cool action scenes, including a drifting training montage. You know how I love training montages! I also dug the bits with Sonny Chiba and the general fact that the film is set in Tokyo is pretty awesome, but this is still probably the worst “Fast and Furious” flick. We need Vin Diesel, man! And no, that surprise cameo doesn’t count. ]

(21 Mar) Furious 6 (2013, Justin Lin) 76
[ You’ve got a dozen heroes, nearly as many villains (their “evil twins”), a MacGuffin, a bunch of international locations… So yeah, the plot’s a mess, but these movies have never really been about plot – they’re all about the characters, the bonding, the endless talk about them forming a family and whatnot. That, and the kick-ass action, of course! The Rock, who took the series to another level in “Fast Five”, is back as supercop Hobbs, who goes back to Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew (Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot) and convinces them to help him stop the evil Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) and his henchmen, mainly because this will allow them to reconnect with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who’s somehow not dead… Again, this is a narrative mess, but moment to moment, it generally works thanks to the great cast. And then there’s all the fights (including some girl-on-girl ones between Rodriguez and the great Gina Carano!), the shoot-outs and especially the car chases, which are all kinds of insane! Justin Lin directs the hell out of all of this and manages to keep a grin on our faces throughout. Needless to say, I can’t wait for “Furious 7”! ]

(25 Mar) Fast & Furious (2009, Justin Lin) 57
[ After sitting out the last two flicks (I told you, that cameo doesn’t count!), Vin Diesel makes a glorious return in this fourth episode, which opens in the Dominican Republic, where Dom is about to hijack with the help of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Han (Sung Kang, who’s back even though he died in “Tokyo Drift”, making this a prequel) and new gang members Leo and Rico (Puerto Rican pop stars Tego Calderón and Don Omar). After the heist, Dom tells his crew that he senses that the cops are closing and that they should all go their own way, including his beloved Letty. Then there’s a weird ellipsis and (SPOILER) we learn that she’s been murdered, apparently after going undercover to bust mysterious Mexican drug lord Arturo Braga . This forces Dom to go back on American soil to avenge his girlfriend’s death and it also makes him cross paths again with FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), who’s also after Braga. Like in all these movies, the plot is a bit of a mess, but it’s great to watch Vin Diesel being a badass, beating up everyone who gets in his way. Alas, the car chases are good but not great. Among other things, most of them are shot too dark, at night or in tunnels. There’s also a sense that the film as a whole is tonally too dark, not fun enough, you know? Clearly, after an awesome original movie, the “Fast & Furious” franchise kinda stalled over the next three ones… ]

(26 Mar) The Heat (2013, Paul Feig) 35
[ Right away, the funky song playing over the opening titles took me by surprise. What is this, “Shaft”? Unfortunately, all the cool music in the world can’t make up for how unfunny this movie is. I loved Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids” and I like both Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, but scene after scene fell flat for me here. McCarthy is loud and vulgar, Bullock is uptight, I get it. Generic buddy cop situation, but it could work… Alas, Katie Dippold’s screenplay lacks narrative drive, unexpected twists and wit, and Feig’s direction fails to enliven things. McCarthy and Bullock do what they can, but the laughs just won’t come. ]

(27 Mar) Get Hard (2015, Etan Cohen) 60
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]

(28 Mar) The Bourne Legacy (2012, Tony Gilroy) 43
[ After writing the three Matt Damon “Bourne” flicks, Tony Gilroy steps in the director’s chair for this spin-off starring Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, a genetically enhanced Outcome black ops agent who’s training in Alaska while the events of “The Bourne Ultimatum” are going on. For the first half hour, he’s pretty much a non-entity and there are no real action scenes either, just the aforementioned training and a lot of exposition scenes set in various places around the world. Nothing particularly interesting, but thankfully, there are many great actors involved, notably Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, Oscar Isaac and Albert Finney. And eventually, shit starts blowing up and Aaron becomes a fugitive, Bourne-style… Alas, the pacing remains rather slow, with flashbacks thrown in and lots of long, dry dialogue scenes. There is the occasional fight, shoot-out or chase, but nothing particularly exciting or memorable. Okay, maybe the motorcycle chase in Manila… But even then, at best, Gilroy does Diet Greengrass. ]

(30 Mar) Killing Them Softly (2012, Andrew Dominik) 72
[ I didn’t get “Chopper” at all and while I liked “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” considerably better, I still didn’t think it was the masterpiece some were hailing it as. “Killing Them Softly” also has passionate fans and right from the get-go, it’s easy to see why. Dominik’s screenplay, an adaptation of George V. Higgins’ “Cogan’s Trade”, if full of sharp dialogue and the storytelling is immediately gripping, making this crime story snap, crackle and pop like “Reservoir Dogs” or something, which is high praise in my book. Great cinematography by Greig Fraser, too. I mean, you barely notice that it takes more than 20 minutes before Brad Pitt shows up! That’s in part because the lesser known Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn and Vincent Curatola are very solid, plus the wonderful Ray Liotta is in there as well. One thing I wasn’t sure about is the decision to include several scenes where we hear speeches by George W. Bush, Barack Obama and others talking about the 2008 financial crisis. Dominik is obviously trying to highlight that this crime tale is an allegory, but this would work better as subtext than plainly stated like that. Still, it’s easy enough to not get bogged down by this, not when the story is so involving and there are so many awesome, nearly Tarantino-level scenes of criminals discussing things in between bursts of stylized violence. Also starring Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini, “Killing Them Softly” is a very assured piece of work, from start to finish. All of a sudden, I’m an Andrew Dominik fan. ]

(31 Mar) World of Tomorrow (2015, Don Hertzfeldt)
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]

(31 Mar) Basic Instinct (1992, Paul Verhoeven) 66
[ I saw this back in the day on VHS or something, but I only remembered the most famous bits. So I when I stumbled upon it on Netflix, I figured, heh, why not revisit this classic of trashy cinema. I’ve seen screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven’s latter “Showgirls” many times, after all! “Basic Instinct” wastes absolutely no time, delivering sex and gore in the first two minutes. It’s as if Hitchcock’s “Psycho” had opened with the shower scene! We’re then introduced to Michael Douglas’ Detective Nick Curran as he arrives at the murder scene of an aging rock star, who was dating (well, fucking, to be exact) Catherine Tramell, a crime novelist played by Sharon Stone at her sex symbol pinnacle. The film is kind of like an over the top film noir, with Stone as the ultimate femme fatale, glossy cinematography by Jan De Bont and an ominous score by Jerry Goldsmith. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes us in sheer entertainment value. Even though it’s been referenced and parodied to death, the interrogation scene remains as riveting as ever. There’s also a lot of sexual tension throughout the rest of the film, as we eagerly await the inevitable moment when Douglas will get it on with Stone. A cop sleeping with a homicide suspect? Well, Nick Curran isn’t exactly a role model, with his explosive temper, his drinking problem and yes, his excessive libido. So we get some pretty explicit sex scenes, as well as more bloody murders and a couple of San Francisco car chases for good measure. “Basic Instinct” is trash, all right, but as deviously written by Eszterhas and gleefully directed by Verhoeven, it’s a lot of nasty fun. ]

February / April