Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World Review

screen-shot-2016-01-21-at-4-07-08-pm.pngStationed somewhere along a weathered strip of highway between signposts reading Philosopher and Provocateur, Werner Herzog crafts his specific breed of poetic documentary films. His latest, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, is a contemplative exploration of emerging and bourgeoning technologies, from the humble origins of the internet to an ambitious plan to land a man on Mars.

It’s a topic that begs for scrutiny under Herzog’s existentialist eye, and the 73-year-old filmmaker digs in with earnest (if often perpendicular) curiosity. Each of the ten constituent chapters addresses a separate sphere of innovation, the purported subject always secondary to the implications foreseen by the introspective, extroverted auteur. For Herzog, the question isn’t “How does it work?” when interviewing the programmer of a team of autonomous soccer-playing robots, but rather “Do you love it?” in reference to the squad’s star player, Robot Eight.

Lo leads off with a tour of UCLA, where Herzog is quick to brandish his trademark deadpan wit. “The corridors look repulsive, but this one leads to a shrine,” he intones via voiceover narration. The camera follows a chipper gentleman into a sickly green room preserved exactly as it was in 1969, when the very first message was sent between computers in Los Angeles and San Francisco. That historic message comprised only three characters (“log”) and caused one of the machines to crash, leading to a prophetic typo—“lo.”

Other standout sequences include a visit to an isolated rehab center for adolescent internet addicts, a retreat for victims of wireless radiation sickness, and the home a grief-stricken family whose matriarch attributes the online abuse she endured following her daughter’s fatal car crash to the devil himself. “It is the spirit of evil,” she somberly suggests of the web. “It’s running through everybody on earth and it’s claiming its victories in those people that are also evil.”

Herzog approaches each of these characters with the particular cocktail of irony and empathy their situation demands. In a scene with the aforementioned family that recalls Grizzly Man, he refuses to show even a portrait of the victim lest it be misread as exploitation. Instead, he photographs the piano room, and other “places in the house that she liked.” He respects catastrophe almost as much as he does audacity, which makes him a perfect match for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk—for whom he readily volunteers to make the long journey to Mars, even if it means punching a one-way ticket.

The sum of these scenes is a mosaic of human triumph, tragedy, and eccentricity borne of our unassailable desire to create. The explosion of internet technology over the past two decades and its occasionally frightening potential for the future proves fertile ground for a filmmaker with Herzog’s singular perspective, though Lo and Behold declines to make any sweeping statement. Rather, each vignette plays like its own Herzog doc in miniature, treating the science as exposition so he can explore questions like, “Does the internet dream of itself?”

The answers are as varied as they are fascinating and the film, though minor in an oeuvre as accomplished as Herzog’s, is compelling and worthy in its own right. So what’s next for a restless storyteller that’s already tackled death row, the ends of the earth, and the internet in the 21st century alone? Next up is Into the Inferno, an investigation of active volcanoes—and only Herzog knows where the wild road will take him after that.

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The Revenant Review

revenant-gallery-20-gallery-imageWhat a year for westerns! From Fury Road’s post-apocalyptic riff on Stagecoach to Tarantino’s close-quarters talk-‘em-up The Hateful Eight and the wide-eyed austerity of Slow West, the genre has had its best year in… maybe ever. And that conversation gets a whole lot more interesting with the arrival of The Revenant, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s ambitious follow-up to 2015 Best Picture winner Birdman.

Based on Michael Punke’s 2002 book bearing the subtitle “A Novel of Revenge,” The Revenant casts Leonardo DiCaprio as frontiersman and father Hugh Glass, whose brutal encounter with a grizzly leaves him bloodied, broken, and—worst of all—in the care of nefarious fur trader John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald shirks his promise of a proper burial, leaving Glass with a parting mouthful of dirt in a shallow grave, alive and alone in the American wilderness.

Glass’ protracted recovery and dogged quest for vengeance unfurls with grace and menace—like smoke from a billowing campfire—into one of the most breathtaking survival stories of all time. Credit is owed in no small part to the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, whose résumé reads like a top ten list: Children of Men. Tree of Life. Birdman. Gravity. I could go on.

Yet his work on The Revenant taps into something deeper. Something primal. The landscapes he captures suggest the impossible majesty of our imagination or ancestral memory, from mossy primeval forests to immaculate snowcapped mountains to the ghostly pall of the moon in various phases of eclipse. These images, bolstered by a general dearth of dialogue, form a unique cinematic vernacular. If you’ve followed The Revenant through its troubled production at all over the past year, you’ll know that that achievement comes at a price.

“A living hell.” That’s how one crewmember described the shoot in an interview with Variety. According to Hardy, the film became colloquially known as “The Forevenant” among cast and crew over a grueling nine months on set. What accounts for that staggering schedule is Iñárritu’s insistence on shooting the film sequentially, using (almost) entirely natural light. With only a brief window in which to film, each day became a struggle against dusk, weather, and morale.

Perhaps then there’s a touch of legitimate fatigue that bleeds through into each exhausted performance. DiCaprio imbues Glass with almost supernatural drive, pressing ever onward on two shaky feet, caked in mud and blood, or slithering through grime, diving headfirst into raging rivers, and fighting—often literally—for survival in relentless pursuit of Hardy’s callous, sharky Fitzgerald. This is mostly Leo’s show, however, and he brings a harrowing, obsessive determination to the role—which many speculate may finally land him an overdue Oscar.

A moral chasm separates these two principal characters, but both teeter dangerously on the precipice of savage violence in each do-or-die moment they’re lucky enough to live. The dangerous world of The Revenant threatens at every turn to explode into a torrent of bloodshed, and the action set-pieces command attention through the sheer three-dimensionality of their carnage. Lubezki’s camera roves past plumes of smoke from discharged rifles as arrows puncture skulls and bullets flatten men.

The sum of these skirmishes is a battle-charred epic anchored by a simple, emotionally resonant story executed by consummate master craftsmen. The Revenant is alive with kinetic energy, yet shows expert command of pace and tone over the entirety of its 156-minute runtime. We’re left feeling as haggard and as hollow as the protagonist by the film’s final act, and the questions it leaves us with linger alongside a cumulative awe. This is Hollywood spectacle of the highest caliber, a breed of big-budget, down-and-dirty entertainment that doesn’t pander to its audience, doesn’t lean on cliché, and doesn’t take prisoners.

From the perspective of a beleaguered film crew, Iñárritu’s methodology may be questionable—but as a viewer, it’s hard to argue with his results. Depending on how you log it, The Revenant is either the best movie of a young 2016 or the best western of the year in a year of exceptional westerns. Its fearsome intensity is matched only by its creative fearlessness, and the evidence of its power is audible in the chorus of gasps that ring out from its rapt audience.

The Visit Review

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Bring on the Shyamalanaissance! Seriously, I’ve been pulling for my boy M. Night since before he let fly the string of stinkers that turned the whole wide web against him, and The Visit is (hopefully) his first shaky step toward a complete career recovery. Arriving unfashionably late to the found-footage party, Shy Guy’s latest might easily be written off as a “me too” effort; a final, sad admission that the besmirched auteur—infamously hailed as a successor to Hitchcock—has at last resigned to life as a studio shill (the presence of producer Jason Blum here doesn’t exactly inspire confidence). It would be easy to write all that… if his new movie weren’t so much damn fun.

Even as a Shyamalan apologist, I write that last bit with something of an asterisk. Here’s the thing—I don’t think The Visit is an especially great film by any objective academic standard. It isn’t as brilliant as The Babadook or as creative as It Follows. It’s not even on par with Night in his prime. But those are probably the wrong comparison points. His scrappy comeback feels closer in spirit to a Sam Raimi gagfest than any of the above. There will be blood. There will be puke. There will be shit.

The basic thrust of the narrative revolves around teenage siblings Becca and Tyler (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould), who board a train bound for rural Pennsylvania for a weeklong stay at grandma’s house. Upon arrival however, Nana and Pop Pop display some bizarre eccentricities that may not be entirely harmless. It’s a back-to-basics thesis for Shyamalan, who’s coming off two 100+ million dollar blockbuster bombs. The simple story is bolstered by naturalistic performances by DeJonge and Oxenbould, who come across authentic almost to a fault—prepare to cringe with empathetic embarrassment as a 13-year-old white kid freestyle raps about pineapple upside-down cake. Yeah, boi.

That unbridled honesty is effectively juxtaposed against the comic absurdity of the film’s sick scares. Shyamalan has in the past employed humor to relieve tension, but here the line between horror and comedy is intentionally blurred; The Visit boasts as many uproarious laugh-out-loud moments as it does effective jump scares, and there’s a degree of overlap if you were to draw a Venn diagram. It’s these moments when the movie feels like it’s firing on all cylinders as a goofy, gross-out good time. So much so that its dodgy attempts at character development actually undercut the prevalent anarchic tone. The drama plays out competently enough, and it’s hard to fault Shyamalan for his doe-eyed earnestness, but I do feel the film could have benefited from a little less self-seriousness. The on-camera interviews feel especially hokey, providing a vehicle for schmaltz that sticks in the craw.

Still, Shyamalan seems limber working within the confines of the found-footage format, even poking fun at himself via DeJonge’s character, who documents the goings-on with precocious directorial indecision. Naturally, Night also exploits the medium’s requisite gimmicks, in addition to a few rare moments of inspired visual brilliance. One such sequence caps the film’s climax, elevating the DIY aesthetic into something unexpectedly beautiful. If only he had the balls to go out on that moment!

Depending on who you ask, M. Night Shyamalan has made either a couple bad movies, or a couple good ones. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, The Visit should be viewed with an open mind. Though far from perfect, it smartly toys with expectations both within the genre and within Night’s own catalog. At the very least, it’s proof the besmirched auteur still retains some of his past greatness, and at best provides a glimmer of hope that he may yet have his best years ahead of him. As for today, there’s a hell of a lot of fun to be had at grandma’s. You first.

Gone Girl Review

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David Fincher seems at something of an impasse. Three long years have elapsed since he made The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and a number of potential follow-ups have fizzled in the interim. Sony wouldn’t commit to a sequel, and the director came to loggerheads with Disney over a planned blockbuster adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He entered talks to direct Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs biopic, but that fell through too. The only concrete credit to Fincher’s name since 2011 is Netflix’s House of Cards. And then along comes Gone Girl.

Based on the bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl pitches a familiar premise: a woman disappears under suspicious circumstances, and a trickle of evidence begins to mount implicating her husband. The woman is Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), daughter of two celebrated children’s authors who reluctantly trades her New York City apartment for a flyover-state McMansion at the behest of her husband Nick (Ben Affleck), the kind of guy who plays Call of Duty and watches Adam Sandler movies. After five years their marriage has cooled, and on the morning of their anniversary, Amy vanishes.

Where Gone Girl goes psychologically with that conceit is of more interest to Fincher and Flynn than the physical whodunnit; the central mystery is unraveled by the movie’s midpoint. Owing to his wife’s popularity, Nick comes under intense scrutiny in the press. In turns portrayed as the beleaguered husband and the smirking sociopath, Nick’s every move is examined under a microscope and debated ad nauseum by rabble-rousing TV pundits. Throw in a jilted ex-lover (an icy Neil Patrick Harris) and an unscrupulous lawyer (Tyler Perry) and the crucible becomes even more volatile.

The casting is excellent and everyone impresses — including Rosamund Pike, who appears via flashbacks and narrates from Amy’s ominous diary. Affleck charms with his ambiguous everyman-isms, though those Batman muscles look a touch ridiculous in the ‘burbs. Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry both play admirably against type, and as always, David Fincher directs the shit out of every second of it.

Scenarios that might feel cheap or tawdry in the hands of a lesser filmmaker are elevated by Fincher’s dark vision and another oppressively atmospheric score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Muted colors, simple framing, neat cuts: there’s a certain stylistic minimalism to the approach that the director seldom betrays. Fincher lets Flynn do most of the talking, and that’s the greatest weakness of Gone Girl. As compelling as the craft may be and as assured the direction, Gone Girl feels more like a beautiful exercise than an essential cinematic experience.

It’s an opportunity for Fincher to jingle his spurs after a prolonged hiatus and an opportunity for the cast to collaborate with one of the best filmmakers working today, but not a whole lot more. Especially as the successor to Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl can’t quite shake the “airport novel” stigma. Both films are perfectly entertaining adaptations, but it’s hard not to wish Fincher would aim a little higher. Gone Girl finds the director no further along artistically than he was three years ago: still at the top of his storytelling prowess, but in search of a tale to match his talent.

Gone Girl digs at the emotional damage men and women inflict on one another beneath the facade of a fairly typical potboiler. In all likelihood, your ability to enjoy the film will depend on the extent to which you appreciate filmmaking on a mechanical level, and your enthusiasm for another murder mystery from the guy who directed Zodiac and Seven. Fincher’s expressed interest in Jobs and Verne prove he’s still committed to telling a variety of stories, and if Gone Girl is a stopgap to projects of that caliber and ambition, it’s all the more worthy for it.

Boyhood Review

boyhood_promotionalstills3_1020_large_verge_medium_landscapeTwo moments in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood seemed absolutely real to me. It’s night, and in the skeleton of a half-finished home, a circle of teenage boys drink and butt egos. Amid angst and awkwardness, I feel a pang to reach for a beer can that isn’t there. Later, at a family birthday party, everyone claps as the flames of sixteen candles are blown out. For a split-second I feel I should be clapping too.

Boyhood pushes naturalism to its natural conclusion. The cast, including Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, ages twelve years over 164 minutes. The narrative experiment rarely feels written, with conflict evolving subtly from character rather than arbitrary plot. As such, Boyhood can feel unsatisfying in a strictly narrative sense. Like life, the series of scenes is no greater than the sum of its parts; better to enjoy it while it lasts than parse it for meaning that isn’t there.

We begin in 2002 with a seven-year-old Mason Jr. (Coltrane) staring into the sky. He is imaginative and bright, if a less than model student. Unlike his sister Sam (Linklater), who gets straight As and serenades him with “Oops!… I Did It Again,” adding insult to injury. Single mom Olivia (Arquette) does the parental heavy lifting, while Mason (Hawk) takes the kids camping and bowling and to baseball games on weekends.

As Mason Jr. grows, we see the ripples of his childhood widen. By high school, he’s a talented photographer who can’t be bothered to stick to the curriculum. And like those squares of wet paper drying in the darkroom, each scene in Boyhood is a snapshot of the character in a particular place and time. The finished film is a flipbook of those images, specific enough to feel deeply personal and universal enough to evoke empathy.

Though most of the drama is pared down to a believable scale, Linklater plays with suspense in certain scenes, inserting dangerous elements and subverting expectation. The moments that do acquiesce to sensationalism feel tonally out of place, jarring the audience temporarily back into their seats from the participatory place they sat prior. It’s a place Linklater has taken audiences Before.

Comparisons to the Before series, also starring Ethan Hawk, are inevitable. But where those films encapsulate the subtle nuances of adult life and love, Boyhood explores the broad, sweeping changes of adolescence. There is an inherent intimacy to Linklater’s esteemed trilogy: three films, two people, one conversation. Boyhood, by comparison, is an erratic EKG of feelings, places, people, and time coalesced into a well paced two-and-a-half hours. And yet, despite its ambition, Linklater’s tete-a-tete masterpiece remains the more impressive work. “Why am I here?” is as much a question for Boyhood as it is for its characters.

Still, simply existing is reason enough to recommend Richard Linklater’s impressive experiment. Boyhood cuts to the core of the human experience and delivers something engrossingly lifelike. Part drama, part time capsule, this series of vivid vignettes features opaque performances and honest observations on life from four unique perspectives: mother, father, daughter, son. Each of us has filled at least one of these roles in our lives, and will doubtless draw parallels with the characters on screen. For a split-second, they may even come to life.

The Wolf of Wall Street Review

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Who’d have guessed that at 71, Martin Scorsese would be making more vivacious films than most directors half his age? The Wolf of Wall Street is one of his best, a simmering 180-minute bacchanal of depravity that will be hard to best for exuberance and audacity for years to come. Scorsese doesn’t moralistically vilify real-life stock swindler Jordan Belfort, but his reduction of the man to a colossal onscreen clown is sweeter vindication still.

Convicted in 1998 for fraud and money laundering, Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) built his empire atop a foundation laid in the late ‘80s, shilling penny stocks at a two bit Long Island brokerage. Scorsese chronicles his meteoric rise to Wall Street deity and his subsequent downward spiral into drug addiction and persecution by FBI agent Gregory Coleman (renamed Patrick Denham and played by Kyle Chandler) with an urgency he hasn’t exhibited in years.

Rather than indulge in the minutia of the investigation, Scorsese indulges in Belfort’s excess: the sex, the drugs — set to his own eclectic rock & roll mixtape. But for all the glitz and gloss, he never attempts to absolve Belfort of his crimes. There’s a certain degree of flamboyant fetishism to his depiction of the protagonist’s highest highs, but Scorsese shows no pity during his lowest lows. Instead, he exploits Belfort’s foibles for uproarious karmic comedy.

The Wolf of Wall Street has all the makings of a dark comic masterpiece. Penned by Terence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire), the script is stocked with deeply flawed characters doing detestable things. However, the absurd depths to which Belfort and his cronies crawl are truly, deplorably funny. Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (itself a pastiche of Scorsese-isms), The Wolf of Wall Street laughs at the corrosive power of wealth and success. Let there be no confusion, while Belfort’s extravagance can be awe-inspiring, his morality is unquestionably bonked.

DiCaprio relishes the role, sharply contrasting his stately take on another wealthy so-and-so, Gatsby, earlier this year. Belfort is not so Great, but Leo is great as him. In perhaps the film’s standout scene (and there are a few to choose from), an incapacitated Belfort is blitzed on expired quaaludes and must drag himself down a flight of stairs to his Lamborghini. Later, he arrives home to find his partner, Donnie Azoff (an equally impressive Jonah Hill), asphyxiating on a slice of deli meat. The entire bizarre sequence feels almost Lynchian in its relentlessly unsettling hilarity.  Bravo, Marty.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an unexpected triumph: a master class in filmmaking made all the more surprising by Scorsese’s age. Teeming with nudity, narcotics, and more “Fucks” than any narrative feature film ever (544), this is not the product of an old man. Rather, it’s the product of a director who, like Jordan Belfort, refuses to go quietly.

Where many of his contemporaries plateaued or imploded, Martin Scorsese still mines untapped passion from somewhere deep. He’s a director that has long since proved himself — and yet, the number of swooping cranes, dramatic dollies, and myriad other instances of playful experimentation in The Wolf of Wall Street is simply staggering. It stands tall among the best films of 2013, and among the greatest dark comedies of all time. It is defiant, rebellious, rude, and indecent. In another word, young.

What if Star Wars was Good Again?

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The best (and maybe worst) thing Star Wars: Episode VII has going for it is potential. Now officially dated for December 18th, 2015, the J.J. Abrams-led addendum to the beleaguered Star Wars franchise arrives a decade after Darth Vader deadpanned “NOOO!” and the world crossed its legs in collective embarrassment. Not just any franchise could survive that — but Star Wars is strong. A long time ago, seemingly in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas had a great idea. The scrappy masterpiece he unleashed in 1977 exploded off the screen and into our imaginations. Like weak-willed stormtroopers, we’re still under the spell of the force.

Even against our better judgement. Five movies and 36 years later, Abrams is saddled not with the role of director, but of necromancer. Financially, Star Wars may be as virile as ever — with enough books, discs, and merch to fill a sarlacc pit — but creatively, it’s dead and ripe. Last March, Disney spent a fortune on the corpse and is playing Dr. Frankenstein to the tune of 4.05 billion, but what’s so tantalizing about that news is not that more Star Wars is coming, but that it might not suck.

Which would be more surprising at this point; the stinging lash of another disappointment, or a truly worthy sequel to Return of the Jedi? Disney will make its money either way, but for the long-term health of their investment, it’s critical they get Episode VII right. The stakes are high, and the departure of screenwriter Michael Arndt in October, coupled with CEO Robert Iger’s reported refusal to grant the filmmakers an extension beyond December into 2016 has fans understandably discouraged.

Why? Because in a post-Phantom Menace world, we’re forced to reevaluate our naive optimism as fans. May 19, 1999. A day that shall live in infamy. Star Wars came under attack, not from without but within. In 136 minutes, George Lucas did to the franchise what the Empire did to Uncle Owen’s moisture farm, and things will never be the same. Sloppily written and clinically directed, Episode I was shockingly bad, representing probably the greatest disappointment in movie history. Its sequel, Attack of the Clones? Arguably even worse.

Opinions on Episode III vacillate, but after spending four and a half hours in the fetid toilet of Lucas’ toil, I reckon anything smells good. Years past; each inevitable home video re-release serving as a solemn reminder not just of the pallidness of the prequels, but of the ever-increasing oddball edits grafted onto the once-majestic original trilogy. Salt, meet wound.

So what can Abrams glean from the franchise’s failures? It’s a testament to Star Wars that we’re still invested in the universe, even when the odds of recapturing its youthful je ne sais quoi are, well… never tell me the odds. Obviously, a good story is vital. Now collaborating with series veteran Lawrence Kasdan on a screenplay, Abrams has a chance to restore our faith in the force, though the question becomes whether he’s a Jedi master with the power to levitate a submerged X-wing, or a padawan at whose hands it will slip deeper into the bog.

Then there’s the cast. It’s expected that Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher will reprise their iconic roles as Han, Luke, and Leia, but do we really even want them to? I could see Hamill as a grizzled old Jedi, but the charisma that always overshadowed Ford’s acting ability has long since been snuffed from his old eyes. Unless the writers can seamlessly integrate these characters into the new narrative — and unless the cast can still make Star Wars convincing — the cameos will only widen the perceived gulf between the original trilogy and everything else.

Still, credit where credit’s due: Abrams is smart. Rebooting Star Trek in 2009, he honored a legacy without becoming indebted to it. Leonard Nimoy’s appearance as Spock Prime carries real narrative weight unlike, say, the rote gag of inserting a certain comic book luminary into anything carrying the name “Marvel” — another Disney-owned property. Abrams and his casting department deserve a lot of credit, and there’s reason to be optimistic that Star Wars will tap compelling young talent. On the other hand, as Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman might attest, talent only goes so far.

Story, character, and casting need to harmonize, and soon — the biggest threat to Episode VII is the clock. In two years, we’ll be able to discuss concretely whether Star Wars is finally good again. In the meantime, the possibility that Abrams will fumble is preferable to the near certainty George Lucas would, or the absence of an attempt. The series was tarnished back in the 20th century, and by the time Episode VII premieres, Star Wars will have spent ten long years frozen in carbonite. A few stumbles will be expected after the thaw, but the real measure of its merit will be how gracefully it recovers from those first disorienting rays of sunlight.