The Adjustment Bureau

I saw this at LSC this summer, which should give you an idea of how far behind I am on my reviews. It seems that pretty much every Philip K. Dick story’s been (at least ostensibly) turned into a film by now; I’m not sure how faithful the plot is to this one but its style and theme seem to be reasonably Dickian. Cinematographically I was taken by this one: the transitions surrounding the “doors” and the sense of a large city obstructing Norris’s progress is well-done and goes beyond the prosaic to give a certain sense of the strange. The themes are a bit heavy-handed with all the religious images and nattering about free-will, but where things really struck me as off-putting were in characterizations. Norris and the Bureau members are well-enough done (up to a certain woodenness in Matt Damon’s acting which he never seems to quite emote his way around), but the character of Elise is a bit problematic from my point of view. We see her first in a fairly stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode, involved in wacky trespassing hijinks and teaching our protagonist to be True To Himself and suchlike, and then, after that, we get really no development of her character at all. Norris gets to be the focus character and although we’re told that not just his future but hers is also on the line, we don’t get a real sense of her own involvement in the Big Fateful development: certainly Norris himself never actually seems to see fit to bring her in on the big picture, so the romance angle feels shallow and her own attitudes and motivation seem a bit weak, and her acquiescence to the romance at the end thus feels even a little bit deceptive: she’s not making an informed decision the way Norris is. The inequity in how the plot treats what are supposed to be the two central characters seems more than a little problematic.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


Black Swan

[Screenshot]Here we have a cautionary tale about the dangers of adults living with their parents and not getting off enough. Or, more properly, a screwed up film about screwed-up people. Mostly just one screwed-up person, really, but I can’t help but think that most of Nina’s troubles come from living with her mother in a tiny New York apartment. It should probably come as no surprise, just based on Aranofsky’s track record, that this is psychologically pretty twisted: pretty much always his protagonists are horribly conflicted and tortured and ultimately self-destructive. Plotwise, this is kind of more of the same only with more enablers: the protagonists of Pi and The Fountain mostly went out and got headfucked while cooped up alone.

Even though the plot is arguably the same old stuff, it certainly feels much more sweeping in scope than Pi, and there’s good use of the ensemble cast, particularly Mila Kunis, who strikes a good note of heisenmalice *. This is a busy film full of interesting foils for Natalie Portman to bounce off of, some more subtly than others: Cassel and Hershey play pretty two-dimensional and cliched roles, but Kunis is if not subtle at least interesting, and Winona Ryder presents a more nuanced (if only for being largely offstage) perspective on the ephemerality of stardom.

Aronofsky’s cinematic aesthetic has always had a certain horrific beauty to it (less so in Pi, which was kinda self-consciously lo-fi), and on this front Black Swan didn’t disappoint. There’s a cold beauty pretty much throughout in the camerawork and scene-setting, a sense of loneliness and isolation pervading the scenes through cinematography and perhaps some audio trickery.

All in all, this film was probably worth the hype. I certainly found it haunting and creepy and affecting. Not exactly good medicine for the brain, but it gets lots of points for doing what it does so effectively. If you like ballet and want to continue liking ballet, you might want to watch that series about the girl who sometimes turns into a duck instead. But if you want a dark story about crazy people in the arts, this one’s for you.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

* It seems acceptable these days to use “heisen-” where a few years ago one might have said “quantum” and a few decades ago one might have merely used “uncertain”. But mostly I just like the word “heisenmalice”. Return to text


[Screenshot]I am largely impressed with Christopher Nolan; his films usually have some element of the puzzle-box and some element of the thriller in a pleasant combination (OK, I’ll admit The Dark Knight was devoid of puzzle-box elements but still was a nice ride). In many ways, Inception was more of the same, with mostly straight-up action thriller and a certain element of the cerebral. I can’t help but feel a little cheated by the sheer arbitrariness of some of the rules of the central plot contrivance (I shall dub this now-all-too-common plot element “Harry Potter syndrome” although there are plenty of prior examples of it). The relative time rules are pretty bizarre, the internal gravity rules are really rather capricious, and the whole “dying wakes you up, except when it doesn’t” thing didn’t quite work from my point of view. Cobb’s motivation confuses me too: given that his children are in the care of a sympathetic character, spiriting them out of the US should not be rocket science.

Despite my reservations about its central conceit, though, I actually quite enjoyed this film, although with so many films nowadays, the sheer sprawl of the thing rather drove down the enjoyment-per-minute-of-running-time ratio. There was a great deal I liked: the acting was mostly excellent, the visual effects appropriately fantastic, and the conceit of hostile manifestations of the subconscious was well-integrated and thematically appropriate. Leonardo DiCaprio’s done much to redeem himself as an actor, and both Gordon-Levitt and Page acquit themselves well; most of the other acting is not particualrly inspiring but doesn’t really need to be; the core characters create the psychodrama effectively and they steer clear, to my relief, of the most obvious pitfall of casting the new inquisitive female team member as a romantic interest for the lead, althoguh having her plumb his psyche skirts the edge of this problem. The visual effects provide a similar restraint: there’s no lack of fantastic and impossible shots to point up the unreality of the worlds explored, but they’re used sparingly enough for the gimmickiness of it not to ever become problematic. In short, I’d qualify Inception as an intelligent and dense work that largely avoids the self-indulgent pitfalls so common of directors who have been found to be clever. I’m not sure if it’s my very favorite work of Nolan’s — I actually very much enjoyed the structuring and design of Memento — but it’s certainly a film I can respect.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


[Screenshot]Tenderness is a rather languid take on a thriller. We know the central character fels the need to kill, but are given neither a really good fleshing out of that motivation, as might befit a more psychological film, or indulgence thereof, as would suit a less cerebral approach to the work. As such, this film somewhat falls between two stools, building up expectation but very little tension. Lori’s character is likewise enigmatic: while we get a good idea of the superficial purposes of her actions, the underlying psychologicasl state served by those purposes is left obscure. The pursuing policeman is the most understandable character, which is helped by strong acting by Russell Crowe, although even his plot is not without incomprehensible lacunae: his dying wife is obviously introduced for a purpose, presumably to create contrasting motivations: the duty to stay by his wife versus the mania to pursue, his intense quest for judgment versus his wife’s softer view of crime — but none of these conflicts actually seem to bother him, and the film doesn’t seem to be attempting to raise these conflicts either.

On technical aspects, this is not a bad film, but it is constructed in a way that is problematic and, in the end, fails to cohere into a satisfactory whole.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


[Screenshot]I allowed myself to be suckered into watching this one by a tenuous Pan’s Labyrinth connection which seduced me into expecting something deeper than it was. The connection is in the production designer, and we can give credit where credit’s due: the sets are effectively spooky when they need to be, and effectively stark when they need to be. But the actual plot was something of a disappointment. This may be an incompatibility of preference: I like mysteries, in which at the end the resolution ties together all those bewildering loose ends, but this is a thriller, which means that the resolution can be completely out of left field. The story somewhat lost me after it veered beyond the persecution of the obvious suspect. So I’ll give this one props for its visual design, which is indeed the only connection it had really drawign me in, but not much else. People who are fans of thrillers might not like it either; the part I preferred, the languid first half, might not be to their taste.

See also: IMDB.

Razor Eaters

[Screenshot]Razor Eaters seesaws between a couple of ideas. It clearly wants at time to engage concepts of righteous anger much like Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei, but it never really gels, since it can’t figure out itself whether it wants to present its eponymous gang as a vigilante group or a bunch of cut-rate thugs. Graft this incompatibility of themes onto a wholly uncompelling police-investigation story and a videography conceit which seems to have been introduced only to justify shooting on cheap film, and you get a rather muddled mess which occasionally seems like it’s reaching for something better.

See also: IMDB.

No Country for Old Men

[Screenshot]I’ve generally liked the Coen brothers. They’ve done quirky things at all levels of seriousness, but No Country for Old Men completely failed to do it for me. It felt in some ways like their early mediocre opus Blood Simple, which was, like No Country…, taken up chiefly by the desperate evasions of people getting killed and trying to avoid getting killed. They maybe reached the sweet spot with this particular plot in Fargo, and haven’t really matched it before or since. It’s basically a thriller, which is not really their genre. It’s more sophisticated than that, but not by much. And it wants so badly to be sophisticated, as in the completely genre-shifted coda of the old-timers lamenting how much the world’s changed, which has the dual problem of not actually being true and feeling tacked on. But ultimately it falls between two stools, and the Coen brothers’ best talents for refuge in absurdity are really not on display at all.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.