Some quick thoughts on what I’ve been watching lately, including noteworthy films from 2015 and titles newly available to stream now.

Burying the Ex / Joe Dante / 2015 / onestar

There’s a certain joviality and appealing looseness even to Dante’s worst films, among which this zombie horror comedy certainly belongs. Maybe the old-fashioned tone he favors (wholesome towns and aw-shucks, unironic male leads) only works with child actors, or else feels especially strained coming from modern actors. For example, Dante showed his enduring skill and relevance with the excellent kid-lead The Hole, but Burying the Ex feels cheap and hollow by comparison. Alexandra Daddario as a quirky new crush perhaps understands Dante’s approach, but Anton Yelchin is lost in the earnestness of his beleaguered lead, an earnestness which also applies to the film as a whole.

Clouds of Sils Maria / Olivier Assayas / 2015 / threestar

While the characters in Olivier Assayas’s new film circle around a fictional drama—analyzing it, performing it, avoiding it, becoming it—they never quite feel alive in their own right. Assayas is contented with describing conflict instead of depicting it. It’s not just that the film is talky, but talky in the wrong way: it points out the obvious parallels among an aging actress (Juliette Binoche), the seductress she played 20 years ago and the weak-willed seduced woman she’s slated to play next, rather than mining insight from their juxtaposition. Still, Kristin Stewart is naturalistic and fantastic, and there’s considerable pleasure in watching her and the bravely neurotic Binoche read lines around Assayas’s mobile camera.

The Taking of Tiger Mountain / Tsui Hark / fourstarAvailable on Netflix Instant at time of posting

A fascinating film of surfaces and artifice, that somehow still feels warm and alive. Relying on the trusty pleasures of the genre of war epics, and reveling in its size and pomposity, Tsui Hark fills the screen with colors and movement with this tale of a Chinese soldier infiltrating a gang of bandits in the postwar North. Tsui’s classical craft elevates action sequences beyond spectacle with great visual tension. The abundant and garish visual effects and cartoonish 3D layering should read as hideously ugly, but instead they become engrossing. Just as the drama should read as melodrama, but doesn’t thanks to the modern bookends that cast the film as fiction, Tiger Mountain‘s visual palate transcends its obvious falseness and reaches a different kind of beauty.

Polytechnique / Denis Villeneuve / 2009 / threestar

Newly available on Fandor, this film, while overall unsuccessful for me, makes me excited for Villeneuve’s future career. Perhaps, like Fincher, he will develop and deepen the taste and aesthetic rigor needed to underpin his obvious visual talents. The film’s harrowing midsection, depicting the 1989 mass shooting at a Montreal college, is scary and thoughtfully constructed, but its relative quality only raises questions as to the purpose of the film as a whole. Flashbacks and codas to develop the characters feel perfunctory and sketchy, leaving only an extended, violent and oddly polished sequence of killing. A tricky film to reckon with, I suppose.

Easy Money” series / various directors / 2010-2013

There is some surprising stuff from director Daniel Espinosa visually in the first film in this Swedish action/crime saga. Featuring jump cuts and one of the more effective uses of shaky-cam I’ve seen, as well as a split narrative construction around three central characters in a web of drug traffickers, there is some level of sophistication to Easy Money, available on Amazon Prime. Joel Kinnaman’s baby face and puppy dog eyes are put to good use early in the film to set his character on the path from enterprising business student with a class complex to hardened criminal over the course of two more films.

Still, the problem that plagues the otherwise-satisfying trilogy exists even in the first installment: easy psychologizing of its characters. They’re all forced to make questionable questionable decisions for the sake of the screenplay, and the dour second installment in particular strains credulity. The third film is a significant improvement, featuring an exciting one-shot heist sequence, but it further confirms the series’s over-reliance on tropes and cliche.

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