Surveillance (Lynch, 2009)

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As James van Maanen astutely noted earlier this year, Surveillance shouldn’t surprise an active viewer with its twist, since the script reveals it from a mile away. The shoddy writing and directing go along way toward explaining the lack of tension and suspense, but Jennifer Lynch’s film becomes even more disheartening as she obviously deconstructs her father David’s auteurist tendencies and fails miserably. Bill Pullman’s wacked-out FBI Agent seems to be a bad interpretation of Kyle MacLachlan’s Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, and the fragmented, looney dialogue could be pulled from any of David Lynch’s leftover scenes.

But Jennifer Lynch explores one fascinating aspect contradictory to and ignored by her daddy’s best work. In Surveillance, she paints a disturbing picture of law enforcement as a failed institution, either corrupt, arrogant, impotent, and lastly and most importantly, altogether false. The FBI and local police do far more harm than good, using passive methodologies and brazen actions that are easily subverted by the killers on the loose. No innocent person is safe, yet this frightening concept doesn’t ring true because of the almost comedic villains and inept storytelling. But this specific theme keeps Surveillance from being a complete dud, making one wonder that if in the hands of another filmmaker, it could be diabolical stuff.

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Explorers (Dante, 1985)

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Part fable, part Science Fiction, Joe Dante’s Explorers contains a simplistic and childish worldview, pushing it’s potential weighty material under a mountain of pubescent melodrama. The story of three kids (Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, and James Presson) who build a spaceship from the blueprints of a dream, might be Dante’s least interesting picture. The film completely loses its footing when the trio ascend into the heavens following their call to adventure, only to find their alien counterparts.

It’s an interesting premise – the parallels and connections and miscommunications between two groups of kids from different planets converging over mass entertainment – but the execution continuously disappoints with the dated set design and special effects. Being a big budget blockbuster, it’s understandable why Dante relies on the most modern technologies of the time, but a more subtle approach to this sequence would connect better with the coming-of-age narrative of the first half.

Explorers has a lot to say about negative imagery, repetition patters of television, and human fear of the unknown, but the main characters feel too young and naive to realize the gravity of these implications, making their journey somewhat moot. Dante’s best films create a binary between the adult world and that of children, showing an inherent generational conflict between innovative progress and repressive stasis. Explorers lacks such a dynamic theme, except on the fringes when Dante cuts away from the children and briefly references their clueless parents. For the first time, Dante’s critiques don’t feel warranted, or fair, as if his target is too vast and vague to give a human face.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Dante, 1990)

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More wacky and experimental than its predecessor, Gremlins 2: The New Batch willfully celebrates film references and iconography within an absurd interior space of dysfunctional technology and communication. Joe Dante, always the master of subtext, plants some stunning critiques of big business under the guise of mainstream entertainment.

This time out the Gremlins take over a corporate mega-building in New York City, hatching, playing, and destroying with reckless abandon, hollowing American Capitalism from the inside out. The disjointed narrative isn’t as finely tuned or focused as the original, but Dante seems more concerned with set-pieces of debauchery, even the complex blocking of the Gremlins themselves, best on display in the genius Busby Berkley-inspired musical number. Even when Gremlins 2 skirts along the edge of flimsy ridiculousness, the overarching themes regarding corporate ethics, greed, and synergy feel especially current and provocative, a potent reminder how little our destructive economic practices have changed over the years.

State of Play (MacDonald, 2009)

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When The Last King of Scotland garnered rave critical reviews in 2006, most praised Forrest Whitaker’s incendiary performance without calling to task the film’s shoddy pacing and historical naivete. Kevin MacDonald’s handling of Amin’s atrocities was and still is unacceptable, forcing the true terror offscreen in favor of a cliche power struggle between Black dominator and White ignoramus. In my review, I questioned how the same man behind the brutal and exhilarating Touching the Void could sugar-coat such important subject matter. With MacDonald’s latest film State of Play, a paint-by-numbers political thriller concerned with the outsourcing of National Security, it’s clear the director still isn’t interested in challenging the viewer, in this case with a careful and biting critique of Bush-era doctrine.

The best political thrillers, namely The Paralax View and All The President’s Men, pit their protagonists against faceless corporations or untouchable leaders, representing a disturbing and cold political climate that proves the common man means nothing in the face of corporate greed and power. As with the 1970’s, our current state of political affairs is ripe for examination, and State of Play begins with a chilling introduction to such a world. A quick double murder sets off a string of events involving a private security contractor and a Democratic Senator (Ben Affleck) investigating their monopoly, and the ensuing investigation by two crack shot reporters (Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams). But MacDonald seems more concerned with the individual players themselves, their personal lives, the melodrama behind their motivations, instead of the stirring political subject matter and subtext. It’s hard to buy any of these characters as professionals, seeing that they jump from one conclusion to the next without much concern for plausibility.

State of Play ends up twisting on itself in a most ludicrous fashion, disavowing the corporate angle and folding in yet another “entangled relationship” as a big reveal. MacDonald seems to think he can make up for this unforgivable ending with a credit sequence showing all the ambiguous villains getting their comeuppance in the form of newspaper headlines. It’s too little, too late, not to mention unbelievable. With this completely forgettable effort a once promising director sinks even further into the vast pit of Hollywood mediocrity.

Inglorious Basterds (Tarantino, 2009)

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For better or worse, Quentin Tarantino consistently manipulates cinematic time, deconstructing conventional story outlines in order to change temporal and aesthetic meaning. Tarantino’s been branded a thief, a genius, a mad man, and an arrogant bastard. He might be all these things and more, making him one of the few stand alone necessities of American Cinema. Like many have said, a Tarantino movie is an event, but probably for different reasons than it should be. We get hypnotized by his brilliant flair for dialogue and his constant onslaught of film history references. But Tarantino has evolved into a different monster altogether. He’s not trying to be Scorsese, or Wong, or Leone, or Di Leo, or Aldrich, but simply a filmmaker consumed, obsessed, and haunted by these directors and more, able to communicate a personal combustible nightmare on the screen with an unmatched sense of tonal frequencies.

Tarantino’s latest but not quite greatest (I’d still give that honor to Jackie Brown), a film he’s been writing/and or making for over a decade, is a WWII mosaic aptly entitled Inglorious Basterds. It’s a grandiose lesson in historiography, revising the fall of the Third Reich to produce a moral certainty about savagery, brutalization, and role reversals, a collection of bravura set-pieces adding up to what might be Tarantino’s most angry and perplexing work. Inglorious Basterds takes the reign from Kill Bill and other Tarantino films by dividing it’s narrative into Five Chapters, automatically assuming gaps and fissures will litter the work like a minefield of trauma. The period-piece setting makes these narrative breaks feel all the more harrowing, since so much water passes under the bridge yet the core memories remain keenly imprinted.

Inglorious Basterds begins with SS Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in an opening crescendo of menacing prose and inevitable violence, diabolically stretching out movie time to introduce a descending apocalypse of unmatched cunning, a hawk eyeing a field mouse from afar. Then we get the titular Basterds, a group of American Jews led by Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine, promising atrocities then making good on that promise in a series of bloody, wrenching flashbacks. The other key to this puzzle is Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the lone survivor of Tarantino’s opening mass murder, now four years in hiding as a Parisian Cinema owner. Many other fantastic characters emerge, including Michael Fassbender as a British movie critic turned Special Operations Officer and Til Schweiger as an ex-Nazi officer keen on dispatching Nazi officers. Every character gets a shining moment of verbiage and action, but what’s less expected is how each converges like a racing locomotive, quickly becoming both avenger and victim, full of rage and hope and precision one moment, deader than a doornail the next.

Tarantino paints the walls red, but also uses other vibrant hues – blacks, whites, greys, and greens – to hint at the many stories left hidden beneath the surface of a brilliant WWII era reconstruction. This is where Tarantino’s fracturing of time transcends his other films. The sly use of quick flashbacks, voice-over narration, and sound bridges first seems gimmicky, an inconsistent stylistic thrown in to reveal backstory. But as the film progresses, these sudden bursts of style become more complex and intrinsic to Tarantino’s vision of an alternate reality, a fantasy world where the movies can dissect history and alleviate guilt, lesson fear, and proclaim victory over the Nazi’s. The great critic Glenn Kenny has already referenced the best of these, an audio/visual flashback during Chapter 4/Operation Kino that acts as a centerpiece for what turns out to be the most dynamic set-piece of Tarantino’s career, a thirty minute vice of tension played out in a basement tavern. In this scene, time devilishly subverts our expectations.

Furthermore, Tarantino’s vision of time turns into a bendable, evolving beast directly related to the power of the Cinema, accelerating meaning by juxtaposing contrasting images of history together, forcing an outcome that is uncomfortable and revealing. Yet his endgame destroys all remnants of feeling, replacing humility and compassion with a collective vengeance. The many characters of Inglorious Basterds share a desire to rectify traumatic memories, driving them to kill, maim, butcher, and slaughter to justify their ideologies. In the end, time and memory merge together to form a destructive recognition – the numbing of morality to destroy massive evil. Like Aldo’s neck scar stretching from ear to ear, Inglorious Basterds constantly reminds why the past inevitably overlaps onto the present, marking both the guilty and innocent with haunting artistic prowess.

Sunshine Cleaning (Jeffs, 2009)

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Bryant Frazer’s review sums up this film brilliantly, yet I can’t help but hold it in higher regard than he does. Call it a sentimental streak I didn’t know I had. Despite being unfairly marketed as this year’s Little Miss Sunshine (which automatically sent up a red flag for me), Sunshine Cleaning uncovers some hefty themes – parental failure, suicide, and guilt – and for all it’s conventional whimsey and Indie quirkiness still manages to make quite an emotional impact.

Much of the film’s success has to do with Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, convincingly playing grown sisters at odds who start up a crime scene cleanup business only to find their relationship is far more fractured than they thought. Each suffers from a past trauma in very different ways, their conflict masking a place of deep childhood repression that makes the film’s light and airing surface incredibly heartbreaking. Sunshine Cleaning also attempts to bridge a commentary of class struggle with identity, but this dynamic seems too complex for the material and the film often shrugs off the difficult questions in favor of simple revelations. Whether or not you buy the scenario, it’s hard not to enjoy the wonderful interplay between actor-stars willing to infuse their characters with honest to goodness pain and anguish. It makes the sunny moments that much more authentic.

Adventureland (Mottola, 2009)

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Greg Mottola’s beguiling new film Adventureland resonates from a place of personal nostalgia, in this case the pivotal Summer of 1987 for James (Jesse Eisenberg) who reluctantly takes a job at a local amusement park to help pay for graduate school. A canceled trip to Europe causes him to return home with his “pragmatic” parents, watching slowly as his ideal vacation with yuppie friends quickly morphs into a never-ending lounge with the locals of Pittsburgh. During his time at Adventureland, James comes in contact with an assortment of characters, all riffs of stereotypes from other films, yet each containing a sense of true uncertainty that parallels his own. The result is a striking array of people running fruitlessly across life’s quick sand aiming to stay afloat, hoping to keep the status quo alive.

In aesthetic terms, the collective fabric of the amusement park adds up to a sublime sense of space, a monotonous playground of flashing lights, loud screams, and droning pop music populated with aching souls. Yet Mottola respects the place and the role it plays in his hero’s existence, a stepping stone of insecurity and mindless fluff needed to discover how little James knows about life. Simultaneously indicating a devout passion for and conflict with remembering feelings of youth, Adventureland is torn between tones; best as a melancholy coming of age film and worst during its conventional moments of comedy and plotting. However, Mottola’s honest dialogue and characters makes for a slyly moving experience, where the passage of time plays the biggest trick of all. Before long, the Summer you dreaded so much is over, and it ended up being pretty revelatory.