G.I. Joe: Retaliation (Chu, 2013)

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Nimbleness is next to godliness in the action films of Jon M. Chu. Those who can seamlessly glide, bend, and contort take control of time and space, creating their own gravitational pull. As a result, they challenge the limits of what a body can do, helping to realize personal identity through harmonized movement. It’s a natural-born talent that can produce infinite kinetic possibilities on screen. And us mortals simply watch in awe from the sidelines.

Step Up 3D is Chu’s cinema-of-agility at its most joyous peak. The nubile New Yorkers from that pop musical literally fly through the air at times, earthbound constellations illuminating the power of collective dexterity. While the film’s meager plot consistently borders on absurd melodrama, its riveting dance sequences are mini-explosions of color, texture, and depth that allow Chu’s eye for cinematic pacing and rhythm to emerge. “Dance has vocabulary,” one character muses, pinpointing the bridge between action and expression that Chu cherishes. But there’s also a certain level of aggression to some of these performances, even though they unfold within a cinematic world that has very little bite. One human gazelle is even labeled a “ninja” after jumping through a small hotdog stand during a chase scene in Central Park, a personification of the seemingly contradictory combo of force and finesse.

Hints of the same visual fluidity can also be found in Chu’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation, albeit the entanglement of bodies is much more overt; gun battles and martial arts stand in for the mesmerizing musical standoffs in Step Up 3D. A mega-budget sequel to the 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra, which was based on the popular Hasbro toy line from the 1980s, Retaliationfinds Chu attempting to evolve as a director on a grander scale. In the cartoonish world of the film, where the titular “Joes” defend American democracy against super villains hell bent on global domination, movement no longer represents ideological transcendence, but messy destruction. Instead of long takes, which are lovingly utilized in Step Up 3D, Chu opts for increasing volatility in the editing room. The film’s cut-happy style immediately proves a jarring shift in form, as fragmentation has replaced grace.

Once again, Chu’s direction falters whenever plot takes center stage. The opening act is waterlogged with tedious exposition and comedic banter between Duke (Channing Tatum) and Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), leaders of the G.I. Joe special-operations unit tasked with retrieving a stolen nuclear bomb from war-torn Pakistan. When their mission goes awry, leaving all but three of the Joes terminated, Retaliation gets bogged down with plot, jumping back and forth between the surviving heroes and the vipers of Cobra Command who’ve taken control of the U.S. presidency via a shape-shifting imposter.

The narrative bloat doesn’t matter in the least though, as the extreme verbal posturing by either side simply acts as connective tissue between the blunderbuss action scenes. But even here, where one expects Chu to shine given the chance, the combat sequences are mostly flavorless, failing to capture the momentum or immediacy of Step Up 3D‘s best moments. That is with the exception of one audacious set piece between warring factions of ninja high up on the mountain peaks of Japan. As Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung) scale treacherous ground to kidnap the infamous swordsman Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) from a snowy chateau, the battle eventually spills out onto the open cliff faces in glorious fashion. Propelling downward like birds in freefall, the ninjas primed for battle crisscross each other’s paths wielding katana swords with effortless precision. Here, Chu finally expands the frame, capturing the daredevil theatrics in wide angle without devolving into schizophrenic montage. For a moment, despite the violence and death, it seems like these warriors are engaged in some kind of epic dance off. Instead of the splashes of water and bursts of chalk that hypnotically pepper Step Up 3D‘s mise-en-scène, there’s the clanging of metal and swooshing sound of sleek bodies careening through space. It’s poetry in high-speed motion.

Other flashes of Chu’s potential as an action filmmaker emerge; a sequence where Firefly (Ray Stevenson) unleashes a squadron of his explosive drone namesakes onto an unsuspecting high-security prison is beautiful for its bright hints of LED color and constantly changing directionality. Yet it’s hard not to feel like Chu’s more dangerous and improvisational inclinations were either held back or repressed by the production itself. Chu’s cinema is far more powerful when the action is multifaceted, instinctual, and captured from a distance, allowing for multiple planes of activity to occur simultaneously, whether the movement is harmonic or confrontational. WithRetaliation, the young auteur seems lost amid so much narrative dead weight. It’s not surprising then that Chu feels most at home filming gliding ninjas tap dancing across the frame. Theirs is a freedom from gravity that makes perfect sense.

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The Angels’ Share (Loach, 2012)

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Ken Loach has long oscillated between crafting leftist historiographies and kitchen-sink comedies, all defined by the working class’s struggle against government corruption and social inequality. Recently, the British filmmaker has shown a predilection for overt ideological preachiness, even more so than in his early, grittier works. Perhaps mercifully, his latest film, The Angels’ Share, a breezy scribble about lowlife redemption and drunken buffoonery, isn’t so much heavy-handed as it is charmingly weightless.

In the film’s opening montage, a series of scraggly defendants separately stand before a magistrate, awaiting sentencing for crimes like public drunkenness, brawling, and petty larceny. Speeches from the defense and prosecution paint different backstories, calling into question whether or not each is a scoundrel or merely misunderstood. Only time will tell, and Loach has a fun time playing with the moral ambiguity on display, especially in regard to the volatile hooligan Robbie (Paul Brannigan), who’s incarcerated for the latest in a long line of fistfights. As the camera lingers on each of the defendants’ faces, they squirm and fidget, genuinely concerned about the future while their crimes are recounted in droll verbal fashion by the snooty court. Not only does this prologue establish the sometimes hilarious, sometimes dark actions of the lead players, it proves that Loach can express his interest in social/class juxtapositions by way of a lively cinematic style.

Unfortunately, The Angels’ Share quickly devolves into ho-hum convention. It doesn’t take long for Robbie and the other miscreants to meet-cute during a court-mandated work program that has them picking up trash and painting over graffiti. They mindlessly band together over a mutual appreciation for whisky drinking and production after their group leader, Harry (John Henshaw), leads an impromptu field trip to a local distillery. Here, Loach focuses more on hapless friendships rather than the social ills that seem to be keeping the characters down. Early plot threads like Robbie’s conflict with his pregnant girlfriend’s father and a rolling feud with another Glasgow family are thrown by the wayside in favor of chill sessions between him and his newfound sipping buddies. Eventually, an absolutely asinine heist subplot leads Robbie and his posse into a daring plot to steal priceless whisky from an age-old casket.

Ideologically, the film has little on its mind. Robbie and his ilk are simple entrepreneurs looking to rise out of the economic cellar by way of an Ocean’s Eleven-grade scheme. Focusing on the capitalistic tendencies of cash-strapped characters is a strange fit for the left-leaning Loach, and as a result the final act feels forced when the film becomes a mainstream rags-to-riches fairy tale. Strangely, even more so than with his previous comedy, Looking for Eric, Loach seems to be moving toward a more Hawksian outlook regarding the overlap between professional and personal relationships. This would be a good thing if Loach’s characters actually felt strongly about the procedures of a given tradecraft. Instead, The Angels’ Share is like some hybrid born from the loins of Sideways and The Full Monty, reveling in a brand of cheeky camaraderie that feels ultimately cheap, one that simply cherishes a dimwitted euphoric passion for sipping booze and talking shit.

Savages (Stone, 2012)

Oliver Stone’s Savages has guts. In this sun-drenched acid wash of a thriller, a trio of naïve young lovers butt heads with a brutal Mexican drug cartel, and the entanglement proves violently disruptive, waking them up from their idyllic Southern California fantasy. This awakening of sorts is envisioned by Stone though a jolting mesh of vibrant colors, contrasting film stocks, and off-kilter compositions. Throughout, the hyper-realized style helps to articulate the brutal cost of living inside a self-contained bubble.

Savages, Slant Magazine, cont.

Burn (Putnam, Sanchez, 2012)


Like its intrepid firefighter subjects, Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez’s Burn initially seems juiced up on too much adrenaline. Early in this kinetic documentary intimately following a tumultuous year in the life of Engine Co. 50, Detroit’s most aggressive and overworked fire brigade, every shot resonates with a breakneck immediacy and danger. But the endless scenes of burning buildings and macho posturing merely provide an action-driven context for the filmmakers to deal with more personal topics like loneliness and resiliency. That these themes apply to multiple generations of men working together makes Burn an even more intricate work of nonfiction. Firefighters may be “social creatures by nature,” as one interviewee puts it, but the film manages to peel away that façade and reveal the collective frustrations of a profession fighting for its life one individual at a time.

Burn, Slant Magazine, cont.

The Forgiveness of Blood (Marston, 2011)

Self-imposed borders, whether physical or ideological, often define one’s nationality, tradition, and gender. American director Joshua Marston is fascinated by the way these facets of identity overlap, constructing films about young characters forced to challenge predetermined limits of control in their respective cultures and communities. That his gaze focuses so intensely on countries outside of his own—Colombia in 2004’s Maria Full of Grace and Albania in 2011’sThe Forgiveness of Blood—makes his thematic concerns even more evocative. Marston’s background in journalism and political science shapes his keen directorial eye, especially in the level of detail he brings to examining the familial hierarchies and cultural stigmas at odds in The Forgiveness of Blood. For him, it’s not just about the authenticity of place, but also the authenticity of conflicting experiences.

The Forgiveness of Blood, Slant Magazine, cont.

Fat Kid Rules the World (Lillard, 2012)


People matter in Fat Kid Rules the World; genre not so much. Matthew Lillard’s guileless high school-set film certainly exists in the same universe as 10 Things I Hate About You and its ilk, inundated with moody teenage archetypes and life-changing scenarios involving drugs and alcohol. But the film’s real concerns are the nuanced compromises its characters make to sustain friendships and family ties, however distressed their situations become. This kind of focus on the resilience and loyalty of these characters’ lives is surprising and welcome, especially since Lillard deals with heavy, potentially melodramatic issues such as suicide, repression, and trauma.

– Read full review at Slant Magazine

Arbitrage (Jarecki, 2012)

From Liberty Valance to Daniel Plainview, Hollywood has always loved a good bastard, and Richard Gere’s powerful, deceitful, and charming New York City tycoon Robert Miller, the towering figure at the center of Nicholas Jarecki’s stirring Arbitrage, more than fits the bill. Miller dominates every dialogue-heavy scene with his Gordon Gekko-like presence and Machiavellian pragmatism, playing the virtuous, Mark Twain-quoting family man one minute, only to slither off and fuck his European art-collector mistress (Laetitia Casta) the next. A delicate balance of ego and illusion, his formidable public persona is founded on his outward projection of success, wealth, and loyalty. Arbitrage chronicles in fine detail the extended moment when this white-collar lion loses control of this juggling act.

Full review at Slant Magazine