November 05, 2017

Notes from the Underground

Hello again. Excuse me as I begin to wipe the cobwebs off this little corner of the Internet. Today, I have at long last renewed my domain for Panned Review. When the domain lapsed in July, I was unable to renew it because Google’s process is deep and mysterious, like a Christopher Nolan movie. And like Nolan, I would try to explain it to you better, only I don’t fully understand it myself. At any rate, it was not a simple one-click solution. In the midst of this, my feelings about writing movie reviews were all a-flutter, partly due to personal reasons, partly because trying to write movie reviews for fun can be a challenge when you teach English full time, and there are papers to grade and books to read. On the other hand, I’ve gotten to contribute a few pieces to another blog, Filmview, run by my friend Konstantinos Pappis. So the question loomed: Should I continue this long-running blog or not? For now, the answer is yes. I’m also happy to say that a new project is in the works: a podcast. More information about that when it’s available. For now, I’m enclosing some mini-reviews of movies I’ve seen this year but never wrote about.

Atomic Blonde – Those who say a female James Bond is out of the question are quickly proved wrong by this fast-moving, neon-enameled comic book of a movie, in some ways a companion to John Wick. In both films, the action scenes are extremely well-choreographed and the tension is almost always punctuated by some little bit of humor. Atomic Blonde is ultimately a unique and fascinating movie all on its own, even if the premise (an American spy facing off with Russians in Germany during the end of the Cold War) has already been trod endlessly. Charlize Theron delivers a convincing performance as Lorraine, a mysterious woman whose allegiance is never clear to us. Theron’s performance is icy and sharp, yet vulnerable, a combination that few Bond actors have ever been able to master, and James McAvoy makes for a worthy love interest/villain. But what strikes me most about Atomic Blonde is that it’s one of the most visually interesting movies I’ve seen in a long time. I found myself tuning out the dialogue (some of which was too functional and technical at times) because I was so fascinated by the images. And of course, it’s awash in 80s references, from the music to the costumes, and resembles, in its most exciting moments, a music video right out of the the early days of MTV. Directed by David Leitch. Also starring John Goodman.

Kong: Skull IslandKong: Skull Island feels like it was made by people who obsessively watched Apocalypse Now, mining it for inspiration, but their commitment to showing the audience a good time is such a welcome thing that the film's ostentatious references to Vietnam movies hardly bothered me. Especially when so few movies like this (take note, Jurassic World) feel interesting or have any personality. Skull Island takes place in the 70s, so its strikingly ethnically diverse cast feels almost anachronistic. This motley group of scientists, soldiers, and other hangers-on embarks on a doomed expedition to the ends of the earth: Skull Island. The island is essentially concealed inside a dangerous hurricane-force atmosphere. And it's home to an ancient indigenous tribe and a variety of ghastly prehistoric monsters, not to mention the great King Kong. Kong once again feels like a lovable beast, one we truly care about, and while the film’s overstuffed Vietnam commentary may be somewhat forced and obvious, it sure does make for a colorful entertainment. Samuel L. Jackson plays a bomb-crazy colonel with the usual ideas about colonialism; Brie Larson is a war photographer, Tom Hiddleston a rogue adventurer, and John Goodman a government wonk. With John C. Reilly, who's genuinely touching as a WW2 soldier who's been stranded on Skull Island for 30 years, a godlike prize for the natives. It's a hodgepodge that works. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Mother! – Darren Aronofksy is not a director after my own heart. I disliked Black Swan immensely, and I found Mother! pretty insufferable too. Jennifer Lawrence plays the young wife of a struggling poet, (Javier Bardem). This once happy couple lives in a beautiful country estate, the home Bardem’s character grew up in, apparently. They’re expecting a baby, and Lawrence’s character is wrapped up in redecorating the whole house, which is a bit of a fixer-upper. That’s when their domestic tranquility is shattered by the appearance of a strange couple, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. The movie descends into a kind of domestic nightmare as increasingly bizarre things happen and the wife feels alienated from her husband, whose commitment to hospitality borders on the pathological. It’s a surreal experience, one that may titillate some viewers with all its literary references (to the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, among others, and its more general pap about the artist’s struggle). But Jennifer Lawrence spends the entire film reacting in horror to the admittedly horrible things happening to her; I much prefer Lawrence when she’s strong or funny (like her deliciously arch performance in the otherwise middling American Hustle). Mother! is also a maddeningly ugly film, visually speaking, a far cry from the rapturous beauty of the film below.

Suspiria (1977) – I’ve already reviewed Suspiria, but I must take a moment to rave about the experience of seeing it this October on the big screen, at Jacksonville’s own Sun-Ray Cinema. Before the movie began, we were treated to a brief intro by star Jessica Harper herself, which she recorded as a little gift to the fans. I’ve never considered myself a devotee of Suspiria, because the film’s plot is so haphazard. But seeing its garish colors on that massive screen turned me into a believer. The point of Suspiria is that it’s a chaotic, nightmarish experience, a frenetic symphony of artistic terror. Dario Argento doesn’t have the time, the patience, or the desire to nail every detail of the plot together, and why should he when he’s capturing a film this beautiful and terrifying? The horrifying double murder, minutes after the opening credits, is one of the prime examples: We never know where the threat is coming from, or what the threat is capable of. And the unreal, dazzlingly ornate set designs, which are more like the acid trips of an art major than actual movie sets, reinforce the feeling of otherworldliness. Suspiria has energy and vitality and spookiness to spare, and I’m so happy I got to see it with an audience.

Wind River – A surprisingly effective mystery-thriller, set in a desolate, snow-encased town in the Wyoming wilderness. Elizabeth Olsen plays a hotshot FBI agent who teams up with a somber, intuitive tracker (Jeremy Renner) to investigate a very cold case – the rape and gruesome murder of a young Native American woman, whose body was found deep in the mountains. Wind River becomes less about whodunit and more about the ways a place can be so hard and harsh that its conditions wear on your very soul. And yet, Wind River never feels like an inhuman film. The characters that populate it are interesting and all too human, only they’ve been living in isolation too long. The film takes a surprising turn at the end, revealing to us everything that happened, via flashback. It feels jarring at first, but director Taylor Sheridan’s focus is on the people, not the scintillating, pulpy surface story. That’s what makes Wind River such a satisfying movie. The standoff scene, between Olsen, several other agents, and a handful of methy bad guys, is tense and well-constructed. And Jeremy Renner, as always, lends a certain anchor-like presence. I can never not enjoy him in a movie.

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