— Incinerater

Kurt Cobain in "Montage of Heck"

I am more than a drawing.

Pretty much the whole time I was watching the new Kurt Cobain doc Montage of Heck, I was thinking about Reality Bites. Not because Troy Dyer is one of the more popular examples of Kurt Cobain’s mainstream fall-out — the tortured greasy-haired grungy-voiced anti-establishment genius — but because of the movie within the movie (which, as fate would have it, was released the year Cobain took his own life). Lelaina Pearce spends much of the film making a documentary about her disenchanted generation only to have it massacred by an MTV-like network that turns their lives into animated pizza. And that is what director Brett Morgen does to Kurt Cobain in Montage of Heck, turns him into fast food for the Internet generation.

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'These are my arms.'

‘These are my arms.’

I remember reading ages ago about Quentin Tarantino’s obsession with bad movies, particularly that exact moment before a bad movie becomes un-watchable. He was fixated on finding out what specifically it was that made these terrible pieces of so-called art just good enough to keep us in our seats, watching.

We’ve established that 50 Shades of Grey is lousy. Not one critic has disputed that fact. Having said that, as far as I know, there have been no mass walk outs. People have remained until the credits rolled. I did. Admittedly, I shut my eyes several times because sometimes it was just that bad. But I didn’t leave.

So what is it about this film that kept us in our seats? It certainly wasn’t the sex, which is the only reason anyone bothered to read the book (before they discovered even that wasn’t enough). We all agree that Kelly Marcel’s script is an improvement on E.L. James’ cliche-to-end-all-cliches-which-is-itself-a-cliche-to-prove-my-point “novel” — the pacing, the dialogue, even the characters. And the cinematography sort of  luxuriates beneath that elegant muted grey palette that Steve McQueen handled so much better in Shame. But is that enough to make something so unbearable bearable?

50 Shades of Grey is about an English lit major, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who falls for a brooding millionaire, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who happens to have a taste for S&M. A number of critics have argued that Johnson saves the film from being a total loss and I agree that she infused her character with several chewed pencils’ worth of much-needed charm. For them, that was enough to stay. For me, it wasn’t. But Dornan was.

I am not saying Jamie Dornan is a particularly good actor — his talent is debatable. He seems to hide his stiffness behind characters  — see also serial killer Paul Spector in The Fall – whose personas are defined by that very same rigidity making it difficult to parse where his limitations actually lie. But there’s something about Dornan’s appearance that makes him so….watchable. As my date said, “He seems like he shouldn’t actually be as good looking as he is.”

There’s a deceptive simplicity to the way Dornan looks to the point that in her review on Slate, Meghan Daum, who described big screen Christian as “a symbol of the kind of generic, wholly unimaginative interpretation of ‘extreme wealth’ we tend to see on reality television,” dismissed him. “Dornan has one of those faces that makes you think you might have face blindness,” she wrote. “Every time he appears in a scene, there’s a split second of wondering if it’s him or someone else. Needless to say that doesn’t bode well for presence in the boudoir.”

Look closer. At first glance he’s handsome, at second he’s more cute. There’s something feline and playful about Dornan. And you can only really appreciate the different textures  of his appearance when he’s in motion (his print ads show him looking so frosty he would be more at home in a morgue). Only when animated do his looks start to undercut themselves. For one thing he has a strange gait (“I have always had a complex with the way I walk,” he has said) which could be either the reason or one of many reasons he gives the subtle impression that he’s just playing the beautiful man. Granted this is not a particularly profound observation nor a particularly profound dimension to Dornan’s character, but it’s perfect for Christian Grey, whose surface is pristine, but whose interior is anything but.

Critic Christy Lemire has contended that while Dornan is no doubt handsome “he’s also supposed to be impossibly sexy and irresistible, and that’s never the case.” To me, Dornan offers something a lot more interesting — pseudo titillation (bare with me). He’s supposed to be sexy, but he’s an interloper as much as Anastasia is. What is attractive about him is the very fact that he doesn’t quite fit the mold he’s embodying. Surprisingly, it took a male critic to pick up on this anti-climactic (so to speak) aspect of the film where many of its female critics (50 Shades’ supposed target demographic) failed.

Richard Brody wrote at The New Yorker that 50 Shades is one of the rare films that focuses on foreplay rather than the act of sex itself. In the scene in which Christian and Anastasia sleep together for the first time, Brody argued that filmmaker Sam Taylor Johnson “shows him luxuriating in her body and awakening her senses to his touch. Though the director’s compositions are canny enough to keep the rating at R (I’ll bet the home-video release will be altogether different), she also captures the tactile intimacy of sexual relations (for instance, the fuzz on Anastasia’s thighs silhouetted in sunlight) and, in the process, gets closer to the molecular level of sex than many far more full-frontally-explicit movies do.”

We didn’t get off on Christian laughingly delivering the line, “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard,” it was the fact that he failed to do so that arrested us. As Jane Giles explained in Sight and Sound, “while James’s novel luxuriates in Ana’s descriptions of Christian, and particularly his erection, the film barely allows the viewer’s gaze to linger on the face let alone the body of Dornan’s character.” Instead we were left trying to figure out what it was about Christian that had Anastasia, and, to a lesser extent, us, so gripped. Had we been given a clear answer, there’s a good chance we would have pulled out sooner.

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Michael Keaton in 'Birdman'

‘Too much?’

There’s a lot of spitting in Birdman. I’m not talking about the spit ball that Emma Stone’s character drops from the roof of a theater onto the head of an unsuspecting passer by. Saliva inadvertently bubbles up on the emphatic lips of every over-acting actor in this film and I suppose it makes sense. The chief takeaway from Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is that everyone within it is so busy salivating over the proceedings that no one stops to look at what it is they are salivating about, which is, in all honesty, not much.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s simultaneously over- and under-stuffed follow-up to Biutiful stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a once-famous actor who soared to fame as a big screen superhero in the ’90s and is now attempting to make a comeback with his Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Yes, Birdman is the latest addition to contemporary Hollywood’s bid for intellectual gravitas, the meta-drama (see also JCVD, The Wrestler), in which washed-up actors play out a life not too far from their own. But perhaps the creeping subtlety of reality got to Iñárritu because, outside college, I have never seen a film this overwrought and under thought at the same time.

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Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 10.36.12 AM

Hellllp…David Fincher’s killing me…

Every single one of the reviews I’ve read of Gone Girl have mentioned the opening scene. Amy (Rosamund Pike) lies on a pillow, her hair forming a “sleepy golden storm,” as her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), caresses it and, in a quiet voice-over, describes violently cracking her head open. It’s the sort of juxtaposition that’s eye-rollingly smart — it makes critics like Manohla Dargis wink in solidarity, while, at the same time, it is not too intellectual for the everyman, who can recognize irony even if he may not know exactly what it means.

It’s an odd moment of democracy for David Fincher, who is often too mired in his own mastery to really bother with frivolities like whether or not the audience is engaged. He lets his source material do that for him. Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac were profound enough to manage it, but Panic Room, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were too shallow to fill in the blanks. Gone Girl, heavy on plot and light on everything else, can be added to the latter collection of films.

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"How much longer?"

“How much longer?”

Richard Linklater has made his career expanding time. In his best known films — the “Before” series — we are invited every few years to observe brief episodes of a couple’s life and are often left bereft when the credits role. With “Boyhood,” the opposite is true. Linklater’s ambitious 12-year-project has him constricting more than a decade of a young boy’s (fictional) life into less than three hours. Unfortunately, where the filmmaker has proven himself so adept at stretching out moments, he has proven himself less capable of compressing them.

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Kristen Bell in 'Veronica Mars'

‘I’m 28?!’

A long time ago, we used to be friends
But I haven’t thought of you lately at all
If ever again, a greeting I send to you,
Short and sweet to the soul I intend.

-“We Used to Be Friends,” The Dandy Warhols

Short and sweet to the soul is all Rob Thomas intended for the “Veronica Mars” movie. After using the crowd-funding site to back the film version of the prematurely cancelled hard-boiled cult hit about a pop culture-savvy teen detective, Thomas returned the favour to fans with a small screen valentine wrapped in a big screen bow. And that’s the problem.

“Veronica Mars” is not a movie, it’s a TV show. Seven years after the last episode aired, the “film”  is basically four new episodes jammed into one overly long installment. That’s why you get that strangely underwhelming feeling watching it on the big screen that you never got watching it on the tube. That’s why the voice-overs, the beveled glass flashbacks and the pop-tinged delivery that were so charming on TV are a lot less impressive on film — parochial even. “Veronica Mars” at the movies is like a country girl in her hometown duds trying to impress at a downtown soiree. She’s just never going to measure up.

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Owen Wilson, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

‘Miss me?’

“People who love some Wes Anderson movies and hate others: You are mysterious and I don’t get where you’re coming from,” tweeted Scott Tobias, editor of the film site The Dissolve, last week. And, after much thought, I have found the solution to the mystery: Owen Wilson.

Just like that of any other artist in the world, Anderson’s work has gone through stages. The first stage could be categorised in layman’s terms as “the quirky indie comedy,” though I will admit that is a reductionist designation that does “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” a severe disservice. More than anything, these films are eccentric character-driven odes to universal themes like changing relationships and growing up. And the fact that all three were co-written by Anderson and Wilson seems to be a big part of that.

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'American Hustle's' Amy Adams and Christian Bale

'We own this thing. For real.'

Christian Bale is as good as “American Hustle” gets. And it stops there. As Irving Rosenfeld, a portly con artist costumed in a comb over, velvet suit and aviators, he not only tricks the characters in the film, he tricks the viewers. Bale’s greatness dupes us into believing David O. Russell’s film is a great piece of work. But let’s be real, it’s not.

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Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson in 'Hunger Games'

'Bored.'

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” has a serious case of ADD. Where Gary Ross’ “Hunger Games” wasn’t pulse-racing enough, Francis Lawrence’s follow up appears to have been injected with whatever drove “Crank’s” Chev Chelios to fornicate in the middle of a Chinese market back in 2006. The movie was so manically cut that by the end of the first half I was so bored by the monotonously relentless action I almost fell asleep.

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Chiwtel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'

I thought I signed on to a Steve McQueen film?

In the wake of the virtually unanimous critical acclaim surrounding “12 Years a Slave,” criticising Steve McQueen’s magnum opus about American slavery (oft-ignored in cinema) is tantamount to kicking a kitten. But that’s what I’m going to do (not the kitten part). Because a piece of art — and I’m pretty sure most critics would agree with this — should be more than its subject alone. There’s a reason Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” is more celebrated than Brueghel’s.

McQueen’s third feature is an adaptation of the 1853 autobiography by a black man who was once free and then kidnapped and sold into slavery. From his charmed life in Washington, D.C, he finds himself transported in shackles to various plantations in Louisana. It’s unsurprising that a number of critics have compared the film to Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic “Schindler’s List” considering McQueen is dramatising what many consider to be the American Holocaust. But the two films are similar in another way: They are both unmistakeable products of the Hollywood machine.

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