Steven Spielblog – now on TWITCH

31 01 2010

Some nifty news tonight at the Spielblog: our award-winning reviews* are now being cross-posted at the great film site TWITCH, your first, last, and only stop for international film news and reviews.

Make sure you head to to survey the damage!

*some/all reviews not actually award-winning


EDGE OF DARKNESS and the Resurrection of Mel Gibson

31 01 2010

Warning: If you’ve never seen a Mel Gibson movie before, this review may contain spoilers.

Following THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, and revelations about his feelings towards the chosen people and the sugar-titted, many such as myself have spent the last decade fairly uncomfortable with Mel Gibson. As much as it may have electrified a base of believers who hadn’t had an item of pop significance since the Counter-Reformation, for those brought up in the Church of the Sacred Multiplex THE PASSION raised some uncomfortable questions about one of the world’s biggest movie stars.

A majority of Mel Gibson films are connected by a persistent theme of justified violence. From LETHAL WEAPON to BRAVEHEART, his characters are typically tortured (in one way or another, and not infrequently in the Christ pose,) and in turn take vengeance on their assailants. And his films as a director – an Oscar-winner at that – are largely of a piece with his most memorable parts: they’re about men who kill in righteous anger, and win. No self-reflection necessary. By contrast, another actor-turned-director, Clint Eastwood, spent the first half of his career as the silver screen’s most iconic vigilante, but has spent the second half directing films about the nature of and need for forgiveness.

It’s hard not to mention all this as preamble to Mel’s first on-screen role in nearly a decade, in a movie tailor-made to his protagonist specifications: Martin Campbell’s EDGE OF DARKNESS finds Mel playing Tom Craven, a Boston cop whose daughter Emma is murdered before his eyes. From there, Mel kicks many an ass to gain access to the most powerful ass of all – and then kicks that ass as well. He’s aided by shadowy government operative Jedburgh (Ray Winstone) whose bosses are bent on covering up the conspiracy that led to Emma Craven’s offing.

After eight years on his private island, tens of thousands of Camel Lights, and several New Testaments’ worth of bad P.R., Mel Gibson is no longer svelte and sexy, he’s creased and bulky. In a way, he’s never looked better for this kind of role, and with a solid Boston accent and a few fine Mad Mel moments, he anchors this film with an undeniably spot-hitting performance. Growling a perfunctory line like “welcome to hell,” Mel makes it sound just like it should – and for some viewers, that will be enough. But the film that’s built around that growl is a detective story without any real twist – mainly because its villains are never less than completely obvious. The mystery, apparently, isn’t the point; ass-kickery is. But does that really let writer William Monahan off the hook for so many unwieldy chunks of exposition? There’s a lot of “that’s all I can say… except for (insert clue)” and “you have to leave, but first, I want to give you this (clue.)” Yet for all the jawing, Winstone’s subplot is so barely penned that his own righteous/violent turn in the film’s climax plays as shocking in the wrong way – not a ‘wow,’ but ‘wow, really?’

Mel Gibson in EDGE OF DARKNESS, or possibly RANSOM

Now, as one whose favorite film of 2009 was INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, I can get down with cinematic violence when directed at deserving villains. But to the detriment of EDGE OF DARKNESS, its antagonists are simply stuffed suits with bad ‘tudes. The plot that claims the life of Emma Craven is barely relevant to the action of the film; it’s only ever referenced in the abstract to justify her father’s vengeance. Characters enter and exit based solely on his desire to kick their asses: like “Robinson,” a crooked environmentalist who’s introduced at the end of Mel’s fist, then pummeled without one line of dialogue. The scene goes like this, and I paraphrase: “hi,” bam pow, end scene. Not that this isn’t kind of amusing… It’s just not so satisfying.

And I play a villain!

The strength of EDGE, as with most Martin Campbell films, is the action – and there are some expertly timed jolts throughout his newest. The death of Emma Craven is so well executed (ba-dum-bum,) it’s shown twice. That’s  genre entertainment, perhaps, the nature of the beast, but it also speaks to the larger issue with Mel Gibson and his films of choice. The man is unapologetic – in life, on film. (See the PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP DVD extras, in which he matter-of-factly explains his decision to seize control of the film from its director Brian Helgeland, and overhaul it to make it a more standard Mel Gibson vehicle – including the addition of, yes, a torture scene.) After eight years away, returning to acting with another revenge drama to add to his already sizeable pile, he shows no signs of maturation apart from the physical, and he doesn’t seem to care. That lack of pretension makes it hard to dislike Mel, at least on-screen. But the question post-PASSION remains: does he take on films like this because he simply believes this is what audiences want to see of him? Or are his choices indicative not of movie star populism, but a personal obsession with absolution through brutality?

It’s tempting to give him the benefit of the doubt after the forgettable but fun EDGE OF DARKNESS, if only because there’s no Catholic imagery to speak of here – nor, apart from the guy’s daughter being blowed up in front of him, is there any real torture. Yes, Craven is hauled off to the villains’ lair in the film’s last act, but the whole sequence is so inexplicably brief, and his escape so swift, that his kidnappers don’t even have the chance to torture him. This surely upset no one more than Mel himself… Following some well-staged dispatching of heavies, the film’s denouement, with father and daughter walking arm-in-arm into a white light, is pure schmaltz that smacks of PAYBACK tampering. Another hero has killed his way to vindication and is martyred, only to be united with his beloved… Sorry, I guess that’s a spoiler – but only if you’ve never seen another Mel Gibson movie.


Los Feliz 3 Cinemas, Los Angeles

Friday January 30, 7:00pm showing

Warning to the Heartland: Beware THE LOVELY BONES.

16 01 2010

Dear middle America,

As you peruse your local movie listings this Martin Luther King Day weekend, you may find yourself considering Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES, which opens in ‘wide release’ (your neck of the woods,) after over a month of ‘limited release’ (elite coastal movie theaters.) Red Staters, we’ve never really seen eye to eye. You probably think I’m a homosexual just for having a blog. But in the spirit of bipartisanship, nah, hell, call it patriotism, I’m warning y’all: Stay away from these LOVELY BONES.

Here, for your entertainment, is an awful mess. It’s the story of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan,) a fourteen year-old girl murdered on her way home from school. Following her death, Susie tours “the in-between,” a region neither heaven nor hell (though for me it was decidedly on the ‘hell’ side,) all while trying to communicate with her grieving parents Mark Wahlberg & Rachel Weisz, and help them solve the mystery of her death at the hands of the Salmon’s next-door serial kill-neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci.)

Have we really learned nothing from WHAT DREAMS MAY COME?

Though effectively half his film is devoted to Susie’s experience in the afterlife, (an expansion of the source novel’s narrative framing device,) Jackson establishes no rules or structure for this ‘in-between’ world, choosing instead to present it as a series of computer-generated hyper-pastorals through which Susie meanders… seeing things that really aren’t amazing, and meeting characters such as perky Asian spirit guide “Holly Golightly” (Nikki SooHoo) … who really isn’t interesting.

Some badly needed suspense arrives in the last act, with Susie’s sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) creeping through Harvey’s home in a scene not undone by its implausibility, but by its inconsequence. The evidence Lindsey retrieves has almost zero bearing in the plot. The same lax causality goes for much of THE LOVELY BONES. The efforts of Susie to alert her family to her killer, eventually, go nowhere; Harvey’s final comeuppance has barely anything to do with her plot line. This makes Susie, and her parents, not to mention Michael Imperioli’s pointless police detective, ultimately impotent figures – and given how much screen time is allotted to Harvey and his devilry, it’s hard to have sympathy for protagonists who are so banally bereaved they can’t see a monster in their midst.

Thanks for nothing, Michael Imperioli.

Between the sixteen endings of RETURN OF THE KING, and the 790-minute Empire State Building climax of KING KONG, it’s fair to say that extended death scenes have become Peter Jackson’s forté. I’m a sucker for his KONG – but the scene of Susie Salmon’s abduction and murder is hard to classify as entertainment. And yet THE LOVELY BONES is not a bad film because of objectionable subject matter. It is a bad film because it’s the sum of uniformly bad artistic choices:

The cinematography is a sloppy muddle, with cameras moving when they needn’t and shouldn’t, especially in domestic scenes. Sequences like the killer’s introduction, peering through the windows of a dollhouse, are over-edited, where a simpler, cleaner presentation would do better. The musical score by Brian Eno is off the mark in almost every moment – most criminally, a 70’s fabulous disco in heaven, set not to K.C. and the Sunshine Band, but to classical strings (AS BAD AS IT SOUNDS.) Worse still is Susie Salmon’s ceaseless voice over. The post-mortem narrator’s been done before, but it’s hard to think of a more miscalculated application than this. Though Penn & Teller urge us to politely golf clap whenever the title of a film is worked into its dialogue, when Susie announces, apropos to nothing at film’s end, “these are the lovely bones…” and then attempts to briefly unpack that statement, the only possible response is to groan – not clap.

Rose McIver, who plays Saoirse Ronan’s younger sister but looks seven years older than her – is, in reality, seven years older than Saoirse Ronan. Go figure!

Though Saoirse Ronan and the always-great Tucci both impress, the rest of the cast fails to leave any mark. Their jobs aren’t made any easier by Mister Directorpants, who treats the Salmon clan as if each of them has to have one broad characteristic, like a surly dwarf or hungry Hobbit: Wahlberg’s consumed by rage, Weisz is detached yet also aloof, and Susan Sarandon is the grandmother who’s too fabulous to grieve, or even mention her granddaughter’s murder. She causes hilaaarious havoc around the Salmon home: washing machines overflow, dishes shatter, small fires pop up. In such an aggressively sentimental film, that this MR. MOM-esque montage passes for comic relief shows just how far Jackson has come from his bizarre beginnings.

But then, Peter Jackson hasn’t attempted anything less than Huge in the last ten years of his life. And though it was one of the true cinematic treats of the ’00’s to see a filmmaker with oddball sensibilities and a taste for macabre do Huge right, Jackson’s latest is a smaller, sadder tale, which he insists on Huge-ifying – with sweeping visuals but no eye for detail. He may be attempting a return from Middle, to regular Earth with THE LOVELY BONES, but when it comes to portraying reality, Jackson’s a stranger in a strange land.

Ah, shit: Sam Mendes to direct the next James Bond movie

6 01 2010

From today’s Hollywood Reporter:

To be a James Bond fan is to live in disappointment. Every two years, you’re teased with a sensational trailer featuring a couple big explosions and/or breasts, you get yourself all worked up by either or both, and when the newest Bond film finally hits, you’re there opening night… only to emerge two hours later, bludgeoned by a European cheese platter with nothing to recommend it but the reprise of that jangly, addictive theme song. Nothing, it seemed, no gadget nor titty, could ever deliver the pure high of the Sean Connery years…

Or so it was until 2006, when the bar was raised high again by the Bond series’  finest reinvention, CASINO ROYALE, a film that only gets better on repeated viewing. Director Martin Campell, master of classy action, carried off the series’ trademark chase sequences with flawless pacing and spatial orientation. In his first outing as 007, Daniel Craig’s grave confidence wasn’t just fun to watch, it felt instantly earned. More than anything though, what worked about CASINO ROYALE was the relationship between Bond and Vesper Lynd, played by the magnificent Eva Green. If anything, the final act which on first viewing seemed indulgent with its extended, swooning romance (not exactly 007’s trademark,) now seems irreducible. To cut a second of it would ruin everything.

Bond. James Bond.

Craig’s second outing, the 22nd Bond film QUANTUM OF SOLACE, is not much of a movie – though compared to the nadir of the series, it’s also quite acceptable. Director Marc Forster was seemingly so intimidated by the perfection of Campbell’s action sequences that he chopped up his own nearly beyond recognition – similar to what Christopher Nolan has done in his Batman series. In Forster’s hands, SOLACE contained some highs (the opening teaser’s boffo, I SAID BOFFO, and the dangling climax to the Siena sequence is tense and excellent,) but the finale held no surprises, and never realized the potential of the film’s first moments.

Weak. Real weak.

Like bringing Nolan onto Batman, putting Forster on Bond was an attempt to add some prestige to a formulaic genre piece. And now, Sam Mendes will have his shot to make BOND 23 all arty and shit; an assignment that certainly recalls Forster and Nolan in spirit – but still sends a shiver down this fan’s spine. And that’s not just because Mendes hasn’t directed a great film since his first one; it’s because what Bond films depend on isn’t an injection of style or an outsider sensibility. A good Bond requires a familiarity with Bond over all else. Almost all the best films of the Bond series weren’t the first Bond film made by their director. Terence Young shot DR. NO before FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, Guy Hamilton had GOLDFINGER before LIVE AND LET DIE, and before hitting gold with CASINO ROYALE, Martin Campbell had already directed GOLDENEYE.

More than an experienced helmer even, good Bond calls for a screenplay that walks the tightrope between delivering what’s expected, and delivering a jolt. Mendes, unfortunately, has proven several times over that he’s drawn to material that allows him room for style – even when substance is lacking. (JARHEAD, anyone? Didn’t think so…) Dare, friends, to imagine Mendes’ over-stylized, down-beat Donmar take on spy-jinx  – and how far off balance that could throw the Bond tightrope act. If the past decade since Mendes won his Oscar have made anything clear, it’s that Alan Ball’s screenplay for AMERICAN BEAUTY was its great asset. Not Kevin Spacey, not that marimba-heavy score or that deeply profound Ralph’s bag – and not Mendes, the would-be wunderkind who appeared to knock one out of the park on his first at bat… turns out, in retrospect, he really didn’t.

The good news is that Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, co-writers of CASINO ROYALE, (with ex-scientologist Paul Haggis) are working on BOND 23 – albeit with a nip and tuck this time by Peter Morgan, who recently said that this film will be “shocking.” Shocking like REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, Peter? Guuuhhh. But hey, maybe Purvis and Wade will rise again to the occasion, and maybe, just maybe, Mendes won’t get in their way… Anything’s possible. Guy Hamilton, who directed the series capstone GOLDFINGER, also directed THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, one of its most craptastic. Anything’s possible – even, I suppose, a good James Bond movie by Sam Mendes. I’ll believe it when I see it… And needless to say, I’ll be there opening night, ready to be let down.