Like many ambitious sci-fi epics, Oblivion is set against a complicated and fascinating backstory, but what it amounts to is a film about the last two people left on Earth: Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), a pilot, and Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), a communications analyst. For most of the film, they are the only characters, and for the first half, Joseph Kosinski is content to lead us through a series of serene, crystalline, ambient sequences, in which Jack patrols the surface of the planet, and reports back to Victoria, stationed in a console pod above the clouds. While the advertising campaign suggested the apocalyptic monumentalism of Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay, Kosinski's Earth is desolate and deserted in the same way as Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World", which plays a pivotal narrative role. Although Jack spends most of his time flying, there's really no difference between flying and any other type of movement: the planet is as isomorphic as a wheatfield, dovetailing the liquid clarity of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the invisible grids and contourless lines of iAesthetics. Although it was based on Kosinski's pitch for a graphic novel of the same name, it often feels like the pitch itself: a series of radiant, weightless images, or concepts of images, since the grid that Kosinski evoked in Tron:Legacy has become entirely naturalised here. Adding to the serenity is the fact that both Jack and Victoria have had mandatory memory wipes before commencing their work on Earth, meaning that this is a world in which memory has not yet emerged, and thought itself is still emergent. Perhaps that's why the senses don't feel quite differentiated either: Victoria never visits the Earth's surface, monitoring everything from her bank of touchscreens, making for a film that yearns to be experienced kinaesthetically. As in Tron:Legacy, Kosinski addresses this by foregrounding the score until it sends a continual electronic pulse across the screen, the incipient ripple of a touchscreen. That makes for something of a post-cinematic space opera, and the operatic experience is not unlike that of watching an experienced gamer. As occurs when watching a gamer, the quieter, panoramic moments are even more cinematic than when actually gaming, and the visceral, action-oriented moments are even more disorienting: you really realise how vertiginously gaming alternates between a human sensorium and a human-console sensorium. It's a film, then, that also cries out for a console between viewer and screen, or even something like Victoria's bank of consoles, the only way she - and we - experience Jack for much of the film, as he turns into an avatar who has broken away from his gamer. It all builds to a quite extraordinary and disorienting conclusion, in which Kosinski presents something like a console as a nemesis, or at least brings the film's inability to decide whether it is addressing humans or machines to a quite beautiful conclusion. It's not 2001 - nothing could be - but, in style and spirit, it's probably the closest we're likely to get to the object-oriented, console-driven dramas of 3001: The Final Odyssey, which, Kosinski suggests, could never be made into a film, but only a film on the verge of becoming something else.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone makes a refreshing break from the gravitas of Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi's recent roles. As Vegas magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton, they put in two of their most plastic performances in years: there's as much singing and dancing as acting here, while the film's driven by set pieces as much as by scenes. It feels right, then, that Jim Carrey completes the trio, as Steve Gray, an up-and-coming street magician who threatens to draw crowds away from Wonderstone and Marvelton's act. What's unusual, though, is that Gray isn't a magician in any conventional sense: although he does perform the occasional trick, most of his routines involve acts of terrifying endurance, drawn from the extreme stuntwork pioneered by Jackass. While that makes for quite a chilling apotheosis of Carrey's manic energy, it also produces an intriguing suggestion: that extreme television is the most recent generation of magic, and that people seek out extreme stuntwork in the same way that they might have once sought out magic. While Wonderstone and Marvelton have built an entire spectacular infrastructure around themselves - they don't just have their own show, they have their own theatre - their routine has become ossified and sanitised in the process. By contrast, Gray returns magic to one of its most powerful missions: the magician's mission to single-handedly endure his or her moment in history, and to allow each member of the audience to experience that endurance vicariously: "It's not about pulling a rabbit out of your chest, it's about pulling your heart out of your chest...I take people's nightmares and turn them into living dreams." Specifically, Gray's routines speak to an attention economy, a corporate conflation of attention and magic that sees him enduring several days without blinking, as well as one-upping Tony Robbins' corporate magic: Gray doesn't just walk on hot coals, he spends a whole night sleeping on them. However, if Tony Robbins is a corporate magician, then so is Michael Scott - and Wonderstone and Marvelton's response to Gray momentarily turns them into a distant echo of Michael and Dwight, as they perform a supposedly unperformable trick - "the Disappearing Audience" - that pushes each member of the audience to their absolute limits of endurance, but without any of them being aware of it. Without revealing exactly how it works, it ends up reminding us that dexterity - real dexterity, the dexterity that Wonderstone and Marvelton have to learn anew - is still the most refined form of endurance - and the film is an elegant tribute to dexterous endurance, the enormous, invisible pressure placed on a pair of fingers to make a card trick just right.
The last film in Steven Soderbergh's retirement trilogy, following Magic Mike and Haywire, Side Effects has been noted as a minor, if entertaining, work to go out on. However, Soderbergh has always been a self-consciously minor auteur: if he has a directorial signature, it consists in always embracing the informational excess of the screen at the precise moment at which he finds it. In Side Effects, that excess is more mysterious and elusive than ever before. A psychological drama revolving around the relationship between a stockbroker (Channing Tatum), his wife (Rooney Mara) and her two psychiatrists (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jude Law), it opens with a studied sombience that detaches action from intentionality: awareness, in this film, is not necessarily awareness of something. Instead, we're presented with a free-floating awareness that is not unlike Hitchcock's free-floating thought patterns, producing an odd, perceptual claustrophobia - all the spaces in the film feel more constrained than they actually are, just because of the way that Soderbergh limits how much we can be aware of them. Virtually everything about them seems curiously unregistered, unprocessed - or at least only processed by something outside human perception. It's this attention to "material non-public information" that moves the film into an insider trading drama and from there to its central psychological and narrative quandary: what does it mean to have intentions, especially murderous intentions, when we are sleepwalking? It's at this point, about a third of the way through, that it starts to feel as if Soderbergh is creating something like an aesthetic of acute parasomnia: an attempt to evoke how the world looks to a sleep-walker, or a sleep-watcher, specifically a medicated sleep-watcher. And watching it is like being medicated, not only experiencing medicine acting through you, but medicine perceiving through you; an object-oriented aesthetic, with pharmaceutics as its object. Perhaps that's why the whole film feels so warm: Soderbergh is always adept at capturing the pulse of information overload, but here it's positively circadian, conflating shooting and sheeting. Admittedly, the last part of the film is a little more conventional: there's a return to intentionality that recalls the twists that populate David Mamet's information thrillers, which the opening also recalls. Still, the film never quite wakes up - some information remains both material and non-public - and that's as much down to Rooney Mara as to Soderbergh, or at least Soderbergh's ability to tap into an elusiveness in Rooney Mara that was only glimpsed in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Hitchcock revolves around Alfred Hitchcock's personal and professional life during the production of Psycho, especially his relationships with Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johannson) and his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren). Given Hitchcock's canonisation and sedimentation as a director of psychological thrillers, there's something refreshing about the way the film recovers him as not only a director but a pioneer of horror - and, according to Sacha Gervasi's periodisation, Psycho was the moment at which this transition occurred. Although Hitchcock's films of the 60s and 70s tended to have more of a horror vibe than his earlier films - The Birds is foregrounded in the last scene - part of what distinguishes Hitchcock is the way it ascribes his horror impulses to his televisual career more than his film career: according to the film's logic, Psycho allowed Hitchcock to give himself over to horror because it arrived at the beginning of the decade in which he finally gave himself over to television. By the same token, Gervasi groups Psycho with Alfred Hitchcock Presents rather than with his cinematic filmography, perhaps explaining why Hitchcock itself has something of the flavor of a telemovie, much like the HBO telemovie The Girl, which came out around the same time, and examines the same broad period in Hitch's career. More specifically, it has the prosthetic creakiness of televisual horror - alternatively comforting and alarming, more interested in grotesquerie than suspense - and if Hitchcock's keen to canonise Hitch, it's as a director of the grotesque as much as a director of suspense. That may account for Hopkins' extraordinarily prosthetic performance, enhanced by Mirren's naturalism - it's more like attending a waxworks exhibition than witnessing a cinematic role - as well as a more general plasticity that makes every face feel made-up, every utterance draped in baroque excess. What might register, then, as a nostalgia for a certain kind of gung-ho auteurism - Hitch directs, supervises the script, edits, addresses censors, and finally funds the project - gradually feels inflected through a more contemporary sense of the possibility of television as a medium, and especially of television as a writer's medium, literally auterist, as if Gervasi were trying to envisage what Hitch might do with his own HBO show.
Quentin Tarantino's particular brand of pastiche generally revolves around characters so saturated with cinema that they're no longer aware of what's quotation and what's original utterance. So it's a bit strange, at first, to see him take on a pre-cinematic world - the pre-Civil War South, against which Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed slave, and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter, set out to save Django's wife, Broomhila (Kerry Washington) from sadistic plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his loyal house slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Nevertheless, there's an eccentric cinematic lineage at play here, since Tarantino fuses blaxploitation and the spaghetti western into a kind of middle term between the slave and the gangsta: the logic of the film is that a slave becomes a gangsta on the day that he is freed. Certainly, the whole film has a gangsta strut and swagger to it - Django rides his horse like it's an SUV - while there's a fascination with the spectacle of lashed backs, or perhaps backs that have resisted lashes, that feels like the genesis of gangsta's fascination with tattooing. That all explains the film's ambivalent relish of the word nigger, or nigga, since the film's logic also dictates that the moment African-Americans stopped being niggers, they became niggas: in a confronting scene, Tarantino presents castration as the ground zero of slavery, the worst possible punishment. By that logic, being freed becomes a kind of remasculation, a surge of machismo so unbridled and uncontainable that it destroys everything in its path, including itself. Perhaps that's why Tarantino opts for a second ending - apart from effectively containing the film's sequel within the film itself, part of a wider, serialised ambience, it means that the final standoff moves from one between slave and master to between nigga (Django) and nigger (Stephen). It's the central logic of gangsta rap: anybody who's not continually and aggressively insisting on their status as a nigga, a gangsta, a free citizen, is still just a nigger, a nonentity, a slave - and it makes for exactly the discomfort and ambivalence that gangsta rap produces, here imagined as a cinematic genre as much as a musical genre, as Tarantino draws out the spaghetti melodrama lurking beneath some of the most canonical gangsta clips. If there's any weakness, it's that Tarantino's genre recreation - and this is recreation as much as pastiche - is so plausible and immersive that it almost demands to be seen on 70s film stock; at least, there are moments when it feels a bit too denuded, empty or clear, like there should be more grit and discoloration in the print. In other words, there's a grindhouse ambience and texture that can make it seem a bit cavernous when projected in a multiplex - but, then again, this cavern is often reserved for our first glimpse of plantations, while, for the most part, Tarantino choose landscapes which are already cloistered in the gorgeous soft-and-shallow focus of the rest of his vision.
Ben Affleck's third film as director is a recreation of the events surrounding the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, specifically the strategy used by CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) to extract the six Americans sheltering within the Canadian embassy in Tehran. With the help of producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and prosthetic artist John Chambers (John Goodman), Mendez managed to extract the Americans by disguising them as Canadians working on Argo, a fake science fiction film set in the Middle East. As this might suggest, it's very much a period piece, and while there's a great deal of nostalgia for both 70s cinema and 70s culture, it moves beyond that to register something like nostalgia for a time when cinema was commensurate to terrorism. At one level, this means nostalgia for the language of B-cinema in representing terrorism: science fiction, and Star Wars in particular, is a continual touchstone. However, it also means nostalgia for a time when terrorism took place in a world driven by the logic of classical editing, continuity of space and time. As a result, Affleck absolutely fetishises the remoteness of Tehran, until it becomes nothing less than an affirmation that space and time exist in a discrete, quantifiable way, even or especially when we're forced to register their most infinitesimal increments. That makes for a film with some extraordinary, suspenseful set-pieces, but it also produces nostalgia for suspense itself as an outdated terrorist affect - perhaps because suspense is exceptional by definition, and so quite unlike the quotidian, low-level dread of post-9/11 America. It also makes for a film that's not really driven by narrative or character - the charisma of Goodman, Arkin and Bryan Cranston is entirely out of place - so much as Affleck's skill at logistically traversing, and thereby affirming the existence of, thresholds, boundaries and borders. From that perspective, it's very much of a piece with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, especially in the siege and airport sequences - and if the film has any really distinctive signature, it's in the way it pays homage to airports and air travel. Apart from the uncanniness of witnessing Americans interrogated and bullied by Middle Eastern airport officials - something that never happened to Mendez, incidentally - there's an incredible evocation of the airport itself as a science-fiction canvas, suffused with the galactic overtones of the later years of the space race. And it's when planes take off or land that Affleck moves from making a film about Argo to simply making Argo, fighting the good fight with celluloid, and introducing himself as the latest initiative in counter-terrorist auteurism: "The United States government has just sanctioned your science fiction movie."
Set in 2044, Rian Johnson's third feature revolves around an organisation of professional assassins, or 'loopers', that has emerged to deal with targets sent back from the future. As the film begins, the criminal overlords in the future are starting to 'close the loops' - that is, forcing loopers to assassinate their future selves - bringing the business of looping and time travel to an end. For the most part, time travel films are driven by the titillating representational possibilities of being present at your own death - but, in Looper, this isn't a sublime horizon so much as an economic banality, meaning that there's very little of the cerebral-temporal convolution that might be expected, especially from a scenario that was pieced together with Shane Carruth, writer-director of the most accurate, mind-bending time travel film ever made. In essence, this is because there's no real sense of the future - the narrative is not that dissimilar from The Terminator, with the exception that it's now the present invading the future, rather than the future invading the present. For the most part, the future simply feels like another corporate category, another step up the criminal ladder - and so it's unfortunate that Johnson even shows the future, or rather the future-within-the-future, however briefly. That said, there's no overwhelming sense of the present either - it's more like the present and future have been looped so many times that the film takes place in an indefinite future present, culminating the nostalgo-futuristic farmscapes that haunted 80s Midwestern pastoral. So it's questionable whether it's even a time travel film at all - at least, time travel quickly becomes something more like domestic travel, travel across time zones rather than time itself, making for an exercise in temporal regionalism, as well as an unbearable, distended present that has more in common with horror than science fiction. There's still something titillating about reaching the dates envisaged in earlier time travel films - the very fact of reaching those dates feels like an affirmation of time travel - but Johnson's brand of temporal regionalism seems designed to preclude just this species of astonishment; by literally presenting the future, it closes the loop on cinema.
The most immediately noticeable thing about Whit Stillman's first film in over ten years is that it's not set in New York City. This can make it feel a bit denuded at first, but it's what allows Stillman to draw out the project lurking beneath the surface of his acclaimed trilogy - to imbue conversation with the formalism and ceremony of dance. What little narrative exists revolves around Violet Wister's (Greta Gerwig) effort to create a new dance craze, as she leads her faithful followers around the fictional Seven Oaks university - and while there are quite a few dance interludes, these don't really feel like interludes, any more than the credit sequence feels like a credit sequence, just because Violet's new dance craze is her peculiar brand of conversation. This is as formalist as anything to be found in David Mamet or Hal Hartley, and resembles how English might sound from someone who, due to some trauma, had been forced to learn it again; English as a first and second language. Every comment feels consciously cliched, while virtually all the conversations revolve around grammar, syntax and vocabulary. Similarly, there's an incredible sense of speech being orchestrated, taking turns in a strict and specific choreography - at no point do characters speak over each other, while virtually every utterance is preceded and followed by a polite beat or pause, a heightened consciousness of decorum. In other words, it's drawn from the stilted conversations held while dancing - and, from that perspective, the characters feel like they're dancing continually, explaining a near-continual score, as well as a narrative that operates as periodic groupings and regroupings of characters, rather than in any conventionally linear way. It's the exact nexus between studied and stilted - the students certainly don't seem to study anything else - and, at its strongest, seems committed to elaborating this as an aesthetic category. Specifically, Stillman's vaselined camera, which surrounds Violet and her followers with a perpetual halo, conflates stilted and divine utterance, turns them into goddesses. You don't ultimately sense that their words lack music so much as they're possessed of a music unavailable to mortal ears - the experience of stiltedness simply becomes the moment at which we encounter the limits to our own discrimination, making for quite a natural fit with Stillman's New York trilogy, and its preoccupation with downward mobility. For all its dandyism, then, it's quite a radical film, or at least refreshingly different from every other evangelically motivating dance film of recent years; dancing as a way of remaining right where you are.
Richard Linklater's slackers exist at an odd cusp between documentary and fictional film. On the one hand, this is because so many of his original actors were simply slackers, but it's also due to his particular take on slackers as the people between people, the syntax of places and community - and, more specifically, as the smallest, most infinitesimal degree of separation that can exist between two people. In other words, the slacker isn't just a person, but a place - there's something about even his most fictionalised or disguised slackers that brings whatever corners, counters or contours they're set against into documentary relief. Whereas his films generally - and naturally - pair this with the endless Texurban sprawl, Bernie's set exclusively in rural, small-town Texas, so it takes a while to feel recognisably Linklater. Micro-community has morphed into something more like hyper-regionalism here - the film opens by parsing and describing the different regions of Texas, and moves on to one of the few court cases in American history that could only be impartially tried by relocating to the nearest small town. It all revolves around the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a funeral attendant and devotee of virtually every citizen in the small town of Carthage, especially his most imperious and demanding patron, Marge Nugent (Shirley McLaine), whom he impulsively murdered when her demands became too pronounced. Bernie's not a slacker in a conventional sense, but his ability to be everywhere at once, to accomodate every need, is the result of languor heightened and refined to such a pitch that it's positively energetic - he doesn't hurry so much as slide effortlessly from one engagement to another, making for a startling reinvention of Jack Black's body, indebted more to Fatty Arbuckle than Chris Farley, especially Fatty's peculiar combination of grace and girth; a whale gliding through water. It's languor as sexual orientation, or at least sensual orienation - and while Bernie was nominally gay, Linklater dances around the issue enough to make him feel more pansexual or asexual. Like most slackers, you sense that he's having sex all the time or never having it, streamlining it, in either case, into this queer burden to be all things to all people, a queerness that finally implodes into something like the Southern tragicomedy of Cookie's Fortune. It's also what makes the interviews with the actual inhabitants of Carthage so delightful, as they twist, contort and distend their ingenious, eccentric, Southern wisdom around the town that Bernie took with him, in the attempt to describe just what made him so lovable, so unusual.
Cosmopolis is based very closely on Don DeLillo's novella, which describes the ruminations and reflections of a 28-year old billionaire who journeys across Manhattan, in his limousine, to get a haircut. Although the screenplay's penned by Cronenberg, it's pretty much just a series of excerpts from DeLillo's novel - and, at that level, buys into a slightly tiresome exercise in the exquisite aesthetic agony of cybercapitalists, or a capitalist realist insistence that it's only the 1% who can properly philosophise and theorise how things really are. As a result, the whole film's shot through with cybercapitalist ideology - characters, or more accurately, mouthpieces, performing a series of rote, mechanical observations on their own shallowness and ideological disingenuity. At one level, this works quite well with Pattinson's adolescent self-absorption, his heightened awareness that he's delivering lines, or that he simply knows his lines. It is tedious, though, and what turns boredom into something more like a mild narcotic, is Cronenberg's response to the aesthetic challenge at the heart of DeLillo's vision - how do you represent a city, or a world, in which money has ceased to exist? At the most basic level, Cronenberg's answer is to divest the film of anything resembling absolute movement. All movement in this universe is comparative, and so most scenes are shot through with the mild queasiness of not quite being able to identify what's moving and what's not. It's movement without movement, creating a kind of distributed, pulsating luminosity that feels like capital finally catching up with abstract expressionism, specifically with Pollock and Rothko's prophecies of what capital - and New York capital - might eventually be: "money has lost its narrative, the way painting once did". But this approach is also, simply, scientifically accurate - it's just the general principle of relativity - so there really is something universal, cosmic about the film's scope, a real sense that the 1% are a new or alien species, peculiarly sensitive to the space-time continuum, and therefore capable of fusing themselves with the fabric of the universe in a terrifyingly unimaginable and unprecedented way. That means that they also fuse themselves with the fabric of the film, with its own aphoristic insularity - and, along with A Dangerous Method, it's part of Cronenberg's wider movement towards being a director of conversation - with the result that the film feels less like a depiction of a cosmopolis than an actual cosmopolis, less an exercise in generating capital than a radical, disarming attempt to simply be capital.
The Dark Knight Rises is the third and last film in Christopher Nolan's trilogy - and, like Batman Begins, there's more of a focus on Bruce Wayne than Batman, at least initially. However, the titillating incongruity between Wayne and Batman that drove Batman Begins is starting to feel like more of a straight contradiction here, as Wayne slips into aristocratic languor and decline, losing sight of his various philanthropic and social agendas. By presenting Wayne as Batman's own enemy, Nolan sets the stage for a villain who comes closer to a terrorist than any of Batman's previous nemeses - Bane (Tom Hardy). If the Joker's terror came from his intelligence, his playfulness, his lack of any discernible belief or agenda, then Bane is the very opposite - he's little more than a mouthpiece for pure, sublime, ideological conviction. Concomitantly, he has the conviction of self-sacrifice, the conviction that comes from building a terrorist spectacle so great that you're prepared to be immolated by it. It's a conviction that only comes with a degree of poverty, hardship or at least despair that Batman's never experienced, and the result is that, for a great deal of the film, Batman finds himself tortured by becoming a mere enraptured spectator to Bane's terrorist, autocratic seizure of Gotham City. Apart from the traumatic prospect of Batman without Wayne, this also makes for an interesting tweak on Nolan's particular fusion of cinematic and conceptual spectacle. If there's any thread that links Nolan's films, it's a fascination with ingenuity, intelligence and creativity raised to the level of spectacle, usually in the form of a complicated, reticulated physical system, or a mind-space in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick. At some level, though, this is also the point of terrorist spectacle - to build a tableau so sublime that it disempowers those it doesn't immediately touch with its display of ingenuity and assurance, capable of transfixing and eluding an entire city. The Dark Knight Rises, then, is Nolan's effort to raise cinema - and a classical cinematic sensibility at that - to the level of terrorist spectacle. It's in this terrorist sublime, this fascination with terrorism as the original high concept, that the film's brilliance lies, as well as its weird political fusions and affiliations, since Nolan ultimately finds a spectacular common denominator between liberal and conservative apocalyptic futures - the Gotham City of the second half alternates between how it would look if a Middle Eastern warlord annexed it as his protectorate, and the days after the Occupy Wall Street movement reach city-wide momentum; policeman walking bravely into a line of fire, Batman's own spectacular infrastructure turned against itself. As a result, the film has an incredible, spectacular urgency - shot like an extended third act, rather than the third part of a trilogy, while every utterance is heightened to some witness to ingenuity and intelligence. It's Nolan's co-option of dazzling terrorist auteurism, his insistence that he can transform cinema-going into something analogous to that first rumble, that first tremor, when you know that something momentous is on the verge of happening somewhere in your city - spectacle designed to bring a new kind of spectator into being, and a new world into being.
Kenneth Lonergan's incredible second film centres on Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a New York teenager who calibrates a horrific bus accident against every dramatic spectacle and space that New York has to offer, none of which provide catharsis. As a result, her debriefing gradually acquires and internalises all of those discarded forms and spaces, meaning that the film moves from something like the jagged, offbeat comedy of Girls to a hysterical, histrionic pitch that forces another character to remind Lisa that she's not in an opera, or surrounded by supporting characters. This criticism mistakes cause for symptom though, since what makes Lonergan's film so extraordinary is his vision of New York's dramatic culture turned inside out and eviscerated, returned to the streets it came from. In part, it's because of 9/11 - as Cohen's seminars make clear, this is the event that looms over the film, offering the definitive city-wide spectacle, one that no single space or performance within the city can hope to replicate or assuage. However, any crude allegorising is offset by the way in which these seminars simultaneously suggest that the high school classroom, and its inflamed, hormonal debates, is the last repository of proportionate dramatic responses to the crisis - it's a city in a perpetual, heightened state of "adolescent self-dramatisation". It's a bit of a weird experience to watch then, since it's a film about how film has been eclipsed - but it's not quite the post-cinematic turn of cinema contemplating its own redundancy either. Instead, Lonergan seems prescient that the only way he can allow his audience to truly inhabit the New York of his vision is to create a spectacle that makes equal sense viewed as play, film, classical music, opera or any other traditional or ceremonial spectacle - it's at their junction that New York starts to exist, and they all cease to exist. This may explain why his continual slow-motion pans and stately establishing shots feel like more than filler or lazy scene-setting - they respectively take on the quality of new musical movements and warm theatrical backdrops, shot through with stately grace and classicism. In combination with the fact that it took Lonergan around five years to negotiate and refine this three-hour cut, it deserves to be called a magnum opus and, insofar as it's understood specifically as film, makes most sense when placed in the marginal lineage of filmed opera. The difference here is that Lonergan's also written the opera he's filming - with the exception of the concluding scene from The Tales Of Hoffman, which rivals Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's adaptation in its beauty and intensity.
The initial advertising campaign for Ted, Seth MacFarlane's first feature-length effort, has been a bit elusive. It suggests that the film's going to be about how John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) tells his girlfriend Lori Collins (Mila Kunis) that his best friend is Ted, a magical talking teddybear (voiced by Seth MacFarlane). However, thanks to a brief prologue, this isn't that kind of revelation-driven narrative at all - not only does Lori know about Ted, but the whole world knows (he was a phenomenon in the 80s) and has grown tired of him, or perhaps more accurately, used to him. This is a good thing, since it means that MacFarlane can avoid two tiresome directions the film could have taken - Ted as an incongruously crude teddybear, or Ted as an embittered celebrity - and simply focus on Ted as a domestic fixture. This ties in nicely with the comic signature of Family Guy and American Dad, namely a banality that's part domestic and part professional, part middle managerial and part marital - and, with the presence of Kunis and Patrick Warburton, and the voices of MacFarlane and Patrick Stewart, we're very much in that animated universe. It'd be a simplification to say that Ted's voice is Peter Griffin's voice - it echoes virtually all the animated characters MacFarlane voices - but it's got the same comic signature, the same highly enunciated, discursive manner that attempts to give a fully articulated response to everything, no matter how outrageous or incongruous. Even the most inane of Ted's statements feels capitalised in some way, and there's a real delight in naming people, places or things - or an attempt to make every noun feel like a proper noun - that pairs hilarious content with the pedantry peculiar to a statement that's considered to be especially significant or profound. It's this ability to be continually crude, but simultaneously insist, say, on eschewing conjunctions, that really drives the film, and in particular the conversations with Mark Wahlberg, whose slight bemusement works beautifully here. If there's any weakness, it's that the arc of the film feels more suited to a television episode than an actual film - in particular, MacFarlane's efforts to translate the cutaway randomness of Family Guy into live action doesn't always work, while the final half-hour is a bit of a nauseating bid for cinematic credility. But that weakness is also a strength, since it gives the best parts of the film the situational, incidental genius of an outstanding television series, or the blueprint for an outstanding new series, suggesting that MacFarlane has a place to extend himself as Family Guy and American Dad glimpse the end of their lifespans.
It's been a while since Adam Sandler did one of his full-blown caricatures. Even Jack And Jill divided his performances between a caricature and a straight role - and, along with Jack And Jill, That's My Boy completely undoes the half-hearted tastefulness of his 00s output, especially the middle-aged soul-searching of films like Spanglish, Click and Grown-Ups. Essentially, it's a worlds-colliding narrative - Sandler is Donny, an aging slacker who crashes his son Todd's exclusive Cape Cod wedding. This slacker/corporate binary is a bit of a staple of the indie/Frat Pack cusp, and what eviscerates it in That's My Boy is that the entire Cape Cod population finds Donny - just delightful, a real pleasure to be around. While it might be a bit of a stretch to call it carnivalesque, there's something ingeniously crazy in this inversion, in the way Donny comes to stand as an arbiter of good taste and breeding, even or especially when he seems to be most violently rupturing it. It gives the film the feel of a surreal, self-annihilating party, frequented by minor Sandler regulars and other washed-up 90s Z-grade actors - and it looks like it would have been as much fun to film as to watch, even for the hordes of extras, which is effectively the role the audience is invited to assume. In earlier Sandler films there was always a tension between Sandler's bullying and sentimental sides - you sense that he'd pick on any kid below a certain age, and love any adult above a certain age. Here, those two sides are brought together, and tempered more than ever before, largely because Donny fathered Todd at the age of thirteen, meaning that Todd's both too close and too far from Donny's peer group for bullying to make sense. It's like Sandler's finally hit a bullying blindspot, revealing something inherently lovely and lovable about him which was only ever hinted at in his previous films. In keeping with this, and despite the fact that Todd was "the product of an inappropriate student-teacher relationship", the violently sensationalist edge of Sandler's earlier films is also tempered. Even when the palette extends from pedophilia to incest, there's more a sense of oblivion than transgression, the anachronism of somebody joking good-naturedly about something that they're assuming everybody else is still OK with. This may explain the slightly senile edge to Sandler's personality - and the infantile voice of Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, which this film recalls more than any Sandler film since, has somehow come full circle, gone from embodying the crotchety old side of small children to the lovable youthfulness of old people. So it fulfills Sandler's career-long drive towards quaintness - he's finally become one of the old biddies, the crazy Jewish bobeshis who guide and love his films, losing his hair but still riding a wave of hair metal bonhomie.
There's a fetishistic disparity at the heart of most American horror films about the woods. On the one hand, we're usually treated to a technological backwater or blindspot - somewhere "off the grid", as one of the teenagers in The Cabin In The Woods puts it. On the other hand, we're invariably watching that technological blindspot from a multiplex, a home theatre, an entertainment console - in other words, some kind of technological epicentre or node, snugly couched in all the communicative resources that the characters so desperately need. What produces the tension is the way the cabin, or some surrogate structure, gradually comes to be a nascent machine, or a nascent version of the very technosphere within which we're so securely watching it. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's extraordinary collaboration turns this on its head by opening with two competing narratives - a traditional, cabin-in-the-woods narrative, and a metanarrative, in which the grisly trajectories of the first narrative are monitored and mapped out by a scientific establishment. This early reveal is a risky move, since the metanarrative is not only comic, but imbued with a peculiarly banal, middle-managerial comic signature which would seem inimical to fully-fledged horror and suspense. However, not only do Goddard and Whedon beautifully present comedy as postponed horror, and banality as repressed horror, but they build the most elegant fusion of horror and comedy since Scream - and it stands in relation to cabin horror much as Scream does to suburban horror. Both films manage to remain scary even or especially when the audience knows exactly what is going to happen - or, rather, is reminded that they know - and the peculiar nature of Cabin's reminder creates something like the unsettling, pervasive dread of watching the film as part of an undisclosed experiment, or suddenly realising that the cinema is performing some kind of clinical task, that it is inhabiting us as much as we are inhabiting it. All this produces the strange, limited sense of autonomy peculiar to a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, or the behavioural economics that Goddard and Whedon's vision so astutely satirises - the logic of the film's universe is that the narrative will be different each screening, but not too different; novel, but still recognisable; game-changing, but still revelling in the same game.
The Alien saga always took Earth as its lost object, and specifically the apocalyptic possibility of the Alien someday reaching Earth. It's appropriate, then, that Ridley Scott's prequel opens on prehistoric Earth, jumps forward to future Earth, and then dovetails them into the expedition to discover why the 'Engineers' - another species of alien - both created humans and then invented the Alien itself to annihilate them. The reasons why they failed form the substance of the film, which distinguishes itself from previous films in the saga by drawing on the romantic, wondroua side of cinematic science fiction, and the scientific, classicist side of literary science fiction - for the first half at least, it's very much in keeping with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells' vision of science fiction as resolutely Earth-bound, the attempt to explore and map the deepest temporal and spatial recesses of our planet. The devolution into more recognisable horror isn't as gradated or as elegant as it could be, but it's still idiosyncratic, and Scott manages to do a lot with a script that would seem to offer him very little scope for nuance and indirection. In particular, his treatment of actual physical sets is incredible, and frequently on a par with anything in the original film, no small achievement given that they effectively retread and extend the same world. More generally, his direction is spectacular whenever it focuses on any actual physical texture - the entire narrative is set in place by a cave painting and a subsequent 3D lecture on cave art. As this might suggest, there's two distinctive uses of 3D in the film as well. On the one hand, there's the expected, cavernous deep-focus shots, but there's also a use of 3D in the service of texture as much as depth - and, in particular, surfaces which are on the verge of becoming organic, of taking on the extra dimensions of a living membrane, whether in the form of the ship's wallpaper or the new alien's odd regenerative power. Although the individual aliens themselves are fairly underwhelming, at digital odds with Scott's cold, analog sublimity, this attention to texture does mean that H.R. Giger's maelstrom of limbs and organs is envisioned in perhaps the most appropriate way possible - as a frieze, a mere frozen moment in a ongoing process of visceral metamorphosis that becomes more or less continuous with the film's main cavernous spaces. In other words, it's the closest we might get to a Giger gallery, and that tends to make the human narrative somewhat redundant, which is fortunate, since screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindehof seem to have used the existence of the Engineers as a pretext for making every human character repetitively robotic, albeit in a way that makes the only robot strangely and warmly human.
Jeff, Who Lives At Home revolves around a day in the life of Jeff (Jason Segel), a thirty-year old trapped in slacker aimlessness; Pat (Ed Helms), his brother, trapped in a failing marriage; and Sharon (Susan Sarandon), their mother, trapped in a dead-end job. This would all seem to lend itself to indie stasis - and for the first five minutes or so, it feels like this is where the film is heading - but Jay and Mark Duplass quickly inject a propulsive energy, fragile and kinetic as a paper-plane, that translates stasis into momentum, or at least discovers a different kind of stasis in momentum, as the characters find themselves moving from being unable to move to being unable to stop moving. Not only does this prevent the narrative lingering on any character or scene for long enough to become ponderous or self-absorbed, but it transforms momentum itself into a kind of epiphany that finally expands into an ecumenical, radical vision of family-as-process, as something that is never by definition complete. This all creates a unique tone, bleak around the edges but essentially buoyant, that reflects the Duplass brothers' background in mumblecore melancholy, and its peculiar fusion of flanerie and comedy. At its strongest, it's like the rhythm of a road film condensed to a single town, or even a single neighborhood - a condensation that occasionally imbues it with the sheer physical ingenuity of an action film as much as a situation comedy, somewhere between Buster Keaton's interminable, ingenious bike rides and the communal, washed-out rhythms of Richard Linklater's Slacker.
A 3D samurai film might be expected to be highly kinetic, or to viscerally include the audience in elaborate, extended swordplay and battle scenes. However, what makes Takashi Miike's remake of Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 film Harakiri so compelling is the way that it understands 3D cinema as a heightened awareness of things, rather than a straightforward extension in space - specifically the heightened awareness that results from the samurai commitment to living perpetually on the brink of death, prepared to die or commit suicide at a moment's notice. To this end, Miike favours dim, sombre compositions that, with the added dimness of 3D glasses, become positively smoky, as if the tendrils of the Netherworld are already starting to drift over the mise-en-scene, which glows with a dark luminosity. At the same time, this dimness mitigates against the arbitrary distinctions between foreground and background that fuel more spectacle-driven 3D cinema - and when these occur, they're especially jarring - instead simply subsuming 3D technology into a stately naturalism; or subsuming 3D cinema into just - cinema. This all tends to work best in the rarefied, cloistered atmosphere of the samurai court that opens the narrative, although what makes the film incredible is that it's only as the second part narrows its scope, and becomes more interior-focused, that the 3D technology becomes more compelling, just because it's more invisible. In its own way, it's the most powerful argument, to date, for why 3D cinema might overtake regular cinema, rather than just exist as an occasional, incidental spectacle - or, alternatively, a use of 3D that really understands it as the natural extension of deep focus naturalism, in which the audience isn't simply able to look at a few different planes equally, but able to look at every plane, from the most distant recesses to the subtitles, in a heightened, calligraphic contemplation.
Rampart chronicles the decline of a police officer in the notorious Rampart Division of the LAPD in the late 1990s. Although it's billed as a genre film, it's not driven by character or narrative in any conventional sense, instead opting for neorealist procedural, anchored in incidental, observational treatment of daily routine. In fact, what's powerful about the film is how unshaken this daily routine is by the swathe of accusations and allegations brought against Sergeant Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), suggesting something more intractable or inextricable than the corruption in his department, something that extends to the other characters, who rotate with the washed-out, opaque languor of an Altman cast. At this level, Oren Moverman offers something more like a portrait of LA, or a portrait of the Rampart Division as a synecdoche for LA, finding some common denominator of analog awkwardness between Homicide: Life On The Street and Cops. As Moverman harshens the sound, blurs the visuals, and generally emphasises the disjunction between them, the film gradually feels like waking up from a hangover, or breaking the surface of an over-chlorinated pool, putting the audience in the uncomfortable, if not uninteresting position of continually trying to blink something out of their eyes, or shake something out of their ears. It's in this disjunction that the film works most beautifully, as Moverman and screenwriter James Ellroy transform their particular brand of ambience into something approaching a period piece - a vision of LA on the cusp of streamlined technological integration, but, for now, jamming and spluttering like a temperamental dial-up connection.
Taking its cues from F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty's 1931 film, Tabu is split into two halves, or at least two semi-independent styles. Like the original film, it's poised on the cusp of silent and sound cinema, opening with a section that's ostensibly sound cinema, but surprisingly quiet, followed by a section that's ostensibly silent cinema, but with a surprising attention to incidental diegetic noise. The first section, which traces a cryptic, labyrinthine narrative around contemporary Portgual, draws on a peculiarly Iberian designation of surrealism as post-colonialism and is strongest when it approaches the experimental austerity of the bizarre faux-documentaries that were contemporaneous with Murnau and Flaherty, and continuous with the odder fringes of their collaboration. What little narrative this section possesses paves way for the second section, which is more difficult to describe and elusive to experience. Detailing a melancholy story of love and loss in mid-century colonial Mozambique, it's shot on grainier, semi-home-camera footage and only contains narration and incidental, ambient digeteic sound. Strictly, speaking, it isn't a silent film at all, since Miguel Gomes simply asked his actors to lip-sync, rather than blocking out their words in the editing room. Nevertheless, the effect is of silent cinema without silence - or, perhaps more accurately, an attempt to recall the peculiar mnemonic power of silent cinema rather than nostalgically replicate it in the manner of The Artist. What ensues is the very definition of saudade - a film experience that only really makes sense when distantly remembered - or a purification of the flashback to the point where the audience has to experience it as a flashback to properly sympathise with the narrator, and the whole first half of the film, which can feel like something of a dry, conceptual apparatus until some time after the entirety of the film has been watched. It's a poetic, haunting vision of the colonial and cinematic past as something that both demands and defies memory, the glissandoed path of a postcard that doesn't arrive until days, weeks, months after it's sent.