Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Catching Up on 2011: Twists and Turns Edition

In Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, Thomas Dekker stars as a college student who harbors a crush on his dumb surfer roommate (Chris Zylka).  He - Dekker, not the roommate - is a troubled guy, trying to figure out who he is and find his place in the world. Chowing down in the cafeteria, he confides in his best friend (Haley Bennett). They chat about the usual college topics: relationships and classes. Their rapport has a lived-in chemistry. They have fun being with each other and, consequently, they’re fun to watch. Around this little R-rated collegiate comedy spins an increasingly paranoid frenzy of plot that includes missing persons, a jealous lesbian witch (Roxane Mesquida), people in animal masks, a flirty party girl (Juno Temple), a doomsday cult, a pot-fueled prophet (James Duval), and the End of the World. It’s a fevered concoction, like a messy, madly uneven collaboration between David Lynch, Richard Kelly, and Diablo Cody. It’s also distinctly Araki, harkening back to the mix of tactile sensual imagery and commitment to heightened cartoonish grotesquery that he was deploying early in his career in wild, scattershot efforts like 1995’s The Doom Generation. He’s dialed back the intensity in the interim and, though it shares the DNA, Kaboom benefits from Araki’s more mature, experienced eye. The film’s no less of a mess, but it feels significantly more considered in its choices, a kind of careful craziness, a kind of tidy disorder to be found. It’s a sexy, vibrant jumble of weirdness and hilarity that is uneven but entertaining right up until its rushed climax that sucks the fun out of it all. To a certain extent, this feels like a deeply strange, very funny, sometimes creepy, often brilliant TV show with one or two seasons shoved into 80 minutes. With a complicated narrative structure of interwoven and overlapping hallucinations, amorous fantasies, drug trips, and bad dreams that culminates (spoiler!) in a literal apocalyptic explosion, the film keeps Dekker at the center, grounding it all. On a plot level it may be crazy and unsatisfying, but the metaphor rings true. To searching college kids floating around in hormonal ennui, the stakes of self-discovery can seem downright cataclysmic in proportions. 

A sturdy ensemble anchors The Lincoln Lawyer, a fairly standard legal thriller, the kind with twists that are only surprising to someone who has never experienced a legal thriller of any kind, not even an episode of Law & Order or a thick, forgettable airport novel. The script from John Romano, from a novel by Michael Connelly, gives Matthew McConaughey a rare suitable role that finds a way to channel his default sleaziness into an actual character. He’s an L.A. defense attorney working out of his car when he’s hired by a rich guy (Ryan Phillippe) who needs to beat an assault charge. The problem is that McConaughey begins to have good reason to think that his client really did brutally beat a prostitute and feels sick about defending him. He thinks his way through the criminal justice system, trying to alternately outwit and work with prosecutors (Marisa Tomei and Josh Lucas), cops (John Leguizamo and Bryan Cranston), an investigator (William H. Macy), and an inmate (Michael Peña). It’s all a slick bore. Now, this might sound like nitpicking, but the thing that most bugged me about this mediocre entertainment were the wobbly little zooms that director Brad Furman would drop into scenes for no apparent reason. A standard dialogue scene would be humming right along and then, zoom, we zip a little closer to the person talking. Sometimes, the zoom would take us back a few inches, just to mix things up. While I’ll admit that it’s definitely a minor stylistic tick and certainly not one that pervades every scene, it’s also indicative of a larger failing of Furman’s. This is a film that feels as if it’s breathlessly trying to become a better movie, but just can’t make it. Every little tick in the style just struck me as an empty gesture, a failed attempt to make the uninteresting interesting.

Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue, handsome and clean-cut in a way that invites easy empathy) is a young man who leaves the family business, a mortuary run by his father (Rutger Hauer), to attend seminary school. Flash forward to just before he is scheduled to become a priest. He’s lost his faith. He’s not sure he believes in God anymore, even (or is that especially?) when he witnesses a freak accident and kneels over a dying woman, reluctantly giving her the last rites. The head of his program (Toby Jones) asks him to reconsider his decision to abandon the church and gets him to agree to a trip to Rome where he will enroll in a class for exorcism training from the esteemed Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds). Once there, he finds he still has his doubts. Aren’t the possessed simply mentally ill? He’s taken under the wing of a grave master exorcist (crinkled, latter-day Anthony Hopkins) and finds much to test his doubt. This is Mikael Håfström’s The Rite, which screenwriter Michael Petroni claims, in line with a dubious horror tradition, to be suggested by a true story. It coasts a bit too far on its easy pop-psychological pseudo-religious conflict, but has such a tremendously oppressive sense of somber, suffocating Catholic dread that I couldn’t help but be jangled about. The actors are fantastic all, matching the film’s earnestness and solemnity. It’s an essentially standard paranormal creeper, in many ways just shiny trash, but the deathly unsmiling tone of the film, matched with the high production value, especially the sleek cinematography from Ben Davis who photographs Vatican City in gorgeous, ominous ways, creates a tone of overwhelming skin-crawling danger. I fell into the film’s mood, matching its earnest approach with an unexpectedly earnest response. There’s a creeping sense of an invisible, evil spiritual threat that set my teeth grinding and my feet bouncing. It worked on me. Handsomely mounted and scarily serious, the film’s an effective freak-out.

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