The plot of Help! is absurd and absurdly simple: An eastern cult can’t perform its sacrificial rite without a gaudy ring that, as it turns out, was sent to Ringo and is now stuck on his finger. Led by a screw-eyed Swami named Clang (Leo McKern), the cult hunts the Beatles and the ring around the globe — whenever possible, tomfoolery abounds. It’s a story made for a 20-minute cartoon, yet Director Richard Lester, in his second outing with the boys, somehow found a way to stretch it into a full 92-minute feature.
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Steve McQueen probably hated Django Unchained. Where Tarantino’s Django Unchained toyed with history’s facts to make the horrors of slavery a plot point, 12 Years a Slave is a film about a torture perpetrated on millions of black men, women and children. McQueen’s third feature isn’t interested in the audience’s comfort or catharsis, and tells a story full of vicious, hard violence and fractured souls. McQueen brings you as close as he possibly can to the horrors of antebellum slavery, not shying from bloody truths, and ultimately reminds us that far, far too often, history’s mad men and their ugly horrors go unpunished and unredressed.
Let me get this out of the way: Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony is not a well-made documentary. The assembly is a mess, the storytelling is irritatingly self-indulgent, and the film is cut with a series of animated, expository songs that look and sound a bit too much like commercials for the overpriced merch available on the documentary’s website. This is almost surely thanks to actor and Bronies chief architect John de Lancie, previously known best for his turn as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s villainous Q, and now a Brony A-lister thanks to his voicing of Discord, a My Little Pony baddie. De Lancie is omnipresent in the film as a kind of Brony guide and grand seigneur, and, despite his priggishness, is adored by the Bronies — a testament to how eager these fans are to share their joy with pretty much anybody. Still, get past the washed-up egomaniac and the lousy filmmaking, and it turns out there’s something to the Bronies.
Superficially, Her is striking because it’s entirely plausible. From the Apple-tinted future tech to the subtle revisions to fashion to the utter solitude found in a crowd, the film has a great deal to say about the near future, and the world we’re in the process of creating. And yet, Her isn’t about the science fiction. It’s not about predicting the future or scaring us straight. It is, simply, a love story in a different time than ours, with a different set of rules and the same expectations. Had he wanted to, Writer/Director Spike Jonze could have explored the futurist angle — there’s ample evidence that he designed his world far past what was necessary for the story he’s telling — but that’s not where his interests as a storyteller lie. They lie with people, and the connections between people, and the unexplored places to which these connections can take us.
There are a lot of compelling ideas in Only God Forgives — not enough to make it a good film, but certainly enough to make it interesting. When you put it next to Drive, Only God Forgives becomes an opiated chapter in Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Machismo Fables, with Ryan Gosling’s maddeningly stoic anti-hero (known here as Julian; in Drive as simply Driver) at the center. As with his other films, Refn considers the power of violence, and like Drive he explores the lengths to which a man will go for a woman — even a hellish virago of a mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. In general, these subtexts seem relevant more for their cultural antiquity than their place in modern culture, and I suppose there’s something to be said for the tenacity of Refn’s thematic exploration, but the utter torpor found in so much of Only God Forgives makes its 89 minutes feel interminable. There’s a viciously sharp performance by Vithaya Pansringarm as the film’s chilling Chang, and certainly Refn’s films always deliver stylistically — this is the most beautifully shot film I’ve watched in months — but his lack of balance is quickly relegating him to a style-over-substance storyteller.
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This is what success looks like now: 24-hour cocaine use, stripper parades, helicopters on yachts, quaaludes quaaludes quaaludes, tiers of high-priced prostitutes, European families flying your millions in their carry-ons to stash in Swiss banks, and other general excesses. Or more accurately, these are the accoutrement of a successful person. And the mantra of success is simple: “I deserve everything and I go first.” Jordan Belfort (played with contagious glee by Leonardo DiCaprio) articulated this in his autobiographical The Wolf of Wall Street, and Martin Scorsese has verified it in his three-hour epic of the same name.
Is there anything more fundamental than the quest for companionship? How many choices in life have you made because they kept you closer to a person you loved? Having a partner is a beautiful thing, ultimately, but it can also be a hard, confusing, terrible thing, and that’s what Frances Ha is about most of the time; the hard stuff often borne in a partnership (or lack thereof) that, if you can bear it long enough, will raise you up and make you better.
If you were to name the five chief motivations for making a film, it seems inevitable that “showing people the formerly unseen” would be in the mix. And with the profusion of new technology in film, this desire to create from imagination tends to result in pure fantasy; characters and places that are, for all intents and purposes, impossible. Not that I’m complaining. This trend has led to a golden era of fantasy film, and a collection of worlds most of us would give a kidney to visit. What have been neglected are the films intent on revealing not just the astonishing, but the astonishingly real. Gravity is one. It endeavors to show us a world that exists a hundred miles straight up, where you and I will never go. A world where our textbook understanding means little, and death and beauty are braided together, indistinguishably linked.
Two weeks ago, three teens shot a 22-year-old man in the back and killed him. They said they did it because they were bored. One week ago, a pair of teens beat an 88-year-old war veteran to death for the money in his pockets, of which there was, presumably, not much. There are good people and there are bad people, and often age has little to do with where each of us falls on that spectrum. Yet there is something especially disturbing about a young person committing atrocities. It’s important to us that youth equate to innocence or naiveté, that young people stay young, and nothing evaporates innocence like taking a life. Harmony Korine understands this relationship our community has with its young people, and plays with it liberally in Spring Breakers.
Setting a film in the future is tricky. You can have fun with it and create eye-popping visuals unconcerned with authenticity, or you can try to build a convincing projection of the world we live in now. What you should avoid is landing somewhere in the middle, as Neill Blomkamp has in Elysium. Certainly pieces of Elysium‘s world feel possible, like the disconcertingly ubiquitous biotechnology; some of it even probable, like the bastardized mélange of languages or the lack of paying work in an overpopulated world. But between the magical healing tubes, the utterly structureless society, and the absurd lack of humanity in damn near every character, Blomkamp’s follow-up to 2009’s slick District 9 spends far too much of its screen time asking you to meet it halfway.