Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard. Directed by Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Marie Milburn. This is a documentary that desperately needed to be made, and I’m so glad that it was. Rowland S. Howard, one of Australia’s most colorful rock-and-roll characters, was – and continues to be – an icon whose thirty-plus years in music led to the creation of what I consider some of the greatest songs in rock history. To paraphrase his frequent collaborator and co-conspirator, Nick Cave, from one of the many talking head segments: you know from the first two notes that it is Howard who is playing the guitar. That was perhaps never more obvious than with the Boys Next Door song “Shivers,” a song that morphed from Howard’s originally sarcastic punk mockery of love songs into the ne plus ultra of tragic-teen ballads, possibly “the closest approximation we may ever get to the slow dance at a prom in Hell,” as PopMatters writer Maria Schurr once wrote. But even though that particular cult hit was considered a defining moment for Howard, he went on to do so much more in his career. Some parts of Autoluminescent are ponderously paced – a little too much time spent musing on why “Shivers” should not have been sung by Nick Cave when the Boys Next Door recorded the song, for example – and I’m not sure that all of the film’s moody shots of stray cats and cemeteries are necessary, even though the images provide a fitting backdrop for J.P. Shilo’s voiceovers of passages from Howard’s unpublished manuscript, Etceteracide. Towards the end the film gets emotional, but never maudlin, although the filmmakers include some heartbreaking scenes of Howard in the hospital near the end of his life. The entire documentary is a must-see both for longtime fans of RSH and for those who have yet to be formally introduced to the oeuvre of this complex and otherworldly musician extraordinaire. If this film encourages you to try out the wildness of the Birthday Party’s Prayers on Fire, to watch Crime & the City Solution perform in Wim Wenders’ romantic fantasy Wings of Desire, to check out These Immortal Souls’ brief but brilliant output or to discover the two richly textured solo albums that Howard made in his last decade (this 1999 TV appearance might be a good starting point for his solo work), then therein lies the film’s greatest accomplishment.
Captain America: The First Avenger. Directed by Joe Johnston. This Marvel actioner features good, if unremarkable, acting by Chris Evans as the title superhero whose body and life are genetically modified to turn him from a short, skinny underdog into a muscular demigod. The rest of the cast, which has a nicely varied mix of veterans and up-and-comers, includes Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Richard Armitage, Stanley Tucci, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Kenneth Choi, JJ Feild (ah, that marvelously plummy voice!) and Natalie Dormer. The movie suffers when Evans romances leading lady Hayley Atwell, an actress who is pretty but unaffecting in her role. Nevertheless, the film’s costumes, designed by Anna B. Sheppard, are quite nice, so at least Atwell and the other cast members are always good to look at. This first “Cap” film isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but it was necessary viewing since I was then able to move onto the franchise’s 2014 sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which co-stars an amusingly scenery-chewing Robert Redford as the chief villain.
Carnage. Directed by Roman Polanski. There are some clever lines here and there in Carnage, but ultimately this “comedy” does not hold a candle to the other Roman Polanski films I have seen: Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974) and The Pianist (2002), although like the first two films, Carnage is restricted to the claustrophobic confines of a single apartment. The four mega-watt stars – Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly – strain to turn the narrative into something worthwhile and cinematic but the dialogue, which Polanski and Yasmina Reza adapted from Reza’s play, is critically injured by its too-theatrical style. The lines display the sound of a playwright more invested in big words than in realism. Pawel Edelman’s camerawork is good and the actors do plenty of stentorian emoting – and Kate Winslet displays some impressive vomiting and burping – but I was glad when the movie was over. It’s worth seeing once, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to see it again. It’s just too draining.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Directed by Brad Bird. Is it weird that this is my favorite Mission: Impossible of the series, rather than the Brian De Palma-directed first installment of the rebooted franchise from 1996? I wish so, so hard that I had seen it in IMAX because the Burj Khalifa climbing scene is amazing. Beyond the physical component in the stunt work, Tom Cruise does some of his best acting I’ve seen from him in M:I4, particularly in the poignant ending scene in Seattle with a certain character from his character, Ethan Hunt’s, past. I enjoyed the team of Jeremy Renner (unexpectedly funny, especially in the scene when he’s about to jump into the “oven”), Simon Pegg and Paula Patton, and while Michael Nyqvist didn’t have quite as much to do as the villain as I’d hoped, he was still pretty effective. I also enjoyed the supporting roles played by Anil Kapoor, Léa Seydoux, Josh Holloway (such as it was) and Miraj Grbic (really funny as Ethan Hunt’s prison friend Bogdan). As is often the case in an M:I film, the plot loses coherence very quickly, but so long as the action stays entertaining and exciting, I’m all for it. I thought Brad Bird did a very good job directing, especially since this was his first live-action film. You also get cinematography from Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), so the whole film looks even better than usual from a photographic point of view. Thumbs up from me!
Unknown. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Like Non-Stop (2014) and Run All Night (2015), two other collaborations between director Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson, Unknown is an entertaining thriller that only asks for you to shut your brain off in order to enjoy it. Neeson does his resolute tough hero thing, which is always great (especially here because he’s battling amnesia and there’s probably nothing tougher than trying to beat up the bad guys when you know neither them nor yourself), but the really admirable performance in the film belongs to Bruno Ganz as an ex-Stasi detective who does what he can to aid Neeson. Blonde iceberg January Jones, however, is 100% terrible in her performance as Neeson’s wife, while Diane Kruger is passable but bland as an immigrant taxi driver who is forced to tag along with Neeson as he attempts to reclaim his identity. Are the actresses at fault or is the screenplay the bigger issue? Aidan Quinn is, like Jones, a boring villain and Frank Langella does OK in his few scenes as Neeson’s coworker and mentor, but neither man is given a well-written role. Sebastian Koch is sort of good as a German professor of bioengineering, though, a man who is one of the few unquestionably likeable characters in the film. If nothing else, the film is worth seeing for Ganz’s scenes. And I like to think that the shot in the opening credits, an aerial view of the Berlin Victory Column, served as a nod to Ganz’s role in the German film Wings of Desire (1987) as much as being a basic establishing shot for the city at the beginning of the film.