Dec 31, 2012

Catching Up: Oscar Hopefuls Edition

Quentin Tarantino's cameos in his own films are like signposts along the paths he's forged, their narrative and thematic functionality frequently overlooked amidst quips about his performance skills, excessive language, etc. His brief third act turn in Django Unchained might be his most obviously symbolic yet, a microcosmic reflection of a work that suggests someone brave or foolish enough (or both) to charge into a hellfire with dynamite strapped to their back. The absence of longtime editor Sally Menke is felt in this film's untamed sprawl and reinforced by a permeating melancholy; despite the anachronistic energy, cartoonish flourishes and brazen subversion of institutionalized dehumanization ("You want I should treat 'em like white folk?" "No, not like white folk."), this strikes me above all as a remarkably sad, boldly confessional picture, all the more remarkable for Quentin's restraint amidst material easily pushed over the line of taste. Jamie Foxx's titular slave-turned-bounty hunter rages (with glorious crimson strokes) against his captors but the scars (of whips, brands, and friends lost) remain, rendering his triumphs against the pre-Civil War establishment dubious at best. Impulsive choices (dialogue, in particular, feels less hyperbolic here than we've come to expect from this most conscious of writers) feel both mythic and lived-in, the film's relative imperfections complicating the knotty emotions of someone fully aware of their own creative and social privileges as a historical outsider. The trade-off is for something even greater than the sum of its parts, and what could in hindsight prove the most important contribution of an artist equal parts heralded and misunderstood.

A thousand thank yous to Robert Zemeckis for showcasing a most terrifying (near) mass death sequence without a shred of the pornographic destruction or contempt of life that routinely infects the supposed entertainments of the multiplex, but one would be foolish to expect anything less from one of our great humanitarian mainstream artists. The first live-action film Zemeckis has helmed in the twelve years since Cast Away, Flight suggests the finely tuned studio work of Frank Capra or Jack Arnold, the material both blatant yet deep (the film's stairway conversation is a miniature masterpiece), the narrative structurally obvious on the page but raw and pulsating on the screen. A fortuitous convergence of events sees alcoholic/drug addicted vet pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington, alternately buried and on air, and leviathan at both) saving the doomed passengers of a malfunctioning jet, minus six, his lucid state the likely reason for his collected defiance of certain death, yet a professional and personal offense now inevitably confronted. What follows is a character drama fueled by devastating introspection: into addiction, into ego, into fear of death and life. Certain elements of this film hit close enough to home that I should confess a likely bias (the couple sitting nearest to me at a packed screening seemed disturbed by my persistent weeping), but we and our loved ones all must go sooner or later, and Flight's much-criticized turning point seems to me both natural and earned, for how else can we judge ourselves than by how we live up to those who passed before us? One of the great studio pictures of the year, and another reason to consider Zemeckis a major player.

Hitchcock is relatively inoffensive if you consider it the inevitable feel-good runoff of the zeitgeist shift that displaced Citizen Kane with Vertigo on the Sight & Sound list earlier this year. Whatever the reason I don't hate the film like my cohorts mostly do (likely the fact that I've worked as a projectionist showing it the better part of a month; disposable as it is, it plays well with audiences, an achievement that's undeniably infectious), it's still an essentially useless consideration of the infamous director save for the few to whom it will introduce his body of work, otherwise amounting to little more than an adept dramatization of a few pages' worth of IMDb trivia. If you haven't seen Psycho, the making of which is explored herein, the factoids will be mostly lost on you, and despite the intolerably pronounced theatrics of the cast (as the titular Hitch (hold the cock), Anthony Hopkins spends too much time on a synthetic identity crisis to show us how interesting the man really was; he flashes a nasty smirk at the climax I'd liked to have seen more of), inane Psychology 101 visions and snarky historical perspective ("Let alone to flush one!"), I appreciated that the film in question is never itself glimpsed, only the reactions to such. (Yes, that sentence went on too long; final side note: how the hell did they pass up the opportunity to show off the giant shower head?) That's more likely the result of a copyright issue than a creative choice, but then, assuming the latter, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

To get lost in the rhapsody of Schönberg/Boublil/Kretzmer's world famous musical, here, I'd have to overlook almost all of Tom Hooper's Les Misérables' visual qualities, at which point we'd no longer be talking about cinema, which is not to suggest that it should qualify as such in the first place. Feeling like one is suffering a migraine that will ultimately lead to blindness isn't my ideal approach to experiencing something attempting uplift and affirmation, and so this lavish production mostly embarrasses itself to these violated eyes. The choice to record the fifty-some songs live on the set, allowing for greater spontaneity and depth of performance, pays off only insofar as the cast is occasionally able to sign and act simultaneously (your mileage will vary depending on how much of the cast seems like they're mistakenly auditioning for Saturday Night Live). Little of that matters given Hooper's astonishingly inept technical handling: not merely fourth-wall breaking and emotionally overbearing, his roving, impatient camerawork feels like a drawn-out implosion of time and space, snippets of footage so randomly and haphazardly assembled as to approach a dadaist fever pitch if there were any sense of purpose behind it. Altogether, I'd doubt if it contained ten minutes of legitimate human emotion, no small achievement for a film with the singing talents of Hugh Jackman in the lead. (I prefer Sally Field's work in Lincoln but Ms. Hathaway arguably deserves and is surely overdue for the Oscar she'll garner for her lightning rod single take solo, about to become the most watched sequence since the Zapruder film.) My pity goes out to the craftsmanship and thesping talent that sank into this trench, and the millions of hours that will be wasted on it. The King's Speech wasn't my cup of tea by any stretch, but 2010's Oscar winning flake seems positively mountainous compared to this whimpering black hole. Fosse wept.

James Bond looks both forward and back in Skyfall, a triumphant return to competent action filmmaking (and then some) after the visually inept/atrociously scripted Quantum of Solace. If I don't quite prefer this fiftieth anniversary's love letter to its predecessors to Casino Royale's furiously self-reflexive genre deconstruction, so be it; these two high water marks have more in common than not, and both evidence the fact that Daniel Craig's line readings are never better than when he's tied to a chair. The stereotypes and trademarks are mostly in place here sans regressive offense (with no proper Bond girl in her way, Judi Dench's M is as prevalent and dynamic as Bond himself), but from the not-unjustified vengeance of Javier Bardem's nightmarish villain (shades, naturally, of Anton Chigurh, and an entrance that might be the single best piece of acting the series has ever witnessed) to the avoidance of field work by an old friend, what propels this grisly chapter is the characters' keen sense of agency (minus one exception that's fitfully disturbing). Bond's self-devouring manhood is both gift and curse, and from the soulful murmurs of Adele's powerhouse theme song to the countless lethal blows 007 deals and nearly suffers, Skyfall especially kicks ass in suggesting that it's far cooler to be tortured and resourceful than brash and destructive. It's also damn beautiful to look at, especially the elevator/skyscraper sequence. As self-aware milestones go, there's few comparisons. A great action film by Sam Mendes – who knew?

Dec 20, 2012

Girl Walk // All Day

In an effort to try to make this space more along the lines of a real blog, I decided it's time to share more stuff. Those who caught Slant's 25 Best Films of 2012 might have noticed our endorsement of Girl Walk // All Day, one of my favorite films of the year. It's available for free viewing through its official web site, albeit a chapter at a time. Click through the picture above of the exhuberant Anne Marsen to experience it.

Dec 17, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Peter Jackson's talent gets the better of him in An Unexpected Journey, the first film in a planned trilogy adaptation of The Hobbit culled not only from the Tolkein book of the same name but other stories and appendices within his Lord of the Rings literary universe. Beginning approximately 60 years prior to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit tells the story of a reclusive halfling, Bilbo Baggins (a game Martin Freeman, filling in as the young counterpart to Ian Holm), who is whisked away from his earthy Shire to assist a band of dwarves in reclaiming their home from the dragon Smaug, during which time he will encounter the deranged Gollum (Andy Serkis, barely rising above shtick) and the "precious" ring in which a terrible power lies dormant. The jury is still out on whether the late decision to expand an initially planned two film arc into three sprang genuinely from creative urges in the editing room or mere financial whims, but it's hard to not be cynical about the coming features after this underwhelming and obviously plotted first chapter.

The fact that Jackson continues to make this kind of epic filmmaking look easy compounds the feeling that the air's gone out of the balloon on this one, as no quantity of signature landscape shots, trademark Howard Shore music cues or overemphatic nods to characters and events already established in earlier films can compensate for the obviousness of story and dearth of feeling – a bizarre failure for a film that affords itself so much time to cover so little ground. After a promising introduction, the film sets its ducks in a row (the initial scenes with the dwarves are a leisurely high point) before settling in for the long haul, at which point An Unexpected Journey's undercooked narrative – complete with unsubstantiated personal conflicts, thinly rendered characterizations, and viscerally deprived battle sequences – begins to fall to pieces, floundering from setpiece to unjustified setpiece with distressingly little attention paid to narrative friction or subtext. Perhaps ten minutes of inspired imagery could be culled together from this material; compare it to any other ten minutes' worth of what Jackson's done with this world before, and the stark decline in quality control is embarrassing to behold. Butter spread over too much bread, Bilbo might say.

That An Unexpected Journey is more competently made than your average tentpole blockbuster only underscores what a hollow affair it adds up to, and one that borders on odious when it repeatedly acknowledges the sterling footsteps it treads upon. The Lord of the Rings trilogy earned its nine-hour-plus running time by virtue of an exquisitely articulated world in spiritual crisis and the filmmakers' genuinely epic heft (to say nothing of the groundbreaking technical achievements that this prequel fails to sufficiently utilize, opting for less miniature and makeup work and more overly polished CGI), while the effort An Unexpected Journey puts into replicating this effect smacks of being at odds with the more kid-friendly, streamlined source material at hand. Tone-deaf and rhythmically deprived, An Unexpected Journey is a concession to many things: technology for its own sake (I saw the film in standard 24 frames per second 3D, already a waste), audience expectations, fanboy culture, and quite likely both greed and good taste. The magic is gone, replaced with telegraphed gestures and protracted bombast, the offenses of which culminate in a series of third-act contrivances and convenient resolutions so far removed from the baited cliffhangers and lovely denouements of its predecessors that the fact that many of the same creative minds are responsible strikes one as being more fantastical than anything in the film itself.

Dec 15, 2012

Favorites and lists and things

I've been less active on this blog than I'd prefer for many months now (such is overworked adult life vs. the joys of unpaid criticism), but it didn't dawn on me how much I'd let things slide until I realized I hadn't even provided linkage to the long-in-the-works Best of the 1990s list I spent several hundred hours researching over the course of the last year or so for Slant Magazine.

Clicking through the photo of Nomi Malone (of the inimitable Showgirls, my #2 choice for the decade, yes, I'm serious) will take you to that feature, while Freddy Quell, below, will see you to our more recently published Best of 2012 poll, the first of Slant's yearly features I've had the privilege of contributing to. I wrote some words on Lincoln. (And for what it's worth, both Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained were sadly amongst my blind spots at the time my vote was submitted.)

Write-ups at #93, 80, 69, 63, 39, 25 and 10.

Nov 26, 2012

Ten favorites (the best of 2012, so far)

As I begin to lose my mind over the next two weeks catching up on as many films as possible, here is the cream that has to date risen to the top. If you're wondering why a certain title I've professed to love isn't here, let that indicate just how good this year has been so far. With new films by Kathryn Bigelow and Quentin Tarantino and Peter Jackson, among others, just around the corner, I can barely contain my excitement.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (dir. Panos Cosmatos)

The Deep Blue Sea (dir. Terence Davies)

Dredd (dir. Pete Travis)

The Innkeepers (dir. Ti West)

The Kid with a Bike (dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)

Killer Joe (dir. William Friedkin)

Lincoln (dir. Steven Spielberg)

The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Moonrise Kingdom (dir. Wes Anderson)

This Is Not a Film (dir. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi)

Politics, when the lights go down

Those who know me well can confirm that I'm by nature averse to conflict, and if I had to make a list of my biggest character flaws, it would be a guaranteed contender for number one. It's a reflex that roots itself in all manner of circumstance to nearly equal disastrous effect. Trying to look inside oneself and discover where one's behavioral traits come from is to get lost in the vortex of memories, nurture, and nature, and more, and through much I've learned (mostly recently, and perhaps only through negative reinforcement) that too much self-awareness is usually a bad thing and the only way to progress, sometimes, is to do exactly what you absolutely do not want to do, however you were raised be damned. Passive aggression is like a bad drug from which one only experiences withdrawal, and in my life experience, the majority of the people who are victim to it are the ones who needn't be so apologetic in the first place. Simply put, we're too fucking nice, which has a way of being cruel in the long run. I've a ways to go yet as far as my own standards and expectations are concerned, but it's already been a most empowering thing to kick obsessive self-effation to the curb.

Which is a very long-winded way of introducing the topic of dealing with rude people in movie theaters. These kinds of folks weren't unbeknownst to me growing up, when I certainly went to the movies less but still with regular frequency, but as of late (say, the past three or four years) has been reaching nearly epidemic levels. There remains guilt for a few of my offenses: the cell phone I forgot to turn off before The King's Speech, the outward mocking of films I felt deserved such intrusions, etc. Although I'm not yet old enough to be considered a worthy applicant for the title of Film Critic by a certain New York writer who himself aspires to the rank of the gadfly, I feel much older, and yet my eyes are open and I cannot simply chalk this up to the younger generations, although a significant chunk of the pie chart they almost certainly compromise.

Need I even mention the rise of cell phones, what with those evil little screens popping up during everything from Skyfall to the one-day rerelease of The Godfather. I can't pretend to have been perfect in this, or nearly any other, regard, but I make it a point to either step out if my phone beckons or reach far enough under an adjacent seat so as to extinguish the glow from patrons behind me, even if it's just a matter of checking the time. Lax theater owners who tolerate this nonsense because, well, they depend on priveledged (or financially shortsighted) kids to pay the bills and haven't thus far minded (or minded enough) their scaring away of other demographics should also be held accountable. I'm not intending on exploring this topic for ultimate causes and solutions; I'm just trying to justify the broad conclusion that there seem to be more assholes in the world now than a few years ago without seeming like one myself.

The latest example of this rampant assholism came this past Saturday evening at a 10:20 pm showing of Lincoln, my second time seeing the film, currently in the running as my favorite in a very competitive year. My brother Alex, who had not seen it yet, was along for the ride. For whatever reason, I was not excessively bothered by the frequent, semi-hushed chatters taking place a row down from us on the opposite side of the moderately sized theater, but I was rather persistently aware of them (and they effect they were having on my brother) enough to both regret not saying anything about it up front and appreciate the theater employee who came in to re-announce the no cell phone/talking policy about halfway through the film, with reassurance that offenders would be escorted out. For most of the rest of the duration of the film, they as-of-yet-unseen offenders stayed within the lines of acceptable theater behavior. Most.

As I've discussed in the past, the end of a movie is usually the best part, or most important, and especially so in a good one, and the final five or six minutes of Lincoln is already very close to my heart. And so it was with volcanic heat that my rage escalated as the same pair of ignoramuses began talking, quite constantly and almost casually and with no awareness or consideration of their surroundings whatsoever during those final five or six minutes, and during which time my brother was noticably distracted. When the film was over and the credits were rolling, we looked at each other, and then at them, like velociraptors might silently communicate whilst planning an attack. What follows is a recreation of the exchange that followed. As you read this, imagine the offenders in question as pudgy forty or fiftysomethings who might give Hobbits a bad name by mere association (the lights were still dimmed so I didn't get a closer reading on their features). Minus my initiating comments and the small chorus of praise, this series of events was relayed to me by my brother, though I overheard bits and pieces.
Me (across about fifteen feet and so the bulk of the auditorium could hear): Next time stay at home in front of the stupid box if you can't keep you mouth shut.

Several other people throughout the theater: Agreed! Yes! Thank you!

Male sub-Hobbit: Fuck you. (Or some derivative.)

Alex: Excuse me?

Male sub-Hobbit: You're excused.

Alex: No, excuse me, because I'm his brother and I feel the same way.

Male sub-Hobbit: You probably voted for Obama.
I suppose it bears mentioning that, while typing this at the public library, someone's cell phone not only went off, but they answered it, with zero response from the librarians on duty, despite it being expressly forbidden. Like the three offenders at a recent screening of Trouble with the Curve, this person was also elderly. This reinforces my developing thesis that perhaps it isn't just a greater abundance of assholes, but the greater tolerance of their behavior. I'm very much liberal (go figure), and usually willing to give people the benefit of the doubt and second and third chances and whatnot, but this is not a step in the right direction.

I'm don't even want to begin unpacking the brainless political jab this doofus managed to come up with (see the Season 1 episode of Louie, "Bully," for a similarly simpleminded partisan association), as I'll have to first get into the disgrace that is our current two party system before all manner of basic courteosy and etiquette that should smack of common sense to, I hope, the majority of people reading this. The fact that this absurd exchange took place during a film about a master of public and political relations underscores a certain elegant brutality in the whole affair.

The conscious effort to engage conflict has been a positive force in my life of late, although not always. A close friend of mine who thought I wouldn't mind her friends talking during a late-night showing of Dracula (a movie I'm not even particularly fond of) was taken aback when I essentially lost it after the screening (I'm amazed I didn't swear, although I did say that I wanted to - not that I would - punch the primary offender in the mouth), the experience not much aided by the fact that I loathed her best friend from the first time I met her and thus found her infantile quips and impatient foot tapping and scab-picking all the more infuriating for interrupting a movie that depends on silence to work at all. Similarly, I probably overreacted when I yelled at the young girl (and her enabling mother) who was on her cell phone throughout, and then constantly during the last few minutes, of Titanic (which I'd never seen theatrically before its 3D re-release), or the enabling father who allowed his daughter to use her phone throughout most of The Wizard of Oz, etc. But I remain convinced it's better than not reacting at all.

Nov 12, 2012

Miami Connection

Call it a guilty pleasure, but the combination of awkward line readings, histrionic dialogue, vague plotting, nonsensical montages, feverishly choreographed action sequences, garish makeup, and obviously lip-synched musical numbers quickly finds a unique rhythm and energy that manages to bypass typical action-movie expectations (even those for Hollywood trash) and instead delivers something far more personable, almost abstract in nature, embracing the absurd with infectious sincerity.

Oct 23, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011): B-

If I had reviewed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel after my first viewing of the film, it'd have been mostly a hostile defense against the audience with which I experienced it. The good-natured charms of seeing the uprooted elderly as if they young again were rendered insufferable in the midst of an audience that was likely 2/3 homophobic (judging from what they laughed at, and how), and a streamlined interpretation of a Robert Altman web of characters didn’t help matters to say the least. Shaking the experience off, I later found an admittedly somewhat glib but infectiously earnest crowd-pleaser about the virtues of acceptance, getting old and acting on the impulses of love. Sincerity and heart overcome the film’s generally wanting artistry (John Madden seems to work well with actors, but I can’t help but wonder about his competence elsewhere), and if it’s portrayal of indigenous archetypes is seen as more widely offensive than this relatively privileged white guy is capable of discerning, I would offer as evidence to an absence of malice the frequency with which the script reinforces the notion that it’s the foreigners who are out of line, despite how frustrating it is to see the talented Dev Patel straining against the chains of typecasting. The sunshiny screenplay is tidier than this kind of wide-net storytelling can usually get away with, but then, rare is the film that manages the same with horny, dancing old men. The cast (a virtually greatest hits of modern British talent) elevates the proceedings more than they likely deserve, but even at its most arm-twistingly obvious, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ultimately ended up leaving me somewhere close to smitten. It’s affecting, like something you can cuddle up to, even if you forget all about it later on.

Jul 31, 2012

Ted (2012)

The foul mouth of a boozing, smoking, purportedly all-things-unprintable Teddy bear come to unnatural life is an effort at R-rated boundary pushing whose success or failure is likely to fall in line with individual viewers' opinions concerning whether or not creator Seth MacFarlane's commercially successful television show Family Guy should have been renewed after its initial cancellation. Although not without moments of inspiration and, arguably, comedic genius (Wallace Shawn's cameo in "Sibling Rivalry" comes to mind), the increasingly diminishing returns of that series are also evident in this poor attempt at subversive raunch, one most frequently defeated by an insistence on meaningless hot topics references and outright nasty cultural Easter eggs, few of which suggest that anything other than opportunistic nihilism is driving the proceedings' annoyingly insistent "look at me!" pandering. Only a protracted fight in a motel room between the titular fuzzball and a well-cast Mark Wahlberg begins to tap into the absurd potential of the concept; the rest amounts to middle school toilet humor with studio backing, an adult vocabulary, and a suspiciously generous affinity for Flash Gordon that fails to translates to the rest of MacFarlane's unimaginative pot shots.

Jul 3, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012): B-

Though arguably unnecessary as far as reboots go (coming just five years after Spider-Man 3's fallout), The Amazing Spider-Man is as much a loose remake of the 2002 blockbuster as it is a virtual carbon copy of every other superhero origins story to grace the multiplex screens this past decade. Director Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer) brings a levity and swagger to the proceedings that manages to avoid direct competition with its predecessor, and it'd be unfair to slander it simply on the basis of existing as a result of essentially greedy business practices. (I, for one, was livid when the plug was first pulled on Spider-Man 4, but so it goes.) That said, those films' strengths can't help but highlight this one's relative shortcomings. The webslinging is technically better looking this time around (a decade of CGI advancements will do that), but Webb's visuals simply can't compare to previous helmer Sam Raimi's knack for crafting the iconic (although Peter's use of his web before a first kiss counts as a small stroke of genius); whenever the film isn't being kinetic, its compositions tend to register as flaccid and monotonous. Similarly, while I saw the film in 2D, it seems poorly suited for the 3D mandate that ultimately caused Raimi to walk. Whatever the dimension, the action scenes sporadically want for a sense of continuity (the subway scene in particular is an editorial mess), whether for lack of proper coverage or simply a poor grasping of action movie mechanics. Where the film gets its energy, then, is in the performances: Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) as an appropriately cocky, sympathetic Peter Parker/Spidey and Emma Stone (The Help) as love interest Gwen Stacy make for a delightful leading duo with enough chemistry to make one hope we get to see them share screen time together under different circumstances. Amongst the supporting players, Martin Sheen is a standout in the pivotal role of Uncle Ben. Webb's talent for capturing idiosyncratic moments (the alarm clock bit is tops) almost compensates for the numerous deficiencies of the script, amongst them Peter's hard-to-buy, effortless infiltration of a high security lab, and an overall lack of narrative friction. There's not much in the way of an ebb or flow to the drama, and while it's a breezy and enjoyable two hours, unlike the best of this still burgeoning genre, there's almost nothing to take home with you after the lights go up.

May 4, 2012

The Avengers (2012): B

Whether by nature or coincidence, event films, or tentpole pictures (like this one) frequently serve to remind us of the different ways we consume our culture, or our entertainment (another distinction reliant on how we frame our perception of the world). Those who cannot fathom the kind of person who wouldn't like this movie fail at the fundamental ability to step sufficiently far enough outside their own perspective; the same holds true for many groups defined by shared, perhaps overzealous opinions. Clearly, when someone like A.O. Scott moderately panned the film (only to be rebuked by Samuel L. Jackson's "opinion" that fans should help to get Scott fired - this before most of them had even seen the movie in question), it wasn't that he had seen a different movie, or necessarily even experienced it differently. His technical analysis is exactly in keeping with what this critic saw at an exhuberantly packed theater last night, and what many such fans fail to grasp is that there was nothing of deep enough meaning in the film for Mr. Scott to find it worth more than a respectful pass. Anyone who takes offense to this needs to seriously reexamine their values in life, period.

Which is all a sort of ridiculous throat-clearing before I explain my own high/low praise of the film. For over two hours, I was thoroughly entertained and happy to be burning the midnight oil before a morning shift. (Having just stumbled off my lethargic morning-after duties, that's high praise.) Of this, there is no doubt, and so, as per the Tomatometer, The Avengers gets a "fresh" (my love/hate relationship with Rotten Tomatoes is steadily leaning towards the latter, but since most of those reading this are doing so thanks to that site, I may as well be frank). Joss Whedon's handling of mostly predetermined, prepackaged material is to be commended for infusing personality into what otherwise could have easily been rendered as the summer movie equivalent of a stale breakfast cereal. The Avengers was clearly made not only for the kind of audience that would, uhm, assemble, hours beforehand, but by one of their own. It has a genuine spirit that money-hungry studio heads can only hope to acheive, and in this case, they played their business cards very well.

In a nearly 150-minute film, it is perhaps inevitable that there are a few moments I would have trimmed had I final cut authority -- some of the many expertly choreographed fights could have been shortened, and there are times that the comic relief goes on too long (Clark Gregg is funny but misused in a largely thankless role) -- but the fact remains that the audience-pleasing success ratio clocks in around 92% (if I had to guess at a figure) and, given the sheer saturation of such carefully orchestrated moments and punchlines (roughly four every ten minutes, give or take), such makes this a sterling example of its kind. The cast is committed (even Gwyneth Paltrow smoulders in what amounts to an extended cameo, but it's Mark Ruffalo as the brooding Bruce Banner who steals the show), the dialogue is almost organic, and the action satisfies that basic craving for juvenile spectacle. It ain't subtle, and I for one don't care. It's necessary sometimes.

Broad, pop culture storytelling brilliance abounds in this long-awaited franchise culmination (four prequels altogether, and only two of them worth a damn by my measure), but setting aside the exacting nature of the film's amusement park mechanics, there really wasn't much there to keep me wowed in ways beyond momentary bliss. The character conflicts and impending resolutions are both schematic and heartfelt (you know, from the moment Steve Rogers aka Captain America criticizes Tony Stark's narcissism, that Iron Man will make some sort of risky personal sacrifice before the day is out, etc.), and with a lesser hand, they might have felt disingenuous. They don't, but they don't speak anything in the way of a greater truth, either. For my own personal insight: if it were even three or five years ago in my life that this movie came out, I'm sure my rating would be one or two ticks higher than it currently is, but now past a quarter century, I have a hard time saying I love something when it strikes me as so generally weightless. As many chuckles as the dialogue was worth and gasps the scenery induced, it was only the brewing torment experienced by the Hulk who gave me something to really chew on, and the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes out with some impressively fleshed-out motivation as well.

The Avengers is exciting, funny, nail-biting, relentless and even scintillating at times (thanks to Scarlett Johansson, I now have something of a fetish for getting beating up and bitten by the opposite sex), but it's never about anything more than itself in the moment. This motley crew of characters is sufficiently developed and more than expertly performed to lend a sense of genuine conviction, but I found nothing to take with me into my life outside once it was all said and done. Great escape, but no deeper truths. As fate would have it, a special screening of The Godfather, Part II preceded the midnight release of The Avengers by just a few hours, and in case you're out of touch with the general consensus on that sequel amongst serious cinephile types, I'll reiterate a comment I made during said film's intermission: "It's the kind of movie that reminds you what a complete waste of time most others are." Much as I'll fondly remember last night's debut, The Avengers is ultimately little more than one such well-made time waster. Whedon's creation is exactly what most people seeing it will want it to be, and more, and if it's a little unfair comparing it to what is arguably one of the greatest works of film ever made, well, that's life, and so be it. It doesn't have to be a great movie to provide a great experience.

May 2, 2012

Avengers Countdown

Forgive me for saying this, but in the grand scheme of things, I really could not give less of a damn about The Avengers.

Don't take that the wrong way. Those who know me personally, or who've followed my cinephile activity online long enough, know I'm an unrepentant summer movie junkie, often seeing the same spectacle repeatedly, if not out of cathartic satiation (hence my seeing Transformers: Dark of the Moon five times theatrically), then perhaps social convenience or easy entertainment (which is to say, the drive-in). And despite the relative decline in overall popcorn movie quality recent years, I'm still looking forward to the 3D midnight screening for which I possess tickets tomorrow night, mostly because it will in all probability be a worthwhile two-plus hours in good company and source of sufficient watercooler conversation for a week after. Plus, there's Jeremy Renner with a fucking bow and arrow. So, my relative apathy is not so much a disregard of the film or its genre as it is a general reprioritization of values in life. Things like that happen when you get older, watch a parent die, etc. But I digress.

There's a chance, as always, that I will not like the film, in which case, I will be compelled to incur the poorly articulated wrath of a thousand basement-bound fanboys over the coming week. A handful of sterling Buffy episodes aside, the only cultural contact I've had with Joss Whedon has been The Cabin in the Woods, a film that was better written than directed but all the same a smug slog that offended this died-in-the-wool horror fan (or, as the Rotten Tomatoes trolls would describe me, a pretentious douche who should fuck off) with its superficial references and one-sided genre deconstruction. So, before the zombies come crawling out of the woodwork to inform me that I only like slow, boring movies, and thus am not allowed to have an opinion on the matter, here are my favorite (and least favorite) films based on Marvel characters. DC and company would complicate things tenfold, so no Batman or Hellboy appearances will be found below, as much as they would otherwise hold their own.

Blind spots: Daredevil, Elektra, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Punisher: War Zone and Howard the Duck.

The Best
1. Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, '04). A nearly perfect film, and I use that four letter word deliberately, as I consider even popcorn cinema to be its own kind of art form as ripe for greatness as any genre. Pity that only a handful of filmmakers have realized this to date. I was tempted to group all three of Raimi's films together, as I like them all (including the lumpy, overstuffed third entry) and consider them to be greater in whole than in part, but this first sequel is the true gem. I'm hopeful for The Amazing Spider-Man (my man Andrew Garfield, my love Emma Stone!), but I'll always nurse a grudge that we'll never get to see the events of Spider-Man 4. Like too many of my favorite series, the lack of final resolution ultimately adds to the beauty.
  2. Hulk (Ang Lee, '03). Easily the most controversial of my beloved. The superhero film is frequently defined by its absurdities, and Lee's film simultaneously eschews and embraces those trends by taking the genesis story of an "enormous green rage monster" into meatier psychological territory, utilizing all manner of stylistic devices (some stunning, others misguided), suggesting an artist clawing at the very fabric of his canvas. The inherent silliness is overshadowed, even justified, by the brooding earnestness. Marvel has made good films since, but it's doubtful we'll ever again see such creative audacity on this kind of scale.
3. Blade II (Guillermo Del Toro, '02). The modernized vampire held little appeal for me before this positively trippin' sequel, proof positive that a CGI-laden extravaganza could hold its own with its analogue predecessors (why, yes, I do consider this a better film than the 1931 Dracula). Pity the series took a nosedive with the moronic Trinity, but concerning Del Toro's work in the superhero department, it was a sign of even greater things to come.
4. Iron Man (Jon Favreau, '08). After Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, I'm beginning to suspect that the success of this film was by and large and accident. If so, what an accident! Favreau's style - if it can be called such - is pretty nondescript, so it's all the better that he handed the proceedings over to his performers. Robert Downey, Jr.'s true comeback took place the year before, in Zodiac, but it remains wonderful that he found his time to shine here.
5. Captain American (Joe Johnson, '11). This irony-free, tastefully patriotic (which is to say, not nationalistic) origin story struck me as well-made, but ultimately musty, when I first saw it. Hindsight and a second viewing have corrected that. There's still plenty of room for improvement, such as plausibility issues during an infiltration scene and Hugo Weaving's makeup, but this is a model example for mainstream filmmakers who hope to entertain their audiences without insulting their brain cells.

Honorable Mentions: Spider-Man, X2: X-Men United, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Spider-Man 3
The Worst

1. Wolverine (Gavin Hood, '09). Just fucking embarrassing.
2. Fantastic Four (Tim Story, '05). The same. Only less so.
3. Thor (Kenneth Branagh, '11). I get it, I really do. You directed Henry V, and Hamlet. So to direct this thing for a paycheck, sure, who would give a shit? But you could have pretended at the very least.
4. The Punisher (Jonathan Hensleigh, '04). As if John Travolta hadn't already wasted the stamina his career got from Pulp Fiction...
5. Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, '09). Amongst the many offenses herein, none was greater than the near-total waste of Mickey Rourke.

Apr 29, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

This review contains spoilers.

Typical of the work of Buffy's Joss Whedon, The Cabin in the Woods exhibits a slick flair for genre subverison and manages such with no shortage of pop culture aplomb. No doubt you are aware of the horror movie conventions that constantly strain the credibility of even the most dimwitted of slasher sequels in which teenagers are offed with relative ease: promiscuity ensures death, virginity repels it, and characters who'd likely survive in a group are all but guaranteed to split up like idiots when push comes to shove.

Turns out there's a reason for these ridiculous archetypes: ancient gods, residing deep within the earth, who require a yearly sacrifice -- one ensured by a Big Brother-like organization that ensnares the unwitting for a game of almost certain death (in an amusing touch, global branches of the program function through their respective horror movie trademarks). The agents who control the tightly regimented game (which doubles as a high-stakes reality TV program for the desensitized employees) have access to the monsters and spirits taken for granted by the rest of the world as fiction, as well as the means of manipulating even the most subtle elements of their doomed participants' environments.

At its best, this witty scenario suggests a Haneke-like (or Haneke-light) commentary on audience implication; in the film's reality, these literal snuff films are a required exercise lest nothing less than the end of the world come about. Pity that the film partakes in contrivances as egregious as the conventions it aims to deconstruct; the resulting double standard corrupts the initial appeal of the concept, and reveals The Cabin in the Woods as pretentiously self-serving lip service that assumes hateful mockery of the material it relies upon justifies its own one-note pandering. I'd like to forgive the have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too, excessively ironic self-awareness, but it's hard to overlook the transition from smart to smart-assed and the dispensation of credibility for a weightlessly nihilistic punchline. And that's including the always pleasant presence of Richard Jenkins. Bummer.

Apr 9, 2012

Titanic (1997): A-

(WARNING: This review is biased, angry, vulgur, and politically hostile. It's also really long, and kind of rambling, and not very professional. It's as honest as I can be right now. Regarding demographics: if you think Rick Santorum is what America needs, if you like Katy Perry, or if you walked out of The Descendants, you may want to stop reading now.)

It’s a given that I was generally clueless about what was circulated in “normal” culture for the majority of my gradeschooling. As in, I’m already a guy who is really into movies, and I manage to come back from the summer of 1996 bereft of any knowledge of Scream. At all. Another such vacancy was the initial backlash against Titanic. To my eyes, it was the new movie that was made by the same guy who made The Terminator (my adolescent angst pool of choice, along with Akira, Fight Club and some dozen others), and whose previous works were all etched in stone in my mind. Well, not Piranha 2, anyway. It wasn’t until the VHS edition that I could finally see Titanic, its financial and popular legacy already seemingly insurmountable in one’s consideration of it. Quite distinctly, I recall it being absolutely damn near perfect (minus, say, a small handful of lines of dialogue or music cues I found questionable, but mere specs easily overlooked on the greater fabric), and it pretty much took me by storm. It was an extremely fundamental experience and I just god damn love it that much. Ladies, I’m single. What in the hell?

Learning about the aforementioned backlash against the movie was eye-opening to say the least. How could someone not like it?, I thought. (A friend of mine used these same words this past Thursday night.) Some thought it was too long, at three hours and fourteen minutes, and even at twelve or thirteen, I already thought that was a lame cop out (my favorite movie of the moment was Gone With the Wind, and I still last longer to this day). No endurance in these losers. On the other hand, there were supposed Cameron fans who thought he’d gone soft on romance, which made me wonder if they were soft in the head (not just for their general ignorance, but for crying out loud, is there no love for the romantic streak uniting both of his Terminators, let alone what he accomplishes here in the spotlight?). And for those who are "appalled" by the historical liberties taken amongst the drama, I can only say in my infinite lack of insight: I think we're evolved enough to recognize fact from fiction and simply enjoy drama and recognize that in great fiction there lies truth, but maybe that's just me.

I, for example, am aware that even the history we're taught is inevitably subjective, even when it isn't downright and blatantly manipulated. Cherry trees? One shooter (in Dallas)? WMDs? Here, yes, Cameron embellishes moments of the evening amongst an overwhelming level of period detail and historical fact so as to make for a very tightly riveted emotional roller coaster, insofar as that, he humanely considers what people - most of whom are trying to do the right thing - might be capable of (or not) under the worst of circumstances. Joseph Ismay, the owner of the ship, gets the cowardice treatment, as the press and history have since painted him (only uncorroborated testimony has claimed this, but Ismay's insistence that the ship go faster so as to surprise the press has gone down on the theoretical record, and let's be frank, is quite likely true, given the trends of the insatiable profiteer: if you're so naive, download this pdf, and do a word search on "shitty"). The man, guilty of mass involuntary manslaughter or not, lived out most of the rest of his life a recluse, and probably had some very deep thoughts to dwell on. (And I think anyone who dwells at this point on the p.c. depiction of his fictional counterpart is missing the big picture, and by a lot.)

So while not intended to come down so judgmentally on many of those who disagree with me, my stance on this is pretty straightforward: some rain on Titanic for reasons that are valid, respectable, and articulated (Ed, I really wanted to read your take for this 3D release - more on that dimension later), but they are mostly, to these eyes, opportunistic (this piece by Lindy West is deserving of a punch in the face), if not downright imperceptive, if not deliberately contrarian. I'm sure that's not always the case, but let's be frank, most of us go with the flow more often than we want to or realize. It's hard work knowing your true inner self, free of unwanted stimuli. We tend towards mob mentalities. We can all be smarter. (This is way more important and meaningful than your opinion on Titanic, but I'm thinking of worldly things so I'm bringing it up.) Keep at it.

Freud’s theories on “the male preoccupation with size” are referenced as if they were a knife cutting open a fish belly, and it’s this same, borderline unforgiving tone that Cameron uses when sinking his beautiful CGI/model recreation. His Terminator duology outwardly manifested mankind’s technological war with itself; the Frankenstein complex, cast in a nuclear light. Titanic pitches this same general thesis (surpassing technology as inadvertent self-destruction) as great sweeping drama, because it was an utterly hyperbolic meta-event unto itself within the past century (and one that, by the looks of the current “debate” about regulations, we still haven’t really learned a goddamn thing from), and so the choice was made to center it around a love story and go for broke on the melodrama. Titanic isn’t just the name of the ship: it’s the kind of storytelling, and it’s the perfectionist ego that Cameron’s criticizing within himself. Altogether, it’s a difficult tone to catch and an even harder one to sustain, and it’s been roughly ten viewings over fifteen years and I’m still of the opinion he hardly misses a beat.

The 1996 framing device of an old Rose allows the proceedings to go even more meta, and Cameron swiftly deconstructs the pillaging nature of his historical exploitation and justifies it pretty thoroughly to these eyes. There’s a wordless unison between the historical accuracy of the 1912 production (and if you want to split hairs about something like a dime being wrong, bear in mind that this story is being rendered in context by a 100-year-old, and I am a numismatist, and that kind of minute criticism makes your life sound utterly meaningless and exhausting) and the reverence of its treatment, one contrasted sharply by the disrespect lobbed at the tragedy abomination by the film’s modern day jewel hunters ("pretty cool, huh?"), to say nothing of the film’s detractors who stoop to wishing quicker death on the 1,500 who likely believed the media that their voyage was unsinkable. This is where things get nasty.

The kind of mass death spectacle Michael Bay is frequently accused (and often guilty) of partaking in is, to these eyes, much better encapsulated in Titanic's final third. It’s an awful, cruel progression of events, like watching an ants nest being systematically exterminated, and as The Onion’s headline about the ship’s metaphorical nature devastatingly drives home, the same weaknesses hold true to many of our modern accomplishments. The gas we consume? The natural grounds we eradicate? The computers we're already installing into our bodies? (If you, oh listeners of Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, Savage, think I'm "brainwashed" or financially biased on those first two points, I think you're too dumb to be out in public.) Obviously, Cameron loves technology and technological history, but the streak of muted ludditism is undeniable, if only because his films seem pitched at a carefully calculated level of universality, almost clinically detached at times but not without their sappy narrative hooks (the "big buns" scene in The Terminator comes to mind) and broadly pitched storytelling. There's a reason Cameron's known as a box office king, and it's not merely holding the two highest unadjusted blockbusters of all time (five and fourteen, respectively chronological, adjusted for inflation stateside), but his ability to stretch his dollars so as to tell the exact stories he wants to. And The Terminator made back almost twelve times production costs - a scale bigger movies simply can't dream on (yet), but meaningful all the same.

There are people who think politics don’t belong here (as in, in this review), but they’re dumb and want everyone else to stop thinking so much, for reasons they only vaguely understand. Let's try to help them out. With stricter regulations (say, regulations that necessitate the equal consideration of everyone's lives and well-being), 1,500 people would have still been alive, and countless lives' worth of human suffering would have been avoided. Regulations are on the table now in the latest round of bullshit American corporate-backed “political” “debate,” and even though whole city blocks are blowing up (a timeline here, with February 9, 2011 taking place not fifteen minutes from my home and within blocks of where I was born, and due to overused pipes years overdue for expensive, profit-robbing replacements) and oceans being trashed, it’s astonishing how braindead, or simply apathetic, so many people are in conceding to greedy business interests at their own potentially personal short term and definitely collective long term expense, mostly in exchange for the vain promise that it might one day be them at the top of the hill, enjoying the highs from a quick burn of our resources (because that's what God intended), if they haven't been paid off with bread crumbs already. End of paragraph, yes, but my diatribe is far from finished. I did warn you.

We (by which I mean my general political affiliation, the truthful, displeased-with-Obama, non-materialistic left who want to do away with the two party system entirely) say Republicans "want dirtier air and water" because they have company money in their pockets (not that Democrats don't, which is a whole other issue I won't touch on but for saying I don't like Democrats but for relativity) and we don’t trust most of those companies because of dozens of instances of environmental, medical, and plain old common sense negligence that hurt or kill countless people, many of them in the general publci, every year. Do you follow? We don’t trust them, and only a fool would, or a priveledged asshole, and that’s why there are rules. If there weren’t rules, and means to enforce them, who knows, you might have a company audacious and cruel and stupid enough to put their image and sensation in the press above safety and in doing so send hundreds of unprotected people out into the ocean on a boat that doesn’t turn quickly and…oh, wait, that happened already. And that’s this kind of thing is even a question in the media right now shows you how dumb the media wants to keep you (if Iran gets nukes, just duck and cover), and how gutless so many of us are for letting it continue. We may as well all be slaves, just waiting to freeze to death or drown because we couldn’t even figure out how to keep the fucking water out. I'm just saying, common sense could go a long way in preventing the apocalypse.

Did that sound a bit like Daniel Plainview? I mean not to be cruel, but this world is such that I have to wonder about the good of bringing a child into it, which means I get to vent. I love humanity (so sayeth Charlie Brown, it’s the people I can’t stand), and there’s great humanity to the removed, special effects showcase extravaganza by which Cameron dispatches with hundreds of hapless souls (the masses are drowned, crushed, frozen, electrocuted, pulverized, shot, and there’s the propeller guy, to name a few). Eric Henderson draws some wonderful decontructive-of-Hollywood imagery out of the proceedings in his Slant Magazine review, and I can agree with him in other ways by saying that the sinking of the ship is as transfixing and strangely dignified as anything from D.W. Griffith (if you don’t know him, I envy you, because you still get to experience his movies for the first time). For the unfeeling bastards who scoff at the "boring" nature of a ship sinking as spectacle, what can I say: not even 9/11 desinsitization can redeem you for being such a prick. For how exciting the film's centerpiece is, and as such, borderline tasteless in its implicit voyeurism, the inevitability of the events - so mocked by many - is quickly undercut by the settling reality of life lost.

What ultimately brings it home for these tear ducts, then, are the small stories Cameron keeps on the sidelines, and how these magnify the spectacle with wrenching intimacy. (In other words, Jenette Goldstein kills me every time.) Jack and Rose have this great iconic romance, naturally a little cheesy but self-consciously and kind of brilliantly the stuff of modern myth. When the ship starts to go down, the movie goes all Aliens relentless, and I always find the leads most convincing - nay, stimulating - in survival mode. But the faces and situations we see in passing, juggled in unison with themes and motifs both obvious (as are all these archetypal tropes) yet deeply feeling and earnest, confirm the whole enterprise as a microcosmic, deeply mourning, deeply humanitiarian worldview. Screw the haters: the much-criticized romance-heavy first half is just as good, and just as necessary as the crescendo of destruction. On a final tangential note, it should be noted that, in dispatching humans (it's a fun word), Cameron was a lot more actively nasty towards the colonialists in Avatar, which rubbed me the wrong way at first, but now, not so much. I love people, but people who test mother nature deserve whatever’s coming to them, which isn't to say that the passengers aboard the RMS Titanic got what was coming to them, but that if we continue to assume superiority and priviledge (cartoonishly embodied by non-ironic Christian American nationalists, amongst others now and throughout all history) we all will.

Apr 8, 2012

Safe House (2012): C-

AKA Shit Smear, because that's what one takes away from the shapelessly herky-jerky visuals of this cops-n-crooks thriller that repackages post-9/11 corruption realities as a nihilistic happy meal posing as enlightenment. As for the accompanying toy, it's anyone's guess: this is about as sloppy, unimaginative and viscerally underwhelming as a big budget movie can appear without actively insulting the target audience. There was a moment when a door was blown off its hinges, which I guess was cool; at the least, it stood out from the murky mayhem. The majority of the action scenes are splintered to death via subpar Bourne-aping cinematography and editing, and the enterprise has the audacity to waste Vera Farminga's prismatic face and energy. Denzel Washington, milking his assuredly wise schtick within an inch of its life, is the criminal mastermind with lotsa stuff up his sleeves; Ryan Reynolds the mental tenderfoot assigned to protect and who has to learn quickly how to play by the top dog's rules. Cheap-looking and without sensation. You'll feel bad in the morning for having spent time with it.

American Reunion (2012): C-

AKA 35 Up, remade thematically, by idiots. I pounded out the first three American Pie films with a BFF on my last day of summer vacation before college, and I can hardly think of a better circumstance for that particular brand of horny teenage discovery. I enjoyed them all well enough (obvious reliance on conventions, juvenile comedy and narrative limitations all notwithstanding), and I have deliberately not revisited them since, lest I tarnish the memory. Turns out that, on a long enough timeline, that was pretty much out of my hands. Reunion is admittedly consistent with the preceding films, if a bit more autopilot bound, so it's likely more because of my changing tastes than the diminishing sequel syndrome that I had a fairly miserable time during this retread. Characters pop in and out in what amounts to a tossed off greatest hits package, contrived scenarios involving masturbation, horny young girls, Stifler's mom, whips and feces abound, and Eugene Levy is awkward (a high point, actually). Adages have rarely felt as dusty and hollow as they do here, and I find it vaguely offensive that a script reliant on characters behaving with magnified stupidity would have the balls to interject a spontaneous bit of Certified Copy role-playing into the proceedings. A few chuckles are to be had, if you're lucky, but they can't begin to outweigh the surrounding offenses and boredom.

Mar 28, 2012

Cage Aeterna

And if my love for this man's brand of overexertion isn't clear enough already, know that he's on my shortlist for 2012's Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Mar 20, 2012

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012): D+

There's plenty of offense to go around in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, and if you're someone who's ever found meaning in Green Day's album American Idiot, you'll know it within the opening minutes of this gimmicky, soulless widget. The works of Jules Verne serve as the jumping off point to this 3D in-name-only sequel to 2008's Journey to the Center of the Earth, but my sense is that anyone capable of appreciating said science fiction literature is going to be as bored to tears as I was watching berries bounce off of Dwayne Johnson's chest in what might be a new low for the surcharge-friendly format, so perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that some small children will seek out those novels after ingesting this Hollywood trifle. Common sense - nay, anything like human behavior, or competent screenwriting, or a properly conceived (or even half-baked) joke - is an extinct species here, and even the second-act introduction of Michael Caine only temporarily relieves the proceedings of their life support status. Without the over-explanatory dialogue and insincere adages, this wouldn't even qualify as feature-length; the rest is noisy, banal spectacle that only occasionally taps into the awe of the natural world at the heart of Verne's texts. It's family entertainment reinvented as a numbing mental assault, and while kids might like it just fine, feeding this to a young mind should count as a chargable offense.

The Artist (2011): B

Flip-flop nametags notwithstanding, mind-changing is something I've done a fair amount of here (by which I mean, say, 4% of the time or thereabouts, for those who want to keep track; yes, I'm nitpicky, and as a critic I at least try to hold myself to high standards, including honesty and transparency), as I often find myself in the necessary predicament of re-examining my irksome (to myself) or controversial (to others) opinions on certain movies in hopes of seeing things I hadn't before. Such was the case in The Artist, which rose from festival buzz to almost immediate Oscar glory before the backlash from silent purists like myself (to say nothing of the portion of the public that scoffs at silent movies as a matter of fact; let them eat shit like Journey 2: The Mysterious Island). Consigned to its seemingly inevitable Best Picture status, I knew I'd have to revisit it, and was ultimately delighted when I did.

My original review was penned in a flurry after a bitter first viewing, during which it felt like my long-gestating wish for a modern silent film (partially satiated by Guy Maddin and others) was smeared by the Weinstein express. Reflection invited suspicions of my interpretation of the film and a second viewing confirmed them: this was not the Disingenuous Scrap of Awards Bait I'd first seen it as (as if Harvey Weinstein made the film himself, and that Michel Hazanavicius was a mere drone), although I do think it's too seriously flawed to qualify as the masterful love letter to cinema so many of its admirerer's think of it as (for me, that was Martin Scorsese's effervescent Hugo). It gets the good try award, but more time in the editing room could have made for a significantly superior product.

The temptation exists to hold The Artist to the standards of actual silent films, when clearly that is both misguided and unreasonable (if not impossible). Such former defensiveness on my part came from the same kind of love The Artist itself trades in, and is carried through by. The replication of style is mostly acute, although it's seriously rough going during an uneven and boorishly scored opening act, which starts off as a meta film-within-a-film only to subsequently waste its energy on an inert media showcase. Graciously, once the board is set and the peices are moving, the snide self-awareness subsides and things progress more or less like clockwork. It's a crowd-pleaser, almost breathelessly cute and occasionally transcendant (I, for one, am a fan of the Vertigo cameo), even when it's too obvious or drawn-out (the dream sequence is literally stupid, but contextually brilliant), and as an adorer of the flickering source of a medium that's now even more distant from its roots, I've come to appreciate what the film says about this ever-evolving medium. Warts and all, The Artist reminds us that the fire is far from extinguished.

Feb 22, 2012

The extent of my Oscar coverage this year

In the "should win" categories, an N/A means I haven't seen all the films nominated, and therefore cannot officially enter an opinion. An * can be found before those correctly predicted.

Best Picture
*Will win: The Artist
Should win: The Tree of Life
Best Director
*Will win: Michel Hazanavicious, The Artist
Should win: Martin Scorsese, Hugo

Best Actor in a Leading Role
*Will win: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Should win: Demián Bichir, A Better Life

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Will win: Viola Davis, The Help
Should win: Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
*Will win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Should win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
*Will win: Octavia Spencer, The Help
Should win: Jessica Chastain, The Help
Best Original Screenplay
*Will win: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Should win: Asghar Farhadi, A Separation

Best Adapted Screenplay
*Will win: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, The Descendants
Should win: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Monkeyball

Best Animated Feature
*Will win: Rango
Should win: N/A

Best Documentary Feature
*Will win: Undefeated
Should win: N/A

Best Foreign Language Film
*Will win: A Separation
Should win: N/A

Best Art Direction
*Will win: Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo, Hugo
Should win: Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo, Hugo

Best Cinematography
*Will win: Robert Richardson, Hugo
Should win: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life

Best Costume Design
Will win: Sandy Powell, Hugo
Should win: N/A
Best Film Editing
Will win: Thelma Schoonmaker, Hugo
Should win: Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Best Makeup
Will win: Martial Corneville, Lynn Johnson, and Matthew W. Mungle, Albert Nobbs
Should win: Nick Dudman, Amanda Knight, and Lisa Tomblin, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

Best Original Score
Will win: Howard Shore, Hugo
Should win: Alberto Iglesias, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Original Song
*Will win: Bret McKenzie, "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets
Should win: Bret McKenzie, "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets

Best Animated Short
*Will win: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Should win: N/A

Best Live Action Short
Will win: Tuba Atlantic
Should win: N/A
Best Documentary Short
*Will win: Saving Face
Should win: N/A

Best Sound Editing
*Will win: Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty, Hugo
Should win: Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty, Hugo

Best Sound Mixing
*Will win: Tom Fleischman and John Midgley, Hugo
Should win: Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush, and Peter J. Devlin, Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Best Visual Effects
Will win: Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Christopher White, and Daniel Barrett, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Should win: Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann, and Alex Henning, Hugo

Overall correctitude: 75%
Meaningless validation of superior taste: 17%

That's all, folks!

Feb 8, 2012

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999): C-

What does it mean to be a fan? The question begs asking when one is considering something known for testing the very essence of the term, and if the cultural tsunami that was the anticipation and eventual reaction towards The Phantom Menace doesn’t count, nothing does. The line that separates yours truly from the kind of people seen here lies far, far away, yet despite such potentially embarrassing associations, I consider myself very much a fan of George Lucas’s decades-spanning space opera, warts and all, and in the interest of full disclosure, know that I enjoyed the exceedingly hyped The Phantom Menace quite a bit as a youngling (it was my first big-screen experience with the series, and I saw it three times), up until as recently as five years ago.

To which I can now only remark at how time chases these things away. What once seemed worth eager defense now rings with a hollow thud, and revisiting the film recently, the most astonishing thing I discovered was how little I found myself able to care about a lick of plot or character or drama or story or the like. To be clear, I don’t consider it anything like a death knell of cinema, but rather, an achievement of misplaced priorities, the best example of what critic (and modest Star Wars fan) Matt Zoller Seitz described as Lucas’s relative filmmaking abilities to one who can levitate entire cities without yet mastering the basic functions of a knife and fork. As an act of obsessive world creation, of unwavering confidence in what basically amounts to a very silly story, and of visionary purity, it’s among the best of its kind. As a story about characters and conflicts worth our empathy or concern, it’s virtually without a pulse.

The temptation exists to place the majority of the blame on the cast, or perhaps more specifically, Lucas’s well-documented difficulty in directing them. Sure, these performances are as broad and gee-whiz as those of the first trilogy (okay, maybe less so on the latter point, but that’s what they’re going for), but gone is the essential spark that gave those films a recognizably human element. Several performances, particularly Liam Neeson’s and those of some CGI characters, hit the right balance of seriousness and playfulness, but a few weak links are enough to break the chain, and too many of the key players never instill their roles with the necessary conviction to keep things afloat. They seem not to believe, so why should we?

That alone might have been enough to sink this ship, but perhaps even more damaging is how this script’s domino chain of events unravels in such a deliberately doled-out fashion; whatever interest might have otherwise accrued is almost completely obliterated through sheer lack of storytelling rhythm. No surprise, then, when six years later during interviews for Revenge of the Sith, Lucas confessed to padding out the scripts for episodes one and two, originally having less than sufficient material to make them feature length. You may recall that whole assembly line setpiece from Attack of the Clones, which felt even more arbitrary and needless than the racing centerpiece of this, its predecessor. Stir the pot too long, and your recipe starts to burn.

Lacking much in the way of a dramatic hook, then, The Phantom Menace becomes a film admirable only from a certain distance, and certainly, hermetically sealed emotions notwithstanding, it’s an excellent execution of a certain kind of rigid film theory, if one that’s perhaps a bit oblivious to the clashing tones inherent in a highly youth-oriented adventure whose story is propelled by interstellar political conflicts over the taxation of trade routes. The earlier films operated as broad allegory, and while The Phantom Menace is downright ballsy in laying out a more serious, politically minded groundwork, it mistakes exposition for depth and loses sight of the audience. Even the most tolerant of fans had to give pause when Lucas began to mistake his creation for an episode of Masterpiece Theater.

Some of the least visceral sequences of the film – particularly the much-maligned Senate debate scenes – actually hold the most appeal for me; it’s new material (as opposed to a more recognizable preparation for events yet to come that we already know about), and through them, Lucas is already asking some serious questions about justice and freedom, which would manifest more explicitly, and meaningfully, in later episodes. The larger majority of this story, then, falls into place with the thud of joyless obligation, as if it were being choked to death on the solemn reverence that manages to coexist with the race of the Gungans, references to The Three Stooges and Buster Keaton, and poop jokes. The Phantom Menace’s fleeting pleasures aren’t even table scraps to my inner child.

Jan 29, 2012

The Iron Lady (2011): D

Fueled by a quandary of faults and embarrassments that might threaten to turn a review into a bullet point list of reasons to save your money, The Iron Lady transcends the typical aura of simply bad, simply inept movies and threatens to mutate into avant garde trash. Imagine a public art display involving a derailed freight train, and you’ll be in the right neck of the woods. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I feel a little bad coming off so harsh, aware as I am that actual people made this movie, cared about it and saw it through, and inasmuch as I might disagree with their taste in much, including (but not limited to) worthwhile filmmaking and possibly politics, the truth is that their product never strays to that which is evil, except for the very valuable time it wastes from your life.

To that end, they’ve actually created the perfect black hole, and they shouldn’t feel personally slighted, just professionally. Director Phyllida Lloyd is all gassed up with no place to go, and making movies is – if I may try to be polite – a misguided channeling of those energies. Please, stop it. There are yet positive ways you can contribute to the world. (Might I suggest Kidspeace?) Concerning the leading lady, Meryl "Greatest Actress of Her Generation" Streep: though technically astute in her mimicry of Margaret Thatcher, the performance lacks even the most basic spark of empathy, or soul, or worthiness of investment, and while some might argue that's appropriate given the figure in question, here it functions less as the centerpiece of a character study than simply as a wax museum figure come to life. Like much of her recent career (Fantastic Mr. Fox being the only exception coming to mind), Streep's in coasting mode here, and it might be said that the wasted presence of her talent heightens the noxious effect of the creative void around her.

A point is made late in the film concerning the cost of a gallon of milk, the image of which most appropriately opens this whitewashed creation. Focusing on the elderly Thatcher’s senile recollections in ways shrill enough to make A Beautiful Mind’s didactic representations of that organ look respectful by comparison, The Iron Lady looks, sounds and feels as if it happened largely by accident, and perhaps the only way its one-of-a-kind, chimpanzees-pounding-on-typewriters awfulness could have been justified would be to have had the film forgo non-fiction status and instead reveal the former Prime Minister as an alien in disguise. Frequently selecting the worst possible camera angle, or motion, or editing device, the film eventually takes to firing off meaningless and frequently nonsensical transitions, montages, and layering effects, as if it were a student project on which every tool available in the provided video editing software had to be used at least once. The nominees have just been announced, and Oscar should feel ashamed for even considering this junk.

Jan 19, 2012

Disney Favorites and such

Within the next 24 hours, I'll have succumbed to temptation and gone to the multiplex to see the 3D-retrofitted, presumably "extended" edition (I haven't verified this fact because I want it to be a surprise) of Disney's first real crack at Oscar gold, Beauty and the Beast. Released when I was six years old, it was and remains a personal favorite, even as the years have seen it transform from timeless masterpiece to a slightly less emotionally substantial but still thoroughly entertaining, engrossing experience. Until then, it remains tied (with Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, of all things) as the film I've seen the most times theatrically (seven; bless my mother for tolerating my repeat-viewing insistence).

I've never seen the 2002 cut of the film, and while I'm apprehensive about the 3D quality (The Lion King re-release looked terrible, and in hindsight, two-and-a-half stars was overly generous on my part), my primary thought is: what the hell? I owned all manner of merchandise and paraphernalia (including a collector's card series, which I completed), and listened to the cassette tape soundtrack of the film to the breaking point. Why stop now? I could certainly use a return to my youth.

Which is a very roundabout way of making this another opportunity for a mostly pointless list. For the sake of simplicity, I've made this list traditional Disney animated exclusive, while also deliberately disincluding anything with the Pixar label, both pre- and post-Disney merger. Otherwise, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird and company would threaten to eat up half of the slots, and I'd have had to kick a few more animated titles out for a certain David Lynch joint and one, maybe two, Jeff Bridges vehicles. (For the record, I haven't seen Song of the South yet, although there is a YouTube rip of the film waiting on my hard drive...) Post your own list. Or simply fire away.

1. Dumbo
2. Pinocchio
3. The Fox and the Hound
4. Lilo & Stitch
5. Beauty and the Beast
6. Fantasia
7. 101 Dalmatians
8. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
9. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
10. Sleeping Beauty

Jan 15, 2012

Nikita (1990): B-

Sexy as Luc Besson's sleight of hand remains, his widely triumphed Nikita (aka La Femme Nikita) skimps out on the goods concerning the sexy, troubled Nikita (Anne Parillaud), an amoral addict from the streets turned assassin for the French government. Part action thriller, part character examination (there isn't much to the titular female, and her void is only half as meaningfully examined as the film aims for), this stylish creation pulls this way and that, almost as unfocused as Nikita herself often is, with occasional lapses in logic that are hard to overlook in an otherwise smartly rendered film. A cool sensory indulgence, but irksomely lightweight. Pass me some Angel-A instead.

Awakenings (1990): C-

Although far more digestible, the schmaltzy worldview offered by Awakenings can now be seen as the forerunner to Robin Williams' most offensive vehicle to date, Patch Adams. Williams is Malcolm Sayer, a doctor who hasn't worked with living human patients since his schooling, now employed at a Bronx hospital at which reside numerous catatonic patients, some of whom have been completely unresponsive for several decades. A new drug may be the cure they've been waiting for. The film is empathetic and deliberately "touching" without quite triggering the gag reflex, but the script needed at least another rewrite before moving on to production, and the visual elements are Oscar-friendly bland. The reason to watch, then, is a tremendous Robert De Niro, as Leonard Lowe, the first patient to be awoken, and the first to subsequently lose control of his body once again. Based on Oliver Sacks's memoir of the same name. Maybe life affirming, but hardly life-changing.

Bugsy (1991): C

Once infamous for courting a round ten Oscars, now seemingly all but forgotten, Barry Levinson's gangster drama Bugsy is exhausting in all the wrong ways, suggesting less of a handsomely mounted epic period piece than it does a begrudgingly completed middle school biography paper -- all that's missing is MLA formatting. Warren Beatty is Benjamin Siegel (the name Bugsy instills him with rage, so we don't hear it often), and maybe it's due in part to the fact that his turn as the titular senator in Bulworth is my political wet dream fantasy, but I just can't believe the man as a borderline-psychotic, hairpin-trigger madman with visions of grandeur. The character study is only skin deep, and the central financially-dependent drama lacks enough thrust to sustain two plus hours running time, although Annette Bening, as Siegel's lover Virginia Hill, instills the proceedings with a sporadically volatile intensity (I'm happy to have seen the film if only to have heard her epic iteration of "philandering fuck"). A curious and curiously dull misfire.

Young Adult (2011): B

Jason Reitman rebounds from the noxious Up in the Air with Young Adult, although it's the stamp of screenwriter Diablo Cody that's most evident in this biting look at grown-up responsibilities and the difficulties of giving up youthful desires after tragedy and trauma scar the body and mind. Charlize Theron is a barbed wire force to be reckoned with as Mavis Gary, a successful, semi-celebrity ghost writer whose attraction to her ex Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) is rekindled when she's invited to his newborn baby's naming ceremony. Balancing her character's impractical ambitions of the heart with a very real hurt that transcends the film's cultural satire (which sadly skirts contempt of the middle and lower classes and culminates in an unfortunate speech that leaves an odious aftertaste), Theron is a tour-de-force of ping-pong emotions, contrasted almost sublimely by Patton Oswalt's turn as a hate crime victim. Often hilarious and true, but saddled with too much unexamined anger.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011): C-

Setting aside a handful of pulse-raising set pieces, this sequel to 2009's raucous revamp of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle legend is the deflated yin to that film's energetic yang: excessively plotted, poorly characterized, thin as used sandpaper. Not unlike Iron Man 2 (although exceedingly more watchable), the effort to reproduce the spontaneity of the previous film's success imbues Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows with a weary tone of overexertion, with so little worth investing in that one might find themselves forgetting about the whole endeavor even as they're still watching it. Robert Downey, Jr.'s schtick has gone from chic to borderline embarrassing, while Guy Ritchie's directorial suave bangs around the empty script like pennies in a pot. Somebody get these men a script worth shooting.

Clueless (1995): D+

A gag-inducing Four Loko misfire, Clueless goes haywire with exaggeration and a bare minimum of return value. Calling it the Citizen Kane of high school movies may be accurate from the zeitgeist perspective, but it's a dubious designation. I've never read the Jane Austin novel Emma on which Heckerling's script is loosely based, but even amidst the onscreen chaos (as if!), the genuine intelligence lurking beneath is obvious. Pity it oversells the material to a crowd that isn't going to get (or appreciate) it anyway, and the result is like watching a gifted student sell out to the popular idiot crowd. The movie seems afraid to show genuine sincerity, and Paul Rudd can only pull so much of the weight. The high point is a cheeky nod to Kubrick's monolith, but it's a slog to and from.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999): B+

Trendy and "current," yet also steeped in a smartness and sincerity becoming of its Shakespearean roots, 10 Things I Hate About You does for the silver screen what Daria did for MTV, sort of. As the too-cool-to-care dude who finds it his duty to tame the shrew, Heath Ledger is simply magical; there's no doubt he was a natural from day one. Pointed satire is mixed in moderate proportion with irony-free conflict in this subversive high school rom com, which almost completely sidesteps the off-putting calculation inherent to some of its plotting, and rolls with it pretty well when it doesn't.