Monday, December 17, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 12/9/2012

Argo (2012, Affleck) ***1/2 (A-)

I guess we're going to have to come to grips with it. We're living in a world in which Ben Affleck is apparently an actual director, which has to stand as one of the more surprising career reappraisals of the last decade. I haven't seen previous efforts THE TOWN or GONE BABY GONE, but given the positive critical reception of those two and the unmistakably professional quality of this one, I'm probably going to have to catch up.

Affleck's effective in the lead, though I suspect there were dozens of better choices for a role that mainly calls for cerebral anti-glamor (and Latino ethnicity). Affleck-the-actor has Hollywood action star qualities that Affleck-the-director is clearly working against, given that this is the "good guys" are doomed if the fighting even starts. (Obviously, it probably didn't hurt from a financing point of view to be able to secure an above-the-title star for the project, a temptation/benefit most directors don't have.) The rest of the cast is a who's-who of character actors, all of whom are clearly having fun with their juicy small roles, though Alan Arkin may be having too much fun; his schtick is funny but hammy, and a touch off-key considering the serious tone of the rest of the material.

ARGO is a first-rate suspense movie that draws most of its power from its laser focus exclusively upon the issue at hand, to wit: how to extricate a small group of US Nationals in hiding in Teheran's Canadian embassy during the height of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis? The movie succeeds in large part because of how rigorously Affleck maintains his tunnel vision on that question and only that question. As a result, the inevitable and typical movie-trope distractions (the hero's job vs. home family estrangement being the most obvious) stick out more glaringly than usual, but these are luckily kept to a minimum. Affleck manages to create a palpable sense of dread and a specific sense of place and time; with the exception of a few showy camera moves in establishing shots, it even seems like he's borrowing the film vocabulary of the era (he's certainly borrowing the hair, the mustaches, and the ridiculously huge glasses). Though the plot is driven by clearly political elements, the film avoids the didacticism that a more agenda-motivated movie would have fallen into, while at the same time providing a very clear sense of the issues surrounding the situation. Counter-intuitively, the result is a movie that creates greater political complexity mainly by making the politics of secondary concern to the immediate need for survival.

The UP Series (1964-Present, Apted) **** (A)

The UP series defies these stars and grades, since any one entry isn't going to be much more than a reserved B+, but taken as a whole they are one of the most affecting movies in the history of cinema. At this point it has thoroughly transcended its origins as sociopolitical thought-experiment and has become a slow, real-time meditation on lifespan itself. Despite some of Apted's admitted missteps near the beginning, in which he attempted to guide the subjects toward his own agendas, these men and women steadfastly insist upon their dignity simply by existing as themselves, and the effect of watching an entitled young prat like John (who at 7 is sort of bratty and pompous in a way he's clearly learned from adults, but by 21 is truly gross in his blinkered privilege) evolve in leaps to maturity — still conservative, perhaps still casually entitled, but undoubtedly outward-looking and empathic — is, for me, to understand mercy. Every new installment colors not just what we now know about who the subjects are, but what we previously thought we knew about who they were. Some of these people are wonderful, some seem horrible, some seem rather dull, some vivacious, some petty and small-minded, others staggeringly hopeful and generous and the crazy thing is that each of them likely fits all those categories at one point or another. I sort of love all of them now.

The Avengers (2012, Whedon) *** (B+)

Short: This functions in large part as "Iron Man And Friends", which is probably for the best given the rather sharp drop-off in charisma after Downy Jr., and is likely done about as well as the current superhero formula possibly can be.

Long: Twelve-year-old me would be sorely disappointed in how little I appreciate this golden age of superhero movies in which we so obviously find ourselves, but while most of them are at least decent, there haven't been many really good ones. Worse, I don't get the sense that there has really been an attempt to make a really good one, because what you want from a business standpoint is what has worked before. Thus, you get essentially a string of exact same movie in different tights. Establish world and cast > origin sequence > bad guy origin > minor battles > final battle > hint at the sequel, and we're out. And why would it be otherwise? These movies cost over $100 million each, so why mess with the formula? Just keep cranking out Issue 1 of SUPERHERO, THE MOVIE time after time. Only Nolan's one-degree-from-the-real-world take on Batman and Robert Downy Jr.'s gleefully narcissistic performance in IRON MAN have really broken through to try something fresh. I'm not even sure what I'm asking for. I think it's ambition, or vision, or something surprising and weird. Maybe I'm just put off by product that is so blatantly meant to be product.

Bit of a tangent, sorry. Anyway, THE AVENGERS really doesn't diverge from the formula, but it benefits from working that formula at near maximum efficiency, and from having already established all of its characters in other movies. Thus, the origin sequence is just the plot bringing all of these supes together to form a super group, like Damn Yankees or the Traveling Wilburies, which is a slight but welcome variant on the 'how I got my powers' first act. THE AVENGERS also benefits from healthy doses of director Joss Whedon, who manages to nail the tone (fun, breezy, quips, explosions, etc.) and sneak in a handful of what are known in the industry as The Hilarious Jokes, most of which involve the Hulk hitting somebody. Strangely enough, given how incomprehensible simple fist-fights have occasionally become on Whedon's fine TV shows, the action scenes probably represent a new gold standard in lucidity. You pretty much always know who is punching or shooting which alien bug, where, and how. What I'm saying is, you almost never find yourself thinking, "Wait, Thor is hitting THIS bug? But I thought he was hitting THAT bug. So then, who is hitting THAT bug? Is it Captain America? Where is Captain America? WHERE IS CAPTAIN AMERICA RIGHT NOW??"

These are the things you rarely find yourself asking during THE AVENGERS.

The plot makes zero sense (which, I know, superhero movie, so who cares), none of it has any emotional weight (ibid), and everything blows up real good (ibid ibid). So, I don't know, maybe it's brain candy but it's that good brain candy. It's the house that's handing out full-sized candy bars, not the house that's handing out Bit O' Honey. It's fun. It's dumb. It's forgettable. I think Iron Man dies for a second. Captain America is an unfrozen caveman lawyer, who is confused and frightened by your strange technologies. Thor definitely flexes all the muscles (ladies). Hulk has magical stretchy pants, so does Black Widow. Hawkeye exists. The sequel will be this exact same movie again. When's the sequel?

 The Lion King (1994, Minkoff) ** (C-)

Hasn't aged too well, despite some handsome animation and a couple of moments iconic enough to have trickled into the cultural subconscious. The seeds of Disney's second great quality dive were sown here in its biggest hit to date (still? I think? If somebody has Internet, please research this), with sub-middle school fart humor mingled with over-the-top darkness (channeling Riefenstahl? Really, kiddie movie?), and pacing that caroms between lackadaisical and rushed. The gross racial profiling, which at the time this was new I remember thinking was a silly criticism, stands out pretty clearly. "Never go into that neighborhood, Simba. The elephants haven't gentrified it yet. And as you can see from the animation, it LITERALLY gets dark early over there. Was our studio's founder notoriously racist? Yes, he was! Oh, look at the time.; we're late for a quick song and a trampling. Fatal for me, coming-of-age for you. Spoiler! Let's move on."

I'll never not be disappointed when the choir in the admittedly powerful wordless opening sequence gives way to Elton John's "circle of life" schtick, because when I think of Africa, oh yeah, I think of Elton John. Props, though, for lifting Hamlet's plot engine and plunking it down here. I foresee a double feature with STRANGE BREW.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 12/2/2012

Sita Sings the Blues (2010, Paley) ***1/2 (A-)

I think I loved the first 30 or so minutes of this as much as anything else I saw this year. It's unfortunately difficult to explain in a way that makes sense, but fortunately impossible to spoil, since it's pretty much all effect — you've got to be there.

Essentially, it breaks down like this: (1) A woman named Nina (modeled after creator/animator/writer/director Nina Paley, apparently) suffers the slow disintegration of her marriage as her husband moves to India on ostensibly temporary business; (2) a group of present-day Indian people recount, in fits and stars, the story of Sita and her tumultuous relationship with the blue-skinned Hindi demigod Rama; (3) we observe that story played out as a quasi-adventure story; (4) we observe that same story played out as essayed by the character of Sita, who narrates the action by singing ragtime jazz standards, or perhaps lip synching to old Annette Hanshaw records. The songs comment in clever ways upon Sita's situation, and Sita's situation comments in clever ways upon the situation of modern-day Nina.

Oh, and each segment is animated in a different style, which keeps the movie constantly compelling visually, and completely easy to follow, despite the intricate methodology. Given that it was done almost totally by one person and animated on a computer using Flash, it's pretty much amazing. It's the damndest thing. You ought to see it now. I'm downgrading it from total classic status only because Paley repeats the formula a couple too many times, leading to a little bit of old-timey jazz fatigue.

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (2012, Heidecker, Wareheim) *1/2 (D+)

I thought I'd like this. I like Tim and Eric, and I like the so-wrong-it's-right, so-dumb-it's-smart, so-bad-it's-good aesthetic of their TV show (admittedly I've seen only a couple of their bits) and their occasional other appearances. It's the comedy of the off-putting, a dare to stay with them, and to an extent in this movie it works. Chef Goldblum has a funny cameo, for instance, and many of the Tim-and-Eric-ish segments are genuinely good. But dares can curdle from fun to a bad idea pretty quickly, and I have to say that eventually I had to take them up on their dare to dislike their. . . is this a movie? If so, is it a comedy? Parts of it are certainly funny. There's a point where "so-smart-it's-dumb" can become so 'so-smart-it's-dumb' that it's dumb. I think the moment probably comes when Eric Wareheim has paid Ray Wise, owner of a strip mall spa therapy, to allow him to sit in a large tub have a dozen young boys fill it with diarrhea. It's a pretty long scene, exactly as excruciating as it sounds, and it would be a challenge for any movie to come back from that. I'm guess I'm here to say that this is not that movie.

What I suspect is that, having hit upon the conceit of the premise, which is "Tim and Eric blow a billion dollars of studio money making a horribly unwatchable film," they must have thought, "Wouldn't it be even MORE hilarious if we ACTUALLY blew all the money making a film that ACTUALLY IS horribly unwatchable?"

As it turns out: No.

Wreck-It Ralph (2012, Moore) *** (B)

Modestly clever world-building, plenty of in-jokes for the video-game-addicted, and some particularly strong animation modeling character design to the voice acting lift this slightly above most of the non-Pixar animated fare out there. The plot rarely strays from exactly where you'd know it was going, but John C. Reilly makes a credible and likeable cartoon protagonist (this is a compliment, I think) and Alan Tudyk does his best Ed Wynn impression as the evil (spoiler!) King Candy. It turns out that Alan Tudyk's best Ed Wynn is a pretty good Ed Wynn. The opening Bad Guy Anonymous meeting is a hoot, though most of it played during the trailer. It's possible this movie is actually a candy commercial.

Five Easy Pieces (1970, Rafelson) ***1/2 (A-)

Once upon a time there bestrode in the land a glorious creature known as the "Restrained Jack Nicholson." Endangered even 40 years ago, it entranced all who saw its only occasionally unfurled eyebrow arches.

It's only natural, I guess, given that it's the moment that Nicholson is closest to what would become his default manic persona, that the diner scene is the most famous thing to come out of what is an understated internal drama. What I'd missed is that Nicholson's outburst toward the waitress is probably a product of his growing frustration with the never ending blather of one of the hitchhikers they've picked up. It's a great scene remembered for the wrong reasons; what's great about it is the subtle way it's about something else.

The slow reveal of who Bobby Dupea actually is and where he comes from remains powerful structural storytelling, though I can't help but feel that make the patriarch catatonic is one subtlety too many (even if it does give Nicholson his big acting moment). Since it's clearly his influence that's driven Bobby away from his cosseted prodigy existence, and since the rest of the family is nice enough (if odd), we're left with scraps and hints of the actual causes that have filled him with such vitriol. The effect is intriguing, since it's possible the problem is only that Bobby's an asshole. Ah, the 70s, when the hero could just be an unreconstructed son of a bitch and that could be the point. The final scene is a genius example of the long shot, a dialogue free short story.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 11/25/2012

The Gold Rush (1925, Chaplin) *** (B+)

OK, friends, questions: (1) The tinny pianoforte music that plays during silents — is it canon? I mean, is that a directorial choice, or could I think about substituting in something else that doesn't make me hate everybody and everything, without compromising what the director wanted the viewing experience to be? (2) Almost all title cards are pointless. I realize that isn't a question, but seriously. About halfway through this I started counting which title cards actually provided information useful to the story, and I counted two (one of which provided context for a show-shoveling bit that would have been funny enough anyway, and another that made it clear what song was being sung by a crowd, though it probably could have been guessed). All the rest told me something I already knew just from watching. So what I'm saying is, title cards are basically the lazy trope of the silent era like voice-over is the lazy trope of this one. Are there versions with title cards out? Are the cards part of the director's 'authorship', or were they added after the fact?

All this is by way of getting at why I'm not really captured by silent movies, even those (like this one) that are clearly masterpieces of their form. I suspect it's something like learning a new language; there's something about the visual vocabulary of the form that lets me get the gist, but not hear the poetry. I'm still checking the English-to-French dictionary.

Regardless of all this, if you speak fluent Silent-ese, this is obviously not to be missed. THE GOLD RUSH is home to some of Chaplin's most famous bits, to the point that it's practically a greatest hits collection (dinner rolls dancing, cabin on a cliff, eating the shoe, and whatdya know, Loony Tunes cribbed its "starving guy sees his friend turn into food" bit from the Tramp). Chaplin is a beast, with a muscularity to his shtick that I wasn't expecting (e.g. his 'stiff as a board' routine) and I don't know if there's a more expressive performer in film; the guy can give you happy, sad, proud, or suicidal, without voice, from the back, simply in how he walks. Also surprising: the Yukon's Darwinian living conditions are presented starkly for a comedy (the opening shots of endless lines trudging through winter waste could have come from some POTEMKIN-esque social commentary, hunger is ever-present, and life is cheap); and the tiny continuity details that become running visual gags. After eating his shoe, the Tramp's foot is for the rest of the movie wrapped in a jury-rigged towel. Hope Chaplin didn't use real snow.

Serpico (1973, Lumet) *** (B) 

Al Pacino's shaggy intensity in the title role provides a lot of the value to this rather straightforward movie, whose plot, interestingly enough, boils down to: "Serpico's co-workers want shoot Serpico, Serpico no like, Serpico want transfer, why nobody transfer Serpico?" Kudos to the film for not falling into the common biopic trap and deifying the man, whose strength came mainly from stubbornly wanting to do a good job. The central irony that Lumet wisely presents is that Serpico isn't a crusader until he's absolutely forced to be, and wouldn't have testified against his dirty colleagues if they hadn't been so concerned that he would testify. Serpico apparently didn't so much want to expose the pervasive culture of corruption and bribery that (apparently) existed at all levels of the NYPD, he just wanted to be free to not have to take part in it, and apparently to slowly transform into a wolfman in hobo clothes. (Having seen "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" hilarious homage, which really takes the piss of the badass cool the film clearly intends Pacino to convey, I confess I had more trouble taking the character seriously than I otherwise would have. Probably colored my appreciation.)

Prometheus (2012, Scott) **1/2 (C+)

More like "Promethe-MESS", amiright, amiright?

So yes, I won't belabor all the things that totally didn't work here (honorary mention to "run LEFT OR RIGHT" and "that's right...FATHER"), but it's undeniable four months later that this belongs to the special class of movies that manage to make less and less sense every time you think about it. The problem here isn't that it's a silly story, it's that it's a silly story that has delusions of grandeur; it *thinks* it's a very deep and meaningful story. It's a shame, really, since most other aspects of the movie besides that story actually are compelling. Ridley Scott clearly is one of the top visual craftsmen working today, it just appears that he's not sure exactly what to do with these impressive, immersive worlds he designs. I'd say it's incorrect for people (and I include myself) to have hoped for this as Scott's return to making movies that have thematic depth, since he's never really done that (BLADERUNNER aside, maybe). He's just always been about image and moment over story. Perhaps this should have been a silent movie without humans, or at least without dialogue? Anyway, the 'remove foreign object' sequence is a top-shelf suspense set piece, and Michael Fassbender is fantastic (I was going to write that he gave "the greatest android performance ever" until I realized that doesn't sound very impressive) in a role that ultimately —again — doesn't make any sense, but at least his chilly ambiguity, filtered through Peter O'Toole, fits the tone the movie is trying to reach, whenever it isn't forcing us to laugh at hilarious old age makeup, that is.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Selick) **** (A)

The jittery other-worldliness of stop motion meets a perfect subject. I suspect this is a movie that would make an effective viewing experience without sound; based solely on non-stop visual inventiveness and immediately iconic character models (the way the creatures pull off "genuinely nightmarish yet nonthreatening" is a constant surprise), this this would probably be destined for classic status even if the songbook wasn't a murderer's row. I'm not educated enough on his oeuvre to say this definitively, but I'm thinking this is Danny Elfman's finest hour, right? If you're not totally captured after the "This is Halloween" opener, I forgive you, but I can't help you. Not sure there is a dud song in the batch, musically or lyrically (maybe Oogie Boogie). I guess my one quibble is that there's not much attempt at defining a unique mythology, or even making it coherent — the holiday portals are *inside* the Halloween wood? — but I suspect Selick's instinct to favor pageantry over specificity are correct. Funny that the most Tim-Burtony, Tim Burtonesque movie Tim Burton ever Tim Burtoned wasn't even Tim Burtoned by Tim Burton. Probably for the best. Tim Burton.

Paper Moon (1973, Bogdanovich) ***1/2 (A-)

With a couple forgivable exceptions, this is an unconventionally unsentimental take on the "child disrupts selfish man's life" trope, mainly because the human suffering is observed rather than underlined, and especially because the kid's angry exterior hides only an even more angry interior, significantly more pragmatically avaricious than her adoptive-probably-biological father figure. She doesn't want to melt his heart, she wants to refine it into something more effective.

Despite strong performances from Ryan O'Neal and (Oscar winning) daughter Tatum as the Depression-era flim flam man and the orphan waif he takes on a road trip across struggling America (during which they mercifully learn absolutely no Life Lessons), PAPER MOON's primary pleasures are stylistic. This is, in essence, Bogdanovich's mostly successful attempt at making a John Ford movie. The old-school composition and cinematography made me wish that black-and-white deep focus movies of this sort were still commercially viable enough to be made today. There's a painterly artificiality to the format that I nevertheless find totally compelling. But this is a pretty good last gasp from an abandoned style.

So where did P-Bog go after dropping this and THE LAST PICTURE SHOW within a two-year span? Come on, man. Get off the mat.

Hanna (2011, Wright) ** (C)

I really don't know what the hell to make of this. It's the KICK-ASS Hit Girl filtered through THE BOURNE IDENTITY real-world spy grit filtered through a French coming-of-age sexual awakening story filtered through a music video. It's frenetic and visually compelling and total nonsense and I rarely gave much of a shit. Eric Bana has muscles in a very sensitive sort of way. Occasionally Cate Blanchett happens all over this movie in an explosion of insane, dentalflossing scenery-chewing; highly entertaining, but it works at total cross-purposes to the ethereal quiet center Saoirse Ronan is attempting (frequently with success) to provide.

Oh, and Joe Wright? Learn how the internet works. It's 2011. The scene where Hanna looks up the entire top-secret government project, complete with photos proving her true identity, by basically doing a keyword search on "WHAT IS MY SECRET BACK STORY" from an Internet Cafe (!) would have been embarrassing in 1998.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 11/18/2012

The Pianist (2002, Polanski) ***1/2 (B+)

Not another Holocaust movie. Yes. I know. THE PIANIST is still worth a look.

Anchored by an extraordinary (and for long stretches silent) performance by Adrien Brody, this is not so much a Holocaust movie as a survivalist movie. It's a film about hunger and desperation, about somebody who survives not because he is particularly brave, or resourceful, or strong, but partly because he is lucky, and mostly because he is willing to survive. Polanski is wise enough to film most of the atrocity at the same distance as observed by its protagonist, but savvy enough to make each death seem like the end of a story just as vital as the one we are following. The old woman whose scant allotment of food is spilled and slurped by a desperate vagrant contains two separate films unto itself, that of the vagrant, and that of the woman. We are left to intuit the result from his chin-on-the-cobblestone hunger, from her racking sobs as she impotently beats him: The thief lived another day for his theft. Her family starved for it. We die inside for the woman. We try to judge the thief and cannot. Our hero passively endures, as 1940s Warsaw closes around him and other Jews like a slow noose, until finally the world is a hellish shell, even an battered can of okra contains all the world's hope – and then, unexpectedly and all at once, in an extraordinary sequence, beauty comes briefly crashing back in.

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Eisenstein) ***1/2 (A-)

Landmark status is clear, a lot of the imagery still packs a punch, and the Odessa stairs sequence is rightfully lionized, but ultimately this is something that was stylized for another age. Learning to groove on silent films is a learned skill that I expect I haven't fully learned (though surprisingly the performances are far less theatrical than usual for the time). I guess I'll be adding this to the list of top-shelf influential films that I admire more than love. It's not you, Potemkin. It's me.

Step Brothers (2008, McKay) **** (A)

I don't care. You hear me? I just don't care. Yes, it's frequently dumb, probably overstuffed, and it traffics in an arrested development man-boy trope that is pretty tired. I recognize this. It's also the funniest thing I've seen in ages, with Ferrell's hyperactive doughy labradoodle contrasting perfectly with Reilly's confused belligerent bulldog, and the blind, misplaced confidence the two bring to whatever they do just makes me laugh. It makes me laugh all the different ways. There's rarely a moment that doesn't have at least a couple gems, though a series of job interviews is particularly choice. Adam Scott, Mary Steenburgen, and Richard Jenkins all come to play, with a gameness (in particular Jenkins recounting his boyhood aspiration to be a dinosaur and Scott leading his family in a too-perfect a capella rendering of Guns N Roses) that helps make this more than just a two man show. It's one of those movies in the proud tradition of THE JERK, where the idiocy is an asset.

Ice Age 4: Continental Drift (2012, Martino/Thurmeier) **1/2 (C)

A professionally crafted, fairly unimaginative children's entertainment product (I haven't seen the other three), leavened by a number of genuinely funny moments, and a number of essentially unrelated sequences featuring a creature that I won't pretend I don't know is called a Scrat, who futilely and single-mindedly chases an acorn in what essentially are interstitial cartoon shorts in the vein of classic Road Runner (Scrat being the missing link of Wile E. Coyote). It's somewhat unfortunate that these segments are considerably more entertaining than the movie they're designed to frame.

Brave (2012, Andrews/Chapman/Purcell) *** (B)

Fairly slight, especially for a Pixar movie, but gorgeously rendered, and possessed by one of the most whacked-out plot events of the year, which immediately removes it from the tired old "princess asserts her 21st century-appropriate sense of self-actualization in the face of traditional expectations" trope promised by the marketing, and spins it off into something more complex and satisfying, and also absurdly funny. (Not to say that women shouldn't be self-actualized, just that it's nice to see a movie with a strong female character that is about more than just that). Also, Mike Meyers' efforts to the contrary notwithstanding, Scottish accents are funny always.

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1945, Powell/Pressburger) **** (A)

Powell and Pressburger continue to impress(burger). Apparently the main (and title) character is drawn loosely from a famous Brit cartoon character of the early 20th century, who represented blinkered out-of-touch conservative blowhards of a certain type, but the Archer Studio masters use him as a template upon which to ruminate on the moment when war stopped being the province of gentlemen and became instead an industrialized free-for-all, devoid of scruple or rules of engagement. This has the typical Powell/Pressburger gorgeous technical expertise and flights of formalized surrealism, but few movies rely more upon the context of its release date to give it true poignancy and meaning. Given that this film: (a) It was made Britain during the Blitz, for God's sake; (b) features as its central relationship a longstanding friendship of honor between a British officer and a German one; and (c) mourns the amoral ruthlessness (drawn in stark contrast with the code of honor represented by "Blimp", aka our hero, Clive Candy) which a new breed of allied warriors feels compelled to employ to counter the Nazi horde, it seems an almost foolhearty act of bravery to have produced such a movie.

The Invention of Lying (2009, Gervais) **1/2 (C+)

Brilliant premise, squandered. Gervais is ingratiating as the man in a high-concept alternate universe that never learned to lie. I think he's actually underrated as an actor; his naturalistic, in-the-moment reactions are a big reason the high concept works to the extent that it does. A deathbed sequence packs an existential punch that you don't usually get in comedies; crucially, however, Gervais frequently mistakes "not lying" with "expressing in clinical detail decisions about genetic preference as regards sex", which wouldn't be so fatal if it didn't become one of the movie's two central conceits. Simply put, even if we didn't lie, we wouldn't turn down dates by talking about genes. There's a difference between prevarication and reptile-mind subconscious, and at a certain point it just becomes distracting and creepy, especially since as a result we're meant to root for Gervais' likeable shlub to get together with a beautiful but ghoulish racial purist (Jennifer Garner, struggling at least semi-heroically with an impossible character).

Louis CK without a beard is unnerving.

Drive (2011, Refn) ***1/2 (B+)

A very pretty exercise in stripped-down style, which is basically enough for me. The opening getaway sequence alone is worth the price of admission, though it never quite reaches those heights again, and I found myself wishing for a movie that was just a disconnected sequence of such scenes. Gosling seems to come from some earlier breed of movie star, though since I've seen very little of his output to this point (I'm not sure, and it doesn't even seem possible, but I think this is the first role in which I've seen him), it's certainly possible that this is an affectation for this particular movie. Still, he does the stoic stalwart thing effectively, perhaps too much so. Since we never really get a sense of his motivations, he almost fails to register as human. Albert Brooks makes up for it, though, as a pragmatist wise guy who can murder you like he's doing you a favor.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 10/28/2012

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, Ford) **** (A)

Now THIS is the definitive John Wayne/John Ford collaboration I was waiting for. It also manages to dodge the annoyances of this era's genre conventions, not by eschewing them, but simply by doing them well. For the (inescapable) comic relief we are provided with veteran character actors like Andy Devine and Edmond O'Brien, who create real and amusing characters, rather than just stock dummies or midgets to hoot at. And was I just complaining about this era's overuse of "begin-at-the-end" framing device (which distracted me from the otherwise-excellent ALL ABOUT EVE)? Here it actually works magnificently, since the only thing that's really given away is that Stewart's upright lawyer/teacher-man/future-senator isn't fated to be gunned down by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, glowering in silly cowboy duds like only Lee Marvin can) during the central showdown. This doesn't ease the tension when the real battle of the movie is not between the heroes and the cowboy thug, but between the conflicting philosophies of society represented by the two leads. Can order be imposed upon chaos through principal and rule of law, or does the violent wild need to be tamed by men capable themselves of violence? It's to the film's credit that the answer appears to be 'yes.' Both Stewart's bookish-but-valiant Ransom Stoddard and Wayne's tough and capable farmer are seen as necessary components to a tamed West, but the civics lessons and nascent representational government at the heart of the movie make it clear that Stewart's vision of the frontier is waxing while Wayne's is waning.

As good as Stewart is here, it's Wayne who owns the show. Everything that can seem contrived about the Wayne persona is just right here; the swagger, the confidence, the machismo so over the top that it always flirts with ridiculousness (see Nathan Lane in THE BIRDCAGE mincing exactly like Wayne), all are in service of a character who is perfectly in service of the story. His Tom Donniphon is a man tough enough to warn the bad men away from himself and those under his protection, pragmatic enough not to try to protect too many, and good enough to be defenseless against the threat that the elegant and non-violent bravery of Stewart's lawyer represents to his romantic intentions. He's fated to be the man who paves the way unsung for the taming of the West, only to be left behind when it is tame. LIBERTY VALANCE echoes through the genre, prefiguring both LONESOME DOVE and UNFORGIVEN. This is one of the greatest westerns of all time.

The African Queen (1951, Huston) ** (C-)

John Huston directs Bogie and Hepburn? Given the pedigree, I was ready to enjoy what seemed like a classic from Old Hollywood, albeit a rather minor one. Famously (according to Wikipedia) shot on location, they really may as well have put it on the lot for all the use Huston makes of it. Some 'yes-you-are-in-Africa' wildlife are shoehorned into the movie in post like stock footage, but the majority of the film is tight and medium shots of the two actors, who are left completely alone for almost the entire running time. It's still fun enough as a breezy buddy film (it's great watching Bogart bluster, then immediately wilt every time, before Hepburn's indomitable resolve), but once Bogart's hard drinking river-rat and Hepburn's trademark fine-bred dame with an iron will fall in love (spoiler), the film rather unfortunately hangs its fortunes on the ability of the leads to generate some romantic heat, which they succeed into doing essentially the exact opposite of. Perhaps the morals code wouldn't let them express any heat while unmarried and cohabiting, perhaps they couldn't figure out how to be any more than admiringly amused by each other; in any case, this is rarely more than intermittently satisfying and never even remotely believable as a romance; I don't think the long sequence in which the Queen gets stuck in deep mud, nearly leading to the death of all (both) characters was meant to function quite so aptly as a metaphor for the film.

 Watchmen (2009, Snyder) ** (C-)

Alan Moore's famed graphic novel is arguably one of the great works of literature of the 80s – in any genre – so given that this movie is famously a slavish recreation of the source material, it's one of the greatest movies of the decade, right?

Hrrrrrm. Where to start? Well, first of all, I have to admit that the technical aspects are pretty close to flawless. This movie really *looks* like the comic. Um, some of the performances are pretty good, particularly Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, who is, let's face it, probably the character that transfers most easily to the modern comic book movie template, what with the grittiness and the violence. The special effects are solid, with a few exceptions. I liked them.

But...this is a modern comic book movie. Which is to say that, even though, with one major exception, the script hits all the main plot points (even retaining the 80s setting for no better reason than 'the comic was set in the 80's).. wow, it sure does manage to hit them for all the wrong reasons. I mean, Moore set out to completely explode superhero comics, and succeeded, taking the stylized world and playing it entirely straight and psychologically realistic. You can make a compelling argument that post-WATCHMEN 99% of superhero stories have been essentially redundant. Zach Snyder's film perversely subverts this subversion, turning WATCHMEN back into the exact sort of POW ZANG BANG comic book fantasy that Moore was celebrating/stabbing/mercy killing. So it can't be a surprise that the movie's one major point of divergence from the comic is Moore's sharp turn into EC Comics horror grotesquery, which obviously had to be transmogrified into something that is somewhat more movie-sensible (as long as you don't think about it too hard), with the somewhat unfortunate side-effect of destroying the entire point of the original story. Other than that, good movie. Oh yeah, also — Matthew Goode as Ozymandias would have given the worst performance in the history of anything if he hadn't been upstaged by the even worse Malin Åkerman as the Silk Scepbrzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...Put it this way. She's very pretty, and even her sex scene is laughably boring.

Having said all that, if you devoured the comics in middle school as they came out, seeing the images come to life on the big screen can be awesome on a surface level. Just be aware going in that it's mainly foam, not much beer.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 10/21/2012

All About Eve (1950, Mankiewicz) **** A

Well, now I have to watch BORN YESTERDAY to see the performance that kept Bette Davis from the Oscar in one of the fiercest performances of the decade. Davis is the fading though still undeniably great star, and it's not hard to see that Davis is drawing on painful personal experience as her Margo Channing is slowly obsolesced by her conniving superfan-cum-amanuensis, the titular Eve (Ann Baxter). The rest of the cast does superb work (George Sanders was justly Oscar'd for his turn as a bitchy, Machiavellian impressario/theater critic), and at the half point Marilyn Monroe debuts like the real-life megaton bomb(shell) the fictional Eve is meant to represent. Baxter isn't as indelible as Davis, but perhaps that's by design in a film that mourns the way great actresses are cast out in favor of the new pretty thing, long before their own Awesomeness Expiration Dates.

My only real quibble is the "start at the end" framing device, which isn't particularly necessary, and deflates much of what should be revelations about Eve and her true intentions. This but seems to have been an extremely popular trope during Hollywood's golden years. Almost never does it work for me; not here, not in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, not in SUNSET BOULEVARD, not in . . . well, let's say it works infrequently, even in movies I think are landmark achievements in other respects. Am I wrong about this? What was the deal, classic movies?

The Searchers (1956, Ford) ***1/2 (B+) 

Sorry, but no, this isn't one of the 5 or 10 or 20 best movies of forever times, as seems to be the consensus these days. Which of course (as I apparently feel compelled to say any time I give less than four stars to a canonized movie) doesn't make it bad. Ford is an understated master as always; it's a gorgeous movie full of gorgeous shots, and Wayne is a powerful presence, but half the movie belongs to charisma-hole Jeffery Hunter and his oft-delayed betrothal to fellow charisma-hole Vera Miles (at least those crazy kids have something in common), which consistently derails the other much more interesting movie that keeps trying to happen. That movie is unquestionably great, though I think the film's rather inevitable ending (you're not going to end your picture with John Wayne murdering Natalie Wood) tries to let Ethan off the hook in a way that doesn't work after two-plus hours of vileness. Also, anybody who thinks that this movie is an outlier of racial sensitivity is forgetting the Indian bride played for yucks. (To say nothing about the stock "retarded" character, who is purely meant as comic relief and is about as funny as a clown*. Seriously, what the hell is it about 50s and 60s Westerns that thought that a retarded man or a dwarf or a retarded dwarf was necessary even in an otherwise dramatic piece? I don't see TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD interrupted for a five minute scene of Billy Barty getting drunk and making hilariously lewd advances on Dill — which, now that I've typed that: yes, of course that would be better). Still, credit where due for presenting Ethan warts and all, as both a brave man of action and a miserable racist son of a bitch, and to Wayne for committing his considerable screen presence to the endeavor. It's strength is in letting us sort it out, which does leave us with a much more nuanced moral landscape that your usual 50s oater. You know, even with the cop-out ending.

*Clowns are not funny. They are horrible.

Surf's Up (2007, Brannon, Buck) **1/2 (C+)

You know what? I think I've seen enough kids movies cut from the exact same wan 'hero learns a lesson' template. (The lesson in this case is: enjoy the experience, not the accolades. Is it learned? By the hero?*) Manages watch-ability primarily via (1) some occasionally nifty integration of the animated characters into what appear to be real backgrounds, (2) Jeff Bridges' reprisal as The Dude in animated surfer penguin mode and (3) fairly breezy sense of humor that never seems to be taking itself seriously. The faux documentary trope drops in and out as the plot demands, though the talking head portions are probably the most entertaining. "Thoroughly inoffensive" sums it up well.

*Yes, and yes. I suppose after all it's good that the protagonist's arc involves his learning not to care if he wins or loses, since that was my starting point.

The Master (2012, PT Anderson) ***1/2 (A-)

There's an extraordinary moment near the end of THE MASTER in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman repeats the word, "two." I won't give the context since it comprises a minor spoiler (and I'm pretending these are being read by people), but it was the moment for me that I decided that Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, cult founder, leader, author, and all around flim-flam man, really believes the new age time-travel past-lives moonshine he's peddling — which, come to think of it, might be what he sees in Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a disaffected, sex-obsessed, disturbed and violent WWII vet who stumbles into his orbit. Apparently, Freddy is also a savant with a very odd specialty; he is preternaturally skilled in making hooch out of fuel, turpentine, and whatever other obviously poisonous household products are at hand. Nor is this a matter of necessity; Freddy appears to prefer his swill even when premium liquor is at hand. Stranger still, so seemingly does Dodd. Or, perhaps, Dodd simply appreciates a man willing to get high on his own supply. Sure, sometimes others get sick or even die from this shit, but they themselves never do. They are, as Freddy puts it, "smart about it." Down the hatch.

That's Dodd is full of it is never something the film really leaves in doubt, though the movie isn't particularly interested in exposé (it evokes Scientology but doesn't seem to mirror it). An early scene depicting a confrontation between Dodd and a skeptic proves conclusively that this "Master" is all potato and no chip. But still...his methods are effective in breaking down emotional and psychological barriers, and in fact his methods seem as though they could conceivably be of occasional benefit, if only they were stripped of demagoguery. Hoffman's imbues Dodd with the sort of charisma and intelligence that makes you *want* to believe, at least in the moment, that he's telling the truth. He's a man who know exactly what he thinks, and exactly why, which can be intoxicating even after you've figured out that what he thinks is ultimately full of nothing.

Which brings me to Paul Thomas Anderson, a man seemingly in possession of limitless formal skills as a filmmaker. I'll see any of his movies, for no other reason than the sheer intoxication of watching an artist who knows exactly what he is doing and why. Like Altman, or or Kubrick, or Scorsese (or many dozens of others to whom PTA is less frequently compared) we know in each film we are contending with intelligence and intentionality in service of craft. Anderson does extraordinary things as usual with image, with dialogue, with performance and (perhaps especially in this case) with sound, to create at all times a sense of deep experience. What's not clear in this case is whether or not it's ultimately full of nothing. Which is my extremely long-winded way of saying that I really sure as we sit watching this movie we are doing, what it's supposed to mean, or even if there is meaning to be had.

It's certainly possible that this is one of those films whose layers will reveal themselves over time, upon reflection and upon subsequent viewings (look: most 3.5 star reviews are not getting a review anywhere close to this long). But my initial impression was one of context excised. In some cases the missing context is overt and serves the story well (e.g., the fact that we aren't showing the meeting of Freddy and Dodd is because Freddy was blackout blotto and doesn't remember it; leaving it out underscores Freddy's role as our 'point of view' character). Nevertheless, my mode was one of constant expectation of a revelation that never really came, a constant "wow, this is really interesting to watch, and I sure wish I knew why it is supposed to be as compelling as I feel I should find it."

There's a moment around the middle of the run time when Dodd breaks down Freddy by forcing him to spend the day with eyes closed, walking from one end of a room (wood paneling) to another (glass window) and each time forces him to describe what he feels. It's pointless, it's repetitive, and the way it is shot and scored and acted had me on the edge of my seat for the catharsis that it seemed to think it was presenting, but I never really saw the point of it and I still don't. It's possible that Anderson has with THE MASTER become, like the Master, the delivery mechanism for a giant sham.

But if it is just a sham, it's a hell of an entrancing sham. I'll watch it again.

P.S. I don't know how I get out this review without talking about the performance of Joaquin Phoenix, who . . . holy crap. It's got to be one of the single most bizarre things I've ever seen. All crazy angles and distortions, his body and face a mess of discomfort, he's playing a young man who has somehow managed to make himself elderly, a bundle of muscle and rage turned inward on itself until it become sunken-chested weakness, filtered (I shit you not) through Popeye. It shouldn't work, it's horribly contrived, and it is inescapably believable. Hoffman does great work with a known archetype. Phoenix creates some sort of insane new archetype that will probably disappear forevermore.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 10/14/2012

Inglourious Basterds (2009, Tarantino) **** 1/2 A
"This work has been totally misunderstood" is the essential subtext of many of Quentin Tarantino's digressions (whether in life or by in-movie proxy via one of his characters) upon pop-culture ephemera and serious art and everything in between. Tarantino has served up everything from the true meaning of TOP GUN (homosexual proselytizing) to Superman (Clark Kent as the hero's cultural criticism) to (within this very film) KING KONG (white America's fear of black men). For crying out loud, were one to watch the entirety of the QT oeuvre chronologically, the very first scene would feature a character played by Tarantino himself, providing a (somewhat convincing) exegesis on the what Madonna's "Like a Virgin" really means. His signature style prominently involves recontextualization of existing work. No, he keeps insisting, this isn't about that. It's actually about this. This work has been totally misunderstood.

Having said all of that, Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS has been totally misunderstood, and, given that the director himself seems to promote the misunderstanding, I am left to wonder if he isn't punking the film world, or if he understood that the film he actually made wasn't marketable and thus agreed to market a different one, or if even the Great Gazoo of Subtext himself has failed to realize what his movie is REALLY saying.

This isn't a Jewish revenge picture. It's not even a revenge picture. It's a commentary on propaganda in film. It is perhaps the first movie I've seen that really takes a look at the fact that Nazis have become in our pop culture essentially inhuman beasts made for and fit for slaughter, rather than human beings guilty of terrible crimes. This is not to say that Tarantino has made an apologia for Nazis, but it does a brilliant thing: it forces an audience (an American audience in particular) to confront their reaction to pop-culture-assisted dehumanization. Imagine the scene, played out in multiplexes across the land; a group of people in a movie theater watching INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. Onscreen, a group of Nazi hoi polloi sit and watch a film about a German war hero, cheering each death of each dehumanized soldier. Suddenly, two parallel revenge schemes hatch simultaneously. Our heroes gun down Nazis like. . .well, like the vermin they are, while the rest of them burn to death, and the matinee audience for Quentin Tarantino's ostensible 'revenge' flick cheer this mass killing (probably) like . . . well, like the on-screen Nazi's who were just whooping it up as they watched the fictionalized death of a dehumanized enemy (QT even lets the Basterds kill Hitler to take the movie unmistakeably out of the realm of historical reality and into the realm of abstraction). The bait is taken; the trap is closed. The real-life audience has been put in the place of the film-life Nazi. It's a beautifully subversive way of presenting the theme.

Oh, also, it's beautifully shot, acted, and written, with three of the best suspense set pieces of recent memory ("Landa orders milk", "three glasses", and "Landa orders milk again") and the funniest punch line of the year: "Buon giorno!" This is Tarantino's best movie since PULP FICTION.

St. Elmo's Fire (1985, Shumacher) 1/2 (D-)

Short: This was not a good movie and I did not like it and I did not like the people in it and I did not like the things that these people did and I did not like the way what they did was presented either aesthetically or thematically.

Long: Boy, this isn't any good at all, unless you're looking for a vicarious laugh at the Eighties-ist of all things Eighties (To cite just one example: Rob Lowe in a sleeveless shirt and skinny bandana and poodle hair totally and unironically striking a bad-boy rock pose while, um, playing sax. Yeah.)

Shot with the eye for craftsmanship, composition, and trenchant detail we've come to expect from a Joel Shumacher film, ELMO'S follows a bunch of whiny, entitled, spoiled, unlikeable brats as they graduate from college and proceed to become miserable. At the end, they are still a bunch of whiny, entitled, spoiled, unlikeable brats (except for Mare Winningham and sort of Ali Sheedy) who now go to a different bar (spoiler). The film, while acknowledging that some of the characters are making some bad choices, clearly expects us to find most of them endearing and charming from start to finish, instead of vacuous losers (Moore, Lowe, McCarthy) or budding serial killers (Estevez, Nelson, also sort of McCarthy just on general principles). It also expects us to believe that Andie MacDowell is a doctor, which is against at least three articles of the Geneva convention.

Good song to roller-skate to, though.

8 1/2 (1963, Fellini) **** (A)

This movie just keeps unfolding further every time I watch it, and I find myself at a loss as to what to say except "watch it, and for the love of God please don't try too hard to understand it." Probably has the most seamless transitions from past to present of its kind. (Does anybody know, was it the first to do that trick? It seems unlikely for the release date, but it strikes me here as an entirely new trope.) Does surreal as well as any other Fellini I've seen, and Fellini does filmed surrealism as well as anybody whose name is not "Luis Buñuel." Mastroianni performs effortless deflation of his effortless cool with each new angle of his odd hat. The harem scene is hilarious and lacerating. The final freak parade is beautifully forgiving and celebratory. I really like this.

Oldboy (2003, Park) ** 1/2 (B-)

Huge points for style and for employing plot twists that at least make sense in the moment. Unfortunately most of those points get docked right back off again because I don't care for nihilism simply for its own sake. Still, the scene that I will call "A Man, A Plan, A Hammer: Hallway" has to make anybody's all-time list of amazing fight scene choreography (that said choreography makes use of impossible physics should be considered a feature, not a bug), and the parallels between the opening shot and a girl on a bridge are admittedly gorgeous. I just wish at the end I had even the slightest reason to give a crap.

Caveat: I watched this on a Netflix streamer that only had an English dub available. It was decently done as far as those things go, but I really hate non-Studio-Ghibli dubs, which seem to lean hard on the extraneous appended "huh?" in order to make the audio sync to the lips, and usually employ much worse actors than the ones who originally delivered the lines. It's possible that a subtitled version would make me more generous.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (2012, Darnell/McGrath/Vernon) ** (C)

This movie wasn't very realistic.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 10/7/2012

Lots of stars given out this week. What can I say? I tend to see movies that people I trust say are very good, and people I trust have gained that trust by being right a decent percentage of the time.  I'll try to get grouchier next time.

Mary Poppins (1964, Robert Stevenson) **** (A)

I think it's probably become diminished from the over-familiarity of some of the songs and scenes, but this comes close to being the best movie for families ever produced. It manages to be age-appropriate and engaging down to the very young (my kids loved it starting at age three) without losing charm or relevance for adults. It doesn't hurt that almost every song is a classic, lyrically and musically. Hard to miss how retrograde the gender politics are, given that the mother is essentially a witless dingbat, though even including a major suffragette story — with shout-out to Mrs. Pankhurst — in the background probably counts as a victory for Mad Men era Disney.

Van Dyke's accent is laughable, which is sort of the point for a character(s) clearly meant as comic relief, but he's also impossible not to watch, all rubber limbs and daffy grin. The children manage to seem headstrong and real without crossing into unforgivably bratty, and Andrews deftly manages to keep just enough of the title character's prickliness without ever making her less than charming. What sticks with me these days, though, are the visual flourishes, many of them sad or eerie: nannies like black handkerchiefs blown down the street. silhouette of chimney sweeps against the sky disappearing down the pipes (this is perhaps my earliest movie memory), Mr. Banks taking his slow walk to be sacked in a board room out of German expressionism; the classic shot of Mary's descent-upon-umbrella; and all those beautiful outdoor sets.

I also think there is evidence in the "text" of the movie that Mary Poppins is an ageless being who was once Burt's nanny, and probably his Uncle Albert's before him. But that's a story for another day (and probably for Neil Gaiman to tell).

Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese) **** (A)

Scorsese's dark poem of loneliness and alienation and menace still reverberates, even after the ubersleaze Manhattan of "Taxi Driver" received a "real rain" of sorts (courtesy not of an angry God, but of Rudy Giuliani — same diff?) . Watching this again after perhaps a 15 year absence, I'm struck by (1) how gorgeously it's shot; I'd remembered it as a grainy sort of color-drained Dogma 95 template, not Michael Chapman's flood of night-reflections and vivid color; and (2) the potential surrealism, which may not be precisely the right term, but given that our narrator is decidedly untrustworthy even to himself, I found myself wondering if/when we might be seeing the action filtered through the unhinged perceptions of our main character. Is the 'hero montage' following the shootout real? How real? Unsure if the final "chance" encounter with Shepherd isn't a return to obsessive stalking, though it played ambiguously to me. Not usually a fan of voice-over, though really how else can you get into the head of Travis Bickle? Is he talkin' to us? Is he talkin' to us?

Starman (1984, John Carpenter) *1/2 (D)

Man, was this weak sauce. Everything about this screams "80s TV movie" except for one scene in the opening minutes in where the alien incorporates as human, passing through some truly Carpenter-worthy stages of body horror before coming out the other end as Jeff Bridges with feathered hair. After that, they may as well have had one of the 2nd string directors on season 3 of "Simon & Simon" at the helm, with boring pacing, camerawork, and...I don't know, boring everything. The love story that develops is creepy in the extreme, given that it doesn't effectively deal with the fact that the Starman is posing as the husband of Karen Allen's grieving widow, and thus is playing on emotions that neither of them is really processing. I don't think that Bridges' sometimes-lauded, Oscar-nominated turn has held up that well, perhaps because it's become the template for every other Gentle Alien Too Good For Our Violent Species over the years. I suppose he should get credit for being the least annoying example of the annoying archetype he sort of created here, and he does do some subtle work, but I'm still going to blame him for co-starring in K-PAX (in the non-alien role) and taking Kevin Spacey right down the tubes for 12 years (and counting) now. As for the special effects, suffice to say, I envision BACK TO THE FUTURE snapping at STARMAN, Mark Wahlberg-style: "I'm the guy from your era that still looks cool today. You must be the other guy."

Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier) ***1/2 (A-)

Lars von Trier's most recent flawed-but-brilliant movie opens with one of the most astonishing collection of images I've seen in film, each a high-definition diorama unspooling in ultra slow motion, each containing the vivid specificity, vague symbolism, and inchoate menace of a dream that's on the cusp of nightmare. It isn't a spoiler to tell you that the final image in this seqence shows an immense planet colliding with Earth, first dwarfing and finally annihilating it, because while some of these images come to pass, others don't, or else occur, but only on a symbolic level. Will the planet Melancholia really connect, or will it just be a signifier of some deeper emotional truth?

I don't know if it's a demerit against MELANCHOLIA that it never manages to live up to the promise of its opening — I'm not sure a narrative is up to the task (and part of me just wishes that the whole movie was just a series of similar beautiful intangible wonder).

In brief, the film is divided very formally into two parts. In the first, a just-married couple arrives for their reception at a palatial home belonging to the sister and brother-in-law of bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst), only to see the party destroyed in excruciating increments by the bride's crippling depression. In the second, Dunst returns to the mansion to recuperate, as the titular planet does whatever it's going to do: either making its slingshot orbit safely around Earth or else enacting the complete destruction we saw in the opening moments.

The wedding is barely discussed in the second part, while the planet is not mentioned at all in the first (the timing isn't clear, but it's possible that the characters are not yet aware of it), yet we are clearly encouraged to conflate Dunst's depression with the potentially all-destroying dark orbit of the planet. That this sort of gonzo metaphor is usually successful probably speaks to von Trier's skills as a formalist, but the broad application of it also unfortunately has the effect of divorcing us most of the time from emotional empathy with the characters, which might be a flaw in a movie that's about the destruction of all known life in the universe. It's enough of a misstep to make this a really good movie instead of a great one. Justine in particular seems more like an idea than a person, though Durst plays the hell out of that idea (it turns out she's capable of an alien glare that's chilling enough to suggest a life-snuffing planet.) She manages to put very old eyes into a young face. But she never quite works as a person.

Similarly, Justine's interesting proposition – that mass destruction might not even be so tragic given how awful people can be – doesn't connect with the impact it should, because the people at the wedding party are, while occasionally and to greater and lesser degrees awful, they seem to be abstractions, not real people who have the alleged real relationships with one another they purportedly have. They're all planets on disconnected orbits.

Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman) ***** (A+)

Astonishing. I'm actually going to wait until I've had a chance to take it in again (soon, hopefully), before writing extensively about this. Suffice it to say that it's on my short list for the greatest movie of the decade, an aching, surreal, confusing, heartbreaking, funny, beautiful rumination on the state of the human condition and identity and the nature of reality itself. I say this as somebody who hasn't been skeptical of many of the other big Charlie Kaufman films, but I can't recommend this highly enough. It's the film version of some miraculous union of Pynchon and Dostoyevsky and Kafka.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 9/30/2012

The Big Lebowski (1997, Joel & Ethan Cohen) **** (A) 
Jeff Bridges and John Goodman must have known that they were turning in career-defining comedic work every second they spent on the set of this beautiful shaggy dog story, which is, in true noir fashion, mainly just about itself and the flavor of its own particular milieu. That this flavor is drenched not in hard-bitten 40s urban cynicism, but rather in early-90s LA shaggy-dog goofbally slackertude is the running joke, but the truth is that there's not much more attempt to follow the actual logical thread of the mystery in, say, "The Big Sleep", then there is in this. Less, probably, given that you actually can figure out what's going on, if that's what matters to you. Endlessly watchable, endlessly quotable (a personal unsung favorite is "You want a toe, dude? I can get you a toe"). Only Sam Elliot seems out of place, though I would happily watch a documentary comprising just a camera following him as he tried to figure out what the tarnation movie he was supposed to be in, anyway.

Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Stanley Kubrick) **** (A)
It's a shame that Sellers died young, or he (like Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers after him) could have gotten rich playing multiple characters in comedies, some of them in fat suits, many of them farting.

Um, this is a really great movie. You all know that, right? Hard to imagine how bracing the comedy would have been to an audience who probably literally did expect to die in nuclear combat toe to toe with the Ruskies. The lunacy of the war room seems less and less like satire with every passing year, doesn't it? — even as we start to worry more about cheap nano-drones weaponized with IEDs and biological agents and less about nukes. Kubrick deserves extra-extra credit for committing to a comic tone all the way into the inevitable Armageddon. Imagine this film focus-grouped into a happy ending, and shudder.

The only thing keeping this from my pantheon of 5-star movies is the fact that there are a few blunderbusses too many; I get the sense that if Scott and Peter Bull (as the Soviet ambassador) had been allowed to play a little less the buffoons, the sui generis horror of Sellers' Strangelove would have been even more effectively hilarious by contrast. (Note that Sellers himself played straight man in his other two roles. President Muffly is practically Bob Newhart.)

Fat City (1972, John Huston) ***1/2 (A-)
Man, this has to be a frustrating movie for anybody who wants it to be the genre boxing movie it appears to be at the outset; the old pug (Stacey Keach) on his last legs who sees a diamond in the rough (Jeff Bridges, startlingly young) and trains him to glory.

Having set up this premise, Huston spends the rest of the movie ruthlessly subverting it. Keach basically turns Bridges over to his former trainer and proceeds to completely forget about him for the rest of the movie. The trainer fools himself into seeing the same promise Keach did, taking him out on the road for a Montage of Victory—and then the kid turns out to be not a diamond, but a zircon. I don't remember for sure, but it's possible we never see Bridges win a single fight. He and Keach rarely cross paths again, the kid follows some of the pug's same bad choices, and makes a few of his own. At the end, they meet up again, the younger several miles behind the elder, but both on the same bad road bending off into nowhere.

This isn't a boxing movie. What it is is a startling, unflinching, frequently aimless look at poverty lived out in urban nowhere, of long hard uncertain labor and short paychecks and life fueled by nothing but pure stubborness and drinking and bad choices and loneliness—which for some people happens to include boxing.

It's imperfect. Like its characters, it meanders. Sequences go overlong. But certain scenes keep with me: A long sequence in which Keach seduces a hot mess (Susan Tyrell, Oscar-nominated) with an imprisoned boyfriend with nothing but genial persistence and the repeated slurred phrase: "you can count on me." A brutal final boxing match in which it becomes evident Keach's challenger is in even a situation even more desperate than his own. The odd dignity with which one man reclaims his home and woman. And the bracing moment when Keach's washed-up palooka laments that he'll soon turn thirty years old. I'd been assuming he was in his mid 40s.

The Hunger Games (2012, Gary Ross) ** (C-)
Fairly drab and semi-sensical distopian fairy tale about Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), a teen from an oppressed district within a fascist regime, forced to compete with other children from other oppressed district in the titular annual battle to the death, which really...complicates her love life?

Look, I'm not saying that this is a story that can't be properly told within the given framework, but since very real atrocities against human dignity are on display (to say nothing of a sheltered and degenerate aristocracy made wealthy on the pain and suffering of the masses, whose deaths are served up as reality-show entertainment) you're really going to need strong characters for it to not seem like post-Twilight YA-novel pandering. Unfortunately, the male leads are competing slabs of blah, so focusing on the "Team Peeta vs. Team Gale" dynamics—which the source novel also does—is tone deaf and confusing. Basically this is a move that attempts to ruthlessly send up US reality-TV culture but then concerns itself primarily with the question "to whom will the Bachelor give the rose?"

Lawrence acquits herself as the material allows, but really only recalls how she played a very similar character in WINTER'S BONE. Woody Harrelson provides a spark of life as the district mentor and former contest winner, and then promptly disappears almost completely. Meanwhile, the games themselves, which you'd think would provide our hero with moral quandaries aplenty, by and large eschews all that. A few of the contestants are Very Saintly Good, a few are Pure Evil Incarnate, and the rest are Nameless Meat, but in any event they are all allowed to kill each other off-screen or in disorienting blur, by and large without Katniss' assistance. This allows us to stop considering the morality of murder in the name self-protection, and instead contemplate: what in the name of God is that.. THING growing on poor Wes Bentley's face?

3 Women (1977, Robert Altman) ****1/2 (A)
I'm really not sure what to do with the fact that: (a) no less than three of the grandmasters of film have made what is essentially the same movie; and (b) that this same film represents an apex or near-apex in terms of craft, thematic strength, or emotional intensity.

In short, this is Robert Altman's PERSONA. Unless it's Robert Altman's MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Though, of course, MULHOLLAND DRIVE would have to be David Lynch's 3 WOMEN by way of PERSONA, wouldn't it, since this film predates Lynches by 24 years? But then again, since all three movies deal in startlingly consistent ways with strong female characters (Spacek is as good as she's ever been, Duvall turns in a career-best performance), dream logic, suggested suicide, shifting power dynamics, fluid and transposing identities within overt questions about the nature of time and of reality itself . . .it feels more as if all three directors have delved deep enough to come upon one of the subterranean ur-stories.

I'm talking about three movies as I talk about 3 WOMEN. Suffice to say there's a deep analysis to be made between these three, but that would be after many more viewings than I've put in. What strikes me about this particular one is that Altman really isn't the sort of director to get so deeply into psychodrama or menace or abstraction as to produce something like this. It may be the true outlier within his filmography; it certainly qualifies as such within the movies of his I've seen. There's an utterly cracked dream sequence near the end that hits notes that I didn't know he had in him. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I didn't know he had any interest in hitting them; it's almost as if Altman himself were taking on an ulterior identity.

It's also the outlier within the triptych. I'd say that Altman is closer to Lynch than Bergman (again, Lynch came later, but Altman almost seems to be channeling him here). What Altman adds is his trademark sly humor (example: a dress keeps getting caught in a car door) and a third character (PERSONA and MULHOLLAND are strictly duos) who does little but provide the disturbing priapic-alien swimming pool murals (which themselves cast enough of a spell over the proceedings as to claim third-character status) until, in the final act, she comes hurtling in from the ether to deliver us from dream into bloody reality and disorienting finality.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 9/23/2012

Note:  What I think I'm going to do is write a review a day, but draw mainly on movies I saw 2-3 years ago.  Mileage may vary ( I'm sure many people know exactly what they think right away and never change that opinion), but for me it takes some digestion before I know whether the movie was something I really enjoyed, or something I just thought I enjoyed. Imagine, if you will, a Big Mac. You think you're enjoying it as you eat it, but later your body informs you that in fact, no, that was a molded hunk of cat food and pickle relish glued together with axle grease and chemical paste, and you really hated it. Some movies that I thought were interesting but flawed grow in my imagination over time, and never really leave me. Others that I may have thought I quite liked I can barely remember the basic details.  So anyway, are you bored yet? Let's do the reviews.

Thor (2011, Kenneth Branagh) **
Tho, I'm mutht thay, I'm feeling mighty thor. It bums me out that Branagh has been reduced to this (and, I supposed, to strutting around the Olympic opening ceremonies); it's like he's kept all of his trademark bombast and lost any of his trademark insight. This was the guy who as a young man nailed the Agincourt speech to the wall, and who found a startling new interpretation of something as hidebound as "to be or not to be." Anyway, Asgard at least looks cool and Hemsworth bellows admirably. On the other hand, Portman and Skarsgård are given zilch to do, Hopkins snores (literally) and picks up a check, and the plot is either too impenetrable or too dull to follow, and I'm not going back to figure out which it is. Here's what "The Avengers" could have been without the Whedon wit.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn) ***1/2 (A-)
I admit it, I'm embarrassed. This is, after all, one of the ten or fifty or at least 100 best films of all time, depending on who you ask. I suppose I don't quite see it that way -- which is not to say that I didn't like it a lot. It's a question of degree. It's certainly possible to have grim and dramatic elements cohere with more broadly comic ones, but it feels like this souffle was taken out of the oven a little early. Performances and most individual scenes are masterful (a cloud's shadow passing by in a moment of stunning serendipity immediately followed by an ominous family reunion, Clyde's attempted robbery of a closed bank, an aborted attempt at lovemaking), but I can't put the Parsons or Pollard performances (or especially the hilarious Gene Wilder/Evans Evans scene) into any sort of context with the sexual dysfunction or the occasional swipes at foreboding or bloody ending in a way that makes sense to me, and the (sporadic) attempt to make Bonnie and Clyde the voice of the Depression's oppressed and marginalized just seems ill-conceived, since they're obviously nothing more than brash idiots. Maybe my issue is that Penn seems simultaneously to attempt to send up and buy into the outlaw romanticism.

Warren Beatty just keeps fascinating me, though. Has there ever been another Matinee Sex God® who so consistently insisted on playing the buffoon?

Bottom Line: A very very good movie, but not the all-time Pantheon member it's been billed as. Still a stylistic landmark: I can see how this blew collective hair back in the late 60s.

Star Trek (2009, JJ Abrams) *** (B)
Pretty sure I reviewed this on this site already.

I don't know. I feel like I over-rated this at three stars. It was totally fun-watchable, but really dumb in a particular way that Star Trek usually isn't (not to say Trek can't be dumb, just not like this). Manages to look interesting, but ultimately the plot disappears into a wormhole of way too much 'whaaa?' Pine gives good Kirk (stupid, cocky, spiral-cut ham), Quinto Spocks it up effectively until the movie unkindly forces comparisons to Nimoy's original, but the rest of the cast gets short-shrift in favor of those two, making this episode 1 of How I Met Your Vulcan. Damn cool looking, though, lens flares and all.

Avatar (2009, James Cameron) **1/2 (C+)
It needs to be said. This movie takes itself far too seriously to allow for a MacGuffin as hilariously named as "unobtanium." Pretty clearly the Academy dodged a bullet not giving its highest prize to this thing, which I am betting plays much worse outside of the big screen, surround-sound (3D, for what it's worth) setting within which I experienced it.

Basically a breakthrough in tech and art direction in service of a storyline that would have been more sociopolitically offensive if it hadn't been so shopworn and ludicrous. For such a notoriously detail-oriented martinet, Cameron seems perversely oblivious to much of what his major plot beats are really saying. The Big Message finally boils down to either "white men make the best Injuns" or "you can destroy a girl's whole culture, but all will be forgiven if you get a bitchin' ride," which isn't exactly a great set of options. Meanwhile, the main character's actions, which include failing at any point to inform his lover or ANYBODY that they need to move to avoid genocide (which is, by the way, the entire point of his mission), make him the absolute opposite of the hero the film insists he is. That he takes that lover under the aforementioned false pretenses, within a culture that he already knows will view the fact of their physical union as a far more binding contract than he can possibly fulfill, seems not to matter to Cameron as much as the fact that the blockbuster cookbook requires the consummation of the love affair by the 2nd reel.

Still consistently breathtaking as spectacle, and I will have to give Cameron some props for at least sounding some of these anti-corporatist notes, albeit with all the subtlety and adroitness of a Thor vs. Hulk battle. I'd have probably appreciated this more as an exploratory piece with far less/no plot or dialogue, or if it didn't seem to think that it deserved the Nobel peace prize for a reductive ecological message.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

So Maybe I'm Back

I have to admit it: Some days I miss poker. It took a while. I think it may be like what they say about pregnancy: After enough years, you forget the pain.

I also miss messing around here. Again, it took a while.

I'm writing a lot, just not much that can go up on the blog.  But I've started goofing around on Letterboxd, and writing movie reviews is a quick and enjoyable way to rev up.  So I think I'll share those and cross-post to FilmChaw, and see what else happens.  I keep meaning to get back to those time-delayed Oscars pieces.  It'd be fun to do 2000-2002 and then maybe tackle the 80s.

Who knows?  Maybe something else will percolate to the top.

Weekly Dose of Crazy and/or Awesome? Not out of the question.

Here we go, maybe.

It will be super-fun if this turns into one of those "I'm back" blog posts that hangs out at the top of a dead blog until it's five years old.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Friday, May 4, 2012


And she said dark is not the opposite of light 
It's the absence of light 
And I thought to myself 
She knows what she's talking about 
And for a moment I know 
What it was all about.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Spam of the Day

Subject: hello dear,please kindly reply back to me as soon as you get my message

Dear Friend,

I am delighted that you have been choosing to benefit from this issue at hand that we are about to discuss. First of all, allow me to take this opportunity to be introduced to you with this letter. My name is Nifah Bright, I manage the Chief Financial Office, Standard Chartered Bank. I found your contact email address in our recent mailing list for advertisement. I personally have an important issue to discuss with you which I wish I could say more at this time but wish to be permitted to continue with what this mail is about if you agree to receive the details of my correspondence.

I want to use this opportunity to conclude by reminding you that you have been choosing to benefit from this issue that we are about to discuss. Moreover this is not illegal neither am i reaching you in error.

Meanwhile, i will hold back the details until i hear from you because I'm very uncomfortable sending this message to you without knowing truly if you would misconstrue it relevance.

You may wish to contact me to inform me about your interest in receiving the details through a reply of this mail. I would be ready to forward to you any information necessary to enlighten you on the reason of this correspondence.

Hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely Yours,

Nifah Bright.


Subject: RE: hello dear,please kindly reply back to me as soon as you get my message


In conclude. I am here to be excited about the thing I am going to tell you if you will let me tell you the thing. Will you let me finish now, please? I will soon be telling you the thing about this letter of which I write. You are enjoying my response now! I'm really hesitant to tell you what my response is, because you may misconstrue it in an email. Contact me I'll tell it to you. Am I giving you my contact information? No I am not!

My friend, here are some super-effective words to always use when you are trying to persuade a stranger that you are a legitimate manager of a bank:

*I am very uncomfortable.
*Hello, dear
*This is not illegal
*I will hold back the details
*I have candy in my van.

Good Morning!

Let me begin.

-Prickles P. Sicking (Mrs.)