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.