Aug 28, 2011

Fright Night (2011): B+

A remake that justifies its own conceptually redundant existence, Craig Gillespie's Fright Night might even surpass the gnarly 1985 original. The drill: a vampire, Jerry (Colin Farrell, brooding in all the right ways) moves into a community in the barren outskirts of Las Vegas, and for a time, only a neighboring teenager - one Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) - knows the truth. Too bad his single mom (a perfectly game Toni Collette) has the hots for the new stud next door. Classroom politics figure in the mix when Charlie's former best friend (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, valiantly trying to distance himself from McLovin) finds himself confronted with the choice of death or becoming a creature of the night, and in these ways and more, the film is a touching consideration of what we sacrifice in the name of normalcy. Genre thrills need satiation, however, and when it becomes clear to Jerry that he won't be invited inside Charlie's house, he positively does not fuck around on the matter. Engaging, nasty, economic, violent and funny (especially the end credits), this Fright Night is a great summer joint.

Cowboys & Aliens (2011): D

I'm now convinced that the non-cast related quality of the first Iron Man happened entirely by accident. Screw the haters: Cowboys & Aliens is a great title, and a better film would have saved it for the end credits as the cheeky punchline to what should have been a glorious set-up. If only that were the bulk of the film's offenses. A genre mash-up without a clue, Jon Favreau's attempt at Leone meets Spielberg is so tonally incompetent and dreadfully staged that it's a wonder the better qualities herein - namely, Daniel Craig, as a prodigious fighter who cannot remember his identity, and Harrison Ford, as a Colonel and rich farmer - aren't completely extinguished by simple osmosis. Every attempt at echoing the archetypes of westerns past rings with a dull thud, revealing the soul of a poseur; even the witty manner in which the aliens lasso their human captives is a possibility almost entirely unrealized (I'll have to give the benefit of the doubt to the original comic series from which the film has been adapted). Great movies breathe with life; this thing's dead from the scalp down. As if overwhelming lethargy weren't enough, Cowboys & Aliens is also stupid enough for two movies, beginning with the thoroughly lame decision to execute most of the action scenes with an accelerated frame rate that suggests someone trying to exaggerate the size of their sex organs, continuing with just about every subsequent scene and narrative development, and culminating with a battle at the extraterrestrial spacecraft that displays approximately zero understanding of action movie mechanics. If chaos was the aim here, at the very least, it might've not also substituted as a sleeping aid.

The Help (2011): C

The civil rights era as filtered by the Hallmark channel, The Help isn't so much blatantly offensive as it is homogenized and naive, approaching the tumult and complexity of the past with a condescending tone manifest of the wrongheaded notion that we, in 2011, are a post-racism society. Not unlike what was unfairly leveled at The Blind Side, the issues many have taken with the film - namely, calling out the portrayal of black housekeepers ("the help") as passive players afraid to speak up as itself a form of racism - strike me as just the kind of politically correct earnestness that fails to see that things like affirmative action only prolong the core issues at hand, and are themselves a form of racism (furthermore, "the help" does eventually speak up). No, there, the film is right on the money; when threatened with so much as a lynching, any group of people is likely to button their lips and do as they're told. The question, as always, is when. What's stale about The Help, then, is its color-by-number use of caricature and decidedly non-violent portrayal of struggle. Even before she opens her mouth, you could pick Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) out of a lineup as the ringleader racist of the cast, while the bloodshed of the era is kept at arm's length (even a vicious marital beating is kept mostly off screen, with minimal repurcussions). If the film is racist, it isn't because it's about a white woman, Emma Stone's Skeeter, who seeks to expose the truth through her journalism (and why, exactly, is a white person like me not allowed to want to help the disadvantaged?), but because it coddles people today by insinuating that the past wasn't quite so terribly bad as it actually was. Especially given current events, the film further drops the ball concerning the fact that this subject matter is at least as much about racism as about class warfare (King, whose assassination transpires during the film, was killed because of his involvement with union protests). Ultimately, The Help is as regressive as it is well meaning.

The Smurfs (2011): B-

So sue me, I kind of enjoyed The Smurfs. Maybe it was a matter of expectations, something I've routinely tried to avoid since having my heart broken by one too many big name sequels as a teenager. I rarely watch previews or gobble up production materials, but working in the Big Apple this summer past, it was impossible to not see the posters at virtually every street corner and subway station, making it one of the more soul-sucking ad campaigns I've ever experienced. A shock, then, that the commercial overtones of the movie proper are only about 10% as blatant as I had anticipated. In all honesty, it also helped that the alcohol was flowing steadily and I was almost immediately hysterical at the trip-worthy sight of dozens of little blue fellas and their mushroom-centric village. The plot device that sees them transported to New York City - a wormhole of sorts that appears during a blue moon (natch) - is pure Happy Meal fodder, and the screenplay's smurftastic tendency to use "smurf" as as many prefixes and parts of speech as possible is more boring than irritating. Points, then, to the film's general goodheartedness (provided primarily by the plot threads concerning Clumsy smurf), to Neil Patrick Harris (in general), and for Simpsons regular Hank Azaria, whose turn as the evil wizard Gargamel is some kind of slapstick genius. If the entire movie were as uninhibited and inventive as his performance, it could have been one for the ages. As it is, it's pleasantly inoffensive enough that I wouldn't mind letting my own offspring watch it.

Horrible Bosses (2011): B

Hangover filmmakers, this is how you do it, and by "it," I mean lewd comedies starring primarily men who get into all sorts of trouble over a short period of time during which virtually anything can - and does - happen. Horrible Bosses is a refreshing workplace fantasy for our corporate-shilling times. As per the title, three best friend protagonists have found themselves in a kind of hell on earth employment; Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) has been sucking up to his boss (a quasi-brilliant Kevin Spacey) for ages to no avail, Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) is assistant to a sexually aggressive dentist (smoky Jennifer Aniston) who refuses to respect his preexisting engagement, and Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) must contend with his newfound superior, a coke-addicted asshole (a barely-recognizable Colin Farrell) who wants only to squeeze whatever profits he can from their company before it totally collapses (thus puncturing Republican theories that all companies desire "growth," as if Enron hadn't already). A Hitchcockian moment of clarity sees them decide to kill their respective bosses, at which point their semblance of plans begin to inspire increasingly out of control. The pacing feels as though the events are unfolding in real time, before some unexpected but no less satisfying conclusions. A keeper, and one I suspect will become funnier on repeat viewings.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011): B+

I've only ever seen the 1968 Planet of the Apes, so if this reboot/prequel/whatever is going over anything thematically similar to any of the many sequels, I'm at least that much in the dark. Regardless of those relationships, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is still a damn fine bit of craftsmanship, thoughtful and exciting and only vaguely manifest of the cookie cutter production system that spawned it. A drug unofficially known as "the cure to Alzheimer's" has been proven wildly successful on its simian test subjects, and must gain investment board approval before moving on to humans, until a predictably thickheaded business snafu sees the project scrapped and the primates terminated. Emotionally invested scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) manages to save one of the babies and, naming it Ceasar, takes it into his home, where he soon learns that the effects of the drug were passed onto it at a genetic level. As in the original film, this entry speaks volumes to social biases and the subjugation of broad groups; a scrutinous eye towards the responsibilities of discovery and the dangers of a for-profit mindset don't hurt the thematically juicy proceedings, either. As Caesar, along with the f/x animators, Andy Serkis turns in a thoroughly mesmeric performance; you'll be rooting for the apes in the end, even if you're not rooting against the humans (although one in particular's well-deserved comeuppance is particularly savory). Among the more cerebral popcorn films in memory, and the last-act set piece atop (and beneath) the Golden Gate Bridge can hold its own with the best of them. Sporadically profound (you'll know it when it happens), not unlike a riff on the "Dawn of Man" chapter from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011): B-

So close, and yet so far. Crazy, Stupid, Love. has a lot more going for it than it seems to realize, and watching it is akin to seeing a healthy athlete lose the race because they inadvertently strapped themselves to a pair of crutches. Dan Fogelman should get some tenderness credit for his screenplay, which is frequently delightful in that it leaves room for characters to exist and be themselves beyond the demands of writing conventions, and daring in how it withholds information from the audience and certain characters for maximum laugh/shock impact when revealed. It is also downright hideous on at least one occasion, in which a character does something that almost only ever happens in stupid movies, and it goes on for a very. Long. Time. If you can look past this climactic bungle, then, Crazy, Stupid, Love. is among the more honest rom-coms in a time that also could have been great. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa - of Bad Santa's screenplay - handle things with organic ease, defusing usual comedy hijinks and letting the absurd unfold in a more everyday manner; love goes round and round amongst a rough dozen characters whom, at best, only think they know what they want. Steve Carell, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Kevin Bacon, and an underutilized Marisa Tomei are all top notch. And for a mainstream, tentpole film, Crazy, Stupid, Love.'s non-resolutions are decidedly non-pat and reflective of real struggle. Tweak out about twenty minutes, and this might've been more than only almost a fever pitch.

Aug 26, 2011

Swinging with the Finkels (2011): C-

A bad sitcom stretched into a bad movie, Swinging with the Finkels tries to find the humor in the woes of married life, and as someone who has experienced just the kind of relationship-testing sexual plateau as depicted herein, the superficially cute manner with which the film addresses these woes was particularly irksome. Mandy Moore and Martin Freeman are the titular married pair. Nine years since tying the knot, things have grown stale, and they decide to enlist another couple for a one-night trade-off to make things interesting once again. Broken up by title cards with annoying quips ("Life without Wife") and platitudes that make one long for the literary qualities of a fortune cookie, the film pads out their crisis with next to no consideration for character motivation; they're stick figures to project yourself onto. If the mere utterance of penis is funny to you, by all means. Or if you feel like taking a mental trip to the 1960s. Or watching Mandy Moore masturbate with a cucumber. For anyone else finding themself confronted with this thing: it helps if you don't look directly at it.

Film Socialisme (2010): B

Film Socialisme is meta-Godardian, but for the sake of those unfamiliar with the director's long catalog of subversion, I'm going to try to describe it in other terms. This is about as narratively vague and demanding a viewing experience as you're ever likely to encounter (hell, even Un Chien Andalou strikes me as having a more concrete through-line), but as frustrating as Godard's latest may be, it's also frequently rewarding. The story seems to exist at a tertiary level, as if caught in bits and pieces by accident and only assembled into a movie once discovered. The medium is the message, and through the countless changes in format and storytelling "direction," a vision of anger and tongue-in-cheek troublemaking emerges. Thematically overlapping pastiches aboard a luxury cruise ship and, later, at a family-owned gas station (dig that llama) speak to issues of economy and technology; it's like some stillborn excess of a digital underworld, a Penguin (as in Danny DeVito)-like reject with a lot on its mind. I can hardly imagine a less marketable film, but that's part of the joy of watching this deliberately unwatchable thesis. Godard's "fuck you" knows no bounds.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974): A

Hyperbole be damned, I can see no reason not to say this: Phantom of the Paradise is one of the greatest musical films ever made. Brian De Palma's seminal creation is many things: an audacious statement from someone clearly aware of their own immense talent, a loving homage to horror tales past (the titularly invoked Phantom of the Opera; see also Frankenstein, Faust, and Caligari, among others), a scathing indictment of the business politics between consumers and producers, and even perhaps an autobiographical statement on De Palma's own creative processes and their always-problematic reception. Critics and audiences mostly passed on Phantom in its initial run, but even the Academy couldn't overlook the prodigious musical talent on display. Watching it is equal parts liberating and exhilarating; one images that making it was an act of absolute personal necessity. As horror or as comedy, the effect is phantasmagoric, volcanic, and profound, down to every last operatically schlocky detail. If you don't love it, I have to wonder what brings you to movies in the first place.

The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962): B

Crude, but effective, The Awful Dr. Orloff (reviewed here in its not-entirely-incompetent English dub) both encapsulates and overcomes many of the traits that typically define low-rent horror whodunits of the day. The plot, about a scientist trying to cure his ailing sister and the poor deformed soul he forces to do his murderous bidding, is strict pre-grindhouse fodder and about twice as intelligent as one might forgiven for expecting it to be. The images are frequently flat and even lazy (inconsistencies, like the extinguished candle that continues to light a scene, abound), but there's real meat to the performances and an accruing atmosphere that refuses to yield. A great midnight experience.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010): B+

I don't know exactly how Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale gets away with a plot concerning long-forgotten demonic Santa Clause and his army of naked, withered elves (in terms of straight-faced absurdity, it's a master class balancing act of genre know-how), but it does, and the results are frequently awesome. It's as chilly as Let the Right One In or the 1982 remake of The Thing, and it's as much fun as anything this side of Tremors. Do you really need to know anything else? If there's any justice in the world, this will be playing on loop future Christmases alongside A Christmas Story (and Die Hard, and Bad Santa, and It's a Wonderful Life...).

Fast Five (2011): C+

Fast Five is loads more competent than the original Fast and the Furious, if only because Justin Lin has a clue on how to stage an action set piece. That said, the characterizations are still too thin to invest in, the acting too murky (is Paul Walker boringly introverted, or just boring?), and the thrills too sparse. There's a diminishing sense of largeness in recent Hollywood action films, and no amount of IMAX cameras are going to compensate for what comes down to a lack of basic craftsmanship. (And it's not like I'm asking for The Road Warrior, here, just some basic coverage and a less-than-total reliance on camera movement to generate excitement.) The third-act sequence in which Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Vin Diesel kick the ever-living shit out of each other is a total snooze, splintered into blurry shots that emphasize movement at the expense of spectacle. A briefly held wide shot lets us see the damage these two inflict on each other and their surroundings, and Lin would have been wise to hold it for the duration - I want to feel these bodies in space as they affect their surroundings. If only because the scale is so much larger, a final heist sequence almost holds its own, but the visceral satisfaction is too little, too late. Two hours reveals the films weightlessness; a 20-minute highlight reel would have done the trick.

Man Bites Dog (1992): C+

More impressive in conceptual audacity than finished product, Man Bites Dog never struck me as more than a thesis statement, despite some excellent faux-documentary aesthetics and a thoroughly enveloping performance by leading man BenoƮt Poelvoorde as the psychotic professional criminal followed around by a ragtag filming crew, who eventually get in on the killing and raping action. The depicted events herein are so horrifying (the elderly woman on whom he saves a bullet, and how; the children he dislikes killing, and why, etc.) that the chances of incriminating the audience into any kind of moral quagmire are remote at best. The result, then, isn't pointed commentary so much as sledgehammer satire, and it isn't particularly fun or insightful at that. When it becomes apparent we're supposed to care about these characters - even if we're not actively rooting for them - the proceedings become outright tedious. The sexy allure of violence - a la GoodFellas, Fight Club, etc. - is absent here (a needed point to counterpoint), and the film doesn't have the necessary ideological feet to stand on. I doesn't help when the supporting cast proves uniformly thick-headed in their relationships to these despicable people (even as a fantasy, it's hard to buy), or that the logic of the film's "creation" doesn't hold water in the end. If that's all part of a big joke, it's not one I find very funny or worthy of so much attention. An important film, yes, but one frequently surpassed and out-subverted.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011): A-

Less off-the-rails insane than Revenge of the Fallen (an eye-popping drug on which I had a very bad trip the first time around), Transformers: Dark of the Moon is still gonzo where it counts the most, and whether through a willful attempt to respond to critics of The Fallen's aggressive visuals or simply catering to the needs of this third outing's three dimensions, Bay's images are frequently doled out in wider, longer shots that render his canted angles something like poetic. My initial hatred of The Fallen was just as quickly replaced by the realization that I'd joined in the mob mentality against it without giving the movie proper a real chance. Frankly, most critics did just the same this time around, and too bad for them. Michael Bay's emotional complexity as a storyteller is still inversely proportional to his technical prowess and pop culture savvy; best he work with toys, catchphrases, and stereotypes. Or are they archetypes? Either way, I see no hatred inherent here - just an eccentric juvenile made scapegoat for his cultural influence (and all that came before him). He's come a long way since Bad Boys II (still a contender for worst film I've ever seen); with newfound awareness as an artist ("It is a visual and therefore visceral betrayal"), his wielding of the blockbuster format is almost profoundly carthartic. Breathlessly realized imagery abounds (the opening war on Cybertron, the tentacles of Shockwave tearing through Chernobyl, Bumblebee transforming from and back into a car with a passenger riding inside), and Bay's eye for framing and cutting shows newfound economy. It's also frequently hilarious, particularly Alan Tudyk and the red-faced John Malkovich (who, along with Francis McDormand and series mainstay John Turturro, turns this into something of a Coen brothers reunion), but don't overlook Shia LeBeouf's ability to freak out on cue. A historical revisionist opening brilliantly contextualizes the mayhem to come. I never owned a Transformers toy and have no nostalgia for Hasbro culture, but there's something irrefutably chilling about the moment when Optimus Prime grinds himself to a halt with his saber, pivots to face his enemy, and lets out a demonic wartime growl.

Aug 10, 2011

The Fox and the Hound

The stripped-down simplicity of the story (freely adapted from the 1967 novel by Daniel P. Mannix) is appropriate for its true-to-life bleakness, which isn't to say it's a film without hope, but that archetypal singularity is fitting when a story boils down to so many singular acts with permanent, often tragic consequences.

Aug 1, 2011

Do the Right Thing (1989): A

As Nashville is to Robert Altman and 2001: A Space Odyssey to Stanley Kubrick, so too is Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing as perfectly representative of a total filmmaking talent as any movie yet made, and one of the great American films. A sun-stroked Brooklyn neighborhood is the canvas on which director/writer/performer Lee paints, the coral reef through which he weaves us. The many joys of the film - the celebration of life, the sheer cinematic ecstasy of watching unfold something so assured and fully realized, Samuel L. Jackson's Mister Senior Love Daddy, and a peripatetic Greek chorus, among others - are equaled only by the fiery injustice it bears witness to in an apocalyptic third act. A pizza shop, a town drunk, a classic car, a racist son, a boom box, a wall of fame, and a trash can are like additional characters in this glorious pastiche of a society trying to come to terms with itself. Lee's didactic, sometimes problematic gadflyism (no film ever went so quickly south for me as the final sequences of his Malcolm X) is channeled through his characters to profound effect, echoing the conflict within every person whose ever experienced a moral struggle while heartbreakingly examining the ways our individual bad habits and shortsightedness perpetuate the larger failings of society. The movie wants to shake you up, and whether or not you warm up to it may depend on how necessary you find its sporadically rude tone to be. Arguably perfect from the first utterly organic beat to the last, chances are it will change you, and for the better.