Dec 30, 2008

2008: Year in Film

1. It is with crystalline clarity and unprecedented emotional poignancy that Kelly Reichardt explores life off the grid in Wendy and Lucy, a heartbreaking, life-affirming tone poem in which sacrifice and good intent are next to worthless in a world where the dollar reigns supreme, consumers are more highly valued than people, and poverty sickens the very well of society's soul.

2. Behold every breathtakingly rendered frame of the deliriously conceived Speed Racer, the Wachowski Brothers' defiant foray into computerized cinema in which every exquisite editing device serves to bridge the past and present, channeling the archetypal beauty of youth's creative ambitions, subverting corporate greed (both literally and figuratively), and bringing dreams of destiny to life in a ravishing pseudo-reality.
3. At once coolly assured, technically masterful and structurally unsound, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button proves both enrapturing and inescapably flawed as David Fincher charts the inescapable nature of life with surgical precision and a wrenching clarity that, ultimately, seems altogether limitless in its emotional capacities.

4. A cinematic capsule for our times doubles as a poetic antidote to national (and worldly) anguish in Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, in which all of society's petty categorizations (race, religion, gender, etc.) collapse to reveal a collectively beating, wounded, healing, loving heart that wants only the strength to carry on for another day.

5. Not only a stellar achievement in animation but a landmark for cinema entire, WALL·E distills visual languages as far ranging as those of Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Kubrick into a cohesive, seamless whole, its environmental timeliness surpassed only by its insight into the perseverance of the human spirit and the nature of the soul.

6. Arguably Wong Kar-wai's messiest, most indulgent fever dream to date, My Blueberry Nights' lyrical sense of one fated romance plays like a collective all-nighter, an implosive inebriation masking the greater longing for better times, lost dreams, unbroken hearts and missed opportunities.

7. Oliver Stone the gadfly takes a backseat to Stone the humanitarian in W., here bypassing easy criticism for a wiser approach, re-contextualizing the persona of George W. Bush from that of a national buffoon into a modern day Greek tragedy and implicitly reminding us of our collective responsibility in the ongoing forging of history.

8. By far the most poetic film of the series, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may also be the most artful genre work of its kind. Shunning all manner of expectation and pretense, Spielberg earnestly emphasizes the intimate and emotional with wit and grace to spare, to say nothing of his imaginatively thrilling set pieces.

9. The debut feature of the year, Joachim Trier's sonically overloading Reprise fuses character, narrative, and a distinctly unique stylistic voice with effortlessly assurance, poignantly evoking the life-crushing burden of the tormented creative spirit and announcing a major new influence on the independent circuit to boot.

10. A greatest hits package of sorts for the indie auteur, Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park utilizes an army of aesthetic components to forge an intoxicating representation of the teenage headspace's wandering spirit, evoking an intimate diary of the soul in the process.

Boarding Gate, The Wrestler, Happy-Go-Lucky, Married Life, Flight of the Red Balloon, The Duchess of Langeais, Generation Kill, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, The Dark Knight, Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Nov 13, 2008

City of God (2002): C

It wasn't so long ago that the name Fernando Meirelles was synonymous not with overreaching arthouse pomposity, but the unbridled ambitions of new talent. City of God has always been overrated, but watching the film again suggests that such unchecked praise may have actually been the tipping point of the director's downfall. With a superficial adherence to the GoodFellas formula pandering to fanboys and critics, many mistook his stylistic distinction for aesthetic profundity, and Meirelles's style quickly became its own form of content, as The Constant Gardener superficially shuffled the same look, now heightened, into an altogether inappropriate narrative setting. Here, the mania of the Meirelles look - overexposed colors and jittery, caffeinated camerawork - is hit-or-miss in its evocation of ghetto life, often masterful in its distillation of exposition into pure sight and sound energy (particularly the tragic sequence at a dance party) but equally frustrating in its overall lack of narrative focus. Similarly problematic is the use of the protagonist Rocket's (Alexandre Rodrigues) narration to tell the story; as one of the few individuals to grow up in the film's Rio de Janeiro slums without being accosted by the local hoodlum culture, his relationship to the central conflicts remains minor and incidental while his own story remains largely unexplored and forgotten, thus exposing his thinly veiled role as a screenwriting device. Such a role feels even more disingenuous as the film's violence borderlines on exploitation, as such Pulp Fiction-reminiscent flashes function less to booth the audience's adrenaline than to diminish the gravity of portrayed suffering. The visceral and artistic excitement remains on surface-bound, where City of God remains a film of impressive, if superfluous, accomplishments.

Aug 25, 2008

Vantage Point (2008): D-

A crowded highway, panic abound. The President has been shot! A young Spanish girl seeks her mother fearfully, uncautious of the danger as she wanders into the road. A van approaches at high speed, coming right towards her! Will they break in time!? The frame rate slows and the screen fades to white as the child screams, in shrill accent, "Ma-ma!" Now, the film retreats for the umpteenth time, flashing through previously glimpsed images as if on rewind, so as to show us this overly calculated series of events from yet another character's viewpoint. If this moment alone isn't the most shrill concoction to yet come out of 21st Century cinema, then keep me steered clear of any Ron Howard or Paul Haggis films yet on my blind spots list. Condensing the worst elements from both nighttime television programming (from shows like 24 to similarly rank stuff like CSI) and Greengrassian neo-realism into a trashy game of cat-and-mouse between the filmmakers and audience, Vantage Point aims to thrill with what amounts to a disingenuous and perpetual dick tease devoid of both stamina and payoff, trading in bland, phony archetypes that feign humanity while the film attempts ceaselessly, almost impressively, but ultimately horridly, to suggest that something of excitement or importance is happening during any one of its mentally numbing 90 minutes (needlessly busy editing schematics and overwrought, pummeling musical scores be damned). When the president is assassinated at an international political convention, chaos ensues and various characters -- reporters, cops, potential terrorists, secret servicemen, officials, and civilians -- each hold a piece to the puzzle. Except that there is no puzzle, only patchy storytelling, and from the unimaginatively literal implementation of narrative fluctuations to the film's inconsistent means of doling out information -- a phony attempt at manipulation that better serves to expose the film's contempt for viewers than it does hide the complete lack of otherwise purported sophistication -- Vantage Point proves so idiotic and paper-thin that it makes the canonized bullshit of The Usual Suspects look almost profound by comparison. More substantive than the endless running, shouting, double-crossing and identity confusion to be found in this debacle is, in my mind, the sad fact that even so many talented and well-cast performers couldn't raise this above its nearly bottom-of-the-barrel status. For movies like Vantage Point, life is too short.

Aug 24, 2008

Step Brothers (2008): B

As was the case in Adam McKay's previous films, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers stands as a pristine example of excellently realized, largely improvised comedy given shape and form via the synchronized methods of both actor and director. Insofar the only director to have effectively and unwaveringly tamed Will Ferrell's serio-comic tendencies, McKay's brand of parody channels his cast and their unlikely, almost profound ability to embody the most intellectually obtuse and outright idiotic of characters with the same level of intensity one would expect in a Shakespeare performance. Why, then, is this newest pairing between the two so noticeably off? Step Brothers is knowingly and deliberately downbeat, sporting a scenario at once hilarious and frightening, the humor compounded by the sheer level conviction granted to it. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are Brennan Huff and Dale Doback, two ne'er-do-wells still residing at home even as they have both reached over-the-hill status. Emotionally and socially stunted beyond repair, their insulated lives are thrown for a proverbial loop when their single parents meet cute and promptly wed, ultimately pressuring them both to find jobs so as to establish lives of their own. Whether apparent in their endless social deficiencies (on a job interview, both choose to wear tuxedos) or their alternating bouts of love/hate behavior, Ferrell and Reilly so encapsulate the regression of their characters that each actor respectively disappears into their role, inviting empathetic speculation just as much as crotch-grabbing bouts of laughter. If Step Brothers is in any way an unqualified success, it is in the implementation of truly crude and boldly tasteless humor, initiated by the must-be-seen-to-be-believed image of Brennan rubbing his testicles on Dale's drum set and furthered by various button-pushing moments of adulterous sex, erotic fantasies, living burials and dog feces. Insofar as its characters go, however, Step Brothers leaves things hanging too much to equal the structurally satirical brilliance of Anchorman and Talladega Nights, in part because the film's central premise is more intrinsically limited on a dramatic scale, but furthermore because the script's core development is less fleshed out than said previous works, rendering the experience satisfactory in the moment only to appear empty in hindsight. Props to the short running time, then, for keeping things closer to the excellent short film buried somewhere within this feature length product, a cumbersome work but one nevertheless blistering in its excavation of our deepest fears, desires, and the inherent absurdities therein.

Aug 21, 2008

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? (2008): C-

Super Size Me spent 100 minutes telling us what amounted to common sense decked out in infomercial aesthetics: fast food is bad for you, and here's a schmuck crazy enough to prove it by converting himself into a human Happy Meal. In the unfortunately titled follow-up Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, director Morgan Spurlock similarly trades in obvious and contrived gimmicks as markers on the path towards enlightenment, here having moved past the evils of fatty McFoods and into the realm of international terrorism, purportedly driven by his desire to create a safer world into which his still gestating son can be born. Though certainly (one would hope unavoidably) less pat and redundant than its overrated predecessor, there are moments of the film's questionable thesis that might suggest otherwise. Rather inadvertently, Spurlock's approach routinely brings the material within arm's reach of "dumbed down", the film constructed as an in-action argument against knee jerk political extremism from the inside out, aimed squarely at the apathetic; any U.S. citizen that's encountered any remotely radical American news source in the past six years will already know most of what Spurlock has to say, though the fact that knowledge about anti-U.S. sentiment around the world in response to our oppressive foreign policies is to date not as well-known and accepted as that concerning the unpleasantries of McDonalds, is reason enough to justify the film's existence. Needless to say, Spurlock never encounters the 9/11 mastermind, though his self-aware “journey” does afford him the chance to speak with many throughout the Middle East as regards their thoughts on America, foreign policy, Israel, terrorism, religion, and how the social ailments conducive to extreme acts of violence are reinforced by the political powers that be. Aware of its own, rather off-putting sense of American privilege, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? takes care to never condescend to its audience or subjects, despite the inherent stupidity in its titular, core premise, and a tendency to employ caricatures and hyperbolic anecdotes in its quest to dispel trademark American fears. Recognizing his own relatively uninformed place in the world, Spurlock turns his own ignorance (first evident in an ego-driven and off-putting opening animated sequence) around to unexpectedly sincere effect, "discovering" that not all Muslims are terrorists and are by and large, in fact, like you and me. Recalling the criminally underseen Walking to Werner, Spurlock’s journey ultimately becomes about more than one man, though it is one only intermittently made meaningful in ways more substantial than its reliance on rapid-fire, Spark Notes-like factoids on American history and the War on Terror. That it chooses not to go further in addressing connective issues such as the responsibility for governmental foreign policy or the relationship between economic privilege and political apathy is less a failure than a deliberate choice (if not an admission of known limitations), one befitting the majority of the film’s intended, closeted audience, if endlessly aggravating for just about anyone else. For a film about finding the world’s most infamous needle in a haystack, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? is woefully small-scale, often misguided but never disingenuous.

Aug 15, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008): D+

Is The Clone Wars really the pilot for a Star Wars television series, or is it a last-ditch effort to make the prequel trilogy look better via retrospective comparison? I, for one, have always enjoyed the much-derided Episodes I, II, and III, problematic though they are and somewhat in spite of the zealotry held for/against them by varying devotees of Lucas' long ago, far away universe (as religious extremists once force others to re-examine their faith, so too can unreasonable and unpleasant movie lovers ruin it for more pacifist fans). Defend this hunk of crap, however, I cannot. Bad television and worse cinema, no change in format could hope to repair the insulting flaws abound in this tossed-off junk pile; if kids are what Lucas and company had in mind in their preparations here, then we should all feel as though the very fruit of our loins have been directly insulted. Transpiring between the civil breakdown of Attack of the Clones and the political upheaval of Revenge of the Sith, The Clone Wars can only be incidentally blamed for carrying with it some degree of preordained conclusions. Lacking characterizations (let alone sufficient ones), visual dynamics and anything resembling pacing or narrative development, this pilot encapsulates everything wrong with the prequel films -- stilted dialogue, inane storytelling devices, flimsy attempts at narrative tension via undeveloped personal conflicts, and characters repeatedly stating the obvious as a means of forwarding the plot -- even as it takes them to entirely new levels of embarrassment. Facing a droid army on some far-off planet (no, I don't care enough to look up the name), the duo of Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) becomes an unexpected trio when the former learns that he has been assigned a pupil, the eager-to-learn Jedi in training Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein). Coasting on autopilot, The Clone Wars mistakes moldy sound bytes for character interaction and moral insight, an affront to even the purportedly lowered standards of children's television. In both style and substance, the film likens itself to what Jim Emerson calls "Ferrari" filmmaking -- sleek and fast, and in this case seemingly deliberately so, so as to cover up the almost complete lack of anything beneath that superficially shiny hood. Never mind the fact that the animation style itself looks blocky, creepy, and un-emotive: actions scenes zip by without any weight or substance, lazily framed, choreographed and edited (though a vertical battle along the rise of a plateau held my attention), and save for some amusing antics provided by the less-than-capable artificial intelligence sported by the droid army, the film proves depressingly, fleetingly devoid of anything comparable to genuine human emotions -- pure, pulse-deprived exposition posing as morality-lined action extravaganza. There are no feelings here, nor legitimate characters -- merely shadows of their existence. The force is gone with this one.

Aug 9, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008): B+

The former, a sound-deprived wall of blue flame from which the Batman logo emerges – silently and swiftly, as if closing in on prey – scored to the dissonant, unnerving strings of a barely audible soundtrack. Consumed by the darkness, the effect is that of both condensed madness and the thrill of anticipation, as if waiting for the gunfire to mark the beginning of a race.

The latter, quite unexpectedly in its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it immediacy, a variation on the traditional into-the-sunset exit (a single cut that, in this critic’s opinion, alone demands the film be nominated for an achievement in editing), elevating all that has come before into the realm of modern pop mythology.

Were films judged entirely by the emotive impact of their opening and closing images – those ever-so-important first and last impressions, ushering us into and out of the darkness – Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight would be a masterpiece. That these respective shots, detailed above, are brief moments anything but lingered upon speaks to Nolan’s growing sensibilities as a visual storyteller, their impact not merely heightened by, but manifest of, their barely-glimpsed presence – temporary sensory overload that’s gone before you’ve quite gotten hold of it. Ironically, though, it is the presence of these and several other moments of transcendent greatness that serve to highlight the relative inferiority of much of the product, like a massive house of cards build on an otherwise unstable foundation. A key moment sees The Joker (a consistently brilliant Heath Ledger) describe his conflict with Christian Bale’s Batman as that between an unstoppable force and an immovable object, the shot and actor aligned in such a way that it suggests the heady immensity of his claim. In a way, his words effectively summarize the conflict inherent within The Dark Knight itself, a blockbuster as finely crafted as any of its kind even as it stands guilty of more cardinal offenses, a irrevocable schism between concept and execution

At The House Next Door, Keith Uhlich articulates his own disappointment as a “now you see it, now you don’t” kind of artistic hodgepodge. After multiple re-reading and three viewings of the film itself, I think I’ve a handle on his exact meaning(s) (as his thoughts often throw my own perceptions for a loop), and while I sense agreement as regards parts of my own viewing experience, overall I feel something more akin to two steps forward, one step back. Though not meant to its detriment, The Dark Knight feels not unlike an ultra-high concept theme park ride: the film is always moving forward, quite unlike any I’ve ever seen, not merely kinetically but narratively, like a freight train too heavy for even the strongest breaks. Not a moment isn’t meant to expose something – a character trait, an unfolding tragedy, the indication of a death, the presentation of a conflict, the resolution to a crisis, etc. – and if the film has any singular flaw (of which there are many arguable), it’s that it often smothers itself with excessive exposition. Not simply free of anything that could be called relative pacing or mood (such are present, but always attached to facts, facts, facts), let alone languishing, the film flaws itself via numerous redundancies – overemphatic repeats of ideas and questions meant to impart philosophical or emotionally probing thought. In his own 2005 franchise reboot Batman Begins, Nolan abused dialectic development of theme by saying “fear” more times than in George W. Bush’s combined 2002-2005 State of the Union addresses. The broken record nature of the screenplay reached inadvertently comedic heights when Ra’s Al Ghul’s (Liam Neeson) purportedly wise statements played like parenthetical comments never erased from the screenplay, like markers leftover from sketched lines of screenplay architecture. Similarly in The Dark Knight do themes start fresh, turn ripe, and suddenly rot on screen in distinct phases, though whereas Begins often meandered on its emotions – never quite grand, but always feeling and poetic – TDK (as the fans like to call it) feels like a rush from one point to the next.

In a way, this approach is absolutely right: the characters of the film themselves face continual battles with limited choices at their disposal and unpleasantries at every turn, their very lives often sacrificed in their perpetual effort to survive. By turning the central cat-and-mouse conflict into a narrative tool on audience expectations, the film posits said scenario onto our own sensibilities. Implicitly reflecting 21st Century physical and psychological warfare, The Dark Knight renders its tale with sufficient timeliness without explicitly vocalizing such connections, much in the same way that 12 Angry Men still serves as a reminder of Great Ideas regardless of how long ago the movie was released and the original play written. Pity, then, that The Dark Knight can’t settle for good enough, throwing in the mix a last-minute anti-Patriot Act diatribe via Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox that feels less like genuine character thoughts than a lame grab at cinematic legitimacy via lip service to timely issues. In using the comic and crime genres to wax philosophical on our political moment, the film overdoses on talking points excessively and almost unforgivably, often utilizing the same description or miniature catchphrase, two, three or four times in the same scene. Praise be to Heath Ledger and company for making even the most mundane of dialogue sound passionate and meaningful (hollow though the oft-repeated words become), and damn Nolan for his pounding away at our heads with a rusty hammer. It’s called a thesaurus, Chris. Use it.

That a great deal of the movie ultimately sticks, then, speaks to the filmmaker’s almost-masterful execution of formula, packaging emotions, plot, ideas, and mood into compacted chunks that flow purposefully from one to the next. Nothing in the construction of The Dark Knight hasn’t been carefully thought out, a point on which I think even the film’s detractors can agree (however blatantly misguided some of its choices are). In the Gotham environment of disorder and death – the film itself is driven by a taste for self-preservation and the need to know – the redundancy of plotting info is a major blow to any developed mental buzz, and it horribly upsets the big-budget successes on prominent display, often sending this $200 million tank of a movie off the course. Though damnable in itself, the fact that the problem remains isolated to moments of intended thematic development is, in a way, something to be grateful about: where the entirety of the film this riddled with verbal diarrhea, I think I might petition to suffocate every single last one of the characters. It’d be a quiet threequel, for sure.

If the aforementioned elements do nothing less than bug the shit out of me, rest assured that the extremity of my reservations comes entirely from the fact that they dampen the almost absolute excellence of everything else they coexist with from beginning to end; so great is it that I’m tempted to forgive the systems on life support and pass the whole thing with flying colors. Burdened it may be, The Dark Knight features some of the most immediate and savory blockbuster artistry the medium has ever seen, bringing to mind the feral plow of Cameron’s Terminator 2 and Spielberg’s pro-life Jurassic Park arguments, even if it never quite touches those film’s respective pinnacles of development and articulation. Like a Greek morality play with concise themes and specifically tagged representatives, Gotham City is the fertile nesting ground for these peripatetics in action, figures of power engaged in constant struggle for the upper hand. A love-torn Batman represents democratic virtue, The Joker unbridled chaos, and a late-entry vote by a fallen Harvey Dent suggests that only pure, black and white chance can serve as an issuer of justice. Let the debate begin.

From the opening, Heat-inspired bank robbery through the centerpiece highway chase, Nolan’s spectacle carries with it a sense of formidable momentum – violence, both physical and emotional, enervated by hefty dynamics and a brooding sense that nothing can be taken for granted. Gotham City is under attack and even Batman lacks the resources necessary to combat it, forced to discard all traditional notions of justice in the face of a villain who wants nothing more than “to watch the world burn”. As the plot progresses and the influence of criminal activity deepens, the all-encompassing power of The Joker begins to take on almost-profound, if device laden, levels of magnitude, and Ledger’s much-hyped posthumous performance – though certainly influenced by the dark circumstances surrounding it, in much the same way that any artist’s work takes on new levels of importance in the wake of their passing – entirely lives up to the hype preceding it. Though ticky and quirky in all the “expected” ways, Ledger’s mannerisms reach beyond a mere physical arsenal of gestures and touches on deeper psychological tremors, the inexplicable nature of which is only elucidated by the film’s decision to never provide him with a proper back story. In a way equals with the much-touted 2007 “ambiguous villain,” Oscar-winning duo of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Day-Lewis and No Country for Old Men’s Javier Bardem, Ledger goes beyond the written page so effectively that all around him suffer in comparison. Too bad that Nolan botches the character’s finale, a disastrous bit of manipulation in the form of a “social experiment” that plays like a scene from an imaginary follow-up to Paul Haggis’ shrill Crash. Woe too is Aaron Eckhart, who eagerly dives into Harvey Dent/Two-Face only for his arc to be crammed into a poorly developed third act. Such are the sore thumbs that stick out embarrassingly from The Dark Knight’s canvas, valleys amidst an operatic landscape that threaten to swallow up that which surrounds them, no matter how high the peaks themselves rise.

How high, indeed, although “big” seems a more accurate overall descriptor. Though crafted deliberately with IMAX screenings in mind (the screens of which utilize a screen closer to 1:66:1 than traditional widescreen), Nolan’s use of said format’s customized cameras translates quite seamlessly to the 1.85:1 ratio of the standard theatrical exhibition; in both arenas, the camerawork effectively pronounces the immensity of the action at hand, swooping over the urban landscapes like a maze in which various combatants writhe for the upper hand in a titanic battle. Both the narrative and locations are effectively labyrinthine, the series of unfortunate events that plague the citizens of Gotham doubling as an expert – if, in hindsight, blatantly calculated – play on audience emotions, reinforcing the notion that comics have and continue to inform real life in the same way that drama has always aided in the exploration of the human condition. Cluttered though it may be, a great genre movie exists at the heart of this wild and untamed, if occasionally misguided, beast, and one can only hope that Nolan will become more confident in his expressive devices after his experience on The Dark Knight. It’s the Batman movie we need right now, if not entirely the one we deserve.

Jun 13, 2008

Wild, Weird and Wonderful: Appreciating Ang Lee's Hulk

Five years later and Ang Lee’s audacious addition to the superhero genre remains among the most misunderstood creations of its time, as hindered by audience expectations (who seem to watch films more for specific components than any sense of search or want for discovery, especially amongst the intended audiences of this genre) as by its own multilayered complexities and occasionally overreaching hindrances. Just as often as with people, we like some movies for their strengths while finding that we love others for their flaws. Half a decade hasn’t yet diminished Hulk’s numerous potholes but the retrospect has further illuminated its groundbreaking efforts, strengthening those whose creativity and stamina are rooted equally in the reflexivity of cinema and the implied visual dynamics of the comic book panel.

As far as genre infusions go, Hulk defies categorization, both in terms of its illustrated source material and its stylistic executions. I’ll say right up front: I’ve never read a page of any comic featuring “The Incredible Hulk” and I don’t see myself getting around to it in the near future (so the rules say, never see a movie with an expert on its subject matter). Cinema, at its purest, glides through drama, while adherence to external rules (be they the concrete rules of our physical world or the pre-existing culture surrounding a chosen topic, hence disapproving fanboys deprived of Hulk Smash! adrenaline) are less important to any particular work than is its ability to function according to its own established modes of logic. Faithfulness never guarantees a good adaptation (yet another assumption extending from cinema’s misinterpreted literary functions), and whether it’s Spider-Man or Pride & Prejudice, every adaptation has the inalienable right – to be frank – to do whatever the hell it wants.

The opening credits of Hulk are a movie unto themselves, the green-tinged Marvel logo disappearing into a drop of water that triggers the films own Big Bang – an exploding universe of galaxies, nebulas, and synapses from which the first cells of life develop, mutate and divide, quickly growing beyond nature and into the burden of consciousness. Lee’s montage here is infectious, tracking the origins of the Hulk amid test tubes, experiments and lab notes with enough efficiency as to effectively summarize an entire prequel. As complimented by Danny Elfman’s equally underrated score – a perpetually downward spiral of psycho-spiritual chaos – it’s the overture to all that follows, declaring itself grandiose and impressionistic, favoring emotionally abstract imagery over realistic representations (although, as a former student of genetics, the basic groundwork is, at the least, fairly accurate). In its best moments, it brings to mind none other than Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (available here; watch it, because if you haven’t seen Un Chien Andalou, you haven’t seen jack).

A momentary diversion for clarification purposes. Above you will see a screen cap of the films title, spiraling out of and back into a genetic code. What do you see? More specifically, what don’t you see? “The”. For the last god damn freaking time, the title is Hulk (to date, only Roger Ebert has written about the film more than once and continued to address it correctly). This has as much to do with how we consume our movies as it does my own anal pet peeves (I’m similarly staunch about the non-“The” School of Rock). Not once in Ang Lee’s film is the word “incredible” used, and “hulk” only makes a singular, practically incidental appearance. As represented by the title, Hulk isn’t a physical thing – it’s a mentality, an idea, manifest of the materials implicit evolutionary connotations (an equally appropriate title had already been used, that being Ken Russell’s Altered States). Try getting that across to audiences expecting familiarity (thus pandering) and you’ll know the experience of pounding one’s head into a brick wall.

As Hulk continues, Lee’s nerve astonishes even as his moments of inarticulate conception stick out like sore thumbs. Much has been made of the films comic book visual design, though these acknowledgements, be they positive or negative, have done more damage understanding of the film than anything in that they’re almost exclusively limited to the films more literal screen divisions, in which separate panels appear and disappear, pan and fade in an effort to recreate a traditionally printed artifice. More important are the films no less explicit but infinitely more balanced fades, cuts, and blends, traditional cinematic devices given new potency via almost perfectly conceived stylistic utilizations, channeling the inherently static dynamics of graphic novel language into a distinctly filmic form.

More than anything, Hulk is about images clashing together, and Lee’s best decisions are not unlike the overlapping pieces of an orchestra. Amongst almost countless examples are the contours of scribbled lab notes morphing into the eye of a reptile (see above), whereas the headlights of a car blur into the form of the full moon. Climaxing in a multi-panel sequence (reminiscent of Harryhausen stop-motion techniques) in which the Hulk (Eric Bana, when not in mandatory CGI form) and an energy-transformed David Banner (Nick Nolte, ditto electrifying special effects) battle amongst the nighttime sky, leaping from cloud to cloud via bolts of lightning, such are the highlights of Hulk’s dynamic vocabulary of images, though not without a few sore spots. The majority of such are among the misguided split-screen compositions, which too often clutter the frame with varying angles and viewpoints that reveal no more information together than apart (no choice is more disastrous, though, than Josh Lucas’ hilarious death). Credit, though, to those that effectively emulate cinematic shot/reverse shot techniques within multi-layered panel frames (see the Hulk’s escape from the government lab), imperfectly yet poetically signifying Hulk’s own distinct qualities while collapsing otherwise routine exposition into something more flavorful.

Freud gets tossed around a lot when Hulk is at the discussion table, yet the films psychological inquiries are more instinctively exploratory than scientifically ponderous. A reliance on tight shots during dialectic exchanges emphasizes Hulk’s focus on the emotional over the physical, the framing (often shot simultaneously from two angles) used more to emphasize expression than to define spatial relationships, often pushing logical details out of frame to focus more prominently on the eyes or center of the face. Such exquisite compositions speak wonders; from a cut between Mrs. Banner and the young Bruce – one of the most wondrous mother/child communications in recent memory – to any number of climactic stare-downs or soul-soothing tableaus, Lee knowingly utilizes his actor’s eyes, as they are the windows to the soul.

Like Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Hulk is a superhero movie only incidentally about superheroes, the visceral flights of fancy a mere manifestation of the core themes of parent/child conflicts and the resulting scarring. Like him or not, Lee knows his predecessors, Hulk’s indebtedness to the surreal drama of the 1930’s horror lexicon knowingly indicated by two shots – one of the Hulk, one of Bruce Banner – lifted from Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein and Dreyer’s Vampyr (not to mention Jennifer Connelly, channeling countless damsels from decades past with a new sense of modern feminine empowerment). If Burton’s film is the more accomplished of the two (and by a great deal at that), it’s because that auteur was more comfortably learned in his canvas. Lee’s most recurrent theme is that of characters rectifying their inner struggles with external demands, and Hulk is his work most intrinsically representative of these notions. The film almost matches the inner conflict of its titular character, intermittently bogged down even as it soars to seemingly impossible heights.

Rating: A-

Jun 11, 2008

Funny Games (2008): C+

A funny thing happened the other day. I rented and watched - with much trepidation and skepticism, wondering almost aloud to myself before and during if it was even worth my while - Michael Haneke's English-language remake of his own Funny Games, a film I despised and still find to be more than a bit infuriating in retrospect. Relativity is key here, as I can't say I liked this new version, but viewing what was virtually the same film from the deliberate standpoint of having already seen it, hence knowing what was coming, I was able to appreciate it more even as it pushed all the same wrong buttons again. My favorite review of the new version - unofficially dubbed Funny Games U.S. - was that of Ed Gonzalez (check out Jim Emerson's intelligent take-down, too), who merely reprinted his review of the 1998 original, word for word, save for the respective names of the new actors and actresses. Such was a delightfully understated commentary on the nature of the film itself, although like Gus Van Sant's unfairly maligned Psycho, Haneke's commentary here doesn't seem so much an empty grab for cash (anyone familiar with his obsessions and themes should know better) than an experiment in both familiarity and precision. Haneke's argument remains the same: that violence is bad and anyone immoral enough to obtain pleasure or prosperity from such (case in point here being destructive American culture, most blatantly signified by the image of a blood-spattered television) could stand to endure a dose of their own medicine. Funny Games' central concept - a vacationing upper class family is terrorized by two disquietingly pleasant thugs who challenge their moral and physical limitations with a series of intimidations and physical threats/punishments - remains theoretically brilliant, though again undone here by a sense of superiority devoid of self-examination; just a smidgen of reflexive humor alone could have saved the day, or the more constructive notion that our doomed "protagonists" have even the slightest say in their fateful outcomes. (Spoilers ahead.) A nearly ten-minute, static take in which Naomi Watt's housewife - bound, practically nude - suffers the initial pangs of shock and downfall following her son's horrific death exhibits Haneke's commanding technical skills, and so too does the entirety of Funny Games U.S. exhibit similarly honed talent in framing, lighting and editing, subtle differences (like the re-assembled footage that differed between Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux) that may not speak to their own presence but ultimately lend a different feel, even if at but a subconscious level. Most significant a difference, though, are the performers, who aren't necessarily better than their predecessors than they are less conducive to the unfairly calculated inhumanity of Haneke's dead-end maze, lending pathos and hope to a scenario in which none has otherwise been permitted. Haneke's statements are no more so agreeable than the last time I saw them at work (fascinating to behold even as they are difficult, if not impossible to get behind in such an incarnation) but his execution has proven more powerful than I expected here, empowered, in a way, but this version's more pronounced thematic tones, as if admitting relative obviousness as a means of disarming an otherwise condescending sense of banality. Still, it's almost completely for naught when Haneke plays so deliberately unfair, from a most unfortunate of (apparent) coincidences to the still ridiculous "rewind" sequence. Flogging the audience is one thing, but to deny them free will in their role - thus responsibility - is something else

Jun 10, 2008

Hellboy (2005): B+

Hellboy suggests the kind of loquaciously laid-back, dialogue-driven movie Kevin Smith only wishes he could make, wickedly cool and soulfully deep amidst its superhero outsider story. Artistically resonant even as it deliberately follows a contemporary narrative structure, Guillermo Del Toro's adaptation of Mike Mignola's graphic novels remains among the most humanistic of modern action films, shedding faux-ponderous attempts at seriousness for out-and-out juvenile bliss - a throbbing vein of humanity running through the core of a dank, lavish and evil world. The film declares its themes early on when our narrator asks us if a man is defined by his origins or his actions, and so too must the supernaturally endowed Hellboy embrace his torn identity as a socially yearning person and a misunderstood beast, his role as a government-funded defender against the forces of evil separating him from practically all human contact. Freed from an alternate dimension by the experimenting Nazis before being taken in by an American scientist, his is a part that may prove the penultimate of performer Ron Perlman's career. Cocky and snazzy and entirely detailed in his methodical approach, his is a turn that belongs with the greatest makeup-reliant roles of all time, which is to speak no ill of the rest of the cast, who approach the material with the same zestful imagination. Torn love haunts the titular beast, who searches often aimlessly for meaning amidst the life-threatening woes of his nature-nurture existence. Del Toro constructs his fantasy with bold colors that emphasize character natures and relationships while also making for visually sumptuous setpieces between our Devil-spawned badass and a number of monstrous hell-hounds (among other encroaching forces of evil). Hellboy emphasizes his existential plight so effectively that an external conflict concerning resurrected Nazi forces seems comparatively dull, but such forcible emotional entanglements are among the distinct pleasures of Del Toro's painterly canvas. Finding legitimately (which is to say, cool) quirky humor in both the extreme (the curmudgeony laments of a resurrected corpse) and the mundane (Hellboy's lair - the Bureau of Paranormal Research & Defense - is located in Newark, New Jersey and is disguised as a Waste Management business), this is an origin story turned character study of legitimate staying power, with brains, brawn and heart to spare.

Jun 5, 2008

Batman (1989): C

Despite representing his newfound status as a major Hollywood player, Tim Burton’s much-hyped 1989 smash Batman remains little more than a curious relic deprived of personality – a manufactured widget less influenced by poetic artistry than capitalistic greed. There’s plenty there, for sure, but for a movie so purportedly big, Batman is disconcertingly small, conceptually and visually, as if Burton’s own input was deliberately siphoned off lest the end vision be too unique to trust with such potential blockbuster revenue at stake. Whether executive pressure or the sheer intimidation of the production put the squeeze on Burton, the end result has always been one of supreme apathy to these eyes, both in its lack of stylistic fervor and in the impression left on the heart and soul; the film screams out for an expressionistic wallop of action, romance, and fright, but finds only a void of underdeveloped style and halfhearted execution to call its own, as if rushed to completion without a moment's glance at the dailies along the way. A feature-length nip and tuck, it suggests – among other things – a film edited so as to squeeze in as many showings per day as possible. The beast isn’t quite soulless, but the flashes of euphoria are so few and far between that it may as well be, if only to put an end to its own misery.

At their best, Burton’s films are not unlike miniature universes unto themselves, clearly defined spaces populated as much with people as with teeming feelings and ideas manifest within the visual sphere. This alone would make him a prime choice to breathe life into the world of the Dark Knight, but being loosely cobbled together with matte paintings, poorly shot miniatures and scrunched together sets, Batman’s Gotham City feels less like a genuine setting or character than it does a half-hearted production design. The detail work is there but there’s no connective thread running throughout the picture, no point of reference by which these characters exist within their cinematic realm. Cutting immediately from the opening wide shot of the cityscape to the ground level of urban decay, Burton fails to grasp the largeness of Gotham, both physically and spiritually; the landscape wants for a sense of placement within and between its scantly established locales (one imagines how much of the budget that went to securing star power would have been better spent producing a more encompassing vision of Batman’s world). Ultimately, it’s Blade Runner for tykes, as the film falls back on preschool conceptions of film noir to suggest the city’s sickly moral infestations. From the grizzled, crooked cop who appears ready to die via heart attack at any moment to the shrieking, faceless henchman trained in martial arts by way of Saturday morning cartoons, Batman trades in extreme caricatures played straight, a relative flaw that may have proven otherwise were the film more substantially concerned with its character’s supposedly weighty psychological foreplay.

While more recent superhero fare may have rendered Freudian 101 character studies all but moot, at least even the most simplistic of offenders (I'm looking at you, Ghost Rider) at least made an effort to explore their heroes’ tortured souls. Batman bears witness to Bruce Wayne’s (Michael Keaton) troubled past – a fateful encounter that saw both of his parents murdered before his very eyes that ultimately led to his secret life as the caped crusader – but fails to connect the character’s history to his vigilante activity in ways more than incidental, culminating in a flashback reveal so obvious that it only serves to solidify our billionaire hero as a grade A idiot. Keaton works small wonders given how underwritten the part is, using his subdued charms (as opposed to contrived tics) to emphasize Wayne’s repressed emotions, but the psychological connection to Batman is so tenuous that, whenever he dons the costume, the impact of his screen presence can be said to equal that of The Matrix’s spoon. The top-billed Jack Nicholson, then, is the one who gets the spotlight, in a performance so overboard that it may very well qualify as the most self-indulgent of his career. It doesn’t help much that his Joker makeup looks like shit (the character’s permanent grin looks less like frozen muscles than a Greek theater mask missing its tragic counterpart), but Nicholson does no favors to his character’s thwarted humanity, his constant winking to the audience coming off less like the mannerisms of a madman than the obnoxious antics of a hammered celebrity (one must imagine, though, how leaden the film would be without his chewing of the scenery, given that it already comes close to qualifying as an all-out sleep aid).

Though lack of cohesion can be said to summarize the bulk of Batman’s far-reaching flaws, that doesn’t stop the occasional moment of wonder from shining through, be it the rare instance when a performer approximates the pulpy wonder the film perpetually reaches for, or the handful of shots readily identifiable as coming from Burton’s keen and deliberate eye (it's a sad state when the high water mark of a film is the opening credits sequence, here a miniature masterpiece of music and shadows from which the rest of the film could take a lesson or three). Pity, then, that the majority of Batman feels like it was crafted by McDonald’s executives intent on selling as many Happy Meals as possible with minimal advertising investment. Even when the scenery proves visually striking, the film rarely fails to shoot it from the most mundane angle possible, editing patchwork sequences together so wildly that one can’t help but think of Ed Wood, assembling stock footage together from earlier, now dismantled productions. Batman should be a dark and brooding world; rather, it’s just a hole into which bits and pieces of inspiration have been dumped: blatant attempts at iconic imagery, stock characters lacking necessary genre heft, and a script that mistakes surface scratching for deep probing. Nevertheless, all this and more would prove a worthwhile sacrifice when Burton would go full throttle for the sequel Batman Returns, a film as atmospheric, profound, emotional and thrilling as this unfortunately misbegotten predecessor is not.

May 29, 2008

Rambo (2008): B+

If we critics fall victim to any one pitfall, it's that simplest of traps: judging a book by its cover. I first saw the career-defining First Blood earlier this year and was taken aback by its decidedly non-shoot 'em up story and execution, in much the same way that my then 9-year-old mind was completely blown away on first encounter with The Terminator, another classic film whose unique moral qualities and humane inquiries are routinely usurped by its popularity within - and subsequently caricatured pigeonholing by - pop movie culture. Of course, it's easy to become cynical without being deliberately so, and though I've yet to see either Rambo: First Blood Part II or Rambo III (is this the most inconsistently titled movie series of all time or what?), I wasn't exactly holding high expectations for the fourth entry, titled simply Rambo. Of course, the whole concept of expectations is something I'd like to banish from criticism, but to seriously attempt such would be to imitate Don Quixote raging against the windmills.

Consider, then, this newest entry in the Rambo franchise, also the latest in mainstream cinema's implicit responses to our current political moment; nearly all films reflect their times, though these troublesome ones seemingly encourage our artists to do so more explicitly. Stallone uses his iconic character here to explore the necessary evils of violence through a brutal pop lens, recalling his own role in fashioning 80's cinematic actioners and how those films have influenced not only subsequent works of the genre, but an entire generation of moviegoers weaned on them. Approaching his subject matter with a matter-of-fact, workman-like artistry, Stallone's Rambo purports nothing more than it shows, sweaty and bloody and matter-of-fact in both its ideas and attitudes. The rejected American soldier now resides in the jungles of Burma, where genocide is an everyday reality as entire villages of underdeveloped farmers are subjected to the vicious whims of a greedy military colonel. Audiences may snicker at Stallone's age but such befits the bone-wearing wisdom of his character's place in life, having long fought for justice with little to nothing in the way of long-lasting success. Worldly systems too great and vast to permanently disrupt are in place that only perpetuate violence against the innocent, and when a band of Christian missionaries looks to him for help in aiding the oppressed, he tells them matter of factly: "Live your life, cause you've got a good one." Rambo doesn't quite say that it's impossible to fix the world, but it knows in its bones that it takes more than a few rebels working together to do the trick.

I'm as bleeding heart as they come, but infuriating to me as well is the often-legitimate insinuation that all liberals are whiny tree huggers who'd rather turn tail than fight back in the midst of a terrorist attack. Though it goes without saying that Rambo isn't in the same ball park, league, or sport as Steven Spielberg's morally challenging Munich (which complicates the issue with the downward spiral of revenge), I'm glad to see a relatively mainstream film boldly and appropriately establishing the need for violence in a violent world, even if Stallone chooses not to delve into the widely-differing set of morals required when functioning in wartime versus diplomacy off the battlefield. Neoconservatives would have us think that there exist no worthwhile politics that can't be handled with shock and awe style carpet bombing, but equally important is the fact that sometimes there's no other choice but to shoot back. Threatened by a boatload of pirates eager to rape his lone female passenger after killing off the men, John Rambo shoots first Han Solo style, necessarily and unapologetically, kill or be killed. By the end of the film, even the whiny Christian who tells John that "taking a life is never right" has beaten a few thugs' skulls in with a stone. Rambo's emphasis on violence, then, isn't an exercise in wanton catharsis but an admission to unpleasant necessities - only a sick person would actually enjoy the onslaught of exploding heads and severed limbs as featured here, which are shot plain and ugly, without fanfare. First Blood remains the ultimate Rambo film because it asks us, what are our leaders doing to fix the situation while our brave men and women do what is asked of them? Even more so in a post-9/11 world, guns aren't a solution, merely a temporary fix. Eventually, they'll run out of ammo.

May 12, 2008

Youth Without Youth (2007): A

Though I lack much in experience, it seems wholly true to me that anyone truly, madly, deeply in love with film must know that it is not a medium one goes to for articulation of thought, but for expression of feelings - often indefinable (though we may try), and thus encapsulating the maddening difficulty of attempting to capture that which cannot be. As everything from plot-driven storytelling to the popular upsurge of documentaries would tell us, there is room enough for the relatively literate within the medium, but it remains at its core one of emotional equations, the feelings evoked as one image unfolds to the next with whatever sights and sounds they carry with them. And though I'm unavoidably biased in this specific case - a masterpiece from a master director, almost universally reviled by those long awaiting his return - the fact remains that reading most film criticism feels not so different from dispassionate market analysis more concerned with popularity and marketability than art and feeling. You want a story? Read the front page. I'm here for the picture show.

Francis Ford Coppola's experimental mood piece Youth Without Youth strikes these chords of intangibility in both form and content, it being literally "about" a man of brilliance attempting to finish his monumental life's work, while also reflecting the its creator's prolonged efforts to do the same. From Apocalypse Now to Bram Stoker's Dracula to now, Coppola has continually stretched the narrative form to its breaking points, churning through styles and methods with a vigor that can only be described as artistic initiative, strictly defiant of logic as it pries through the depths of our humanity. To submit to it is like flowing with some divine current, navigating the bowels of some heavenly palate (even the nightmarish hijinks of Apocalypse Now are guided by a deeply spiritual hand), and to do such is a choice we often make in that we either watch (detached, passive) or experience (navigate, explore) our movies. Tim Roth's Dominic Matei says that he continues his consumption of life during sleep. The dreamlike qualities of projected images allow us to do the same.

It would be easy to say that Youth Without Youth is many things at once, but bolder and truer to say that it is about everything and nothing, at all times. The burden of existence weighs down heavily on Coppola/Dominic, the cold montage opening the film an impressionistic collage of poor Yorick skulls, cryptic scrawling and time pieces set to the incessantly ticking mechanisms that serve to remind us of our imminent mortality. A stylistic throwback to classic 50's cinema as much as it is an operatic tragi-romance imbued with a kind of labyrinthine Lynchian madness, the film involves pseudo-science, religious overtones, split personalities, time travel devices, and Nazi-coveted superpowers, and that's just off the top of my head. Past romances, future possibilities, and the dogged desire to know where we come from all play into the experiences of Dominic, whose old-aged attempt at suicide is thwarted when he is struck by lightning, only to fully heal and become half his age in appearance.

Armond White calls the film a "brainy debacle" but I see no need for intellectualism here, and nor do I think that's what Coppola has us aiming for. Incidental to our friendship, I'm more in league with Keith Uhlich, who offers this: "Allow the constant play of words, ideas, images and sounds to wash over you in an aural/visual continuum and it becomes suddenly, brilliantly illuminating." Indeed, there is little logic to be found in the construction of Coppola's film, and nor does the architecture of the heart require stability in such ways as we tend to take for granted as being the only means available to us. Segueing from espionage thrills to a reclusive romance with super-spiritual overtones to an oblique meditation on death, Youth Without Youth requires us to abandon traditional cinematic devices in favor of base stimuli response, a language established by the frontal surrealism of the pre-credit opening sequence (how one reacts to this scene may very well determine the entire film to follow), and one rewarded endlessly in its multi-layered compositions and rhythms seemingly weathered by the sands of time. Overwhelmed by the vortex-like first viewing, I can't begin to expound on the rolling layers of profundity the film relishes in, from infinite sorrow to redemption and back again. It is the soul itself, born witness to.

May 10, 2008

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008): B-

A second Harold & Kumar should have been, by all means, that typical second film that proves backwards and stale in every way its predecessor proved surprisingly otherwise. Key, then, is this sequel's sly self-awareness, indicative in its actualized satire and constant need to one-up itself, as if countering its own semi-pointlessness and pedantic plotline. Picking up immediately after the semi open-ended conclusion of the original, part two starts the self-reflexive irony out thick with some flowery, Louis Armstrong-accompanied credits, its effectiveness not coming from the choice but by the protracted execution. The credits allow the subtitle Escape from Guantanamo Bay to appear separately, thus upsetting the "What a Wonderful World" context more subversively than an abrupt soundtrack change would have. Only halfway into establishing the next scene, then, does the film go lewd and crude, cutting to Kal Penn's fast food-inspired bouts of diarrhea, laying on the linguolabial trills and expectorated bodily fluids as thick physically as they are metaphorically. It is in such a way that the appropriately titled film is carried out, and it is similarly appropriate, then, that the subtitle refers not to a stated goal in this case, but (practically) a starting point.

A spur-of-the-moment trip to Amsterdam goes awry when the impatient Kumar decides to smoke on the flight there, confusing an old woman into thinking them terrorists - beard, turban and all. "Bong" sounds like "bomb", and in many similar acts of confusion does government agent Ron Fox (a perfectly hateable Rob Corddry) idiotically suppose our two heroes to be jihadists bent on the death of innocent civilians (in a moment of soul-crushingly spot-on mockery, Fox questions a subordinate's loyalty to America by asking him if he likes to see little Caucasian girls getting raped). White Castle so perfectly established its characters as a gadflyish presence in our society that it can only deviate to the routine of newly introduced characters, providing our protagonists with an inferred backstory beginning with Kumar's college love interest, who is now preparing to marry the same Republican big shot who linked Harold up with his unsatisfying job. Things go far more smoothly than that last sentence, though, and it isn't long before H&K escape the titular prison back to Florida, having just evaded the task of giving head only to find themselves at a "Bottomless" party (to change the pace from the more popular means of breast exposure). And then a very atypical backwoods trailer. And then at a Ku Klux rally. And so on, upward, until Neil Patrick Harris is back with a unicorn and Dubya tells of his love for New Jersey weed (and his fear of Dick Cheney).

Quite wisely, the movie doesn't even attempt to recapture the singularity of the original, and its go for broke, scattershot silliness isn't always as hilarious as it is incessantly amusing, skewering the persistently self-imposed ignorance of racial and cultural stereotypes with a revealing and scathing bite. Ron Fox constantly bemuses (he attempts to "torture" two Jews and a black man by pouring coins and grape soda out of a can in front of them, respectively), but it is the Commander in Chief that proves most hilarious, an imitation by James Adomian made all the more amusing so by the simple virtue of featuring the indelible image of Dubya passing a joint with two "terrorizers". Guantanamo Bay avoids the offensive negation of potentially trivializing its subject matter by keeping things, no matter how ridiculous, rooted in the long-term reality of its lead characters (future job/life prospects, the links of a long-term friendship), while also dishing out the laughs on the people responsible for such horrors (the War in Iraq, the titular location, etc.) rather than those unjustly suffering their consequences. As before, Harold and Kumar come out of it all a little wiser and no worse for wear. After two films of their joyous irresponsibility and hedonistic pleasures, I can say with confidence that I wouldn't want to live in a world without them.

Speed Racer (2008): A+

Speed Racer may very well give your brain diabetes, and I state that as compliment. Digital to the extreme, this adaptation of the popular 70's cartoon is sure to give detractors of the Star Wars prequels a whole new ball game to play at, as it doesn't so much utilize its glossy, computerized sheen as it fully embraces it - like a child with a new set of toys, exploring the seemingly endless possibilities at hand. The aesthetic worth of Speed Racer will only be truly ascertainable in retrospect, but for now it can be appreciated (if for nothing else) as a bold experiment in delirious pop art, an orgasm of exploding rainbows that defies all physical and visual conventions in its no-holds-barred extravagance. One example: when the less fortunate of the film's racing automobiles crash and explode, the plumes of flame and dust could be any one of the colors of the rainbow, as if Andy Warhol was back from the dead, psyched as ever. By comparison, 300 may as well have been directed by Lars Von Trier.

Plots and themes aside, the Wachowski Brothers have always been readily identifiable as a distinctly auteuristic presence. From the delectable sexuality of Bound through the flawed ambition of The Matrix sequels, theirs is a style keyed into what makes us human (even as it resides within special effects-driven spectacles and familiar genre trappings), evoking telling subtleties with their impeccable, almost Kubrickian framing schemes, positioning men and women, leaders and masses, the rulers and the ruled with and against each other, utilizing space in ways traditionally overlooking in supposed popcorn fare. Speed Racer may very well find them shunning more deliberately meaningful filmmaking in favor of youthful nostalgia; having never seen the original Speed Racer and caring too little to do so, I'm in no position to comment on whether or not this is just another commercial ploy to remind middle-aged ticket buyers of the Good Old Days. Nevertheless, such is a gimmick I think beneath these boys, who - for all of their shortcomings and bad decisions - have never given out to profitability when doing such would impede on the essence of their vision.

Speed Racer is, at its heart, a family film, even if it isn't inappropriate to recommend watching it on LSD. I can only wonder about the future bootlegs being sold at comic book conventions, pairing the film up with various Pink Floyd songs that somehow match up with its bonkers imagery. The storyline remains one modestly grounded in simple themes and virtues: of David versus Goliath, of remaining true to oneself, of being there for friends at the end of the day. Performers notwithstanding, you can expect the usual Wachowski-directed performances: overly mannered and deliberate but also awkward, flawed, and revealing (the casting of Keanu Reeves as Neo remains one of the most unlikely and brilliant marriages of talent - or, as some would say, lack thereof - and content, in recent cinema), deliberately shaped to fit within the peg holes carved out amidst the landscape of flashing sights and sounds.

Such technical stimuli require nothing short of a leap of faith in this case; hold on, hang tight, and try to not look outside the ride lest the contrasting speeds give you motion sickness. Speed Racer is batshit crazy, constantly refocusing, zooming, panning, cutting, swiping, spinning, and bullet-timing, the equivalent of letting 1,000 hummingbirds loose in a McDonald's ball pit with sugar water in constant supply. The viewer is perpetually in the position of being overwhelmed, and though that's a deliberate effect, there were times (in between the moments in which I attempted to recalibrate my senses) that I wished they'd held back the extravagant editing only just, so as to appreciate the spectacle a little less from the purported perspective the racers (truly, they take the catchphrase "Go, Speed Racer, go!" to the ultimate extreme) and more so from the cheering spectators. No matter how fast their gadget spins, however, it stays decidedly on track, not unlike its titular character, whipping around hairpin turns designed precisely for drivers who know how to drive while hydroplaning. In a just world, the editing work in Speed Racer would be championed instead of the idiot chaos that is The Bourne Ultimatum.

A review generally involves a discussion of the story and drama in the film, but you know the story here. You always have. That's the point, and Speed Racer delights in its archetypal strands of fathers and sons, sons and mothers, younger and older brothers, corrupt bad guys and sidekicks who always step in at the right moment. Christina Ricci, Emile Hirsch, John Goodman and Susan Sarandon all nail this storybook genre, although Paulie Litt is particularly special as Speed Racer's younger brother Spritle, quite possibly the most curmudgeony ten-year-old ever put on a movie screen (in the film's penultimate moment of what-the-fuck, candy-colored bliss, he and his pet chimpanzee Chim Chim race around an upscale car factory, jamming out to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird"). If the film's style is any limitation in the end, it's a deliberate one, as Speed Racer aspires not to reinvent, but to reinvigorate.

May 4, 2008

Notes on a Second Viewing: Iron Man

* Robert Downey, Jr. may very well give the best leading performance we've yet seen in a superhero movie (Eric Bana, Christopher Reeve and Christian Bale would also receive my nomination). The downside to his popularity, then, is the fact that the similarly excellent Jeff Bridges has been somewhat lost in the mix. Who would've thought that The Dude could play a fear-mongering, war-profiteering, prehistoric-like monster so well? Like Downey, the role succeeds because he underplays it so effortlessly, grounding the character in legitimate emotions that exist beyond the plot-based demands of genre mechanics.

* Originally, I felt that the silent romance between Downey and Paltrow "didn't work". On second viewing, the problem came down to a single scene, when Pepper Potts decides to "quit" in the midst of Stark's newfound risk taking. Rooted in nothing even remotely connected to legitimate character motivations, it's a phony device meant to generate tension, all the more apparent because the performers go through the motions of it so well, as if hurdling an unnecessary speed bump before commencing the third act. My apologies, then, to the performers, and my commendation to the numerous screenplay writers for almost hitting it out of the park. I sincerely hope that the imminent sequel achieves the greatness that I feel this film comes within arm's reach of.

* More so than before, I stand by my original reading of the film as an almost-literal account of America coming to terms with itself as a post-9/11 superpower. Like the oxygen destroyer in Godzilla, Iron Man understands weapons and technology as creations in need of accountability and how the only thing separating that technology from being used for good rather than evil is the willpower to do so. Obadiah is out for profit and Stark for justice, the former illustrating the apathy many people bear towards others that either live elsewhere in the world or that they don't know personally (not unlike a number of so-called "Christians" that I know...).

* Was that Stan Lee playing himself dressed up like Hugh Hefner? Awesome.

* Some - such as a recent, anonymous poster on this blog (an option that I have now removed, seeing as I believe anyone willing to speak here should also be willing to identify themselves) - may very well think that Marvel's recent multiplex contributions are somehow tarnishing all that is good and holy in film culture. To that I say: Please.

* The bonus scene after the end credits isn't exactly mind-blowing. If you didn't stick around for it the first time, don't worry: it can wait for DVD.

May 2, 2008

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004): B+

A somehow tastefully modernized version of "Also sprach Zarathustra" plays over the climactic scene of the appropriately titled Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, an effective touch given the manner in which this sleeper hit epitomizes stoner yearning for munchies as a miniature odyssey unto itself. Knowingly and effectively pedestrian in its visual style and focus (or rather, lack thereof) on continuity, Danny Leiner's film disregards detail work in favor of focusing on a singular narrative thread, a path from which it cannot veer no matter what distractions lie outside its stated primary objectives. Utilizing visually straightforward framing devices and unabashedly cheap special effects work (most apparent in its deliberately unpolished blue screen compositions), Harold and Kumar is not unlike its toked-out protagonists and their "White Castle or bust" attitude when it comes to their Friday night cravings, unwaveringly intent on getting the job done, even if a little messiness is unavoidable in the process.

Such is a quality that provides numerous Plan 9-esque laughs, such as when night transitions abruptly to daytime or when fake blood moves or disappears altogether from one shot to the next as our protagonists are attacked by an obviously fake, puppet raccoon. Realism and technical astuteness are small change compared to timing and carefully moderated physical gestures, and John Cho and Kal Penn's (Harold and Kumar, respectively) ability to underplay absurdity often comes within arm's reach of perfection (the latter's forehead alone is an immense comedic weapon, wielded here with silent ferocity). Effectively feigning pothead motivation, Harold and Kumar knows what it wants and will let no obstacle stand in its way; no moment may be more in tune with stoner rational than Kumar's decision not to return to his apartment for his cell phone, the thirty foot walk being "too far" a distance to go back. By containing their premise to such a small scale, screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg render the titular journey almost profound.

Less noted but equally (if not more so) important is the manner in which Harold and Kumar upends racial subjugation within the traditions of the raunchy American teen comedy, not only correcting the destructive stereotypes its protagonists have long occupied in such films but allowing their respective minority groups to finally claim their own, long deserved piece of the American dream, complete with illegal substances and poontang (when Kumar states that their journey to White Castle is about more than just the acquisition of hamburgers, he speaks for the film itself). The passive racism of many sex comedies was effectively skewered by the original preview, which billed the film as starring "that Asian guy from American Pie and that Indian guy from Van Wilder", literally restating what the majority of its viewers had muttered to themselves not moments beforehand. Harold and Kumar trades not into stereotypes, however, but delightful caricatures, sending up the absurdities of racism (such as when a precinct of white power policemen arrest and beat a black man soon as look at him) with both wit and gravitas.

Harold and Kumar juxtaposes this reductive sense of race to everyday (and not-so-everyday) experiences of American minorities, its many 420-inspired scenarios no worse for wear as its protagonists mount the obstacles imposed by the often insane and idiotic Caucasians around them. Road rage, declarations of arson, wild cheetahs, redneck orgies, hang gliding and Neil Patrick Harris all figure into the mix before the night is over, and though the humor is routinely evoked from subverted expectations that go well beyond reason, its most effective sequences - such as Harold's worst-case-scenario elevator encounter with the girl of his dreams - are those that keep the steams of anxiety bubbling throughout. Too bad, then, that Harold and Kumar sporadically finds itself slacking off, slipping into a lazy stoner groove when it should be rigorously imitating one instead, thus illustrating the worlds-apart difference between being stupid and acting stupid. Sometimes-maddening inconsistencies notwithstanding, however, the film has already established itself as a deserving modern classic, if only for being so bold as to describe Katie Holmes' breasts as being "the exact opposite" of the Holocaust.

Iron Man (2008): B+

Solid and funk-free, Iron Man lovingly tosses the American ego about like a cat with string, mixing things up just enough to remind us that, when we get down to what's really important, there isn't that much separating traditional red state muscle from blue state radicalism (among other factors, least of which are the deceivers and thieves among us). All within the space of a traditional nuts-and-bolts studio summer picture, that is - the area in which Jon Favreau's very-capable Marvel adaptation succeeds most broadly, its barely-hidden subtext deliberately de-politicized in favor of more a more universally guided moral compass.

As pop entertainment, Iron Man has equal parts brain, brawn, and balls, but what it doesn't want you to know is that it has an equally bleeding heart. Titular superhero creator and billionaire weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (not so much played as executed by a bullwhip-like Robert Downey, Jr.) finds himself held captive by nomadic troops in Afghanistan, intent on using him as their latest tool in the War on Terror. If you've seen the preview, you know he breaks out of this prison, suited up and armed to the teeth like a prehistoric Frankenstein monster. What could have easily been just another dumb exercise in "nuke 'em all" idiocy becomes complex, then, when an escaped Stark declares his weapons factory closed in favor of more effective weapons of peace. Nearly blown to bits by his own shrapnel, he recognizes the dubious nature of war, its morals, and its victims: when the weapon system of his futuristic superhero suit distinguishes, with ease, between a group of terrorists and the Afghan women and children they're holding hostage, he may well be the most kick-ass Boy Scout ever to grace the silver screen.

Fitting, then, that the titular superhero character was first created in the early 60's as an all-around good guy patriot defending the world (first against communists, then more widely against evil) while furthering the advances of technology. He is U.S. industrialism's mechanical heart, one well satisfied with his role as king but one first and foremost intent on equality and order. If the final scene is any indication, Iron Man acknowledges this without hesitation, in a way serving to correct the knee-jerk boot in your ass superiority that evoked so many anti-American feelings post-9/11. With a virtually neverending supply of quips at his disposal, Downey almost brilliantly conveys this humbled elitism with equal levels charm, ego, and admission, his incredible downplaying scoring most of the laughs and his many stumbles reminding us that even our biggest of heroes had their days off. There's always room for improvement.

So then, temporarily switching out of cultural commentator mode, how does Iron Man stack up in the "entertainment" department? If I say it's entertaining and attention-grabbing, that's enough to convince many people that, yes, it's what I'm expecting from the previews and I feel confident having already decided to pay $8-$11 for it this weekend; I humbly state, then, that I require more from a film than it merely passing the time without my noticing. Nevertheless, props are due for the how the accomplished CG gets its due time in the spotlight without cramping more cardinal elements from moving forward (unlike the horrendous would-be spectacle of X-Men: The Last Stand), and in many such ways does the film exhibit learned craft and intuition in acknowledging what is most important, and when. Iron Man is fine entertainment indeed, an almost perfectly structured machine only sporadically and minimally undone by adherence to dramatic form (Stark's relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow's assistant Miss Potts, though bubbling with romance, is a weak link), which it executes with precise - if a bit roughly-hewn - skill.

Even speaking in just those terms, it's one impressive in its exhibited respect for the audience; it doesn't attempt pontification, but nor was I inclined to feel like a toddler as I do during just about any Marc Forster film. Yet whether we view things through specific "political" terms (a habit I'm glad to be mostly out of) or a more broadly social lens (i.e. how does this relate to real people now/always?), it can be stated that all good films are genuinely about something - not just plot points of who stole what money when or will they guy get the girl back this time, but themes and ideas greater than their isolated instances. This has always been the buried life support of genre films, those that knew how to inject an at-first-glance simple story with loaded emotional signifiers and passively explicit morality tales. Personality extends, then, to the film's hardware, from the all-but-fetishized Iron Man suit to Stark's penchant for an active (in more ways than one) lifestyle, equal parts wish fulfillment and emotional illuminator.

It is here that Iron Man nestles comfortably, far from the lofty reaches of Assault on Precinct 13 (one of the greatest action films ever made) but similarly empowering in its self-reflection, re-articulating American angst as altruism gone astray. As with Die Hard's faux-terrorists, Iron Man wages not against the politically oppressed (thus avoiding ideological quagmires likely beyond the reach of its genre tropes) but the purely treacherous and selfish, a milkshake-drinking legion well dispersed throughout the lands, including our own. By acknowledging that fact, Iron Man hardly makes the troops look bad (to use a term made odious in its excessive and inappropriate usage) - it ditches the bad apples and gets things accomplished without fronting its vices in the process.

Apr 25, 2008

Cloverfield (2008): B-

A second viewing of Cloverfield confirms that this experimental pop feature has more to it than I initially recognized; the impact of hype on my initial impressions notwithstanding, I think it a telling fact that my gut response was far more embracing when viewing the film on a comparatively small television, as opposed to the epic cavern of the classic single-screen theater just down the road from my Alma mater. Like Brian De Palma's similarly conceived Redacted, it is a work rooted in the aesthetic of a non-cinematic visual form, a fact that doesn't make theatrical exhibition wrong, per se, but one that significantly impacts the ways its imaged are consumed under various means of presentation, the reduction in size carrying with it a reduction in its apparent "entertainment" qualities, regardless of whether or not Cloverfield wants us to be thrilled by or fearful of the events onscreen. General thematic limpness being chief among its weaknesses, the film fails to beckon its chosen medium, instead subject to the whims of the form it unsuccessfully attempts to dominate.

The aesthetic of the first time camera operator is one we all know well, unless, that is, we've never been forced to either (a) document a party or event as our cinematographer Hud (the very good sport T.J. Miller) has, or (b) watched such almost-nauseating recordings after the fact (for the record, the style, both real and feigned, has never bothered mine eyes, so get the deal about it I do not), and as such it is one more appropriately at home on the small screen, especially given the straightforward manner in which producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves has conceived their baby. The Blair Witch Project still owns, not the least because its supposed "makers" were, in fact, filmmakers, and as such utilized their talents in a way that, by the very nature of their recordings and their relationship to them, transcended mere technical artifice. (Spoilers ahead.) Cloverfield similarly bears witness to the long-gestating deaths of its incidental protagonists at the hands of some mysterious force, but the film never aspires to subvert the home video genre, merely utilizing it to tell a Godzilla-type story (or rather, a story with a Godzilla-type creature in it) in a different way than its genre has traditionally embraced.

To be clear, I still find it wanting in too many ways to champion, but - and it is possible that my initial impressions were unawaringly swayed by gorging media hype, among other things - Cloverfield emerges now not as a hollow shell, but as some kind of brilliant conception, albeit one more than a bit too caught up in its calculated form to effectively indulge in the emotional undercurrents that made The Blair Witch Project one hell of a character study in addition to a representation of the moving image as point-of-view documentarianism. More apparent now is Cloverfield's humane side, less seemingly exploitative than on the big screen and more implicitly self-critical in its representations of death if only because its maker chose to document them. Spectacle-hungry viewers who want more "monster for their money" needn't apply: Cloverfield is only incidentally about a giant creature wreaking havoc. Rather, it's about Hud's own mental processes amidst such disaster, the burgeoning love between its subjects Rob (Michael Stahl-David) and Beth (Odette Yustman), and our own relationships to recording technology.

After an effectively prolonged set-up at a surprise going-away party in Manhattan, something big rocks the city and, before we know it, the night has already seen fire and brimstone. When a dozen or so spectators almost instinctively raise their cell phones to the head of the Statue of Liberty after the iconic face crashes in the street, hurled into Manhattan by God knows what, it's not only as if they're worshipping some unspoken deity, but we realize that Hud's perspective is just one of many. Unfortunately, these are the brilliant nuggets that are scattered about what is otherwise a very straightforward melodrama, not quite as impeccably acted as it would like to think it is and carrying with it a framing devise that even Frank Capra would consider schmaltzy in its obviousness. Cloverfield respectably feigns randomosity, whereas Blair Witch was actually shot off the cuff, the actors here rendering their characters as flesh-and-blood but only in the first dimension; whether it's just another day at the convenience store or the possible end of days, their deliberately casual feel remains a hair too close to that timid land of movie extras to be truly realistic. I, for one, would be using the F-bomb far more gratuitously if faced with a possible encounter with a creature that could well swallow me whole.

Throughout the film - which, for the idiots of the world (I'm sorry, but really, can we maybe walk on our own some day?), is actually a digital home movie that has been recorded on several times, hence the inconsistency of the events being shown - scenes preceding the central night of havoc pop up, but their presence smacks time and again of calculated cutesiness, a wink from the film to remind the audience of its own nifty conception. Cloverfield suffers from this compulsion to refer back to itself, forgoing a more genuinely (i.e. challenging) inconsistent texture that would have rendered its events all that more punchy as they unfold. Such as it is, the scenes in which our protagonists stop for news updates are among the most effective, and even more so for their lack of attention mongering; the frames within frames demand a reexamination of our viewing portal, both the way we gather information and how we function in the world. Morons may wonder why no third-person perspectives are offered up but Cloverfield's relative thrills - that of the unprotected, in-your-face kind - only work as well as they do because of the film's absolutely self-contained consistency. I highly doubt the crab/alien/monster at the center of the film will ever become the American equivalent to Japan's Godzilla, but I for one prefer its nature to remain shrouded in mystery, its origins extraneous to the films very much immediate events and themes and only complained about by those who latch on to trite details lest they actually invest themselves in that subconscious manner that attunes one to currents beyond the mere physical events transpiring onscreen.

As a humanistic look at the ground-level suffering intrinsic to much genre entertainment, Cloverfield is a visual thrill, but its own cookie-cutter rigidity cuts itself off from the deeper possibilities that always remain just within arms reach. The aforementioned scene of the Liberty head remains the one truly brilliant moment of chic pop imagery therein, and though later attacks by the lead monster and its legions of man-sized fleas never fail to make one feel vulnerable to the elements, the film fails to substantially anchor its events to character in a way that effectively builds on its core gimmick; Rob and Beth's relationship, for all of its apocalyptic, one-note "I love you" tragedy, is barely enough to substantiate the plot. Hud, probably unbeknownst to the filmmakers, is the real star here, his ultimate demise seeing the film's single most mind-bending shot: his lower half having been ripped off and devoured by the monster, the camera lands next do his now-deceased upper torso, the auto-focus toggling back and forth between our fallen heroes wan face, the grass beneath him, and the smokey, smouldering ruins behind him. Whatever the nature of our obsessive kino eye, it is one lost without us.


Cloverfield comes to us half-assedly packaged like a secret government file (if they wanted to maintain the illusion, why not go all the way as did the film?), its disc fake-damaged in the same way the Borat DVD looks like an obviously fake DVD-R (in other words, expect Blockbuster customers to demand a refund, mistaking it for the real thing). The image appropriately straddles the grainy/crispy look chosen for the film while the sound is nothing short of formidable, despite the obviously illogical pitfall that no home camera yet comes equipped with its own Michael Bay sound system (had Cloverfield gone so far as to emulate muffled audio as did Blair Witch, who knows how creepy those fucking fleas might have been).

In the features department, the usual slew of making-of featurettes dominates the selection (they are, thankfully, less cutesy than the packaging), although the revelation that the monster is in fact meant to be a mere baby of its species all but demands another feature made with the creature solely in mind. A handful of appropriately deleted scenes and two minutely different endings may intrigue fans, while the commentary track sees a soft-spoken Matt Reeves detailing the aesthetic and technical nature of his film so meticulously (apparently for the benefit of the numbskulls who still don't get "why the camera shakes") that you'd think he was attempting to connect the dots on Inland Empire from the ground up. If any, skip the batch of outtakes that effectively solidify the film's party crowd as the go-to douchebags of Lower Manhattan.