May 27, 2011

Viewing Log #8

The Hangover: Part II (Todd Phillips, 2011). Well, it's better than the first one, but that's not saying a whole lot in my book. The original formula is replicated here almost verbatim, the events transpiring a few years later and shuffled over from Las Vegas to Bangkok; The Wolfpack aims to celebrate the impending marriage of one of their members and agree to one beachside beverage on the eve's eve. Flash forward to morning, and their whereabouts are unknown, bodily alteration(s) have been experienced, untold substances have been consumed, and a chain smoking monkey now tags along. This time, the tone is more assured, the jokes are better, and the actors wring that much more from their respective character personalities (I'm calling it here: within three years, we'll be seeing Zach Galifianakis' own Alan movie). Best of all, the lynchpin twist xeroxed from the first movie - where is their missing friend? - isn't so transparent as to be called in the first fifteen minutes. It still doesn't tickle my funny bone that much, but the first film's unchecked homophobia is nicely countered here - maybe every wild party boy has a deep-seeded inner queer - and it's hard to rag on any film that wittily shout outs to the birth place of yours truly, Allentown. [Rating: B-]

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011). In essence: great character, great actress, good movie. The label is Apatow but the trademark raunch plays second, maybe third fiddle to a thoughtful examination of personality conflict, easily the most substantive and irony-free yet in this line of comedies (okay, maybe not more than Superbad). Kristen Wiig is Annie, a middle class woman seemingly cursed to be single (says the movie, it's really all in her head), suddenly thrown in the spotlight as her best friend's Maid of Honor, a role coveted by another close friend with more than a little money and social status to throw around for extravagant presents and wedding favors. If most comedies of this breed are extroverted, this one looks inward, and it's actually when the dial goes to eleven (read: food poisoning scene) that Bridesmaids works the least. Wiig's performance will join the many great comedic thespians to have gone unnoticed at the end of the year. Paul Feig - directing regular on The Office and numerous other series - does his best to leave the stage to the performers, but one imagines that a little more visual spark is all that's keeping this one from greatness. [Rating: B]

The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981). Nearly thirty years of subsequent horror offerings haven't dimmed the impact of Sam Raimi's feature debut, the ne plus ultra of the Kids Stuck In the Woods genre. The film commits entirely to both the terrible and the hilarious, the result an awe-inspiring genre tightrope walk in which barely restrained laughter punctuates the inevitable one-by-one possession of our protagonists - college kids spending a getaway weekend at a rented-out shithole in the middle of nowhere - by the demonic spirits unwittingly released from their ancient slumber and now assaulting them from all sides. Scraped-together low budgetry rarely feels as artful even if there's little in the way of subtext going on here, although one can easily read the film as a loving ode to splatterfests of past. Bruce Campbell's starmaking turn invites both cheers and pity, but it's Raimi's keen eye (and ear) for audiovisual intoxication - best exemplified by some of the most absurdly, wonderfully protracted death scenes of all time - that makes this creeper a home run. [Rating: A-]

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010). Leave it to cinema's greatest living spirit to give the 3D format its first legitimately artistic live action implementation (admittedly, considering Avatar live action is generous at times). Having been granted special permission from the French minister of culture to film inside Chauvet Cave - site to the oldest known human paintings, dating back some 30,000 years, discovered in 1994 and now forbidden to all but a few researchers - the German director thought the format appropriate for capturing the contours of the cave (that's a bingo!), elements embraced by the prehistoric artists in their depictions of themselves and animals on the astonishingly well-preserved walls. Ultimately, the film is as much about its subjects as its own making. Confined to specially installed, two-foot wide walkways and granted only 24 hours of time inside the cave over six days, Herzog and his crew of three rarely have enough room to get out of the shot; all the better to experience the time travel-like mystique of the cave with them. Pontificating all manner of anthropological significance at least as much as he spends lingering on the beautiful Chauvet images, Herzog suggests that this site might be the birthplace of the human soul. It may not be the masterpiece I'd hoped for, but we're lucky to have it. [Rating: B+]

May 24, 2011


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Andrei Tarkovsky hated 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in a fit of insolence not unusual to his brand of genius, declared that his own science-fiction film (then in the making) would be the polar opposite of Kubrick's, which he saw as soulless and obsessed with special effects, ignorant to the human heart. It speaks to Tarkovsky's singular creative impulses, then, that Solaris proves the yin to Kubrick's yang, not out of contrarian longing, but because that was the form best suited for the content Tarkovsky wanted to explore.

May 23, 2011

The Terminator

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Is it only incidental that James Cameron's greatest film is also his only work to clock in at under two hours? His subsequent films have proven consistently entertaining and frequently excellent, but the lightning of his debut—a content-to-be-small B movie that nevertheless feels epic in scope and emotion—has yet to strike twice. The Terminator remains as intelligent and emotionally complex as any film of its kind, and the reductive lens of pop culture—to say nothing of intellectual film snobs ignorant to genre pleasures—can't extinguish its mythic humanist power.

May 7, 2011

Viewing Log #7

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010). As intoxicating, seductive and sensual as it is mysterious and elusive, Certified Copy is that rare gem that confirms film's capability of magic. This is some meta-level narrative tinkering going on here, and though I'm certain that repeated viewings will clarify certain aspects as much as they might further blur their borders, even on first encounter, it's so absorbing a work of such obvious mastery on all levels that one comes away immediately certain that the medium has just clicked up another notch. Forget a plot explanation, which would be especially frivolous in this case; it's an emotional song, a pastiche of dynamic feelings and relationships (the characters, the filmmaker, the audience) so quixotic that trying to pin it down would be downright distasteful. Juliette Binoche's performance is possibly the best in a prodigious career. Add this one to your desert island list. [Rating: A]

Even the Rain (Icíar Bollaín, 2010). Yeah, sure, it's kind of obvious in theme, but there struck me as being more than enough feeling and sincerity present in Paul Laverty's script to circumvent a potentially problematic self-aware structure (it's a movie about power relations that's also about a movie about power relations). Appropriately dedicated to Howard Zinn, the film wears its liberal virtues on its sleeves and never condescends, even if it hand-holds just a bit. Its biggest strengths lie in its characters, which are believably dynamic and more than just mouthpieces, which seems harder and harder to come by these days. Arthouse for the NPR crowd. [Rating: B]

Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011). Moon was the first movie I ever watched on Blu-ray, and it was glorious in all the non-technical ways, too. That film's dreamy Kubrickian tone is replaced by crackerjack glee in Jones' directorial follow-up Source Code, which tackles an initially routine Groundhog Day by The Matrix scenario with wit, intelligence, tangible empathy and just a dash of irreverence (and a very, very cute Michelle Monaghan). Jake Gyllenhaal (finally returning to the thoughtful sci-fi genre) is a soldier in a virtual reality simulation program in which he must find an enemy bomber fast enough that said enemy can be thwarted in reality, where he is expected to strike again. The simulation lasts eight minutes, and at the end of every eight minutes, he blows up. To divulge more would be cruel, except to say that the movie doesn't pull its punches, which are deep and lead to a sly kind of nirvana; what we ultimately see may not be as simple as it at first seems. [Rating: B+]

American: The Bill Hicks Story (Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas, 2009). Gracefully walking the line between fan-friendly greatest hits package and newcomer-friendly biopic, The Bill Hicks Story is a sufficient condensation of the rich, albeit short career and life of one of the great comedians of recent decades. A fan of Hicks' comedy since freshman year in college, I was ready to slam a film that didn't do him justice, which is not to say hero worship was on my list of desirables, either. Less about the man than the man's journey, American is made with obvious love for the late comedian, but also honesty about his choices, detailing the man's drug and alcohol addictions with a stern matter-of-factness that neither condemns nor approves. (Speaking as a fan, his staunch defense of smoking - he died of cancer - is particularly irksome.) His material - subversive, angry, hopeful, sometimes conflicting but always empowered and empowering - is presented in concentrated dashes, and serves as an excellent sampler package of some of his best material (a favorite: his demonstration of the ultimate commercial). Interviews and animations - often in the form of photographs digitally manipulated in a fashion that's cute without being syrupy or overwhelming - make up the majority of the film, which proves visually engaging and distinctive without demanding much of the eyes. If anything, the film could be longer, but perhaps such abruptness is appropriate for a film about a landmark life cut short. [Rating: B+]

May 4, 2011

Viewing Log #6

Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011). Erupting from its creator's psyche with a volcanic intensity, Sucker Punch marks the first time Zack Snyder has directed an original script of his own creation, a fact that, while revealing/clarifying certain weaknesses of his craft as evident until now, also frees him to indulge his passions like never before. The results prove strangely intoxicating. Though juvenile it certainly is, this mishmash of elements from fanboy culture (fetishized warrior chicks, dragons, weapon-wielding robots, Nazi zombies, and a samurai warrior with a Gatling gun, among others) comes out far enough on the side of the deranged and operatic to not achieve some kind of brilliance. Sucker Punch articulates itself with a necessary sense of satiric subversion to counteract the didactic caricatures, and while Snyder's tale of one Baby Doll might not have much of a clue about what makes real women tick, its multiple reality constructions are far more tingling than Inception's wannabe mindfuck. The soundtrack synchronization is almost eerily perfect, and it's only grown in my mind since. [Rating: B+]

Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010). This follow-up to the heartbreaking serenity of Wendy and Lucy finds the indie director reaching for something similarly as intangible as that film's appreciation of resolute, silent determination in the face of worldly apathy. Michelle Williams returns as Emily Tetherow, one member of a three-family pioneer team heading west on the 1845 Oregon Trail, the titular Stephen Meek the guide they've hired to guide them there. A supposed shortcut proves disastrous, stranding them in unknown territory with little in the way of water or clue, while the catalyst of a captured Native American further divides the increasingly desperate group. Material like this would seemingly invite metaphoric comparisons to recent politics - and there's admittedly something to be said about the correlation between Meek and the bullshit battle plans of Dick Cheney, etc. - but the existential choke hold of Meek's Cutoff (evoked via long takes that emphasize the monotony of these life circumstances and ethereal images of rolling/evaporating cloud formations) more strongly suggests an eternal struggle for survival against unknown natural odds. It seems that the prose of Jack London (specifically the chilling first paragraph of "White Fang") has been effectively translated to film via the sparsity of Reichardt's intensely detailed neo-western. [Rating: B+]

Due Date (Todd Phillips, 2010). (Spoilers) Less obnoxious than Phillips' overrated The Hangover but also distinctly less raucous, this wannabe-raunchy take on the Planes, Trains and Automobiles scenario would likely be a waste of time were it not for the zen presence of a certain Mr. Downey, Jr. As an expecting father en route home as the titular date draws near, his focused businessman Peter Highman runs into a prolonged brouhaha with Zach Galifianakis' aspiring thespian/pothead Ethan Tremblay (warning: that's his stage name). Some amusing bits punctuate the tone-deaf proceedings like actual bits of chicken in Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup, including a clambake scene set to Pink Floyd that's actually kinda cool. Identity crises ensue, enemies will become friends, and someones ashes will be mistaken for coffee grounds. Hey, it could have been worse. [Rating: C+]

Battles Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebesman, 2011). Veteran movie critic (and my own personal Yoda-like guru) Matt Zoller Seitz calls Battle Los Angeles (advertising material displays a colon in the title, but the title shot in the film hasn't one, so that what I'm going with here) the worst-directed Hollywood film he's ever seen, and he's not being the least bit mean in that assessment. Employing an overzealous shaky-cam aesthetic that makes The Bourne Ultimatum look restrained in comparison, this actioner sees a malevolent alien invasion grip the coastlines of the world, Los Angeles being the lynch pin battlefield to maintain on the North American west coast. It's hard to tell what disappoints more here: how utterly half-assed the visceral quota is (for all the blazing guns and shit blowing up, it's only sporadically thrilling), or how much the script drops the ball on what is, conceptually, a very well-thought-out invasion tactic. Character motivation may as well be lifted from the yellow pages. Michael Bay, show 'em how it's done. [Rating: C-]

May 3, 2011


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In a just world, Harvest would be getting a wide release alongside of, if not necessarily instead of, Thor. Writer-director Marc Meyers's sophomore feature is an astonishingly confident work that avoids nearly all the pitfalls of contemporary independent cinema, flirting with cloying treacle in only the handful of moments the film employs a borderline-cliché alt-rock soundtrack. The rest of the film is sterling.