Jun 29, 2011

Viewing Log #10

There are two primary camps of people when it comes to movies like Dario Argento's Suspiria, and I don't give a crap if pointing out that basic fact makes me sound elitist. Those who take the experience at a more face value might think it campy, over-the-top, and/or simply bad; the insinuation being, let's put on our serious faces, kids! Horror should be respectable. (And eat your vegetables.) I'm a newcomer yet to the art of Argento (Opera is still digesting, over a year later), but I'm already much grateful to be part of the other camp: those who see his films as dreamlike acts of impressionistic fear, encountered as one might a childhood nightmare or a flesh and blood incarnation of a Grimm fairy tale. The subject here is witchcraft, and you'd be a fool to expect stable logic to be guiding the proceedings; rather, it's a fractured experience at the hands of evil, the white as snow American dancer Suzy (Jessica Harper) the audience surrogate to the terrors at the German Tanzakademie. Be grateful the pieces come together as readily as they do. The Goblins' carnivalesque, tribal score amplifies the horror like the roar of fire leading to a hellmouth, and saturated, bold color schemes permit an otherworldly tone, like fantasy come to life. The spare parts of haunted house archetypes are tongue in cheek (dig that trap door, and the resurfaced memory that leads to it), but the film also exercises an immediately perpetual chokehold on the senses. (When you were young, all horror movies might have looked and felt this scary.) Blood spills like crimson strokes, the tearing of flesh hurts as much as it looks unreal (wisely opting for scariness versus disgust), and things go bump (and wheeze) in the night. It's nestled amongst the highest water marks of the horror genre. [1977, A]

Michael Bay tones it down for Transformers: Dark of the Moon (love that subtitle), but only just: the slightly-less-frequent cutting, slightly-more-static shooting methods seen here are probably as much of a catering to the needs of the film's shot-in-3D format as they are a response to the hateful intensity the last sequel courted from both critics and audiences. (Having regretfully partaken in that initial, arguably unjustified verbal lashing, I think I'm qualified to call out such sight-unseen opinion forming groupthink when noticed; I call it pulling a "Speed Racer.") Those who've enjoyed the last two films for their clashing metal action aspects will probably walk away from this one just as satisfied, and the 3D isn't the eyesore I feared it might be (although the high point - an opening, planet-wide battle on Cybertron - isn't nearly lengthy enough for this robotic dystopia junkie). But having come to appreciate Bay's juvenile maximalism as seen in Revenge of the Fallen (a film so assured, alien, and self-aware that it practically qualifies as an art film statement on its own genre), Dark of the Moon couldn't help but disappoint for lack of Bay's full-throttle freak flag waving; he's filtering his own id. The usual suspects keep it from being as visceral an experience as it should be (shoddy exposition, too many characters, lame frat boy humor, about 45 minutes too long, etc.), but the money is on display, the set pieces are routinely fantastic, and - I know I'm stepping over some kind of line here for many people - the actors stand up just fine to their equally cartoonish robotic thespians (no, I didn't mind Megan Fox in the last two movies, either). The film proper opens with a Tarantinian shot of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's glorious ass, calves, and feet, and there's something to be said for Bay's ribald honesty. [2011, B-]

Filmmaker Brook Silva-Braga's mother has taken an interesting, cutthroat stance in response to China's rising dominance in the global market: for years, she's altogether refused to purchase anything made in the economically dynamic country. Stemming not from racism but from a refusal to acquiesce to a country whose working conditions violate her personal beliefs pertaining to human rights, her attitude - or rather, her practice - is shared by few, and such is what encouraged Silva-Braga to investigate the economic, political, and cultural climates that surround China's ascension, the United States' burgeoning downfall, and the relationship between the two, via his edifying, if not wholly satisfying documentary The China Question. There are no easy answers, but the broad conclusions are unsettling (if not altogether revelatory for anyone whose b.s. detector is strong enough to see past the political/media cultural circus of the west to the soulless capitalist force that exists like a black hole at the center): China's human rights may not be as ideal as ours and their one-party government rule with oppressive force, but their economy is on the long-run track for success; in America, we enjoy freedoms aplenty, but businesses abuse their power (it's an exception to the rule when a company isn't strictly about only the bottom line) at the expense of their employees and customers, politicians are concerned more about election prospects than progress, and short-term financial interests outweigh humanitarian, environmental, and moral concerns. Silva-Braga's investigation is open-minded, thorough, and well articulated for general audiences, but if anything, his approach is too lightweight and pleasant to leave the desired impression. The proud Texan who learns his "Don't Mess with Texas" cap was produced in China should've been left stewing longer in his own juices, and the disturbing final shot - of sheep, practically lining up for the slaughter - isn't even half as long as it should be. [2011, B]

Short Circuit was a favorite of mine as a pre-ad, which led to feelings of cautious reservation when recently returning to it once again. Rather than scorn past feelings, however, the experience was an affirmation of my burgeoning taste, and not simply via nostalgia. Short Circuit isn't much when considered as a work of serious art, but I don't hold those standards like I sense I'm "supposed" to, and find that doing so would only be disingenuous - a haute slant adapted for its own sake. There's a pop art vivacity here that I naturally respond to: a light, quotidian grasp that suggests an unvarnished viewpoint, indeed, one that is quite perfect for the vantage of a new, curious life. The government war machine come-to-pacifist- life Number 5 (voiced by Tim Blaney, but brilliantly performed just as much by technicians and creative designers) is one of the great effects characters, occupying that plateau just beneath the masterstrokes of Yoda and Gollum. Essentially a predigested pro-life statement (no, not that dubious half-binary, issue-dodging pro-life, which is just as irresponsible and narrow-minded a stance as pro-choice), but the lack of a single malicious bone in this film ensures that its genuinely heartfelt approach never collapses to mere schtick. The pop culture gags - Three Stooges/John Wayne impressions abound (the Dr. Pepper shout out is tops; advertising is cool on the rare instance when it's legitimately hip) - might seem like pre-Shrek inanities but for their organic reflection of Number 5's information-voracious personality. Life recognizes its own worth; I pray I never fail to warm up to its brand of schmaltz. The returns of 1988's Short Circuit 2 only slightly diminished to these eyes, it being an awkward manifestation of both the typically overwritten trappings of a box-office mandated sequel and a seriously thoughtful rumination on free will (with the same brand of semi-subversive adult humor carried over from the first film). Number 5, now Johnny 5, is kicking ass and taking names in the Big Apple, where he's still a peacekeeper, but with a newfound demonic streak lurking just beneath; he might not toast your ass, but don't expect him to take your shit. (The ultimate influence on WALL·E emerges in full in the mortality-confronting climax.) Neither film rises to the full potential of the central character, but as cheesy mainstream entertainments go, they're damn good stabs. [1986/1988, B+/B]

How fucking sad this movie is. Sure, kids movies - and I use that term deliberately, as Cars 2 is only a kids movie, and not a family film - can and have been far worse, but for Pixar to have produced something so blatantly lazy, wooden, and transparently commercial is something close to tragic (the first Cars was the closest I ever came to disliking a Pixar film, and that was still okay). The focus shifts from Owen Wilson's race car Lightning McQueen to his unlikely BFF Mater, a Larry the Cable Guy-voiced tow truck here mistaken for a government spy, and thusly roped into an international plot to subvert a newly developed alternate energy source by jealous oil tycoons and the undercover efforts to prevent it from transpiring. The plot is unnecessarily convoluted for a film pitched at the under-ten crowd (my inner ten-year-old was bored to tears), and film entire feels designed so as to distract one from the fact that what little emotion exists herein is not unlike a few loose coins banging around inside an empty oil drum. Lip service to the virtues of friendship pads out what otherwise amounts to a rapid-fire string of uninspired anthropomorphised vehicle sight gags (although one moment, involving the black market sales of headlights, is enjoyable for a possibly inadvertent visual quotation from The Brave Little Toaster). It's Speed Racer, devoid of wit, emotion, drama, visual pizazz and visceral edge (in other words, it's an empty shell, but this one's not even pretty to look at). Save your money, save your time, and if you have to see it (like me), for heavens sake wait for a 2D screening at a second run theater. Your kids deserve better. [2011, D+]

After the functionally retarded Wolverine, this franchise had nowhere to go but up, but the improvements of X-Men: First Class are more than just comparative: it's a serious step in the right direction for a studio that hasn't even been treading water since their last good play, the enjoyable, if slightly overrated, Iron Man. Here, it's the same old thing as the last four movies, dressed up in new clothes and given a much-needed seriousness makeover. The adolescent screams of agony are still embarrassing but the cast goes a long way in selling what unfortunately amounts to yet another film squashed into a paint-by-numbers template; characters are shoehorned into dramatic puzzle pieces, themes are reduced to catchphrases repeated ad nausea, and it speaks to the pathos in front of and behind the camera that so much is done with so lethargic a script. Michael Fassbender, as the young Magneto, is clearly less interesting in the film than he is in what it will surely do for his career, yet he still out-acts about 95% of everyone else to ever star in a Marvel feature. Jennifer Lawrence, of Winter's Bone fame, is fine in her two-note role (to fly or not to fly the freak flag), but it's Kevin Bacon who truly stands out as a villainous Nazi mutant. Some fine set pieces make this watchable popcorn fare, but it's an excruciating, almost static death scene that stands head and shoulders above the proceedings. Hopefully Matthew Vaughn's distinctive style won't be wasted so on his next endeavor. [2011, B-]

For some time now, I've taken to avoiding movie previews as much as conveniently possible (probably an extension of my years-long effort to avoid media advertising almost altogether); I'll watch what's playing before a feature theatrical presentation, but I won't go online to watch them, and nor do I allow myself much in the way of spoiler-ridden reviews until after I've seen the movie in question. I never appreciated this approach so much as when I recently caught Midnight in Paris, easily one of Woody Allen's most inspired efforts and so joyous as to suggest that the director has finally emerged from his prolonged personal funk; rather than simply killing time, he seems to be enjoying filmmaking (and one would hope, life) once again. Being ignorant to the story of Midnight in Paris made its revelations that much more pleasurable, hilarious, and ultimately transcendent, especially being a prime viewer for its dreamer-friendly themes (and anti-Tea Party jokes). If you love Paris, art, literature, truth, humanity, and walking in the rain, I can't recommend this film nearly enough. Go in blind, and let it gobsmack you into euphoria. [2011, A-]

About three times as smart as one would understandably expect of the average animated talking-animal picture, Rio takes many unexpected (and unexpectedly complicated) storytelling turns even as it indulges in many of the trappings that define (and tend to limit) its overstuffed genre. Blu (Jesse Eisenberg, cast for his amusing neurosis) is a blue macaw, poached as a baby only to end up in the loving ownership of Linda (Leslie Mann), a Minnesota resident with whom he develops a lasting - if perhaps unhealthy - bond (for instance, he never even learns to fly). When it turns out that Blu is the last male of his kind, he's transported back to Rio de Janeiro to mate with one Jewel (Anne Hathaway), a wild macaw who wants nothing to do with captivity of any sort. Aside from the fact that this might be the first family film in which sex is not only frankly acknowledged, but serves as the narrative lynchpin, Rio progressively includes virtually every major story participant as a major character, calling into question personal responsibility as a larger moral and political issue. The fine animation and exciting set pieces (Blu's cliffside attempt at flight is tops) are icing on the cake; the physical comedy is histrionic at times but this is a movie that sports both brains and heart. [2011, B]

Jun 22, 2011

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Those who know Hicks's work tend to know it well. His life's work was rich but limited by definition, and it speaks to what the man, cut down by pancreatic cancer at the unjust age of 32, accomplished in his brief career that he continues to be held in such high regard, his recognition and respect ceaselessly growing over the past two decades. Such as it is, American is less about his professional career than his personal life, insofar as one can separate the two when considering so personally honest and hardworking a performer.

Jun 17, 2011

Dial M for Murder

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In Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, even the innocent have poker faces. Based on Frederick Knott's popular stage play of the same name, this is one of Sir Alfred's least overtly cinematic works. In only a handful of moments does it exit the coffin-like setting of the original play's singular location: the living room of Tony and Margot Wendice, where the financially stranded husband arranges to have his wife murdered.

Jun 6, 2011

True Grit

Many have complained that the Coens' adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel wants for the filmmakers' usual sense of ironic detachment. Surely, the brothers play it overall much straighter than usual here, imbuing the proceedings with a formal classicism that equally honors the work of the cast as it does the quotidian prose of Portis's text. Their unwavering sincerity and love for character is such that it complicates everything else they've achieved until now.

Jun 4, 2011

Viewing Log #9

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The Tree of Life is only Terrence Malick's fifth film, and while it's easily his most prone to creative - nay, intergalactic - tangents, it may also be simultaneously his most earthbound. The rumblings of a gestating universe existentially contextualize the central human drama like no other film has managed since Stanley Kubrick's cosmic 2001 (whose special effects mastermind Douglas Trumball was sought out for equally impressive work here), but Malick finds equal levels of beauty and awe in all creation: The birth of the stars, of life, of a child. 1950s Waco, Texas - Malick's hometown - is the deeply personal primary setting, home to the O'Briens (Brad Pitt, never better, and the mesmeric Jessica Chastain) and their three boys. Father and mother's opposing parenting methods emerge as less than mere human traits than conflicting instincts passed on from the primordial era (a brief dinosaur interlude goes beyond mere anthropomorphism to suggest something outside of our human capability of understanding), desires and weaknesses that will dog us until the end of time (yes, the film goes there, too, or at the least, someplace like it). It's as concerned with the eternal and intangible as it is with the sensuous and the small, hopscotching through the years (suggesting equal parts memories and present tense) in a sumptuous fantasia of life, death and the interim, utterly unconcerned with basic narrative formalities as it explodes off the screen with expressionistic euphoria. It reminds one of the vividness life held in youth, and it may very well go down as one of the great works of human art. [2011, A]

I saw Beginners the same day as The Tree of Life, and those nearly back-to-back experiences drew out numerous parallels between the two (the least of which is their likely inadvertent hat-tipping to shared cast members from Inglourious Basterds). Writer/director Mike Mills engages the ambiguous and contradictory building blocks of human existence with wisdom, wit and thoughtful humility. Ewan McGregor is Oliver, a pushing-middle-age artist whose yearn to love is outweighed by his fear of loss, not to mention the near emotional train wrecks he's been subjected to by his distinctly odd but well-meaning parents. After decades of marriage parted in death, his now single, 75-year-old father (Christopher Plummer) comes out; at the start of the film, we've learned he dies from cancer only four years later. The mourning present sees Oliver with the dreamy Anna (Mélanie Laurent), an actress similarly trapped by her own personality conflicts, but Beginners frequently, exquisitely moves back and forth in time, simulating the lasting effects of emotional trauma and the messy experiences that define life, often simulated via jarring, spare visuals, or deceptively cute devices (the talking dog subtitles are brilliant). The worst that can be said of it is that its view of the big picture borders on the overly self-aware; better to call it an audaciously tragicomic high wire act of the human spirit. [2010, A-]

I'm embarrassed to admit I've never read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and so approached this latest film adaptation ignorant to all but the broadest sense of what material was to be covered. Suffice to say that Mia Wasikowska, who holds the title part, has quickly ascended from promising young actress to the full-fledged career she so rightly deserves; let's pray she keeps it going. Playwright and screenwriter Moira Buffini distills the narrative complexity of the novel into something only relatively formulaic; the drama ultimately pivots on a romantic triangle of sorts, but sophomore filmmaker Cary Fukunaga (after his debut Sin Nombre) directs with such assured, effortless poeticism that the narrative can't help but reflect the rich textures of its characters - ambiguous, wrenching, commanding. Michael Fassbender is unsurprisingly prodigious. Heartaching and heartbreaking, and resolute in its even-keeled feminism. If Oscar has any shame (which remains highly debatable), both leads will be in the running for nominations come next year. Prove me wrong. [2011, B+]

It's easy to see why The Red Shoes is a beloved classic. The Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale - in which a girl dons the titular footwear and proceeds to dance her life away, powerless to resist their magical urge - here inspires a story-within-a-story of delectably paralleling themes. "Why do you want to dance?" asks the talented but conceited instructor Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) of the passionate Vicky Page (Moira Shearer). To which she thoughtfully posits, "Why do you want to live?" The tension between creation and love (and those who feel personal desires must be mutually exclusive) fuels the romance-laden story, but it's Powell and Pressburger's typically ravishing use of technicolor that gives the film its acutely passionate edge, particularly in an extended, dreamlike sequence showcasing the the titular play. Deeper the layers go, forever. Pure cinema. [1948, A-]

I grew up with The Wizard of Oz, back when I consider even average TV to have been somewhat special and something could only play once a year (at least, other than the Superbowl). I liked it plenty then, but a recent 35 mm screening (thanks a lot, dadwhodoesnttellhisdaughtertoputhercellphoneaway) let about ten years added life experience enjoy it again, for the first time in its gloriously intended format, with a receptive audience no less. What boldness this film is - I really should read the book(s) - and what passion has been committed to it on every single creative level (we wouldn't believe in it if they didn't). It's telling how fully it's been absorbed by popular culture, and it's somewhat hard to imagine there ever being a time it didn't exist. It's pure life - nothing less than an life-affirming echo from the hall of mankind's eternal soul. Go, and follow the yellow brick road. [1939, A]

If I was forced to choose a favorite between Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead at gunpoint, I could very well be shot for lack of spontaneity. That's how much I love this somber consideration of the end of days - when the surviving people of earth could well be in only the dozens and surviving day to day is the best that can be hoped for. George Romero's once extensive vision, reduced by budget cuts (and a refusal to cater to the MPAA), remains of the emotionally epic sort - it's one of the greatest episodes never made for The Twilight Zone, in color and feature length. Judgment day has come and passed (the dead walk the earth in the millions, approximately 400,000 to every living human). Thematically, it's probably his most direct film (Dawn of the Dead is brilliant but it retains a metaphoric distance throughout) as it stares deep into the heart of darkness at man's core, but it also remains (not at all paradoxically) a work of incredible hope. The arch performances aren't just learned descendants of 50s B-horror, but serious considerations on how people handle (or don't) the end of the world as we know it. The zombies aren't just metaphors anymore: They are us, (un)living manifestations of our sins come back to haunt us, and Romero's consideration of the human condition transcends the (brilliantly violent) genre thrills to great cinema art. The director's favorite of his zombie trilogy is an unrecognized masterpiece. [1985, Rating: A]

Not only is there too much time dedicated to the relatively boring human protagonists of Invasion of Astro-Monster (something even fans of the Godzilla series are used to), but there's also far too little of the skyscraper-sized monsters to possibly justify the whole of the proceedings. This sixth film to feature the giant lizard (and fifth to be helmed by the original director Ishirō Honda) is one of the least of the early entries, investing entirely too much in a predictable twist (even for kids, for chrissakes) in a story concerning purportedly peaceful aliens wanting to "borrow" Godzilla and Rodan. There's next to none of the cheeky fun that typically sustains these movies when the rubber suit clad actors aren't slugging it out; the actors phone it in. The lip flapping English of the American version is only negligibly more entertaining. [1965, C]

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