Sunday, September 30, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 9/30/2012

The Big Lebowski (1997, Joel & Ethan Cohen) **** (A) 
Jeff Bridges and John Goodman must have known that they were turning in career-defining comedic work every second they spent on the set of this beautiful shaggy dog story, which is, in true noir fashion, mainly just about itself and the flavor of its own particular milieu. That this flavor is drenched not in hard-bitten 40s urban cynicism, but rather in early-90s LA shaggy-dog goofbally slackertude is the running joke, but the truth is that there's not much more attempt to follow the actual logical thread of the mystery in, say, "The Big Sleep", then there is in this. Less, probably, given that you actually can figure out what's going on, if that's what matters to you. Endlessly watchable, endlessly quotable (a personal unsung favorite is "You want a toe, dude? I can get you a toe"). Only Sam Elliot seems out of place, though I would happily watch a documentary comprising just a camera following him as he tried to figure out what the tarnation movie he was supposed to be in, anyway.

Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Stanley Kubrick) **** (A)
It's a shame that Sellers died young, or he (like Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers after him) could have gotten rich playing multiple characters in comedies, some of them in fat suits, many of them farting.

Um, this is a really great movie. You all know that, right? Hard to imagine how bracing the comedy would have been to an audience who probably literally did expect to die in nuclear combat toe to toe with the Ruskies. The lunacy of the war room seems less and less like satire with every passing year, doesn't it? — even as we start to worry more about cheap nano-drones weaponized with IEDs and biological agents and less about nukes. Kubrick deserves extra-extra credit for committing to a comic tone all the way into the inevitable Armageddon. Imagine this film focus-grouped into a happy ending, and shudder.

The only thing keeping this from my pantheon of 5-star movies is the fact that there are a few blunderbusses too many; I get the sense that if Scott and Peter Bull (as the Soviet ambassador) had been allowed to play a little less the buffoons, the sui generis horror of Sellers' Strangelove would have been even more effectively hilarious by contrast. (Note that Sellers himself played straight man in his other two roles. President Muffly is practically Bob Newhart.)

Fat City (1972, John Huston) ***1/2 (A-)
Man, this has to be a frustrating movie for anybody who wants it to be the genre boxing movie it appears to be at the outset; the old pug (Stacey Keach) on his last legs who sees a diamond in the rough (Jeff Bridges, startlingly young) and trains him to glory.

Having set up this premise, Huston spends the rest of the movie ruthlessly subverting it. Keach basically turns Bridges over to his former trainer and proceeds to completely forget about him for the rest of the movie. The trainer fools himself into seeing the same promise Keach did, taking him out on the road for a Montage of Victory—and then the kid turns out to be not a diamond, but a zircon. I don't remember for sure, but it's possible we never see Bridges win a single fight. He and Keach rarely cross paths again, the kid follows some of the pug's same bad choices, and makes a few of his own. At the end, they meet up again, the younger several miles behind the elder, but both on the same bad road bending off into nowhere.

This isn't a boxing movie. What it is is a startling, unflinching, frequently aimless look at poverty lived out in urban nowhere, of long hard uncertain labor and short paychecks and life fueled by nothing but pure stubborness and drinking and bad choices and loneliness—which for some people happens to include boxing.

It's imperfect. Like its characters, it meanders. Sequences go overlong. But certain scenes keep with me: A long sequence in which Keach seduces a hot mess (Susan Tyrell, Oscar-nominated) with an imprisoned boyfriend with nothing but genial persistence and the repeated slurred phrase: "you can count on me." A brutal final boxing match in which it becomes evident Keach's challenger is in even a situation even more desperate than his own. The odd dignity with which one man reclaims his home and woman. And the bracing moment when Keach's washed-up palooka laments that he'll soon turn thirty years old. I'd been assuming he was in his mid 40s.


The Hunger Games (2012, Gary Ross) ** (C-)
Fairly drab and semi-sensical distopian fairy tale about Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), a teen from an oppressed district within a fascist regime, forced to compete with other children from other oppressed district in the titular annual battle to the death, which really...complicates her love life?

Look, I'm not saying that this is a story that can't be properly told within the given framework, but since very real atrocities against human dignity are on display (to say nothing of a sheltered and degenerate aristocracy made wealthy on the pain and suffering of the masses, whose deaths are served up as reality-show entertainment) you're really going to need strong characters for it to not seem like post-Twilight YA-novel pandering. Unfortunately, the male leads are competing slabs of blah, so focusing on the "Team Peeta vs. Team Gale" dynamics—which the source novel also does—is tone deaf and confusing. Basically this is a move that attempts to ruthlessly send up US reality-TV culture but then concerns itself primarily with the question "to whom will the Bachelor give the rose?"

Lawrence acquits herself as the material allows, but really only recalls how she played a very similar character in WINTER'S BONE. Woody Harrelson provides a spark of life as the district mentor and former contest winner, and then promptly disappears almost completely. Meanwhile, the games themselves, which you'd think would provide our hero with moral quandaries aplenty, by and large eschews all that. A few of the contestants are Very Saintly Good, a few are Pure Evil Incarnate, and the rest are Nameless Meat, but in any event they are all allowed to kill each other off-screen or in disorienting blur, by and large without Katniss' assistance. This allows us to stop considering the morality of murder in the name self-protection, and instead contemplate: what in the name of God is that.. THING growing on poor Wes Bentley's face?

3 Women (1977, Robert Altman) ****1/2 (A)
I'm really not sure what to do with the fact that: (a) no less than three of the grandmasters of film have made what is essentially the same movie; and (b) that this same film represents an apex or near-apex in terms of craft, thematic strength, or emotional intensity.

In short, this is Robert Altman's PERSONA. Unless it's Robert Altman's MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Though, of course, MULHOLLAND DRIVE would have to be David Lynch's 3 WOMEN by way of PERSONA, wouldn't it, since this film predates Lynches by 24 years? But then again, since all three movies deal in startlingly consistent ways with strong female characters (Spacek is as good as she's ever been, Duvall turns in a career-best performance), dream logic, suggested suicide, shifting power dynamics, fluid and transposing identities within overt questions about the nature of time and of reality itself . . .it feels more as if all three directors have delved deep enough to come upon one of the subterranean ur-stories.

I'm talking about three movies as I talk about 3 WOMEN. Suffice to say there's a deep analysis to be made between these three, but that would be after many more viewings than I've put in. What strikes me about this particular one is that Altman really isn't the sort of director to get so deeply into psychodrama or menace or abstraction as to produce something like this. It may be the true outlier within his filmography; it certainly qualifies as such within the movies of his I've seen. There's an utterly cracked dream sequence near the end that hits notes that I didn't know he had in him. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I didn't know he had any interest in hitting them; it's almost as if Altman himself were taking on an ulterior identity.

It's also the outlier within the triptych. I'd say that Altman is closer to Lynch than Bergman (again, Lynch came later, but Altman almost seems to be channeling him here). What Altman adds is his trademark sly humor (example: a dress keeps getting caught in a car door) and a third character (PERSONA and MULHOLLAND are strictly duos) who does little but provide the disturbing priapic-alien swimming pool murals (which themselves cast enough of a spell over the proceedings as to claim third-character status) until, in the final act, she comes hurtling in from the ether to deliver us from dream into bloody reality and disorienting finality.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 9/23/2012

Note:  What I think I'm going to do is write a review a day, but draw mainly on movies I saw 2-3 years ago.  Mileage may vary ( I'm sure many people know exactly what they think right away and never change that opinion), but for me it takes some digestion before I know whether the movie was something I really enjoyed, or something I just thought I enjoyed. Imagine, if you will, a Big Mac. You think you're enjoying it as you eat it, but later your body informs you that in fact, no, that was a molded hunk of cat food and pickle relish glued together with axle grease and chemical paste, and you really hated it. Some movies that I thought were interesting but flawed grow in my imagination over time, and never really leave me. Others that I may have thought I quite liked I can barely remember the basic details.  So anyway, are you bored yet? Let's do the reviews.

Thor (2011, Kenneth Branagh) **
(C-)
Tho, I'm mutht thay, I'm feeling mighty thor. It bums me out that Branagh has been reduced to this (and, I supposed, to strutting around the Olympic opening ceremonies); it's like he's kept all of his trademark bombast and lost any of his trademark insight. This was the guy who as a young man nailed the Agincourt speech to the wall, and who found a startling new interpretation of something as hidebound as "to be or not to be." Anyway, Asgard at least looks cool and Hemsworth bellows admirably. On the other hand, Portman and SkarsgĂ„rd are given zilch to do, Hopkins snores (literally) and picks up a check, and the plot is either too impenetrable or too dull to follow, and I'm not going back to figure out which it is. Here's what "The Avengers" could have been without the Whedon wit.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn) ***1/2 (A-)
I admit it, I'm embarrassed. This is, after all, one of the ten or fifty or at least 100 best films of all time, depending on who you ask. I suppose I don't quite see it that way -- which is not to say that I didn't like it a lot. It's a question of degree. It's certainly possible to have grim and dramatic elements cohere with more broadly comic ones, but it feels like this souffle was taken out of the oven a little early. Performances and most individual scenes are masterful (a cloud's shadow passing by in a moment of stunning serendipity immediately followed by an ominous family reunion, Clyde's attempted robbery of a closed bank, an aborted attempt at lovemaking), but I can't put the Parsons or Pollard performances (or especially the hilarious Gene Wilder/Evans Evans scene) into any sort of context with the sexual dysfunction or the occasional swipes at foreboding or bloody ending in a way that makes sense to me, and the (sporadic) attempt to make Bonnie and Clyde the voice of the Depression's oppressed and marginalized just seems ill-conceived, since they're obviously nothing more than brash idiots. Maybe my issue is that Penn seems simultaneously to attempt to send up and buy into the outlaw romanticism.

Warren Beatty just keeps fascinating me, though. Has there ever been another Matinee Sex God® who so consistently insisted on playing the buffoon?

Bottom Line: A very very good movie, but not the all-time Pantheon member it's been billed as. Still a stylistic landmark: I can see how this blew collective hair back in the late 60s.

Star Trek (2009, JJ Abrams) *** (B)
Pretty sure I reviewed this on this site already.

I don't know. I feel like I over-rated this at three stars. It was totally fun-watchable, but really dumb in a particular way that Star Trek usually isn't (not to say Trek can't be dumb, just not like this). Manages to look interesting, but ultimately the plot disappears into a wormhole of way too much 'whaaa?' Pine gives good Kirk (stupid, cocky, spiral-cut ham), Quinto Spocks it up effectively until the movie unkindly forces comparisons to Nimoy's original, but the rest of the cast gets short-shrift in favor of those two, making this episode 1 of How I Met Your Vulcan. Damn cool looking, though, lens flares and all.

Avatar (2009, James Cameron) **1/2 (C+)
It needs to be said. This movie takes itself far too seriously to allow for a MacGuffin as hilariously named as "unobtanium." Pretty clearly the Academy dodged a bullet not giving its highest prize to this thing, which I am betting plays much worse outside of the big screen, surround-sound (3D, for what it's worth) setting within which I experienced it.

Basically a breakthrough in tech and art direction in service of a storyline that would have been more sociopolitically offensive if it hadn't been so shopworn and ludicrous. For such a notoriously detail-oriented martinet, Cameron seems perversely oblivious to much of what his major plot beats are really saying. The Big Message finally boils down to either "white men make the best Injuns" or "you can destroy a girl's whole culture, but all will be forgiven if you get a bitchin' ride," which isn't exactly a great set of options. Meanwhile, the main character's actions, which include failing at any point to inform his lover or ANYBODY that they need to move to avoid genocide (which is, by the way, the entire point of his mission), make him the absolute opposite of the hero the film insists he is. That he takes that lover under the aforementioned false pretenses, within a culture that he already knows will view the fact of their physical union as a far more binding contract than he can possibly fulfill, seems not to matter to Cameron as much as the fact that the blockbuster cookbook requires the consummation of the love affair by the 2nd reel.

Still consistently breathtaking as spectacle, and I will have to give Cameron some props for at least sounding some of these anti-corporatist notes, albeit with all the subtlety and adroitness of a Thor vs. Hulk battle. I'd have probably appreciated this more as an exploratory piece with far less/no plot or dialogue, or if it didn't seem to think that it deserved the Nobel peace prize for a reductive ecological message.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Rewind

I've been toying with the idea of rewatching movies that I already love just to see if I still think they're awesome. So, I kinda sorta started that this month. I was inspired to rewatch the Nolan Batman series after a conversation with one of my friends that went something like:

Me: "I LOVE Batman Begins!"
Him: Yeah, that one is pretty good. Katie Holmes is in that, right?
Me: No. Katie Holmes sucks and I could never like a Katie Holmes movie.
Him: Oh. I thought she was in that.
Me: Nope.

Batman Begins

So, first things first. Yes, in fact, Katie Holmes WAS in this. Ergo therefore, DUDE, what was I thinking?? This movie SUCKS. I mean, to say it sucked, isn't exactly right, but good lord, it was BORING AS HELL. It takes like 90 minutes for it to get any place I want to be and then it just rushes through the end and I don't even get the satisfaction of Batman killing the bad guy. Does Scarecrow live? What was the deal with Scarecrow anyways? BOOOOO. BOOOOO. Stupid Katie Holmes RUINS EVERYTHING!

The Dark Knight

Now THIS Batman was the bees knees! Fast paced action from start to finish... although, again, not really sure what happens with the Joker and the end makes no kind of sense at all. If they have to lie to protect Two Face, why don't they just pin all his crimes on the Joker? THINK THINGS THROUGH PEOPLE! But I liked this movie just the same and I didn't have to pause it a billion times because I was falling asleep... looking at you Batman Begins.

The next in the rewind endeavor was The Matrix.

The Matrix might have been the first sci fi movie that I saw in a theater (unless ET counts). I remember leaving the theater thoroughly convinced that the movie was real and we were, in fact, no more than strings of ones and zeroes. I may or may not have sorta kinda ran in front of a cab to test this theory. Sorry, mister cab driver. Allegedly. It mostly held up on second viewing, though, Keanu is pretty bad. Not Mark Hamill bad, but not good.

Matrix Reloaded

I liked all the Mister Smiths. And the Superman stuff. Um. Not so much with the underground hobo world and why is everyone wearing sunglasses when they never see the sun? Do they just not know that's what they're for? This movie was fine, not nearly as clever or engaging or believable as the first one...

Matrix Revolutions

Um. This movie was dumb. No, I mean super dumb. Like it hurt my brain matter. Interestingly, I attempted to discuss this movie with my friends who are all super Matrix fans and they all, to a man, insist that the Matrix had no sequels. And then I was all "but, I just watch--" and they were all "Let me stop you right there, Dawn Summers. I said the Matrix has NO SEQUELS. Don't make me tell you again." And there were threatening hand gestures like sliding the index finger across the throat and much glaring. So Iono, man, I thought I saw sequels -- but I guess not.

So, we'll see if I keep doing the rewind stuff -- so far, the results have been mixed. Maybe I'll do the Superman series next...anyway, back to the new stuff

Man on a Ledge

You say what you want about this thriller featuring a man wrongly convicted of theft who sets out to clear his name in dramatic fashion, but I'll be damned if I didn't look at the clock and four minutes into it, there wasn't a man on a damn ledge! Truth in advertising, thy name is this movie!

Wrath of the Titans

DUUUDDEE!! I just realized the half son of Zeus WAS The man on the ledge! I didn't even do that on purpose! Though, had I known the man on the ledge was half immortal it would have taken some of the drama out of it. Wrath is bad. Suupppeerr bad. And not in any of the good meanings of those words. Only bad badness.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

I rolled my eyes when I put this in the DVD player and mumbled "this is gonna suck." I was wrong! It did not suck. The lesbian stuff was weird and left fieldish, but other than that, it was a perfectly serviceable "small budget" film about a family still working through the dad dying when they were teens. I did not want to vomit.

Darkman

I take recommendations from anyone about movies and I will watch anything, halfway through movies like Darkman, I seriously think about reconsidering that strategy. This movie is garbage. It's worse than garbage because it's garbage with Liam Neeson in it! He's supposed to be garbage proof. Except for those Star Warses that he did. BLECH!

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

BOOOOO. This movie was long and boring and as big a disappointment as Ironman 2. I declared that Robert Downey Jr should never be allowed to make sequels. EVER. Yes, that means Avengers too! BLLLECCHHHH!

The Vow

I need to stop watching Nicolas Sparks movies. I'm going to roll my eyes too hard one of these days and they're gonna get stuck that way. This story about a couple who have a car accident leaving the woman an amnesiac who forgets her husband is simply artarded. OH NOES, I just googled it and evidently, The Vow is not a Nicolas Sparks movie at all! It's based on a real life story. So, now I'm scared of real life.

2010: The Year We Make Contact

This movie was a trillion times better than 2001. But is it weird that I was disappointed that it was so positive and happy ending-y? Men go out into space, they are SUPPOSED to be killed by space monsters. Otherwise EVERYBODY will start to want to go to space and no one will be left to comment on my movie review posts.

Puss in Boots

I saw this a while ago, I just keep forgetting to review it. It's terrible. Trust me folks, if a movie can't even get up to 88 minutes, SKIP IT!

The Big year

I usually hate Jack Black and Owen Wilson and the old white haired guy and birds-- but this movie about bird watchers trying to set the bird watching record, was quite good. The Jack Black romance part was tacked on and felt cheap, but the story of the marriages and bird watching was touching and quite good.

The Conspirator

Mary got me the Abraham Lincoln vampire slaying book for my birthday. So, I became a little obsessed with Abraham Lincoln for a bit. This movie is about Mary Surratt who owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth stayed before killing Lincoln. It follows her trial and whether justice was really served by her execution. It was okay.

Friends with Kids

I know this is going to sound weird, but I totally thought this movie was about something else. It stars Don Draper and his real life wife, who don't have kids, so I thought the movie was gonna be about interacting with their friends who do have kids, but it wasn't. It's about friends who decide to have a kid together even though they aren't a couple and then it falls into typical rom-com land from there. I like rom-coms, so I enjoyed it. But you should know going in, that's what you're in for.

Ira & Abbey

Don Draper's wife also made this movie. Here it's two strangers who decide to just go ahead and get married and see what happens. O_O It is not good. Though there are some funny lines and Angela from Who's the Boss is great in this.

Dear Zachary

M pretty much ruined my whole life when she tweeted about this movie one Thursday afternoon. I decided to watch it at work and as the documentary about a guy chronicling the life of his childhood best friend, who had been murdered, unfolds, you just cry and cry and cry. AND THEN when you think it just might all have sorta worked out... NO! YOU CRY SOME MORE! *SHAKES FIST* I will never be happy again!

Wet Hot American Summer

I believe I tweeted to M: "DUDE I WILL NEVER BE HAPPY AGAIN! Gimmee a happy movie!" And she suggested this. It's okay -- I didn't realize it was a spoof of those dumb camp movies, I just thought it was a dumb camp movie, but by the end, it's over the topness was quite clear. Still, it was nowhere near as happy as Dear Zachary was soul crushingly sad, so *RESUME FIST SHAKING*