Sunday, November 25, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 11/25/2012


The Gold Rush (1925, Chaplin) *** (B+)


OK, friends, questions: (1) The tinny pianoforte music that plays during silents — is it canon? I mean, is that a directorial choice, or could I think about substituting in something else that doesn't make me hate everybody and everything, without compromising what the director wanted the viewing experience to be? (2) Almost all title cards are pointless. I realize that isn't a question, but seriously. About halfway through this I started counting which title cards actually provided information useful to the story, and I counted two (one of which provided context for a show-shoveling bit that would have been funny enough anyway, and another that made it clear what song was being sung by a crowd, though it probably could have been guessed). All the rest told me something I already knew just from watching. So what I'm saying is, title cards are basically the lazy trope of the silent era like voice-over is the lazy trope of this one. Are there versions with title cards out? Are the cards part of the director's 'authorship', or were they added after the fact?

All this is by way of getting at why I'm not really captured by silent movies, even those (like this one) that are clearly masterpieces of their form. I suspect it's something like learning a new language; there's something about the visual vocabulary of the form that lets me get the gist, but not hear the poetry. I'm still checking the English-to-French dictionary.

Regardless of all this, if you speak fluent Silent-ese, this is obviously not to be missed. THE GOLD RUSH is home to some of Chaplin's most famous bits, to the point that it's practically a greatest hits collection (dinner rolls dancing, cabin on a cliff, eating the shoe, and whatdya know, Loony Tunes cribbed its "starving guy sees his friend turn into food" bit from the Tramp). Chaplin is a beast, with a muscularity to his shtick that I wasn't expecting (e.g. his 'stiff as a board' routine) and I don't know if there's a more expressive performer in film; the guy can give you happy, sad, proud, or suicidal, without voice, from the back, simply in how he walks. Also surprising: the Yukon's Darwinian living conditions are presented starkly for a comedy (the opening shots of endless lines trudging through winter waste could have come from some POTEMKIN-esque social commentary, hunger is ever-present, and life is cheap); and the tiny continuity details that become running visual gags. After eating his shoe, the Tramp's foot is for the rest of the movie wrapped in a jury-rigged towel. Hope Chaplin didn't use real snow.



Serpico (1973, Lumet) *** (B) 

Al Pacino's shaggy intensity in the title role provides a lot of the value to this rather straightforward movie, whose plot, interestingly enough, boils down to: "Serpico's co-workers want shoot Serpico, Serpico no like, Serpico want transfer, why nobody transfer Serpico?" Kudos to the film for not falling into the common biopic trap and deifying the man, whose strength came mainly from stubbornly wanting to do a good job. The central irony that Lumet wisely presents is that Serpico isn't a crusader until he's absolutely forced to be, and wouldn't have testified against his dirty colleagues if they hadn't been so concerned that he would testify. Serpico apparently didn't so much want to expose the pervasive culture of corruption and bribery that (apparently) existed at all levels of the NYPD, he just wanted to be free to not have to take part in it, and apparently to slowly transform into a wolfman in hobo clothes. (Having seen "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" hilarious homage, which really takes the piss of the badass cool the film clearly intends Pacino to convey, I confess I had more trouble taking the character seriously than I otherwise would have. Probably colored my appreciation.)


Prometheus (2012, Scott) **1/2 (C+)

More like "Promethe-MESS", amiright, amiright?

So yes, I won't belabor all the things that totally didn't work here (honorary mention to "run LEFT OR RIGHT" and "that's right...FATHER"), but it's undeniable four months later that this belongs to the special class of movies that manage to make less and less sense every time you think about it. The problem here isn't that it's a silly story, it's that it's a silly story that has delusions of grandeur; it *thinks* it's a very deep and meaningful story. It's a shame, really, since most other aspects of the movie besides that story actually are compelling. Ridley Scott clearly is one of the top visual craftsmen working today, it just appears that he's not sure exactly what to do with these impressive, immersive worlds he designs. I'd say it's incorrect for people (and I include myself) to have hoped for this as Scott's return to making movies that have thematic depth, since he's never really done that (BLADERUNNER aside, maybe). He's just always been about image and moment over story. Perhaps this should have been a silent movie without humans, or at least without dialogue? Anyway, the 'remove foreign object' sequence is a top-shelf suspense set piece, and Michael Fassbender is fantastic (I was going to write that he gave "the greatest android performance ever" until I realized that doesn't sound very impressive) in a role that ultimately —again — doesn't make any sense, but at least his chilly ambiguity, filtered through Peter O'Toole, fits the tone the movie is trying to reach, whenever it isn't forcing us to laugh at hilarious old age makeup, that is.


The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Selick) **** (A)

The jittery other-worldliness of stop motion meets a perfect subject. I suspect this is a movie that would make an effective viewing experience without sound; based solely on non-stop visual inventiveness and immediately iconic character models (the way the creatures pull off "genuinely nightmarish yet nonthreatening" is a constant surprise), this this would probably be destined for classic status even if the songbook wasn't a murderer's row. I'm not educated enough on his oeuvre to say this definitively, but I'm thinking this is Danny Elfman's finest hour, right? If you're not totally captured after the "This is Halloween" opener, I forgive you, but I can't help you. Not sure there is a dud song in the batch, musically or lyrically (maybe Oogie Boogie). I guess my one quibble is that there's not much attempt at defining a unique mythology, or even making it coherent — the holiday portals are *inside* the Halloween wood? — but I suspect Selick's instinct to favor pageantry over specificity are correct. Funny that the most Tim-Burtony, Tim Burtonesque movie Tim Burton ever Tim Burtoned wasn't even Tim Burtoned by Tim Burton. Probably for the best. Tim Burton.


Paper Moon (1973, Bogdanovich) ***1/2 (A-)

With a couple forgivable exceptions, this is an unconventionally unsentimental take on the "child disrupts selfish man's life" trope, mainly because the human suffering is observed rather than underlined, and especially because the kid's angry exterior hides only an even more angry interior, significantly more pragmatically avaricious than her adoptive-probably-biological father figure. She doesn't want to melt his heart, she wants to refine it into something more effective.

Despite strong performances from Ryan O'Neal and (Oscar winning) daughter Tatum as the Depression-era flim flam man and the orphan waif he takes on a road trip across struggling America (during which they mercifully learn absolutely no Life Lessons), PAPER MOON's primary pleasures are stylistic. This is, in essence, Bogdanovich's mostly successful attempt at making a John Ford movie. The old-school composition and cinematography made me wish that black-and-white deep focus movies of this sort were still commercially viable enough to be made today. There's a painterly artificiality to the format that I nevertheless find totally compelling. But this is a pretty good last gasp from an abandoned style.

So where did P-Bog go after dropping this and THE LAST PICTURE SHOW within a two-year span? Come on, man. Get off the mat.


Hanna (2011, Wright) ** (C)

I really don't know what the hell to make of this. It's the KICK-ASS Hit Girl filtered through THE BOURNE IDENTITY real-world spy grit filtered through a French coming-of-age sexual awakening story filtered through a music video. It's frenetic and visually compelling and total nonsense and I rarely gave much of a shit. Eric Bana has muscles in a very sensitive sort of way. Occasionally Cate Blanchett happens all over this movie in an explosion of insane, dentalflossing scenery-chewing; highly entertaining, but it works at total cross-purposes to the ethereal quiet center Saoirse Ronan is attempting (frequently with success) to provide.

Oh, and Joe Wright? Learn how the internet works. It's 2011. The scene where Hanna looks up the entire top-secret government project, complete with photos proving her true identity, by basically doing a keyword search on "WHAT IS MY SECRET BACK STORY" from an Internet Cafe (!) would have been embarrassing in 1998.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 11/18/2012




The Pianist (2002, Polanski) ***1/2 (B+)

Not another Holocaust movie. Yes. I know. THE PIANIST is still worth a look.

Anchored by an extraordinary (and for long stretches silent) performance by Adrien Brody, this is not so much a Holocaust movie as a survivalist movie. It's a film about hunger and desperation, about somebody who survives not because he is particularly brave, or resourceful, or strong, but partly because he is lucky, and mostly because he is willing to survive. Polanski is wise enough to film most of the atrocity at the same distance as observed by its protagonist, but savvy enough to make each death seem like the end of a story just as vital as the one we are following. The old woman whose scant allotment of food is spilled and slurped by a desperate vagrant contains two separate films unto itself, that of the vagrant, and that of the woman. We are left to intuit the result from his chin-on-the-cobblestone hunger, from her racking sobs as she impotently beats him: The thief lived another day for his theft. Her family starved for it. We die inside for the woman. We try to judge the thief and cannot. Our hero passively endures, as 1940s Warsaw closes around him and other Jews like a slow noose, until finally the world is a hellish shell, even an battered can of okra contains all the world's hope – and then, unexpectedly and all at once, in an extraordinary sequence, beauty comes briefly crashing back in.


Battleship Potemkin (1925, Eisenstein) ***1/2 (A-)

Landmark status is clear, a lot of the imagery still packs a punch, and the Odessa stairs sequence is rightfully lionized, but ultimately this is something that was stylized for another age. Learning to groove on silent films is a learned skill that I expect I haven't fully learned (though surprisingly the performances are far less theatrical than usual for the time). I guess I'll be adding this to the list of top-shelf influential films that I admire more than love. It's not you, Potemkin. It's me.


Step Brothers (2008, McKay) **** (A)

I don't care. You hear me? I just don't care. Yes, it's frequently dumb, probably overstuffed, and it traffics in an arrested development man-boy trope that is pretty tired. I recognize this. It's also the funniest thing I've seen in ages, with Ferrell's hyperactive doughy labradoodle contrasting perfectly with Reilly's confused belligerent bulldog, and the blind, misplaced confidence the two bring to whatever they do just makes me laugh. It makes me laugh all the different ways. There's rarely a moment that doesn't have at least a couple gems, though a series of job interviews is particularly choice. Adam Scott, Mary Steenburgen, and Richard Jenkins all come to play, with a gameness (in particular Jenkins recounting his boyhood aspiration to be a dinosaur and Scott leading his family in a too-perfect a capella rendering of Guns N Roses) that helps make this more than just a two man show. It's one of those movies in the proud tradition of THE JERK, where the idiocy is an asset.


Ice Age 4: Continental Drift (2012, Martino/Thurmeier) **1/2 (C)

A professionally crafted, fairly unimaginative children's entertainment product (I haven't seen the other three), leavened by a number of genuinely funny moments, and a number of essentially unrelated sequences featuring a creature that I won't pretend I don't know is called a Scrat, who futilely and single-mindedly chases an acorn in what essentially are interstitial cartoon shorts in the vein of classic Road Runner (Scrat being the missing link of Wile E. Coyote). It's somewhat unfortunate that these segments are considerably more entertaining than the movie they're designed to frame.


Brave (2012, Andrews/Chapman/Purcell) *** (B)

Fairly slight, especially for a Pixar movie, but gorgeously rendered, and possessed by one of the most whacked-out plot events of the year, which immediately removes it from the tired old "princess asserts her 21st century-appropriate sense of self-actualization in the face of traditional expectations" trope promised by the marketing, and spins it off into something more complex and satisfying, and also absurdly funny. (Not to say that women shouldn't be self-actualized, just that it's nice to see a movie with a strong female character that is about more than just that). Also, Mike Meyers' efforts to the contrary notwithstanding, Scottish accents are funny always.


The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1945, Powell/Pressburger) **** (A)

Powell and Pressburger continue to impress(burger). Apparently the main (and title) character is drawn loosely from a famous Brit cartoon character of the early 20th century, who represented blinkered out-of-touch conservative blowhards of a certain type, but the Archer Studio masters use him as a template upon which to ruminate on the moment when war stopped being the province of gentlemen and became instead an industrialized free-for-all, devoid of scruple or rules of engagement. This has the typical Powell/Pressburger gorgeous technical expertise and flights of formalized surrealism, but few movies rely more upon the context of its release date to give it true poignancy and meaning. Given that this film: (a) It was made Britain during the Blitz, for God's sake; (b) features as its central relationship a longstanding friendship of honor between a British officer and a German one; and (c) mourns the amoral ruthlessness (drawn in stark contrast with the code of honor represented by "Blimp", aka our hero, Clive Candy) which a new breed of allied warriors feels compelled to employ to counter the Nazi horde, it seems an almost foolhearty act of bravery to have produced such a movie.


The Invention of Lying (2009, Gervais) **1/2 (C+)

Brilliant premise, squandered. Gervais is ingratiating as the man in a high-concept alternate universe that never learned to lie. I think he's actually underrated as an actor; his naturalistic, in-the-moment reactions are a big reason the high concept works to the extent that it does. A deathbed sequence packs an existential punch that you don't usually get in comedies; crucially, however, Gervais frequently mistakes "not lying" with "expressing in clinical detail decisions about genetic preference as regards sex", which wouldn't be so fatal if it didn't become one of the movie's two central conceits. Simply put, even if we didn't lie, we wouldn't turn down dates by talking about genes. There's a difference between prevarication and reptile-mind subconscious, and at a certain point it just becomes distracting and creepy, especially since as a result we're meant to root for Gervais' likeable shlub to get together with a beautiful but ghoulish racial purist (Jennifer Garner, struggling at least semi-heroically with an impossible character).

Louis CK without a beard is unnerving.


Drive (2011, Refn) ***1/2 (B+)

A very pretty exercise in stripped-down style, which is basically enough for me. The opening getaway sequence alone is worth the price of admission, though it never quite reaches those heights again, and I found myself wishing for a movie that was just a disconnected sequence of such scenes. Gosling seems to come from some earlier breed of movie star, though since I've seen very little of his output to this point (I'm not sure, and it doesn't even seem possible, but I think this is the first role in which I've seen him), it's certainly possible that this is an affectation for this particular movie. Still, he does the stoic stalwart thing effectively, perhaps too much so. Since we never really get a sense of his motivations, he almost fails to register as human. Albert Brooks makes up for it, though, as a pragmatist wise guy who can murder you like he's doing you a favor.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Reviewed me like a Hurricane...

Oh Dawn, WHAT HAPPENED??!

It’s been DAYS since November started!

DAYS!

I know, I know, my poor long suffering adoring audience, I have not forgotten you! So here, without further ado (or to-do, but definitely not “adieu” as Ms. Cattell-Gordon explained to me in the eighth grade) are your November movie reviews! *inserts applause*

The Sitter
This stars that used to be fat comedian kid who was in Moneyball. I actually liked this movie. It’s short, the kids are cute, aside from some poopy fart jokes, the humor isn’t too crude. It’s about a layabout who gets roped into babysitting so his poor middle-aged mother can finally go on a date. The children are monsters – OR are they just misunderstood. Eh… eh… ARE THEY? Yeah…so…moving on.

People Like Us

This movie is TERRIIBLE. Alceste was all “no thank you,” when I offered to let him watch it with me. It’s about some adrift scam artist dude whose music producer dad dies and leaves him a bag of money and a note telling him to give all the money to the dead dad’s bastard daughter and her bastard son. Oh, whoops…people don’t use the word bastard anymore… illegitimate… why does that sound WORSE? Non child of marriage? WHATEVS. But he’s an adrift scam artist and he’s all – this bag of money could help ME! But then he stalks his half sister and sees that her life is a wreck, so he gives her the money, but she IS a wreck so she falls in love with him and then he’s all “I’m your brother.” Okay, I am making this movie sound good. It’s not. I swear it’s not. Don’t do it.

Wanderlust


Ugh, yet another shit sandwich brought to you from Jennifer Aniston – and Paul Rudd, this is your fourth stinker IN A ROW, buddy – you’re in Ryan Reynolds territory now. It’s about a New York couple who lose it all and go live on a commune. She cheats on him, he leaves her. Then goes back and multiple cars end up in a lake.

Ed Wood

BLARRGGHH. Why do people keep saying this movie is good? IT’S NOOOOTTTTT!!!!! I guess Martin Landau is good, he does disappear into Lagosi, OH, and Sarah Jessica Parker did not make me want to vomit! Hmm… and Johnny Depp is good at playing the most annoying man on the planet, but there it is… this is a movie about the most annoying man on the planet! I WANTED HIM TO DIE….nay… I WANTED TO KILL HIM. Grrr. I’m blaming Goat for this.


War Horse

This movie is meh. The graphics were cool, but ultimately it’s a movie about a horse. And not even really a war horse. It’s a dumb horse. And dumb owners and the war is just deep deep background. Meh. You will not care about any of the characters and the movie is LLOOONNGG. No bueno.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Oh. My. GAWD. I came into this movie with the utmost skepticism and haughty cynicism. The commercials which show Tom Hanks doing word judo were sooo cheesy, I was prepared to roll my eyes and crackwise for hours. But, no. It was SO well done. WAY better than the book – which was dumb and caused much eye rolling. SO GOOD. By the end, you’ll cry and cry and cry.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

Um… this movie is supposedly based on that book about pregnancy that everyone gets. I do not know whose idea it was to make a movie out of that…but they should be slapped. Hard. Until they cry. The movie is okay. It’s done in vignette style and follows like seven couples through their various procreation processes. EH.

Swimming with Sharks

I don’t know how I ended up picking this movie… so I’m going to go ahead and blame VinNay. But this 80s based tale about an up and coming Hollywood producer is bad, then worse, then bad again and then tops off the crap sundae with a out of left field ending that will make you want to break things. Please note, if anyone tells you that they saw the end coming, please report that person to Homeland Security IMMEDIATELY. It was nice knowing you @VinNaY.


Tyrannosaur

This movie is about an old Irish alcoholic (Department of redundancy alert... oh SNAP! RACES!) All his friends are dead and then he kills his dog cause it’s making too much noise. He then befriends a shopkeeper lady, who is being beaten by her husband. They sorta become friends. Then some bad stuff happens and everybody goes to prison.

Fast Girls


Cute movie about a fictionalized UK women’s track team, it stars Mickey from the early Dr. Who serieses. You can see the end coming a mile and a half away (what is that in meters?) but the actors are credible and the story is solid enough. I liked it.

Rampart


Blech. Woody Harrelson stars in this grainy movie that tries to make you feel bad for the poor cop who can’t just shoot black suspects and plant guns on them anymore because of a changing society in LA. Oh, boo hoo, Internal Affairs is cracking down on him and want to put him in jail when he’s just doing what everyone else IS AFRAID TO DO! Yawn. And there’s this weird subplot where he has two daughters by each of two sisters and they all live in a house together and the older daughter is a liberal who calls her dad a racist and stuff. Meh.

W.E.

This movie is Julie & Julia without Meryl Streep. To wit: it sucks. Basically, it tells the parallel stories of the abdicated Nazi sympathizing King of England and his wife and a modern day art collector who is named after the wife. Vomitous.
The Decoy Bride

Speaking of the early Dr. Who serieses, this romantic comedy stars David Tennant. I love David Tennant and will not say a word agin him. So…umm…how are you guys? How’s the family? You survive Sandy, ok? Great. Next movie.

Albert Nobbs

The problem with this movie where Glen Close plays a woman living as a man in old timey days in England, is that they are so proud of how they got Glen Close to look so much like a man, they forgot to also have a plot or any reason for you to watch after the first ten minutes of “hey, Glen Close totally looks like a man!”