Sunday, January 09, 2011

I'm moving to Tumblr

Fuck this noise.

Trash and Treasure

I recently watched the Coen Bros re-envisioning of True Grit, and I liked watching it. I had fun. There was shooting, and snappy dialog and a comically hyper-competent 14 year old girl, and Jeff Bridges out-crusting the Duke. And yet...after watching it I was left with the same feeling I had after watching Winter's Bone. I knew that I had just witnessed a superbly crafted entertainment: well acted, masterfully directed, rich with themes and evocative imagery but...there was just something missing. For the longest time I was unable to put a finger on what I really felt was lacking, but reading some reviews of my preliminary favorite film of 2010, Black Swan, has led me to a revelation. These movies just aren't trashy enough.

A whole bunch of reviewers have referred to Black Swan as trash: high-toned, well-made trash, but trash nonetheless. One of these reviews (which was a rave, BTW) defined "trash" cinema as film-making that seeks to combine elements of high culture and low culture. Along with this definition, the review listed a number of examples of great trash cinema, including my favorite film from last year, Inglourious Basterds. This year, I preferred a piece of well-executed trash (Swan) to the consensus "best" movie of the year, Winter's Bone. Last year, I preferred a piece of well-executed trash (Basterds) to the consensus "best" movie of that year, Hurt Locker. And those were both, roughly defined, war movies. Hurt Locker is a very good movie that I enjoyed a great deal, but there is an essential difference between it and Basterds (the same difference between Black Swan and Winter's Bone). That is: Inglourious Basterds and Black Swan are HIGH WIRE ACTS. They take RISKS. Making a movie about World War Two and the Holocaust, two of the most hallowed subjects in contemporary memory, and filling it with a bunch of meta-textual tomfuckery, not to mention shooting Hitler in the face with a submachine gun, runs the risk of alienating a huge chunk of your audience and being dismissed as crap by discerning viewers. On the other hand, a verite, grunts-eye view of the Iraq War is pretty much a can't miss proposition for the cultural gatekeepers, and if you doubt me, Katherine Bigelow's got the Oscars to prove it. The same can be said for a fevered, horror-movie take on ballet compared to a restrained docu-realist examination of Ozark culture. What's there to dislike about a note-perfect excavation of a corner of America that most of us didn't even know still exists? Nothing. But by the same token, there's also not much to love. No, I reserve my love for movies that risk driving away discerning viewers through resolute applications of tastelessness and boundary-pushing. Not the boundaries of content, really, since there's nothing that burnishes the "new classic" credentials of a would-be masterpiece like graphic, ratings-challenging content. More the boundaries of taste, of decorum, of accepted filmic structure. That's why Adaptation will always have a special place in my heart: that movie is willing to burn down everything it's created w/r/t character and plot just to make it's point about the impossibility of expressing truth in narrative cinema.

The beauty of trash cinema is that is can be found in every genre, unlike the restrained virtues of tasteful film-making. Take a piece of action trash like 2007's Shoot 'em Up. Instead of satisfying itself with generic blood-letting, writer-director Mark Davis risks turning his whole film into a bad joke by emphasizing the cartoonish nature of action movie tropes and, most daringly, by strapping the film with a heavy-handed pro-gun control message. Now, the film's ostensible ideological content is silly: how can a movie that that's basically a 90 minute shoot out dare to criticize gun culture! But the inherent conflict between the pro-gun control text of the film and the blood-drenched subtext brings into focus the unacknowledged ideology of all action movies. Making an anti-gun action movie is silly BECAUSE ACTION MOVIES ARE INHERENTLY PRO GUN AND PRO VIOLENCE-AS-PROBLEM-SOLVER! Shoot 'em Up is willing to look stupid for making a pro-gun control argument in the interest of revealing the implicit pro-GUN argument of action films in general. That's the sort of ideological jujitsu you can only pull off if you're willing to make a fool of yourself. When a trashy film fails, it's an embarrassment to all involved. When it succeeds, it not only provides the giddy rush of genre thrills, but also the additional layered goodness of critical incisiveness and the audacious awesomeness of Knievel-like ballsiness.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Preliminary Top Film of 2010: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky's filmography ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, encompassing genres as diverse as kitchen-sink melodrama (The Wrestler) to hallucinatory sci-fi (The Fountain). The connective tissue between all of these films is an obsession on the part of the filmmaker with the massive psychic toll suffered by self-conscious beings bound by decaying physical vessels. Our glories are fleeting, our decline is assured, even our greatest moments are bound by physical and mental limitations. Aronosky explicates these themes more painfully and insightfully than most directors, but every one of his films to this point have been wildly uneven. Requiem for a Dream is a visual tour de force, but it's manic singularity proves exhausting and somewhat hollow. The Fountain is the rare film to confront the issue of mortality without resort to metaphysics, and its also sometimes embarrassing to watch. The Wrestler introduced a new strain of effective naturalism to Aronofsky's repertoire, but it also hewed too closely to familiar genre beats. Black Swan is the culmination of Aronofsky's inquires into human fragility; he brings together every element that worked in his previous films while doing away with anything clunky or unconvincing. There's something deeply enthralling about watching a film director hone his craft to a point of absolute incisiveness.

Black Swan and The Wrestler were originally conceived of by Aronofsky as parallel stories in a single film. At first glance, it seems like a terrible idea, and it's clear that breaking them up was the right call, but the two stories make for a striking mirror image. Randy "the Ram" Robinson and Nina Sayers share a central dilemma: they are both characters defined, both to themselves and to the world around them, by their physical bodies. Randy the Ram is only alive to the degree that his leathery hide dishes out and absorb punishment in the wrestling ring. Nina's only means of self-expression is the voiceless grace of her body. Both of them are haunted by the specter of their inevitable physical decline: Randy is smack in the middle of his own, while Nina sees her future all too clearly in the person of Winona Ryder's fading star ballerina. Both characters are driven to self destruction by their insatiable demand for perfection and adulation. Black Swan distinguishes itself as an altogether more penetrating and brilliant piece of work by burrowing so deeply into Nina's warped psyche and by expertly dissecting the specifically feminine dilemma she faces.

Natalie Portman's Nina lives an absurdly proscribed existence: her daily routine, her life goals, her values, her self-esteem, are defined by dance. Her mother, a failed ballerina living vicariously through her daughter, uses a complex system of passive-aggressive conditioning to keep Nina focused on presenting herself as a symbol of purity and aesthetic perfection. When the film starts, Nina is somewhat comfortably cocooned in her frigid little world (although there are signs that the prospect of playing the lead in her company's production of "Swan Lake" has already put some cracks in the veneer). The real trouble begins when she wins the part of Odette and her director, played by Vincent Cassel, demands that she get in touch with her sexuality in order to channel the Black Swan, Odette's seductive alter ego. The tug-of-war for Nina's soul waged between her Mother and her Director places Nina in an impossible situation. She must simultaneously embody Mona Lisa and Mata Hari. It's the classic Virgin/Whore dichotomy all women have to navigate in some way, heightened to psyche-shattering heights by Nina's preternatural focus and artistic devotion. Her mechanisms for coping with the uncertainty and peril of depending on her intensely vulnerable human body (just listen to the knuckles of her toes crack as she gets out of bed!) are all based on a mechanized rigidity that cannot process paradox. She's like a cartoon robot sent into sputtering meltdown by a logic puzzle.

Aronofsky documents Nina's mental breakdown by deftly synthesizing every effective gimmick in his directorial bag of tricks. He utilizes the over-the-shoulder shots and overall sense of docu-drama realism first displayed in The Wrestler to wed the viewer to Nina's point of view, making the film's lurch into Requiem for a Dream-style hysteria credibly disorienting. While Requiem's all-out visual assault created a fatal distance between the audience and the character, Black Swan's hybrid approach draws the viewer inside Nina's head so effectively that her descent into madness is heartbreaking, terrifying and mercilessly logical. The performances are universally excellent, with Natalie Portman finding the role that her icy, repressed screen presence was made for. The dance sequences recall the fight scenes in The Wrestler in their emphasis on awesome grace and grim physical punishment. The film's themes; sex, decay, artistic obsession, radiate from every frame. Black Swan is the work of an artist at the peak of his power; someone who has clearly wrestled with his defining subject matter for years and has learned through grueling trial and error the most effective application of his gifts.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

2010: Back in Black

I'm back. All anyone needs to know is that I didn't stop seeing movies after Inception. And I'm still waiting on True Grit and a few others before I lock any of these choices in.

Sad Proof that George Romero May Be Losing It: Survival of the Dead. I have been a staunch Romero apologist for years. When Land of the Dead divided audiences, I stood firmly with those who thought it was a trenchant social satire hamstrung by a low budget, but otherwise great. I even defended Diary of the Dead, which had many fewer adherents than Land. But, what a botch. It's everything that Romero critics claimed Land and Diary were, only worse. His puzzling obsession with having his actors do bad Irish accents doesn't help.

"Modern Classic" That I Just Can't Get Behind: Winter's Bone. Now, understand: I really enjoyed this movie. I've seen it twice, it works on every level, and I'd definitely mark it as one of the top ten movies of the year. The performances, especially by John Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence, or riveting. Debra Granik's direction is crisp and focused. The backwoods Ozark setting is richly realized down to the smallest detail. And yet...there's something missing. The whole thing feels a bit like one of those dry odes to rural suffering that used to clog the docket at Sundance before the days of sex, lies and videotape. It's important to remember, in a year when many of the best films revolved around the impact of technology on 21st Century life, that some parts of the country haven't seen the 21st century (or even the 20th) arrive yet, but it feels like that's all that's going on in Winter's Bone. As a result, I can't put it near the top slot as so many smarter, better informed critics are doing.

Inaugural Rodriguez Paradox* Award Winner: Robert Rodriguez for Machete. For the most part, I really, really enjoyed Machete, Rodriguez's epic Mexploitation extravaganza, but it left me strangely disappointed. I couldn't put my foot on what was wrong at first, but I've since figured it out: Robert Rodriguez movies are inherently paradoxical, and therefore perpetually unsatisfying. Rodriguez's seat-of-the-pants approach to filmmaking and deep love for lurid trash leads him to make raucous, intensely entertaining action lollapaloozas like Planet Terror and Machete. But that same unfocused enthusiasm and lack of pretensions to taste leave him incapable of really executing his visions successfully. Look at Grindhouse: Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino both undertook to make filmic tributes to the exploitation films of their youth, but only Rodriguez really channeled the trashy energy of the genre. Planet Terror is as over-the-top and lurid as anything that ever played to the trenchcoat crowd in 70s Times Square. Tarantino, on the other hand, couldn't help himself: he just HAD to turn his entry into a talky, audience expectation-defying deconstruction of serial killer movies. But look at the climactic sequences of both films: Death Proof ends in a gripping, expertly paced car chase that culminates in a glorious explosion of female-empowering violence that acts as an orgasmic exclamation point to the whole Grindhouse experience. Planet Terror, by contrast, ends with a should-be epic gunfight between an army of undead soldiers and a ragtag collection of survivors. The scene is so haphazardly staged and edited that it ends up dissipating much of the bloody energy that had been sustaining the film to that point. It makes you wish that Tarantino had shot that sequence (remember the House of Blue Leaves? Yeah, imagine that with zombies and assault rifles!). But if Tarantino HAD directed Planet Terror, it would have lacked the pulpy intensity of Rodriguez's vision. There would have been a bunch of dialog, a few quick bursts of zombie mayhem, and more shots of Rose McGowan's foot than strictly necessary. Machete, which began life as a fake trailer in Grindhouse, epitomizes the Rodriguez paradox: it's an audacious chunk of unapologetic trash, filled with moments that stand out as some of the most deliriously awesome of the year, but at every turn, Rodriguez's slapdash directing and editing keeps the action from making any real impact. Hell, it even ends with the exact same sort of confused, haltingly-aced shootout as Planet Terror (and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and Desperado, for that matter) and similarly deflates the movie like a gore-filled balloon that's sprung a leak.

Movie That Doubles as a Treatise on the Audience's Feelings towards its Star: Salt. Angelina Jolie is supposedly the protagonist of Salt, and yet, for almost the entire running time, the viewer has no real idea what her goals are or where her allegiances lie. The dynamic is an odd way to frame a blockbuster action movie, but it's dictated by the essential alienation between the American moviegoer and the persona of Angelina Jolie. Her public image is so outsized and unrelatable (from knife wielding, blood-drinking brotherfucker to globetrotting, Pitt-wooing, serial adopting humanitarian in the blink of an eye) and her face is so unnervingly proportioned, with thost anime-character eyes and mile-wide lips, that moviegoers can't really accept her as a fellow member of the human race. At this point in her career, she's simply unacceptable as a traditional protagonist.

A Children's Treasury of Unrealized Premises: Human Centipede: First Sequence, Piranha 3D, Predators, Faster. To one degree or another, all of the above films managed to botch a seemingly can't-miss genre concept. Some of the botches are more egregious than other. Human Centipede and Faster, for example, both managed to take the nugget of a great idea and squander it by ineptly relying on tired formulas. Piranha 3D, on the other hand, was about two thirds of a fantastic movie, but it was sadly undermined by glacial pace. The climactic beach-party massacre will rightfully go down as one of the greatest moments of carnage in screen history. In fact...

Best Moment of Screen Carnage of This and Perhaps Any Other Year: Beach-party massacre, Piranha 3D.

Proof that Foreign Films can be Just as Lame and Middlebrow as Hollywood: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/Played with Fire/Crossed the Road.

Funniest Scene of the Year: Sam Jackson and the Rock jumping off the roof, The Other Guys.

Double Feature on the peril and promise of 21st Century mass media: Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. Both of these movies explore and exploit a current of popular culture: comic books heroism and video gaming. One of them is blunt and dumb, the other lively and insightful. One traffics in cheap transgression, the other weaves jokes into the very fabric of the film. If you don't know which is which, you suck.

Suitable for Framing Award: Shutter Island. This movie has its problems, but Scorsese shows that he can deliver some of the most arresting visuals around, as well as delve into the deep psychology of film noir. It's pastiche, but it's energized, insightful pastiche.

Ov-Er-Rat-ed! Clap! Clap! Clapclapclap!: Red Riding Trilogy. I must be missing something.

I'm so far behind on the seminal films of the year, that I'm going to hold off on a year end Top Five for now. Instead, I'll shortly post a full review of my current favorite film of 2010, and, in a month or so, put out a complete Top Five.

*Alternately the Wes Anderson Paradox

Monday, July 19, 2010


At first glance, it seems absurd to suggest that Christopher Nolan is an underrated film director. He's made a string of well-regarded films, including the biggest comic-book movie of all time, and Warner Brothers gave him $200 million dollars to shoot his original script, which is rarefied air indeed. But it still seems like critics in general have failed to recognize the singular nature of his accomplishments, especially the stunning achievement of Inception. This is evident from the instantaneous mini-backlash that's developing that Inception has inspired. Now, these critics aren't saying that the film isn't good, but they seem dedicated to proving beyond all doubt that it's not great, and certainly not a "masterpiece" (whatever that means). The whole debate is really a meta-critical argument about what sort of film's belong in the Great Canon. Folks like A.O. Scott and Stephanie Zacharek know what a great movie looks like, and Inception ain't it.

The backlash is partially an inevitable reaction to Inception's pre-release hype and the orgasmic reaction of fanboys the world over. Yet, the very nature of Nolan's achievement makes it almost impossible for some people to really recognize it. Like all of the human race's feeble attempts at artistic evaluation, film criticism functions in a relevant context. Criticism is largely the practice of placing films in relation to other films of similar genre or by the same director. Critics are aware that James Cameron's technical innovation and visual wizardly rests on a platform of borrowed tropes and easy cliche. Compared to fellow blockbuster-machine Michael Bay, who can barely manage to make his wafer-thin stereotypes and pointillist plots even vaguely coherent, Cameron is the Kurosawa of empty spectacle.

Inception's blend of idea-driven science fiction, art-house emotional catharsis and big budget special effects is pretty much unprecedented, and as a result, critics don't seem to know how to evaluate it. Put simply, Christopher Nolan is doing things with Inception that simply are not done in motion pictures. No other filmmaker is fusing such an intimate personal journey with puzzle-box plotting, idea-drive science fiction devices and jaw-dropping special effects action. Taken as component parts, none of these specific elements rises to the level of greatness: the action scenes are relatively perfunctory compared to the best the action genre has to offer, the mind-bending dream effects don't have the sheer delirious power of, say Terry Gilliam (although they're not supposed to), and the characters are a bit thinner than those found in the best serious dramatic films. Taken as a whole, however, Inception is a unique film experience. Not only does Nolan include a strong emotional element in the character of Leonardo DiCaprio, but DiCaprio's psychological journey is so strongly embedded in the plot that it actually proves the driving force of the entire film, not to mention the film's climax. Not to mention the richly-textured near-future dream-invasion technology and the brilliant decision to make the film a heist movie, which makes all the necessary but potentially deadly exposition gripping instead of inert. The level of ambition and execution and the richness of ideas and the inventiveness of the plot and the rawness of the emotion and, of course, that genius's unlike anything you're likely to ever see in a theater. If we don't feel comfortable calling it a masterpiece, then can't we invent a new term that acknowledges just how amazing this movie truly is?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

Judd Apatow rules the comedy universe because he and his collaborators have mastered a simple formula: raunchy humor plus emotional heft. His characters like to trade barbs about gayness and masturbation and other chestnuts, but they also have textured relationships with each other and genuine emotional arcs. It's an approach that has produced some hilarious and heartfelt films (and Funny People, which is by no means a bad movie, but also by no means a comedy), and a couple of botch-jobs. One of those is the fitfully gut-busting Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and, now, Nick Stoller's spin-off of the very good Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek. It's not a coincidence that both of these failed efforts focus on drug addicted rock stars. The "Apatow touch" works by taking generally generic characters pursuing generally generic comedy plots (a virgin trying to get laid, a dude getting over a hard break-up), but taking those plots into unexpected directions. When your lead character is a drug-addled rock star dealing with his trademarked "nightmare descent into booze and pills," there really aren't any unexpected directions. Dewey Cox and, in this film, Russel Brand's Aldous Snow, are larger-than-life characters with VH1-ready problems; drug addiction, distant family members, and the essential emptiness of the hedonist rock god lifestyle. Not only are such travails difficult for your average filmgoer to relate to, they hit such obvious dramatic beats that nothing of interest can emerge.

Even worse, the Apatowian obsession with dramatic weight ends up derailing the comedic momentum of a movie that should move with a frantic energy. The plot summary suggests a comedy bullet train a'la After Hours mixed with the drug fueled antics of Cheech and Chong, but the hijinx are undercut at every turn by bathos-laden stabs at meaning. For a movie built on a ticking clock premise and fueled by the heroic intake of booze and hard drugs, Greek never hits the sort of delirious heights it should. There are a few moments that feel like they're about to tip the balance of the movie into outright madness, but they're never sustained enough, and at any rate are consistently undercut by rote and boring character development. Aldous Snow is funny as a rock 'n roll caricature, He's downright ponderous as a redemption-seeking Leif Garrett stand-in. All these words, and really all that needs to be said is that Sean "Diddy" Combs is definitely the funniest thing in this movie. Make of that what you will.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man 2

The announcement that Robert Downey Jr. had been cast as Tony Stark signaled to all observers that the Iron Man franchise was going to be a different type of comic book movie. One that would privilege character and story over empty action sequences. The first Iron Man meet those expectations to the letter, foregrounding Tony Stark's rakish wit and inner turmoil while portioning out the actual Iron Man ass-kicking sparingly and spending little time developing a memorable villain. Iron Man 2 doubled down on all of these elements, spending even more time detailing Tony Stark's mood swings and less time on flying and punching and such.

This approach is initially effective: when Downey's Stark is milking his newfound superhero status and messing with stuffed shirt politicos, Iron Man 2 has the humor and ramshackle charm of a Judd Apatow movie. The charm starts wearing off, though, as director John Favreau and writer Justin Theroux crank up the Stark angst with each passing scene. First, it's shown that the palladium in Stark's arc-reactor heart implant is quickly poisoning his blood, then Defense Department goons start demanding Stark turn over the Iron Man technology, then the arrival of sexy young legal aid Scarlet Johansson complicates Stark's relationship with Pepper Potts, then, to top it all off, it turns out that Tony has a bunch of unresolved issues with his dead father, Howard (played from beyond the grave by Mad Men's John Slattery in the casting coup of the year). And all of this before rogue Russian physicist Mickey Rourke shows up in his own Iron Man suit to get revenge on the Stark family for long past crimes. None of these elements can get the screen time they need to really develop, and so they sort of drift by, unconnected to any greater narrative arc while Tony gets more erratic and sullen. This pattern continues until the inevitable moment when all the audience wants is for something to blow up already. Eventually, things do blow up, and when they do, it's pretty impressive; certainly an upgrade over the perfunctory climax of the first film, but as in the first film, the villain is so undeveloped that the stakes and impact of the conflict are muted.

Iron Man 2 wants to be a real movie, not just a comic book exercise, but the necessities of the comic book genre end up leaving most of the character interaction undercooked. Particularly, the interplay between Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts, which was the emotional engine of the first movie, feels muddled and scattershot here. Their interaction has a loose, improvisational feel, but that authenticity works against generating a coherent through line. It's of a piece with a film that feels garbled and shapeless throughout. There characters still have a vividness that is rare in the comic book genre, and that's due once again to dynamite casting. Downey is his usual charismatic and tortured self, Don Cheadle is a huge upgrade over Terence Howard, Sam Jackson's Nick Fury has an appropriately entertaining swagger, while Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell make the most out of their underwritten bad guy roles. The first Iron Man did a good job of mixing rock 'em sock 'em with effective character work. The sequel, like most blockbuster sequels, seeks to ratchet up every element from the first one that worked. When you're talking about CGI robots fighting, that's an easy enough task: just increase the numbers and firepower of said CGI robots. "More and bigger" is a strategy that just doesn't work when it comes to character and relationship arcs.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Essence of Badassery

Let me start out by saying that I'm not terribly interested in the above film. It looks to be a forgettable A-Team ripoff chock full of a painful, forced jocularity not seen since Smokin' Aces. I will not be seeing it in the theater.

But I'll definitely rent it, and there's at least one thing about The Losers that genuinely excites me: it looks like Jeffrey Dean Morgan is bringing back the old school movie badass.

There was a time, before the bulging, greasy pecs of Swarzenegger and the show-offy ninja moves of Van Damme turned action films into thinly veiled gay porn, when all you needed to be an action hero was the ability to convince audiences that you could fuck somebody up if the occasion called for it. Not because he was physically strong or adept at martial arts, but because he possessed the will, the essence, of the badass. Guys like Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen weren't particularly muscular, and I doubt any of them could execute a spin-kick to save their lives, but nobody doubted that, if roused to anger, they could pull your spine out of your nostril and floss with it. In short, the fuckers could ACT. They weren't master thespians, but within a very narrow range of characters, they could convey confidence, menace, and a supreme comfort with violence with just a hooded glare or a crooked smile. By the mid-80s, action stars didn't have to possess charisma or even a thorough command of the English language. They proved their badassitude with rippling muscles and/or martial art chops: guys like Stallone and Seagal and Dolph Lundgren were really just glorified stunt men. They didn't convey a character, they were simply bodies in motion. This made for some memorable action scenes, but not much in the way of memorable action characters. Worst of all, these inarticulate man-slabs guaranteed that all the non-fighty scenes in these movies (and even the most action-heavy film is at least 50% talking) were flat, mumbly stretches of dead air.

This brings us to Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who is definitely a big dude, but as the trailer indicates, not a former Mr. Universe. He's also got the sort of brick-shithouse body that pretty much preclude any of that Oriental chop socky tomfoolery. The only way he's going to sell being the head of a renegade Special Forces unit, besides shooting a bunch of dudes, is by embodying the badass. Judging from the trailer, I'm optimistic about his chances: he's got the grizzled, world-weary air and rumpled sport coat of Lee Marvin in Point Blank. Here's hoping he, along with Jason Statham, can help usher in a new era of essential badasses.