Friday, December 28, 2007

Two Days, Two Crummy Movies

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

This movie certainly had its funny moments (the sequence with the faux-Beatles played by Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman and Justin Long being paramount), but in the end there just aren't enough laughs. This is the third film of the year from comedy god Judd Apatow and its easily the worst. I think the reason this failed is because parody is an inherently absurd genre, and Apatow just isn't built for comedic absurdism. His best work is totally grounded in real human dynamics and situations and, as a result, Walk Hark tries too much to inject pathos into the proceedings, but as soon as you've introduced the absurd elements of film parody, it reduces the impact of any sort of character depth or interaction. If Adam McKay, an Apatow collaborator, director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights, and the foremost practioner of absurd comedy in Hollywood had made this film, it would have been a riot.

Score: 6.0

Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem

Goddamn it, this shit shouldn't be so hard! The platonic ideal of a predator fighting an alien is inherently awesome, and yet, in two straight films, made by two different production teams, professional filmmakers have managed to fuck it up beyond redemption. Why do they keep insisting on spending the majority of the film with boring, lame human characters? Motherfucker, it's not called Aliens Vs. Predator Vs. Annoying Douchbags. And when are they going to hire somebody who can shoot a fucking alien fighting a predator and make it remotely possible to tell what the fuck is going on? I know that it's easier to hide special effects gimmicks if you shoot a scene in a cave or a sewer, but howsabout someone sit down with a fucking slide rule and figure out how to show these fuckers fight in less that complete darkness?! The shit of it is, if they do another one, I'll definitely watch it.

Score: 3.0

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I don't really think that I'm qualified to review this movie, seeing as how I've never seen the musical it's based on, or any Steven Sondheim musical, for that matter. I've seen (and been annoyed by) enough musicals to observe that Sweeney Todd isn't usual: the songs weave in and out of the film without defined endings and the staging is intensely claustrophobic: there are no dance numbers, no moments when newsboys and passersby drop what they're doing and start belting one out. Most of the songs are sung in small rooms by one or, at most, two people. That doesn't jibe with other musicals I've seen, but I don't know if that's an original component of the Sondheim theatrical show, or a Burton invention. Ah, hell, I'm out of my depths, here, man. I'll just say that I usually find musicals annoying and ridiculous, but I found this one less annoying and ridiculous than most, although I still have a hard time connecting emotionally to characters who inexplicably burst into song.

Score: 7.7

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Subjectivity and Criticism: Why Bother?

This fall saw the release of two crime dramas from venerated directors: David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises and the Coen Brother's No Country For Old Men. My wife and I saw both of them during their respective theatrical releases and recently, as we hashed over our favorite films of the year, I discovered something that surprised me and led my to question the very validity of the notion of film criticism. Both Carolyn and I liked each these two films, but we loved different ones. I found Eastern Promises to be a well-crafted but slight genre entry, while I was absolutely blown away by No Country. Conversely, Carolyn admired the craft and execution of No Country but was more deeply affected by Eastern Promises. What intrigued me about our differing responses to these two movies was that they didn't really have anything to do with the quality of the films. We didn't argue the technical merits of one film over the other, rather, our difference came down to divergent emotional responses to the material. I walked out of Eastern Promises unmoved, while No Country left me shivering. Carolyn had the opposite reaction. It turns out the Naomi Watts character, who I sort of wrote off as a wasted part (if I recall correctly, I said that all Watts had to do in the movie was "sweat the Morten-dong"), stuck with Carolyn, especially her emotional arc, which I largely overlooked. Watt's character isn't just seeking justice for the dead Russian girl who sets the plot in motion, she's resolving feelings of grief and guilt for her stillborn child, and struggling with an attraction to a man who terrifies and excites her. I'll admit, I noticed that stuff while I was watching the movie, but it didn't leave much of an impression. No Country, on the other hand, she called a "guy's movie." As much as I love this movie, I certainly can't disagree with that assessement; it's a diagnosis that helps explain why the film was less powerful for Carolyn. If all that stuff with Naomi Watts left me cold, why would Tommy Lee Jones mourning his lost virility be any more evocative for her?

This all raises the question: if our gender is that determinative of our emotional response to art, how the hell are we supposed to make meaningful judgements of films other than "I liked it"? I'm left thinking that the only thing that can be analyzed with any sort of objectivity are the technical aspects of a film: as I said, we both thought that each of these films was very well made and engaging. The elements that push a movie from "good" to "great" are almost entirely personal: your reaction is largely going to be determined by your age, race, gender, and life experience. At the end of the day, whether a film "speaks" to you or not often depends on what you're listening for. So, I guess the reason I'm making this largely-obvious point is because I want to know if there is a case for the opposite view: that craft is not the only thing about film that can be objectively analyzed; that you can measure the effectiveness of things like character relatability, thematic resonance and emotional impact. Right now, no such answers are forthcoming, but I'll certainly keep thinking about it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I Am Legend

I really wanted to like this movie, and for the first forty minutes or so, I did. The haunting shots of post-apocalyptic Manhattan and the persistent focus on the day -to-day realities of a man dealing with lonliness, loss, and vampiric hordes are compelling. For a would be blockbuster, this film insists on slowing down and closely observing details that most big action flicks miss. Unfortunately, even though the film has a surprisingly interesting artistic point of view, the script is helluva weak. I don't mind a film like this skimping on the action if all the quiet scenes are building on each other towards something. However, in I Am Legend, the character building scenes don't actually build on each other, and they end up leading to a flat, infuriatingly dumb "Signs"-style ending. It certainly doesn't help that the CGI plague victims who menace Will Smith throughout the movie have that patented CGI shininess to them that makes them look like World of Warcraft avatars. Gollum aside, CGI has just not yet reached the point where it can be used in such large doses without seeming really, really fake.

And, as with most post-apocalyptic films, I end up spending a lot of time wishing that the movie were set during the deadly plague, not after. Some of the best parts of the film are the flashbacks to Will Smith's family trying to evacutate Manhattan as it's being quarantined. After the last of those scenes ended, I kept hoping that there would be more. Look, Hollywood, I know tha it's difficult to set a film during the apocalpyse because it doesn't fit with your precious three act structures and your Robert McKee character arcs, but c'mon, already! Get on the damn ball and make that shit happen!

Score: 6.9

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

No Country For Old Men: Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers

****WARNING! FOLLOWING POST MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS, PEANUTS!!!****


I just finished reading Corman McCarthy's book No Country for Old Men and it only increases my awe at the Coen brothers' accomplishment. They have taken the most potent plot elements, exchanges of dialogue, and themes from the book, thrown them onto the screen with the technical panache they are know for, while leaving behind McCarthy's excessive philosophizing and meandering. To use a metaphor from the classic film Monster Squad, they melt down the raw silver of McCarthy's prose and shape it into a hollow tip bullet, perfect for killing werewolves.

One of the big things aiding the Coens was their choice of material. Unlike writers like Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller, who utilize the narrative voice to communiate a lot of the psychological and philosophical themes of their works, Cormac McCarthy, in this novel, at least, lets the characters and plot mechanics express the themes. This means that the work is perfect for translation to film: it's just a job of putting the action and dialogue up there on the screen. If that's all the Coens' had done, they probably would have made a good movie. What makes No Country a great movie is their incisive editing and reshaping of the material to create maximum visceral impact. In fact, they seem to have more faith in the potency of McCarthy's tale than the author himself does.

In his attempt to write a novel focusing on the existential horror of ordinary folks staring into an abyss of idiot fate and human cruelty, McCarthy laid out a tale that obliterated the expectations of the reader. He starts with one of the most cliche of all crime thriller plots: regular joe stumbles across large sum of money (or drugs), criminals pursue him in order to regain it. There have been literally* jillions of books and movies made utitlizing this premise, from Charley Varrick to True Romance, and it carries with it certain expectations, mainly that it will end in a climactic show down between the regular joe and some avatar of criminality. McCarthy fills these roles with the vivid, compelling characters of Llewellyn Moss and Anton Chigurh, and sets them on a collision course...and then he has a bunch of nondescript Mexicans kill the protagonist before he can have his showdown with Chigurh...and only two thirds of the way through the book. This ingenious subversion of audience expectations is the most effective representation of McCarthy's theme, and the Coens smartly keep it intact. Even more smartly, they trust their mastery of film craft to convey this theme without resorting to the didactic dialogue that plagues too much of the book. Although at least eighty percent of the dialogue in the film is drawn verbatim from the book, most of the character exchanges last much longer in the book, and to the detriment of the characters, themes and narrative momentum. The laconic cowboy aphorisms of that pepper the movie are compelling and witty in small doses, but tend to induce reader fatigue after pages and pages of the same clipped, obtuse rhythms. More importantly, the prolonged disquitations turn the character of Chigurh, who, in the form of Javier Bardem, ranks in the top echelon of film bad guys, into a grumpy freshman philosophy student, not a being of pure will and a symbol of implacible, unreasonable death.

Take the scene, early on in both the film and the book, when Chigurh has a conversation with a hapless gas station attendant. As the two characters talk, it becomes clear that Chigurh is deciding whether or not he is going to kill the attendant. To that end, he asks the attendant to call a coin toss. When his guess of "heads" turns out to be correct, Chigurh allows him to live, and gives the attendant the quarter, telling him that it's his "lucky" quarter. In the film, when the attendant tries to put the quarter in his pocket, Chigugh tells them not to, because in his pocket the coin will lose its specialness, become "just a coin...which it is" in Chigurh's words. It's a film scene of unbearable suspense, and that last line echoes in the viewer's head long after it has been spoken. Those few words contain a universe of meaning; that coin, like the attendants life, is extraordinary and unique...and, at the same time, completely anonymous and mundane, depending on who is beholding it.

Contrast the way the Coens' end this scene with the way the scene ends in McCarthy's book. Most of the dialogue is identical, but when the attendant tries to put the "lucky" quarter in his pocket, Chigurh doesn't respond by telling him to put it "anywhere not your pocket, where it will get mixed up with the others and become just a coin...which it is." Instead, he says:

"Anything can be an instrument. Small things. Things you wouldn't even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People don't pay attention. And then one day there's an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It's just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it's just a coin. Yes. That's true. Is it?"

Saying shit like this, Chigurh should be holding a goddamn baton of french bread, not a compressed-air cattle stungun. There's no way that a mini-monologue like that could stick with you. There's too much stuff there, too much abstract rumination, all of it stripping the mystery and terror away from a character who never leaps off of the page the way that he does off of the screen. In the end, I just think that the Coens trusted the plot structure and characters to convey the apocalyptic dread and desolation that McCarthy was striving for, while McCarthy himself felt compelled to overdetermine the themes by hammering them home in conversation after conversation. It's understandable, in a way. The sort of terror and sense of vulnerability McCarthy is going for is much easier to convey cinematically than in prose. He probably felt the need to lard Chigurh's murder spree with soliloquies because he didn't have the chilly intensity of Javier Bardem's coal-black eyes to help bring out the darkness.


*okay, not literally

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Mist

Whoda thunk that arch-schmalt merchant Frank Darabont would be able to pull off such a brutal, down and dirty creature feature as The Mist? I guess if all you do is adapt Stephen King materials, you'll eventually get to something horrifying. And man, are they some good creatures. Through a combination of suprisingly good CGI and rubber gags, Darabont creates some really horrible monsters lurking in that there titular mist: just looking at them gives you that Lovecraftian sense of revulsion that King was trying to convey. In addition to providing the B-movie goods, Darabont deepens the film with some great in-group/out-group tensions between the group of bewildered people trapped in a grocery store surrounded by monsters. Marcia Gay Harden in particular is vivid and eerie as a holy roller whipping her acolytes into a sacrificial frenzy to appease her Old Testament god. In fact, most of the characters are given richer shading than you usually see in this sort of scare-fest. Most remarkably, Darabont alters the original ending of King's story (which isn't really an ending at all) by making it both more dramatically satisfying AND darker than the original. In the end, The Mist isn't really scary, but it's deeply creepy, and since most horror films can't manage to be either scary or creepy, I'd put that down as a signficant accomplishment.

Score: 8.0

Thursday, November 22, 2007

No Country For Old Men

In my fall movie preview, I wrote that No Country For Old Men might be the least whimsical Coen brothers' movie since Miller's Crossing. It turns out that isn't the case. No Country For Old Men is the least whimsical Coen brothers' movie since the invention of whimsy.

This movie season has seen some pleasant surprises (Into the Wild, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) and disappointments (Eastern Promises, American Gangster), but no film had yet exactly met my expectations until now. I went into No Country For Old Men expecting to see one of the most amazing American films of the past decade, and that's exactly what I got. It's cool when things work out like that.

The Coens have been astoundingly prolific and varied in style over their twenty year careers. With No Country, they revisit the terrain of their first film, Blood Simple. Both films could be considered "Texas noir:" gritty crime films featuring regular people confronting embodiments of pure evil, against a backdrop of scrub brush and big block Detroit sedans. What sets No Country For Old Men apart from Blood Simple, indeed, from the entire Coen brothers canon, is its commitment to emotional impact. The film creates a hermetic seal around its characters and universe, drawing the viewer in to a palable reality. In the past, the Coen's have been content to create immersive film realities for the purpose of riffing on genres and film tropes: shits n' giggles, funsies...you know, for kids? With this film, the Coen's have entered uncharted territory: gone are the comic grotesques, hyper-stylized dialogue and deadpan absurdism that have largely defined their output. Instead of reminding the viewer at regular intervals that they're watching a movie, they let their craft and characters speak in the soft but textured voices of a recognizable reality. The virtuoso technique on display does not reflexively celebrate the magic of film, but is rather put to service instilling existential dread in the viewer. It's a feat of cinematic ledgermain with few equals: the movie practically places you into an hypnotic trance designed to show you a cold and merciless universe where death is inevitable and meted out randomly. You leave the theater acutely aware of your personal vulnerability, pondering the terrifying vastness and cruel capriciousness of the world. You feel like a plucked chicken set in the middle of a wind-swept prairie, waiting for the wolves to come.

This effect is achieved through a constellation of techniques, including a canny lack of any musical accompaniment. The catalyst of it all is certainly Cormac McCarthy's source material. I intentionally avoided reading the book before seeing the film in order to go in fresh. It was the right decision, but it leaves me feeling unable to fully engage with the film's achievements. As such, I expect to read the book this week, and post a fuller write-up of the film at that point. For now, sufficit to say that this flick is a pisser.

Score: 10

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

In most heist movies, the crime itself functions primarily as a plot device. Depicting a robbery gives the filmmakers a sweet opportunity to thrill the audience with a close-up look at the ins and outs of thievery, as well as plenty of shooting and blood-letting. Answering the question of why the heist is being committed isn't a priority: the vast sums of easy money are reason enough. What makes Before the Devil Knows You're Dead a singularly interesting heist film is that it addresses a fundamental fact overlooked in most heist films. Crime, first and foremost, is a symptom of pathology. Pathologies of psychology, of family dynamics, of economics, both personal and systemic. Sidney Lumet's film fractures the chronology and point of view to illuminate the conflicting motivations of the members of the Hanson family: brothers Hank and Andy, who decide to solve their respective money woes by knocking off their parent's jewerly store, and patriarch Charles, who has to deal with the wrenching fallout of their efforts. Each character has their own agenda and their own needs, and the film subtly evocks the sources of both. Andy, the mastermind, burns with familial resentment, as well as the restlessness and ennui of a well off man who has everything he could ever need, yet still feels empty, and is certain that just a little more will finally do the trick. Hank struggles under alimony demands and a nagging inferiority complex regarding his brother. Throughout this film, which focuses intently on the quiet, mundane moments that add up to create a person's emotional atmosphere, Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson break up the action into prismatic, often silent sequences that all reveal crucial aspects of the chracters and their histories. Rather than explain how the heist is pulled off, these scenes are meant to show us why it went down, and it all adds up to a bracing portrait of contemporary American life and the essential sickness of many of our relationships and the hollowness of many of our dreams.

Shorter review: BTDKYD = A Simple Plan + In the Bedroom

Score: 8.8

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Modest Proposal...for which I am legally entitled to 5% of the pre-tax gross.

I just rewatched Paul Greengrass' superb docudrama about Northern Ireland Bloody Sunday, one of the very best films of the young century and a big reason why Paul Greengrass is one of the most exciting filmmakers currently operating. In addition to the real life intensity-fests of Bloody Sunday and last year's United 93, Greengrass has also directed the last two Bourne films, with the same consistently thrilling, powerful handheld style. His stuff is a giant FUCK YOU to all the nitwits out there who bitch about the "pretensiousness" of handheld camerawork: watch these films, then try to tell me that they would be more effective with a lot of crane shots and steadycam shit. Not only does the handheld style convey stark, queasy realism, it makes things feel spontaneous, which is important when you specialize, as Greengrass does, in recreating historical events. Anyone going to see Bloody Sunday knows that it ends with the Paras emptying a bunch of rifle clips into unarmed Catholic protestors, as anyone going to see United 93 knows that it ends with the plane crashing into a field in Pennsylvania. Yet, watching Greengrass' recreations, the audience feels a sense of dread and apprehension not only due to what we know is coming, but also from the delusional but strong sense that ANYTHING can happen. The documentary style totally ignores traditional film grammar, requiring the audience to hunt through the tangle of unorganized, overlapping dialogue and action for meaning. There's a scene early on in Bloody Sunday in which Ivan Cooper, the Protestant MP who lead the non-violent civil rights march that sparked the confrontation, confers with a car full of IRA gunmen. Cooper tries to convince them to keep their guns away from the protest, the head gunman (it's probably supposed to be Martin McGinness) tells him "your marches aren't going to change anything." Cooper responds with the certainty of the righteous: "Watch us." It's the kind of moment that most movies would grind to a halt in order to emphasize. The camera would pull in for a tight close-up on Cooper's face, set in steely determination, as he said "Watch us." There would probably be some sort of orchestral sting, as well. Instead, Greengrass shoots the exchange from long distance, with Cooper's face obscured by the door of the car. If the viewer finds that particular bit of dialogue important, he has to work for it: just like in real life, moments of significance don't announce themselves while they happen. They occur in the same bustle of quotidian and hectic details that make up every moment of the day. They only take on significance in retrospect.

Anyway, this little encomium to Paul Greengrass is all an introduction to a bold idea I had today. In my review of Darjeeling Limited, I aired my suspicion that Wes Anderson might be reaching the limits of potential for his particular brand of upper class quirkfest. While Paul Greengrass' films are uniformily excellent, and the prospect of him doing a film about Iraq (adapting the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City) and Vietnam (adapting the book They Marched into Sunlight), according to imdb.com his next two projects, are both very exciting, there is a danger that he might get caught in a similar rut. Here's my bold idea: what if Wes Anderson were to direct Greengrass's script for, say They Marched into Sunlight while Greengrass directs Anderson's next script? Think about it: Wes Anderson trying to shoot an ambush of U.S. troops in Vietnam with pristine framing and meticulous set design while Paul Greengrass jittery-cameras his way through a quirky domestic dramedy. Such an experiement would take both directors out of their respective comfort zones and could result in utterly fresh approaches to the material.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What Does Hollywood Need? MORE REMAKES!

Yes, the recent herpes rash of pointless remakes that has plagued the American cineplex is a dispiriting development. Yes, the vast majority of these movies are mercenary attempts to cash in on the good will of a pre-existing "property." Still...hear me out on this....I think that there ARE movies that should be remade as soon as possible.

I recently watched the cult classic Roger Corman production Deathrace 2000, which, as advertised, is a sly, witty satire with giddy perverse bursts of violence. Unfortunately, it was made for approximately seventeen dollars, and it shows. Not only does the low budget reduce the impact of the action set pieces, it artificially limits the scope of the satire. At the start of the film, we get our only view of the futuristic dystopia of the year 2000: an insanely cheesy matte painting of Jetsons buildings. If somebody could get together fifteen or twenty million bucks for a remake that kept the central plot elements and expanded the film's universe, you'd be dealing with a real pisser. Plus, you could do real justice to the concept of tricked-out dune buggies intentionally running over the elderly.

Basically, the only time you should remake a movie is when the original version fucked up a great premise or screenplay through inept direction or a cripplingly low budget. Other candidates for potentially ass-kicking remakes:

George Romero's The Crazies

John Carpenter's They Live (of course, this will probably end up being the ONLY John Carpenter movie that DOESN'T get remade)

The shitty Jet Li movie The One and the shitty Jean Claude Van Damme movie Timecop for the same reason: both of these movies take a sci-fi premise with nearly unlimited possibilities, (parrallel universes and time travel, respectively) and completly wastes them. I mean, Timecop is about a cop who travels through time...and the vast majority of the film is spent in the amazingly foreign and exotic year of 1995!

Any other candidates for a jizz-blasting remake?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

American Gangster

This movie is essential a black Goodfellas if the foul-mouthed cops who busted Ray Liotta at the end were in half the movie instead of one scene. And if it were directed by middlebrow grinder Ridley Scott instead of cinematic genius Martin Scorsese. Other than that, the two films share a lot of characteristics. They both glory in horrible seventies fashions and the glamor and sudden violence of the gangster lifestlye. More substantatively, both films underscore the connection between the cuthroat world of organized crime and good old American capitalism. Both films are also about two and a half hours long. One of the bigger differences is that only American Gangster actually feels like it's two and a half hours long. I never complain about movie lengths, but man does the middle of this fucker DRAG. The movie never really builds any kind of momentum. Still, there are few things cooler in film than when Denzel Washington plays a bad guy, and there are some really nice bits here and there, but it just doesn't add up to much beyond a well crafted gangster film that bites off a bit more than it can chew. It's too bad, because American Gangster is clearly aiming for epic sweep: it's an attempt to encapsulate the urban decay and endemic political and social corruption of the Vietnam war era, but the techiniques used are clumsy and ineffectual. The most egregious of these is the repeated use of one of the worst tropes in the filmic canon: the Amazing Expository Televison! Instead of weaving the political realities of the late sixties and early seventies into the film and its characters, whenever Scott wants to give a shot of poltical context, he shows his characters watching television, which is always convienently tuned to a news report on the situation in Vietnam, the urban drug epidemic, etc.

Score: 7.7

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Saw IV

The things you do for love.

Score: 2.0

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Gone, Baby, Gone

The best part of Dennis Lehane's detective novels, of which, Gone, Baby, Gone is the most heart-wrenching, is that they deal directly with moral questions, and refuse to offer satisfying answers. Characters make tough choices, and live with the consequences, never knowing if they've done the right thing and content to just be able to sleep at night. The best part of Ben Affleck's directorial debut in the film adaptation of Gone Baby Gone is that he keeps that sense of ambiguity and moral confusion intact. The other thing that Affleck's adaptation has to recommend it is a deeply felt sense of place. One of the main characters in this story, and in Lehane's work in general, is the working class neighborhood of Dorchester. Affleck does a much better job of conveying the sights, sounds and people of that location than Clint Eastwood's critically acclaimed Lehane adaptation Mystic River. River, like most of Eastwood's movies, felt like it was filmed in a coffin, not a real place. Affleck trains his camera on the rugged faces of the Boston white working class, paying special attention to the kinds of manly rituals that define social relationships in that kind of environment. One thing that blunted my enjoyment of the film is the fact that the wrenching moral quandaries at the heart of it were already familiar to me from the book. Also, some people have complained that the plot machinations in the middle of the film are less-than-clear, and I don't feel that I can honestly evaluate them having read the book. My only real complaint about the movie is that Bubba Rogowski, a larger-than-life mad dog behemoth who looms large in all of Lehane's novels, who is practically a mythic figure in that world, is reduced in the film to a fat reject from the White Rapper Show.

Score: 8.4

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

All of the things that make Wes Anderson films interesting, as well as predictable, are here in abundance, but with more 90 degree pans and more Indians. The one significant thematic difference between this film and Anderson's earlier work is that the "father" part of father/son dynamic that dominates the character interaction has been dead for a year. His three sons, played by Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody, take a "spiritual" trip to India to hash out their feelings. Along the way there are hijinx, terse exchanges, furtive romances, and sudden explosions of violence, all of it culminating in a moment of catharsis that set off a tuning fork in my heart, even though I should have known better.

Even with Anderson working at the top of his game behind the camera, and even with me being a huge sucker for what he tots around in his bag of tricks, The Darjeeling Limited failed to resonant fully. I think that a large part of the problem is that Anderson's characters are so closed-off and withholding that the film relys on visual metaphors to do the heavy lifting of depicting character development. In those moments the artifice of the film is revealed: you can see the wires, as it were, and it reminds you that the characters are really just puppets.

Still, there are sequences from the film that resonate deeply, and it contains some of Anderson's most assured, captivating visual filmmaking, and the "exotic" setting adds both a sense of novelty and some great opportunities for satire at the expense of the brothers, who think that they can buy "spirituality" in India as easily as bootleg shoes in a bazaar. More than anything else, though, The Darjeeling Limited left me wondering what Wes Anderson could do if he chose to move out of his self-constructed, Salinger-esque cinematic ghetto. What if, instead of documenting rich kids dealing with their asshole parents, he depicted spaceship pilots dealing with giant alien robots? It could be really cool: I'm sure he could work in a Kinks song somehow.

Score: 8.1

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Into the Wild

I'll put it right out there at the jump: this movie made me cry. Not the slight welling around the eyes, the single trickling tear that sometimes blindsides me while watching a Pixar film, I'm talking about full on, wrenching sobs. Just like the last film that did this to me, Children of Men, I thought I'd been relatively unaffected during the actual movie....it was during the end credits that the enormity of the thing crashed into me. It's not just that the fate of Chris "Alexander Supertramp" McCandless is devastating to behold and tragic. Director Sean Penn creates a sense of identification with the character that makes you care deeply for his fate. What made the film so astoundingly effecting for me was that, after watching the film, the reality of the amount of LOVE in my life crackled through my body. While the movie deals with themes of alienation, self-mythology and the value of self-reliance, and while the visual grammar emphasis the enormity and majesty of nature, the most resonant themes of the film are all about the double-edged nature of human relationships. We let down those we love, and are let down by them in turn, we long to trust other people, and when that trust is abused, we build walls....walls that we pray will come down as soon as possible. Why? Because relationships are what give life meaning. And as the Eddie Vedder tunes played over the rolling credits to this painful, joyous, insightful film, I mourned Chris McCandless, and I celebrated the life that I have built, because of the love that I feel for others, and the love that they feel for me.

From a technical aspect, Into the Wild is nearly flawless: the only things I would have lost were the narration from Jena Malone, playing McCandless's sister, and the use of that damn song with the high-pitched male singer that gets used in every single movie (and commercial) about road tripping. In both cases, the choice is just a bit too on the nose: this movie, rendered in beautiful, subtle peformances and lyrical cinematography, doesn't need its themes underlined so blatantly.

Score: 9.4

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Eastern Promises

The second film of David Cronenberg's "Viggo Cycle,"* Eastern Promises has the same somber forboding and visceral, intimate blood-letting of its predecessor A History of Violence, but less of that movies thematic resonance. The glimpse of Russian mob life is rich and evocative, Viggo Mortensen is consistently intriguing, but at the end of the day, it feels like not much more than a competently executed genre piece. The classic Cronenbergian sense of bodily alienation seems muted, the attention of the film devoted more to a frankly superficial culture clash. Also, Naomi Watts, one of the best actresses around, is given precious little to do except look pensive and sweat the Morten-dong. Still, the bathhouse scene is truly not to be missed.

Score: 7.8

*"Viggo Cycle" is not the official name for David Cronenberg's most recent films: I made the name up, but it is super cool nonetheless

Monday, September 10, 2007

Wow, this is really going to be one hell of a fall, movie-wise.

Looking at the list of films coming out this fall, it recently dawned on me that we could be looking at one of the best end-of-year film release slates of all time. We've got the directors I love, like the Coens, both Andersons, Baumbach, Cronenberg, as well as guys that are highly regarded, but who generally leave me cold, like Gus Van Sant and Ang Lee. Most of the directors with films coming out this fall are new jack whipersnappers. The '70s "young hollywood" directors mostly don't have anything coming out, except for Brian DePalma (who's got a digital thing about Iraq coming out), and Francis Ford Coppola, who is threatening to inflict more of his late-career horseshit upon the unsuspecting public.

I've been thinking about this particular crop of filmmakers and what their ascencion to prominence in American film says about the medium and the culture at large. The one point that jumps out immediately when pondering these here directors compared to other generations of directors or directors from other parts of the world is the overwhelming, suffocating sense of irony that suffuses their work. The Coens and Wes Anderson are the most obvious offenders on this score, but it's almost impossible to think of a prominent American director from the past twenty years who hasn't blunted the emotional impact of their films with some kind of postmodern wink. It's understandable, and it actually doesn't diminish my enjoyment of many of these films, but it can get old, and it does establish some unnecessary boundaries on the work. That's what makes the Coens film and the P.T. Anderson film the two fall releases I'm most excited about seeing. The Coens are some of the most flagrant abusers of irony in American film history, but I can't hate on them for it because they are such singularly brilliant film stylists. It's going to be really interesting to see how the emotional detachment of the Coens gels with the stark immediacy of Cormac McCarthy. As for P.T. Anderson, his decision to adapt a novel by Upton Sinclair, whose complete lack of irony makes Cormac McCarthy look like Johnathan Lethem, is very intriguing. P.T.A. has always had the most 70s-esque sensibility of the current younger directors: much more willing to express raw emotions without the protective irony layer (well, he's no Darren Aronosfky, but who is?). I'm looking to see how Anderson assimilates Sinclair's bleedingly earnest political agenda with his own heart-on-the-sleeve approach to emotional content.

All I know for sure is that I'm going to watch a hell of a lot of movies in the next four months, and at the end of the year I hope to put together some sort of "state of American cinema"-type post based on my reaction to this bumper crop of potentially-awesome movies.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Fall Movie Antic-Boner Preview:

Films that give me a huge, painful purple thrombo:



No Country for Old Men: Coen Brothers + Cormac McCarthy = The least whimiscal Coen bros. movie since Miller's Crossing.



Darjeeling Limited: The new Wes Anderson movie. It's set in India. What else do you want from me?



There Will Be Blood: P.T. Anderson + Upton Sinclair = Andersonian angst with mustaches and leftist social critique.



Eastern Promises: David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen Part Two: From Russia with Hate.


American Gangster: Ridley Scott doesn't do much for me, but if a villanious Denzel Washington can win an Oscar for an Anton Fuqua film, he's probably going to blow the doors off of this bitch.


Margot at the Wedding: Noah Baumbach is back again with more bougie family dysfunction. You can't beat that.


Gone Baby Gone: Yes, it's directed by Ben Affleck, but it's based on my favorite novel by my favorite crime novelist, Dennis Lehane. If Affleck gives the material the rawness and atmosphere (not to mention agonizingly painful ending) of the book, this will be amazing.


There are some more films that might be good and that I will probably see: Michael Clayton, Sweeney Todd, all those "topical" war films (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, the Kingdom, Lambs for Lions, etc) not to mention a few promising comedies (mainly the Brothers Solomon), but the list above includes all of the films that I am BURSTING to see, and which will, as a result, probably all disappoint me horribly.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Superbad

I like to think that I have a pretty broad taste in comedy. At least, it seems to me that I find more things funny than most of my friends. My absolute favorite type of comedy is, essentially, the stuff that my friends and I say to each other. Whenever I see a credible representation of young-dudes-making-raunchy-fun-of-each-other comedy, I wet myself with joy, mostly because its so goddamn rare. This preference of mine largely explains my man-love for comedy producer Judd Apatow. His films, like 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up do that kind of comedy better than anyone else. And, with Superbad, Apatow (who only didn't even direct this one) has created the single most recognizable, poignant, and hilarious representation of young male cameraderie I have ever seen on screen.

The only real critique of the film I can muster is that the first twenty or so minutes, in which the two leads, Jonah Hill, fat, loud, sex-obsessed, all to the good, and Michael Cera, a stammering nebbish with impeccible comic timing, stalk the halls of their high school, are several degrees of magnitude funnier than the rest of the movie. The antics of the pair conform to the classic "Let's Get Laid" plot template, and the versimilitude suffers as a result. Still, because of those wacky antics, Superbad could be poised to become this generation's iconic coming-of-age movie. If it does, then this is a very lucky generation of horny young men: me and mine had to make due with the brain-dead antics of the American Pie troupe. You could fit the comedic chops of Chris Klein, Sean William Scott, Tera Reid, Mena Suvari, and that kid from Rookie of the Year inside one of Jonah Hill's ass cheeks.

Also, while watching this film, be on the look out for a scary, steroidal Krumholtz in one scene, and Down Syndrome Colin Meloy in the climactic party sequence.

Score: 9.2

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

WARNING! THIS HERE REVIEW INCLUDES THAT WHICH THE KIDS REFER TO AS "SPOILERS" DOCTORS HAVE CONFIRMED: IF YOU READ THIS REVIEW WITHOUT HAVING FIRST SEEN THE FILM, YOUR EYES WILL EXPLODE



The presidencies of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush have a lot in common. What with the illegally starting (or expanding) wars, the spying on and demonizing of domestic political opponents, the massive corruption and secrecy endemic to their respective regimes, they could have been long long twins, seperated by time and a hundred or so IQ points. It stands to reason that both administrations saw the flourishing of similar film genres. Much has been made of the renassaince in 70s-style horror films during the Bush years. Similarly, there has been a resurgence in paranoid political thrillers of the Parrallax View/3 Days of the Condor ilk. The best of this new breed (the Manchurian Candidate remake, Syriana), try to mix gripping action with trenchant political insight, and do a fair job. Manchurian delivers the tension, but the finale undermines the subversive politics. Syriana offers the most throughgoing leftist critique of American political structures to get a mainstream release, but lacks genuine thrills. And so it falls to Paul Greengrass to finally strike the perfect balance of relevance and ass-kicking with The Bourne Ultimatum, the best film of the trilogy, and easily the most penetrating.




On the "thriller" tip, Ultimatum delivers like Dominos, with kinetic chase scenes across London train stations, Morroccan rooftops, and New York streets, all filmed with your typical Greengrassian immediacy. The scene at Waterloo station is worth the price of admission. In this way, the third film follows in the tradition of the first two. What makes Ultimatum to a level not reached in the previous entries of the series is its striking use of allegory.


Bourne's quest throughout the trilogy has been to discover his identity: who he was before he became a government assassin, and who made him into one in the first place. The answer to the first question is, David Webb, U.S. Army Captain, formerly of Nixon, MO. The answer to the second question: David Webb, U.S. Army Captain, formerly of Nixon, MO. Bourne's amnesia leaves him alienated from the person he was. He is horrified at the idead that he is a murderer and assumes that some other must be responsible for his fate. The new, memory-erased Bourne can't square his image of himself with that of a cold-blooded killer, in league with ruthless black-bag artists like David Strathairn's CIA chief. Like many Americans who have woken up to find that their country is a torturer, an illegal occupier of foreign lands, and a right-s-trampling surveillence state, Bourne asks the question, "how did I get here?" Like Bourne, many of these same Americans have difficulty accepting their own responsibility for what has happened. Bourne's amnesia doubles for the historical amnesia that has defined American conciousness for generations. When a people have collectively failed to record vast chunks of their national history in order to maintain their sense of themselves as inhabitors of a righteous land, they are confounded and traumatized anew every time the knives come out. How are people who have blocked out the memories of slavery, Indian removal, Japanese internment, the overthrow of elected governments in Guatamala, Iran, Chile, Greece, etc, etc, and a decade-long holocaust in Southeast Asia supposed to make sense of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Haditha? These concerned citizens, previously untroubled in their collective ignorance, are as puzzled by their country as Bourne is by his prior bad acts, and just as eager to find someone else to blame it all on. That makes the ending of Ultimatum that much more effective: when Bourne discovers that he joined the Treadstone assassin program willingly, and, in fact, killed an unarmed and unknown man at point-blank range to prove himself worthy, it obliterates all of Bourne's previous appeals to vengeance and righteousness towards those who "made him" into a killer. Likewise, Americans must answer the challenge that our history represents, and must ask ourselves what forces inside each of us, and inside our collective nature, compell us to savagery.

Score: 9.0

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

I've been putting off writing this review for a while because I just can't really put into words the way The Simpsons Movie made me feel. As an animated comedy, it's pretty straight forward: there are solid chuckles throughout, the plot is coherent and lacking the lazy po-mo non sequiters of latter-era Simpsons episodes, and there are reasonably resonant emotional touches. My problem is explaining what seperates the servicable comedy of The Simpsons Movie with the deliriously amazing comedy of mid-90s Simpsons TV show episodes. What it comes down to is that, a week later, I can't remember a single joke from the movie that I laughed at. On the other hand, there are jokes from those Golden Era Simpsons episodes that are written on my brain with lightning. You can't really blame the movie for failing to be transcendently funny. I guess you just have the blame the second law of thermodynamics.

Score: 7.4

Monday, July 16, 2007

A post in which I reappraise a relatively minor film for no apparent reason.

Ever since he dropped the giant, steaming turd known as Lady in the Water into the collective maw of the American moviegoing public, M. Night Shaymalan has been getting curb-stomped by critics everywhere. Not only have they poured Haterade all over his latest film, but they're going back and pointing out the flaws in his previous films that were easier to overlook when they came out and Shaymalan's monumental, delusional egotism wasn't common knowledge.



Instead of doing that, I'm going to publically revise my take on one of Shaymalan's movies, and we can all thank the USA Network for the opportunity.



When talk turns to Shaymalan (and really, when doesn't it around my house?), I usually point out that only really like one of his movies, Signs. When people complain about the stupid plot of that movie, I want to kick them in the nuts. Did they not SEE the Brazilian birthday party scene? or the scene in the cornfield? or the false climax before the real, dumb climax? Anyway, I saw Sixth Sense after I knew about the twist, so I can't judge that one fairly, and I always contended that Unbreakable isn't very good because the ponderous tone doesn't fit the material. Well, the aformentioned USA Network has been showing Unbreakable a lot lately, and while rewatching it I noticed something that is just so brilliantly poignant and suggestive that I can't stop thinking about it. It's more than enough for me to radically upgrade Unbreakable from my previous rating of "failure" to "good, interesting movie."


Re-watching Unbreakable, it finally hit me that the central conceit of the film: an ordinary man slowly realizes that he has superpowers, carries a crushingly sad implication. Bruce Willis's character spent forty-some years of his life with superhuman strength, superhuman healing ability, and superhuman intution, AND HE NEVER NOTICED! That isn't implausible, as some critics of this film have claimed, it's a commentary on the stunted imagination and nonexistent self-esteem of Willis's character. The dude can bench press an unlimited amount of weight, but until Samuel L. Jackson and his own son put the idea in his head, he never even, in his life, attempted to lift more than 250 pounds. Subconsciously, he had placed artificial limits on his own potential, assuming that he would never be able to do anything extraordinary in his life, and subsequently wasting his gifts for years. It's a powerful metaphor for the way mediocre lives are lived.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Trailer Park: 1-18-08

As much fun as it was to watch Michael Bay redefine his own shittiness as a human being while watching Transformers, the most exciting thing about going to the theater that night was seeing the "1-18-08" trailer beforehand. It was, without a doubt, the best movie trailer I have ever seen. It left me with fifteen inches of rock-hard movie boner for the film in question, even though the trailer doesn't tell you what the hell it's about (and, even after scouring the infotainment superhighway, I still don't even know the title). If I had more interweb acumen, or was less of a lazy shit, I'd link to a youtube clip of said trailer, but instead, I'll try to spin a "word picture" for the benefit of my billions of readers.

The trailer is a hand held digital video, ostensibly taken at a going-away party for a twentysomething hipster in Manhattan. There's about thirty seconds of filmed revelry before the lights start flickering and thunderous blasts shake the building. The camera goes to the roof of the building, where it records flaming projectiles crashing into surrounding buildings, as well as the sound of something huge and terrifying. The partygoers, and the cameraman, eventually spill out onto the street, just in time to see the head of the Statue of Liberty crash in front of them.

Simply put, them shits is cool This trailer is a veritable catalogue of awesomeness: verite camera work, digital video, and apocalyptic calamity recorded from the ground level. Before the trailer even ended, I knew I was going to see this movie...but there was no title given. Unfortunately, this film is being produced by J.J. Abrams, the creator of Lost, who is basically a hybird of X-Files creator Chris Carter and Thirtysomething's Ed Zwick. I've never seen Lost, but from what I gather, it's an impenetrable web of mythology and horse manure slowly spread over dozens of hours of television. Abrams and his cronies are pulling the same sort of enigmatic hint-giving with this movie as they are with their television show. There's apparently a web site that only shows a different still frame from the trailer every day, as well as some ancillary sites which just might provide clues to what the hell the movie is about. I'm worried that it's all some viral marketing campaign for Lost or some new Abrams TV project. If that's not the case, there's a strong chance that the amazing footage in the trailer won't even be in whatever movie this turns out to be. I never played MYST and the puzzle-solving parts of Resident Evil get on my nerves, so I don't think I'll be fliting from website to website trying to find out the "secret" of this movie. I'll probably just wait until the supposed release date, January 18th of next year, and find out. It is interesting to read some of the early speculation about the project, including the theory that this movie is Abram's take on the C'thulu Mythos. That's an intriguing idea, but I don't think going all Godzilla on a national monument is really the Ancient Ones' style.

In any event, there are some web sites featuring cryptic missives that are rumored to be connected to the film, more goddamn viral marketing, if you will, but J.J. Abrams himself has recently stated to ainitcoolnews that the sites have nothing to do with the movie...but he might well be full of shit. Anyway, check it out for yourself: ethanhaas.org is a clearinghouse of goofery. This shit mostly gives me a headache, but it might provide distraction from the dreary lives of some of you drones.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Transformers

There are big, dumb action movies, and then there are Michael Bay action movies. Bay is evil incarnate to most serious cinephiles, as well he should be, but his films are still required viewing for any serious pop culture maven. That's not just because they tend to be blockbusters and become zeitgeist reference points, but because Bay's movies usually reach a pinnacle of delirious, audacious, almost zen stupidity that is absolutely riveting. As I stated in my review of Grindhouse, if I'm going to see some stupid, crazy shit, I want it to be as STUPID and as CRAZY as possible. Most of your generic action film directors, your Dominic Senas, your Antonie Fuquas, your Simon Wests, make big, stupid movies...but usually leave you with a sense of guilt and emptiness, like you wasted your time watching something that stupid and not even being seriously entertained. Michael Bay films usually aren't like that: you leave them shaking your head in wonder, a little giddy from the sheer, vertiginous extravagence on display, insulted by the director's clear lack of respect for your intelligence, but not feeling too much guilt. Bay movies are jaw dropping, and therefore entertaining, even though these "action movies" invariably feature awful action sequences, larded with gratitious slow motion, thunderously overbearing music, and frenetic editing that renders a lot of the action abstract. What makes Bay movies amazing to behold is the shit that Bay is compelled by unknown psychological motivations to include in between (and sometimes during) the joyless action scenes. And what makes Transformers so ass-kickingly fun to watch is that it is THE ur-text of the Michael Bay film. Every crazy, idiosyncratic Bay-ism that inevitable leave a viewer scratching his head is in evdience, and in more concentrated, ludicrious proportions than in any other Michael Bay film. Let's run down some of the hallmarks of the Bay oeuvre and point out how Transformers represents the Platonic ideal of each.

1. Lazy and/or ridiculous plotting. Sure, every Michael Bay movie has a stupid plot (even Pearl Harbor, based on a rather well known historical event, managed to shoe-horn in some stupid-ass shit), but Transformers reaches a height heretofore unknown by man before the opening credits have even started. Optimus Prime, in voiceover, opens the film with the line: "Before time began, there was... the cube. We know not where it comes from, only that it holds the power to create worlds and fill them... with life. That is how our race was born." This isn't just stupid and lazy, this is violently, confrontationally stupid and lazy. It drips with contempt for the audience. From the jump, the filmmakers are saying "Hey, all you pituitary retards who shelled out ten bucks a pop to watch computer generated robots beat each other up, if you're too goddamn stupid to display any taste when it comes to moviegoing, why the fuck should we expend any effort setting up a plausible, interesting or fleshed out rationale for this glorified car commercial? You want to see the big toys go boom, do you really care why they're going to go boom? I didn't think so. This shit with the eternal life cube is good enough for the likes of you." I admired the balls (or apathy) of this gambit, and it sent the message right from the start that this is a movie you should feel free to talk during. It also represents the most egregiously sloppy plot device in the Michael Bay canon.

2. Hysterical, screaming black people. Hey, white suburban teen with disposable income! Don't you remember how hilarious that hysterical, screaming black trolley car driver in The Rock was? How about the hysterical, screaming black hobo at the beginning of Armageddon? Well, if you liked those comical nubians, you'll LOVE Bernie Mac screaming hysterically, Anthony Anderson screaming hysterically, Anthony Anderson's cousin screaming hysterically, and, to top it off, Anthony Anderson's big momma screaming hysterically in Transformers. That's FOUR TIMES the hysterical, screaming black people as the usual Michael Bay movie, and that's not even counting the antics of Autobot Jazz, who speaks in circa-1996 ebonics, breakdances, and generally behaves like a CGI Al Jolson.

3. Product Placing. Obviously, this one isn't really a contest. Every a shot of one of the transformers in car form should have been accompanied by a small print disclaimer at the bottom of the screen: "Some features, like AC, satelliete radio, and turning-into-a-giant-robot, are not standard." I was wrong in the above entry, this isn't a glorified car commerical, it's just a car commerical.

4. Shots of people entering and exiting military vehicles in slow motion, accompanied by bombastic muscial cues. Once again, it's a blowout. I wonder how many hours of footage of Jon Voight stumbling out of a helicopter unjustly ended up on the cutting room floor.

5. Non Sequiter speeches about the importance of fighting for freedom. Sure, that oration by the president in Armageddon is an all-time great moment in mindless jingoism. A meteor was going to destroy earth: what the fuck does that have to do with defending American liberty? I will maintain that the dumb-ass freedom speech in Transformers is still dumber and a purer expression of the Michael Bay mindset. Sure, it's only a few lines long, but those lines are spoken by a GIANT INTERGALACTIC TRANSFORMING ROBOT! Case fucking closed.

So, all in all, Transformers features more concentrated Bay-ness per square foot of film than any other movie in history, and the result leaves you feeling drained, headachy, but absolutely entertained...although the less said about the ungodly bad rose garden scene, the better.


Score: 7.3

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

I used to be kind of ashamed that I liked these movies so much. I mean, they really are flimsy excuses for a bunch of Hollywood assholes to dick around Vegas. But after watching Ocean's Thirteen, I can proudly say: I like this shit. If you don't, go eat a dick.

I'm a big fan of the insanely obtuse, dirt cheap throw-offs that Steven Soderbergh grinds out between Oceans installments (though I haven't seen Bubble yet, The Limey and, especially Full Frontal are underrated gems), but I'm also a big fan of the big, dumb commercial films that fund the artsy stuff. What makes these films so cool is that Soderbergh doesn't commericalize his visual style just because he's directing a summer blockbuster. Ocean's Thirteen looks amazing, with an aggressively oversaturated color pallet that gives the film a 1970s vintage feel. Soderbergh never lets the viewer get too comfortable with camera movements, either. He'll go from a long, slow elegant pan across a casino floor to queasy, Bourne-style hand held stuff to old-school Thomas Crown Affair-esque split screens, all in the service of a steel-trap caper plot that steels a few gags from the first two movies, but throws enough curveballs to keep the proceedings interesting. Another neat feature of these movies is that the people involved, swinging dick, gold-plated movie stars like Clooney and Pitt as well as an Oscar-winning director like Soderbergh have the confidence in their charisma and ability to hold an audience that they're willing to let the film slow to a crawl several times in the service of the sort of subtle but priceless interplay that is totally absent from most summer films. The makers of most other would-be blockbusters are so worried about ENTERTAINING with every frame that they're not willing to risk losing momentum.

Score: 7.8

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Knocked Up

This was, hands down, the film I was most looking forward to this summer. It didn't quite live up to expectations, but that would have been almost impossible.

Knocked Up isn't as funny as director and all-around comedy God Judd Apatow's first film, The 40 Year Old Virgin, but it's probably a better film. The dumb-friends-hanging-around moments in KU are fewer, farther between, and less memorable than those in 40YOV (there's nothing like the "you know how I know you're gay?" scene, for example), but the inevitable Apatow stab at relevance is more pointed in this one. The struggles and terrors of dealing with commitment and children are explicated vividly, to an almost squirm-inducing degree. There are a few canned moments of standard issue romantic comedy plotting and emotional beats (the whole idea that the hot young professional woman would keep her one-night-stand baby in the first place), but they're outnumbered by the moments that hit home. Frustratingly, though, Apatow, like pretty much every other successful purveyor of comedy in American film, is unable to successfully meld the comedy in the film, which is mostly the result of slack, improvisational hang-out scenes, with the emotionally truthful plot points and encounters. The plot is just an excuse to produce gags, until it isn't, at which point it gets poignant, but stops being funny. I think the best way to watch this movie will be on the special edition DVD, where all the serrated relationship observations will stand, as well as a good five hours of deleated "stoners insulting each other" footage. It will definitely be the DVD I'll most be looking forward to this fall.

Two miscellaneous points:

1. While Kathrine Heigl is incredibly hot, she is not very good in this movie: her entire performance is pitched at a level of near-hysteria...even before she gets impregnated by goofy furball Seth Rogen.

2. My Paul Rudd mancrush officially knows no bounds. I would literally watch Paul Rudd eat a sandwich and read the newspaper, then take a shit, do a few miles on the treadmill, then watch an episode of Maury Povich. He's fucking hilarious.

Score: 8.0

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Finally, our long national nightmare is over. This Pirates shit is over with.

For now, anyway.


For all the talk about how confusing this movie is, you can follow the plot if you make sure to listen carefully to every gutteral utterance by every tiertiary character in the goddamn thing. The real problem is that all the backstory and mythology that pops up out of nowhere in this, the third movie in the trilogy, is introduced in a string of awkward, leaden expository dialogues that make keeping up a chore that offers no real rewards. Even if you understand the plot, who cares? The stakes of the plot are so hazy (the evil British guy wants to rid the seas of piracy...and that's a bad thing?) that it's impossible to muster any interest. As for the characters, well, if any of the actors asked director Gore Verbinski what their motivation was in a given scene, he probably answered "Fuck if I know, dude." The characters shift allegiences at the drop of a hat and for muddy reasons (Johnny Depp wants to be immortal, Orlando Bloom wants to save his father, Keira Knightley wants to save piracy...until they don't anymore, of course) and you just want to say to the screen: "who gives a shit, blow something up already." And, indeed, when they finally do blow shit up, it's pretty cool.

The weirdest part of the movie is that it is objectively pro-piracy. Keira Knightley gives a big Braveheart speech to all the pirates near the end about how they were fighting for their freedom...persumably their freedom to steal shit from people after shooting them with canons. What with the bad guys being representatives of the East India Company, there's a possible anti-capitalist subtext at play here. The pirates talk alot about their "code" and their "honor," and as anyone who has read his Marx knows, capitalism is the ultimate destroyer of tradition: there is no "code of honor" in a capitalist system, only profit rules. However, there could be a Libertarian gloss to this, as well, since the East India Company wasn't an independent corporation, but rather a franchise of the British government. None of this is intentional, of coures, it's just the inevitable byproduct of making a series of films based on a theme park ride about pirates.

Whether inspired by Emma Goldman or Ayn Rand, At World's End is the film equivilent of doing your taxes: long, aggravating, and confusing, but it leaves you with a sense of accomplishment when you finally finish it.



Score: 6.0


Also, I saw the first full-length trailer for the Transformers live action movie and may I say: goddamn you, Michael Bay, for making me want to see this thing.

Friday, May 18, 2007

28 Weeks Later

He on a Rampage!





28 Days Later is a rarity: a horror film with indie cred. Part of it was the involvement of the Trainspotting creative team of Danny Boyle and Alex Garland, part of it was the grimy digital video, and part of it was just the fact that it was British, and therefore cool. The fact that the movie sustains a sense of nerve-racking suspense from start to finish sure doesn't hurt.



The sequel that was released on May 11, 28 Weeks Later, is just begging for a smackdown. Not only does it fail to feature any of the actors from the original, but neither Boyle or Garland are driving forces behind the camera. In fact, the credits list four screenwriters, and the directore, Spaniard Juan Carlos Fresnadilo, is essentially a hired gun on the project. This all spells shit-burger, but instead, 28 Weeks Later singlehandedly justifies the very idea of the film sequel.

Most Hollywood sequels follow a simple rule: more of the same, but bigger. 28 Weeks Later, on the other hand, is committed to expanding the rage-virus concept that made the first movie such a goddamn tease. Because it was such an "indie" guerrilla affair, 28 Days Later started when most of the people in England were already dead or Rage-ified. It's understandable: they didn't have the budget to shoot hordes of panicked Londoners at Paddington Station getting chomped by zombies. As a result, for all the kick-assery of 28 Days Later, the movie is essentially a tease. A suspenseful, scary, wildly entertaining tease, but a tease nonetheless. This here sequel is the thick, gooey money shot. Screaming crowds getting zombified, army dudes unloading machine guns into hordes of zombies, city blocks get leveled to destroy the infection, and there's a helicopter-zombie scene that outdoes a similiar scene in Grindhouse by several magnitudes of awesomeness. Also, the film is a far more pointed political commentary than the first one was. For all the talk about the "relevence" of Days, there really isn't that much of a political subtext, just a zeitgeist-capturing focus on anxiety related to disease and terrorism. Weeks, though, offers a consistent and well-developed allegory for the Iraq war.

In a stunning abdication of my responsibilities as a critic, I'm going to cite some jag-off from imdb.com for the following analogy: 28 Days Later: Alien::28 Weeks Later:Aliens

Score: 8.7

Monday, May 07, 2007

Spider Man 3

I've not been a huge fan of the Spider Man series. They get a lot of critical notice because they spend more time than any other comic book franchise developing characters. The problem, from my view, is that a lot of that character development comes about through the deployment of cheesy dialogue and mooney, ridiculously broad scenes of emotional catharsis. In this way, Spider Man 3 is pretty much exactly like its predecessors. But, this one is getting hammered by critics. The dialogue is of the same vintage, the relationships have the same semi-hysterical pitch they always have, but what's causing such a backlash is that Spider Man 3 suffers from a wicked case of Villian Creep. Too many goddamn bad guys sharing too little screen time in between the Mary Jane/Peter Parker melodrama. When you're concentrating all of your villianious coolness of a single bad guy, be it a Green Goblin or a Dr. Octopus, that melodrama is forgivable, because it serves a tightly constructed plot. In Spider Man 3, Harry Osborne, Venom and the stupid, goddamn Sandman rub uncomfortably against one another, with Venom criminally underused. I really think that the downfall of the movie is presence of Sandman, also known as Flint Marko, which is one of the porn-iest names in all of comics (and there's a whole lot of competition). Sandman looks cool, but his relationship with Spider Man is non-existent, which is kind of crazy considering the fact that he KILLED UNCLE BEN!* All he does is take vital screen time from Venom, who makes what amounts to a cameo before being dispatched. Get rid of Sandman, significantly shorten the "Bad Spidey" sequence, get that fucking symbiote onto Eddie Brock before the first hour of the movie is over, and maybe you've got something.

Score: 6.5

*also, raped Aunt Jemima

Monday, April 30, 2007

DVD Roundup: Smokin' Aces

I wanted to see this because it contains one of my all-time favorit action film conceits: a bunch of different hitmen trying to kill the same guy at the same time. Much like one of my other all-time favorite films conceits: the zombie apocalypse, it hasn't really been nailed to my satisfaction in any movie yet. Smokin' Aces comes as close as any movie yet has to scratching my "hitman orgy" itch. It's got a relatively interesting and disparate group of killers, it does a pretty good job of ratcheting up the tension as more and more killers converge on the Lake Tahoe penthouse of mob magician Jeremy Piven, and there's some sick-ass gun play, including a sequence with a Barret .50 caliber sniper rifle that convinced me that every single film ever made could be improved by the addition of a Barret .50 caliber sniper rifle blowing people away. What's wrong with the movie isn't that its a mindless gun-fest, it's that the movie tries too hard to be more than a mindless gun-fest. Writer-director Joe Carnahan, who was hailed as a neo-noir auteur of note after his debut film Narc, seems to think that he has to justify the blood and spent shell casings with pathos and plot twists. Movies like this are why we need to resurrect the Grindhouse spirit: since there are technically no more "B" movies that make it to theaters anymore, everybody feels the need to make sure their films reach a minimum standard of "film quality." Too bad the "quality" elements are inevitably clunky and lame and just end up highlighting the movies' general lack of quality. If you cut out that shit and focus on making the gunfights as ludicriously over-the-top as possible (how about the hitmen all start shootiing at each other in the middle of a convention center full of Shriners?--it is Tahoe, after all--), you'll have a movie that is truly memorable and truly kickass instead of a monument to partially-realized awesomeness.

Score: 7.0

DVD Roundup: The Last King of Scotland

The consensus view of this one is: Forest Whitaker is awesome, the rest of the movie is mediocre. I disagree. Forest Whitaker is awesome, and the rest of the movie is infuriating, awful horseshit. The propensity of films about Africa to end up starring white people is a long-time annoyance to me, and this movie is the absolute most egregious case I've ever seen. The reign of Idi Amin is just not compelling on its own merits, it only gains relevance if it is observed by a white protagonist whose character arc is the most important thing happening on the screen at any given moment. It's bad enough that the main character is a white hanger-on, and that the tragedy of Amin's rule is considered less momentous than this white dude's angst, but the white dude in question is a callow dickhead, who never even evolves much. And to top it off, when the white guy is in danger of being killed at the end, a noble, selfless, and utterly one dimensional black character steps forward to trade his life for the white guys' life. "Why are you doing this?" asks the white guy. "I don't know" is all that the black martyr can manage. The real answer is: because the script demands that this asshole live, because his pain is the only pain that matters and his half-assed 'journey' is the only character development that matters.

Score: 5.0

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Vacany

Vacany is proof that you can make a horror film that is genuinely scary, doesn't rely on prolonged torture scenes, and isn't a remake of a 70s-era American/90s-00s-era Japanese flick. Director Nimrod Antal (I know, it's an awesome name) successfully mines the "snuff film" notion for a lot of creeps and jolts, which are made even more effective by the deployment of significantly more character depth than is usually found in horror movies. He does this by having the sack to use precious minutes of this tight and economical 80 minute film on wordless moments between estranged couple Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale. The film even manages to throw in a few narrative cureballs that subvert your genre expectations. This is the rarest of creatures: a horror film you can rent for an evening and not have to worry about having your intelligence insulted or force yourself to enjoy the movie "ironically."

Score: 7.5

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Hot Fuzz

I'm just going to come right out and say it: the Wright/Pegg/Frost filmmaking combination behind Shaun of the Dead and the new and kick-ass Hot Fuzz are the finest practictioners of film comedy currently working. Now, that's not to say that they make the funniest comedies around (though they're definitely in the top tier humor-wise), but that they make the most well-rounded comedy films around. Most American comedies are unfunny, disjointed dreck. The few humor-wizards with plus five mirth-making ability, such as Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow (40 Year Old Virgin, the upcoming and incredibly hilarious looking Knocked Up) are great at bringing in the funny, but that's generally all they're great at. Plot, character development and camera work generally take a back seat to comic hijinx. That's why even the funniest American comedies rely on genre conventions that arrive with prefabricated plot points, like "dude on quest to get laid," "dude on quest to reunite with girlfriend" and "sports dude." In these movies, the plot is merely a spine on which to lard long scenes of improvised tomfoolery and scenes like the climactic car race in Talladegga Nights, for example, exist merely to wrap up the necessary but unenthusicatically pursued plot arc and don't connect to the comedic themes of the rest of the movie (assuming there is anything connecting the randomn silliness enough to call it a "theme").

What makes the Wright/Pegg/Frost combo so exciting and so awesome is that these comedic masterminds make complete comedies in which the plot, characters and cinematography all work together to reenforce the film's concept. This was true of the brilliant, hilarious, and brilliantly hilarious 2004 ass-kicker Shaun of the Dead, and it's even more true of the recently released and cream-dreamy action comedy Hot Fuzz. Hot Fuzz isn't a parody in the broad, literal sense of shit-sickles like Epic Movie, but rather a total immersion experience in the filmmaking tropes, character interactions, dialogue and plot devices of the American meat-head action movie. It makes the experience of watching the movie more rewarding, the jokes are richer, and when you get a sly verbal or visual reference, it makes you smile as much for it's unexpected cleverness as for the intrinsic humor. You leave the movie humming with appreciation for movie-makers who respect the material they're riffing on enough to do it justice with a fully-realized tribute, rather than a string of disconnected, if funny, gags.

Score: 9.2

Monday, April 16, 2007

Seriously, America, you suck.



























So Grindhouse, the most face-meltingly awesome theatrical film experience of the decade, is released to a collective huh? by the slack-jawed numb-nutses of our great nation, collecting less than twenty million dollars in two weeks, meanwhile a teeny-bopper rip off of Rear Window makes more than that in its first weekend. Normally, I don't give two shits about box office receipts, but Tarantino and Rodriguez have publically stated that a positive reception of Grindhouse would lead to more double-features in the future. Instead, a bunch of theaters are de-coupling Planet Terror and Death Proof, reducing the awesomeness factor of both films by a solid 75% in the process and pretty much guaranteeing that Grindhouse will go down as a failed experiment thanks to the teeming legions of dullards who shuffle, herd-like to the cinema each weekend.
Eat a dick, America.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Grindhouse

Simply put: if this movie had a dick, I'd let it fuck me in the ass.

Seriously, Grindhouse is an jaw-dropping, face-melting, ball-draining, colon-cleansing festival of ass-kickery. Watching this movie in a theater full of usually-jaded hipsters in the middle of the night and being completely transported and riveted and to feed off the electric current of an audience collectively digging something to a transcendant degree was a once in a lifetime moment. It resurrected the idea of a moviegoing experience in a way that was almost spiritual. Goddamn, man, just great, great shit. Awesome.

On a semi-coherent note, I was originally bummed when I found out that Planet Terror was the first half of the double bill because that was the movie I was more excited about seeing, but after actually watching the movies, I realize that the pacing and order were perfect. Planet Terror is a pure grindhouse sleaze-fest and it goes from zero to one hundred and fifty in about two seconds, then doesn't let up on the pedal for ninety minutes. By the time it's finished, your head is swimming and any more outrageousness would fall victim to the law of diminishing returns. So, when Death Proof kicks off with a good twenty minute "people sitting around talking in circles interspersed with shots of women's feet" Tarantino special, it gives you a chance to catch your breath and build tension, so that when the car crashes and car chases and nail biting action start, they have a potent cumulative effect. If Death Proof came first, it would totally kill your buzz. Instead, the talky parts serve as a sort of sorbet between the awesomeness and make the ending, which is pulse-pounding and hilarious and cheer-worthy in its own right, even more exhilerating due to the catharsis involved. Death Proof isn't the commited similacrum of grindhouse cinema that Planet Terror is, but that ends up working in favor of the whole project: two balls-to-the-wall splatterfests would be too much to take one right after the other. By slowing things down, Tarantino makes Rodriguez's film all the more memorably cool, and makes the ending of his own movie even more of a punch in the chest.

So, to sum up: awesome.

Score: 10

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Children of Fast Food Nelson





The cattle huddle in vast pens, pressed fast against one another, thousands to the acre, fed anti-biotics and cow blood, expelling fifty pounds of solid and liquid waste a day into local waterways, until the grim moment arrives and they are led, one by one, up the wooden gangplank and onto the kill floor. Workers there stand by to fire metal bolts into the base of the cow’s neck. The animal writhes through its death throes on the grated floor before being lifted by its haunches and suspended on a conveyor line, where its head is removed, its organs are pulled out and its skin is mechanically torn away from its body by chains. The prime cuts are separated from the rest, and the rest is fed into a meat grinder, pressed into paddies that are flash frozen, shipped to restaurants across the country, and wolfed down by a cross section of Americans.


This is the literal machinery of the fast food industry, the conveyor belts and bolt guns and grinders and rotating blades, and it is revealed to queasy effect in the climactic scene of Richard Linklater’s film Fast Food Nation. The scene is gross and disturbing, but by no means is it the most disturbing thing in the movie. Fast Food Nation’s real accomplishment is laying bear the machinery of American corporate capitalism that grinds up people as surely as it does cows. People like the illegal immigrants who literally risk life and limb to butcher cattle at the meatpacking plants, the underpaid teens who man this great nation’s fry-o-lators, the customers blithely shoveling poison down their throats; it’s a machine that has nothing to do with burgers and everything to do with extracting maximum profit from every living thing on the planet. This machine’s effects are everywhere: from the fetid shit lakes of factory farm run-off to the sterile miles of homogenized suburban real estate where big box retailers and chain restaurants reproduce at a frenzied rate. Fast food is only a small cog in the mighty engine of profit, but the complete and irredeemable venality of the industry makes it symbolically poignant: the system is inhumane to the animals it slaughters, it fills rivers and lakes with raw animal sewage, it exploits and endangers workers, it turns the lived environment into a joyless procession of identical, florescent-lit nightmares of Formica, and the final product, the point of all this, is a so-called food that leaves its consumers fat, sick and malnourished. The only thing of value produced by this system is corporate profit. Except for shareholders, there are no winners in this industry. It’s that logic, the supremacy of profit over any human considerations, that fuels the machine.


Linklater’s film is an extended critique of capitalism, showing at every turn where individual agency is undermined by the expediencies of the market. Illegal immigrants, student radicals, even top level executives at the fast food companies themselves are essentially powerless to successfully stop or even slow the workings of the machine. The film’s diagnosis is sobering: the logic of capitalism is so deeply internalized, invisibly governs so many of our day to day decisions, that we are basically slaves to it. Our degree of personal autonomy varies depending upon the rung we occupy on the economic ladder, but as individuals we are all destined to live in the same rationalized, mechanized universe. This sense of futility is best symbolized in a scene of young environmentalists cutting through fences in an attempt to liberate future burgers from captivity. The cows don’t move.


Fast Food Nation was released with little fanfare and little commercial or critical notice last year, and that makes sense: it’s not only a bracing indictment of capitalism, it’s a basically hopeless one. The film’s failure is a shame, because the world it paints for its audience is a reflection of the gray assembly line world we inhabit, and the film provides a prism through which to view two other 2006 releases, Half Nelson and Children of Men. Both of these films seem to be reacting to the hopelessness of Fast Food Nation and the questions it raises.


Berkley Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio made a moving speech about the necessity of resistance to the machinery of war and capitalism in 1969. He said “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!" High school history teacher Ryan Gosling shows his inner city students a clip of this quote about halfway through the film Half Nelson and, afterwards, asks them what Savio means by “the machine.” He’s trying to get the students to being the process of questioning and resisting authority. It doesn’t take long in this Socratic dialogue for one of Gosling’s students to point out that, as a white, male representative of the public school system and, by extension, the government, Gosling himself is part of the machine. With a smile, he reminds the students that, since they’re in the school, they’re part of the machine, too.


So the teacher wants to inspire his charges to the necessity of struggle against corrupt authority…except that he is one of the signal representatives of authority in their lives, and he only gets to teach them at all because of the coercive power of the state. It’s enough to make a motherfucker start smoking some crack. And so, Gosling does some a whole bunch of crack in Half Nelson, and while the galaxy of demons that drive him to do this are not fully explained, chief among them is the daily, gut-churning frustration of wanting to lay himself against the gears of a system that has no machinery, that ticks away serenely inside the mind of every person in the country, including those most committed to its destruction. The machine that Richard Linklater deconstructs in Fast Food Nation is the same one that drives Ryan Gosling into despairing drug use in Half Nelson, which ends with a marked sense of ambiguity, the question left hanging: ‘what’s going to become of this guy? ‘ Will he flame out in a blaze of self destruction, will he eventually make peace with the acts of personal good that he can accomplish in life, or, worst of all, will be stop caring completely and content himself with getting on to get along.


When the audience is introduced to Theo Faron, the character played by Clive Owen in Children of Men, he has opted for door number three: slouching through a life of cheap cynicism and bureaucratic drudgery after giving up his youthful activism. He has glimpsed the mighty power of the invisible machine and resigned himself to the petty pleasures of the day-to-day. In effect, his relationship to the system is identical to that of the vast majority of Americans (myself included). Alfonso Cuaron’s film takes a science fiction trope, it’s set in the year 2027, eighteen years after the last baby was born, to illustrate the extent to which we in the first world are able to numb ourselves to the brutalities and injustices of the machine. The fast-motion social destabilization caused by the immanent extinction of the human race has brought the “conquest abroad and repression at home” that anthropologist Stanley Diamond once said characterize civilization out of the shadows and into the daylight of a first world capital. Many of us who despair of the present system comfort ourselves with the thought that widespread complacency with capital and imperial exploitation arise from ignorance (“If only people knew what was going on!”) Children of Men disrupts that notion by showing us a character, Theo, who fought in the street against the authorities in the pre-crisis era, and who now strolls blithely through train stations lined with cages filled with weeping refugees and guarded by German shepherds and gun-toting cops. The commitment to change that drove Theo to struggle with every breath against a system that kept its violence invisible to his class, race and sex, has been demoralized by an endless string of defeats and personal tragedy. Now, he acquiesces to a society where the machinery of oppression is naked and in the streets of London. Theo is, essentially, Ryan Gosling’s character in twenty years or so: dried up and deracinated by the sheer invulnerability of the machine to the will of well intentioned individuals.


What makes Children of Men unique among the 2006 films that dealt with the social and psychological consequences of capitalist machinery is that it is a narrative of resurgent hope, rather than futility. The hope of Children of Men arises from its focus on the human capacity for empathy, and the attendant flowering of conscience. No amount of cynicism or bitter experience of defeat can deter someone motivated by a connection with another human being. And so, you have the main cause of my mini-breakdown upon viewing Children of Men: a creeping suspicion that I am not capable of the sort of boundless humanism that motivates people to rise above the seeming hopelessness of the system to devote themselves to ending it, and a lead-pipe certainty that I would keep living a life of petty day-to-day pleasures. Maybe I should start smoking crack.

Blades of Glory

Will Ferrell movies are the cinematic equivalent of a 1992 Toyota Carrolla: blunt, inelegant, but it gets you there. Blades of Glory, like Anchorman and Talladegga Nights before it, is a shapeless, largely random and sloppy comedy based around a distinct, easily riff-able mileau: in this case, it's figure skating. Like those films, it's pretty damn funny, largely because of Ferrell's committment to his goofy-ass character, and a lot of well-deployed spandex.

Score: 7.5

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Host

This movie is being called the asian Jaws, but that doesn't seem very accurate to me. For one thing, water-based monster hijinx are relatively few and far between. Most of the action takes place on land, including an absolutely stunning daylight attack by the titular amphibious monster that is unlike any scene in a horror film I've yet encountered: a bold and resoundingly successful choice. There's a nice mix of suspense and humor, with a touch too much melodrama (someone needs to let asian filmmakers know that the film score doesn't have to swell to unbearable crescendos of pathos every time a character picks his nose). Also, a nice patina of anti-Americanism, which I always find welcome (no, I'm not being sarcastic: there is a startingly dearth of anti-Americanism in world cinema these days. Everybody on the planet deservedly hates us, but you wouldn't tell it from the movies that they make. Step up your game, foreigners!)

Score: 7.4

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

DVD Roundup: Stranger than Fiction

A sweet and pretty funny minor key film. Call it Charlie Kaufmann-lite. My biggest concern is the fact that the supposedly awesome, fantastic novel that Will Ferrell is the protagonist of doesn't seem to be that good.

Score: 7.2

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Mathematical Movie Review

Triumph of the Will + God of War on Playstation 3 * The Tony Curtis and Lawrence Olivier scene from Spartacus / The messageboards at FreeRepublic.com = 300


Score: 7.0

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

DVD Roundup: Half Nelson

I have to admit, I was bummed about the lack of suplex action in this one.

This is a decidely small film, but it's so well observed and devoted to a sense of reality that it's slightness becomes an asset. Especially in the way that the central relationship between Ryan Gosling's crack smoking history teacher and preteen student Shareeka Epps avoids the cliches of the teacher film genre. In some ways, their interaction follows the traditional arc: the student is engaged by an unconventional teacher, they reach out to each other and give each other strength, etc. But this narrative arc is muddled by the characters' wholey realistic and often painful failure to articulate their thoughts and feelings or to break out of self-destructive behavior patterns. The ending is also refreshingly ambigious. One of the reasons that Gosling's character is such a mess is that he is can't bear his inability to effect meaningful change in the world, and by the end of the movie, you have no idea if he will come to terms with his place in life or burn to chinders. Epps' is on the razors edge of a life that could be a success or a nightmare of drug pushing and prison. As the film ends, you can easily see her following either track. The most ingenious thing in the film is the suggestion that Epps might be inspired to walk the straight and narrow not due to Gosling's inspirational teaching, but because his crack-addled fate scares her straight.

Score: 7.5