Friday, December 28, 2007
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.
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.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Thursday, December 20, 2007
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
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!
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
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
Thursday, November 22, 2007
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
Shorter review: BTDKYD = A Simple Plan + In the Bedroom
Friday, November 16, 2007
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
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
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
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.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
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.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
*"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
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
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
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.
Sunday, August 12, 2007
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.
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
Monday, July 16, 2007
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 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
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.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
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.
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
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.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
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.
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 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
Monday, May 07, 2007
*also, raped Aunt Jemima
Monday, April 30, 2007
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
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.
Friday, April 20, 2007
Monday, April 16, 2007
Sunday, April 08, 2007
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.
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
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.
Monday, April 02, 2007
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Monday, March 19, 2007
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
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.