Sunday, December 19, 2010

Preliminary Top Film of 2010: Black Swan

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 18, 2010

2010: Back in Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Alternately the Wes Anderson Paradox

Monday, July 19, 2010


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

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

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

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Get Him to the Greek

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

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

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man 2

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

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

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

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Essence of Badassery

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

DVD Roundup: Bronson

Nicholas Winding Refn made his name as a director in his native Denmark with the Pusher trilogy, naturalistic crime films examining Copehagen's drug-dealing underbelly. The Pusher protagonists are a decidedly unglamorous bunch living hand-to-mouth on the surprisingly meager proceeds of their pathetic drug operations, looking no farther ahead than the next day's pay-off. Refn's most recent film, Bronson, deals with an entirely different sort of criminal. Michael "Charles Bronson" Peterson, a real-life figure often labelled Britain's most dangerous prisoner, is a post-modern criminal, someone whose acts of violence (mostly committed against guards and fellow prisoners) are designed to procure maximum notoriety. With a subject who treats violence as performance art, Refn ditches the Pusher trilogy's gritty handheld look in favor of meticulously controlled framing counterpointed by a swelling orchestral score and lush pop tunes. Comparisons to A Clockwork Orange are inevitable and accurate, but Bronson never feels derivative because the choices Refn makes are so perfectly tuned to twisted but fascinating main character. These choices are crucial in shaping a movie that is one of the most interesting portrayals of a criminal psyche ever committed to film. Also crucial is the fact that "Charlie Bronson" happens to be one of the most interesting criminals to be the subject of a movie in the first place.

Bronson joins movies like John Boorman's The General, Andrew Dominik's Chopper and Peter Medak's The Krays, all part of a very specific sub-genre I like to call "Biopics of criminals from the British Commonwealth." Those other films tended towards kitchen sink realism and a studied remove from their characters; a necessary condition when dealing with a class of people who tend to intentionally deflect scrutiny. On that score, Refn is blessed with a subject whose violent criminality seems less driven by economic necessity or even pathology than an all-consuming desire for fame. As such, Bronson has spent a good portion of his thirty-some-odd years in prison (most of it in solitary confinement) writing books of poetry, memoirs and exercise manuals. That gives Refn and company a wealth of insights into what makes a seemingly psychotic creature like Charlie Bronson tick. As Charlie, whose bombastic monologues give the episodic film a spine, points out early on, he is not a product of his environment. His parents were solid middle class folk from Luton. He beats up classmates, cops and, once he's finally thrown in prison for robbing a post office, inmates and guards, out of boredom and a failure of imagination. Like many people, young Mickey Peterson yearns for the validation of fame, but lacks an outlet. In the cloistered environment of prison, he finds that outsized acts of violence are the fastest way to notoriety, and that said notoriety provides him with an artistic project. His life becomes a series of theatrically staged outbursts, each designed to send the message to his fellow inmates, prison officials, the general public and Queen Elizabeth herself, that Charlie Bronson is a man not to be fucked with. Bronson's prison fame grows, but since it only extends to the prison population, he's got to stay inside in order to enjoy it. That's easy to do when you keep caving guy's heads in all day long. One of the most intriguing threads in the film is the idea that Bronson seems to have fallen into his violence-as-art routine by accident, and would probably rather not spend thirty years in prison, but is too bullheaded and self-aggrandizing to admit it to himself.

All of Refn's well-crafted shots and the gleeful profanity wouldn't amount to much without Tom Hardy's lead performance. Hardy's Bronson is ferocious and menacing, but also childlike and calculating. His volcanic rage is wholly terrifying, but Hardy manages to convey a sense of the character's bifurcated nature. He's ruined his life with blind aggression, but he's done so deliberately, with artistic flair and methodical stagecraft. Hardy's grasp of the character coupled with Refn's mastery of film elements make for the most vivid and insightful investigation of a criminal mind in recent memory.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

James Cameron is, in fact, King of the World.

Because I hate life, I read US Weekly. Recently, Linda Hamilton, one of James Cameron's innumerable ex-wives, quoted him as saying the following during their marriage: "anyone can be a father or a husband. There are only five people in the world who can do what I do." Now, at first blush, this seems like the ravings of a cartoonish egomaniac, exactly the sort of uber-douche whose tyrannical behavior on his film sets has become the stuff of Hollywood legend. But after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that, if anything, Cameron is actually being modest in that quote.

As far as I can tell, there is exactly one person on earth who can do what James Cameron does, and that's him. What does Cameron do, exactly? He conceives, from story to screenplay to storyboard to every aspect of technical filmmaking to post-production, movies that make obscene amounts of money and grab the zeitgeist with both hands. Nobody else, that's who. All other possible claimants fail at least one critical test. Spielberg? The man doesn't write his own screenplays. Peter Jackson? Lord of the Rings was an amazing accomplishment, but he had a huge built-in fanbase created by the Tolkien books to work with. George Lucas is really the only other contender, and he hasn't had an idea that didn't involve midichlorians or gay Jamaican lizards since 1984. For all his reliance on cliche story elements, Cameron finds a way to make those cliches resonate with millions and millions of people. Not just enough to get people to shell out billions of dollars to see his movies (he wrote, produced and directed the two highest grossing films OF ALL TIME!), but enough to make the characters, dialogue and iconography of those movies indelible fixtures of the pop culture landscape. All from shit that he just made up. I mean, the dude invented a new kind of camera in order to shoot Avatar. Even if his screenplays are weak, there's no denying the power of his images and his ability to hit the sweet spot of audience appeal, and I care a lot more about what he comes up with next than whether or not he remembers Suzy Amis' birthday.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Shutter Island

Somewhere along the way, Leonardo DiCaprio went from being a fetal man-child to a legitimate leading man specializing in angst-ridden tough guys. Looking back at his soft little nubbin of a face in Titanic, this seems like an impossible transformation, but some time in the past decade he developed a dramatic, vertical worry-line between his eyes, and that makes all the difference. With a smooth brow, DiCaprio was Robert Pattinson with better acting chops. But with that angry little wrinkle exploding like the crack of doom between his eyes, he exudes a the raw pain of a wounded animal. Leo's perma-furrow works overtime in Shutter Island, expressing the inner torment of haunted WWII vet, widower and U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels. DiCaprio, along with new partner Mark Ruffalo travel to a remote mental hospital on an island in Boston harbor to hunt down an escaped female prisoner. Along the way, DiCaprio struggles with the memories of Dachau and his dead wife (Michele Williams) as well as the mysterious goings-on at a facility that has connections to U.S. Intelligence circles and HUAC, and which may well be hiding dark, very cinematic secrets.

Shutter Island doesn't have much in the way of conventional plot momentum or effective suspense. It's mostly two hours of DiCaprio scuttling around the smoke-wreathed corridors of the musty old booby hatch. Along the way, director Martin Scorsese flits between rock-ribbed film noir pastiche and hallucinatory flashbacks pitched just shy of hysteria. Like the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, Shutter Island is a neo-noir film most interested in exploring the pscyho-historical roots of the genre. The Red Scare, the Holocaust, the looming specter of nuclear annihilation, all contribute to DiCaprio's bone-deep sense of unease and dislocation. DiCaprio is a stand-in for the generation that first confronted the prospect of "megadeath" in death camp ovens and mushroom clouds, and Scorsese emphasizes the psychic toll of such awareness by repeatedly filling the frame with a succession of floating particles; paper, ashes, snow, rain, all swirling around DiCaprio. He's a man finding himself in a world with nothing solid to hang on to, and the only available mechanism for dealing with the trauma is the alienating and antiseptic tool of modern psychotherapy.

The thematics are richly layered, if not exactly groundbreaking, and the plot basically stagnates until a third act twist that will probably end up annoying people who haven't read the original Dennis Lehane novel, but the reason to see Shutter Island is Robert Richardson's cinematography. Pretty much any random shot from this movie is suitable for framing. With lush, rich colors that reflect DiCaprio's fevered mindset and a note-perfect replication of noir's iconic interplay between light and shadows, this might be Scorsese's most visually stunning work. The operatic pitch and violent colors call to mind Scorsese's Cape Fear and, like Cape Fear, Shutter Island suffers from an overdose of homage without a strong point of view to give the noir trappings weight. Shutter Island certainly isn't a heartfelt film, but it has a mad grandeur that captivates, even if it doesn't tread any particularly novel ground.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Very Preliminary 2009 Top Five.

I've got a bunch more '09 releases to catch up with on DVD before I offer a definitive top five for the year, but in the interest of completing the decade retrospective, here are my preliminary picks.

1. Inglourious Basterds

This movie, more than any other I saw this year, sticks in my mind. The brilliant suspense set-pieces, the dense web of film allusions that, for the first time in Tarantino's filmography, have a relevance beyond the director's compulsion to make them, wall-to-wall memorable performances and an insight into the power of narrative to shape memory that I frankly didn't think Tarantino was capable of. It's a bingo.

2. The Hurt Locker

Jeremy Renner's Sgt. James lives as the hero of his own personal action movie. He risks his own life and the life of his men, and chases the rush of danger without a second thought. He can't die because he's the hero. He can't do wrong, because he's the hero. It's a non-stop blast (in all senses) until he gets his friends hurt and begins questioning his own perceptions. Then, there's a moment of repentance and humility, a brief attempt at returning to the safety and tranquility of domestic life, but before long, the itch returns, and he's back in the war zone, disarming bombs with a smile on his face. In short, he's a stand-in for the American attitude and history with warfare. We're drawn to the excitement and imagined moral clarity, we get our initial thrill and indulge a fantasy of absolute victory, then slowly come to the realization that we're hip-deep in blood shed for no good reason. Then, it's a brief moment of caution, a "Vietnam syndrome," before all that unpleasantness is forgotten and we plunge headfirst back into the fray, chasing the same heady rush we remember from the last time.

3. A Serious Man

Second only to Basterds as brain-stickiest movie of the year. There's nothing in it that the Coens' haven't done before, but this is the most vivid and chilling explication of some of their favorite themes. It's confounding and somewhat off-putting, but also genuinely thoughtful and, in a weird, Coen-ey way, offers a glimpse of the cosmic unknowable.

4. Crank 2: High Voltage

Making perhaps the best action film of the decade has got to be worth something.

5. In the Loop

Of all the earnest, dewey-eyed documentaries and docudramas that tried to make sense of the Iraq war, it took a troupe of British sitcoms shenanigans to cut to the heart of the matter. Armando Iannucci and company lay out the craven self interest and fortuitous idiocy in the inner circles of government that paved the way to war. As a bonus, it's also maybe the funniest movie of the year. It's certainly the most quotable.

The End of the World for Dummies: Knowing and 2012. Never before have two films so thoroughly failed to earn the right to kill billions of people on screen.

"Modern Classic" I just can't get behind: Gomorrah. It's definitely a good film, but I suspect that the subject matter (the corrosive social impact of the Naples-area mob) and the pseudo-documentary style make it seem 'important' enough to merit raves. The "you are there" immediacy is bracing, but too much screen time is wasted on uninspired retread characters.

"Modern Comedy Classic" I just can't get behind: The Hangover. Is it really THAT easy to get young dudes chuckling across the nation? Never mind, of course it is.

Best Science-Fiction film of the year: 2009 was definitely the year of science fiction films, between Star Trek and Avatar and Terminator: Salvation and, to be pedantic about it, Transformers and GI Joe. The best of the lot, though, was the low-budget South African production District 9. It's instructive to compare District 9 and Avatar: on a basic story level, they're strikingly similar, but filmmaker Neil Bloomkamp and his collaborators invest the story with so much inventiveness and wit that nobody thought to call it a Dances With Wolves ripoff.

Best Opening Credit Sequence: Watchmen. There's a lot of things wrong with Zack Snyder's adaptation of the classic graphic novel, but the brilliant collection of meticulous tableau that run behind the opening credits sure as balls isn't one of them.

The Unjustly Overlooked: Observe and Report is a genuinely daring comedy that didn't get nearly enough recognition as such. Duplicity, lame title and typically bland Julia Roberts performance aside, is a crackling, grown-up, well-constructed grifter's tale that fell down the memory hole unjustly. And Julia Roberts' lameness is more than cancelled out by the sheer awesomosity of Paul Giamatti.

Two horror films that demonstrate conclusively that "less is more" when you're trying to scare people: Paranormal Activity and House of the Devil.

Line of the Year: "Totally...Totes McGoats!" --I Love You, Man

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

DVD Roundup: Big Fan

Robert Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler and is the writer/director of Big Fan has a very specific vision for his films. He takes tragic archetypes from past eras of film history that you don't see in movies that much anymore, and implants them in the media-saturated post-modern reality of 21st century strip mall America. Randy "the Ram" Robinson from The Wrestler is an updated version of every broken-down palooka from every boxing movie made back when people gave a damn about boxing. He's Anthony Quinn in Requiem for a Heavyweight, and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and Wallace Beery AND Jon Voight in the two versions of The Champ. Of course, boxing hasn't been culturally relevant since Rocky beat Ivan Drago, so Siegel's version of the character is a mashed-up veteran of one of the violent, contrived spectacles that has partially supplanted boxing in American culture: professional wrestling. Paul Aufiero, the desperately pathetic protagonist of Big Fan is another recognizable character type from a different golden age of cinema: he's the obsessive, anti-social loner that skulked his way through theaters in the 70s, a character that Martin Scorsese used to specialize in. He's Travis Bickle for the current moment. While Travis Bickle's maladjustment was signaled by his complete alienation from popular culture, Aufiero's abnormality is fueled by a full-body immersion in pop culture, or at least a small corner of it.

Paul is a New York Giants fan, to the exclusion of everything else in his life. It's understandable: he works at a hospital parking garage, he lives with his hectoring mother, he has only one friend, who he only relates to by talking about and watching the Giants. His only moments of true joy and self-expression are watching the Giants win and calling in to a local sports talk radio show with meticulously crafted bits of generic boosterism. Unlike Travis Bickle, who was tormented by his yearning for normality, Paul has no interest in connecting with the rest of the world or anyone in it. He's got the Giants, and that's enough. When he gets into a strip club fracas with his favorite player that results in the player's suspension and a Giants' tailspin, Paul loses his only source of enjoyment in life and his very identity. Paul sees himself as a part of the Giants team, and sees his talk radio monologues as integral to their success. Overnight, he has to process the notion that he's responsible for his team's failure. This puts him into a freefall that leads to a predictably-70s style resolution.

But just as The Wrestler took a stale plot skeleton and invested it with vibrant life, Big Fan tells the familiar story of an imploding loser with an attention to detail that makes it all feel fresh. Paul is played by the brilliant stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt, who brings a raw, anguished vulnerability to the role. His Paul is passionate but dead-eyed, filled to the brim with love for his team and a desire to express it, but limited by his child-like inarticulateness. His life is filled with a parade of grotesques and Bridge and Tunnel stereotypes, all of whom he works diligently to avoid in favor of the imagined world where he is the ever-spinning engine powering the New York Football Giants to victory. His journey to resolving the identity crisis created by his beating never strays too far from formula, but it does flow from his wounded character, and the ending provides a couple of moments of genuine surprise and a coda that's simultaneously funny and deeply sad. Siegel's movies have so far made up for their familiar structures by bringing old archetypes into a new era and using that juxtoposition to generate thoughtful observations about the ever-changing cultural context of American life. I'm looking forward to Siegel's next reimagination of a classic film trope.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Up in the Air

George Clooney's character in Up in the Air is addicted to the pre-packaged luxuries of business-class travel. The express check-in, the VIP lounges, the free drinks and pre-warmed rental cars, the brilliantly cheerful customer service representatives. Yes, they're mass produced and artificial and a bit too slick to be lovable, but there's also no denying the very real comfort that a complimentary high ball and heated leather seats can provide for a weary traveller. Jason Reitman's movie is a lot like that: a chocolate-stuffed gift basket in a high-end hotel room. Impersonal, maybe, but still pretty damn delicious.

Much has been made of Up in the Air's zeitgeisty hook: Clooney jetting around the country laying off employees at company after company, with the parts of some of these unlucky workers being played by genuine fired people. These scenes are riveting, and offer some interesting opportunities for character development and drama, but they're generally ancillary to the proceedings. The film, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, is more interested in the emotional evolution of Clooney's commitment-averse travelling hatchet man, as he awakens to a long-buried urge for human connection and a place to call home. Clooney's arc is largely predictable, but it's executed with insight and deftness, fueled by consistently pungent dialogue and the subtle, affecting work of George Clooney in the part. What makes this programmatic but nicely crafted film carry a lasting weight is a surprisingly willingness to leave its protagonist at loose ends. In most films, especially character-driven awards bait like this, a characters development of maturity is rewarded by a newfound sense of security and, usually, a freshly-minted love interest. Up in the Air is willing to suggest that Clooney may well have been better off as a callow jetsetter. It raises questions about the definition of maturity and growth that are usually left unasked in such well-manicured fare.

The other part of Up in the Air that lingers are the great details and vivid supporting turns. At one point, a cabin cruiser full of corporate revelers powers down while anchored off Miami beach and everyone has to run, shoeless and wet, through a hotel lobby. It's a bit of comic business that's enlivened by a sense of tactile exuberance and the sheer left-field realness of it. And, of course, everything is made better by presence of Young MC. (Backwards, it's MC Young)

Friday, January 01, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

There's no denying that Avatar is going to lose most of it's luster on small-screen DVD viewing. Factor in the reality that continual improvements in visual effects are going to render it's groundbreaking techniques obsolete within a few years, and it's a good bet that Avatar will be remembered, if at all, like The Jazz Singer is today; as a technical milestone, not a film. Sherlock Holmes will similarly look a lot worse on DVD, when you're not in a theater full of relatives you're sick of talking to. But, it's definitely one of the best Christmas time-filler releases of recent memory. Robert Downey Jr. makes a bold choice, playing the iconic sleuth as a severely damaged social defective whose default expression is a sort of barely repressed panic. It's a smart move, because it makes his smarmy expressions of super-genius less obnoxious: he's clearly compensating for his inability to function without Jude Law's Dr. Watson. It's basically the House dynamic, with Victorian duds and some half-assed plot about Satanic peers and steampunk machinery. Guy Ritchie's vapid visual pyrotechnics are doled out sparingly enough to avoid calling undo attention to themselves, even if the Olde London Towne CGI looks like fresh-baked ass. Speaking of fresh-baked ass, Rachel McAdams, as Holmes' American paramour is completely out of her depth, not to mention given an underwritten, incoherent part to play. There's enough footage of Downey making dazzling deductive leaps to make it all palatable, especially if the alternative is eating leftover ham with the inlaws. Now, if the alternative is watching an actually compelling film on your Netflix queue, that's another story.