Tag: movies

Insanity Necessary: An argument for going all out

At the beginning of one of this summer’s biggest blockbusters we are treated to maybe the craziest thing anyone will see in theaters this year. Respected actors like Russel Crowe and Michael Shannon are dressed up in super-nuts outfits and barge in on a council meeting of people with silly hats to argue about eugenics. After a quick fight, Crowe jumps on the back of a giant four-winged beast and flies back to his house to witness the birth of his child, the first naturally born and conceived child on his home planet in ages. While all of this is happening, a battle rages outside among a planet that seems to be exploding at all times. It was crazy, it was weird, and I loved it. Man of Steel didn’t end up being a great movie, but it did succeed, at least early on, in doing what too few movies are brave enough to do: trying whole-heartedly to just do something.

All too often I have a moment of clarity while watching a movie. Most recently, The Purge came to a tipping point, a time when the narrative could go one way or another, and the movie’s success felt like it would live or die based on what the writer and director (the same person in this case but not always) decided would happen. In The Purge, a doorbell rings and the locked down family is brought into the moment, the beginning of the rest of the movie. The identity of that doorbell ringer will shape what kind of film the rest will play out as. Will it be a deeply cynical, biting social commentary where neighbors that smile in your face during the day turn into ruthless, jealous killers at night? Or will the ringer be revealed as just some guy, a less biting, less interesting choice which punts the potential of the film on third and one? Well, unfortunately, it’s the latter. The Purge goes from potentially great to boringly normal. Subpar, even, though that lies more on the lack of skill behind the camera than it does on the premise of the film. The Purge was never going to be a masterpiece given how poorly it was made, but it could have been a messterpiece, a movie which, as its most admirable quality, can claim that at least they were doing something. Trying something, giving it all they’ve got. I appreciate craziness, I appreciate insanity.

A few of my favorite messterpieces include Thirst, which melds uber-violent vampire things with wacky slapstick stuff and one of the silliest, most beautiful endings of the past decade, Synecdoche, New York, a movie that takes about a billion threads and tries to weave some of them into a truly emotional epic and mostly succeeds, and The Night of the Hunter, a mashup of a whole mess of techniques and styles that nonetheless congeals into a moving fairy-tale about growing up and being pure at heart. All of these movies are on my current top 100 list of all time, alongside other messterpeices like The Shining, Magnolia, and Brazil. None of these films lack ambition, though they might not quite reach what they’re grasping for. I will always give the edge to a movie that’s going for something with all of its heart over a movie that plays it safe with any kind of subject matter. This generally will reward genre movies as they often have a bit more leeway in terms of what they can go for and even more leeway as to what the audience will forgive. But serious dramas can go crazy with the best of them. The Lion in Winter doesn’t do a whole lot in the directorial department but the dialogue and the glee with which the actors say their lines is so delightfully over-the-top that I can’t help but fall under its spell of deceit and family politics. Punch-Drunk Love takes the patented Adam Sandler man-child and throws him into the real world where his immaturity helps him fall in love with a girl and endangers his life when a mattress salesman goes bananas at him. The Truman Show has a lot of logistical problems and plot-holes when you think about the situation for a while, but the power of the film and its crazy premise overpowers those nits and becomes something great. Again, all of these films are in my top 100 list. I just love a movie that aims high, even if it doesn’t reach its lofty target.

There are a few movies in my top 100 that are restrained, content to be the best that they can be. I’d put movies like Days of Heaven and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Raiders of the Lost Ark in that category, all of which might go all out for a scene but generally keep their ambitions close to their vests. It’s perfectly fine to do so. Last year Lincoln was one of my favorite films even though it was pretty much just a straight biography. But movies like The Cabin in the Woods and Cloud Atlas and Holy Motors occupy a greater amount of my thinking about last year’s films, and are the first titles that come to mind over the more staid films of the year. It’s something almost intangible, and I know that there are people out there that just prefer to have their movies be what they are and then be done. But why go to the cinema to see something you can outline in advance? What purpose do movies have if not to surprise us in their stories or their techniques or their ideas about life? Even today’s safest bets, superhero movies, are embracing the absurd. The opening of Man of Steel is just the most recent in a list of superhero films breaking out of the mold and becoming crazy. Thor: The Dark World had a trailer debut today and looks to capitalize on the biggest strength of the previous film, its sense of humor and high drama. Thor was peppered with Shakespearian dialogue and wacky outfits and canted angles and surreal sets. It’s the craziest of Marvel’s movie universe splinters and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Seven Days of Seeing: 5/19/13 – 5/26/13

Another week, another bunch of movies. Three this time. All wildly different. Best to worst.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara – 2003

Dir. Errol Morris

Robert McNamara is quite a guy. Errol Morris uses an innovative “Interrotron” camera that basically lets McNamara look into the camera and see Morris’s face using tech similar to a teleprompter. It’s supposed to get a more immediate interview with the subject looking directly into the camera and even arguing with it. It works. McNamara’s clearly a smart guy and his ability to articulate what he went through in his time as Secretary of Defense and his life as a whole is pretty astounding. I have lived around 1/3 as much as McNamara had at this point and I certainly couldn’t talk about that time as well as he does here. Read the rest of the review here.

Behind the Candelabra – 2013

Dir. Steven Soderbergh – Michael Douglas, Matt Damon

Sodaberg does his thing. He’s never made an uninteresting movie that I’ve seen. This is more or less straightforward, certainly not as out there as something like The Limey. Douglas does the best work I’ve seen him do and Damon is typically good. The Sodaberg touches are there in the plastic surgery scenes and the strangely comedic tone in the first third. It’s in the end that he pulls out at least some of the stops. I liked it. I could do without seeing another drugged out scene for a few years, though. Not as good nor as fun as Side Effects, but a worthy addition to his body of work. Let’s just hope it’s not the last.

Fast & Furious 6 – 2013

Dir. Justin Lin – Vin Diesel, Paul Walker

I really liked Fast 5. It was big dumb fun. There were funny jokes and even funnier over-the-top action scenes. This is not that movie. The jokes weren’t as funny (and the word “joke” is stretching it a bit), the action was more incomprehensible, and the talky bits were less interesting than Fast 5. If all but one of your car action scenes are going to be at night you really should invest in cars that have different colors or something. It was all a bunch of lights shaking around the screen. I know they can do daylight scenes, I saw them in the last movie. And Lin could learn a thing or two from Sodaberg and how he shot the action scenes in Haywire. I’m sure these guys can pull off the punching parts, lets see it happen. I’m usually a shaky cam apologist but this just didn’t work. There’s a lot of talk about family and it’s fine, it’s just kinda silly at this point. It’s like these guys are a bunch of cultists who are indoctrinated to love, serve, and protect the family. I guess Vin Diesel would be the head of the cult, and every new member would be bathed in motor oil or muscle juice. Still, it’s mostly fun, just not as much fun as the previous entry. The end promises something big for Fast 7, though, so I’ll be there.

Those are the three that were. Did you watch them? Did you watch anything else? Let me know in the comments!

Seven Days of Seeing: 5/12/13-5/18/13

I’ve gotten back into writing mini-reviews of every movie I watch thanks to Letterboxd. You can follow me there at this link. However, I’ll also be putting all of my mini-reviews here every Monday for the previous week, so you can just wait a bit and find out what I have to say. I’ll always arrange them in order of best to worst. Any questions? This week we have some musicals and a space action movie. Nothing incongruous there!

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – 1964

Dir. Jaques Demy – Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo

A simple love triangle blown up to melodramatic heights like no other when every word is sung. And there is little effort to make these words into real songs with rhymes and stuff. It’s weird at first but it grows on you until you can’t imagine it happening any other way. It’s French so you know there’s some true love to be had and you know there’s some heartbreak, too. What Demy does wonderfully is balance the two so it feels like a thing that might really happen, you know, if there wasn’t so much singing. The ever present score highlights each turn of the story. It feels very much of its time, which is great. Deneuve is, as always, gorgeous and easily charismatic. It’s also nice to see her not going crazy (Repulsion), but rather having a pretty ok time, all told. The end is a perfect distillation of everything that has come before. Every movie should end in snow. 9/10.

Star Trek Into Darkness – 2013

Dir. J.J. Abrams – Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto

Too much fun to care about the iffy script. The action is fun, the design is great, and the characters are still really great to hang out with for two hours. All the actors are doing good work, Chris Pine and BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH(!) in particular. Yeah, the story is kinda silly and the stakes all but disappear with one crucial mistake in the script but who cares? There will probably be a better summer movie this year and maybe one or two that might be more fun and they might even have better scripts. I’ll still enjoy going back to this on blu. 8/10.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – 2001

Dir. John Cameron Mitchell – John Cameron Mitchell, Michael Aronov

This is maybe not my scene. I’m not huge into glam rock (though I can’t deny some greatness from the genre) and I can’t really claim any angst over my sexual identity. Still, this is a really great movie full of songs that work both within and outside the film. The Origin of Love sequence and song is a strong highlight. I love a good creation story. John Cameron Mitchell wrote all the talky bits from what I understand, and directs and acts in the lead role. He’s pretty awesome and I’d like to see more of this side of him in the future. The story is a little threadbare. That’s not to say uninteresting, of course. Thanks to the music I was never bored. However, this isn’t a film to watch for the compelling twists and turns. It’s a pretty standard showbiz story of wronged lovers and artistic problems. That’s fine, it’s still a supremely enjoyable film, one I’m glad I finally got around to watching. 8/10.

Cabaret – 1972

Dir. Bob Fosse – Liza Minnelli, Michael York

Liza Minnelli is a force of nature. Even in the opening number where she only appears halfway through and stays mostly in the background the camera catches her face and the celluloid lights on fire. The movie suffers anytime she isn’t onscreen. It can’t quite handle the long periods without the music stuff, either, because although the story is fine and a new-ish take on the old rise of the Nazis framed by a love triangle tale, it turns torporific five minutes after any given musical number. But boy howdy those musical numbers. They’re all good, some all-time great, and Fosse employs a wonderful technique of intercutting the stage stuff with the real-life stuff in such a clever way that I found myself wondering how such an inherently cinematic method would work in a stage play. Not that it really matters, but it’s great to see a director work not only great dancing and choreography but also camera placement and movement and editing into such a kinetic work. It’s too bad the non-music stuff doesn’t hold the same sense of movie-making wonder. 8/10

And that’s it! Do you like this new feature? Do you have anything to say about the movies I watched? Leave a note in the comments!

Optimism in the Face of Movie Culture

There’s a certain feeling that has come to pervade the movie-going culture, especially those that care about movies to a larger-than-normal degree. It’s a constant, oppressive pessimism. Every year we are treated to a cycle of horribleness, first the dumping grounds of the winter months where movies that a too crappy to live go to make the most money possible because somebody has to win the weekend. Then there’s the beginning of the summer movie season where all the big money blockbusters start appearing, but not really the good stuff yet because the studios are afraid they might find themselves accidentally releasing the film in those dumping grounds. Yet they continue to push the envelope, with Jack the Giant Slayer coming on the first day of March this year. After those early blockbusters we kick into the full summer swing, a pool now filled with unnecessary sequels to dumb comedies and the third, fourth, fifth entry into a superhero series. Or, even worse, a reboot of a superhero series that only ended 6 years ago. Around August time we slip into a mini slump where all the movies that were made for June and July but turned out too crappy get thrown to the wolves. In September we might see a studio trying to play the Oscar game a little earlier than everybody else, and it’ll probably be a really popular movie because the public is starved for any semblance of intelligence after a season of explosions and spandex. And then October is filled with remakes and sequels of horror films from the eighties or Asia. It’s the month of jump scares, which is all Hollywood remembers how to do in the world of horror. After that we’ve entered Oscarama, the time of year when BIG IMPORTANT FILMS are released and usually have something to do with somebody being oppressed and fighting back or taking it in a dignified manner. This can include racism or the Holocaust or natural disasters. There’s also the counterprogramming of a super violent film for all the teenaged boys to see while the rest of their family goes to some PG13 schmaltz-fest. And let’s not forget the final big-budget action film of the year, which has pretensions of Oscar hopes but will tell everybody that it just wants to entertain. These will make the most money of the year because everybody will just want to escape their families for 3 or so hours (these movies are always 3 hours long). So that’s, the movie release schedule for a year, after which we start at the beginning again but everything’s just a little worse than it was last year. Everybody knows that this was the worst year for film in the last 5 or so, if not more. Just look at all the crap that was released on a consistent basis. Was there even one movie that would stand up to something like The Godfather or Jaws?

Of course, not everybody will say all of these things. Most harbor only one or two of these thoughts in their movie-addled mind. Yeah, we have too many superhero movies and there hasn’t been a good horror movie since The Sixth Sense. Or look at all those Oscar-bait movies that exist solely to garner awards from an out of touch Academy and, hey, the only thing worse than Oscar season is post-Oscar season. It begins to feel like movie buffs aren’t really fans of movies anymore. They’ve reached a point where everything is predictable, from the release schedule to the movies themselves. Trailers show everything, there’s no point in even seeing the film anymore. Everything Hollywood does is just for the money, and most independent movies are just jumbles of quirks tossed into a juicer and puréed for easy consumption. Where are all the original stories? Everything is just a copy of something else. Creativity has gone down the drain and there’s no saving it.

Well, I’m calling bull. I’m tired of pessimism and cynicism in my favorite hobby. Since when does everything have to be amazing for us as a people to say it’s not horrible? Is anything I wrote in the first paragraph entirely wrong? No, of course not. There are movies that fit into each and every one of those molds every year and that will never change. But if I’m going to devote much of my free time to movies (and I will, because they have the capacity to be awesome) I’m just going to ignore those by-the-numbers films. Last year we saw such crap as Battleship and Silent Hill 2 and God Bless America. I watched all of those films and spent a bit of time complaining about how terrible they are, but will they be thing films that last, the one’s that stand out in our memory of 2012? Or, to put it another way, will anybody really remember Mama from this year. I saw it in theaters and I’ve already forgotten it. What has stuck with me is the Evil Dead remake. It proves at least two of the generalizations wrong by being a movie released in that period between the winter doldrums and summer blockbuster and a remake/sequel/reboot of a beloved horror franchise from the eighties. And it doesn’t rely on jump scares. What it does rely on is an interesting parallel between body horror and drug addiction/withdrawal which leads to a literal rebirth in a torrent of blood. It’s nuts, all out gore and grime and I loved it. So yeah, Hollywood can make good movies, even movies that fit into those categories that generally produce crappy films will sometimes score a nice little floater in the lane, if not a monstrous slam dunk. Things don’t have to be amazing to be not-horrible, they just have to not be horrible. That’s a pretty low bar to reach, and as a fan of movies I’ll always hope for a film to clear it rather than bonk its head. The movie buff culture has become a den of inequity where it’s cool to point out why a movie might be bad. I’d rather point out why a movie might be great. The worst that could happen is I’m wrong and Man of Steel doesn’t lift itself above a hit-or-miss director’s other works. I know it’ll look cool and have Michael Shannon yelling things. That’s enough to get me in the door. Optimism isn’t cool, but it should be. It’s more fun. Less angry. In the eternal words of Ricky Rubio:

Best Movies of 2012: Part 1

I’ve seen 61 movies from 2012 as of this writing. That is, I believe, a record for me. And now I will inflict upon you my recounting of them. As usual, this will be from the bottom up and I’ll break it into 3 pieces for easier digestion. If the title is underlined, click it for a full review. If it has a star at the end it means I saw it in theaters.

61. Underworld: Awakening. F.

This is a new war and it’s only beginning.

I think it’s about time to stop this whole thing. We’re now jumping years ahead and making ever more ridiculous creatures. It’s a werewolf but bigger! Scary!

60. The Raid: Redemption. F.

Pulling a trigger is like ordering a takeout.

I shouldn’t fall asleep during a movie which is almost entirely action and yet I did. A complete lack of character and story make this 90 minute movie feel like a slog.

59. Resident Evil: Retribution. D.

How do you think Umbrella populates these test scenarios? Hundreds of people dead each time they run a simulation. Umbrella imprints them with basic memories, just enough to ensure a correct emotional response to the threat of the bio-hazard. In one life, she could be a suburban housewife. The next, a businesswoman in New York. The next, a soldier working for Umbrella.

Another movie with pretty much only action but at least this one has the generosity to make up crazy stuff. Zombie dragons? Sure, why not. I’ll still watch the next one.

58. The Devil Inside. D.

You’ll burn.

One of those yearly possession movies. Entirely ho hum. At least it makes you read a little.

57. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. D+.

You will tell me or I will eat your stinking soul!

Four out of my bottom five movies have a colon in the title. There must be something there. This is better than the previous movie in the series because of Idris Elba. This doesn’t mean very much.

56. The Campaign. D+. *

Remember the politician that punched a baby? Well, he’s at it again. He just punched Uggie, the dog from the Academy Award-winning film The Artist.

One fantastic scene (The Lord’s Prayer) cannot save this. Zach Galifianakis keeps on trying, for which I salute him.

55. Chernobyl Diaries. D+.

Have you heard of extreme tourism?

A scary movie devoid of scares except for one (the bear). It does have a good sense of place, though.

54. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. C-.

Pop your pecs.

The Rock is charismatic as hell. He’s always fun to watch. And there are some fun ideas here. It mostly doesn’t hold together, though.

53. Cosmopolis. C-.

Where is your office? What do you do exactly? You know things, I think this is what you do. I think you acquire information and turn it into something awful.

Besides The Raid: Redemption, this is probably going to be the biggest controversy here. I really didn’t get anything from this movie. There’s a lot of stuff going on but it means nothing to me. It’s almost a void of a movie.

52. Safe House. C.

You practice anything a long time, you get good at it. You tell a hundred lies a day, is sounds like the truth. Everyone betrays everyone.

“No one is safe, no one is house.” Doug Benson.

51. Friends with Kids. C.

I know that she is honest; she won’t even take the little shampoo bottles from the hotel room, or sneak into the movie theater for a double feature. She always buys a second ticket. Always.

It’s nice to see Adam Scott in a leading role. The movie is kinda dumb, though. It has one great scene at a dinner table that hints at what the movie could have been. It isn’t.

49. Wrath of the Titans. C+. *

You want me to say it, brother? You want me to say I’m afraid? Doesn’t that go without saying? When mortals die, their souls go somewhere – there’s no place where gods go when they die! There’s nothing, just oblivion.

This is the first movie on this list that I can say I had a good time with. Use it as a line of demarcation between good and bad. Or not bad and bad. It’s a CGI fest that works at being spectacular.

48. Lockout. C+.

That’ll freeze the nerves in this spot for 24 hours. You want some in your mouth?

SPACE JAIL! Guy Pearce does a pretty darn good Kurt Russell in this spiritual successor to Escape from New York. And that Irish guy is pretty cool.

47. Snow White and the Huntsman. B-.

I was ruined by a king like you once. I replaced his queen. An old woman. And in time I too would have been replaced. Men use women. They ruin us and when they are finished with us they toss us to the dogs like scraps.

An amalgam of fairy tale tropes and more obvious homages plus a great villainous performance from Charlize Theron and an insane one from Sam Spruell as her brother.

46. The Dark Knight Rises. B-. *

There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.

at the halfway point when I did my mid-year list. How the mighty have fallen. Let’s all hope that Christopher Nolan moves on to something that actually interests him again because it felt like all of his passion left between The Dark Knight and this. He’s on a bit of a skid now and since I have one of his movies in my top 100 (The Prestige), I hope he can pull himself out of it. At least Bane and Catwoman are fun.

45. The Hunger GamesB-. *

My mother said, ‘It looks like District 12 may finally have a winner.’ But she wasn’t talking about me. She was talking about you.

A book adaptation that fails by being too faithful to the source material. It needed some actual adaptation instead of just copying all the dialogue from the book and filming it with a shaky cam. And they ruined the wolf things at the end. I have high hopes for the next film, though, because of a new director and some more room to wiggle.

44. Beasts of the Southern Wild. B-.

Everybody loses the thing that made them. It’s even how it’s supposed to be in nature. The brave men stay and watch it happen, they don’t run.

Boy, this one totally should have worked for me. I love magical realism and pseudo-fairy tale movies (see the high placement of Magnolia and Where the Wild Things Are on my top 100 for proof). It really didn’t though. Looks great and some nice performances from non-actors but they can’t pull this one together.

43. Premium Rush. B-.

I like to ride. Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.

Dumb fun. Michael Shannon is pretty fun being evil. Too much non-action, though.

42. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. B-.

Men have enslaved each other since they invented gods to forgive them for doing it.

This is way better than I expected it to be. There’s a fight on top of a stampede of horses. And the slavery/vampire fodder thing is kinda clever. It does what it needs to do.

41. Killer Joe. B-.

You insult me again, and I’ll cut your face off and wear it over my own.

Bleak as hell and also kinda funny. Matthew McConaughey is fantastic. The last scene is hilarious and brutal at the same time. Weird. Watch Bug instead.

Come back tomorrow for the next 20 movies on my list. Have anything to say about these films? Leave me a comment and we’ll have a talk.