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Monthly Archives: December 2009

I keep dithering about this endlessly.  Why?  I hate list.  I’ve decided to quit dicking around post the thing.

#1 – Pixar (Incredibles/Wall-E/Finding Nemo/Up/Ratatouille) – This was easy.  No studio has ever specialized in near perfection like Pixar.  Their films are routinely better than best picture winners and are habitually overlooked for no reason beyond their animated condition.

#2 – Pan’s Labyrinth – Guillermo del Toro’s melding of fantasy and reality is the best stand alone film of the decade.  The masterpiece that del Toro had been hinting at with other films for the better part of a decade finally solidified in his heartbreaking tale of a little girl trying to survive the harsh realities of World War II and the harsher realities of the fantasy world around her.

#3 – Master & Commander – Peter Weir made one of the only historically oriented adventure films for adults, and it was great.  The adventure genre has been hijacked by high fantasy and massive amounts of CGI, which can be fine, but fewer and fewer filmmakers seem to have any respect for the great texture of a grand adventure story grounded in reality and historical accuracy.

#4 – The Bourne Trilogy – No action series blew the doors off filmmaking like the Paul Greengrass helmed Bourne movies.  The first Bourne film is a decent achievement, but Greengrass took the sequels into the stratosphere.  He created unrelenting tension but didn’t forget to inject just enough character and craft to make us care about the whole thing.

#5 – Darren Aronofsky – Aronofsky began the decade with the beautiful but horrifying “Requiem for a Dream”, followed that up with a loving, unique sci-fi romance, “The Fountain” and finished the decade with “The Wrestler”, a story of wasted life and squandered potential.  His is a trifecta of solid work with three movies that all felt divergent from one another in theme and style.

#6 – Multi Part Movies – While Hollywood has never backed away from serialized stories, it’s their bred and butter, making multi part films was always a sketchy proposition.  Thanks to “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” the idea of making huge, ambitious series of films is now a tangible reality.  While the results aren’t always great, “Pirates”/”Matrix” sequels, the fact that studios will gamble on such large projects is a good thing.  Getting “Kill Bill” out of the deal was a bonus.

#7 – Ridley Scott and Clint Eastwood: Busy Old Farts – Scott is 73 years old and he made 8 movies in the last decade.  Clint Eastwood in almost 80 and he made 9.  They make the sporadic output from accomplished and talented directors like Fincher, Anderson and Jonze all the more annoying.  Eastwood and Scott just keep making them and making them well, almost effortlessly.  Between them both they accomplished “Gladiator”, “Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut”, “Body of Lies”, “Million Dollar Baby”, “Letters From Iwo Jima”, “Changeling”, “Mystic River”, etc.

#8 – Batman – Christopher Nolan decided it was time for the comic book movie to grow the Hell up.  And what better character to take the genre into adulthood than eternal brooder Bruce Wayne and his story of slaughtered parents followed by masked vigilantism.

#9 – The Reboot – In addition to Batman being a revitalized franchise, the reboot idea took hold elsewhere and helped make James Bond and Star Trek relevant again.  “Casino Royale” and “Star Trek” are films which proved that old ideas don’t have to simply be remade or scrapped.  It all depends on whose driving the series and what they want out of it.

#10 – Moulin Rouge – Speaking of reimaging, Baz Lurhmann took the tired conventions of the movie musical, threw them in a blender, went at the mess with fearless enthusiasm, and in turn made the best musical ever.  EVER!

#11 – Children of Men/Alfonso Cauron – “Children of Men” is science fiction of the highest order.  Director Alfonso Cauron forsakes typical sci-fi trappings, uber-cities and flying cars, and gives us a place that feels eerily and frighteningly possible.  For sci-fi fans it’s a new kind of benchmark.  One not based on how cool shit looks, but how enveloping and well executed a story can be.  Kudos to Cauron for also breathing genuine life into “Harry Potter” films with “Prison of Azkaban” and for the lusty Mexico set road picture “Y Tu Mama Tambien.”

#12 – The Mist – Yes, “The Mist.”  I can think of so few films which I would constitute as being evil, but “The Mist” is an evil, evil movie.  Essentially a doomsday, genre lark, Frank Darabont’s monster movie culminates with one of the most shocking endings imaginable.  It leaves jaws agape.

#13 – Gays! – Homosexuals really got their due at the multiplex this decade.  There was the crushing heartache of “Brokeback Mountain.”  The very straight Sean Penn excelled as the very gay Harvey Milk.  “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” would’ve been the best musical of the decade if not for “Moulin Rouge.”  “Capote” was an amazing performance piece for Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Val Kilmer played gay as badass in “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang.”  Watch out straight people.

#14 – The New World – Terrence Malick continues to infuriate average movie goers with his methodical tome pomes on film.  He refuses to setup scenes of typical exposition and execution.  You either get engrossed and discover for yourself what’s happening by paying attention, or you get left out in the cold, stuck with a movie that refuses to play by the traditional rules of narrative filmmaking.  It’s a gorgeous movie.

#15 – Zodiac – David Fincher may have taken some years off, but when he returned he returned with this monumental effort.  His methodical trip through of the labyrinth of San Francisco’s Zodiac killer case is a procedural film of the highest order.  It’s a film that takes a mountain of details and information, breaks as much of it down as it possibly can, devises a convincing conclusion, and manages to be engrossing at all times.

#16 – Visual Splendors, Epic Failures: The Fall and Speed Racer – Tarsem’s “The Fall” and the Wachowski’s “Speed Racer” are both remarkable failures in very similar ways.  Both were ambitious, expensive, critically derided movies which aimed to create singular experiences for the viewer.  Very rarely have movies looked this otherworldly and hypnotic.  “Fall” keeps one foot in reality in between its exceedingly elevated moments.  “Speed Racer” never turns off the candy coated reality it creates.   Both narratives may be clunky, but the emotions running through the films are genuine.  Something that wasn’t noticed by many.

#17 – Russell Crowe – I’d almost say that Crowe is here for the films he doesn’t makes.   His resume is mercifully free of calculated programmers, cheap cameos and cartoon voicing gigs.  Not every film Crowe was in was a worthy adventure, but the man never phones it in and he never stoops for paycheck gigs.   “Gladiator” and “Master and Commander” are triumphs.  His uniform excellence in only decent, or even wobbly, movies like “3:10 to Yuma”, “American Gangsters” or “A Beautiful Mind” shows that he is never less than dedicated to the fullest extent.   The kind of adherence to quality he follows is rare.

#18 – In Bruges – Very rarely do I get floored by a movie like I was by “In Bruges.”  Sold as a ‘quirky’ hit man movie, “Grosse Point Blank” with accents, “In Bruges” is so much more than just a fun lark with hip attitudes and guns and ammo.  It’s a surprisingly dark and sad piece of storytelling, one which roots itself in the oft unexplored feelings of remorse and regret.

#19 – Michael Clayton – “Clayton” is the finest legal thriller of this decade, and maybe the last as well.  George Clooney won his Oscar for the fairly forgettable and self-important “Syriana”, he’s infinitely better here.  Tom Wilkinson mesmerizes, Sydney Pollack is awesome, Tilda Swinton won an Oscar.  First time director Tony Gilroy has the sensibilities and style of a well tested pro who has already directed a dozen features.  Though it was only marginally successful with audiences, “Michael Clayton” has all the ear marks of a film that will be remembered in the long run.

#20 – Ambiguous, Down, and/or Strange Endings – So often movies get a great big heaping dose of false uplift.  We can suppose that that’s what people want.  People want to feel encouraged.  They want to feel better about things.  They want the hero to win and fall in love and all that jazz.  But more often than not it’s really damn boring when that happens.  Life isn’t much like that so I never quite like it when a movie tries to tell me as much.  This decade saw a lot of movies end in weird places.  Actor and character names have been removed so as not to spoil anything.  I present the following endings:

  • He beats a priest to death with a bowling pin
  • He sits at the dinner table, talking about a dream about his father
  • He dies in the back of a bus
  • He shoots the corrupt cop in the face
  • He stands in the ocean wake, considering the temptation of corruption as his friend’s body burns away in the sea
  • Santa gets shot 6 times, but lives!
  • A jet engine falls through his roof and kills him
  • He gets shot and we see his point of view as he’s on the verge of death
  • He kills everyone in the car only to get rescued two minutes later
  • He reads a letter from a kid in Africa and begins to weep
  • The family sits around the kitchen table looking at Dad with extreme reservation
  • She dances to Nina Simone as he doesn’t quite leave for his plane
  • He kills his sons murderer, his wife knows he did it and wanted him to
  • He forgets everything that just happened.  Again.
  • He goes back to Iraq for more
  • He goes back to her apartment to see if she’s there. He knocks on the door.  The movie ends.

Honorable Mentions – If I had more space I would talk more about: Inglorious Basterds, There Will Be Blood, Spartan, Stop Motion Animation, No Country for Old Men, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Best in Show, In Camera Effects, Into the Wild, Lord of the Rings, Oldboy, Slumdog Millionaire, Doubt, Black Snake Moan, The Orphanage, The Departed, United 93, American Splendor, Hero, Adaptation, In the Bedroom, High Fidelity, American Psycho, A Mighty Wind, Unbreakable, About Schmidt, Mulholland Drive, Donnie Darko, Hero, Memento, A.I., Changing Lanes, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Where the Wild Things Are, etc, etc.

What I Took Away From This: Greatness is fleeting and temperamental.  Unlike the worst of cinema which seems to perpetuate itself with great ease, the best of it can rarely be duplicated.  So many actors and directors didn’t get a solo spot here because of various quibbles and minor issues.  Great performances are often followed up with amazing failures or marginal material.  Paul Giamatti has “American Splendor” and “Sideways” under his belt, as well as “Fred Claus” and “Lady in the Water.”  P.T. Anderson, Alexander Payne and Spike Jonze?  Each made two great movies, but they only made two movies for the whole decade.

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Ten Word or Less Review: Not bad, but what’s the big freakin’ deal?

In a world where left field phenomenon is exceedingly rare due to pre-release hype and interent buzz, it’s always interesting to see a movie with little to no expectations like “The Hangover” do remarkably well.  Things are so foretold these days that we can probably take a stab at next years biggest hits and be at least 60% right.  “The Hangover” became an unqualified sensation this summer past, but despite the massive audience for it and the generally decent reviews, I stayed away.  I didn’t see anything remarkable about the previews, which typically contain a comedy’s best jokes.  So I waited patiently and today I finally partook in everyone’s comedy drug of choice for the year.  What I found was a fairly decent, not awful, sporadically funny road picture with a game cast, some randy jokes, that was ultimately pretty inconsequential.

A pack of schmucks go to Vegas for a bachelor party and get so wasted that when they wake up they don’t remember how they lost the groom to be, or any of the other crazy shit they did.  They go forth to piece together their blacked out evening.  I guess the biggest drawback to “Hangover” is that there’s never a sensation of anything being at stake.  The missing groom is the least of the characters and the situation developed around his disappearance never feels very stressful.  If you know movie rules then you know he’s fine the whole time.  “The Hangover” seemed to take off based on the strength of its goofy characters and their stock situations.  Stop.

I’d go on with this but I don’t know why I should.  It was okay.  No big deal.  Nickpicking at this won’t accomplish much and I honestly don’t feel much about it one way or the other.  I’ll go sit on the couch and pet the cat while everyone gets high on this and not be the party pooper.  Enjoy.

20 Movies and/or Trends of the Decade in no Particular Order That Sucked a Ton:

#1 – Lousy comic book movies – For every one that helped legitimize the form, two more came along and showed how stupid it is.  Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four 1 & 2, Electra, Spider Man 3, X3, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, Constantine, 2 Punisher movies (though they were hilarious), Wolverine, The Spirit, Blade: Trinity, Catwoman and a special mention for “Wanted.”  Never has such an amazingly rancid movie been so built up.  I’m throwing in “Hancock” as well.  It’s not based on a comic book but it might as well be.

#2 – Boring ass CGI kids movies –  “Toy Story” is the modern age equivalent of “Star Wars.”  It’s a wonderful film that helped spawn such a horrific industry in its wake that one would seriously consider uninventing the film as a pre-emptive strike against the industry that exist now.  Pixar continues to dazzle.  All others continue to suck.

#3 – Kingdom of Heaven (Theatrical Cut) – Ridley Scott’s crusade opus was gutted upon its release and many thought that the brilliant filmmaker had finally lost his chops.  Turns out his chops got thrown out on the editing room floor.  KOH was restored and its worthy nature was revealed.  Its theatrical cut stands as a shining example of how knee-jerk, studio mandated edits can hopelessly fuck up a movie.

#4 – Stephen Sommers Movies – Mr. Sommers could’ve avoided this list but he managed to get paroled out of director jail at the last second to helm “G.I. Joe” for Paramount, thus completing his trilogy of CGI lathered monkey shit.  An awful “Mummy” sequel, the “Van Helsing” thing which felt a whole lot like the awful “Mummy” sequel, and then “G.I. Joe.”  With any luck he’s been put back in director jail.

#5 – Awful Best Picture Winners and Nominees – There are plenty of dull Best Picture nominees and winners on the books for all to fall asleep to.  But this decade managed some stunningly stupid films which were passed off as prestige.  “Chicago” was a song and dance number which flaunted the dumbness of the people who watched it right in their face.  “Crash” said everyone was a racist but if we try real hard we could all get along.  “A Beautiful Mind” was as mediocre as a film can manage and it beat “Moulin Rouge.”  For shame!  Boring and derivative pretense was frequently nominated: Chocolate, The Hours, Seabiscuit, Finding Neverland, Ray, Munich, Good Night & Good Luck, Atonement, Frost/Nixon, and the king of misguided shit, “The Reader.”

#6 – The Reader – A woman would rather go to prison for decades for killing Jews than admit she can’t read.  One of the most unintentionally hilarious Oscar bait films ever.  The Oscar clip where the Pineapple Express guys got stoned and laughed at it forever sealed its fate as a joke of a movie.

#7 – Video Game Movies/the Uwe Boll category – The list of crap is big and getting bigger.  Tomb Raider movies, Resident Evil movies, another Street Fighter film, Final Fantasy, Doom, Dead or Alive, Silent Hill, Max Payne and the true harbinger of destruction, Uwe Boll films.  On his own he’s responsible for House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Bloodrayne, Bloodrayne II and Postal.  He can beat up all the critics he wants to.  Won’t change a thing.

#8 – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – After nearly 2 decades of trying to get Indy back to the big screen Lucas/Spielberg/Ford signed off on this retarded adventure movie which made everyone look……well, retarded.  Full of script contrivances, poorly thought out nonsense and Indiana surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator, “Skull” made most people wish that the man with the hat had stayed retired.

#9 – M. Night Shyamalan – We’re so quick to label genius in our society.  M. Night astonished everyone.  Then he poked everyone in the eye with his dick and laughed about doing it.  “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening” are not just bad movies, they are prolonged jokes on the viewer.  M. Night deserves whatever fate has in store for him.  Not many directors have inexplicably pissed so much good will away. It’s going to take more than a kids movie based on an anime property to fix things.

#10 – Southland Tales – Failure so complete and total is rare.  One should experience it to know how to avoid it.

#11 – Revolutionary Road – A singularly unpleasant thing to experience.  The lovers from “Titanic” come together and argue.  And then argue some more.  And then more.  And then she has a bathroom abortion and dies.  Sam Mendes?  Drop dead.

#12 – Movies about Mars – Red Planet, Mission to Mars, Ghosts of Mars, Doom.  It seems any and all films set on Mars have to be garbage.  Poor planet.  What did it do to deserve this fate?

#13 – Alien vs. Predator films – Two worthy franchises get put through the money ringer and every last bit of integrity either had left is squashed out.  AVP:R in particular stands out as a rank and offensive thing.

#14 – Michael Bay – I was going to leave him out of this. Too easy.  Sure, “Pearl Harbor” was bad but not in any kind of transcendent way.  “The Island” was more a forgettable hodgepodge than truly terrible experience.  I wouldn’t watch “Bad Boys II”.  I can’t explain why “Transformers” works but it does.  But “Transformers 2” was a serious slap in the face.  It really made me think that Michael Bay either hates me or thinks I’m mentally deficient.  Either way he thinks very little of me and so I will return the gesture.

#15 – John Travolta movies – Hate to kick a man when he’s down but Travolta was horrible this decade.  Lucky Numbers, Battlefield Earth, Domestic Disturbance, Swordfish, Basic, The Punisher, Be Cool, Wild Hogs, Old Dogs.  Who gets this many strikes and is allowed to keep going?

#16 – Martin Lawrence movies – Not going to bother listing these.  Everything he was in sucked.

#17 – Eddie Murphy movies – I will bother listing these: Imagine That, Meet Dave, Norbit, The Haunted Mansion, Daddy Day Care, I Spy, Pluto Nash, Showtime, Doctor Dolitte 2, Nutty Professor II.  He makes Travolta look like Lawrence fucking Olivier.

#18 – Chick flicks – A once tolerable genre has slowly become a series of repetitive, soul crushing movies that wallow in, and extol the virtues of, superficiality and artifice.  Ladies, seriously think about what these movies say about you.  It’s not pretty.  The pleasant banality of Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan has warped into the painful exploits of Katherine Heigl, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kate Hudson.  With Matthew McCaughney as their boy toy of choice.  I’d write out a list but we’d be here all day.

#19 – Observe and Report – A uniquely awful movie.  One that attempts to squeeze laughs out of rampantly stupid and unlikable characters and the mental illnesses that afflict them.  For his next film director Jody Hill should make a movie mocking the homeless and mentally handicapped.  He could ridicule people with Parkinson’s disease and ask people in wheel chairs to go for a walk.  It would be about as much fun as this was.

#20 – Movies in General – Dishing out this hate list was so easy and that’s the problem.  I could go on and on and on about so much more.  The Saw Franchise, horror remakes, lame parodies of lame movies, etc.  While the last decade has done much to shine, the more telling aspect of this century’s first decade of cinema is its successful attempt to make garbage acceptable.  Being completely terrible has not only become a passable norm, it’s routinely rewarded with financial windfalls.  There’s no longer a stench attached to being awful.  No matter how rancid, second-rate or unoriginal something looks, there’s an audience out there eagerly awaiting it with open arms.  The amount of crap being produced is alarming, but the willingness of so many people to watch it and think it fine is more so.  And that is a scary thing indeed.

COMING SOON!!   THE DECADES BEST!!  LESS CYNICISM GUARANTEED!!

I hate movie previews.  I hate everything about them.  What used to be one of the best parts of going to the movies has become so insufferable I will often wait outside the theater for them to end before I go find a seat.  My recent trip to see “Avatar” contained not 2 or 3 loud and bombastic clips from future films, but 6, each one louder and more oversold than the next.  “Prince of Persia?”  Looked excrusiating.  “Book of Eli?”  Run of the mill, stoic badass bullshit.  “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief?”  Shameless Harry Potter clone.  “Another Damn Shrek Movie?”  You’d have to staple my eyes open and bolt me to a theater chair.  There were more but what they were has been lost.  Mercy was shown as “Sherlock Holmes” was not played.  The experience was so bombastic and tired that I eventually just tucked my head in my jacket and waited for things to stop going boom. 

This has become the pre-movie experience.  The techniques that developed over the course of the 90’s have fossilized into a granite slab that will have to be blown to bits if it’s ever to change.  Creativity and originality are gone from the equation and in their place are the same edited beats that give each preview after the other the sensation of being the exact same film.  Faux wonder, dramatic pauses, baratone narration, editing chaos that simulates actual action.  Blech to all of it.  Don ‘In Another World’ LaFontaine may be dead but his legacy will live on.

Ten Word or Less Review:  Behold Avatar!  Eh.

So much will be written about James Cameron’s “Avatar”, and so much already has, but I feel the following two observations will summarize the whole experience when all is said and done.  First, it is without question one of the penultimate technological achievements in modern cinema.  Cameron has leapfrogged his contemporaries and effectively erased the last lines separating real life and Hollywood fantasy.  Robert Zemekis is probably eating his own arm with envy.  Second, “Avatar” is without question saddled with an annoyingly insubstantial and trite story that the director himself doesn’t want to seem to bother with at times.  For all the visual splendor, and there’s a lot of splendor, it’s often difficult to sidestep the fact that Cameron is making little more than a run of the mill exercise where the entirely good noble savages are under threat from entirely bad corporate guys and their entirely bad military, all of whom seethe with bigotry and ignorance.  In short, it’s a movie ripe with innovation, and also completely lacking it.

Out of left field, mega-budget movie staple Sam Worthington plays Jake Scully, a paralyzed marine who finds himself shipped off to the savage planet of Pandora.  Scully’s twin brother was a scientist who was in the process of becoming a Na’vi avatar, a fake alien body in which he would download his mind so as to walk amongst the hostile natives.  After Jake’s brother is killed, he becomes the only person who can successfully utilize his brother’s avatar body.  His mission, to infiltrate the natives of Pandora and convince them to make way for the military onslaught that lies in wait for them should they not relocate.  The Na’vi live right on top of a much desired mineral that the visiting Earthlings want and taking no for an answer is not an option.  Of course, once Jake gets begrudgingly accepted by the Na’vi, the whole “Dances with Wolves” comparisons kick in and the film’s perfunctory story is set in motion.

Utilizing a conventional plot or story isn’t necessarily a crippling thing to a movie.  Many a solid film is built upon familiar structures and archetypes that any audience member will be wise to.  One merely need find intriguing and worth while ways to tell what essentially the same old story.  What’s so consistently dispiriting about “Avatar” is how little it tries to break new ground outside of its endless visual palette.  It’s an experience ripe with one resplendent looking scene after another, but so many of these scenes feel in service of something so hopelessly predictable, and not written with much spark, that as large pieces of “Avatar” leap off the screen, they quickly land flat on their face.  Cameron skips along at a brisk pace which keeps the movie from becoming plodding, but one has to wonder what his real motivations were for dashing along so swiftly.  Was it because he didn’t want to stretch his runtime, or did he not want the audience to realize how truly mechanical and clumsy much of his film is?  Strip away the jaw dropping visuals and there really is nothing left of note.  But then, there are those jaw dropping visuals.

There is never once an unconvincing shot in “Avatar.”  Its digital creations feel not only entirely real at every turn but are gorgeous to boot.  Where as so many CGI creations of movies past have been cursed with the air of being weightless, having soulless eyes or not quite matching the living actor or prop standing next to it, everything on Pandora feels like it’s a beautiful, living, breathing creature.  What sells the Na’vi visually is their eyes and skin.  So many digital characters have been chalked up as failure because nothing lives behind their eyes, or they look as if they’re the spawn of leather people.  Cameron and his army of geeks have finally solved these riddles.  The Na’vi look at others and themselves with complete believability. They’ve successfully given a digital creature a convincing soul.  Their skin textures are completely flesh like, dodging that cursed sensation that they’ve been created out of airline luggage.  Also, the performance of the actor genuinely comes through the technology, helping create this life like effect.  If Worthington and Zoe Saldana weren’t shoe horned into such run-of-the-mill parts, Saldana playing alien Pochahontas, the effect would be truly stunning.  But this run-of-the-mill syndrome seeps deep.

The Na’vi are not so much an alien race than just stereotypical Native Americans turned tall, blue and given a tail.  His choice to turn his groundbreaking alien species into tree hugging, bow and arrow users who ride horses and love their planet tells me that all of Cameron’s imagination and resources went into how these creatures look, while nothing was invested how they act.  In fact, a lot of “Avatar” and its creatures have this Earth’s second cousin syndrome.  Cameron has successfully built a planet from the ground up, but it doesn’t feel far enough removed from our own.  The majority of his creatures and life forms are simply reconstituted from Earth’s own zoological output which robs “Pandora” of being a truly alien place.  Sure, there are floating mountains and people fly dragons, but Pandora, for all the effort that went into it, is a place meant to rock our eyes sockets and not our minds.  For Cameron’s next planet building effort, one might suggest he construct a place that feels more like a truly alien planet and less like a South American jungle on steroids.

All bitching and moaning aside “Avatar” does eventually succeed on a plain of visceral action.  Despite his decade plus of sitting on the directorial sidelines, Cameron still has action chops in spades, mercifully avoiding the rust which killed George Lucas and his Star Wars prequels.  While his small scenes with actors, real or digital, feel haphazard and uneven, when he unleashes his digital might, staging jungle chase scenes, flying through the environment on dragon back or unleashing an army of flying vehicles on the poor natives, he’s completely at ease blowing us away.  “Avatar’s” final act consists of some stunning set pieces which overwhelm any viewer, even an extremely jaded one such as myself.  There’s virtually no end to all the digital strength and it almost makes up for the tiresome and rudimentary nature of the rest of the film.  Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang score the film’s only genuine performance marks.  Both are old pros who don’t seem able to phone things in no matter how common the screenplay.  Weaver’s no bullshit tolerating scientist gives the movie a much needed off the cuff sensibility.  Lang’s bad guy is commonly bad, but effectively so.  He hates all this tree hugging, hippy crap and you can see how he relishes the branding of his huge guns. 

I may have deprived myself of some of the “Avatar” experience by skipping the 3D showing.  3D often leaves me with a headache after an hour, so considering the 160 minute runtime; I decided it would be best to save a 3D showing for later.  Seeing the film in 2D seems to amplify its faults as many other viewers seem acutely aware of the deficiencies pointed out here, but don’t seem to care.  Cameron designed “Avatar” to be a 3D experience and despite my massive reservations about it I will see it again and see how the 3D element effects its playing.  As a 2D experience it’s a deeply flawed movie that still manages to amaze in parts.  Hopefully it’s nothing more than an opening act for Cameron, a film meant to give his new technology a dry run in the hopes of utilizing it for a deeper experience later.  Should he reinvest himself in the complex characterizations which helped define his earlier work, and successfully meld it with his wonderful new toys, then there’s no end to the heights he could achieve.  Let’s hope for that next time.

 

Ten Word or Less Review: Daddy’s home!  To kill!

Genuine horror genre gems are few and far between.  Many endeavors, old or new, get undermined for an endless list of reasons that there’s no real need to regurgitate here.  But one thing that sabotages the genre more than anything is credible acting.  Material of a sordid or even amateurish, nature can be elevated with great acting.  And the horror genre, a field ripe with the sordid and amateurish, often cast the inexperienced, the outdated or the ‘just here for the paycheck’ level of actor to stand in frame and yelp, scream or monologue.  1987’s horror venture “The Stepfather” rises above these trappings by casting stalwart character actor Terry O’Quinn as the monster of the title.  His is a performance which elevates this genre exercise from one of sure mediocrity to qualified cult classic.

 The opening scene of “The Stepfather” immediately classifies it as a slightly more than average thing to reckon with.  A wild haired, wooly bearded and blood splattered O’Quinn steps into his bathroom.  He begins to discard his clothing and jewelry.  He takes a shower, cuts his hair and shaves, emerging from the bathroom a completely new man in a new set of clothes.  As he walks down the stairs of his house we’re exposed to the terror he’s unleashed.  A wife and three children lay dead on the floor, their throats slashed.  He walks by their bodies completely at ease with his acts, walks out of the house unrecognized by his neighbors and sets off to find his next family.   So begins Joseph Rubin’s film which turns the American dream into an American horror show.  This intro runs against the grain of traditional horror exploits.  “Stepfather” distincts itself by dwelling on the aftermath of the slaughter, a more important aspect in this case, instead of being hung up on the execution of it. 

 This role helped elevate O’Quinn out of the struggling character actor realm, and in a way I think it also limited his future.  He wouldn’t find wide success in films again.  He worked steadily on TV in various series until he broke out on “Lost” 17 years after “Stepfather.”  Much of this is likely due to what can be referred to Anthony Perkins Syndrome.  Perkins embodiment of Norman Bates in “Psycho” crippled his career.  He played crazy too well and in turn many producers shied away from him because of it.  I suspect a similar fate befell O’Quinn when it came to putting him in features.  His portrayal of a family obsessed psychopath is remarkable for a film of this nature.  His scenes of mental breakdown and rage are as convincing and believable as his quiet moments of family life.  Unlike Nicholson in “The Shining”, you believe this man loves his family when he isn’t day dreaming about killing them.  If you were to remove his more horrific moments, you could almost make a convincing drama about a man trying to adopt a new family and the obstacles he faces in doing so.  But as it is, when his idealized view of family life begins to stretch beyond his acceptable field of vision, he cracks.  He begins to plot his family’s demise and to make preparations for the next one.  O’Quinn’s more elevated moments are delightfully insane and occasionally hilarious.  He gradually works himself up into fits of explosive rage which he relays much too convincingly.

All this adoration isn’t to suggest that “Stepfather” is some kind of unqualified masterpiece.  It isn’t by any stretch.  There isn’t much of anyone to note in the rest of the cast, a stock of forgotten 80’s players who didn’t accomplish much outside of genre work and television.  Director Joseph Ruben can’t work out all the inadequacies in his screenplay either.  He’s got a sure hand and knows that O’Quinn is holding up his movie, but there’s an entire subplot involving a previous wife’s brother searching for O’Quinn’s killer that amounts to little more than the necessary placement of a prop during the climax.  It’s an incredible waste. 

Ruben would go on to make a quasi-trilogy of domestic horror tales rooted in the same kind of style as “Stepfather”.  He made another demented husband thriller with the bland Julia Roberts vehicle “Sleeping with the Enemy” and followed that up with the child from Hell, Macaulay Culkin, in “The Good Son.”  Neither was anywhere near as enjoyable as “The Stepfather.”  Though watching the kid from “Home Alone” fall off a cliff to his death was pretty hilarious.

I often find the cult horror genre to be a bit of a joyless crapshoot.  The attributes that fans of this material enjoy often run contrary to my own taste.  The movies are often slogs through gross out nonsense or poorly made exercises that viewers enjoy for nothing more the rank amateurishness on display.  “The Stepfather” rises above this usual blather by having a fun idea, the extreme warping of American family values by a psychopath, and a sure footed performance to shoulder the movie.  Without these it would be just another slasher run through worth no one’s time.  But considering the skill on display here “The Stepfather” comes off as a worthy effort that any horror fan could proudly recommend to film fans without fear of being scoffed at later.

Ten Word or Less Review: Not bad, not great, a tad better than so so.

“Invictus” is the latest sure handed effort from sturdy, prolific maestro Clint Eastwood.  It demonstrates his sturdy and sure handed directorial style to a T with its sturdy and sure handed pacing.  It has a sturdy and sure handed temperament and an overall feel which could be called sturdy and sure handed.  Yes, my praise is slightly mocking, but sturdily so.  Clint Eastwood can craft wrenching drama out of superior screenplays, and he can also guide remedial exercises in genre to the screen with great frequency.  “Invictus” has aspirations of being the former, but is mostly the later.  It’s a tale not told with trite contrivances or over blown melodrama as in most sports based films, but it lacks punch and feels bloodless in too many places.

Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela is his early years as South Africa’s newly appointed president.  Glancing over larger political issues of his day, “Invictus” follows his attempt to turn South Africa’s second rate Rugby team, the Springboks, into a point of national unity.  The newly minted majority of black South African’s despised the team and saw them as an extension of the apartheid system which kept them in poverty and destitution for decades.  They wanted the team disbanded and to have a new team created in its place which would represent the new South Africa.  Mandela realized that the white minority of South Africa still adored the team, as well as held a great deal of political and economic power.  Dismantling the team would lead to increased fears on their part that Mandela and his new government wanted to wipe their existence from the country.  He approaches the team’s captain, played by Matt Damon, and subtly suggests that the team needs to win the Rugby World Cup.  Mandela wants the team to stay so it can transform itself into a beacon on unity for all of South Africa, not just its white minority.

Eastwood presents all of this in sturdy and sure handed fashion.  I’ll stop saying that now.  His inclination for low key sequences and unobtrusive observations doesn’t work to his advantage much with “Invictus.”  Too much of the first hour feels pedantic and downright dull.  He doesn’t construct much personal drama for any of his characters, instead letting the overall situation carry his film.  After slowly working through these perfunctory paces, “Invictus” begins to find a heartbeat, albeit only a minor one.  It has some rousing moments to be sure, but the film fails to connect consistently on a emotional level.  The lack of a compelling arc for any of his characters is a vital missing link.

Morgan Freeman turns in a worthy performance as Mandela.  In a film such as this it would be easy to whitewash his character and fall into blind hero worship.  “Invictus” doesn’t go so far as to do this, but nor does it strongly examine Mandela with a critical eye.  Eastwood and Freeman go so far as to acknowledge the imperfections of the man, but they never much deal with what those imperfections really are.  All the same, Freeman gives Mandela a touching and good willed nature that’s difficult to not warm to on some level.  Fairing less well is Matt Damon as the Springboks team captain, Francois Pienaar.  His character isn’t superfluous, but he has no real dramatic payoff or journey to take.  Damon’s part amounts to the occasion inspirational speech and scenes of playing rugby.  One can assume his decision to take the role was based purely on the Eastwood factor.  He is in no way turning in a poor performance; he’s simply stuck with a character that is dramatically marginal with no real place to take him.

“Invictus” has a noble purpose and a good spirit so tearing it down and picking it apart seems like a cruel and unnecessary venture.  It is in no way ground breaking, it’s barely interesting at numerous turns, but it achieves some small level of uplift and never panders or insults the audience with cheap dramatics.  Eastwood is too smart for such games.  But on the other hand he seems too flat footed a director to make this material fly above ground level.  There’s a bigger, more complicated movie to be found here, but this isn’t it.  It’s a slightly better than average sports drama and not much else.  For a story about the unifying event of an entire country, it feels like there should be more, but there’s not.

Ten Word or Less Review: Strong final act, but two really boring ones before it.

“Repulsion” is the kind of black and white, foreign made, independently minded movie that gives such creations a bad reputation amongst the masses of unwashed film goers.  If ever an example needed to be pointed at as to why art house and foreign films can be such a relentless pain in the ass, one need look no further than Roman Polanski’s 1965 ‘classic.’  Anemically plotted and excruciatingly tedious for half it’s run time, “Repulsion” eventually builds up momentum, a sense of dread and the slimmest of purposes to justify its existence.  But so many mundane trappings have to be slogged through that the rewards don’t justify the effort it requires.  To flower up the plot some, “Repulsion” is about the fragile mind of a young and beautiful woman who slowly loses her grip on reality, ultimately finding herself lost in murder and insanity.  In more curt terms, it’s about a boring chick who goes nuts.

A young and stunning Catherine Deneuve plays Carol, a spa employee who seems to have lost her personality somewhere in her handbag.  Behind her pretty but vacuous eyes, Carol is a deeply troubled paranoid schizophrenic who’s teetering on the edge of madness.  This madness initially only manifest itself as fretting over trivialities and endless scenes of Deneuve starring off into space, ignoring everyone around her.  Men seek her company, her co-workers try to engage her, but more often than not she wonders around in an endless stupor, gazing at nothing endlessly.  If Polanski wanted us to illicit some kind of sympathy, or any feeling at all for Carol, he would’ve been wise to instill some kind of personality into his lead.  He believes that Deneuve’s beauty is enough to hook us.  He uses her classical look as a substitute for anything resembling real human emotion.  There’s a lack of anything remotely intriguing going on outside Carol’s head makes “Repulsion” unbearable for far too long.  Maybe Polanski was trying to say that the beautiful can be insane for far longer than the regular folk out there. We ignore their troubled nature because we’re preoccupied by their looks.  Maybe so, but the idea doesn’t make for compelling drama in and of itself.  As Carol is never defined beyond her good looks and blankness, her character remains a non-entity one is left to grasp at empathy for that isn’t there.  If Carol ever once felt like a real person slipping away to something horrible she can’t control, then “Repulsion” would be a much stronger experience.

It’s a creepy final act where Polanski finally earns back some points.  After all the paint drying drama unwraps for nearly an hour of “Repulsion’s” runtime, Carol’s sister leaves her for the week with her beau, and no sooner is she out the door than Carol slowly snaps to pieces in her isolation, finally bringing the film around from its until then languid nature.  The walls literally crack around Carol.  She suffers from nightmares of a terrifying rapist who creeps into her room at night to violate her.  Hands reach out from the walls for her.  As her madness latches on and won’t let go, she becomes homicidal, killing the men who only see her beauty and not the dangerous depravity pushing her off the edge.  His sudden instilling of menace and dread make “Repulsion” crack and snap in all the ways it previously lacked.  But it’s not enough to salvage the experience.

There are scores of professional film critics who adore anything Polanski makes and specifically they love “Repulsion” without waiver, but I stand in opposition to them.  His decision to prolong an extremely tepid opening act in combination with his failure to make his central character anything but a passive vessel of crazy cripple the film in a way from which it never recovered for this viewer.  Lovers of art house cinema will no doubt go on loving “Repulsion” as they frequently have for the past 45 years, but this viewer found the experience riddled with tedium and only minor awards for all the waiting around.

Ten Word or Less Review: Old fashioned Mamet with a harsh ending.

“Homicide” is David Mamet’s 1991 effort about a police officer, Joe Mantenga, having a crisis of conscience which brings his loyalties as a police officer into conflict with his long unacknowledged Jewish faith.  While on his way to a important bust, he gets sidetracked by the murder of an old Jewish lady in her convenience store by shotgun.  Before he can pass the buck onto another officer he gets wrangled into taking the case and finds accusations of conspiracy from her powerful family.  He begins to feel a strange awakening of belonging to these people he has long marginalized in his own mind and begins to wonder if his allegiances in life have all been folly.

“Homicide” is full of Mamet’s trademark, straight in your face dialogue.  His characters don’t so much talk as bark at each other like hardnosed pit bulls.  It’s this style that always draws viewers into his peculiar stories.  Characters with such straight ahead determination and clear view always mesmerize.  Mamet always collects great actors for his ventures who rarely disappoint.  Mantegna once again rises to the occasion under Mamet’s direction.  William H. Macy begins to emerge as a strong character actor here while as yet untapped Ving Rhames gets a memorable scene at story’s end.  And while the performances are universally admirable, Mamet makes a strange decision at tales end.

What surprises more than anything about “Homicide” is its finale, which in a way is foreseeable, but is amazingly cynical.  “Homicide’s” final scene renders our protagonist journey a useless endeavor, his efforts squandered on a exploration which dead ends in a series of revealed contrivances and simple resolutions.  With his focus in doubt and determination wavering, Mantenga becomes the anti-Mamet character.  We take away from his conundrum that we shouldn’t let pangs of religious fulfillment cloud our judgment as to who’s trust worthy and who’s not.  His cop blindly throws himself into this underworld of Jewishness out of misguided sense of belonging, never stopping once to think about who these people really are, what their agenda is and what they might want of him.  He forgets where his loyalties lie, he makes mistakes and in the end he destroys himself.  It’s an odd and emotionally cruel way to wrap up a story.  I can appreciate the guts it took to end “Homicide” on this note, but I can’t shake the sensation that Mamet made his otherwise compelling police drama pointless by doing this.