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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Inside Job (2011) – If you’re a champion of deregulating financial markets then you’ve got a difficult position to explain.  As the world’s economic downturn winds down its third year, Inside Job gives viewers a refreshing look back into the events which lead to this epic cluster fuck of financial recklessness.  If the reasons and whys of how all this went down have gotten fuzzy, or maybe you were too pissed and/or unemployed to wrap your head around the details to begin with, Inside Job lays it all out in an even and digestible way.  It’s fascinating stuff but when you cut through all the details it’s the same bullshit behind the curtain as it always is: corrupt, uncontrollable, Herculean greed.  The destruction and subsequent aftermath of the economic sector feels like some bizarre suicide/murder ritual in which the heads of massive financial institutions knowingly slaughtered their companies and showered themselves in the blood money that came spraying out.  Trillions of dollars are gone, scores of lives are wrecked, world wide unemployment is high and will remain that way for the foreseeable future, a few people in high places have made off with mountains of loot, not one person sits behind bars and probably never will.

Hanna (2011) – Director Joe Wright has crafted a reputation for himself as a purveyor of bloodless prestige efforts. Pride & Prejudice, The Soloist, that agonizing piece of crap called Atonement.  What fun it is to learn that Mr. Wright apparently had an operation to get the stick up his ass removed.  Wright has ditched his high minded senses and directed Hanna, a Bourne inspired action movie that’s more a kooky lark than anyone imagined it could be.  Hanna may be routine on paper but it is edgy in execution.  An odd ball action fairy tale of a kind, Hanna buzzes along on a trip hop action score, courtesy of the Dust Brothers, setting a fleet footed pace for itself which while quick, never runs over the viewer.  Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett and new comer Saoirse Ronan get handed a b-grade screenplay but all turn in A efforts.  Like good action flicks they know to bring just enough to the table to make their characters tick.  Fans of sleek, mostly uncompromising, action flicks will dig this.

 

Meek’s Cutoff (2011) – Only film critics can use words like frustrating or slog and mean it as a term of endearment.  I am not that kind of film critic  but Meek’s Cutoff is the kind of movie that gets that kind of review.  Remote, distant and emotionally minimal, Meek’s very often left me adrift with boredom and fidgety to depart the experience.  15 minutes into it I was ready to take up jogging as an excuse to stop watching these people walk nowhere.  I held fast and endured the duration but Meek’s Cutoff never drew me in for more than a few passing moments.  Void of tension, this arid drama follows a group of pioneers as they cross the west during the middle 1900’s.  They have little clue as to where they are and become increasingly desperate for water and direction.  Allegories abound and fans of meditative cinematic experiences will love it, but most people, and I have to call me most people this time, will be stupefied at how mundane this trek is.  It’s topped off by an ending that can only be considered audaciously cryptic and unfulfilled.  Nothing like being bored to piss for 100 minutes for absolutely no tangible reason.

[youtube-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDyGl2uIQ-Q]

Ten Word or Less Review: Thou smelleth a foul stink in the air.

During the end of the previous millennium Shakespeare had one Hell of an agent working in his corner.  Between 1989 and 2000 many of the Bard’s works saw big screen adaptations.  Othello, Romeo & Juliet,, Henry V, Richard the III (twice), A Midsummer Nights Dream, Love Labors Lost, Hamlet (again twice), Much Ado About Nothing, Taming of the Shrew (as Ten Things I Hate About You), won Best Picture for falling in love and even Shakespeare’s much derided Titus Andronicus made the leap to the screen.  This last one, directed by Julie Taymor and with a title shortened to simply Titus, is of special note.  It was a wildly extravagant exercise in cinematic overindulgence thrust onto the screen by the renowned stage director.  It was a debauchery, it was awesome, it was a loony tunes adaptation and it went seen by almost nobody.  Twas a shame.  Regardless, Taylor now returns to adapt another of Will’s finicky works, The Tempest.  Despite numerous attempts to adapt Tempest to cinema over the past century, there’s one from 1911, 50’s sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet remains the only feature of note anyone outside the art film circuit could probably recall.  Sadly, Taymor’s return to Shakespearean theater is a shoddy endurance test.  Some may point the finger at Taymor and her adaptive skills but I feel that some cause of this inert movie is the source material.

I have no doubt that there are miles upon miles of scholarly papers which hold The Tempest out as one of Shakespeare’s most fascianting works, but from where I’m sitting it feels like a work from a man no longer at the top of his form.  One of Shakespeare’s final plays, The Tempest is a revenge fable with no revenge.  Prospero, now Prospera and played by Helen Mirren, traps those who have conspired against her on her island of banishment at which point she commences to annoy them.  That’s about it.  Titus Andronicus cooked his enemies children into meat pies.  That is an act of revenge.  Also, working to make your hot daughter fall in love with the handsom son of the guy you hate doesn’t feel like retribution.  It doesn’t help that this romance feels completely rote.  These young lovers feel like tedious window dressing.  When it all concludes it feels like a story about a half dozen individuals scheming to all ends but actually doing nothing to one another.  Watching Taymor try to pry life out of this tale feels like so many rusty narrative wheels grinding away like machinery in need of lube.

Taymor has a trademark style that she brings to Tempest in full force: wild costumes, intense, kaleidoscopic visuals, surrealistic imagery, striking art direction.  She pours it all on as much as she can but none of the effort amounts to much.  Her Tempest simply drones on and on as characters maneuver around one another talking up a storm, literally and figuratively, as the visuals flare up around them like so much smoke and mirrors.  One can’t help but to be taken in at times with her delirious imagery, there is a scene with a character morphed into a crow that feels delightfully freakish, but it amounts to a superficial appreciation of pretty pictures.

This Tempest is a shame and shows that Taymor can work only so much magic with the Bard’s more confounding works.  Her directorial efforts since Titus have been similar to this, opulent looking but mundane, so maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise after all.  She turned one of Shakespeare’s most derided dramatic exercises into a gory phantasm of grizzly movie goodness and though it may have been a mess dramatically it was a thrill to watch.  She can’t find a way to infuse that kind of edginess, or even the most basic narrative interest, into The Tempest, but I’m left to wonder if anyone could.  As the author himself once wrote, the play’s the thing.


[youtube-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uleGd_xXuo4]

Ten Words or Less Review: Coolest movie of the year…so far.

This nameless man has a long history in movies.  He’s been with us since the 60’s, when heroics and existentialism melded together into one enigmatic screen presence.  He was Alain Delon in Le Samouri.  He was Ryan O’Neal in The Driver.  Steve McQueen tried to play him most everything he did.  Clint Eastwood came to embody him.  Robert DeNiro gave him a harsh edge,and a name, in Heat.  Daniel Craig’s James Bond is also this man.  Like the anthisis to the cliche of the sloveny cop with a ramshackle apartment, this hero criminal always lives in an under furnished apartment that would look vacant to most eyes.  To this man, stuff is trivial, his acts warrant our appreciation.  Though he lives on the wrong side of the law he has a code of ethics which he cannot divorce himself from no more than one could separate oneself from ones own arm.  And though he’s a criminal we respect him for his sense of duty to an tangible code.  He is always exceptional at doing one thing which comes to define him while the rest of his personality remains enigmatic.  How he got where he is isn’t important.  Why he is as he is isn’t important either.  What is important is that he is there now.  Most important of all, you never wrong this man nor a person he feels a proclivity for protecting.  When you do, the machine in him will start and nothing will ever deter it.  In Drive, Ryan Gosling plays this nameless title character we can attach no handle to other than Driver.  With eyes that can look through people like so much glass and a faux blank expression which can endear and terrify in equal measure, Gosling embodies this long nameless creation and in turn brings forth one of his best incarnations yet.

Drive hits the screen with music and title cards that make us think it may have time warped here directly from 1985 under the guiding hand of Michael Mann.  Composer Cliff Martinez gives us a beat of synthetic styling over hot pink credits that would make Harold Faltermeyer, John Carpenter or Tangerine Dream shiver with delight.  We are dropped into a heist where we watch the Driver utilize his unflappable skills to elude pursuit from the cops.  This is his night job.  During the day he is a stunt driver for movies, flipping over in vehicles without his pulse raising a notch.  When not working, he dwells within that unfurnished apartment.  One afternoon he lends a hand to his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a single mom next door who needs a little help with cars, groceries and other mundane chores of life.  The two begin what is not so much a romance, there isn’t any sex, as much as a mutual understanding of compassion and security between the two.  He shares his love of driving with her and a bond is formed, culminating in holding hands.  That’s as erotic as it gets.  Then her husband is released from jail.  He’s not a bad guy or a scoundrel.  This movie doesn’t need a pandering and hostile cliche like that.  What he is is in trouble with dangerous people and needs help.  Gosling’s Driver volunteers it, hoping to set the whole family on the right track.  Of course it all goes wrong, the husband is killed, one thing after another deteriorates, the large bag of mandatory cash is sought by greedy men and then people begin to drop like so many swatted flies.

Gosling, if you’ll excuse the terrible analogy, is the motor which powers Drive.  His embodiment of this calm but unstoppable force of a man gives Drive its cool center.  He never cries or screams or makes over the top speeches.  He is that subtle and intimidating kind of presence which demands that we listen when he speaks, watch when he moves and really watch when he thinks.  Around this pillar of deep stoicism are great actors with chewy parts.  Carey Mulligan may not get much show or payoff, women in movies like this never do, but looking into Mulligan’s warm eyes for any prolonged amount of time is never a problem.  Her abundance of soul clearly draws in the man who is searching for his.  Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) get small, amusing parts that fill out the edges of Drive with color.  Hovering over them like a hostile, omnipresent force is Albert Brooks.  The renowned filmmaker, known for his comical panic attacks and well oriented insights into the delimmas of middle class caucassian guys, here turns a very darker shade of pale.  He gets the chewy dialogue and scene stealing moments.  His part is supporting but you will remember everything single thing he says and does.  This ability to instantly elevate any scene several notches is a rare treat from a guy who often goes under or misused.

Though movies get cited as sources of endless violence I think of the majority of them as producers of endless mayhem.  With mayhem, buildings topple over and thousands of people are crushed, but you think nothing of it and their deaths amount to little, if anything.  Think Transformers or the Fast and Furious series.  Violence occurs when one person harms another and makes you cringe and gasp when it happens.   A real death coming to the proverbial doorstep of a real person.  It can be ugly and make us completely reassess things when it happens.  This is rare in movies.  Drive is a violent movie and not just any kind of violent, but savage.  Ryan Gosling’s jacket should be considered ominous foreshadowing, not just a cool wardrobe choice.  Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s picture quickly morphs from smooth and elegant to smooth, elegant and bloody.  The first half of Drive is so even tempered, so majestic and steady that when these fits of brutality are unleashed, it can throw a viewer into shock.  The picture doesn’t turn chaotic or lose its mind, it is merely being upfront about these characters being in a kill or be killed scenario.  As these people quickly turn on each other there is pain in their demise, but the artistry of the piece is never lost.  You’ll never see a shotgun blast to the face quite so artfully done as you do here.

As Drive concludes our enigmatic man with no name drives off.  You could conceive that it is to his death but men like this never die, even when they do.  This character will come back around as he must and always does.  He may come back in a different vehicle of choosing.  Perhaps on a motorcycle.  Maybe he’ll appear on the horizon on a horse.  Perhaps he will simply walk into the frame and demand our attention.  He may race vehicles or he might rob banks or he might assassinate people.  He will always be on the fringes, the only place where a criminal with a code can exist.  When he does come back we’ll watch in rapt attention like we always do because when done right we can never take our eyes off this guy when he does these things.  It is too hypnotic to turn away.

Two sentence reviews:

Biutiful (2010) – Javier Bardem plays it grim but great in this Barcelona underworld drama about a guy doing some very rough things to make ends meet for his kids before he dies of cancer.  Really solid but keep the rope and razors locked up while you watch it.

The In-Laws (1979) – A cute comedy curio from that brief age of movies when average looking but exceeding talented actors like Peter Falk and Alan Arkin were allowed to headline major movies.  Falk is priceless and fans of 70’s/early 80’s comedy should enjoy it.

In the Mouth of Madness (1995) – One of John Carpenter’s waning works.  His crisp visuals are intact but he desperately misses Kurt Russell by this point and the screenplay falls far short of the ambitious, Lovecraft influenced story he’s aiming for.

Valhalla Rising (2009) – I fell asleep four times watching this movie but dreamt about it everytime I noded off which resulted in an almost halucinatory experience.  If Terrence Malick made Conan the Barbarian it may have played something like this.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974) – Though it beat Rocky Horror to the punch in rock/schlock/horror homage outlandishness by a year, it was quickly surpassed, and rightfully so, by the red lipped cult classic.  Brian DePalma helmed this goofy, glam rock musical which is cheesy/watchable but feels upstaged on most levels by the long reverred and hedonistic antics of Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

[youtube-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pr0Mk3hjc20]

Ten Word or Less Review: Big summer comedy lives up to hype.

Hangover 2 thoroughly won the box office battle this summer but Bridesmaids won the hearts and minds of the people.  This Judd Apatow produced flick has his well-tested fingerprints all over.  It is a well written and meaningful comedy that isn’t afraid to dive into toilet humor.  Though oft chalked up by some as Hangover for girls the comparison is lazy and off base.  Bridesmaids tries much harder to be something besides a collection a silly potty humor.  It doesn’t talk down to its audience or even make things easy all the way through.  Kristen Wiig’s Annie is a sympathetic character but she is also destructive and emotionally stunted, something the film fully acknowledges and deals with head on.  It is a testament to Wiig’s winning screen persona that we tolerate Annie as well as we do.  In the hands of a lesser performer, Hi Kate Hudson!, we’d probably wait for her to get run over by a bus and enjoy it when it happened.  Bridesmaids was one of this summer’s only word of mouth hits which shows how much people took to it.  Not many films play to sizeable audiences for two solid months anymore.  If you didn’t make it yet it hits home video in just a couple of weeks.  The women will probably love it and the guys should have little trouble acknowledging its winning charms.

 

[youtube-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJ1v6oFHefc]
 

Ten Word or Less Review: Kevin Smith actually tries.  Doesn’t actually succeed.

If one word has come to embody the directorial output of Kevin Smith over the last few years it would have to be lazy. Really lazy.  His over reliance on trademarked characters, routine plotting and inside nerd jokes had backed him into a creative corner, slamming into rock bottom at full force with Cop Out, a movie so bad it makes you want to break things.  Smith decided to respond to his growing army of detractors by creating Red State, an unorthodox and ambitious drama about religious zealots kidnapping teens with an eye to murder them for their sinful ways and a subsequent standoff with the United States government.  It is ambitious subject matter for a guy whose staples include sex jokes and Star Wars references.  Despite the honorable try, Smith blunders things up too much to give the movie a pass.  Red State has a promising setup and some quality to note, but falls pretty far of its abundant potential.

Red State starts by introducing us to three teenagers who think they are getting into the plot of an old Kevin Smith movie.  They are on a quest to get laid.  The leader of the trio has been using the internet in hopes of finding a skanky woman who will bed the three of them and end their agonizing virginity.  They find a backwoods, trailer trash gal (Melissa Leo) who makes an offer they can’t refuse, all three at once, but instead drugs them.  They wake up in the clutches of the deranged Reverend Cooper (Michael Cooper), an apocalyptic preacher who denounces gays, African Americans and pretty much everyone by default.  Cooper has taken his hatred of American immorality to the next level, murder.  Cooper kills a homosexual and plans to kill the three teens, then everything begins to spiral out of control, eventually elevating into a bloody standoff with government agents, headed by one Agent Keenan (John Goodman).

As Red State’s plot builds with more and more potential Smith can’t help but let more and more air out of the bag.  He can’t get his big ideas off the ground long enough to make us think about them.  His first gaffe is settling on no real protagonist, something the film desperately needs.  The three teens that start the film are too inconsequential and Smith doesn’t make a point to flesh them out or draw in sympathy towards their plight.  Michael Parks is grand and showy as the hate vomiting Cooper and he’s the closest thing to a lead Red State provides, but he’s not any kind of emotional anchor for the story.  He is a deranged hate monger who certainly grabs our attention, but there’s no arc for the guy to follow.  Goodman’s role is also underserved.  As the head of the strike force told to take over the compound and eliminate the residents, he gets a conflict to deal with, children in the building, but no pay off because Smith’s script keeps cutting itself short.

Smith the director shows a lot of improvement here but Red State’s slow undoing lays at the hands of Smith the writer.  As his first cinematic exercise away from his comfort zone Red State is an ambitious experiment that feels half formed.  He’s tackling extreme rightwing insanity as well as heartless government recklessness and none of it culminates in a satisfying way.  The aforementioned lack of a solid central character keeps cropping into thought because as soon as you think you’ve settled on someone to follow through the chaos, Smith kills them.  Red State has a devil may care attitude towards its characters which renders everyone equally inconsequential.  Every time a plot thread starts to gain the slightest momentum the character involved gets disposed of via bullet.  Smith has tons of dramatic threads working here but he seems too fixated on wrapping things up just as they’re about to get going.  The movie runs a scant 90 minutes.  Bit by bit the movie keeps promising things it refuses to deliver, deflating little by little.  At the 11th hour Smith suddenly seems like he’s been pushing us towards something amazing that we never saw coming.  There’s suddenly the potential to complete one of the great cinematic Hail Mary passes.  Had he had the balls to follow through with it, I’d have applauded its ambition and forgiven its sins, but it doesn’t happen and Smith wraps things up with a bit of monolog that quietly makes his point and the story is over.  Blah.

As much as I deride Smith in general and as much as I think Red State is a thorough misfire, it shows us that he is capable of something more.  He is an intelligent, funny and clever dude and he clearly has something to say about things besides comical adult relationships wrapped around dick and fart jokes.  I’d quote Obi-Wan Kenobi at him if I could, “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”  But as Smith has already made clear his intention to soon retire from directing, Red State feels all the more depressing.  It’s sad to see this untapped potential begin to eek out only to see it go unfulfilled.  And why is he retiring?  So he can do more podcast and write more comic books.  I feel inclined to quote another beloved Lucas movie at the moment, “You left just as you were becoming interesting.”