Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Let’s be honest, fans of the Transformers films could care less what professional film critics, let alone myself, have to say about Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  I, naturally, found it to be a headache-inducing waste of time and money, but if Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro made Taxi Driver 2: Bickle Bites Back, I’d be the first in line, regardless of what critics or my peers said.

So instead of diving into an all out bash, it seems more appropriate to try and gauge if fans of the Transformers franchise will enjoy this third installment.  At my half-capacity, 3D showing, the crowd seemed more or less into it.  Tween laughter was evoked from Shia Labeouf’s incessant mile-a-minute banter, and from the aimless, politically incorrect dialogue delivered by the couple who play Labouf’s parents.  Kids seemed interested in the (few) action scenes, and the general consensus murmured as everyone left the theatre was that “it was better than the last one.”

Me, I just don’t get it.

Good robots work with humans to fight off the bad robots who want to take over Earth and enslave all its inhabitants.  I don’t get why it takes two hours and 40 minutes to deliver on that very simple plot.  I don’t get why the characters are forced to talk endlessly using dialogue that no one could possibly fully understand, or why the first action scene doesn’t commence until an hour and 13 minutes into the movie. 

I also don’t get how the characters can leave Washington, D.C. then get attacked by robots moments later on a highway near… Chicago.  Then, in the next scene, be back in D.C., as if 20 minutes have passed in real time. (This is no exaggeration.  They leave a D.C. apartment, and are suddenly attacked on a highway with street signs to Aurora via route 39, then they outrun the bad robots and are instantly back in D.C.)  I can’t be the only one who notices this stuff, right?

I’ve made no secret in labeling the second Transformers, Revenge of the Fallen, one of the very worst films I’ve ever seen. A great deal of my lambasting was due to that film’s laborious running time, and director Michael Bay’s apparent disregard for gender equality.  Well, Transformers 3 is not only longer but it’s just as crude.  Maybe I’m being nitpicky, but don’t women get offended when Bay introduces a major female character, he often does it with an extended tracking shot of their half naked ass?

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is, I suppose, better than the second; which is the faintest praise I can give.  It isn’t, as Bay and his cronies have suggested to the press, “the most spectacular visual experience ever seen.”  Its 3D isn’t flashy (which is a good thing), but it isn’t the Avatar game changer Bay thinks it is.

And, for me, therein lies the problem.  I can fully enjoy movies like Piranha 3D, The Expendables, hell, even the Saw films, because they don’t pretend to be anything more than the pop garbage they are.  But Michael Bay, I sincerely believe, thinks that the best movies aside from Transformers 3 are Transformers 2 and Transformers 1.  He thinks he’s a masterful filmmaker because his fighting robot flicks make more money than they cost.  Well, that’s absurd, and this guy needs to be put in his place.  If not, I’ll be reviewing Transformers 6 in a few years. D-

Monday, June 27, 2011

In Appreciation: Peter Falk

Like most people my age, I was first exposed to Falk as the Grandfather/Narrator in The Princess Bride.  And after his hilarious turn in Jon Favreau’s Made (“BECAUSE YOU LOST MY CARPET CLEANING VAN AND I DON’T LIKE YOU!”), I was curious to see more.

And that’s when I discovered it.

Aside from Columbo, Falk was best known for being a member of the John Cassavetes troupe, making genuine independent films on a shoestring budget, that were, usually, released to much fanfare.  Titles included Husbands, Opening Night, and, most notably, A Woman Under the Influence.

Released in 1974, A Woman Under the Influence is inarguably one of the very best films released during the best decade of American cinema.  It’s about Mabel (played to delirious perfection by Gena Rowlands), whose mental instability quickly grows too much for her husband, Nick (Falk), to bear.  Nick is a blue collar, regular ol’ Joe, and although he means well, his strained patience leads to sudden outbursts.  Soon he sends Mabel to a treatment center where she can receive the adequate care he cannot, or will not, provide.

For the past few days, I’ve read countless Peter Falk In Memoriams, all of which touch on his role as Nick Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence.  Most of these articles are written by film critics who have forgotten more film history than I will ever know, but it’s incredible to see how opinions differ so drastically concerning Nick.

Mabel is a bad mother, and a worse wife.  She cheats, neglects, and is often cold and dissonant, all characteristics that can be attributed to her illness.  Upon first viewing of the film, I felt pity for Mabel, but still regarded her as a lost woman, nearly broken beyond repair.  In short, I saw her as the villain. 
Rowlands and Falk in A Woman Under the Influence
When I watch the film now and carefully study Nick, or, more accurately, Falk’s portrayal of Nick, it’s clear to me that Nick is the lost one, broken beyond repair.  A husband can’t be faulted for not knowing how to care for his mentally ill wife.  But Nick’s ignorance on the issue is as shocking as anything Mabel does in the film.  Nick does several deplorable things, he shares a six pack of beer with his pre-teenage kids, screams, hits and berates Mabel during her frequent episodes; all of which contribute to the regression of his wife.

In one emotionally horrific scene, Nick demands that Mabel, fresh home from the hospital and feeling better, go back to her usual ways.  He orders her to scream and shout and make her standard vocal and facial tics. Everytime I see the film, I try to understand Nick’s motivations in doing this.  Why is he so intent on erasing Mabel’s progress?  Why does he want to keep his wife ill?  To be honest, I’m not sure, which is a credit to Cassavetes’ direction and the flawless performances of Falk and Rowlands. 

Intentions left unspoken are far more cinematically intriguing than having everything spelled out.  Those awful, never ending monologues that so many American directors rely on today, the ones where the villain (or whoever) unveils every little plot detail just to make way for a bow-wrapped ending, are equivalent to a magician revealing his tricks.
A Woman Under the Influence is a masterpiece, but a tough one to get through.  It runs longer than two and half hours, and sustains a fierce emotional brutality throughout.  You haven’t seen manic arguing until you see Mabel and Nick go at it. 

Mabel acts the way she does because of her illness, but Nick’s motivations are far from solvable.  It’s a character that keeps evolving and adding new dimensions.  It’s the type of performance that lives on; long after its creator has passed.

Peter Falk died on June 23, 2011 from complications stemming from Alzheimer’s.  He was 83 years old.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

This Week in Why Bother: New Footloose Trailer

“This Week in Why Bother” is an ongoing series in which I question why Hollywood is doing what it is doing, and explain why you need not bother with it.

Moments ago, the trailer for the new Footloose movie went viral and opinions are thus far in synch: what the hell is this?

The original Footloose is a campy masterpiece. It’s got forced acting, cheesy musical numbers, a bitchin’ soundtrack, classic dialogue and heavy-handed dramatics; which all work perfectly as a 107 minute ball of cheese.

Looking at the new Footloose trailer, we can deduce that this new Ren (played by Kenny Wormald, whose other credits of prestige include You Got Served and Center Stage: Turn It Up) talks with a God-awful Boston accent (actually, to be honest, I'm quite sure where that accent alleges to be from), dresses exactly the same as Kevin Bacon did (which should really help with the film’s 2011 setting), and will most likely spend the majority of the film wearing sunglasses and pursing his lips in disdain.

What else? Crunk music (but…why?), Dennis Quaid in dire constipation, some shlub standing in for Chris Penn, awful special effects (but… why?), a lame caricature of an uncle; it all amounts to something grossly unnecessary, which is a shame, given that the film’s director, Craig Brewer, made the great Hustle & Flow six years ago.

I’m not one to call my shots, but being a great admirer of bashing all things Transformers, I was fully prepared to call the upcoming Transformers flick the worst movie of the year. After watching the Footloose trailer, I think I’ll cut the fighting robots some slack.

Five Trailers to Watch (and why you should care)

Tabloid – July 15

Because it’s from Errol Morris, who proved with Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, and others, that he’s one of the best documentary filmmakers to ever work in the medium.  Tabloid tells the true story of Joyce McKinney who, allegedly, kidnapped her lover, tied him up in her home, and had sex with him repeatedly for days, all in the hopes of dissuading him from Mormonism.  Watch this trailer and tell me you don’t want to see this movie.

Martha Marcy May Marlene – Oct. 7

Because it’s got some serious buzz coming out of Sundance and Cannes, and because you’re really curious to see if Elizabeth Olsen can deliver beyond what her surname, made famous by her older twin sisters, promises.  Also, the trailer looks crazy creepy.  Also… John Hawkes. 

Take Shelter – Oct. 14

Because director Jeff Nichols, and star Michael Shannon, did subtle wonders with Shotgun Stories.  Also because it co-stars Jessica Chastain, who will be fresh off her Tree of Life glory, and scene-stealing character actor Shea Whingham, who you should probably start to take serious notice of.  If Terrence Malick and David Lynch ever collaborated, their eerie offspring would probably look something like this.

A Dangerous Method – Nov. 11

Because it’s David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen, who have previously created two of the best works of their careers with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.  Also because the trailer doesn’t promise a stuffy period piece, but rather some psycho-sexual drama in the vein of Cronenberg’s excellent Crash.  Also, Michael Fassbender.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Dec. 21

Because David Fincher. Rooney Mara. Lisbeth Salander. Trent Reznor. Dark hues. Creepy house. Daniel Craig. Christopher Plummer. Piercings. Guns. Stellan Skarsgård. Karen O. Motorcycles. Snow. The. Feel. Bad. Movie. Of. Christmas. Sold.

Friday, June 17, 2011

9 Fantastically Awful Movie Dads

To help bring attention to Father’s Day this weekend, movie sites are currently littered with lists promoting the Best Movie Dads of all time.

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird; Ray Kinsella, Field of Dreams; George Banks, Father of the Bride; Daniel Hillard, Mrs. Doubtfire; Chris Gardner, The Pursuit of Happyness… you know what all of these movie dads have in common?  Being boring.

Forget the lovey-dovey, give me the sick and gruesome.  Here’s a call sheet of nine of the worst dads to ever grace the silver screen.

Humbert Humbert, Lolita
As played by James Mason
Marry a woman solely because you’re obsessed with her 14-year-old daughter, wait for wife to die, kidnap girl from summer camp, fail to mention that her mother is dead, be persistent with sexual advances.

Noah Cross, Chinatown
As played by John Huston
Be horrible enough to make your daughter scream something aloud that no daughter should ever have to scream aloud.

Jack Torrance, The Shining
As played by Jack Nicholson
Deny that you’re an abusive alcoholic, lock family in some obscure hotel for months, slowly go insane, attempt to hack wife up with an ax, chase son and wife through a hedge maze during a blistering snow storm; all work and no play will make you a dull boy.

Peter McCallister, Home Alone/Home Alone 2
As played by John Heard
Forget son at home, fly to Paris, make wife fly around the world to secure safety of son, act nonchalant about the whole thing.  Wait a year, lose same kid in an airport, go to Florida, make wife fly to New York City to secure safety of child, act nonchalant about the whole thing.

Ed Wilson, Natural Born Killers
As played by Rodney Dangerfield
Threaten, berate, abuse, and molest daughter (which will in turn fuel her desire to become a mass murdering psychopath) all in a 10 minute sitcom parody with appropriate laugh track.

Bill Maplewood, Happiness
As played by Dylan Baker
Drug and rape two of your son’s classmates, describe to son, in great detail, that you drugged and raped two of his friends and that you’d, probably, like to drug and rape him, too.

Col. Frank Fitts, American Beauty
As played by Chris Cooper
Beat son nearly unconscious for smoking pot, send son to mental institution, neglect wife, berate gay neighbors, beat son for going into your cabinet, kick son out of house for (maybe) being gay, kiss straight neighbor, kill straight neighbor.

Daddy Deiks, Frailty
As played by Bill Paxton
Convince young sons that God has hired you to kill people, force son to dig a dungeon to harbor said “demons,” force sons to kill innocent people, seem pretty indifferent about the whole thing.

Daniel Plainview, There Will Be Blood
As played by Daniel Day-Lewis
Drag infant boy around with you for show and tell, make money off of being a “household name,” neglect boy ceaselessly, force feed him whiskey as a cure for deafness, send boy away as to not deal with boy’s deafness.   Twenty years later, tell boy his whole life is a lie, remind son a dozen times that he is actually just a bastard in a basket.

Happy Father’s Day!

This Week in Why Bother: Green Lantern

“This Week in Why Bother” is an ongoing series in which I question why Hollywood is doing what it is doing, and explain why you need not bother with it.

I have virtually no interest in what the Green Lantern trailer promises: awful special effects, Ryan Reynolds, the bound-to-be-cringe-worthy-phoned-in Peter Sarsgaard and Blake Lively performances. 

Currently (at 10:30 a.m. on the film’s day of release) Rotten Tomatoes says the movie has a 21% approval rating.  It’s no real shock that $150 million doesn’t necessarily buy you a quality film, but don’t take my word for it.  (Click the author’s name for their full review.)

One of the absurdities of many modern superhero movies is how they adorn silly plots with great solemnity and millions of dollars in special effects. Nor does Green Lantern shortchange us on dialogue; indeed, it spends a great deal of time at the impossible task of explaining the logic and rules of its plot. I am amazed at how calmly humans absorb and accept the incredulities of these stories.

…If Warner Brothers doesn’t invest in quality — as it did with Christopher Nolan’s excellent Batman films — more substandard diversions like Green Lantern (and those previous DC big-screen bummers Watchmen and Jonah Hex) will be flooding multiplexes for the foreseeable future. If the company is going to shove a property like Green Lantern down consumer throats the least it can do is give us a good movie.  And Green Lantern is bad.

Green Lantern, a new primer on how not to make a comicbook movie unless you want to screw shit up. Flat FX, smirky acting, clunky writing and clueless direction. WTF?

Listen, I wouldn't give a damn if this screen Lantern had its own energy source. But not even director Martin Campbell, who worked wonders intro-ing James Bond in 2006's Casino Royale, can get this cinematic corpse on its feet. 

There are movies willed to life by the passion of their creators, and there are movies like Green Lantern, which are willed to life strictly by market forces.

Politically, Green Lantern could be a Tea Party recruitment video. It believes that the federal government is both omnipotent and inefficient, and that the country, nay the world, can be saved only by an individual hero — a Paul Revere out of Sarah Palin's mythology, who uses his lantern to warn the enemy that we will not give up our arms, especially such muscular ones.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Academy Changes Number of Best Picture Contenders, again

Today in Why Not Just Leave it the Hell Alone?, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) released a statement that said they will decrease (or keep the same, but not increase) the number of films that can be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar this year.

Instead of automatically nominating ten contenders, as they’ve pointlessly done for the past two years, the Academy will nominate no less than five, but no more than ten films this year.

According to AMPAS, this sigh-inducing change will require that a film receive at least five percent of the first-place votes during the first round of balloting to receive a Best Picture nomination. 

So, basically, expect to see anywhere from five to ten Best Picture nominees. 

This change, which appears to be more annoying than necessary, comes at time when there is no longer ten Best Picture-worthy American films made a year. Most people suspect that the Academy boosted the nominees to ten after The Dark Knight and Wall-e failed to land a Best Pic nomination in 2008.  Since doubling down, the coveted Best Picture award gave equal opportunity to films about helping a poor black teen simply because she’s a human being (Precious), and others about helping a poor black teen simply because he has the chance to be a superstar (The Blind Side).

And, as we’ve seen these past two years, whether it’s five or seven or ten, it matters little how many films are nominated for Best Picture. The winner, whether sentimentally forgettable (The King’s Speech) or daringly bold (The Hurt Locker), is typically agreed upon weeks before the envelope is open.

For argument’s sake, if the nominations were tomorrow, what would deserve to be nominated? For my money:

The Conspirator
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Midnight in Paris
The Double Hour
The Tree of Life
Super 8

Eight.  Not bad.  How many will be there come January?  Time will tell.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


About an hour and a half into Incendies, I wanted nothing more than to sneak a quick glance at my phone to check the time.  Usually this urge derives from great boredom, but in the case of Incendies, it was quite the opposite.  You see, Incendies is so intricate, so elaborately conceived and seamlessly executed, that I didn’t think it was possible for the film to conclude in any coherent manner with its remaining 30 minutes.  So, I wasn’t checking the time in anticipation of leaving.  I was checking the time, hoping the movie would continue on for hours.  That’s really the best compliment I can give to a film.

Twentysomething twins Jeanne and Simon are read the will of their mother, Nawal.  The will contains a few requests, most of them laminated with angst.  Chief among those requests are two sealed envelopes.  One envelope, the will tells us, is for Jeanne to deliver to the twins’ father.  The other envelope is for Simon to deliver to their brother.  Problem is, their father died before they were born, and they’ve never heard of said brother.

No additional details are given. Jeanne’s confusion is temporarily outweighed by Simon’s spite, but she soon leaves her native Canada for the Middle East, in search of the father she didn’t know she had.

That’s an intriguing enough plot to entice most any moviegoer, but director Denis Villeneuve, working from Wajdi Mouawad’s play, pushes it further.

Throughout the film, Jeanne’s journey is crosscut with her mother’s story, lending itself to several thoroughly detailed narrative tricks. So, for instance, we see the story of why Nawal was outcast from her family, and how she later became a political prisoner.  None of this, it seems, is known by Jeanne or Simon, so when they hear of the many unfortunate events their mother endured, they’re hearing it for the first time, even though we, the audience, have already seen it in Nawal’s story.  But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, we discover bits of information in Jeanne’s story and jump back in time to see the event play out in Nawal’s life. 

If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is on the surface.  But due to Villeneuve’s seamless script and Monique Dartonne’s smooth editing, we’re never once bogged down by plot holes or confusion.  Despite its intricacies, Incendies flows perfectly.

The film, at its core, is a series of revelations.  Many times, the characters in the film receive shocking news that rocks them to the core.  It’s in these moments that Incendies deserves to be hailed as a great film.  It would be common for actors Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette (who play Nawal, Jeanne, and Simon, respectively) to lash out and rage rage against the dying of the light from such harsh realizations.  But they don’t.  They keep it in.  Maybe a tear falls, maybe a jaw drops.  Would you cry upon hearing news that could completely curb the person that you thought you were?
Mélissa Désormeaux and Maxim Gaudette
Now for a story.  When Incendies was finished, I, like the other 22 people in the theatre with me, remained seated through the credits.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was too stunned to form a rational thought, let alone move from my seat.

I eventually found myself exiting the theatre, and walking outside into the magic hour dusk.  I wandered around for a while, my mind completely adrift.  A few minutes later, I checked the time and noticed that the movie had ended an hour ago.  What had I been doing for the last 60 minutes?  Time was completely lost.

This rarely happens to me.  I’m, usually, perfectly capable of watching several films in one sitting.  I’ll even clock in two or three flicks at the theatre, completely able to turn off one film to make room for another.  The last time a film hit me this hard – to the point of literal lost time – was when I walked out of There Will Be Blood, stuck in a daze, like I’d just stumbled my way out of a bar fight.

Incendies is a Canadian film, spoken in French, Arabic and some English.  It was nominated for the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Film (why it didn’t win is far beyond me), but is just now getting released domestically.  I usually don’t consider such awkwardly released films for my Top 10 of the Year wrap up.  But if I were, then Incendies would instantly be put to the top of the list.  It’s one of the very best, most evolved films I’ve seen in years. It’s violent, but not tasteless; it’s intense, but not hysterical.  I can’t promise that it will move you, but I can promise that it will most certainly impress you.  Just like the characters in the film, this is a movie that will rock you to the core.  A+


Things are starting to pick up a little bit, aren’t they?  I greatly feared that 2011 would cinematically play out like the disappointing and mostly forgettable 2010.  But, with indie darlings like Beginners, we’re starting to see a more justified semblance of hope.

Beginners tells the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a lost little boy who just so happens to be nearing 40, who learns that his loving father, Hal (Christopher Plummer) not only has stage four lung cancer, but is also gay.  Oliver, kind and aimless, tells us how he learned about these revelations through an amusing bit of narration, often comparing American life in the present year (2003) to other monumental time periods in his family’s history. 

Beginners, you see, isn’t your standard, father-and-son -reconcile film.  It’s a moving time capsule of one man’s personal journey for identity.  Oliver’s relationship with his father in the final months of Hal’s life are in the past, and they are cross cut with Oliver’s relationship with Anna (Mélanie Laurent) a quiet young actress he’s just met.

As Oliver walks through his father’s now-empty home, he’s reminded of things.  He’s reminded of his close relationship with his oddball mother (Mary Page Keller), his amusement at his father’s homosexual transformation (new clothes, new boyfriend, new music, new friends), his caring for his father at his most ill, and so on.  He shares some of this with Anna, but mostly just pretends that his father’s death hasn’t affected him as badly as it has.

So really, Beginners is two films woven perfectly together.  On one end, it’s the story of a son’s immediate acceptance of who his father really is, and his longing to find such self-acceptance in himself.  On the other side, Beginners is a wondrous love story, which begins as uniquely as it progresses.  Its love story is like (500) Days of Summer without the gimmick, like Annie Hall without the verbiage, or Before Sunrise and Before Sunset with a jumpy narrative.

I’ve been a fan of Ewan McGregor’s since he bolted onto the screen, dodging cops to the tune of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” in Trainspotting.  And while I can’t say I’ve enjoyed some of his career choices, when he’s good, it’s enough to outweigh his bad.  With that in mind, I’ve never seen him better than in Beginners.  He plays Oliver as lost, but not regretful; as longing, but not lacking.  Oliver knows how to shift his flaws, but he just can’t find the motivation to.  It’s a great character arc, worked perfectly by McGregor.

Mélanie Laurent kicked some serious ass as Shosanna in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but here, we’re privy to another side of her.  A kind, gentle side with great insecurities.  I imagine it was a risk for writer/director Mike Mills to cast Laurent here (her career could’ve easily been typecast as the blonde bitch who’s a force to be reckoned with), but thank God he did.  Oliver isn’t perfect, and neither is Anna, but they certainly are perfect for each other.  That’s a chemistry you don’t often see achieved between two actors.
At 83 years old, Christopher Plummer is at the top of his game.  Coming off his only Oscar nomination (for 2009’s The Last Station), Plummer does absolute wonders in Beginners.  As Hal, he gives many fascinating traits to a man who so desperately loves to live, but understands that his time is limited.  Hal is loving, restrained, ill, confused, and, most importantly, tender to the needs of other.

Whether he’s Captain Von Trapp, or Mike Wallace, or Aristotle, or Christopher Newport, or Leo Tolstoy, Christopher Plummer has long been able to hit his mark and shake things up.  I’ve seen him as good, but never better, than he is in Beginners.  Give the man an Oscar.

As the title suggests, Beginners is a film about starting.  Starting your new life, your new love; about taking the step to find out who you are and what you can do.  It’s gentle, effortless and all-together wonderful.  A-

Monday, June 13, 2011

Super 8

Now this is what I’m talking about.  With Super 8, we have the rarest of movies.  It’s an action film, with explosions and monsters and guns; a coming of age film, with tweens and adolescent humor and squeaky voices; a serious drama, with foreboding stares and confrontational tears and moody lighting; and it is, above all else, absolutely brilliant.

Mark this occasion, because it only happens once a year (if we’re lucky), but Super 8 is a perfect summer blockbuster.  It’s fast paced, accurately written, thrillingly edited, boldly acted, and concluded just right. 

Loyal readers of this blog know that I detest most summer blockbusters, which can be attributed to one simple fact: the majority of them treat us like complete morons.  It’s been increasingly disheartening to watch such nonsense rake in hundreds of millions of dollars.  Such large box office draws only lead to one thing: more garbage.  It’s a vicious cycle that Hollywood execs have been cashing in on for decades.  But originality, as it’s related to this genre, is utterly dead, which is why a movie like Super 8 (and Inception last year) is a welcome shot of adrenaline to the heart.

I’ll let my pontificating cease, as to not get ahead of myself.

While filming a pivotal scene for their epic zombie-invasion film, a group of articulate middle schoolers escape near death when a massive military train derails in their small town. (The town, for the record, is never established.  Neither is the year.  Which is great.  Think about it, how many action movies have you seen that show the White House then flash the words: WASHINGTON D.C.?  Really… I thought we were in Bangladesh).

Once the dust has settled, the film’s main subject, Joe Lamb (played astonishingly by newcomer Joel Courtney) witnesses something bust through a metal door on the train and escape into the woods.  The military soon invades the town, conspicuously investigating the crash while dodging inquires from the town’s people, namely Joe’s cop dad (Kyle Chandler), still burning with anger and resentment from the sudden death of his wife four months earlier.

A slew of attacks from the (unseen) monster occur, people go missing, dogs run away, tanks roam the streets; but the show most go on, so the kids keep the camera rolling.

While Super 8 is bound to be compared to E.T., a far more accurate comparison would be Stand by Me, one of the last mainstream films to so perfectly nail the way small town teenagers talk and act.  The kids in Super 8 are quite a group.  There’s the overweight, bossy director, the brace-faced pyromaniac, the overachieving nerd, the blonde bombshell they all crush on, and the reserved, motherless romantic. 

It would be so incredibly easy for writer/director J.J. Abrams to underwrite the child characters, to simply give them a few lines of exposition dialogue only to progress the plot.  But thankfully for us, Abrams spends time developing each character; we actually get to know these kids.  We identify with their profanity-laced humor, their sexual curiosity, and their longing to fit in.  A quick search on IMDB shows that most of the young actors in Super 8 are unknowns.  Incredible.  You may have heard of Elle Fanning, who after this and Somewhere is giving her older sister a serious run for her money as the most impressive child actress working in movies.
I could fill three more pages detailing all the ways that Super 8 gets it right (I haven’t even touched on the tumultuous relationship between Joe and his dad, which is unflinching and honest), but where’s the fun in that?  Super 8 needs to be experienced, in the theatre, by everyone.  It’s for people who love blockbusters, and the people who’ve lost hope in them.

I will mention one final thing.  Much like Stand by Me, the monster in Super 8 is completely secondary.  Stand by Me isn’t about four friends trying to find a dead body.  It’s about the journey, the progression.  Super 8 is just like that.  Once the monster is seen and the mystery is revealed, that isn’t nearly as impressive as the journey we’ve just watched the kids take.  God bless J.J. Abrams, the man got it right.  A-

(Note: don’t leave when the credits begin.  There’s more.)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

11 Controversial Films that Aren’t Really that Controversial

Who doesn’t love a little controversy with their movies every now and again?  Controversial hype is a tricky card to play.  It can seriously help draw an audience (sure, I was curious why the MPAA initially slapped Blue Valentine with an NC-17 rating) or turn potential viewers away (The Brown Bunny is, and will always be, flat out dumb, controversy or not).

Some of the movies on this list are classics, others are complete duds.  Regardless, they’ve all earned their fair share of unreasonable controversy.  Some were banned, others were protested, some even inspired death threats. But looking back at these films now, I have only one question: seriously, what’s all the fuss about?

Lolita (1962)
You know the story: a professor agrees to marry a widower, simply because he’s attracted to her underage daughter. Stanley Kubrick changed several aspects of Vladimir Nabokov’s original novel to help appease censor boards (most notably, 12-year-old Lolita was made 14 in the film).   The result is a very fine film, but a tame one by all standards.  Through the professor’s sexual longing, Kubrick manages to pull off the most excruciating case of blue balls ever committed to film, which, contrary to what you may think, is very enjoyable to watch.

I imagine upon its initial release, Lolita made a few viewers squirm in their seats, but today we can see worse on network TV. 

For some real incestual controversy, see: Lolita, Adrian Lyne’s 1997 remake

Dirty Harry (1971)
I was an admitted late bloomer to the Dirty Harry films, having seen the first flick about five years ago, and I was shocked at how little controversy it contained.  You see, I had heard that Dirty Harry was one of the most racist, right-wing motivated cops ever put on film.  Huh?  Critics at the time flipped shit, labeling the movie as a “specious, phony glorification of the police and police brutality with a superhero whose antics become almost satire" and even calling director Don Siegel and star Clint Eastwood “right-wing bigots.” 

I just don’t see it.  As far as police brutality in films goes, Dirty Harry is badass, sure, but brutal?  Nah.

For some real dirty cop controversy, see: Bad Lieutenant (the Harvey Kietel version)

Michael Moore movies (1989-present)
Let’s be honest, Michael Moore thinks his documentaries are lot more controversial than they really are.  While I enjoy (some of) them, Moore’s films are not the policy-changing hybrids that he plays them off to be. 

Yes, it is very cool to watch K-Mart declaring that they will no longer sell ammunition in any of their stores, but most of the time, Moore aims way higher than he can deliver.  If John Kerry had become President in 2004, maybe Moore’s films could justly be labeled as “controversial game changers.”  But alas, we’re now stuck with hyped yawns like Capitalism: A Love Story.  Get over yourself, dude.

For some real documentary controversy, see: Triumph of the Will; Titicut Follies

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Was The Silence of the Lambs controversial because a whacked-out dude tossed semen at a woman’s face?  No.  Because a madman kidnapped women, kept them in a well and later skinned them?  Nope.  Because a serial killer wore a cop’s face as a mask?  No, The Silence of the Lambs raised a fuss because it portrayed a mostly unseen serial killer as being a… wait for it… homosexual.  And…? 

Every heard of Luis Garavito?  How about John Wayne Gacy?  Jeffrey Dahmer?  The fact that Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs liked to apply eye shadow and tuck his member back while belting out a Q Lazarus song is not of issue.  The dude got off on KILLING people.  Shouldn’t that be a bigger deal?

For some real serial killer controversy, see: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Basic Instinct (1992)
Yes it has sex.  Yes it has a vag shot.  Yes it has mild bondage and lesbian jealousy and Jeanne Tripplehorn, but so what.  I could list you ten films in which the sex is kinkier, the nudity is more prominent and the acting is more atrocious. 

I actually really enjoy Basic Instinct.  It’s perfect Verhoeven/Eszterhas smut; a trashy and enjoyable blend of sex, drugs, death and revealing white dresses.  It’s worthy of attention, but not for overly controversial reasons.

For some real love story controversy, see: Antichrist

Funny Games (1997/2007)
Most of you probably haven’t seen Funny Games (either Michael Haneke’s 1997 German original, or his shot-for-shot 2007 American remake) which is a shame, because everyone deserves to have the shit scared out of them from time to time.

Funny Games is easily one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, which isn’t necessarily the byproduct of controversy. While vacationing at their summer home, an upper class family is greeted by two young men dressed in all white, who show up at their door and basically terrorize the shit out of them for the remainder of the evening. 

Many critics labeled the film as gratuitously violent, hell, a number of people even walked out of the Cannes premiere.  But here’s the kicker… none of the violence in Funny Games is ever shown on screen.  We only see the aftermath of violence, everything else is purely reaction based, which is a great credit to the actors involved in both films.

Haneke wanted to “make a film with a moralistic comment about the influence of media violence on society,” i.e., Funny Games is Haneke’s way of mocking (mostly American) movie audiences, who have become desensitized to the blood and guts and gore that litter contemporary horror films.

Funny Games is infinity more terrifying than any horror film I’ve seen in the last decade.  But, again, that doesn’t make it controversial, it just makes it deceiving.

For some real home invasion controversy, see: A Clockwork Orange; The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven’s 1972 original

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Before the public even had a chance to form an accurate opinion about Brokeback Mountain (you know, by actually seeing it first), people all over the country were demanding it go unseen.  Mostly notably, Utah Jazz owner Larry H. Miller, who famously pulled the film from his movie theatre near Salt Lake City upon learning of its “dangerous” same-sex romance content.

Give me break.  Had Miller, or Bill O’Reilly, or John Gibson, or the many other social conservatives (none of which, I believe, are known for their film criticism) actually watched the film, they would’ve known that it contained one very brief, very darkly lit, clothed homosexual sex scene.  That’s it.  Sure Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal make out a few times.  Yeah… and?  Have these guys never seen an episode of Six Feet UnderQueer as FolkThe L Word

Brokeback Mountain was unjustly labeled as the “gay cowboy” movie, which is funny for two reasons: one because it denotes that there’s something wrong with being gay, which is just silly, and two because the film does not contain any gay characters (there is, after all, a difference between gay and bisexual).

Brokeback Mountain isn’t a movie about gay people.  It’s a movie about romance, and a damn fine one at that.  Many people believe that deep-rooted Hollywood homophobia caused this film to lose Best Picture to the far inferior Crash.  I believe there’s some truth to that, but regardless, we can all agree that Brokeback Mountain in no way deserves to be remembered for the commotion made by a slew of insecure talking heads.

For some real homosexual controversy, see: Midnight Cowboy

Crash (2005)
Racism!  Stereotypes!  Los Angeles!  Ludacris!  A good friend of mine once described Crash as “Buddhism on acid,” which I feel is appropriate.  Crash basically shows its viewers how damn near every single race-related stereotype is accurate, but that we should all still love and accept each other in the most profoundly Hallmarkian way. Aww. 

Look, I’m not trying to belittle some of the content of the film.  A police officer fingering a woman he’s pulled over is never a laughing matter, even if it is kind of hard to take Matt “Wild Things” Dillon seriously.  Crash experienced one of the most elaborate sugar highs of contemporary Hollywood.  People loved this movie when they first saw it.  It gained steady word of mouth and eventually won the Best Picture Oscar.  But ask around now.  Why is it that most people consider Crash to be second-rate?

Maybe because the film isn’t as hot-button as many people initially thought.  Maybe because its basic message is the same one delivered decades earlier in a film called BambiCrash has its moments (namely the ones with Michael Peña), but controversial?  Meh.

For some real racism controversy, see: The Birth of Nation, Do the Right Thing

The Da Vinci Code (2006)
Here’s a perfect example of controversy helping a film.  From the get-go, several assorted Catholic factions got their panties in a serious bunch over Ron Howard’s film, which they said was full of “calumnies, offences, and historical and theological errors.”

Protests formed at movie theatres across the country, but to little affect.  The movie, which by nearly all accounts is a complete bore and not nearly as controversial as people were lead to believe, made a shitload of money, grossing $217 million in the U.S. alone (and more than double that abroad).  Granted, much of that money was probably doled out by fans of Dan Brown’s book, but The Da Vinci Code did a great job of cracking the formula.  Bad movie + popular book + loads of controversy = great success.

For some real religious controversy, see: The Last Temptation of Christ

Hounddog (2007)
When word leaked that Hounddog would feature Dakota Fanning getting raped, it was instantly dubbed as the “Dakota Fanning rape movie,” a tagline it has yet to live down.

After it bombed at Sundance, the film went through a number of reedits and was eventually released to virtually no fanfare.  And for good reason.  People didn’t stay away because Dakota Fanning’s character gets assaulted (which, incidentally, isn’t even shown), no, people didn’t see the film simply because the movie is bad. 

After hearing about the film (he admitted he hadn’t even seen it) North Carolina State Senator Phil Berger wanted all future films in his state to have their scripts approved in advance.  Really?  All that hubbub, just for a crappy little movie?  Next.

For some real sexual assault controversy, see: Irreversible

The Human Centipede (2010)
Like Hounddog, when The Human Centipede was announced, it was immediately slapped with a huge controversial label.  Also like Hounddog, the controversy proved to be ill spent, as The Human Centipede isn’t just bad, it’s goddamn boring, too.

You all know what it’s about: some psycho scientist kidnaps three people and sews them ass to face to ass to face, creating a living human centipede.  I was, naturally, curious to see how disgusting the movie would actually be.  And after watching it, I was struck with one thought: “That’s it?” 

The Human Centipede is gross, yes, but it isn’t’ that gross.  What it is, however, is a boring horror film with acting that’s a notch below that of soft core porn. I’ll put it this way, it could’ve been a whole hell of a lot more grotesque.  And by the sounds of it, director Tom Six’s sequel (which will now feature a 12 person human centipede) is aiming to be just that.

For some real gratuitously violent controversy, see: Salò, Or The 120 Days of Sodom; Cannibal Holocaust

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Tree of Life

Like all of Terrence Malick’s films, The Tree of Life is hyped in such a way that probably terrifies the director into hidden obscurity.  Malick, having only made five features in his nearly 40 year career, is film’s answer to J.D. Salinger. He doesn’t do interviews, he doesn’t go to premieres, he doesn’t post on Twitter, he doesn’t pop up on Blu-Ray special features, hell, the guy doesn’t even allow his picture to be taken on his movie sets.  He lets his films speak for themselves.  Which is fitting, because The Tree of Life, like all of his work, speaks volumes.

I knew absolutely nothing about the plot of The Tree of Life when I saw it, so how is it at all fair to ruin any of that for you here?  There are two ways to see The Tree of Life (which, for the record, everyone should): cold, knowing nothing about it, and again, because repeat viewings will be mandatory.

Many people, mostly professional critics and film historians, are going to seriously cash-in on thorough Tree of Life analysis.  “What does it all mean” psychobabble and the like.  And I suppose this is all right, but I don't believe that is Malick’s intention.  I do not think he aims for every audience member to pick and pull and prod at the tiniest details in the film and examine them incessantly.  The Tree of Life, more so than Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, is a moving poem.  You should feel free to study it, and look at it again and again, but endlessly analyzing it will only diminish its purpose.  Analysis paralysis, if you will.

To give some sort of context, I suppose the film could be labeled as Malick’s interpretation of the meaning of life, but that seems far too broad and absently-focused for Malick’s interests.  (Warning: for the remainder of the paragraph, I’m going to discuss very minimal plot details, feel free to skip ahead.)  The Tree of Life, in its most basic form, tells the story of a middle-class Midwestern family and their individual desires to figure out “what it all means.”  Jessica Chastain plays the warm, free-loving mother, a stark contrast to her loving but deeply strict husband (Brad Pitt).  They have three sons, the oldest of which is just now beginning to question and defy his father’s authoritarian methods.  The film intertwines the story of one of the now-grown sons (Sean Penn), but for purposes I won’t reveal.
Remember, that basic, rudimentary plot explanation in no way justifies the enormity of what this film contains, it’s just a tease.  But, as is always the case with Malick’s work, the execution of the story is equally as important as the story itself.

It took no less than five editors to fully encapsulate Malick’s distorted, shifting visualization of life, but The Tree of Life, I believe more so than any of Malick’s previous films, is technically flawless.  Emmanuel Lubezki deserves the next five Oscars for best cinematography, as he has created the best-looking film in years.  Alexandre Desplat seamlessly fuses his string-laced original score with the likes of Brahms and Bedřich Smetana, while production designer Jack Fisk recreates the ‘50s Midwest in a way that is holly believable. 

I’d be remised if I didn’t give specific mention to veteran casting director Francine Maisler's contribution to the film.   Jessica Chastain, who I’ve never seen before, is impeccable as the film’s lead.  She’s the moral backbone, balancing her husband’s sternness with her sons’ youthful joyfulness.  When her husband isn’t looking, she runs and plays with her boys like she’s one of them.  It’s as if she’s never grown up, and Chastain conveys this in a way that is utterly fascinating to watch. 

Can everyone finally give Brad Pitt some respect and realize that his acting talent so wondrously surpasses his celebrity persona? We’re constantly uncertain of what his character in The Tree of Life will do next, which is terrifying and magnetic.  Sean Penn is, well, Sean Penn, which is enough said, and the three unknown actors who play the sons all convey that very specific breed of Malick emotion, a feat every working actor should be envious of.
Some will hail The Tree of Life as the century’s first masterpiece, others will dismiss it as philosophical garbage.  And, despite the fact that neither of those assertions are accurate, both trains of thought are completely fair.  Yes, The Tree of Life is slow, very slow in fact.  But slow is not necessarily synonymous with bad.  Ingmar Bergman never made a fast film.  Neither did Stanley Kubrick.  Let me put it this way: you know what Transformers 2, Fast Five and The Hangover Part II have in common?  They're all fast-paced films, and they’re all awful. 

There are extended, wordless sequences of The Tree of Life that are bound to draw comparison to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which seems appropriate.  Both films were critical revered but widely misunderstood upon their release.  One is considered a classic; the other is slowly making its way to those ranks.  The Tree of Life is the 2001 of 2011; it’s this generation’s ultimate trip.  Good luck finding a better American-made film this year.  A

Sunday, June 5, 2011

X-Men: First Class

A funny thing has just happened. I’ve just now, not but two hours ago, finished watching X-Men: First Class, and I haven’t the faintest idea what happened during any of it.

Let me clarify.  The movie wasn’t confusing, nor was its narrative structure convoluted or elaborate.  So why can’t I remember damn near anything about it?  I wasn’t inebriated it any way, unless, of course, you consider boredom a drug, in which case I was wasted. 

So there it is, X-Men: First Class, like the majority of this summer’s blockbuster counterparts, is boring.  As all hell.  You’ll check the time, you’ll shuffle your feet, you’ll reposition yourself in your seat, and you’ll leave the theatre asking yourself why you bothered in the first place.

Here’s what I can recall: Kevin Bacon as a mutant Nazi, James McAvoy as a charming, walking, fully haired Professor X, Michael Fassbender as an angry, youthful Magneto, Lenny Kravitz’s kid with butterfly wings, Jennifer Lawrence cashing in on her post-Oscar nomination glory, January Jones as Betty Draper with sparkly skin.  There’s some talking, some shooting, some Fassbender foreboding, some mutant training, a lot more talking, and a final phoned-in battle which basically asserts that, if it were not for mutants, Russia and America would’ve blown each other to hell via nuclear missiles.

What’s with all these contemporary action franchises making the order of their films more confusing than the actual films themselves?  X-Men: First Class follows X-Men Origins: Wolverine which was a prequel to X-Men 3: The Last Stand which was a sequel to X-Men 2, but X-Men: First Class takes place before X-Men Origins: Wolverine… I think.  So, what does it all mean?  Who the hell knows, and more significantly, who the hell cares?

When I’m on the fence of apathy – a strong cocktail of equal parts boredom and indifference – my go-to grade is a C-, which, in my mind, is being kind here.  X-Men: First Class is worthy for two reasons, one more prominent than the other. Since The Last King of Scotland, James McAvoy has proved that, unlike the majority of American actors his age, he deserves to be taken seriously.  Likewise Michael Fassbender, who after a scene stealing performance in Inglourious Basterds and a game-changing performance in Hunger, is slowly taking the reigns as the most underrated actor of his generation.  If there is a sequel to X-Men: First Class, which there undoubtedly will be, then I’ll see it because of those two.  Until then, I’ll be busy trying to find a mutant power that combats boredom. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Great War Debate: Saving Private Ryan vs. The Thin Red Line

In the summer of 1998, American movie audiences were completely thrown off guard by the power of a war epic called Saving Private Ryan.  We’d all heard the hype: the eye-shielding opening scene, the gut-wrenching emotional drama, the subtle humor, and that kid who just won an Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting.  Hype is to film what kryptonite is to Superman; it can be irreversibly damaging.  Our expectations exceed their highest point, and we’re ultimately let down by the finished product.

Saving Private Ryan was not one of those movies.  It was, and remains, a perfect war film.  At the time of its release, it was the best war film, since, what… Platoon? And the best WWII film, since, what… Patton?  Which is to say, it was arguably the best war film ever made.  Steven Spielberg had done it again.  Just like he tackled the Holocaust in a way no one had seen, he had stormed the beaches of Normandy in a way no one was ready for.  And then, a few short months later, something odd happened. 
Storming the beach in Saving Private Ryan
In December of 1998, Terrence Malick released The Thin Red Line, his first film in 20 years.  The Thin Red Line was the antithesis of Saving Private Ryan.  It was slow and poetic and beautiful and, let’s just say it, kind of confusing.  But it was also undeniably brilliant.  As one critic said, The Thin Red Line was “the thinking man's war film.”

Saving Private Ryan is everything a great war film should be.  It has epic battle sequences, a heroic lead star, a strong supporting cast, mild humor to break the tension, and a tightly-wrapped conclusion.  It’s also, dare I say, rather conventional.  The plot is its only real function.  Eight soldiers are sent to find one man and send him home.  One by one, the men get picked off via an elaborate, individual death scene (mostly in the final battle), and, eventually, Private Ryan is safely sent home. 

It took me 12 words to describe the entire plot of Saving Private Ryan, but it’d take me 12 pages to describe the plot of The Thin Red Line, mainly because, there isn’t one. 
An anonymous soldier in The Thin Red Line
Whereas Saving Private Ryan is essentially the aftermath of a 20-minute battle scene, The Thin Red Line IS the battle scene, both literally and figuratively.  The main battle in The Thin Red Line, save a few breaks, takes up a bulk of the three hour film, as we witness the attack from start to finish.  Saving Private Ryan, rather brilliantly, throws us, without warning, onto Omaha Beach.  The Thin Red Line waits patiently with us as the soldiers grimly, and tediously, prepare for certain death.

In The Thin Red Line, we see the sun rise over a doomed hill on Guadalcanal. “Rosy-fingered dawn,” Nick Nolte’s angered, prepared Lt. Col. Tall, tells Elias Koteas’ fatherly, God-fearing Captain Staros before the battle.  Minutes later, hundreds of soldiers stealthily move up the hill, hiding as best they can behind tall blades of grass.  Minutes later, a young officer (Jared Leto), silently orders two Privates up the hill to their eventual death.  Leto has not one speaking line in the film, but his face says volumes as his two men are gunned down by soldiers in a hidden bunker. Seconds later, chaos ensues, and it never lets up.

Saving Private Ryan is bookended with two of the best-staged battles in film history.  Its violence is meant to shock, not to propel the story.  Guts spill out, a soldier looks for his arm, a knife is slowly eased into a chest, and so on.

Spielberg's violence

Malick's violence
Terrence Malick isn’t at all concerned with violence.  The war is the violence, not the actual dying.  So why is it that, with very little blood shown, The Thin Red Line is the more disturbing of the two films?  Simple.  Because we actually know, and grow to care about, the soldiers in Malick’s film.  But how is that?  We spend far more time with the Saving Private Ryan characters, and actually get to know their names and their personal histories.  Whereas in The Thin Red Line, some main characters only grace the screen for a single scene, others don’t even speak.

To be honest, I’m not sure how Malick pulls this off. I’m not sure how the most devastating scene of both films occurs when a soldier reads a letter from his wife in The Thin Red Line.  I’m not sure how the hardest scene to watch of both films is a soldier crying in the rain in The Thin Red Line.  I’m not sure how the most powerful scene of both films is Nolte and Koteas arguing with each other through the radio.

I’m not quite sure how Terrence Malick does it, he just…does.

Obviously, Saving Private Ryan was the successor of the two films.  It grossed $216 million, won five Oscars and remains a staple for Veteran’s Day viewing on broadcast TV.  The Thin Red Line made $36 million, won no Oscars and has never aired on broadcast TV.  And I understand why.  As I mentioned earlier, The Thin Red Line, upon first (or second, or third) viewing, is pretty damn confusing.  The persistent narration is done by a number of actors, and we’re never really quite sure who’s talking.  There’s no plot, no central character, no smooth resolution; it’s everything a war film shouldn’t be. 
Saving Private Ryan boasted big names, like Tom Hanks

The Thin Red Line's relative unknowns, like Elias Koteas, were as important as the film's big stars 
And that’s the point.  Malick doesn’t want you to know who’s doing the talking, or who the main character is.  The soldier is the main character.  The war is the story.  I once spoke to a WWII veteran who was, understandably, disturbed by Saving Private Ryan’s content, but loved the film nonetheless.  I urged him to watch The Thin Red Line.  After his viewing, his response was as follows:  “Well, I wasn’t exactly sure what the hell was going on in that movie, but The Thin Red Line is the only movie I’ve seen that accurately displays the hell of war.  That’s exactly how it is.”

Saving Private Ryan is a perfect war film, one of the best ever made.  The Thin Red Line is a perfect film, and the best war film ever made.  One is great with its tradition, while the other is masterful with its alternative style.

Earlier, I mentioned a powerful scene in The Thin Red Line between Nick Nolte’s Lt. Col. Tall and Elias Koteas’ Cpt. Staros.  Tall, with volcanic fury, orders Staros repeatedly to move up the front of the hill and attack a bunker.  Staros, knowing this order to be certain death, refuses to accept Tall’s order.  The subsequent five minutes are some of the finest moments ever committed to film.  At the end of the scene, Staros puts the radio down and quickly speaks a line in Greek.

We are not given subtitles. We are not given a meaning.  The soldiers around him have no idea what he said, and neither should we.  Exactly.