Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The 10 Worst Movies Of 2013

10. LONE SURVIVOR (d. Peter Berg)
The opening of Peter Berg’s supposed passion project (he volunteered for “Battleship” to get this off the ground – pound of flesh) is actual footage of Navy SEAL training. And as the heroic Explosions In The Sky score suggests, this is the origin of heroes, of men who will shape the world through brawn and attitude. And then the footage continues, and it begins to get a bit frightening. Suddenly, these troops are being cursed at, deprived of oxygen, tied up and brutalized. This montage ends in these soldiers graduating from the academy and meeting with friends and family, smiles on their faces. And then the next segment of footage, befitting the title, features a helicopter returning to base with one soldier, bleeding to death, punctured and annihilated. That’s the philosophy of modern war films, where we show the sacrifices the troops make without ever extolling the virtues of what we’re fighting for in the first place. The rest of “Lone Survivor,” believe it or not, is even more punishing, as a team of SEALS end up in an unwinnable situation and proceed to get torn up in some of the most visceral gun violence ever on the big screen. I’m not sure what this movie is really about, but it was a lot like getting shot at for two hours.

9. DRACULA 3D (d. Dario Argento)
What is this contemporary anti-art that is Dario Argento’s “Dracula 3D”? This retro retelling of the legendary saga pretends that there’s never been a Dracula movie made before, framing the action against a green screen background that wouldn’t pass muster on a PBS show and stranding poor, possibly sick Rutger Hauer with prose that no actor can sell. It’s bad in a post-modern way, where you find it hard to imagine that it’s being acted out by the likes of Hauer and Asia Argento, and not a couple of castoffs from the “Tim And Eric” world. At the very least, there is a sequence with a CGI praying mantis that ranks as one of the few moments this year where I honestly believed I was hallucinating in the theater.

8. BLACK ROCK (d. Kate Aselton)/YOU’RE NEXT (d. Adam Wingard)
I want this to be about the movies. I do. I want to talk about how these two films are byproducts of the horrid mumblecore era, one that has produced some strong films and a couple of great filmmakers, but has also resulted in a bunch of inorganically inarticulate films about people suffering from arrested development. I want to talk about how both films are joyless, pointlessly brutal, idiotic horror films that, befitting the mumblecore ethos, look like absolute shit. “You’re Next” peppers in some amusing humor, but it’s loaded with so much more shaky-cam bullshit than “Black Rock” that it’s basically a dead heat.

But again, and I am really not a trooper for this sort of thing, but both films feature disillusioned, psychopathic army vets as the villains. And there’s not one iota of believable character development to illustrate the mindsets of these rapey assholes. In “Black Rock” they’re dumbass blunt instruments, howling at the sky and firing wildly after three innocent girls. And in “You’re Next,” they’re killers for hire, mercenaries who walk into a Kevin McCallister trap because they were paid by someone to take out a miserable family of rich assholes. I have no qualms with negative depictions of the armed forces provided they’re interesting, three-dimensional portrayals. But when you just throw in some Fallujah, some racism, sexism, and general friendly-fire hate, you just look exactly what Aselton and Wingard are: a couple of attractive white filmmakers who hated every day they had to punch a clock, and who openly scoff when someone says “Support The Troops.” Maybe next time make a competent, good-looking, interesting film, and we can talk about your hatred for the armed forces and your feeble, de-politicized critique of the military-industrialized complex.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Nick's House of Horrorthon



Post-holiday depression. While suicide rates skyrocket during Christmas/New Year's, to me no part of the year is as down as the days immediately following Exhumed Films 24 Hour Horrorthon. Knowing you have to wait a whole twelve months until the best/most intense weekend of your calendar year can only be assuaged in one of two ways: self-induced coma, or programming your own fanciful lineup. Why let jocks monopolize fantasy scenarios? Without another sentence of preamble (excluding this one of course), I present, my curated 24-Hour Horrorthon:

Noon

Martin (1976)

We start things off mainstreamly (for this crowd anyway) with George Romero's psychological vampire drama. John Amplas plays a young (or unknowably ancient?) man who has a propensity for slitting wrists with razors and feasting on the blood of bored suburban Pittsburgh housewives. Cousin Cuda tries to guilt the vampire out of him. Romero himself and makeup legend Tom Savini appear as priests in my favorite non-Dead Romero film.


1:35

Slaughterhouse Rock (1988)

A guy dreams about the people who died in Alcatraz, visits it and his brother gets possessed by a demon and then people die. Whatever. The real attraction here is Toni Basil in a starring role and Devo's soundtrack, which makes it worth it (to me) to see on a big screen with an audience. Like I said, it's fantasy. Let me have my fun.


3:05

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973)

They've never shown a Hammer film at a horrothon and have had far too little Cushing, and this would be a nice remedy. The last of the British studio's Frankenstein cycle, the mad doctor becomes the head of a sanitarium so that he can carry on his experiments on the inmates, left to his own devious devices. Aside from another usually great Cushing performance this one has a genuinely creepy exhumation scene, a ton of extras wandering around as Victorian-era mental patients, the Bond series' original M, Bernard Lee, and the beautiful Madeline Smith. Bonus points for a pre-Vader Dave Prowse under that gonzo monster makeup, but then again, I'm guessing that wouldn't mean much to the Exhumed crowd.


4:35

The World's Greatest Sinner (1962)

A few films in, now things can start to get weird, courtesy of Renaissance Man Timothy Carey, with his directorial debut about an insurance salesman who decides to get into the politics/religion racket, specifically by declaring himself God. According to him, humans are have unlimited potential and the capacity for immortality.


He runs on this political platform (for some reason God needs to be president?), sports a cutout goatee and puts on rock shows to spread his message, but how do the Real God and Devil feel about this affront? Also, Frank Zappa scores his first film!


Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Jumpcut Junkies 24 Hour Horror Marathon


For seven years now I’ve been attending Exhumed Films’ absolutely delightful 24 Hour Horror-Thon, a horror onslaught that carries over for one full day. They screen original prints of older films, usually derived from the seventies and eighties, peppered with film trailers. But the best part about it is that Exhumed Films reaches deep, adding a couple of genre classics to a collection of films that run from obscure to borderline non-existent. There are films that even diehards will have never heard of, and each year they begin the festivities by distributing a list of clues for each of the 14 pictures being shown. The person who guesses the most titles correctly wins a prize, but the number of correct guesses rarely reaches past three.

They’ll usually pepper the lineup to add a number of colorful shorts and some brief breaks in the action, and stunningly are still able to cram 14 or so films in their schedule. But I thought, what if you were being hardcore and wanted to skip the breakfast breaks and momentary interludes? What if you just wanted 24 hours of straight horror, with a nice mix of familiar and unfamiliar? I wracked my brain to come up with a lineup that, while it doesn’t match the best Exhumed Films’ has to offer still runs the gamut from funny to scary, sexy to illicit. I tried to limit myself to older films you’d be tickled to see on the big screen – no one’s really clamoring for the opportunity to screen something from 2002 with an affectionately scratchy print – and I tried to mind showtimes and subject matter. Give or take, this lineup should take you from noon to noon.

MOVIE #1: PRINCE OF DARKNESS
Perhaps I am influenced by the good folks at Exhumed, who began the first two years of the marathon with “Halloween” and “The Fog.” My first inclination was to begin with “John Carpenter’s The Thing,” but while that is undoubtedly a classic, instead I opted for one that doesn’t get as much love (and one that wasn’t likely to overshadow the rest of the fest). This 1987 chiller focuses on an unlikely battle between a group of academics and the forces of the Antichrist, here re-imagined as the results of an alien visit some millennia ago. The movie’s got a number of awesome set-pieces, but the best is a found-footage moment that outdoes any number of “Paranormal Activity” entries in recent years, a tachyon transmission from the future that I suspect will stick with me for years.


MOVIE #2: HARDWARE
 Little-appreciated are the films of Richard Stanley, who had his own “Apocalypse Now” moment when he was fired from “The Island Of Dr. Moreau,” only to covertly re-appear as an extra underneath thick makeup for replacement John Frankenheimer. Stanley moved into documentary filmmaking, and I hope his following films have the swerve and nastiness of this punk cyber-thriller, which imagines a wasteland future world where the government programs machines to perform population control. More than twenty years old, “Hardware” unsurprisingly features an appearance by Gwar, suggesting what we’ve all known for decades, that they will outlive us all.

MOVIE #3: THE STUFF
I really hope I’m not taking too many cues from Exhumed Films, who featured “Q: The Winged Serpent” as their third film at last year’s Horror-Thon. This hilarious thriller, also from writer-director Larry Cohen, depicts a world gone mad thanks to the mass-marketing of a mysterious yogurt-like goop that controls the mind and ultimately kills. The magic of prosthetics: this movie features completely bizarre, completely unreal mutations that turn the human characters into puppets, and somehow that’s more horrifying than if they were turned into something more recognizably human.

MOVIE #4: SOCIETY
 Crossbreed “The O.C.” with “Re-Animator” and you’ll be close to where this film is pitched. A teenager from a wealthy family soon begins to suspect that his family is not like him for a very specific reason. And that reason involves the most horrifying orgy that you can ever imagine. It sounds like I’ve spoiled it: trust me, you’ve GOT to sit through “Society.”

MOVIE #5: MIRACLE MILE
The end of the world, as real as it gets: at first it’s not going to stop Anthony Edwards from his date with dreamgirl Mare Winningham. Oh, but guess what? It TOTALLY IS. An absolutely non-stop barrage of apocalyptic horror, a film that deserves a much stronger reputation than it currently has.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

NYFF At A Glance, Part II




Forgive me, but I’m having a hard time coping. Recently, I was part of a wave of critics who walked out of the New York Film Festival’s world-premiere screening of “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty” with negative opinions, only to be told by the good folks at Gold Derby that I was a “snarl-puss critic.” Apparently this is what it takes to dislike this watered down decaf latte of a film that presses easy baby boomer buttons and willingly drowns in craven product placement. Gold Derby wasn’t giving a review of the film, mind you. Just a review of the reviews of the film, which were almost entirely anecdotal. “Snarl-puss” critics like me were being accused of “tamping down the cool quotient” of this proudly square film, obscuring the fact that it’s really good it could be a curveball contender in an Oscar campaign that features a shortage of upbeat films. As if anyone who really loves films and has ANY respect for their own opinions is going to walk out of a world premiere and start talking about what OTHER people think instead of their own thoughts. In other words, to Gold Derby and all those with similar opinions: shut the fuck up you fucking moron baby.

There’s a fine line between labor-of-love and vanity project, and “Mitty” crosses it frequently, with director Stiller coaching Stiller the actor into a constipated performance as a Life Magazine photo processor dealing with the magazine shuttering its doors. He’s in charge of preserving the photo that will be the very last cover in the magazine’s history, but star photographer Sean Penn has cagily failed to send the photo that he claims is the “Quintessence Of Life,” forcing Mitty to go on a carpe diem expedition that involves him skateboarding on empty roads, climbing mountains, and generally living out a credit card commercial every five minutes. Every cultural signifier in this film is dreadfully dumb, from the obvious use of David Bowie’s “Major Tom” (Kristen Wiig has the unfortunate task of explaining the song’s meaning to the cheap seats) to an out-of-nowhere fantasy Mitty has about being Benjamin Button, which feels like someone inserted a rejected “Mr. Show” sketch in this middle of this Oscar bait. Penn, to his credit, provides the only real-feeling scene in the entire film, but the spirit of the picture seems to belong to Patton Oswalt, who waddles in wearing a shit-eating grin as he openly shills for both E*Harmony and Cinnabon. No joke: drink every time a character says “Papa John’s.”


Contrast that feature-length commercial with something like “Her,” which also seems to endorse a certain capitalist way of life, without glossing over the weight involved. Joaquin Phoenix is the last heart alive in futuristic Los Angeles, one where, ostensibly, crime, homelessness and suffering have been eradicated. Maybe it’s a Los Angeles as simulated by one of those off-world colonies in “Blade Runner,” because it presents a world where technology has allowed us the ability to wallpaper over everything but our emotions. Phoenix’s Theodore bleeds alone, left broken after a horrible divorce that has forced him into a quiet life of solitude, where he pens the handwritten love letters of others at work, quietly retreating to his operating system at night, which soothingly tells him about the content of his emails while he toys around with a sad single-player video game. Sometimes you don’t need to be a weirdo or a jerk to be lonely: Phoenix is neither, but when you hear his voice crack, it’s like his heart breaks a little as well. He could use a friend.

An operating system upgrade proves to be in the cards, and Theodore opts for Samantha. As voiced by Scarlett Johansson, she’s distinctly girlish, flirty but supportive, and ultimately kindhearted. When she says she’s saved his best emails without asking him, it’s clear that no one’s ever made quite the effort to find the sensitivity inside this man. Soon, Theodore is growing fond of Samantha, who has no avatar, but is always there giving him unseen support through his headpiece. And Samantha, who recognizes that she is a program, starts to develop emotions and feelings she never thought possible. The sadness at the heart of “Her” is that, one day (today?), we won’t be able to tell the difference between real and synthetic sincerity. Spike Jonze’s fourth film, and fourth masterpiece, suggests maybe that won’t be such a bad thing.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity, And The Cinema Of Awesome


Well, "Gravity" is an awesome movie. And there is almost nothing to say about it.

The bewitching, brilliant, and beguiling Stephanie Zacharek succintly reviewed "Inception" a few years back with this crackling passage: "...we've entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be awesome, which isn't nearly the same thing."

And make no mistake, Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" is awesome. Horrifying, even: it's the first film that, with it's 3D and special effects, accurately captures the immense, universal fear of outer space. You're immensely vulnerable to any sort of damage. You have no way to steady your floating body, you could easily run out of oxygen, or you can just drift off into the abyss. Cuaron's first tactic is the gauntlet-dropping quote, "Life in space is impossible." I wonder if we're supposed to take that quote for all its implications, though I suspect not.

Monday, September 30, 2013

NYFF At A Glance




The grind of the New York Film Festival is wearing on me, and we’re not even at the midway point. There are still new films to see from the likes of James Gray, Jim Jarmusch, Claire Denis and, uh, Ben Stiller, so perhaps there’s excitement on the horizon. But I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a disappointing slate so far, with a couple of genuine bad films in the mix. Of course, maybe that’s my fault – twice I bailed on “Norte, The End Of History,” intimidated by the four hour plus (plus!) runtime and the fact that it was Lav Diaz’s (who?) twelfth, and shortest (!) film. The wonderful thing about being a film buff is that everyone has blind spots, there are no such thing as completists. Maybe one day I’ll look up Diaz’ other work. The New York Film Festival already tests me when I mistake “319 minutes” for “three hours and nineteen minutes,” as I did with Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” a couple of years back. I love movies, but sometimes I don’t really like vanishing from the physical world for four hours. Maybe with a friend, but, how many other people do you know willing to put Lav Diaz on their to-do list?

That same sort of thinking is, in a reductive sense, what stuffs the theater for the premiere of “Captain Phillips,” a tense pirate thriller from Paul Greengrass. It’s also the sort that allows Tom Hanks to uncharacteristically fire back at the press, as he did during the post-film q+a. When asked about preparing for the role (or some similarly boilerplate question), he talked about meeting the real Captain Phillips, and compared his more sensitive, inquisitive style of investigating the subject to the indelicate way media jerks poke and prod at their subjects with the same stupid, insipid inquiries. There was a brief heckling from the crowd, and Hanks fired back in his usually charming, conflict-deflating way, but it was an interesting set of teeth from the star, perhaps in response to yet another critic cave troll in the audience loudly demanding (not asking) that the people on-stage speak louder into their microphones. Hanks was completely in the right, of course, but you can tell some folks grumbled that this major movie star had reminded them that their jobs are secondary to whatever Lav Diaz is doing.
 
Whatever the case, Hanks has a right to be judgy, as he hacks and wheezes through “Captain Phillips,” being beaten and dragged throughout the runtime. Greengrass is a sentimentalist in spite of his verite approach, so he can never help giving his lead characters a little fight, and Hanks’ Phillips refuses to be a puppet to these gangly Somali pirates who take over his cargo ship. And yeah, it’s tense and suspenseful and Greengrass knows how to tell a story through this action-chaos method that he’s perfected, but so what? How many movies can Greengrass make where the white American has to battle the dark-skinned foreigner? He would be Hollywood’s red-state secret weapon if he hadn’t blown $140 million on “Green Zone,” which pretended that the general public would care that we went to war in the Middle East under false pretense. When he makes “United 93,” it’s interesting. When he gives the defense department a freebie with the glamorous, politically-cynical “Bourne” films, its understandable escapism. What do we call it now, where Phillips leads a primarily white crew (black crew members have no dialogue) against the blackest men of any mainstream Hollywood release this year? What am I saying? I’m just saying that you start to wonder about this Greengrass character. That’s all. For now.

To say “Inside Llewyn Davis” is “minor Coen” is dismissive and obnoxious as hell. But the reason the phrase keeps creeping up is that the brothers are masters at finding the grace in nothingness, in reaching out into the void and finding out that there’s no central meaning, there’s no movie-like contrivance connecting everything. Sometimes, Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t walk into that bloodbath, and sometimes The Dude doesn’t come close to solving the mystery. Such is the case with Davis, the title character played by Oscar Isaac. Clearly, he’s tremendously talented; Isaac plays the songs himself, which is admittedly impressive. But this sixties-era folk singer isn’t going to be rewarded for his skills or his stubbornness. Folk music isn’t even viable during this era, as one such impresario hears Davis play (impressively) and succinctly tells him, “I see no money in this.”

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Nocturnal Phenomenology



I first saw WE OWN THE NIGHT  years ago to battle a bout of insomnia. I thought the film would serve as enough of a distraction from my thoughts, but could also fade into background, calm me down and let me drift into sleep. Usually, when I'm tired, a film which requires me to follow a plot of us vs. them, or a thrilling scenario of classical categories, can be just the thing to soothe prescient worries of the day. In seeing something as familiar as THE GODFATHER I could be sure to lose my train of thought, but not myself, so I judged this other film would be close enough.

And while that was the expected result, there I was an hour later into the film, not only completely awake but deeply moved, anxious and out of breath. I felt enveloped by the very surface of the film, like another skin, or a singing breath in a language I didn't know but which made me tremble. There is, not only in WE OWN THE NIGHT but in all of James Gray films, a histrionic physicality, as if rain, light, a face, or the very night trembled with feeling and fell apart right in front of you as you are enveloped in the damage each image suffers.

I feel there isn't much lively discussion to be had about only the stories of each of his movies, as if TWO LOVERS could be considered an emotional film because its story pertained a 'damaged' man, a 'fuck up', who is torn apart between the love he feels for a woman he thinks is an outsider like him and another woman who wants to protect him, provide him safety from his own brokenness. While the story, as written, is itself a wonder (being written by Gray and Richard Menello ) of personal storytelling and classical, clear and concise dramatic construction, the events as seen and experienced in the screen rarely look, well, constructed. It's as if the story is in itself a great superstructure that the images, in carrying out the narrative could only shred it into chaos, hurt, and longing. Pure emotion.

Friday, September 13, 2013

This weekend at the movies


-Luc Besson’s “The Family” opens this weekend, and it is a non-stop bludgeoning, just endless gratuitous stupid violence and bloodshed for the sake of dumb laughs. It’s the sort of movie that shortcuts the slapstick and assumes someone overeagerly beating another person to death is funny. There’s some stuff in there about mocking gangster genre tropes, and it’s even more dated than the ten year old soundtrack of hits from LCD Soundsystem, Gorillaz and… M? Read my review here.

-I saw “And While We Were Here” under a different title two years ago, when it was in black and white, and that was probably the best thing the movie had going for it. Which was not an insult, as the color scheme made Kate Bosworth’s vulnerability that much more interesting, added to Iddo Goldberg’s black-suit handsomeness as her harried husband, and gave some mystery to teenager Jamie Blackley as her fresh-faced crush. The film has been colorized for its release now, and I can’t help but think something was lost in the translation, though I certainly hope not. Check my review here.

-“Blue Caprice” is an upsetting true life story of the D.C. sniper attacks in 2002 that felled a number of innocent civilians. Isaiah Washington is mesmerizing and terrifying as the shooter, and young Tequan Richmond is very good as his teenage son who assists in the murders. It’s definitely an anatomy of a broken relationship between these two (the boy is not actually his son, but he kidnaps and essentially brainwashes him), though I’m not entirely sure if it fully explains why the man’s grudges led him to embrace a violent bloodbath. Check out my review here, or my other review here.


Monday, September 2, 2013

In Praise Of Frank Grillo




Filmmakers don’t trust actors anymore. It’s a chicken or an egg thing, really: most filmmakers reveal an open contempt for them, and many studio-level leading men have a shockingly low level of craft (blame… mumblecore?) that it’s a wonder how we even need performers anymore. People with limited imaginations and attention spans have negative things to say about Terrence Malick, but perhaps he is ahead of his time: maybe in the future we make cinema about nature and forests and trees, and we use Ben Affleck as an accompanying prop.

Today’s blockbusters are either guilty of being loud and plotless, or loud and overly-plotty. But the leading men of yesterday told stories with their faces, and if they were still being employed, we wouldn’t have this problem. The face of Chris Pine tells you nothing other than, “Vaguely pretty.” It doesn’t have the tales you’d see in the crevasse of Robert Mitchum’s cleft. It doesn’t even have the wily intelligence of young Robert Redford, who was considered an underwhelming actor in his youth. Today’s actors are either talkers, like Robert Downey Jr. or Jonah Hill, or blunt objects like Channing Tatum and Mark Wahlberg. It’s not about skill, but about how you’re used, and these are talented thespians who have been smart enough to maximize their skill. But they have no stories to offer. Casting Tatum in a movie meant to mimic “Die Hard” just makes you feel like you’re playing an avatar in an off-brand “Die Hard” videogame: perhaps the power to identify pulls us closer to today’s movie star, whereas yesterday’s actors were deified, worshipped. Even limited talents like John Wayne represented an invitation to the story. Today’s leading men are merely a small part of the entire experience. You can perform a monologue from “Death Of A Salesman,” great; can you dodge a fireball?


Thursday, August 8, 2013

This weekend at the movies


In brief...

-Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” hits theaters. Basically, it’s a big-budget sci-fi argument that there should be universal health care and we should stop criminalizing undocumented immigrants, because if not, laser swords. My review can be found here. I said, “This power-up is a gawky exo-skeleton, one that presumably will keep Max from passing out due to radiation, but also granting him meta-human strength. It’s never explained how this works, where it came from, or how it’s essentially lying around a favela, waiting for the moment a Hispanic cast will glue it to the back of an honorable gringo. To its amusing credit, this device never looks comfortable on Damon, representing exactly what it is: a trendy super space blockbuster weapon glued onto a would-be award-nominated actor, one who actually just starred in an all-American David-and-Goliath story about fracking of all things.”

-Also seeing release is a sequel no one really asked for, “Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters.” I had never seen the first one, but because I have seen a fantasy YA adaptation before, I figured it out for the most part. In my review, I said of Brandon Jackson, who co-stars in the film, ” Despite receiving second billing, Jackson is absent for the entirety of the second act, victim of a kidnapping that’s almost as undignified as the CGI hoofs he sports as a satyr. Jackson gives a performance that suggests an undeniable disdain for the material, as if he knows he’s the film’s token minority, looking like a sideshow distraction while he props up another white kid fulfilling another white kid prophecy.” Click here to read more.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Us V. Them




There are four major films being released by studios this week. Dreamworks is putting out “Turbo,” another CG-animated fest that thinks asking Snoop Lion to voice a snail is subversive in some way. There’s “Red 2,” an unasked-for sequel to the least memorable “hit” film of the last few years. Warner Bros. is putting out “The Conjuring,” an actually-not-bad horror film for those who want some analog scares in the vein of “The Changeling” and “The Omen,” but it’s far from essential. And despite looking like a practical joke, the $200 million-budgeted “R.I.P.D.” is actually a real film, an action comedy preserved from 1998 that re-imagines “Men In Black” without a black person. Basically, it’s a collection of movies that remind us that this is a dying industry.

But if you’re one of the lucky ones, there are three really unique pictures being released this weekend that are must-sees. I’m not clear on this, but one or two might be VOD selections as well, so if you don’t have an arthouse near you, you can order via cable. If not, prime your Netflix queue. Hopefully, these options are open to you. If they are, and you still opt for “Red 2,” then you are casting a vote for irrelevance, for films to remain disposable pieces of junk and not diverse experiences that take you to another world, challenge your notions and defy logic. This is clearly a case of Us V. Them, and you can vote for disposability, or you can experience three of the most fascinating pictures of the year.


Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” seems to be the most high profile offering, his long-awaited follow-up to “Drive.” I’d personally like to consult the poor, confused woman who sued the studio years ago, expecting that film to be a generic crowd-pleaser, as “Only God Forgives” makes “Drive” look like “Cars.” Ryan Gosling is back, and he has fewer lines, if you can believe it, as a kickboxing coach in Thailand who also deals drugs on the side. He runs this operation with his brother (Tom Bower), a degenerate deadbeat who has a taste for savage violence and underage prostitutes. When those interests collide, the father of a dead girl doles out revenge and murders the drunken fool. Once news of this gets to Gosling, his reaction is just as simple: his brother must be avenged.

What Refn is positing in this film, which is positively Kubrickian in its fetishistic slow pace and nightmarish neon, is that revenge makes the world go round, and to ignore such a thing is denying the order of life. This outlook keeps me from embracing the picture too much, but I ask only that films be bold, different, and consistent in their ethos. And Gosling seems poised to let blood spill in the name of his brother until he learns of the reasons for his murder; he was a murderous brute, Gosling argues silently. Maybe it’s not a huge loss. Of course, globe-trotting, pill-popping mom begs to differ, and when she arrives to find the truth about one of her sons, she doesn’t take it well. Kirsten Scott-Thomas is a vulgar lioness in this role, fairly close to devouring Gosling whole, questioning his masculinity for not fulfilling his prophecy, for not continuing the cycle of violence. If anything, she feels like the forceful hand of the narrative, urging him in the direction of genre: don’t you see you’re in a movie, idiot? Kill or be killed.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

I Don't Care What You Like




I am not certain what common traits I share with other movie lovers. But when it comes to film, and even outside of cinema, I am a compulsive list maker. I enjoy putting together lists of quality of content, ranking and re-ranking items based on my feelings, collective societal worth, and even simply for the sake of someone else. Magazines usually exploit the fact that most people share this attribute in some way, which is why Entertainment Weekly recently caused waves with an issue dedicated to “The 100 Greatest Films Ever Made,” while also featuring several sub-lists that further complicate the lead headline. As a person, I know that EW is piffle, and a list like this from a collective as opposed to an individual is always going to be compromised and, in a way, fairly useless. As a compulsive list-maker, I cannot resist.

Because lists are lists, my opinions and disputes are insignificant, and I often celebrate these sorts of things because of what shows up at a certain ranking instead of what doesn’t. I was surprised, but not entirely that moved, by how Sight & Sound’s pick for greatest film, “Vertigo,” only ranked 38th, below two other Hitchcock films (“Psycho” and “North By Northwest,” not coincidentally the most conventionally entertaining Hitch offerings). I was tickled to see Robert Altman’s “Nashville” in the top ten, just as I was confused by how “Mean Streets” (#7) is quite definitely considered the best from Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver” is at #42). There are the typical thesis-worthy ideas about dates and eras, like how the last 22 years have not produced any great horror, despite relaxed standards, and worries about xenophobia, given that the top fifteen is made up of English-language films only. This is Entertainment Weekly, a pop publication geared towards people who buy magazines because “Twilight” is on the cover; maybe we should just be congratulating them for even mentioning “Tokyo Story” and “Titicut Follies.”


What I can’t get past is the out-of-the-blue ranking of “Toy Story” at #22. And part of my feeling is an inherent, sometimes irrational bias I have against animation. Part of it is also that “Toy Story,” a picture made for children with an appropriately sanitized morality, ranks fifty four spots ahead of “Lawrence Of Arabia,” among other films. I am not bothered (though I do disagree with) “Bambi” being ranked at #14. But “Toy Story” just doesn’t jibe with me, and I think it has to do with EW’s staff preserving what they (and others) like as opposed to what they think is significant.

“Toy Story” is, for that type of picture, an amusing animated comedy with a lot of wit and heart, with a streamlined screenplay that works far better than you’d think coming from the tinkerers at Pixar. It’s a delight even amidst the usual fare produced by Pixar, a fairly consistent studio in terms of imagination and storytelling, and the three “Toy Story” pictures differ little in terms of quality, with fans of each all having respectable stances. Moreover, animation boomed in the early nineties, but watching “Toy Story” all these years later, you understand why adults began going to these films in droves even without children. The dialogue is smart, the characterizations and voicework are top-notch, and the laughs are plenty and satisfying.

 
It’s unfortunate, then, to acknowledge that films like “Toy Story” begin at a handicap. Disney assisted Pixar in funding “Toy Story” because the story was sharp and the characters endearing, and the involvement of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen certainly helped. But they also pushed it for the same reason “Star Wars” turned George Lucas from a millionaire to a billionaire: toys. The basic idea of “Toy Story” promotes to children the value of materialist objects in a capitalist society because they might seriously have lives outside of your eyeline. This was an angle the “Toy Story” films pursued and even embraced, with moments taking place in department stores, nods to brand cross-pollination (Buzz Lightyear was seen as a multi-platform sensation - which he eventually, conveniently became), and the overriding idea that one must never let go of their childhood possessions, and maybe even buy more.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The 21 Worst Movies Of 2013




We’re at the halfway point of the year… here are twenty of the year’s worst, excluding a few dreary titles I honestly just didn’t feel like drudging up or discussing, because talking about bad movies is kind of soul-deadening.

21. Much Ado About Nothing – The narcissist behind-the-scenes approach to the Bard’s play (let’s film it while drunk at my house!) can be easily ignored when there are so many issues at play here, in this Shakespearean adaptation so ugly and anti-cinematic that you wish it were in audiobook form. A proud cast of c-listers and Whedon-ites reveal exactly why they aren’t getting cast by anyone else with their embarrassing slapstick and uncontrollable mugging. Like being at the lamest, most boring, whitest party ever.

20. At Any Price – A tacky Tennessee Williams-esque melodrama about an ethically-compromised farmer and his racecar-driving son. Dennis Quaid really lays the country bumpkin act thick with this one, and Zac Efron continues to convince he’s a handsome automaton.

19. Kings Of Summer – A couple of white kids and their extra-weeeeird Ethnic friend come of age in the forest, eventually broken up by the arrival of a cute young blonde. Loaded with sketch-comedy digressions that suggest a jokey mentality in search of a narrative.


18. Saving Lincoln – One of the many recent Lincoln pictures, this one tried to frame campy performances by a host of confused-looking actors in front of a green screen, using olde-timey photographs as the background to every scene, a “groundbreaking” technology that heavily degrades the viewing experience, making it look like everyone is posing for a theme park photo.

17. Identity Thief – Director Seth Gordon seemed to be in love with finding new ways to make Melissa McCarthy both look like shit, and be the butt of the joke. She seems to have more agency, and is naturally funnier in “The Heat,” but here, you can feel the movie gawking at her, and you can sense the genuine displeasure from costar Jason Bateman.

16. Arthur Newman – A complete nothing of a movie that wastes the talent of Emily Blunt, casting her as a vintage MPDG alongside the typically milquetoast Colin Firth. This movie kept changing tones and approaches every five minutes, as if it were directed by four different filmmakers as some sort of avant-guarde experiment to liven up a deadly dull script.

Monday, July 1, 2013

It's too late to save film culture



It is unfortunate that a large part of our national conversation about film revolves around money. It is understandable, of course; it’s fun to discuss art, and it’s fun to discuss commerce. However, the idea of these two getting into bed with each other has lost its taboo. Now, everyone knows what everything costs. People no longer ask for sequels, when they can plainly see the original did poorly. An indie movie is “legitimized” by its “surprising” box office success. Words like “branding” and “franchise” used to be considered insults; now they’re proudly saluted by industry heads. And it’s all polishing silverware on the Titanic.

Movies were always capitalist enterprises, but the competitiveness didn’t set in until the seventies, when studios were able to compare the decent profits from affordable films for adults and the raging success of cheap, gimmicky escapism for children while off from school. Since then, studios have been trying to create “the perfect movie.” That used to mean pioneering a successful, broadly-appealing picture that was also good, interesting well-liked by critics and audiences alike.

David Manning, the ghost from the machine.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Social Contract



(Spoilers for "Man Of Steel," but if you think a movie like "Man Of Steel" can be spoiled, you're probably an idiot)

In “The Man Of Steel,” the latest joyless superhero blockbuster, our title gladiator purposely catapults a similarly-powered villain through a gas station, causing a massive explosion. It’s one of several moments when Superman’s pummeling of a villain takes precedence over anything else onscreen, an ongoing event that eventually leads to Superman continuing to rain haymakers down on evil Zod as the 9/11’ing of Metropolis occurs in front of him. I’ve heard many bend over backwards to justify this, in a way that’s begun to make me physically ill. I suppose there is now some sort of Social Contract in these films, the acknowledgement that every building that topples is empty, and/or each faceless death should be meaningless.

Of course, the idea that might-makes-right has been keeping audiences coming back to see blockbusters for a couple of decades now. The contemporary version of these fans seems to feel that a little collateral damage is acceptable, as long as the bad guys get theirs, a concept likely borrowed from a real life refusal to admit that armies worldwide, including Americans, produce sickening collateral damage almost weekly (maybe more?). It recalls a conversation I had with a peer about a special ten minute presentation of footage for “White House Down,” yet another recent mass-destruction blockbuster. The plot was unclear to me (I hadn’t seen the footage) so I asked him how the villain had accomplished enacting such violence against the White House, suggesting, “Did he use unmanned drones?”


Amusingly, his response was, “No, no, nothing science fiction like that.” If there wasn’t more evidence that the stomach-turning truth of violence had surpassed the darkest hints of our imagination, that was it. As if an unmanned drone would be “science fiction”: the acceptance, and approval, of films like “Man of Steel” seems rooted in the idea of something like a predator drone being largely approved by general audiences. It may slaughter civilians, and it may pose a threat to our security, but as long as we get the bad guy, what’s another civilian wedding party or two? Hell, even the name “Predator Drone” sounds like a badass tentpole blockbuster starring Taylor Kitsch, Rhona Mitra and Idris Elba.

Amusingly, I saw people arbitrarily drawing the line when criticizing this aspect of “Man Of Steel,” pointing to another similar blockbuster in “The Avengers” in suggesting how such a thing is done “right.” This doesn’t seem to be a notion that critics are pursuing, but let me note ALL FACELESS DEATHS IN MOVIES ARE BAD. Perhaps these films are therapeutic in dealing with our feelings towards massive disasters like 9/11, but that day was over a decade ago. The current generation is not getting therapy out of the visual of skyscrapers coming down, but rather enjoyment. These pictures are not only finding a way to commercialize death (the villain in “Man Of Steel” is flat-out murdered in a way that falsely suggests it was the hero’s only option) but to dehumanize audiences into becoming borderline sociopaths. I’m not certain what’s more appalling: that “Man Of Steel” one-ups “The Avengers” in its violence and off-screen death toll, or that “The Avengers” allows this to happen while its characters are lightly tossing around quips and gags. When the dust has settled, Tony Stark cracks a joke about schwarma, and no one stops and realizes they’re likely surrounded by thousands, maybe millions of corpses.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

White Culture



 Full disclosure: this article is coming from the perspective of a young, middle-to-lower class Hispanic who was never been to California or Asia, and lives in New York City.

I recent sat through Sofia Coppola’s slick, fascinating “The Bling Ring” absolutely horrified at what I was watching. This true story about a group of young culture vultures who broke into the homes of celebrities they worshipped, proceeding to jack their possessions, is as vivid a picture one will make about cannibalism. It was as if I was specifically watching the original “Dawn Of The Dead,” but this time from the perspective of the zombies. Commercialism was all that mattered to these Gucci-clad criminals, and the illusions therein; the protagonists of “The Bling Ring” want to become their single-named heroines, like Paris, Lindsay, or Audrianna (from… “The Hills”? Not my scene), and so they consume every tangential element, whether it were paparazzi photos, glitzy designer brands, or eventually their own prized possessions. Startling that a certain socialite mentioned above (additional Google hits are not necessary) agreed to participate in the film, allowing them to film the insides of her house, a portrait of narcissism that, to these identity-less youths, is like a haunted house of mirrors.

“The Bling Ring” isn’t confrontational or violent or as transgressive as a similar youth-gone-wild film, the recent “Spring Breakers.” But the film has the same sort of lived-in familiarity with both the milieu of these characters and their casual, toxic shorthand. One moment that I can’t shake is the knowingness of Taissa Farmiga’s work, as a member of these cashmere-collar criminals who places self-celebration over all potential avenues. In one scene, she finds a gun in one of the invaded homes and immediately twirls it around, shoving the pistol right in the face of hapless accomplice Israel Broussard. Her aggressive half-joking machismo isn’t as notable as the fact that she’s brandishing this firearm as a fool would, into the face of the most vulnerable member of their crew. Obviously bothered, he quietly protests, but when she continues, he delicately but forcefully places his hands on her to separate them. In the middle of her hateful boasts, she responds angrily, interrupting her braggadocio with an entitled, “Don’t touch me! Get your hands off me!” These angry demands keep getting peppered through her jokes as she continues to aim the gun in his face, oblivious to the fact that she’s committing a grave violation. For her, it’s her own boundaries that are most important, followed by her own amusement, and then maybe your boundaries. Maybe. Doubtful.


What struck me was that “The Bling Ring” comes across as the portrait of a small subculture of rich, white kids in the Hollywood suburbs, and that among their celebrity targets, none are of mixed race. Subtly interjected into this film is roughly the same cultural suggestion as “Spring Breakers”: it’s okay when it happens to people like them, but you get the sense the hip-hop loving kids in “The Bling Ring” would never dare rob a black or Hispanic celebrity (one girl is Asian, but she lacks a cultural identity of any type). Whereas attacking a black target in “Spring Breakers” was essentially stepping it up a notch, there’s the sense that the kids of “The Bling Ring” don’t take their crimes seriously (once spotted on the news but not arrested, they continue their spree unabated) because it’s happening to the likes of Orlando Bloom. They are the establishment, and so are we: we are all bulletproof.

Thankfully, “The Bling Ring” made me feel like an outsider, as I’ve never given a second look to these types of celebrities, and I’m decidedly in a different tax code than these kids. But it also made me consider cultural identity, specifically theirs: is this a film about a subset of “white culture”? The term “white culture” always seems to crop up in problematic statements of entitlement and coded hate, but it’s as real a concept as “black culture” or “Asian culture,” and just as abstract. And it made me think about what films were reflecting white culture, and if this is a concept worth plumbing: to identify “The Bling Ring” as white culture, one need only look at the racial makeup of the cast, and to what they aspire. This is a specific, fairly ugly side of that culture, but is it specifically relevant to a certain demographic? Granted, the surface-level themes of the film lend themselves to a more universal reading, but this is a film that courts the identification with a “white” identity. As if it wasn’t enough that the only significant minority character in the film is passionate about the lives of white celebrities, there’s the fact that “The Bling Ring” is the latest from director Coppola, who has made a career out of observing the ennui of disenchanted rich whites.


Of course, perhaps to look to the cinema for a true representation of ANY realistic culture may be folly, particularly in the warmer seasons of escapism. Usually you have to move into the arthouse for such a thing, which is where you’ll find “Before Midnight.” The third film in Richard Linklater’s series dealing with the ongoing romance between an American writer and a French… woman has garnered rave reviews from critics, though Linklater’s three films are stripped-down, talky, European art pictures in nature, but without the style or intellect implicit: both Ethan Hawke’s restless raconteur and Julie Delpy’s erratic, maternal neurotic are obsessed with talking themselves into circles, usually in self-important attempts to be clever and/or cute. I’ve always had a problem with these films, given that they’re based around the certainty that the audience likes these two, but I’ve found the films occasionally honest about relationships, and charmingly free of gimmickry and plot contrivance.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Substance Abuse



Writing about movies is a job that needs a little extra pepper and spice. There’s a generation of current critics who grew up sheltered by suburbia and technology, to the point where pictures reflect their narrow interests and morals, whether it be high-flying superheroes or juvenile gross-out substituting for actual insight on sexuality. I’ve personally struggled with this, particularly in seeing films of yesterday from people who Lived. It was clear John Milius was well-read as far as combat, machismo and death. There was a certain diseased perversion to an Abel Ferrara picture. Even someone like Nicholas Roeg could give you something of a contact high. Today, studios would rather hire people like Len Wiseman, who cut his teeth not in the military, not with drug and alcohol abuse, and not with having dangerous friends and family, but makes pictures like the roleplaying-inspired “Underworld” and the “Total Recall” remake, the latter successfully recreating the first twenty seconds of ads when you’re not entirely sure what’s being sold, but you know you’re being had.

Because we’re not getting movies from people who Lived, there’s a certain sterility to our major studio offerings and even some of our independent features: the recent, somewhat interesting “Antiviral” doesn’t reveal a filmmaker who is anything other than miles separated from his subject of celebrity worship and genetic manipulation, which makes sense given that it’s Brandon Cronenberg. Daddy David was never exactly a blockbuster sensation, but it’s not like Brandon grew up impoverished. Of course, “Antiviral” is interesting specifically because of its remove, suggesting a director’s statement about being so deeply protected against what the film depicts as modern day societal diseases: contrast that with the moment in “Star Trek Into Darkness” where Spock (Zachary Quinto) dials up Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) from the previous films to ask about this curious Khan fellow. It’s the equivalent of a character popping in the DVD of a previous film to learn how to solve a third act problem, a moment that tells you everything you need to know about writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof, the first two who once collaborated on a hilariously-titled disaster called “People Like Us” that reflected an alien interpretation of human behavior.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

TO THE WONDER: SPIRITUAL HIERARCHIES, CIVIC ENGAGEMENT AND GIVING BIRTH TO LOVE.




“Our Lord Jesus Christ went up into a little castle and was received by a virgin who was a wife.”
“Now, then, play close attention to this word: it was necessary that it be a virgin by whom Jesus was received. “Virgin” designates a human being who is devoid of all foreign images, and who is as void as he was when he was not yet…
…If a human were to remain a virgin forever, he would never bear fruit. If he is to become fruitful, he must necessarily be a wife. “Wife,” here, is the noblest name that can be given to the mind, and it is indeed more noble than “virgin.” That man should receive God in himself is good, and by this reception he is a virgin. But that God should become fruitful in him is better; for the fruitfulness of a gift is the only gratitude for the gift. The spirit is wife when in gratitude it gives birth and bears Jesus back into God’s fatherly heart.”
Meister Eckhart, Sermon Jesus Entered. Transl. by Reiner Schurmann from Wandering Joy

I wanted to begin this review with those words because of a conversation I had days before watching Terrence Malick’s TO THE WONDER. I was with a friend, whom you know as roomasick, browsing information about the film when we stumbled upon an interview with Ben Affleck where he speaks about working with Malick and about his style of directing. In it, Affleck jokes that since he was aware Malick has a Doctorate in Philosophy and translated works by Heidegger, a good way to get into his mind was to read those translations. Obviously that did not work for him and did not even give him inkling into what the film was about or how he was to react to Malick’s direction. While the remarks from the interview about the preparation verge on some sort of self-serving absurdity (should we even ask, when directed to perform, for the director to give us a map of his thought process, a diary of his inhibitions and beliefs? To draw for us a belief system? In other words,should we ask from the creator of a situation to justify all aspects of it?), said remarks stayed with me. My thoughts went into tangents when confronted with other Malick films such as THE NEW WORLD or THE TREE OF LIFE. Granted, if a director has thought, read and translated thinkers who devoted their mind’s life to ask ultimate philosophical questions (questions about the nature and origin of being, not of the why of things, but of the how is it that things are), then wouldn’t the same person work through those questions in another medium of his choosing? Yes, as obnoxious as this could sound, Malick’s films are not only of grand themes (be it WWII, the destined clash of two cultures, or even a ‘cultural’ history of the cosmos) but also about the workings of phenomena, really they are about the origin of all being, in different disguises.

And so it is with TO THE WONDER that when I saw it, the film seemed to me a radical departure from his previous work and a clear attempt by the director to flesh out a philosophy of what it means to lead a good life. TO THE WONDER was, to me, an actual attempt at delivering a system of thought through images and emotive evocations. It is his most engaging film, in the sense that it engages our very present and the very systematic undercurrents in our civilization to ask political and religious questions.

Reiner Schurmann, in his book Broken Hegemonies, defines what I believe Malick is using film for, to think: “ To think is to linger on the conditions of what one is living: to linger on the site we inhabit.” And indeed, in TO THE WONDER there is nothing more but the depiction of the site the characters inhabit, and of their reflecting, their lingering on the conditions of what has happened, or what does not happen, to them.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Gaze Of A Male



One of my chief arguments about the contemporary superhero movie (for all intents and purposes, the biggest current subgenre of blockbuster) is that it was sexless. In capturing the essence of these characters as action figures, they were rendered mostly sexless: even famous tomcat Iron Man is wedded to monogamy in the films with Pepper Potts (who, in the comics, actually married Stark bodyguard Happy Hogan for a brief while). But there was also a big of a progressive movement to ignore that these films were aimed primarily at a male audience, toning down the feminine sexuality on display. Females were still considered second citizens in these films, but it was more along the lines of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” a shit-kicker in military wear brandishing a gun and owning a slinky dress only for practical purposes.

But a friend showed me a photoset posted online that caught my eye. It was comprised of gifs featuring the male stars of the Marvel Universe films, in moments of their films where they are in various states of undress. It’s a good enough way to explain the unprecedented crossover success of “The Avengers”: here were beefcake/sensitive images of conventionally handsome-to-completely gorgeous men, emphasized for what I now realized were a female audience. Granted, male filmgoers have always wanted to see their heroes muscle-bound and raring to go, but it was usually in service of wanton brutality. But the stars of the onscreen Marvel films were hunks you could take home to mom: in particular, one of the money shots from the trailer to “Captain America” is Carter absentmindedly realizing she’s actually fondling one of Cap’s pecs. Yes, it’s a period movie, but you’d really only see that in a contemporary film.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

In Praise of Love



What’s interesting about Roger Ebert is that no one could ever land a serious blow towards him, reviewing films in a profession that practically places a bullseye on oneself. Rob Schneider’s pathetic barbs towards him in retaliation for a spat involving his classic “Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo” lacked enough teeth that Ebert’s returning blows were actually career-damaging. A mano-e-mano with Vincent Gallo isn’t really too distinguished, as Gallo gets into a row with everyone, while a potentially-biting spoof in “The Critic” was flattering enough to allow he and Gene Siskel to cameo as themselves, one of the few moments that show wasn’t taking the piss out of Hollywood. Most Ebert takedowns were along the lines of Mayor Ebert in Roland Emmerich’s pathetic “Godzilla,” as Ebert lookalike Michael Lerner boasted of a city given a “thumbs up,” seeming more like the schmucky Ed Koch.

There was always something Teflon about Ebert’s appeal. Pal Siskel was the angrier one, the feistier fellow with a bone to pick with some movies. With Ebert, his bone-deep hatred of some films seemed to come as a by-product of his love and affection for other films, whereas Siskel always seemed like an assassin. It’s what made their dynamic so interesting on “At The Movies,” which most movie buffs of my generation grew up watching: Siskel would take personal offense when the industry would chuck a piece of junk in his direction, and he wouldn’t mince words. And while Ebert had his share of pithy insults and clever put-downs, he almost seemed either hurt or disappointed when a film was a let-down.


Of course, not many films were, not even the bad ones. Ebert singled out a few he hated in a couple of his seventeen published books, but in most negative reviews, it seemed like he was having a good time. Writing seemed fun when it came from Ebert: his more serious essays and reviews would have real intellectual heft, but he knew when to boil it down to “just a movie” territory. The truth was, bad movies always had some sort of redeeming asset to him. He once told a lie that feels like truth to me: “All bad movies are depressing, no good movies are.” It’s a testament to how beloved he was that I had trouble googling the exact quote, his passing jamming the traffic at Ebert-related sites.

But I don’t think films depressed him: even “Kick Ass,” which repulsed him to no end, established a conflict within himself that proved more fascinating than the film: was this entertainment, and if so, why? Was the escalation of on-screen violence featuring children a changing of the times, or a lowering of standards? His changing opinion of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” ultimately said more about film criticism, and depictions of violence in society, than anything Ben Lyons has ever written.

Monday, April 1, 2013

THE THIRTY BEST FILMS OF 2013


It’s the end of the first quarter of 2013, and I am burnt out. How exciting that we would have such a collection of masterpieces so early, from some of cinema’s greatest masters? Sure, the results haven’t been pretty from a studio perspective, but indie and foreign directors have produced a bumper crop of must-sees thus far in 2013, and compiling them all was an eye-popping experience. If this says anything about the quality of the rest of the year, then movie lovers have been spoiled beyond belief.

Some of these were festival releases. Others are already scheduled for a theatrical release in the next month or so. The hope is that 90% of these titles will be on DVD by late summer, at least. Make sure to give ‘em a looksee, particularly the titles you do not recognize.

30.  “Byzantium”

Neil Jordan adds to his menagerie of monsters and boogeymen with this gothic tale of a mother-daughter vampire duo pursued through the centuries by a male-driven vampire cabal. Fiendishly fast and loose with the rules, this glossy commercial production from Jordan also features a sexy-beyond-belief performance by Gemma Arterton, who I am learning to forgive after the inept farce that was “Tamara Drewe.”

29. “The Iceman”
Classic Millennium Films release: dark, ugly, filled with depressing violence, terrible wigs and completely inappropriate casting (David Schwimmer shows up as a character repeatedly referred to as “the kid”). At this point, I feel like if you really love movies, those have become weirdly positive attributes by now. It’s a generic true crime story about an unusually prolific hitman, but the real pleasures in “The Iceman” lie in Michael Shannon’s terrifying performance, easily the most fascinating and tightly calibrated turn of the year.

28. “Electrick Children”
When I am vexed by a film, I normally chalk it up to the possibility that perhaps there’s just something I’m not getting, and the film remains in my memory like an unfinished puzzle. Such is the case for this Mormon coming-of-age drama, which finds the fascinating Julia Garner as a fifteen year old girl who flees home with an immaculate pregnancy she blames on a haunted cassette tape owned by her mother where someone covers Blondie’s “Hanging On The Telephone.” It’s less strange that I’m making it seem, but it’s not a film without its surprises.  

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Obtuse Paranoia and Room 237



You look at a cloud, rolling slowly in the clear sky. If your head might be as clear as the dome above, you can begin to look at the white mass and see that its shape is first, say, of a boat, but just as suddenly you see that the boat was not a boat, but really a submarine, or a couple of aquatic bodies wrestling: mythical creatures that can then as easily drag you into obscure, anthropological reverie on ancient cultures and dichotomies. And then, if you happen to be happily accompanied, you ask the person next to you whether she sees the fantastic creatures too, but are astounded at her reply: she sees a banana.

Something akin to the scenario described above comes to mind when watching ROOM 237, a documentary on, well, the act of looking at clouds and guessing their shape. Except the cloud here is Kubrick's THE SHINING, and ROOM 237 is not just about what shapes Kubrick's film can take, but of the people behind these shapes/theories.

The film presents interviews with various people who have fallen under the spell of Kubrick's film and in one way or another have obsessed over its existence. One thing every person interviewed seems to share with each other is that each treats the film as a world created, a world with its own will, reason, logic, and therefore they must figure out its phenomenology, its very origin. Figuring out the meaning of the film, its code, is in a sense to figure out its origin in Kubrick's mind.

The makers of ROOM 237, in order to show this obsession, make an interesting move. The film is made up of clips from THE SHINING and other Kubrick films (plus a few clips from other non-Kubrick films such as the fantastic DEMONS), over which different characters posit their theories through voice over. The effect goes to the heart of the matter, for the voices seem to appropriate the images from Kubrick's films to themselves. There are many strange moments when the characters depicted in front of us (be it Tom Cruise from EYES WIDE SHUT, etc.) become some sort of impersonation of the narrating voice. We never see the real faces behind the voices, and are therefore treated to different perceptions of a world, where the very subject of study (THE SHINING) broken into different versions, each with its own movement, logic and reality.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fan Service



And lo, across the land, a mighty bluff was called. With nothing to lose, Warner Bros. made a curious wager with fans, giving them thirty days to put $2 million into a Kickstarter fund in order to allow for the production of a film version of long-canceled cult series “Veronica Mars.” Not only did the money come, but they had reached the mark in less than a day, a massive success that dwarfed any prior accomplishments made on Kickstarter, a system designed to fund undernourished artists and troubled independent projects.

Why “Veronica Mars”? I confess to have only watched the first season of the series on DVD. The stories involved Kristen Bell as a plucky high school P.I. who found herself in some very dangerous situations within mysteries way above her ostensible maturity level. It was interesting, never predictable and with unusual warmth, mostly due to the rapport between Mars and her father (Enrico Colantoni). There would be two more seasons after that, the third abbreviated and a fourth season teased, but never filmed. Having a passing familiarity with the community established by the series, I had interest in a potential fourth season, which planned to age Mars ahead considerably, turning her into an FBI recruit and, I would assume, changing the series concept entirely. It speaks well of creator Rob Thomas (not the Matchbox 20 guy) that I imagine this approach would have avoided becoming just another network procedural.


So I suppose I’m on the outside looking in, but aside from those that appreciated the series, it never seemed to have popularity beyond the “cult.” It aired on the CW, with ratings that would’ve gotten a weaker show canceled, and I recall they really hung on to get to that third year. Anecdotally, I understand the sales for the DVD were modest, suggesting the fans’ demand for future adventures was derived from but a passionate few. A passionate few who, I admit, I cannot relate to: the series made it to fifty episodes, each an hour long. That’s an extensive commitment that seems to have yielded greater rewards: why do we want more?