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.