Wednesday, February 22, 2012

2012 Oscar Extravaganza - Featuring a Bunch of Shit I Didn't Watch!

I like just about everything there is to like about the Oscars except the show itself. And the politics. And the fact that the Academy is a bunch of old white dudes, and that their choices tend to reflect that. And the notion the ceremony propagates that an actor is not truly rewarded for the creative work he or she does, but by some circle-jerk validation from the very institution that dicks them around incessantly in the first place. So, uh, I don't like the Oscars. But I like trying to sound informed! And you can too, if you follow my highly scientific Oscar predictions. 

(I didn't feel like doing a nine-panel picture for every Best Picture nominee, so here's a picture from The Tree of Life. Lazy fuck!)

(x) The Tree of Life
(x) The Artist
() The Descendants
() Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
(x) The Help
() Hugo
(x) Midnight in Paris
(x) Moneyball
() War Horse

What's What?: Personally, I think this is a disappointing crop of nominees. The Academy didn't pay much attention to some really great work this year, which is reflected in every one of these categories but most harshly in Best Picture. As far as keeping up, I didn't do all that great a job this year, but then again I wasn't expecting things like Extremely Loud and Whatever or War Horse to get any sort of attention. I'm thrilled to see The Tree of Life in but I get the feeling that it probably scraped by at eighth or ninth place - can you imagine a voting constituency that was uninspired enough to champion Extremely Blahhh appreciating something as abstract as The Tree of Life? The Help is not Best at anything, except being cute and colorful and really poorly filmed/edited. Midnight in Paris getting a nod is simple adherence to Woody Allen's annual pattern: if he made a movie that didn't totally blow, the Academy falls over themselves trying to reward him in some capacity. And as fun as The Artist was, I don't think people are going to be very impassioned about it a decade from now.
What's Missing?: Man, where to start? Shame and Melancholia were both inhibited by an excess of penis and an excess of incendiary director, respectively. I imagine Drive was a little too garish for the Academy's tastes. Certified Copy and Beginners probably went unseen by voters and Bridesmaids is too straight-comedy for them to want to honor. I dunno, honestly, there are about fifteen or twenty films I saw last year that could effortlessly replace half of this list.
What's Winning?: Probably The Artist. The Descendants is hot on its heels, but Midnight in Paris and The Help might be able to ride their strong box-offices and general public affection to potentially threatening territory.
What Should Win?: The Tree of Life, but it doesn't have a shot in hell. Short of that, Moneyball, I guess. Why does saying that make me feel so empty?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Grey: Liam the (un?)Likely

Taken put Liam Neeson's career in a peculiar spot. Despite the fact that he had served as a mainstay in action films of any ilk for a decade beforehand (playing submariner, Jedi and crusader alike), Pierre Morel and Luc Besson tailored for him the flashiest vehicle he'd seen since Schindler's List. Even in the face of Taken's ridiculousness - something that works in surprising harmony with its energy and sheer fun - Neeson nonetheless turned in a chilling, committed performance, one that revitalized his reputation as an action star but somehow led him down a path of mostly forgettable blockbusters.

At first glance, The Grey appears to be another feint at capitalizing on the wake of badassery Neeson left after rescuing incompetent Maggie Grace. And...well, it is, really. I think a word of high praise is in order for the movie because at the very least, it refuses to fall into the trap that its marketing might have otherwise suggested. The movie is by no means a "LIAM NEESON PUNCHES WOLVES TO DEATH!!!" neckbeard-fest, so it at least exercises some minor element of restraint. Regardless, it's not exactly a fresh film. It exploits all of Neeson's more readily apparent traits, creating a character that is learned and yet world-weary, reserved and yet frightening, discretionary but brutal. Solid casting, to be sure, but not exactly imaginative. The only real differences between his character here and his daddy-on-a-rampage in Taken (besides increased use of the fuck word) are crafted by the geography that surrounds him, a still white expanse that writer/director Joe Carnahan falls over himself exploiting. It's lonely. Thus, Ottway is lonely. The people who survived the plane crash with him, as evidenced by their talks of the sex they aren't having and the children and spouses they miss, are lonely. It is a barren landscape, one that eventually reduces all creatures within it to mere survival instinct - a concept that allows Carnahan to go after another metaphor, the hacky and overly obvious "man as wolf" parallel. As the wolves encircle this motley band of survivors, the "alpha" and "omega" figures of each pack become painfully clear, both overwritten and uncreatively sequenced. The grasping at metaphysical and existential doubt is noble for what could easily have been a dumb beastie flick, but as expressed through a rather samey group of roughnecked family men, The Grey doesn't really have a lot to say. (And man, that lame-ass poem...)

What Carnahan lacks in authorial subtlety, he attempts to make up for in image. Here he finds mixed results. Some of his stiller compositions are wonderfully colored, almost painterly; a fur-lined coat mottled with blood, or a pool of red diffusing underneath a thin layer of paw-print-shaped ice. He clearly has considerable reverence for the terrain he's shooting in, and it repays him in kind. In putting together his action scenes, however, Carnahan fails to consistently rise to the challenges presented to him. The first of these, obviously, is the use of wolves as the primary antagonist. Cuts during the wolf attacks are quick and nonsensical, surely to disguise the fact that the cast is being attacked by a collection of puppets. Even without direct wolf violence, however, the visual language is always a little bit muddled - a character who's got SOMETHING caught on SOMETHING ELSE as he shimmies across a rope, for instance, or a poorly-staged chase by a river that mostly amounts to a bunch of guys stumbling around in the snow. Worse yet, the movie often leans on cheap shock cues to elicit thrill, which seems particularly flagrant given how enamored the movie is with its own quiet. Quite simply, it's difficult to tell what's going on a lot of the time in The Grey's more frenetic scenes; because they are fairly few in number, it doesn't doom the film, but more clarity and better puppetry might have increased the menace of the proceedings a bit more.

Far be it from me to fault a movie for its ambition, but the fact that The Grey attempts so much makes it all the more disheartening that it generally doesn't succeed at any of it. Neeson is predictably excellent playing a role that is no particular challenge to him; the themes are mature, sure, but limited and obvious; the action, despite visceral moments, chronically falls short. Worth catching on DVD, or if you've got eight bucks to blow on a matinee ticket, but poised at the beginning of the year this will almost surely be swallowed by the films that follow it. C+

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Disappointments of 2011

As I've lamented before, writing a "Worst Of" list for any given year is kind of a futile effort. Unless you're Armond White, chances are that the exact same films that showed up on the rest of the Internet's list would show up on yours too. Anyone who understands the concept of a number can look at Jack and Jill's 3% on Rottentomatoes and reasonably infer that the movie sucks dick. Thus, I prefer to use this space to address the year's cinematic offerings that fell unexpectedly short for me. Sure, I watched some shit, but I honestly doubt you care why I thought Season of the Witch was a terrible movie. As with any opinion, there is a heavy dose of subjectivity at play here, so feel free to tell me how much I suck in the comments or whatever.

These are presented in what I suppose is a relative order of disappointment.

10) Shark Night 3D
This is legitimately one of the most boring movies I've ever seen. Look at the picture! The goddamn actors can't even find it in themselves to look interested in what's happening. I mean, people rarely expect much from PG-13 horror anymore - gems like Drag Me to Hell and the Paranormal Activity franchise are more or less outliers when you look at all their exsanguinated counterparts - but this absolutely scrapes the bottom of the barrel. Weak gore, bad writing, unimaginative set pieces and the most poorly-motivated killer in recent memory can't even place the film in "so bad it's good territory;" Shark Night 3D is simply inept at being inept. What a tortured (and torturous!) existence.

9) The Rite
Okay, okay, this one's my fault for actually expecting something from a PG-13 horror release (surprise!) in the middle of January. I guess I saw Anthony Hopkins and hoped that, just maybe, there would be some faint redemptive glimmer here. Then I realized that lately he has starred in, not to mention directed, plenty of shit, and all of a sudden The Rite went from a dull brained and utterly wasteful opportunity at faith-based horror to yet another sign of a highly celebrated actor's slow creep toward oblivion. The premise, centered around a young seminary student slowly losing his faith and tasked with the exorcism of Hopkins' highly celebrated Italian priest, seems like it would offer some sliver of potential until you snap out of it and remember that The Exorcist dealt with the same thing FORTY YEARS AGO. In fact, just about all this film has to offer, be it girls spitting up funny things or possessed men swearing (though I've gotta say that "your mother sucks cocks in hell" is a lot more intimidating than "kissy-lips") was done first and better by the grandpappy of all exorcism flicks. So basically this movie shouldn't exist.

8) Rubber
Rubber essentially critique-proofs itself, so I hardly see any point in talking about it, except that I found it joyless and cynical and impossible to appreciate on almost any level. Its one-step-ahead-of-you treatment of the relationship between cinema and spectatorship, and how we fundamentally understand it, isn't particularly clever. It's essentially working at the same intellectual level as an elementary schooler who asks you "why?" over and over again just to troll you. The depth of its confrontations is not limitless, as is impossible to do in a movie like this, but it shields itself in just about every way from trying to be understood, and its metaphorical punishment of those who try to "solve" it feels more like bullying. The wheelchair-bound character, that painfully obvious stand-in for the educated viewer, is more or less derided through the course of the entire film. If you're not on board with how this movie operates, then clearly you fall in the category of filmgoer who just isn't meant to understand its incisive observational ability. Questioning Rubber means that you become the guy in the wheelchair, simple as that.

The problem is that, viewed through a critical lens, this isn't a particularly clever or unique idea at all. Funny Games sustained a very similar premise with immensely more subtlety, and though I was by no means a fan of Funny Games, this film significantly increased my appreciation of its approach. Adaptation, Synecdoche New York, The Limits of Control - anything that explores the societal roles of art and metafiction, really - all have something to offer. All Rubber seems to say is "people think this way when they watch movies." And yet the very act of viewing Rubber through this same critical lens seems to prove its shallow point. Because I have the ability to say that this movie is not clever or unique, I in turn empower its anti-critical stance. Why try to give something reason when it doesn't need it? Why be that guy in the wheelchair, the one who actively resists surrendering to a stupid movie? It is quite the double-edged sword that Rubber plays with, and even though it knows it, I'm not going to let a movie tell me the right or wrong way to watch a film. I don't appreciate being told that thinking critically about what's being put in front of me is somehow opposed to enjoying it. Rubber is as far as can be from a story told straight, and that's probably the most interesting thing about it, aside from its admittedly effective bait-and-switch marketing. In the end, though, I thought it was an incredibly self-congratulatory exercise in demonstrating the vacuity of media and viewership, where I felt persecuted no matter how I approached the film.

7) Limitless
This is a movie about a pill that makes you immeasurably intelligent. To summarize the problem with this in admittedly harsh terms, the screenwriters were obviously not. It isn't entirely their fault, as director Neil Burger cheapens their work further by making pretty gnarly aesthetic decisions like representing "inspiration" as "golden letters plummeting through the sky," but the amount of illogical behavior on the part of a character whose IQ is supposedly in the thousands disqualifies the movie from believability right out of the gate. Limitless could be worse - it's pretty hilarious at times, with the highlight of the film being a truly bizarre ice skate assault - but the plot holes are infuriating and the characters lifeless.

6) Red State
Fun fact: Red State was my first Kevin Smith movie, and if I didn't know better, it would probably be my last. It has a few scattered merits, with its strongest being a combination of a surprisingly effective ensemble structure combined with a great cast, but their best efforts amount to absolutely nothing in the face of their movie's crippling verbosity. Smith was clearly allowed a high degree of creative control in putting this unctuous anti-fundie rant together, and though I admire his choice in targets, I can't help but wonder who exactly he's going to reach with this. Viewers seduced in by guns and babes are going to be KO'd early on by an excruciating ten-minute sermon that a more able filmmaker could have summarized in thirty seconds, and they're unlikely to be stirred by his awkwardly staged action sequences. Reasonably aware liberals won't take anything they don't already know about Midwestern cults away from this experience. Anyone else will probably just find this to be overly contrived and reaching for meaning, their worst suspicions about the stale writing confirmed by poor John Goodman's laughably awful ~*~dramatic final monologue~*~. I mean, get a load of this:

FBI Dude: Really. Why did you shine the direct? (code for doing something drastic and policey, whatever) 
John Goodman: ... ... My grandma...on my mother's side...she had these two dogs, true blood hounds. Both came up the same litter, she kept them and gave the rest away to the neighbors. They both knew each other since they had shit in their eyes, neither got treated better than the other...gentlest dogs you’d ever care to meet. Thanksgiving of my ninth year these two old dogs are trailing me around because they know the score. I'm an animal lover who never finishes his supper. So right before I get up from the table, I toss these two old-timers a turkey leg attached to a hunk of cartilage, and it was like they had never met. They went at each other so furiously, all tooth and claw and jugular, they forgot anything they ever had in common, and scrapped like that discard decided between their standing and dying. People just do the strangest things when they believe they're entitled. But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe.
I mean, good fucking Christ, really? Kevin was on some serious Intro to Screenwriting shit when he put this together. Tedious, unnatural, unnecessary, tonally inappropriate, and in desperate need of editing, this little minute-long theme dump personifies everything that's wrong with Red State. Much like the insane religious folk it vilifies, it's a piece of trash pretending to be important.

5) The Muppets
Yes, I'm already aware that I'm literally the only person in the world that didn't like this movie, so you can just stop reading and write me off as a grumpy asshole if you want. But man, is this thing self-congratulatory or what? Oh please, Muppets, save us from the likes of our inane 21st century programming! We can tell you're speaking to our generation because of your glut of wacky meta humor, and we're sorry we ever doubted your not-at-all-based-on-predatory-nostalgia coolness. Hopefully you can show us more montages of happy ethnically diverse families tuning in and gleefully throwing money at your Very Special Telethon. We know you're trying to raise a few bucks to fight off those evil land-grabbing capitalists in just the right amount of time; the only thing more noble than your incredibly original goal (only the freshest for these hip cats!) is the fact that Papa Disney bankrolled your spiffy new movie to the tune of a cool forty-five million dollars, but only with the purest of intentions, of course. I simply can't imagine that Disney would cash in on a beloved childhood franchise to throw some money in the coffers every once in a while. Seriously, the charms of The Muppets fade to nothingness with just a tiny amount of perspective. Its narrative thrust is that everyone forgot that The Muppets were cool so we should all give them money. And I mean, maybe this would have read a little less cynically if it wasn't constantly giving itself a felt blowjob or rubbing it in our faces with television shows like "Punch Teacher" how stupid we all are now. It's a pretty savvy treatment of the way franchises decay in our collective conscious, to be sure, but I think that makes it all the more pernicious.

4) Thor
I talk a lot of trash about Thor. Maybe it's not all entirely fair, and I won't deny that the movie looks good and has a few solid fight scenes, but at the same had an $150 million dollar budget. Of course it was going to look good. I just find it frustrating that all of this money and creative talent is getting coupled to something so cheesy (hey Earth woman, let's fall in love, I know it's only been two days) and predictable (what do you mean, Loki is evil?!) and stale (the government took Kat Dennings' iPod! Will the wackiness never cease?). And hey, I'm not an idiot. I know why these movies get churned out formula-style like they do - it's an approach that turns a profit. Realizing that most people don't like to think about movies is a depressing truth to face, but it isn't exactly an original one. But then you see things like The Dark Knight, X-Men First Class, or any of the Harry Potter movies, and you realize that formula doesn't all have to be that simple. Thor bore the brunt of my frustrations in 2011, and it's not entirely its fault. It could easily have been worse. I'm just burned out on Marvel's soulless factory-line filmmaking, and I can only hope that the superhero genre is truly on its way out the door as it seems to be.

3) Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
R-rated horror is perpetually hanging on to box-office viability by a thread. Remakes and torture porn have been the only entries in the subgenre that have been making major profits, and even the most venerable of reboots can't seem to sustain any more than two movies lately. Rob Zombie's Halloween remakes petered out fiscally after the second, and despite their modest successes the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street reboots were curiously abandoned as well. Finally, many of the old-guard franchises like Saw, Final Destination and Scream have been turning their lowest numbers ever. All this in mind, making an R-rated horror film is a huge risk in this commercial landscape, especially one that isn't a pre-established property. The underrated Orphan took a swing at it and failed; undeterred, Splice fell on the sword the year after, followed finally by Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. Far less than its MPAA rating, however (one that is frankly unjustified), this film is scuttled by the fact that it just isn't very good. It looks gorgeous, and it's clear why graphic artist-cum-director Troy Nixey landed the job, but on nearly every other front the film totally falls apart. The script is the absolute worst offender; repetitive and sloppy, it strands its characters with illogical behavior and inscrutable motivations. Young actress Bailee Madison's excellent performance has to work overtime to compensate for Katie Holmes, who must have some major dirt on some studio exec somewhere to keep getting roles. Worst of all, however, the film simply gives up on being scary halfway through. It manages to ride a wave of atmospheric fear all the way to about forty-five minutes in, where it lands its one truly earned scare; the rest are poorly-timed sound cues and ridiculous CGI demons.

Guillermo del Toro should have taken the wheel on this one.

2) The Adjustment Bureau
This movie is ridiculous on so many different levels, but the fact that The Adjustment Bureau takes itself so seriously makes its insanities seem especially egregious. To summarize: angels who control fate aren't going to let Matt Damon love Emily Blunt because fuck you, that's why. Choosing to ignore the fact that angels have decided that he should be the President and Emily Blunt has to marry some less attractive guy (this is clearly the most important part of any woman's fate, determining whether or not she will be with you), Matt Damon steals one of their hats, which allows him to teleport through the city by taking doors, but only on rainy days because the angels can't chase him through water. Hijinks ensue. All of this nonsense could have been fun, but the rules of the game are tossed out as afterthoughts, as if this star-crossed romance was the most important thing to happen in the history of cinema and all of the stupid bullshit about hats and angels was simply a means to a thematic end. That end, of course, is Love Conquers All, even cryptic theological string-pullers who apparently have absolutely no other way of bending fate to make Matt Damon their political pawn. What we are meant to take from The Adjustment Bureau is that if two beautiful, well-off white people love each other, then nothing can stand in their way. Not even God. Wait, what?

1) The Adventures of Tintin
I love Tintin. I have for a very, very long time. I realize that leaves me in an even less stable position to grouse about the manipulative qualities of nostalgia in The Muppets, but I think this movie has it pretty bad too. Herge's comics were a little pulpy and not incredibly sophisticated, but he shot from the hip a surprising amount of times: gun murders, drug smuggling plots, suicide, hallucinogenic trips, and a vast range of international intrigue combined with real-world political allegory made the series surprisingly mature for what was meant to be aimed at children.

In the loosest sense of the phrase, this movie is the Tintin that I grew up with. But then there's that curious anti-alcohol subplot running through the film, demonizing Captain Haddock for one of his defining traits. Then there's Haddock burping into a gas tank to refuel a sputtering plane. Jokes about cow udders. The queasy portmanteau of stories, the use of at least one character who had no place being in this arc (and whose purpose in the story is as awkward as her inclusion might suggest it would be), the dull music, the uncanny valley visual style, a strange feint at giving Tintin some sort of self-deprecating personality that has no impact on the film at all. Nothing I was watching felt right to me. I realize that most of my disappointments are personal, and the film can probably just be appreciated as an above-average children's action picture that happens to be exhaustively overactive. Some of the set pieces are stunning, and Spielberg obviously got to where he is for a reason, but I can't shake the pervasive sensation that this movie was bowdlerized to give it some kind of shot in the American market. It flopped, of course, which is hardly relevant because the rest of the world has always loved Tintin more than we have so it made about 300 million dollars elsewhere. So then I'm left with this feeling of great personal doubt. Maybe, in tandem with how I felt about The Muppets, I've grown overly cynical and I should learn to appreciate the fact that movies are necessarily compromised in order to reach an audience. But maybe I should stick to my guns and not renege on what I know I value in a film. And the fact that the site for this disturbing internal debate is something that brought me so much joy over the course of my life is disappointing, indeed.

Other Bummers:

The Help: Okay, this has its heart in the right place and is actually pretty sweet at times, so it gets a pass from me. But my God, Tate Taylor couldn't direct a scene that wasn't three people sitting around a table if his life depended on it. Also, did this have to be 150 minutes long? Major overkill.

Final Destination 5: No reason in particular. I can totally understand why people like these movies. They just aren't for me. Sorry.

The Ward: John Carpenter's first film in a decade and he turns out this? Not actively awful like Survival of the Dead or anything, but come on.

I Saw the Devil: Implausible, messy, poorly-plotted. Great soundtrack and plenty of energy, and the action's pretty good, but it leaves an unsatisfying aftertaste.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Not awful or anything, but inexplicably overpraised. It's about a half-step up from Thor as far as paint-by-numbers filmmaking goes. Monkeys are cool, though.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Looks great, tons of atmosphere, personality out the ass, excellent acting...but who the fuck plotted it? It makes almost no sense. Confounding matters still is that the characters are so short on, well, character that they are essentially just a gallery of stuffy British playing pieces. Tomas Alfredsson really dropped the ball on this one.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

My Favorite Films of 2011

10) Young Adult
Initially a dark comedy, Young Adult makes a brazen but assured choice to simply turn dark in its final act. It takes a certain courage for a movie (especially one with a female lead) to be so unabashedly misanthropic; that final flourish, a moment to contemplate wreckages both proverbial and literal, is sure to send some people out of the theater feeling frustrated and unredeemed. But to appreciate Mavis Gary is to simply let her live her life, as none of the residents of Mercury seem to understand, try as they might. Charlize Theron's performance as a woman suspended in the static mindset of the "young adult" books she writes never asks the audience for sympathy or even appreciation. She channels a lonely person who lives a life of complete emotional and developmental stasis, a handful of survivalist impulses and little more. It is an extremely observant depiction of an unfulfilled life, one that we could all stand to learn from.

9) Bridesmaids 
There was an odd gender-charged tumult surrounding the release of Bridesmaids, with various movie news outlets exacting a heavy degree of scrutiny on the success of this admittedly uncommon female take on the crude ensemble comedy. The general critical pulse seemed to think that if Bridesmaids was a public failure, or a shitty movie, then no movies starring women would ever be made again and we'd regress to the Shakespearean era where men would play all their parts. Though it's true that a certain excess of hyperbole from the film's staunchest defenders has elevated it to frankly unwarranted "funniest comedy of the last 20 years!!!!" status, Bridesmaids is brimming with heart and charm and more than enough laughs, a level of quality fortunately rewarded by its exceptional box-office performance. For my money, I would much rather see breathless hype than sexist slander, and when the object of adulation is as fun and committed as this, it is more than capable of standing on its own without the input of others.

8) Weekend
On the topic of box-office, this minuscule gay indie turned nearly $500,000 with a domestic release of only 26 theaters and over the course of less than three months. Taking scale into consideration, this is pretty impressive, especially so in light of its subject matter. Weekend features few of the tropes that most people expect from a gay movie, and in fact confronts those expectations through frustrated artist Glen: his art's not gay enough that widespread homosexual audiences will find any interest in it, and too gay for straight audiences to appreciate, a self-reflexive anxiety that pervades the film itself. From this locus unwinds a candid, intelligent, emotional film about the challenges of being homosexual and the transformative charge of finding a person who truly understands you, even if you aren't a complete match with one another. Weekend isn't screamingly gay, nor does it adhere to the now-exhausted "straight gay" archetype that seems more and more like a misguided overcompensation for all those mincing queens. It is a self-assured film with a clear, original identity, and I think there's a certain contingency of moviegoers who saw and appreciated that.

7) Beginners
Beginners is quite like an expanded version of Weekend, exploring the ramifications of one life-changing event as charted over a specific period of time. This film, broader in scope, operates constantly between two timelines, one before Christopher Plummer's death to cancer and one after. One change begets another - the diagnosis prompts his coming out at nearly seventy years of age, which in turn leads him to find a genuine love, which in turn inspires his son Oliver to be more passionate in his own affairs after his passing. Of course, nearly every movie operates on the basis of causality, but Beginners manipulates this in a particularly savvy way by putting these two timelines in constant dialogue with one another. The past is continually dredged up and expounded upon in service of Oliver's future, edited to allow us to learn right alongside him how exactly his departed father's actions have influenced his life. It is a remarkably expressive exploration of one man's growth in the face of radical change. What does all this amount to? Warm, simple humor, a bittersweet and confused romance, and a boatload of heartbreak.

6) Hanna
This is sort of a ridiculous movie, don't get me wrong, but it's the kind of action film that Hollywood should be doing more often. Composed under Joe Wright's judicious, intelligent hand, Hanna looks and sounds awesome and is exploding with nonstop kinetic energy. The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and the fairy tale metaphors are about one step away from total overkill, but in terms of sheer spectacular escapism there was no other movie like this in 2011. Its titular character, embodied by Saoirse Ronan with a seemingly impossible combination of total blankness and deadpan humor, permits the film around her to express all kinds of tones: dark, gritty, dizzingly bright, confusing, warm, energetic, languorous. The new world around her is full of vastly different experiences and Hanna is primed to seize every single one of them. All this makes Hanna continually diverse, meaningful even when the plot is muddled and difficult; as long as we know what's going on in Hanna's head, we aren't completely in the dark. 

5) Shame
Shame is the victim of a pronounced critical back-and-forth that similarly plagued Black Swan in 2010. Overblown or operatic? Insultingly simple or human and fundamental? One way or another, the movie is loud, its enormous aesthetic cues working overtime to grant the film meaning alongside its very minimal dialogue and subject matter that is nearly elemental in its simplicity. For some people I imagine this approach reads as a "much ado about nothing," a bombastic attempt at spit-shining material that might otherwise read as base or exploitative. I was taken in by the clash between these expressive poles, entranced by this quiet loudness; Carey Mulligan's hyper-close-up, nearly unedited performance of "New York, New York" serves as an effective litmus test to how you might respond to Shame as a whole. It is a brute-force rendering of fixation in a movie constructed around fixation, and though some viewers find it a bit ridiculous, I think it is the first of many climactic highs this movie hits (though in all honesty I think the last five minutes of the film are something of a misstep). Check your cynicism at the door, I suppose.

4) Certified Copy
Wickedly high-concept, much more than its incredible quiet would suggest, Certified Copy is a bold exploration of art and humanity. It's a relationship drama that grows quietly trippy; it's a shifting palette of colors, feelings, and intellectual clash; it is unfamiliar yet heartbreaking, restrained and explosive, and is completely comfortable with all of the multifaceted ground it explores. Abbas Kiarostami's preoccupations with identity are explored to considerable academic effect here - far more than being mouthpieces for two sides of the film's argument about originality, the characters in Certified Copy are living and breathing embodiments of it. One stresses that there is an inimitable power in originality, while the other stresses that a copy has every bit the same merit as its source work. As their relationship begins to take on a strange, inexplicable form, it becomes clear that everything can be reconstructed and "copied," like a relationship, or a life. The stakes are removed totally from merely objective criticism and dissection of imitation within art, and with incredible dexterity, Juliette Binoche and William Shimell act out a facsimile of a complex relationship to an extent where even they start to believe in what they're saying. Is there an "original" to which their hypothetical scenario references, or is this film just the folie a deux of a pair of educated loners? It is a full-bodied, intriguing, emotional mystery, one worth exploring for every second.

3) Melancholia
Melancholia is a film bursting with meaning. It is tempting to reduce that meaning to its most unsubtle gesture - the positioning of this cataclysmic force, appropriately called Melancholia, over the events of the narrative - but it's more than just a metaphor for depression. Contextualized by the film's two-act structure, it represents a shift from defeat to inevitability, autonomy to acceptance. The movie also serves as a companion piece to Antichrist, moving the site of that all-consuming bleakness from one woman to all of Earth. It's impossible to miss the visual obsessions that Lars von Trier developed in creating the former film, namely the lush nature-centric images shot in slow motion and those awesome title cards. But I think it's most captivating as a statement on von Trier himself, who spoke publicly with his battle with depression when he was filming Antichrist. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, both of them enormously capable avatars for von Trier's exploration of the ways that humans approach their impending doom, play out two internalized emotional battles that ultimately culminate with the realization that none of it really matters. Sumptuous, mature, blissful nihilism in cinematic form.

2) Drive
This movie is just sheer fun. Cheesy, sexy, hyper-violent, dark but unexpectedly humorous, and unburdened by tedious exposition, it's a judiciously made film that cuts straight through the bullshit and hits its beats with gale force. Most people will probably find Drive totally ridiculous, as its quiet scenes stand at definite odds with its dashes of brutality, but this unusual balance grants the film a sort of neo-exploitation feel. It's grindhouse for the arthouse set, to be reductive, but in the face of its lurid 80s music and its audacious visual choices (the newly iconic shocking pink font, Christina Hendricks in enormous heels strutting across a parking lot, the sun setting on the aftermath of a vicious fight), labels feel sort of immaterial. It isn't going to be for everyone but it doesn't care. It's unique, a commodity in considerable shortage in Hollywood action films.

(And yeah, this isn't a screenshot, but I'm obsessed with this unofficial poster. Learn more about it here.) 

1) The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is the sort of movie that exhausts everyone who sees it in every way conceivable, whether they hated it or loved it - and both camps are more than occupied, if you've been following the popular reception surrounding it at all. Above all, it is a solemn reminder that film is an art form, and a person's reaction to any piece of art is based on the aggregation of a series of life experiences. This film plays so ardently by its own rules that saying that it is "bad" or "good" feels totally reductive. It begs to be viewed by a certain more mature binary: did it work for the viewer, or didn't it? Though this approach seems antithetical to critical thought, the establishment of any sort of critical canon is in itself a collection of personal/subjective reactions that happen to be widely shared amongst a corpus of people who are preordained in our society as "film critics." In this way, The Tree of Life is an enormous, direct challenge to what film has become - rather than being a product that seeks to please, it simply seeks to relate, to provide, to commiserate. It functions as a resounding reminder that there's very little we can do to convince another person that their reception to a film is wrong. It's pure stimuli with the most vestigial narrative possible, and a person is free to respond to stimuli in whichever way they please. Nothing can change that.

I loved it. Others hated it. Maybe my mind will change if I watch it again ten years down the line, or maybe theirs will. Regardless, it is pure, uncalculated art, with only one purpose - to be judged.

Near Misses: Sleeping Beauty, Super 8, Higher Ground, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Insidious, Harry Potter 7.2, Moneyball
Regretfully Unseen: A Separation, Margaret, The Interrupters, The Guard, 50/50, Mission Impossible 4, A Dangerous Method, Poetry, basically most of the shit that got nominated for Best Picture this year

Disappointments of 2011 to follow shortly! We all know that bitching about things is a lot more fun than praising them.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Chronicle - Power, Adolescence and The Specular

*Review contains minor spoilers.*

If you've ever talked to me about movies for longer than five minutes, first off, I'm so sorry. That aside, you might have also noticed that I am generally not a fan of superhero movies. They are among the few subgenres that studios throw any sort of money at anymore, oftentimes since they're predicated on pre-existing franchises (comic books, generally), but mostly because it seems like the moviegoing public at large has lost interest in a protagonist who can't lift a car with his pinky or use a magic ring to kill aliens or whatever. Excluding remakes and sequels, 2011's highest-grossing film was the achingly average Thor; if it hasn't already been fiscally canonized by America, then Hollywood would like it to be ripped from the bowels of Marvel/DC, even if a 2010 to 2011 box office comparison might suggest otherwise.

Thus, my frustration with the studio system's unwillingness to take chances, coupled with my general distrust for the genre, gave me a bit of pause before I decided to see Chronicle. Sure, the reviews were strong, but so were Thor's, because critics apparently can't get enough of iPod jokes and perfunctory romances between a dull woman and a dull god. Chronicle deftly challenged my skepticism, proving itself fresh, innovative and insightful, operating around a clear-headed evaluation of the teenage social structure its found footage format is entangled in.

As a pure action movie, Chronicle is sporadically successful. It has a handful of memorable setpieces, like a joyous football game in the clouds and the film's climactic brawl. Despite looking fairly polished on a shoestring action movie budget (though calling 12 million dollars "shoestring" puts a pit in my stomach every single time), the special effects are unfortunately obtrusive. The queasy weightlessness and CGI sheen of the objects that the trio manipulate break immersion regularly, and this movie will probably be discounted at large as digital technology evolves even further. Action as a genre ages extremely hard - just try watching the original X-men, a decade after its release - and found footage even more so. Who has a kind word for The Blair Witch Project anymore? Chronicle's strengths, which are mostly removed from its direct visual depictions of the "superpowers," seem destined to fall by the wayside.

It is through the film's choice of genre and format that those aforementioned strengths become possible, however, and therein lies the rub. Protagonist Andrew Detmer, primary cinematographer and social outcast, uses his camera as a means of assessing, positioning and capturing a world that is generally not kind to him. Within the first five minutes of the film, he has recorded evidence of his father, cousin, and kids at school behaving contemptuously toward a creep who won't turn his goddamn camera off. Andrew's relationship with his camera is more complex than any found footage film yet made, especially as a reflection of today's incessant documentary climate. In a world socially regimented by Facebook, Youtube, Tumblr and Instagram, all of which provide a platform for expression through visual means, the idea of an Andrew Detmer lurking behind a camera at any given moment seems increasingly possible. Better yet, it also permits the film a cinematic dexterity rarely seen in found footage films, since anything recorded by any source is game for Chronicle to display - security footage, iPhone videos, and the like. It is a crafty usage of a society that the film argues is saturated with the need to record.

With all this in mind, the "we have to document EVERYTHING!!!" attitude that plagues Cloverfield and [REC] and just about every other film in the subgenre becomes more than an excuse: it becomes an organic extension of the movie's themes. Andrew really DOES have to document everything because it is a question of identity, a self-assured activity that gives him a chance to express himself in circumstances that generally don't. When he, his cousin, and a popular tag-along from a nearby party have an encounter with an alien life form and develop telekinetic powers, reconciling this with his obsession with videography seems difficult. Indeed, Chronicle precipitates in a way that condemns this both as a conduit for teenage narcissism and an access point into parts of our personal lives that not everyone should see, until a high-powered conflict at the end that just about everyone with an electronic device seems able to record.

But it only makes sense that someone like Andrew, who has spent his entire life being marginalized and ignored, the product of an alcoholic father and an invalid mother, would want to perform for a world that scrutinizes people in a higher capacity than ever. Chronicle is not particularly subtle about this (if the father was any more evil, they'd have to give him a tiny mustache to twirl), but concerns of subtlety become trivial next to sharply-expressed character moments, like the talent show and the subsequent party after. Andrew's use of his powers is selfish at best and reckless at worst, but they have finally given him an opportunity to level the playing field; that backstory, slightly mawkish though it may be, is a perfect foundation for the events of the movie.

To divulge much more would ruin a movie that makes some surprisingly audacious choices, but for a PG-13 movie that deals with teenagers and superpowers, Chronicle refuses to softball its characters at all. Movies for adolescents about adolescents that realistically deal with the consequences of their actions are few and far between (especially ones that skew this dark), which makes the film's box-office success all the more heartening. Not perfect by any means, but absolutely worth catching.


A Mission Statement.

So I've started a lot of journals over the years. A Ujournal, way back in my freshman year of high school, and a Xanga shortly following. A Livejournal one year after, as if following some sort of pattern until my eventual graduation; I used that for a good long while until I started a more focused, special-interest blog devoted mostly to movies and video games and music and whatever cultural apocrypha I wanted to talk about. Along the way there have been innumerable side projects, including a Flixster that I still update and a Tumblr that I used for all of three days, but I always found something gratifying about long-form writing that lately I've kind of neglected.

This, my fifth attempt at consistently chronicling my reactions to things that other people make, is what I hope will be another step in this natural progression of online self-journalism. It's not that I'm necessarily doing it for the readership - I can only imagine that whoring this thing out to Facebook will keep people interested for so long - but it would be nice to have some sort of tangible product to show for many years' worth of efforts that were ultimately mostly personal. So begins, I hope, a new era of writerly diligence, one that I can hopefully rope a few like-minded friends into as well.

Stick around! In order to incentivize you, here's a picture of Foxy Brown. And by you I mean me. I'm going to pretend that she'll shoot me if I don't update this fucker regularly. You can just safely admire how cool she is.