Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, 2011)

If there is any sliver of decency in this universe, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third entry in the most crass, vile and offensive big-budget franchise in Hollywood history will be its last. If it is any better than the series' previous installment, that is only because it sublimates its racial, gender, political and aesthetic travesties into an even longer, more interminable celebration of reactionary ideals. For a series predicated on the idea that some things are more than meets the eye, the Transformers movies represent one of the least varied, consistently shallow sagas to ever hit the big screen: Transformers 3, like its predecessors, is a masturbatory affair, perhaps even more so than the execrable Revenge of the Fallen. Whatever shred of humanity existed in these films is obliterated, leaving only an unadulterated tribute to He-Man masculinity in response to hysterical conservative perceptions of the Obama era.

Sam (Shia LaBeouf, whose increasingly greasy look in each film he does suggests he hasn't showered since Even Stevens got canceled) saved the world and brokered an alliance between man and Autobot, but no one will give him a job out of Ivy League college. The poor guy has to settle for an absurdly large D.C. apartment and being supported by his disposable new girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), whose car-collecting boss, Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), openly flirts with her in front of Sam, further emasculating our hero. Compounded by the American government having locked Sam out from communicating with the Autobots, he needs a complete world invasion of Decepticons to let him prove his manhood, raising the question of just how many people need to die for Shia LaBeouf to feel comfortable about his dick size.

Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)

One of the chief reasons Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby is the king of the screwball comedies because it never stops. It has a straight man in Cary Grant's hysterically put-upon paleontologist, but no one in the movie is at all normal. Hawks himself later criticized this after the film proved, amazingly, to be a complete flop, saying he should have had at least one person acknowledge the lunacy and provide some kind of sanity anchor. But that's what makes the movie so great: it never steps outside itself to note how ridiculous (and downright naughty) everything is.

Some of the first lines of the film are pure innuendo, showing Grant's David Huxley, framed in an unflattering, goofy Thinker pose trying to figure out where a brontosaurus bone goes and telling his fiancé "I think this one must belong in the tail." "Nonsense," she says, "you tried it in the tail yesterday." This sets the ball rolling on a flagrantly sexual movie that inverts gender roles, making Grant the creepily stalked object of affection of Katharine Hepburn, who flashes into the movie like a firecracker and only gets more spectacular from there. While David is out playing golf to woo a potential museum investor, Hepburn's Susan walks up and plays his ball. Then, she drives off in his car, dragging him along on the running boards. Take a deep breath, this is as calm as the film gets.

Brian De Palma: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Brian De Palma may be perennially mistreated by a Hollywood that doesn't fully understand where he's coming from, yet I don't know of many directors who have been given so many chances to lose his backers' money. By this stage in his own career, John Carpenter had been all but finished by an industry tiring of his diminishing returns, but De Palma was on just on the cusp of being a validated mainstream filmmaker despite his box office receipts: he'd been given a glamorous gangster picture and a moralizing war film, both of which he infused with his own film-school geekdom even as he demonstrated an ability to play by Hollywood's rules. Having established himself as the '70s film-school leftover best-suited to the decade he'd already mocked with Scarface and Body Double, he finally had his chance to climb to the top.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is the apex of the director's late-'80s rise to prominence within the industry, and damn near the nadir of his career. To be clear, it is not as awful as legend would have you believe, or at least, it isn't to me as I've yet to read Tom Wolfe's source novel. I have actually come across some people who not only defend this film but say they prefer it to the book. If that is true, Wolfe's novel must be a real piece of shit. For even without the knowledge of the book's full contents, De Palma's fiasco feels so incomplete and haphazard it's a wonder the director only realized the problems in retrospect.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Blood Money (Rowland Brown, 1933)

Rowland Brown's snarling Pre-Code feature Blood Money was thought lost for decades, perhaps out of wishful thinking for decency's sake. The story of cop-turned-amoral bondsman Bill Bailey (George Bancroft), Blood Money is an unsentimental, occasionally repellent dive into the criminal underworld by way of one of its transitory members. Bill talks a big game and hands out Cuban cigars by the handful, but his arrogance is tempered by the quiet knowledge that the criminals he considers friends and allies will desert him at the earliest sign of trouble.

The Depression-era underworld Brown drifts through is a topsy-turvy fever dream of transvestism, bootlegging and sadomasochism. There's no moral to offset the madness of the film's crime-ridden social pits; if anything, Brown considers crime a completely viable form of business in the Depression. Without it, how would you know you were in the city?

Doctor Who — Series 5

Doctor Who's fifth series takes the strengths of Russell T. Davies' revival and smooths out nearly all the issues that routinely gave me pause. WIth the exception of an unnecessary two-parter and a useless Dalek return (now with Freeze-Pop colors!), the start of Steven Moffat's tenure as showrunner elevates the series from a whimsical but dodgy program to one of the best shows currently on television.

Admittedly, I think just about everyone expected an uptick in quality when Davies handed off the series to its best writer, but Moffat completely overhauls Doctor Who without sacrificing its innate charms. It still feels like the classic space serial it is, but Moffat trades Davies' only fitfully earned "golly gee whiz" mood for a more grounded wonder, one that is a payoff to the adventure rather than the default tone of voice. I'm told the original run of Dr. Who had its moments of darker energy, and Moffat very much targets that side of Who, to the point that the series, while still feeling appropriate for a family, might actually challenge, even alienate, viewers.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Cars 2 (John Lasseter, 2011)

I will not ask why Cars 2 exists because I've seen the merchandising figures from the first film. Nevertheless, it's a question I couldn't force out of my mind while watching this two-hour bore. After a string of ambitious, beautiful films that established Pixar as one of the most respected studios on Earth, they finally sink to the sad state of their bosses at Disney. This isn't a film, it's a preview of coming attractions at a theme park. I didn't stay through all the credits, but I nearly did just to see if it ended with an advertisement to come check out Cars Land next year at Disney California Adventure.

Underlining the sheer cynicism of this film's conception is the near-total lack of characterization. John Lasseter, whose erstwhile evocation of the young, winsomely childlike George Lucas here brings out the mercenary side of the Star Wars creator, transparently structures the film to avoid personal connection in favor of selling toys. Forgettable as the first Cars was, it at least spent time with its characters; Cars 2 throttles past the drama between Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his loving but tiresome best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), preferring instead to get in as many new vehicles as possible to make sure Disney's merchandise wing ends this year in the black.

Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987)

None of James L. Brooks' films condense his sitcom sensibilities better than Broadcast News. Where so many of his movies feel treacly and thin, Broadcast News offers a well-rounded portrait of fully realized characters whose story does not overstay its welcome. That's the other thing: were it any longer, or were it a television series instead of a one-off movie, the archetypes Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks embody might have consumed them and left only two-dimensional cut-outs for easy humor that turned stale in short order. Somehow, Brooks positions the film perfectly in the middle, clearly drawing upon his television outlook but making something uniquely filmic out of the material.

Using his stint as an CBS News writer as the basis for the film, Brooks casts a spotlight on the news industry in flux. Television has become the dominant means of news communication, and Brooks looks into the medium shortly before the likes of CNN completely altered the format from individual news programs to a 24-hour machine. At times, though, one can hardly tell that the characters only produce news for an hour-long (if that) block of programming, as the Washington newsroom bustles at all times with people desperately trying to get segments finished on-time and watching playbacks with fervent hope that the lead anchor up in New York, a godly presence appropriately played by Jack Nicholson, will give even the slightest indication of approval.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Brian De Palma: Casualties of War

On a first viewing, I found Casualties of War to be a fitfully intriguing, if overly quotidian Vietnam film that offered up a unique story but a predictable payoff. Furthermore, the tonal upheaval that occurs in the final act turned what had been one of Brian De Palma's most solid films into a well-meaning but sappy liberal morality play. Looking at it now, however, I see one of De Palma's better films, and a slyly literal take on the illegality of war that proposes such a simple, self-evident solution that it never seems to come to mind: what if someone actually took the horror and wrongness of war to court?

Unlike a court-martial film, Casualties of War is neither about a kangaroo court to make an example of the enlisted or a demonstration of the rotten chain of command. In fact, it isn't about the trial itself but the courage to bring one's fellow soldiers to that trial, overcoming self-doubt over incriminating one's fellow servicemen and intense pressure from everyone else to let the whole thing go. Coming off the upswing of strong (and strongly critical) Vietnam films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, De Palma's film sticks firmly with the men on the ground. Less forgiving than Stone's semi-autobiographical film and less heady than Kubrick's movie, De Palma's feature shows the same breakdown of sanity and humanity not as the result of an officious, out-of-touch command but of the absence of any clear structure in an environment so confusing the trees themselves seem to be hostile.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948)

The Blu-Ray cover for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre depicts Humphrey Bogart in a moment of sober, slack self-recognition, a repulsed and vacant stare into nothingness. A more representative image, however, would have been one of the countless looks of uncontrollable hunger and desire that crosses Bogie's face throughout this vicious fable of greed. Like his greatest performance in Nick Ray's In a Lonely Place, Bogie's work here channels the actor's vulnerability into a self-annihilating fury, an unfocused explosion of fear and loathing that can consume anyone caught in its blast radius.

When we first meet Bogart, as Fred C. Dobbs, we see the actor at his most vulnerable, shuffling around a harsh Mexican town with no prospects bumming pesos off fellow Americans. Bogie's hangdog expression has never drooped so low; if it sagged any further the flesh would fall off his skull. But when he and compatriot Curtin (Tim Holt) hear about a potential gold vein from an old prospector who's played his luck enough to squander the fortunes he's made, the men drag the old-timer, Howard (Walter Huston), with them on the hunt for gold, utterly ignoring the warnings made to them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

The only comedies that have stood up as agelessly as Some Cast It Hot are the works of Chaplin and Keaton, and they have the benefit of the universality of silent film. Billy Wilder's farce never lets up; even its deceptively action-packed opening is absurd (and proof of the director's capacity for visual humor in addition to his written wit), and every shot has something funny in it. The men-in-drag comedy has become an overplayed trope in the decades since the film's release, but Wilder's still stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. Unlike so many who followed in his footsteps, Wilder does not accept the premise as a joke so funny it needs no further work to make an audience laugh. Instead, he layers double- and triple-meanings into numerous lines, resorts to callbacks to make sure the crowd is paying attention and always parlays the easy joke of the hysterically transparent drag duo of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon (Curtis looks better, if only because he's placed next to Lemmon's side-splitting hag) into a far craftier gag.

Those opening shots of a bootlegging hearse being chased by cops lead to the humorous image of liquor seeping out of a bullet ridden coffin and a host of funeral puns when the mobsters arrive at a converted funeral home. We then briefly meet musicians Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon), who see that one of the patrons is taking out a badge and silently pack their instruments to make an escape before the raid comes crashing through the door. Later, they inadvertently witness the same gangsters who hired them gun down rival mafiosos in a garage, prompting the saps to run away from freezing, crime-ridden Chicago to sunny Miami by hiding among an all-girl band of musicians.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)

Like the best of David Lean's films, The Bridge on the River Kwai is sweeping but personal, a formal masterwork that ultimately operates to deepen the moral ambiguity and humanity of its primary characters. The film plays out as two separate battles of wills, both of which converge under the shadow of a railroad bridge being constructed for the Japanese war effort by Western prisoners of war. From these mind games emerges a moral portrait of the conflicting feelings in war: there are no heroes in this film, nor truly any villains. In a time when crowing about the war was still all the rage—hell, has back-patting about WWII ever gone out of fashion among the Allies?—Lean shows the warping effect of conflict on all men, how one can see right through the ridiculous code of military conduct of one side and utterly fail to see the absurdities in one's own.

Lean's gift for finding the human touch even in his most technical, grandiose moments is evident from the first moments of the film. A graceful crane shot through dense jungle spills out into a narrow clearing showing railroad tracks and mound graves with rudimentary crosses made of bamboo marking the dead. A group of British soldiers march through the jungle, the boisterous music belying the less-inspiring truth that they are headed to a Japanese POW camp following the surrender of Singapore. From the moment the unit's leader, Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness), steps into camp, we see he's going to be a problem. He has his men march as if on parade, whistling proudly even as shots focusing on their torn shoes and quivering legs undo any sense of the Brits' strength. What at first seems Nicholson's gesture of defiance eventually becomes the first sign of madness implanted by his capture.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Green Lantern (Martin Campbell, 2011)

Watching Green Lantern in 3D is like watching a glowstick through sunglasses, the already unimpressive neon goop dimmed to a murky hum of sickly light. Its dulled visual scheme matches the narrative, a story about a man chosen for the highest honor in the universe that has all the excitement of finding out one has been selected to be a Nielsen family. In fairness, this movie is not as bad as the increasingly increasingly garish X-Men: First Class, which is aging in my short-term memory like milk left out in a hot sun. Green Lantern at least lacks the pomposity and waste of recent blockbusters, but it makes up for this "shortcoming" with a stupefying lack of creativity, in a film about a hero whose power is his imagination.

The first sign of the dearth of ideas is the hero himself. The Hal Jordan of the comics, a conservative, stoic pilot without fear, is replaced with a smarmy jackass played with much-practiced knowing by Ryan Reynolds. Jordan here is nothing more than Tom Cruise's character from Top Gun, to the point that, after he becomes the titular hero and inevitably saves the day, I expected Hal to buzz the giant lantern core on the planet Oa, making the gruff drill sergeant Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan, because of course he is) spill his galactic coffee all over himself in surprise and rage. But, if wishes were horses...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Fifteen Movie Questions

So apparently Anna from Defiant Success started a meme asking bloggers 15 movie-related questions (I know, the obscure title throws you off), and Andy from Fandango Groovers tagged me to participate. Hey, why not.

Movie you love with a passion

The Red Shoes. A film that is passion incarnate in all its expressive glory. It and Black Narcissus are why Technicolor was invented.

Movie you vow never to watch

I don't know that I have this position for any film anymore. I swore off Lars von Trier after Dancer in the Dark, only to return for Antichrist, a film that tore me so violently between admiration and hate I now have no choice but to check out Melancholia and see if he is at last turning into a proper filmmaker with ambition to match his Loki-esque tricks. Any film I simply have no desire to see is too unappealing and unexciting to me that it isn't worthy of the bold, energetic proclamation of an oath.

Movie that literally left you speechless

The Tree of Life. My friend and I left the theater, said nothing for some time, tried to make awkward chat about it and failed to say anything, and I cried the whole drive home. There is no other film like it.

Movie you always recommend

The Outlaw Josey Wales. For those in the know, it's Clint Eastwood's best film. But you'd be amazed how many aren't in the know, yet I've converted damn near all of them, film buff and philistine alike. Strikes the same perfect balance between classic Western and revisionism as Once Upon a Time in the West without the epic length that might put some off Leone's film. Barnstorming entertainment, but also Eastwood's first (and purest) directorial show of gruff, tacit humanity. Runner-up: The Apartment. If I have to even explain why, just go rent the damn thing.

Actor/actress you always watch, no matter how crappy the movie

It's gotta be Nic Cage, an actor who can overpower anyone when matched with a good script and able filmmaker and, well, certainly unmissable when the cogs don't exactly mesh. Frankly, I'd rather watch him shout and bear-punch through The Wicker Man, despite how boring the whole film is (to the curious, just stick with the YouTube compilations for maximum comedy) than watch Sean Penn or Angelina Jolie smirk their way through some message movie.

Actor/actress you don’t get the appeal for

So this does not look like I'm merely plagiarizing Andy, I'll forgo my without-hesitation pick Julia Roberts (I almost sacrificed Cage so I could rail on Roberts, but let's stay positive). Instead, I'll go with Kevin Spacey, a man whose preening, write-my-name in-the-stars-with-gossamer egoism cannot disguise the fact that he is best suited to doing (admittedly incredible) impressions on Saturday Night Live rather than using every role to find some terrible, hacky nebula between realistic acting and genuinely emotive Big Acting. You can see temple veins straining in everything, as if he's trying to use telepathy on the audience to psychically coerce us into loving him. You were good in Se7en, champ. That's about it.

Actor/actress, living or dead, you’d love to meet

I'd like to think I could shoot the shit with Katharine Hepburn, but I know I'd just be tongue-tied by her wit and beauty and would basically just hang around awkwardly. But still.

Sexiest actor/actress you’ve seen

Yet again, Andy nabs the self-evident choice, so instead of Eva Green I'll pick my other French flame du jour, Marion Cotillard, who's particularly on my mind (amongst other parts careful) in the wake of Midnight in Paris, in which even the camera froze in sight of her beauty. Her defiant, empowered number in Rob Marshall's otherwise useless Nine damn near made me turn into one of those cartoon wolves with the rolling tongue and bulging eyes (something was bulging, all right stop).

Dream cast

I believe this question is asking me to assemble what I would consider the best cast ever, but I hate just listing my favorite actors. The best cast in the world can't save a POS and God knows the world is littered with enough terrible movies greenlit solely because a number of great actors agreed to a paycheck. So instead I'll post my favorite ensemble. Now, there are plenty of great dramatic casts, and even some that are appropriately big (your average late-career Altman movie was a parade of talent), but the king of the epic cast is the war movie. The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Day come swiftly to mind, but for my money I'll go with Inglourious Basterds, which manged to craft as mesmerizing an ensemble without stunt casting (even Brad Pitt's involvement is utterly subverted). It introduced me to a number of foreign actors, brought out some surprising American choices, and then made a dream cast from obscurity.

Favorite actor pairing

Leaving out genuine double acts or artist-muse couplings like Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, I'd go with Burt Lancaster and a completely against type Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success.

Favorite movie setting

Split decision between A Galaxy Far, Far Away, a place where I found the key to my childhood, and New York, which, more than any other city, can be anything a director wants it to be. You've got your jazzy sin den of Sweet Smell of Success; the fetid, dank horror of Scorsese's pictures; even the unabashed love of Manhattan. Like the real New York, the cinematic one is scary, vibrant, alluring, repellent and irresistible.

Favorite decade for movies

The easy answer is the '70s. It's also the one I'm going with because I'm still catching up with the '40s, '50s and '60s (though the latter's abundance of truly out-there work is starting to challenge the supremacy of the more formal rigors of '70s pleasure in my mind).

Chick flick or action movie

Hmm, I find a great deal of action movies repulsive exhibitions of unchecked masculinity, but I also think chick flicks cage women into rote, paper-thin parts that don't even offer progressive cardboard cutouts. Well, I like more action movies than I do chick flicks, so action wins out. But I'll take a great, insightful, human romance over blood and guts at any time. Having said that, I can think of few better ways to pass the time than with an Asian action film.

Hero, villain or anti-hero?

Anti-hero, of course. A hero without constant self-doubt is as dull as a mustache-twirling villain.

Black and white or color?

And the hardest is saved for last. I would draw this out by weighing the two, but A) this is not that serious and B) there's just no way to choose anyway. But I'll go with color, as it gives me the range of "painting with light" three-strip Technicolor all the way through to Michael Mann's digital snow. But cigarette smoke hasn't looked the same since we moved to color.

I'm supposed to tag other people to post their own answers, but as much as I enjoy doing these to pass the time, I hate pressuring others to participate. Besides, I'm sure anyone I would tag has already been asked by someone else. So I'll just post some of the entries I've seen.

Andy @ Fandango Groovers
Joel Burman @
John Gilpatrick @ John Loves Movies
Julian Stark @ Movies and Other Things
Univarn @ A Life in Equinox

Forensic Blues: Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder

My review of Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder, one of the best genre films of the previous decade and one of two great modern detective movies alongside Zodiac, is up at Cinelogue. Bong has made four features since arriving on the scene smack at the start of the millennium, three of which I've seen. On the basis of those three films, it has taken me considerable effort not to start making silly proclamations that extol him as the greatest genre filmmaker currently working (or at least the best who isn't Johnnie To, who at this point should be inducted into some kind of hall of fame and thus made ineligible for yearly consideration). Memories is, to date, his finest film, a warped pre-forensic tale of police stupidity, brutality, but also conviction. Not many filmmakers could handle the leaps from clear criticism of the police (and the film not once excuses brutal methods the way some American films do) and sympathy for their technologically limited predicament, but then no one can juggle mood swings like Bong.

So head on over to Cinelogue and check out my review.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011)

Wyndham Tower looms over a London slum like a fortress, or a prison. Long corridors mark off equally spaced, nondescript doors, some of which (on the higher levels) are barred. It breeds a tough kind of people, so tough that, when an alien crashes into the area, a group of youths quickly kill it and proudly parade the creature about the place as if it were the boar's head in Lord of the Flies. Then more creatures rain from the sky. Stronger, scarier ones.

Attack the Block is the first feature of Joe Cornish, a comedian indirectly known to nerds for his work on featurettes for the home video releases of Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Cornish's chamber horror takes several cues from the former film, not only in its breakneck style and banal British setting but in its social cleverness. By limiting the action to a council estate and writing in British street slang, Cornish brings up racial and class divisions in the inner city, focusing specifically on how those division shape youths.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Steven Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan is the most troublesome film in Steven Spielberg's filmography. It, far more than the contested Schindler's List, Amistad or even the tonally inconsistent The Color Purple, is the best evidence for Spielberg's supposed unsuitability for drama. Those films counterbalance Spielberg's worrisome moments of misplaced sentimentality with glimpses of an actual understanding of the gravity of the situation. The understated tilt up from the infamous shower scene in Schindler's List to show the consequences of actual gas chambers works as a response to both accusations that the director was exploiting a world travesty and his supposed lack of subtlety. Saving Private Ryan lacks such a moment. No, that's not right; it does contain such moments, but they feel artificial and forced, feeling like the work of a man who threw them in desperately at the last minute instead of finding organic depth.

In essence, Saving Private Ryan is the Holy Bible of war movies, in the sense that it contains so many contradictory, half-baked themes and morals that it can be used to justify practically any outlook. As such, I cannot say that it is a bad movie, per se; in fact, some moments display an almost overwhelming sense of form. But it is a schizophrenic movie, filled with competing influences of other war films. That indeed is the problem: for a supposedly realistic document, this is a film founded on other films instead of history.

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)

The opening shots of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris show the titular city from the perspective of a tourist, focusing on landmarks as tour groups walk and ride ferries around town. Occasionally, he spares brief glimpses of back alleys occupied by locals who know how to avoid the shuffling guests. Meanwhile, Allen lays French-flavored jazz, a Parisien take on American music, over such shots. He even literalizes the other part of the title by spreading the montage over the course of a day from sunrise to starless night, watching the blossom of the City of Light as dim interior lights grow into the full dazzle of Paris after dark. Despite the simplicity of Allen's static montage, he conveys a number of important ideas with the first moments: we do not see the Paris of those who live there but of tourists who visit it, and the sight of centuries-old landmarks looming over modern urban bustle shows the past mingling with the present.

That juxtaposition magnifies as Allen follows Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful hack screenwriter who looks to Paris for inspiration for his novel. Drunkenly wandering Paris one night while his fiancée (Rachel McAdams) dances with friends, Gil suddenly finds himself sucked into an old car after midnight, ending up amongst flappers, ex-pats and, most importantly, a host of legendary artists who dwelt in the city in the 1920s.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Breaking Bad — Season 3

[Warning: Contains spoilers for previous seasons]

The perpetual moral free-fall of Breaking Bad should not be as sustainable as it's proven to be. By the start of its third season, which begins only with the show's 20th episode, Breaking Bad has already traveled such dark territory the question arises whether it can keep going before slipping into absurdity. However, the program already had a built-in black comedy that underscored its drama, and somehow the greatest show currently on television only gets better as things continue to spiral.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Super 8 (J.J. Abrams, 2011)

That Super 8 has the audacity to arrive on a marketing platform billing it as an original film is more a testament to the cesspool of derivative sequels, reboots and unimaginative new franchises that have already made this, the Summer of Sequel, such a perfunctory, unengaging play for box office receipts. In this climate, an earnest (if borderline shameless) tribute to the director least in need of a profile boost is a momentary breath of fresh air at the multiplex, even if, in isolated moments, it feels like no more than the perfumed bathroom of a smoky casino floor.

By the same token, as much as the film appropriates Spielbergian themes, stylistic touches and, of course, referential shots, Super 8 works best as a self-contained film about the possibility of a young kid's love for escapist film coming to life. Some scenes of this movie are downright comically outsized when set against the dirtied, naïve prepubescents who run through monster rampages, military quarantines and, eventually, an all-out war zone. But this also makes for a film that digs deeper into Steven Spielberg's entire ethos as a filmmaker until it arrives at last to the wide-eyed Boy Scout within the world's richest, most powerful director, the kid who would make a Western just to get a merit badge and would find ways to show his love for the films of his youth even in his late career..

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2011)

[Note: Unlike a number of 2010 films I'm counting for 2011 consideration, Another Year did manage to get a legitimate limited run in the States (not just festival screenings) last year, but it did so starting Dec. 29. Hence, it's being put in with this year's lot. Also, I want the chance to praise it once more at the end of the year.]

Tom and Gerri Hepple are the best and worst friends a person could have: they are so cheery, warm and content that one could tell them anything and feel better for it. But they also serve as a baiting bug zapper for every broken individual who hasn't achieved happiness past that imaginary but oh-so-tangible point of no return. Drawn by the allure of what seems a perfect life, those lonely, miserable people suddenly find themselves confronted with everything they aren't, and it sucks being the least happy person in a room. It usually leads to yet more unhappiness.

One almost does not need to say that Another Year is a Mike Leigh film as it is almost self-evidently so. Not only does it feature a number of actors who've collaborated with the director before, it displays the cynical but human understanding Leigh has honed over his career, a psychology he achieves through his trademark interaction with and faith in actors. After the deceptively sweet Happy-Go-Lucky—which revealed its own pains and complications in its ostensibly two-dimensional lead and her (bi)polar opposite played by Eddie Marsan—Leigh returns to a more downbeat fare, though the portrait of romantic bliss and Platonic turmoil makes for one of Leigh's most emotionally well-rounded films.

Monday, June 6, 2011

X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011)

Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class shows his continual fragmentation as a filmmaker, seemingly incapable of sticking to any one idea and the continual downward spiral of his satiric abilities, although the fact that the film feels at all tongue-in-cheek suggests a muted cleverness at work that never quite shows through the convoluted wash of genres tossed at the screen. Maybe the filmmakers wanted to break up the rote feel of a prequel, an admirable decision given the execrable Wolverine, but the film can't help but grind to a halt when it attempts to incorporate '60s era Bond, Dr. Strangelove, The Breakfast Club and on-the-nose subtext of closeted homosexuality into the already bombastic superhero genre.

At least the leads are great. Michael Fassbender plays Erik "Magneto" Lehnsherr as a sleek but imploding killer seeking revenge for the horrors he experienced as a test subject of experimental doctors in the Holocaust, not yet hardened into Ian McKellen's cool shell. He's the first person to look sinister in a turtleneck in decades. James McAvoy, making the best of a wildly inconsistent character, plays Charles as wide-eyed and with a joy of knowledge that occasionally dips into good-natured arrogance and one too many uses of the word "groovy." He has all of Professor X's optimism with unchecked naïveté: he hasn't yet had to test and earn that fundamental belief in the goodness of mankind.

The first half-hour of the film (its best) separates the two as they grow into themselves, Erik in a Nazi camp, Xavier in the lap of luxury, and the marked contrast in their experiences delineates their personalities. Erik spends his first adult scenes as a loner tracking down Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the man who brutally brought out Erik's metal-manipulating abilities in the camps. Charles, with his long-time friend Raven, a.k.a. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), finds himself working for the C.I.A. when an operative (Rose Byrne) uncovers a nuclear war plot by Shaw. For Charles, getting to work with the government, regardless of the agreement's fragility an frigidity, is a wonderful opportunity to prove the mutant place in society; Erik is already comfortable outside it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

[Edited 12/28/11]

"God is closer to me than others of my art."
-Ludwig van Beethoven

In 1733, Johann Sebastian Bach, born and raised a Lutheran, premiered two pieces of what would become his Mass in B minor, which he spent the remaining years of his life expanding and honing until the liturgy used for both major Christian denominations became a full-blown Roman Catholic Mass. Composed in chunks up to his final years, his Missa is disjunctive, consisting of clashing textures reflecting both the different kinds of inspiration that drove him in each writing block as well as the altered emotional state of the composer as he drifted into blindness and illness. Yet the result is one of the undisputed masterpieces of Western classical music, the apotheosis of nearly every musical style of its time in one grand, summarizing statement.

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life may be the closest the cinema has to its own Mass in B minor: it's gargantuan, encompassing, messy and bold. It's also exquisitely beautiful and personal on a level seemingly impossible for something that feels so vast. Bach spent about two decades tweaking and expanding his mass; Malick has been collecting ideas and images for this for 30 years, and the inspirations behind it likely stretch back even further. The Missa comprises movements under four distinct sections, and The Tree of Life incorporates the themes and styles of the director's four previous features into a film that feels infinite and minute, unwieldy yet perversely whole.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1969)

The squealed harmonica refrain that runs through Sergio Leone's masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, sounds like the unholy death moans of a desert reptile. Its minimal, haunting, even terrifying noise reflects much of the film's style, which is at once epic and stark, melodramatic and painfully, acutely real. The harmonica itself is something of an absurdity, the embodiment of psychological trauma of a bloodthirsty gunslinger out to avenge his family's deaths, yet it, like all the other transparently cinematic, borderline Brechtian elements, fits with odd plausibility.

Lured into making another Western by the Hollywood system despite hoping to retire from the genre, Sergio Leone got a fast one over on them by elevating the Spaghetti Western (which he'd already raised well above its usual level) into the realm of genuine art. Once Upon a Time in the West certainly wasn't the first (nor last) film to document the downfall of the West, but it ranks among the merciless and unsparing. Before this, revisionist Westerns carried some sense of elegy, of the loss of the spirit embodied in the other Westerns. Even The Wild Bunch, released the same year, has its own sense of regret, even if it is in the futility of it all. Leone's film, though not scathing or condemning, is a depiction of an evil system replaced by another evil system, though that might not even be sufficient: this is not a changeover between parties so much as an evolution of the old way.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Robert Conquest — The Great Terror

After reading some of Sheila O'Malley's posts on a book called The Great Terror, I found myself sufficiently interested to order a copy and set about reading Robert Conquest's painstakingly researched survey of Stalin's Terror.

It took me about a month of dedicated reading to finish. Unlike, say, Ulysses, this wasn't because the book was complex or obscure. It was simply too much to handle. The Great Terror is a catalog of death, with enough names listed to fill a war monument. In fact, that's how I began to think of the book at some point, akin to going through each name on the Vietnam Wall, albeit with the added horror of knowing how nearly each of them died. And like the conflict in Vietnam, the Terror was so senseless, so base, so cynical on the highest level that coming to grips with it is such an awful prospect it seems better to simply act as if it never happened.

But of course, nothing ever gets solved that way, and Conquest's book is a necessary slog through Hell to find some meaning, some motive, some psychological tear that explains the system of fear and torture that took over a society supposedly founded on collectivism and the common good. I shouldn't even say "supposedly:" as Conquest reveals, the horrid, mad genius of Stalin's reign was in the dictator's use of such ideals to convince everyone that every arrest, no matter how transparently absurd and fabricated, truly was for the good of the U.S.S.R.