Monday, December 31, 2012

Take This Waltz (2011)

Sarah Polley’s latest was made for the Instagram generation. With it’s combination of rich, bold colors, manufactured shabby-chic production design, and outfits that could be from Anthropologie or H&M, the movie looks just like a snapshot from a friend’s Facebook feed, or maybe a “Visit Canada!” ad campaign. 

That wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for the serious subject matter. Michelle Williams plays Margot, a young, unhappy married woman. Her husband, Lou (Seth Rogen) is a cook working on an all-chicken cookbook. They have a playful relationship, but every time she says, “I love you,” it’s like she’s dipping her toe in a bath to see if it’s hot or cold. She falls for a neighbor named Daniel (Luke Kirby) and, in the end, gives in to temptation, destroying her marriage but at least finding happiness. 

Or not. 

Take This Waltz is truthful in the sense that sometimes the things we want won't really make us any happier. The problem, though, is that the deck comes stacked so high against Margot there’s no suspense one way or the other. Every incident pushes her further into Daniel’s arms, but I was never convinced that she was all that miserable with Lou in the first place. When she slides into one of her gloomy moods, it seems to happen against her will–the story calls for it, so it must be so. 

Well-acted though it may be, and distractingly nice to look at, the story just didn’t work for me.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Annual Onslaught of Sameness

Yesterday, I commented on Twitter about the number of year-end lists I've seen that put Lincoln near the top, but then, in their blurb about it, seem to apologize for putting it there. I said that less because I wanted to comment on Lincoln than because of the insecurity I feel about my own tentative list (which I’ll share in due time). It has a lot in common with others, but also includes a few picks that might elicit a “Really? You picked that?” kind of response. Or maybe I’m just imaging the worst.

Whatever the case, I'm starting to feel differently. The more lists I see, the more I'm proud of my differences. The same three, four, or five titles are showing up again and again, often in the same spots. Which is fine—they’re good movies (although, I haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty or Amour yet; I'm just assuming on those).

Still, I have to wonder: is everyone really of such a like mind? One of the whole reasons I look forward to lists each year is for the surprise of seeing something I hadn't heard of, or something I’d written off that another person saw in a very different light. But for yet another year in a row, I feel like we’re facing an onslaught of sameness. What about uniqueness of vision? Is critical opinion really as homogenized as this?

That’s why I admire Tasha Robinson’s list for The AV Club. I can’t say I agree with her number one pick, but what a move! And there are at least a couple of other titles here that had me thinking, either because I hadn't heard of them at all or because no one's mentioned them in a long while.

So anyway, for the sake of celebrating diversity, I decided to post her list below. And to see the rest of The AV Club’s lists, you're just a click away.

Tasha Robinson
1. The Avengers
2. Wreck-It Ralph
3. Zero Dark Thirty
4. Chasing Ice
5. I Wish
6. Where Do We Go Now?
7. The Master
8. Beasts Of The Southern Wild
9. The Secret World Of Arrietty
10. The Cabin In The Woods
11. Life Of Pi
12. The Rabbi’s Cat
13. Cloud Atlas
14. Haywire
15. Looper

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey wasn't made for me. It wasn't even made, strictly speaking, for fans of The Hobbit, but for Tolkeinites who want more of the Middle Earth they saw in Lord of the Rings. It was made, in other words, for the homespun Viking at my screening who corrected a guy's pronunciation of "Balrog."

I'm a fairweather Tolkein man, myself–I've seen the movies a few times and read both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but I couldn't tell you the history of Middle Earth, and I certainly can't speak Elvish. My sense, though, is that Tolkien never sewed his two stories together to the extent that Jackson does with his new trilogy. Here, Smaug the dragon's attack on the dwarve's subterranean treasure isn't just bad luck or the major conflict of the series–it's a portent of Sauron's return 60 years in the future.

And that's fine, I guess, but Lord of the Rings this is not, and nor should it be. An Unexpected Journey deserved a lighter touch. And I don't mean that it needed more humor–it has that. What it needed was a director more in love with the original story than his own personal vision. Jackson indicated, during the interim between Lord of the Rings and this first movie, that he wasn't the man for the job, and he should have listened to his own advice.

But that's not to say An Uexpected Journey is wholly unenjoyable. The much-anticipated meeting between Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gollum (Andy Serkis) is everything it should be–whimsical, creepy, and oddly touching. Plus, you couldn't ask for a better Bilbo than Freeman, both in terms of how he looks and his ability to play the exasperated, put-upon everyman. He's built a career out of it, in fact. The only major difference between his part here and his parts in Sherlock and The Office (the original one) is that he's smaller and has hairier feet.

It's also nice to see familiar faces again: Ian McKellan is back, of course, as are Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee. But honestly, with the exception of McKellan (who's integral), their parts could've been saved for the extended edition. Here, they're dead weight in a spectacle already overstuffed with too much walking, talking, and running. What could Jackson possibly add to an extended edition, besides the other two movies?

Length is just the more glaring issue, though. The other big oliphant in the room is the frame rate. I understand Jackson's reasoning and I applaud his adventuresome spirit, but I couldn't adjust to it. You go to a movie expecting a certain look, and that look usually isn't "History Channel reenactment." The action is clearer, but if that's the only improvement a higher frame rate gives us, I'm not sure how much more experimenting we need to do. Like Bilbo at the outset, I'll gladly stick with what's familiar.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Cloud Atlas (2012)

My review of Cloud Atlas with Filmwell.

Criticwire - 12/3

Take a look at my answer to the latest Criticwire question, which asks: "What is the single best performance of the year, male or female?"

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Master (2012)

In my second piece for Filmwell, I take a look at Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, The Master.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Blow-Up (1966)

While I haven't posted much here recently, I have been writing in other places. In mid September my first piece for Filmwell went live, and just yesterday my answer for the latest Criticwire survey went up. Strangely enough, both were on Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blow-Up. Be sure you check them out:

You can read my Filmwell piece here...

...and you can read my Criticwire answer here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

If I Had Voted In The Sight & Sound Poll

So even though I used my previous post to question our obsession with list-making, I still wanted to throw my two cents out there in regards to this year's Sight & Sound poll. If I had been asked to vote, which had a less than 0% chance of happening, these are the movies I would have voted for. I’ve excluded foreign-language films from consideration, but not because they aren't worthy--I’m simply less sure of myself when I add them in. (Let’s hope time and experience change that.) You'll also notice my list favors movies from the seventies. I really can't explain that, but there it is; call me out in the comments section, if you're so inclined.
  • The Gold Rush (1925)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • The Searchers (1956)
  • North by Northwest (1959)
  • The Godfather (1972)
  • Barry Lyndon (1975)
  • Days of Heaven (1978)
  • Goodfellas (1990)
  • The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
  • There Will Be Blood (2007)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Agony and Ecstasy of Lists

Time and experience have made me skeptical of lists. Of course, I say that as a young blogger with only a modest amount of freelance experience. Still, I don't think it takes much to reach that conclusion; just spend a few minutes on Rotten Tomatoes sometime. That's all you need to realize that even the freshest or most rotten movie has its respective detractors and supporters.

So what should we think of something like the top 10/top 50 list released by the reputable Sight & Sound last week? Like a reclusive artist or eccentric tycoon, the once-a-decade list from Sight & Sound has a romantic aura around it. In the eyes of many cinephiles and critics--including Roger Ebert--it's the only one that matters.

But as authoritative as it might be, film criticism is still a slippery business. Even where there's a consensus there are still varying degrees of agreement. After years at the top, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane was finally unseated by Hitchcock's Vertigo, a great movie--but the best of all time? My Facebook newsfeed begged to differ.

Not that we should get rid of lists, though, and especially the one by Sight & Sound. The movie world has never had a canon the way the world of literature has, so if nothing else, it's like a guide for movie lovers, young and old. It's instructive and foundational. "Start here," it says, "and just see where the road takes you next."

In that light, it doesn't matter if Sight & Sound got it "wrong" or "right." What matters is whether you engaged with it and if you know why you disagree. That kind of attitude--one that's open to new stories, new styles, new experiences--is what any list worth its salt invites. By that measure, that puts Sight & Sound at the top of its class.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


What a week.

First, there was the hysteria on Rotten Tomatoes surrounding negative reviews of The Dark Knight Rises. Then, early on Friday in Aurora, Colorado, there was the tragic shooting during a midnight screening of the movie.

In both cases, the question on my mind and the minds of others is why? What makes people do the awful things they do, whether from behind their safe computer screens or in a vulnerable public space like a movie theater?

As a Christian, I'm supposed to have an inkling of an idea. There's the garden. The snake. History's first couple. And, of course, the forbidden fruit. Whether you believe the story really happened or you just believe in the truth of the story, this is how we Christian try to explain tragedy.

But in the face of what's happened this week, I'm speechless. I can't even say why these two events have affected me as strongly as they have. Maybe it's because, as Peter Labuza wrote on Friday, I spend a lot of time at the movies. It's not my church, but yes, there are similarities, and yes, the actions of James Holmes feel like an affront.

So the question on my mind now is this--to review or not to review?

Honestly, I don't see any point. What do movie reviews matter in the face of tragedy? It makes the very idea of blogging no more important than a piece of popcorn on a movie theater floor.

And yet.

"Why do we fall, Master Wayne?" That, of course, is a famous line from Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, and if you've seen any of them, you know the answer.

"So we can pick ourselves back up."

Except that it wouldn't be right for me to stop there. You can call it irrational or illogical all you want, but I just don't believe that getting back up is something we have to do alone. However speechless I may be in the face of that question--why?--I do believe in a God of love and grace who can help us.

I'll close with this. It's a quote from Frederick Buechner that's helped me through difficult times, and maybe it can help someone else. It goes a little something like this:

"A Christian is one who points at Christ and says, 'I can't prove a thing, but there's something about his eyes and his voice. There's something about the way he carries his head, his hands. The way he carries his cross. The way he carries me."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

What Exactly Is a Spoiler-Free Review?

This summer, we've seen an unusually high number of critics promoting "spoiler-free" reviews. We saw it, to greater or lesser degrees, with BraveThe AvengersPrometheus, and now Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, opening at midnight later tonight.

But what exactly is a spoiler-free review? Is it a review that keeps its plot summary confined to the first act, or is the second act fair game too? Or maybe it's one that sticks mainly to the movie's production history and then timidly dances around what it's about to an informative yay or nay conclusion.

The problem is, it's not really clear what a spoiler is, much less a spoiler-free review. For the moviegoer who wants to know as little as possible, any review, spoiler-free or not, is potentially dangerous. All of which makes the question "What is a spoiler-free review?" a slippery one that raises philosophical questions I'm not prepared to answer.

So instead of answering the question, I'll raise another: Do we really need spoiler-free reviews? Now, I don't mean anyone should go around giving away endings like they're giving away candy--that's too far. But I'm not sure if a trend towards spoiler-free reviews is such a good thing either. To really engage with a movie, you have to be free to talk about it, and that means loosening the straps on the critical straightjacket. Otherwise, what what's the difference between a spoiler-free review and a star or letter or thumbs-based rating system?

My view--and no one asked, really--is that writing a spoiler-free review shouldn't be a critic's primary concern. Not that care shouldn't be taken, nor am I firing a shot across the bow of anyone who's written one. All I'm saying is that staying spoiler-free shouldn't be the ultimate goal; honest engagement should. It's the moviegoer's responsibility to stay spoiler-free, even if that means avoiding reviews until later. Perhaps such delayed gratification might even staunch the kind of hysteria we've seen this week, with commentors on Rotten Tomatos leveling death threats at critics who've panned The Dark Knight Rises (because you know studios and PR firms aren't going to accept their share of the responsibility). Outside of that, I'm afraid the closest you'll get to a spoiler-free review is Roger Ebert's thumbs.

Friday, July 6, 2012

June Screening Log

I saw a lot in June I wanted to comment on but didn't have time to write about it all. Rather than just doing nothing, though, I thought it'd be nice to put together a few capsule reviews. These are some of the last movies I watched in June. Disagree with anything? Feel free to leave a comment if the spirit moves you.

Disney-Pixar's Brave is just one of several movies (including Prometheus and The Amazing Spider-Man) that I went into with low expectations, thanks to review headlines, and came out of enjoying. I could even see it ending up on my year-end list. It's familiar one sense, but it's also got a mind and heart of its own. Part of what I admire about it is the simplicity of its story. A complicated movie and a complex movie aren't the same. You don't make something complex by adding to it; you do it by giving simple elements the room and tender care they need to bloom. Brave falls short of being a Pixar masterpiece, but it has a firm understanding of human relationships. It knows that people who love each other can also hurt each other, and that all of that comes from wounded pride or a limited perspective. It also knows how important forgiveness is, and how saying "I'm sorry" can sometimes have magical results.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Over the past month I've seen Spielberg's classic adventure film on the big screen twice, after years without seeing it. The first time was at the Denton Movie Tavern, which screened it as part of their summer retro series. This was fun, but they screened a DVD copy, so the picture was horrible. The second time was at The Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff, and instead of using a DVD they screened a brand new 35mm print. I don't think I have to tell you how much better this was. But in either case, I had fun. Belloq grew up with his family label, and I grew up with Raiders of the Lost Ark, except I've finally reached a point now where I can fully appreciate all of its nuances and its importance to American cinema. It relies on standard tropes, but it transcends them with a seriousness that's only laughable when it's supposed to be. But more than, I also appreciate it for its formal qualities. The kind of filmmaking you see here has largely disappeared. The action in today's adventure movies has to be jumpy and chaotic, but Raiders is grounded in clarity. Spielberg only cuts when he has to, or when he has something to emphasize, and he doesn't saturate the screen in close-ups, something I've really come to hate. I want directors to ground their images in space, not give me talking heads, and that's one of the great things that Spielberg, still a young director at the time, brings to Raiders.

The Searchers
This is another one I saw recently on the big screen, but at a nearby Cinemark, not the skeezy Movie Tavern two minutes away, and with a DCP, not a DVD or Blu-Ray. There's a lot of hand-wringing going on among movie buffs today about the rise of DCPs and the rapid disappearance of 35mm. I share their concern, but I'm also in favor of whatever gets classic movies like this one into more venues. I mean honestly, if you had to choose between seeing a DCP of The Searchers or only seeing it on your TV, is there really any choice? If the quality's there, absolutely not, which was the case here. The colors were rich and the images sharp. I can't imagine it looking better, but then again, I wasn't around when it first came out. Still, a great looking picture won't iron out a movie's thorny issues, and The Searchers has a few, but I enjoyed John Wayne's performance more than ever. This is another one I grew up watching, but I'm only now seeing the dark undercurrents that feed its narrative. In general, old westerns turn me off because there's just a little too much starch in those jeans and not enough mud. The Searchers is that way a little, but there's also a dangerous adult world up there, and the more you can see it, the more you can appreciate what a movie Ford's masterpiece is.

Take Shelter
I think I'll file Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter under the "don't get me started" category. Last year, many critics hailed it as one of 2011's best, and maybe if I'd seen it then, instead of about a week ago on DVD, I'd feel differently, but I don't. Instead, it joins a very small list of movies that make me angry. The primary reason is that it spends over two hours teasing us with a mystery that, once solved, isn't carried any further. I suppose that looks artsy, but it's not terribly brave. Anyone can end a movie just when it's getting good; it takes guts to explore the consequences of it all. For example, consider M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, which also spends a lot of time raising tension and dancing around a few mysteries. But it doesn't stop there, with the invasion of earth, or Mel Gibson and his family staring into the eyes an alien. Instead, it deftly draws together all its threads into a moment of urgency and consequence. Take Shelter avoids this route. Instead of showing us why his story matters, Nichols drops the ball and runs away. Of course, it could be that the marriage between Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain is what's really important, but even there I can't go along with it. If Nichols wanted to explore the tenuous bond between his two leads, why didn't he do more to put Chastain front and center. After all, she's the one who has to make a decision. Shannon's character is largely passive, and passive characters are rarely interesting. Still, I can't deny the power of Shannon's performance. It was enough to keep me riveted until about halfway though, when it became obvious that Nichols' movie was just running on fumes.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

A critic should never judge a movie in advance, but with The Amazing Spider-Man it was tempting. For one thing, I've just never been a Spider-Man guy. For another, advance word seemed to be skewing negative. Combined with all of this is the fact that Sam Raimi's take on the popular Marvel character is only ten years old. That's old in movie terms, but the franchise itself is still relatively new, with Spider-Man 3 breaking fanboy hearts as recently as 2007, a mere five years ago. But, let's not forget that one of this year's most anticipated movies, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, is itself the second sequel of a reboot. So reboots themselves aren't bad, it's all in the execution. Anything new can be newer again with the right team.

And so here I am defending Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man, though I do so cautiously and with a question in mind: just how much can you trust your immediate response to a movie? Spider-Man excited me the way a good summer movie should. But how much should this excitement be trusted? Obviously, it worked in the moment, but if I were to see it again would I feel differently? And what about those negative reviews? What am I not seeing? It's enough to make one throw up his hands and forget the whole thing.

The truth is it probably doesn't matter. We go to summer movies because we crave excitement. If we get that, the movie's a success. If we get more than that, huzzah! Most aren't worth a second look, but even if they aren't, does that diminish the initial experience?

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that The Amazing Spider-Man is objectively a mixed bag. If I see it again and come to that conclusion, the world will keep spinning, but I'd like to preserve the memory of me and wife leaving the theater with a blockbuster buzz, not taint it. And so I'm willing to call The Amazing Spider-Man a success, because despite some rocky transitions and some genuinely unbelievable choices on the part of the characters, I was thrilled by it. I can't say anything more profound than that--it just worked for me. The action was compelling and clearly framed, the jokes worked, and most important of all, I cared about the characters. This summer's major box office hit, The Avengers, also worked but felt more uneven by comparison, and I certainly didn't care for the characters in the same way--they're just too invincible. To make a character worth caring about, you have to make them vulnerable. Webb and his screenwriters did this better than Whedon, even if the second act of The Avengers is one of the best things I've seen all year. 

So those are my two cents and I'm stickin' to 'em. I wish I could offer a more detailed analysis, formal or otherwise, but whose opinion am I going to change? Audiences will like it or they won't, and there's nothing a smalltime critic like myself can do about that. All I can tell you is don't listen to the naysayers. Check it out for yourself, you just might have fun. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Criticwire Surveys, 6/4 - 7/2

I haven't been updating the blog as much as I'd like to, but that doesn't mean I'm not out there doing things. Recently, I've started participating in the weekly critics surveys from Criticwire, one of Indiewire's many blogs. Below you'll find links to the first of these, which run from June 4th through today, July 2nd. You can typically find my answer near the bottom of each one. And while you're at it, make sure you check out the great answers from everyone else too!

June 4 - What movie prequel would you most like to see?

June 11 - What one art-house movie would you recommend to a young cinephile?

June 18 - What is Pixar's best movie?

June 21 - Remembering Andrew Sarris

July 2 - Which underrated auteur would you put in your "pantheon" list?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Haywire (2011)

Like a bear in hibernation, I rarely venture out to a movie theater in the first few months of the year. After all, I’m not a professional critic, I’m a hobbyist, and the months from January through early spring are notorious for turning local theaters into landfills for last year’s leftovers. But if Haywire--a January release I just caught up with--is someone's idea of leftovers, I wish we'd see more like it.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Lem Dobbs, Haywire delivers the kind of rogue agent story you'd find in a Bourne movie, except in this case the agent in question isn't Matt Damon or another Hollywood leading man, but Gina Carano, a real-life MMA fighter. Far from the damsel-in-distress type, Carano's steely athleticism brings to mind another heavy-hitter: the Hulk, from this summer's smash-hit, The Avengers. Different in many ways--she's not green, for one--part of the fun of watching Haywire is waiting for Carano to turn. Beneath her unassuming facade is a woman of animal instincts and precision. Of course we want to see what happens to her, but mainly we just want to see the gloves come off.

When they do, it's nice having Soderbergh at the helm. His workmanlike precision adds a crackle to Carano's pop, imbuing Haywire with a controlled energy. He knows how to keep things moving, but he also knows when to get out of the way and let Carano do her thing. Even though Haywire only earned $18 million domestically, I wish more directors would follow Soderbergh's lead. Where others would rely on shaking the camera or use quick cuts to convey action, Soderbergh's fight scenes are clearly staged and photographed. We don't have to wonder what's going on because we can see it all right in front of us. The result is more than just sustained tension--it's awe. Filmmakers look to CGI for that all the time, when really, you can look a lot closer than that, at us.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Alien (1979) and Prometheus (2012)

Caution: SPOILERS below.

I'm a little late to the Alien party. I didn't see the Ridley Scott classic until just a couple of weeks ago, before Prometheus finally lumbered into theaters, and I still haven't seen AliensAlien 3, or Alien: Resurrection. I have seen Prometheus, though, and what I can tell you based on these two films is that I don't think I'll ever be all that passionate about the Alien series. I don't think either one is a bad movie--Alien is effectively paced and still effectively thrilling, while Prometheus delivers moments of cringe-inducing anxiety--but I do have a few issues with both of them, and in general they left me a little cold.

Part of my problem is that I just don't have a feel for the world they take place in. I don't need to know everything, but I would like to feel that the writers and Ridley Scott do. Instead, I feel like we're missing out on a lot of valuable information that would help us understand these characters and give us some kind of grounding. Scott did a great job of giving us just about everything we needed to know about Blade Runner's world by simply showing us Deckard's Los Angeles. But in Alien, we never see Earth, and the crew never has contact with anyone living on it. In Prometheus, we get the briefest of looks at our home planet, but it doesn't seem any different than it does now. Whatever these versions of Earth are like, they must be radically different if we now have robots as advanced as Ash and David, not to mention enormous spaceships and suspended animation, but you just wouldn't know it from either movie.

Maybe if Alien or Prometheus had given us a strong sense of their world, I might not have been left with as many questions as I was with both. In the case of Alien, I wanted to know about the company behind the crew's mission. How did they know about the signal the crew found? Did they know what was there? If they did, what were they hoping to do with that information? Why did it all matter to them?

Now, these questions aren't directly pertinent, because Alien isn't about any of that. It's a thriller, so it's about atmosphere and creating a sense of terror. Scott's gorgeously framed shots and his limited use of music enhances the tension by creating a realistic, fly-on-the-wall feel. And then there's the beautifully streamlined screenplay. There's absolutely no fat on those narrative bones. All of which is why I won't contest its reputation as a classic. Alien is a very well made movie that has stood the test of time and will continue to.

But. That doesn't change the fact that when I was done watching it, I didn't understand anything about its world. Are corporations controlling everything now? And if we have robots as advanced as Ash, would it really be so surprising that there's one onboard the Nostromo? And does Ash (or David, for that matter) have to be a robot? Is he only important because he doesn't have the same kinds of concerns for human life that a human would? How much is the story really improved by him being a robot?

Well anyway, as I said, I won't try to go against the flow too much here. Alien is much more well-regarded than I am, and it is a good film, I just can't shake these question. Nor can I shake the feeling that once you get beyond the scares and the eery atmosphere, you're just not left with much to come back to.

Which leads me to Prometheus, which I also can't fault from a formal perspective but which I will fault from a storytelling perspective. The script, by Jon Spaights and Damon Lindelof, feels too busy. Alien may have left me with questions, but at least its streamlined plot kept me distracted until it was all over. I was so focused on Ripley's fight for survival I didn't have time to wonder anything else. Prometheus, on the other hand, wants to come off as complex, but it's really just complicated, which isn't the same thing. A movie can be straightforward and complex at the same time, but a complicated movie can never be anything but all over the map. Moments of Prometheus are effective, like Shaw's emergency caesarian and the scene where the crew's lost team members are horrifically killed, but these moments either sprung from or resulted in incidents that felt like a distraction. We couldn't have had Shaw's cringe-inducing surgery without David infecting Charlie, but did David really need to do that? The scene involving the two lost crew members was terrifying, but did a zombie version Fifield need to return to Prometheus to wreak havoc? This seems to be the new movie's major flaw--it's most effective moments are closely tied to others that, in the grand scheme of things, just really don't matter.

What can a blogger really do, though? There's already talk of a sequel, and yes I'll go see it, if only because the summer movie season feels like a game that you just can't resist. And who knows, maybe none of these questions will matter to me if I go back and watch both of them again. Opinions do change, after all. That's part of the fun of going back to movies you loved and movies you hated. You have the chance to find out just how much you've changed, and how much the movie has stayed the same. 

Finding God in Science Fiction

In anticipation of Ridley Scott's Prometheus, I highlighted a few of my favorite science fiction movies and TV shows last Friday in this feature for RELEVANT.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Forget About the Gold Standard, What About the Godfather Standard?

This weekend, 20th Century Fox releases Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated prequel to Alien (1979). I haven’t seen it yet, but the buzz around it is mostly good and expectations are high. As a result, I've been thinking about prequels in general and wondering what they should do, besides give us a story with familiar characters and a familiar world. I don't have a concrete answer yet, but the model I'll be holding Prometheus up to this Friday is none other than The Godfather Part II.

Of course, this is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, The Godfather II is technically a sequel, not a prequel. And second...well, if you've seen it, you know how great it is. I really don't expect Prometheus to come anywhere close to matching what Coppola does in that film.

Still, despite all this, you can't deny that The Godfather Part II isn't at least a sort-of prequel. After all, once you take away Michael Corleone's storyline, what are you left with if not all the makings of a prequel? You've got a young actor (in this case Robert De Niro) playing a familiar character in a storyline that traces his roots and shows us how he became the man he did.

What makes it more than just a sort-of prequel, though, is that young Vito's storyline isn't there just for the sake of giving us more; it's there to add meaning and context to Michael's downward spiral. To understand what kind of monster he is, we have to see him in the light of another violent man--his father--who acted as he did to survive and to make a better life for himself and his family. Technically, I think we can say they're both "bad men" in that they murder and steal, but their different motivations force us to view one as better than the other.

It's this dialogue that so many prequels and reboots are missing. The Star Wars prequels gave us more characters, more set pieces, and a few great thematic and visual allusions, but did they force you to reevaluate the original trilogy in a significant? Or how about movies like Red Dragon or Hannibal Rising? How well did they engage with Silence of the Lambs? Or to keep the discussion on Prometheus, what about the two Alien vs. Predator films? Did they just give audiences more, or did they add context and meaning to the original films?

Your answers may differ on a few of these, and that's fine, but my overall guess is that none of these did. Which is part of why critics and film lovers often equate words like "prequel" and "reboot" with a word like "cash-grab." When one movie fails to engage with the other in a meaningful way, it often just feels like a chance for the studios to take our money.

All of which is my long-winded way of saying that as I head into Prometheus this weekend, I'm hoping that it does more than just give me more. I'm hoping that enters into a dialogue with its famous predecessor, Alien, and that it creates a more complete picture. To turn a Ridley Scott-themed quote on its head, yes, I'm sure I'll be entertained, but is that all I can expect?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Films of Wes Anderson

With Moonrise Kingdom opening in some places tomorrow, I took a look back at the themes of Wes Anderson's previous films in this feature for RELEVANT.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

For the Love of Film - REAR WINDOW (1954)

This post is part of this year's For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. The goal of this year's blogathon is to raise enough money to give the public free access to The White Shadow, a 1923 silent film that featured Alfred Hitchcock as assistant director, editor, set designer, and more. If successful, the film would stream online via the National Film Preservation Foundation for four months. To do this, though, $15,000 must be raised. Please help us reach this goal by contributing whatever amount you can afford here. You can read more entries in the blogathon by visiting Ferdy on Films, Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod.

Except for Spielberg, no other director dominated my adolescence like Alfred Hitchcock. I was raised on North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the 1956 version), with others--like Lifeboat, The Trouble with Harry, Rope, Rebecca, Torn Curtain, and Vertigo--trickling in over the years on weeknights or lazy weekends. Most of them I saw with my parents, but I watched Psycho--which was the Holy Grail for a budding cinephile like me--with a group of friends on Halloween. For years, it was my favorite of Hitchcock's films, but now I've settled on North by Northwest, which I might even say is my all-time favorite movie.

But my post for this year's For the Love of Film blogathon isn't about any of these. Instead, I've picked Rear Window, Hitchcock's 1954 thriller starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Raymond Burr, and Thelma Ritter. I picked it because a local theater happened to be screening it last month, but also because I'd only seen it once prior to that, as a young teen, and was eager to see it now with adult eyes.

And now that I have?

It's a top-notch film, though I still value North by Northwest's sense of comedy and adventure more, just as I value Psycho's thrills, Vertigo's grasp of obsession, Rope's formal achievements, and the cymbal-crashing climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

But, about Rear Window...

Even if you haven't seen it, you'll be familiar with the premise--that's how ingrained it is in our popular culture. Stewart plays L.B. Jefferies (aka, Jeff), a photographer stuck at home with a broken leg. With nothing to do, he passes the time by watching his neighbors from his apartment window--there's the frustrated musician, a couple with a small dog, a redhead he's dubbed Miss Lonelyhearts and a dancer he calls Miss Torso, and two newlyweds. But most important of all, there's Mr. and Mrs. Thorwald, the couple directly across from him. The husband, Lars (Burr), is a door-to-door salesman. His wife is a demanding invalid--though to be fair, that's a subjective view of her; we don't know anything about her other than what we see from Jeff's perspective. Initially, the Thorwalds aren't so different from anyone else. But then Jeff starts getting a funny feeling about them. Late one night, he sees Lars coming and going with the suitcase he uses for work. Who would he be selling to at that hour, Jeff wonders, and why would he make the same trip more than once in a night? But more importantly, why have the Thorwald's shades been drawn, and where is Mrs. Thorwald anyway?

Because this is Hitchcock, murder is immediately on his mind. It takes some convincing for anyone else to believe him, though. Lisa Fremont (Kelly), the woman hopelessly in love with him, is the first, then his nurse, Stella (Ritter), with Jeff's old pal, Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey), the last to come around, and just in the nick of time, too. By then, Jeff's dangling from his apartment window with Lars at his throat, because the twist of Rear Window isn't much of a twist at all--Lars really is a killer. He's killed his wife, chopped her up, and dumped her all around Manhattan.

But as straightforward as all this is, it's a mistake to believe that Rear Window is only about a man solving a murder from his apartment. What it's equally "about," if we want to start talking that way, is a self-reliant man bumping up against his limitations. Jeff prides himself on being a loner, someone who can live out of a suitcase and go days with out sleeping or bathing. He values solitude and doesn't think much of marriage. And yet, the Jeff we see in Rear Window can't do any of these. With his cast and wheelchair, he's as helpless as that couple's doomed puppy. Except for picking up the phone to call the police and grabbing a package of flashbulbs to defend himself, Jeff can't do anything without someone's help.

All of this is enhanced by what Jeff sees outside his window. Those people aren't individuals--they're more like fragments of Jeff's psyche, all split off from the whole, all exaggerated and distorted. When we see the frustrated musician, we're seeing Jeff's own artistic frustrations. When we see Miss Lonelyhearts setting her table for two, we're seeing the loneliness Jeff feels but won't admit to. When we see Miss Torso, we're seeing Jeff's distorted impression of Lisa. In almost every case, it's as if Jeff is actually staring obsessively into his own mind and not into the windows of his neighbors. These small stories all intersect in just the right ways to enlarge our understanding of him, as well as the film's narrative trajectory.

You could even say this of Lars' story. Lars may be the villain, but what kind of hero is Jeff, really? He's an all-around good guy, and he's not a killer, but he is obsessive, and that obsessiveness initially disturbs Lisa and Stella. Just consider the way he eyes Miss Torso, and the window shade concealing the newlyweds. Worse still is the way he and Lisa watch as Miss Lonelyhearts is almost raped in her own apartment. They're both clearly uncomfortable, but their hesitance to doing something--anything--to help her is disturbing, and almost as dark as anything else Hitchcock ever put on screen.

So, a hero? Just barely. Jeff and Lars are more like two sides of the same coin. Jeff is the "normal" person. The person who is aware of his dark thoughts and urges but holds them in check. Lars is that same person, minus any concern for self-control. He's the id to Jeff's superego. By watching him, Jeff's able to expel something from himself. All of his gripes about marriage come to dark fruition right in front of his eyes, and he doesn't have to be responsible for any of it. Through Lars, Jeff can see what he, or anyone else, could become if pushed in just the right way.

That's what makes Lars potentially more unsettling when you compare him to Hitchcock's other great antagonist--Norman Bates. Psycho is the better movie, I think, but Lars may be the more effective villain. He's like us, and yet he's a complete mystery, while Bates is explained in a way that's distracting and almost laughable. True evil is impossible to grasp and is much more horrifying when it just is. That's what we get with Lars, a man who could be us, but has become twisted and perverted in a way we'll never understand. He's calm and dispassionate, sort of like Hannibal Lecter, and he has a similar physical presence, and an unquestioning confidence in his own strength. He kills with all the casualness of a man making a sandwich.

As Lars, Burr has just the right physical presence to make him menacing and buffoonish at the same time. His expression is one of perpetual exhaustion, but beyond that he's unreadable. He could be thinking anything, or he could be thinking nothing at all. Stewart, as his opposite, strikes just the right notes in the role of Jeff. Because he's our hero, we need to like him, but Jeff himself isn't a very likable guy. He's frustrated, rough around the edges, and often insensitive of Lisa's feelings for him. With another actor, it may have been much harder to identify with him. And then finally, I have to mention Grace Kelly, who is gorgeous and unflappable as Lisa, but not totally unbreakable. There are moments when we, and Jeff, can see real hurt in her eyes, but it's her charm, her spirit of adventure, and her willingness to prove to Jeff that he's wrong about her that linger.

And of course, a great deal of the film's success also comes from its sights and sounds. There are almost too many to mention but a few stand out more than others. There's that enormous set, which is almost like a character itself. There's Grace Kelly's face looming over us like something out of a dream. There's that small, glowing dot of Lars' cigarette as he sits in the dark. And, of course, there's that wall of sound outside Jeff's apartment--the music, the cars honking, the almost indiscernible chatter of the neighbors. When we see into all those apartments, we're seeing lives being lived, not actors pantomiming actions. Their voices carry to us, even if we can't quite hear them. Everything seems to be happening in real-time in a real world, even if that world isn't quite like our own, with Hitchcock's intelligent camera there to capture what unfolds.

One more time, please be sure to donate whatever you can at the National Film Preservation Foundation here.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Damsels in Distress REVIEW

When Damsels in Distress was released last month, quite a few critics compared writer-director Whit Stillman to Woody Allen in their reviews. At the level of dialogue, the comparison is apt, but I’m more inclined to link him--despite the years that separate them--with Wes Anderson instead. Allen’s oeuvre is marked by anxiety and pessimism, while the films of Stillman and Anderson shine with an eccentric optimism I find charming. Not that Allen hasn’t made some very good movies over the course of his career--Love and Death, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Match Point, and Midnight in Paris are all great--but give me the warm humanism of Stillman and Anderson any day.

Damsels in Distress stars Greta Gerwig as Violet, a student at the fictional Seven Oaks University. Violet and her friends (played by Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) dress elegantly and approach life with a heady sense of purpose. They want to change the world--but they’ll also settle for reforming dumb jocks and preventing peer suicides with donuts and coffee. New to their group is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a bright, modern young lady who becomes more skeptical of her friends the longer she’s around them. Her conflict with Violet forms the backbone for Damsels, but it doesn’t have the same kind of impact as the central conflicts of Stillman’s other films. Those characters had sharper edges, and despite having more in common with each other than they’d like to admit, were stubbornly devoted to their own perspectives. It’s the same with Violet and Lily, but they feel less defined, as if Stillman didn’t understand them as well as he understood his previous characters. In Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, we saw characters who had strong emotional cores and who longed for something. Violet and Lily, by comparison, feel diluted by their quirkiness and the quirkiness of everyone around them.

Which brings me back to that Stillman-Anderson link I mentioned earlier. There is a key difference between the two filmmakers. Anderson has a visual style that’s striking and recognizable. His framings often resemble group portraits. They feel staged, purposeful, and significant. But more than that, they create a strong sense that we’re seeing the world filtered through Anderson’s imagination, not the world as it is. We’re aware that we’re watching a movie, and yet we accept its artificiality and even embrace it as part of what makes Anderson who he is. But more than that, it helps us accept his oddball characters as plausible and endearing. If the world around them is strange, why shouldn’t they be as well?

Damsels might have fared better with a similar approach. Instead, we're shown the world largely as it is. Stillman's compositions are simple, straightforward--practical, even. This worked fine for his three previous films, where the characters and dialogue were stronger, but in Damsels in Distress the characters feel too quirky for the world around them. What’s missing are any visual cues that the physical world itself is a bit off. Without that, I can’t completely buy into the extreme naivety of these characters. I need to see that the world they live in has been refracted through the same mind, but instead we're shown the "real world,” which is a world these characters just don’t belong in.

Still, I didn't dislike Damsels. It still has that same refreshing Stillman charm and optimism that sets his work apart from other contemporary filmmakers. It's just missing a few vital ingredients. Otherwise, I think it would have soared.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Coming Into Focus: The Nostalgic Charm of HOLD THAT GHOST

Back in March, I posted a list of 25 movies that have helped shape me. In this post, I take a look at the first movie on that list, Abbott and Costello's Hold That Ghost.

It's no bold claim to say that at least part of a movie's charm is bound up in how you originally saw it. Your age, who you saw it with, the circumstances you saw it under, and whether you saw it on the big screen or a minuscule TV set all shape your experience as much as the movie itself.

So a large part of my fondness for Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's 1941 comedy, Hold That Ghost, is inextricably tied to the fact that I saw it over and over again as a child on a poor quality VHS tape. And not even an official VHS. It was a recording my mom had made of a local broadcast, and the first five minutes were missing. For years, I didn't know about Ted Lewis' cringe-inducing (not to mention racist) "Me and My Shadow" song and dance number, or about Abbott and Costello's first scene, where they're caught playing craps in the kitchen of the swanky restaurant they work for. Instead, my introduction to them was through a blizzard of fuzz and static, their iconic figures coming into focus gradually--Abbott the tall, confident straight man, and Costello the tubby, bumbling man-child.

Like almost any comedic duo, Abbott and Costello knew how to use slapstick, but we're not talking about the Three Stooges here. That kind of surreal violence always remained just off to the side, like something you caught with the corner of your eye. Instead, where Abbott and Costello really soared was in their sharp verbal timing and wordplay, and specifically with the way Costello always took Abbott at his most literal instead of seeing the figure of speech right in front of his face, making him "stupid" in a way that slyly hid the wit at the heart of their humor.

Just as hidden to that young boy growing up in the late eighties and early nineties was Hold That Ghost's plot. Like Costello, what I saw was the obvious--the slap across the face, or the tumbling crash headfirst into a piano. But there is a story there, thin as it is. Abbott and Costello--the names of their characters aren't important--have inherited a gangster's fortune. Where the money is, though, no one knows. If it exists at all, it's in the gangster's dilapidated lodge on the outskirts of the city, where the duo travel, accompanied by one of the gangster's "associates" and a group of unwitting strangers. Also looking for the money are disgruntled gang members who want what they deserve, but these are the guys we don't see until the end. They're the ones lurking in the dark, trying to convince Abbott, Costello, and company that the lodge is haunted.

It's a thin plot, honestly, and you don't need to understand it to enjoy Hold That Ghost--I didn't for the first half of my life--but once it comes into focus, as it did in my teens, the story itself becomes interesting and you pick up on subtleties and undertones you didn't catch before. That grumpy old man and the flirtatious blonde from the opening act? She may like calling him daddy, but as the old man so strongly asserts to Costello, "I am not her father!" Say no more, sir, the adults in the crowd read you loud and clear.

And yet there's more to pick up on than just an adult joke or two that made it past the Hollywood censors. Near the end of Hold That Ghost, just before the money is found, Abbott berates Costello for not knowing what a figure of speech is. But of course he does. "It would be like if I said, 'Water under the bridge,'" he says. To which Abbott retorts, "What bridge?" The reversal is subtle, but it's there, and with a simple, throwaway line--"I'm a sucker for arguin' wid dis guy"--Costello defines his own role in the Abbott and Costello universe: he's the sucker doomed to suffer the torments of someone meaner than him, but certainly not smarter.

But of course, Hold That Ghost is the kind of movie that belongs in an unbuttoned collar and comfortable pair of slacks, not the stuffy suit and tie I've tried to dress it in. It's a piece of entertainment--the duo's third movie from 1941 alone--made for mainstream consumption. If the jokes feel less recycled, it's because Abbott and Costello were still relatively new to Hollywood. And if I prefer this movie to another by them, it has less to do with its inherent quality and more to do with the memories it stirs up. Specifically, memories of childhood and the barely perceptible sense I had of a larger world coming into focus, like those two oddballs appearing suddenly out of the fuzz and static.