Friday, January 16, 2009

Revisit: The Grand

An Anchor Bay release 2007

Directed by Zak Penn

Written by Zak Penn & Matt Bierman

An improvisational comedy using a handful of actors playing characters competing in an actual poker tournament.

This movie is terrible. Not funny, not interesting, really dumb and lame. All sorts of bad.

Worst of all, they somehow convinced Werner Herzog to be in it, playing a German stereotype. I don't know if he needed the money to fund his next trip into the jungle or what, but poor Herzog. He provides the only real amusement, but at what cost?

According to IMDB, "The script was barely 29 pages long. Zak Penn had the actors improvise." Basically a bunch of actors did it as a favor for their writer/director pals and just decided to dick around. They probably had some fun making it, too. But it ain't no fun to watch. Seriously -- don't watch this crap.

Review: Revolutionary Road

A Paramount Vantage release 2008

Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by Justin Haythe
Based on the novel by Richard Yates

A young couple living in a Connecticut suburb during the mid-1950s struggle to come to terms with their personal problems while trying to raise their two children.

This talky drama often feels more like a play than a film, but considering the talent of all involved that's not necessarily a bad thing. Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Kathy Bates reunite for the first time in ten years since 1998's Titanic in this stirring drama, deftly handled by Winselt's husband and Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition).

The script is a little overt at times -- there's a lot of yelling about 'dissatisfaction' and 'this empty/hopeless/bleak life' -- but the performers have such natural chemistry and talent that they manage to elevate some of the more leaden dialogue into something more honest and heart-wrenching. Particularly impressive is veteran stage actor and Bug star Michael Shannon, who's electric, albeit brief turn as the so considered 'insane' son of Kathy Bates literally tears the screen apart. This is some of the finest acting you'll see all year, and it's a shame Shannon's screen time is so brief, or he'd be a shoo-in Oscar contender.

What struck me most about this film was the amount of humor it managed to wring out of such bleak, serious material. I'm not talking inappropriate laughs, either -- there were some genuinely humorous moments in this film. A lot of this can be attributed to the talented performers, who create real people with real struggles, rather than stage performances or succumb to their star qualities.

The film is, ultimately, a condemnation of American conformity in the 1950's. Another reason for some of the weightiness of the dialogue is that the film begins with a couple already past their breaking point. April's acting aspirations are revealed and cut down immediately in the opening scenes -- from here on out we are meant to understand her sacrifice to Frank and their suburban lifestyle. Frank, on the other hand, has no real aspirations of his own, and so his inability to look beyond the life they've already established is a natural track. Doing the minimum to get by at work without developing any alternative self, Frank finds himself earning a promotion -- a damning hypocrisy of the American workplace -- in contrast with April's taking concrete steps to accomplish their move to Paris. When that plan falls through, April becomes distraught, disillusioned, and broken -- the American dream is dead.

Winslet won a Golden Globe for her performance and is the front runner tapped for this year's Oscar -- much deserved. The film is carried by the actor's performances and hers is an especially difficult role. It's a crying shame to me that Mr. Shannon isn't receiving the same sort of accolades, but the mere fact that he can hold his weight with such heavy hitters shows a lot of promise for the future.

While not the best film of the year, or even the best condemnation of American conformity put to celluloid, Revolutionary Road is a good film, one worth seeking out if only for the performances. It also really makes me want to read the book by Richard Yates -- anything that makes me want to read I figure is a good thing.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Revisit: The Enigma of Kasper Hauser

A New Yorker Films release 1975

Written & Directed by Werner Herzog

Based upon the true and mysterious story of Kaspar Hauser, a young man suddenly appears in Nuremberg in 1828, barely able to speak or walk. His benefactor attempts to integrate him into society, with intriguing results.

Herzog's Kasper Hauser tackles the German equivalent of the French L'Enfant sauvage -- a real life wild child, abandoned at birth and void of any linguistic or cultural understanding of the world. As doctors, scientists, and the cultural elite try to 'educate' the boy, tension mounts, and the child ultimately rejects civilization, preferring to run amok in nature.

But where Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage focuses on the struggles of the educator (indulgently, I might add, as Truffaut cast himself in the role of Dr. Itard), Herzog's film uses Hauser as a tool to question language, religion, and society as a whole.

After all, what would happen if a person had no concept of speech, of writing, of God? How would he react when presented with such things? Herzog tackles all these issues through Hauser's 'education', and, in typical Herzog fashion, they provide a springboard for some beautiful natural imagery and a condemnation of the 'unnatural' acts of man.

As always, Herzog's camera is constantly probing the Earth, and we get some beautiful shots here -- a gull picking apart a frog, plants spiraling out of the ground, shimmering lakes and stormy deserts. Likewise, Herzog cast the perfect actor as his idiot child -- Bruno S., the real life abandoned musician whose broken speech and awkward mannerisms blur the lines of reality and fiction. The New York Times published an amazing profile on Bruno S., Herzog's former muse and the start of Kasper Hauser. Check it out: Bruno S. NY Times Profile: From Berlin's Hole of Forgottenness, A Spell of Songs

Ultimately, I prefer Herzog's film over Truffaut's. Then again, I prefer Herzog over Truffaut in general. But where Truffaut saw drama in a doctor's attempt to conquer nature, Herzog found a character who could question the very fabric of life itself. The result is a much more profound and interesting film, one that challenges our conceptions of language and nature. Worth a gander.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Revisit: Heavy Metal

A Columbia Pictures release 1981

Directed by Gerald Potterton

Written by Daniel Goldberg & Len Blum, based on the short stories of various authors

A glowing orb terrorizes a young girl with a collection of stories of dark fantasy, eroticism and horror.

A sci-fi snuff film wrapped in colorful kid's clothing, Heavy Metal is about as silly as pulp stories can get. Crossing film noir with science fiction, erotica, action thriller, fantasy and grunt war genres, it's a hodge-podge of adolescent testosterone with a kick ass soundtrack.

The animation is circa 80's Bakshi style, back when studios still believed (somewhat) that there was an adult audience for such things. Crude but colorful, I actually prefer this style to the current CGI kick. I don't think I've seen so much animated sex in my life -- it actually gets kind of awkward -- and a lot of the stories are complete schlock, but it's pretty entertaining nonetheless. No doubt aided by the awesome soundtrack, which features some killer tunes by Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Devo, Nazareth, among others.

Interesting production note: Ivan Reitman produced, with Harold Ramis, Eugene Levy & John Candy doing multiple character voices.

Revisit: Ghostbusters

A Columbia Pictures release 1984

Directed by Ivan Reitman

Written by Harold Ramis & Dan Aykroyd

Three unemployed parapsychology professors set up shop as a unique ghost removal service.

Ghostbusters is a classic, but it's always felt like one of those franchises that never really lived up to it's potential. The sequel is basically a rehash of the first, and while the cartoon was entertaining, the animation is barely passable by today's standards. Don't even get me started on Extreme Ghostbusters... extreme my ass.

What surprised me the most in revisiting this film is how paper thin the script is. The movie basically coasts by on the chemistry of its affable lead actors and the silliness of fake technical jargon. The special effects are spotty and the story is lose and ridiculous. But it's still wildly imaginative and entertaining, even after all these years.

Ghostbusters could seriously benefit from a revamp, assuming they don't go all Apatow and cast Seth Rogan and McLovin in it. They could do some crazy ghost effects and the possibilities within the concept are essentially endless. Here's to hoping Bill Murray gets his shit together and decides to don the old power pack for another go.

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

A Paramount Pictures release 2008

Directed by David Fincher

Written by Eric Roth

A man is stricken with a bizarre condition and forced to go through life aging backwards.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is really long. And boring. And nothing like the book at all.

It's a shame too, because I really like Dave Fincher. Fight Club and Se7en are both wildly entertaining, and Zodiac is one of the most criminally under-appreciated masterpieces of all time. He's got a sharp, distinct visual style and a gritty sense of story. None of which serve this film in any real way.

Oh sure, Benjamin Button is pretty. The cinematography is gorgeous, lighting incredible, effects are grand, and Cate Blanchett looks damn fine in that leotard. But the film is all gloss and no depth; it's so vacant it makes Postal seem like an honest treatise on the sociological effects of 9-11 on American Imperialism and suburban violence.

NOTHING happens in this movie. Nothing worth noting at least. Benjamin ages backwards, but it doesn't seem to matter -- when he's old (young), people just make cracks about how spry he is, and when he's young (old), people just seem to want to sleep with him. Brad Pitt provides his pretty face but not much more in terms of emotions; he seems to just waltz through the movie as if nothing is even happening.

Part of the reason for that is the terrible, terrible script. The whole "aging backwards" thing is basically treated like a special effect -- if you took it out, you'd lose nothing but a few quips, a handful of jokes, and some cool special effects. Eric Roth took a fantastically funny short story, ran it through a shredder, mixed it up with some scenes that got cut from Forrest Gump, put it together with some duck tape and handed it to execs with the pretense that it's some big "meditation on life and death". What a crock of horse shit -- really it's a meandering mess that has absolutely no focus with a dash of pretension and a butt load of basic Hollywood romance.

None of which services Fincher's abilities. The guy can piggy back of most 70's era filmmakers, but Button is clearly old Hollywood, and Fincher flounders. The film doesn't know if it wants be a somber tale of woe, a fantasy epic, or a comedy, and it fails at all three. Fincher's dark color palate and brooding camera doesn't make it any more clear.

My advice: don't waste your time with this one. It commits the worst of movie crimes -- it's over 3 hours long and boring as hell. You're seriously better off watching Postal. Not joking.

Revisit: Uwe Boll's Postal

A Vivendi Entertainment release 2008

Directed by Uwe Boll

Written by Uwe Boll & Bryan C. Knight

In the ironically named city of Paradise, a recently laid-off loser teams up with his cult-leading uncle to steal a peculiar bounty of riches from their local amusement park; somehow, the recently arrived Taliban have a similar focus, but a far more sinister intent.

Postal is easily one of the most crass, vile, despicable, idiotic, offensive, piece of shit movies I have ever seen. Written & directed by the ├╝ber-awful Uwe Boll (unanimously considered and self-proclaimed worst filmmaker alive today), the film aims for every bottom barrel, low-blow, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of joke imaginable, punctuated by random outbursts of extreme violence. Targets of comedy include terrorists, obese women, blacks, Jews, President Bush, welfare recipients, hippies, 9-11, Osama Bin Ladin, movie executives, conspiracy theorists, American corporations -- you name it, if it can somehow be twisted into something offensive or violent, it's in there.

To give you a sense of what I mean, here's the opening sequence:

For some reason Dave Foley gives a pretty damn good performance in the film and shows his cock for at least five minutes. Poor Dave Foley.

While the movie is pretty goddamn awful, it's much more well made than any of Boll's previous efforts -- the lighting is well done, edits relatively smooth, and effects surprisingly... effective. All in all I didn't mind watching it because: 1) it didn't hurt my eyes and 2) I was pretty damn stoned. I even chuckled a bit at some parts. After all, I'm a crass man, and I like crass humor. But still, it amazes me that this film even made it past the scripting level. It's really that vile and tactless.

I'm sure this film will slowly but surely develop a small cult following and one day be considered by a select group to be a work of idle genius. Some people just like really stupid shit. To be fair, it does have the trimmings of a cult film. But it also lacks any sort of dignity or redeeming value, short of its tasteless jokes. For the overly curious only.

Yeah, fuck you too, buddy...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review: Synechdoche, New York

A Sony Pictures Classics release 2008

Written & Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Of Synechdoche, New York, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes: "To say that Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now."

I wish I shared her enthusiasm.

Synechdoche is ambitious, for sure, but that doesn't make it good. Mr. Kaufman misses the mark so spectacularly it's surprising he hasn't committed suicide yet.

I don't say that because the film isn't well made -- it is, particularly for a debut director, technically impressive. But the ideology behind it is so sickening and sad that it prohibits me from appreciating it. Synechdoche isn't a reflection or exploration of life -- it's an active stance against it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an unsuccessful theater director named Caden Cotard. Being a Kaufman film, we know from the very first frame that this character is doomed. Doomed from the start. As he struggles with his creative bankruptcy, Caden opts to analyze every instance of his life through recreation and reenactment, thanks to the help of a sizable grant and a cast of dedicated actors. This would be fine, if it weren't a tactic deployed by depressed teenagers everywhere, and Caden were a likable character. He's not.

Caden is depressed, you see. Understandable. His life sucks and he is doomed. Perhaps if there were some light at the end of the tunnel he might cheer up a bit (and so would the audience). But there isn't any -- only death. And so it goes, over and over, with a dab of surrealism here and there to keep things interesting (and confusing. What the hell was the burning house metaphor for? It appears in the film at least three times and seems to be a differently symbol each time, but for what? Nothing as far as I can tell).

Ultimately the film is about life, death, and trying to make your mark. Caden fails, miserably, to impact the people and world around him because he is selfish, self-absorbed, and scared. He's an asshole. That's fine, but I don't want to watch that character get nowhere for 3 hours of my life. I could use that time for something else.

That's my biggest beef with this film -- ideologically it's so bleak and asinine that I don't understand why anyone would want to watch it to begin with. The character appears to be trying to make something of himself, but his tactics are so childish and futile it prevents him from moving forward. He is stagnant from the first frame onward, and in turn the film is stagnant.

There is some humor in there -- especially in the beginning -- but it wears thin as the film moves towards its final act. By the last third, I was just bored. I didn't care about Caden, I didn't care about his play, and I didn't care about the movie.

Interestingly enough, a lot of this years big movies have dealt with the concept of life and death -- Benjamin Button and The Wrestler, being two standouts. While The Wrestler was equally depressing, I found myself rooting for the main character. I couldn't do that with Synechdoche -- there is simply no one or nowhere to latch on to.

Several film critics have pointed out that this is a film that demands multiple viewings, and it will be analyzed and scrutinized by film students for years to come. I only have one question for those people: Why?

Revisit: Ratatouille

A Pixar film 2007

Directed by Brad Bird & Jan Pinkava

Written by Brad Bird & Jan Pinkava & Jim Capobianco

Remy is a young rat in the French countryside who arrives in Paris, only to find out that his cooking idol is dead. When he makes an unusual alliance with a restaurant's new garbage boy, the culinary and personal adventures begin despite Remy's family's skepticism and the rat-hating world of humans.

It took me over a year to sit down and watch Ratatouille because I have my reservations about Pixar. I tend to find their animation technically impressive, but flat and disinteresting, especially the color schemes (very purple and yellow), character designs, and all too fluid movement. Likewise the writing, while tightly wound, is often very formulaic, safe, and soft. The films hit the right beats, but all too well. For a company that puts so much individual care into each of their films, they sure seem to churn them out conveyor belt style. Not too mention most of the anthropomorphized characters could easily be substituted for humans and not much would change.

After watching, I still don't understand why this film was so well received. The animation is flat and bubble-like, the story has the same elements as every other Pixar film (an anthropomorphized animal is 'different' from the pack, gets separated, is sad about being lost but learns to love it, etc etc), and the humor is so safe it's practically non-existent. This is a kids movie -- Pixar only makes kids movies, let's be clear -- but where's the adventure? Where's the edge? Where is anything interesting? Why am I watching this?

Technically I am impressed -- don't get me wrong, the amount of tiny detail that gets its due is impressive -- but ultimately the film is unsatisfying. I really wish Pixar would grow a pair and make a goddamn movie worth watching. I still haven't seen Wall-E so maybe my feelings will change after that, but nothings done it for me yet...

Revisit: Street Trash

A Synapse Films release 1987

Directed by J. Michael Muro

Written by Roy Frumpkes & J. Michael Muro

When a liquor store owner finds a case of "Viper" in his cellar, he decides to sell it to the local hobos at one dollar a bottle, unaware the drink causes its consumers to melt. Two homeless lads find themselves up against the effects of the toxic brew, as well as a Vietnam vet with sociopathic tendencies, and the owner of the junkyard they live in.

This inane horror-comedy is one of the dirtiest, grossest, grungiest things I've ever seen. If you're a fan of splatter flicks it's a must see. People explode, they melt into piles of goo, one guy even gets his dick ripped off. It's disgusting. And great.

The plot isn't important -- you could even watch it with the sound off, but I guess you'd lose some of those nasty sound effects. There is some commentary on post-Vietnam vets and their quality of life -- a great scene at night in the dump with a ranting vet and a terrifying pan shot stands out -- but you're not watching this flick for the social commentary. You're watching it for the blood.

Here are most of the great scenes. There's another one of these on youtube somewhere. I highly recommend seeking this out if you're a splatter fan but the casual movie goer might want to stay away, especially if you're squeamish.

Review: Man on Wire

A Discovery Films release 2008

Directed by James Marsh

A documentary that follows the staging of tightrope walker Philippe Petit's daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974.

I first learned of Philippe Petit when I was a freshman in college. I saw photographs of his daring tightrope walk between the Twin Towers and was instantly amazed by the image. He appeared to be walking on air, floating, literally dancing in the sky. It was unbelievable. Still is.

Man on Wire is a fantastic documentary that follows the events preceding Petit's famous walk, what some consider the "artistic crime of the century". It's not a flashy film, nor does it need to be -- the subject matter and main protagonist are in and of themselves so enigmatic and interesting that the film's composition barely matters. Focusing mainly on the planning and the event itself, the film often compares Philippe's artistic vision to a heist, using the bank robbery metaphor several times. But the profound beauty of Philippe's actions and the dedication of his cohorts make it a noble cause.

Perhaps what I took away most from this film is that this was a once in a lifetime event -- in the wake of terrorism and high security, a stunt like Philipe's is not only impossible physically, but philosophically. Public space isn't equated with public ownership in the same way; performance pieces like Philippe's rarely come without press releases, and tightrope walking is a particularly antiquated (and French) art form. But Man on Wire serves to celebrate and preserve that moment in time, in all its beauty. Easily the best documentary of 2008.

Revisit: Super Fly

A Warner Brothers Picture 1972

Directed by Gordon Parks Jr.

Written by Phillip Fenty

A cocaine dealer who begins to realize that his life will soon end with either prison or death decides to build an escape by making his biggest deal yet.

Super Fly is not a good movie. It's a trashy, poorly shot, sloppy, boring, silly, incoherent mess. There's little to no action, tons of slow, extended sequences, terrible acting, and still image montages galore. That said, there are two redeeming factors to this film. One is Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack, which made him super-famous and stands today as one of the best soundtracks of all time. Mental Defective's Tim Slowikowski recently compiled a list of the best music moments in film and how this one is not included is beyond me. It's one of the major centerpieces, and the song appears at least 12 times throughout the film, which would be annoying if it weren't so damn good.

The second redeeming aspect is the long takes, which make for some of the most boring yet bizarrely engrossing moments in the film. The best example of this is an extended sex scene, which I can't seem to find online, but it's unmissable if you catch the film. It goes on for like 10 minutes and there are so many close ups it's almost obscene.

Super Fly was director Gordon Parks Jr.'s follow up to his debut film Shaft, a classic blaxploitation film. According to legend, the script for Super Fly was only 45 pages long, hence all the still images, cut aways and extended slow motion sequences. If you're a fan of blaxploitation, you've probably already seen this film, but if you're new to the genre, I wouldn't recommend this as the place to start.