Thursday, December 24, 2009

a damn shame

I wasn't planning on watching Todd Phillips' THE HANGOVER unless the circumstances were beyond my control. Sure enough, my sister in law brought it up from Baltimore and insisted that we watch it within minutes of her arrival. 2009 has been a really disappointing year as far as comedy is concerned but this film takes the cake as the worst of the year. Inexplicably, audiences a many critics let it off easy and in some unfortunate cases it was lauded as some sort of amoral masterpiece. Phillips has been in the business of making films about douche bags (Road Trip, Old School, The Wedding Crashers) but this trio of idiots takes it a step further. Early on one of the characters calls to his friend from his car “paging Dr. Fagot” and I knew I was in for a long night. In fact, THE HANGOVER is as loud, dumb, and annoying as going to a diner on a Sunday morning and hearing a bunch of frat guys in sweat pants talking about how drunk they got the previous night. The synopsis should have worked, a bunch of dudes get really wasted at a bachelor party and don't remember what happened the night before, but it doesn't even come close. The problem can't be entirely on the shoulders of Phillips. The actors phone it in, borrowing from better comedies and cashing in on other superior actor's technique.

After the film ended I had planned on not stating my opinion, knowing that my sister in law really loved this film and not wanting to hurt her feelings. She asked me what I thought and I immediately said “I hated it” and felt like a gigantic dick. The film was aggressively bad and felt symptomatic, I felt that I knew each and every male fan of this film and have in some way had to avoid getting my ass kicked by them. What's worse, it ends on an odd sentimental note trying to make these deplorable characters suddenly amount to something. It's okay, they were at a bachelor party in Vegas. Count me out.

Judd Apatow is Todd Phillips superior in every way shape and form. His television series FREAKS AND GEEKS was about the kids that Todd Phillips' protagonists would try and beat up, it had heart and most importantly it was funny. His first film was fair, a great premise about a 40 year old virgin who finds love after being outed by his “world weary” whore friends. His last film, to me, felt like the kind of classic that Phillips thinks he is making although I would argue that the opening twenty minutes are unforgivably bad. He has been a comedy tycoon and his footprint can be found on almost every comedy to be released by a major studio since 2005. Studios know that his brand of humor sells and they have been spending the better part of the last four years drilling and sucking the formula dry.

FUNNY PEOPLE is a risky film for the director. The lighthearted shenanigans of the KNOCKED UP and 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN man-boys is not as funny or consequence free as before. Even the photography is toned down by longtime Spielberg cinematographer _______________, but the film is a disappointment. Though it has its moments, the film can't make up its mind about what it wants to be. The idea is that a famous actor/comedian gets a rare chance to live life to its fullest and then live to tell about it. His past entails treating everyone like sand beneath his feet and selling out his art for the sake of honoring his addiction to fame and fortune. Learning that he is terminally ill he goes back to the stand-up circuit (art) and meets an up and coming comedian who he hires (friendship) and eventually tries to reconcile his relationship with his long lost girl (love). The idea is a great one and I would have thought that Apatow would handle it like a pro, and to his credit, this isn't a bad film it's just not nearly good enough. Apatow can write a joke as good as anyone, the grandpa in hell routine was one of the funniest things I've heard all year, but the film is oddly short on good material. It kinda feels reminds me of a stand-up performer choking. I'm not going to join the dog pile, but this film is a big disappointment.

Luckily, I was able to see John Waters' A DIRTY SHAME, a film that topped most critic's “worst of the year” list when it was released. I found it in every way superior to what is passing as comedy in the current year of cinema. Waters knows that his films are terrible and goes out of his way to challenge himself to go further and further, to offend everyone and hopefully make something communal in the midst of it all. While THE HANGOVER seeks be both grotesque and consumer friendly, A DIRTY SHAME stays to true to Waters' aesthetic all the way down to his aggressive rockabilly soundtrack. The film is about a suburban mother who becomes a sex addict after receiving a concussion. The town gets split in two; those who think that the modern world is just too dirty and those who think it's not nearly dirty enough. The sex addicts seek to convert the “neuters” while the “neuters” seek to export the perverts. Having an assortment of fetishes, the sex addicts give Waters a chance to sink lower and lower. One character, turned on by dirt, gets thrown a recently used tissue with snot in it and eats it a la Divine in PINK FLAMINGOES. The film does not however contain any nudity or language, a Norman Rockwell painting on Ecstasy. I don't think I will ever recommend this film to anyone, but it made me yearn for a new John Waters picture.

Comedy isn't dead, but it has been in a rut this year.

Monday, December 21, 2009


I have never been to a 3D movie in my entire life. After reading a very persuasive denouncement I was pretty much convinced that the gimmick was entirely futile. From my inexperienced mindset, 3D meant objects flying off the screen and nothing more, I never thought about it as the entire screen, and all that was in frame, allowing the viewer to enter. This is much more than a virtual bop in the nose. Depending on which film you are attending, this could be a very good or bad experience. Imagine being stuck in the screen for Oliver Stone’s ALEXANDER, I’m pretty sure that I would punch my head into mush.

I can’t really call myself a James Cameron fan, though I did enjoy the first two Terminator films as well as ALIENS, but don’t claim to like any of his other gargantuan “events.” There is no doubt that the man is a populist entertainer, but I’m not so sure that this is a bad thing, it all depends on what he’s peddling. The guy knows his role in the grand scheme and makes no apologies for it and for that I respect him. He hasn’t made a feature film since 1997 and spent the last four years filming his latest spectacle. 230 million dollars later we have AVATAR, a sci-fi fantasy about intergalactic industrial imperialists from a dried out Earth looking to exploit a tribe of indigenous blue cat people who share a tangible connection with the planet they have inhabited for thousands of years.

Early in the film we float in a gravity free spacecraft headed for Pandora, it’s here we meet Jake Sully, a paraplegic “jarhead” looking to take over where his deceased identical brother left off. The planet is among the most gorgeous and meticulous sci-fi fantasy creations that I have ever seen. It’s very clear, very early, that Cameron has dreamt every detail for the last couple of decades, perhaps at the sacrifice of his narrative. Jake’s mission is to help an evil corporation, backed by an Empireesque army, extract a valuable rock from the planet by whatever means possible. Standing in their way is the Na’vi, the collective proxy for a variety of indigenous cultures throughout history. They are hunters, gatherers, and worshipers of their planet; a group that profiteers and warlords seem to naturally exploit and destroy since the beginning of time. This film quickly transforms into A Na’vi’s History of Pandora which will certainly cause some to turn their nose up, and probably fly over the heads of many of the film’s patrons. I’m not so sure that we should laugh off Cameron’s blunt ambitions.

There is a common misconception going around that all human beings have the privilege of receiving a higher education and thus learning about our history as told through Emerson, Chomsky, and Zinn. I’m sure the mere mention of such obvious authors/historians would make many giggle with self satisfaction. But to many, these writers remain esoteric and sadly their good word has yet to reach their eyes and ears. For some of us, our history (which seems to be stuck on repeat) is far from the one that we were taught in text books and television specials, and learning about such atrocities, for me, felt like a veil being removed. But in order to get there we all needed a gateway, for many of us it was music and film, for others it was just required college reading, but all of us needed a nudge. For me it was a mixture of going to DIY shows and listening to my older brother, a history buff and a true humanist. There is no way to know how many of the theatergoers caught on to the historical references or the current sociopolitical allegories, but I appreciate the effort nonetheless. Luckily, Cameron is just as interested in a science fiction catalyst as a cultural one.

The Na’vi, like any cinematic forest dwelling tribe, live a serene and idealistic lifestyle. Comparatively it would make nearly anyone’s way of life look fairly pathetic since the typical human being won’t be flying around on colorful dragons, talking with magical trees, and making out under a purple moon anytime soon. But this is why we call it escapism, we desire to be transported and transformed or to live, leap, mate, and fight through our onscreen virtual puppets thanks to the alchemy of film. This embodiment is rarely achieved, and it takes a lot of cooperation from the viewer and the steadfast dedication of a director and his team.

Jake is given the reigns to a body that looks identical to the Na’vi, in other words he will possess a body that has no soul. He is being told by one group of scientists to learn at the same time, from a truly evil military captain to learn and report for the purpose of exploitation. I have to tip my hat to Sam Worthington, he is a real discovery and another nod to Stephen Lang for being a bad guy worth hating.

What happens next is very familiar and I don’t need to share the long list of movie’s in which a lost (existentially) white man with no sympathy and a closed mind learns important life lessons from a group of what had thought were mere “savages.” Cameron is smart in that he immediately blows the viewers mind visually before he tries to sell us his narrative. The narrative worked for me only because I was hooked and more forgiving of shortcomings. Be prepared for a lot of cheesy dialogue moments, after all this is a film aimed for the same demographic that enjoyed that movie about those talking robots. I wasn’t much interested in the gigantic creatures but the smaller/quieter organisms, like the breathtaking phosphorescent fire flies that look like jellyfish, kept my eyes constantly diverted in the best way. The trees, water, sky, grass, and mind-blowing hallelujah mountains are perfect examples of what 3D can offer; immersion.

This amazing new world is undoubtedly inspired by Cameron’s experience at the bottom of the ocean. He is wise to meld the two worlds (water and forest) together. I’m surprised to say that I didn’t grow tired or complacent behind my cool glasses; instead I secretly wished that what I was experiencing was real. It helped me forgive some of the film’s shortcomings. When the company destroys the Na’vi’s habitat, I felt a strange and perhaps cheesy sense of loss. I have to admit that the opposite side of the coin didn’t prove to be as poignant. The thrill of victory in the face of battle has never offered me much relief. But the love story on the other hand had a surprising weight in the most classical sense. I wanted to plug into the big tree and leave my seat forever. I know I’m putting myself on the ropes here but I have to be honest, this is the most fun I’ve had defending a planet with a loveable bunch of agrarian human/creatures from imperial bad guys since RETURN OF THE JEDI. I’m truly baffled and awaiting a beating.

two lovers

James Gray’s TWO LOVERS has been getting a lot of late mention by notable critics including a number one slot on Ed Gonzales’ (Slant Magazine) top ten of 2009 list. I rented it with high expectations and was mostly satisfied with the results. Loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s WHITE NIGHTS it follows a lonely city dweller named Leonard who has parted with a fiancée and as a result has attempted suicide on more than one occasion. His parents worry about him, especially his mother who is caught putting her head against the floor to peer inside her son’s room. He lives at home and works at their dry cleaning family business and it’s through this job that he meets Sandra, the daughter of the man who plans to buy out his parent’s business. She’s attractive and upfront about her feelings towards him, this makes Leonard feel good but doesn’t necessarily cast a spell. I can’t be sure, but it seems safe to say that this is the first female that he has considered since his baby went away. Time isn’t on Leonard’s side because he meets Michelle very soon after and is immediately smitten with her. She is dating an older married man (the incredibly underrated bit actor Elias Koteas), hoping that he’ll leave his wife and decidedly not interested in our lonely friend. This excites him, which is typical because most of us like it when someone plays hard to get, even if the “getting” is impossible. He is drawn to Michelle though it’s Sandra who seems to truly make him feel like he’s worth a damn. He is stuck in a rut, believing as many do that he will never fall in love again which is why Michelle’s unattainable status is so enamoring.

By the title we know that he is going to teeter between the two woman, but I was impressed by how long Leonard held out. I was also impressed by Gray’s decision to not shortchange Michelle’s character by making her a flirtatious noir vixen; she is in many ways Leonard’s proxy, a person hurt by a lover’s feelings not shared. I agree with you John in your desire to see Phoenix stick with his known profession, but I haven’t been too impressed by him in the past. Here he does easily his best work, understanding that lonely people often don’t allow themselves sulky/contemplative moments and are constantly trying to keep their minds off unpleasant realities. Like I said before, he keeps his relationship with Michelle admirably platonic, a shoulder to cry on and an overseer. It’s only when he finally gets her that I felt the film started to veer too far into absurdist clichés. Now I’m aware that when one’s butterflies are flapping they get what’s known as “smoke in the eyes” but Leonard’s transformation is a smidge too pathetic for about twelve minutes. There is one scene when he is walking down the street with a recently purchased engagement ring and he rattles off a line in the vein of “if I told you it wouldn’t be a surprise.” That line, as well as the entire uncomfortable sex scene between Michelle and Leonard, didn’t work for me. I think Leonard could have been a little less peppy, maintained a pinch of what had existed before. I knew he had to be transformed by this infatuation, but I think the metamorphosis was a little strong. Luckily it leads to an appropriate moment of truth, cinema wise, when Leonard’s hopes get dashed for a second time. This scene is brilliant, a scene that captures the spirit of Dostoyevsky and one of the year’s most memorable scenes.

The film is shot beautifully, and Gray knows where to place the camera and thankfully keeps it still most of the time. There is only one shot that I felt was misguided, a scene where Leonard looks out his window towards Michelle’s. This same movement had occurred only a few minutes earlier and Gray should have stuck to Phoenix’s glare and not moved the camera to peer at what we already knew he was looking for. I’m being too picky. This is a very good film and one that deserves its passionate supporters and I’m happy to consider myself amongst them.

my essentials:ordet

Carl Theodore Dreyer sought out those emotions and feelings that “hide somewhere in the depths of the soul.” He was known for a diverse oeuvre and an elusive style and had hoped to always address the dangers of intolerance and in his 1955 masterpiece ORDET he made a film about love as written for the stage by Kaj Munk. There was a religious schism in Denmark where the reformed church of Grundtvig met and contrasted with Kierkegaard’s “Interior Mission.” The difference in the two philosophies is vast and there are certainly enough similarities that you can see where ORDET’s convergent and miraculous finale is not completely unbelievable. The two “opposing” belief system’s are represented by the head of the wealthy Borgen house and farm and the poor tailor whose daughter Mr. Borgen’s son seeks to wed. The unifier in all of this is the saintly wife of Borgen’s oldest son, a woman who seeks to make peace during her days on this earth. Her death and resurrection brings about a conversion in everyone and intolerance is abolished.

Back to the schism; there is a wonderful debate between the farmer and the tailor that takes place around the time that Inger loses her baby and her life. The two men debate our role in life as either people who live for the joy or people who “long for death.” The two men debate calmly and almost humorously, our roles as men and women of faith. There is a phrase that sticks in my head, an observation that made sense and holds a lot of deep personal relevance in my life. The farmer refers to the tailor’s Grundtvig faith as a form that encourages its patrons to walk around with “undertaker faces.” There is something unsophisticated about that description, something truly universal in the way he views his “enemy.” This debate leads to a mild tussle when the farmer hears of his daughter in law’s illness. The tailor, insensitive but blinded by sincerity, says something that he should not have said. It brought me back.

I attended a church in Vermont that held to older Baptist teachings. They were harsh, strict, chaste, and miserable claiming that their dismal way of life would only lead to more treasures in heaven. They were bigots, buzz-kills, misogynists, and hermits keeping to their commune of misery separate from their neighboring community. They didn’t believe in the great commission, at least not the type that actually went out to seek sheep for their flock. Who would want to be wandering the spread with them anyway? But as bitter and resentful as I remain, I remember an exceptional family that our family befriended named the Cranes. They bought into that strange philosophy but it didn’t prevent them from being warm and compassionate. The mother could have passed as an Amish woman, the father as a Quaker, and the children as little Puritans but each and every one of them was endowed with the love of Christ and never condemned their neighbor. They even came down to visit our family when we moved back to Binghamton. During their stay they witnessed a new way of life and didn’t appear at all disgusted nor were they dissuaded from their own way of life. They kept wearing their culottes and tucked in shirts and as far as I know they still do. This all brings to the finale.

There is a character that I haven’t mentioned, perhaps purposefully. His name is Johannes and he is the middle son who happens to believe that he is Christ himself. He is a thorn in the family flesh and “obviously” insane. He is said to have lost his mind when studying the teachings of Kierkegaard and everyone in the community believes that he should be institutionalized. He speaks out of line several times, but becomes that which he believes he is in the final scene of this beautiful film. Inger, a woman of great faith and an undeniable cinematic saint lies in her unclosed coffin with her husband (who had year’s earlier lost his faith) crying by her side. They are about to put the lid on the coffin and he’s pleading for them to wait. The father tells the son that her soul is with God. The son tells the father that he loves the body also, and God understands this. Johannes, who had disappeared days before, returns to condemn the family and their lack of faith. It seems an inappropriate time for this self righteous babbling, but we the viewer of little faith are about to be put in our place. The father and the tailor are united in sorrow when they will be further united by the “God of the old times, the days of Elijah.”

Johannes tells the family that if just one of them would have asked, Inger would still be with them. Just then, her young daughter takes his hand and tells him to “hurry.” This is the act of faith that was required, the faith of a child, and what happens next is easily one of cinema’s most transcendent moments, mixed with horror and beauty. I love this film, the way it gently refuses to judge any of its characters and the courageous decision to mix miracles with subtle realism. Dreyer claimed to be uninterested in style and technique, but you wouldn’t know it from the flawless composition. Still movements and long takes punctuate each scene. There is humor throughout and the characters are well endowed with joy even in their greatest tragedies. Dreyer was not celebrated in his time, which is often the case with great artists. It took years for audiences to realize his worth but we finally started to come around in the eighties. His influence can be traced from the early international greats; Godard, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Bergman, and Kurosawa. His mark is still visible today. This film is the rarest of films that lingers long after you see it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

son of a cuss: fantastic mr. fox

I have to admit that I felt guilty for not loving WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. This film needed the endorsement, its spirit and aesthetic are truer than most and yet I found myself oddly under whelmed by the whole experience. It was destined to top my end of the year list, but now is battling for an honorable mention. It feels wrong to continue to let PIXAR push and shove its way to the top, but what can you do? Luckily the mighty studio will have some company this year.

A week and some change ago I talked about how many of my favorite films were made by young veterans who had been told to “switch it up” and in the face of such demands stayed the course and made some of their most refreshing features. I should have added PIXAR and their insistence on rejecting any form of realism but what the hell. The Wes Anderson grumbling began shortly after he made THE LIFE AQUATIC and continued with THE DARJEELING LIMITED (an underappreciated film). It sounded as though folks wanted Wes Anderson to stop being Wes Anderson, to deny himself and transmute into something completely different, perhaps more “serious.” When it was announced that he would be adapting Dahl’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX using stop motion animation the grumbling started to swell.

I have to confess that I was among these grumblers after I saw the trailer.--Trailers have been ass backwards lately.--- But I had forgotten how funny Anderson is, how his sense of humor sits so well with me. From the opening scene, where George Clooney’s conspiratorial Mr. Fox sits under a tree listening to the old Disney theme song for their Davy Crocket series, I was hooked. I don’t like to drop the mis en scene bomb (I don’t think that I fully grasp it) but it is certainly relevant to this film. Because we are talking stop motion animation here, the process of shooting allows the director to decorate each frame unlike that of a live action film. You better believe that Anderson takes full advantage of this. My eyes combed through each backdrop searching for clues and hints that would allow me to better know the characters and consequently the director himself. It was a feast for the eyes and mind.

This film is essentially a smorgasbord of lurid visuals, with a color scheme that is careful and pleasing to the eye and soul. The story is simple, yet it might as well be the consummate Anderson narrative. It features bits and pieces of all of his films; father/son dysfunction and reclamation, boys fighting over girls, boys being roguish, family, and class envy. All of this in a simple story about three factory farmers waging war with a crafty fox. Not a bad trick.

The cast is wonderful, Clooney proving to be another of those great actors constantly at the mercy of their material. Anderson would be wise to work again with him. Streep is another notable addition and an actress who should be appearing in the next five Wes pictures. Eric Anderson, Willem Dafoe, Jarvis Cocker, and a crucial Michael Gambon join a slew of Anderson regulars and deliver the comedic material perfectly. I heard that the actors performed their scenes live and while doing the actions in order to assist the animators and provide the film with an authenticity that is often missing in the vocal contributions over at PIXAR.

The film has a really interesting soundtrack, more peppy than his previous films. It has two Beach Boys songs “Heroes and Villains” and “I Get Around” and a lot of fast finger pickin banjo instrumentals. Jarvis Cocker sings the most hilarious montage since TEAM AMERICA, ending in the film’s funniest sequence. I’ve never seen a cartoon character flick a cigarette off another’s chest, I almost fell out of my seat. The film also had three old Disney tunes the aforementioned Davy Crocket jingle, “Love” from Robin Hood, and a Burl Ives song. Why did he choose these songs? Was it homage or derision? I don’t suppose I’ll find out anytime soon, but I liked it a lot.

I can’t think of much to criticize. The stop motion could have been a gorgeous gimmick, but the character’s species and hyperbolic movements made it a must. Look at the way he captures that train quietly rolling along under a open sky full of stars. This is the magic of stop motion, you really get to know the creators as their hand isn’t far from each frame. The glitches are half the magic. Could you imagine a Wes Anderson digitally animated film? The choice of aesthetic is not a mistake, nor is the story. I’m glad Anderson decided to adapt here, Dahl and Anderson prove to be kindred spirits. If I had to whine, sometimes I feel obligated, I would say that some of the gags are too precious (the tube sock routine) and the film is best when it’s wild and scrappy. Luckily, most of the film is wild and scrappy.

Like a true auteur Anderson’s stamp can be seen on every frame, from the pictures on the wall to the outfits. He likes to revisit his characters one last time before rolling the credits, almost as a reminder that they still exist, and here he does it again with a shot of interconnected sewer estates. The audio picks up the animal’s conversations before moving on to the next room, all of this before ending with a happy song and dance session. It felt like a celebration, I felt like celebrating. When the film finally wrapped up and the title appeared I wanted to watch it again immediately. Very few films are this satisfying or fantastic.