Monday, April 30, 2012

205. "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" (2012) by Neveldine/Taylor

It was bound to happen someday. Some directors finally figured out how to utilize CGI to create an image-oriented comic book film. Now would appear to be a good time. The success of popular, formulaic pictures like Green Lantern and Iron Man stands to be examined. Their dialog-heavy exchanges, frequently lifted directly from print, are anti-cinema: the audience already anticipates the film before they see it. Thank god for intelligent and experimental filmmakers like Neveldine/Taylor! They have modernized the genre’s manipulation of imagery the way Mario Bava and Sam Raimi did with "Danger: Diabolik" and "Darkman." Each of those films stood arguably uncontested for more than twenty years as reference points. Such is now Ghost Rider: The Spirit of Vengeance.

"Ghost Rider" was filmed guerilla-style with a handheld, consumer model Red One camera which the directors operated themselves. They had the freedom (and intelligence) to film actors in a way that encapsulates the essence of movement while framing from a different angle. In the opening chase, the camera is perpendicular to Idris Elba while he jumps from stairs. Cuts occur to other actors in a montage connected by adrenaline logic. It cannot be visualized without having seen it. When the titular character appears, the film slows down a bit to take in the wonderment of how Ghost Rider must look to those who encounter him. The directors delight in the extravagance of his redesigned, burning skull. They fire off shot after impressive shot after impressive shot of Ghost riding his motorcycle and even a piece of construction equipment! The flames do not move like a screensaver; they are dynamic and swirl about his personage and manipulations. The frequency of these occurrences is so numerous it would seem unlikely that just two men could conceive of them. The film encourages multiple viewings to take in its extravagance. N/T are playful not just in how Ghost looks, but even in how he would experience his existence. A child asks the Rider what his piss stream looks like, which follows a hilarious cut to him urinating a flamethrower. In that they understand the escapism appeal of the comic rather than being indebted to it. Make no mistakes before you see it; this is not a film that is about its main character. The kind of montage N/T prefer requires a medium budget, in this case $57 million, which is impossible outside of Hollywood, but still quite low for a superhero picture. Ghost’s appearance could also not be “filmed” as that concept is perceived. N/T had an idea as to how he would look onscreen to be determined by computer modeling. Such modeling is essential here because the way Ghost looks is entirely different from the first film. Creating this character, or any for that matter, involves a similarly silent craftsmanship that filmmakers have always needed to create particularly visual films. People who complain that CGI isn’t acceptable should have no basis to complain anymore if you can have these results for such spare change.

This isn’t to say "Ghost Rider" is all about the image. The character’s innate subversive quality offers a broad critique of nearly every recent superhero film that isn’t "The Dark Knight". It is no coincidence then that David Goyer was involved in the writing of both. Ghost, like modern Batman, operates outside of cultural initiative. He is fabulously self-serving, even beyond Batman’s “noble” objectives of crime prevention. N/T’s film is instead a journey of self-satisfaction disguised as an attempt to redeem an ignoble character whose faults are accepted at face value. Ghost actually does a “rescue mission,” while successfully discovering the “good” part of his character. While the contrivance we see would normally be played to appease comic readers, it fits with the effort to disguise the film as just an early-year picture. Even reprising Nic Cage is a great move. He is an actor capable of specific emotive responses who frustrates many viewers’ desire for comfortable, predictable performances. So, if it weren’t enough that this is a Ghost Rider film, it also has Nicolas Cage in it! The many negative reviews are intoxicated on the conservative portrayals of superheroes that reward readership and not imagination or cultural criticism.

204. "The Grey" (2012) by Joe Carnahan

Liam Neeson is a movie star in the classical way we think about our culture's fascination with actors from the past. People are drawn to his films because of his debonair self-assuredness, an authoritative yet subdued masculinity. Since "Darkman", his boyish good looks have become a reassuring presence to audiences searching for genre pictures. Look no further than the promotional material for "The Grey". Neeson's face in climbing gear covers the whole poster and all the trailer reveals is that he fights a bunch of wolves.

The movie has been improperly advertised either because of its star or, more likely, the distributors didn't think the public would want to see it without him. The trailer may mislead viewers into thinking this is some kind of actiony, quasi-horror movie. It's not. The movie is actually a survival drama that manifests itself occasionally like a Cormac McCarthy novel.

A few of the men survive the opening plane crash, and all but one dies on screen. The ambiguous ending actually resulted in impassioned grumbling in the screening I attended. People at least wanted to see if Neeson could actually get out of the wolf's den. Instead, we see him prepare for a final, would-be-clichéd confrontation that never happens. That's a recurring thematic argument the movie makes with us. It wins more than it loses, and this makes its central oafish failure all the more jarring.

Director/Writer Joe Carnahan should have been less aware his lead's audience appeal when composing this picture and blended him into it. Neeson's starpower places him outside of the rest of the movie. We know he is the most likely survivor as soon as we see the poster. Well, nothing could have been done about that. Fledgling distributor Open Road Films is too small to survive a flop. But that handicap is exacerbated due to some of the most worthless flashbacks of any movie this year. The struggle for survival is often interrupted with pedantic daydreams of silken bedrooms showered in gentle light nestled with lovely wives. Only the main character is entitled to his own scenes like this. The rest of the cast share very man-to-man exchanges around the campfire that emotionally distinguish each member of the group. Their deaths become the lines of a sorrowful rondel, with an inevitable conclusion that we don't even need to see. The repetitive proceeding is also disguised by intimate, hand-held camera-work. It binds us to the main character particularly during the opening scenes when we think a plane crash is the worst thing he will experience.

It's worth mentioning that "The Grey" cost only $25 million to produce. "New Moon" was twice as expensive and has the same bad CG wolves that you see here. The real difference being that this film has to have wolves (plot progression) in it whereas the other only has them because the filmmakers think modern special effects allow them to be there. "New Moon" and its progeny would have looked just as artificial had they been made with stop-motion while no one notices "The Grey" no matter what year it is released.

3rd of 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012

203. "Sleeping Beauty" (2011) by Julia Leigh


            Sleeping Beauty would appear like the kind of movie we would expect Emily Browning to make by this point in her career. For once she has speaks in her own Australian, free from the identifiably fake accents she’s been forced into in the past. Until seeing the film, I felt like I’d no idea as to the real Emily aside from interviews, as the public’s perception has hardened her into an immovably idealized feminine mystique. Even women perpetrate the confusion. Stephanie Meyer wanted her to portray Bella in Twilight based on her luscious lips. Emily’s roles in Ghost Ship, Lemony Snicket, and The Uninvited as a child can be seen as predicting this external identity crisis. Recent interviews demonstrate her motivation for appearing in Sleeping Beauty which subsequently reveals how nearsighted her casting directors have been.

            Emily’s inability to appear in a good film will not change until a director writes her a script that utilizes her ability to be detached from her surroundings instead of generic age or gender-based requirements. Even here, she was cast as an afterthought when another actress dropped out, ironically undermining the film’s patriotic “fuck you” to Australia’s notoriously socially conservative censorial boards. If the movie is unable to be released unedited to Aussie cinemas, the censors will have a good point when they observe that they film is “just about sex.” Her nubile young body is on full display for us (but mainly director Julia Leigh) even if we grow tired of seeing her by the repetitive end.

            So much of Leigh’s film is conceived to be counter to the censorship she so understandably despises. Underneath this façade lies the film’s failure: starting from the point that sensuality has to be justified and not already assumed. Why else would she include a monologue where Emily’s college student character receives a monologue from the house madam about how her lipstick should be the color as her labia? This isn’t an isolated incident. Much of the film’s communication is actually delivered lazily by dialog. Near the end, one person actually looks at the camera directly and explains himself!

            The title references events that take place near the end of the film; it is not a direct adaptation of the Perrault story. Emily’s character is a broke college student who assumes various adult service jobs to survive. At first she is a hostess for indulgent elderly who wished to be served dinner by beautiful, semi-naked women. Here is the film’s best image. Emily’s pallor is unnerving; her skin is a geisha’s makeup. It fills the guests with inquisitiveness more than lust, not their preferred feeling. Oh well, even wealth can’t give you an erection. Alas, as madam says to her earlier, “you’re vagina is a temple.” A temple open to much of the public, forbidden to everyone else.
           
            She does like having sex, and she’s probably good at it. After waking up from her second stint in the titular job she frequents a bar for hookups and confidently teases the men who don’t even have to seduce her. It should have behooved Leigh to follow this interest instead of overemphasizing it by giving her character a medically impotent boyfriend. She tries to reconcile this seemingly un-Australian behavior by showing how devoted the couple is and her character’s individualism.

            Inclusion of non-work events further undoes the film’s attempt at being more than an angry statement. We see the character going to university and working other jobs without having a feeling that she engages herself in any of these activities other than bar hopping. In the film she is an automaton for the continuation capitalism. Sleeping Beauty attempts to be a slice-of-life film unsuccessfully as a result. At least (and it should be mentioned) Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch does something subversive with Emily’s attributes. It substitutes her sexual desirability with violence, which is admittedly not that unusual, but more ambitious than its presentation here. In both film, we don’t see anyone “get her” as we would expect, yet in Sucker Punch we do get something out of watching.

Not Recommended
2nd of 2012

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

202. "The Descendants" (2011) by Alexander Payne


            Everyone in The Descendants has a communication problem. Notwithstanding the plot where this issue is centerfold, the characters themselves have an irritating lack of ability to be expressive with each other as fast as they should be. The film inches along while we wait for them to do what we know has to happen: have frank conversation with each other. From this we are to derive humor and pulled heartstrings at calculated intervals. Two child characters exist entirely to allow the narrative to float in the realm of dramedy that Hollywood habitually uses to pluck savings from the elderly (or anyone else) during the holidays. This film may very well win an Academy Award despite its lacking nonfinancial reason to exist.

            Fortunately Alexander Payne’s movie isn’t as cringe-inducing as last year’s The King’s Speech. As you watch it you’ll identify some saccharine avenues not indulged. They permit the film’s flimsy story to avoid the hero worship these kinds of films love to invoke in favor of mere tedium and frustration. It’s odd choice of casting to put George Clooney in the title role of Matt King. His recent characters of The American and The Ides of March are anything but the emasculated wimp he has to play here. That’s actually the biggest problem with The Descendants. Payne’s movie is too detached and unnecessarily cruel to King without offering him the opportunity to challenge his status quo until it ends.

            King is an overworked attorney with a troublemaking older daughter Alex, a younger daughter, and bored housewife. Before the film begins, his wife is nearly killed in a boating accident, and we are informed she was with her lover during the event. What follows from this doomed scenario is a series of vignettes where King investigates the affair by talking with supporting characters who humiliate him further. In fact most of the men in this movie are undermined by personality flaws when they attempt to behave assertively. Does Payne wish to make a statement about gender roles? No, we have to deal with the unbearable lightness of being a character in this film without any introspection on his part. A better approach would have been to drop the dramatic parts and treat the absurd concept as the comedy that it should be. Alex, played with spunk by newcomer Shailene Woodley, has a Hawksian quality in her relationship with her father. She isn’t afraid to challenge him or express herself completely, but loves him enough to reveal her mother’s infidelity. With an alteration of the script and a riskier director, this would have made a fine buddy movie. At least Woodley was able to escape television, and she would be well suited for modern screwballs.

            What calls attention to the viewer is the emanating nothingness that results from the film’s faulty structure. Payne begins the movie with a Clooney monologue declaring that life in Hawaii (the setting) isn’t just a vacation. The story fails to satisfy this observation by the repeated glamour shots of the countryside and its annoying main character. He even puts Woodley in a bikini top frequently to keep our focus when we aren’t supposed to laugh. Don’t fall for the eye candy. The Descendants is a bad movie, but its slight self-awareness keeps it afloat until you change the channel.

Not Recommended
1st of 2012.

201. "The Crimes of the Black Cat" (1972) by Sergio Pastore

ergio Pastore's only giallo is a fun exercise for genre adherents. Play a game of identifying steals from better directors' better movies. Even for a genre film, Crimes of the Black Cat presents very little to justify its existence. A bunch of fashion models start to be killed off by an unknown assailant a la Blood and Black Lace. A blind hero tries to determine who the killer might be, and the only his lack of glasses differentiate him from his counterpart in The Cat o'Nine Tails. The plagiarism doesn't stop! There is even a shot of someone moving through a room of mannequins that is filmed from the same above canted angle as in Hatchet for the Honeymoon. Pastore was either an opportunist, hired help, or a hack with this film, mistaking his idols' manipulations of mise-en- as reasons for their successes. Bava and Argento arbitrarily added these characteristics to their movies, either out of intrigue into their underlying phenomena or artistry.

Pastore has does have some imagination, and his derivative movie may have actually been an inspiration for Lucio Fulci's The Black Cat which uses features more feline murder. This killer surprises his victims with his tabby who poisons them with curare claws. It reads better than it watches. Every time this happens the victim gets a quick scratch and dies. Admittedly, it's hard to imagine a cat killing someone, and Argento and Fulci got around this by evading worldly logic. They also threw in some nudity and a lot more gore that are strangely absent here. I haven't determined if this was a made-for-TV film or edited for its DVD release. If neither is true, the film doesn't subvert or otherwise justify its sophomoric conservatism. This is exacerbated in retrospect by his odd decision to typecast Annabella Incontrera as the aggressive lesbian she frequently played without showing using her implied love scene as a justification for some nudity.

Crimes is an investigative melodrama for the majority of its runtime. Once the killer's identity is revealed, we get an "apology" of sorts in form of an amusing riff on Psycho. The killer attacks a woman in the shower and slices her in plain view. I remain confused as to why we must endure 85 minutes to see this, but I was in need of relief by this point. The razor cuts her breasts graphically in close-up, ironically imprinting the film unjustly into our memory. It ends in a final nod to Four Flies on Grey Velvet with a freeze frame as the credits roll. The last attack is the only inspired part of the movie, and I encourage you to skip to that part if you rent it.

If you live in the United States, Crimes of the Black Cat can only be seen on DVD in a shoddy VHS transfer by the now-defunct DAGORED company. It looks as if they used an Italian tape as the master source as tracking is visible and the subtitles appear superimposed below the image and there are no other language options.

30th of 2011
Not Recommended

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

200. "The Fish Child" (2009) by Lucía Puenzo


Lucía Puenzo and star Inés Efrón unite for an LGBT follow-up to their above-average XXY. This time their focus is on the L part of that acronym as evidenced by the sexy DVD cover. For a second film, it’s a slight improvement over its predecessor, not finding an interest in the transgendered romance (itself an intriguing topic) to sustain itself. Without such a crutch, Puenzo’s limitations and development as a filmmaker are more visible. She has now made two good films but lacks the discipline to be great.

            Puenzo has not learned how to incorporate surrealist and metaphorical imagery properly into her films. Like the clownfish shots of XXY, the phantasmagoria in The Fish Child is given its own separate sequence in which it to take place. The efficacy of these scenes is risible; they are there serving an indulgent purpose (this is a self-adaption of Puenzo’s novel). She should to consider the meat floating in Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, to name another Latin American example. Surrealism doesn’t need to occur; its inclusion is appropriately conceived if a structured narrative is present.
           
            Fortunately, Puenzo’s editor has structured the film in such a way that it slowly unveils its predetermined story, avoiding the thriller clichés the DVD box claims the movie offers. With this detraction of plot comes greater opportunity to explore the characters’ repressed queer femininity that is caught between girlhood and womanhood. They frequent nightclubs, where lecherous men hit on them, and they are shown chatting about their affections as the film progresses. Their chats occur in isolated places like a bathtub or a prison while the camera follows them exclusively. Puenzo suggests the idea that their self-actualization may only occur in places away from society, which few queer films address (they are too concerned with “otherness”). Thus, is not exploitative of its characters or indulgent of its queerness despite the promulgation of critics and marketers. The Fish Child is the rare GLBT film that is worth watching even it doesn’t represent much improvement over XXY.

Recommended
29th of 2011

Saturday, September 17, 2011

199. "Attack the Block" (2011) Joe Cornish

           " Before I can write a review of Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, I must explain a phenomenon I will subsequently refer in this and all later reviews. It is the “awesome” or “epic” approach to film discussion. This view is not systematically defined, which would require its adherents to actually think about what they are watching. Instead this vagueness refers to a movie’s unintentionally poor production values, morally satisfying sense of justice, or in the worse case, the even vaguer plague of nostalgia. Nostalgia’s definition is whatever the viewer wants it to be. I wouldn’t be bothered by this mental flatulence if it didn’t result in my attending of screenings of older films to be prefaced by statements like “Cronenberg will fuck your shit up” right before I watch The Brood. As someone who considers everything he watches, I have dreamed of what I’ve seen, so you determine my feelings about it."

            I only bother with this to say Attack the Block achieves the rare ability to be awesomed by idiots while serving as an intriguing work for serious movie goers. Cornish directed and wrote the movie under the tutelage of Edgar Wright, and the film’s approach is to integrate its defined characters into a minimal story with interesting visuals. Wright didn’t just delegate this project; the director deserves credit for taking the time to find the right actors for the roles of hoodlum teenagers who defend their neighborhood from night shade aliens. Particularly John Boyega in the title role of Moses deserves credit for allowing the playful dialog to serve as lite subtext on citizenship and cultural intellectualism.
            It all begins somewhere in South London, a desolate place. Moses and his friends hold up a white woman and make off with her belongings. Usually, we would follow the woman but here we follow the kids. They make off and hear a crash which is some relative of Predator. They beat it to death and go home. Cornish keeps the mundane beginnings interesting by utilizing an abrasive electronica score and adjusting angles. It serves as a distraction, albeit meaningless, but this is a first movie.
            The little alien they killed had friends (or really romantic interests) and they’re angry. Moses and friends find their block under attack of fuzzy black extraterrestrials with neon blue teeth. Subsequently they spend a lot of time running from place to place evading the creatures and coming to terms with what is happening. Cornish spices their dialog with movie references, which doesn’t feel forced. These kids’ worldview is mostly shaped by the movies they watch and the videogames they play, so they react to their surroundings in the only way they can. The movie’s intelligence extends even to the basic design of the monsters. As this is a character-driven story, their appearance doesn’t matter. What we do see of them is satisfactory to their purpose.
            Attack the Block is a bit too long and the lack of varying scenery becomes tiresome. The conclusion can also be seen as cliché despite a salient detail. Cornish ends it by allowing Moses to blow up the aliens with an oven bomb. As he is thrown out of his apartment, he survives by grabbing onto the British flag he keeps on the patio rail. The boys begin the movie as hooligans, ready to rob and kill, so by working through the violence of adolescence a la Rebels without Causes, maybe they have grown-up to be ready to live as proper subjects. Cornish reinforces the segregation proposition the film assumes with this conclusion which unfortunately delegates its appeal as meaningful racial commentary.

Recommended

28th of 2011