Tuesday, August 24, 2010

L'Enfance Nue (Maurice Pialat, 1968) -- B+

L'Enfance Nue, Maurice Pialat's feature debut, explicitly revises Francois Truffaut's seminal childhood trauma masterpiece The 400 Blows (1959). Not only does Pialat cast an incredibly similar looking child actor (the cold eyed Michel Terrazon), he even gives him the first name of the great director. In doing so, Pialat attempts to extract all of Truffaut's sentimentality (though Truffaut's film is much more than that) by taking an objective stance on the narrative of a 10-year-old boy forsaken by his mother because of his odd, somewhat sadistic behavior and following adoption by an older couple. There's nary a musical interlude/montage to be found and not much play with camera movement or framing. This isn't exactly a New Wave picture. Needless to say, Pialat's film has nowhere the vibrancy or cinematic soul of Truffaut's, but that's more deliberate than accidental. Young Francois's behavior (torturing a cat, thieving from parents, kicking down a door, vandalism, throwing stones at passing cars) has no redeeming qualities - he's a careless, deceitful, rather emotionless child. Nor do the first parents (or subsequent foster parents) react or treat him with any more or less care or punishment than would be typical. There are no clear dividing lines or explanations - Pialat's main thesis - for Francois's behavior. Luckily, Pialat's direction and framing choices, while often static, transcend modern usages of "realism" or "verism." Though detached emotionally from the material, Pialat stays away from the fetishistic nihilism inherent to recent works like United 93 or Gomorrah. Never is he merely trying to "depict how it really is/happened." Rather, he utilizes this particular aesthetic to reflect the emptiness and confusion of abandonment.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973) -- A

Watching an American masterpiece like Hal Ashby's The Last Detail, one's reminded just how flat and soulless modern filmmaking has become (we have to settle for the far inferior likes of Up in the Air and The Kids Are All Right). But let's not linger on the unpleasant. What makes Ashby's film so lively, so honest, so deeply felt, is its insistence on probing its characters' humanity by way of their masculinity. It remains politically bipartisan. There's no need for political potshots or snarky pointmaking - Ashby and legendary scribe Robert Towne are too mature for that. The duo also wonderfully navigate the American road film, that great sub-genre about existential discovery.

Swabbies "Badass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young) are responsible for taking soon-to-be dishonorably discharged shy, newbie Meadows (Randy Quaid) to prison, necessitating a multiple day trip by bus and train. The film encompasses that journey, at the onset maintaining a distant, but jovial air, as the veteran officers scoff at their "shit detail." The three start to better understand one another when they go into town, looking to get the underage Meadows a drink. Denied by a bigoted bartender who threatens to call the shore patrol, Nicholson takes out his pistol, slams it on the countertop and shouts, "I am the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker! I am the motherfucking shore patrol! Give this man a beer! You're gonna have a fucking beer!" It's a great "Jack" moment, but also plays into the film's interest in masculinity/military decorum. For Badass and Mule, the Navy is a series of learned procedures and attitudes for survival. Meadows's innocence stems from too rigid an adherence to social codes, complicated by the kleptomania for which he's going to jail. Later, while drunk, Badass says, "Fuck fair. Fuck injustice. Haven't you ever wanted to just romp and stomp on someone just to do it? I mean, just to do it, to get it out of your system?" In an era where questions of sexual and physical repression (or lack thereof) were constantly influx, The Last Detail plays positively spiritual in its angst, unearthing the very depths of mixed emotional pursuits of pleasure, existence, and meaning.

The dehumanization of their mission (not to become personally invested in Meadows) conflicts with their compassionate morality. When Badass tells Meadows he'd make a fine signalman late in the film, it's immediately followed with a flash of sorrow and pain. They all realize he's not going to be able to actualize the goal because of his relatively petty past sins. The film's greatest strength lies in the trio's mutual respect and understanding, though their relationship never devolves below its necessary complications - the personal ideologies that separate them. Nicholson's performance marks the height of his career, besting even the likes of J.J. Gittes, R.P. McMurphy, and Jack Torrence. It's an iconic turn, wild, fiery, but most important, wholly human. He's never close to caricature and his control impresses almost more than The Last Detail itself, which is saying something. The film ends almost as it began, but it's best that way, subtly stating the stone-faced modus operandi of the military man. Their faces and attitudes may not reflect change, but it's there, bubbling just beneath the surface. What a glorious work of art.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Piranha 3D (Alexandre Aja, 2010) -- A

"This is what it's all about, man. Beer, sun, and making videos of naked bitchezzzz." So goes the macho, heterosexual motto of Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell), a Girls Gone Wild exploitation filmmaker whose words sink right into the heart of Alexandre Aja's sexy, scary, funny, relentless, and (best of all) rigorously intelligent Piranha 3D, a meta-film that flat-out, pound-for-pound beats the shit out of The Expendables and its limp-wristed self-awareness. Clearly Aja's doppleganger, Derrick functions as a satirical, self-reflexive character embodying the self-loathing and moral uncertainties Aja feels for his own work; the character almost makes up for Aja's deplorable High Tension, a film that equated both female sexuality and repressed lesbianism with it's grimy, overweight male serial killer. No, now Aja has found his form, style, and soul - necessarily following up his tacky, unwatchable Dario Argento impersonation Mirrors with a film that would impress the great Italian director, if not make him proud. Aja seems to have taken to heart Argento's line about the women in his films: "I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man." Like Argento, Aja feels compelled to kill the very thing that arouses him. And with Piranha 3D, not only does he kill, but he creates the greatest horror film of the post-CGI era, finally finding a way to implement the technology with a suitable narrative.

The disrespect for the horror film stems primarily from bourgeois aesthetic values, misunderstanding the genre's subversive elements (female autonomy, feminized male, re-contextualized anxieties) as somehow merely callous misanthropy and misogyny. At its best, horror uses archetypal characters to confront psycho-sexual and social order, often challenging its very foundation. The post-modern horror film (beginning with Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1993), then catapulted by the same director's Scream (1996) uses self-awareness to make further subversions, commenting on itself, even explicitly through dialogue and allusion. Having hit a rut since the implementation of a new technology, it's only necessary that the genre has wavered in recent years under a series of simply terrible, derivative entries (The Unborn, Shutter, Dead Silence) to literal-minded remakes (My Bloody Valentine 3D, The Last House on the Left, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street) to effective, but blatant homages (Drag Me to Hell, House of the Devil, The Devil's Rejects). It's as though Aja has encompassed all of this as a horror connoisseur and actually stepped ahead, looking forward rather back.

That's not to say that Piranha 3D doesn't have a great appreciation for its form's history. Much of the cast functions as a way to recall their earlier horror roles (Elizabeth Shue from Hollow Man, Jerry O'Connell from Scream 2, Ving Rhames from Dawn of the Dead, Richard Dreyfuss from Jaws, even Eli Roth satirizing himself). The lakeside town's sheriff is Julie Forrester (Elizabeth Shue), alluding to the unforgettable, maternal Marge Gunderson from Fargo, but altered for the modern, metropolitan world. Forrester has no time for dogmas. Early in the film, after wrecking a street sign and let off with a warning, a smart-assed teenager comments that he wishes "you would take me home." He touches her uniform, violating not just law and decorum, but her sexuality. The transgression draws out Forrester's physical prowess, slamming the punk on the car. She's sexy, but tough. It's an important distinction for the film's later focus: fragile feminine beauty. Her son Jake (Steven R. McQueen) doesn't have her toughness. He's stuck in a rut of adolescence and manhood, attracted to his long time friend Kelly (Jessica Szohr), but really in awe of the unthinkably beautiful Danni (Kelly Brook). The androgynous name functions almost as a pun, given Jake's (and Aja's) perception of her as the pinnacle of female beauty. Unfortunately for Jake, he's been saddled with babysitting his younger siblings and forced to forgo his foray at the apex of heterosexual, frat/sorority house paradise: spring break.

The script by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg deftly layers the soon-to-come carnage and mayhem with a base of characters spanning four sets of psychology/age groups. The little ones (about 10) seek freedom after negotiating money out of their older brother; they want to be rid of their constraining shackles, not for sexual reasons, but their individuality. Likewise, Jake wants autonomy, but purely of a sexual nature; rid of the kids and his mom's overseeing eye, he's free to literally hop aboard a lecherous vessel, to relish the flesh he's only been able to see on the internet, until now. Watching Danni and her friend swim naked through a pane of glass in the bottom of the boat, Derrick exuberantly says "Man, just look at those chicks. They look like beautiful fish. If fish had tits like that, I would fuck fish!" Outrageously, the line is payed off in a later gag where Derrick does, in a manner of speaking, get to fuck fish (or is it the other way around?). Nevertheless, the line also expresses Jake's sexual anxieties. He's not sure what women are - they might as well be fish to his inexperience. Moreover, the clearly experienced Danni, tanned and shaped to idolized perfection, represents the other side of the line, where adolescence turns to adult. Her sexuality frightens Jake (and Aja). The fourth line is Sheriff Forrester, who's almost past the point of sexuality, much more concerned with protecting (both on the local and domestic level). She's a single mother. The "head of the house" role necessarily masculinizes her. The film's carefully plotted sexual/societal set-up not only deserves approval, but praise in an era that views horror films as mere exercises is style, tone, and human degradation. Aja and his writers layer the horror with an astute context and humanity.

For all of Aja's effort to give the narrative a wallop, it's easy to say he wants the scares/gore to be tenfold as effective. On the whole, his effort is astounding for its ability to navigate scenes with clarity. Forgoing the socio-political explanation Joe Dante used for the piranha in his original film, Aja uses the freakish fish as a geographical anomaly, where a small earthquake opens up enough land beneath the lake to allow these two million! year old demons to roam unabated. Given his attention to the film's cast and characters, the explanation works just fine - and it works even better after the film's central carnage sequence, as hundreds on piranha close in on hundreds of joyful, drunken teens - teens who ignore order to pursue their hedonistic rebellion. As for visual flair, Aja's not lacking in style. It's here that his CGI finally finds its proper place. Literal mayhem occurs. Teens fall from boats, rafts and piers to escape carnivorous grasp. Piranha tear people to shreds - the CGI hits a nice balance of morbid camp and genuine horror. This is chaos the likes of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. A frightened kid gets in a boat, attempting to drive to safety, but kills likely 25 people in his path, the worst involving a girl's hair stuck in the propellers. A platform that just hosted a wet-t-shirt contest tips over with dramatic grandiosity a al Titanic, putting dozens more at risk. Finally, shore patrolman Novak (Adam Scott) grabs a shotgun, hops on a jet ski, and rides off blasting. Miraculously, Novak's heroism is shown in brief, unbroken takes, actually allowing him to hop on a jet ski, start driving, cock his shotgun, and fire without cutting - a virtuoso, kinetic action moment leaps and bounds beyond anything in The Expendables. Aja's ability to navigate the chaotic milieu announces him as a true visual artist. Cinematically, it's among the finest of any film from 2010.

On the opposite end of the shore, Jake's ultimately able to confront his ascension into sexual manhood by taking control of his own errors and misdeeds, saving Kelly from sure death. Aja, perhaps unable to make his, must watch his beautiful heroines die (all of them), sparing only Kelly (due to her modesty) and the sheriff (because of her masculine qualities). Aja has difficulty with his sexual idiosyncrasies, but it's okay. He's exploring them in a horror film to redefine the genre - everything must now be referred to post-Piranha 3D. Self-realization is the first step to progression.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) -- C

Attempting to explain cultural alienation via privileged narcissism, Dennis Hopper's iconic Easy Rider now plays less like a tightly wound expression of youthful catharsis, and more a simplistic, disingenuous tirade against all things establishment. Traveling from LA to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, young free wheelers Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) live out the ultimate adolescent dream: life on the road. Stopping city to city and running into trouble, women, drugs, and rednecks, the depiction of American life (and people) is concurrent with modern-day Hollywood standards (now you know where they got it from). The "big" city boys get to travel to places with "wierdo hicks" as Billy states it, lamenting with fellow youth that "America used to be a helluva good country." Naturally, the South is where they meet trouble (and ultimately their demise - that's right - they are actually killed by rednecks). The film's travelogue format (with nearly half a dozen biking interludes, tunes blasting) and glossed-over characterizations makes it hard to take any of the more contemplative elements seriously, especially a late montage of Catholic religious guilt/sexual dalliances. That the film is capped off by an act of martyrdom makes it that much easier to dismiss its sincerity (especially coming from Hollywood royalty in Fonda). It's akin to something like Brokeback Mountain, a warmed-over bit of agitprop digestible for a (liberal) mainstream audience, and thus containing no real bite or irreverence.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010) -- B+

Pop culture savvy now rules modern pop culture. Almost too deep into post-modernism for an about face, it becomes increasingly necessary to weed out those rancid, falsely convincing hack jobs (Zombieland, Pineapple Express, Funny People) from the truly audacious (the names Nevaldine/Taylor and Edgar Wright are the only qualifiers). Scott Pilgrim vs. The World might be Wright's most emphatically stylistic incarnation to date, faltering only in its inability to transport visual irreverence to the social realm. No worries, though; Wright's constant formal play and seemingly disjointed visual style remains amazingly streamlined and on task, compensating for a few gaffs in characterization.

The film, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, defies generic categorization through its fantastical presentation, taking place in some semblance of a real world, but populated by lapses in filmic logic, seamlessly fusing comic book isolation (its cartoonish, literary aspects) with youthful angst, rectifying the smarmy narcissism of Zach Braff's Garden State with succinct, if slightly reductive explications of various types, attitudes and youthful cynicisms. Most importantly, Wright's satirizing of youth culture takes itself just seriously enough, never playing down to an audience, but never elevating itself above them. Wright hones contemporary youth's aesthetic predilections, from video games, sitcoms, comic books, music videos, advertising - but produces a pastiche to transcend those labels because of his refusal to let the medium confine him. It's dream logic is more impressive than Inception, its ellipsis's more refined (even if it never becomes quite as viscerally unified). Finally, in a summer of dead dreck (or depressing rehashes), here's a film that truly feels alive and happy to be so, hardly letting a frame pass without electrifying cinematic sensibilities.

While Wright gets the cultural connection visually, he falters only in allowing Scott Pilgrim to often adopt the same knowledge of life (and girls) as his titular character; that is, Scott (Michael Cera) feels crushed over the loss of ex-girlfriend Envy Adams (Brie Larson), so he starts dating the cutely named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), only to realize his dream woman (literally, he first sees her in a dream) is Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She's so spontaneous, she changes her hair color every week and a half (a clear allusion to Kate Winslet's blue-haired Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another film to which Wright owes a debt, or is at least paying homage). Problem is, when Ramona's seven evil ex's show up, he must use his manboy machismo (and often wit) to defeat them in a Street Fighter-like match-up. All of the fight sequences are handled with candy-colored jubilation and largely successful. However, Wright's curious handling of Scott's treatment towards gf's (and Scott's own narcissism) don't play out with the expected irreverence. When Knives tells Scott she wants him to meet her parents, he responds: "Are you even allowed to date outside of your own race?" The line's meant to signify Scott's growing anxiety that he will have to break Knives's heart right to her face, but is played rather straight, intimating Scott's own assumptions of racial and moral superiority. Likewise, the film makes a running joke of Scott's gay, sex-crazed roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), who hits on/seems to fuck every guy he latches onto. A stereotype for sure, but surprisingly the film leaves it at that, allowing Wallace to pop in only for a punchline or a one-liner (though all of this is admittedly funny and comedically adept). Moreover, Knives's discovery of Scott's treachery is met with shrieking, psychotic horror (you can almost sense the image of Eihi Shiina from Takashi Miike's Audition floating around in Wright's subconscious) as her presence at one point sends Scott hurling through a plate glass window (and only popping back in briefly to retrieve his jacket).

From the film, it becomes necessary to be clear: Wright depicts GEEKY WHITE BOY culture (there's nary a black person to be found), and to say the film's sexual and racial politics are a bit sketchy and glossed over wouldn't be unfair. Almost out of seeming necessity, it's revealed that one of Ramona's evil ex's is Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman), and she explains it through the parlance of our times, labeling herself as "bi-curious." Roxy responds, "well, I'm a little bi-furious!" The inclusion feels disingenuous and obligatory, reducing Roxy to a mouthy, out-spoken biatch, almost the equivalent of its gay male riff. These aren't necessarily criticisms against the film, but Wright inserts enough of them (reductive caricatures, that is) that either he's attempting some sort of satirical short-hand or he's oblivious to their shortcomings. I tend to lead towards the former, but it remains unclear exactly what the satire says, or is saying.

Nevertheless, Scott Pilgrim vs The World has a way with language too, often appropriating slang or short-term to stake out its cultural territory (Chris Evans, as Ramona's now famous evil ex, says about his stunt double at one point: "He's good right? Sometimes I let him do the wide shots. When I feel like getting blazed back in my Winne"). Or that Roxy eventually labels Ramona a "hasbien." Or any of the other three or four dozen potential examples of vernacular play. Basically, if one doesn't get hung up on its social shortcomings, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World has exuberance to spare through its sugary, cotton-candy coated, junk-food-working-as-kinetic-high-pop-art madness.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, 2010) -- C+

Goddamnit. Proving the impossible just the opposite, Sylvester Stallone's round-up of several action flick heavyweights flat-out sucks. There's just no two ways around it. Substituting choppy editing for compositional artistry, overloading on utterly disintegrating exposition, and - worst of all - woefully short on mano y mano fight sequences, everything about the "shoulda-been-must-see-action-flick-of-all-time" isn't. It's not even the must see film of the week, since Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, far more interesting and ambitious, also opens.

That's not to suggest The Expendables can't be enjoyed; it can, but always with pain and regretful sorrow, as every passing scene further cements Stallone's failure to understand both himself, and his world talent cast (excluding names like Couture and Austin, though the latter isn't half bad). Instead of thinking radically or, who knows, maybe even avant-garde about his testosterone all-stars, Stallone and screenwriter Dave Callaham simply send them into the jungle, searching for a drug kingpin/dictator blah blah blah blah. Why concern oneself with the umpteenth South American drug kingpin in film history, rather than focusing on what everyone's paid to see?

The film never answers that question, though it does let always charismatically dynamic Eric Roberts do his thing as the American billionaire/puppeteer of the operation, but the role's devastatingly underwritten, with hardly a memorable line or even a bombastic monologue. Most insulting, though, is that Stallone doesn't treat the cast with the respect deserved. Not respect as celebrities, but as physical artists, whose movements and presence are exciting in-and-of itself. When hand-to-hand fights do happen between heavies, Stallone doesn't let the action progress within the frame. He starts on one actor, cuts to the other, back to the first actor's hands, back to the second actor's leg, repeat ad infinitum - there's no way to tell what the fuck is going on. How about a two shot, maybe with some camera movement, to let the actors, rather than the editing, deliver the goods? Stallone's prowess as a filmmaker is too dim. Equally frustrating is a car chase in which Jet Li pulls out a machine gun and spurts off rounds at some nameless/faceless baddies. Even here, Stallone misunderstands what's aesthetically/viscerally pleasing. Li needs to be in frame, holding the gun, shooting the gun and cease firing before a cut. Stallone doesn't get (or respect) these basic necessities of direction/composition, instead relying on the loudness of everything to distract.

The Expendables has some "hell yeah" moments, mostly when Terry Crews is firing his big fucking gun, or when Lundgren (the highlight of the cast) decides to leave Stallone and crew to team-up with Roberts. The final showdown/shootout works too, but it's so chaotic in its gunfire, dismembered body parts and blurry face-lifts, that again, it's nearly impossible to enjoy the sensual assault in any coherent manner. You know a flick's not working when it enlists Arnold Schwarzenegger to do a cameo, but lets it seem as though he's reading off cue cards, then has a character state the obvious joke: "I guess he wants to be president someday." Oh, because he's the gov...yeah, I gotcha. Most of the cast comes off looking good (Statham, Lundgren and Roberts definitely still have fuel left), some just alright (Stallone's passable, but physically spent) others shouldn't have been in the movie (Couture's acting, and even physical presence, carry zero weight) and a few prove surprisingly adept (Crews is funny and badass with his gun, Austin at least doesn't suck). Mickey Rourke has two brief scenes, the second pathetic in its desperate attempt to give the film a subtext. "Men aren't like they used to be. Used to be, they had a soul." Ignoring the obvious meta-text, that these men are "expendable" as artists too, that their talents are either seen as inferior or ignored altogether, Stallone's coup de grace for a generation of beloved artists/men falls too far short of the more artful, intelligent send-off they deserve.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

High Art (Lisa Cholodenko, 1998) -- C

Lisa Cholodenko's feature debut (now an Indie/Sundance classic), is interesting, though mainly as a contrast to her latest film, the Oscar-buzzed The Kids Are All Right; murky and dour rather than lightweight and structurally conventional, High Art couldn't be more tonally disparate - yet it is similarly flawed, here through amateurish self-awareness and foul cynicism. A leaky roof leads art magazine assistant editor Syd (Radha Mitchell) to neighbor Lucy (Ally Sheedy), who happens to have been a former photog prodigy before hanging it up. Drawn in by her "snapshot compositions" and, as the film intimates, her inner lesbian, Syd disconnects from standard-issue hunky/beauty boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann) and falls for Lucy, who's artistic and sexual passion surpass anything she's encountered. Cholodenko's psychological simplicity reduces Syd's two-pronged awakening to shrill, horror-like mood music, most pronounced during their first sex scene. Likewise, Cholodenko feels too close to her characters and their world to be critical or objectively insightful - rather she fills every scene with despondence and unfeeling, without ever transcending the monotonous pitch. Sheedy and Mitchell are convincing and humane (just like Moore and Bening are in her latest), so at least Cholodenko brings out the best in her actresses. Pity there's little else she does well, especially as writer and visual artist.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Salt (Phillip Noyce, 2010) -- B

Phillip Noyce and Angelina Jolie get kinetics. Maybe less so within individual frames, but more so on the whole, Salt always has its whole in mind, mounting sparse, effective narrative, fluent action set pieces, and Jolie's graceful body movements - all to a wholly satisfying release. Noyce's slyly intelligent political paranoia helps save a lackluster summer from total shittiness, resurrecting the aesthetic conscious guns and punches thriller that Paul Greengrass's last two Bourne films desecrated. Elegant, unpretentious, and brimming with wit and visual sensuality, Salt shockingly utilizes various filmic tools to scintillate rather than obfuscate.

Admittedly, Salt has low aspirations. It's political narrative and jargon-driven dialogue functions as a vehicle for Jolie's face and body to kick some ass. Yet don't sell short the art of ass kicking. Evelyn Salt (Jolie) faces immediate danger when a walk-in Russian officer (Daniel Olbrychski) fingers her as an undercover mole who will kill the Russian president within the next 24 hours (the other CIA officers believe the guy, since a neuroscan says he's telling the truth). Fearing capture (and the safety of her husband), Evelyn flees, launching every DC area protection official into fully-armed pursuit. What initially seems like hollow chase sequences proves merely as building blocks for later audacity - all anchored by Jolie as vessel, emoting, punching, kicking, and leaping when Kurt Wimmer's script calls for it. Thankfully, she doesn't drudge out the histrionic hilarity of A Mighty Heart and Changeling; Noyce allows her to cry and raise her voice once or twice, but it's in service of a greater understanding in what makes his film function on a visceral level. It's her bursts of energy (even just telling expression) rather than constant highs that energize the progressively balletic shootouts and explosions.

Noyce opts for straight-faced genre satire over smarmy one-liners, elevating his sense of style over something like Adam McKay's The Other Guys, since he doesn't have to consciously acknowledge himself as higher than the genre he's working in - but there's never any doubt of his grasp on the film's intent and effectiveness. Unfortunately, James Newton Howard's wholly routine score is the weak link, denying the film from being a truly unique experience. What makes Christopher Nolan's Inception such a sensual tour de force (at least half of it), is Hanz Zimmer's thematic music, gloriously punctuating action and emotion without becoming literal. The aural component is nearly equal to the visual. Conversely, one could easily watch Salt without even recognizing a score, as it worthlessly stays out the way. Nevertheless, the film's plot reversals and uncertain character motives work nicely in tandem with Noyce's preference for orchestrated action and movement.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010) -- C+

Predictably opting for pop culture riffs over true generic satire, Adam McKay's The Other Guys makes the same mistakes as most recent buddy cop send-ups; thankfully, this one's at least sporadically funny. Desk-confined NYPD scrubs Terry (Mark Wahlberg) and Allen (Will Ferrell) step onto the streets to investigate seemingly corrupt CEO David Ershon (Steve Coogan), leading them into gun-wielding baddies (Ray Stevenson plays the lead goon), an exploding insurance office, and umpteen car chases. If it sounds like fairly standard action fare, it is, and it's yet another failed effort to satirize the much belied genre without succumbing to its standard tropes. Ferrell and McKay supply their usual brand of comedy: re-contextualizing pop culture iconography. A particularly silly interlude explains Ferrell's passivity as directly related to his becoming a pimp in college. Taken out of hip-hip logos and placed in the duo's goofball routine, it's merely a transfer of scenario (here's the test for hilarity: listen to the film's original song titled "Pimps Don't Cry"). Other duds involve a homeless orgy, numerous Prius jokes, and a consistently tiresome, secondary cop duo of Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans Jr. Problem is, The Other Guys fails to address masculinity or cop movie cliches in any interesting way (Hot Fuzz already nailed it, so everything following seems superfluous). McKay's film merely acknowledges genre, rather than actively trying to transcend it. It's sufficient praise to say the film's funnier and smarter than Cop Out, or wittier and more fluent than Date Night; but like nearly every modern comedy, the film's greatest problem is its pacing. Carrying over Saturday Night Live aesthetics, it's simply a string of sketches, jokes, and side-tracks in search of a cohesive whole. Even more disjointed is an end-credits cry for justice in the financial world, powerpointing the decline of the average American's 401K, lambasting Bernie Madoff greed, and chronicling CEO corruption. The message isn't objectionable, but it's completely out of place and a curious choice if meant to be taken seriously. There are certainly laughs here or there, maybe a few inspired visual bits - but ultimately it's simple, shallow moviegoing. None of the jokes resonate beyond Ferrell and McKay's beloved pop culture artifice.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz, 2010) -- A-

The grandiose title of Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime succinctly and immediately conveys just how placid and unchallenging modern American filmmaking has become. Hardly a period-piece side road for the American psyche provocateur, the film picks up the characters from 1998's Happiness, only ten years have passed, though not much has changed in the course of their often miserable struggle for the first film's titular idealism. Instead of bringing back all of the original film's actors, however, Solondz recasts the entire film (the oddest recasting has to be Michael K. Williams for the crank calling pervert originally played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), further fulfilling his well-earned role as cinematic anarchist. Yet his act isn't merely muckraking, certainly not condescension. A huge mistake most of the filmmaker's detractors often make is asserting his contempt for his subjects. Solondz masterfully, brilliantly refuted those criticisms in Storytelling (his masterpiece) and he further dispels such knee-jerk conclusions here, honing contemporary socio-cultural anxiety, then examining it with his trademark blend of challenging fearlessness.

Reoccurring motifs explicate Solondz's formal rigorousness. The film opens on Joy (Shirley Henderson) having dinner with her now-husband Allen (Michael K. Williams), mirroring Happiness's opening. Moreover, the writing is sharper now, even in the simplest of exchanges. Confessing the relinquishing of his desires, Allen states, "I've given up crack. I've given up cocaine. I've given up crack cocaine," all while interjecting cuts of Joy, nodding, unemotionally placating. Solondz's sense of comedic timing comes through editing, deftly reflecting the pain and struggle of his subjects, but, in turn, relishing their humanity, the inherently humorous absurdity of humanity's seemingly neverending, existential pursuits. In the next scene, Trish (Allison Janney) has dinner with Harvey (Michael Lerner), yet another dating attempt to forget her pedophile husband Bill (Cieran Hinds), just serving the end of his sentence. Dinner becomes a key act. The film is a series of conversations, most taking place over a meal. Solondz establishes public space/public domestic space, a place where identity falsely changes into expectation, hope, and aspiration. A later scene over dinner with Harvey, Trish and her soon-to-be-bar mitzvahed son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) is violated Harvey's son Mark (Rich Pecci), who frankly explains when asked if he's seeing anyone, "No. I'm more focused on China. Everything else is history. It's just a question of time." Honesty breaks illusion, negating specified functions of spaces. Solondz offsets this with private space (the bedroom). This holds his subjects true interests, where they go to be themselves, have sex, retreat to the things they cannot openly express/confess. Half a dozen tracking shots reveal the walls of rooms, often cluttered with posters, pop-expressions of individuality. Most notable is the I'm Not There poster in now older Billy's (Chris Marquette) college dorm. The inclusion is directly intertextual to Palindromes, where Solondz chose different actresses (even a young boy) to play the same part. Haynes cheapened that in his film, a hollow, meaningless exercise in celebrity subterfuge, a practice more attractive to youth than Solondz's genuine interest in faces and the difference of human expression. Unlike the recent onslaught of middlebrow indies/sequelitis/remake fervor/comic book clusterfuck, Life During Wartime shatters the facade, exposing their cynical, consumerist nature.

Solondz uses the film's title in a multitude of contexts, none taking on the bombastic tone the title assumes. In fact, Solondz uses such a title to express the inconceivable disconnect between his characters' bourgeois lives and actual warfare. Yet, as the comparison between pedophile and terrorist is made, Life During Wartime suggests that life in its very essence is a sort of chaos, with constant individual struggle to connect to community, the greater whole. Like in Solondz's shocking Welcome to the Dollhouse, the film's title gets a song, converting one art form into another. Joy spontaneously writes the song sitting in her bedroom, a scene that not only gets at art's uselessness as pretentious polemic, but recalls Bunuelian irreverence, as Joy's former lover Andy (Paul Reubens) appears in spirit to ease her guilt. A shelf of her sister's Emmy's sits in the background - at least, until Joy grabs one for a weapon. The relationship is clear. In a world of chaos, the only "weapon" of value is art - the only thing that can order misunderstanding. Yet again, this relationship isn't quite so cut and dry. An Emmy rewards an appeal to mass notions, the very ideas that have his subjects in so much pain. In the middle of the film, Bill talks with Jacqueline (Charlotte Rampling), a woman he meets in a bar. They talk of "winners and losers" and that a loser "always confesses when he's wrong." The visual synecdoche of the Emmy recalls their conversation and further demonstrates the film's tightly constructed narrative. Solondz's meta elements are often just as, if not more, interesting than his subjects, whose helplessness stems from their both their own, self-imposed faults and a need to repress their individuality. Solondz confesses his own anxieties in doing so, and the ticking-time bomb approach necessitates viewer thought, compliance, and reaction.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholondenko, 2010) -- B

Not unlike 2009's Up in the Air, strong, mature performances from central cast members uplifts Lisa Cholondenko's The Kids Are All Right , an otherwise conventional, middlebrow film. Her third feature still reeks of a slapped-on, Sundance seal of approval, ensuring a pseudo-provocative dysfunctional family narrative, sporadically punctuated by moments of artistic inspiration.

The proof in The Kids Are All Right's simplicity shows in how succinctly it can be explained; Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a lesbian couple with two children - Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). On Joni's 18th birthday, Laser persuades her to seek out their sperm donor Paul(Mark Ruffalo)in hopes of making an emotional connection. Paul's presence (instead of leading to genuine comedic or emotional resonances), only draws forth trite, tidy conflicts, such as an affair with Jules, or resentment from otherwise dominant Nic. Also in typical fashion, opening credits feature an indie - but not indie - song (this time it's Vampire Weekend's "Cousins"), roll-calling important players to come. Laser gets high while Joni talks sex, leading into one of the film's several miscalculated sitcom-esque bits, the first having Nic and Jules fuck while watching gay male porn (but oh no! the volume accidentally gets turned up too loud!), only to later expand the already broad joke by having Jules walk in on Laser and a friend watching the same video, mistaking their snooping for interest.

Much of Cholondenko's script never goes beyond these surface levels conceptually, thus rendering her set-ups flat and all too obvious. Most scenes (such as Paul's first dinner with the family) aren't poorly written, but exist merely to reinforce character traits which will become important later on. It isn't comedic or ironic in any profound way, rather rekindling a nearly identical approach to former Sundance sensation Little Miss Sunshine, substituting cute, but naughty laughs for any darker, truthful edge about American family life. Other elements fall flat too; there's an interesting subplot concerning Nic's need for dominance over Jules which, according to her, is what leads to her wanting to cheat (although, in any film with homosexual leads, the cheating is always curiously heterosexual). Laser experiences a similar circumstance with his dominant male friend, who's imperative-laced rhetoric ultimately forces Laser to confront his subjugation. Cholondenko sets up a potentially interesting parallel, but fails to follow through with any awareness to it. Is she suggesting that all relationships, no matter the sex, rely on these hierarchical dynamics? Or, even more trite, is it simply a quaint life lesson, that it takes mutual trust and respect for any relationship to properly function? Either way, Cholondenko is disinterested in answering this (and other) potential questions, and the film suffers for it.

What ultimately lifts the weak material and almost inflates it to something approaching profundity, though, is Bening and Moore, who inhabit moments of happiness, regret, and forgiveness with complete authenticity. Though Cholondenko's script plays false, the faces on screen rarely lie, making their struggle to retain a nuclear family unit all the more emotionally felt. In the film's best moment, Nic finds some of Jules's hair in Paul's bathtub. Bening's quiet desperation is nicely complimented by a good choice from Cholondenko: to let the air out of the room sonically. She returns to the dinner table, but can't hear the conversation. Her simultaneous confrontation of her own misguided dominance, in conjunction with her lover's deceit proves emotionally overwhelming - yet Nic masks it, denying any sort of histrionic catharsis. Small moments such as these from the core actors (plus a college send-off that easily trumps Toy Story 3 in terms of genuine pathos) afford The Kids Are All Right a sincerity that's hard to disengage from. It's likable and heartfelt. Just don't pretend it's anything more.