What movie was that...?

26 June 2011

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

directed by Werner Herzog

I just have one thing to say to any documentaries set to come out this year: I hope you like silver medals, because there is no way any of you are coming close to the power, artistry and sheer wonder of Werner Herzog’s 3D masterpiece, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The words Werner Herzog and 3D are words I never thought I would use in a sentence, but his film is the only modern 3D film that actually makes a case for the technology. To experience the Chauvet cave through this medium (the cave is sealed off to all but a few scholars and scientists. No regular folks.), through the delicate and time tested genius of Herzog, is to truly have a filmic experience. For those of you who don’t know what the hell the Chauvet cave is, it is a cave system in France that remained sealed from all contact for over 30,000 years, until a team of cave divers discovered it in the mid 1990s. Inside, they found examples of cave paintings that predate all others previously studied, paintings of truly magnificent work. We’re not just talking about a couple of squiggles on a rock, here. The Chauvet paintings are dynamic, alive, a story told using the contours of the rock faces themselves. Many of them even seem to have a multiple exposure effect similar to an animatic or an animator’s storyboards, an effect that creates movement and life with jaw dropping result. At a time in human history when Neanderthal Man still roamed side by side with us, these paintings show us a glimpse into a creative spark ignited from the ether. Herzog was granted unprecedented access to the cave (which will probably never happen again), and truly he was the right person for the job. The marvel is that Herzog doesn’t do anything particularly special in this film (unless you call shooting what he was able to shoot under such logistical shortcomings, and a crazy time crunch), instead simply documenting in his way the magic of the cave itself. It is worth noting that Herzog executes an amazingly amazing jump cut in this doc that rivals that of Kubrick’s bone sequence in 2001, and it’s a good thing I was in the auditorium by myself, because I let out an audible exclamation of satisfaction. The only way to see this film for the first time is to experience it fully, in 3D. Please please please don’t miss your chance.

25 June 2011

Step Into Liquid

directed by Dana Brown

Dana Brown is a chip off the old block, and it shows in his airy, humorous and joy inducing doc, Step Into Liquid. Like Poppa Bruce, Dana treks the world over in search of the ultimate ride, but instead of following one pair of surfers, Dana searches for the searchers themselves. From such surfing icons as Laird Hamilton and Gerry Lopez, to a group of riders who surf the breaks of Lake Michigan (I told you. The stories about the Great Lakes are true), Dana finds both quirk and epic romance equally fascinating, blending the two like a great story told to you by a stranger who makes you feel so comfortable, as if you have known them your whole life. The North Shore, Jaws and Mavericks get their share of screen time, but Brown’s attention to such largely unknown surf spots as Lake Michigan, Galveston, and even the coast of Donegal make Step Into Liquid such an endearing and wonderful surf doc gem. Like Riding Giants, and daddy Bruce’s Endless Summer, Dana Brown shows surfing at its finest and most pure, pleasurable and profound, a lifestyle and a philosophy that calls to you like the first day of summer vacation. 

23 June 2011

180 South

directed by Chris Malloy

It’s a dirt bag’s best fantasy come true, and surfer Chris Malloy doesn’t try to deviate from the earnest style that makes his other docs so watchable. Malloy (the bearded, stoic searcher in 180o ) is the kind of surfer we romanticize: like Bodi in Point Break, minus the felonious behavior and band of criminal morons, and 180o seeks to convey that searcher’s sense with a no frills sincerity that blends well with his simplistic directorial approach. The doc follows Jeff Johnson as he seeks to re-tramp the trip his heroes took in 1968. The heroes in question are Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins (all you outdoorsy types should recognize those names), and the trip refers to the journey the pair made to Patagonia, a journey that came to define the course of both their lives forever. The locations and scenery alone make this film worth watching, and any film with a bunch of Mason Jennings songs is tops in my book. 180South doesn’t say anything new, but fans of such films as Riding Giants or Into the Wild (if you are anything like me) never tire of hearing the message retold against a new backdrop. Films like this always strike the same chord of melancholy and longing I feel for something that I cannot even articulate, and difference between 180o South and other, more powerful docs slash films, is that Malloy is still struggling with the possibility that he actually can articulate this feeling.

20 June 2011

The Mechanic

directed by Michael Winner

Perhaps what I love most about The Mechanic is the ease with which baddest of all men, Charles Bronson, slips into the role of a very unsympathetic character. What’s interesting about many of Bronson’s roles is that, though he is never the “good” guy, he is the guy for whom we are rooting. In Mr. Majestyk, he was the guy who stood up to corruption. In Death Wish and Once Upon a Time in the West, he was seeking revenge that we, as an audience, could respect in some way, or at the very least understand. Even in Hard Times, Bronson was just out there trying to make it, but he had a code, standards that made him worth invested emotion. There are other fine examples, but I highlight a few to illustrate how interesting Michael Winner’s tale of contract killing and “stepping outside it all and looking in” is from both a filmmaking point of view and a “Bronson as personae” point of view. Many films in the past and present have attempted this: telling a story about truly unsympathetic characters. Chistopher McQuarrie explicitly says this was his motive in writing the stellar film Way of the Gun, and some actors can shine when it comes to this. Bronson does it so matter of factly, so naturally in The Mechanic, that the result is chilling and uncomfortable for the viewer, especially if the viewer is a fan. I have never been a Jan-Michael Vincent fan, so the film falls apart in that respect, but the opening sequence of Bronson orchestrating a hit on an old man is out of sight. For those of you who do not know what this film is about, The Mechanic tells the story of lone assassin Arthur Bishop (Bronson) who takes an apprentice (Vincent) under his wing. When things start getting heavy, Bishop finds out he may have a contract out on his own life, and he can’t trust anyone. The film is great in every way except in the Jan-Michael Vincent category (remember Air Wolf? Unfortunately, so do I.), but Michael Winner gets a great performance out of Bronson in this one.

Note: There was a recent remake of this classic that I was too bothered by to watch. The only reason I have contemplated it, though, is due to how much I love Ben Foster and how much of an improvement over Vincent he surely is in the film. I don’t think it will counteract the dead weight of Jason Statham as Bishop, however. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy Statham in a few of his more mindless and entertaining gems, but Bronson sized shoes are too big for anyone to fill. Did anyone actually watch this remake? How was it?

19 June 2011

X Men: First Class

directed by Matthew Vaughn

Despite half of the 4 person screenwriting team being responsible for the filmic abomination Thor (I don’t know what anyone was thinking giving that film anything that resembles a good review) , for which they should be fined, btw, X Men: First Class wins due to the efforts of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman. Goldman and Vaughn both worked on the script for Kick Ass, which Vaughn also directed, and it shows in this reboot of a comic film franchise that has gone down the metaphorical tubes since it began. Yes, we have all heard about how the X Men get the swinging, sexy, James Bond 60s treatment, which is true, and yes, the film bogs down in the quagmire of lesser known heroes and villains (many of whom I had no clue about), but it holds true to a level of sophistication that seems to pertain to only a few comic universes. Michael Fassbender was (as always) fantastic as pre-McKellan Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, and James McAvoy was good as pre-hardware Charles, but man oh man was January Jones awful as whoever the hell she was, Emma Frost (IMDb tells me), emoting about as much as Vin Diesel in, well, every one of his films. Poor January Jones, but hive five, Kevin Bacon, who rules as Sebastian Shaw, Erik’s former captor, mentor, and dark reflection. Was it great? No, but it was good. And way better than the filmic crime, Thor.

Seriously, anyone who actually watched Thor and is willing to defend this pile, feel free to leave a comment and we can discuss it. Having Kenneth Branagh as the director does not somehow imply a deeper level of sophistication automatically, nor does it exonerate actors who are bad at their craft and screenwriters who are incapable of penning a compelling story. Thor smacks of one of those factory designed films, written by a team and made by a film company, not the artistic vision of a talented group, like Batman, or even the first 2 X Men films. For shame, Branagh. You too, Hollywood.

17 June 2011

Tree of LIfe

directed by Terence Malick
This review is longer than usual, and for that I apologize...

It’s hard to talk about a film when you don’t really know where to begin. It makes it even harder when the film is about everything, literally. I suppose we should start on the surface and work our way down the rabbit hole. The score by Alexandre Desplat is phenomenal, emotive and dreamlike, echoing such titanic scores as 2001 and even Days of Heaven, and when coupled with the immensely fantastic sound design, creates sweeping emotions and cold, mute emptiness. The acting was outstanding (even by Hollywood dudmuffin, Brad Pitt!), particularly by the boys, played to perfection by Hunter McCracken (phenomenal) and Laramie Eppler (as close to perfect as I have seen in some time). I have always loved Malick’s use of VO (there’s a qualifier to this assertion in this case. Read on for clarification), and he doesn’t disappoint here, cultivating a sense of quiet tension that pulls you to the edge of your seat. The cinematography is, per usual, perfectly executed, a true benchmark in film. Where my feelings on the film become as nebulous as Malick’s thesis (for lack of a better word) is in the story (again, for lack of a better word) and how it unfolds. The film starts at the beginning, the very beginning, then jumps to the present (I suppose), then jumps back to just after the beginning of all things, then winds its way back to Middle America, circa the 1950s, focusing on the O’Brien family. The film does many things, many wonderful, complicated, unsettling, magnificent things, and Malick’s lens floats through existence like a ghost, channeling the near perfect example he set forth in Days of Heaven, but what does it mean? Malick’s films are very humanistic, unlike peer and fellow auteur filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s science experiments, but Malick doesn’t concern himself with the dark sentiment of human nature like other philosopher filmmakers such as Werner Herzog or Lars Von Trier, instead lingering always upon the bigger, cosmic picture. There is darkness there, surely, but it isn’t the Hobbesian focus of Malick’s canon. Even when his films see life through a keyhole, most notably in Badlands, he seeks to link it to a larger concept. In Tree of Life, Malick asks two question that battle one another.

What is significant? Or, how do we measure significance?

And,

Why is anything significant? Or, is it the everything that’s significant?

Ok. Let’s pump the brakes right here (PS spoiler alert)-

Before I go any further, I need to clear up some major problems I had with this film and why I have been so forgiving thus far (and why, in fact, I seem to be reviewing a different film):

The last 20 or so minutes of Tree of Life are not only unnecessary, they are god awful. The whole “climax” of the film smacks of art school pretension that, frankly, I never expected of Malick. I actually let out an audible groan and cringed during one particular VO in this final chapter, it was so over the top. In an effort to reconcile these emotions, I have simply chosen to pretend the last segment of this film never happened, and I since have felt my ulcer subside significantly. By lopping off that pustule of a film sequence, I can also pretend that the weird flash to the “present” sequence that happened early in the film actually occurred where it logically belonged, near the end. From a plot device standpoint, the only reason I can see for this flash is that Malick wanted to make sure to set us up for his BS ending (a weak and amateur move, btw), which never happened in my version of reality, so the flash can therefore be placed in its proper place near the end of the film, thus creating a linear and astounding cosmic story. I see what Malick was trying to do, and I was so with him all the way, but what he failed to realize (again, I am surprised and disappointed by this) is that told as a chronologically straight forward story (from very beginning to very end, and beyond), Tree of Life is mind boggling enough. No need for jumping around the timeline, Mr. M, especially when you only do it once, and oddly at that. I was in shock as I watched this film deteriorate before my eyes, as if I was listening to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and suddenly Mr. B himself began using his armpit as an instrument…

My Conclusion (finally! What a windbag you are, BC):
Tree of Life is like Mike Tyson: full of so much potential that, if fully realized, would have left any semblance of competition in the dust. Potential that was, sadly, wasted and destroyed by indulgence and poor decisions. Please, Mr. M, remove the cancer that is the final sequence and rearrange your film in proper chronological order, and you will have a film that truly soars. The symmetry of imagery, theme, metaphor and motif was magnificent. The parallels through time and space (the brothers fighting, the dinosaurs, the nebulae, a simple look) were staggering. It’s all there, Mr. M. It’s all there in the can, it just needs some trimming. Start with the light, end with the dock parallel image of our vantage point amid a lifeless ridge in a silent and infinite space, and bookend the whole piece with the light from the beginning. I can see it in my mind, and it takes my breath away.

11 June 2011

Super 8

directed by J.J. Abrams

It’s a match made in Hollywood heaven: the mouth agape dazzlery of Steven Speilberg and the technical gut punch stylings of J.J. Abrams. Both of these strengths can be applied to the other as well, for both are no strangers to the event film. Speilberg has been doing it for 4 decades, and Abrams scored with the Star Trek reboot (hell, I’m not even a Star Trek freak and I enjoyed the crap out of that film), but the two together, well, let’s just say they can really knock ‘em dead. My excitement level for this film on a 1 to 10 scale was a Super 8 (that’s it, BC! I’m never reading any more of your reviews), and it didn’t let me down. The trailer says it all: a nostalgic piece of epic storytelling about alien intrigue, all revolving around a group of kids who seem to fare far better than their grown up counterparts. Think Goonies meets Close Encounters, and I mean that in a good way. Abrams, aka The Lens Flare Extraordinaire, directs the hell out of a film that scores from framing to foley, and anything that can make me feel even close to how I felt the first time I watched ET is worth checking out.

10 June 2011

Mr Majestyk

directed by Richard Fleischer

Richard Fleischer’s tale of revenge, social rights and ass kickery give credence to the old saying “You just fucked with the wrong melon farmer.” This saying is especially true when said melon farmer is Charles Bronson, who plays Vince Majestyk just as he plays all his roles, which is to say, awesomely. Majestyk just wants to harvest his melon crop and get it into town, but his luck goes from bad to worse when he runs off scumbag Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo rules), and ends up in jail with even bigger scumbag, hit man Frank Renda (Al Lettieri is a slimy gem). After an attempt to barter his freedom for Renda’s goes south, Majestyk has to fight off the hit man and his lackeys as he attempts to get his crop in, find some time for romance, and give his migrant staff a fair shake. Almost all Charles Bronson films from the 60s and 70s have one thing in common: they all kick ass, and I dare anyone to say otherwise. Bronson will haunt you for it, to be sure, and I will bet my bottom dollar that even his ghost could kick your ass.

PS That “old saying” I mentioned isn’t really an old saying, but a Danny McBride quote from Pineapple Express, which means there’s yet another reason why that movie is great.

09 June 2011

Across 110th Street

directed by Barry Shear

I was having an argument the other day with some arthouse film snob with a fetish for subtitles about the staggering acting merit of Yaphet Kotto, and when it came time for me to drop the bomb, so to speak, and enumerate his classic works, I found myself stuck. Yaphet Kotto is a phenomenal actor, no question, but the problem is that he wasn’t in a lot of phenomenal films. Sure, there was Alien, but another stellar example of Kotto (and everyone else, really) at the top of their game is Barry Shear’s gangster classic, Across 110th Street. This gritty tale of racial hostility, hard boiled altruism and the kind of take what you need ethos of the criminal underworld boils over with emotion and fuck you anger, not to mention some incredible action sequences, incredible acting and incredible directing. Whether or not the steady cam work in this film was done out of artistic license or due to necessity, it serves the film tremendously, creating realistic sequences that many blockbusters with morbidly obese budgets try to duplicate today, and Shear has a knack for finding the core of the scene without having to explain it. One of my favorite sequences in the film is when the Mob finds out one of their Harlem cash houses have been knocked over, and the men move throughout a family party trying to deal with the next step. Yaphet Kotto is dynamite as new cop on the block Lieutenant Pope, struggling to enforce law and order in the wake of the 3 decade path of sketchy police work done by Captain Matelli, played with gusto by a reliable Anthony Quinn. Most amazing minor role achievement award for this film goes to Marlene Warfield, who is astounding as Mrs. Jackson. She only has one scene, and it’s a killer. Bobby Womack’s opening song is as great as it gets, and it’s a shame that more people haven’t watched this gem from the 70s.


Note: It never hurts to have Burt Young in your film, either. Even if he doesn't have any lines and dies in the first scene.

02 June 2011

General Orders No. 9

So excited for this...

Trouble the Water

directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin

Trouble the Water, a story of devastation and government blundering in the wake of Mother Nature’s wrath is told with phenomenal grace, optimism and love through the point of view of a couple of New Orleans scrappers. Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, yes, and how well or awfully the Dubs handled it all is a debate left for another blog, but documentarians Carl Deal and Tia Lessin strike gold when they happen upon Kimberly and Scott Roberts (and their treasure trove of first hand film footage of the flooding in the 9th Ward) in the aftermath of Katrina. Kimberly, aka BlackKoldMadina, and her husband Scott struggle to help out neighbors and family displaced by the hurricane and rebuild their lives back in New Orleans. As they chase the snipe that is their government assistance check and float from dwelling to dwelling (and state to state), what’s most striking is Kimberly and Scott’s resolute optimism and determination to find good in all things. This is a kind of hope that digs deep, and like the boys of Heavy Metal in Baghdad, you will find yourself rooting for Scott and Kimberly, sharing their joys, lamenting their losses. When Kimberly performs a track called “Amazing” live in a bedroom, you feel the power of an entire life, and Deal and Lessin understand that a hard line point of view can weaken a tale that needs no narration to guide you to the point of it all. Trouble the Water is a diamond in the rough.