The Place Beyond the Pines -2013-

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Directed by Derek Cianfrance. 140 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 Like his previous picture, Blue Valentine, Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines is another beautifully shot study of non-nuclear families and the way in which they may transform – or break – over time. While the film still has the aesthetics of a Sundance flick (complete with a score by Mike Patton, frontman of Faith No More, Tomahawk, Mr. Bungle, and three dozen other bands), its substance is closer to a European epic such as Bertolucci’s 1900 or Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Hell, there’s even a big spoonful of Ibsen motifs thrown into the mix. It’s a tall order, and I appreciate Cianfrance’s courage to attempt a saga of American tragedy.

 To attempt, however, is not necessarily to accomplish. Beyond the Pines is a far from perfect film. The second half (you can tell exactly where they would have placed the intermission if the film had been released in the 60s) just can’t match the pacing and intensity of the first. The Sophocletic drama is often too heavy-handed, and the newly introduced character simply aren’t as interesting as the film’s leading men and women. All of this is a considerable letdown since I fully believe that a writer/director of Cianfrance’s talent should have been able to follow through with his ambition.

 Perhaps a crucial piece of the Pines puzzle is sitting on some cutting room floor somewhere. The film clocks in at a hefty 140 minutes, and I know that Cianfrance’s first cut was significantly longer than that. If someone from the Criterion Collection is reading this, I wouldn’t mind seeing an extended cut one of these days, so keep that in mind.

 While Beyond the Pines does not rise to greatness, there’s still lots to recommend here. The performances by all the major players – Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, and Bradley Cooper ­– are some of their finest work. I really need to tip my nonexistent hat to Cooper, an actor whom I usually find to be distractingly conspicuous, for disappearing into his role. The inclusion of Ray Liotta is a nice touch, and I thank Cianfrance for not overusing him. Like crime-drama cologne, a little Liotta is all you need.

 Some of the best scenes in the film come not from it’s A-list but from Ben Mendelsohn, who plays Robin, Gosling’s mentor/accomplice. Mendelsohn has been working in Australian film and television since before I was born, but American viewers have become more familiar with him in recent years (recent credits include the psychotic bank robber Pope in Animal Kingdom, corrupt corporate magnate Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises, and air-headed junkie Russell in Killing Them Softly). Someone on Twitter a few weeks back tweeted that Mendelsohn would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the next five years. I don’t doubt it.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-03-29)

Olympus Has Fallen -2013-

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Directed by Antoine Fuqua. 93 mins.

 Worth my time? No. (Seen at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, AMPAS)

 As if we needed more evidence that Hollywood has yet to evolve the action genre beyond the greatness of Die Hard, this film provides it. Olympus Has Fallen is just another lone-wolf-rescues-hostages-in-captured-territory flick to throw on the heap. On the bright side, the film is somewhat inspiring – if people are willing to put their money behind something like this, than it’s at least somewhat plausible that my film concepts will make it to the silver screen one day.

 I have a friend who once worked with Millennium, one of the production companies behind Olympus Has Fallen. He told me that the company spends the lion’s share of its budget on casting, and throws the other departments the scraps that remain. After seeing Olympus Has Fallen, I’m more inclined than ever to believe him. The film includes major actors such as Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Ashley Judd, Cole Hauser, Dylan McDermott, Radha Mitchell, Angela Bassett, and Robert Forster. I don’t know how embarrassed Paul Reubens felt when he was arrested back in ’91, but the film’s cast should feel twice as embarrassed.

 After the screening, there was a moderated discussion with the film’s writers, husband-and-wife duo  Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt. They talked all about their transition from their corporate jobs back east to breaking into Hollywood, with all the ambition, disappointments, and excitement over the years. Their personal story was far more interesting than the movie I had just seen.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-03-23)

Spring Breakers -2013-

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Directed by Harmony Korine. 93 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at the AMC Promenade 16)

 My second experience viewing a Harmony Korine film proved leaps and bounds more rewarding than the lazy, criminally overrated Gummo. This time around, Korine seems as concerned with entertaining the audience as he is with entertaining himself, so we’re already starting off on the right foot.

 The movie is sensory overload from start to finish, and thanks to the skill of frequent Gaspar Noe cinematographer Benoit Debie, it’s a sordid joy to watch. Neon and blacklights make nighttime sequences just as striking as the fuckin’ chaos that is the days at the beach. St. Petersburg, Florida is a helluva lot prettier (maybe that’s not the right word) than Gummo’s drab Xenia, Ohio.

 The nonlinear-yet-coherent plot is an act of mercy for those (myself included) who hated the aimless flurry of scenes that was Gummo. Korine pulls of a shrewd skewering of the hustlin’ that Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, et al mention constantly in their raps. Yeah, such people really do exist, and they’re hilariously juvenile no matter how much heat they’re packing. No wonder a bunch of impulsive college girls fit into the scene to quickly.

 Remember when I said that James Franco was to James Franco-y in Oz the Great and Powerful? His screen-hogging presence is one of this film’s greatest assets as it turns out. Like some kinda mix between Riff Raff and Scarface, Franco’s Alien is unforgettable and sure to spawn a million memes and Facebook cover pictures.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-03-23)

The Andromeda Strain -1971-

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Directed by Robert Wise. 130 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 Whoa, this was a pretty remarkable piece of science fiction. Robert Wise made a bold move in directing such a close adaptation of Michael Crichton’s detailed, super-talky novel. It’s as if Wise is intentionally flipping the bird to the conventional “show-don’t-tell” rule of cinematic storytelling. Amazingly enough, it pays off in spades.

 Most of the movie is a bunch of egghead scientists squawking back and forth at each other in a sterile lab – and I couldn’t look away. The cast perfectly sells it as detached scientists in isolated environments who begin to crack as they realize that their failure may result in the end of the world (kinda reminds my of The Thing). I also appreciate that the actors are more convincing as scientists since they’re far less attractive than any cast that a modern-day Hollywood studio would allow. Yes, it’s a stereotype. But admit it — when you imagine a generic scientist, Ryan Gosling or Dreama Walker don’t spring to mind.

 Aside from the engaging dialogue (whodathunk that endless exposition could be so fun?) the film has plenty of visual goodies on display. Cinematographer Richard H. Kline focuses on the tiny yet visually arresting details of the subterranean laboratory and its myriad apparatus. A huge shout-out also goes to the legendary VFX wizard Douglas Trumbull for creating simulated computer graphics sequences that still hold up today.

 Minimal setting, cast, and score adding up to maximum sci-fi tension? Damn, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-03-22)

Buffalo ’66 -1998-

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Directed by Vincent Gallo. 110 mins.

 Worth my time? No. (Watched on DVD)

 Various friends and acquaintance have been recommending that I watch Buffalo ’66 as far back as I can remember. Even though everybody (or at least my peers) seems to be crazy for this film (I probably see it listed in the Favorite Movies section of Facebook profiles more often than any film except Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Memento, and The Boondock Saints), I had just never gotten around to watching it. Well, today I woke up and said, “Enough excuses, Patrick! Let’s get in on the Gallo fun.”

 Upon finishing the film – what the fuck was that? Is this really the “indie classic” over which people have been gushing for more than half my life? I can’t think of a film less deserving of its “cult” status than Mallrats.

 Okay, perhaps the Mallrats comparison is an unnecessarily deep cut. Buffalo ’66 does have a few (like, literally three) things going for it. First, Gallo’s Billy Brown has a really sweet pair of red shoes. Secondly, Gallo as a director has a keen eye for framing a shot and adhering to the Rule of Three without having his shots come off as overly rigid. Thirdly, having “Heart of the Sunrise” by Yes play during a strip-club scene was an ingenious musical selection.

 The rest of the film is an overcooked casserole of IFC quirkiness. Buffalo ’66 has the cafés, motels, and chilly streets of Jarmusch. It has the uncomfortable dialogue, flairs of color and dreamy song-and-dance sequences of Lynch. But it doesn’t have any worthwhile core to keep it together.

 Why, exactly do we give a shit about Billy Brown? Is Gallo trying to portray him as some sorta antihero? He’s not cool – he’s awkward and still tries to live up to his parents’ expectations from years ago. If he’s a tragic character, then Gallo fails there too – Billy is a mean-spirited, potentially homicidal psychopath who’s not all that bright to boot.

 Christina Ricci’s character Layla gets an even more raw deal than Billy. Rumor has it that Gallo would call Ricci a “puppet” while shooting the film, and it shows. Layla has no personality whatsoever, and the film provides no clues that make it even slightly plausible that she would find Billy attractive.

 I tend to love Ben Gazzara in most everything, but it was just painful to see him here. The only actor who really works is Mickey Rourke, doing a repeat of Body Heat by completely stealing the movie in his minute-long scene.

 

(Seen and originally written on 2013-03-19)

Wizards -1976-

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Directed by Ralph Bakshi. 80 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

Ralph Bakshi is a national treasure if ever there was one. It warms my heart to experience the work of an artist who is has a hybrid heart of both a dirty old man and a 15 year-old boy. While I loved his films like Fritz the Cat, American Pop, and even some part of Cool World, my first foray into Bakshi fantasy lore was the mediocre Fire and Ice. Luckily, Wizards is a far more interesting and infinitely more visually inventive work.

No CGI or keyframe-animated claptrap on display here, folks – you can see the blood, sweat, and tears in every hand-drawn or rotoscoped frame. The plot is simplistic, but there’s still something hilarious/awesome about the whole battle between elves and neo-Nazis. Yes, really. The story provides ample opportunity for Bakshi’s imagination to run wild, and that’s what counts.

If any of this sounds interesting, give Wizards a whirl as soon as you can. What have you got to lose? Eighty minutes that you otherwise woulda spent sharing Huffington Post articles on your Facebook timeline. If you’re gonna be a media sponge, absorb something new every now and then.

– Who woulda thought that they’d still be listening to bluesy lounge music more than two million years in the future?

(Seen and originally written on 2013-03-12)

Shivers -1975-

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Directed by David Cronenberg. 87 mins.

Worth my time? Yes, but it wouldn’t have been if I weren’t interested in early Cronenberg. (Watched on DVD)

I like Cronenberg even more than the average Joe, but this film (also known as They Came from Within and Orgy of the Blood Parasites) felt closer to two hours than its swift runtime. Perhaps Shivers (with its current 84% on Rotten Tomatoes) benefits from what I call the Eraserhead Syndrome: critics are so enamored with a director’s cumulative body of work that they reframe their crappy earlier work as “promising signs of genius to come.”

Yes, Eraserhead is a piece of shit. But that’s a discussion for another day.

I will concede that Shivers puts Cronenberg’s, ahem, adventurous attitude toward sex and violence on glorious display. “Nymphomaniacal parasitical hysteria?” I thought to myself as the film got going. “Sign me up!”

Unfortunately, the awesome elevator pitch is the only thing the film has going for it. The herky-jerky narrative jumps between subplots faster than your coked-up friend goes through ideas for start-ups. And geez, there’s two soap operas worth of characters in this thing. I wish I could travel back in time and tell young David that having a good editor is one the most vital things a director can do.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-03-11)

Come and See -1985-

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Directed by Elem Klimov. 146 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 When I was thinking about how I was going to describe seeing Come and See for the first time, I was kicking around the idea of using one of a number of rhetorical clichés. “It shook me to my core” was nearing the top of my list.

 I am far from alone in experiencing the urge to describe the film with tropes that would utterly fail to do it justice. The DVD packaging features critical blurbs such as “Spellbinding” and “A Tour de Force.” Unspeakable atrocity, it seems, brings out the Gene Shalit in us all.

 If nothing else, I hope that my inability to articulate my experience watching Come and See is a testament to how good a film it is. So well does this movie utilize the medium of cinema that describing the experience in words alone (namely, my words) is to draw a four-dimensional tesseract. Analogy is the best for which you can hope (that’s why all the clichés spring up), but precise description is impossible.

 The Europeans have a talent for depicting the nightmare of war in a way that the American film industry has yet to match and probably never will. Apocalypse Now comes close, but aside from that, I can’t think of any American war film that even approaches the completely absorbing madness on display in Come and See. Don’t misunderstand me – there are lots of great American war films. The difference lies in their approach to the subject; they are films about war rather than films of war. Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is expertly crafted yet it has a narrative that is intentionally legalistic and detached from much of the experience of the Great War’s trenches. Malick’s The Thin Red Line has a poetic beauty and remains one of my all-time favorite films, but it is clearly the work of a philosopher who had no firsthand experience of war. I don’t know much about Elem Klimov’s biography, but his depiction of Belarus in 1943 was so effective and jarring that I almost stopped watching the film (something I never do).

 Aleksey Kravchenko, who portrays the teenage Florian, delivers such a great performance that I sincerely feared for his (Kravchenko, I mean) sanity at several points in the film. The role alone would be worth the price of admission, but every other aspect of Come and See blends together to form a whole that, as I said, is beyond words. If you aren’t faint of heart, please check it out.

 – The Nazi lemur possesses an adorable menace. Watch the film and you’ll know what I mean.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-03-10)

Oz the Great and Powerful -2013-

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Directed by Sam Raimi. 130 mins.

Worth my time? Yes, but maybe not if I had paid full price. (Seen at the Pacific’s The Grove Stadium 14)

With Rise of the Planet of the Apes and now Oz, James Franco is slowly but steadily adding totally-unnecessary-but-not-terrible prequels to his film filmography (Rise was actually pretty damn good). Oz is by no means a must-see, but as far as fantasy prequels go, it was more enjoyable and less bladder-testing than The Hobbit, and contains an actual ending to boot).

That the visuals are the main attraction in Oz will come as a surprise to no one. Granted, some of the more CGI-intensive scenes (and there are a lot of them) can be a bit much to stomach. However, the production design is wonderful (particularly the witches’ costumes), and there a multitude of conventional sets that conjure of fond memories of Gold-Age Hollywood. None of this will come as a surprise to those familiar with director Sam Raimi, a filmmaker who has always seemed more at home with traditional visual effects than digital wizardry (compare the creativity of Evil Dead, Darkman, or even the recent Drag Me to Hell with the relatively drab Spider-man trilogy). Plus, the film’s vibrant color palette remind me how drab Oz would have been Tim Burton has ever touched it *shudders*.

The actors portraying the three witches ­– Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weiszall do a very good job of embodying their fantastical roles. Franco, however, may be the film’s biggest liability. In every moment that he’s onscreen (ie, the vast majority of the film), he’s just so goddamn James Franco-y. I’m not gonna spend too much time elaborating on what I mean – either you get what I’m saying or you don’t.

And if you don’t get what I’m saying, there’s a greater probability that you or kids will enjoy Oz the Great and Powerful. But beware, anti-Franconians.

– The China Girl character (no relation to the Bowie song) is a easily the best use of CGI in the film.

– One of the witches’ transformations is an obvious tip of the hat to Evil Dead II. Props, Sam.

– So let me get this straight: Oz is not the hero that the kingdom deserves, but rather the hero it needs. He has no powers of his own and fights evil using cunning and elaborate gadgets. And he maintains the peace by perpetuating a noble lie to maintain hope amongst the people. Oz is Batman from Kansas.

– Aren’t we over Danny Elfman as a composer yet?

(Seen and originally written on 2013-03-08)

A Horrible Way to Die -2010-

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Directed by Adam Wingard. 85 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on DVD)

I didn’t know much about this alleged “horror-thriller” going into it, but I wanted to watch it because a) it stars the talented Amy Seimetz and b) it has a freakin’ awesome title. Yeesh, what a letdown this was. While I try to cheer on and all young independent filmmakers, determination alone does not a movie make. Sometime, as is the case in A Horrible Way to die, it results in the dud with the technical incompetence of Uwe Boll and the pathological cynicism of Jennifer Lynch.

I’m puzzled that such a capable actor as Seimetz agreed to her role. Her central character is passive, has almost no active part in advance the story, and exists only to be stalked and tormented for the duration of the film. Not only is the treatment of the protagonist feel sleazy and exploitative, but it’s also boring as heck. Whodathunk that films where things only happen to the protagonist (as opposed to the protagonist making things happen) does not make for an engaging movie?

Sadly, Seimetz is still head and shoulders above her hollow role. The rest of the actors are amateurish at best (despite some of them having extensive credits to their name). AJ Bowen is a supposedly charismatic serial killer with a large contingent of fans, a fact that seems odd because his conveys zero charisma. Bowen’s uncanny resemblance to a young Paul F. Tompkins doesn’t help either (no offense intended at Mr. Tompkins, but it was distracting). The rest of the cast are either stereotypical rednecks or have no personality whatsoever.

If you really want to see a good, film examining the cult of infamy, check out the mircobudget Man Bites Dog. Or you could just borrow your roommate’s DVD of Natural Born Killers. It isn’t all that good, but at least it isn’t boring.

– What’s with the score? That low choral voice sounds like day-spa waiting room.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-03-06)