The Iceman -2013-

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Directed by Ariel Vromen. 105 mins.

 Worth my time? No. (Seen with a friend at Sundance Cinemas on Sunset)

 If you set out to make a biopic, the goal should be for the film to be more entertaining than its source material. Your motto should be Raging Bull (or at least Catch Me if You Can) or bust. The Iceman left me feeling that if I had spent the same amount of time with either the book (The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer) or documentary (The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer) named in the credits, I would have enjoyed myself a lot more.

 I bet you thought I was going to write, “The Iceman left me feeling cold.”  You thought wrong, punk.

 Vromen’s directing lacks any sort of pizzazz, and the entire film just feels flimsy. I’m sure it didn’t have the largest budget, but filmmakers in a post-Primer world no longer have that scapegoat. If not for the recognizable cast, the scenes could be from a TruTV special report.

 I guess Michael Shannon does as good a job he can with his thinly written role – Vromen couldn’t think of any character development device better than a brief flashback of Richard Kulkinski getting whipped as a child? – but he’s starting to test my patience. The dude almost exclusively plays crazy people. For every good My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Shannon has a captacular Revolutionary Road. For every great Take Shelter, a whole her of terrible Boardwalk Empire episodes. Time to broaden your range, Mike.

 If the real Kulkinski could see this movie, the cast, crew, and their families would have to go into protective custody. I feel strange typing it, but this monstrous killer deserved better.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-05-25)

Fast and Furious 6 -2013-

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Directed by Justin Lin. 130 mins.

 Worth my time? Yeah, I guess, but the ticket and popcorn was free. (Seen with a friend at AMC Citywalk 19)

 Really glad I didn’t pay for this one. I’m not too sure how useful this post is gonna be for people considering seeing Furious 6 since this installment assumes the viewer has seen the fourth entry, Fast and Furious, which I never did. Still, the film was a step down from the surprisingly decent Fast Five, and I doubt that boosting my knowledge of the O’Conner-Toretto gang would have changed that.

 The movie comes as a disappointment since I have a hunch that its script was superior to its predecessor. The characters’ idiosyncrasies are better utilized, and the cast feels less generic. The humor is sharper than in Fast Five (I particularly liked a running gag involving a broken vending machine). More importantly, the concepts behind the cars and the action set pieces are awesome.

 But there’s conception, and then there’s execution. The action in Fast Five was absurd, no doubt about it, but Lin and his team directed it in an exciting, surprisingly focused manner. Here, the chases are shown in the Tony Scott vein of chaos cinema, and the results are bad. I’m talking “first minute of Quantum of Solace” bad. A shame since the idea of taking down a Soviet military cargo plane with harpoons and tow cables á la The Empire Strikes Back coulda been super badass.

 However, the post-credit scene caused me to involuntarily yell “What the fuck!” and cackle with delight, so I guess that counts for something.

– Aside: As Vin Diesel ages, he looks more and more like the mask Ryan Gosling wore when he killed Ron Perlman in Drive.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-05-23)

Song of the South -1946-

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Directed by Harve Foster (live-action) and Wilfred Jackson (animation). 83 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen in Dick Cheney’s subterranean bunker)

 Of course this film was worth my time, are you shitting me? Song of the South is one of the iconic rare talkies in the history of American cinema. This wasn’t any bootleg VHS bullshit – I had the privilege of seeing a well-preserved 35mm print. A chance to see that doesn’t come along all that often, nosiree.

 As for the movie itself, I could take it or leave it. The production value is spectacular: the sets are beautiful, the Technicolor is more real than real, and the integration of animation and live action – forty years before Who Framed Roger Rabbit, mind you – is very impressive. It’s definitely a style-over-substance sorta movie, though. The narrative is just thick enough to support the transitions into Uncle Remus’ stories of Br’er Rabbit (who sounds oddly like Chris Tucker), Br’er Fox (Eddie Murphy), and Br’er Bear (John C. Reilly). Also, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” is an absurdly overrated song. It’s basically baby talk that somehow won an Oscar.

 The movie isn’t as racist as I expected it to be. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still racist as fuck with its nauseating sugarcoating of the Reconstruction sharecropper experience. Still, its black characters (at least the live-action ones) are more-or-less dignified. Plus, the racist blow was softened by the Warner Brothers short (embedded below) that preceded the screening.

Merrie Melodies "Coal Black and de Sebben… by 100X

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-05-22)

Manson -1973-

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Directed by Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick. 83 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater)

 I was well aware of the Manson Family murders before seeing this documentary (being screened at the Cinefamily for its 40th anniversary), but fuckin’ Christ, man. Never before has a film made me so uncomfortable simply from listening to the people onscreen. Manson is one of the most singular film’s I’ve ever seen and has instantly landed a spot alongside my all-time favorite documentaries.

 The movie examines its subjects as closely as humanly possible, a nice departure from the “encyclopedia article on film” style of docs such as Deceptive Practice. Manson uses minimal archival images and footage – nearly all scenes were shot exclusively for the film. To my knowledge, there is no other historical source that so extensively captures the Family in their own words.

 And geez, they’re some goddamn words. I try to refrain from labeling people as crazy – it’s a concept with fuzzy boundaries, and it depends just as much on the perspective of the labeler as the behavior of the labeled.

 But the people interviewed in this movie are straight-up BANANAS.

 Yes, the film includes footage of the grisly Tate – LaBianca crime scenes, but the creepiest part is listening to the Family and learning how devoted they were to Charlie. These kids loved Manson as much as I love fresh apple fritters. Moreso, because I’ve never fucked a fresh apple fritter. I would burn myself on the piping-hot glaze.

 That’s why I recommend waiting at least thirty minutes after taking them out of the fryer, just to play it safe.

 Did I just turn my review into the set-up for a dick joke?

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-05-21)

The Tree of Life -2011-

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Directed By Terrence Malick. 140 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theater)

A few months before his death, Roger Ebert revised his “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” list with the inclusion of The Tree of Life. Some folks criticized Ebert’s choice as shortsighted as the film made its world premiere at Cannes just two years ago. The screening at the Aero – part of the Cinematheque’s series of Ebert’s favorite films – further reinforced my conviction that he was right on the money. Aside from Holy Motors (and possibly The White Ribbon and Syndromes and a Century), I can’t think of any films in the last decade that will weather the test of time as well as the Tree of Life.

I have now seen Malick’s magnum opus (sorry, Days of Heaven, I still love you) three times on the big screen, and the force with which it pulls me into its universe only grows stronger. I have never seen another movie that tells an intimate story on an astronomical scale. The basic plot on paper reads like standard Sundance fare: Jack (Sean Penn), a jaded, middle-aged architect, reflects on the premature death of his younger brother and his subsequent estrangement from his Mother (Jessica Chastain) and Father (Brad Pitt). Malick, of course, would never settle for something that simple. Or as least he wouldn’t have until To The Wonder ruined his 1000 batting average, but that’s a discussion for another day.

While running nearly two and-a-half hours, The Tree of Life goes by in a blink of an eye whenever I watch it. A lotta people find the film to be boring, and I am becoming less and less sympathetic to their opinion. The concentration of beauty and emotion in The Tree of Life is staggering. The film’s narrative branches cover a lifetime of Jack’s memories, dreams, prayers, grief, and ruminations that carry the viewer from the Big Bang into eternity. I’ll be floored if I ever see another film quite like it.

Given the film’s insanely large ambition – essentially dissecting the human condition and the meaning of life and love in a Universe devoid of justice – it’s a small miracle that The Tree of Life hits the mark almost perfectly. The usually meticulous Malick outdoes himself with the level of craft in every aspect of the film. Emmanuel Lubezki’s second-to-none cinematography (how can this dude still not have an Oscar?), Alexandre Displat’s score, and VFX by the legendary Douglas Trumbull by themselves justify the price of admission.

The way that Malick manages to take the viewer through Jack’s life is (words fail me, so insert whatever positive adjective you wish). The sequences of Jack’s first years perfectly capture the blissful naïveté of youth when the world seems magic and every new experience is a revelation. The authenticity of these scenes magnifies the impact of Jack’s eventual exposures to violence, bigotry, death, cruelty, and resentment. His struggle to make sense of his Father’s “Way of Nature” – belief in self-determination at the cost of selfishness, strict discipline and unattainable perfection – and his Mother’s “Way of Grace” – love of God and humankind at the cost of keeping one’s faith in spite of immeasurable suffering and injustice – if one of the most heart-wrenching conflicts I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Though they have very little dialogue, Jack’s parents may be even more interesting than the protagonist. Pitt deserved a wheelbarrow of awards for his role as the Father. A frightening, imposing figures in the eyes of young Jack, he ultimately reveals himself to be a sad little man. The Father clings desperately to the idea that he makes his own destiny and “there’s nothing you can’t do,” even though his own life disproves the ethos at every turn. He throws his fate to chance in smoke-filled poker rooms. He speaks highly of his engineering patents though he loses time and again in patent court. On Sundays, he complements his fellow parishoners on their success, only to grumble about them on the drive home.

Two tragedies stem from the Father’s callous worldview. The first tragedy befalls his wife and children: whether he realizes it or not, he runs his household with a needlessly ruthless “tough love,” a sort of petty despotism to substitute the power of which he thinks life has unfairly deprived him. The second tragedy he brings upon himself, realizing the error of his ways too late to reconcile with his children.

Chastain possesses an angelic aura as the Mother, probably the way that Jack remembers her. Her faith in God and the goodness of mankind runs deep within her, but it may actually leave her in an even bleaker state than the Father. While the death of their son tortures the Father with guilt, the Mother is shaken to the very core of her being; such a sudden trauma contradicts everything she believed about the nature of Being.

While Malick clearly disagrees with the Way of Nature, I don’t think he completely buys into the Way of Grace either. Parts of the film portray both Ways as inaccurate models of reality. However, the Way of Grace, even with the heartbreak it can bring, receives a strong defense in a line near the film’s close:

The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.

All worldviews contain some measure of delusion, but I know which Way I would prefer mine to resemble.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-05-20)

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay -2013-

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Directed Molly Bernstein. 88 mins.

 

Worth my time? No. (Seen at Landmark’s Nuart Theater)

 The entire theatergoing experience was made worthwhile by the Q&A period with Bernstein and Jay following the film, but the actual movie could have waited until its inevitable PBS airing. If you’re gonna charge full-price admission for a documentary, I expect it to have a gripping narrative and some production pizzazz (West of Memphis and The Impostor are great recent examples). If you’re gonna make a cheap composite of archival footage that’s better suited for the “Special Interest” aisle at the video store, let me know in advance so I can keep on moving.

 This doc especially disappointed me since I’m quite fond of Jay, its person of interest. He’s probably the greatest living sleight-of-hand performer (and the narrator of Magnolia to boot). The footage of Jay’s effects are astounding, but its mainly taken from Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, a David Mamet-directed theater performance that is available to view on YouTube. The segments about Jay’s mentors are interesting, but the whole movie never seems like more than an undergrad research project put on film.

 At least it’s not another documentary about overpopulation or some ageing icon of the 60s.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-05-18)

Star Trek Into Darkness -2013-

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Directed by J.J. Abrams. 132 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at AMC Citywalk 19 with a friend)

 Having started the week with Iron Man 3, it’s very nice to end it with the best blockbuster sequel I’ve seen since Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Abrams, Kurtzman, and Orci have wisely kept character development as their top priority although the bigger/louder/more principle of summer sequels also holds (but never to the detriment of the film’s substance).

 Abrams’ plan for the Star Trek series appears (or appeared, since he probably won’t be returning to the director’s chair) to have each film play out like an extended episode. Into Darkness does make reference to its predecessor on occasion, but mostly for the purposes of character development. Otherwise, the plot is pretty much self-contained and wraps up nicely by the time the end-credits roll. While I like a well-executed saga as much as the next guy, they can become unwieldy and go south pretty quickly (as Iron Man so nicely demonstrated). Much like the 2009 installment, Into Darkness rewards familiarity with the canon but never punishes ignorance.

 The plot is exciting (especially for Trekkers, I’d suspect), and unlike the last Star Trek, the time-traveling confusion has been eliminated. There are some rough patches – it was great seeing Peter Weller in a major role, but the plot points with him and Alice Eve were underdeveloped. Plus, I still can’t understand why Uhura finds Spock to be so irresistible.

 Luckily, Benedict “Swinging Batchlor” Cumberbatch is a great addition to the cast. The “villain allowing himself to be captured” device is a bit worn out, but aside from that, he has loads more personality than Eric Bana’s Nero (although I liked him too). I’m somewhat surprised that that Kurtzman and Orci used his character in a story this early in a potentially indefinite series of new Star Trek films (fans will see what I mean).

 Most importantly, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto remain as invested in their roles as ever. Despite all the geeky flourishes, the saga of Kirk and Spock’s friendship and the way they learn from one another puts humanity (or at least half-humanity) in all parts of the film. Trek may have lost Abrams, but the movie’s display of his talent makes me optimistic for the upcoming Star Wars.

 Aside: Why is Kirk such a big Beastie Boys fan? I think they’re great, but it’s highly improbable that the kids will still be listening to them in three hundred years.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-05-16)

Star Trek -2009-

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Directed by J.J. Abrams. 127 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 I hadn’t seen Star Trek since it first beamed down to theaters (dear God I hate myself so much) four years ago, and with Into Darkness starting its North American run in a matter of hours, I thought I’d revisit Abrams’ first contribution to the most cultish sci-fi mythos this side of Dianetics. I’m relieved to see that it holds up pretty damn well.

 Writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci never punish viewers for their ignorance of the Star Trek world, but Trekkers will find plenty of narrative and artistic Easter eggs to reward their devotion. Having watched a good portion of the original TV series in the last four years, I probably enjoyed the film moreso on the second go, small-screen notwithstanding. Still, Star Trek virgins – by which I mean folks unfamiliar with the subject matter, not the majority of Star Trek fans – can walk in completely blind and still enjoy themselves.

 While there are buckets of CGI on display, they never overshadow the good story and great characters. Chris Pine brings is such a charismatic leading man that I’m shocked that he hasn’t starred in more films since ’09. The rest of the cast shines, particularly Simon Pegg as Mr. Scott an Eric Bana who, despite having little screentime, has one of the best motivations of any  villain in recent science fiction.

 Abrams understands the joy of going to the movies in a way that few others in his generation do. Let’s hope he cements his legacy as a Spielberg and avoids a Landisian fate.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-05-15)

Iron Man 3 -2013-

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Directed by Shane Black. 130 mins.

Worth my time? No, but it was better than Iron Man 2. (Seen at AMC Promenade 16)

Welp… there goes Iron Man, a tragically mishandled trilogy (in the cinematic sense – there’s no questioning its box-office dominance). Jon Favreau’s 2008 original was an exceptionally good superhero movie – exciting and inventive, with a great main character. Better yet, the film’s ending left me wanting sequels. That’s a goddamn miracle. I couldn’t wait to see Team Marvel explore all of the elements of Tony Stark’s world that the original introduced – militarism, corporate malfeasance, government corruption, intellectual property, wealth, addiction, celebrity, and a bunch of other juicy issues.

And then came Iron Man 2 which basically told the world, “Yeah, we’re just gonna go the bigger/louder/more route.”

So we got Whiplash, Mickey Rourke’s breadknife-dull villain. We got Sam Rockwell as some other boring guy, but I can’t recall what his character even did.

We got a “funny” scene of Stark drunkenly dancing in his armor at a party, complete with a poorly timed cameo from DJ A.M.

 We got “Congratulations, you have created a new element.” Because you can do that shit in an afternoon.

 I was relieved to hear that Favreau was going to be behind neither camera nor typewriter (you can’t prove he doesn’t use one) for the allegedly final installment of the series. To its credit, Iron Man 3 is a solid step up from its predecessor. The film features some great scenes of the always-good Robert Downey, Jr. as a mentally scarred Stark – unstable to begin with, and now close to a total breakdown after the Earth-shattering events of The Avengers. Several clever sequences revolve around Stark facing mortal danger without the luxury of his armor, and his creative and quick-witted solutions are a nice reminder that the protagonist can be a superhero sans bells and whistles.

 It’s a bummer that all these good parts are sprinkled amongst a ton of filler. The franchise could have rescued itself if only director / co-writer Shane Black remembered that Stark – plain old, suitless Stark – was the best part of the films. I guess it was unreasonable to hope that Black would favor subtlety over pyrotechnics. This is the dude who wrote Lethal Weapon, after all, and Iron Man 3 has the vacation-brochure locales and massive explosions to prove it.

 At least those two things are sorta fun to watch. Other Black tropes are more played-out. Guy Pearce’s slimy, evil monologue-delivering mogul with slicked-back, just-shorter-than-shoulder-length hair is a lift straight from 1987. The snarky, snappy chatter between Stark and James “War Machine” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is so stale that they may as well have spliced in footage of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

 And for fuck’s sake, enough with the plucky, underprivileged sidekick kids who are both brilliant and possess flawless skin, teeth, and hair!

 In spite of all this hokey action-by-numbers, I found Ben Kingsley’s character to be exquisitely paradoxical. He’s the most annoying character in the movie (and pretty blatantly rips off a plot device from Batman Begins), but Kingsley’s performance demonstrates more talent than the rest of the cast combined. He should be ashamed of this movie but proud of his acting.

 – Aside: The second-best acting I saw in the theater came from Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Catching Fire trailer. It’s as if he’s in a completely different movie.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-05-13)

Sightseers -2013-

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Directed by Ben Wheatley. 88 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Landmark’s Nuart Theater)

Ben Wheatley is definitely the best director in the mumble-horror subgenre. If you haven’t seen his brilliantly nightmarish 2011 feature Kill List, watch it on Netflix Instant View. Do it now. This post will be waiting for you when you’re done.

Hey, welcome back. Pretty wild, huh?

I’m happy to report that Sightseers, now in its American release, continues Wheatley’s hot streak. This time around, the subject material is just as gruesome yet far less disturbing. Most of the time, it’s laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly sweet.

In a nutshell, the film is Natural Born Killers if it had been directed by one of the English Mikes – Leigh or Winterbottom, that is. Mike Hodges wouldn’t have been a good fit. The movie has its roots in the tradition of dry British humor that makes the viewer uncomfortable. Wheatley takes the formula to its logical conclusion with hilariously grotesque murder scenes. After all, death is still the subject that makes humankind the most uncomfortable. We laugh not only because the scenes are invented but also because we know deep down that our lives could be snuffed out any minute, and we’d be none the wiser.

Actors Alice Lowe and Steve Oram are both terrifying and adorable as the titular tourists. Despite the far-fetched premise, the film does an admirable job of conjuring the speed bumps in any new relationship. It just so happens that among those speed bumps are disagreements over whom, how, and when to kill.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-05-12)