Only God Forgives -2013-

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Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. 90 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Amazon Instant Video)

 Only God Forgives has been trashed pretty unanimously among critics, and in light of this fact, I feared that the film would be to director Refn what To The Wonder was to Terrence Malick, who had previously been batting one thousand. The film doesn’t come close to matching the stripped-down brilliance of Drive, but I found it to be enigmatic and engrossing. Mark me down in the “dissent” camp.

 The film’s poor reviews are right to bemoan the film’s often glacial pacing, but I suspect the negativity was also influenced by the audience’s desire to see another Drive. Refn didn’t make it for them – instead, he made a spiritual follow-up to David Lynch’s Inland Empire. I guess Nic got tired after waiting six years and counting for another Lynch. If you want to get anything done…

 All of the trappings are here: the long pauses riddled throughout dialogue scenes, the femme fatales, the macabre criminal underworld and psychotic characters, and plenty of singing in nightclubs. Even the score by Cliff Martinez carries the influence of Angelo Badalamenti in its notes. Much like Inland Empire, Only God Forgives is a movie that the viewer shouldn’t try to “solve” in a sitting. After all, if you dissect a frog, you’ll understand why it works, but then again, ya killed it.

My recommendation – view the film when you’re already drowsy, and let the nightmare wash over you.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-07-30)

Blue Jasmine -2013-

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Directed by Woody Allen. 98 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes, but you can pass if you aren’t a fan of Allen and/or delirious women. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

 Let me start by personally recommending this film to Ryan Lattanzio, a buddy of mine from college and all-around swell film dude (if you don’t follow him on Twitter, you should).

Ryan: I know you well enough to say with near-certainty that Cate Blanchett’s performance is worth the price of your admission ticket.

 For the rest of the world, I’ll go into further detail.

 Woody Allen’s filmography is a bit like an elderly loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s. The afflicted may have occasional moments of clarity that remind you of everything that made him or her so wonderful in the past, but those are merely interruptions in the degeneration, not improvements. Yet you remain by his or her side, not only out of loyalty, but out of the delights that such moments provide.

 Such is the case with Blue Jasmine. If Midnight in Paris was Allen’s last hurrah in comedy (and judging from To Rome with Love, it probably will be), BJ is how his career in drama goes softly into that good night. It features all of the Allenisms that make you cringe – designer brand-name dropping, ruminations on fate and the starts, interior FUCKIN’ decoration, just to name a few. And, of course, the character age below which Allen can write convincing dialogue continues its ascent. I feel particularly bad for Alden Ehrenreich, cast in the role of Blanchett’s stepson. He’s a very good actor, but we’re the same age, and I have never heard anyone in my generation talk in such a contrived, wooden (or might I say Woody?)* way.

 With the possible exception of this one dude up in Berkeley who thought he was the second coming of Janis Joplin. But there’s always that exception which proves the rule.

 There are some interesting twists and turns in this fable of deception and self-deception, but the main draw is the cast. BJ has the best ensemble of any Allen film since Deconstructing Harry. Longtime Allen casting director Juliet Taylor saves the film by bringing on a bundle of established character actors (Sally Hawkins [she’s close enough to a character actor], Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg). Whether or not you like these players and their respective shticks, it’s nice to see so many people in an Allen film not attempt to imitate the director.

 Blanchett – the titular Jasmine – provides the best performance in an Allen picture in shit-I-don’t-know-how-long. Her character isn’t perfectly written (well, duh), but she does a near-excellent job with the role she has. The result is a believable woman whose slow-motion car crash of a life will make you laugh, but only when it hurts.

 *No, you might not.

 Aside: It’s fascinating finally to see Louis C.K. play a charismatic, sociable character.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-07-26)

Monsters University -2013-

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Directed by Dan Scanlon. 103 mins.

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

I’m happy to report that Monsters University is not the lazy cash-in that I expected it to be. While it’s not Pixar at its all-time best, it’s my favorite film from the studio since 2010’s Toy Story 3 and is a considerable narrative and visual leap above its predecessor, 2001’s Monsters, Inc.

It’s pretty nutty to think that Pixar is making follow-ups to its films, largely (though, of course, not entirely) aimed at children, after spans of time in which fans of the originals have grown up. Christ, I was eleven when Monster’s, Inc. first hit the scene. I first saw the original Toy Story at age six after a Thanksgiving dinner with my family in Cleveland.

I first saw Toy Story 3 at age 21 after watching Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive while on a movie binge in Berkeley. I don’t know why I remember that specific detail.

Monsters University has enough references to the original to bring back fond memories for franchise fans but stands perfectly well on its own two feet. Billy Crystal and John Goodman (among a few other cast originals) return as Mike and Sulley, and their characters are much more interesting – and more flawed – than in the original installment.

Now that merchandising revenues are pretty much a guarantee, Pixar focuses on the style more than the substance. Monsters, Inc. had flat characters and an incoherent plot – it’s a nice distraction, but anyone who loves the film has poor taste in film (yes, I’m totally comfortable making that sweeping generalization).

Conversely, character development is heavily woven into the action of Monsters University – it’s a surprisingly robust tale about the amorality of life, the fear of failure, the dwindling relevance of institutions of higher education, and how pretty much everyone (yes, even me and you) is an asshole in their freshman year of college.

Aside: “The Blue Umbrella,” the short film preceding MU, is reliably wonderful.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-07-25)

Fruitvale Station -2013-

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Directed by Ryan Coogler. 90 mins.

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

I remember precisely where I was at 2:00am on Thursday, January 1, 2009. My roommates and I were hosting a large party at our South Berkeley house, and everyone (but a few passed out folk) was having a great time. Aside from failing to hook up with one of my roommates and being unable to attend that night’s Butthole Surfers / Negativland show across the Bay, I had nary a care in the world.

About eight miles away, a man not much older than me was drowning in his own blood as it flowed into his lungs.

Fruitvale Station is one of the better biopics I’ve seen lately. Unlike recent entries in the genre such as Milk and The Iron Lady, Fruitvale Station takes place over a single day’s time. The film takes a cue from Milk in that it begins with real footage of Grant’s killing, thereby acknowledging the grim way in which most viewers will know the story ends. The set-up also provides the film with a tone of a powder keg ready to blow, not unlike Do the Right Thing or La Haine.

 By getting Grant’s death out of the way, the film gets to focus on his life, and that was a critical creative decision on the part of first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler. A film about Grant’s death and the aftermath would have been sentimental and boring. After all, Grant never had plans to be a hero, a martyr, or a symbol. His conflicts include figuring out how to pay the month’s rent and trying to get a job at a Whole Foods. If you added up the anguish of all Americans dealing with these same problems each day, I have a hunch it would outweigh the pain caused by gun deaths.

 I’m not too keen on the above paragraph. I convey my point reasonably well, but it reads like a political stump speech. Oh well, moving on.

 Coogler’s script and the Michael B. Jordan’s (you may know him as the kid who got electrocuted in last year’s Chronicle) excellent performance paint Grant as an imperfect guy who has finally committed to growing up and being there for his family. He’s no saint – the first dialogue he has with his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz, Be Kind Rewind) is an argument about him sleeping around. I found Grant to be an overall likeable dude, but the film doesn’t demand that you love him or excuse his past transgressions. Judge his checkered past if you want, but I think it’s a non-issue. Everyone deserves a chance to better him or herself, and no one deserves Grant’s fate.

 Plus, squeaky-clean protagonists are boring as shit.

 The movie is surprisingly non-angry. It doesn’t evade questions of race, privilege and authority – I doubt anyone truly thinks Grant would be dead if he were white – but Coogler isn’t trying to make a protest piece. Instead of making a film cursing death, he made one that celebrates life and its precious moments.

 The film ends with footage of an Oscar Grant memorial rally. Coogler knows that the legacy of Oscar Grant will live on with or without Fruitvale Station. Here’s hoping that the 27 year-old director eventually carves out a legacy of his own.

 Aside: I like how the white man who dispenses sage advice to Grant in San Francisco fills the role conventionally reserved for the “magical Negro.” 

 Aside: It’s a bummer that even if Michael B. Jordan makes it to the A-list, he’ll never be credited as just, “Michael Jordan.”

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-07-17)

Sharknado -2013-

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Directed by Anthony C. Ferrante. 131 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Seen on the Syfy Channel)

Aw, this was a disappointment. There wasn’t nearly enough sharknado! There was plenty of Shark-flooding (which was sorta fun), but the notorious ‘nado didn’t show up until the final act.

A piece of advice to the filmmakers at the Asylum: you aren’t in the business of building suspense. Leave that to the real directors of the world. Your job is to take your single concept and beat it into a delirious pulp. Don’t make us wait for the titular tornado! The less time we see it, the more time we have to look at Tara Reid, a woman who makes Amanda Bynes look like she’s aged gracefully.

It’s nice to see John Heard kicking shark-ass (had they asses) with a barstool though.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-07-11)

Pacific Rim -2013-

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Directed by Guillermo del Toro. 131 mins.

 Worth my time? YES. (Seen on IMAX at Edwards Stadium 26, Long Beach)

 Holy smokes, I had a wonderful time watching del Toro’s return to directing after a five-year hiatus. Pacific Rim is the best summer blockbuster I’ve seen since The Dark Knight, and it’s entertainment of the same caliber as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. My biggest complaint about the film is that I wasn’t able to see it back when I was ten years old.

 The film’s simple premise – big-ass monsters attack, and big-ass robots fight them – could have easily fallen into Michael Bay territory if not for the sharp direction and wondrous imagination of del Toro. The locales of Pacific Rim are more than stages for battles; they’re all woven into a fleshed out world with a rich, detailed history. Suspension of disbelief is easy: the monstrous kaiju wrecking the Earth seem less like a plot device and more like a grim fact of life.

Del Toro understands that a big movie (and Pacific Rim is fuckin’ epic) still needs smaller-scale elements that collectively reinforce the plot. Luckily, the film is teeming with such moments. In a world where the Jaeger (the big-ass robots) are saviors, their pilots are celebrities who endorse products and make the rounds on late-night talk shows. Demand for dead kaiju bones and organs creates a black market controlled by gangsters like Hannibal Chow (del Toro regular Ron Perlman, perfect as always). And, just like in our world, leaders still exploit defense budgets and strategies as political footballs.

The film has a great cast, all of whom treat their roles with enough gravitas to be taken seriously but with enough levity to suit the awesome, joyful viewing experience.

 Yes, this is the most joyful apocalyptic movie I’ve ever seen. Sorry, KABOOM.

 Charlie Hunnam isn’t the most spectacular leading man, but he’s worth a thousand Armie Hammers. Rinko Kikuchi (the lady from Babel who was nominated for an Oscar and then receded into relative obscurity) is refreshing as a powerful woman protagonist who grabs the viewer’s attention without a hint of sexual objectification. Idris Elba is super-cool as usual – man, do I hope he becomes the next James Bond. Even Charlie Day (who plays, big shocker, a neurotic scientist), is funny, and keeps his voice at a reasonable pitch.

 While Pacific Rim is CGI-intensive, it never gets tiresome. Del Toro and his animators only show the action in grounded ways, as if everything were shot with real camera rigs. No shaky-cam, no ridiculously long tracking shots, no bullshit. Rango is the only recent film I can recall that shared similar success with its animation.

 And the fights, man. The fuckin’ fights. Prepare to squeal with childish delight.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-07-10)

 

Slaughterhouse Five -1972-

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Directed by George Roy Hill. 104 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 A nutty, nearly-great piece of New Hollywood. I somehow made it through fours years of UC Berkeley without reading Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, so I went in blind.

 SPOILER ALERT: The eponymous slaughterhouse doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time.

 The biggest draw is editor Dede Allen’s seamless transitions between moments in the life of Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), a World War II veteran who spontaneously “time-trips” between his childhood, his death, and into eternity. Sacks’ performance isn’t all that compelling (there’s a reason the dude quit acting and now works on Wall Street), but Pilgrim’s life has lots of great moments – which is pretty much all that makes life worth living. Hill (and Vonnegut, I suppose), beautifully illustrate humanity’s tendency to progressively envelope itself in memories and fantasies as it ages.

 I’d love to watch a Slaughterhouse Five / Johnny Got His Gun double-feature since both of them deal with dissociative veterans. Also, the overlapping timelines and juxtaposition of similar events demonstrate that The Fountain, Cloud Atlas (I wish that film was half as good as its trailer), and a gazillion other movies owe a debt to Slaughterhouse Five.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-07-09)

The Heat -2013-

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Directed by Paul Feig. 117 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

It’s a bad sign when your buddy cop comedy borrows heavily from Another 48 HRS. Not the original, mind you, but rather the abysmal 1990 follow-up. The Heat has some clever quips here and there, but it brings nothing new to its formula. The only reason I can imagine to see it is if you’re desperate for a film that passes the Bechdel Test.

While I enjoyed Bridesmaids (due mostly to great script by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) I now suspect that Paul Feig is a closet misogynist. Why else would he make such a dull film penned by a woman (Parks and Rec writer Kaite Dippold) and starring women on the A-list (Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy)? It’s clearly to perpetuate the tired Hitchensian stereotype that women aren’t funny.

I understand that Hollywood is still a white old boy’s club, and I suppose it’s admirable to switch it up in major motion pictures. Still, if you want to further the station of women in show business, it would help if the projects weren’t so lame. A movie has to be good on its own merits – you shouldn’t settle for crap based on demography alone.

Don’t see Soul Plane or Madea Goes to Jail – see Do the Right Thing. See Barbershop. See Devil in a Blue Dress. See Pariah (seriously, see Pariah).

Don’t see The Heat. See The Kids are Alright. See I Shot Andy Warhol (or anything by Mary Harron). See Clueless. See pretty much anything by Nicole Holofcener. See Near Dark (not because it’s woman centric, but because it’s fucking amazing).

Never settle, yo.

– Aside: I fear that Melissa McCarthy is the victim of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Make no mistake; she’s a very talented actor. She’s no game-changer, though. I have a hunch that the media treats her like one for the same reason that they lauded Susan Boyle; many people, sadly, are absolutely shocked when they see an overweight person do something well.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-07-08)

The Lone Ranger -2013-

Big ballin' is their hobby.

Big ballin’ is their hobby.

Directed by Gore Verbinski. 149 mins.

Worth my time? No, but I expected it to be worse. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

Gore Verbinksi has made a clever, exciting Western that includes all the elements that people love about the genre.

Its title is Rango, and you should watch it.

God, The Lone Ranger is a really fuckin’ long movie.

While the viewing experience isn’t as painful as many critics have claimed, the movie is a mess. Its tone shifts wildly from purely sadistic — main villain William Fichtner, one of my favorite character actors, cuts out a dude’s heart and eats it — to gleefully violent — Helena Bonham Carter’s completely unnecessary character has a prosthetic gun-leg made of ivory — to Saturday morning cartoon hijinks — poop jokes and stereotypical Injun antics from John Depp.

God, The Lone Ranger is a really fuckin’ long movie.

The material feels like it would have fared far better in the hands of Tarantino, or even Rob Zombie. The dudes love their old-timey pop culture, and I bet they would have better luck squeezing some fun out of the bloated script. Instead, there are lotsa pretty things onscreen that you’ll forget about the moment the shot ends. Even the lame Princess Brideish frame story did nothing to make me give a shit.

Armie Hammer is this year’s Sam Worthington. People in high places are clearly grooming him to be an action hero, but it just ain’t working. Scarlett Johansson has more onscreen charisma than this dude. That’s kind of a big problem when he’s a main character.

Depp’s Tonto comes off as a baffling mix between Kato from The Pink Panther movies and Jar Jar Binks. His performance is such garbage that I bet that Native American from the PSA would shed a tear if he saw it.

Fichtner delivers the only interesting performance, but it feels out of place for a popcorn movie. Maybe some creative geek can splice his character into a Peckinpah Western – he’d be right at home.

Aside: If you think about it, The Lone Ranger is like a high-budget reboot of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-07-03)

Maniac -2013-

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Directed by Franck Khalfoun. 89 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen with a friend at the Arena Theater in Hollywood)

 If nothing else, Franck Khalfoun’s take on William Lustig’s 1980 slatterhouse flick Maniac demonstrates that the more interesting horror re-makes are based on films that weren’t all that good in the first place. For instance, Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ 1951 production of The Thing was decent enough, but it doesn’t stand out from its contemporaries in the genre. Its first remake in 1982, John Carpenter’s The Thing, improved the formula and is my favorite horror movie of all time. However, Matthijs van Heijningen’s 2011 prequel/reboot was a boring haunted house flick. It had no aspirations to improve or reinterpret the material, and it suffered immensely as a result.

 Don’t even get me started on Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

 Anyhow, my point is that Lustig’s Maniac is filthy fun, but it’s no classic. And while this update isn’t all too great either, it doesn’t desecrate its namesake. Plus, in spite of its flimsy plot, it’s a very technically impressive film.

 Elijah Wood’s performance as Kevin in Sin City showed that the meek Hobbit / kid who dies in The Ice Storm could play a psychopath something fierce. Luckily, he also brings the goods to this film. Wood is seldom onscreen (as most of the movie takes plays from his point of view), but his voice and delivery is spot-on. Nora Arnezeder, a relative newcomer from France, plays the ill-fated (or is she?) artist whom Wood assists with an art project while he’s not busy with his own project of scalping ladies all around Los Angeles.

 Why would anyone want to make friends with the owner of a mannequin store? Creeps, eew.

 Two tips of a hypothetical hat go to cinematographer Maxime Alexandre and editor “Baxter” (that’s his full credit) for keeping the viewer squarely in the head of a, well, maniac. The off-the-beaten-path take on LA feels a lot like Drive, as does the soundtrack by “Rob” (what’s with these fucking credits?). Plus, making Wood show up in reflections and mirrors without seeing the camera must have been a pain in the ass.

 Again, nothing groundbreaking in the story or character department, but I think Lustig and the late Joe Spinell would approve.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-06-28)