The Cornetto Trilogy -2013-

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Directed by Edgar Wright. 99 mins. (Shaun of the Dead), 121 mins. (Hot Fuzz), 109 mins. (The World’s End)

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Real LA Live Stadium 14)

Last night’s marathon of Edgar Wright’s screen collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost was probably the best time I’ve had at the movies all year. Wright’s films and his leads’ performances have a gleeful, crackling energy along the lines of early Spielberg (only Wright cranks up the mayhem much higher). It’s such a joy to watch these films because it’s clear that everyone involved is not only very good at what they do, but they are also delighted to be doing it. Nearly every frame of the Cornetto Trilogy has an air of “Holy fuck, I still can’t believe we get to do this for a living!” about it.

I first saw Shaun of the Dead in theaters when I was 15; loved it then, still love it now. Wright and his chums are far beyond the tired old spoof-game. Shaun pays homage to past zombie films but is a top-notch example of the genre by itself. It has one of the best laughs-per-minute ratio of any comedy of the 2000s (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is also a contender).

Hot Fuzz is the weakest of the trio, but it’s pretty damn good. It treads further into spoof territory than the other two, and a few segments drag on (it is the longest in the trilogy), but the contrasting small-town sensibilities and extreme blood and gore is expertly handled. Plus I like Jim Broadbent in pretty much everything.

After a few years of screenwriting and taking on a more mercenary directorial project (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, also very good), Wright returns to familiar territory that still feels fresh. The homage are there, but it’s hard to pin a specific genre the film is sending up. The World’s End has a wide array of influences – Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Big Chill, the books of Stephen King, the films of John Carpenter, Dr. Who – and the script is the most unpredictable of the bunch. Frost is refreshing as the straight main (a role usually reserved to Pegg) and the supporting work by Martin Freeman, Rosamund Pike, Paddy Considine, and (my favorite) Eddie Marsan is wonderful.

I wanna see it again tonight.

(Seen on 2013-08-22 written on 2013-08-23)

 

Lee Daniel’s The Butler

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Directed by Lee Daniels 132 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Seen at the AMC Promenade 16)

This marked the first time this year that I felt embarrassed on a film’s behalf.  Lee Daniels’ The Butler is shamelessly bathetic, terribly edited “Magical Negro” movie, minus the Magical.

The film’s tagline reads: “One Quiet Voice Can Ignite a Revolution.”

Wait, what? The fuck are they talking about? Forest Whitaker’s eponymous butler plays next to no active role in the plot. Come to think of it, there is no plot. The movie is a hodgepodge of easily recognizable eras in recent American history (though each sequence reminds you of the year and current sitting president in case you forget), much like the mess that was Oliver Stone’s W.

For all but the film’s final minutes, Whitaker’s character doesn’t make anything happen. Rather, things happen to him (he didn’t even know he was being considered for the fuckin’ butler job in the first place) or around him. His oldest son (David Oyelowo, recently in Lincoln and Jack Reacher) is much more active in the Civil Rights Movement, but even he is an empty character who’s attaches himself to every major group of a given era – Freedom Riders, then the Black Panthers, then running for Congress or some shit.

Whitaker finally stands up for his convictions when he resigns his post in 1986, being upset over Ronald Reagan’s veto of the South African trade embargo. But at that point he’s probably retiring with a nice pension (it is Washington DC, after all), so it doesn’t come off as that bold.

Then he grills some corn on the cob for an Obama ’08 cookout. Fin.

Aside: Why was David Oyelowo running for Congress in DC? They don’t have a vote in the House of Representatives.

Aside: I hope Cecil Gaines died in early 2009, thereby sparing him the shitstorm that is Obama’s second term.

Aside: Between Mo’nique in Precious and Oprah in this film, Lee Daniels seems to think all black wives are drunk and irritating.

Aside: Wait, Terrence Howard gets presumably killed and everyone’s just cool with it? Reminds me of Lukas Haas in Inception.

Aside: Whitaker’s father is played by David Banner. Fuck yeah.

(Seen on and written on 2013-08-18)

Intolerance -1916-

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Directed by D.W. Griffith. 167 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Film Forum, West Village)

Creaky drama, groundbreaking editing, and astounding production values – now with less racism! That’s pretty much Intolerance in a nutshell. While I loved the chance to see this restored print (accompanied with a wonderful score by composer/conductor Carl Davis), casual filmgoers and those with tiny bladders can probably skip it.

Alternatively, if you know any students studying film theory, you can ask them to give you the skinny.

Intolerance is arguably the crucial precursor to the “hyperlink” movie (think of Iñárritu or Stephen Gaghan’s interminable Syriana). The stories in Griffith’s saga of ill-fated lovers are mainly thematically linked, so Cloud Atlas definitely owes a debt of gratitude. Sadly, Intolerance is both the first film to do it and the first one to make it boring. To this day, there is still a faction of filmmakers who are convinced that longer means epic, and epic means better. This rule has too many exceptions to name. Few films justify their runtime, even the shorter ones (see Lovelace, or rather don’t). While long films can be great, the length of Intolerance is more a manifestation of Griffith’s ego.

Luckily, so is the scope of the film’s art design. The story in present-day (at least at the time) America is pretty straightforward, but the sequences of the past – the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 Paris, the Passion and cruxifiction of Christ, and the Persian-Babylonian War – are visual arresting in every department. Countless extras all have beautiful costumes, ancient kingdoms rise hundreds of feet in the air, and ingenious machines of siege and war bring them down.

If you can stomach the dull parts (or just watch the Babylonian sequence), Intolerance has some great examples of the early Hollywood fuck-it-we’re-rich-so-let’s-make-it-happen mentality.

Aside: Apart from the Paris sequence, none of these stories are about intolerance or bigotry per se. People Being Various Magnitudes of Asshole Through Time would be a more fitting title.

(Seen on 2013-08-07, written on 2013-08-15)

The Canyons -2013-

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Directed by Paul Schrader. 100 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at IFC Center, Greenwich Village)

The two films I saw during my recent jaunt to New York City were Schrader’s The Canyons and Griffith’s Intolerance. As far as I know, that’s pretty much all those movies have in common.

Seeing this godmother of Hollywood-Kickstarter hybrids was time well spent for two reasons, neither of which being that the film was any good. First, there’s the novelty of seeing the finished movie after a year of stories documenting its rocky production like it was a microbudget Cutthroat Island. For a while, I was beginning to doubt that the film would ever a theatrical release (or any release at all, for that matter). When I learned that I would be in the vicinity of its single-screen debut, I had to see if it was for real, consequences be damned. It was the cinematic equivalent of digging up Jason Voorhees’ body to see if he was truly dead.

The other draw of the film is to bear witness to how unapologetically trashy and technically inept it is. While Ellis’ predictably misanthropic screenplay makes no attempt to engage the viewer, hearing the lines delivered by the bored Lindsay Lohan and James Deen (along with the laughably bad Nolan Funk and Amanda Brooks) is occasionally amusing. Even more fun is the shockingly amateurish cinematography and editing. At one point, I was convinced that a UPS truck was going to kill Lohan’s character while she ate lunch at a Sunset Stripe café. You’ll see what I mean.

The Canyons is less earnest but every bit as baffling at The Room. My brother accurately described it as “Gregg Araki’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.” If either of those sentences entice you, check it out.

(Seen on 2013-08-02, written on 2013-08-14)

The Act of Killing -2013-

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Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. 159 mins.

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

 Wow, I have been really tardy with my write-ups. I just returned from New York, and The Act of Killing was the last film I saw in LA just before my departure. Given the delay, everything I write regarding the film will be old news.

 But in case the hype hasn’t convinced you, believe it. The Act of Killing is probably the best (and certainly the most unique) non-Herzog documentary I’ve ever seen. Unsurprisingly, ol’ Werner was an executive producer on the film.

 Everyone and his mother has helmed a doc on the subject of genocide, and most of them speculate as to what the perpetrators were thinking as they committed their atrocities. Few of them take The Act of Killing’s approach of asking the actual killers what it was like for them. None of them (until now) allow the killers to reenact their crimes in any way they wish. The result is nightmarish display of theatrics and disregard for human life, as if John Waters had directed Shoah.

 The film is long, but I didn’t feel it all that much. There were several occasions when I desperately wanted the movie to end because the reenactments are so jarring. These actors / directors aren’t simply pretending. These are real people – and possibly the closest thing to real monsters this planet contains – gleefully recreating their crimes as they remember them. I wouldn’t call The Act of Killing “entertaining” in the conventional sense of the word, but it’s certainly unforgettable.

 (Seen and on 2013-07-30, written on 2013-08-13)