Nymphomaniac Vol.1 -2014-

Image

Directed by Lars von Trier. 118 mins.

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

Von Trier has followed the uncharacteristically ambiguous Melancholia with a return to his familiar right-up-in-your-fucking face style of The Element of Crime, Antichrist, and many films in between. Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 more than lives up to its title, but I was pleasantly surprised by its sense of humor. The film covers some heavy shit (and I can only imagine what Vol. 2 has in store), yet it stands second only to The Boss of It All as LvT’s funniest movie to date.

The casting is reliably brilliant and confusing. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård work very well together in the frame story scenes (though I would watch Skarsgård in just about anything). Newcomer Stacy Martin plays a younger version of Gainsbourg’s character, and she deserves a lot of credit for handling the role so well. Simply going through the audition process for the part and dealing with LvT should be enough to earn her some type of reward. Shia LaBeouf and Christian Slater are conspicuous with their terrible English accents, but I thought it added to the film’s charm. Uma Thurman’s small role is easily the best thing she’s done in a decade.

Long gone are the days of Dogme 95 minimalism – Vol. 1 may be LvT’s flashiest film since Europa (or Zentropa if you’re a movie dick). The cinematography uses fewer handheld shots than is usual for the director, and nearly every sequence contains at least one scene with a clever effects shot  (including superimposed diagrams, sped up or reversed video, split screen, archival footage, and the like).

Some of the stylistic gimmicks are too clever for their own good, however. LvT never forgoes a chance to show how brilliant he is, and many of his tricks serve only to drive home themes you probably already understood on your own. More irritating is the frequency with which Skarsgård goes on long tangents explaining how Gainsbourg’s sexual proclivities are similar to the nuances of fly-fishing. We get it, Stel.

Still, Vol. 1 is bizarre, fun ride through the sewers of LvT’s mind, and if that sounds appealing to you, it will be. I’m eager to see Vol. 2 next week.

(Seen and written on 2014-03-29)

The Raid 2 -2014-

Image

Directed by Gareth Evans. 150 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Pacific’s The Grove Stadium 14)

Geez Louise, Jakarta cop Rama (Iko Uwais) gets assignments that make John McClane’s adventures look like paid vacations. After the events of The Raid: Redemption, it would have been perfectly reasonable for Rama to think, “That was the worst day that could ever happen to anyone, ever. At least nothing worse can ever happen to me.”

Rama gravely misjudges Gareth Evans’ brutal creativity.

I give props to Evans for crafting a much more complex crime saga than the film’s predecessor. The Raid 2’s tale of gang war over the years is a fresh change from Redemption’s paper-thin premise, but it comes with a cost. The film is nearly an hour longer than Redemption, and the pacing (particularly near the beginning) may be too slow for the target demographic of adrenaline junkies.

I thought that the gambles of switching up the formula paid off. While Rama still gets the most screentime, Evans uses the first act to introduce plenty of characters, all of whom get at least one scene in which to show off their signature kill skills. The action is just as jawdropping and full of twisted humor as Redemption. Almost every fight scene brings something new to the table, a pretty amazing feat considering the runtime.

As long as Evans has passion and an unlimited supply of Indonesian stuntmen, keep sending Raid films my way.

Aside: There’s also this whitebread guitarist, not to be confused with the cool Gareth Evans.

(Seen and written on 2014-03-28)

Starship Troopers -1997-

2014-03-27 Starship Troopers

Directed by Paul Verhoeven. 129 mins.

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

While waiting for the screening to start, some dingus behind me remarked, “Starship Troopers is my favorite so-bad-it’s-good movie.”

No, no, no. Starship Troopers is a great film without qualification, and it’s a bummer to know that the film continues to go right over some folks’ heads.

At the risk of bestowing undeserved praise upon it, Troopers is the closest film to Dr. Strangelove to come out of the 90s. Those who are quick to point out the many over-the-top moments and campy dialogue (which often feels more at home in a teen romantic comedy) completely miss the forest for the trees. While the movie follows the same premise as Robert A. Heinlein’s arguably pro-fascist novel of the same title, Verhoeven screenwriter Edward Neumeier adapted Troopers to be a rebuke of its own source material. Neumeier, who previously wrote Verhoeven’s classic RoboCop, injects nearly the same level of violence, hilarity, and cynicism into this darkly comic space opera / soap opera.

Troopers is one of the only (and certainly one of the most interesting) depictions of a post-racial, post-gendered society and I’ve seen on film. The movie never flat-out says that its world has moved beyond race and sex, but it’s pretty darn clear. Sadly, Neumeier’s future is far from rosy, and the erosion of oppressive constructs is made possible only by the development of even more rigid ideas of “the other.” All of humankind is split between common “civilians” and “citizens,” the ones who wield political power – essentially all power as industry and communication appear state-run. This world remembers democracy and individual rights as failures, and war is the institution on which all else is built.

The caste system divides humanity, but the threat of the Bugs unites it. Despite the jarring physical differences, both Bug-kind and humankind live for collectivism and endless war. Biology professors teach their students that in many respects (such as teir lack of ego or knowledge of death), Bugs are the superior species. Nevertheless, they are the ultimate Other and must be destroyed at all costs.

Troopers’ visuals still hold up 17 years after its release. The film is CGI-heavy but also makes use of plenty cool conventional SFX. The film’s subtext and visuals are the real stars – none of the players are particularly engrossing apart from the always-fun Michael “Richter” Ironside. Then again, the likes of Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards aren’t exactly famous for their acting skills.

Aside: Troopers invented “clickbait” about 15 years before the real thing appears. Would You Like To Know More?

(Seen and written on 2014-03-27)

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure -1985-

Image

Directed by Tim Burton, but let’s not pretend that Paul Reubens didn’t do the heavy lifting. 90 mins.

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

Tim Burton’s one and only timeless classic (he’s probably the most overrated director since Godard) is every bit as fun as when I used to watch it as a kid. I probably enjoyed it even more so this time around now that I’m old enough to appreciate all of the bizarre moments that went over my head years ago.

Pee-Wee is Burton’s best film because he was handed a fantastic, nearly fully-formed concept on a silver platter. By the time production had started on the film, Reubens had been doing a Pee-Wee stage show for years (from which HBO made the popular special The Pee-Wee Herman Show). Burton had nothing to do with creating the Pee-Wee Herman character. The role had become so natural to Reubens that the public easily forgot that the lovable (though kind of a dick) manchild was just an act, a confusion thatwould not work to the star’s benefit in 1991. Reubens and fellow Groundling veteran Phil Hartman wrote a hilarious, well-paced road film that manages to be emotionally involving in spite of its Saturday-morning cartoon hijinks.

Nearly every scene in Pee-Wee is memorable. The opening dream sequence (all of the dream sequences, for that matter), the breakfast machine, the basement meeting, the fortune teller, the drive with Mickey, and especially Large Marge are standouts, and that’s only the first half. The climax chase scene runs a bit long and feels more at home in a Landis or an early Spielberg, but it’s pretty solid too.

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is an important film because it’s a useful metric of a person’s character. Just like how affinity for The Boondock Saints is a sign that you should avoid that person like the plague, you’re in good company with most any Pee-Wee fan.

Aside: The phenomenon of a mediocre director building a career on the talents of independently fantastic actors and writers is commonly known as the Spinal Tap effect.

(Seen and written on 2014-03-23)

The Grapes of Wrath -1940-

Image

Directed by John Ford. 129 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at AMC Promenade 16, Woodland Hills)

Grapes was playing at the AMC for no reason in particular, so I took the chance to do some catching up with Mr. Ford’s filmography. This version of Steinbeck’s story of mass migration during the Dust Bowl hasn’t aged perfectly. Some scenes are overly sentimental (at least to my 21st-century sensibilities), and the film makes no mention of how the New Deal paid landowners and companies not to use their farm, resulting in the increase in food prices and countless sharecroppers having no land to work. Political quibbles aside, Grapes remains a powerful film more than 70 years after it premiered. I can only imagine how much of a slug to the gut it to audiences who actually lived through the events it depicted just a few years prior.

Henry Fonda and John Carradine’s performances are the highlights of a great ensemble cast, but, as usual, the star is Ford’s camera work. Motherfucker was using wide-angle shots when nobody was even thinking of doing it. His trick of filling much of the frame with skies full of wispy, backlit clouds gets predictable, but it’s still an effective device.

Aside: The opening and closing music is distractingly cheery for such a grim film. What gives?

(Seen on 2014-03-16, written on 2014-03-21)

300: Rise of an Empire -2014-

Image

Directed by Noam Murro. 102 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Seen at AMC Promenade 16, Woodland Hills)

I take no pleasure in writing about such an underwhelming movie, but I am sworn to do so. Arriving eight years after legions of teenaged boys gave their final “THIS IS SPARTA!” battle cries, 300: Rise of an Empire feels like a collection of nixed subplots and deleted scenes from Zack Snyder’s original. It’s Resident Evil 3: Nemesis to the Resident Evil 2 of 300, except Nemesis was actually worthwhile. Rise of an Empire is a film composed entirely of dead weight.

Rise of an Empire has a promising start, misleading the viewer into thinking that the film will tell the story of how Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, one the highlights from both films) ascended to the status of God-King and expanded the Persian Empire. That woulda been a pretty neat movie. But that stuff is wrapped up in a matter of minutes. The rest of the film deals with what the Athenians, led by Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), were up to while Leonidas and his Spartans were busy fighting at Thermopylae.

Themistocles, I knew Leonidas. I was friends with Leonidas, and you are no Leonidas.

The Athenians are wet noodles in comparison to their quasi-fascist Spartan bretheren. There are a few decent moments during naval battle scene (most of the film is at sea), and Eva Green delivers a menacing intensity (as well as a decent hate-fucking scene) as a feared Persian general. Still, you’d be better off rounding up your bros and watching the original at home.

(Seen on 2014-03-13, written on 2014-03-14)

The Straight Story -1999-

Image

 

Directed by David Lynch. 112 mins.

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

Wow, what a difference 15 years and a big screen can make.

I was ten years old when I first watched a VHS of Richard Farnsworth’s swan song in my parents’ living room. At the time, I thought that it was run-of-the-mill “based on a true story” Disney fare. This evaluation ranks among one of young Patrick’s many dumb opinions because upon seeing a 35mm screening, The Straight Story is a bizarre, beautiful tale that’s near the top of Lynch’s filmography (Lost Highway is still my personal favorite) and one of the best American films of the 90s.

Alvin Straight is the most interesting, fleshed-out character that Lynch ever tackled – as much as I love Frank Booth, Bobby Peru, Dick Laurent, and company, none of them were engaging on a sentimental level. While the film only shows Alvin’s famous lawn tractor ride across the Midwest to see his estranged brother, it tells far more of his story. Learning about both the joy and pain that Straight harbors is every bit as gripping as Lynch’s noirish, fractured realities in his other films. I can’t imagine anyone but Farnsworth in the role – he’s damn close to perfect.

While the substance of The Straight Story isn’t obvious Lynch territory, it’s very much a tale of the darkness that lives beneath the surface of its “All American” locales (very much like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks). The style, however, is clearly Lynchian. All of the wide-angle shots, unsettling ambient noise, superfluous fire, awkward conversations, quirky characters, and original music by Angelo Badalamenti are all here. Sissy Spacek is particularly wonderful as Rose, Alvin’s mildly autistic daughter.

If you’re a Lynch fan and haven’t yet seen The Straight Story, I haven’t the faintest idea why you’re stalling. Now that you’ve read this piece, ignorance is no excuse. Lawn tractor, don’t walk, to your nearest video store (or Web site, let’s be honest) and check it out!

(Seen on 2014-03-09, written on 2014-03-13)

Dark City -1998-

Image

 

Directed by Alex Proyas. 112 mins (Director’s Cut).

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Blu-ray)

Who would have thought that before directing turns such as I, Robot and Knowing, Alex Proyas made arguably the best sci-fi film of the 90s? I mean, I would have thought as much since I’ve seen Dark City before. You, on the other hand, may have been none the wiser.

The film was a flop in 1998 because Titanic was still dominating the world box office at the time. The Matrix, having lifted much of the Dark City premise without any of the style of context, was the toast of the town the following year. Luckily, the director’s cut – and be certain that it’s the director’s cut – is on home video for everyone to enjoy.

The film is a visual marvel, taking cues from German expressionism and the American noirs that followed the movement. Many films demonstrate these aesthetic influences, but Dark City is unique in that it takes the hallmarks of the subgenre and incorporates them directly into the narrative. The amnesiac protagonist, the twisting streets and alleys that lead nowhere, the clashing architectural styles, and the night that never ends all have deeply unnerving explanations.

What I personally find most disturbing about Dark City is the way in which it reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s Five Minute Hypothesis. Russell contended that for all we know, the Universe sprang into existence five minutes ago along with the Earth and everyone on it. All of our memories prior to the five minutes are false, but so long as they are generally consistent with how the Earth appears to be, we would never be able to know. Russell didn’t actually believe in the hypothesis – rather, he used it as a thought experiment to highlight the limits of epistemology. And in Russell’s mind, it wouldn’t much matter even if the hypothesis were true since the Earth would be identical to how it would be if it had been billions of years old as is today’s scientific consensus.

Dark City shows, in horrifying fashion, that Russell was wrong; a young world with a population saturated with false memories could hide sinister secrets.

Aside (SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT): One of my favorite  mysteries of Dark City is the fate of Earth. Did the Strangers simply harvest a select few humans from our planet and then leave it alone? Does humankind even exist beyond the City anymore? *shudders*

(Seen and written on 2014-03-08)

Prisoners -2013-

Image

Directed by Denis Villeneuve. 153 mins.

Worth my time? Mostly, but it tested my patience. (Watched on Blu-ray)

I passed on Prisoners during its time in theaters last year, mainly because its poster was boring and I had absolutely no clue what the film was about. Turns out that Villeneuve’s English language debut is a dark mystery/thriller along the lines of The Vanishing and the Red Riding trilogy. There are enough great moments to have sustained a 105-minute runtime, but this increasingly bizarre plot almost collapses under the weight of its length. The premise would have made for a good two-part episode of The X-Files, though.

Hugh Jackman delivers one of his better roles in awhile – not since Officer Jim Curring in Magnolia have I seen a born-again Christian character this multilayered. The rest of the cast is good with the exception of Paul Dano – he only plays nervous characters who squeal as they get smacked around (There Will Be Blood, Looper, 12 Years a Slave) and Prisoners is no exception.

The highlight of the film may very well be the swift, moody cinematography courtesy of the fabulous Roger Deakins. Maybe next year will be your Oscar year, Roger.

(Seen and written on 2014-03-06)

All Is Lost -2013-

Image

 

Directed by J.C. Chandor. 106 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Blu-ray)

I never would have dreamed that Chandor’s follow-up to Margin Call, his entertaining (if unadventurous) Great Recession drama, would be anything like All Is Lost. While Margin didn’t rock the boat, this Robert Redford vehicle should make waves for its writer/director even though it sank at the box office.

Yes, I just fucking wrote that shitty, Shalitty sentence.

All Is Lost feels like something a studio would have made a generation, maybe even two generations ago. I had no problem replacing Redford with Henry Fonda or Gregory Peck in my mind’s eye. The one and only member of the cast does a bang-up job of channeling the timeless “man versus nature” plot. Man certainly has a losing streak when facing off against nature, and the film’s title is pretty damn accurate. Still, I rooted for Redford’s futile attempts at survival the whole way through.

Aside from Red’s performance, the film is well-executed exercise of trimming fat from a film. We know nothing about the main character apart from the name of his boat. His name is never uttered (almost nothing is uttered, actually), and the film never tells the viewer what he’s doing at sea to begin with. Chandor wisely understands that if the conflict deeply resonates with an audience, you don’t require much else. Aristotle would be proud.

(Seen and written on 2014-03-04)