How to Train Your Dragon -2010-

Image

Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. 98 mins.

Worth my time? Fuck, no. (Watched on BluRay)Why does everyone fucking like this dull fucking movie? It has some visually impressive segments, sure, but it’s an animated kids’ movie, for Pete’s sake. Pretty pictures is a bare minimum.How to Train Your Dragon has five credited writers, so apparently it’s a five-man operation to write a dumb “ET with dragons” story. I mean, look at the poster. They aren’t trying to hide it one bit. This color-by-numbers coming-of-age plot has zero depth and the characters had no likability. I really wanted all of them to die at the end. Now that would have been an inspired third act.This film is the Pearl Jam of movies – a piece of shit that is inexplicably enjoyed by many people with otherwise excellent taste. Just watch Wreck-It Ralph instead.Aside: Why are my write-ups so short? I think I’m preoccupied or something.

 (Seen and written on 2014-05-09)

Godzilla -2014-

Image

Directed by Gareth Edwards. 123 mins.

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

This film is the best totally unnecessary franchise reboot since 2012’s surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Director Gareth Edwards, who made the decent Monsters for next to nothing in 2010, packs Godzilla with a (relatively) old-fashioned sense of blockbuster awe, coming off as a second-generation Abrams (or third-generation Spielberg). While it’s wise to imitate the best if you’re going to imitate at all, Edwards’ stylistic inspiration is a double-edged sword. For every awesome shot, there’s a distractingly derivative shot of a stoic child looking at an approaching threat (á la Close Encounters, ET, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, War of the Worlds) or some other tired device.

Edwards’ roots in microbudget filmmaking is a blessing and a curse in the execution of the titular monster. While his decision to focus on human drama rather than dumb Bayish or Emmerichian action works more often than not, I think the film is a little too conservative with its use of Godzilla. Like, I don’t need the dude to be in every frame, but may we please have a little more Godzilla? Godzilla appears in Godzilla about as much as Julius Caesar appears in Julius Caesar. He appears late in the game and sporadically from there on out. At least Peter Jackson made King Kong all about Kong once you waited two hours to see him.

Aside: Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins do a splendid job of looking eternally incredulous.

Aside: Aren’t we kind of over the insectoid kaiju thing? We’ve already seen Cloverfield and Pacific Rim. Think of something new.

Aside: The opening  music (composed by Alexandre Desplat) and credits are fantastic.

(Seen and written on 2014-05-19)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein -1948-

Image

Directed by Charles Barton. 83 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Seen at the New Beverly Cinema, Hollywood)

I saw this movie about a week ago, and I’ve been putting off my write-up because I didn’t want to spend any more time thinking to this piece of shit. There’s a lot of “classic comedy” that fuckin’ blows, and from what I’ve seen, Abbott and Costello make every Three Stooges short look like The Gold Rush by comparison.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has a reputation for being one of the better later Universal monster movies which doesn’t speak highly of its predecessors. I love Dracula and the first two Frankenstein films, but these creatures ran out of steam with Son of Frankenstein. Why did the studio think that adding the stupid hijinks of A&C into the mix would help? They must have wanted to get more use out of old sets before tearing them down.

I never was much of a Wolf Man fan, but Lon Chaney, Jr. is easily the best part of the movie. Bela Lugosi looks desperate, and Glenn Strange (playing The Monster) is a poor substitute for Boris Karloff. How do you fuck up playing a corpse, Glenn?

On the upside, I found this rad Eastern European poster for the film. It’s way more entertaining than the movie itself.

(Seen on 2014-04-27, written on 2014-05-02)

M -1951-

Image

Directed by Joseph Losey. 88 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre)

Booyah!

I’ve been trying to see this re-make of Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece ever since I first learned of its existence about seven years ago. Screenings of this version are extremely few and far in between – until last year, the only known remaining print was in possession of the British Film Archives and seldom circulated. The screening that I saw (for the closing night of the Egyptian Theatre’s Noir City Festival) was a new 35mm print, hopefully a sign that the film will become more widely available. Are you listening, Criterion?

Even if the movie sucked (it doesn’t), I would consider it worth my time for its rarity alone, just as it would be worthwhile to talk to a bitterly racist unicorn. The film can’t reach the heights of the original, mainly because of the change of setting. Weimar-era urban Germany is soaked with dread and lends itself to a tale as chilling as M. Conversely, post-WWII Los Angeles is a whole lot brighter and much less scary. Losey fortunately understood that emulating German expressionism would be futile, and so he reimagined the plot to be much closer to a gangster movie than its source material. This shift in tone isn’t a complete loss by any means. For example, a sense of humor is present in the film that would have fallen flat if it were in Lang’s version.

All sorts of great character actors make up the cast (including, but not limited to, a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr). David Wayne (not to be confused with the Stella guy) makes a great killer, crafting a mania that stands completely on its own and without imitating Peter Lorre’s performance. The film on the whole stands up though I wouldn’t put it on the list of all-time great noirs.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-06)

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans -2009-

Image

Directed by Werner Herzog. 122 mins.

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

I love Port of Call so much that this will resemble a gush far more than it will a review. Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog may be the greatest actor/director collaboration since Emily Watson starred in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Cage turns in perfectly psychotic performance as Lieutenant Terrance McDonough, placing him right alongside Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle as a great American antihero. In spite of his latter-career focus on documentaries, Herzog hasn’t lost a step when it comes to narrative filmmaking. I’d say that Port of Call is the director’s best dramatic film since Fitzcarraldo.

Herzog wisely skips over the played out Mardi Gras and bayou bullshit that saturates most New Orleans based films, opting instead to show a grittier, post-Katrina side of the city (Andrew Dominik chose a similar approach while making Killing Them Softly). The film is a sincere character study of McDonough as he balances his addiction and corruption with his cases and personal life, but we know better than to think Herzog would make just any old cop-on-the-edge flick. And as always (with the exception of his documentary Wheel of Time), Herr Herzog does not disappoint.

Despite its dark marketing campaign and grim plot, Port of Call is a work of comic genius. McDonough never runs out of hilarious and clever ways to score drugs, make quick cash, and advance his investigation. Nearly every scene is memorable, and the reptile close-ups are Herzog at his head-scratching best. And the ending, with its rapid-fire plot resolutions, is beautifully implausible.

Aside: While the supporting cast is good all-around, a nearly-unrecognizable Jennifer Coolidge is especially impressive.

Aside: The screening preceded a discussion and Q&A with both Cage and Herzog, and it was as beautiful as you can imagine.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-04)

Under the Skin -2014-

Image

Directed by Jonathan Glazer. 108 mins.

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

Earlier tonight I had to decide whether to see a free screening of Jim Jarmusch’s upcoming Only Lovers Left Alive at UCLA or a sneak preview of Glazer’s Under the Skin (for which I had to pay). Recalling the degree to which I enjoyed Sexy Beast, Glazer’s 2000 feature debut, as well as my reluctance to drive from Hollywood to Westwood at 6:30pm on a Thursday, I opted for the conveniently-located Skin.

One of the trailers that played before the film was for Only Lovers Left Alive. It looked fucking awesome. And as Skin slogged on and on, all I could think about that how I could be watching the new Jarmusch instead, and for free. Damn.

Lots of adjectives come to mind when I think of Sexy Beast, but “boring” doesn’t come close to making the list. Sadly, that word is the third one to pop into my head when thinking of Skin. On the bright side, the first two words that come to mind are “sensory marvel.”

Glazer has lost none of his ability to set one hell of a mood. The film switches between forboding shadow and brilliant color in mesmerizing fashion with the sequences of Scarlett Johansson seducing (consuming) her prey being a highlight. The amazing score by Mica Levi steals the film, and your money is better spent purchasing the soundtrack than actually seeing the movie.

I suppose one could argue that Skin has a message about how men treat women in a superficial and often violent manner, but it doesn’t justify narrative dullness, nor does the eye and ear candy. Glazer makes a living by directing commercials, and it shows – the premise for Skin lends itself to a short film at best.

Lots of folks are praising Johansson’s performance as the best in her career, but that’s like bragging about being the third tallest person in Japan. The bar isn’t all that high. Much like how Paul Thomas Anderson wrote a film around Adam Sandler’s acting limitations with Punch-Drunk Love, Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell have made a movie that takes advantage of Johansson’s complete inability to act like a real human being. She’s stiff, stone-faced, and janky throughout her filmography, but at least in Skin it’s put to good use.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-04)

Noah -2014-

Image

Directed by Darren Aronofsky. 138 mins.

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

After his relatively small-scale The Wrestler and Black Swan, Aronofsky has returned to the batshit crazy epic storytelling he demonstrated with The Fountain almost a decade a go. Like its spiritual successor, Noah is going to be divisive. This film doesn’t simply go off the rails ­– it was never on the rails in the first place. I loved The Fountain, and while Noah doesn’t ascend to its level, you’ll like it if you’re willing to roll with it.

From what I’ve read online, many viewers, religious and secular alike, take issue with the bizarre creative license that Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel take with the story of the Flood as told in the Book of Genesis. The most infamous deviation from the source material has been the film’s inclusion of the Watchers, more commonly known as “the rock monsters.” I have no idea why folks are dwelling on this one point.

First of all, the Watchers are awesome. I was sympathetic to their plight, an impressive achievement considering that these characters are literally made of stone. The team at Industrial Light and Magic deserves props for successfully bringing these dudes to life so well.

Secondly, this is a fucking adaptation of the fucking story of Noah’s fucking ark. This is one of the weirdest stories ever to come out of the ancient world, and it’s the Watchers that break your suspension of disbelief? Fuck off, you’re just looking for something to whine about.

The film is flawed, to be sure. Noah’s shift to psychological-thriller territory in the third act is an interesting narrative choice, but the film still feels a half-hour too long. Still, there’s a lot to like here. There’s plenty of eye candy ranging from Griffithian wide shots to the Requiem for a Dream-esque rapid-fire montages which cover the stories of Creation and the Fall. And per usual, Clint Mansell’s score is damn good.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-02)

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)

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)