Saturday, January 25, 2014

2014 Movies: This week's about love of all kinds. And a psychic mind battle.

I'll try to make this round quick as I'm not feeling so hot and I ended up watching a couple more movies than usual this week.

Behind The Candelabra (2013) Steven Soderbergh

I liked this one. Michael Douglas's take on Liberace as this lonely, controlling guy is equal parts sympathetic and concerning. Matt Damon has a way of making his clueless character endearing. Soderbergh is great at creating this pervasive sadness and isolation amidst fame and excess. This is the kind of thing where you just want to reach out and stop everyone from going down these dark roads, and it's not so much because you like them, but more because you care about how they're treating each other. There's a very deep investment in the relationships between these characters that lies at the heart of the enjoyment and sorrow that I experienced watching this movie. I also watched the movie through the corner of my eye for a bit because there's also a lot of pretty gory plastic surgery. Not like an excessive amount, but like still a surprising amount.

Undefeated (2011) Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin

It's, you know, it's a sports documentary. I love those. They're usually heartbreaking and exciting. This one's about a High School football team that was notoriously bad, turning it around and making a run to win their first playoff game in school history, but really it's about these kids in Tennessee and how their coach looks out for them and teaches them about life and being a man. It's a sports documentary. It's fine. You'll like it.

Brokeback Mountain (2005) Ang Lee

I liked this one too.  What was interesting to me was how effectively Ang Lee uses that pastoral motif as an indicator of freedom.  When Ennis and Jack are in their respective cities or towns or whatever the shots are constricting and small with Ennis and Jack trapped in these crowded lives that they don't care about, but when they are in Wyoming all the shots are wide and open and it's just Ennis and Jack, and it feels free.  It's a simple idea, that cities are places of isolation and that the wilderness gives you freedom, but those big shots of the Wyoming sky and the mountains and the water really sell that.

Romeo + Juliet (1996) Baz Luhrmann

I don't know much about the nuances of Shakespeare, but Tessa assures me that a lot of these line readings are off. I was more focused on how exciting all of it looks. The Capulets have this cool, Spanish gunfighter / mafia aesthetic, and the Montagues have, um, hawaiian shirts? Everything about this movie is snappy, pushing the audience along, and it feels like Baz Luhrmann was doing his best to make it as quick and flashy as possible in order to get the audience so swept up in the spectacle that they wouldn't get a chance to realize that what they were watching was (ugh) THEATRE. I've always remembered being down with this movie. Leguizamo's Tybalt was the coolest, and DiCaprio's Romeo was such a little shithead. I like the part at the end where Romeo's too busy talking about how pumped he is to kill himself for love that he doesn't even see Juliet is beneath him literally reaching up to give him a "ha we did it we tricked the grownups" smooch.
You know what was weird? The way that Luhrmann keeps the camera moving and cutting, it made this one feel sort of like an Edgar Wright movie. Is that weird?

Scanners (1981) David Cronenberg

Not my favorite Cronenberg, but still one I enjoy a lot. It's weird seeing a less craggy Michael Ironside. He's so imposing and humorless looking, such a great bad guy. There's a pretty sizable portion of this movie that just sort of plods along, but the final confrontation between Ironside and the bewildered protagonist makes sure you leave the experience with no doubt that you just watched a Cronenberg movie. I also like how Cronenberg thinks computers work, like you can call a computer on the phone and explode it and it just sort of bleeds and melts. Do you think Cronenberg likes Katsuhiro Otomo? He must, right? Did that American live action Akira start production yet? Is it too late to get Cronenberg on that? Would that be awful?

The Canyons (2013) Paul Schrader

I had a lot of fun watching this, but man, this is a BAD movie.  Tessa said something like "if you didn't know who James Deen was, and someone told you that one of these actors is known for being a famous pornstar, you wouldn't be able to pick out who it was.  This movie is like porn acting without all the sex."  And she's right.
There's a lot to enjoy about this movie, if watching and loudly mocking bad movies with your friends is your thing (it's certainly one of mine, I'm a millenial in a low-income tax bracket just like any of us).  My personal favorite was James Deen's very purposeful facial expressions.  It's as if someone told him before shooting that he should remember that acting isn't just in how you say the lines, but how your face looks when you say those lines, and he just took that advice and could not stop thinking about it.  Every James Deen scene it's like James Deen is desperately trying to get you to identify his character's line reading.  This is the line where I'm upset.  This is the line where I'm concerned.  Oh shit this line, this line is my favorite, it's the one where I'm manipulating you.  It's this utter refusal to be subtle that carries into the rest of this continuously awful movie.
There's this one scene where this character Ryan is asking his boss for more work or something because he needs the money and the way the shot is framed, the boss is leaning on a desk that Ryan is sitting in front of so that his crotch is level with Ryan's face (itunes won't let me do screengrabs, and I can't find a picture of this moment online so bear with me), and it's like Paul Schrader is screaming at you like "DO YOU GET IT IT'S ABOUT SEX AND POWER YOU FUCKING MORONS DO YOU GET IT," and you're like "yeah dude, I get it. I got it when this fucking scene started," and then Schrader's like "OK BUT IT'S ABOUT SEX AND POWER DON'T WORRY I'LL REMIND YOU ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED IN THIS SCENE WITH SOME LENGTHY EXPOSITION IN THE LITERAL NEXT SCENE."  And that's what happens for the rest of the movie: A thing happens every other scene and the scenes in between are spent with the characters talking about what just happened.
Anyway it's a garbage movie, and if you're still curious about it there was this great New York times piece about the production of it that's actually worth your time.
Oh also there's this scene where Lohan is reading her texts through this bullshit thing called TextTV, which I guess is supposed to be some sort of app that projects your text conversations onto the television screen because I guess a lot of people in this movie were having this problem where they were like "I love reading texts, but if only I could read them on a television screen like a movie star does," which is a totally realistic thing that I'm sure real people have thought about.
Oh and I just remembered that Brett Easton Ellis wrote this movie?? What a shit movie.  Fuck that guy.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

2014 Movies: A lot of people die in these ones

Hi internet! I'm doing my best to try to watch movies and write about them this year. These are the movies I saw this week:

Virtuosity (1995) Brett Leonard

My roommate had a great story about this being the first R-rated movie he had started to watch with his dad, but his mom walked in the room just as someone was screaming "motherfucker" so she made his dad turn it off. So it was sort of our mission to finish the work my roommate's dad started, I guess.

This is a movie where convicts are used to test out this law enforcement virtual reality training program where they have to catch this digital serial killer "Sid 6.7" (Russell Crowe) that is programmed with the personalities of 181 of histories greatest killers. But the thing is this computer program has gained sentience (because that's all they ever do in the future) and has found his way into the real world via some future science and old fashioned manipulation, so they have to send in Denzel Washington to bring him in since Denzel had the highest scores in the simulation and because -- and here's the emotional twist -- one of the killers in Sid 6.7's programming is the killer who murdered Denzel's family!

It's all very convoluted and crazy, and I guess that's the sort of stuff that got people excited in 1995? I seem to remember a lot of later 90's movies having half-assed high concept sci-fi themes to gloss over all that pre-9/11 violence and excess. I thought they were really cool and scary, but that's mostly because I only saw the previews/commercials for them since I probably wasn't allowed to go see one of these unless my dad rented it months later at Blockbuster.

Denzel does his tough-guy with demons thing, which is fine, while Russell Crowe is kind of like a Batman '66 villain, which is also fine considering the idea of a man with the personalities of 181 serial killers is ridiculous/campy as hell. There's this totally dumb scene where Russell Crowe holds an entire nightclub hostage and organizes all the people in attendance by the pitch of their screams so he can conduct a symphony of screams using his gun as a conductor's baton. Really the biggest turn-off for me with this movie was its seeming insistence to be taken seriously, while simultaneously being so willfully stupid.

It wasn't all bad though, there are some funny bits where Russell Crowe (who throughout this movie is dressed like Jim Carrey's character in The Mask) mugs in front of a virtual background that looks like a cool Windows '95 screensaver. It's very seapunk.

Anyway, I didn't like it.

Red Dragon (2002) Brett Ratner

Still riding my current Hannibal obsession here, and man this was rough.  It wasn't Hannibal (2001) rough, but it was just such a nothing movie.  Which was sort of surprising, considering this cast is pretty solid.  It's weird watching this so soon after watching Manhunter and seeing that Brett Ratner just wanted to remake Manhunter rather than make his own take on this story.  I guess he gives it a different ending than Manhunter, but Ratner's ending is just the ending of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon book, isn't it?  I mean, is Brett Ratner capable of any original ideas/imagery?  Is this where Zack Snyder gets it from??

Edward Norton plays Will Graham as kind of more of a weenie than I'd prefer, but it's fine.  Ralph Fiennes does a good Tom Noonan, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman just seems appropriately bored throughout the movie, even as he's getting tortured and murdered.

Me too, man.

Melancholia (2011) Lars Von Trier

I'd never seen a Lars Von Trier movie before, but from the opening slow-motion dream paintings, I knew I'd hate myself for liking it. Melancholia is an examination of depression and all its many awful facets set at the worst wedding reception ever. There's also a rogue planet on the loose hurtling towards Earth, ready to destroy everything.  Things are pretty bleak.

It's divided into two chapters, each named for one of the two sisters who act as our main focal points. The first chapter, "Justine," focuses on Kirsten Dunst's character on the night of her wedding. Justine and her new husband are late to the big wedding reception that her uptight sister Claire went to all the trouble of planning. It very slowly turns into one of the worst and most uncomfortable wedding parties ever as family grudges and secrets are revealed to us, and we learn that most everyone that Justine knows is just an awful human being. To top it all off, we learn that Justine doesn't even really want to be married, that she has no love for her husband, and that she's going through with all of this to try to be a good sport. I was struck by how hostile everything in this chapter looked, like to an even funny degree (though, I guess it's not, like, "ha ha" funny). The country club where the reception is held is massive and alienating, the dinner and dance hall where the party happens is so dimly lit, and music, when we even hear it at all, is very sparse and tired. Celebratory brass tunes sort of plod along at half volume and speed, making it sound more like a dirge than a party. It's an impressive atmosphere for sadness.

And then it gets worse.

The second chapter, "Claire," named for Charlotte Gainsbourg's character, focuses on Justine's sister as she tries to keep it all together at the end of the world. Unlike Justine who had given up on appearances completely in favor of succumbing to sadness, Claire continues to try to keep it all together. Perhaps it's for the sake of her family, or maybe it's out of love for her sister, but either way it's destroying her, especially as the rogue planet Melancholia looms over Earth, ready to crush everything Claire has ever known and loved. It's brutal watching Claire trying and failing to keep it all together as Justine follows along, shooting down any attempts at kindness from Claire as awful and meaningless. Claire is desperate, trying stupid shit like driving her golf cart into town to what? Escape the total destruction of planetary collision? It's meaningless and when she drags herself back to the house, ready to give up, Justine is there waiting for her to make her feel worse.  The pressure that Claire feels is relentless, and she's at the end of her rope. Luckily for her, Justine, who has given up on happiness altogether knows that this is all meaningless in the face of total planetary destruction, and she leads her sister through life on the last day of living.  

It's a strange sort of tough-love exchange that happens in these two chapters. In the first chapter, Claire does what she can to keep her family together. She spends considerable time and effort trying to keep Justine alive and functioning, but in the second chapter when Claire begins struggling with the very concept of inevitable doom, Justine is there for her, leading her to an acceptance of oblivion, guiding her to to death just as Claire guided Justine to life. Claire's strength was in being able to take charge of her situation and finding her own meaning in life, while Justine's strength comes in her understanding that life is meaningless and her acceptance of nihilism, a useful practice at the end of the world. In the end it's Justine, once sad and emotionally dependent on others, that is the hero. Claire has tried to deny sadness all her life, but Justine has finally accepted it, and now what was once her sadness becomes her power at the end of the world. But of course, it's the end of the world, so what does it matter?

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) Anthony Minghella

I liked this movie, I guess.  I was entertained by Matt Damon's creepy obsessiveness and all his deceit.  I liked Jude Law's completely unlikeable Dickie Greenleaf.  Jude Law can do unlikeable pretty well.  There are some very choice was-it-supposed-to-be-funny-because-this-is-hilarious moments here, particularly where Matt Damon and Jude Law play a duet of "My Funny Valentine" with Damon on vocals and Jude Law on a fucking saxophone (superstar actor Matt Damon as it turns out, doesn't have much of a singing voice, but maybe that was just another superstar actor choice that separates the Hollywood elite from Dickensian webisode comedians).  The scenery is beautiful to contrast with all the ugliness of the idle rich and the few moments of stark violence.  The plot kept me interested but by the hour and a half mark, I was just struggling to see how they were gonna end all of this.  

This is a movie where hunks lie to each other and almost kiss a lot.  I know nothing about the Patricia Highsmith books, but I'm hoping they are as homoerotic as this movie.  The deception is of course the main thrust of this movie, as Ripley keeps getting himself in these weird Three's Company-type situations purely of his own design, but the homoeroticism is the icing on the liar cake.  It's just occurred to me that this is another movie where Phillip Seymour Hoffman is murdered by a sociopath, so that makes me 2 for 4 this week.

I'm not sure what else to say about this movie, really.  There's hot rich people vacationing in Italy and lying to each other and it plays out how hot people lying to each other always plays out.  People are murdered, there's more lying, some purposefully un-subtle directing, and here we are again, wondering if there's any justice in the world.  I like that stuff enough, I suppose.  It's like watching Gossip Girl taken to its natural endpoint.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

2014 is the year I learn to watch movies.

I don’t watch a lot of movies, and I don’t ever really write about movies, but it’s a new year, so I figured I'd try it out.  Maybe we can make a thing of it.
These are the movies I’ve watched this past week:

Spider-Man (2002) Sam Raimi

I remember when this came out, I think I was a sophomore in High School.  I remember watching that Marvel logo come up and being already excited, and when the movie finally got started after that very long animated credits sequence, I was thinking “I’ve been waiting for almost ten years to see this movie.”  This movie was pretty important to me as a young superhero comics reader, and it holds up pretty well.  

Superhero movies have become so serious and self-important lately, and this one was a lot of goofy fun.  It’s an origin story of course, so it drags a bit since we all know how this one turns out, but it always seems like everyone involved is having a good time.  Willem Dafoe in particular looks like he’s having a great time, camping up that Norman Osborn/Green Goblin performance.  

What struck me with this viewing was how similar it felt to one of those old Stan Lee / John Romita-era Spider-Man comics, most especially with that voice-over narration that Tobey Maguire has running through the movie.  All that voice over just had the feel of Stan Lee’s narration in those old comics, and those exaggerated performances from Dafoe and J.K. Simmons (forever known to me as that guy who was J. Jonah Jameson) give Spider-Man some memorable silver age comicbook-style bad guys.  There’s a part where Norman Osborn, in full Green Goblin armor, disguises himself as an old lady with a shawl to trick Spider-Man into fighting him in a burning building, something I’m betting Christopher Nolan never even considered suggesting to Heath Ledger on the set of The Dark Knight.

Hannibal (2001) Ridley Scott

Tessa and I have been watching the Hannibal TV Series and we love it, so we figured we’d watch some Hannibal Lecter movies to tide us over until the new season starts up.  I saw this one in a hotel somewhere or something like that years ago, but not much of it stuck with me, and probably with good reason-- this is not a very good movie.  Most of it is really surprisingly boring stuff.  You can see that a situation is supposed to be tense, but you just sort of don’t really care, and I’m not sure who’s to blame for that.  I like most of this cast, but this movie just didn’t work with them.  Ridley Scott uses this weird blurry camera effect for no apparent reason, Gary Oldman’s weird revenge plot just seems really silly, it feels like this movie was just sort of thrown together and no one really gave a shit how it turned out.

Manhunter (1986) Michael Mann

Now this one’s more like it.  Hannibal’s not as huge a part of this one, but Brian Cox’s take on the character is pretty memorable in that it comes before the world sort of linked Anthony Hopkins to that role.  I like Cox’s performance as this sort of caged animal.  Hopkins plays Hannibal as a charming intellectual, but Cox played him like a brooding killing machine pacing around his cage, always planning out his next move.  Less charming than Hopkins, but Cox has this great sense of power and strength just waiting to be unleashed.  He’s a threat that’s always lurking in this movie.

Tom Noonan as Francis Dolarhyde is excellent too.  He’s so good at balancing the tension between the frailties of this damaged man and the deranged violence that he commits.  There’s this unpredictability about him, like at any moment that skinny 6’5 frame could just reach out and smother someone.  All of these characters move with such purpose, so it makes it easy to get pretty wrapped up in all of that procedural FBI stuff.

I think my favorite thing about this movie is the atmosphere that Michael Mann creates.  Tessa said something like “Michael Mann really makes me want to go to places I have absolutely no interest in visiting,” and I think she’s right.  This movie’s got those Michael Mann neon colors that are simultaneously attracting your gaze and making the dark look darker.  The opening scene where we see Mr. and Mrs. Leeds waking up in bed from the killer’s perspective is such a good mix of confusion, tension, and suspense.  Plus, that soundtrack cannot be beat.

Only God Forgives (2013) Nicolas Winding Refn

This one’s the only one of the movies on this list that I hadn’t seen before.  I think I heard this one got booed at Cannes, which is really funny to me.  I didn’t get around to seeing this when it came out, but I remember it being pretty polarizing?  Well, at least among people I’d heard talking about it.  I get the sense that Nicolas Winding Refn is far more concerned about visuals and style than he is about complex plots or characters, and I think that’s fine, so for the most part this movie worked for me.  I say “for the most part” because the other parts of the movie, plot and characters, were things I just didn’t much care for.  Everything just felt a little bit thin.  We get an idea of what these characters want (it’s either revenge or justice), but there just seems to be a lack of, I don’t know, nuance?  We’re told they want something, but none of these characters feel like they really need it.  It feels like they can take it or leave it.   Nobody really cares. They all come off flat since we don’t really know so much about who these people are to begin with.  There’s super sword cop, evil mom, and Gosling playing pretty much the same handsome psychopath from Drive as far as I can tell, and Winding Refn just sort of winds them up and lets them violently plod along on the way to their eventual confrontations.  There’s not much of a challenge here plot-wise, but that’s fine. I guess this movie isn't worried about it.  

Where this movie excels is in color and style.  It’s got those Michael Mann-esque neon city lights that I enjoy, and I loved the sort of refrain of seeing super sword cop sing a song in his favorite karaoke joint.  Every scene seemed to have a dominant color, and I’m not sure I know how to properly speak about the use of color in movies, but it definitely made it visually compelling, like every scene you’re looking at was set in this beautiful, highly stylized world.  Did NWR and Gosling just make this movie to take a trip to Thailand together?  There are worse reasons for movies getting made, I guess.

Oh actually, here’s something I just thought of: the sword wielding cop character works as a pretty nice subversion of white savior expectations that come with having Gosling surrounded by a bunch of Thai people.  It’s cool to see white people as bad guys in an Asian country getting taken down by one Thai super cop.  Just thinking out loud here.  I’m sure someone more well-versed in talking imperialism would have a better, more serious take on this.

Man, I don't know, I might like this movie more than I think, but I'm not sure I want to?

Alright, so those are this week's movies.  Hopefully I’ll get better at talking about movies.  I’ll try to keep it going when I can.