December 29, 2012

The Master (12/29/2012)

Lettergrade: D

Excellent performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman (plus a very brief scene where Amy Adams seems to read a letter addressed to Penthouse Forum or something) are not enough to make this oblique and glacially paced movie about a cult leader transparently based on L. Ron Hubbard worth sitting through.  I've said it before and I'll say it again: Paul Thomas Anderson sucks.

Shot in 65mm, so if you saw it projected that way, it might have at least looked really good, I guess.  

December 28, 2012

Django Unchained (12/28/2012)

Lettergrade: A-

Clocking in at 2 hours and 46 minutes, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained fits the characterization that I've had for his last several pictures, namely that it's very talky and long-winded, but with several sensational moments of payoff.

I'm actually not a huge Tarantino devotee myself, but I've seen most of his movies at least once, and I generally like them.  This new one is a bit more like 2009's Inglourious Basterds than his earlier flicks in that it tells more of a mature, linear story, largely free of kitsch and the retro film tricks of Kill Bill and Death Proof.  Like all his pictures, however, it glides smoothly from scenes that are light and comedic into some extremely dark and upsetting territory.

Set in the American south just before the Civil War, it is part blaxploitation movie, part homage to Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, and (as his last several movies have been) all spaghetti western.  Although I'm tempted to call it historical farce - or at the very least, nothing like a credible history lesson - its depiction of American slavery and the men who profited from it is brutal and disturbing.  There are whippings, scenes of torture, messy gun-shot wounds, and slaves forced to kill each other with their bare-hands.  The N-word is deployed countless dozens of times… There's been a lot of controversy about  that, but I think of how Mel Brooks defended its use in his 1974 classic Blazing Saddles by explaining that he used the word in a way that is historically correct:  The cowboys and town-folk all hated Sheriff Bart in that movie solely because of his race.  They wanted to denigrate and dehumanize him, so they called him "nigger," a word that we now interpret as showing bigotry and hatred on the part of those who use it.  The characters in Django are not timid about doing the same.

The general plot of the movie is relatively simple when you break it down, as I suppose all of Tarantino's plots really are at their core. As the picture opens, smooth-talking German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (played by Basterds' unforgettable Christoph Waltz) forcibly acquires the enslaved Django (Jamie Fox) in order to help him identify three wanted men who are worth a good deal of money.  Schultz's deal with Django is that he'll be rewarded with a percentage of the bounty plus his freedom once the men are bought in.  While on the hunt, Django shares that he is married to another slave (Kerry Washington), but their former owner found out and sold them to different plantations in an act of cruelty.  Schultz recognizes Django as an excellent marksman and a solid partner, and offers a further deal:  If he spends the winter working with him, collecting bounties and making money, in the spring he'll go to Mississippi with him and help him find his wife.  "Kill white people and get paid for it?," Django asks. "What's not to like?"

Although the main cast is generally fantastic, it's Leonardo DiCaprio as the particularly sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie, and a nearly unrecognizable Samuel L. Jackson as his somehow even more terrifying head-slave Stephen that steal the movie.  The smaller roles are populated with various actors from cinema-past… such as Italian actor Franco Nero, who played the title role in an earlier, completely unrelated spaghetti western called Django from 1966, and Russ Tamblyn, sort-of reprising his title role from 1965's Son Of A Gunfighter alongside his daughter Amber Tamblyn, who is credited as "Daughter Of  A Son Of A Gunfighter" at the end.  These cameos largely provide in-jokes and references that completely sail past me unnoticed, as I have little more than casual knowledge of any of these pictures to begin with.

Part of the mystique of Tarantino's work during the 90s was that since he hadn't actually made that many movies yet, each one seemed to have an almost seismic impact on popular culture, and greatly influenced films that would be made for several years after (sometimes resulting in some fairly terrible movie trends indeed!).  A thought I had during Django is that now that he's making films a little more frequently (there have been five pictures since 2003 alone, vs. only three in the 90s), the power of a new one coming out feels a bit reduced, and his tricks and patterns are starting to become a little more detectable.  DiCaprio has a big, menacing speech at a dinner table about 3/4s of the way through Django that seems to have come from the same template Tarantino used to write David Carradine's big speech toward the end of Kill Bill Vol. 2, even with a few lines that are similar.  Both are dramatically excellent, mind you, but there are certain techniques - elliptical story-telling centering around a larger thematic point, et al - that are starting to feel like Tarantino standards rather than fresh surprises.

And here's something else… A Tarantino technique that has been used several times now is to have his characters allude to some big fight or a battle that's going to happen at some other location later... only to have the conflict abruptly end right then and there, usually with one character suddenly killing the other.  Early in Kill Bill Vol. 1, Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox agree to delay their fight to the death until that night so her daughter won't be around to witness it... only to have that agreement immediately broken with a drawn pistol.  Likewise, at the end of  Kill Bill Vol. 2, Thurman and Carradine determine that they should meet at a private beach to finish their business once and for-all, suggesting an epic battle royale to come… only to have her surprise him with the fabled five point palm-exploding heart technique.  There's a scene in the second half of Django that repeats this trick again:  Fox convinces his Australian captors that there's a large bounty to be collected if they help him kill or capture a group held-up at a nearby plantation, suggesting a big action scene that's about to happen there in the next scene.  The temptation is too great for the Australians, so they unlock his cage… and are immediately sorry that they did.  

My buddy Shaun saw the movie the same day I did, and commented that while he liked it a great deal, it felt like Tarantino was "genre-hopping" a bit.  (Remember what he did with WWII movies in Inglourious Basterds?  Well, he's doing it again in the pre-Civil War American south!).  I don't think that's entirely unfair, but again, I think he orchestrates it all for such satisfying and memorable payoff that his wearing of his influences on his sleeve doesn't really bother me.  In fact, it's a big part of the charm.  Tarantino's movies have always been made up of redigested bits of other movies as well as various incongruent nuggets of pop-culture.  I don't mind that his soundtracks are made up of songs and scores from other movies, for example, because he's perverted and repurposed them into some highly entertaining new context.

That kind of thing is essentially what his work is largely about anyway, be it with actors, dialogue, storylines, music or sound effects.  It's interesting because more than any other filmmaker who is working presently, his pictures, while they all have sustainable plots and very effective dramatic arcs on their own, are as much about the time that he himself spent watching genre movies on endless loops as a kid, as they are about whatever happens on screen.

December 27, 2012

Frankenweenie (12/27)

Lettergrade: C-

Tim Burton's stop-motion Frankenweenie, a feature length remake of his own 1984 short film of the same name, kinda bombed back when it was released in September. I think I understand why... I was reluctant to see it myself because I wasn't sure how a story about a boy bringing his recently deceased dog back to life ala the Frankenstein monster would be able to overcome its own premise's innate darkness and survive as a entertaining family movie. Now that I've seen it on DVD, I'm pretty convinced that indeed that is what sinks it. Well, that, I suppose, plus that it feels like a 25 minute idea stretched to a feature's length.

Long ago, I remember my buddy Duane saying that part of the reason that The Simpsons show had to be animated was because a big audience wouldn't be able to take a live-action depiction a family that was so negatively dysfunctional under its comedy veneer. I think the same principle (or rather an inversion of it) sort of applies to Frankenweenie. In the original live-action short film, it is perhaps a little easier to swallow the idea of Sparky getting hit by a car (and later dug up and resurrected by the little boy who owned him) because the dog is obviously an animal actor, the boy's line delivery is a little clunky, and the movie at large sort of plays like campy farce rather than something meant to be taken all that seriously.

Burton succeeded at making this new animated version more convincing and with a much bigger heart, but in a way those same qualities make the material a lot more problematic. The dog is able to express and emote a bit more, thanks to the personality and soul the animators give him, and as such it is more disturbing not only to see his death, but also to see his poorly stitched-together body walking around for much of the movie (although it should be noted that he seems perfectly happy to be doing so). Nevertheless, parts of Sparky routinely fall off and must be reattached throughout the film (successfully giving me a serious case of the willies) and the even creepier image I can't stop thinking about is when Sparky would swallow the flies that buzz around his rotting body, only to have have flies promptly escape through a loose stitching in his neck from where young Victor had surgically reattached his head! Any touch that makes the dog more "real" also made me think about what Victor had to do to bring him back, and simultaneously makes me think that this kid is fucked up beyond all description and needs to be placed under the care of some serious mental health professionals immediately.

And that goes double for the film's ending… I'll try to talk about it without giving much away, but suffice to say that at the end of a story like Frankenweenie, you might expect the sentiment to be something along the lines of, "hey you probably shouldn't dig up your dog who was hit by a car and then run excessive amounts of electricity through him in an attempt to reanimate his mangled corpse." You know... something about not messing with the natural order of life and death, kinda like in the original "Frankenstein" story and in the similarly themed Pet Cemetary (or even Jurassic Park), et al. Nothing of the sort happens, though. This is a film where there are zero consequences - legal or otherwise - or learned lessons at the end. The dog is still around - with the town's blessing, apparently - and no one's going to jail for the massive amount of property destruction that happened during the picture's 3rd act.

Does that really matter? Probably not to the movie's core audience, but I think it's a little sad that Burton had 28 years or so to think about what he might do with a feature-length version of this material, and it came time to do it, what wound up on screen is so limp. 2005's Corpse Bride wasn't as much fun as 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas - Burton's first foray into feature-length stop-motion - but it made up for it with a better story and by being a better movie. Frankenweenie kinda runs out of juice early and never really justifies its expanded run time.

December 23, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook (12/23/2012)

Lettergrade: B

The early scenes of Silver Linings Playbook can be characterized by a highly irritating nervous twitchiness that's nearly intolerable to sit through. That's probably how director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) wanted them to feel, though, and indeed they're very effective at getting you into the headspace of Bradley Cooper's Pat, who some months earlier caught his wife showering with another man and flew into a violent rampage followed by a complete mental breakdown.

Newly released from an institution in upstate Pennsylvania, Pat moves back in with his parents and tries to put his life back together through a combination of exercise, treatment and therapy... although he desperately yearns to make some kind of contact with his ex-wife (prohibited by court order). His friends lure him to an unannounced dinner date with Jennifer Lawrence, who is also struggling to get along after her cop husband was killed in the line of duty a year or two earlier while they were in the midst of some martial trouble. Cooper and Lawrence are far too hostile and unstable with eachother to be a couple, but she tells Pat that she actually runs into his ex every now and again, and will pass one of his letters to her (illegally) if he agrees to participate in a dance contest that her husband always refused to do with her.

Sorry… I actually hate reducing the general storyline of a movie like this to a few short sentences that don't really do it justice. The strength of this movie is in the actors' excellent performances and the way in which Russell stages everything rather than what gets you from point A to B. I liked the movie quite a bit, and really appreciated that it very ruthlessly goes against one's expectations and veers into some fairly dark territory at times, but I had some big, big issues with the last third or so.

During the first part of the movie, I wondered how The Weinstein Company could really justify marketing this thing as a romantic comedy. Eventually, I got my answer via a scene that marked the pictures' abrupt turn into fairly standard Hollywood product territory and kinda broke my heart in the process. Pat's dad (played by Robert De Niro, making a rare appearance in a movie that isn't completely terrible) has built up a good amount of gambling debt, you see, and so Jennifer Lawrence for some utterly inexplicable reason convinces his bookie to go "double or nothing" on "the big contest" which just happens to take place in the last part of the movie.

Now that's pretty bad, but what I think is worse is that at the end of the movie, Cooper and Lawrence seem to be completely stable and normal… as if all their struggles with mental health have vanished. So in the end, I guess this is David O. Russell's take on a bullshit Hollywood romantic comedy, but it seems so tragic that a movie which contains some disturbing early scenes detailing what effect fragile mental health can have on a life and family relationships eventually offers "find a pretty girl to take dance classes with" as a solution.

But damn… I hate doing this, too: Bagging on a unique movie that is worth seeing for many reasons, even if it is a little erratic and misshapen, and the end feels like a bit of a cop-out. Suffice to say that in spite of my petty bitchings, I'm glad that I saw it and would happily recommend that you do the same.

I'm not sure I agree with all the Academy Awards nominations it got (apart from the ones for acting and editing), but it's quite intriguing for much of its runtime, and I cannot think of many movies I've seen from 2012 that can say the same.

December 4, 2012

Hitchcock (12/04/2012)

Lettergrade: C-

I'm as big a fan of the films of Alfred Hitchcock as anybody who reasoned that a bachelor's degree primarily made up of film survey courses was a surefire way to pave the way for a bright and prosperous future, but I can't say that Sacha Gervasi's new movie Hitchcock really does either the man or his work justice.

Ostensibly, this is a movie about the trouble Hitchcock had making what would be one of his signature films, 1960's Psycho.  It also, I suppose, attempts a psychological profile of the man himself - of his various kinks and obsessions - and ventures to explain some of what motivates him.  The most screen time, however, probably goes to the film's sort-of love story between Hitchcock and his wife/creative partner Alma Reville, whom the film asserts was the key to and secret behind Hitch's amazing success.

Of those, I think the film fails a bit on all counts but the last one.  It is full of fine performances, don't get me wrong, but the whole thing feels a bit "surfacy"… as if we're getting a good deal of trivia and reenactment, but not a lot of enlightenment.  Anthony Hopkins plays Hitchcock, and although he looks the part with help from a fat suit and some Howard Berger prosthetics, he never truly stops feeling like the caricature that my generation may know from catching reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on Nick At Nite.

Hitchcock could be the most talked about and heavily studied filmmaker in our brief history of cinema, and therein might be the problem.  More than any filmmaker I can think of, Hitchcock's motivations, kinks and obsessions are clear by simply watching a few of his key movies.  Although Psycho is probably the film he's best remembered for, it's tough to make a case that it's the most interesting one he made or that it's the one which is the most revealing of psyche.

The film alludes to Alma's distress over her husband's obsession with a certain type of blond actress, but this is something that began to show itself well before Psycho was made, and which got a hell of a lot creepier a little later in his career.  Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles) says at one point late in this new movie, "You know that poor, tortured soul Jimmy Stewart played in Vertigo? That's Hitch, only younger, slimmer and better-looking."  Vertigo, released two years before Psycho in 1958, stars Jimmy Stewart as a private detective who falls in love with the woman he's keeping a tail on.  After she dies, he eventually meets another woman who happens to look a lot like her, and gradually tries to turn her into the woman he's lost... giving her similar clothes, having her style her hair the same way, etc.  The two films Hitch made after PsychoThe Birds and Marnie... both starred Tippi Hedren, who Hitch had plucked out of relative obscurity and attempted to turn into his "ultimate" leading lady.  Historians note that during the production of Marnie in particular, Alma was heard apologizing to Hedren for her husband's behavior on more than one occasion, and Hedren has been pretty vocal about her dislike for Hitch in the years since.

So if we're talking about Hitchcock as a picture that's supposed to adequately detail this aspect of Hitch, I would argue that the scope is a bit too narrow.  I must say that it does not work for me as an informative history of the making of the classic film either.  After 1959's wildly entertaining North By Northwest, Hitchcock thought it might be interesting to make a horror picture using a more sparse, star-free aesthetic.  Paramount, which still had Hitch under contract, didn't want to make it, so the Hitchcocks mortgaged their house to pay for the production themselves, utilizing many of his collaborators from Presents (rather than his normal feature film team), and shooting the picture on a tight schedule.  All this is interesting, but is seeing a dramatic reenactment of this stuff more interesting than reading the trivia section on  I would argue that it isn't.  And you know… whatever difficulties Hitch had in making this movie, he was still a big marquee-name director who was near the high point of his enormously successful career, working within the studio system.  It's hard to think of this as much of an underdog story.

The movie consistently feels like it's "not enough."  The hiring of Joseph Stefano to write the screenplay is reduced to a brief, awkward job interview, followed by a close up on a script page informing us that he got the job.  Shockingly, Stefano is played by a totally unrecognizable Ralph Macchio (of The Karate Kid and My Cousin Vinny fame!).  If his character is present in the background of later scenes, I sure didn't notice him.  Similarly, the editing and scoring of the picture are blown through at warp speed.  At one point, a few lines are exchanged between Hitch and "Benny" about whether or not there should be music during the murder scene in the shower.  An informed viewer might quickly understand that this is composer Bernard Herrmann and the piece of music that wound up in the scene is probably one of the most famous and imitated in modern film music, but the scene is over before there's much time to think about it.  I suspect touchstone moments like this will be somewhat lost on those who do not already know a little about the making of Psycho.  And if you do know a little about the making of Psycho, I have to wonder what much of this movie is saying that you don't already know.

Screen time is frittered away detailing an association that Alma may-or-may-not have had with a writer named Whitfield Cook, who tries to persuade Alma to help him revise his novel into something that Hitch will make into a movie... while Hitch himself watches from the sidelines growing increasingly suspicious.  Numerous other sequences have Hitch imagining conversations with Ed Gein, the real-life serial killer profiled in Robert Bloch's "Psycho" book, loosely used as the foundation for the screenplay.

I'm unsure if either of these things have much basis in what Hitchcock and his wife were really going through during the making of Psycho, but even if that stuff did happen, I question how the film makes use of it.  If Alma's relationship with Whit did exist, wouldn't it be more interesting to see it only from Hitch's perspective (that is, from the point of view of a jealous husband watching his wife quasi-flirt with another man across the parking lot) than it is to sit through lengthy scenes of Alma and Whit working on his screenplay together?   We'd be robbed some damn fine acting from Helen Mirren, sure, (really, she's the most interesting thing about the movie by far) but isn't the film's title Hitchcock and aren't we supposed to be seeing a story about him?

The supporting cast is quite stellar... especially Scarlett Johansson who does a pretty uncanny Janet Leigh impersonation and James D'Arcy who has Anthony Perkins' look and mannerisms down pat.  Michael Stuhlbarg plays Hitch's agent (and future MCA mogul) Lew Wasserman, and Toni Collette steals a scene or two as Hitch's long-suffering personal assistant Peggy.

The real heart of the picture, though, is clearly Mirren.  I suppose that overall you could say that this is a picture about Hitch and Alma falling apart and then coming back together again.  That's fine for a fictionalized movie, maybe, but anyone who knows a little about the real Hitch and Alma know that her frustration dramatized by this movie would continue on for years to come.  This movie kind of suggests that all is resolved once Psycho comes out and becomes a big hit.

Certain key bits of Hitch's dialogue feel like they were probably taken from statements that the director is known to have said (or to have thought) throughout his career.  Sometimes he's rude, sometimes he's dismissive, and sometimes he's a little harsh, but there's always a lilt of devilish glee there - perhaps with a little more malevolence in Hopkins' portrayal than was present in the genuine article himself, who had a somewhat kinder and dopier face than that of his counterpart here.  Nevertheless, for a supposedly biographical picture that bears his name, I feel like it leans a little more heavily on bumper-sticker quotes than on substance.  Maybe there wasn't more much more to Hitch in private than the slightly goofy TV host who underlined words like "fieeeeendish!" and never missed an opportunity for a pun, but I suppose I find it hard to believe that the guy's behavior when he was in his bathtub at home wasn't that different than how he acted and spoke when he was on television.

December 2, 2012

Brave (12/02/2012)

Lettergrade: C-

As I've mentioned in other posts, the arrival of our son 10 months ago has knee-capped our trips out to see current movies at the cinema, in addition to limiting our knowledge of what many recent movies are even about.

In some ways, this is a great thing:  You sit down to watch a flick with very few expectations about what you're in for, largely because you haven't seen a ton of trailers which reveal key aspects in advance.  My sister Sarah sometimes talks about how seeing The Matrix when she was living overseas in 1999 was amazing because she knew virtually nothing about it beforehand.  The flip-side of this, though, is that the early scenes of a movie can kind of set expectations that the rest of the movie doesn't follow or entirely live up to.  I'll never forget when I took my friend Ryan to see 1995's From Dusk Til Dawn...  He really enjoyed the first 40 minutes or so - where it looked like the picture was a gritty thriller about two brothers who kidnap a pastor and his family in an attempt to get across the border into Mexico.  Of course, midway though everyone arrives at a mysterious bar that happens to be a hang-out for the undead, and the film suddenly erupts into an uber-violent vampire slaughter picture ala Evil Dead 2.  Moments after the "turn" happened, I remember looking over at my buddy who was completely slack-jawed.  "This just became the stupidest movie I've ever seen," he said, and he hasn't let me live it down since.

Now, I bring all this up because we watched Pixar's Brave over the weekend, knowing virtually nothing about it in advance.  At first, it appeared to be about the fiery and independent daughter of a medieval Scottish king who does not want to be forced to marry a prince from one of the other tribes.  It was a little slap-sticky for my tastes, but I was surprised by how interested I was in the story of Merida (voiced by the ever-fetching Kelly MacDonald) and that I really cared about her right to make her own choices in life and to choose her own path.

None that ultimately mattered, though, because about 35 minutes in, the movie totally shifts gears and becomes a full-blown fairy tale, complete with an ambiguous witch and all sorts of other fantastical shit that has nothing to do with the earlier storyline at all.  I was pretty ho-hum on the "second" movie... like my friend Ryan so many years earlier, I would have really liked to see where the first one was going instead.  Was the fantastical stuff in the trailers?  Had I seen them, would I have been braced for what was coming?  Unsure, but regardless I found myself a bit unsatisfied by what actually came.

And my wife pointed out something curious... when Merida asks the witch for help in changing her parents' rigid view that she marry a royal son of another tribe, the witch responds by giving her a magic pastry that, unbeknowst to Merida, will turn her mother into a bear.  Huh?  Later in the movie we find out that there was some other asshole in the past who came to the witch and asked to have "the strength of ten men!," to which she replied by also giving him a magic pastry that turned him into a bear.  So that's it, is it?  Anytime anyone comes to this woman asking for help, a baked good that turns someone into a bear will be the universal fix-all, will it?  What bullshit.  Sounds to me like she suspiciously really only has this one trick.

And then later, I guess it's supposed to be a big reveal that it's this earlier bear who mauled off the leg of Merida's father (voiced by the wonderful Billy Connolly) in the prologue of the movie... as if that's supposed to be some kind of meaningful bombshell to the overall story.  Once the "mom-bear" shows up later, the dad leads a blood-thirsty mob against the bear with the intention of brutally killing it upon capture.  My buddy Shaun said that his five year old was extremely disturbed by this aspect of the plot, and I've got to admit that I, a 34 year old, found it to be pretty dark and fucked up myself.

But wait, let's end on some positive notes here...  Um, the animation was really amazing and pretty.  And I appreciate that they got a lot of "actually Scottish" actors to do the voices, and a real Scotsman to write the music.  And I guess it was only 85 minutes or so, making it significantly shorter and nowhere near as excruciating as Pixar's last movie, 2011's puerile Cars 2.  So... you know... all that's good, but jeeeeeeeeeesus does the story get weird.