Friday, June 24, 2011

John Lasseter and Brad Lewis: Espionage for Automobiles (Cars 2)

                                Cars 2, Disney/Pixar

So much of contemporary American animated cinema is washed out, compact and mechanized. Like all studio genres, audience expectation must be met. No room for adventurous experimentation, hence all of the same anthropomorphous flicks, recycling the same tired plot. Hollywood's formula: if something isn't "broken", then don't fix it. The same goes for their comedy, horror and action genres. When a strong director comes along, then he can whip the old hat into new kicks.Films like Rango and Priest are fewer and fewer.

John Lasseter, as head of Disney's celebrated Pixar division, has shown himself to be a capable craftsman with the occasional touch of greatness. Although surpassed in vision by Brad Bird, as far as American animation auteurs go, his Toy Story films and Up! have left their imprint on our movie going culture, especially the younger set. Cars 2 is the visually dazzling sequel to an earlier success I rather liked in its spin on the talking animals, its simplicity and homespun Americana trappings.

Lasseter delves into that patriotism through our collective fixation on car culture into a plot right out of 007, giving the parents a fun plot to follow while the kids get their beloved Lightning and Mater back. Owen Wilson and Larry the Cable Guy return as capable voice talent, while Michael Caine is deliciously thrown in for the sheer spy factor.

What results is cute and amiable, Summer family diversion, yet far from the glory of classic Walt Disney or contemporary Hiyao Miyazaki.

Jake Kasdan: School of Scatology (Bad Teacher)

Bad Teacher,Cameron Diaz,Jason Segal,Justin Timberlake,Sony Pictures

Expectations are usually at the bottom of the barrel for big Summer comedies-usually they are either lame romantic comedies or lamer gross out attempts at risque satire while remaining safely in the perimeters of crowd predilection. A truly edgy or appealing Summer riot is rare indeed.

Director Jake Kasdan has proven his strength both with dead pan originality(Zero Effect) and human comedy(Orange County), and so arrives guns cocked to cull the subversive shenanigans of Bad Teacher.Essentially your typical studio comedy with emphasis on gender stereotype and tiresome plot structure, where Kasdan triumphs is in his focus on the humor found in power struggles between pegs within a power structure. While the differing personalities of the junior high teachers are old hat and plot device driven, the director somehow makes them seem fresh and funny in collusion with his actors.

Cameron Diaz gets to shine in a different light, playing dark and bitchy, an anti-heroine. That she does horrible things and gets the guy is pretty interesting, shaking the genre up. Her gifts as a comedic actress are well used.

Jason Segal, Lucy Punch, Justin Timberlake and co match her every step. The dialogue is barbed, with numerous hilariously inspired set pieces. Michael Andrews' theme is contagious.

Overall, Kasdan has delivered an above average seasonal comedy, with enough verve to distinguish itself as scatological with substance.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

June Jejune Gloom

                                Mr Popper's Penguins, Jim Carrey, 20th Century Fox

And where would Summer be without the senseless, mechanized drivel that runs on popcorn butter and quick dirty cash? It's become as much apart of the medium as a toddler's skidmarks or the piss stench of an inner city alley way. The signs that the Summer season are upon us? Rising heat and odious billboards that are painful to look at.

This June has been kind thus far, offering sublime creations, art house funk and big bucks pleasure. But we also have three blemishes which present us travesties of their (dis)respective genres, hopefully which the ensuing months can eradicate.

Todd Phillips is a sub-par satirist, to put it mildly. Road Trip, School for Scoundrels and The Hangover were all simplistic, obvious stabs at comedy, pathetically taken for the real thing. Old School was his brightest moment, a guilty pleasure not much better than the aforementioned titles. With The Hangover Part 2, he offers more of the same, a stomach turning, unfunny crapfest which is sadly one of the most mass anticipated films of the year. The Farrelly Brothers' Hall Pass was one of their limpest pictures, but looks like the Marx Brothers beside junk like this. At least the Farrellys have a social conscience and subtext to drive their visions.

Mark Waters started out with a bang over a decade ago, with an edgy, ballsy indie called The House of Yes, still inspiringly inventive today. That promise faded to a whimper with mediocre cop outs like Mean Girls. He's curtailed to the paycheck without holding onto a shred of artistic integrity. With Mr Popper's Penguins, he simultaneously butchers a children's lit classic while making one of the most excruciatingly lame kid flicks of the year. Even the genius of Jim Carrey can't save this one, as our favorite funnyman is on autopilot.

Action vet Martin Campbell seemed a smart choice to helm a big season superhero comic adaptation, having adeptly brought to cinematic life both Zorro and James Bond. So what exactly went wrong with The Green Lantern? Almost everything, apparently. The film looks bland, the script is boring, the usually reliable Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively come off as at their worst. When the CGI moments are the best most surreally distracting element of your picture, you've got problems. Only saving graces? The excellent Peter Sarsgard hamming it up and James Newton Howard's typical but dependable score. This is one of the worst superhero flicks in years, failing on nearly every level.

And so, the Summer is on, the popcorn is stale and available to plug up your ears. Here's hoping for some good old fashioned Summer fun, in the cinemas or the sun, to clear away the unbearable gloom.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lu Chuan: Hearts Afire (City of Life and Death)

The scope, breadth and bravissimo of classic world cinema is gapingly absent from the filmic scene as we know it. A Tree of Life, Carancho, Certified Copy or Midnight in Paris become all the more precious. Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan joins the ranks of the greats with his richly humane war epic, City of Life and Death.

Deep blacks, grays and whites form the timeless imagery of Yu Cao's gorgeously antiquated camera work, framing a series of interconnecting tales and characters involved in the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. This entire device conceptualizes the lost aesthetics of history and cinema, recalling and surpassing Spielberg's Schindler's List. Lu's eye casts our hearts forcefully but gently into the shoes of these men and women, Chinese and Japanese, torn in the machinations of battling nations.

Containing many of the most alarmingly Eisensteinian battle sequences in some time, Lu personalizes the political and aesthetizes the unthinkable, rooting us in the horrors and sympathies of mankind. His cast is sheer brilliance at shining souls of the past; Ye Liu, Wei Fan, Hideo Nakaizumi,Yuanyuan Gao and many others palpitate the fates of the formerly faceless. All aspects of the work fuse spellbindingly, forging a firm place in our hearts and minds as a formidable war picture, human drama, work of art.

Lu pays homage to his past masters, communicating the lineage which is our art form. Eisenstein, Rossellini, Ford, Fuller, and Coppola have burned themselves into his mind, and he, in turn has burned himself into our hearts.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Monte Hellman: Dead End to a Dossier (The Road to Nowhere)

     The Road to Nowhere, Shannyn Sossamon, Monterey Media.

The voluptuous compass of the 1970s live on in the hearts and minds of cinephiles everywhere. Some of our remaining masters hail from that decade; Malick, Allen and Scorsese permeate with the enrichments of that pivotal period. Many of the great auteurs still working from that time are relatively obscure, hence Alan Rudolph, Abel Ferrara, James Toback and our artist of the moment, Monte Hellman.

Hellman rose from the Corman ranks of B picture glory to direct some of the most fascinating rotgut riviera pulp fictions of the 60s to the 80s. The Shooting(1966) remains one of the brilliant westerns encountered; Two Lane Blacktop(1972) has reached the realms of the unreal insofar as drive-in cult meets Bressonian austerity. Later on, before he started teaching at University, he triumphed with the disturbing Iguana(1989).
His signature is muscular, stripped down, existential and circular narratives detailing the detritus of life and cinema and everything in between. His major influence is forgotten studio maven John Huston and his classic thrillers Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle.

All of this to do makes his newest feature, The Road to Nowhere, an even bigger disappointment. A promising concept which Hellman's guidance cannot save, this film within a film/backstage story/true crime mystery never can quite figure out what it wants to be or where it is going. A bad script and worse acting drags many gorgeously textured digital images into the oblivion suggested by the title.

Which is to say that this Road is the worst film Hellman has ever been apart of. Shannyn Sossamon is an underrated actress cast adrift in a dead end noir wannabe. Hopefully Hellman has more in him than this complete waste, a master's misfire and one of the most punishing film experiences of the year.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mike Mills: Just Like Starting Over (Beginners)

                                           Focus Features, Beginners, Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor

The elegiac, bittersweet light which graces Beginners is gentle and disarming. Mike Mills begat some of the most beguiling music videos of the last twenty five years, so it was a no brainer that he would pollinate the motion picture bud as well. Though his debut feature, Thumbsucker, was a hipster's darling idiosyncratic pseudo-indie, it displayed both his deft touch with characters and dialogue, not to mention the magic of his musical inventiveness. With his sophomore project, Mills bucks the "jinx" and propels us headlong into a moving picture with true quirk and consequence.

For Beginners is that rare pseudo-indie about family,love and life that doesn't feel forced,artificial or typical. And that can be attributed to Mills gift as a filmmaker, and the devotion and panache of his cast, led by Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent and an unbelievably wonderful Christopher Plummer. The plot as described is rote; old father coming out, dying; young son falling in love(again), afraid of, well. . .love, life, being like his parents.

The enchantment is in Mills' mise en scene, his effervescence at flashback, stream of consciousness and mystical realism. Enabling us to fall into his deceptively simple act is part of his trick. McGregor has never been better, his wounded eyes allocating a hungry heart in rhythm with his childhood remembrances. His meet cute and tender romance with an incandescent Laurent feels fresh. And the always top notch Plummer gets a once in a lifetime role that he runs with, makes his own, makes ours.

The pain and beauty of life are laid bare, and subsume one another whimsically. Mills power to provoke is revealed in the realization that, just like his characters and his film, everything we do in life is just like starting over.

Jee-woon Kim: Revenge is For the Movies (I Saw the Devil)

     Magnet Films, I Saw the Devil, 2011

Taking pages from the cinematic thriller notebook, powerhouse Korean genre helmer Jee-woon Kim has crystallized the art house shocker, throttling the audience emotionally and mentally in his sickly brilliant new film, I Saw the Devil.

His picture is a slow burn that randomly comes to a boil, piecing together thriller genre staples, existential dread and horror flick ghoulishness. To say that, cumulatively, his itinerary is wicked while wonderful is an immense understatement. Kim has demonstrated that he has a firm grip on genre mastery with his recent films. With this creation, he is proven as one of the great directors working on the international scene.

Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi both give towering turns that entrench us in the minds of two very different yet similar men. The dance of death between a grief numbed cop(Lee) hellbent on revenge, and a psychopathic serial killer(Choi) has never felt so urgent as contained within these celluloid walls, besmirched by the terror of the everyday and the unknown, smeared by bleeding blacks. Lee and Choi are peerlesly breathtaking.

The screenplay, cinematography and musical score all come together hauntingly, at Kim's disposal to weave this all into an ethereal daymare. Obvious influences on the plot would be Death Wish,Blue Velvet, Silence of the Lambs, and Seven. But aside from the spiritual camaraderie of Winner, Lynch, Demme and Fincher, the look and feel of the completed work is all Kim.

Step up, lay back and let the sheer discovery of thrill wash over you, for Kim is unrivaled in recent memory for combining art and genre.

Friday, June 10, 2011

J.J. Abrams: Warm Blooded Old Days (Super 8)

Paramount Pictures Super 8

The halcyon times of Seventies/Eighties pop culture memorabilia have hit a grace note in our swamp assed culture of dead ends and hangdog autopilots, where anything fresh and creative is a miracle worthy of adoration. With everything at our fingertips, we've lost the world of intrinsic simplicity and wonder. Woody Allen touched on nostalgia and bygone era obsession affectionately and acutely in his masterful Midnight in Paris. For today's generation, the Eighties are hokey and playful, safe and enchanting. The Seventies offered us all the richest treasure trove of cinematic inventiveness, spilling over into the Me decade. Everything from arthouse Tarkovsky to mainstream Spielberg screamed with a passion for the power and the promise of the medium.

J.J. Abrams' latest Summer biggie, Super 8, thrives on this nostalgia, and for the most part succeeds as both a paean to our youths and a thrillingly old fashioned sci-fi thriller. Abrams' roots in fantasy television are felt as in all of his work, but go far beyond the functioning action of MI:3 or the misguided mediocrity that was Star Trek. Here, with his exceptional cast of tweens and semi-recognizable character actors, he triumphs in recreating the feel of the films we grew up on. The geography of the small Ohio town beset by bizarre tragedy and the tenacity of the children as aspiring Super 8 genre auteurs brings it all reeling back. The strong character development underlines an emotionality and strength largely lacking in Summer fare.

The third act combusts distressingly, before culminating in a hauntingly beautiful final shot that must have made executive producer Spielberg proud. Michael Giacchino's score is a thing of subtly nostalgic wonder itself. Recalling The Goonies, The Monster Squad, Silver Bullet and It, as well as early Spielberg(especially Close Encounters and E.T.), Abrams' best film glows with the lens flares of those warm blooded old days when we were children and everything was so much more pure.

Matthew Vaughn: Altering History Through Superheroism (X Men:First Class)

 20th Century Fox

The Summer blockbuster is an entity engendering shock and awe in its own right. All of the big bucks, bombast and braggadocio still boils down to a mandatory human factor, requiring that we as an audience are able to identify with the emotions beneath the energy. Bad comic book adaptations meander and muddy what can be our dreams and fantasies of adventure and heroism, good versus evil.

The X Men films have articulated these ideas into fantastical efforts of pop style and historical substance, thanks to Brian Singer and his singular vision as an artist. Brett Ratner and Gavin Hood ably carried the torch with The Last Stand and Wolverine, and promising director Matthew Vaughn is an appropriate choice to father the newest installment. His virile ventures into the Brit crime saga, Layer Cake, as well as his magical fantasy film, Stardust, prepared him for what may just be the most ambitious X Men outing thus far.

X Men:First Class is refreshing, emotional, visceral, hokey, middling and riveting. Vaughn launches his origin film as a scattershot superhero saga which reshapes world history, and it is both daring and riveting. The beginnings of Professor X, Magneto and the X Men is alternately top notch and scattershot, a good popcorn flick that could have been great. A lot of its success relies on its fresh cast, fronted by the incomparable James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, who elicit a homoerotic charge as Xavier and Magneto. Henry Jackman's score is searing, underlining Vaughn's bizarre trajectory of the Cuban Missile Crisis, heavily influenced by Hans Zimmer's iconic theme from Inception.

The third act drags, not holding up its end of the bargain. But for what its worth, a better superhero picture this Summer is highly unlikely.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Terrence Malick: A Story From Before We Can Remember (The Tree of Life)

Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken Fox Searchlight Pictures The Tree of Life

Every so often a film comes along so unique that it polarizes audiences, who are either overjoyed at what has swept over them or angered at the unexpected, drawing forth thoughts and feelings that they are uncomfortale with. American master Terrence Malick has crafted just such a work with his miraculous Tree of Life.

An epic adventure of the ethereal, Tree evokes so many emotions and ideas as to overwhelm its viewers with the very force of existence. Malick bravely, ingeniously forges his own footpath, redefining theme and image with a radical experiment in narrative. To delineate its "plot" is to diverge from the incomparable joy of experiencing it. Suffice to say that it concerns a man's life, memories of a semi-idyllic Southern childhood, fathers, mothers, brothers, morals, masculinity, femininity,middle-age,love,loss,sorrow,evolution,nature,God and Heaven. It is life and cinema and concerns each and every one of us.

Emmanuel Lubezki's images are some of the richest and most beautiful you will ever see, while remaining true to Malick's style, the camera tracking dreamlike, the colors saturated with wonder. The experience of this picture brought to mind 2001 in that it is unlike anything I have ever seen before. Like Kubrick, you recognize Malick instantly, with one frame. He is that kind of artist.

Alexandre Desplat's score is unearthly and potent, matching note for note the director's expression of our life span and beyond. Every element comes together as it should to make this an unqualified triumph.

The Tree of Life is a poem, a prayer, an oath, a diary, a sketch pad, a mirror. With his fifth feature in almost 40 years, Malick clarifies why he is the most important living American auteur. The Tree of Life is an awakening.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Woody Allen: The Magic Lantern (Midnight in Paris)

Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard
Sony Pictures Classics

One of the greatest living filmmakers in the world hits his peak this decade with a flawlessly magical gem which is pure cinema. Woody Allen has seen highs and lows in his fascinatingly potent career. Spanning from stand-up comic to intellectual slapstick helmer to award lauded serio-comic auteur to critically reviled has been only speaks volumes to his profound impact on American culture and the psyche of the world at large. His films are obsessive to the point of beauty, thematically repetitive to the point of genius, and centered on the one great subject since the Greeks, love, to the point of no return.

His heavy influences, Bergman and Fellini, remind us of the great generation he came from, and how much has been lost in the derelict years spiraling to now, where a shallow, shapeless piece of garbage like Todd Phillips' The Hangover Part 2 is the most popular movie in the nation. Allen's neurotic New Yorkers, transfixed by the illusion of love while trembling before the idea of God and eternity, have become a sub-genre, a refined style in and of themselves. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Midnight in Paris is a sublime work of art. Allen utilizes his old comic set up, the sensitive, self deprecating young artist with a partner that's all wrong for him ( a brilliant Owen Wilson, filling in for Allen, in his best performance, and a sly Rachel McAdams), casts them into one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, Paris, but then does something extraordinary. With his recent films, he would have just gone on in this vein, mining the ups and downs of modern love through an Allen glass darkly, surrounding them with temptations in the forms of characters. Instead, Allen looks to his past, especially his fanciful masterpieces The Purple Rose of Cairo and Alice, and even farther back to his adolescent influences. Fellini's The White Sheik and Bergman's Hour of the Wolf come to mind.

Gil (Wilson) finds himself inexplicably transported to 1920's Paris, the world of his great literary idols, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein, as well as the great artists, Dali and Picasso. There, in the incandescent burn of yesteryear, he finds true love in the form of muse Adriana (an always radiant Marion Cotillard). Allen's seamless slipping from past to present, his incredible plot devices, and the sheer joy of life and art one feels as it all unfolds, affirms this as a major work, Allen's best since the misunderstood Celebrity. All of his films in the interim have been fascinating, from his slighter (Small Time Crooks and Whatever Works) to his powerhouses (Match Point, Cassandra's Dream and Vicky Cristina Barcelona) to his most underrated (Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Melinda and Melinda) and everything in between. It has without a doubt been Allen's most unjustly maligned decade, and it may turn out in hindsight to be his greatest.

Master DP Darius Khondji was the impeccable choice to contrast two worlds: the harsh daylight of the present and the smoky amber of the past, recalling the look of Allen's 90s masterwork Bullets Over Broadway. The director's themes of love, humanity, fate, nostalgia and mortality have never been more poignant or powerful. The magic lantern handed down from Bergman has never shined brighter in Allen's hands. Midnight in Paris is one of the master's finest creations, the Allen film we've been waiting a decade for, no questions one of the best films of the year.