Friday, December 28, 2012


Every movie you come across, every experience, you have to be subjective when you come to it, and you have to bring your own experiences with it beforehand. With Les Miserables, or, just say it, 'Lay-Miz', I hadn't seen the musical before, in person or on video, didn't listen to the album, nor read the book or see any of the other movie adaptations (though after this I would like to). I came into it fresh, though knowing and/or respecting the cast assembled. And Tom Hooper's a good man to have for a period-piece after works like John Adams (for HBO) and the King's Speech (for Harvey Weinstein/Oscar glory). So, I just got to be honest... the music, in general, doesn't do it for me. 

It's a simple thing: it's not exactly a 'musical', it's an opera (or, what's the term, 'libretto' or other?) Everybody sings, and if I counted correctly there is about, perhaps, 3 to 5 percent of speaking dialog among what are a whole lot of just characters singing their dialog, all in rhyme, between some big set pieces and other numbers that just kinda, you know, stop suddenly. And because not much, if at all, has changed from the musical, there's an odd sort of contradiction going on dramatically that I found consistently interesting, if unnerving: here Hooper presents a very realistic, vivid depiction of 1815-1832-ish Paris, down to the cobblestones and grime and Terry Gilliam-esque direction (which I actually enjoyed, more often than not, though it got tiresome near the end), and yet... it's still a slavishly faithful adaptation of the staged setting.

Again, very interesting, this split. But, for me, the characters, with the exception of a few of the leads (i.e. Jean Valjean, and... maybe Marius to a small extent, or arguably Javert but with TOO much subtlety compared to everything else), there's no character development or growth that I could latch on to. Valjean is also a saint from minute one to the last, with Hooper especially emphasizing the Christ-like metaphor by the last scene. And so that leaves the music. And the singing. Lots and lots of singing. Sometimes singing about just moving from a place to another. And there is usually movement, or something not, from the camera to go along with this. And sometimes it matches up very well, such as Fatine's iconic 'Dreamed a Dream', where Hooper never cuts through the bulk of the song and practically gift-wraps her Oscar for her (and yes, it IS a showstopper, as well it should be). Other times, such as the other great (and just most fun) number 'Master of the House' with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the inn-keepers, the camera and cutting has to just try to keep up with their energy. 

But... there is just so MUCH there 'there', that it becomes too overwhelming, especially when in the second half, for me, the less interesting plot of the revolutionaries kicks in. This ties in, to be sure, with the Valjean/Javert conflict, which is the sort that is captivating at first and then... trickles off. I attribute this to Crowe's performance, far more than to do with Jackman, who is there for every scene and every beat and who could be my anchor through even the silly-sappy moments, because of a general stiffness to his character. And the singing isn't the issue, which other critics have latched on to. For what it's worth he can belt it out (almost) as much as the best of them, and is a decent contrast to, say, the almost unintentionally funny soprano pipes on Redmayne. But as far as a performance, sensing him in the character, it never clicked, which is a big problem as he's the villain of the piece. Upstanding and official, sure, it's called for. But there's little life I could send in what Crowe was playing. It just came off as going beat for beat.

To the film's credit, when the actors can click, such as Hathaway, it's thrilling (albeit she, too, has to amp up the drama to make Fatine even BIGGER in the scope of Hooper's lens, then again it's a smaller part than I expected). Hell, I didn't mind some of Hooper's wonky stylistic choices, at least on the whole, since that was one thing I was hoping to make the landscape different (cutting is a different story - when the action sparks up with the rebels vs the soldiers, it's a frenzy). But... it comes back to just not finding an in, personally, with the framework of the constant singing. It's almost unfair to say it, but I'll go there - because of so much singing, where every line, however trivial, is part of a song, the real big numbers almost became undermined. One of the great things in a movie musical is to have something that can move you, but, like any good song, you can remember. Aside from 'Dreamed a Dream', 'Master of the House', and most of 'One Day', where everybody gets a number layered like a symphonic-onion, I couldn't tell you what a song or tune was in Les Mis. For me, that was an issue that couldn't be totally resolved.

And yet, as a critic, my job is to tell you what I thought of it. Should I also say what you might find in it? I don't know. You all will come to Les Miserables with your own preconceptions, or come to it fresh. I can say that shards of the film counted, moments and scenes, even with a character I didn't feel I got enough time with like Samantha Barks's Eponine who sings about her love for a character and, for a few minutes, I really could feel it and connect... before it was over. Do you go for inspirational, quasi-or-all-the-way Christian-inspired schmaltz? Do you like seeing such daring-do (relatively) as seeing actors sing their songs live on camera without the lip-sync? Or are you a big fan just wanting to relive the experience you saw on stage for much less a ticket price, more popcorn, more trailers, and more close- ups? Then have at it. Les Miserables is a movie I think will split audiences, but to those that love it, it will be BIG, meaningful, impactful.  For those that hated it... I hear you, too. It's a work, as music, as film, as performance, that will give you a good sex-session. How you take it, depends entirely on the strokes.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Papa Mike's Video #7: TITICUT FOLLIES - a Frederick Wiseman documentary

One of those great films that I may never want to watch again (like United 93) because it just peers almost TOO harsh with a camera-of-truth on to what went on in a hospital like the Bridgewater mental institution for the criminally insane in 1966.  Think the Maysles doing a remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (the book, not the movie) - we see the basics of the goings on at the hospital, how they are let out into the yard to kind of putter about, maybe at best a baseball and catcher's mitt, and then are given regular shavings, food (whether by the patient's choice or by forced-tube depends on how one reacts after such a time of, you know, electro-shocks and whatnot), and are belittled by the staff.

I should look at this as objectively as possible, since in a sense director Frederick Wiseman is doing the same.  He does employ some storytelling devices, such as cross-cutting (in a very effective if totally depressing set-piece of a sort) when the one patient we see, half-starved and half out-of-it, is force-fed with that tube and then, some time later, that patient being shaved and brushed up... as he is dead and getting ready for burial.  That was one of the great shocks in the film for me to see that, and for a brief moment I felt Wiseman crack his otherwise mostly coldly clinical lens on the proceedings to strike a point: you go in there, there's a very good chance you'll die.  For not too brief moments, a holocaust vibe can almost be felt.  At least for me.

Maybe the power of Titicut Follies is that everyone who comes to it will see something different.  You think that these guys in this mental hospital-cum-prison deserve to be here?  Hey, why not treat them like the scum they are?  But does that give the prison guards the right to, for example, taunt a patient about cleaning up his room when there's more likely than not *nothing* wrong with his room, and just waiting like a hot poker on a dog for him to snap?  Maybe to work in a place like this you gotta go a little nutso yourself; certainly a doctor, either Greek or Romanian or something, is either not really qualified to be a doctor with the kinds of questions he asks, or is a little crazy himself when asking another patient about his homosexual acts as a child in the boy scouts.  Did this contribute to his schizophrenia?  Who cares?  We must, I think is clear.  What about the guy who thinks he is NOT crazy, and has been mistreated for a year and a half?  Is he crazy, or not?  Do we have enough information to really judge?  Based on what we see, it's just fucked up all over, mostly on the doctor's end.

In the specific scheme of things, in terms of modern history, Titicut Follies is now a bit dated.  Thanks (or in some part no thanks) to Ronald Regan in the 1980's, facilities like this were shut down, in large part to their mismanagement and barbarism, but also because of new pharmaceutical drugs that DID help much better than, say, Thorazine or electro-shocks.  At the same time it can also be argued that, you know, more of these hospitals today might keep such psychpathic killers like Adam Lanza and James Holmes away from automatic weapons.  That's another kettle of fish.  But really, when it comes down to it, this is a time-capsule, a look into this very specific time in history (the kind that, by the way, does have scenes of patients talking, not too un-lucidly, about Vietnam and what Communism means, a striking moment any way you look at it) that was shot and edited to elicit SOME kind of reaction.  The worst thing of all is if you leave the film without any kind of reaction, the same indifference bureaucratic nothings give to such patients and/or prisoners that need some kind of better care than seen here.

But in the bigger picture, as it were, the film still resonates because so many systems, all across the world, have this kind of problem.  Not enough care, too much care in the wrong places, and just the attention to human decency in what people do in a system.  It can be a mental hospital or it can be just a trip to the DMV.  How people are treated, even those that don't seem to have clear idea always of what their doing, makes a difference.  Seeing the half-surreal scenes of the 'Titicut Follies' of the title bring this to light: this should be good for these people, and maybe for a few minutes for some of the people singing (at one point in the middle a couple of inmates have a duet) it brings happiness.  Yet I can't escape the feeling that this is also part and parcel of the whole manipulation: if they are animals to be tamed and controlled, as if beasts out of a wild cage (or like some of the side characters in Scorsese's Shutter Island), then maybe a little vaudeville will snap them into something that, well, is entertaining more for US than THEM.  At the end when the nurses moon the audience, the whole scene feels crazy, like as if we've taken the madness along with them.  And then it cuts to black.  Splash of reality all over.

Titicut Follies isn't a perfect film, some scenes drag and may feel 'dull' by conventional standards.  Fine.  Life has those moments as well.  In a sense I can see where the censors who banned the film were coming from, in terms of 'invasion of privacy' and so on.  We DO see too much.  I felt unclean by the end of this.  For Wiseman, he may have invaded their privacy.  Whether it was for some greater good he was achieving, or to just get it all down on celluloid, like some kind of cinematic anthropologist, he accomplished what he set out to do.  You can never 'un-see' a film like this, and that's the point.  Even the black and white serves a purpose, and has the same kind of harsh 'truth' style of a Night & Fog by Resnais.  It's an unpleasant masterpiece of documentation.

Special guest in the court of the MOVIE MONARCHY!

I forgot to post about this earlier, and shame on me, shame on the crown of America, and... oh, wait, what, there's no crown in America?  Goddamnit!  Someone should tell me these things!

I was on a podcast.  No, not the 'Creatively Stumped' Podcast, which I used to be one of the hosts on way back in the way (two/three years ago).  It's run by Matt Rorabeck and Eric Marchen, Canadian film critics (I think from that place, how do I say it, Otto-wa?)  They're knowledgable, fun cats to talk with, and I was very happy to be on their show back in OCTOBER, also with Miss Audrey Lorea, who has acted for me in projects, and I've produced for her, super great mega awesome collaborator.  Plus we got a special interview about our own films, 'Green Eyes' and 'Heaven is Now'.

AND I returned!  Yesterday, they had me on to talk about 'Jack Reacher', 'This is 40' (the latter I haven't seen yet, but I got to be kind of the questioner of things to keep the conversation lively), also new trailers and new-news.

AND MORE!  Tomorrow I'll be on for ANOTHER special Christmas podcast about my favorite American film of the year, 'Django Unchained', plus 'Les Miserables' (not seen), and some other trailer news.  I had to cut out near the end, but it was still fun as hell (and hell is for movie-childrens after all!)

Link to the first episode

The interview

Latest Podcast

Friday, December 21, 2012

Quentin Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED (UNCUT)

Here is a sneak preview of my review - this is the uncut text, the full review will be on Film-Forward later.  But for now, here it is in its full seven-paragraph glory.

A filmmaker's love for his art can be infectious – we've seen it for a good forty years from Martin Scorsese – and there's no working filmmaker I can think of who can, more often than not, infect his audience with that same love and admiration that Quentin Tarantino does. I look at his body of work and there's barely anything I don't think is not only good but phenomenal. It is personal preference; certainly everyone and their mothers (or even grandmothers) has their thoughts on Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bills, Inglourious Basterds, even Death Proof and the lesser known but likable short 'The Man from Hollywood' from Four Rooms. Now we come to the full-blown western, or the spaghetti western (ala Leone, Corbucci, etc), or, scuese me again, the “Southern” as Tarantino has called Django Unchained. How does it live up to his past works? On first viewing – smashingly well, and still with surprises.

When Jamie Foxx's Django is plucked out by Christoph Walt'z bearded dentist Dr. King Schultz (last name 'Freeman'? Perhaps that's a misnomer, I can't tell, or simply a description of who he is), he is disheveled and shaking after walking for days. He is freed by Waltz from his masters for a simple reason: Django knows what the three Brittle brothers look like, and King needs to find them for his bounty – dead or alive. After finding them on a plantation (this itself classic Tarantino, full of absurd humor with a particular flamboyant attire Django puts on himself like French aristocracy, and then horror with flashbacks of slave whippings and torture, and commupance in brutal, quick-witted style, not to mention Don Johnson as a wry plantation owner), and doing what must be done, a sort of mentor/pupil/friendship develops between King and Django. But training isn't all – Django wants to track down his wife Brunhilda, being kept somewhere in the south. Cue the second half of the film from here.

 If I described the plot it doesn't sound too complex. Nor would Kill Bill (maybe 'Basterds' to a little more extent past 'killing Nazis). It's what this filmmaker does with his locations, with these actors who he has cast all so they can show off everything that they got – even Jonah Hill, in just one scene among a bunch of pre-KKK clansmen who have a goofy but very funny argument about the eye-holes in their hoods – that counts so. I don't know how much passion Tarantino had going into the project, though for me I was slightly (though only slightly) concerned on a few particulars, mostly to do with collaborators: Sally Menke, his long-time editor, passed away and this would be his first film without her; ditto producer Lawrence Bender (what happened there, who knows), as well as reports over the summer of various actors leaving the film due to the ol' 'scheduling conflicts' or just (with Anthony LaPaglia's character, who I assume Tarantino replaced himself to play late in the film) walked off completely. Was this a troubled production, not to mention at 165 minutes, his longest run-time?

From what I can tell, it's still the same glorious work of this writer/director from before. In fact he's going MORE ambitious in a way, or just trying new things that impressed me. For once, or maybe since Jackie Brown, his hero is someone who doesn't have bloon on his/her hands already prior to the start of the story. Django is a noble, smart guy, even as a slave he needs some basic education (he learns to read off wanted posters), but picks up Dr. Schult'z lessons very quickly. It really becomes a mythic story for this character, not least compared to classic German folklore (Brunhilda is a famous character in a German fairy tale, this getting a very nice- yes, 'nice'- scene between Django and Schultz by a fire late at night), and I loved seeing his journey from start to finish. Especially when it comes time to get to Candieland. 

I'm the king of the slave-world. 
  While I was liking the movie quite a bit for the first half as a fun bounty hunter-and-pupil story, with some hints at Django's past (i.e. wicked-eyed Bruce Dern makes a cameo), and lots of linguistically-magnificient dialog/delivery from Tarantino and Waltz (what a combination once again!), it's when we get to DiCaprio's Calvin Candie, and by proxy his sort of Dick Cheney pulling the strings (Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson), that the film becomes another suspense masterpiece like the sections of 'Basterds' that are remembered most fondly. Django has to be very careful, as well as Schultz, in getting Brunhilda out of Candie's hands, and these scenes get deeper than just fun: it's menacing, intense, and the dialog stretches so far that Tarantino is walking a dental-floss-thin tightrope as to keep the audience with it all. 

The acting, suffice to say, makes up so much of what is great here that it meets Tarantino so much of the time. I have never, and you may have not either, seen DiCaprio play such a villain before, one so... used to his own brutality, with his pointy-bearded-devil chin and cigarette holder, he's a classic villain for any movie, but so much more sadistic due to his time and place, a fourth or fifth generation plantation owner raised by slaves, loving to see them brutally beat the crap out of each other, and here and there (be warned) eaten by dogs. But behind him is Sam Jackson. You almost forget how perfect, every note and line spoken and step taken, he is in all of Tarantino's films (Jules, Ordell Robie), but here it's something else: who do you ahte more, the slave master or the slave that becomes a sort of 'master' of the house? Jackson plays Stephen as a very old man, yet one who's mind is razor-sharp, sensing everything, and we may fear him even more than Candie... that is, until he pulls out a certain skull from a box. But I say too much.

Go see Django Unchained, as the best kind of counterprogramming of the season (Les Miserables), or better yet pair it up with Lincoln and make it a grand-old filmmaker's masters course on how to look at the Civil war just before (this film, 1858) and the end (1865). It's very bloody, musically awe-inspiring, Foxx has never been better, and it asks you to take it on its own brazen, half-cartoonish-half-frightening/shockingly accurate terms. It's major work by a confident master-remixer of genre. If anything I can say is disappointing, ironically enough, it's the first Django, Franco Nero, who has his own cameo at one point, which stops the movie cold for a scene we all saw in the trailer.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Papa Mike's Video #6: Francois Truffaut's MISSISSIPPI MERMAID

A gangly logline, sure, but the poster is pretty damn amazing
Mississippi Mermaid (damn, it's a job just to type 'Mississippi') is said to be Francois Truffaut's first big studio movie (and what, Fahrenheit 451 was a little indie movie?) and it shows just in the stars, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve - two of France's most beautiful and prominent - and that the story should give these actors something juicy to play with: a man has the 1960's equivalent of a web-relationship, with letters and correspondence, and asks this woman to be his wife on the island of Reunion (I'm sure there's significance there, whatever), not knowing that a) this woman is NOT who she says she is, b) the actual woman is dead, and c) there may be a bit of a con going on with this woman and this man, who owns a plantation/factory on the island, and his millions of dollars.

It's pulpy material, and yet... I couldn't see too much past the B-movie ness of it.  It's a B movie by an A-quality director.  Or rather, Truffaut is smart in how he chooses his material, which is from a Cornell Woolrich story (also writer for a few good pulpy noirs of the 1940's and Hitchcock's Rear Window - his other contribution for Truffaut, The Bride Wore Black, I've yet to see), and to take from Hitchcock (or maybe Renoir? I got the sense Renoir was cause he had recently passed away).  Hey, why not?  A suspense film with big stars in exotic locales?  Will this be more Vertigo or To Catch a Thief?

A time when traveling by map was a serious matter.

The real flipping-of-the-script as it were in the story of Louis (Belmondo) and Julie-cum-Marion (Deneuve) is that when Louis does track his wife down to a small town where she is dancing the night away, and she confesses the wrongs she has done, but also her past: she was an orphan, she had a rough early life, then she met a man on a ship headed to Reunion, saw him kill the real Julie Roussel, and then, well, things just 'happened' the way they did.  Instead of, y'know, trying to dig deeper about where his money is, or do something like kill her, he decides to do something unexpected: fall even deeper, and madder, in love.  And in a way this is what makes the second half most interesting.  Now that there is some sort of understanding, a newfound relationship can be had, where before there was a coldness to things (i.e. the wedding band Belmondo puts on Deneuve's finger, on-the-nose but still effective symbolism as to their 'bond').

My problem, and maybe this won't be for all people, was that there was a nagging feeling throughout this second half, which I think Truffaut played up more as the film got closer to its climax in the cabin in the woods, that the bottom would drop out.  Certainly I wasn't sure what to feel for Belmondo, except that he was a total dupe, and yet as the film went on I did get the sense, maybe more from the performances than the writing (albeit a few keen-funny moments like an unintended flashing of Deneuve's breasts on a road-side), that these people were in love and would do anything for one another.  Doomed?  I dunno.  But this guy just never clicked with me, except perhaps as a romantic foil, like Bunuel's lead in That Obscure Object of Desire, only Truffaut is nowhere near as ruthless as Bunuel in depicting romantic obsession and ennui.  Unlike in, say, The Soft Skin, a very tough romantic picture, he doesn't quite go FAR enough in a strange way.

Sleeping Beauty 2: Electric Fuckaloo... yeah, I got nothing.

Maybe he IS a good manipulator in a sense of 'Will she or WON'T she' do something, but a lot of the second half when it's not googly-eyed Belmondo at Deneuve by, say, a fireside describing in synonyms every part of her face, there's fighting and bickering.  And while both actors are charismatic, I strangely felt more for Deneuve's Marion, who is a criminal in the sense of being an accomplice to an earlier murder - which the detective that pops up mentions (GOD, what a nuissance! I kid) - before he meets his own demise.  Like a B-paperback book, there's some good twists and turns, but strangely, I was expecting more.  I was feeling manipulated by Truffaut's technique, which was good, but only up to a certain point.  I find it perplexing to describe what I mean but, take it like this: a guy is trying to have his way with a girl, he keeps trying, but then she stands firm, and he backs down.  Realistic?  Maybe.  Does it work dramatically?  Perhaps.  But where else will the drama go?  Is it all happily-ever-after out in the snow?

I get the romanticism angle of the piece, but it clashes oddly with the first half of the film, which is more of a standard but technically interesting pot-boiler (the shots and cuts as Belmondo drives a car early on are really fun to watch, as is the opening credits sequence over newspaper clippings, and other shots like Julie's face on cigarettes can be mildly captivating).  But other things don't add up as well just with the plot that Truffaut puts by the wayside: Julie's sister, who collaborates with Louis to get a detective in the first place, disappears from the movie; how a certain body is discovered is rather ludicrous, even for a movie based on a short story/paperback/what-have-you; some decisions with money, even for dumb movie characters, can be stupid.

"Do NOT fall asleep mid-take again, Jean-Paul!"
What Truffaut gambles on, I think, and is partially paid off, is that his stars will carry and imbue the narrative with a certain spark.  And he's right, up to a point.  I enjoyed seeing these two play off one another, and certainly Deneuve is so beautiful - maybe TOO beautiful for a kind of old-school 'femme fatale' as she may (or may not) be in the scope of the story - that it makes sense how hard Louis falls for her.  Belmondo is... just Belmondo I guess, though I kept having a slight nagging feeling: didn't I see this character before, and better and more idiosyncratic, in Godard's own lovers-on-the-run saga Pierrot le fou?  Maybe Truffaut's film is a little homage to that as well, as some but not all of his stylistic decisions could be more unconventional-fucking-with-you Godard than playful-but-amusing Truffaut (the difference of the Beatles and the Stones in other words).  This is all well and good, but sadly, for the stars involved and the locales and solid camerawork, Mississippi Mermaid is ultimately minor, okay work from a director that did better.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Papa Mike's Video #5: Andrzej Wajda's ASHES AND DIAMONDS

When it comes to violence in the media, no one looks at this.  Too obscure probably.  
(Almost, just almost, forgot that I had done a 'Papa Mike's Video' segment here going back a year and a half ago.  It stalled cause... I dunno.  Lazy, not motivated, I could give excuses or reasons, what have you, I just didn't catch up.  Since The Decalogue - go back to July 2011 for that - I have amassed a few more 'Papa's Mike Video' selections, and finally tonight popped one in.  Boy was I glad I did so!)

Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds had to be smuggled practically out of the country for it to play at the Venice film festival, where it went on to international acclaim and so on and so forth. But it's how Wajda changed around the book that sounds most interesting: originally it was going to be (in the book anyway) the character of the senior communist official, Szczuka, played by Waclaw Zastrzezynski as a respectable older man who fought in Spain for the communists many years before (this also changed from the book, though only slightly). But Wajda's daring was twofold: make Maciek Chelmicki, who was more of a supporting character, the lead, and cast someone who should be too... well, contemporary to play a trained killer/soldier in Poland circa 1945, Zbigniew Cybulski. Cybulski showed up with his look, and said it was his look and wouldn't change it. Thank goodness.

When Cybulski appears in the film, it does, for just a split second, seem like an anachronism, or the reverse of it, I don't know. He has dark sunglasses, a jacket that looks like it was out of Travis Bickle's collection, jeans and different-non-soldiery shoes (this latter part I didn't notice, the jacket, haircut and especially the glasses stood out most). The director compared him to James Dean, but for me it almost seemed like someone akin to Belmondo's character a few years later in Breathless: cool, hip...young, basically. He stands out because he *is* a stand-out, a young person. He isn't the only one, of course, as he waits at this hotel overnight on the last evening of the war, people having lots of (drunken) fun celebrating, or having fancy dinners, or singing/playing music - there is also the young woman Krystyna (a very pretty Ewa Krzyzewska, whose performance grew on me as the film went on). She works as the bartender, and Maciek, being a young guy in a strange place, fancies her. But is this something more? CAN he feel something more? 

The end of the war at first doesn't really affect him too much, and why should it? He chose to do this last mission, and so did probably a lot of young men unsure what to do with their lives. Not all of the dialog early on is the most original, but it's acting, how Cybulski carries every word and step, how he goes about a room when he's happy-delirious (flaming lots of shot-glasses as his superior says names of people, dead people I gathered), or melancholy (the bathroom scene, one of my favorites). Not all of the scenes without him are fantastic - there's a sort of sub-plot with another guy apart of the killing-group who gets wasted with an older guy, and who causes a ruckus (which is putting it politely at one point, happens concurrently with the meeting Maciek has with his boss), and there's some goofy comedy to that. Wajda needs this in the story, and we probably do too: too much time with the brooding Cybulski, a very handsome but impulsive guy, and it might be too much. 

I'm sure there's some art criticism I could apply here, but really I just want to marvel how much he looks like Josh Brolin
And the backdrop is very apt here. So much celebration, and yet, in a big way, perhaps the message is (or was for me), the fighting never really ends. Not really. There will always be an enemy, always someone to kill in the name of "superiors" who are never seen, except for one of their middle men. Most curious, but appropriate in watching it, that Wajda and his DP were influenced by film noir and gangster pictures, especially the Asphalt Jungle. The film doesn't have that genre to a full extent, since it's more of a war film (or immediate 'post-war', kind of like how Italy had its post-war-but-still-wartime films). But the themes resonate through gangster films; the big fat-last kill, the crime being purported, the coolness off-set by the tragedy. And the ending, which borrows more than a bit from 'Jungle' (though I forgot all about it and really got broken up, by the shot, the acting, the location akin more to Los Olividados), is unforgettable as making this story matter past being a simple wartime parable.

It doesn't surprise me it made a smash in Poland, where Wajda smuggled, as Scorsese would say, ambiguity in the middle of a communist-run country, and intrigued the rest of the world. It's a tough and rough picture in some ways, yet gorgeous to look at in others. Occasionally an intended metaphor may go over my head (the horse), or be a little thick not even in meaning but just visual power (the upside down figure on the cross). But Ashes and Diamonds holds up, in large part because the performance/character of the protagonist resonates, because the story feels true to the world it's depicting. How long can murder and massacre go on for? What do politics do amid people crying in their houses over dead loved ones? Big points that could have been spoon-fed are left for us to decide, and all the better for it.

And cue Blow Out piano music...


Yes, I know.  This is now an irregular blog.  It happens.  The marriage grew stale, what can I say?  Say what I can.  Life, other things, interests, goofing off on the internet or with books and movies or making glorious pun-sex to my real-life wife.  Things have kept me away from this blog, not least of which directing one movie, producing another, and producing a comedy TV pilot (a lot of those things don't actually take up TOO much time, just enough so I can exaggerate things a bit).

But I HAVE seen movies this year, a good many, and once again I have been thinking about what the 'Out-of-Time' moments are of the year, those scenes that left an impression, whether the film was great, very good, okay, not so good, or just downright terrible.  I have a bunch.  Some are from movies I haven't reviewed at all - except in my brain...

So yeah, a rough list, with a little explanation of stuff here and there:

1) CONSUMING SPIRITS - an animated film unlike any other this year, one that befuddled me, bored me at times, but picked up with a fully emotionally grounded third act (or is it 4th and 5th) that drew me in closer into its idiosyncratic, paper-machete/Gumby-production-designed landscape.  A moment out of this time would be seeing an old (animated) woman, stark naked, mumbling about this or that Dr. Katz style, and her daughter (only looking marginally different) trying to get her back to being sane again.

2) PROMETHEUS - Michael Fassbender's David watches Lawrence of Arabia like it hasn't already gone out of style.  He watches Peter O'Toole be graceful and priggish on a screen so wide and digital it adds a 7th  dimension in the frame.  He may be an android, but do androids dream of lovingly-performed homage?  "Nothing is written."  Sure.  And "Big things have small beginnings."

3) FLIGHT - Robert Zemeckis has a shot in the middle of a very frantic, heart-pounding, I'm-gonna-top-what-I-did-in-Cast-Away plane peril sequence, Denzel Washington's captain with a little booze and coke (hey, why not?) awakened from his cat-nap by the plane dropping, and then taking charge to do something very unconventional... another woman is being taken away on a gurney by paramedics from a heroin overdose.  Right above them, a plan flies upside down.  Same shot, unbroken, WHOOSH.  Instead of flying through the air as Zemeckis is wont to do, he has someone else look up at the flying
*(a runner-up, which is more like a Travolta 'Staying Alive' bit but with no loss of irony, is Washington walking down a hallway, twice in the film, in a sharp suit and tie and aviator sunglasses to 'Feeling Alright' by Joe Cocker.  Who's the drunk-ass motherfucker who will find morality through his own pain and trial and error?  DENZEL!  (You got it))

4) FRIENDS WITH KIDS - Jon Hamm gets drunk, argues, raises the ire of Adam Scott, which should be hard to do, and Kristin Wiig does her best dramatic acting without barely saying a word.  Who knew one could slip an uncomfortable Mad-Men-esque scene into the middle of a romantic dramedy?  (Well, a little Hamm goes a long way)


6) CHRONICLE - A son finally faces up to his somewhat cartoonish and yet painfully real abusive drunk father (damn, a lot of drunks here so far), and it's done in such a way where you could almost picture it like "Magneto - the Early Years", minus the Nazis. And then the shit's on...

7) BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW - A young woman gets out of the lab, and a shot becomes wider and wider to reveal her in the middle of a field.  There's so much WORLD out there to see and explore now, no longer in the confines of tight corridors and colored lights, not to mention the stare of an acid-fuckhead scientist.

8) THE DARK KNIGHT RISES - And suddenly Batman reveals not only does he have the capability to return (with some new toys like 'The Bat', which comes in black, fulfilling a childish request from nine years before for young Mr. Wayne), he can in the midst of a high-speed pursuit of a mumble-mouthed warlord change things from day to night with, uh... hey, how did that happen?  Cool chase and all, but, uh... continuity girl, you're fired.
*(runner up would be a mis-remembered moment in the film: when I first saw it in theaters, I thought when Bane is standing in the middle of the city giving his monologue to the cameras/Blackgate prison, he exclaimed "I HAVE A LETTA FROM JIM GORDON!!" which was the very line, the very moment, when I put my hands up in the air and said out loud 'what the fuck?' which continued much of the way through the rest of the film.  As it turns out, on second viewing on DVD, Bane didn't quite say the line that way, but even with showing how Bane got the letter from Gordon just before he escapes down the river of the sewers, it was still fucking stupid.  By the way, his real name is Robin ::facepalm::)

9) HOLY MOTORS - ALL OF IT!  This movie, much like a David Lynch film or last year's Tree of Life, is a collection of out-of-time moments and scenes, and especially as it is about the oddball-risk-taking art of performance, of playing characters in some sort of sub-reality we can recognize.  So many I could pick - the CGI running-and-then-sexcapade set with motion-capture suits in a black background; Denis Levant revealing with little couth his little-big Denis in a cave.

But I'll narrow it to two: Levant, whether it's a performance or just the 'intermission' I don't know, he plays an accordion in a big cathedral, and suddenly other people join in on this song which builds and builds.  It's like that musical set-piece in Southland Tales with Timberlake that for a few minutes makes the movie magical, only better cause it's with accordion.  And the second is another musical scene, with Kylie Minogue (who we also hear, coincidentally?, playing at a party that Levant's not-daughter is at from street level).  She sings a song with these words starting off: "Who were we, who were we, who we were when we were back then..." and it's the most heartbreaking thing I've heard all year - two performers wondering, briefly, what the fuck they're doing with their lives.  I *think* that's what they're going for anyway.
*(runner up - the very last scene of course, which suddenly makes the film into a Thomas and the Tank Engine bit or something, and to which it left me happy as a pig in slop)

10) DJANGO UNCHAINED - Django feels doubt, just for a beat, maybe the only real time, as he and King Schultz look down at a bounty on a farm.  Do you shoot the guy while his kid is down there?  Who cares?  Bam, dead, now you get to keep this warrant poster you were able to read a moment ago, and don't lose it, it's your first bounty poster after all...
*(runner up, quick flashes of a man being ripped apart by dogs while a man awaits what may or may not be his end listening to Beethoven plucked at a harp)

11) BRAVE - A witch leaves a bunch of messages in a cauldron.  Don't you just hate it when you're given the automatic voice messaging prophecies?

12) LINCOLN - So many words throughout, so much Euclid, but when Honest Abe visits a field of dead soldiers, only somber John Williams can chime in.

13) ARGO - As a group of actors in full regalia, looking like they're somewhere between Flash Gordon and Dune, do a table read of a script that won't actually be a movie, people in front of cameras in Iran tell of the troubles facing them, or rather giving their demands and their own 'performance' to the cameras.  Whose more of the actor, the actor or the one who doesn't see he/she is it?  It may not even be *that* deep, but it affected me, as one who lives to look at reality and fantasy as they intertwine (and it almost feels like the climax of the film, by the way, is SO far into excess, mostly as the terrorists chase a plane that can't really be taken down by that point, that it becomes it's own "movie" in the reality of this movie.  The only way it could me more meta is if Alan Arkin came off the screen to belittle me)

14) BERNIE - Sing along with Bernie: "LOVE LIFTED MEEEEEEEEE!" (I don't even have any significance with this, it just stuck out in my brain all summer, and... ah, there it is again.  Catchier than anything Tenacious D could put out)

15) HAYWIRE - Forget having 'sex', Gina Carano and Michael Fassbender, let Steven Soderbergh shoot your long fight scene like it IS a sex scene.  And at the end, after so many not-too-long shots full of 'holy shit did they actually DO that without doubles??', instead of a cigarette a bullet to the face over a pillow will do fine.

16) RED HOOK SUMMER - A preacher, accused of and likely guilty of sexually molesting a boy years earlier, hasn't been arrested (statute of limitations and all that), but following a beatdown by some local thugs in his own ministry, wobbles back to his apartment - all in one long take, passing by people who may or may not be actors at this apartment complex - all to "Help me see my faith in God" chanted on the soundtrack.  As a couple of cops say later in the movie (a flawed but undeniably worthwhile Spike Lee joint): "The Hook."  "Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit."

17) KILLER JOE - Wherein a blowjob on a fried chicken drumstick very likely earns a motion picture by the MPAA an NC-17.  But hey, sometimes a man has gotta get off on those 11 herbs and spices.

18) THE MASTER - That goofy smile we are fascinated by goes dark as the 'processing' gets more and more intense, and DON'T BLINK, that's the suspense of it... and then close your eyes and think of someone you knew... "I wrote my mother, I wrote my father..." somebody Freddie used to know, when things were maybe, kinda, sorta, not really innocent.

19) MOONRISE KINGDOM - One of those moments where I slightly changed my mind about something I thought didn't quite work - as young Sam is running from the scout group in the field during a particularly egregious thunderstorm, and following a shot that has some splendid triangulation for a chase, Sam is STRUCK BY LIGHTNING!  And he's fine, and runs along and the chase continues.  The first time I saw this scene, it took me out of the movie: up until then Anderson has been crafting this little world of this island and young lovers on the run with whimsy and delicacy to the innocence and tragedy interwoven in the comedy, but it's still felt like it was in the 'real' world to an extent.

And yet the second time, maybe it was the narrative devices (i.e. Bob Balaban, serving little function except being fantastic at delivering exposition in dangerous locales), or getting more into the young-adult-fantasy-book feel of the thing, but I didn't mind it so much.  Maybe too it's because I knew what would come after, with the climax on the rooftop of the church, and it felt just a little more... right in a way.  Maybe if it were animated it would be perfect.  But, yeah, a moment I came around to not minding so much, and even having a big laugh at the absurdity of it all.

20)  HAVANA IN BUSHWICK - Yes, this is a short film, and yes it only played oen film festival (which I went to, with some flawed results in my book), but it was one of the more striking and inventive shorts in recent memory.  It's about a guy, who don't talk too much, who goes to a party, meets a Cuban Muse (this is after the party if my memory serves), and then is taken to some sort of fantasy space.  Suddenly, the man is given a paintbrush, and he paints across the screen as fabulous guitar music strums behind him.  And then there's later a Russian muse (why have her?  hey, why not? it's Dasha Kittredge people!), and a lovely, singing Audrey Lorea as Claudia, a muse in her own right.  It's just this little moment, where fantasy adds on another dimension, a truly fun cartoon moment in real life, that overloads with whimsy and surreal fancy.

21) RUST AND BONE - A woman who had her legs amuputated by the sheer will/natural nature of a killer whale, goes along with a guy down to a beach.  She's in a wheelchair, and watches him swim rigorously in the ocean, and then decides she needs a swim too (Cotillard's eyes and face in this scene, so good).  She goes in the water after discreetly shedding her pants (half redundant of course anyway), and while in the water, which is giving her a rebirth in a small (or big) way, she sheds the shirt too.  Bare-breasted, she finally, for the first since discovering her lost apendages, gets a good solid swim.  As someone who finds swimming the most satisfying form of physical exercise, this struck me very emotionally, even if it wasn't a very long scene.  That she needs a little help at the end brings the characters together organically as she clings to his back tenaciously.  Suddenly a bond is established, which leads more or less through the rest of the picture.  But it's just this one bit in the ocean that makes something so quiet but profound for this character's coming to terms with her drastic physical change (and if you want to look it, you googley-eyed men and women in the world of the internet, it's out there in stills).
*(runner up: a scene that could be in a Wong Kar Wai film, Cotillard dances a bit to love-shack in her wheelchair, then wheels herself to the bathroom - no matter how much fun she can have, for a moment, it can be over just as quickly)

22)  COMIC CON: EPISODE IV - A FAN'S HOPE - This somewhat little-seen doc from earlier this year, one more feather in Joss Whedon's cinematic cap for 2012, where he came into his own with a handful of remarkable films, chronicles the 2011 San Diego Comic Con from the POV's of a dealer, a cosplayer, two artists, and most touchingly two nerdy kids in love.  The guy wants to propose marriage, and through a series of misadventures needs to get away from his adorably clingy girlfriend so he can get the ring to propose at just the right time: during the Kevin Smith panel at the con.  This moment, when he finally gets to propose, made me about as happy as I've been at the movies all year.  You almost aren't sure if he'll put it off - perhaps this is director Morgan Spurlock amping up the drama/comedy where there wasn't as much - but the pay-off is so glorious, not to mention tinged with genuine admiration (and genuinely funny jokes) from Kevin Smith that it seems so larger than life.  The only thing that could top it is if Mewes came out with a 'Snoooogans!' right behind their seats.

23) SKYFALL - Javier Bardem makes an entrance as a Bond villain.  BOY DOES HE EVER!  One long shot, almost a minute and a half, two minutes, barely moving camera until a minute into it, as the subject moves down a hall surrounded by computers and a million wires.  A mini-masterpiece by Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins.  Imposition while telling a story of rats.  Something about villains and rats - Costello in The Departed, Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds - brings out the real chill/holy-fuck factor, don't it?

24) COSMOPOLIS - Robert Pattinson, while engaged in the only halfway interesting conversation in the whole film with Paul Giamatti, shoots his hand.  Does he feel it?  Do we?  What about that haircut?

25) SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS - And at the end, a moment of understanding, with just the way Colin Farrell says 'Fine' to Tom Waits' threats to come over and kill him for a lack of screen credit in his movie, Seven Psychopaths.  "You've had it rough?" "A little." "Hmm... yeah, Tuesday's no good for me."  And it's back to protecting the bunny.

26) LIFE OF PI - And suddenly, in the middle of the ocean as Pi continues his game of wits with a tiger, HUNDREDS OF FLYING FISH come their way, in 3D!  WITH ASPECT RATIO CHANGE!  Somehow I picture Lou Zealand from the Muppets on a ship instigating this on them.

27) CLOUD ATLAS - Tom Hanks, in a movie where he gives a myriad of performances, some very good (a man speaking not much English, a scientist who may do the right thing), some not so much (a doctor on a ship), there is by FAR his worst performance of his career: a cockney English gangster at a book party, threatening Jim Broadbent's good-hearted but old book editor.  What the fuck were they thinking?  AND YET!  Hanks throws a guy out the window - cause, you know, that's what Cockney English gangsters do - and for a big moment, I laugh out of disbelief.  Even in the worst, head-scratching moments, entertainment, however unlikely, results.

28) SAMSARA - chicken death.  That's all, no comment, see it for yourself.  For a few minutes, if you're not a vegetarian, you will be.

29) THE CABIN IN THE WOODS - Bradley Whitford gets his wish, in the worst possible way.  MERMAN! (I just thought of that word in Derek Zoolander's voice. hehe)

30) BRANDED - The narrator of this attrocious piece of shit is revealed: a female cow constellation, who tells us in the final shot: "And a new era begins now."  Um... check please?

Friday, October 5, 2012

LOUIE Season 3 "The Late Show" Arc - better than most films this year(?)

Are you watching Louis CK's 'Louie' on TV?  If you don't catch it when it airs do you have the wherewithal to watch it on FX on Demand?  Or do you have one of those TiVo boxes to DVR it and save it for later (or whatever those things are, I don't have em)?  Well... I'm waiting.

Louis CK is one of the only geniuses in television.  I mean just, like, ever really.  I know the praise keeps pouring all over the show like chocolate sauce on a fat Roman emperor's face, but the show really is a marvel: an independently made effort (Louie, afforded the kind of freedom Woody Allen's had for much if not almost all of his career, doesn't answer to studio execs - they only see his work when it's in finished form), Louis works also with the spirit of a filmmaker more than making a sitcom.  In fact, there are stretches (far more in season 3 as I can gather than the first two seasons) where you won't laugh at all - and if you do, um, what the hell's wrong with you?  Jerk.

Sorry, I gotta stop this sarcasm bullshit.  What affects me so much about what Louis does is that he's not out for laughs.  He does have stories to tell, but often he won't really go a whole episode to tell just one.  In fact, he's more like a short filmmaker who mostly churns out five to ten maybe at most twenty minute shorts where  he can build upon his persona.  But it's not always about getting a laugh, though that certainly isn't out of the question, and he won't spare himself at any expense (or his body - check out earlier in the season where he buys a motorcycle on a whim for that). The comedy is cringe-like, sort of along the lines of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but he's not out to always make a completely airtight plot and make you cringe and howl with laughter (which is Larry David's genius, but I digress).  Louis wants pathos, tons of it.  If Charlie Chaplin made you happy to see his Tramp and feel for him when he was down, 'Louie' is and isn't like that: he's not a natural clown, he's just us, or me, or any of you.  I don't think I've seen myself more in a person, and this is a guy with two kids and a comedy career, things I certainly don't have.

But where am I going with this?  Every so often, Louis CK, who gives less than a shit about continuity (with some BIG exceptions, i.e. Parker Posey in the show - when it comes to certain actors or parts, they'll pop on and that's it), he will do a story arc.  Last season he went to Afghanistan and that made for a moving story involving a duck.  This time, Louis goes for a big one: three episodes (with the season finale a bittersweet coda) where Louis is offered a very unlikely chance that his twenty some-odd years of being a stand-up comedian has been leading to: the chance to take over David Letterman and host the Late Show.  He's offered this chance by a very stern, 'Who are you kidding?' Garry Marshall, who I don't think I've ever seen this way.  He usually comes off in movies and TV I've seen him in as the kindly old grandfather ready to give you a quarter from behind his ear.  Here, he's fucking scary in the attitude he gives this unique and awesome opportunity.  But, that's show-biz, I guess.

Louis doesn't know how to take it.  Neither does his manager, who looks like he's all of fifteen years old (that joke never gets old, especially as the actor plays it totally straight), but he tells Louis it would be a mistake to pass it up.  He goes to see his (ex) wife - one of the strange pieces of casting (I digress again, sorta) being played by Susana Kelichi Watson (this wouldn't be puzzling except that their kids on the show are completely white, but... fuck it, whatever, let's move on, she's still good and sassy in the role) - and, of course, it's awfully funny to see her confront Louis with the uncomfortable feeling that it might be on her, cause of if he'll see the kids as much if he takes it and so on.  This scene, in the second part at a diner, is shot so simply, but directly, that it just cuts to the crazy humor but earnestness of this all.

Already, this was shaping up to be a fascinating little story for Louis, the 'Big Break' that only comes for maybe a handful of people in the world (depending how late-late night you go).  And then comes Jack Dahl... played by Mr. David Lynch.  It was around this point in the second part that things got strange.  And awesome.  And epic.  And fucking OMG THAT IS DAVID LYNCH ON THE SHOW!  If I can take myself out of being objective of his acting, which is powerful anyway as a tough-as-nails-no-bullshit trainer for prospective talk-show hosts, just seeing Lynch in this part and how he plays *so* straight off Louie, suddenly made him the funniest goddamn thing I've seen all year.  Lynch has a presence and image he's had for quite some time, as the Grandaddy of modern American surreal films, and he has a kind of Cult-Hitchcock vibe when he appears in interviews and Q&A's and segments on DVD's (see him make Quinoa some time and you may just be blown away like in a Maxell commercial).

What is so striking here, and what makes things so uproarious in terms of uncomfortable, hands-clasped-at-your-cheeks comedy, is that Lynch isn't really *as* weird as he usually is.  His character, if anything, fairly quickly reveals what this whole arc actually is: Rocky.  And he's Burgess Meredith, goddamnit!  He doesn't do the same Lynchian things with his hands he always does, and he doesn't have the high-odd voice like in Dumbland or his bit on Twin Peaks.  He's like the perfect underling for Garry Marshall's character: an old-school pro of the 'business' who wants to see "The Funny" as he calls it to Louis, who is just so awkward and doesn't know what the fuck he's doing at first, that it's naturally terrific stuff between them.  You can cut the tension with an olive fork.

Yet for all of the comedy, what makes this arc of Louis, which also features (speaking of Rocky) actual boxing as part of Louie's training, so endearing is that CK films himself as an unsure, am-I-even-a-hero sort of story.  Does he want this job?  Does he need it?  Can he see himself doing it?  We've been with Louis so often on this show, through the good (having a friendship with Pamela - that is until she left, which is the greatest romantic-comedy part of any episode, in the second season finale 'Airport'), the bad (well, any time he has to interact with any of his family outside of his kids), and the weird (um... where the fuck is he going when he is running around Boston and gets on that boat out in the middle of nowhere? Antonioni called and wants his mis-en-scene back, hehe).  But here he is the true underdog, up against a network that wants him mostly as an "option" since their other pick, Jerry Seinfeld, wants too much money.

But in a way it's almost more endearing than something like Rocky because of the time we've had with Louis, and here it kinda bubbles up to a certain point: can he do it?  Will the inspirational jogging through the streets of NY work in his favor?  Can he tell a joke and be funny on the spot?  This particular moment for Louis is a staggering bit of acting for both Louis and Lynch where the latter pushes the star to his point.  How he brings the funny... that'd be spoiling it, wouldn't it?  What happens eventually, and keeps the slightly absurdist tinge to this storyline, is that Louis sees his potential glory in the big gestures when Lynch genuflects as 'Jack Dahl, Host' on the camera, and it's a bit of a King of Comedy moment.  I mean, hey, better to be king for a day than a shmuck for a lifetime?  Isn't that what Louie, in its Big Picture, is kind of about?

The climax of this all in episode 3 is riveting, and funny, and when pushed against the wall our down-and-out hero can fight back!  The ending may not come as too much of a surprise, but it's the journey that counts.  And in this arc of the Late Show, I see Louis CK so totally in command here in the best way, as a director (how he paces shots, gets the other actors involved, even bit parts like his friends at a bar), as writer (every touch of what he does, just looking at a building is important), and actor (forget about the Emmy for writing, actually, "You're father is dead" says it all, but I digress one last time).  It is funny, and sad, and all sentiment is earned but never pushed - when his kids have the 'what's gonna happen with us?' moment its stripped down to the essentials, but emotionally it goes far and not too far over in being a genuine point for the characters - while the 'powers that be' (Lynch, Marshall, Jay Leno, an OUTSTANDING bit part for Louis buddy Chris Rock) stay elusive, cold, demanding, helpful, and weird.  That its shot with soul by DP Paul Koestner is icing on the cake.

If a 60+ TV arc could be counted as a 'film', then the Late Show is among the finest produced.

(Oh, one more praise: when Louis does his first "test" interview with a Mexican maid working in the studio... if you can stop laughing for five minutes after that, you're a stronger/more serious man than I.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rian Johnson's LOOPER

A 'Looper' is someone who, in the near future - about three decades from now, and then three decades after those three decades - works for the mob.  There is time travel in the future, but it's outlawed (why exactly? who cares - well, then again, maybe it's too much power to wield, which has its own can of worms you can consider, but I digress).  So the mob has it and uses it to kill people, since also, in the future, you can't really get a good killing when forensics is super-ahead of the curve.  So, throw the guy in a time machine with a sack over his head, and the Looper is right there with a shotgun (here called a 'blunderbuss', which I think was the name of Jack White's last album, but I digress again), and will blow the guy away.  Simple, easy, and on the way.  Oh, and the guy being killed has a shitload of silver attached.

A Looper gets paid well, as we see with Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is given a character named just for him by writer/director Rian Johnson), who does drugs with eye-droppers and drives fast cars and screws hookers.  It's a life, of course.  But then the rub: a Looper has to know his time will only go so long as a killer, as the mob doesn't want loose ends: their future self will be sent back, and the Looper will kill his future self (they know it cause gold is attached instead of silver, clever touch), and then sent away to spend his days in a life of luxury... for thirty years, until the 'loop is closed' as it were.  But that doesn't always happen, we also learn from our steely-eyed and hmm-he-looks-like-a-famous-movie-star Joe, and in that case a Looper is fucked if he lets his older self go.  Early on we see what happens when Paul Dano does such a thing, a little moment of (self) humanity that curses him right away.  When your younger self goes, little by little, the older self goes too.  It's like a much more graphic version of the picture "erasing from existence" in Back to the Future.

Some days you just can't get rid of a - oh wait, here's the blunderbuss BOOM

Johnson's genius is the have little tips of the cinematic-trope hat to some past time travel movies - the two most prevalent ones for me have always been 'Future' and The Terminator, and they're both referenced to one degree or another, just not *too* explicitly - but making this world of the 'Looperverse' all his own, as a cinematic and emotional ride.  Hell, it even owes more, gleefully I'd note, to dark-shaded (hard-R rated) film-noir and gangster pictures, only this time without that noir-ish dialog Johnson had his characters speak in Brick (then again there is an edge to it anyway, maybe closer to a super hard-boiled noir like Fritz Lang's The Big Heat - no bullshit killers and fringe folk).  Jeff Daniels, yes Jeff Daniels in a full beard and quiet demeanor, is the closest to a real villain in the film as Abe, in the back-room of a night-cum-strip-club and a fellow actually from the future who basically runs the city (we're not told more than that - frankly, I didn't need it), and is very imposing almost because he doesn't look to be.  He could be the good and bad cop, the good father or the one who takes a hammer and bashes your hand in.  So it goes.

Once Johnson gets the plot rolling - and you know from the trailer this bit, where young Joe sees Old Joe, and Old Joe (Bruce Willis, that's the guy) isn't having it - he does something very fascinating, and that I'm more than glad, almost ecstatic to see: honest to goodness storytelling.  Suddenly we see what is an 'alternate' time-line, yet one that still is really *the* story of the film.  It's hard to explain, but you just see it being told, and by then the narration from Joe has subsided, and we see Joe over the course of thirty years, go through his motions of being a 'retired' bad-ass as a killer, and then settling down with a Chinese woman he has found love, and actual peace and security and a connection, with.  That's the kind of thing that can't be broken - that is until the 'powers that be' do just that.  This sets Old Joe on a mission to kill a certain little boy that will set things in motion that will muck up the whole Looper program called 'The Rainmaker'.

So, yeah, in short, don't fuck with Jeff Daniels.
 To say much more than that would require a big fat spoiler at the top.  I won't say much more, or try to, except that it's around this time, right after a hefty dialog between young/old Joe at a coffee shop that may be the most memorable of its kind since De Niro and Pacino faced off in Heat (for its simplicity in compositions, yet so much said by just letting the actors tell themselves and the story at the same time), that we meet Emily Blunt's character.  She would appear to be the 'dame' of the story, though that might diminish her somewhat formidable stature with a shotgun.  Yet she reminded me of something I had taken for granted: aside from the natural-beauty part of her, Blunt is a terribly good actress, especially here where she has to juggle a lot of different thoughts and feelings with her character, and especially with another character she has to protect.

Johnson may even have her character do things that don't make sense once, or twice (and to say them more would further complicate this review), but she still carries it and makes it so her own, and so heartfelt, that it elevates the material further.  She has one scene, even just a moment, an exchange, in a very other-worldly, high-suspense/drama bit, where she made an underlying ideal in the film clearer than before: in this cold world of killers and fate, what happens to humanity?  Can you do anything about how you were raised, if it was by vagrants or not, and what can change actually mean in the scope of shit?


Okay, getting deep?  Looper is very smart in its script, very wise in ways of just the simple but very appreciative things in good storytelling like a plant and pay-off - one in particular done early on that would appear to not even be a plant at all, but just a little detail to add texture and a little wonder to this futuristic world.  And I appreciated that the connotations of class were not jammed down the viewer's throat (i.e. In Time last year), but were given enough of a showing to let the audience know what this world is, and why you need a tough-but-not-impenetrable figure like Joe to navigate it.

And that brings me to Joe himself.  I'm still not sure if Joe entirely *looks* like young Bruce Willis, but Gordon-Levitt's fun and cunning is to make himself believe he's Willis, and so after the first several minutes I bought into it as well.  And Willis gives himself some room to breath as an actor too; he brings to Old Joe a wisdom and bitterness that gives the character dimension, and that his actions in the second half of the film, while brutal, super-violent and morally questionable, are never so simple as to make one hate the character.  It's just a terrible situation, but there's a gray area that makes Johnson's material further complex.  When he blows people away with big fucking guns, it's not the Land-of-Inconsequential as we saw several weeks ago with The Expendables 2.  When Old Joe gets on his mission, there's pain and resentment, even if what must be done is to be done.

And the moral of the story is - don't fuck with Emily Blunt and an axe.  That tree's gonna get it.

There's also the little kid... but that would be going too far, wouldn't it?  Looper, aside from what I've mentioned already, is ingenious with not just time travel, and what effects it has (or what happens when a man's memory is 'clouded' and he tries to remember the first time he saw a person very important, a series of cut-aways and edits that makes this character for me), is a fantastic story of the future itself.  We know it's the future due to things with technology like flying motorcycles (but no flying cars, damn!), and other little touches, but it's still the same poverty, the same dread for humanity, the same fear of death, and the same farming life that Blunt's character has to deal with.  A lot has changed in the world of Looper, but the big things still stay the same.

So... I'm from the future, go see Looper, in theaters if you can to soak up that cinematography and Nathan Johnson's mix of edgy rock and symphonic orchestra. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

DREDD (3D) is not "Dreadful", but... (w/some notes on THE RAID too, cause why not)

I must say this up front, because this will probably make or break you going on reading the rest of this review: I haven't read any Judge Dredd comics.  Well, not stand-alone anyway, I know I have one Batman/Judge Dredd crossover comic, but that's neither here nor there.  My familiarity is only from some word of mouth from fellow 'geek'-property friends, and, yes, from the Slyvester Stallone movie.  So I went in just expecting something that would be a thrilling action picture, probably (no, definitely) faithful to the comics, where its a super grungy dystopian landscape with a 'Judge' (Super-Law-Enforcer Man you could call him, like RoboCop only human) who doesn't take off his helmet, and is kind of an underdog right now at the cineplex and box-office.  I went in fair as I could.

... Except for one thing, which I really didn't expect (not a review I read or heard of the film except the general 'it's good' from Rotten-Tomatoes blurbs and the like): its plot premise is very, VERY similar to that of the sleeper genre hit The Raid: Redemption that came out earlier this year by Gareth Evans.  How similar?  Look up the plot to that movie.  And here goes: an armored-suited man, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) takes a new female rookie Judge, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) along as he goes to pick up a perp inside one of the 'Blocks', a large, many-stories-high apartment complex that has the ability to be closed off with metal armor (lots of armor in this movie).  The person they are after/their task involves a drug ring run by Ma-Ma (The Lady Lannister from Game of Thrones, Lena Hedley) who will not go down without a fight: that is, putting the entire apartment complex on lockdown, and going on a loudspeaker to tell all its citizens, criminal or otherwise, that fortune will come to them if they kill the Judges.  So the shit's on, as it were, all about this criminal drug ring, and, oh, there are other things too, but no more spoilers if I can help it.


I know it's not screenwriter Alex Garland's fault or the filmmakers that their film came out the same time as Evans, and that I shouldn't hold it against it.  But as a film person, maybe even more than a comics person, and having seen The Raid coincidentally two days ago, it's hard to put one film out of the mind.  Particularly, sadly, when Evans film just had more breathtaking, pulse-pounding, balls-to-the-motherfucking wall action sequences, shot where you could see the action clearly (albeit hand-held) and with lots of great build up and climax.  Neither film exactly had more sharply defined or well drawn out characters, though in a way I think in retrospect I appreciated the villains in The Raid more, Bond villain cut-outs they were (the Bad-Ass-Physical villain as the #2, and the more Brainy-Calculating one the #1), as they brought some gnarl and vigor to their nasty characters.

In Dredd, we get Lena Headly, who has proven herself more than a competent actress, she's a downright chilling and positively confounding presence when given strong material, which is what happened with her Lannister character on the first two seasons of Game of Thrones.  With Ma-Ma, she can occasionally sneer or snarl, but mostly she's super calm and cool, maybe too much so.  I don't want a super goofy villain every time into one of these things, but I wondered in some scenes where the actresses' head was at.  She's given little to do except have the appearance of toughness, and to be sure Ma-Ma's backstory ain't pretty as a woman of the slums who has had rough times (see her face for that).  But I didn't feel any extra animosity towards her, and also not much excitement when she appeared either.  She is given (one spoiler) a SUPER-MEGA-WHOA! death scene, which is consistent with the 'Slo-Mo' drug shown earlier in the film to give cinematic slow-motion-itis for genre buffs, and that's fine.  But... yey?


Karl Urban makes a good Judge Dredd.  I don't say great or horrible, because what else is there to say about an actor who has more than proven himself before, such as Bones in the reboot of Star Trek, and yet, how much can a man really do with his chin and gnarled lips and voice?  He can keep the scenes going and has decent chemistry (for what it's worth) with the two-dimensional Thirlby, but I can't help but think that there is a problem with having the helmet on the WHOLE TIME.  I sincerely apologize to the fans of the comic, as I'm sure for that it could work well, but in a film, and with an actor as expressive as Urban can be, I would like to see the eyes maybe once, or twice, to get a feel past the super-cold exterior.  It's like the opposite issue with Tom Hardy's Bane, where a sincerely goofy voice and mask still got on a level playing field with the actor's equally sincere use of his eyes.  If all you got is a Hardcore Chin and a Hardcore Voice, it wears out its welcome by the film's end.

And it's not that there are not things to find admirable in the film.  Far from it; the production design of these gigantic-looking apartment complexes made of rectangular steel-gray steel and brick are superlative (more 'sci-fi' than those of The Raid, but it can stand on its own).  The gun technology gave some different things to do, so it was not ALL just gun-shoot-gun-shoot-gun.  This is the kind of world where a guy gets an 'Incinerate' function on his weaponry, and a big machine gun can rip through rock and rubble.  The little moments here can be affecting, such as Anderson's use of her mutant-telekinesis powers (kind of like Jean Grey only not totally consistent), and when she shows Dredd a more sophisticated form of 'interrogation' where it goes back and forth between her and a black thug about information, drugs and potential sodomy.  It's one minute of film between them that is odd, crude, daring in its lighting and cutting and jarring for all the right reasons... and then it goes back to being the movie it is.


None of the side characters are particularly memorable, which is also a shame.  If there could be just a shred, a scene even, of comic relief, it could relieve the Black-as-Fuck tension between the Good and Bad guys and gals and keep things interesting.  The textbook Nerdy computer geek is used, but has one emotion to play the whole film: 'AH! DON'T KILL ME HERE'S THE COMPUTER INFO, HERE HERE!"  And at the end of it all is Dredd himself, a stone cold Man of the Law, who, maybe most interesting of all, doesn't go over the line.  Early on the story seemed to be like Dirty Harry on Steroids (and that could be my lead in to this article if I was writing for a paper that asked for a stupid-but-clever byline), and it even goes as far as to ape the 1976 Harry flick The Enforcer, where Clint gets rookie Tyne Daly to follow him around at work.  But where Callahan goes over the line to get his justice, Dredd is tough but in a strange way not quite tough enough.  It is keen of the filmmakers to tread that line - make him a hard-ass but, when it comes to, say, a couple of dumb kids in the complex using guns they don't know how to use, Dredd dispenses quick justice but not to a point that would challenge the audience's perception of him - however, it keeps him TOO straight and narrow.

It's a straight adaptation of the world of the 2000-AD comics, and for the big fans of the source it should do fine.  Hell, for a SyFy channel movie for a lazy weekend afternoon, it might be more than fine.  A lot of work went into the film, past it being an unnecessary 3D excursion (trust me, aside from those nifty 'Slo-Mo' set pieces, and a few cool death scenes, there's no real use for it outside of its gimmicky-ness).  And Urban and Garland and probably the director wanted to give fans and non-fans something cool to chew on, or at least something to gnaw away the taste of the Stallone vehicle that bombed.  And, objectively, this IS better.  But is it more *fun*?  That's up for the jury to decide... and then, uh, judge, and, gulp, execute?

Ok, I'm done...