Thursday, December 13, 2012

Best animated movies of 2012

If I had to make a guess, I'd say Pixar's Brave will win this year's Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. I like that movie a lot, almost as much as I like Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, which has a good chance of upsetting Brave at the Oscars. It's a testament to what a great year this was for animation that neither of those movies made my list of favorites, which I wrote about for the Augusta Gazette. You can read it by clicking here. Consider the images below a sneak preview.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

"Here Comes the Boom"

Last week I reviewed Here Comes the Honey Boo Boo (or some such thing) for the Augusta Gazette. You can read it by clicking here. I'll be taking this week off to catch up on all the Twilight movies in preparation for my Breaking Dawn - Part 2 review. I could read the books, but is one review worth that much pain? The answer is no.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Last month I started writing reviews for my hometown paper, the Augusta Gazette. The local theatre plays a different first-run movie almost every week, and I'll be reviewing each of those. This week's feature presentation: Tim Burton's Frankenweenie. It was originally a 30-minute short, starring Barret Oliver from The Neverending Story and directed by Burton the year before he made his feature directorial debut, Pee-wee's Big Adventure (one of my all-time favorites). I highly recommend you check out the short, which is included as a special feature on the 2010 blu-ray of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The new Frankenweenie is in some ways an improvement, which I discuss in my review for the Gazette. You can read it by clicking here. Below you can listen to the rather delightful song that plays over the end credits.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What's That From? Memorable Movie Quotes, 2009-2012

Love me some movie quotes. If I were to make a conservative estimate, I’d say I speak in movie quotes (and, to a greater extent recently, TV quotes) 15 percent of the time when I’m around friends. They’re great for people like me who are introverted and basically inept at small talk. Of course, there’s always the risk of getting carried away; see the episode of Undeclared where Rachel become enamored with and then quickly annoyed by a drama major who constantly speaks in celebrity impersonations. But mostly I think speaking in movie and TV quotes is a positive thing, giving people a quick and easy way to reference shared experiences and crack each other up with memorable lines.

You’ll find plenty of those in the scene pictured above, the opening of The Social Network, which is one of the best dialogue movies in recent years. I had a hard time picking out just one line from Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant screenplay to include here. The same issue came up when choosing a quote from 21 Jump Street. Virtually the whole movie is quotable. This is one of those comedies, like Major League and Wayne’s World, that people will memorize and recite all the lines while watching with their friends. I simply picked one that seems particularly amusing to me at the moment. It’s absurd to quote just one line from a Quentin Tarantino movie. For Inglourious Basterds, I chose Lt. Archie Hicox’s death scene because it illustrates how important language is in that movie. In this scene, as well as in the opening scene where Col. Hans Landa speaks in English so as to hide the fact he’s about to murder the Dreyfus family, Tarantino shows how words can be lethal.

Here are ten scenes that I think could be used in an AFI montage of the most memorable movie quotes of recent years. As a bonus, I’ve also included the final lines in Poetry. This is my favorite movie ending in quite awhile. The film delivers its emotional knockout punch when it switches from the perspective of Mija, an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, to that of Heejin, a dead girl who suffered greatly at the hands of Mija’s grandson.

Mattie Ross in True Grit (2010)
Dearest Mother, I am about to embark on a great
adventure. I have learned that Tom Chaney has fled into
the wild, and I shall assist the authorities in pursuit. You
know that Papa would want me to be firm in the right as
he always was, so do not fear on my account. Though I
walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall
fear no evil. The author of all things watches over me
and I have a fine horse. Kiss little Frankie for me and
pinch Violet's cheek. My papa's death will soon be
avenged. I am off for the Choctaw Nation.

Sean Parker in The Social Network (2010)
We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now
we're going to live on the Internet!

Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go
out speaking the King's.
By all means, Captain.
(picks up glass of scotch)
There's a special rung in hell reserved for people who
waste good scotch. Seeing as how I may be rapping
on the door momentarily...
(drinks scotch)
I must say, damn good stuff, Sir.

Mr. and Mrs. Fox in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
We're all different.
(indicates Mr. Fox)
Especially him. But there's something kind of
fantastic about that, isn't there?

Teddy Daniels and the warden in Shutter Island (2010)
When I came downstairs in my home, and I saw that tree
in my living room, it reached out for me... a divine hand.
God loves violence.
I... I hadn't noticed.
Sure you have. Why else would there be so much of it?
It's in us. It's what we are. We wage war, we burn
sacrifices, and pillage and plunder and tear at the flesh
of our brothers. And why? Because God gave us
violence to wage in his honor.
I thought God gave us moral order.
There's no moral order as pure as this storm. There's
no moral order at all. There's just this: can my
violence conquer yours?

General Aladeen in The Dictator (2012)
Why are you guys so anti-dictators? Imagine if America
was a dictatorship. You could let 1% of the people have
all the nation's wealth. You could help your rich friends
get richer by cutting their taxes. And bailing them out
when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs
of the poor for health care and education. Your media
would appear free, but would secretly be controlled
by one person and his family. You could wiretap
phones. You could torture foreign prisoners. You
could have rigged elections. You could lie about why
you go to war. You could fill your prisons with one
particular racial group, and no one would complain.
You could use the media to scare the people into
supporting policies that are against their interests.
Jenko in 21 Jump Street (2012)
Where do we report to?
Down on Jump Street. 37 Jump Street... wait,
that doesn't sound right.

Mark Wiener in Life During Wartime (2009)
So, Mark, what do you do?
Systems analysis.
That sounds interesting.
It is to me. Moderately. Like intermediate-level Sudoku.
But I have no illusions that what I do is of any interest
to anyone else, even amongst specialists. I'm something
of a functionary, but without ambition. Or even hope of
ambition. I plateau'd in grad school then lost interest
except in maintaining a base salary adequate for
financing a low-overhead subsistence.
Are you seeing anyone?
No, I'm more focused on China. Everything else
is history. It's a just a question of time.
Abe in Looper (2012)
Go to China.
I'm going to France.
Go to China, trust me.
I'm going to France!
I'm from the FUTURE, go to China!

Lancaster Dodd in The Master (2012)
If you figure out a way to live without a master,
any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for
you would be the first in the history of the world.

Mija in Poetry (2010)
How is it over there?
How lonely is it?
Is it still glowing red at sunset?
Are the birds still singing on the way to the forest?
Can you receive the letter I dared not send?
Can I convey…
the confession I dared not make?
Will time pass and roses fade?
Now it's time to say goodbye
Like the wind that lingers and then goes,
just like shadows
To promises that never came,
to the love sealed till the end.

To the grass kissing my weary ankles
And to the tiny footsteps following me
It's time to say goodbye
Now as darkness falls
Will a candle be lit again?
Here I pray…
nobody shall cry…
and for you to know…
how deeply I loved you
The long wait in the middle of a hot summer day
An old path resembling my father's face
Even the lonesome wild flower shyly turning away
How deeply I loved
How my heart fluttered at hearing faint song
I bless you
Before crossing the black river
With my soul's last breath
I am beginning to dream…
a bright sunny morning…
again I awake blinded by the light…
and meet you…
standing by me.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

My favorite movies of 2012 (so far)

1. Bernie

Director Richard Linklater has done the seemingly impossible: he's made a true crime comedy that's equal parts funny and tragic, filmed in a completely original docudrama style with some of the actual participants. Jack Black stars as the nicest guy in the town of Carthage, Texas who also happens to be guilty of murdering a little old lady. An effeminate undertaker who loves singing gospel music, Bernie Tiede is equal parts Stuart Smalley and Tenacious D. Black's performance is a high-wire act, and he pulls it off miraculously. Bernie is a folksy modern parable that has a lot to say about our justice system and how sometimes you have to lie and steal to do the most good. It's a great American movie.

2. The Cabin in the Woods

Marvel's The Avengers is the Joss Whedon film everyone has been talking about this year, but except for Mark Ruffalo's performance, I was less than blown away by the summer's undisputed box office champ. I have no reservations about The Cabin in the Woods, which is my favorite horror-comedy since the original Scream. Read my full review here.

3. Moonrise Kingdom

This is the year's biggest arthouse smash, and it's easy to see why: never before has Wes Anderson made such a warm, relatable film. That doesn't mean he's broken new ground here. The movie offers a lot of what you'd expect from Anderson, the quirky details that make his work so recognizable. All of the books featured in the film have covers that were created from scratch (one of them pays homage to the movie poster for Bonjour tristesse), and, of course, all of the songs are wonderful. (Moonrise is the first soundtrack I've purchased since, well, The Darjeeling Limited.) The difference between this and The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling, both of which I found kind of alienating, is we understand where the filmmaker is coming from. Anderson has said the film was inspired by a childhood crush, a fantasy that never became real, and it's nice to think of Moonrise as the most elaborately constructed love letter ever.

4. The Dark Knight Rises

I had my doubts going in, but Bane won me over from the very first scene, and the "Occupy Gotham" sentiments expressed by Catwoman helped make this Christopher Nolan's timeliest and also one of his most compelling action-adventures. I was worried the death of Heath Ledger had left a hole in this series that couldn't be filled, but Nolan has given us a seamless trilogy, making this more of a sequel to Batman Begins than The Dark Knight. TDKR is funnier than the previous entries (Cillian Murphy has never been more hilariously cracked in the role of Judge Crane/Scarecrow), and the brilliant way the director and his screenwriting partner/brother Jonathan handle characterization (especially Catwoman and - spoiler alert! - Robin) suggests this series could go on in the form of spin-offs that meet the Nolan standard of excellence.

5. Chronicle

Not only a terrific original superhero movie (the best of its kind since M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable), Josh Trank's sleeper hit is also a fresh take on the "found-footage" genre. Dane DeHaan delivers one of the year's breakout performances as Andrew, an angry young man who chooses to be an apex predator instead of a Jedi knight.

6. Prometheus

The script for Ridley Scott's unofficial Alien prequel has been widely mocked by fans, but I'm willing to bet many of the film's unanswered questions (explored in detail by Mike and Jay at Half in the Bag) will be addressed in the Prometheus sequel. We haven't seen this level of spectacle in a science-fiction movie since Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, and that counts for quite a lot in my book.

7. Damsels in Distress

Even though it tackles unpleasant issues like suicide prevention and the general smelliness of an all-male dormitory, Damsels is an absolute delight. This is the college Clueless, a hilarious and super-stylized portrait of campus life from one of cinema's least prolific poets, Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco). As the brightest ray of sunshine in a very sunny film, Greta Gerwig reaffirms her status as the most lovely specimen appearing on movie screens these days.

8. The Hunger Games

In the tradition of Battle Royale and Stephen King's novella The Long Walk, Suzanne Collins' dystopian tale of teens playing the most dangerous game for the amusement of the masses has been given the royal Hollywood treatment, with a riveting lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence.

9. The Loved Ones

Boy rejects girl, and what follows is by the far the most terrifying prom night since Carrie White got soaked with a bucketful of pig's blood. It's an understatement to say Sean Byrne's feature directorial debut is not for the faint of heart, as it comes very close to Saw levels of grisliness. But The Loved Ones is to be commended for its startling unpredictability, its original father-daughter team of psychos, and Robin McLeavy's squirm-inducing portrayal of the ultimate prom date from hell.

10. Savages

Once upon a time, Oliver Stone was my favorite filmmaker. He made his best movies when I was at an impressionable age, and they were loud and passionate and violent as hell. In other words, they were perfect for a teenager. Savages represents a welcome return to form after years spent in the wilderness. (I'll defend W. and a few of his documentaries, but basically everything after U Turn is a no-go.) Based on Don Winslow's 2010 novel, Savages is a heady mix of sex, drugs, violence and postcard images of Laguna Beach. For the first time since the glory days of JFK and Natural Born Killers, Stone has worked wonders with an ensemble cast, including John Travolta, Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro.

11. 21 Jump Street

"You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice."

 12. The Secret World of Arrietty

This is a Studio Ghibli film based on The Borrowers, so needless to say it has images you'd like to crawl inside of and explore, much like the little people in Mary Norton’s fantasy novel sneak inside houses and lift valuables.

13. God Bless America

A daring, acidly funny comedy directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, the sarcastically titled God Bless America updates Bonnie and Clyde while taking aim at a society that rewards "the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest and the loudest" among us.

14. The Woman in Black

I'm happy there seems to be life after Harry Potter for the talented Mr. Radcliffe, but is this beautiful, gloomy, often very scary Gothic horror tale really a change of pace? The last few Potter sequels were horror films, weren't they?

 15. Goon

In addition to this bloody hockey comedy (starring Seann William Scott in his most likable performance to date), I'd also include John Carter, Wanderlust and The Dictator. It's been been a solid year so far.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Funny games in the woods

"How many chainsaw massacres can one state possibly contain? One more, at least, from the look of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,' a prequel to a remake of a 1974 film that spawned numerous sequels and numberless copycats. There’s more to come, no doubt, given the bloodlust for torture and indifference to depravity characteristic of contemporary horror films. Every era gets the scare pictures it deserves, and there is nothing more unsettling in this orgy of hate than its overwhelming stench of corporate nihilism."
Nathan Lee in The New York Times, Oct. 6, 2006

This has been quite a year for Joss Whedon. Not only did he write and direct Marvel's The Avengers (#3 movie of all time as of this writing), he also wrote and produced The Cabin in the Woods. (Whedon shares screenwriting credit with Drew Goddard, who also directed.) In an age when we're lucky to get a pretty good reboot like Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man, Cabin manages to work on multiple levels. It's the cleverest horror-comedy since Scream, as well as a lacerating critique of the genre a la Michael Haneke's Funny Games.

Haneke's controversial shock show depicted home intruders terrorizing a family. The director terrorized the audience with equal if not greater savagery. His punitive approach was spelled out in the film's tagline: "You must admit, you brought this on yourself." He wanted to punish viewers for expecting him to turn other people's suffering into an evening of entertainment. In contrast, Whedon wants us to have a good time, but that doesn't mean he lets us off the hook.

Conceived as a direct response to the "torture porn" subgenre popularized in the '00s, Cabin is the latest horror-comedy to offer a welcome respite from the depravity. The hilarious Tucker & Dale vs Evil took a familiar setup college kids are picked off one by one on hillbillies' home turf and delighted horror fans by having the rival clans switch roles. Cabin is an even savvier send-up. It supersedes Tucker & Dale by gleefully playing with genre conventions, and it arguably beats Haneke at his game, too.

This review is spoilers from here on out, though if you haven't seen the movie yet you might be surprised by how soon the filmmakers put their cards on the table. We meet five backwoods-bound college kids who could have stepped out of a thousand different horror movies. The masterstroke here is the totally original opening scene, which introduces us to a pair of corporate drones, Sitterson and Hadley (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, giving highly amusing performances), who look like they belong in a deadpan comedy like TV's The Office. Unlucky for the kids, Sitterson and Hadley have been assigned to carry out a ritualized slaughter, in order to appease gods that demand blood for peace.

Some of this plays as silly as it sounds, but it pays off big time. Cabin was a modest success when it came out last April, but it might have been even bigger had audiences known what was in store for them in the third act, when the movie becomes a crazy funhouse ride. All this nonsense about "the ancient ones" gives the film surprising scale, as we learn that similar sacrifices are taking place all over the world. J-horror fans will be tickled by a video feed from Kyoto that shows Japanese schoolchildren defeating an evil ghost whose face is hidden by a curtain of disheveled hair. ("Now Kiko's spirit will live in the happy frog.")

As we soon find out, this is no ordinary cabin in no ordinary woods. The place is booby-trapped, and a force field zaps anyone that dares escape. Sitterson and Hadley (referred to by the college kids as "puppeteers") release toxins in the air, causing the kids to behave like characters in some cliched horror movie. Curt (played by Chris Hemsworth, who has also had quite a year) is a sociology major on academic scholarship, but after a few hours in the woods he's acting like a bonehead. Jules (Anna Hutchison) becomes suddenly slutty. With some romantic lighting courtesy of the puppeteers, she takes off her top and goes all the way with Curt, thus sealing her fate. Hapless stoner Marty (Fran Kranz) is immune to the toxins because he's already on so much pot. His exasperation with his friends gives the movie some of its biggest laughs. Curt: "No, this is wrong. We should split up." Marty: "Really?"

Much like the scene where Jules makes the fatal mistake of taking off her top, other genre tropes come into play, as if they're being crossed off from a horror movie checklist. The gas station attendant the kids meet on their way to the cabin is a super-scary harbinger of doom, right up until the moment he's embarrassed by the puppeteers in a hilarious scene involving a speaker phone. The redneck family of pain fetishists that quote-unquote "virgin" Dana (Kristen Connolly) unwittingly brings back from the dead are straight out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Most of these tropes are shown from a slightly bent comedic perspective, but that's not the case with the zombie rednecks. They represent a genuine threat, and play a key part in the film's most astonishing set piece, the wildest and most unforgettable scene I've watched at the movies all year.

Just when we think all the kids are goners, we cut to the puppeteers celebrating with their associates at an office party. We're shown what we'd expect to see at such a gathering, like people complaining about their overtime bonuses and a pretty lady rejecting the advances of a nerdy coworker. Only one thing seems out of place. In the background, on big TV screens, we can see Dana being brutally murdered by one of the zombies. No one at the party is paying attention to this, but we're forced to look as the girl pukes up blood and fights for her life. It's here that Whedon tops Haneke. As effective as much of Funny Games is, its arguments ultimately fall flat. Haneke hectors the audience to the point of backlash, and his sledgehammer methods, like having one of the killers deliver mocking asides to the camera, are self-defeating. He never achieves what the office party scene in Cabin does. Through Connolly's performance and Goddard's direction, we're made to identify with Dana's suffering, while at the same time we're shown how shocking it is for the partygoers to be ignoring her pain. The scene exposes the "indifference to depravity characteristic of contemporary horror films" that Nathan Lee wrote about in his review of a Texas Chainsaw prequel released in 2006. It also reestablishes the genre's moral footing.

At once cheerfully irreverent and deadly serious, Cabin is often just plain fun, recalling an earlier, more inventive time for horror movies. In his review for Indiewire, Ian Grey argued the film is a celebration of '80s horror and the dark icons that decade unleashed. I agree with his assessment. Whedon lets us know early on he's feeling that old '80s spirit, when Jules references a famous anti-drug PSA from 1987 ("I learned it by watching you!"). Later, at the office party, the puppeteers rock out to "Roll with the Changes" by REO Speedwagon. Cabin could be the start of an '80s horror revival; I just hope it doesn't take the form of another slate of mindless remakes.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has the distinction of being extremely silly while taking itself very seriously. Imagine the origin story of Jebediah Springfield without the jokes. This botched adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's 2010 novel is slightly redeemed by an irresistible premise. The idea of Confederates as vampires is compelling stuff, though it probably worked a lot better on the page.

Director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) has failed to bring the goods to his latest bite pic. (Night Watch and Day Watch also featured bloodthirsty immortals.) Say what you want about the teenage vegetarians in Twilight or a soap opera like HBO's True Blood; these popular examples of the genre have seduced a sizable portion of the viewing public. The damned souls in AL:VH won't make you swoon or scare you to death. They'll bore you to tears.

A movie that reimagines Abraham Lincoln as Abraham Van Helsing and his Confederate enemies as monsters can't be all bad. Bekmambetov doesn't really know what to do with the material, but occasionally the film will give you hints of the awesomeness that might have been. A plantation scene where vampires attack their slaves is a memorably ghoulish set piece, though like almost everything else that's action-oriented in the movie, it's ruined by confusing editing. The filmmakers deserve credit for not watering down Grahame-Smith's merciless portrait of the Rebels. Hollywood has been justifiably criticized for romanticizing the Southern cause in films like Gone with the Wind and Gods and Generals. At least Bekmambetov puts slaveowners in their proper place.

AL:VH isn't an outright disaster like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Jonah Hex; it's passable entertainment that makes you wish it were a whole lot better. The historical setting, playful revisionism and relentless brutality made me hungry for Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino's latest is due out this Christmas, by which time just about everyone will have forgotten there was ever a movie about the Great Emancipator and his double life as a fearless vampire killer.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

10 movies I want to see this summer

In 2012, it’s nearly impossible to assemble a list of must-see summer movies without including at least a few sequels, remakes, and sequels to remakes. Such is the state of our movie universe. I’ve tried not to be too much of a purist, but I’ve also omitted high-profile projects that make me cringe, like Men in Black 3 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Here are 10 movies I can’t wait to watch, with release dates and trailers:

The Avengers

Hooray, it's finally here! Never again will I have to sit through 10 minutes of closing credits just so I can watch another awkward scene in which Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) introduces himself to a superhero. Nah, I kid the Fury. Other than Iron Man 1, I'm not much of a fan of the Marvel movies that preceded this one (unless you count Ang Lee's Hulk, which I gather most comic-book fans don't). So why am I excited to see them all supergroup'd together here? The screenwriter and director is Joss Whedon (Buffy, Firefly, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and the insanely brilliant Cabin in the Woods). In Whedon we trust. (May 4)

Dark Shadows

Tim Burton's collaborations with Johnny Depp have been a bit spotty since the glory days of Ed Wood. And for such a supposedly original, visionary filmmaker, Burton sure makes a lot of remakes. This is one of those. The trailer's jokey tone had fans of the TV series up in arms, but I've never seen the show. To me, the characters and era look like an ideal fit for Burton. Let's hope it's more like Sweeney Todd and less like Alice in Wonderland. (May 11)

Moonrise Kingdom

Am I hip enough to write about this movie? Oh well, here goes: After a delightful animated feature (Fantastic Mr. Fox), director/co-writer Wes Anderson returns to live-action filmmaking with an all-star cast. I'm in love with the trailer: the music, the quirky visual details, the offbeat line readings. I don't always *get* Anderson (especially The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited), but every film he makes is oddly perfect in its own way. (May 25)

Piranha 3DD

Usually I'm not too fond of sequels to remakes, but this one has been directed by the affable John Gulager (Feast). We're in for a real treat if it's half as good as Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3D, which is one of the funniest, raunchiest, most disgusting bloodbaths in recent memory. It doesn't hurt that it's got the best title of the summer. (June 1)


I'll say this for Prometheus, director Ridley Scott's second Alien movie after his 1979 sci-fi/horror classic: it has been superbly marketed. The trailers, viral videos and publicity stills all have me licking my lips in anticipation. There had better be a good movie in there somewhere, because this series arguably went off the rails after James Cameron's masterful Aliens and it needs to get back on track. (June 8)


So it's a new Pixar movie and it doesn't have Larry the Cable Guy in it? I'm in. (June 22)

The Amazing Spider-Man

Did Sony Pictures Entertainment really need to reboot this franchise a mere five years after Spider-Man 3? I have my doubts, but at least this not-a-sequel has been cast with fresh-faced, likable performers like Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Prove me wrong, Spidey. (July 3)

The Dark Knight Rises

As excited as I am to see this, I can’t help wondering what might have been had Heath Ledger not died so young. David S. Goyer, the co-writer of The Dark Knight, once said that the reason why he and director Christopher Nolan kept The Joker alive was so the iconic villain could go on trial in the next installment. I get a little wistful when I imagine Ledger in those scenes. His interpretation pushed the filmmaker into uncharted territory, making the movie something wilder, more entertaining and dangerous than Nolan had done before. I don’t get that kind of vibe from Tom Hardy’s Bane, and everything about Catwoman, from the casting to the costume design, feels off to me. But this final entry in Nolan’s epic Batman series may turn out to be a Dark Knight-level masterpiece anyway; Gary Oldman, Commissioner Gordon himself, has said it’s the best script he’s ever read, and he was in True Romance, for chrissakes. (July 20)

Ruby Sparks

Paul Dano reunites with his Little Miss Sunshine directors. He played my favorite character in that movie, the voluntarily mute teen devotee of Friedrich Nietzsche. This new effort sounds like Stranger Than Fiction but told from the perspective of the creator instead of one of his creations. Bring on the Charlie Kaufman-lite whimsy. (July 25)


This is rocker Nick Cave’s first produced screenplay since The Proposition. He also wrote Gladiator 2 for Ridley Scott, which is one of the more intriguing unrealized movie projects of recent years. If memory serves, it was to have ended with Maximus kicking ass in a bathroom at the Pentagon(!). Lawless brings together Proposition director John Hillcoat and star Guy Pearce, as well as newcomers Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf. The brutal, idiosyncratic style of The Proposition was unforgettable, and I’m betting Cave and company will bring a similar approach to the gangsters-and-G-men genre. (Aug. 31)

Monday, April 30, 2012

"The Raid: Redemption"

Well, they've finally done it. When Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch came out last year, I knew it was only a matter of time. The dialogue and plot in that movie were utter bullshit, mere filler, a way of killing time between the action and fantasy scenes. The Raid: Redemption throws the baby out with the bathwater, simply removing the dialogue scenes altogether. It's instant gratification on repeat, the action equivalent of hardcore pornography.

The Raid has been remarkably  some might say alarmingly  well received by critics and action fans alike. I can appreciate the fact that it's well executed. It has some novelty value in that it showcases the indigenous martial arts of Indonesia. It could have made for a great 15-minute film, but at 110 minutes it's just plain numbing. More breathtaking than the film itself are some of the reactions to it. Clearly intent on hyping up the fanbase, Nordling at Ain't It Cool News had the balls to call it the greatest action movie since Die Hard and John Woo's masterpiece, Hard Boiled. "Call it hyperbole," Nordling dares the reader. Not only that, I'll call it fucking ludicrous. I'm more in the Roger Ebert camp on this one. On his blog, the esteemed critic wished The Raid had provided "some humor, humanity, romance, suspense, beauty, strategy, poetry. Not all of those qualities, but at least several them."

The 15-minute premise: A SWAT team infiltrates an apartment complex, and must fight its way to the top floor to apprehend a ruthless druglord. This scenario will be familiar to action fans. It's usually contained within a single sequence, like the takedown of the Carter building in New Jack City. There have been countless sequences like this in vastly superior films, such as Luc Besson's The Professional. Is Nordling saying The Raid is better than the fucking Professional? It's not even up to the standards of the lesser action pictures that Besson writes, produces and distributes through EuropaCorp. In those movies, Besson will take a far-out concept and build the action from there, as he does in the current Lockout (Guy Pearce vs. the inmates of a maximum security prison  in outer space!). The Raid isn't a high-concept picture; it's a no-concept picture. It takes my plot description of Lockout and removes everything but the !

The Raid also brings to mind Walter Hill's brutally efficient Trespass, which takes place almost entirely within the confines of an abandoned building in East St. Louis. Though it eventually devolves into fairly routine bloodletting, Trespass had the benefit of a crackling script by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. With its eerie incorporation of video footage, including a murder captured on tape, the movie stirred up quite a bit of controversy, drawing comparisons to the Rodney King beating and the ensuing L.A. Riots. Similarly, Besson's District B13 was frequently cited in late 2005, when the international media covered the riots in the poorer suburbs of Paris. When a genre film is well made, it can stumble onto relevancy. I'm not sure what relevant statement The Raid has made, other than to say we're in for a slew of brainless, heartless, hopeless action pictures.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Movie within a Movie: "Gilda"

Andy: I understand you're a man that knows how to get things.
Red: Yeah, I'm known to locate certain things from time to time. What do you want?
Andy: Rita Hayworth.

By the time Andy Dufresne, a quiet young banker wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his wife and her lover, asks to have Rita Hayworth smuggled into Shawshank Prison, he's served two years of two life sentences. It's a significant moment that will ultimately lead to his salvation; not for nothing is the novella on which Frank Darabont's film is based named "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption." Part of what makes The Shawshank Redemption such a great and popular movie is that it shows us how our passions and hobbies – whether they're books or pin-up queens or chess or other interests – can liberate us from our present circumstances. In the case of Andy Dufresne, they provide a literal means of escape.

Andy (Tim Robbins) asks for Rita Hayworth during a picture show. In Stephen King's novella, the movie that's playing is The Lost Weekend with Ray Milland and Jane Wyman. Instead of The Lost Weekend, Darabont uses the 1946 film noir Gilda, which provided Hayworth with her most iconic role. The change is good for several reasons, the most obvious of which being that we immediately get to see the amazing beautiful woman Andy is talking about. There are also some nice parallels between the movie that Red (Morgan Freeman) and Andy are watching (Gilda) and the movie that we're watching (The Shawshank Redemption), which I'll get to shortly.

I'm not all that impressed with Gilda as a piece of film noir. It lacks the complexity of The Big Sleep, and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity is miles beyond it. In Wilder's classic, we understood why Barbara Stanwyck held Fred MacMurray spellbound. Hayworth's femme fatale and the movie she's in don't have that kind of pull. I had more fun imagining Andy Dufresne watching Gilda (he claims to have seen it three times during the month he asks Red for the pin-up poster) than I did actually watching it myself.

One thing that occurred to me while watching Gilda is how the characters and setting would have appealed to Andy. Gilda and the two men she's involved with are all Americans hiding out in Buenos Aires. Seventeen years after the picture show, Andy will also be an expatriate living in a Latin American country, hoping to forget his past in "a warm place with no memory." Another parallel: in Gilda, the cartel that allows the Americans to live so lavishly abroad is run by German businessmen who cover up their shady dealings by using Gilda's husband (George Macready) as a front. Years later, Andy will have a similar scheme going when he conjures Randall Stevens ("second cousin to Harvey the Rabbit") out of thin air, so as to render the schemes of Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) untraceable.

The characters in Gilda are so irredeemable and Hayworth is so sexy that I'm surprised corrupt, pious Warden Norton would allow his inmates to watch it. Indeed, Hayworth is shockingly uninhibited in the role. Early on she states bluntly, "If I'da been a ranch, they would have named me the bar none." Later, in a vaguely S&M scene, she brings a whip to a costume party. You can imagine what kind of effect this screen goddess (described by King in the novella as "Woman in Heat") would have had on a mostly heterosexual audience of inmates locked up for decades. It's easy to understand why Red shushes Andy so he can watch Hayworth do "that shit with her hair."

More than just a chance to ogle at an unattainable object of affection, what Rita Hayworth provides the men of Shawshank is an opportunity to forget about the mess they've gotten themselves into. This is a thread that runs throughout the movie. When Andy plays Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" over the prison's loudspeakers, Freeman sums up the opera's transformative power in one of his most unforgettable voiceovers:
I have no idea what those two Italian ladies were singing about... I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared, higher than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was like a beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.

A slow pan of Andy's prison cell in the mid 1960s reveals the ways in which he's pursued his interests on the inside – as a chess player, rock hound, bookworm and admirer of the female form. These have helped him keep going for 19 years, and they illustrate the movie's central theme: that no matter what you have to hold onto a sense of hope. Of course, by now, Rita has been replaced by Marilyn, who has in turn been replaced by Raquel. The secret Raquel spills when Warden Norton throws a chess piece at her is about the best metaphor I can think of for how our passions can set us free.