April Movie Journal - Xanadon't
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Generally movies I meant to catch in the theater but missed. Or "impulse rentals".
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
A shabbily shot, wholly unpleasant viewing experience powered largely by the sense that those in charge of this dour and nasty little film are overly convinced of the dramatic weight and power of it all. (If you don't believe me, pay attention to the music during the house party scene)
The writers/director seem to have a very loose grip on reality and behavioral psychology at best, but no matter I suppose, since they've set out to create a bleaker-than-thou story that seemingly seeks to frustrate and enrage audiences more than it ever desires to provide a coherent attitude toward its subject mater, or rustle up any empathy that could give way to understanding or engagement.
This is a sadistic nugget of uninspired movie-making, and one that's content to wallow in its own shadows while painting every one of its characters in various shades of villainy or unfortunate naivety.
The Big Year (2011)
One of those movies that I think actually benefits from its simplicity. It's feel-good without ever completely groveling to its viewers, and its messages are admirable and somewhat thoughtful. If a "heart in the right place" movie sounds harmlessly dull to you, fine. But I enjoyed the characters onscreen and found myself happily engaged with it.
It's all a little silly of course, but the fourth entry in the series is a good deal of fun. There are some pretty astounding set-pieces at play here and a number of pretty awesome action sequences. And yes, Tom Cruise remains a legit action star. Simon Pegg was a pleasant surprise- didn't realize he was involved. I'm really not sure there's a whole lot more one could ask for within the context of the series.
The NHL playoffs are upon us, and once again my team is already on the golf course. (Hey, that's four years, straight. Way to go guys.) So my annual routine usually involves trying to pick a team to root for through the playoffs and supplement the rest of my hockey fan-hood by finding a hockey move or two to watch.
Goon turned out to be one of the best sports-comedies I've ever seen. And while liking hockey, or knowing anything about the sport is a nice plus (it's very clear that the writers know the game), it certainly isn't a prerequisite for liking this refreshingly character-driven raunch-fest of a funny, bloody, and shrewdly heart-warming movie.
For all its blood and goofy, raunchy humor, Goon is a actually something of a sweetheart of a movie (much like the titular central character) that plays nicely with ideas about being true to one's own nature, finding one's place in the world, and using and embracing the gifts one's given to best effect. No, this isn't deeply insightful and terribly moving stuff. But luckily it's not overly dramatic and sappy either. What makes this all work is the clear and honest and hilariously comic voice of the writing team and a winning job by the casting team.
Very much "not my kind of movie" but I gave it a look based mostly on the strength of Neil Marshall, a director whose work I've really enjoyed in the past. The fact that the talented Michael Fassbender is also involved got me over the hurdle. And wouldn't you know it, he's good here. In fact, much of the cast was pretty darn good, at least based on my expectations. Soon as I'm done typing this I'm off to figure out who played the witch. I liked her.
Anyway, this movie follows the conquests of the 9th legion of the Roman Army as they seek to expand their empire into the northern reaches of that tricky son of a bitch to try to conquer country called England. Much of the location shooting and digital enhancements are pretty nice to look at. But the scenery isn't allowed to steal the show from the gore. This is a savagely bloody movie- and this was one of those cases where that suited me just fine. Ordinarily "sword and sandal" fight scenes tend to bore me to the very brink of death, so the fact that there were some pretty sick blood-n-guts effects to admire helped keep my vital signs above "critical".
Also, there's a certain tone to much of the proceedings that worked better for me than I generally find with this sub-genre of action/adventure films. But again, since this is really my type of flick, my approval could just as easily mean that you're sure to hate it as like it.
Ghost from the Machine (2010)
Really interesting concept (even if it's not entirely fresh) behind this movie and apparently others agree because Hollywood has a remake in the works of this shoe-string budget film shot in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Ghost from the Machine is much more along the lines of a family drama with supernatural elements than a horror movie, but it does provide a couple chills. It deals with themes of grief and regret in the wake of lost loved ones and takes a scientific approach at how one might attempt to create the physical conditions (electromagnetic fields and such) where those that have passed may be able to re-enter our plain of existence. These characters aren't thrill seekers; they're mourners coping with loss and guilt.
The acting is a little rough around the edges -but then again so is the screen-writing at times- and the location shooting is modest, but for the most part the film does a lot with a little. The photography looks good and adds a level of professionalism to the film that it sorely needs. And the central relationship between the two brothers plays out well. Eventually all the actors seemed to settle into their roles and felt like wholly believable characters by the end. Probably the thing that holds the movie back from being more effective is a certain inability to sustain mood and tension in between scenes as the film nears it's conclusion.
This film's unlikely to strike anyone as anything terribly special, but I have a certain affection for it and I'll be interested to see what a major studio does with the source material.
There's always catching up to do
The Dead Zone (1983)
Among my favorite Stephen King adaptations, which seeing as this one's brought to life by David Cronenberg I'm really not surprised. Christopher Walken turns in one of his best performances in this easy to like film that has a bit of everything.
Oh, and also I now have an even greater appreciation for Tim Burton's casting of Walken as the Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow. Good stuff!
Lent to me by a listal friend :)
Personally I find Guy Maddin's films (well, the two I've seen anyway) to be very visually interesting. The way he's able to make a film truly look as though it just came out of some vault after being lost since 1930 or so is fascinating to me. (Though I eventually did begin to wonder just how many jars of Vaseline he used on those lenses.) The Saddest Music in the World strikes me as something of a triumph in its ability to recreate and commemorate cinema of the 20's and 30's. It must be a process that requires a good deal of ingenuity and patience. It also may require a good deal of patience from no small portion of viewers.
Maddin's set-design is also something I marveled at. Set in 1933 Winnipeg, many of the exterior shots of the village brought to mind the art design of German Expressionist films, like The Cabinet of Dr. Calligari or Metropolis. Interior shots (especially when reproducing the effect of early experiments in color) reminded me of the original Phantom of the Opera. And occupying this strange world is an assembly of characters seemingly plucked from an old melodrama. This is all strange stuff, for sure.
The problems I did have with the film deal more with tone and pacing than visual presentation or acting. At times it just seemed like Maddin was trying to juggle too many genres and film movements. The films works well as a surreal fantasy, and there are moments of semi-absurd humor that made me laugh out loud. But somehow I expected something deeper. Something more keenly honed in on its characters and their psyches. There's a weird balance going on between dark whimsy and playful, light-heartedness that just didn't measure out quite right for me. And the use of montage stirred my awareness that his story really was never as compelling as it should've been. And while the movie had me enchanted through the first half, and in certain ways through the rest, I was a bit more relieved when it reached its finish than I should've been.
Repo Man (1984)
Every now and then I roll the dice on a horror flick that I know nothing about. Rarely has it ever paid off as well as this. Absentia is a very, very good low-budget horror film. And what's best is you haven't seen this movie before. It's fresh, unique, wholly it's own movie. So basically, everything the opposite of the cover-art.
I could say more, but I enjoyed going into it blindly, and perhaps you will too. So I'll just say if you're a fan of horror, track it down. And if you're a fan of unlikely success stories about "little movies that could" watch the extra features.
Terrible direction married with terrible script equals terrible everything else. Everyone involved ought to be embarrassed.
The Innkeepers (2012)
Video Store Rental
Hmmm. Well can't say it was as good as Ti West's previous feature, The House of the Devil. But there's still plenty I enjoyed about the film, even if the ending was curiously underwhelming. I still think Ti West shows promise as a director and I've enjoyed the performances he's gotten out of his actors.
The Woman (2011)
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Wow! Another highly character-driven horror flick released in the past year that feels fresh and gleefully creative enough to exceed my expectations and endear itself to me... in a brutal, nasty kinda way.
The Woman is surely one of those horror movies that will anger some people by coming across as a sadistic exercise in bad taste and irresponsibility. But, to be honest that strikes me as a pretty boring argument and one that lacks imagination. As a horror fan, I'm happy to have come across a professional and well-crafted feature film that's not afraid to take some risks. The counter-intuitive music used for the film is a risk that I think worked well. Others will disagree. The long lengths the film takes to expose the rotten underbelly of a small town "American Dream" family involved some risks, most of which I think played out marvelously. The fixation on character and criminal psychology, the dynamic between aggressors and victims- these are ideas that are rarely explored in horror films as they are here.
And the fact that the film achieves this while still delivering a visually impressive and frightening and provocative film just makes this all the more welcome of an achievement these days. Also, while you won't need any help absolutely fucking hating the central villain, there's an unnerving resemblance going on that made me think he could actually have belonged to a certain ex-White House family. Now that's scary.
If Pedro Almodovar has made a lackluster movie, I haven't seen it yet. Volver seems about as close to a family film as this Spanish auteur is likely to get... Oh, don't worry- there's still rape, murder, and incest involved. This is still very much an Almodovar offering. But this one is undeniably lighter in tone than the bulk of his output and its humor is a bit more whimsical.
If there's a complaint to be made about the film it's that some stretches in the middle lack a certain amount of kinetic energy that often propel his stories forward- though that's not to say things ever drag, so colorful are his world, characters, and the way relationships and connections are revealed. Plus, a fantastic and deservedly acclaimed performance from Penelope Cruz commands attention and admiration throughout.
The film approaches something truly special in the final 15 minutes, which are among the best I've seen from his output.
Rare Exports (2010)
Essentially how I felt by the end of it
I remember being told that this was a horror movie at some point. But no horror ever really happens. It's more like a dark fantasy. Or wait, maybe a family film. Actually this movie is really uneven and doesn't seem to know what it is, which is a big part of the problem. Another big problem: A lot of things that occur in the film just... don't make any sense. No sense at all, really.
It's too bad because the cast was pretty good (at least before the writing got all corny) and visually a lot of the movie looks great. The super-epic LOTR-style score was maybe a bit much. Especially seeing as nothing epic happens at all. One of the weaker final acts to come along in a long while.
The Last Circus (2010)
Video Store Rental
Destined for instant cult status, The Last Circus is the delightfully demented art-trash opus from Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia, a man whose work I've never encountered before. Before the opening credits are finished you'll know that you're in for something special. Whether this particular brand of special is to your taste or not is another matter.
Stripped to its essence, The Last Circus is a classic tale in every sense of the word- one doesn't need to strain to see a resemblance to Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare, or Hollywood film noir at various times. Except you know, a crazy, deranged take on it all.
This film is bloody, sexy, and stylish and filled with black humor and social critique. It's characters are well-drawn and performed by a very solid cast. Definitely worth a look.
External Review: NY Times
La doppia ora (2009)
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Tough film to discuss without spoiling anything for someone who hasn't yet seen it. Just know that it's a very strong debut effort from an Italian filmmaker and that it's ripe with shades of Hitchcock, Polanski, and even some David Lynch. The Double Hour is a remarkably well-put-together and remarkably well-performed drama/thriller/noir/romance full of twists and turns in its telling. I personally found the final -and more or less inevitable- revelation devastating. And it might be why I just can't bring myself to rate this film a bit higher.
Nonetheless, the ideas about guilt, redemption, grief, and transformation are wonderful to play with all the way up to the end. I can't help it if a large part of me was rooting for "nice" over "smart".
Criterion Collection Releases
Belle de Jour (1967)
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Though it didn't blow me away, I don't doubt that the film will stick in my mind for some time. Catherine Deneuve delivers a fine performance in this case-study of sorts about a bored and emotionally detached bourgeois housewife who takes on a secret double-life as a high-brow prostitute.
Director Bunuel employs flashback and dream sequences to his story that deals in everything from sexual abuse, fetish, fantasy, sexual empowerment, deviance, liberation, deceit and more. There's a part of me that was compelled by the film and its blend of overt and enigmatic storytelling. But another part of me is skeptical about the way some of these ideas intersect. The film has a strange intellectually seductive aura about it, but I'm not yet sold that this is pure genius, no matter how you slice it.
At the Movies
Watched on the Big Screen
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012)
It's now been a number of days since I watched this movie and I'm finding that what I liked about the film has stuck with me more than what I disliked about it. Which is a good thing, because I wasn't overly impressed when I left the theater.
The Duplass brothers (Cyrus, Humpday, The Puffy Chair) make spiritual movies, though perhaps not the kind that the word suggests. What I mean is that this particular film is about people whose spirits have been battered and bruised, neglected and worn. As often as not the hardship is self-inflicted in nature. The film transpires over the course of a single day, a day in which these wounds are at their most raw and most exposed for us viewers to see. As the day and the film passes, a series of events (some more unlikely than others) transpire that somehow provide nourishment and repair.
In the end we have a film that feels more contrived than I'd ordinarily like, but manages to be quietly moving all the same.
I do wish that these indie-cred, mumblecore pioneers would shed some of their amateurish and annoying visual habits. The needless zoom-in/zoom-outs on whichever character happens to be speaking (or sometimes reacting) was extremely grating and just looked clumsy and foolish. And I remain unconvinced that Ed Helms belongs on the big screen. But apart from that I think I'll let any negativity toward the film slide, and instead offer a mild recommendation toward anyone looking for a nice enough little movie to feel good about.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2012)
This is very probably the best movie about salmon fishing in the Yemen that you're likely to find. If that doesn't necessarily sound like a ringing endorsement, well...
From the onset there were multiple signs that this might be one of those movies that just isn't for me: It's quirky/goofy/self-consciously light-hearted musical score for one thing. It's overly self-conscious attempts at achieving clever, faux-cynical humor for another. Unnecessary (but thankfully short-lived) visual flourishes ala Stranger than Fiction as a third. And it might just be that I don't like Ewen McGreggor as much as I sometimes think I do. But, despite all of this, I hoped against hope that this film would reveal itself to me as something special and worthy of future contemplation. Or maybe it would at the very least entertain.
But alas, no. What we have here is a Romantic-Comedy all dressed up (or maybe down?) for a special occasion that never arrives. Its short-comings in this department are never really properly mended by the political globalization threads that sew the rest of the plot together. And no, a few in your face, sassy-pants comedic lines delivered from Kristen Scott Thomas wasn't enough to court my affection either.
By the time the film enters its final zig-zaggy course of unlikely, high-fructose happenings, I could only look at the movie with an askance, disengaged sense of puzzlement. Perhaps the most excitement I can drum up is to report that Emily Blunt did nothing to either help or hurt her career. My sense is that a number of audience members left feeling good. As many more stumbled out of the theater with the slight suspicion that they'd been had.
21 Jump Street (2012)
Cleverly self-referential and at many times genuinely funny. This movie is far better than most anyone would've guessed, due in part to its brisk pace and skillful navigation through a minefield of potential pitfalls and weary cliches. Oh sure, the movie inevitably runs into a few of these action/comedy landmines, but it kind of comes at 'em sideways rather than head-on, allowing the material to perform a wicked-cool hoodslide of sorts right across them, thereby avoiding any major damage.
Jonah Hill continues to impress me with a gift for comedy, and Channing Tatum was surprisingly likeable here. The final act is a bit more uneven than the rest of the film, both in terms of tone and success, but since I had a good deal of fun getting there, it's not too difficult to forgive a movie that's already established itself as an overachiever. Still, despite all the positive there is to say about the film, it's one that'll fade from my memory pretty rapidly.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Well, I consider We Need to Talk About Kevin to be among the most overrated films of last year's batch and one that struck me in truth as little more than a fascinating failure. In fact, fascinating is probably too generous a word.
This movie would've done well to abandon a little bit of its art house pretense and embrace a little more of the dangerous and exciting dynamic that the horror genre can provide when approached correctly. As it is We Need to Talk About Kevin, despite all its attempts to disturb and spark controversy, stalls somewhere in the murky fog that is the "cinema of misery". Its story is carefully cut and pasted into a narrative quilt that suggests dark mystery, telling scenes of domestic import, and irreconcilable tragedy, but, to state it plainly, none of this adds up to a film I'd care to revisit, nor one that will keep me up thinking.
We Need to Talk About Kevin does make use of some powerful imagery presented with versatile visual techniques. Much of the photography is to be commended. But on the flip-side, many of these same visual tendencies begin to feel redundant after a while, and the film's tone feels altogether static. Scene upon scene are strung together one after another, all of them conveying nearly identical expression of tone, mood, and implication. I found myself thankful that films like The Omen and Rosemary's Baby know something about restraint and variety.
Also, while I have nothing but respect for Tilda Swinton as an actress, I've grown a bit weary of the heaps of praise that are piled upon the "quiet suffering" performances that seem to be in fashion. I'm not saying that Swinton isn't good here (she is, and she's on camera for nearly every scene of the film), but her performance along with the performance from the young Ezra Miller are of the same brand, and one which doesn't require much of anything in the way of emotional range, nor spirited interaction among other actors on screen. If calling these types of characters/performances "emotionless" is too harsh, well, at the very least they feel a bit lifeless when placed beside many of the performances across cinema that are widely considered truly memorable and "great".
My real gripe with the film isn't that I simply don't think it achieves anything that comes close to redefining the domestic drama, nor the mystery-thriller as I've in some ways been led to believe. It's more a matter of annoyance with a piece of film-making that seems convinced that its inherent, as well as its artistically insisted upon dark nature are somehow enough to obfuscate its many mediocrities.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
I really can't remember the last time a wide-release English-language horror film got quite as much early buzz and praise from seemingly reputable sources as much as this movie has. So naturally I had to see for myself what all the fuss is about.
Up top I have to say that despite some bold claims that would have you believe otherwise, this is not the final word in horror. And it doesn't "reinvent the horror film" or "turn the genre on its head". For one thing, it's far from a singular film with a firm grasp on its own vision. For another, there's not a single scare to be had. But even with no such luck on these fronts, I will say that I enjoyed the film. I enjoyed it mostly because it's a good deal of fun. It's also cleverly self-aware and surprisingly comic, in a wry style that mostly works.
Horror fans may take delight in picking out the countless images and references that harken back to myriad horror films that have come before. A number of them are very obvious (Hellraiser, Evil Dead just for starters) and others are a bit tougher to pick out (A Clockwork Orange, Argento's Opera -that is, if I'm not giving the film too much credit). At any rate, if horror references are your thing, The Cabin in the Woods has got them in spades. And then of course there's the whole business of toying with the archetypical characters established by the genre. Some of this is interesting, but none of it is quite as clever as a lot of people seem to think.
To be sure The Cabin in the Woods is very much one of those "post-modern" "film as film criticism" exercises. This kind of approach has vast potential for becoming smug or preachy or phony and just pissing me off in general, but luckily the film displays enough affection for the genre while simultaneously heckling it, that an agreeable enough balance is struck. The real trouble here is that a horror film tailored for the horror cynic, and one that spends half the time standing beside itself, is never nearly as satisfying as a straight-up, well-made and effective horror movie that exists fully within its own identity.
But maybe I'm just old-school like that.
The Raid: Redemption (2012)
No-frills action flick done exceptionally well. And with subtitles! Ooo, how classy!
But seriously, if bad-ass combat scenes -hand to hand or otherwise- are you're thing, DON'T OVERLOOK this one!
My local movie theater can beat up your local movie theater (Unless you live near The Alamo)
Barton Fink (1991)
Really enjoyed the shades of David Lynch going on in it this time around. Eraserhead and Blue Velvet both seem to contribute some inspiration and there are a few visual sequences that may call Mulholland Drive to mind.
I need to rewatch Miller's Crossing, and I've yet to see Hudsucker Proxy or Lady Killers, but Barton Fink has earned a home in my Top 3 from Joel and Ethan Coen.
Listal Group Project
Enter the Void (2009)
Since I more or less thought highly of Gaspar Noe's previous film, Irreversible, I had hopes that I'd find Enter the Void to be equally as interesting and darkly spellbinding. Such is not the case.
Sure, there are a few technical aspects that are indeed impressive (mostly visual techniques, color-correction, crane-shots, and the like, as well as some of the sound) but once said admiration wore off I was left with a film that felt frustrating, sharply tedious at times, and plain old over-long. I did enjoy most of the scenes that preclude Oscar's death (this really isn't a spoiler), but had a difficult time engaging with present-day Tokyo happenings, real or death-dream. Also, if I don't see an overhead shot for the rest of the month it would suit me perfectly.
The most underwhelming aspect of the film is that I just didn't think it left me with much to chew on or think about. It just felt kind of obvious and banal- a fuzzy-headed attempt to communicate potentially profound or weighty ideas.
So yes, too bad. But I'll toss it an extra point for startling me out of my socks at one particular moment.
A solid, fun, interesting movie from that really cool bygone era when Sci-Fi movies were about ideas. Christopher Walken leads a strong cast that includes Natalie Wood and that woman that played Nurse Ratchett. (Took me way too long to figure out why I recognized her)
So yes a very good science fiction drama that I'd never heard of before, and the second enjoyable 1983 Christopher Walkin lead performance I've watched this month!
Often personal favorites. Or sometimes I'm just too lazy for something new.
Wes Anderson simply can't do wrong in my eyes. My favorite seems to rotate between this, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Darjeeling Limited, depending upon which I've watched most recently.
Oh, and Cate Blanchett is simply radiant in this film. Like, physically radiant.
Easy A (2010)
Okay, so my first take on the film may have been a bit overly enthusiastic, so I'm now dropping my rating from a 9/10 to an 8/10. Still, a largely funny and refreshingly clever movie and we don't see too many of its kind done this well.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2002)
The way this film calls to mind J.D. Salinger's Glass family stories is one of the many things that makes this a personal favorite.
Everything Must Go (2011)
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