July Movie Journal - Xanadon't
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At the Movies
Films I caught on the Big Screen!
To Rome with Love (2012)
Woody Allen's latest offering, To Rome with Love, is a peculiar one. It follows four different stories that all take place in Rome and, no, the characters and stories never intersect. But they are united in theme, much of which deals with the complications and ultimate discontent that results from the individual vying to increase their social rank or station in life. It also deals with the nature of fame, the illusions that surround love and romance, and the manner in which we view our sense of purpose and life accomplishments. And if you can't guess by now, yes it also includes a bit of personal career reflection by Woody Allen himself.
In many ways To Rome with Love is an anti-romance. That is to say, its comic teeth are sharpest when the film is attempting to subvert or demystify many of our most common notions of romantic love. In fact, the film comes dangerously close to becoming downright depressing at times. And I'm fairly certain that, were it not for the (curious) presence of Alec Baldwin's character, the movie would have in fact supplanted itself too deeply into a tricky fog of vague cynicism to ever properly right itself again. Luckily for viewers, Baldwin provides the most engaging and genuinely human character in the mix. Allen spends a good deal of time exposing its many characters to various degrees of our collective scrutiny and damnation, but Baldwin's (not altogether real) character is the one that provides a voice of wisdom, humility, regret-- all the things we need to traverse the film's murky (however comedic at times) waters.
Some critics of the film may baldly state that Allen has too many balls up in the air at one time. It might be argued that in dealing with 4 separate story lines, no single one of them is actually given adequate attention or development. I disagree. If the film has faults (and it does) I don't count this among them. The movie actually moves back and forth between narratives simply and surprisingly gracefully. Often with these kinds of structures I'll feel like I've been torn away from a certain story prematurely. Just as often, when I'm transported back to it, I feel a need to gather my bearings or reorientate myself. This is a sensation I suspected I might feel with this film, but truthfully never did.
The film works strongest when the viewer grants the movie a certain amount of... freedom of fancy. There's much on the screen that offers incredulous amusement, but not always are we given enough "real" emotional footing to stand on. So this aspect of the film both works in its favor and detracts from the experience by turns. But there is a sense of inventiveness that most good comedies must have. Unfortunately, I could see a good many of the moments of humor coming from a mile (or 30) away.
Also interesting to me is that my appreciation of Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page seem to have an inverse relationship to one another. That is, I enjoy Eisenberg more and more each time I watch him in something, and I like Page less and less. To be honest, I found her to be kind of terrible here.
Penelope Cruz is very good-- she's always very good, no matter which language she's speaking. And my word can that woman wear a dress.
An end of the world romantic comedy that I'm convinced was made by poets.
I really liked this film a whole bunch. There's a lot going on in this movie about "being present" and it's put across very nicely. The movie could easily have spun its wheels in an overabundance of standard Rom-com fare littered with absurd, and overreaching comedic hijinks. Or just as easily it could've diverted its attention to too much "gloom and doom". Instead most of the movie takes place in a sensitive and sensible in-between, made wonderfully effective by a simple, but emotionally observant, warmheartedness.
The cynic in me wants to point out that, no, not everything here is overwhelmingly fresh, and yet I can't help but feels that there's something close to revelatory going on in the film's quiet pulse.
Additionally, the scene at Friendsy's (where everyone is your friend) was one of the most effective purely comedic sequences I've come across in a long while. This is especially shocking to me because 9 out of 10 times it's that scene in the movie that I find obnoxious, over-cooked, and faintly repulsive. Here it was comedic bliss.
A truly solid set of performances from essentially everyone involved and a well-conceived sense of playfulness turns this period-piece/romantic comedy/socially-conscious movie about the invention of the personal vibrator into one of the most surprising movies of the year. Here's a movie that could've easily become a one-joke affair dressed up in a stuffy, uninspired, and unbearably Victorian universe. In fact, part of me is still shocked it wasn't just that.
In truth Hysteria is pretty first-rate, especially if you can forgive it the obligatory, based on a true story ("really", an opening title-card assures us) courtroom scene.
Your Sister's Sister (2012)
A very good faux-documentary/black comedy/drama/odd romance/satire/character study/based on a true story film directed by Richard Linklater. Bernie showcases Linklater's unique ability to arrive at revealing truths about the human experience and also presents us with the enormous talent that Jack Black possesses-- something made all the more evident when given proper material.
In fact the only thing keeping Bernie from becoming a 'Great' film is the unfortunate miscasting of Matthew McConaughey. His character does provide some laughs but too often he's too self-conscious in reaching for comedic effect.
Even so, there's some fine movie-making on display here and it's definitely one of the more clever and delightful films of the year.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Passes as entertainment but there's just not a lot that's remarkable about Nolan's conclusion to his post-9/11 Batman saga. Sure, some of the special effects sequences look great. But then, certain action sequences feel clunky and hum-drum. The most glaring problem with the film is a villain that is nearly devoid of any interesting characterization or charisma. The fact that he sounds like Sean Connery over speaker phone with shitty reception doesn't help matters. Tom Hardy is a pretty fine actor, but his Bane simply isn't the kind of arch-nemesis a film (let alone a 164 minute one) can be built around. And then of course we're still stuck with Christian Bale's gravelly voiced (to the point of unintentional comedy), mouth perpetually agape Caped Crusader.
Thank heavens team Nolan took some care with writing Selena Kyle's character. I've never been much for Anne Hathaway before, but she plays the opportunistic cat-burglar/love interest quite capably. She's a sexy, sassy, falsely coy smartass that slinks around in serrated stilettos and with a chip on her shoulder. But most importantly, she's spirited and injects the film with a much needed sense of fun. Joseph Gordon Levitt as Gotham cop and Batman sympathizer, John Blake, provides the only other truly engaging new character to the series. It's these two performances that I felt the bulk of Dark Knight's successes rested on.
Oh sure, Michael Cain is sufficiently likeable and dignified as Alfred. That is until Nolan finally goes overkill on the slushy sentiment, and Cain's performance finally collapses underneath all that goo. Some of these scenes are also responsible for the slipshod pacing of the film.
There's plenty more I could say about the movie, but the basic truth of the matter is that for everything in the film that Nolan and Co. does well, there's something equally poor. This ranges from character performances to flying-Batman-gadgetry designs to escaping holes in the ground. Considering its quarter-billion dollar budget, The Dark Knight Rises felt mostly (despite, somehow, its bloated run-time) like the final chapter of a film franchise that Christopher Nolan was eager to be finished with. And by this time, I feel more or less the same.
I suspect that Jason Bateman's onscreen presence goes further with me than most, despite the fact that I've never watched a full episode of Arrested Development. Not sure what it is, but I really like the guy, and find him to be really funny-- probably funnier than he actually is.
So no, you're probably not missing much by skipping this movie, but I didn't consider it a waste of time.
A Bag of Hammers (2011)
Video Store Rental
A mostly painless but supremely forgettable indie comedy of the "heart in the right place" variety. I simply can't imagine anyone, anyone, saying "Oh my god, I love that movie."
Being Flynn (2012)
Video Store Rental
Surely one of the most overlooked films of the year. Being Flynn is at its core a film about storytelling and about the stories that we tell ourselves and, despite a couple flaws, there's plenty that borders on sublime. Maybe most remarkable is that the movie achieves so much with so little fuss or ostentation. Its narrative flows effortlessly through moments of intense personal loss and gain, disillusionment and learning- all without copping to unseemly amounts of melodrama and woe.
After sleepwalking his way through a bunch of shit roles in shit movies recently it's really nice to see De Niro roll up his sleeves and give us a truly interesting- if often despicable- character and one burning with fiery humanity and imperfection. Just as impressive is Paul Dano, an actor who seems to have relied on a keen sense of intuition over the years, which has never served him as well as it does here.
Friends with Kids (2012)
Video Store Rental
Friends with Kids thinks it's smart and slightly dangerous, progressive in its ideas and somehow coolly esoteric. It's a snotty little snob of a Romantic Comedy that thinks it's superior to standard RomCom fare. It's not.
A groan-inducing set-up finally yields a groan-inducing conclusion, with a shitload of exceptionally bland montages and flash-forwards wedged in-between. The movie is populated by surprisingly well-developed supporting characters, but its two leads are too unlikeable for this fact to offer much relief. An occasionally funny or even perceptive scene dealing with the peripheral players comes along every now and again. But before long it's back to the same pair of uninteresting assholes that I was so happy to leave moments ago.
Aesthetically the film offers about as much charisma as a 1990s two-season sitcom.
To put it another way, I pretty much hated this movie.
Meeting Evil (2012)
"So um... when's this movie get good?"
Kinda like a Twilight Zone episode but with a bunch of violence, Samuel L. cursing up a storm, and everything else done terribly. Terrible direction, terrible script, terrible casting, terrible story. Really fucking terrible.
What Happened Was... (1994)
What Happened Was is an odd flick to be sure, more or less noble in its intention, but one that never gained traction with me on any personal level.
From the onset there's a lot put in place to make the viewer uncomfortable and, frankly, depressed. Unseen cars honk their horns. A radio scans through AM static. A cold florescent light frantically flickers in the entrance to a Brooklyn apartment. A tragic female form enters the apartment and it looks as though she has stepped inside of something from Picasso's Blue Period. As she flitters and flutters about this canvas her nervous gestures are captured with unnerving low-angle shots. The radio lands on a pop song about the hidden sexual abuse of a child. I officially want to kill myself.
All I can think is, What happened to the breezy cursive script on the cover? What happened to the breezy RomCom blonde beneath it?
Well, eventually the film forms itself into a romance of sorts. Well, no, it doesn't. But it does at least give way to a familiar setting where in another movie romance might prove possible. Only here the entire film, more or less, revolves around a detailed account of an awkward first date. As the getting-to-know-you process unfolds, individual demons are uncovered concerning both parties. There's an inherent force at work that preys on our fascination with what might be discovered. And in truth, some of these discoveries are interesting indeed.
Unfortunately the film is overly preoccupied with maintaining a sense of danger and unease. The characters are never allowed to reveal themselves as living and breathing people, but remain merely narrative constructs fastened firmly to the film's anecdotal torture-table.
Aging intellectual enters into a love affair with a young and beautiful student. On the one hand, this film is far better than most any film of such description has a right to be. Much of this is a credit to the extremely fine performances given by Kingley and Cruz. (Though there is a delicate and genteel touch to the direction that establishes this film as something to be reckoned with.)
On the other hand, the final 20 minutes effectively undo all the work the film had done to bring this story into the unlikely favorable light in which I'd truly begun seeing it. And it's a shame. Especially since in this movie that tackles such a considerable age gap between lovers we're given an awful lot of universal ideas about the human heart and psychology to muse upon.
Oh how I wish certain choices and developments in the film didn't anger me so much.
Inland Empire (2007)
Not too many 3 hour films out there that I would happily watch more than once, but I'm confident that Lynch's sprawling nightmare Inland Empire is now among them. After one viewing I'm reluctant to try to make too much sense of it here, though as I've done a bit of thinking and reading certain things have been falling into place for me.
Truly what makes this such a worthwhile effort has far more to do with the visceral viewing experience than ideas about strict narrative. Lynch has given us his most technically inspired and impressive film to date. The way he photographs images on screen is more consistently stunning than perhaps any other American film-maker working today. At many times the sound editing plays the largest role in shaping the viewer's experience with the film, contributing to the unsettling, mysterious, and at times viciously frightening atmosphere in a way that very few films ever achieve.
Many will dismiss Inland Empire as being just too goddamn "Lynchy" in comparison to even some of his more confounding films, but I felt like I was in the hands of a passionate and purposeful artist the entire time and will certainly get further satisfaction from the film as I continue to try to unravel the mysteries contained.
Where I see what all the fuss is about.
One, Two, Three (1961)
Rapid-fire, gut-buster of a screenplay and a truly fun movie set in Cold-War Berlin. It's Coca-Cola vs. the Communists and it's never tasted so refreshing. Give this under-celebrated Billy Wilder film a look.
The Chaser (2008)
Intense, compelling, and grim, much like a lot of Korean Cinema's output these days. This one has the pleasant distinction from a few other titles I've watched of being more firmly grounded in emotional credibility and plenty of moments of unglamorized, strikingly real human experience. In short, this movie is "my style".
Oh, and I was afraid the whole Bad-Ass Dude/Vulnerable Abandoned Little Girl aspect was going to ruin the whole thing for me and usher in much rolling of the eyes, groaning in disbelief, and cursing cheap moments of emotional manipulation. It didn't. Quite the opposite, actually.
DVD Gift :)
From what I've seen, this is Almodovar's nearest attempt at a straight comic romp on the light-hearted side of things. Well, sure it contains a suicide attempt, Shiite terrorists, heavy doses of barbiturates, and a woman prematurely released from the looney bin and -yikes- packing heat. But it's all played in screwball fashion at break-neck speeds.
The usual coincidental connections exist in ways that bring unlikely characters together in comedic (which doesn't always preclude tragic in an Almodovar picture) surprising, and, often as not, sexually charged ways. If Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown only went on long enough, I'm convinced we'd eventually learn which prominent character the elderly Jehovah's Witness lady is secretly fucking.
Even when Almodovar's script borders on the preposterous, there's always an undeniable cleverness to his work that demands amusement, and this film is certainly no different.
Ip Man (2008)
A very impressive film that manages to give martial arts "action" sequences, social/historical content, and nice human touches all a fair shake. There's something truly compelling about the titular character- he's simply a guy that I couldn't tire of watching on screen- whether he's fighting, shoveling coal, placating "out of towners", sipping tea, or receiving cautionary glares from his wife. There's a refreshing amount of dignity, honor, family and cultural ties that run through the film without ever feeling terribly manipulative or melodramatic... Okay, well there's a bit of cheese to be had here and there, but overall a film I'd highly recommend.
Point Blank (2010)
Top notch French language thriller marked by intense sequences, gritty violence, and strong performances- all delivered in a taut 84 minutes. The movie has the good sense to start not at the beginning of the story, but in the middle- where the action gets good and the emotional stakes are heightened. Back story to the characters, motivations, etc arrive at just the right times through use of efficient visual storytelling- if only Hollywood would adopt such concise and crisp narrative methods more often.
Some people might be put off by a pretty notable level of violence (seems we can always count on the French for that) but the film truly displays an emotional core that affects far more than most films of the genre. Everything here adds up to a movie that I wish I'd caught in theaters.
Cold Sweat (2011)
Very much not the inventive, sexy horror thriller the ad campaigns and trailers want you to believe. Just terribly stupid.
Ghost Story (1981)
DVD Gift :)
Somehow I went all these years without ever hearing of this film. A bunch of brandy-swilling old rich men gather in their parlors to swap stories about the "good old days" and generally wind things down by exchanging scary stories and tales to chill your blood and so forth. It's not long before tragedy strikes, a pattern emerges, and it's discovered that a certain true story buried in their past has come back to haunt them.
It's a solid horror offering from the early 80s featuring some nice scares and some great special effects makeup. Based on the cast and title, I'd expected something a bit more on the wholesome and harmless side, but there is a nice little dangerous and wicked streak to the film. Good stuff.
Listal Group Project
In the Line of Fire (1993)
A very watchable, classic story of a man attempting to move past his personal demons and prove to himself (and all involved really) that he's "got what it takes". The potential assassin is played convincingly and entertainingly by John Malkovich and the dynamic between him and the secret service personnel seems to be something that David Fincher had in mind when he made Zodiac some 15 years later.
I felt that the romantic subplot distracted from my overall experience of the film, especially since by the end it swells into something more than a subplot. And here and there I felt my intelligence being insulted. Still, an entertaining movie.
Empire of the Sun (1987)
Unfortunately the way things worked out demanded that I break this up into two separate viewings... something I really dislike doing and more often than not I imagine to have a generally negative impact on my experience with a film.
Despite this fact, I'm fairly certain I wasn't going to walk away from this film overly excited to begin with. My biggest issue with the movie is one that's kind of difficult to pin down, but its something that I feel creep in around the edges of many Steven Spielberg pictures. I often feel as though his movies are "over-directed" in a way. It might just be personal preference, but in Empire of the Sun I felt a lot of sweeping gestures and shots and musical queues that suggest something grand and important, but I rarely felt any immediacy or emotional punch from the images or the actors on screen. Spielberg presents a fine story, but not in a way that commands my attention.
I'm afraid most of the appeal the film did have for me had to do with John Malkovich's presence as well as assorted instances of impressive set and costume design. In a nutshell, not my type of film.
Movies I revisited this month.
I'm always simultaneously impressed and disappointed at how early Janet Leigh exits the whole affair. Great, great movie. And someday I'll figure out what exactly keeps me from doling out that final half-star.
Blu-Ray Gift (Episodes IV, V, VI)
It's been a number of years since I sat down and gave the Star Wars Trilogy a proper watch. So after receiving the films as a birthday gift, I was really rather excited to sit down with these childhood/adolescent/adulthood favorites.
Lucas simply had such a winning formula on his hands with these films and such a simple, yet ingenious vision to accentuate it all. It's a shame the man went all bat-shit crazy, washed up hack on us. Ah well, such is life.
The truth is, Lucas was never the best director with a camera. He can actually be pretty clumsy when shooting scenes with actual actors in the frame, lingering too early for a reaction shot while someone else is speaking, fucking up spacial blocking, etc. Perhaps I've noticed this before, perhaps not. There's all kinds of lovely imperfections at work in this, particularly the first, film of the series.
The only thing that offers me pause as I declare Jedi the weakest film of the series is the fact that the Emperor is totally fucking awesome. Otherwise, yes, the conclusion is a somewhat major step down from the first two films. All that goddamn time on Endor is much, though not all, to blame.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012)
Yep, one of those films that I caught in theaters by myself some random afternoon while my girlfriend was busy being responsible with a more fully adjusted and impressive adult life than my own. I had the notion that she would enjoy this movie, so I rented it and we watched it together.
My initial opinion of the movie was positive, but only mildly so. This time I really liked the movie far better and I teared up at least 9 different times. Blame the residual effects of a hangover and the vulnerable state that said hangover left me in. Or perhaps the movie resonated better with me this time around.
It's a fairly flawed movie that I happen to really like a lot. My girlfriend found plenty of faults in it too, but still thought it was nice.
The Shining (1980)
Probably the 8th or 9th time I've watched it. It's just a masterful piece of cinema. And still incredibly terrifying.
The Changeling (1980)
DVD Gift :)
Rarely does a single year bring us two American produced horror films of this caliber. The fact that they feature two haunted settings that are so iconic makes it that much cooler. And of course both feature incredibly strong lead performances, though the tone and mood of those performances are drastically different.
Summer months tend to shape into lighter movie months for me, both in terms of quantity and content. I'm generally much more in the mood to think and brood and contemplate cinema (and probably in general) when it's not so warm and sunny outside. But let's see if I can't get some work done around here anyway.
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