Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bedazzled - 1967

"Bedazzled" - 1967
Dir. by Stanley Donen - 1 hr. 43 min.

This is what you'd call a "high concept" comedy - the devil offers seven wishes (that he'll figure out a way to sabotage) in exchange for your soul.  Dudley Moore, playing a unassuming fry cook named Stanley Moon, takes Peter Cook's devil up on that offer.  It's a great concept, but the Britishness of this film is also undercuts the execution.  There's a resignation to the entire movie, a reminder that people are unlikely to break out of their roles, regardless of change of scenery.  And even though Moon tries to kill himself early in the movie, there's never a sense of real despair.  While Cook and Moore natter on pleasantly throughout the film, it never feels like there's anything at stake.

For a concept like selling your very soul for a better situation in life, the lack of consequence is probably the most disturbing thing here.  But as Moore tears through each wish, getting deterred repeatedly from his goal of gaining the affections of co-worker Margaret (played by Elanor Bron), there's no sense that the stakes are increasing with each failed attempt, or even a sense of buyer's remorse on Moore's part.  The lack of awareness of his situation kind of dooms the movie with a sense of detachment that's hard to break through.

This is a pleasant film to watch (and Raquel Welch is blisteringly hot here in her smallish role), but with such a great idea, it feels like it could have been so much more.  The 2000 remake starring Brendan Fraser didn't get it right either, but the movie that really nailed a version of this concept is "Groundhog Day."  Here, ultimately, it's the devil that's aiming for some kind of redemption, and Moore's character is let off the hook, further removing any consequences for his actions.  In the end, everyone is right back where they started, which is a fairly nihilistic statement for such a glib film.

2.5 / 5 - NF Streaming

Monday, March 28, 2011

Drive Angry - 2011

"Drive Angry" - 2011
Dir. by Patrick Lussier - 1 hr. 44 min.

When I saw the trailer for "Drive Angry," I was hoping that it was actually the trailer for "Ghost Rider 2."  No such luck, though.  I have a sneaking suspicion that GR2 will have a hard time being as entertaining as DA was.

I'm not going to tell you that "Drive Angry" is a good movie, by any stretch of the imagination.  Most of it's appeal comes from the fact that it doesn't aspire to that at all, and that the filmmakers are willing to stretch it's R rating to the breaking point.  Here's what you're guaranteed (and what you'll actually get, as well); a parade of muscle cars, multiple shoot-outs, things blowing up, blatant nudity, devil-worshipers, and Nicolas Cage going full-on nutso as only he can.  Here's two things I wasn't expecting: William Fichtner going toe-to-toe with Cage's weirdness in his "The Accountant" character, and Billy Burke's "Jonah King" tearing things up as the head of a cult.  It takes a certain kind of actor to be able to pull off using a femur bone as a walking stick while strutting around in leather pants and a red satin shirt, unbuttoned to your navel, and Burke is just that man.  By contrast, The Accountant is a sharp-dressed man, sent to retrieve Cage's John Milton (who has escaped from Hell to right a wrong).  I could watch an entire movie devoted just to The Accountant.

One note about the the 3D/2D stuff - I still haven't seen any movie in 3D.  The signature shot of these movies seem to be the "stuff flying at the camera" shot.  I'm starting to get a little tired of that (it feels like blatant pandering), and "Drive Angry" seemed to lean more heavily on that gimmicky shot than other movies I've seen.  I don't hold it against the movie, since it's not "Citizen Kane" to begin with, but I think that it's going to be one of those visual tics that absolutely pegs when the film was made (like when you hear a DJ scratching on a rock song - that means it was made between 1997 and 1999 nearly without exception).  Here's hoping that filmmakers in general get over this gimmick shot and learn to use the technology with a little more subtlety.

When I rate a movie, I use 3/5 as the point where I'd re-watch something.  Below that, and I'd generally not want to watch something again.  But the dilemma here is that this certainly wasn't a good movie, but I'd totally watch it again.  Maybe part of that is having just seen "Sucker Punch," and you know you're in rough shape when your movie makes "Drive Angry" look good, but DA came off like a character-driven indie movie in comparison.  Even giving your characters basic motivations for their actions makes such a difference in action-oriented material.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre (2D)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sucker Punch - 2011

"Sucker Punch" - 2011
Dir. by Zack Snyder - 1 hr. 49 min.

SPOILER WARNING - I'm in the unique (for me) position of having seen something before the actual release date, but I'm going to write as I normally would, which includes specific discussion about scenes and plot points along the way.  You might want to bookmark this and check it out after you've seen "Sucker Punch" for yourself.

As spectacle films veer closer and closer to animation (and I don't know how you could argue they're not - either you have live actors doing things or you are creating them out of pixels or paint or whatever, which is animation), they also pick up some of the more troubling aspects of less-than-awesome animated films.  Namely, that the story is gibberish and the visuals are expected to carry the entire experience.  When both ends hold up, you get things in the realm of the Pixar movies.  Even if the stories are fairly basic, but executed in an enjoyable manner, you can get a fun film like "Despicable Me."

As if that wasn't enough of a preamble, this film has also picked up some of the less-than-desirable traits of video game films (the only one that I have seen that didn't entirely suck was "Scott Pilgrim," and I think that had something to do with the source material being graphic novels that had video game elements, rather than what seems like the folly of trying to convert an active experience (playing a game) into a passive one (watching a film)).  Video games can overcome a weak story by virtue of the player actually being involved in whatever action is going on, whereas a movie has to actually get into your head and get viewers to care about the characters.

Enough with the broad strokes.  Here's what this movie did well: Zack Snyder has a fantastic, stylized visual sense.  And that has not deteriorated at all.  I don't mean to denigrate him (or his cohorts) by calling this sort of film animation - it's not a dirty word in my book.  But making the fantasy sequences in "Sucker Punch" is no different than what the "Shrek" animators do.  This movie is going to look hot as shit on your big screen in hi def, no question.  I also always enjoy Carla Gugino, and this was no exception.  And that's it.

As for the flip side of the coin, the story is a mess.  Not only is there not any reason to care about any of the main characters (in particular, Baby Doll (played by Emily Browning) is as two-dimensional as she could be while wearing a push-up bra and schoolgirl outfit), what's there is kind of despicable.  Baby Doll is introduced reacting to her mother's death, fending off some kind of attack from her step-father (a lot of things are poorly implied, presumably due to the PG-13 rating, which I'll get to in a bit), and tries to take revenge on him with a pistol.  But she's such a shitty shot that she somehow murders her little sister (a diagram or something might have helped - the camera shots were more confusing than useful).  And this gets her thrown in an insane asylum, all while an awful version of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" plays (and I'll get around to the soundtrack in a bit, too).

Literally every character is a cardboard cutout.  There are vague references to the pasts of the characters, but there's no real attempt to emotionally engage the viewer.  It's nearly supremely lazy storytelling, on a Michael Bay level.  The only thing that I really enjoyed about the characters is that the girls seemed to have names you might give a dog or a hamster (Baby Doll, Rocket, Sweet Pea, Blondie, etc.).

Beyond that, I have three issues:  soundtrack, PG-13 rating, and sublimation.

Soundtrack:  was awful.  I kind of wanted to throw a swear in there as well, but I'll leave it at that.  If you want to see your favorite songs turned into abortions, this might be the soundtrack for you.  The previously mentioned "Sweet Dreams" was a problem, I hated the cover of the Stooges' "Search and Destroy," the remix of Bjork's "Army of Me" was passable, but the real problem I had is the use of a new cover version of the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?"  Sometimes, a song is used so perfectly in a film that it will forever be associated with that scene.  And then that song should be forever retired from inclusion in other films, unless you're actually referencing the previous, perfect use.  When I hear "Where Is My Mind?" it just makes me aware that I'm not watching "Fight Club," and in this case, that I wish I was watching "Fight Club" instead.  I highly doubt that was the goal here, so it's worth mentioning as a moment of film-making failure.  This isn't the only film I've seen this mistake in recently, but it's still frustrating.

PG-13 rating: is stupid to pursue in a movie about hyper-violence and sexual slavery.  I know, I know, it's all about luring teens into the theatre and getting their dollars.  But why even try to make a story that you're not going to be able to tell in any meaningful way?  There is a scene in the film (one of the fantasy scenes) where the girls have to go murder a baby dragon in its nest, literally slitting it's throat, going elbow-deep in it's throat, and taking fire-starting crystals from within the baby dragon.  How is this appropriate for a 13-year old?  And who the hell am I supposed to be rooting for, anyways?  But worth noting, there's no blood at all.  I guess dragons, even flayed open, don't bleed.  Oh yeah, the girls follow it up with murdering the baby's justifiably angry mother dragon, too.  Awesome.

Sublimation: is a psychological concept from Sigmund Freud, explaining that since there is a limited outlet for libidinal energy, that energy is channeled through other, non-libidinal activities and pursuits.  And this movie has a bad, unhealthy case of sublimation.  Despite using the schoolgirl/Lolita thing as the sole inspiration for costuming, this is a movie that's very, very afraid of sexuality.  All of the male characters in the film are vile, overweight, and exploitative, except for the pimp character, who is just vile and exploitative.  And the women!  Every time Baby Doll dances, she immediately leaves the real world and is transported into a fantasy/video game reality where she hacks the shit out of everything with a big sword.  And I mean immediately - you never, ever see her dance.  Everyone else in the movie is blown away by her moves, but for the viewers, even the slightest whiff of sexuality is diverted into a curious hyper-violent scenario, where everything dies but nothing bleeds.

And "Sucker Punch" goes to great lengths to make sure that you still get all of the physical action without any consequence.  The first fantasy sequence involves steam-driven Nazi zombies, who expire not with a spray of blood, but a hiss of escaping steam.  The second sequence is the one with the dragons, who don't bleed but instead are comprised of a viscous goo.  The third is a bomb sequence (with a predictably spectacular explosion), but the girls fight a bunch of robots who don't give up even so much as a drop of oil when hacked up or shot at.  This entire movie is a confused world with sexless sex and bloodless death, bouncing back and forth between the two.

I'm completely capable of enjoying a film that's nothing more than a visual spectacle.  But basic competence in  making that sort of movie means that you can't do things that are actively stupid, distracting, and off-putting.  Visually, this movie is worth checking out, but there were so many big negatives along the way that I couldn't really recommend it.

1.5 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, March 21, 2011

L'illusionniste (The Illusionist) - 2010

"L'illusonniste" - 2010
Dir. by Sylvain Chomet - 1 hr. 20 min.

Based on an unproduced screenplay by Jacques Tati, this is a heartbreakingly beautiful animated feature.  It's always much harder to praise something than to see when things are done wrong, but I'll do my best here.  Aside from the story (a magician who's career is on the skids, circa 1959, has a teenage girl start tagging along with him), which isn't really the thrust of movie, nearly everything is perfect.  The animation has a distinct look - which is to say that it's distinctly non-American.  There is surely some computer work done here (animating vehicles from multiple angles is the main culprit, I'd imagine), but the animators still manage to maintain a hand-drawn, linear surface polish.  There's no pixels to be found anywhere, not in the linework, nor in the colors, which has a watercolor look.  And make no mistake, the animation has to carry the film - there's nearly no dialogue whatsoever, nor are there any subtitles when the characters do happen to say something (it's intentionally mumbled, although you can still make out some things here and there).

Another heap of praise for the animation:  each city that is in the movie feels distinctly real, and distinct from one another.  Most of the movie is set in Edinburgh, a city I've been to, and this film absolutely nails it.  There is also a coastal Scotland town that feels exactly right, and is distinct from Edinburgh.  It's a rare feat in an animated film to have a real sense of place.  Also, the characters are sufficiently cartoony (read: exaggerated, in a really pleasing sense) so as not to suggest rotoscoping or motion-capture, which always grates on my eyes.

And while it's easy to praise the technical and performance aspects of this film, the emotion behind it really latches on and won't let go.  It's one thing to have an entertainer on the skids, but watching him try to keep up appearances for the sake of his young friend (all while watching his contemporaries failing, as well) and keep his dignity at the same time is rending.  It doesn't get easier from there - it's difficult to watch someone have their dreams get crushed, but seeing people who are unquestionably good at what they do have even surviving (in some cases) slip just out of reach is a gut punch.  It doesn't get easier from there, either.

Basically, this is "Up" in reverse.  Instead of starting with a crushing sequence and rebuilding from there, "L'illusionniste" is a downhill ride that will kick your ass, roll credits, and leave you in the theatre hoping no one sees you wipe the tears from your eyes as the lights go up.  But it's a beautiful ride, unlike anything I've seen in quite a while, too.

5 / 5 - Theatre
Official Site

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Girlfriend Experience - 2009

"The Girlfriend Experience" - 2009
Dir. by Steven Soderbergh - 1 hr. 17 min.

"The Girlfriend Experience" is almost more interesting as an exercise in film-making than it is as a film.  I know that's a back-handed compliment, and the resulting film holds together reasonably well.  Especially early in the film, there are a number of fantastically composed shots that help hold your attention (in particular, it's kind of a visual pattern to have one plane in focus and another in the same shot out of focus - a visual metaphor for the main character's life).  But if you're expecting something raunchy or sensual, you're probably going to be out of luck here.

Sasha Grey (a porn starlet in her day job) plays a high-class call girl (they repeatedly refer to her as "sophisticated") who is also in a year and a half long relationship with a personal trainer.  She makes a considerable amount of money in her profession, but nothing seems to be particularly of interest to her.  She fakes it well enough, but there's always an emotional wall between her and her clients (and to the viewer, as well).  That's the main thrust of the story - her being walled off (even from her boyfriend).  That point is made explicit through a series of interviews she does with a journalist.  It seems mostly that she exists in order for her clients to have someone to talk freely to.

Now, if watching a movie about an emotionally-distant character sounds like it might not be as engaging of an experience as you'd like, I'd say that's fair.  There's a reason the movie is only 77 minutes long - most of the men natter on about the economy and the then-upcoming Obama/McCain campaigns, and she mostly just listens.  And that's where knowing about how the film was made helps.  Filmed in only two weeks on a budget of $1.3 million, and featuring largely unknown actors, this would qualify as one of Steven Soderbergh's lo-fi experiments.  He's always done these sorts of films throughout his career, and I'm sure it's liberating not to have to plan out every little thing and wrangle huge stars.  But when you're going to see one of his films, you kind of need to know if you're in for an "Ocean's Eleven" experience, or more of a "Full Frontal" experience.  He's capable of making either work, but if you're expecting a giant, glossy extravaganza instead of low-budget on-the-fly film-making, it'll color your experience unfairly.  "The Girlfriend Experience" isn't in the top tier of his more indie-oriented work, but it is a great example of how this talented director can make just about anything work.

3 / 5 - NF Streaming

The Green Hornet - 2011

"The Green Hornet" - 2011
Dir. by Michel Gondry - 1 hr. 59 min.

This is one fun movie.  Part of it is the endless procession of awesome cars, part of it is the visual flair, and part of it is getting away with having Seth Rogen play a nearly completely-unlikeable lead character.  The movie starts off with a fun scene between an uncredited James Franco and the main villain, played by Christoph Waltz (the highlight of "Inglorius Basterds").  From there, more fun.  Although the entitled heir playboy character has been around for quite a while, most of the time, there's some attempt to work in some philanthropic angle to make them more likeable.  But here, Rogen's Britt Reid, even when doing good, it's still tainted with doofusness, douchiness, or ignorance.  He steals credit, blows off responsibility, attempts cockblockery, pitches fits when his coffee isn't up to snuff, calls Kato a genius and then cuts him down verbally.  And somehow, it totally works.

I'm not going to claim this movie is the greatest movie ever, or the deepest, but it is a lot of fun, and even as I was leaving the theatre, I kind of wanted to see it again.  That's a victory in itself - a pleasant ride is still a pleasant ride.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre (2D)

Surrogates - 2009

"Surrogates" - 2009
Dir. by Jonathan Mostow - 1 hr. 29 min.

The key word in discussing this movie is "shortcuts."  Based on a graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, the premise that a technological genius invented life-like robots that people could control from a remote location (usually their home).  Literally everyone does this - the real world is populated not by people, but their electronic doppelgangers.  When the borderline insane genius' son is killed while operating a "surrie," Bruce Willis' character is called in to investigate, because that should not be able to occur.  Naturally, there's also a resistance to this technological revolution, resulting in surrie-free reservations scattered across the United States.

It's a solid premise, but my chief problem with this movie (aside from Bruce Willis' surrie's cowlick and Ving Rhames weird paste-on Rasta beard) is that it doesn't really set the stage well enough to make the issues hit home.  Shortcuts.  There are a million unexplored or barely-explored avenues that could have filled out this movie into something far more interesting.  It's clear that the surrie phenomenon was widespread in America, but what about elsewhere?  There's little explanation of what effects living vicariously through a robot (it's pretty much the ultimate in sedentary lifestyle) actually have on people.  The resistance pockets are treated as nutjobs - but what would motivate a person to abandon experiencing life in a first-hand manner?  This one was hinted at (which is a shame, since it's supposed to be the major underlying cause of the dissension between Willis' character and his wife), but not in an particularly interesting manner, and not really with any consequences.  There's also the fact that, while the surries are inundated with advertising, literally 100% of it is for upgrades or new surries.  Apparently, there are no ads for even the basic necessities in this world.

I almost never advocate this, but it felt like this movie needed at least another half hour to fill things out.  As it is, it's a little bit of a Scooby Doo mystery, and none of the interesting avenues branching off the main artery that might help a viewer understand where they are and why things are the way they are is explored at all.  Instead, there are action sequences where we learn that the surries are kind of heavy, but still can jump ten feet in the air.  Sigh...

2 / 5 - NF Streaming