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killing five birds with one stone

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Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) – The first Almodóvar film that really hooked me.  While I admire the technique of the other two Almodóvars I’ve seen (Talk to Her and Volver), I also find them more cerebrally “interesting” than actually lovable.  But it helps that this one is funny, truly funny, language barrier and all.  The humor aids the digestion of Almodóvar’s remarkable and idiosyncratic use of color and costume.  I really need to see more of his stuff.

In the Loop (2009) – My favorite film of the year so far, and an ideal companion for the summer’s other treasure, The Hurt Locker.  Both films say a lot about Iraq by purposefully not saying a lot about Iraq: The Hurt Locker takes place in the trenches of Baghdad, but the war is treated as a given, not as a heated issue, while the Middle Eastern enemy at the center of In the Loop is never even identified.  The resulting clear-eyed approach, whether gritty and realistic or dry and satirical, sidesteps the editorializing bullshit of other Iraq-set movies and instead goes straight for the gut.  And don’t let the lopsided critical praise fool you, In the Loop‘s belly laughs are just as vital and important as The Hurt Locker‘s gut-wrenching scenes of suspense.  It’s a viciously funny movie about an emphatically un-funny modern crisis, but it doesn’t absolve anyone of anything.  In one of the film’s best moments, James Gandolfini’s general character crunches some numbers (hilariously) on an oversized Hello Kitty calculator and deduces that the United States only has 12,000 troops ready to ship off to war.  “That’s how many are going to die,” he intones, and the words hang painfully in the air for a moment before being washed away by the next punchline.  In terms of pure devastating effectiveness, It’s not quite on the level of Dr. Strangelove, but it’s closer than I ever expected.

The Graduate (1967) – There’s something enormously satisfying about seeing a great movie for the first time and realizing all the praise was deserved.  So I’m not going to ramble on about this one, but I will note how visually distinctive and and striking the whole thing is.  It’s good to remember, in the era of Garden State, that the best movies can capture the aimlessness of youth without featuring comparatively aimless cinematography.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) – Not much to say about this one.  Phenomenal acting, serviceable direction, interesting story.  It still feels too much like an adaptation of a play for me to call it a classic on its own filmic terms, but it’s one of those typically excellent old Hollywood products that senior citizens trot out to prove “they don’t make ’em like they used to” anymore.

Mad Money (2008) – Plays for its first 45 minutes like Ocean’s Eleven for idiots.  And it’s fine—stupid and fine.  But then it takes a misguided, soggy turn towards melodrama, tries to graft a message onto its irrelevancy, and overstays its welcome by a solid half-an-hour.  It’s so awful that pointing out how contradictory its own feelings about consumerism are seems mean, like berating a toddler for not understanding calculus.  You’re killing me, Diane Keaton.

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Written by Tim

August 2, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Posted in Movies

gran torino

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Strangely compelling in spite of itself, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is shot and edited with the veteran director’s usual calm efficiency, but the edges are a lot rougher than usual.  Protagonist excepted, the acting is so stilted that—if this weren’t a Clint Eastwood film—I’d be tempted to write it off as some kind of postmodern artistic choice.  The script holds few surprises aside from how broadly many of the peripheral characters are drawn, and the tone fluctuates wildly, even within the span of individual scenes.  And yet, if you hold any cinematic affection towards Eastwood at all (and you should), it’s hard not to enjoy the film on a basic level, flaws and all.  Hell, if I reach a point in my life where watching Clint Eastwood spit and growl and spout racist epithets doesn’t give me a thrill, I might as well pack it in.  He makes my day.

Written by Tim

July 25, 2009 at 10:51 am

Posted in Movies

(500) days of summer

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New resolution: posting brief thoughts on every movie I see.  Emphasis on brief.

I usually find overly comparative criticism (i.e. Jackie Brown sucks because it’s not as good as Pulp Fiction) a soul-sucking drag.  A good movie is a good movie regardless of how many better movies have been released before it.  And yet, while (500) Days of Summer rarely falters on a moment-to-moment basis, the end result is profoundly underwhelming, and the film’s repeated references to The Graduate don’t help matters.  The sense of 20-something ennui that Summer gamely tries to capture is infinitely better expressed in The Graduate and even this year’s criminally overlooked Adventureland; the film’s sporadic flights of fantasy pale in comparison to the casual inventiveness of Annie Hall; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s third act tirade against the greeting card industry—perhaps the one truly bad scene in the movie—is a blatant retread of John Cusack’s “Am I miserable because I listen to pop music?” monologue in High Fidelity.

But the biggest obstacle on (500) Days of Summer‘s path to memorability is 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  To be fair, I don’t envy any film that invites a comparison to Eternal Sunshine, which Summer‘s altered chronology and heartbreak-fueled melancholy clearly do.  But where Eternal Sunshine confirms its status as one of the defining American films of the decade with each passing year, I’d have a hard time arguing that Summer is one of the defining American films of the month.

I don’t mean to slag on the film.  It’s pretty good.  Romantic comedy-prone audiences could do a lot worse.  But at the end of the day, it’s just a cute movie about a cute girl that likes The Smiths, no more, no less.  Oh well, E for effort.

Written by Tim

July 23, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Posted in Movies

martyrs

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Let me be perfectly clear: ultra-violence in modern horror movies is not a stain on the collective conscience of society. Enjoying the on-screen display of hyper-realistic (but emphatically not real) blood and gore does not make you a sick person.  One of the great subversive pleasures of narrative cinema is how it turns us all into voyeurs, deriving real pleasure and pain from the actions and conflicts of imagined or exaggerated characters.  With that in mind, how is watching someone young and attractive get decapitated any more or less exploitative than watching someone young and attractive take out the trash?  Fake is fake.

So no, Pascal Laugier’s 2008 French horror film Martyrs, released on Region 1 DVD two weeks ago, is not an affront to morality.  Unfortunately, it’s also not very good.

Martyrs

This is disappointing, for Martyrs has been the recipient of a fair amount of blogosphere hype since its theatrical release in France last fall.  The hype is not entirely unfounded.  The bare-bones plot line is really quite good: surprising, nervy, appropriately disturbing.  On paper, especially considering the quality drought in modern American horror, it sounds like a refreshingly brutal godsend.  But in practice, it doesn’t pan out, and here’s why: when you make your movie an endurance test, which the first half of Martyrs most assuredly is, you forfeit the emotional investment necessary to make anything loftier than visceral terror work.  The closing act of Martyrs wants to blow our minds.  Mine, personally, had been switched off somewhere around the ninth or tenth close-up of tearing flesh.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with close-ups of tearing flesh.  Separated from the rest of the film, the first 50 or so minutes of Martyrs are brisk, bloody, and effective.  After a creepy prologue detailing a young girl’s escape from several weeks of extreme physical abuse and confinement at the hands of anonymous captors, Martyrs lets loose with 4 or 5 abruptly graphic shotgun blasts and hardly lets up from there.  It’s hard to summarize the plot without giving away most of the film’s limited pleasures, but suffice it to say that the first half of Martyrs revolves around thorny issues of vengeance and survivor’s guilt, tied together by a fascinating question: what if a perfect suburban couple was responsible for unspeakable acts of unprovoked torture?  Why would they do such a thing?

It’s in the answer to the second question that Martyrs trips up, miscalculating its audience’s tolerance for murky philosophy immediately following such hardcore suspense.  Not helping matters is the fact that, on a stylistic level, Martyrs is never especially inspired or dynamic.  It’s competent, to be sure, and not as obviously lazy as most contemporary American horror, but once the genuinely disturbing violence of its opening acts has been taken away, the picture’s flaws become magnified.  Worse than that, the film assumes a strange kind of hubris and draws attention to its own weaknesses: the heavy-handed dialogue multiplies, the perfunctory editing is treated with an unearned reverence, the already struggling actors are thrown into the deep end without a lifeguard.  By the end of its 100 minutes, Martyrs has become so unexpectedly and inappropriately heavy that you begin to realize the first half wasn’t really that great either; it was just scarier.

Dissecting what makes something scary is only a little less pointless than dissecting what makes something funny, so I’ll keep this brief, but it seems to me that the most frightening moments in Martyrs are less the result of solid technique than of pure psychic obligation.  Or, dropping the SAT word bullshit: fast-moving, feral zombie-women that chase after you with kitchen knives are going to be really fucking scary regardless of how well-crafted a movie is.  That’s a pretty reliable stimulus.  Martyrs uses the extreme nature of its images as a cover for its own relatively mediocre film-making.  It’s scary, but not the good kind of scary.  It doesn’t stick.  This ephemeral scariness wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the aforementioned closing act, which slows the pace down to a crawl and asks us to reflect on all we’ve just seen.  As a result, viewers aren’t even allowed to finish the damn movie before feeling retrospectively underwhelmed.

All great horror movies do the same dance.  They invite us in, comfort us, and then scare the living shit out of us, ideally more than once.  Martyrs doesn’t dance.  It doesn’t seduce.  It just bombards.

Written by Tim

May 11, 2009 at 5:25 am

Posted in Movies