Monthly Archives: June 2012

Chronicle (*** 1/2)

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Chronicle, the most recent entry into the “found footage” canon, slickly updates the superpowers-plus-adolescence-equals-chaos template of Carrie and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Three teenage boys discover a strange glowing rock which endues them with telekinetic powers that grow stronger with use. What could easily be the fodder for any generic cash-in on the supernatural teen genre wildly popular with Potter and Twilight fans has been cleverly reshaped as a quasi-naturalistic what-if-this-actually-happened story. That is, when teenagers are given superpowers, they’re much more likely to treat them with the childish fascination usually reserved for the latest Apple product than use them to stop armed robberies. Like last year’s excellent Attack the BlockChronicle expertly delivers an otherwise ho-hum premise through a wealth of character-driven and true to life details.

The story focuses primarily on Andrew, a troubled young teen with a difficult home life. The movie begins with scenes that primarily exist to root the story’s final events in the everyday tragedies of his life, both large and small. Actor Dane DeHaan does an excellent job of fleshing out the wounded boy torn between the fear of further wounding and the irrepressible desire for community. His cousin Matt tries to be helpful, but the prickly Andrew does not readily yield to his friendly overtures. He does, however, follow Matt and his friend Steve down a strange hole at the edge of the woods where the mysterious empowerment occurs.

As in other super-powers and hormones stories, the new-found abilities amplify the characters’ pre-existing traits. While Matt and Steve are relatively normal and approach their powers with a measure of respect, Andrew is slowly discovering a new weapon with which to lash out at the world. It begs the question of Hollow Man: if society’s constraints no longer bind you, what motivation do you have to be a moral being? What if you didn’t like society in the first place?

To the film’s credit, this inevitable march towards madness occurs with a sense of pace and purpose punctuated by emotionally explosive moments (sexual humiliation, paternal abuse) that serve as catalysts to his simmering rage and confusion. He remains a tragic figure throughout, giving the film a soul that another like it might lack; giving its wildly entertaining conclusion just the right amount of emotional freight.

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My only real problem with the film was its slavish commitment to the found-footage format, occasionally requiring it to awkwardly invent reasons for people to be holding cameras at different times. For the most part, it works as part of Andrew’s deeply disturbed detachment from others. Also, the introduction of a free-floating camcorder via telekinesis means the sickly shaky-cam of Cloverfield is nowhere to be found in the film’s busiest scenes. Still I think the mixed media format of District 9 might have served it better, switching between camera formats as it served the story while retaining the emphasis on casual naturalism. In the end, it’s that down-to-earth sensibility that makes the film work irrespective of its primary cinematic conceit. The recognizable pieces of normal life provide the needed contrast to let its flights of fancy really soar.

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$5 Bin 6/14/2012

You get to drink from the… FIREHOSE!

On the Web

-A Pixar storyboard artist shares her 22 rules for good storytelling.

Feminist Frequency on sexist tropes in popular culture: #1 “The Manic-Pixie Dream Girl” a.k.a. “Garden State is a Stinking Pile of Hipster Navel-Gazing BS” and #6 “The Straw Feminist“, which actually turned my opinion on whether it was a problematic trope or just post-feminist/post-liberal wit.

-Henry Hill, real life inspiration for Goodfellas, died this week. He was 69.

The A.V. Club championed UHF as a YouTube-age comedy made in the 80s.

-People are surprised that Madagascar beat Prometheus at the box office, but isn’t it inevitable for well-made, popular family comedies to beat out R-rated sci-fi epics?

-You can now launder your counterfeit money while playing as a decapitated horse head in Monopoly’s new Godfather edition.

-Or you can wish you stayed current with TeeFury.com and bought this Weyland-Yutani Shirt to wear to Prometheus this week.

“Head” of State – Game of Thrones creators are taking flak this week after they called attention to the in-show appearance of George W. Bush’s severed head on a DVD commentary track. They’re claiming it was an unintentional and apolitical action, but given that the show is apparently (I’ve never watched it) about cynical abuses of power can we really believe them? According to the linked article above Republican leaders are flipping out about this, insisting that the office of POTUS demands respect no matter what. Sounds like an idolatrous and fascist view of authority to me. Christians who take exception to this view can go read David Koyzis and then get back to me.

In Theaters

That’s My Boy (21%, R) – Adam Sandler’s latest movie looks to be another ho-hum incarnation of his aggressive man-child shtick. It’s the ludicrous success of movies like this that should keep critics like me aware of our humble niche vis-a-vis the vox populi of mass entertainment.

Rock of Ages (46%, PG-13) – This 80’s hair-metal musical sounds awesome, but apparently it kind of sucks.

Headhunters (91%, R) – An apparently thrilling foreign film about art thieves. It’s showing at Pittsburgh’s Regent Square Theater this week.

So, if you’re looking for an R-rated comedy this weekend rent Role Models or dig up an old Farrelly brothers movie. If you’re jonesing for Sandler, find someone with a copy of Happy Gilmore and pretend like you’re 14 again–OR learn to appreciate Punch-Drunk Love for the unsettling comedic gem that it is.

If you need to watch a musical, watch Singin’ in the Rain, something else classic, or cross your fingers and hope the Les Mis adaptation coming out this year doesn’t suck. If it’s the 80’s you crave, it seems you’d be safer re-watching something from John Hughes.

I’d love to go to Madagascar or Headhunters this weekend (or on $5 Tuesday), so let me know if you’re interested. I would also be totally down with seeing Prometheus again.

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Synecdoche, New York (***, 2008)

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Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has given us the brain-bending treasures Being John MalkovichAdaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, each a loopy journey through the minds of its main characters. Synecdoche, New York, his directorial debut, is most like Adaptation in terms of its solipsism and layers of meta storytelling.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, an archetypal brilliant-yet-self-obsessed playwright and theater director who receives a MacArthur Genius Grant after his production of Death of a Salesman becomes a runaway success. He uses the grant money to stage a theater production of his life in an attempt to be “brutally honest”. The ensuing conflation of Cotard’s “play” and his real life eventually takes over the whole film, which exists in some kind of alternate reality where such things are possible.

Because of the scope and complexity of Cotard’s magnum opus (he recreates Manhattan inside a vast warehouse in order to try to tell his own story) we understand that what we see on screen can’t be exactly what’s really going on, but rather some kind of illustration of Cotard’s tortured creative self. His inability to function in the real world of romantic, family and platonic relationships becomes the material for his “honest” creative production, which in turn has a character “Caden Cotard” putting on a production of his tortured life in an attempt to find himself and tell the truth.

Kaufman’s script is intricate and fully realized, a knotty web of authentic (and very broken) human relationships filtered through the creative madness of the main character. It’s a brilliant film, but it’s painful to watch. It essentially punishes us for choosing to enter the chaotic self loathing of Cotard’s inner world, daring us to parse the rabbit hole of characters playing people playing characters playing people. It’s ambitious, a logical distillation of Kaufman’s interest in the relationship between life and fiction and the minds situated between the two. But it fails to add anything to Kaufman’s observations in Adaptation about self-loathing and solipsism, and reads like an unpleasant indulgence of his own obsessions. It’s a film about death, about life as chaos, and a conflation between creative fiction and the way we make meaning for ourselves in a meaningless world. Once you’ve made one movie on that subject, haven’t you made them all? Community‘s Shirley said it best:

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Prometheus (***1/2)

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Oh, it’s that alien from that one movie.

“And Yahweh was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So Yahweh said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” ~ Genesis 6:6-7

Primordial terror. That’s what Ridley Scott’s Alien did for space travel in 1979, just as Jaws had done for the beach four years before. The idea of implacable, efficacious, and simple death embodied in a creature put in a room (or a boat) with human beings. Scott brought in Swiss painter H.R. Giger’s haunted Freudian imagery for the alien’s design, sadomasochistic fusions of flesh and metal imbuing the film with a palpable sense of disconcerting otherness (i.e., alien). This move, along with Scott’s laconic evocation of dread, elevated a boilerplate slasher flick set in space into something more aesthetically substantial. Much has been written about the themes at work in the film, but I trust Scott when he says (as I have read) that it was simply about scaring the crap out of people. He simply found some ideas (male impregnation, evolved biological killers, chest-bursting, all that unctuous seminal slime) that would set people’s nerves on edge so that their defenses were worn down by the time the beast started killing off those helpless crew members in the dark.

Prometheus, functionally Alien‘s prequel, reads like a somewhat bookish attempt to identify the original film’s distilled essence (primordial terror) and plumb that thematic well for its roots. If senseless, implacable death freaks us out like nothing else–what’s going on there? What’s the reductio ad absurdum of our deepest fears?

You have to admire the film for its ambition: if Alien skewed towards the slasher end of the Texas-Chainsaw-Massacre-meets-2001 spectrum, Prometheus skews towards the grand cosmic mystery end. Eighty years from now the Weyland Corporation sends a manned spacecraft somewhere far away to investigate clues about the origins of life on earth. On board are scientists, engineers, flight crew, corporate reps and an android. The planet they land on contains some answers, more questions and a primordial soup’s worth of squirmy dangers. How they got there, who they were intended for and who they might yet harm are points of interest in the film. Scott twists thrills and ideas together unapologetically, aware of the need to entertain enough audience members to justify the budget needed to craft visually bold science fiction in a post-Avatar world.

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Come on science: keep on mapping the unknown until there’s nothing left to discover. Floaty-y scanner device (c) Google, 2014.

As befitting the best Ridley Scott films, it’s visually marvelous. I usually feel as though CG somewhat cheapens a film’s visual effect, but it would seem that technology has caught up with the director’s vivid imagination. We’re caught up with the explorers within this intricate biological desolation, one alive with texture, dust and rough edges. And rather than the kitschy synthetics of so much effects work, there’s plenty of viscous bodily fluids (and other bodily things) sloshing around to remind us that human flesh is on the line. I know I’ll never think of a Cesarean section the same way again.

I am sad the same can’t be said for the music. Scott’s other science fiction works established their emotional tones early on, both Alien‘s scraping industrial strings and Blade Runner‘s moody synth laments contributing to senses of screamy portentousness and angsty android dread, respectively. But Prometheus doesn’t begin to find its aural tone until well into the first act, and throughout the score is a so-so generic pastiche of epic spaciness. That the film remains strong despite such a huge oversight speaks to its finely crafted nature, its near-masterpiece degree of genre proficiency.

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula (****, 1992)

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I have been saying on this blog that the value and excellence of a film is a relative quality. There exists no objective, external standard by which all films are measured; they must be understood in relation to themselves (what are they about?) and to the audience (who cares?). In essence, film criticism means attempting to talk about whether or not films effectively show and tell what they’re about in such a way that the audience might care. It is on these terms that Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) excels as a virtually perfect vampire movie.

It closely hews to the plot of Bram Stoker’s nineteenth century novel, which begins with Jonathan Harker’s (Keanu Reeves, easily the weakest part of the whole film) trip to Dracula’s home in the Balkans on a matter of London real estate business. The big bad means to set up shop in the English capital, where he could surely feed on lots of grubby Dickensians. Coppola’s approach, however, is not a linear story of halting an evil plan, but a visually sumptuous evocation of evil as a mysteriously seductive force which strangely and surprisingly wreaks havoc on Harker, his fiancee Mina (Winona Ryder), and their upper crust-y friends (who include a lamentably underused Cary Elwes). Coppola’s films are always dense with rich imagery, luscious sounds and big emotions–in a way, the wedding feast that opens The Godfather is paradigmatic for all his “big” films. It’s the ideal sensibility for translating a gothic melodrama to the movie screen.

Gary Oldman stars as Dracula, introduced in what I’m pretty sure is a mytho-historical elaboration on the source material involving the fifteenth century Vlad the Impaler, the fall of Constantinople, a dead wife and resulting rage at Christ and his church. Hundreds of years later he looks really old, but is still alive and creepily rendered by Oldman as a barely human creature with a rasping voice. With Jonathan Harker entrapped, the demon journeys to England where he focuses his energies on young Mina (who looks exactly like his dead wife) and her sexually curious friend Lucy. As the latter slips into vampirism after her seduction by Dracula, her concerned suitors send off for Van Helsing (a fantastic Anthony Hopkins) who then leads them all in the fight against dark forces which concerns the second half of the movie.

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Dracula’s obsession with and undying love for Mina/his wife leads to the most interesting scene in the film (this is spoiler-ish), where, finally with his object of affection, the evil creature can’t bring himself to subject her to the same evil which has enslaved him for centuries. Her mind clouded by evil and seduced by passion, Mina willfully begins to drink his blood anyway before the boys with guns and swords intervene. It is, character-wise, the most complex moment in the film, and a brilliantly realized examination of the simultaneous repulsiveness and seduction of evil. Both predator and prey are, for that moment, painted as victims of dark forces beyond their comprehension and control.

Vampires in pop culture today are legion, but a lack of mythological grandeur has devalued them artistically. Tim Burton’s vamps are cutesy weirdos, Twilight‘s no more than Tiger Beat heart-throbs. Those of Blade & Buffy are closer to Fright Night‘s clever connotation of vampire as “the f***ing shark from Jaws“, but there remains in all three a reductive view of evil (where repulsion far outweighs seduction) and a lack of real mystery and spirituality. Like Guillermo del Torodirector Coppola’s (latent? lapsed?) Catholicism infuses his horror with a sense of the mythic sacred lacking from so many pop cultural treatments of evil. Unlike its many peers, Dracula shows the Devil for who he really is.

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