Thursday, July 29, 2010

Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, 2010) -- A-

There are but a few living cinematic saints, directors who pioneered modern filmmaking in the 1960's with audacious formal experimentation (Godard), challenging philosophical narratives (Resnais), aesthetic realism (Varda), visual humanism (Olmi), and social upheaval (Bellocchio). The latter's latest film, Vincere, reminds contemporary audiences exactly what it means to be an artist - especially in the traditional sense: strict attention to mise-en-scene, reoccurring visual and aural motifs, masterful use of kinetics, socio-political commentary and present relevancy. To be succinct: Vincere comes alive on-screen, challenging the viewer to respond emotionally to its cinematic fearlessness, then intellectually to its scathing political assertions.

Far from a conventional biopic, Vincere opens by fading in on young Benito Mussolini (Fillipo Timi), who's serenity soon turns to irreverence as he makes a proposition. He claims that he wants to "challenge God" and orates his ultimatum: if God does not strike him dead in five minutes, it will be proof that God does not exist. So he stands, letting the pocket watch tick away the minutes. Bellocchio scores it not with silence or music, but the ticking of the pocket watch, almost music-box like. The juxtaposition becomes clear; though dealing with celebrity and infamous figures, he has no intention of glamorizing or pacifying. A mesmerizing high-angle shot cuts the scene in two - Mussolini stands awaiting the result of his proposition, but hard, seemingly natural light pours through nearby windows in the background. A large figure looms in the foreground too, a statue of an angel. The mise-en-scene likewise expresses Bellocchio's dilemma, attempting to portray a charismatic, monstrous figure without romanticizing. He doesn't take the easy, dehumanizing way out(consistent realism and wallowing in ugliness), but rather opts to change narrative piecings, lending his film an avant-garde quality. The scene concludes with time running out, Mussolini denouncing the existence of God, and a room full of people mobbing him for the blasphemous remarks. Music swirls, there's a cut to a young woman laughing to herself, amused by the proceedings, then a complete shift to the film's credit sequence, consisting of black and white, expressionistic architectural shots, mostly demonstrating the incomprehensible stature of modernity and metropolitan life. In a brilliant conclusion, Bellochio cuts from century old footage of young flapper-like women to his own recreation of the scene, now in color. The cut works on multiple levels, primarily announcing his film as artificial and not an authentic document of the time period. In other words, he's not attempting realism. In fact, he's refuting realism by allowing the images to to follow one another, visually communicating this impossibility. Yet the scene sets up another of the film's moral concerns: female degradation. The women model dresses, but for whom? No one's watching them, except for the other women in the room. Bourgeois expectations of beauty and sexuality converge, simultaneously probing Ida, (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) a young socialist party member and the film itself for what's expected, what the film (and Ida) must conform to in order to be accepted. Definitely artful, the first four minutes alone packs more cinematic consideration than any other film I've seen this year.

Essentially, Vincere divulges a little know fact of Mussolini's life; in 1914 Milan, before becoming an unruly fascist dictator, he had a marriage with a woman, resulting in a child. Ultimately wishing to erase these facts, Mussolini refutes the marriage, leaving Ida alone and desolate, finally in a mental ward for her seemingly absurd assertions. Yet the film, while concerned with this narrative, has much more on its mind than merely a torn-apart romance. Using sexuality early on, there are no exposition scenes to establish any docudrama conventions. Ida and Benito meet in an alley, their passion sparked by physical attraction. Later, he arrives at her door, without saying a word. Bellocchio shoots the scene in near darkness, allowing only a blue tinted light for illumination. He doesn't exploit sex, nor is he afraid to shoot it. It's elegance is a much needed wake-up call to any supposed "fan" of films who dons Toy Story 3 great filmmaking. Art, by way of dealing with human beings, necessitates a portrayal of sexuality and sexual desires. Any film that does not encompass these feelings, in some way, is by definition deficient.

In its most radical moment, Bellocchio combines archival footage, zooming text declaring war, and operatic music overlapping the fictional Mussolini standing on a balcony, dreaming of his political immortality. Shortly after, Mussolini announces his support to declare war to an uproarious room of men. Meanwhile, Ada sits in the background, relishing her relationship with the powerful figure. Mussolini's political and social lives are now at odds with one another, and it's as if the film too is conflicted by these contrasts. Bellocchio's handling of the scene announces another of the film's propositions: the danger of turning political figures into mere celebrities, whose social life and political stances aren't properly separated. The ethical consideration plays particularly relevant in a media state overrun by constant tabloid antics and political subterfuge. Likewise, the film's title (translating to "win") reflects how dehumanizing political parties become when rationality vanishes, and an "us vs. them" mentality dominates. Vitriol becomes standard practice and bipartisanship proves an impossibility. And yet Bellocchio never deviates from his visual prowess, refusing to negate kinetics through superimposition or achronology in favor of meaningless realism.

One of the film's most resonant scenes comes late, as Ida sits in an open field while Chaplin's The Kid plays, projected for all of the women confined to the mental institution. Much like in Godard's Vivre Sa Vie, where Nana watches Maria Falconetti's suffering in The Passion of Joan of Arc, the meta-act is irrefutable, but the shared spirituality hits hardest. Of course, in The Kid, Chaplin's tramp is reunited with an abandoned child, here mirroring Ida's separation from her son. If the metaphor doesn't work quite as profoundly here as in Godard's masterpiece, it's alright, since Bellocchio deliberately intends to evoke his cinematic influences. It's one of nearly a dozen instances in Vincere where people crowd in a theater or elsewhere to watch newsreels or films. Concurrent with Bellochio's insistence on dynamic imagery to accompany his thematic concerns, Vincere is as cinematically refreshing as it is dramatically compelling.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Over the Edge (Jonathan Kaplan, 1979) -- B

One of the genesis films in the post-punk, juvenile delinquent sub-genre that sprouted in the late 70's/early 80's, Over the Edge still stands as one of its preeminent films, addressing the ever-expanding generational gap with humor, sincerity, and hopefulness. Carl (Michael Kramer) and Richie (Matt Dillon, in his first role) serve as the vicarious avenue into teenage vandalism, drug use, and violence (most of the kids are only 14 or 15), while their parents fret and argue about what's not being done to prevent it. All of this takes place in midst of building an idyllic community (dubbed "New Grenada"), reinforcing the misplaced moral set, where monetary profit from retail value and a picturesque setting supersede realistic and compassionate expectations.

Nevertheless, Over the Edge suffers from a ho-hum script, expectedly reducing a primary police officer (Harry Northup) to a trigger-happy asshole with ego to spare. Likewise, the film curiously portrays a later-to-be-killed boy's mother in a caring, but forgiving manner during an early scene, but fails to have her reappear after his death and, thus, neglects to address her laissez-faire approach to child rearing. Finally, the film's finale is ripped straight from Carrie (1976), as the kids lock their parents inside the school, then trash and destroy the parking lot. It even ends with a swerving car, crashing and exploding. The scene's nowhere near as kinetically brilliant as De Palma's and while a school set ablaze fits perfectly into that film's tale of tortured youth cum telekinetic horror show, it plays sensationalistic here, substituting audience revenge fulfillment (guess who's in the exploding car?) for compromise. In spite of its flaws, Over the Edge approaches youthful alienation realistically and it's no wonder the film speaks to its generation (and generations since) so strongly.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, 2010) -- B+

A drop of blood is the first image seen in Floria Sigismondi's The Runaways, and it's indicative of the intelligence behind the images for the entire film. The blood is not just any blood: it's the vaginal blood of Cherie Curry (Dakota Fanning), simultaneously expressing her transition into womanhood (a question the film plays out by casting 15-year-old Fanning), but also satirically signaling the arrival of the monstrous feminine, whose sexuality cannot be extracted from her artistry. The thickness and deep redness of the blood is suitable too, since later in the film Curry gets a tattoo on her shoulder of a cherry, dripping with sweetness. Clearly, the ambiguity of young sexuality comes into question, probing when sugar or the metaphorical "cherry" turns to blood, symbolizing the woman. The film nicely walks this line, consistently questioning sexual decorum in terms of youthful symbols. How early is too early to be a sex goddess? Only a few lapses into standard biopic cliches bring down Sigismonsi's fascinating exposé.

Rather than relying on wholly logical historical exposition like Ray or Walk the Line, The Runaways relies on the visuals to communicate states of fear, happiness, anxiety, and uncertainty. Young Curry and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) leave their neglectful families in Hollywood, CA to create one of the first all-girl rock bands. The band's manager - the hilarious and appropriately androgynous Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) - puts their appeal in pretty basic terms: "Jail fuckin' bait!" Yet again, Sigismondi plays up her young cast's sexuality, mirroring the characters' exploitation. Here lies the film's smarts in this regard; doing blow in airplane bathrooms and making out with each other on hotel floors, the film uses sex to implicate the viewer in rock & roll tyranny, where a hedonistic pleasure at seeing young flesh may have no sexual price for the voyeur, but certainly has a moral and spiritual one, degrading not just the objectified youth physically, but violently stripping away their innocence. As Curry says at one point, "you grow up fast on the road," and its a proper understatement for Sigismondi's visual chaos. Thankfully, though, she never misplaces the humanity of her young cast and it's always about probing their sexuality, nor merely indulging it.

The Runaways also has a keen sense of what artistic creation entails. Early on, it's an act of imitation; Curry face paints to match Bowie's Space Oddity incarnation, then lipsynchs it at the school talent show. Sigismondi understands artistic influence as the literal "spark" for finding one's own talents and differences, translating to the band's first single "Cherry Bomb," a cathartic expression of youth, sex, and frustration. After influence comes exploitation, and it's the middle third that's the film's strongest, examining the impossibility of separating female sexuality from artist. That is, not that they should be separate from one another; Sigismondi is not arguing this. Rather, that they cannot co-exist on equal footing. The pussy always overrides the music. The band's inevitable break-up commences when Curry shoots a photo spread for a Japanese magazine. Jett, just having seen the photos, exclaims: "Who do you think you are? Linda fucking Lovelace! It should be about the music, not your crotch!" Likewise, Sigismondi's brilliant casting mirrors this point, as she asks whether or not young stars Fanning and Stewart can be seen apart from their sexuality - especially Fanning - whose child star career is blooming into adulthood, with more grown-up roles. Appropriately melodramatic, but lacking in a cathartic expression to match her previous proficiency, Sigismondi's only major fault is in letting this question down easy. She never gets to the crux of what causes the inevitable downfall, other than the cliched drug use and an overbearing sense of confusion. Had she addressed the spiritual and moral decline in an appropriately abstract or avant-garde manner, The Runaways could be a revelation, navigating multiple cinematic levels. While not quite on that level, it remains one of the year's best and most thoughtful films.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010) -- C+

Greenberg continues the recent comedic trend of men who just can't seem to bite the bullet and finally realize...they are men. More like Wes Anderson than Judd Apatow (but with more self-attributed importance than either), Baumbach deals with intellectuals rather than over-privileged whiners (Anderson) or middlebrow comedians (Apatow). All of these films belong roughly on the same terrain (with Apatow bringing up the rear), and that's to say most of them are moderately funny, mildly perceptive, but lack the trenchant satire necessary for great comedy. Baumbach's best film remains 2005's The Squid and the Whale, tersely presenting the generational disconnect between an intellectual couple and their confused adolescent sons. Almost certainly autobiographical, that film felt painfully real, but alive and human in each of the four family members' struggle to find themselves without also losing each other. Greenberg retains some of that comedic grace, but mixes in some oddly disjointed and questionable elements as well.

The titular character, played by Ben Stiller, is a neurotic, socially dysfunctional narcissist who's moved to LA for the summer to look after his brother's mansion. But before that storyline comes Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother's personal assistant. The film opens on Florence, in a long tracking shot that follows her while driving. The visual approach, of Florence in close-up, provides the film an immediate intimacy it later drops for Greenberg's distant pathology. The film almost makes a mistake in beginning with Florence, a sweet, nice, charming, though also damaged character, then nearly dropping her for an indulgence into Greenberg's dysfunction. Even more disheartening is the conventional, and thus, inevitable romantic connection between the two, a move that posits Florence's uncertainty about her recent break-up as equivalent to Greenberg's alienation and self-loathing. The pair never seem to match, outside of Baumbach's enacting of a neurotic fantasy, where the guy who just had a nervous breakdown can get the girl. In doing this, he devalues Florence's basic goodness by having her compromise.

The film ultimately works, despite these heavy flaws, because of the detail Baumbach brings to smaller scenes; particularly effective is Rhys Ifans as Stiller's longtime friend and their conversations have an honesty that the forced romance does not. All of the actors are good too, including Stiller, and though his character proves unlikeable due to Baumbach's romanticization of neurosis, he plays the role with enough angst and confusion to transcend the director's meddling. He's infinitely preferable here to either of those other insufferable franchises (Meet the Parents and Night the the Museum) and it's a shame he's so often relegated to studio fare, especially given his roots in more personal dramas. Baumbach might be experiencing a regression since his subsequent film following The Squid and the Whale (Margot at the Wedding) and now Greenberg have declined in effectiveness. If he'd only get out of his own way and tell a story without self-imposed contrivances, his cinema would be far richer and less frustrating.

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009) -- C-

Another Michael Haneke film, another hollow, soulless exercise wallowing in human degradation. Like Lars Von Trier (an equally despicable misanthrope), Haneke dehumanizes his characters to the point that they become mere puppets in a fetishized torture labyrinth, juxtaposing a complex narrative with prosaic setting and characters. Like either version of Funny Games with its contempt and condescension to basically all human life or Cache through its paradox (simple visual style allowing complexity through movement within an often still frame and not editing), the combination of these two sensibilities proves ungainly for Haneke's supposed allegory on pre-WWI fascism, positing the negative reinforcement practices of a priest (Burghart Klaussner) on his children as somehow directly correlating to rising political angst in Germany.

Haneke's narrative is not so simple, however, weaving a dozen or so major characters into the retrospective voice over of a young school teacher (Christian Friedel), who retells the films events as an old man. The plethora of characters serves more for confusion than complexity, compounded by Haneke's insistence on wallowing in each character's anguish, never allowing even the slightest glimmer of hope or happiness. Nor does he restrain himself from bad taste; a mentally retarded child is presented for no other reason than to be the victim of a later punishment; Haneke doesn't mind allowing the child to scream in pain and discomfort as a doctor treats him, going in for a close-up as the capper. Likewise, he addresses childlike curiosity about mortality in utterly brutal ways, as a child probes his nanny (his mother died in childbirth, concurrent with Haneke's contempt for...anything human): "What is death...will you die? Will I die? How do you die?" The scene mirrors an even earlier one, where another of the priest's sons walks across a log suspended above a lake. When the school teacher sees it and ask him what he's doing, the child responds: "I wanted to see if God would kill me." Kitschy shock tactics only stroke morbid inclinations, since Haneke doesn't juxtapose childhood innocence with war and death the way Forbidden Games (1952), Ivan's Childhood (1962), The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), or Come and See (1985) do, revealing the horror of rationality gone awry, man's necessary (and tragic) ability to justify incomprehensible inhumanity, but drawing out childlike innocence and happiness (even only if in small moments), to demonstrate how one loses innocence. Haneke's title refers to purity and righteousness, but it's merely a pretense for humiliation - his role as puppeteer - and never does he reveal tragedy at loss of innocence, only sneering, "the-folly-of-man" polemics.

Visually, The White Ribbon is reminiscent of some of Carl Th. Dreyer's Day of Wrath (1943) or Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (1959), but that resonance is quickly rescinded by Haneke's predilection for silly mystical hokum, as the film relies on a series of events that cannot be explained by the townsfolk. Dreyer's mysteries run much deeper, probing religion and morality as necessarily linked, but not necessarily correct in its mechanical dealings with human beings, creatures far more complex than rigid doctrines recognize. There's a humanism, a spiritual uncertainty that Haneke's cold and callous aesthetic makes impossible and, ultimately, sickening in its hopelessness for even the potential of goodness in human beings.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Winter's Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) -- C

Like 2004's Down to the Bone, Debra Granik's first feature, Winter's Bone fails as a film visually due to her insistence on fictionalized verism and, thus, renders whatever potential emotional resonance the film's adept neo-noir narrative may have held both dull and lifeless. The blame goes on Granik as director, not writer, since the script and source material could easily have been rendered in a much more complex and intricate manner. Take for instance how Ree's (Jennifer Lawrence) search for her missing father, a crank cooker who's put the family house and land up for collateral to make bail (and, if a no-show at his court hearing, the house is taken) is rendered in the most literal way; she evolves from somewhat uncertain teen to fully capable woman through her "journey" and encounter with various roughneck characters, but nothing in Granik's compositions ever compliments nor comments on that progression. Her inability (or apathy) for doing so sucks every ounce of suspense from a story that desperately needs it. Put simply, there's absolutely nothing cinematic about Granik's filmmaking; it's yet another Sundance snoozer (this won the Grand Jury Prize, no less) about "small" people, rendered with very little imagination.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2010) -- D

Perhaps the year's most disgusting film, Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation of the bestselling book series takes every conceivable opportunity to humiliate its characters, particularly Lisbeth Salandar (Noomi Rapace), whose curiously beaten, made to perform sex on demand, and raped nearly half a dozen times throughout the film's unbearable 154 minute run time. Even when she has sex willingly, it's ugly and cold. To make matters more ludicrous, the film peddles her character as some sort of feminist symbol, as if the mere fact that she scars her rapist by branding him with a tattoo that reads (no lie): "I am a sadistic pig and a rapist," justifies the preceding grotesqueness. Between the beatings and rapes, there's nearly incoherent babble about a narrative involving a lawyer who may or may not have been framed for a crime he may or may not have committed and an 82 year-old man in search of his long dead and (he believes) murdered daughter. Babble would actually be preferable, though, to the film's deadpan acceptance of technology, as Lisbeth or one of the other lifeless figures constantly types or searches on a computer, usually while driving a car to the next tedious bit of exposition, or in a dark basement/library looking at old news clippings. Devoid of any level of humanity or interest whatsoever outside of its dark, depressing, perverse world, the appeal of the novels becomes inconceivable, especially as the film relies solely on an insufferably talky and inert visual palette (not to mention completely humorless, unless you chuckle when Lisbeth jams a dildo up her rapist's ass (grrrrl power!)), all inside of a mystery/investigative narrative that carries no emotional weight whatsoever. It's beyond banality: it's punishment.

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010) -- C-

The questionable politcal polemics of Paul Greengrass' Green Zone is superseded by his incoherent visual style, cutting every two to three seconds (even on something as simple as two characters walking into a building) in an attempt to solidify himself as an auteur, with a distinct style of his own. Nothing new for Greengrass following his Bourne films, but at least they didn't export action movie cliches into a true war zone, here Baghdad in 2003 as military man Miller (Matt Damon) unsuccessfully searches for WMD's. The most offensive aspect of Greengrass' conceit is that he lambastes and indulges his war torn environment simultaneously, with an almost sado-masochistic joy in toying not only with his characters, but the viewer. An interpreter is humiliated by having a prosthetic leg, then delivers a trite speech about his own patriotism and loyalty in an attempt to provide balance and objectivity. Yet it's merely a Greengrass ploy to embed his leftist agenda into action tropes without transparency...he fails. So too do lines like Greg Kinnear's villainous government official saying "democracy is messy," or silly macho-bullshit imperatives, like Damon yelling to a fellow soldier, "put your fucking game face on!" Combining a non-aesthetic with unappealing and condescending political rhetoric, Green Zone confirms Greengrass a hack, without any true sense of movement, space, composition, discourse, or good taste.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) -- B+

Death's at the bottom of everything...leave death to the professionals.

Leslie Howard's unforgettable summation of the nihilism and displacement plaguing not just post-war Vienna, but mankind on the whole, in Carol Reed's The Third Man begs to be a jumping off point for assessing Christopher Nolan's Inception, since many naysayers of the film have completely misread not only its effectiveness aesthetically, but that somehow it signifies an irreversible transition towards an emphasis on pure grandiosity, deviating from filmmaking with a human touch. Such cataclysmic prophetics hold truth when evaluating hollow and viscerally barren escapism like Avatar, but it would not be appropriate, nor fair, to lump Nolan's latest in the same lot, given its adeptness at overpowering your senses to the point of exhaustion. Like Reed’s film, it appropriates cynicism, architectural destruction as metaphor, and constant nihilism, punctuated with hard bits of bittersweet romantic loss and sentimental reverie of a disappeared past. Unlike Reed’s masterpiece, which used a constant and genuine humanism to balance the chaos, Inception doesn't question its own universe and accepts these violent tenants as absolute, necessary and inescapable – also the source of real thrill and enjoyment. Perverse, dour, undeniably enthralling, but hardly intellectual, Inception can give you all of the self-effacing anarchy desired, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Lest we waste time beating around the bush: Inception is pure artifice. Artifice, though, has been the forte of many great filmmakers, namely Douglas Sirk, Stanley Kubrick, and Wong Kar-Wai, to be brief. Their works do not pretend to represent reality; carefully composed and slickly shot mise-en-scene’s disallow it. Though a reductive comparison, one could then say Nolan borrows Sirk’s inclination for sentiment and Kubrick’s non-human characterizations. Moreover, noir tropes establish Inception’s foundation (fear of the future, return of the repressed, femme fatale, a Freudian attachment to water), yet it exports those tropes from any recognizable reality. Unfortunately, Nolan is little concerned with expressionism, a tactic that would seem appropriate given the subjective-is-objective conceit. Muck like Kubrick's iconic opening shot from A Clockwork Orange, the world of the film is only understood through semblances of similarity to reality. Though heavy on exposition in the first third in order to explicate the proceeding sequences, Inception does very little to solidify anything outside the world of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his various associates. It’s all so self-contained that one’s never sure what realm the material is meant to take place in, whether this is an extension of the near-future, or an alternative world altogether, recognizable only through human specters. Such perceptions aren’t necessarily criticisms, however, because Nolan’s creating a meta-work, less about theme or reality than how far one can take spectacle, utilizing Hanz Zimmer’s hyper-epic score to supplement several ravishing action set-pieces, where the violence works somewhere between the balletic shootouts of John Woo and the gritty realism of Michael Mann; in other words, Nolan prefers all catharsis, all the time, juxtaposing slickly staged and shot sequences of ultra-masculine badassery with a heavy dose of sentimentality, meanwhile alluding to films as diverse as Last Year at Marienbad, Citizen Kane, Heat, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s the epitome of what James Naremore describes in his book More Than Night as “ male melodrama,” only transported to a sci-fi vista with heavy duty automatic weapons, unexplained technology that allows dream sharing and the occasional loss of gravity. If this all sounds a bit jumbled, it’s not surprising, since Nolan wears his influences on his sleeve, seemingly unconcerned with his thefts, but produces a virtuoso visceral punch – one that builds to an overwhelming emotional effect – and makes it difficult to approach the material critically without forgoing what the film does in how it makes the viewer respond: purely on an irrational level.

Nolan approaches narrative much like Hitchcock; it’s there, it’s important, but it’s not the exclusive element of the film. Not quite up to the level of some of Hitch’s best “mcguffins” but still wholly effective, Inception appears to be about creating dream worlds and letting the viewer roam around in them. Nolan favors his sentimentality more, however, ultimately giving Cobb’s obsession with his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) preference over any CGI circle-jerk, unlike Cameron’s Avatar, which was purely about displaying his narcissism. The approach, though, offers a conundrum: how does one respond emotionally to world that is totally without genuine empathy, where the pain and raw emotion suffered by Cobb translates to almost no relatable avenue for the viewer to engage? It’s easy to see why some critics and viewers say the film has no “heart” or is without “real characters,” but it again misunderstands Nolan’s aesthetic. Like the world he creates – uncanny because of its recognizable artifice – so must his characters and their plights reflect that paradox, a term the film uses to rather muddles effect. It’s artificial but not, because the emotion feels real. Cobb and his gang’s mark, Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), provides an additional emotional link, and his timidity and vulnerability with his “daddy issues” would play disingenuous were it not for Nolan’s insistence on having that character’s “catharsis” negate ours, signaling the moral heart of the film. That heart would bolster the proceedings even more were it not so ironically disingenuous, just as Cobb’s momentary questioning of his own ethics is all too quickly pacified by Saito’s (Ken Watanabe) pseudo-political explanation. So is the film’s resolution nothing but a dopey ploy, and concludes hopefully rather than bittersweet. In other words, the downside of the whole affair is that in order to engage our guilty desires for pure anarchy and constant catharsis as a constructed piece of art, we must also forgo the moral implications as well. If Inception slowed down to probe dream logic or even truly consider itself within the zeitgeist of video game culture and constant technological stimulation, it would cease to be a whirlwind pastiche – even a product of its own times – a conceit that doesn’t make it anything new, but certainly marks Nolan and Zimmer as new age maestros of fulfilling one’s cinematic thirst for pure and utter annihilation.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Few Criticisms About Toy Story 3

I was recently criticized for a few aspects of my Toy Story 3 review. I'd like to respond to those criticisms here, while also debunking some rampant falsities amongst positive reviews:

“[Toy Story 3] is great artistry as well as a commentary on our disposable culture where we not only throw away things we once loved, but people, too.”

If by great artistry you mean intricately crafted and rendered animation, I’ve no qualms whatsoever. The stuff where the gang is about to be incinerated is gorgeous and frightening, though the 3D noticeably dims the picture’s brightness. But if by artistry you’re referring to narrative or theme, we’ll have to part ways. For nearly the entire film (other than the 10 minute bookends), the film’s confined to low-level gags, obvious meet-cutes’ and goofily conceived sequences (Barbie and Ken, Potato Heads, and the alarm guard monkey take most of this fault). Shan’t we forget so many throwaway’s either, like Buzz turning Spanish or the banal villain Lotso, whose psychological background couldn’t be more tiresome (forsaken toy/person turns bitter/cynical/vindictive). In terms of a discourse related to one’s relationship to nostalgia and mortality, the movie does not feature Andy heavily enough to make the final scenes powerful, nor does it approach his realization that growing up requires sacrifice with much nuance. It’s not poorly done, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the gravitas of a film like, say, Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow, which approaches old age and familial sacrifice with verve, clarity, and strong emotional resonance. Toy Story 3 is a joke compared to McCarey’s film and the juxtaposition isn’t totally inappropriate, at least given the assertion you’ve made, since the latter film deals with disposing of loved ones, in this case one's own parents, not...walking, talking, living, breathing toys.

“It seems you are oblivious to the fact that not all movies are intended for the same audience, and thus work from different palettes...if I showed "The Third Man" to a small child, he would be bored to tears; if I showed "Blue Velvet" to a kid, I should be arrested for child abuse; but if we saw "Toy Story 3," we would be watching a good movie that we could both appreciate from our own perspectives. You're clearly reviewing the film for what it's not as opposed to what it is.”

The movies I see are made for only one audience…me. What I try to do in my criticisms is relay how a person intricately educated in the history of cinema will react to the movie. I’m not reviewing it for the kids or the masses. They can watch Nickelodeon or read Entertainment Weekly to see what their peers think or, for that matter, look up the bulk of the critical masses, who seem to have reviewed the film on about an eighth grade level of expectation. Fact is, I’m not (and I’d hope other aspiring critics over the age of 18 aren’t either) reviewing any movies for kids, so it matters not if a film would satisfy their unrefined palettes. In the review it might be courteous to say "kids will enjoy it," (though most kids will enjoy much of anything so long as it has humor they can relate to) but beyond such brevity, anything else detracts from a serious, critical reading.

You seem to subscribe to the Roger Ebert brand of criticism, which places all films on equal footing and judges them solely on how good they are at doing what they set out to do. But that’s a pretty populist, middlebrow approach, and thus he heralds distinctively middlebrow pap like Up in the Air, Slumdog Millionaire, or The Reader as great films. What’s more essential than this rather boring approach, is to unearth the social and political values inherent to the piece and begin from there. As I stated in my review, Toy Story 3 seems oblivious to its opening masculine male fantasy, which isn’t revealed to be a product of aged Andy’s playtime, but young Andy, merely an excuse to open with a gung-ho action set-piece, yet provide no context or subtext with which to understand the scene. Was it successful at being a fun action scene? I guess so, but that's a hollow analysis anyway you swing it and who really cares about the scene if the film can’t even situate it within the context of the violence introduced? It’s pure escapist pacification, not intellectual, nor even very intelligent. The whole film continues to work on approximately the same level.

“This is heavy material not only for a 'family' movie, but any movie.”

It’s this sort of notion that epitomizes the puerile state popular tastes now endorse. The idea that a G rated movie about animated toys serves as an apex for high art, that its anthropomorphication means anything outside of easy pathos and moderate entertainment is absurd and indicative of a palette that likely doesn't truly adore the aforementioned great films and prefers more easily accessible works, which are falsely and meaninglessly touted as "great" or "a knockout." Please, give me other, much more sophisticated animated films like Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox or Pixar’s own Ratatouille before trying to sell Toy Story 3 as being worthy of the highest level of praise.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Jonah Hex (Jimmy Hayward, 2010) -- B

The subtlety of Nevaldine & Taylor, the irreverent action movie pair responsible for both Crank films and Gamer, lends itself well to Jonah Hex, the most criminally cast-off film of the summer. Critics and reviewers have reacted negatively to pre-release buzz of the film's hectic battle in both production and post, reportedly going through reshoots, the hiring of a new director mid film, and the studio's last minute editing efforts to stitch everything together. What's remained intact, though, is N&T's beautiful script, which on the surface is a psychedelic flick about a loner, loosely in the vein of Leone's spaghetti westerns. Allegorically, however, the film represents their own fears as artists, anxious at having, as Jonah Hex says several times, "a boss" to control them. It's bittersweet irony that, indeed, their vision has been compromised.

That's not to suggest that what's made it to the screen doesn't work on that intended level. It's an odd film, but so was Crank: High Voltage, the most brilliant and self-analytical action film of the previous decade. Like Crank, Jonah Hex couldn't care less about traditional exposition or conventional characters. Perhaps that's also part of the negative response: audiences and critics want the film to be Iron Man 2 and, thankfully, it isn't. No, director Hayward opts for a more abstract, visceral approach. He prefers (as do N&T) intellectual montage rather than continuity. Jump cuts, jump thoughts, jumbled chronology, and jokey interludes abound, replacing three acts with no acts, sacrificing tiresome overkill (see Ridley Scott's 150 minute Robin Hood) for succinct thrills (Jonah Hex runs a mere 80 minutes). The film drains the pretension out of a genre sorely needing reinvention. There's no pomposity or illusions of grandeur (a needed wake-up call to a generation that thinks The Dark Knight is one of the pinnacles of modern filmmaking) and the images come with a vibrant ferocity, utilizing a sophisticated mise-en-scene sorely absent from a modern action genre so infatuated with creating realism through verite techniques (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Casino Royale, District 9) that the soul is lost and nihilism takes over. Certain filmmakers love wallowing in pain and, for whatever reason, that particular aesthetic has taken over. Conventional film tastes crave such realism and continuity, then shun or belittle much more complex visual or narrative approaches not conforming with these tastes. Jonah Hex is most certainly this travesty's latest victim.

Nor can audiences accept Megan Fox's perfection as a sexual screen presence. She is boyhood wet dream, personified. Yet she's not merely an objectification, but a consistent piece in N&T's artistic pigeonhole. It's brilliant casting, placing one of Hollywood's most under appreciated actresses into a role that has no pretense about conforming to middlebrow tastes. She plays Lilah the hooker with the same coldness and uncertainty Josh Brolin uses with Hex; her line is "I don't want to be owned by no one" and it matches the pair, spiritually, rather than serendipitously. Thematically, there's profound work being done about conformity, be it social or artistic. N&T don't want to be a commodity, and their refusal to sellout or compromise should be celebrated, not chastised. There's so much at work in the film (and again, with only an 80 minute run time) that it exposes the facade of the modern blockbuster. Just as Michael Mann's latest anti -- but still raucously entertaining -- action films (Miami Vice, Public Enemies) dissect and refute commercial filmmaking practices, Jonah Hex dares you to bring the hate. But those who do may also have ignorance to spare.