Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

Archive for September, 2010

Editor Sally Menke has died

Oscar-nominated editor Sallen Menke, career-long collaborator with Quentin Tarantino, has died at the age of 56.  Heat exhaustion seems the likely cause, seeing as she was hiking with her dog amid brutal California heat and was found near a trail in Bronson Canyon.  Menked received Academy Award nominations for Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds, and won numerous awards for her superb work throughout her career.  She was a first-rate talent and it’s a shame to lose her.


Review: The Town

It’s not uncommon for budding filmmakers to tackle familiar genres as a stepping stone to more personalized and greater things.  Spielberg did it with Jaws, a creature feature through which he managed to mine hysterical audience reaction and a bit of profundity.  Ben Affleck’s The Town will probably not reach the enduring heights of “genre classic” that Jaws did, but it seems like a similar stepping stone for a director who looks to have the talent to produce something truly great down the line.

There genre here in the “heist” picture.  It’s a tried and true “one last job” formula that this film doesn’t stray much from, and doesn’t need to.  It hits all the requisite notes and maintains the appropriate pace for a highly entertaining thriller, with characters we’ve seen before yet enjoy and a structure that won’t force genre fans outside of their comfort zone.  And while that rigid genre traditionalism may keep the film from achieving greatness, it doesn’t prevent it from being a first-rate entertainment and a harbinger of what could be a wonderful directorial career.

What lifts The Town above the usual Hollywood heist flick is the details, and that comes back to Affleck’s now-undeniable talents as a filmmaker.  The city of Boston has been fertile ground for 21st century crime stories, with top-shelf dramas like Mystic River, The Departed, and even Affleck’s own Gone Baby Gone making good use the city’s fascinating socio-economic dynamics and its appealing blue-collar toughness.  It’s been painted as a city cruelly and yet somewhat thankfully left behind in a previous era, where community loyalty still means something and where a person is more than the sum total of their gadgets and their Facebook friends.  This may indeed by a grittily nostalgic dramatization (I’ve never been to Boston so I couldn’t say), but it makes for great crime cinema, and Affleck knows just the details to hit on in order to evoke this world’s unique flavor.  His conversations of dropped ‘R’s and caucasian street bragadocio somehow always manage to ring true.  His macho characters have their vulnerabilities but manage to mask them with violence, a familiar but effective depiction which speaks to Affleck’s maturity as a storyteller.  He can honor this community while still criticizing it.  Misogyny and dangerously strict street ethic make their mark on this world where bank robbery is just another trade, but that multi-dimensional portrait helps keep us sympathetic to the mortals who ply their violent trade in the confines of a suffocating social structure.

Affleck is perfectly serviceable as the leading man, and it’s not a huge surprise that an actor can coax great performances from talented performers like Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall (one of the current favorites), and Chris Cooper.  The cast is uniformly excellent, even Gossip Girl pin-up Blake Lively as a neighborhood hussie more damaged and complex than she initially appears.  What’s more surprising is Ben Affleck – the action meistro.  The robbery set pieces in this film are outstanding, each one better than the previous.  Affleck displays a firm sense of space and an appreciation of quiet and tension.  He shuns the 4-shots-per-second hyperactivity that ruins much of modern action cinema, and also maintains a mature respect and disdain for the consequences of violence.  Every bullet fired in this film has impact, every act of brutality made thoroughly unappealing.  But it is thrilling all the same, the mark of a natural action virtuoso who can stand up there with the likes of Michael Mann and Jim Cameron in terms of command.  With the held of great editing from Dylan Tichenor, Affleck shows an ability to let a set piece breath (a superb shootout underneath Fenway Park attests to this), and that’s just so damn refreshing.  Combined with a keen humanist perspective and a sharp eye for detail and setting, this sets Afflect up as a directorial talent ready to burst into the upper echelon.  He’s not there yet, but he will be.  Trust that.

No fan of the heist flick should come away from this one disappointed.  And those like me who have come to embrace the new Boston-crime-noir subgenre should be satisfied as well.  What we have here is a damn good film, and one that points in the direction of future greatness for its talented director.


Review: The Expendables

I saw this film a while ago, but I didn’t get around to reviewing it until now, primarily because I couldn’t help but be disappointed with it.  This is a film that pretends to be a true throwback to the testosterone-fueld, fascist action romps of the 1980s, yet it constantly finds itself catering to more modern and politically correct action movie tropes.  The tough guy softening for a politically passionate woman.  The hero coming to some sort of geopolitical enlightenment about the plight of victimized third world countries.  These themes eventually overtake this film, and though those themes are fine if slotted into their proper context, they DO NOT work if you’re making a film supposedly reliant upon the ultra-macho conquest that defined those old movies and made them such guilty pleasures.  It’s as if director and star Sylvester Stallone is trying to atone for all of his blood-drenched 80s transgressions, while at the same time exploiting them to make a buck.  It just doesn’t jive.

There are some effective homages to the over-the-top action set pieces from schlock films of old (the final battle with its endless and apparently harmless explosions is a nice bit of throwback direction), but the sensitive preening and moral posturing of Stallone undercuts any joy the viewer wants to experience.  This film was marketed as a harking back to the cinema days “when men were men,” one that today’s audiences of aging tough guys and younger wusses could admire or laugh at, whichever suits them better.  But it tries too hard to make everyone smile, to ease any guilt modern moviegoers may feel when watching those old fascist and misogynist killfests.  If you want to critique or parody those, do that.  They’re certainly ripe for it, though it’s been done a hundred times in the past twenty years.  But if you want to honor and take nostalgic pleasure in them, do that, and do it straight ahead with no apologies.

Ironically, only Jason Staham escapes with his nihilistic tough-guy cred in tact, and he’s an action creation of the new millennium, risen to stardom well after Sly and Arnie and those of their ilk.  Perhaps that sheds light on the nature of Statham’s popularity.  In an era where even Stallone tries to put some kind of sensitive sheen on his wanton slaughter, Statham is busy given the audience what they want, glaring and grunting and delivering the kind of remorseless vigilante madness we want out of stories like this.  Just watch Crank for a sterling definition of “remorseless vigilante madness”.

Maybe that’s why I still love Statham and don’t particularly like The Expendables.  Statham does what he does directly, with no apologies.  Beneath its musclebound surface, this film can’t decide how tough it wants to be, or even what it is.  There’s a telling critique of the modern American male buried somewhere in there, but it’s buried too deep.  In the end, this is just a film that has too many apologies.


“Ender’s Game” may have a director….again.

We’ve been through this before with the film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s classic science fiction novel Ender’s Game.  Wolfgang Peterson was attached to the project for a while, then finally bailed back in 2008.  Now it seems a new filmmaker has climbed onboard and reinvigorated the development.  Gavin Hood, director or the spectacular South African film Tsotsi and the decidedly unspectacular X-Men Origins: Wolverine has signed on and is “developing the project as director.”

Tsotsi was so good that I’ll give Hood a pass for the mess that was Wolverine, seeing as that later project was clearly marked by excessive studio intervention and focus-group pandering.  More than anything, I just want to see an Ender’s Game movie, and while I’d love for a top tier auteur to sign on, it’s been so long that getting an inconsistent talent like Hood is better than nothing.  We’ll see what happens what this, but for now there is hope that Card’s classic will eventually meet the silver screen.


On The Working Auteurs…

I was having a film conversation the other day and a friend asked me who I thought the working auteurs were today.  I gave a partial answer then, but it got me thinking.  First, about the names that came to kind.  And second, about my own definition of an auteur.  I decided that my definition is pretty strict.  I believe that a true auteur is a filmmaker of singular, clearly identifiable perspective and vision, and also a director who has not only one but TWO masterpieces or near-masterpieces to his or her credit.  That’s a pretty exclusive criteria, since many filmmakers have managed one great film amid a career of the not-so-brilliant (Michael Camino jumps to mind), but not many have managed to pull out two of them or more.  Very difficult to do, and it implies some kind of concrete genius rather than a fortunate flash of brilliance.

So I compiled a list of filmmaker and the works I consider great, and I’ve printed it below.  Check it out and see what you think, who you think shouldn’t there, and who you think should be added.  Remember, these are WORKING filmmakers who are still producing films today.

Paul Thomas Anderson (perhaps the most consummately brilliant of the bunch) – There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, Magnolia

Terrence MalickBadlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line

Martin ScorceseGoodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Departed

Steven SpielbergSchindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, A.I.

The Coen BrothersNo Country for Old Men, Fargo

Christopher NolanThe Dark Knight, Inception

Quentin Tarantino Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Inglorious Basterds

Michael Haneke (Germany/France) – The White Ribbon, Cache

David FincherSe7en, Zodiac, (early word suggest The Social Network may well join this list)

Spike LeeDo The Right Thing, Malcolm X

James CameronAvatar, Terminator 2, Aliens

Ridley ScottAlien, Blade Runner

Woody AllenAnnie Hall, Match Point

Wes CravenScream, A Nightmare on Elm Street

The Wachowski BothersThe Matrix, V for Vendetta (extremely uneven career, but they produced two great ones)

Terry GilliamBrazil, Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Jane CampionThe Piano, Portrait of a Lady

Steven Soderberg – Traffic, Sex Lies and Videotape

Wes AndersonRushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums

John Carpenter The Thing, Halloween

Lars Von Trier (Netherlands) – Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark

Peter Weir (Australia) – Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli

Gus Van SantDrug Store Cowboy, Good Will Hunting, My Own Private Idaho

Kathryn BigelowThe Hurt Locker, Near Dark

Richard LinklaterSlacker, Dazed and Confused

Paul VerhovenStarship Troopers, Robocop

Takashi Miike (Japan) – Audition, Visitor Q

Spike JonzeBeing John Malkovich, Adaptation


Inactive:

Mel Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman


Review: Winter’s Bone

Modern media has turned America into a nation of two coasts, with one giant field in between.  TV shows take place on one coast or the other.  Most Hollywood films are birthed before the strip malls of LA or under the lights of New York City.   To the cultural lens, the lives carried out between those two poles are too often ignored, as are the unique circumstances and problems facing those dwelling in the ancient parts of America even further down in the national consciousness.  The Ozark Mountains of Missouri are just such an ancient haunt,  a poor and seclusive region filled with tradition and the ghosts of heroes from a time long gone, with no new heroes to replace them.  Or least that’s the theory.  There are indeed heroes operating in these forelorn places at the heart of our country, and sometimes it takes a film like Winter’s Bone to give them a voice amidst the shrieking of bi-coastal narcissism.

Winter’s Bone is one the greatest American “odyssey” films in recent history, a hero’s journey through a part of the world few now realize still exists.  It follows a young girl named Ree Dolly, thrust into the role of caretaker of her younger siblings thanks to a psychologically damaged mother and a meth-cooking father who has gone missing.  To keep bondsmen from taking their home, Ree must track down her father, whether he’s dead or alive.  And so begins her journey, a walk into the heart of darkness marked not by grandiose stands or traditional heroic pompery, but by superhuman grit and an inability to back down in the face of resistance.  Jennifer Lawrence is a revelation in the title role, playing the hero not as the symbolic feminist stalwart that many Hollywood films would prop her up as, but simply as a tough young woman willing to do anything for those she loves.

Her search for her father through the poverty-choked and meth-addicted foothills of the Ozarks allows the film to serve as a tour of a region seemingly lost in time.  For all their reclusive ticks and occasionally monstrous behavior, the people standing in Ree’s way come through more as symptoms of a larger tragic circumstance than the evil hillbilly caricatures that you’d see in lesser films like Deliverance.  Methamphetamine is a virus that has infected this entire region, latching itself onto the populace either as an escape via addiction or a rare means of financial gain in a world decimated by poverty and forgotten by the national social consciousness.  This is the only means of subsistence these people seem to have, and any threat to it must be blocked out and, if it will not be blocked out, then destroyed.  Ree, a native of these parts and even family to many of these people, finds herself an outsider and a threat to the desperate way of life, and the resistance she encounters is frequently harrowing.  These people have been insular and wary of outsiders from many generations, and the elicit nature of the drug trade only makes them quicker on the trigger.  Woebetide the one who tries to break into this airtight ancient society. But Ree will not wilt.  She’s been imbued with the toughness of this land, but unlike the lost souls impeding her quest, she’s maintained a rock-solid moral compass amid rampant lawlessness.

The humanity on display by the actors is astonishing.  Aside from Lawrence’s Oscar-worthy work as the heroine, John Hawkes is magnificent as a brooding uncle who never ceases to surprise with his action.  He’s a wonderful character and a perfect encapsulation of the warring elements of this world.  Director Debra Granik’s camera never calls attention to itself.  It lets these characters bloom and the landscape breathe, and her precision and stirring sensitivity as a filmmaker deserve Oscar consideration just as much as last year’s breakthrough female winner.

This is the kind of American hero story we see far too little of.  This is not about bombastic war speeches or hard-boiled car chases.  This isn’t even about stopping the bad guys or putting one’s boot to the throat of evil.  This is about survival, about looking out for those close to you and holding them tight amidst the existential storm.  This is a simple, powerful story about a heroic young woman holding out a torch in a land of darkness.  You may not see a better film of this kind for a long time.


Oscar Season Upcoming

There’s a been a handful of solid oscar contenders released so far this year, but we all know that most of the competition is released during the Fall and Winter.  Though the summer heat is still brutally oppressive, the Fall movie season could be said to begin this weekend with the release of dystopian drama Never Let Me Go.  So let’s take an early look at how the Oscar race is shaping up so far.

Inception – An early front-runner for the Picture and Director categories, it’ll be interesting to see how it maintains its momentum going forward.  Science Fiction is a notioriously overlooked genre during awards season, but hopefully Nolan’s masterpiece can break down the barrier.

Winter’s Bone – Thus far the best traditional drama of the year bar-none, and lead actress Jennifer Lawrence seems a shoe-in for a nomination.  This incredible indie should find itself on the Best Picture list as well.

Toy Story 3 – A lock for a Best Picture nomination, but it’s still unlikely that an animated film walk away with the statue.

Upcoming Contenders

Never Let Me Go – The science-fiction tilt may hurt its chances, but it’s a seriously dramatic story with potential Oscar pedigree.  We’ll see how the adaptation works.

The Social Network – There are some seismic rumblings about David Fincher’s Facebook opus.  Hopefully the film lives up to the early hype.

True Grit – The last time the Coen Brother took to the West (No Country For Old Men), they walked away with a car load of Oscars.

Black Swan – Natalie Portman’s performance in Darren Aronofsky’s latest is already garnering immense praise.

Tree of Life – Tarrence Malick is back, and the early word for his film is extremely positive.