Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

Archive for March, 2011

So ‘Captain America’ looks pretty awful

In what seems to be little more than a high-budget jingoist advertisement for steroids, Paramount’s upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger has a shiny new trailer.  Predictably, the film looks to have great visual effects, wooden acting, and a shamelessly one-dimensional perspective regarding the role of its superhero protagonist.  The digital matching of star Chirs Evans’ head with a different, scrawnier body might have been impressive five years ago, before David Fincher’s doubling of Armie Hammer in The Social Network raised the bar for that kind of effect.  I’m intrigued by the inclusion of Red Skull (one of Marvel’s best baddies) and the cool post-Steam Punk aesthetic of the Nazi war machine, but this trailer fails to provide any hope of the project being more than summer earnings filler.

It doesn’t help that Captain America is one of the most boring comic heroes in existence, and while his unilateral “America-Fuck Yeah!” gallantry might have garnered more sympathy in the years immediately following 9/11, the American worldview has significantly greyed since then, and I mean that mostly in a good way.  I don’t see much of a place for Captain America in today’s world situation, especially if there’s no apparent effort to provide the character with any kind of moral shading.

Anyway, check out the trailer and see what you think.


A promise of more Batman films

Newly minted Warner Bros. film president Jeff Robinov has big plans for his studio, and those plans apparently include keeping the Batman gravy train running after Christopher Nolan leaves the director’s chair.  Says Robinov:

“We have the third Batman, but then we’ll have to reinvent Batman…Chris Nolan and [his producing partner] Emma Thomas will be producing it, so it will be a conversation with them about what the next phase is.”

So you’re going to talk to the guy who reinvented the Batman franchise by providing his own personal vision for the character and hid world about….talking to some other guy about about how to reinvent the whole thing again.  Something tells me Nolan will not have a great deal of interest in that.  Even if he is indeed planning on producing future Batman films, it seems to me that he’ll also want to pursue other directorial projects and give them the whole of his creative attention.  Right now, he’s probably just lending his name to a hungry new exec who’s hoping to keeps the wheels turning on his studio’s biggest moneymaker.

But this thing is a moneymaker for a reason…because the films are good.  Really good.  And despite all the superhero hoopla, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of superhero films are, well, not good.  So I guess we can took forward to a “reinvented” Batman series telling the same story Nolan is so effectively telling.  Just, you know, not as well.  Exciting.


On DVD: ‘Animal Kingdom’

Law of the Jungle

Australia’s new entry in the crime genre isn’t given to the bells and whistles of its American cousins.  There aren’t slick montages backed by 70s rock music, nor are there colorful bad guys in three-piece suits spouting unnaturally clever dialogue.  Here is a crime drama firmly grounded in the banal milieu of everyday life, which makes it all the more shocking when hideous violence punctuates the quiet suburban space.

The story is of a teenager taken into a family of bankrobbers after his mother dies of a drug overdose.  His uncles and his grandmother are lying low when he enters their tranquil Melbourne neighborhood, which is a good idea considering the police’s robbery division is likely to shoot and plant evidence later once they have the scent of their prey.  It all makes for an oppressively hostile environment for the young man, a hulking and decidedly uncharismatic character (though the plays to the realism) who tries to ingratiate himself to his criminal relatives while maintaining some semblance of a normal teen life.  It also makes for a hostile environment onscreen, where deception, betrayal, and sudden death lurk in the most unassuming locales, from a peaceful middle-class suburban street to a grocery store parking lot.  The film’s title is certainly apt.  This is a world where desperate creatures struggle to assert their place in the proverbial food-chain, equipped with varying degrees of empathy but ultimately reliant upon brutal instincts of self-preservation.

The boy is in quite a quandry, fenced in from all sides by parties who demand his loyalty and assistance yet offer nothing in return.  The cops are murderous and dirty, except for a humane detective expertly played by a nuanced Guy Peirce, but even he can’t provide the boy with adequate protection.  The uncles are all pretty bad dudes to varying degrees,  especially a sociopathic monster named Pope played by the superb and superbly creepy Ben Mendelson.  But perhaps the most shocking of the ensemble is the grandmother, brought to unnerving life in an Oscar-nominated performance by Jackie Weaver.  She’s cold pragmatism with a smile on its face, a matriarch who has love to give but only to a very limited few (there are subtle suggestions of incestuous emotions between her and her grown sons).  Her character owns the screen whenever she appears, even amongst the skilled and ultra-masculine Australian male cast.

The  film is an actor’s showcase, but that shouldn’t overshadow the sublime work done by first-time director David Michod, who has the good sense to let his tense scenario sit on the slow-burner and who gives his cast plenty of room to work.  He constructs some terrific shots and makes numerous inspired decisions while avoiding the bad ones that often put dents in noble debut features.  It’s a first-class effort, breathing naturalism and a sense of tragedy into a genre that all too often gets lost in artificial excess.


The Top 150 continued

We march ahead with the Populist Art House Top 150 Films of All Time, this time with the letter B.

Badlands


1973

With one of the greatest director debuts ever, Terrence Malick began his illustrious if not prolific career with this quietly disturbing study of the banality of evil.  Based on the Charles Starkweather killings of the 1950s, it’s the sense of detachment and emptiness, both in the characters and in the beautifully stark landscape in which they commit their crimes, that is most unsettling.

Barry Lyndon


1975

A singular aesthetic triumph by any standard, Stanley Kubrick’s period drama may turn some off with its extremely measured pacing.  But the film is a treasure trove of historical drama and period detail, squeezing the best from its actors and never straying into predictability.  The visual splendor of Kubrick’s 18th century world is enough by itself to land the film on this list.

The Battle of Algiers


1966, Algeria

As provocative today as it was 40 years ago (perhaps more so in some circles), this searing reportage of Algeria’s battle for independence is a brilliant exercise in blunt-force realism.  Drenched in a revolutionary mentality that makes America’s 60s furor seem almost quaint, the film is also memorable for its grey-shaded presentation of terrorism, which sparks heated debate to this day.

The Battleship Potemkin


1925, Russia

Packed with more first-wave cinema theory than any dozen offerings from its contemporaries, Soviet auteur Sergei Eisenstein used advanced editing techniques and shot composition to hit the gas and never let up, shaking the senses of audiences as hadn’t been done before.  The Odessa Steps sequence has been mimicked so many times that it’s hard not to view the original as a parody of itself.

Beauty and the Beast


1991

Perhaps the most skillfully constructed drama in Disney’s entire oeuvre, and without a doubt the best in terms of its musical components.  The songs of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are not wonderfully enjoyable pieces, they also advance the story in ways that illustrate the greatness musicals are capable of.  Gorgeous animation and a uniquely strong-willed Disney heroine don’t hurt, either.

Before Sunset


2004

We make special connections in life, if we’re lucky, but time has a way of carrying them away through the years, leaving us reaching for the ghosts that haunt our memory.  Richard Linklater’s follow-up to his beautifully sincere Before Sunrise somehow manages to bolster dreams of love while also lamenting the forces of circumstance, maturation, and missed opportunity than can let it slip away.  It’d be mislabeling to call it the greatest romance film ever made, but it might be the greatest film about romance.

The Bicycle Thief


1948, Italy

The calling card for Italian neo-realism, Vittorio DeSica’s masterpiece deftly delivers grand tragedy as he paints an almost optimistic picture of the warmth of strength of family bonds amid the inherent cosmic cruelty of everyday life.  European post-war culture has never been captured more effectively, and DeSica inspired many filmmakers around the world to explore cinematic alternatives to typical Hollywood grandeur.

Blade Runner


1982

Novelist Philip K. Dick sadly didn’t live to see his literary masterpiece realized as a cinematic one.  Ridley Scott hasn’t made anything as good since, and his measured pace and unerring focus bring the story’s intimidating science fiction themes to rain-drenched life.  The line between humanity and artificiality certainly is a distressing line to tread, and here it is soaked in a palpable melancholy rarely achieved in science fiction.

Blazing Saddles


1974

How do you tackle weighty issues like racism and religion?  Make fun of everything you possibly can, as fast as you can, and Mel Brooks does just that in this brazen and hilarious effort that still defines the genre of modern parody.  It’s been over three decades since it was released, but the one-liners and vignettes still stand against anything current comedies try to offer.

Blue Velvet


1986

No one can find the common ground between fantasy and nightmare quite like David Lynch.  The myth of American pastiche is lifted up to reveal all the ugliness crawling beneath the surface, and Lynch uses a deceptively tight and methodical approach to illustrate the despair that follows when the American Dream evades us.  Chilling and enthralling, with a legendarily creepy performance from Dennis Hopper.

Bride of Frankenstein


1935

In the age of endless Saw films, it’s easy to forget that horror sequels are capable of real wit and heart.  Characterized more by sharp dialogue and appealing characters than traditional frights, this is the most ambitious of John Whale’s run of horror films in the 1930s, showcasing both a criticism of and a respect for the conventions that made the decade’s horror so enduring.

Bridge on the River Kwai


1957

Alec Guinness gives one of the most complex and enigmatic performances in the history of war movies, and David Lean’s lush cinematography serves to accentuate and not hide the dark heart of this scathing treatise on the absurdity of war.  The film ends, appropriately, with no easy answers, offering only a simple yet astute observation.  “Madness…madness.”

Brokeback Mountain


2005

Unfortunately known to many as “that gay cowboy movie,” this film is so much more.  Just as concerned with the dangers of emotional insulation as the sexual orientation of his characters, Ang Lee has never used his meditative style to better effect.  The Dark Knight would make Heath Ledger a legend, but it was here that we first saw the depths that his talent was capable of.


The ‘World War Z’ film is in trouble

After the tragic demise of Guillermo del Toro’s At The Mountains of Madness adaptation, it seems another promising genre epic may be on the chopping block.  Paramount is threatening to pull the plug on the adaptation of Max Brook’s acclaimed zombie epic World War Z, which was set to be directed by Quantum of Solace helmer Marc Forster and to star Brad Pitt, whose production company Plan B first got behind the project over two years ago.  Unsurprisingly, Paramount balked at the proposed $125 million budget, but Pitt and others associated with the film have insisted on a large number, since the allure of the book is its incredibly expansive and visceral depiction of a worldwide zombie apocalypse, which would of course cost money to visualize.  The different between this situation and del Toro’s, however, is that Forster is willing to work with a revenue-friendly PG-13.  Having read the book, I’m not ecstatic about such a compromise, but the grand-scale terror and sense of panic could be achieved without explicit gore.  It’s just that usually such dilution leads to a general lack of edge, but Forster did a good job of unleashing convincing PG-13 carnage in his Bond flick, so I’d remain optimistic, especially since the script has long been lauded as one of the best unproduced genre pieces out there.

So anyway, Paramount won’t let this thing go ahead without additional money, and it now seems possible that David Ellison may come to save the day.  One of the most intriguing new figures in film industry, Ellison is an heir to the Oracle fortune, and along with his sister he has made it a hobby to financially support films he’d like to see made.  Talk about an awesome hobby.  While his sister Maggie has more indie sympathies (and bless her for that), David has more of a genre sensibility, and he’s displayed interest in helping World War Z into production.  Here’s hoping he comes to the rescue, and the promising zombie epic many have been clamoring for is able to see the light of day.


On DVD: ‘Bluebeard’

Hard Learning

The centuries-old legend of the uxoricidal nobleman Bluebeard is a chillingly instructive one, aimed at sexually subjugating young girls before they even reach maturation.  Just do as your told and restrain your curiosity, it says, and you won’t get your proverbial (or literal) throat cut.  It should come as no surprise that prolific French director Catherine Breillat chose the legend for one of her sly riffs on traditional male/female relationship mores.  But what is surprising is the way she attacks it in her restrained and beautiful film, not altogether stripping the sexually repressive subtext and managing to avoid being too instructive herself.

Instead, she uses narratives within narratives to examine how rules are instilled in us at young ages.  We see a young girl reading her less precocious older sister the Bluebeard legend in their attic in the 1950s and we cut back and forth from to see the 17th century dramatization of the story, with a preternaturally beautiful Lola Creton playing the newest in a long line of the nobleman’s wives, who moves to his castle and must eventually confront his murderous secret.  Breillat hems pretty close to the legend most of the time, but injects enough changes to make the dynamics more interesting, to make her story more relevant in an age when, thankfully, the pat instruction of the old narrative would instill less fear than righteous rage.  The young bride in this story is less an innocent girl than an independent-minded young woman, able to achieve a certain dominance over the hulking Bluebeard.  This isn’t done to create something so simple as a feminist reprisal against the male autocrat, but more to illustrate how maturation and curiosity about what rules to follow and which ones not to can be a dangerous enterprise in any era.  It’s clear that to Breillat, the quest for knowledge is worth the risk.


Presenting….’Oscar Movie!’

With the 2011 Academy Awards now behind us, it’s time to start looking forward to next year’s ceremony, and what better way than to bask in the glow of the most obvious contender….Oscar Movie!

This is pretty great…