Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

Archive for April, 2011

Inside the demise of Cinematical

For what it’s worth, long-standing and well-regarded film site Cinematical does technically still exist.  But whereas it was once an exciting film source filled with unique and intelligent voices, it’s now a gutted shell in the Huffington Post blog empire, already stripped of its energy as it delivers another blow to the endangered world of freelance writing.

Former contributor Eric Snider has written a terrific piece detailing how the death of the Cinematical I knew and loved came about.  Check it out here

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Sidney Lumet has died

Filmmaking titan Sidley Lumet passed away yesterday from lymphoma at the age of 84.  With a career spanning half a century behind the camera, Lumet boasted one of the greatest filmographies of any contemporary director.  45 features in total, accompanied by a whopping 46 Oscar nominations and six wins.  His films include 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Fail Safe, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict, among many others.  He was making films all the way to the dawn of his ninth decade, directing Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead at age 80.

He was a powerful presence in cinema, helping to promote a more naturalistic style of acting and crafting indelible portraits of beleaguered modern men.  The world of movies just lost a great one.


The Top 150: letter ‘C’

Cache


2005

The past is never truly past in the world of director Michael Haneke, nor is there any such thing as a fully wholesome, stable family unit.  And if one pretends to be, Haneke tears it apart with a measured subtlety and astonishing precision.  This chilling examination of repressed memory and societal guilt deconstructs pretenses of undeserved peace, and is the most effective of the filmmaker’s intensely studied morality plays.

Casablanca


1942

A triumph of perfect casting and a deft balance between war-time world weariness and good-ole-fashioned American schmaltz.  Not quite as immortally great as its reputation has become, but it’s a terrific film that serves as a crown jewel for Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Plus it has more famous quotes than Bogie could shake a cigar at.

Cat People


1941

One the earliest great psychological horror films, trading in the standard monster antics fashionable at the time for the unnerving anxieties and fears lurking in its characters’ psyches.  Superstition, legend, paranoia, and repressed sexuality combine to create a bizarre and utterly compelling piece of classic horror filmmaking.

Chasing Amy


1997

One would be unwise to peg this as just another juvenile Kevin Smith crude-fest.  While the quick wit and eloquent vulgarity is all there, this is one of the most observant and poignant explorations of misguided modern romance you’ll ever find.  It’s also one that refuses to end on a happy note, giving the viewer some hope while keeping its focus firmly on the consequences of Gen-X narcissism.

Children of Men


2006

Eschewing more bombastic cinematic apocalypses, it depicts a stark world dying with a whimper instead of a bang.  This is Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece and an enduring portrait of how much more powerful the anxieties within us are than those outside of us while giving us the shred of hope we need to keep on.  It also features some of the greatest action set-pieces of the last decade.

Chinatown


1974

Though it takes place in the 1940s, Roman Polanski’s brilliant noir is a pure product of Vietnam-era, post-Watergate national malaise and mistrust.  There’s a dark secret in every nook and cranny of this quietly menacing Los Angeles, and Jack Nicholson’s performance reminds us that cynicism will not save us from the darkness underneath the veneer.

Citizen Kane


1941

Though striking for its use of almost every cinematic technique in the book, and quite a few more on top of that, it’s more resonant for its look at what’s inside of us, the shadows of the past that drive us down the roads we take.  Greatest Movie Ever?  Probably not, but it’s an eternal classic born of an enigmatic mind that wasn’t given enough space to create later on.

City Lights


1931

Charlie Chaplin had a hand in every aspect of its creation, and the result is not only the diminutive auteur’s finest effort but perhaps the greatest pure cinematic expression of the Silent Movie Era (four years after the introduction of sound).  It takes aim at a broad spectrum of society’s ills while never forgetting to leave open its wonderful heart.

City of God


2002 (Brazil)

More searing and uncompromising than anything you’ll find in a Hollywood film, Brazil’s masterful export makes American gangster films like The Godfather and Goodfellas feel almost pastoral.  The streets of Rio run red with the blood of lost youth, and the hyperkinetic realism is offset by a crushing air of Shakespearean tragedy.

A Clockwork Orange


1974

Perhaps cinema’s most cutting and uncomfortably funny science fiction satire, Kubrick’s peek at technologically enforced conformity grows more prescient and disturbing with each passing year.  Populated by insistent bores and ridiculous drones, we find ourselves latching onto this future’s only truly human character, a theatrical sociopath whose choices, while often horrifying, are always and completely his own.  He seems like the freest man left in the world.

Come and See


1985 (Russia)

By my estimation the greatest war movie ever made, with a horrifying power that often seems born of another world.  It depicts the Nazi invasion of Belarus in the truest way such ruthless “total war” can be depicted; a waking nightmare into which all notions of heroism and innocence and humanity become lost, sucked down into the abyss.  Not easy to watch, but guaranteed to leave a mark.


Review: Source Code

Copy Edits

True science fiction cinema is an endangered species.  The wary musings on the implications and consequences of mankind’s “progress” that define the best of the genre are left on the cutting room floor, the mainstream content to slap the hi-tech surface aesthetic on traditional action or fantasy structures that often don’t have much on their mind.  So then it’s a relief when we receive a film like Source Code.  Duncan Jones’ follow-up to his terrific Moon is a cannily crafted thriller that imbues its setup with a fascinating science fiction premise that calls up notions of mortality and identity, much like the best work of Phillip K. Dick, and for much of the film it follows through on this setup to achieve some surprising intellectual and artistic highs.  Unfortunately, like so many ambitious projects funded by the Hollywood popcorn machine, the film also doesn’t have the good sense to end where it should, nervously drawing back from its beautiful ledge in favor of something more comforting and recognizable.

Source Code stars a surprisingly versatile and ever engaging Jake Gyllenhall as Colter Stevens (awesome name), a man on a strange mission even he is not aware of until he’s right in the middle of it.  Through a new technology that allows someone to be sent back into a retrieved eight minutes of another consciousness, a so-called “source code” before the subject’s death in a terrorist attack on a commuter train, Stevens is tasked with finding out who blew up the train so that an expected second attack can be prevented.  If he fails to do so before the train blows up, the end of the inhabited mind’s life brings Stevens out of the experience and back to what he presumes is the real world, a strange capsule which seems like the inside of a damaged aircraft.  Then he is sent back to try again.  The result is a kind of sci-fi Groundhog Day, with each time through the eight minutes similar yet individual and malleable.  But to keep suspense a factor, there is a limited amount times Stevens can go back into the source code, since a nuclear attack on the nearby city of Chicago is impending in the present time.

The science that makes all this possible isn’t entirely explained by the government officials (notably Vera Farmiga, doing a whole lot with a thinly written role) communicating with Stevens via video from an unnamed facility, and our confusion and curiosity parallels his, as does our exploration of what it means for the people involved.  It’s explicitly stated that this is NOT a time machine.  Nothing Stevens does when sent back to those eight minutes will change reality or save the people on board, including the beautiful and charming woman (Michelle Monaghan) sitting across from him who, after numerous run-throughs of this time frame, he begins to fall for.  His mission is to prevent future deaths.  These people are all doomed.

It’s the notions of fractured identity and impending, unavoidable mortality that lend Source Code its surprising heft, especially in the first hour, and in that sense it dips into the same thematic well as Moon, also a hard science fiction identity crisis livened by knowledge of a short shelf life.  Stevens is forced, time and time again, to inhabit the identity of a doomed soul and interact with other people who in chronological terms are already dead, and who Stevens is told will remain dead no matter what he does within this retrieved eight minutes of consciousness.  I won’t reveal further plot developments, but I will say that the film manages to rise above its thriller trappings and achieve a rather astounding moment of grace, a perceived climax that defies both cliche and assumptions about happy endings.  It’s a moment that lifts such heavy thematic loads as cruel cosmic immutability and the idea of an afterlife.  It rises organically from the characters and the situation, and demands philosophical examination.

But then the film doesn’t end.  Much like Stevens, it refuses to accept a challenging summation free from explanatory denouement and opts for a well-worn science fiction trope that feels decidedly more pat, and which doesn’t pay respect to what has come before.  And that’s a shame, because even though the dearth of true science fiction films can make most any noble attempt seem a rescue for a neglected genre, Source Code really is a good film that manages to build a bridge to possibly becoming really good.  It just refuses to cross it.

 

 


Films Made in the Shadow of Destruction

Our art says a lot about us.  It could tell of our passions, our hopes, our obsessions, but often the most effective insights are into our fears, how the dangers that surround us affect our cultural psyche.  We create art to make sense of the darkness lying just our vision, to secure ourselves in some way against the ever present threat of that dark crossing the void and confronting us.

The Guardian has a fascinating piece on how the films of Japan, especially their animation, taps into that nation’s precarious position as a catalyst for disasters both natural and man made.  There are some typically great quotes from animation master Hayao Miyazaki, and some illuminating talk about how Japanese films have addressed the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Check out the article here:  Japan’s fantasy films act as a buffer against the reality of the natural world


On DVD: ‘Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps’

Crisis Blanding

When watching just about every Oliver Stone film since Platoon, I find myself thinking that he would make a great documentarian.  He has a keen eye for detailed information and possesses the intellect to put pieces together in fascinating and sometimes even convincing ways.  He’s probably capable of producing an examination of the recent financial collapse as incisive and probably more engaging than the Oscar-winning doc Inside Job, and it would eliminate the need to tack on a rote human drama that feels petty and inconsequential when paired with a thoroughly believable chronicle of what may by the first quake in a worldwide economic apocalypse.  Because, strangely enough, its the human drama that scuttles his sequel to Wall Street.  The sad-eyed domestic squabbles of a young rich couple who come out a tiny bit less young and a tiny bit less rich just doesn’t hold the viewer’s attention when propped up against Stone’s well-rendered backdrop of the 2o08 crisis, or even when pitted against the still-formidable shadow of Gordon Gecko, that infamous cinematic creation brought back in sleazy splendor by Michael Douglas.

Shia LeBeouf, who possesses a screen presence and unique charm greater than the sum of his recent script choices, plays a young and talented investment banker working for a big-deal investment firm ( a stand-in for the doomed Lehman Brothers).  The beginning of the films borders on brilliant, as Stone uses his young novice’s perspective to watch the collapse of the supposedly unsinkable firm from the inside.  It’s rousing and terrifying stuff, considering its real-life origins, but the film quickly drifts off into personal drama that just doesn’t carry enough weight.  LeBeouf’s number-cruncher has a earthy heart for environmentalism, advocating investment in cold fusion technology.  An admirable interest, but it never feels authentic.  Neither does his relationship with Carey Mulligan’s character, a liberal blogger who happens to be the daughter of Gorden Gecko, recently released from prison and peddling a book on why he believes the world is fucked from a financial perspective.

Gecko is still an all-time great screen creation, a wondrous deomonstration of the kind of iconic character work movies can do.  And when he’s on screen, even if its in forced reconciliation attempts with his estranged daughter, he’s dynamite.  Michael Douglas slips back into the roll with ease, and it’s remarkable how, though mostly unchanged from a moral perspective, he seems a pedestrian bad guy compared to the heirs to his money model.  “I’m small time compared to these crooks,” he says, and it’s all too easy to believe him.

But he can’t keep the film afloat as a complete work.  There are too many predictable and uninteresting character concerns that seem much less important to the director than casting his lens on the Wall Street meltdown and its future implications.  The problems of his characters just don’t adequately convey the warning buried within his film, instead forcing standard-definition melodrama (and a cheesy title) on some high-def economic observations.


On DVD: ‘Cure’

Cruel Whispers

Horror films have long had a way of cutting right to the heart of what afflicts their culture.  In American cinema you can see it in the incisive critiques of mindless consumerism in Romero’s zombie films, or in a more recent and insistent example, in the Grand Guignol moral slaughter of Se7en, a film that sympathetically considers the need for punishment brought on by modern hyperindividualism in the Western world, even if it scoffs at the righteous methodology of its onscreen monster.   A diagnosis of societal ill also lies at the heart of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, but the cultural contrast is startling.  While films like Se7en shake their heads at a distinctly American glut of the self, Cure casts a critical eye at Japan’s pervasive collectivism, a communal suppression of the individual that the film posits has created a seething couldron of barely restrained violence waiting just under the surface, ready to explode at the slightest nudge.

A spree of brutal murders has taken place in Tokyo, with the victims killed via blood loss after a ‘X’ is carved into their throats.  Stranger still, is the murders are all committed by different killers with no connection to each other and no prior knowledge of the other murders’ M.O.  They are normal people with casual or intimate relations to the deceased, all found close to the crime scene with no recollection of what they have done.  The film is a serial killer flick in tone but has little interest in the whodunnit conventions of the genre.  We know who is causing these murders early on; a amnesiac loner who appears able to push people to kill through a calm method of suggestive hypnosis.  The film is more concerned with how such a creature fits into Japan’s cultural landscape, and how the suggestion of violence to a seemingly calm person on the emotional edge can become a plague, an infectious psychological transmission of bloodshed.  Kurosawa seems to believe Japan is ripe for such a collective bout of psychosis, and much like in Se7en, he considers his monster as an evil person needing of destruction, but whose nature and motives might be edging close to disturbing truth and even necessity.  This soft-spoken hypnotist brings the individual to the forefront, and since the individual is so downplayed in relation to the needs of the collective, that bringing forth is catastrophic. And perhaps the infectious nature of violence is enhanced by a society too interconnected for its own good.

These are some heady ideas for a film like this, and Kurosawa isn’t quite up to answering all of them effectively.  The film also has a measured pace that will hard for some to endure, especially those enamored with the more traditional trappings of the serial killer genre.  But its a worthy long walk in a world still quite alien to American sensibilities, a country still trying to find its bearings after a particularly pervasive and particularly violent collectivism brought on its destruction 65 years ago.  This is a horror film with a lot on its mind, and the foreign nature of some of its concerns makes it all the more fascinating.