Friday, May 31, 2013

Dis-ease: The Perversity of 2012

2012 continues to defy me. 2010 gave us a few movies I consider masterpieces--True Grit, Meek's Cutoff, Cold Weather, Arrietty--and several other strong titles besides those. 2011, like 2010, was a strong year with more great films--I especially loved The Mill and the Cross, Take Shelter, and Damsels in Distress--and 2011 was also a year that I praised for its strong cheerful comedies. Notes of hope and expectation had emerged from the dreariness that was all too often the status quo.

2012, following 2011's lead, was also full of strong comedies. The unsettling difference between these and the ones that I highlighted from last year is that each of these comedies is perverse, unnerving, and generally burdened by the weight of its troubles. 

I hope that Brandon doesn't think that I'm just engaging in some Armondian wankery here. I'm not going to compare/contrast films (though I could). I think that all of the films below are extremely well-crafted and very personal visions from these directors. At least the top few are worth struggling with even if I can't ultimately make my peace with them.

One doesn't need much more to prove auterism than look at this list below and see how obviously these specific films fall into the broader body of work of each of these directors.

This is not a Top Ten of 2012 List. I do hope to have one of those up before 2013 is over!! Inspired by my recent Sightseers viewing, the following is my:

Top Ten Respectably Repugnant Comedies of 2012 List.

1. The Comedy (Alverson)
2. Sightseers (Wheatley)
3. Killing Them Softly (Dominick)
4. Django Unchained (Tarantino)
5. Spring Breakers (Korine)
6. Killer Joe (Friedkin)
7. Seven Psychopaths (McDonagh)
8. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg)
9. Dark Shadows (Burton)
10. Here Comes the Boom (Coraci)

Alverson's The Comedy is far more confidentially directed than his excellent previous film, New Jerusalem. Though the content is vastly different, The Comedy follows New Jerusalem in its exploration of male friendship/interpersonal bonds in a world shorn of meaning and purpose. Jerusalem is quiet and holds out hope. The Comedy is a scathing bare-all denouncement of the vapidness of contemporary cultured leisure. It's successful in what it does because it never caters to its audience, existing as a film in that same space of entitlement ennui that its protagonist occupies. The Comedy serves as a documentary witness. It doesn't offer any way out.

Wheatley's Sightseers is nothing less than an ordinary romance gone awry. It's a solid relationship dramedy turned slapstick horror. It sits nicely as a companion piece to Kill List. Both are unsettling accounts of seemingly ordinary people participating in ordinary events. Except that none of it is ordinary and madness keeps bubbling up and breaking through, until the real and the unreal settle together and are indistinguishable. Horror becomes a way of explaining the world. The horrors of relationship anxieties are externalized. Sightseers ends with a gag, a feel-good shrug that maybe provided catharsis for anyone who has been in a damaging relationship.

I'm not sure how Dominick's Killing Them Softly fits in with his Assassination of Jesses James, but I'm sure it does (never afraid to toss out my uninformed film opinions). Softly is a not-so-subtle takedown of the myth of capitalist efficiency. It's also a deconstruction of gangster films and the Lone Gunman archetype. Softly is often crude and ugly with a nice sheer gloss, just like its subject matter. Softly indicts all of us who are complicit in this system at whatever level.

Tarantino's Django Unchained fits in nicely with his current program of historical revisionism. After tearing apart Nazi Germany in Basterds, Tarantino co-opts Germany's national myth, The Nibelungenlied, and re-purposes it as a story of black empowerment, an act of narrative taunting that is surely as offensive to the "master race" as anything in Basterds. Tarantino enjoys his revenge a bit too much and is too reliant on the worst of the 70s exploitation cinema that he has soaked into his bones. Django is, at its core, a "save the princess" tale, marred by Tarantino's excess.

Korine's Spring Breakers is an obvious continuation of the themes of his previous films. The real surprise this time is that now the MTV mainstream has become the freak in the spotlight. What privileged rich kids do with their free time turns out to be not so far from a semi-sanitized fantasy version of a trip Ol' Dirty could have given these kids for half the price and twice the grit. What's odd about this picture is that the second half fantasy sequence is less surreal than the "reality" of Spring Break. Korine, by the end, wants to have his Spring cake and eat it, too.

Friedkin's Killer Joe is at least as vile and disgusting as any of his other films. I admire Friedkin's craft, but have a hard time giving any sort of blessing to what is essentially a rape fantasy from beginning to end. Maybe it's all an ironic joke. If so, that only makes the whole thing more worthless and indefensible. What's the takeaway from this film? Stay in the city where you're safe from Redneck mayhem like the kind you find in Sidney, NY.

McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths has all of the vulgarity of In Bruges, but it doesn't quite have the same beating heart. There's something gone corrupt in McDonagh's vision; maybe cynicism has won out over sincerity. I find myself failing to remember much about this one. All flash and nothing to come back for.

Cronenberg's Cosmopolis is one of the better science fiction films of the last few years. Its humor is built around the loneliness unique to the connectedness of our current cultural/technological situation. The way it builds to its final showdown is a masterful display of epic non-suspense, which is maybe the right mood of the moment.

Hillcoat's Lawless builds on themes of masculinity and brotherhood that Hillcoat began to explore in The Proposition. There is a jaunty humor that keeps this thing afloat (what other word but jaunty to describe a gift bag of testicles?), making it easy to watch even as it overstays its welcome and undercuts what seriousness it did have by turning the whole into a good ol' boy's reminiscing. It waffles in what it wants to be.

Burton's Dark Shadows picks up on Burton's obsession with macabre melodrama. The humor here is that human behavior doesn't change much over the centuries. If anything, witches and vampires have a better society in which to engage in their specific predatory practices. Burton is clearly just having fun here, but it feels like he's laughing at someone else's expense. The goth kids have won and Dark Shadows is a major motion picture. The world has been turned upside down.

Coraci's Here Comes the Boom is centered squarely in his tween-boy fart-aesthetic. Add a giant pinch of wishful thinking and all is right with the world. While many of the above films diagnose ills and then either wink or throw their hands up in the air, Coraci's solution is to sprinkle Hollywood fairy dust over it all. Magical thinking will make all of us fat men into honorable UFC champions with the desirable foreign girl on our arm while the music of children resounds through the whole wide world. This dangerous lie may be worse than all of the despair and aimlessness evidenced above.

I don't know.

I can't help but feel that 2012 has been a sad and lost year in film.

I'd love to read/hear responses, either on blogs or via Boo or whatever.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Going in to work late today.

So, I decided to put up a new blog post instead of watching more YouTube kitten videos.

TV Club Update

The League S01E03-05. I'm officially sick of immature man-child storylines. The humor works on the same level as That 70s Show, focusing on a group of bros out to succeed at life without really trying. The barrage of sex jokes is mostly lame lowest common denominator crap. The focus on fantasy football is probably where the show is at its funniest and most endearing. The problem with the show then becomes overcoming how lame fantasy football is and how the jock-geeks that participate in it are usually just jerks who don't realize that they're playing Blood Bowl without the cool elf minis.

Kroll Show S01E01. Not funny. The humor relies heavily on crappy pop culture.

Maron S01E01. Meh. Mehron? I'll keep watching for a few episodes. The humor is self-deprecating and also very self-indulgent. I don't need to know anything at all about Groucho Marx or Bob Newhart or George Carlin to laugh at their jokes. I don't want to know so much about Marc Maron or his comedy creation, Marc Maron.

Rectify S01E01-03. I mostly like Rectify. It develops at a nice, slow pace. The story sprawls inward, if that makes any sense. It's not afraid to be a little odd (though never cute) while hitting all the right Sundance Indie human interest notes. 

Parks & Recreation Seasons 3 and 4. The best comedy on TV right now. Season 3 is my favorite season so far. We'll probably start Season 5 soon.

The Vikings S01E01. The two impressive things in this pilot are Viking tech and Viking culture. Both are skillfully presented as the backdrop for a story of one man's rebellion against his Chieftan. This conflict isn't all that interesting in itself, but allows for wonderful moments that reveal more of the historical context.

Hannibal S01E01. America loves serial killers; the smarter and friendlier the better! Hannibal is a pretty standard police procedural with the twist that one of its (so far supporting) characters is a charming cannibal.

What about movies? Do any of us really watch movies anymore? I'd guess not, based on the extreme scarcity of new posts lately.

Here's a quick rundown of what I've seen in the past few weeks besides Mud and Pines.

The Hobbit ruins a great children's book by turning it into a mediocre action pic.

Oz: The Great and Powerful isn't good enough to sustain a third viewing (especially one without any children present).

Coming to America is charming in its way. I'd like it lots more if it wasn't as potty-mouthed as it is. Then again, that might be part of its charm. What do I know?

Shane is okay. I watched it with the girls and it was fun watching them get emotionally attached to the character, so I can see why this could be a favorite, especially if watched earlier in life.

Elevator to the Gallows is a better New Wave crime film than most of the New Wave crime films that followed it.

Punch-Drunk Love completely floored me this viewing. I hadn't seen it since its first release and I didn't really like it at the time. Now, I think it's one of the greatest romantic comedies of the past thirty years.

Road to Morocco is just silly fun. And Iron Man 3 is everything I was hoping for in a big, stupid summer action flick.

And that's it. I'm all caught up.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Brief Mud Post

Minor Spoilers below...

I wanted to love Mud. I still want to love Mud. But, I don't love Mud.

I merely like it. To be honest, I'm a little surprised by the 98% on Rotten Tomatoes that Jeff told me about. There are no dissenting voices? The film is on-the-nose often. The score/soundtrack bugged me, even when it was something I liked playing in the background. Instead of bombastic swelling, we get The Dirty Three, but it's there to serve the same purpose, right on point giving emotional cues. Not sure why it bugged me so much, but it did. Also, on-the-nose foreshadowing. Snakes? Yup, someone's gonna get bit. A gun? Yup, someone's gonna get shot.

Even the boat in the tree kind bugged me as too cute.

I do admire the film for its exploration of in/constancy in love in a world where everything has become unstable, especially love. Nichols is great at taking small stories and making them feel connected to a wider river of myths/stories/songs that we're all wading in. Also, the performances are mostly great (I'm not so sure about Reese Witherspoon).

I'll watch every film that Nichols makes. He's still one of my favorite living American filmmakers. I just didn't love Mud. :(

I'm willing to blame my response on the giant Italian hoagie from the Ithaca bakery. It's a few days later now and I'm still not sure if I've digested that beast completely.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Meal Beyond the Pines


Jeff, thanks for getting the Pines talk rolling. Here's my contribution.

It was good to get out to the movies with Ben last week.

The best part of the night was probably eating a tasty sandwich at Panera while Ben distractedly stared at the actress from Compliance (or some girl who looked like her; I'm not sure) while we chatted.

I followed Ben's lead and tried the Mediterranean Veggie sandwich (I think that's what it was called) The sandwich was both light and satisfying, everything I'd hoped it to be. I got chips and a pickle on the side and a glass of teamonade (not an Arnie).

I was still hungry for something more once we had arrived at AMC. I ordered a medium popcorn which I ate throughout Pines' runtime.

The Place Beyond the Pines ended up being a lot like my evening's meal, satisfying at first, but ending on a false note of overindulgence that almost, but not quite, ruined the whole thing.

Like my eating that night, Pines is divided into three acts.

ACT I: Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich

Pines opens with a long over-the-shoulder handheld tracking shot that had me rolling my eyes and wanting to leave. The shot's payoff, though, as the camera hovers outside of the motorcycle cage, is quite nice. The entire shot does effectively communicate Luke's swagger and confidence, his caged emotions, and his reckless courting of danger. The next shot of Luke with the children opens up his character as a warm and likable rogue who could potentially enjoy domestication. Eva Mendes enters the shot and all we, the audience, want at that moment is for these two to spend the rest of their lives together.

Cianfrance is at his best when he is exploring the emotional space between people (often mirrored and modeled in the physical space). Like I told Brandon, Blue Valentine was good enough that Pines became a no-brainer to see without hesitation. Cianfrance (and his camera) poke and prod at Luke and Romina, almost dancelike as the two circle around and in and out and other characters come in between the two. The setup is tragic. It's hard not to care for Luke as he asserts his rights as a father and attempts to provide for "his" girl and his son. At the same time, it's hard to ignore that he is the rotten foreign element who has left without a word while another, better man stood up to care for a woman pregnant with another man's baby. There's no way this is going to end happily for all involved no matter how things shake out.

Blue Valentine had already established Cianfrance as someone who could handle intimate moments. The revelation of Pines is that Cianfrance is a very good action director. During the robbery scenes, my breathing tightened and I felt the thrill. The action is wild and unpredictable and just a little bit crazy. And fast. This is a credit to both the writing and the staging/cinematography.

Act 1, like that veggie sandwich, was delicious and satisfying, pretty much everything that I was hoping for from the film. It hit the spot. I probably could have stopped eating/watching right there and I would have been extremely satisfied. I would have been left wanting more in a good way, with the experience of something good lingering on in my senses, hungry for more, but content instead to reflect on what I had just had instead of moving on.

ACT II: Chips and a Pickle

Afraid that the sandwich couldn't stand alone, I complemented it with chips and a pickle. Cianfrance does the same with his movie. After a sprightly feast, Cianfrance gives us a side order or something much more mundane, a tired cop corruption story. The reason that this segment works at all is the same reason that the chips and pickle worked with the sandwich. I still had some sandwich left and the chips and pickle provided nice counter-flavors that played with the sandwich taste and reinforced the goodness of the sandwich. Act II plays with the same themes of Act I and develops them in parallel ways, drawing out what was implicit in Act I and allowing us to enjoy it all again as seen in a new light. Little pieces of Act 1 weave in and out of Act II and Act II only stands at all in its relation to Act I. On its own, it's really not satisfying at all. This would be a bad taste to end with. Instead of the taste of delicious sandwich, now I've got bits of greasy chips stuck between my teeth. I'm hungry for something else.

ACT III: Movie Theater Popcorn

I love popcorn. I eat it often. Real kernels air-popped, then drizzled with real butter and sprinkled with sea salt. It's one of my favorite things. Movie theater popcorn always sounds good, but it's a poor substitute for the real thing. Oil-popped and cooked with fake seasonings/flavors. A third act of Pines likewise seemed like a good idea, tying together the themes of the previous two acts in an examination of intergenerational transmission of privileges and pains. What seemed like a good idea plays out like fake popcorn, leaving one with nothing more than regrets and a light stomachache. All of the real flavors that have been built up previously (no matter how imperfectly in the second act) are now drowned out in one large monotonous bag o' corn. And Pines, at its worst, isn't just a mess. It's downright corny in its old-fashioned insistence on contrived connections and forced themes. Surprisingly, this is the film's strength at the end. It has gone this far. No going back. Since it's already gone so far, it finishes fully committed to itself and what it is and what it has become in 140 minutes. If it's not this year's indie darling, it just might be the best bloated Hollywood film we get this year. Folks, that's entertainment!

The best thing that I can say of the film is that I was fully engaged throughout it's long running time. Pines is a solid piece of entertainment. If, by the end, I had lost some of that blazing emotional connection established early on, I at least was still comforted by the embers that remained.

(How the heck did I get from a stupid, unwieldy food metaphor to a fire metaphor like this and where do I go from here? I think it's time to ride off into the sunset.)

The coda at the end in which the son rides free (I had a hard time imagining that he wasn't riding straight to the DMV and then to a garage for an inspection, but whatever) is as worn-out and cliched as many of the previous moments, but, like I said, Cianfrance is committed to the material, and I was more than happy to ride along.

In the end, movie theater popcorn is still popcorn and, what can I say? I like popcorn. If, at the end of the night, I was thinking more of that sandwich from earlier in the night and I had largely forgotten the chips and pickle, well, the popcorn hadn't ruined the memory of the sandwich at all and I'm having a hard time mustering up too many complaints about popcorn.