Friday, December 31, 2010

Black Swan

EDITED TO ADD: I just realized that there may be some spoilery things in be careful. But really, you shouldn't be reading this if you haven't seen the movie yet.

"Maybe it was all that White Swan/Black Swan split-personality stuff, but as Black Swan ended I found myself confronted by two outwardly identical but attitudinally opposed thoughts: "That was something... (?)" and "That was something... (!)." In other words, I can't yet tell you exactly what Black Swan is, exactly what it means to me, or exactly when the film is genius and when it's trite, but I can tell you that it got under my skin, that it's powerful in sum, if not incessantly, and that I expect its spell will linger."
                                                                                                   ----- Jason Bellamy

Black Swan is ultimately about an identity crisis (and how!), but it's also a genre mash-up that I can't stop thinking about. Like Jason explains in the quote above (from his piece with Ed Howard at The House Next Door), I find myself thinking that the film is often brilliant in its excess and often hackneyed in its execution. I'm no Darren Aronofsky acolyte, but there is something about his movies that keep me coming back. Like his obsessed characters, I find myself thinking about his films – love 'em or hate 'em – for days. Black Swan is, as Jason puts it, "powerful in sum." If Aronofsky is anything, the one thing he isn't is subtle. And you know what, I like that about him. I like the audacity of his head-long brashness to make the film arrive at the conclusion that, certainly, almost everyone can see it approaching. For once, Aronofsky's aesthetic didn't get in the way of me enjoying the movie. My observations after the jump...

Thursday, December 30, 2010

True Grit (2010)

Much has been made of The Coen's tinkering with the ending to their newest film True Grit – an adaptation of a novel by Charles Portis which was turned to a hugely popular film adaption by Henry Hathaway (which in turn gave screen icon John Wayne is only Oscar…but you know all of this already) – and how that tinkering makes their western – a wholly un-ironic (or, rather, un-existential) affair that is, surprisingly for the brothers, their most straight-forward narrative…ever – not so much an honest remake, but, what's that word we like to use now? Ah, it's a "reimagining." Well, truth be told I have neither read the source material, nor have I seen the original John Wayne film; therefore, I could only approach this recent telling of the story as it appeared to me: a Coen Brothers movie. It seems to me, from conversations with those who have seen the original film and read the novel, that True Grit v. 2010 is as strict an adaptation of source material as the brothers' attempt to "adapt" Cormac McCarthy a few years ago (which is to say that the "strictness" of an adaptation is really irrelevant to the quality of a film). That is they have stayed true enough to the source material all the while sprinkling in wonderful bits of Coenisms. Therefore, I felt I didn't miss anything from the experience by not knowing anything about the source material or the famous film released some 40 years ago. True Grit is not, as so many have been asserting, a "minor" Coen Brothers movie. I resent that sentiment not because True Grit deserves to be called anything better (it certainly isn't a "masterpiece"), but because the Coen's – two of our best and most challenging filmmakers today – don't have a "minor" film in them (whether or not The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty count as true Coen Brothers movies is up for debate).

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Catching up with 2010: Capsule Review - Best Worst Movie

Best Worst Movie is great if you’re a fan of Troll 2, but otherwise it’s a bit of a boring documentary that seems to be discovering the same thing over and over: the film has a cult following, and the actors are varying degrees of embarrassed about the film. The film is really about George Hardy; he’s a dentist who does good work for his Alabama community, but when he catches wind that Troll 2 is a popular roadshow film he decides to jump on the circuit and be a part of the mania. The most interesting thing about this overlong documentary is that Hardy sees the difference between cult fans in small venues and the type of horror fans that flock to large conventions. In the most telling scene from the film he converses with fellow “one-and-done” horror actors as an entire row of tables consists of people who appeared – briefly – in one of the Nightmare films. When Hardy sees this, and the subsequent rejection of his “stardom” (he’s basically reduced to pimping his own bad movie and merchandise), he promptly turns on the people that seem to adore him the most. The most salient point Best Worst Movie makes is, I suppose, that there are two types of horror fans, and the die-hards (read: the one’s willing to spend LOTS of money) see horror in its most non-ironic form, and this just doesn’t work for what Hardy is trying to do with the Troll 2 roadshow. There’s a reason why the people involved in the Upright Citizens Brigade are willing to pay George Hardy money for an appearance at their club, and why the dudes dressed up as Freddy and Jason at the major horror convention haven’t even heard of Troll 2. The reason for this is the most interesting part of the movie. If the documentary would have been a short – a film about the phenomenon of Troll 2 and bad movies in general – then it would have been an easy recommend. But as it is, Best Worst Movie is a mild recommendation for fans only. There’s just too much wasted time in the middle of the film, and I really disliked the tone of certain scenes where it felt the filmmakers (the person who directed the documentary was the child star of Troll 2) were just trying to embarrass the director (Claudio Fragasso) by showing how inept he was in not seeing the irony in the film. Now either that was a point of the film, or I was completely fooled by Fragasso who maybe understands the irony of the film’s appeal and just plays the straight man; however, I feel what many feel is what makes Troll 2 the best worst movie: it’s genuine. Therefore, I don’t think Fragasso is being ironic at all here, and that makes the scenes focusing on him even more painful to watch because here’s an entire room of people ripping on a man’s work in front of him, and he just doesn’t get it. I never thought I would feel sympathetic towards such a hack filmmaker, but damn if I didn’t feel that Fragasso was somewhat of a tragic figure by film’s end. I don’t think that was the filmmaker’s intent, though, and that confusion in tone is why I can’t fully recommend Best Worst Movie.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Ken Russell: The Musicals and Biopics, Part 2 (Tommy, Lisztomania, and Valentino)

After Mahler, Ken Russell signed on to turn the massively popular rock opera “Tommy” by The Who into a feature film. The film would go on to bring Russell his greatest success (both critically and financially) and would lead him to re-team with The Who frontman Roger Daltry for the hilariously absurd Lisztomania. That film was a bomb (although it did enjoy some minor success at the British box office) –in actuality it’s worse than that; although, it does play as some kind of perverse curiosity – and ultimately led to Russell’s worst film (a film he denounced), Valentino. The end of the 70’s was a rollercoaster for Russell. Tommy took the auteur to new heights (and gave him the canvas to construct his greatest visuals) while Lisztomania gave Russell a chance to unleash his unbridled creativity on audiences, it was met with silence, but it still wasn’t as bad a film experience as the nadir of his career, the failed biopic Valentino.  These three films show what’s simultaneously so invigorating and infuriating about the auteur – how he can all at once dazzle and dizzy the viewer with his visuals as well as confuse and frustrate with his imbalance.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ken Russell: Musicals and Biopics, Part 1 (The Music Lovers, The Boy Friend, Savage Messiah, and Mahler)

After the release of The Devils, Ken Russell embarked on making a string of experimental, personal films -- some, on both accounts, more than others -- about artists, the theater, and composers. This olio of avant-garde work showcases the best and worst of Russell the auteur exploring his favorite subject: the creation of art by geniuses (and what makes those geniuses tick). The best example of this favorite theme of Russell’s is the stream-of-consciousness biopic Mahler and the rock opera Tommy (a precursor to all of the Baz Luhrmann/Guy Ritchie MTV-stylized films – and the forefather of rock videos, actually); Russell’s worst is in the verbose, overwrought The Music Lovers. And yet, what is perhaps most disappointing about this string of 70’s films is that, for the most part, they seem so benign and forgettable in the wake of Russell’s first two films (the beautiful looking, beautifully acted Women in Love and the visceral, jarring The Devils). What can be ascertained from this slate of 70’s films? Well for starters, we can see that Russell spurned the studios (and why wouldn’t he after his experiences with The Music Lovers and The Devils?) and decided to make films about subjects that were personal to him – all-the-while continuing to intersperse his favorite themes of religion and the creation of art into these films. It’s a wide range of films all varying in successes and failures, but I think these70’s films of Russell are vital to his oeuvre because it gives us insight into why Russell became the type of filmmaker he was in the 80’s and 90’s.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Catching up with 2010: Capsule Review – Salt

Salt is a breath of fresh air; it’s a great, old-fashioned style Cold War thriller with a no-frills, goofy attitude towards the action genre. This is exactly what these types of spy thrillers should be, and even though I really liked some of the Bourne films, Salt, in all of its simplicity, is light-years ahead of Paul Greengrass’ film. The film is not just light-years ahead in craft (I like that the film employs a mix of old-school and new-school editors – Stuart Baird and John Gillroy respectively – to show how smooth and exciting editing action scenes can be by really showing a sense of space and coherency and still being kinetic without having to make the viewer nauseous with in-the-moment shaky-cam), but in how Jolie is the perfect lead for this type of role (the same way Damon was for the first Bourne film), and the supporting cast – especially Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor – as we suspend our disbelief for a film like this we actually find ourselves, thanks to Jolie, not having to suspend it too far. Even though Evelyn Salt bounces on tops of semi trucks and jumps off of bridges and onto cars, Jolie is the type of actress who makes the silly situations in a film like this seems utterly enjoyable in spite of its goofiness. Director Phillip Noyce is adept at making these kinds of films as he made the best of the Jack Ryan thrillers in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Its head-to-the-ground momentum and constant action reminded me of an era when films like this didn’t take themselves too seriously and stop for needless exposition to try and make sense of it all. Salt seems to be making it up as it goes, and you know what that’s not a bad thing here. The only time you realize how silly Salt is is if you take the time to contemplate on it days later. All I know is this: it’s about as expertly crafted an action film that I’ve seen in years. I gave myself over to this silly spy thriller and enjoyed it immensely, and that my in-the-moment reaction to Salt is that it’s one of my favorite movies of 2010.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ken Russell: The Devils

All pictures are courtesy of my brother. He reviewed the film a couple of months ago at his blog. Check it out to see even more great screen captures.

Ken Russell's The Devils is one of the most memorable films to come out of that oh-so-exciting era of filmmaking: the early 70's. With the likes of Rosemary's Baby and Dirty Harry (not to mention William Friedkin's The Exorcist – one of the more audacious American films released during that era), American films were as adventurous as they were ever going to be. Filmmakers had carte blanche to make the kinds of films they wanted to see; audiences be damned. Russell was just one of those filmmakers, and perhaps no other film the British auteur made was as controversial, antagonistic (in its satirizing of the Catholic Church), and so beautifully shot and constructed as The Devils.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Ken Russell: Women in Love

Sorry for the delay in getting this post up. It's been in the hopper for awhile; I was just never really that pleased with it….so I'm just getting it out here so I can kickstart this retrospective (which will run all month). Expect regular blogging from now until January. Yay. I hope you enjoy. See ya in the comments.

Ken Russell is a filmmaker who marches to the beat of his own drum; this is a trait that all auteurs have, and Russell is no different. Here is a man who makes the films he wants to make; critics and audience tastes be damned. There's something refreshing about this considering that in 2010 we're in the midst of what is possibly the stalest, most predictable and benign crop of "prestige" films an awards seasons has ever offered. However, there's also something maddening about doing a retrospective on a filmmaker who can all at once – sometimes within a 20 minute span – make you throw up your hands in praise of the visual artistry on display or make you throw up your hands in frustration at the lack of character development and coherent aesthetic. It makes for a viewing experience that is never dull, though, and if there is one thing that became abundantly clear after my first viewing of Russell's early crop of films is that I will not be short on material to talk about. Russell may be maddening because he seems a bit distracted at times by aesthetic in lieu of story, but one thing is for certain: Russell is never boring.

Russell parlayed his early success with British television into a job directing the rather ordinary (albeit good) spy film Billion Dollar Brain. However, Russell's first real theatrical success (and my jumping off point for this retrospective) was his interpretation of D.H. Lawrence's controversial Women in Love; it would also be the first and only time one of his films would garner mass critical acclaim.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Catching up with 2010: Capsule Review - Easy A

Much like Orange County and The House Bunny, Easy A is a film that is nothing new to the genre of high school/college films about people who look good and attend nice looking schools in affluent communities. Whew, that's a mouthful for merely trying to explain a specific type of film, but we all probably know what type of film Easy A is before we even watch it. And yet, that is what makes the film so damn enjoyable: it is so much better than it has any right to be. The sole purpose is the charming-as-hell personality of the film's lead: Emma Stone. This is a career-making role, and as Olive (Stone) wades through her self-inflicted problems (she takes money to allow outcasts to spread rumors that she is sleeping with them while donning a scarlet "A" a la Hester Prynne) we are privy to a portrait of a smart and beautiful and self-assured female protagonist that is rarely seen in the usual sex-crazed, cynical films about teenagers. This should come as no surprise to those who saw Stone in Superbad and Zombieland, and in Easy A Stone owns every scene. Her performance elevates the film and reminded me of the way that Colin Hanks and Jack Black made Orange County more than just your average high school film in the wake of American Pie; it also reminded me of the way Anna Ferris turned a film like The House Bunny (also starring Stone) from something I normally would abhor to something that was not just tolerable but really damn likable. Easy A is aided by a tremendous supporting cast in Thomas Haden Church, Malcolm McDowell, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, and Lisa Kudrow. Easy A isn't about to resurrect a dead subgenre, and director Will Gluck's (Fired Up!) direction is too inconsistent to keep the film from feeling a soggy at the end (even though it's a brisk 90 minutes); however, Stone's performance is really one of the best I've seen this year from a female lead, and Easy A is her coming out party. Here is a star-making performance in a film that is a breezy, harmless 90 minutes and good for some genuine laughs thanks to its outstanding cast.