Friday, December 28, 2012

Brief thoughts on Django Unchained

Warning: Spoilers abound throughout

Quentin Tarantino is always up to more than mere aping. Yes, he’s a filmmaker that speaks to the film geek inside all of us (how many of us check off the references in our head while we watch his films?), but his best films have always been about more than the thing he’s referencing. Jackie Brown (more than a love letter to the Blaxpoitation film), Kill Bill  (has depths that reach beyond simple homage to his favorite of subgenres, the kung-fu movie), and Inglourious Basterds (as perfect a film Tarantino has made, only Jackie Brown comes close, is so much more than being just some homage to B-level WWII movies) are his best examples of this; they're also his best films because they are so much more than what they seem to be on the surface. I always appreciate that about Tarantino. Even though Django Unchained isn't anywhere close to being in the same category of his three best films, I found myself liking a lot of what Tarantino was up to with his homage to Blaxpoitation and Spaghetti westerns. I want to see Django Unchained a second time before I approach the film with a more conventional review. So for now, in fear that if I don’t get something written down now I never will, here are a few, jumbled (and probably repetitive) observations about Tarantino's latest:

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Catching up with 2012: Magic Mike

Steven Soderbergh once again makes a film that is about the body as commodity. Magic Mike ties in nicely with his 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience.  Even though I thought the unconventional casting of then-porn star Sasha Grey in a legitimate movie was more interesting than Channing Tatum/Matthew McConaughey in a movie about male strippers, there’s a lot to admire about Magic Mike even if it sometimes delves into oft-trodden territory. I didn’t care much about the whole A Star is Born narrative arc (mostly because I thought Alex Pettyfer, who plays the young up-and-comer Adam, was pretty terrible) or the way a subplot involving drugs predictably plays out, but there’s a lot to admire about Mike (Tatum) and Dallas (McConaughey) and the keen observations surrounding their dynamic – how they interact with other dancers, how seriously they (and Soderbergh) take their business, and how they aspire to be more “respectable” – and the performances that went into making these characters stand out.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Sabrina

Coming out in the same year as the Rob Reiner/Aaron Sorkin fairy tale The American President, Sydney Pollack released his own fairy tale, Sabrina, a remake of the Billy Wilder classic starring Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, and Audrey Hepburn. Reiner and Pollack’s sought to make films that stood out as a stark contrast in an era of cynicism and conglomerates; they are escapist films about characters that escape themselves into fantasy worlds. They are both great examples of films that elicit the kind of response where one waxes nostalgic about how, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to." But I’m here to talk about Sabrina, and to watch Sabrina is to be absorbed by a film where time simply melts away. To watch Sabrina is also to watch a film where we understand that everything depends upon the performances. The story – an ugly duckling fairy tale with a “once upon a time…” opening narration – is familiar, the results of the story are definitely familiar, and the tone – and how Pollack will visually convey that tone – is also familiar to anyone that’s either seen the original Sabrina, seen a Sydney Pollack movie, or knows of Pollack’s love for ‘40s/’50s cinema. It’s a touch on the long side at 126 minutes, and even though the film feels like its spinning its wheels in the third act, I’m never bored by the film because I just love spending time with these characters and the extravagant milieu they inhabit. It reminds me of Tootsie in that it’s pure cinematic comfort food.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sydney Pollack: The Firm

The sins Pollack committed with his previous film Havana, he more than atones for with his adaptation of John Grisham’s massively popular novel The Firm. Oh, sure, the length of the film is still unnecessarily close to the three hour mark, but here, unlike in his previous film, he doesn’t waste opportunities with his large cast of characters (played by great character actors) by making sure that he gives them all more than enough time to showcase their skills in an interesting enough way that I never really ever felt the length of the film. The efficacy in which he unfolds the labyrinthine plot is the sign of an old master in control (again), the way he was with previous paranoid thriller Three Days of the Condor. It’s easy to see why The Firm was Pollack’s biggest hit (hint #1: Tom Cruise at the acme of his popularity), commercially speaking: it’s just a fun summer thriller filled with great performances. Yes, The Firm has a convoluted plot and a lot of flaws when one begins to critically think about it, but it's also damn entertaining if you just let the move play you and go along for the ride. Pollack handles the silly plot like the old pro he is (with help in the writing department of longtime collaborator David Rayfiel and old-pro-himself Robert Towne trying their hardest to cram the massive plot from the novel into movie length). With the aide of those great performances and a wonderful musical score by Dave Grusin, it all adds up to The Firm being one of my favorite Pollack films. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Catching up with 2012: Lawless

I really wanted to love Lawless. Everything is in place for me to be gushing over this movie: John Hillcoat, Nick Cave script and music, Benoît Delhomme’s cinematography, a great cast headlined by Tom Hardy, and, of course, Jessica Chastain. However, it never coalesces into a cohesive film. I admire the craft, but there’s not a whole lot here to give a damn about. It’s a bunch of interesting, violent vignettes (it almost feels like Cave wrote the songs first and then he and Hillcoat decided what scenes would look neat accompanying those songs) that doesn’t feel as mythic as it’s trying to come off as. I hate to compare it to Hillcoat/Cave/Delhomme’s previous collaboration – the brilliant, ultraviolent, McCarthy-esque western The Proposition – but the 1930s Virginia just doesn’t come off as being as interesting – or successfully feeling “of a place” – as The Proposition’s violent outback setting does. Maybe I’m “prohibitioned” out right now with “Boardwalk Empire,” but I just never felt like the film was really that stimulating. I was never really fully engaged with the film. It just kind of sits there on the screen feeling so unnecessary. There’s a lot here for fans of Cave and Hillcoat to like – especially its ties to Cave’s biggest literary influences Faulkner and O’Conner – but Lawless really is the most frustrating kind of film: a film that should work; a film with so much talent working on it, telling a not-so-well-known true story with great costume and set design, tommy guns and gangsters, and a sure-fire interesting milieu…yet it just doesn’t work.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Catching up with 2012: Safety Not Guaranteed

I was not expecting much from Safety Not Guaranteed. In fact, I was downright wary of it (as I mostly am now with Sundance fodder). It looked like nothing more than one of those quirky indie comedies filled with cynicism/snark masking as charm that wins over Sundance audiences. But oh no, this tale of time travel plays it straight. Like, it's both Sundance-y in its rom-com sensibilities but also a science-fiction film about time travel. Not once is the time travel aspect of the film snickered at. And I appreciate that so much from a film of this ilk. When I heard about this movie, it sounded like nothing more than a film for TV actors to try their hand at a movie. Okay, let me step back a second because Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”), Mark Duplass (“The League”), and Jake Johnson (“New Girl”) have all starred in films (Duplass writes/directs his with his brother Jay), but nothing prepared me for actually liking all three of them here. I catch “New Girl” every now and then when I’m in the room while my wife watches it; the show is not my cup of tea, and Johnson’s enthusiasm is noticeable even if he does grate on me at times. Duplass is on “The League” – a hit and miss (mostly miss) show that so badly wants to be a raunchy version of “Seinfeld” – but he’s mostly forgettable on a forgettable show. Plaza is the only thing that attracted me to seeing this movie, and I’m glad I gave it a shot because I found myself liking the other two (especially Duplass) a lot. I was expecting Safety Not Guaranteed to be another Diablo Cody-like Indie film, but I was more than pleasantly surprised to see that it actually has more in common with Spielberg.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Catching up with 2012: The Dark Knight Rises

So yesterday I wrote that I had finally seen The Avengers, and how it probably didn’t matter what I said about it – comic book movies will go on, make money, and have its fans regardless of what I convey in a two paragraph blurb. So whether I think Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises – the final installment in his ambitious Dark Knight trilogy – is good or not probably doesn’t matter at this point. The fact that I am going to convey an opinion five months after the film’s release seems fruitless since most of what does work and what doesn’t work has been talked to death by this point. So I’ll try to make this as succinct as I can: I didn’t like The Dark Knight Rises...

...But I'm not a succinct person, so I have to spend a few paragraphs venting. I apologize for the lack of "reviewing" that's about to occur. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Catching up with 2012: The Avengers

“A movie like "Marvel's The Avengers" doesn't need critics and critics don't need it.”

 “[T]he movie has some of the easygoing charm of "Rio Bravo," Howard Hawks's great, late western in which John Wayne, Angie Dickinson, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson did a lot of talking on their way to a big and not-all-that-interesting shootout. The difference is that, in keeping with the imperatives of global franchise entertainment, the big shootout in "The Avengers" must be enormous, of a scale and duration that obliterates everything else.”
So, I finally saw The Avengers. Two things: the first quote is from Jim Emerson in this piece here. Everything he says about the film is spot on (although I think I like the CGI shot at the end more than the one he mentions in his essay). The second quote is from A.O. Scott’s article found here. I like that he mentions how some of the scenes involving Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, and Captain America reminded him of the “easygoing charm” of one of Howard Hawks’ greatest movies. He’s right: there’s a certain amiability that is infectious throughout the middle of The Avengers. There isn’t a cynical note in the film. I appreciated that. Oh, and you don’t have to be a comic book fan, geek, nerd, or whatever do enjoy it. Lord knows I have little to no knowledge of the vast Marvel Universe, yet it doesn’t seem to matter as writer/director Joss Whedon just kind of comes right out (well, he has his characters come right out) and says what the audience is thinking, “we don’t need the logic; just give us what we came for: the crème-de-la-crème of Marvel superheroes teaming together – sharing the same frame – to jape and jest and smash things real good.”

So, yes, Emerson is right in that a movie like The Avengers doesn’t really need anyone to say whether it’s good or bad (especially someone getting to it as late as I am). But, here goes: I liked it. I liked the breezy way it moved through its exposition. I liked the cast and the quips and the tone. I even liked some of the CGI. My favorite shot is in that big finale (which Scott is right: it goes on way too long) when the camera follows the action without cutting so that we can see each of the Avengers in some kind of heroic moment. The camera starts by showing us Iron Man swooping in to help Captain America fight aliens on the streets of New York. And then without cutting, the camera (or the computer) moves from setpiece to setpiece catching glimpses of each Avenger at work. My favorite moment within my favorite moments has to be when the camera moves from Hawkeye battling aliens on a rooftop to the Hulk fighting on top of some kind of alien aircraft with Thor dropping in off frame to join him. It’s encouraging to see CGI being framed in a way (it actually comes across as if your eyes were moving from panel to panel in a comic book) where the audience can actually tell what the hell is going on.

I checked my cynicism at the door (I fully understand what the studio’s intent is with The Avengers; I also think that Whedon and co. do a fine job making the film come off as something more earnest than its “hey, let’s get together all of our 100+ million dollar superheroes and make a movie that we know people will shell out big bucks to see numerous times” exterior suggests) and found a film that I was more than glad to spend a little over two hours with. Huzzah. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Havana

Sydney Pollack doesn’t instill fervency within one to go back and look at his films with fresh eyes in the way many have recently been passionately singing the praises of damned-upon-released films like Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate (the latter, especially, has seemed to be piquing interest in the blogosphere, thanks to its recent Criterion release, with many claiming that the film is some kind of misunderstood masterpiece). I don’t sense the urgency for bloggers and critics to run out and say, “oooh, I should revisit Havana because, gosh darn it, people were just so unfair to that movie when it was released in 1991.” Now, I’m a bit cynical with all this revisionist criticism stuff (what’s next, Howard the Duck or Hudson Hawk are masterpieces, too?), but I have to admit something: the minute I decided to do a retrospective on Pollack’s career, I was most interested in watching Havana for the very reason that it seemed so unfairly maligned at the time.  I mean the film couldn’t be that bad, right (“Seinfeld” even took a little bit of a jab at)? I was kind of excited to take a recent look at Havana in hopes that it might reveal itself to be one of those forgotten masterpieces – one of those films people like to go back and talk about now as if we were all crazy for thinking the film was bollocks to begin with. Well, I’m here to tell ya’ll: Havana is no such film. The film – everything about it from the performances to the faux Scorsese-esque energy Pollack tries to inject his film with – is inert. A lifeless film filled with lifeless performances and a lifeless romance at the heart of it.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Out of Africa

Out of Africa is one of those “sweeping epics” the Academy loves so much, so it’s no wonder that it – and not better films like Three Days of the Condor or Tootsie – won Pollack his Oscars for directing and producing. I put "sweeping epic" in scare quotes because Out of Africa, although decent at times, is painfully ordinary in how it tries to win the audience over as a big, 'ol fashioned epic. It wants to be big in scope and sprawling in its love story; however, Out of Africa is not even close to being Pollack’s best film (in fact, of the five films nominated that year, it’s easily the fifth best of the bunch). It’s too satisfied with its “scope” to be anything more than a pandering awards season picture. It has some nice, quiet moments between its two leads (nothing new for a Pollack film), but the episodic nature of the narrative left me feeling cold. In fact, while watching Out of Africa, my mind was drawn to 1995's The English Patient (another film that feels like a false epic): an apt comparison in that it too was just an okay movie with some decent performances that isn’t nearly as romantic or sweeping in its scope as the Academy hype wants us to believe. I certainly didn't have any Elaine Benes outbursts while watching Out of Africa, but it did fill me with a kind of apathy that I've rarely felt while working my way through Pollack's films (the only thing that really comes close is Absence of Malice or Bobby Deerfield).