Friday, August 31, 2012

August 2012 Rundown

Source Code (2011) – Mark it 6.

After Duncan Jones burst onto the sci-fi scene in 2008 (the excellent Moon), he got the chance to work on a larger scale with last year’s Source Code.  Jake Gyllenhaal is surprisingly effecting in the action star lead role as Colter Stevens, an Army veteran who has become unknowingly involved in a new secret military program, the Source Code.  Using some fuzzy science, Colter is able to repeatedly relive the last 8 minutes on a Chicago commuter train that was blown up, killing everyone.  As Colter repeats his mission, his confusion subsides and he can focus on finding the bomber’s identity within the “Source Code” before there is another attack in the real world.  Source Code had my attention as its main character races against time to save Chicago, while uncovering the mysteries about his own past.  Overall, this is a fun sci-fi flick that opens up the floor to some bigger and interesting question.   Just don’t overthink the science part or your feelings may sour a bit.

In the Bedroom (2001) – Mark it 9.

Watching Todd Field’s fantastic In the Bedroom, it quickly becomes clear that grief can be one of our most powerful emotions.  When the grief felt is especially intense, it can change people irrevocably.   The grief over a tremendous loss tests the ideal portrait of a successful marriage between Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek).  We can only watch this pain tear apart their lives.  While Wilkinson and Spacek steal every scene (Wilkinson especially), the film is filled with excellent performances from top to bottom.  Marisa Tomei will break your heart as the woman caught in the crossfire of a tragedy.  In the confused anger felt by others, she receives unjust blame for a tragedy that is as painful to her as anyone.  As its darkness increases, In the Bedroom will not leave you feeling very happy, but it will stick with you for a long while.  You are left reflecting on all that you do have, and can only hope that your strength to deal with crushing grief will never have to be tested.

The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010) – Mark it 6.

In the mold of a tamed down Dazed and Confused, but not pinpointed to a specific period of time, David Robert Mitchell’s visually appealing, on a small scale, film follows a few groups of teenagers on the last night of summer vacation in a small Michigan town.  Some are looking to reconnect with their past, looking to make favorable first impressions, looking to take risks and leave childhood behind, or just looking to have fun with their friends (of both the clean & innocent and drugs & alcohol variety). Among its many great performances by unknown actors, I especially liked Claire Sloma, in what best resembles the film’s “lead” role as Maggie, a punky soon-to-be freshman who’s wavering between two eras of her life and not sure where she belongs.  Not knowing where you belong is a common theme to the teens in The Myth of the American Sleepover, which is relatable to all who’ve made it through those years and makes the film quite enjoyable.

24 Hour Party People (2002) – Mark it 8.

Steve Coogan, a terribly underrated talent, stars Tony Wilson, our guide through an overlooked, but fascinating, era in music.  Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People’s fun and faced-paced film has Tony tell us the story, sometimes directly into the camera, of Manchester’s music scene, from the rise of punk in 1976 to fall acid rock in 1992, with the birth of New Wave and the DJ-driven rave culture in between.  Tony played a major role in these movements as a TV personality, record label executive, venue owner, and close personal friend of the talent.  He an interesting person living in an interesting time, surrounded by great musicians; mostly focusing on Joy Division (who I love), New Order (who I know little of, beyond “Blue Monday”), and Happy Mondays (who I need to check out thoroughly).  Winterbottom and Coogan show their love for Manchester and this music with every frame, and it's a lot of fun to watch.

Groundhog Day (1993) – Mark it 7.

There are some “classics” that seem to have slipped between my cracks; which I think Groundhog Day could be considered.  The wait was worth it.  The eternally cool Bill Murray is hilarious as the cynical weatherman reliving his least favorite day over and over again (way more times than I expected), the day Puxsutawney Phil looks for his shadow to forecast the winter.  Groundhog Day is a simply a great comedy with a fresh story, endearing characters, and good jokes.  Every variation of the meetings with Ned Ryerson or the monologues about the “importance” of the groundhog is funny, no matter how many times Murray must do it.  Each new day feel fresh, which is quite the feat.  The film even has the guts to get deep as Murray reflects on his existence and realizes how to become a good person, which is conveniently the trick to breaking his spell.  Also, Andie MacDowell is pretty adorable as Murray’s producer (and object of his affection).

Role Models (2008) – Mark it 6.

Anything from David Wain and company have been involved in some of my favorite comedy (MTV’s The State, Wet Hot American Summer), so their work always catches my interest. Though I must admit that these expectations left me a little disappointed in Role Models.   Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott play two losers who avoid jail time by becoming “Big Brothers” to area youth.  The scenes involving Rudd and Scott’s two unlikable jerks were weaker than expected, but the laughs pick up considerable when the “Little Brothers” get involved.  With every scene involving Augie’s (Christopher Mints-Plasse, or “McLovin’ to most of the world) live-action role-playing nerdy fantasy world and Ronnie’s (Bobb’e J. Thompson) pint size master of vulgarity, life gets injected into the film.  Role Models is nothing revelatory (like Wet Hot American Summer is), but there are just enough laughs from beginning to end to make it worth your time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn

As a kid, the original Jurassic Park was one of my favorite movies ever.  It was my first PG-13 movie (I was five or six, at the peak of my dinosaur fanaticism), my first scary movie, and probably my most worn out VHS tape.   I was too chicken to see the original in the theaters in 1993, but I remember having the opportunity, and passing.  So when its sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, came out three years later, it was the first “cinema event” that I remember anticipating.  Like so many other occasions, my dad and I went to see a weekend matinee showing and I left the theater thinking, “that was AWESOME!”  Having cool looking dinosaurs, and lots of them, was more than enough to satisfy my 8 year old tastes.  However, time has not treated The Lost World well.  As I grew older and began to view film with a more critical eye, my memories of the film soured without ever taking the time to revisit the film in the past decade.

So what caused this souring?  It could be the negative reviews I’ve encountered.  It could also be the unfortunate comparisons with the original it will inevitably endure.  And unlike The Lost World, the original is a film I’ve revisited numerous times in adulthood and it holds up amazingly well in every aspect (enough to find its way on this blog’s “Hall of Film Fame”).  The timing felt appropriate to revisit the sequel to make an educated decision on its merits.  Plus, worst-case scenario, the dinosaurs would look and sound incredible on bluray, which would satisfy my inner 6 year old.

Everyone knows that director Steven Spielberg is a master storyteller, and the telling of The Lost World’s story is no doubt impressive.  From a technical standpoint, the 15 years since its release have done very little to “date” the film.  Under Spielberg’s direction, the dinosaurs, of both the CGI-rendered and mechanical puppet variety, beautifully mix with the human actors and sprawling vistas.  Held under the scrutiny of the highest definition in my home theater, these dinosaurs still feel as real as anything we’d see in a 2012 blockbuster (where the digital would definitely outweigh the tangible in CGI/puppetry balance).  Spielberg and his collaborators achieved something amazing when they brought these dinosaurs to life, an achievement that is responsible for making these films timeless.

Spielberg also knows how to create effective action sequences and, though they might not be as iconic either the “T-Rex and Jeep” or “Velociraptors in the Kitchen” scenes in Jurassic Park, there are some intense sequences in The Lost World.  As with many sequels, the filmmakers “up the ante” to make everything much bigger.  This is chilling when a pair of T-Rex parents attack our heroes in a trailer, exhilarating when the ill-willed hunters chase down a dinosaur stampede, and impressive when Jeff Goldblum battles with a group of digital raptors.  There are more dinosaurs in The Lost World and Spielberg is more ambitious with how they are used, such as its famous (or infamous) attack on the mainland.

Though bigger isn’t better, and Jurassic Park has some magic that is missing in the sequel.  One gets the sense that The Lost World’s production was entirely driven by its box office prospects rather than an artistic need to continue the Jurassic Park story.  Spielberg is great at telling the story, but the story he’s telling is lacking.  With only one character returning in a major role in Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), the memorable skeptic who cautioned against “playing God,” a lot of weight is given to what was just a supporting role before.  Therefore, character background is hastily written, giving him a semi-estranged teenage daughter and a stubborn girlfriend, Sarah (Julianne Moore), who brings him back to the island in the first place.  Goldblum does his best with the material but it never allows Dr. Malcolm to develop into anything with significant depth. 

The bad writing extends further beyond the lead character.  Continuing The Lost World’s bigger but not better theme, a huge ensemble cast is introduced.  Joining Goldblum and his dysfunctional little family as the “good guys” are a photographer (Vince Vaughn) and an equipment specialist (Richard Schiff, or “It’s Toby from The West Wing!” as I knew him).  There is also a slew of antagonists on the island, led by a master hunter after a legendary “catch” (Pete Postlethwaite) and the greedy corporate face of InGen, which owns the island (Arliss Howard).  Obviously, the supporting cast is even less developed than Dr. Malcolm and you don’t really care what happens to them either way.

The Lost World is one of those films where the story progresses a little too conveniently, usually as a result of some completely illogical decision by one of its characters.  It’s as if Spielberg had great ideas for action sequences and then just threw something together to link those ideas.  Whether its a trailer that’s unnecessarily parked too close to a cliff or the mention of gymnastics skills that may later come in handy, these conveniences really hampered my enjoyment of the film.  Forced comedy, which is never truly funny, is apparent throughout.  No matter how dire the situation, these characters were sure to have a “zinger” ready at their disposal.  In Jurassic Park, more care seemed to be taken to develop its characters and the story progressed more organically.  Even the humor that came through in the original naturally felt like a part of that world, not by some arbitrary effort to add levity.

Now that I have seen The Lost World though a non-nine year old’s eyes, it is clearly a weak film; yet one that is incredible visually.  I might even recommend watching it for the action sequences alone (they are well-done and frequent), if you have extra time and a good system to view it with.  But great special effects can only take you so far.  The film’s weaknesses were great and they were many.  After weighing all of The Lost World’s pros and cons, I cannot say it’s awful but its not very good.  My concluding thoughts remain “just watch the original,” and I’ll actually be able to back up my words.  The original is just about perfect, after all.

Mark it 4.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dogtooth (2009)

Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos
Starring Aggeliki Papoulia, Hristos Passalis, Mary Soni, Christos Stergioglou

For whatever reason, awful parenting is a familiar theme in many films.  However, as bad as some film parents may be, rarely does it end up in the odd and dark places that Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos takes us in Dogtooth.  Its oddness became apparent from the quick description I got from my brother about a weird movie where the parents shelter their (grown up) kids and teach them misguided vocabulary.  But I was unprepared for just how odd this family is and just how dark the physical and mental abuse inflicted on these kids would be.  That being said, it is still an impressive piece of filmmaking that tells a completely unique story - a film that one may feel a little disgusted for liking, but liking nonetheless.  You just have to prepare yourself to be challenged going in and it might be a rewarding experience.

We are all blank slates at birth.  Throughout childhood (and beyond), we learn from our experiences in the world to become the people we currently are.  When imprisoned in the confines of one’s home your entire life, the experiences that influence what fills a person’s "slate" is vulnerable to the whims of whoever is in control.  That is the situation the three nameless (telltale sign that something is wrong with these people) children in Dogtooth’s family find themselves in.

It quickly becomes clear that these children have been cut off from the outside world to be molded into their parents’ mindless creations.  From the film’s first shot, the oddness of their parenting is undeniable.  The brother and two sisters listen to inaccurate vocabulary lessons that define “sea” as a wooden armchair and “excursion” as a strong floorboard.  These lessons are regular occurrences as one realizes later in the film; such as a “telephone” being salt and “zombies” a small yellow flowers, to these kids.  Pretty fucking weird, right?  However, the weirdness quickly descends into outright disturbing territory.

These parents control every aspect of their children’s lives.  They define roles for each to play in the family (one daughter is trained to be something of a family physician), set up competitions for their affection, and brutally punish misbehavior.  With their entire perception of the world beyond the home predetermined by their draconian captors, these poor people have no idea how terrible their situation is. 

Yet during the course of the film, a seed is planted that there is a different life outside the fence that may be better.  Of course, it would be a life that their 20 plus years of familial imprisonment would leave them dangerously unprepared for.   Despite the father’s best efforts to remain in control, it is the one aspect of the outside world he brings in who is responsible for planting these seeds.  In his sick control over his son’s sexuality, he pays a woman to come to the house (blindfolded, of course) to satisfy his son’s needs.  Yet this woman has not spent decades imprisoned within this house and has free will, which begins to "corrupt" the control one of the kids.

From this moment, Dogtooth gets increasingly violent and increasingly disturbing (without losing its regular oddness).  As the kids unknowingly enter a psychological chess match with their deranged parents, life in the house gets more and more terrifying.  When the lies do not keep the children in line, violence will.  These tactics work better on some of the children than others.

The oddness and psychological horror I have described in Dogtooth cannot do it justice.  For every strange oddity mentioned, there are probably a dozen others.  The strangest being when an old Frank Sinatra record is “translated” as lesson from their grandfather about the importance of loving Mom and Dad.  All the more disturbing, Lanthimos never allows the audience to get a glimpse of the reasoning behind the parents’ unorthodox (to put it nicely) and disgusting (to put it honestly) methods.  Every action is a mystery, and remains a mystery beyond the credits, which only heightens their villainy.

If this review has left you intrigued, despite its staunch art house credentials (which many shy away from, unfortunately) and challenging subject matter, I still feel obligated to provide further warning.  Dogtooth is a good film but very difficult to sit through.  The physical, mental and sexual abuse endured by these characters is blunt and horrifying.  Its violence is graphic (but never with a sense of “action movie” fun), as is its nudity and sex scenes (but never with a sense of “erotic movie” fun).  This is a brutal film with brutal themes:  mental abuse, incest, domestic violence, rape, corporal punishment, self-mutilation. 

Clearly, this is rough material.  But if you are prepared for what is in store and willing to endure a gut-punch of a movie, you will be rewarded with a work of art unlike any you’ve ever seen.  That was my reaction to Dogtooth.  I did not have a lot of fun while watching it and am in no rush to see it again, but it is something I am definitely glad to have seen.  There’s a chance that you may agree.  And also a pretty good chance that you will be horrified beyond belief and disgusted by my recommendation... but you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Mark it 6.