Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Review: A Dangerous Method

This is the final movie I will be reviewing as part of my Movie Diet.

There's a moment early in the first act of A Dangerous Method when Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) returns from, well, somewhere, and he comes into the room of his patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), to announce said return. "I'm back!" he says, then promptly pokes each fist into each thigh and poses, elbows bent, like Superman might do.

I released an inventory guffaw at the clumsiness of it all.

This was, mind you, after 15 full minutes of Knightley giving some of the most misguided overacting you've ever seen. More concisely, it was after 15 full minutes of Knightley doing this:

So, chalk it up as another failure for David Cronenberg, whose next (and most recent) picture, Cosmopolis, would become my least favorite film of 2012. Right?

Not so fast.

Despite the metaphorical arm-crossing that occupied me for that dreadful opening act, A Dangerous Method was saved by an unlikely source: Viggo Mortensen. It's not that I don't like Mortensen, it's that his pairing with Cronenberg in particular was a huge flop for me back when A History of Violence was released. I didn't expect for his Freud to be this film's saving grace, but it absolutely was. While Fassbender, who people usually stumble over themselves praising, was giving an utterly ordinary performance, Mortensen showed me a side of himself I have never seen. 

The three above characters are thrown together in a conflict of ideas and principles brewing among European psychoanalysts of the pre-World War I period. Freud was the thinker whose linking of sexuality and neurosis had taken both his field and the world by storm; Jung was his disciple, though one who soon proved to have his own ideas. Though using some of Freud's techniques to cure a highly disturbed patient (Spielrein) of a serious brain malady that originated in her own sexual abuse at the hands of her father, Jung soon decides that Freud's approach to psychoanalysis is far too rigidly entrenched in sexuality. Jung wants to do more than merely diagnose his patients, but rather show them a better way to be, and begins basing his philosophies on the interpretation of symbols from his dreams. Freud disagrees entirely with this approach, thinking it a kind of witchcraft, while Jung suspects that Freud only wants slavish devotees and not thinkers who will challenge his assumptions. The men begin distancing themselves from each over a series of increasingly cool encounters. Meanwhile, the cured Spielrein has her own ambitions to go into psychoanalysis, but presents a temptation to Jung after Jung's monogamous world view is challenged by another psychiatric mind in his care, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel). Allowing his own mind to be opened the way Freud would not, Jung considers an affair with Spielrein, even as his wife is continuing to bear him children.

Though Freud is certainly rigid and Mortensen surely plays him rigidly, that's a far cry from the rigidity of this film's execution prior to when Mortensen comes on the scene. Yet somehow, as though the film were being soothed by the calming hand of an actual mentor, Mortensen instantly brings a certain class and order to a film that spends its first 25 minutes flying every which way. There's something masterful about the refined egotism that Mortensen brings to the world's most famous psychoanalyst, which lends a sense of irony to the fact that his theories all revolve around humanity's basest instincts. He's so dispassionate and above-the-fray that you can't help trust and believe every word that comes out of his mouth ... even if Jung's approach to analyzing dreams is the more hopeful of the two.

Everything that's good about A Dangerous Method is contained in the regrettably few scenes between Freud and Jung, but so good are those scenes that they really do elevate the rest of the material. And most of the rest of that material relates to a love triangle between not Freud, Jung and Spielrein, as the advertising for this film suggests, but between Jung, Spielrein and Jung's wife (Sarah Gadon). Gadon also gives an uninteresting performance as the passive Emma Jung, so there's little spark to the scenes that involve Jung working out his feelings toward the two women. Knightly eventually begins giving a more measured performance than in the opening minutes, but once her keel is even, she commits the opposite sin of becoming boring.

In fact, the whole film suffers from an energy drain that would have been fatal if it weren't for Mortensen and another actor I'll mention in a moment. A Dangerous Method is composed primarily of talking head scenes, and as such, seems to lack urgency. It regularly skips ahead in time with little warning or ultimate purpose, the most unfortunate of these circumstances being a trip to America by Jung and Freud that ends abruptly as they are entering the harbor and seeing the Statue of Liberty. If anything of interest happened on that trip, we the audience would have no idea about it.

In addition to the engrossing tete-a-tete scenes between the two giants of psychoanalysis, there is one other actor here who holds our interest. That's Vincent Cassel as the sex-addicted doctor who is sent by his father to be treated by Jung. Cassel does a version of what Mortensen does right here -- he speaks his philosophies so confidently and so convincingly that you can't help but be seduced by his reasoning, even if it's often abhorrent. He presents rationalizations for polygamy that might make a reasonable person, one who abides by traditional laws of sexual propriety, wish they could be so self-actualized. Which is quite a seductive trick indeed.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Ranking Wes Anderson

One final cheat on my promise to review every new movie I've seen during the span of my Movie Diet, which ends tomorrow.

As it happens, I have already heard The Grand Budapest Hotel discussed extensively on not one, not two, but three different podcasts -- all before I actually saw it this past Monday. With these people's thoughts and words still bouncing around in my head, I'm not sure it will be possible to separate my own from theirs -- or that it will even be useful to you for me to do so. You've probably gotten your critical fill of Grand Budapest as well.

But I do want to talk about The Grand Budapest Hotel in a different way. Seeing this movie means that I have now seen all eight of Wes Anderson's feature films, and his eighth must have crossed an imaginary line in my head where I now want to rank the auteur's whole filmography. It's a filmography I have not always loved. But I now realize I have more love for it than I may have thought, considering how much I liked The Grand Budapest Hotel and where it ended up ranking among his films.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

There's a precedent for this kind of thing on my blog, if you go back a couple years. When Up came out I ranked all the Pixar films to date. My viewing of A Serious Man prompted me to consider the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. And my love for 127 Hours put the eclectic career of Danny Boyle under the microscope.

Considering that I haven't done one of these since the end of 2010, and I love ranking things, I thought it was about time for another one. Plus, comparing our rankings of things tends to invite more reader participation than a review, anyway.

Wes Anderson has a far less eclectic filmography than any of the people or entities listed above, but that's mostly in terms of his consistent aesthetic. The actual subject matter of his films is an area where Anderson never repeats himself, and he's managed to make all sorts of different genres distinctly his own.

Without any further ado:

1) Bottle Rocket (1996). Is Anderson's first really his best? After a very tough deliberation, I'm saying so. My top three Anderson films may all be interchangeable, in fact, in terms of my feelings toward them, but I'm going to make it simple by including the only two Anderson movies I've seen more than once as my #1 and #2. Bottle Rocket has relatively few of the trademark tics and camera setups we would come to identify with Anderson, but his oddball sensibilities and worldview are already in place. There isn't a single Anderson movie that doesn't have a healthy dose of melancholy, and that's true even in his least overtly melancholic film, about a trio of dimwitted would-be robbers (Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson and Robert Musgrave). The sweetness of this movie and its characters' intentions is what shines through, and I think the film benefits from not being burdened by the comparative fussiness (that's a big Anderson buzzword) of the aesthetic he would eventually develop. I also get a few big belly laughs from this movie, specifically anything and everything related to a clueless safecracker played by Kumar Pallana.

2) The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004). If Bottle Rocket was not a controversial enough #1 choice, I'm definitely thumbing my nose at convention by going with Steve Zissou at #2. Zissou came out at a time when I was becoming highly skeptical of Anderson, for reasons I will get into later when the relevant film comes up on this list, so I dismissed it outright, only eventually seeing it nearly four years after it came out. Simply put, I was overwhelmed by the strength of my emotional response to this film, which may be due in large part to that sublimely effective moment on the submersible near the end of the movie. I was digging this movie's quirks and world building long before then, though -- I think this is the first (though not last) time I have felt like I was living in a self-contained Anderson world that I actually loved. And I loved living in it even though its characters experience mostly sorrow and disappointment. That's the mark of strong filmmaking. (Oh, and I adore the set they constructed of the Belafonte, probably Anderson's crowning aesthetic achievement to date.)

3) Rushmore (1998). Given how much I loved Rushmore when it came out, how it filled me with a spine-tingling sense of anticipation over the arrival of an artist who had truly found his voice, I'm surprised to find it as low as #3 on this list. The reason it is that low? I can't ignore that I have yet to go back and watch Rushmore a second time, which is really saying something for a film that's been out for 16 years. I really do think it's just a random oversight, but I can't deny that I felt a little backlash against Rushmore when some of Anderson's later efforts began disappointing me. If I'd had a second viewing recently or even years ago, I'd probably feel more confident in whatever this ranking ended up being. As it is, though, I can't ignore the fact that I've seen Bottle Rocket three times and Steve Zissou twice, leaving this wonderful film about adolescence and the rebirth of Bill Murray only third among Anderson's films. I should probably also admit that I grew to consider nepotism the only reason that Jason Schwartzmann has a career, even though I did truly like him in this movie (and have softened my dislike for him in recent years, to the point that I may actually like him now).

4) Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) - Fox is the first Anderson movie I'm sure doesn't deserve consideration for my #1 spot, but I'm equally sure that it's better than the other ones I've seen. Curiously, I saw this movie one year to the day after seeing Steve Zissou, so had a whole new appreciation of Anderson that certainly fueled my unreserved embrace of this stop-motion delight about four-legged animals. I simply loved seeing Anderson's trademark dialogue choices and speech patterns, not to mention his inimitable tone, grafted on to what is essentially a children's movie. Rarely have characters in animated movies felt so world-weary and wise, and in a way it felt like Anderson's most ambitious movie yet. I don't have a lot more to say about it except that this is the one I am most conscious of wanting to see a second time -- perhaps even more than Rushmore.

5) The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) - At last we get to Grand Budapest, which feels like it may have required more effort than any other Anderson film -- even while taking the least amount of time to hit theaters after the previous one. Anderson is always building worlds, but in The Grand Budapest Hotel, he feels for the first time like he's creating a number of different sub-worlds inside this world. That's due to the largest number of different locales he's ever put on film, each of which have that delightful Anderson touch, each of which feels lived in according to his peculiar sensibilities. There isn't anything about this movie that I didn't like -- I liked the choice to effortlessly incorporate violence and profanity, I liked every casting choice, and I especially liked the art direction of things like the titular hotel and the bakery shop that keeps factoring into the plot. You might even say I loved most of these things. I just didn't feel that certain -- something -- as I was watching that would have allowed Budapest to overtake any of the others on this list. But it also has no competition for this spot from the films beneath it. (Favorite moments: Any time someone took that cute construction paper tram up to the hotel, the whole fast-motion skiing scene, and whenever Ralph Fiennes opened his mouth.)

6) Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - The last movie on this list that I truly like. And I do truly like Moonrise Kingdom -- in fact, I like it more the more I think about it, after an initial lukewarm reception. I saw Moonrise Kingdom as the second movie in a nighttime double feature with Beasts of the Southern Wild, so it suffered both in comparison to Beasts, and as a movie I started watching too late at night. I suppose I felt pretty emotionally disconnected from the characters in this film, a problem almost overcome by some of the sets Anderson builds (that scout camp being flooded was like a miniature fetishist's dream come true). Rushmore may be the movie I should see a second time the most, and Fox may be the movie I want to see a second time the most, but this is the movie I will most likely see a second time the soonest, since I own it -- a present from my sister a couple Christmases ago. I look forward to making a second assessment of a movie I think I didn't quite get, but probably would given another chance.

7) The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). The movie that started to turn me against Anderson. While many people felt their enthusiasm for Anderson ramping up after their love affair began with Rushmore, I felt just the opposite upon leaving Royal Tenenbaums. Never has Anderson's aesthetic felt more claustrophobic than it feels here, and it caused me to frequently tell people that this movie left me feeling "offbeaten to death." (I'm still very proud of that phrase.) When I think of this movie I just think of a lot of moping by Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson, really frizzy hair for Ben Stiller and an unnecessary shoehorning in of a character for Owen Wilson. I'm sure it's not as disappointing as I have made it out to be over the past 13 years, and given the disparity between my feelings about this movie and the average person's feelings, this is probably the Anderson movie that most direly needs a second assessment by me, just to get my head straight about how good (or bad) it really is.

8) The Darjeeling Limited (2007). Anderson's worst, and I don't think a second viewing would tell me any different. However, I am curious how I would feel about this movie if I had seen it after Steve Zissou, rather than about ten months before. At the time I watched Darjeeling Limited -- again too late at night, in a hotel room, which certainly could have been a factor -- The Royal Tenenbaums was still the most recent Anderson movie I had seen, so I still had its negative flavor in my mouth (even six years later). The flavor curdled even further after this viewing. I think there are probably some nice Anderson aesthetic touches here, and I love a train as a setting for a movie, but all the plotting seemed either wrongheadedly slapstick or otherwise uninvolving. Two things about this movie stick out for me as I think about it: The idiotic scene where Jason Schwartzmann (at a low point of his popularity with me) maces his own brother, and the heavy-handed final scene where the characters throw away all their baggage (literal baggage as well as emotional baggage). The movie just doesn't work.

There we go -- a complete assessment of Anderson's feature career.

There's been a lot of talk about which movies I might/should watch again, but in truth, I'm convinced that Anderson is a vital enough artist that I actually want to watch all of these again.

And, I can't wait to see what will be waiting for us in 2016.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Review: Deep Blue Sea

Hype is a funny thing.

Most of the time we talk about it ruining our experience of watching a movie because it causes us to expect a better movie than we actually ended up seeing. However, it can cut both ways. Sometimes, you're led to believe you're going to be seeing one of the most absurd howlers that has ever been filmed, and in the end, you just see a generically mediocre to bad film.

Such was the case with Deep Blue Sea, which I chose to be possibly the last film I see on my Movie Diet that ends Sunday (it completes my allotment of two for this week, in any case -- if my wife wants to watch something before Sunday night, I'm permitted to do so under my own self-imposed rules). In fact, so awful was I led to believe Deep Blue Sea would be, that I was kicking myself that I failed to get it onto the schedule in 2013, when I watched one "famous flop" per month.

Instead of being outrageously bad, though, Deep Blue Sea was mostly just the ordinary kind of bad. But not even really bad enough to get worked up about.

Not to be confused with the Terence Davies movie from 2011 that has a The at the beginning, Deep Blue Sea concerns the attempts by scientists to cultivate a cure for Alzheimer's disease inside the brains of genetically altered sharks. Because a shark's brain shows little to no degeneration over the shark's lifespan, scientists have posited that a shark's noodle could be the key to solving brain degeneration in humans, and have been testing on sharks on science's version of an oil rig -- a partly sunken laboratory off the American coast called Aquatica. Here three sharks are penned in a massive underwater cage while Dr. Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows) and Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgard) run periodic tests on their brains. But their funding is about to be cut by a skittish investor, Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson), if they can't come up with some solid results soon. Franklin visits Aquatica to view the progress, right after shark wrangler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) has reacquired one of the sharks that devised a method of escaping its confinement. As it turns out, Franklin's timing was very bad -- the sharks have become super-intelligent, and have both designs on killing their captors, and the means to do it.

The underlying assumption is that a person should find Deep Blue Sea ridiculous because of the ridiculous things the sharks do. Perhaps this is why I couldn't get on board laughing at the movie the way I wanted to. It's a very different thing to have an ordinary movie about sharks doing un-sharklike things, and a movie where the sharks' un-sharklike behavior is due to them acquiring advanced intelligence through scientific testing. I haven't seen any of the sequels to Jaws, but I understand that what makes them so goofy is that the shark does things like stalk its prey across vast bodies of water, possibly even making it from the Pacific to the Atlantic in order to satisfy its very specific blood lust. That, of course, is ridiculous. It's not ridiculous when the story sets it up that a bunch of testing has made the sharks both super-smart and super-angry. Then it's just one of the story's conceits, and on those grounds, we should be able to accept anything the shark does, short of actually sprouting legs and running on land.

And so none of the things the sharks do in this movie were really all that guffaw-worthy to me. On the contrary -- at some points it almost chilled me that a shark with a serial killer's mindset would be able to actually pursue its victims with murderous intent, the way we're asked to believe regular sharks in other shark movies can do.

Now, don't confuse this with me suggesting that Deep Blue Sea is good. It's not. Much of its staging betrays a true clumsiness, and the sharks themselves are so poorly animated that sometimes they appear to be moving at double speed, like in silent comedies. The characters are also broadly drawn types, but this is not so surprising in a frame story, especially a frame story that occurs within the disaster or horror genres.

In truth, much of Deep Blue Sea proceeds pretty much as you would expect it would. Various sealed chambers are impregnated by water, causing humans to run for a distant door to seal themselves away from the water again. Various distant parts of the compromised laboratory need to be reached against improbable odds. Various characters need to sacrifice themselves in various heroic ways, as the shark picks them off in bloody fashion. And it's pretty easy to predict which characters will emerge with their lives, based either on traditional Hollywood morality or on which characters have committed the most unforgivable sins against nature.

Just don't expect me to get worked up about how bad Deep Blue Sea is, even after remembering during the closing credits that it was directed by Renny Harlin. Because I just can't go there with you.

I suppose it wasn't only the hype that spoiled my ability to develop a "special dislike" for Deep Blue Sea, but also, the fact that I had already been told the surprise fashion in which one of the main characters is killed. Whoever told me about this character's death considered it the shining example of why the movie is so bad, and so from about the 30-minute mark on, I was just waiting for this death to assess how silly I thought it was. When it finally came, I had lost the ability to even put myself in the shoes of someone who was surprised by it. Like everything else in the movie, it was just dispiritingly mediocre.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: Mr. Nobody

There are certain reviews where you just jump right in. You hit the ground running, and the things you want to say leap forward from your brain to your fingers to your keyboard. These reviews are sprints, and though you might fine-tune them, they are over pretty quickly.

Then there are the reviews where you feel like you're never going to start writing. You spend a ton of time on stretching, to make sure you don't injure yourself in the process of trying to say everything you want to say.

Mr. Nobody is one of the latter types, and that most certainly is a compliment.

I've been stretching long enough, so here goes.

There's something appropriate about the title Mr. Nobody, as it gets at the alarming anonymity of this film. It's one of those movies that is so staggeringly ambitious, and so stunningly executed, that once you watch it, you won't believe you hadn't heard of it earlier than you did. It's one of those movies that tries to tackle nothing less than the total spectrum of human experience, and it's the rare one that actually succeeds. Simply put, it may be a masterpiece.

The plot pretzels around through a number of timelines and possibly alternate (or possibly coexisting) realities, but here are the basics of what we know: Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is a 118-year-old man who claims the title of "Earth's last mortal." In other words, he's the last human being not to get matched up with a genetically compatible pig who can provide him an endless supply of replacement cells. These keep the rest of the world eternally young in the year 2092, and the whole world has tuned in to watch the death of the last mortal being televised. (A bit like a reverse Children of Men.) In his waning days, a reporter comes to the side of his hospital bed to interview him on what it was like to have lived a mortal life, but Nemo claims to remember very little of his actual life. Under hypnosis, however, he reveals conflicting details about his earlier life -- which parent he chose to live with at age 9, which country he lived in, which career he chose, which of three different women (Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley and Linh Dan Pham) he may have married. Throwing in additional paradoxes, he even seems to have remembered dying on a couple occasions. The flabbergasted reporter tries to figure it all out as the clock may be ticking toward a cataclysmic event that could make the story of Nemo Nobody seem trivial by comparison -- or could make sense of everything the old man has said.

The first thing that should be said about Mr. Nobody (although it's not the first thing I'm actually saying) is that it should have been an utter disaster. Films with this much on their minds regularly trip over themselves in the attempt to get it all out there, and account for some of our most disastrous turkeys in cinematic history. Some people (though not this critic) certainly felt that way about Cloud Atlas, which is one of several epic films Mr. Nobody calls to mind (while actually predating it, which is perfect for this non-linear film). A more direct comparison might be made to Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, another film that radically divided audiences. These films all use multiple time periods, unlikely character relationships and aspects of dream state to get at truths about the human condition, and top it all off with a little science fiction. Like those other movies, Mr. Nobody can't contain itself to a mere 100 minutes, clocking in at nearly two hours and 20 minutes, which is extravagant especially for a film with exclusively foreign financial backing.

Everyone involved with this extravaganza backed the right horse in writer-director Jaco Van Dormael, who has been unleashed upon us from the cinematic hotbed of Belgium. The man was responsible for two critically acclaimed Belgian films in the 1990s before launching on his quixotic quest to make Mr. Nobody way back in 2001, a dream that was finally realized when filming began in 2007. Instead of having disaster written all over, the film somehow attained a synergy that approaches brilliance.

Merely structuring a film that jumps between not only timelines, but time periods within those timelines, is a feat of great difficulty. Then giving his scenes a transcendent sort of harmony, one that gives the film a surprisingly coherence and cohesiveness, is yet more difficult. What seems just like showing off, however, is how Van Dormael actually segues between these scenes, frequently using seamless digital camera tricks that allow one shot to blend into another, while simultaneously jumping across continents and years -- and even sometimes placing the same characters in new contexts at impossible new angles to their surroundings. It's a feat of fluidity better witnessed by a viewer than described.

But I think I'm still talking around what makes Mr. Nobody such a singular cinematic experience -- still doing more stretching, as it were. What this film is doing with such accessible effectiveness is exploring ideas that have been explored in lesser films -- many films of so-called "hyperlink cinema" -- with a new vitality that makes them freshly invigorating. The much-discussed butterfly effect is actually name-checked in this movie, a reflection of Van Dormael's interest in how the smallest of actions and decisions have a ripple effect that can change a person's whole life. But if you're rolling your eyes at having seen this thing on screen in a hundred pseudo-intellectual attempts at profundity, roll them back to their starting position. Van Dormael actually has something new to say here, or at least a new way to say it.

Mr. Nobody considers the life of a man in terms of all the events that shaped him, and all the events that could have shaped him. While numerous films have invited us to contemplate how our lives might have turned out differently had we, say, failed to make it through a pair of sliding doors on the tube (see the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors), few have imagined these realities woven together in a way that gives a tapestry of meaning to the life in question. The point is that Nemo Nobody is the byproduct of both the things he's done and the things he hasn't done, simultaneously, because the other versions of himself that had those intentions are still buried somewhere inside him. What emerges in this film is a true, deep, sensitively considered portrait of us -- any of us -- tortured as we are by the avenues we didn't take, maybe only in fragments of dreams we've forgotten by morning.

I've hinted at the expert quality of the production design, as several time periods as well as what is certainly a dream timeline are all sewn together to give us a panoply of recurring images and motifs. What I haven't spoken of is the fantastic lead performance by Jared Leto, who was giving those lucky enough to see this a couple years ago a preview of the type of dramatic range that would win him an Oscar. Leto isn't doing all the heavy lifting in this movie -- Toby Regbo in particular bears a large amount of the burden as Nemo at age 15. But Leto manages to become several different versions of Nemo at age 34, as well as the 118-year-old man in layers of old person makeup that render him truly unrecognizable. Leto expresses different yearnings and realities in all the forms he takes on, some in larger narrative threads, some in shorter timelines that only have a brief realization on screen. It's his fine performance that delivers us a death-bed version of a man we truly feel we've come to understand.

One could continue with the accolades without truly feeling like they've gotten to the bottom of what makes this movie so effective, and I know I'll have to stop writing today without actually getting there. That's in part intentional, as the idea with a movie like Mr. Nobody is to whet appetites, but leave most of its marvelous discoveries up to the viewer. That would be my truest responsibility to both Mr. Nobody and to you.

It's streaming on Netflix. Don't stop and stretch -- sprint after it right now.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Return of the project post

Remember way back when, a time before I was reviewing everything I see, a time before life made me a busy little fellow who had trouble even posting on a regular basis?

Back in that long ago time, I used to write what I now think of as "project posts." They were posts that involved the parsing of data and the compiling of a lot of arcane details from my own viewing history, and often from cinema history at large.

I miss those.

So, without further ado, here's one:

Revisiting my worst films of the year

I recently became kind of fascinated with the bottom 100 films I have ranked on Flickchart. As I've been catching up from falling a year behind on entering my films (I'm now up to last November), I've been adding some truly terrible movies ... and wondering how protective I need to be of that bottom tier of movies. When I entered the godawful Uma Thurman vehicle Motherhood yesterday, and it landed only 14 spots from the very bottom, I wondered: Does a person need to be just as protective of the bottom part of their list as the top? How truly terrible does a movie need to be in order to flirt with "worst of all time" status?

That's not directly what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about today is another kind of "worst movie," the worst movie from a given ranking year. Now that I've been compiling this list in Flickchart for about five years, and all my movies have had multiple chances to duel it out and figure out where they truly belong in my overall spectrum, I thought it was worth revisiting how those movies I've crowned as the turkey of the year have fared within the whole body of films. Which worst movie is truly the worst? And which is the best?

I've been ranking my films from best to worst since 1996, meaning I have 18 movies that I named the worst when my ranking deadline for that year passed. So forthwith, an examination of those 18 awful films, and what I think of them now.


Before and After, directed by Barbet Schroeder
That year's ranking: 43 out of 43
Current Flickchart ranking: 3654 out of 3814
Thoughts: This turgid family drama about how far parents will go to cover up the crimes of their children is still something I view very negatively, but it suffers more from being melodramatic than truly being poorly constructed. It does star Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson, so that has to count for something.


Speed 2: Cruise Control, directed by Jan de Bont
That year's ranking: 39 out of 39
Current Flickchart ranking: 3584 out of 3814
Thoughts: Speed 2 was a victim of an injustice that will likely never be redressed. I watched it on an airplane where I hadn't paid for the headphones, so the sound was off. I'm not even sure if I watched the whole thing. Yet I counted it as a watched movie that year, and it has been grandfathered in. I will likely never watch it again to give it a fair shake, but I suspect I have been compensating by giving it the benefit of the doubt in certain Flickchart duels.


Almost Heroes, directed by Christopher Guest
That year's ranking: 58 out of 58
Current Flickchart ranking: 3758 out of 3814
Thoughts: At the time I remember I was simply horrified at the ineptitude of this frontiersmen spoof/comedy, especially given the natural appeal of its stars (Matthew Perry and Chris Farley) and pedigree of its director (Guest). Time has not been particularly kind to it either, as it's still down in the doldrums of my Flickchart. It's truly woeful.


Wild Wild West, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
That year's ranking: 57 out of 57
Current Flickchart ranking: 3807 out of 3814
Thoughts: This is the poster child for my current "Is it really that bad?" concerns. Wild Wild West is a perfectly abysmal movie, a miscalculation in nearly every sense of the word, yet there are probably parts of it I sort of like, which makes its total ghettoization on my chart sort of suspect. For some reason I buried this one deep and left if there. I suspect it may end up being the lowest ranked on Flickchart among movies I saw during their release year.


The 6th Day, directed by Roger Spottiswoode
That year's ranking: 58 out of 58
Current Flickchart ranking: 3799 out of 3814
Thoughts: If there's a movie I remember hating almost as much as I remember hating Wild Wild West, it's the Arnold Schwarzenegger cloning movie The 6th Day. My single snapshot memory of why it's so bad is this scene where Schwarzenegger is falling off a building, and the way he's falling is filmed so poorly that it looks like he's falling sideways. It's really bad. Worse than Wild Wild West, I'm sure.


The Musketeer, directed by Peter Hyams
That year's ranking: 73 out of 73
Current Flickchart ranking: 3738 out of 3814
Thoughts: What I remember most about this wire work remake of Alexandre Dumas' tale is how everything on screen -- literally everything -- is either brown or gray. In my review of this movie I described star Justin Chambers as "a blander Chris O'Donnell," which is really saying something. Yeah, this movie is no good.


Bad Company, directed by Joel Schumacher
That year's ranking: 80 out of 80
Current Flickchart ranking: 3637 out of 3814
Thoughts: Nowadays I feel like I was probably too hard on this movie, if only because I kind of buck the trend of hating on Joel Schumacher that has gained even more steam than it had back in 2002. It's certainly a very generic action movie that is not very good. I probably penalized it more for the bizarre pairing of Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins than anything that actually happens in the film.


Dreamcatcher, directed by Lawrence Kasdan
That year's ranking: 58 out of 58
Current Flickchart ranking: 3776 out of 3814
Thoughts: Now this is a terrible movie. Like some of the other movies listed here, this Stephen King adaptation has a few moments and ideas that are almost executed effectively, but its overriding ridiculous is just guffaw-worthy. It's the third lowest of the ones I've looked at so far.


Troy, directed by Wolfgang Peterson
That year's ranking: 59 out of 59
Current Flickchart ranking: 3739 out of 3814
Thoughts: There is simply no way Troy is as bad as I'm remembering it to be, and as bad as I still rank it to be. I do remember really disliking it, though, as it was not one of those films that made it to the bottom of my list because there happened to be nothing worse. I really hated this movie, and so did my friend who went to see it with me, so we must have been on to something.


Saw II, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
That year's ranking: 73 out of 73
Current Flickchart ranking: 3645 out of 3814
Thoughts: My relative leniency on Saw II is a case of one great scene somewhat salvaging it, at least in retrospect. The cold open before the credits in Saw II is really, really scary -- in fact, it may be my favorite moment in any Saw movie. That just tells you how awful the rest of the movie must be if I ranked it this low in 2005 -- and also how poor the rest of the Saw series is.


Lady in the Water, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
That year's ranking: 77 out of 77
Current Flickchart ranking: 3794 out of 3814
Thoughts: It was a very tall task to displace the execrable Art School Confidential from my bottom spot in 2006, and it took the worst movie Shyamalan has made (which is saying a lot) to do it. This movie is just plain laughable, with nothing to redeem it -- and I will admit that despite all of his flaws as a filmmaker, Shyamalan does have at least one moment in almost every film that's worthy of respect. Not this one.


Captivity, directed by Roland Joffe
That year's ranking: 82 out of 82
Current Flickchart ranking: 3772 out of 3814
Thoughts: The term "torture porn" has rarely been more on the nose as in this movie, whose moral world view nearly makes me queasy. The strangest thing about this movie, known for its controversially graphic ad campaign, is that it's directed by Roland Joffe, erstwhile of The Killing Fields and The Mission.


An American Carol, directed by David Zucker
That year's ranking: 87 out of 87
Current Flickchart ranking: 3759 out of 3814
Thoughts: I'd be lying if I didn't admit that some percentage of my hatred for this movie has to do with its right-wing politics. However, if it were a well-made satire of a liberal hero like Michael Moore, I would still be able to appreciate what it does right. But one of the creative talents behind my beloved Airplane! has been blinded by his shift to the right into no longer having any idea how to construct a laugh. This movie is pathetic.


The Final Destination, directed by David R. Ellis
That year's ranking: 113 out of 113
Current Flickchart ranking: 3769 out of 3814
Thoughts: The returns in the Final Destination series didn't start diminishing until the third movie, but then they fell off the table. This fourth entry was completely inept, I thought, which is why I ranked it lower than 112 other movies I saw that year -- a new record for me. The hatred is still reflected in my Flickchart ranking.


Furry Vengeance, directed by Roger Kumble
That year's ranking: 109 out of 109
Current Flickchart ranking: 3793 out of 3814
Thoughts: Quite possibly one of the dumbest comedies I have ever seen. You remember this one -- it's the one with Brendan Fraser fighting all the animals. The only reason we even watched it was because we were both off work after having our first child. And because we like squirrels. We like squirrels a little less after this movie.


30 Minutes or Less, directed by Ruben Fleischer
That year's ranking: 121 out of 121
Current Flickchart ranking: 3792 out of 3814
Thoughts: And right next door to Furry Vengeance -- one better, as it were -- is probably the most mean-spirited "comedy" I have ever seen ... or at least the most mean-spirited comedy I haven't liked. Everyone in this movie was an asshole, and I felt like one while watching it. Terrible.


Cosmopolis, directed by David Cronenberg
That year's ranking: 119 out of 119
Current Flickchart ranking: 3786 out of 3814
Thoughts: A boatload of incoherent, pretentious crap.


Only God Forgives, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
That year's ranking: 128 out of 128
Current Flickchart ranking: 3663 out of 3814
Thoughts: The main reason I designated this movie my worst of last year was that I found absolutely no point whatsoever for its existence. Its violent, nihilistic existence. The presence of some artistic intention is why it has the relatively generous ranking of #3663.

Having done this, it's interesting to consider how much I've generally clung to my initial impression of these films, ranking none of them higher than #3584. Even the best on this list (Speed 2: Cruise Control) has only 230 movies that I've seen that I consider worse than it. And certainly, the initial impression is really all I have to go on, as I have not watched any of these films a second time, for probably obvious reasons.

What I wonder, though, is whether the memory of it being a bad movie or the memory of my having ranked it last for the year is the stronger component in the way I duel these movies.

I wish I could tell you that I would re-watch all these movies to see if my hatred of them holds up, but even I -- who am willing to get involved in almost any cinematic project -- value my time more than that.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Australian Audient: Mystery Road

This is the fourth installment of Australian Audient, in which I watch one film per month filmed in the great country/continent of Australia, where I now live.

If you were tuning in today expecting a review of Alex Proyas' Garage Days, there's been a change of plans. Mystery Road, an Australian cop drama released last fall, took over the April slot when my wife suggested we watch it last Friday night. It had always been a candidate for this series, I just didn't know when my wife would want to get around to watching it. I've learned in the past not to plan movie viewings by her schedule, so I decided to leave it vague as to when I'd actually watch Mystery Road, since it was certain to be one of the ones she watched with me. (Actually, only one of the four has she not watched with me, which was last month's Strictly Ballroom. She had already seen it and just wasn't up for another viewing at the moment.)

Okay, here's the review proper:

Movies where a small-town detective tries to solve a murder despite being fought at almost every turn by corrupt figures have an appeal to me. Oh, I suppose this doesn't describe a large number of movies, but one that did come to mind several times while watching Ivan Sen's Mystery Road was James Mangold's Copland. Of course, the greater New York City area of New Jersey and a dusty town in Queensland don't have a lot in common other than that main structural element of their stories.

Unfortunately, Mystery Road and Copland don't have a lot in common either. While Copland moves forward quickly and is pretty watchable, at least as I remember it (it's been a few years), Mystery Road stagnates, running a full two hours when it really could have been three-quarters of that. That's a shame, because there's so much to recommend it that is undermined by the film's turgid pacing.

The small-town detective in question is Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), the neglectful father of a rebellious teenage daughter and ex-husband of her alcoholic mother. Jay has been called out to a remote area to investigate the murder of a young girl found in a gully, who shows signs of having been sexually abused before she was killed. Both Jay and the girl, Julie Mason, are of Aboriginal descent. As he begins following leads, Jay detects some suspicious behavior by two of his fellow cops, Johnno (Hugo Weaving) and Robbo (Robert Mammone), who stop him by the side of the road when it's clear Jay has spotted them. Suspiciously, they ask him if he's ever killed anyone accidentally before releasing him unharmed. Jay's search eventually comes to involve a suspect who may have been a regular at a seedy motel where Julie was known to sleep with truckers for money, and Julie's circle widens to involve both the sale of drugs, and his own daughter, Crystal, whose texting relationship with Julie is discovered when Julie's phone is found my some local kids. Several other suspicious figures join the group of non-specific threats to Jay and his family as the stakes are raised and the evidence seems to be mounting toward a calamitous confrontation.

Mystery Road is a hard film to come down on. Not only does it resemble Copland, but it draws from such sources as American westerns, the movies of the Coen brothers, and any number of independent cop dramas that have nourished us over the years. It is shot well and acted well, and it's a great example of the Australian film industry making good. It's easy to root for and easy to respect.

It's just not all that easy to watch. Director Ivan Sen takes an admirable gradual approach to developing the relationships between characters and revealing the details of the case, but he needed to find a better balance between spoon-feeding us and crediting us with patience and maturity. Languidness for its own sake only works in certain types of films, and Mystery Road needed to try less hard at being one of those films. This is not to say that Sen makes any artistic indulgences whatsoever -- his film is steadfastly realistic and straightforward. It just frequently creeps and slinks when it should be trotting.

Sen's minimalism can be blamed for such things as failing to convey to the audience the dynamic between certain characters, such that when certain characters show up in different contexts, it's not entirely clear who they are or what significance their presence has. This blunts some of the impact of the exciting climax, which does serve to release much of the tension that has been building in the film. One suspects the climax would be all the more satisfying if Sen worked harder to connect some of the dots for us early on. I won't lie: The thick Aussie accents contribute to some of the confusion, at least for those who haven't been listening to them all their lives.

Even if Mystery Road fails on some level as a cop thriller -- "cop drama" is the more appropriate classification -- it does succeed at giving us an unflinching vision of its world. Mystery Road does not shy away from presenting the plight of the Aboriginal in modern society, which is in many ways similar to the Native American in the United States. Many of the Aboriginal characters seen here live around the margins of society -- alcoholics, drug addicts, wayward teenage girls, old men who gamble with young children -- and even the primary example of a functional member of his race, the central detective, has clearly been neglectful of his daughter. The terrain these characters are trying to navigate is an unforgiving and bracingly realistic one, and I thank Sen for not trying to make something more commercial that glosses over the dark heart of Australia's treatment of its own indigenous people.

I also wasn't disappointed by one of my primary draws to this film, which was Hugo Weaving returning home to appear in a small movie from his native land. That's actually a fairly common thing for Australian actors to do, but we Americans don't often get to see these films, and I was excited to see a different side of Weaving than I'd seen in The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings. True enough, the man is a graying, grizzled cowboy, his native accent in full force, his leering sending chills down a person's spine. He kind of resembles the New Zealand actor Sam Neill here, and his presence in this story is weighty.

Okay! I can't promise it will be Garage Days in May, but that's what I've got scheduled for now.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Columbia is the most family friendly

This is not strictly about movies, but it sort of is.

There have been posters up around town for the past couple months in anticipation of the arrival of The Rocky Horror Show, a stage version of the cult movie that has been shepherded through its long life by Richard O'Brien, who plays Riff Raff in the original film. (And co-wrote the screenplay for the film.)

However, I noticed that they picked a sort of interesting ambassador for the show: Columbia, played in the original film by Nell Campbell, who seems decidedly to be a secondary character.

Dr. Frank-N-Further, the transvestite played iconically by Tim Curry in the original film, would seem to be the obvious choice to adorn the posters. Except then a bunch of prospective Melbourne theatergoers would be confronted with some version of this:

It didn't occur to me until now that the most famous character from either The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Rocky Horror Show may not be the best way to sell it. I suspect that there is a certain squeamishness, even among a populace as generally liberal-minded as you find in Melbourne, about seeing a man with bushy hair dressed in lingerie. The bushy hair may or may not contribute to that squeamishness.

By putting Columbia front and center, though, aren't you trying to sell this as more of a straight burlesque show, and not the transgressive and totally out-there pseudo sci-fi monster movie costume epic that it really is? And mightn't that seem like false advertising?

More than anything, though, all this advertising has made me yearn for another screening of the movie, which I have not seen in more than 20 years, and in fact have never seen in a home screening environment. I probably last went to see the midnight show of the movie in 1992 or 1993, and that's a long time to go without seeing what was a favorite of mine back in the day.

Let's see if I can scrounge this movie up somewhere, and soon.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Calling an audible: Reviews of Noah and The Lego Movie

I hadn't been to the theater in almost a month, and had worked out with the wife (thank you my darling) to take in a double feature on Tuesday night.

Except, I would have doomed myself to failure if I hadn't noticed a handy-dandy feature at the Hoyts cinemas at Melbourne Central.

As you queue for tickets, you see a display of the movies showing at this theater, their start times, and one very helpful piece of information: the number of seats remaining. That gives you an immediate real-time perspective on how likely you are to make it to the front of the line before tickets sell out; whether you might want to jump off line to use one of the kiosks; or whether you want to chance it, but have a backup plan in mind in case you strike out.

I had to use my backup plan, but not because the movie I was about to buy tickets for was about to sell out. Rather, because I gleaned that there was a high likelihood that the movie I wanted to sneak in to later on would sell out.

The plan was to pay for a 6:30 showing of The Lego Movie and sneak in to an 8:30 showing of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Except that I happened to notice as I was idly scanning the available information -- my own showing being in no danger of selling out -- that the 8:15 3D showing of Captain America had only 65 seats remaining, more than an hour-and-a-half before it was set to start. This being cheap Tuesdays at Hoyts -- where tickets are "only" $12.50 -- I knew that both that 3D showing, and the regular D showing 15 minutes later, would be long gone before I went to sneak in. Sneaking in to a second movie only works, after all, if the second movie has available seats. Yeah, you could displace a legitimate ticket holder from his/her seat, but not without guilt -- and not with assigned seats, which I would soon discover these were.

So less than four people from the front of the line, I called an audible and threw together a new plan.

Noah was also starting at 6:30, and some quick math told me that its 138 minutes would be letting out just in time to get me to an 8:50 showing of The Lego Movie. Given the extensive availability of tickets for the impending showing of The Lego Movie, I surmised that the 8:50 show would have free seats as well. Captain America would have to wait for another day.

The new plan did work, which is why I can bring you both of the following reviews.


When assessing the success or failure of a Biblical epic like Noah, released by a director with a respected track record, one pressing question comes to mind -- especially if you didn't like the movie. That question is: Was this Darren Aronofsky's vision for how he wanted to make the film, and I just didn't connect with it, or did Hollywood come in and muck it all up?

The answer to that question is especially hard to figure out with Noah, because it seems to perfectly embody some of the screwier aspects of Aronofsky's diverse filmography, which may not be for everyone in the first place, while also feeling plenty emblematic of concessions to Hollywood thinking. There's a very strong sense of intention in this movie, and to contradict that, there are also some passages that feel bland and passive. Wrapped up in all this confusing swirl of critical analysis is the fact that I'm not even sure that I don't like the movie -- and in fact, thought I might like it quite a bit for its first 90 minutes.

Noah is of course the story of God's destruction of the human race by flood, and in case you really don't know anything, here's a quick synopsis of it. God makes man and woman. Man and woman eat apple and fall from grace. Man and woman have a son who kills his brother. Killer brother creates cities of equally awful human beings who treat each other and the planet terribly. God decides to kill all human beings except for one man -- the descendant of the innocent younger brother of the killer brother, who survived and created his own lineage. Man must build a giant wooden ship and put all the animals on board to ride out the storm to end all storms, and start over again from scratch. He gets to bring his family with him.

So it would be no stretch to say that this is one of the darker chapters of the Bible, if not the darkest. One of the definite strengths of Aronofsky's movie is that he does not shy away from this darkness. It's clear in every frame of Noah that everyone understands the terrible price humanity must pay for God's wrath. The extermination of 99.9% of the earth's human beings is no small detail to be glossed over, though one could argue whether this movie properly dramatizes this scourge. The weight of the decision is certainly a heavy burden for the title character, who is twisted by his responsibility into someone cruel and bestial. But what does the movie think of the actual drowning of hundreds of thousands of human beings, or however many were supposed to have populated the earth ten generations after Adam and Eve?

One brief scene both showcases the awful cost, and makes a person wonder if it shouldn't have been showcased more. As (spoiler alert) Noah and his family are finally afloat in their wooden craft, they pass by the tippy top of what must have been one of the world's tallest mountains. Maybe 20 feet of it are still above the surface of the waves, and the last couple dozen human beings, other than those in the ark, are screaming and scrambling and grappling, knowing they are in the last minutes of their lives. It's both a bracing piece of physical evidence of the realities of the situation, and a teasingly distant one, as the camera never gets closer than about 100 feet from them. This is, as it were, the only on-screen consideration of the fate facing all the human beings that lived at that time, and as a result, it can't help but feel cursory, almost perfunctory.

To spend so much time discussing this one curious decision, which is simultaneously profound and dismissive, is to inevitably ignore the many other decisions Aronofsky makes that are some percentage effective and some percentage ineffective. Nearly every choice he makes can be both criticized and praised, though there are certainly some that lean one direction more than the other. What's most interesting is how this exemplifies the duality of his film. On the one hand, it is bursting with creativity, as several scenes showcase the head-trippy visual tricks that Aronofsky has made his trademark. As just one example, a recurring three-shot montage of a slithering serpent, a plucked apple and the raised rock Cain used to kill Abel is a potent echo of Aronofsky's recurring "get high" montage from Requiem for a Dream. On the other hand, though, long stretches of this film are drab and colorless, as whole minutes of the film will pass where every single thing on screen is either brown or gray. This drabness is, unfortunately, reflected in the lead performance of Russell Crowe, who delivers most of his lines with a dispassionate stoicism that would seem lazy, if it didn't seem more likely that it was a wrong-headed intentional choice by Crowe and his director.

All this said, the film does have a lot going for it prior to the flood, and some of the sheer spectacle of it gave me chills. But you shouldn't be surprised to learn that Noah also has a second head that will rear, and this is its interminable running time after what appears to be its climax. The concessions to Hollywood in this portion of the film might make a person howl.

There's a lot more I might like to say as I'm still piecing together my feelings about Noah, but in the interest of making space in this post for a second review, I need to cut it short. I will leave on the note of one definitive failing, however, which is that the movie entirely squanders one of the most interesting aspects of the Noah story: the logistical headache of housing all the world's animals together in the same vessel, no matter how vast its construction may be. In fact, the movie acts as though it might prefer not even to have animals in the story at all. They appear in the story as three big CG shots: first birds, then snakes, then every animal that travels on all fours. Once they have made their grand, albeit robotic, entrance onto the scene, they are put to sleep by magic smoke and then forgotten entirely. Unfortunately, many viewers will likely think that same magic smoke is working on them as they sit through this unwieldy, and only fitfully rewarding, epic.

The Lego Movie

After a dour 140 minutes of Noah, The Lego Movie was sure to raise my spirits, right?

Well, not at first.

In fact, the first 20 or 30 minutes of The Lego Movie struck me as a frenetic mess. I fell in stride with the movie big time as it went along, but the occasional bursts of freneticism (is that a word?) never ceased to be a problem. There's an explanation of sorts that eventually emerges to account for some of that, but at the times it was happening, my only thoughts were "Wait, what was that, and why are we where?" I suppose that's not a particularly strange way to feel if you're in a place called Cloud Cuckooland.

With all that has been written about The Lego Movie, especially since it's been out for two months in the United States, you need a plot synopsis for this movie about as much as you need a refresher on Noah and his ark. But because you could be living under a rock, I'll offer about an equal length description of the basics of The Lego Movie.

Emmett (voice of Chris Pratt) is your average construction worker living in a Lego universe -- in fact, he's defined by his very averageness. He literally follows instructions on how to live a happy life -- liking the right songs, buying the right coffee, what have you -- and they do bring him a certain comfort in a world of conformity. Only, it turns out, Emmett is so successful at being average that the people he considers his friends don't even have much of an impression of him. This changes when he stumbles into some kind of shadowy conspiracy by "master builders" to find the "piece of resistance" and prevent the evil Lord Business (a.k.a. President Business) (voice of Will Ferrell) from using this tool to destroy the world. Throw in a pretty girl (voice of Elizabeth Banks), a mystical man (voice of Morgan Freeman) and a hybrid unicorn-cat called the Unikitty (Alison Brie) and you've got the makings for quite an adventure.

It does become quite an adventure -- eventually. One of the reasons The Lego Movie is slow out of the gate is because it's so fast out of the gate. A translation of that paradox: It didn't grab me at the start because it was moving so quickly. The movie does not pause to develop its protagonist even in the slightest, and as I have come to hate the way they're writing Chris Pratt's character on Parks and Recreation, Pratt's voice wasn't winning me over to Emmett's cause either. It's hard to get into a hero's journey when you have such a fuzzy impression of that hero, and in truth, Emmett never becomes one of the movie's great strengths, even as other great strengths do start to emerge.

One such strength is the always-reliable Morgan Freeman, submitting perhaps the closest thing to a straight comedy performance he has ever given us. Playing, essentially, a Gandalf-like wizard -- which is a bit strange, since an actual Lego Gandalf and an actual Lego Dumbledore both appear later on -- Freeman displays a sublime knack for comic timing. Sure, his lines are the funniest in the film, but we can't just credit the quartet of writers for why Freeman's Vitruvius provides so many laughs. Freeman's delivery of those lines is what really kills it. In similarly spry comic form -- and also playing against type -- Liam Neeson turns in a wicked dual performance as Good Cop/Bad Cop. Both cop archetypes are present in the same Lego figurine, with his rotating yellow head literally alternating between the two faces, and Neeson leans on his native Irish accent like he is almost never asked to do. It's downright brilliant.

The difficulty of discussing The Lego Movie in as much detail as you want has to do with a "surprise reveal" with about 20 minutes left, which played a big role in how much I eventually came around on the movie. Even though Americans have now had more than two months to see it, I won't reveal that reveal here. I will say, however, that my feelings about the movie were picking up long before then, and the decision in the third act really brought it altogether.

I'll spare you extended ruminations on what this film has to say about conformity vs. individuality, and I'll also dispense with the standard amazement that a movie was able to accomplish this much when it was clearly envisioned as a way to make bank on a known commodity. Enough has been written elsewhere about this, and I don't have anything new to contribute to that dialogue. I'm also conscious of the fact that this will leave this short of feeling like a definitive review of The Lego Movie, just as my Noah review was inevitably abbreviated.

However, that also has something to do with the fact that I don't consider this the masterpiece that some people find it, so I don't need to find that new perfect way of expressing the exactness of what The Lego Movie does right. I'm just content with the fact that it ended up doing a lot more right than I originally thought it was going to do ... and that it ended a long night at the movies on a good note.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: Turbo

If I hadn't already reached a low point in my moaning about the mediocrity of most animated movies, Turbo would have brought me there at lightning speed.

Twenty thirteen was the year that each animated movie I saw was trying to be more mediocre than the one before it -- most notably with the likes of Epic, Planes and The Croods, but even to some extent with Fozen, the year's animated breakout hit. So it should come as no surprise that Turbo, another 2013 animated film churned out by Dreamworks (joining The Croods), would end up being the poster boy for animated mediocrity.

The writers of Turbo seem to have been peering over shoulders at Disney/Pixar, since Turbo is like a mashup of Cars and Planes -- even though Planes had not yet been released. It's got Cars' racing milieu and Planes' already plenty unoriginal notion of the massive underdog competing in a race for which he is ironically unqualified. That ironic underdog is Theo the snail (voice of Ryan Reynolds), who spends his days harvesting tomatoes in a San Fernando Valley garden, and his nights watching old VHS tapes of Indy Car racing great Guy Gagne (Bill Hader), who tells him that "No dream is too big, and no dreamer is too small." See, Theo wants to race in the Indianapolis 500. That's right, snails are known for being so slow that their speed is best discussed metaphorically, yet this particular snail has dreams of traveling upwards of 200 miles per hour.

This should just remain a ridiculous dream, of course, but fate creates the conditions where it could become a reality. Through a Rube Goldbergian set of circumstances, Theo finds himself suction-cupped to the body of a car about to burst from the starting line of a drag race. During this race, Theo tumbles into the car's supercharger, in what becomes his "origins of a superhero" moment. The nitrous oxide fuses with his DNA, and suddenly, Theo can shine lights from his eyes, beep like a reversing semi, and most importantly, travel at lightning speeds, leaving a trail of shimmering light wherever he goes. This is all much to the chagrin of his worrywart brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), who sees only disaster in the future of the newly rechristened "Turbo." Seeing a much different future for the mollusk, taco vendor Tito Lopez (Michael Pena) discovers the little speedster and imagines that Turbo will bring fame and customers to his fledgling restaurant. Before long, though, he's got his sights set even bigger, on the country's most famous race. A collection of Tito's neighbors and a bevy of Tito's streetwise snails will do everything they can to see Turbo race alongside, and against, his idol, Guy Gagne.

Dreamworks has often been strong on the visuals and weak on the story, and Turbo is no exception. The one thing you'd need to get right in a hero's journey story like this is to give the hero a real purpose with a solid spine. Theo/Turbo has got the purpose alright, but his character has none of the psychological underpinnings that make the audience want him to succeed. The only thing we really know about this snail is that he longs to be exceptional and has a thing for racing. He isn't trying to impress some distant father or save his garden from being turned into a parking lot -- the closest he's got is to quiet the whining of his dyspeptic brother. He's just a snail who wants to go fast, and frankly, that's not enough. Reynolds makes Turbo self-centered and driven, but not much beyond that. If you want to really root for him, good luck.

Much of the rest of the vocal cast feels either obvious or out of place. Starting with the out of place: It's not that Giamatti has never worked for a paycheck before, just that a nagging snail feels particularly beneath him, even if he does give the performance his all. The same is true for Samuel L. Jackson as the leader of Turbo's coterie of new snail racing friends. Another one slumming is Luis Guzman as Tito's brother, who fulfills the same function toward Tito as Chet fulfills toward Theo/Turbo. (And as I write this out, I'm starting to recognize that Turbo may be Dreamworks' male sibling version of the sisterly bonds at the center of Frozen -- even though that movie had not yet come out either.) Among the obvious: Snoop Dogg as one of the streetwise snails. Dreamworks is nothing if not conscious of how to expand its demographic appeal, though I should note that having the human protagonist be a pudgy Mexican feels legitimately progressive.

The photorealism of the race cars and other non-snail aspects of the environment does indeed confirm Dreamworks' position at the forefront of animated technology. There are times when you might pause and wonder if the snails have been inserted into an actual live-action film. It's just a shame that Dreamworks still under-budgets in one crucial area: its screenwriting. Until Dreamworks can find someone capable of telling a truly sublime story, no amount of technological advancements will help it win any race.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Touchy Feely

Just a couple more weeks of reviewing every new movie I see as part of my Movie Diet, which you know about by now, so I will no longer link to it.

My adoration for the work of director Lynn Shelton knows no bounds. Granted, prior to last week I had only seen two of her movies, but my affection for those two movies is through the roof. I ranked her film Humpday among my top 15 of 2009, and would rank it higher if I were making those rankings today. And I really went crazy for her 2012 film Your Sister's Sister, as only one other film ranked higher at year's end. That one was probably a bit too bullish, but the two movies average out to a couple of pretty captivating sits.

Now that I've seen Touchy Feely, I'll modify that opening statement: My adoration for the work of director Lynn Shelton knew no bounds, but now some bounds have been put in place. Which doesn't mean her unheralded 2013 film, which largely seemed to escape notice, isn't valuable enough to earn a modest recommendation.

Shelton is pretty high-concept as far as filmmakers who came out of the mumblecore movement are concerned, and Touchy Feely is no different. In a bit of irony that would seem pretty contrived if it weren't being handled in such an independent manner, Touchy Feely concerns a massage therapist (Rosemarie DeWitt, star of Your Sister's Sister) who suddenly stops being able to touch other people without a sense of revulsion. This psychological threat to her means of making an income is in some way a manifestation of the increasing seriousness of her relationship with her boyfriend, Jesse (Scoot McNairy). Abby's uptight dentist brother, Paul (Josh Pais), is having the reverse sort of phenomenon occur: he suddenly discovers he has the ability to magically cure headaches that are caused by his patients grinding their teeth, an ability that's cultivated by a new age healer (Allison Janney). However, what Paul can't recognize is that his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) needs to forge her own way in the world instead of continue to apprentice in his dental practice.

The title of Shelton's film is darn near cheeky, which may prepare the viewer for something light and whimsical. This is perhaps only Shelton's first of several misdirections in the film, none of them intentional and none of them particularly effective. However, this isn't to say there's no truth in the meaning of her title: The film ends up being touchy feely in a way that's not so cheeky, nor so great, as it wades into some rather squishy emotions in a rather humorless fashion. In fact, Touchy Feely finds Shelton taking further steps away from the kind of naturalism that came so effortlessly in her films that bore more of the hallmarks of mumblecore, notably Humpday. It's not that Shelton has not dealt with frail human emotions before, because in all of her films she has. It's that they have taken on kind of an ethereal, stylized aspect that does not entirely work here. In fact, moments of Touchy Feely remind one of a Miranda July film, except without July's distinct oddball charm that keeps her films from feeling oppressive.

I suppose one of the things that makes Touchy Feely so odd is another way it incorporates the meaning of the title, which is that two characters take ecstasy. Ecstasy is a drug known for the way it breaks down a person's normal inhibitions, especially as it comes to personal space and expressing one's feelings of affection toward others -- even if that affection is entirely chemically-induced. However, ecstasy has most often been used in the movies in a purely comedic manner, as a character gets accidentally dosed and acts out all the symptoms of an ecstasy trip in ways with which we are all, by now, exhaustingly familiar. To its credit, Touchy Feely does not use the drug in that fashion, but the way it does use it is strange enough that it cancels out the benefits of not being cliched. Put simply, for both characters, ecstasy functions as a medicinal means of psychologically unblocking them, in a purely positive manner that almost seems naive. It's not that a movie has a responsibility to take a parental stance toward the drug, though Touchy Feely does have some gestures in that direction as well. It's that by creating unambiguously positive outcomes for both the characters who take the drug, it seems to be aligning itself with a number of idealistic rave movies that came out when the drug was first entering a new phase of mainstream popularity, such as Greg Harrison's Groove. As a result, Shelton's movie feels a bit turn-of-the-century, and dare I say it, immature.

Fortunately, this odd character piece, composed of largely ill-fitting parts, is buoyed by the maturity of its performers. Two in particular truly shine. DeWitt proves her magnificence in nearly every movie she's in, and she handles this character's potentially unenviable journey with true grace. The massage therapist who hates touching people is almost set up to be a joke, but DeWitt doesn't allow anything about her performance to approach the camp that could have characterized the role if she had let it. The true find here, though, is Page, who plays a character perhaps more different from the one that made her famous (Juno MacGuff) than any she's ever played. There's no whip-smart buoyancy to this character, the dentist's daughter -- there's just melancholy and longing. Those emotions could be one-note, of course, but Page brings a soulful dimension to them, especially killing it in one scene where she confesses a crush she knows will not be reciprocated. The little nuances of her speech and facial expressions in this scene are simply stunning.

Not everyone fares as well as these two, though. Josh Pais is stiffer, a lot stiffer, even than the character is meant to be. In fact, given his lack of career heat relative to the others who appear here, I was struck by the feeling that he didn't belong in this group, and must have been cast as a favor. Pais does improve a little as the movie wears on -- so I guess we have the ecstasy to thank for that as well.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Windows of opportunity

Four-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a post on this blog called "Where's my Pompeii movie?"

Two weeks ago, that movie came out (in the country where I live, at least).

Two weeks after that, it's playing only in Chadstone.


I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't know it, but I don't know it either, and I actually live in this country. Turns out, it's about 70 miles north of Melbourne. I don't know what that is in kilometers.

So much for seeing that one in the theater.

Sure, I'd heard that it probably wasn't all that great, something I could have likely predicted considering that it's directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, the lesser Paul Anderson, who has to his credit such classics as Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon, Alien vs. Predator, and three of the five Resident Evils. It was never likely that he'd have made the Pompeii movie I wanted.

Still, my sheer desire to see a volcano destroy an ancient city on film, using the latest and greatest in visual effects, had me certain I would make a cinematic pilgrimage to see Pompeii when it was released.

Unfortunately, when it was released was only a week after I started my new job. Only two weeks after that, it's only playing in ... Chadstone.

Seems kind of a shame, because the last time I had a good opportunity to go to the theater, there was really nothing out I wanted to see. That's how I ended up seeing a Liam Neeson movie on Tuesday, March 11th. It was a Liam Neeson movie I ended up kind of liking, but just two weeks later it would have been sixth or seventh on my list of priorities.

Now that I'm finally getting my next chance to go to the movies, nearly a month later this Monday or Tuesday night (I've got my choice), the list is much longer. I can (and might) see anything among the following: Noah, The Lego Movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Nymphomaniac, Volumes 1 and 2, which are playing together in a four-hour block (for only a single admission price?) at Cinema Nova. (Okay, that last one is not a realistic contender, despite my definite interest in seeing it.) By next Thursday you can add The Grand Budapest Hotel to that list.

The thing is, what I would have seen, in all likelihood, was Pompeii, simply because I'll still have a couple more weeks to see those other movies. I guess I sensed on some level that Pompeii might be moving quickly, and I needed to catch it now or never.

I guess it's never. Because I ain't going to Chadstone. Even if I did have a car, with the outrageous price of petrol (yes, I said petrol) in Australia, no one would even consider driving 70 miles just to see a movie. Especially not a Paul W.S. Anderson movie.

Of course, "never" is not really never. I will definitely see this movie on video. Where the only possible thing it could have going for it -- a city being laid to waste in glorious, 21st century FX -- will be small and ineffectual.

So where is my Pompeii movie?

It's in Chadstone, on the other side of a window of opportunity that has now closed.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

You never go full happy

You may recall a certain Ben Stiller-directed movie from a couple years ago about a certain war movie being filmed somewhere in Southeast Asia and a certain British actor wearing blackface (played by a certain popular American actor who usually has iron over his face) who has a certain controversial line of dialogue about going "full retard." His advice is that you should never do it, if you want to win an Oscar.

Similarly, if you want to avoid your movie being accused of having too happy of an ending, you should never go "full happy."

Powder Blue, an overstretched little Los Angeles hyperlink movie from 2009, may seem like a strange example to use of this phenomenon, but it just so happens that watching it is when these thoughts about "fully happy" occurred to me.

Although I hardly think it important not to spoil the ending of a movie whose main claim to fame is that Jessica Biel goes topless (twice), I'll remain vague for those of you out there who might care.

The movie ends with two characters sitting on benches about 100 yards from each other, noticing the other and smiling. These are the two characters who the story means to end up together from about its halfway point (after one of the characters has been missing from the plot for a good half-hour). It's pretty clear that this will ultimately happen, and in that moment where they notice each other on the benches (one is a bus stop), I thought "Okay, this is a good place to end this movie." Didn't mean it would suddenly become a great movie, but it held the possibility of ending things in a graceful manner.

Uh uh. The characters have to cross to each other and have one of those epic kisses, one that's so epic that the camera's only option is to pull out to about a thousand feet away before going to the credits.

See? "Full happy."

What struck me about this is that it seems kind of unusual these days, at least in movies that are trying to be independent and thought-provoking. Powder Blue is definitely trying to do both, and mostly failing.

Movies that want to have it both ways -- shoot for realism, but also leave the viewer feeling happy -- have figured out plenty of ways to suggest a happy ending without turning that ending into a 100% certainty. Let's take a prominent example from this past year: Her. I'm sorry if you haven't seen Her yet, and I'm sorry if you thought that the ending would be depressing or bleak. You can consider this a spoiler alert if you fit into either category.

Her, another Los Angeles story, ends with its intended new lovebirds (played by Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams) sitting together on a rooftop, looking out contemplatively over the city. Each has recently become available, and the story has made it clear that the two have been inching towards each other for some time, ready to finally find a fully satisfying relationship in each others' arms. (Because, you know, an operating system tends not to have arms.)

Spike Jonze doesn't have to have Phoenix and Adams lean in for a kiss to indicate that there will probably be kisses in their future. It's enough to know that they have found each other, on this rooftop, and that we can trust them to take it from here.

This is of course just one example, not nearly the best nor most prominent (though probably one of the most recent). It's a happy ending without being a HAPPY ENDING.

A shrewd filmmaker should trust us enough to leave us merely with hope. Hope leaves that kiss up to our imagination. It also leaves us with the possibility that it won't work out, if we want to read the ending that way. Few movies have it both ways better than the ending of a movie that bears some high-concept romantic similarities to Her, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Of course, neither is Powder Blue the most prominent example of a "full happy" ending, though it's definitely the most recent, at least for me, as I just saw it last night. Ending with just an exchange of smiles and knowing glances from benches across the street would not have made Powder Blue a good movie, but it would have made it a better one.

I suppose my real reason for writing this post is that I promised I would write a review of every new movie I'm seeing until the end of April, and since I can't really write two posts about a movie as insignificant as Powder Blue, this post lets me off the hook for writing that review. You see, one of the problems about this "review everything" approach to blogging is that if I allow myself to become imprisoned by my self-imposed guidelines, I stop writing posts about movie phenomena that are inspired by the things I see, because they don't fit neatly into the type of package that reviews force them into. I thought about the "full happy" ending while watching Powder Blue, so I want Powder Blue to by my news peg for writing that post, gosh darn it.

And that, my friends, is my own little happy ending for today.