Screening Log: November 1st-15th


320. Buck (2011, Meehl): C


322. Love Crime (2011, Corneau): B+/B



322. Sleeping Beauty (2011, Leigh): B-/C+


323. Retreat (2011, Tibbets): B-

324. Thor (2011, Branagh): C


325. Melancholia (2011, von Trier): A/A-

326. Tabloid (2011, Morris): A-/B+


327. J. Edgar (2011, Eastwood): D


328. Cold Fish (2011, Sion): C+

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Review: J. Edgar (2011, Eastwood)


Is it possible to, knowing a film cannot sum up a historical figure’s life, make enough of an artistic impression through layered dramatic representation to make a reductive but meaningful impact? Biopics are sticky material to work with, but with an understanding of creative license and severe necessary truncation, great films can come out of the form. On the other hand, disaster is sometimes inevitable, making the notion of Hollywood’s attempts to portray significant figures through the medium a joke to historians, film buffs and the general public. J. Edgar is an example where the industry comes off as children adorably attempting to write literature. This is an out-and-out turkey that fails to establish a modicum of interest, with some of the most amateurish filmic devices on display in recent memory. It is a bloated, empty, hollow bullet-point presentation with nothing to offer.

Where to begin? Dustin Lance Black’s (who penned Gus van Sant’s Milk) first-draft-like script is a travesty to behold. Every element is transparent beginners work. The framing device is forced, as Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) strains to secure his legacy by telling his story to many biographers and thus the audience. While we’re at it, let’s throw in some clumsy unreliable narrator gobbledygook. Yeah; that’s clever! We are subjected to seemingly endless voiceover narration and a major percentage of dialogue that purely serves as exposition. To boot, there is nothing to make us understand Hoover’s accomplishments and cruxes beyond information being meaninglessly thrown at us ad nauseum. Character flaws, themes and historical significance airily float around but never reach anything resembling gestation. To sum up; Hoover cherishes loyalty, presentation and efficiency, is severely repressed and has mommy issues that plague him throughout life. His actions are morally questionable; he is paranoid and has no problem hypocritically breaching privacy to feverishly protect his principles. He never really stopped being a child; there is your film.

All of this is displayed in a simultaneously hammered and hazy fashion. J. Edgar is all tell and zero show. How do we know Hoover cherishes loyalty? He tells us multiple times! How do we know his actions are morally questionable? In case we cannot discern this on our own, he is lectured at constantly by Clyde (Armie Hammer) and Miss Gandy (Naomi Watts) at every turn saying something to the effect of “Isn’t this illegal?” It pinpoints these focuses, boils them down to parodic simplicity and throws them at us again and again and again.

No momentum is built with the heavily episodic non-linear structure. A scene occurs, dialogue is said, things happen (or as is more the case, things are explained to us), either speechifying or sympathetic repressive moment ensues and we move on to another similar instance. Instead of linking together ideas and facets, headlines and factoids are played out with the depth of, well….headlines and factoids. That well-known presumption that Hoover dressed in drag culminates in a scene where he dresses in his mother’s clothes. Nothing is done with it; it is shown for its cliff notes impact as if to say, ‘see, we didn’t forget about the cross-dressing rumors’.

Eastwood and Black have no idea how to cover this man’s life. He has ideas but they just sit there, never going past basic existence. It plays out like a bland, astronomically reductive and uninformative history lesson that could have been better summarized with a paragraph of text in an outdated elementary-school history textbook.

The quality of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is questionable. Sure, he is a dedicated performer and he tries his utmost to bring something to the material. But he is an amalgam of accents, speech patterns, speechifying and broad characterization. He uses those beady eyes that desperately cry out from within to good effect (he does get in some nice moments), but this is a performance that very much screams ‘acting’! There is not one moment that goes by where I became lost in the performance; it always registers as a failed ambitious showcase. One cannot help but feel the Oscar clambering going on by not just the film, but from DiCaprio in particular.

Collectively, the acting feels like kids playing dress-up and at times can be a little pathetic to witness. Naomi Watts is fine but wasted as longtime assistant Miss Helen Gandy whose character is present only because of her loyalty to Hoover. There’s that loyalty again. She appears in every other scene so Hoover can say ‘Miss Gandy’ for the three-hundredth time. In one scene he calls her Helen in an obvious indication that this is an important moment, so pay attention everyone.

Armie Hammer is the only one whose character comes through as professional and personal companion Clyde Tolson. His earnest unyielding devotion injects actual feeling into this story. He is even able to shine through at times through his embarrassing old-age makeup.  Through no fault of his own, it is so poorly caked on it evokes the sorry display that is Joseph Cotton’s stiff grumbling elder Jedediah in Citizen Kane. And yet he falls into stagy theatrics during moments that threaten to undo any resonance he may have.

Even technically, J. Edgar falls short. Eastwood’s phoned-in monochromatic aesthetic only contributes to the flat line effect of the entire picture.  The look is devoid of sensation or memorability. Eastwood’s score is also typically sparse; it becomes funny just how dully on cue those sluggish notes are. Oh, and the film takes itself more seriously than Hoover himself likely did, which is saying something.

What more can be said about this lumbering bore? J. Edgar is a total failure to the point where is offends me for existing. Likely too harsh for some, I just could not abide by its inflated self-importance and unashamed bastardization of history. It is two-and-a-half hours of Eastwood making excuses for the central figure. Certain scenes verge into laughable territory, particularly Hoover’s interactions with Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) which are painful. This monotonous slog egregiously insists on telling and not showing through its overly serious gravity, slopped on characterization, rickety structure and palm face inducing transparency. Some have been able to find things to like about this film; as much as I wanted to, there was nothing here for me to grasp onto in a positive way. It desperately claws at the walls for relevance with absolutely no groundwork to do so. There will be others who can more specifically and analytically dissect where J. Edgar goes wrong; I am not the person for that job. But if someone could point me in the direction to a lauded biography of the man, I would be much obliged.

Review: Retreat (2011, Tibbets)


IMDB summary: Kate (Thandie Newton) and Martin (Cillian Murphy) escape from personal tragedy to an Island Retreat. Cut off from the outside world, their attempts to recover are shattered when a Man (Jamie Bell) is washed ashore, with news of airborne killer disease that is sweeping through Europe.

An unexceptional chamber-piece thriller that never firmly realizes its inspired concept, Retreat falls short of its promise. In the too little, too late department, it takes a smart curve in its last twenty minutes that hooks with its dire connotations.

The actors here each bring their talent to the table, although I admit that this would have been much more engaging with older thespians Jason Issacs and David Tennant in the male leads, as was originally intended. Sadly, the three actors are servicing a screenplay that cheats the potential of its conceit, but they do a lot with flimsy conflicts and underwritten roles.

Most of the film hinges on the question of whether or not Jamie Bell’s character Jack is telling the truth; is there a virus wiping out the population? Must they border themselves up in their isolated former dream cottage, entirely shut out from communicating and confirming the information given to them from this sketchy lone source? Using the perspective of Murphy and Newton, their ignorance persuasively causes their all-too conscious confinement by their cottage construct that previously gave them comfort in the early days of their marriage. That’s a lot of C’s. They are being held in by a place where the cut off location was once considered a winning factor.

But getting back to the matter-at-hand, the question of whether or not Bell is telling the truth never becomes a question for us. Even if one hasn’t seen the trailer, it is immediately clear that Bell is steeped in deception. Retreat would be much more varied and potent had Jack been first presented with less menace and more affable but desperate victim. Then, his threatening nature would show itself as the film progresses before shifting into the finale, which presents information that very much changes how we view Jack and his actions up until that point. This way, there would have been three different modes and functions for Bell’s character. Instead, his immediate menace cements itself into a tired dynamic between the three characters, too redundant to take us anywhere interesting. Would it have duped the audience into believing Jack is telling the truth? Probably not, but Retreat, and all films, need to be able to make the ride interesting despite what the audience may or may not know from a basic plot synopsis or trailer.

Martin and Kate’s marriage is, you guessed it, on-the-rocks, in a flat-out weak subplot that is meant to intermittently mesh with the primary conflict. It takes appropriate time to establish their interplay, which chugs along with internal domestic strife. It plays like a first-draft set-up by screenwriters Janice Hallett and Carl Tibbets, done out of first-act obligation. Do we care? No. Does it matter? No. Desperately keeping the couple’s turmoil afloat, Jack throws out insinuations that question Martin’s manhood and dominance within his marriage. This is Straw Dogs-lite kind of stuff; a tired manhood-ridden retread that goes nowhere and helps throw Newton’s character and performance into a cycle of implore, complain, attempt action and cry. Rinse and repeat.

Retreat is competently made by first-time director Tibbets and assuredly shot, taking advantage of the gorgeous Wales setting. It garners strong work from Bell and Murphy who do more than many actors would be able to with these roles, reminding us they are dependable sources of quality work. This is an example of a film I would want to be remade in twenty or thirty years. This could be a spellbinder one day if someone can extract and refine the ideas that are there. For now, we will have to settle for this average outing.

 

Review: Melancholia (2011, von Trier)


This review does contain spoilers

It may seem contradictory to say that Lars von Trier’s end-of-the world opus is the director as his most peaceful and life-affirming; but it is. This isn’t to say that Melancholia is sunshine and rainbows; just look at the title and basic plot synopsis. But this is the Danish auteur reaching out and making a human connection with his audience as much as he likely ever will. It is a meditative exploration of the unexpectedly dichotomous nature (and the ways the two converge) between depression that renders one immobile in life, and having to face that which we will all eventually come to meet; death.

The film is split into two equal parts, both of which take place at a remote castle. The first part, titled Justine after Kirsten Dunst’s troubled character, illustrates the night of her wedding reception. The second part is titled after Justine’s sister Claire as played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. It also takes place at the castle, during the five days before the planet Melancholia’s supposed fly-by passing. Claire becomes convinced the planet will collide with our own while Justine, who is visiting due to her debilitating state of depression, remains indifferent by the idea of human existence coming to an end.

The first part, Justine’s wedding, is not concerned with the apocalypse at all but with the bride’s gradual and inescapable slide into what are obviously long standing depressive habits. Von Trier and Dunst are unapologetic in their collaborative exploration of depression which stands as one of the most realistic and honest looks at the condition I have ever seen.

She starts out apparently effervescent on her way to her wedding reception. She is married to Michael, her hapless and misguidedly devoted husband (Alexander Skarsgaard). They share some amusing moments as their limousine has great difficulties making it up a hill on the way to the castle. As the wedding progresses, we get some wonderfully odd-ball humor (including the genius casting of Udo Kier as a wedding planner), these minute absurdist moments that hint at dense and complex family histories. We come to see she is nearly surrounded by toxicity in both her family and work.

This is not used as an explanation for Justine’s depression; that none is really given is what the film so resonantly depicts about the illness. When you suffer from depression, there is often no direct cause for that state of mind. The film refuses to explain Justine’s actions or mood swings and that is what strikes true about it. She is monumentally dragged down by mere factual existence and the necessity required by living. Hell, it renders her damn near immobile. As the film progresses, we realize that her radiance at the film’s start is far from the norm for her. Eventually, it becomes a wonder that we ever saw her smiling in the first place.

Justine’s regroup efforts as the night progresses are futile and account to mere moments of barely pulling herself together for a forced smile or any sustained human interaction. Her efforts manifest themselves in moments of fierce agency, cruel neglect or hushed unsuccessful cries for help to both her parents (a caustic Charlotte Rampling and a gleefully vapid John Hurt). Dunst and Trier, both having first-hand experience with depression, make painstaking connections with Justine that culminate in an uncompromising understanding and loyalty to her. They are unwilling to cater to standard cause-and-effect rules of characterization or to apologize for the frustration and lack of sympathy she can elicit.  For those of us who know what bouts of depression are like, this reveals it in all of its extreme truths and ugliness. Von Trier’s previous film Antichrist was made as he went through a severe depression, and no matter what one thinks of that work, looking at Melancholia in the context of a follow-up to his previous film will make for worthwhile discourse someday. In fact, it seems like an entirely essential context to have going into the film.

Von Trier further illuminates the main focuses from his first half by carrying it through the second. Juxtaposed are Justine’s now barely functional self (and the theme of depression) against Claire’s increasingly fragile state as her very correct fear of doomsday approaches (the theme of approaching death).

Even though Claire’s very relatable state-of-mind headlines the second half, it is more focused on the ways that Justine, Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) come to terms (or don’t) with death as it considers humanity’s various approaches to our ultimate fate. Justine is indifferent and entirely okay with Earth being extinguished. She is more than capable of handling oncoming death; life is her weakness. She remains calm in the face of expulsion, as the roles between her and Claire reverse by the end; Claire is dependent on Justine for support and Justine becomes her protector in their final moments. Claire is anxious but keeps a stiff upper lip for her husband and son as well as taking care of Justine. Once the disaster is confirmed, Claire desperately seeks escape but it is useless; she faces death with heaving sobs of fright. Her character’s journey is the one that audiences will most relate to; she provides the emotional core of the film.

Then we have poor denial ridden John. John is going the rational route, citing scientists’ claims as well as his own observations as an astronomy enthusiast, that Melancholia will simply fly-by. He is excited for the event, and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of unique beauty that it offers. On the side, John starts to stock up on some supplies. He slowly becomes privy to the direness of the situation at hand and chooses to handle it with yet another possible human response to knowing of one’s own end.

Lars von Trier is hyperaware of the pointlessness of it all and he deals with Armageddon in a similarly matter-of-fact way. There is no silver lining here. But he does give Justine an essential transformative moment in its final scenes that signify a kind of catharsis on von Trier’s part through Dunst’s character. She is unable to muster together any kind of catering sympathy for Claire who needs consoling to the umpteenth degree. The world is going to end. She is upset. Her son will not get to grow up. Everything will end. But Justine spews nihilism at Claire, mocking her final wish to ritualize their deaths through being together on the patio and holding hands (amusingly enough, I cannot remember if the latter was Claire’s suggestion or Justine’s mocking).

Throughout the film, Justine actively seeks out Claire’s son Leo (Cameron Spurr) who she has a connection with (Leo does the same in seeking her out in separate moments). Their moments together earlier in the film set up Justine’s selfless act. She pulls it together in their final moments on Earth, facilitating the illusion of a protective magic cave for Leo as they use sticks to build their haven. Justine’s empathy extends even to Claire and their symbolic cave functions as the ritual that Claire so badly needed (though she is still a wreck as the end arrives). At the very end of the film, Justine looks at Claire in a way that shows an appreciation on Justine’s part for her sister, for being with her at the end and a coming-to-terms with life, death, and everything in between. It shows she is capable of emotion that she never expected to have. For as great as Dunst is in this film, and believe that she is as great as everyone says, these final moments are her best work to date. There is so much happening there on the inner workings of her face, so much being said in her looks, that they serve as the film’s climax rather than the physical destruction surrounding them as Melancholia collides with Earth.

There is an opening montage that serves as a sort of ‘greatest hits’ of what is to come. Moments are captured in time using the ultra-slow-motion method that similarly opens Antichrist. Some of these moments we see, some we do not and some never happen but are representational of something a character describes or sees. Right off the bat we are sucked in by these shots that function as beauty incarnate and as the visual tapestry of what this film is getting at.

Also notable is the distinct sense of place that will be immediately recallable as time goes by. Instead of taking the typical broad approach to depicting disaster via widening scope, Melancholia’s world is within one castle in its entire Baroque, romantic and otherworldly glory. Using Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde prelude for the music is perfect; it gives everything an appropriately pastoral quality and a peripheral imprint of something coming that cannot be pushed back. It is not overly present, but it is a quality in the music that is just enough for the pastoral purity to be ruffled. There is an utter lack of technology to be found. Outside of Claire stumbling onto an archaic looking website that charts out Melancholia’s ‘Dance of Death’, nobody is glued to their TV sets, frantically looking online for updates, listening to the radio or even making phone calls to loved ones. Von Trier goes entirely against the grain here by pushing out the use of news footage and technology in relation to a cataclysmic event. We hear about what scientists are saying, not because of any communal anxiety we see, but through John’s word-of-mouth dialogue. Though John has a telescope, the primary tool Claire uses to see if the planet is moving farther or closer to Earth is a simple handmade device that John and Leo made together. Finally to top off the distinct sense of place, the remarkable cinematography by fellow Danish filmmaker Christoffer Boe’s regular DP Manuel Alberto Claro utilizes hand-held camera and alternates close-ups with a distant eye to magnificent effect.

Melancholia is one of those films that successfully fulfill their ambitions in dealing with profound and fundamental subject matter on a grand level of intellectual-based intuition. You come away with, yes lots to talk about, but just as importantly, a feeling that a filmmaker has come upon something almost indescribable that gets at how we experience life, death and what it all means (or ultimately doesn’t mean). Synecdoche, New York is one of these films. This year’s The Tree of Life is another. Some might call these films pretentious but this is reductive and dismissive. Lars von Trier’s latest film is his most accessible, but is no less thought-provoking. In fact, if there is one film that will temporarily win over his detractors, it would be this one. It takes us through the cathartic process of grieving mankind with a scrutinizing look at depression, death, acceptance and world annihilation with an uncharacteristically humanistic eye.

Worst Blu-Ray Covers: Case File #2 – The Hunt for Red October


A continuing commentary on my Top 25 Worst Blu-Ray Covers list from April of this year.

Let’s get this going again. Covering the worst in desecration against iconic posterdom in favor for tacky photoshop splatter for the ages, we turn our attention to 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. It continues to boggle the mind how decisions like this are made. Do the distributors actually think that changing 20-year old poster cover art is going to make more people buy their product? Usually the worst Blu-Ray covers work on two levels. First, they abruptly move away from imagery that has over the years become eternally entwined with the work itself. Second, they always replace this icongraphy with something ghastly. Case in point; The Hunt for Red October, which features a poster that one could instantly recognize from across the room:

I think we can all agree on that point. Now, look what at the end result of the Blu-Ray cover art:


The primary reason I can think for doing this is Alec Baldwin’s fame in pop-culture as of late. The original poster does not allow his omnipresence to extend forth. I cannot help but think a lot of these cover-art transformations are change for the sake of it. You know what this reminds me of…..?


There may be differences in what is taking place in the bottom half, but it immediately brought this drivel to mind and for that, it’s got another point against it. What do you think? Bad, but maybe not one of the worst? Okay with the change? Share your thoughts!

Review: The Skin I Live In (2011, Almodovar)


Pedro Almodóvar made a horror film? Oh the possibilities! Well, apparently not. The Skin I Live In feels like any other Almodóvar film, which is always a great thing, but in this case is also a bad thing, and it culminates as a missed opportunity. You can expect all the delicious goodies that one of his outings has to offer; a film entirely dependent on melodrama complete with plot twists, interweaving storylines, time jumps, stylish pop-infused décor, lustful sexual exploits and themes of obsession, desire, fate and identity. It is all there in spades. This work may be able to shed the absolutely inconsequential Broken Embraces, but it does not quite qualify as top-tier Almodóvar by any means.

I fully admit I may just hold the director up to the impossible standards that he has set for himself. That he accomplished one of the great directorial streaks in film history with All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education  and Volver can account for that. Hell, I would even throw 1997’s Live Flesh into that streak, his most underrated output. The Skin I Live In is a largely missed opportunity, where the groundwork for a great film lays (and certainly pops up from time to time within the finished product), but it never reaches that level of success we come to expect from him.

A review for this is nearly impossible without going into spoilers, and indeed an insightful dive into the inner workings of the picture will be largely avoided in reviews marking its theatrical release (including mine). When enough time passes to be able to really get into the thick of it, the meaningful analysis of the film will really come into play. For now, reviews can only be vague. This will sound like a largely negative review when it is not meant to be. This is because what I loved about the film almost entirely involves a reveal that radically alters audience perspective. I will not be divulging it here, but it is the resulting thematic implications that make up my admiration.

The basic plot involves an innovative plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) who has a kept woman (Elena Cruz) in his house against her will. The audience enters this situation in media res, of what looks like a dynamic that is years into its existence. The film starts out vague and eventually falls into a flashback which explains the circumstances of the why, when and how it all came to be.

A big reason the unmentioned reveal works, despite being able to figure it out before its disclosure, is because it lends some much needed layers to the proceedings. The first third is meant litter the audience with questions; to hook us into wanting to know what is going on, and how this situation that has clearly been normalized by the characters, came to be. That element of intrigue never grows organically out of these scenes and they misuse critical time that could have been spent truly grabbing the audience and establishing meaningful characterization. With that, the film gets off to a rickety start.

An example of a scene that does not do what it could is a set-piece that takes place about half an hour in. Marisa Paredes plays a shady matriarchal figure (in what could have been a much juicier role for one of the filmmaker’s great regulars) whose son Zeca (Roberto Alamo) pays her an unexpected visit. Without giving anything away, the way this scene plays out should have slowly ratcheted suspense before giving way to the set-up’s conclusion. It could have had the audience on the edge of their seats akin to the opening scene inInglourious Basterds (not to insist that the set-piece should have been exactly like that, but it provides an example of a situation that slowly reveals itself simultaneously to the audience and characters and finds suspense through that alliance). Instead, the scene, while interesting, just sort of plays out without reaching that sense of suspense that it clearly means to have.

Another major factor of disappointment is the way it essentially wastes former male muse Antonio Banderas. Granted, to see him back in action with the Spanish director that helped catapult his career back in the day is an unbridled joy. Banderas was always usually given darker characters to play in their collaborations and this case is no different. The actor does a wonderful job with what he is given to work with, but unfortunately it is not much. His character somehow gets lost amidst everything and we never get a sense of him. His actions suggest some potentially incredible characterization but the filmmaker never goes there. Banderas’ more than capable star presence is depended upon too much to carry his character through.

If only Pedro Almodóvar had stepped outside of his comfort zone a bit. His aesthetic will always be a feast for the eyes and will more than carry its weight in worth and skill. But there is a twinge of sadness that he did not branch out even slightly within the horror territory. In fact, The Skin I Live In hardly even feels like a horror film. For some this will be a great thing, showcasing how he can make any kind of material his own. That is fine, and without having hoped for something too dissimilar, I still was optimistic for a fusion between melodrama and horror that does not exist here.

There is a lot to admire here, and even a disappointing film by this director is more than worth seeing. Elena Anaya as Vera Cruz give a smashing performance in a really difficult part as she emotes through her self-consciously porcelain beauty. The sharp use of strings in Albert Iglesias’ score is perfection and perfectly in tone with the film. He uses a different sound that evokes “Twin Peaks” during a fabulous scene featuring windy back roads (this is the music used in the trailers). The way Almodóvar uses nudity and sexual assault are unprecedentedly remarkable. It is thematically rich and on that level has a lot going on and does not disappoint. It is sprinkled with greatness throughout despite missing the mark as a whole.

In many ways, it demands one sees it twice. A film should be able to carry its weighty impact on a first viewing, but it almost feels like there cannot be a true assessment on general thoughts without seeing it again. In fact, it is probable that the film would mean more if one knows what is going on and I fully acknowledge that.

Despite its misgivings, the film holds throughout, goes to some pretty fantastically implicit territory and features the filmmakers’ reliable skill level. A lot of expectation comes with a Pedro Almodóvar film and he falls short here of creating a great work, though inklings of it can be seen. Ultimately The Skin I Live In feels somewhat hollow; too obsessed with surface beauty to get under the skin of the title, and into the meat of things.

Screening Log: October 16th-October 31st


304. The Vanishing (1988, Sluizer): A-/B+

305. Day of the Dead (1985, Romero): B


306. Dressed to Kill (1980, De Palma): C+


307. Funny Games (1997, Haneke): B


308. The Company of Wolves (1984, Jordan): B+/B


309. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976, Sole): A-/B+


310. Mask of Fu Manchu (1932, Brabin): C-


311. The Woman (2011, McKee): C


312. Doctor X (1932, Curtiz): C+


313. Take Shelter (2011, Nichols): A


314. The Last Circus (2011, de la Iglesia): A-/B+


315. Svengali (1931, Mayo): B-


316. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970, Argento): B


317. Broken Embraces (2009, Almodovar): C+/C


318. The Skin I Live In (2011, Almodovar): B-


319. Ringu (1998, Nakata): B+/B