Monday, January 31, 2011

Under 250: The Last Exorcism

When The Last Exorcism managed to snag a couple Independent Spirit award nominations, I thought it might be worth a look.  This was, of course, against some nagging better judgment that insisted it would amount to nothing more than another handicam faux-documentary, Blair Witch style take on the supernatural.  That nagging better judgment was correct.  The Last Exorcism has little new to offer in the demonic possession genre.  Its only novelty may be its cynical approach.  Patrick Fabian stars as a reverend cashing in on the beliefs of others, performing exorcisms he knows to be frauds (with pimped out supplies to aid him with the special effects) on those so strong of spirit they'll buy into anything.  Then, you know, he encounters a strange backwoods family with a daughter who may or may not be suffering the real deal.  Last Exorcism gives psychosis vs. possession a fair shot, and has another of those fun, abrupt, horror film endings.  The reality is, however, that it's really just another result of the Paranormal Activity boom. Cheap movie, cheap thrills, nothing new to offer.  Devil films are the most fun when they get the atmosphere right, when the filmmaker gives the movie some style.  This is a bare-bones, weak attempt at 'reality' chills.  It steals a little bit from "Young Goodman Brown" and a lot from every other cinematic go at the genre.  Ultimately?  It's not good, not bad, not scary, just meh.  







Under 250: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Sometimes, a documentary comes along that actually manages to show you a subject you thought you knew and dismantle it before your very eyes.  Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is one such doc.  Where lurid tabloid drivel was rendered boring in I'm Still Here, with Joan Rivers we're given a tragicomic, utterly fascinating portrait of a seriously self-made woman.  Too recognized now for her excessive plastic surgery and red carpet hosting gigs, the filmmakers here have (to use a tired jumble of cliches) stripped Rivers of her garish face paint and gained exclusive access to the tears and kvetching laments of a clown.  What we're shown is a showbiz archetype, a hard-working figure who is ever-persistent in her battle to remain relevant, to keep her name in the press, and to never fade into obscurity or be the willing victim of a poorly timed punchline.  She's vulgar, vulnerable, and tough as nails; a quick witted force to be reckoned with a rigid work ethic that will command your respect whether you like her or not.  Joan Rivers taps into the human side of celebrity, and while the reality is a touch on the sad side, Rivers absolutely does not want your pity.


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Under 250: Enter the Void

Gaspar Noe leaps headfirst into another semi-philosophical, overtly gratuitous, relatively pretentious, visually inventive, occasionally redundant bad trip.  Is it more palatable than Irreversible?  Oh, very much so.  Enter the Void is an oddly cohesive psychological bender of the spiritual, the biological, and the hallucinogenic.  The film takes on that whole 'circle of life' thing, giving us a camera behind the eyes of a young American drug dealer holed up in Tokyo with his stripper sister (the forever nude, forever wasted Paz de la Huerta) who is killed early in the film.  That's not a spoiler, as Enter the Void is the type of film that doesn't rely on plot points.  Enter the Void is, as the title suggests, about the experience.    As our protagonist becomes nothing but the floating, traveling eye of the camera, the pieces of his life are not so much told as slowly unfolded in long takes and sporadic, temporally jumpy bits and pieces.  While Noe spends insanely large chunks of time on little more than flashing lights, bathroom floors, or sex scenes of little consequence; the message is a logical one, and the film works.  While there's a bit of silly mysticism at work here and the actual acting (when the film bothers to dip into character) is a little stilted,  Enter the Void is a beautiful, trippily offbeat film that succeeds in being unlike anything I've ever seen before.  It pushes the limits of what we've seen and what we expect to make the vulgar relatively tasteful and the tasteful fairly nauseating.  Enter the Void is a nightmare and a dream, heaven and hell, a cinematic drug, and a strangely compelling argument for innovative 3D art films (though to clarify, this is not at all in 3D).




Under 250: The Other Guys

I like Mark Wahlberg best when he's trying to prove himself.  You know, when he's got this angry badger face and he's getting in people's grills and nobody listens to him because he's ridiculous.  I Heart Huckabees style; that's when Mark Wahlberg is best.  I like Will Ferrell best when he's reined in.  Not yelling all the time, not putting on a ridiculous accent, not playing the total fool, just an awkward dork.  The Other Guys merges the two best versions of these actors and delivers a buddy cop film parody that nails it without relying too heavily on one gag, one-note, or one member of the ensemble cast.  It's the best kind of big screen comedy event: quotable, cohesive, speckled with on-target cameos, and featuring writing that doesn't fully depend on a constant barrage of repetitive expletives or juvenile toilet humor.  The Other Guys are winners, plain and simple.  Seriously funny, but oddly quite sweet, this is a frat-pack action comedy that's high energy and engagingly competent, with enough legitimate laugh out loud moments to catapult it from minor hit to major success.  Would I watch it again?  Yes, I absolutely would








Saturday, January 29, 2011

Under 250: I'm Still Here

The best thing about I'm Still Here is Joaquin Phoenix's deranged, ultra meta, indulgently method performance as the bizarro universe version of himself.  We know now that "rapper" Phoenix is a lie. That the self-destructive tendencies captured by in-law Casey Affleck are all just part of the act.  Even the Letterman stunt was elaborate charade.   In that respect, Phoenix was/is brilliant.  The truth of the matter is that an act like that is far more deserving of recognition than his Oscar-caliber mimicking of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.  The problem, however, is that while it boasts a remarkable performance,  I'm Still Here is a bungled mess of a film.  As a 'documentary' it's nothing but a patched together series of incidents and long-takes of near nothing.  As a fiction, it's supremely boring in its voyeurism. The peek behind the celebrity curtain is dull, dull, dull, and I'd be remiss in my review if I didn't tell you that I reached the point of surrender at several times during I'm Still Here; giving up, reaching for the remote, fast-forwarding to the next ridiculous scene and getting all kind of thankful I didn't pay to see this in the theater.  It's a strange curiousity and a ballsy experiment, but the pay off isn't there.  Phoenix proves he's an actor that can become  devoted to just about any project, Affleck?  Well, I'm not so sure he's much of a director.  An idea man maybe...

"Rob Gordon's All-Time Top 5": Wilde.Dash's 10 Favorite Disney Animated Features


As I write this, Rotten Tomatoes is highlighting a ranked list that purports to count down Disney's official 50 animated features from worst to best using a weighted ranking system that takes into account the Tomato meter rankings, number of reviews, etc. etc.  The results are....well, let's just say I don't agree with them.  The Disney animated canon is a prickly, highly subjective space for debate for obvious reasons.  Namely: a good chunk of the films exist as some sort of universal dictionary definition for children's cinema, and as such are consumed (in excess) when we are children.  We bond with them, love them, and have our own allegiances to them.  A definitive ranking system?  Well, that's not going to cut it.  As we age, it gets harder to divorce newer Disney movies with our perception of what Disney was when we were younger.   Or, we build up intolerances for that movie our younger sibling ran on repeat, though we loved it before they were around.  So, what I'm saying is, I guess, that critical rankings don't really count here, and while I can agree that Home on the Range was a piece of crap, I get downright indignant when Rotten Tomatoes tells me Robin Hood wasn't worth my time.  What does all this reflection mean?  A personal list, of course.  With a huge nod to the fact that this is 100% subjective, I present my top 10 favorite Disney animated features (using the official list, of which it should be noted Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and all Pixar collaborations are not a part of):

10. Three Caballeros (1944):  The Three Caballeros is less a feature film, more the oddest travelogue you will ever see.  Donald Duck does South America; introducing us to the birds, the culture, and the ladies before a psychedelic finale of dancing cacti, blossoming star flowers, and fireworks.  It's a minor work in the Disney canon, and suffers from continuity and 1940's cultural consumption problems galore.  However, the sibling always loved it, and I grew to love it too.  Three Caballeros is like jumping into a vintage travel poster.  It's idealized/romanticized, frequently just wrong, varnished with a bit of touristy glimmer, and representative of something that just doesn't exist.   

9. Robin Hood (1973): Robin Hood is a product of its times, and as such, it occasionally feels less like a Disney venture, and more like the tongue-in-cheek hipster whimsy of an outside filmmaker.  Wes Anderson used Robin Hood references and musical cues in his Fantastic Mr. Fox, and indeed, there's something 'different' about this movie.  I've always loved Robin Hood not because of the animation, but because of the characters.  Apart from being well, adorably designed, this version of Robin Hood's ensemble group has personality to spare.  There's an attitude and a camaraderie in this gang of merry animals, and even the smallest rabbit has its character fully fleshed out.

8. Cinderella (1950) / Aladdin (1992):  These two got thrown on the list because in a way, I'm a little tired of both of them.  So, depending on what point I happen to be at in life, I might choose one over the other.  In first grade, I was crazy for Aladdin.  I must have seen it a million times between repeat screenings at home and all those viewings in carpool vans and in the living rooms of friends.  It was gorgeous and glamorous and filled with sparkly objects and humor.  Thus, I've OD'd on it.  Cinderella, on the other hand, is a luminescent fairy tale with memorable supporting characters and a quiet grace.  My sister loves it, which naturally means I've seen it another million times, and there's something about the story between the floating bubbles and talking mice that can become taxing.

7. 101 Dalmatians (1961): This film has got style, plain and simple.  Angular character design, draftsmanship, a slightly rougher (but artistically unique) look that feels made from heavy lead pencils and blobs of color so different than all of those fairy tales that had come before.  The opening sequences chronicling the meeting of Roger and Anita/Pongo and Perdita  are classic:  identical pets and owners strolling down London streets, the spidery arrival of Cruella De Vil,  the frantic rubbing of that half dead puppy back to life...even before the dogs get voices of their own, the film works.

6. Lady and the Tramp (1955):  When I was about 4 or 5, I loved this movie. I had lifesize plushes of Lady and Tramp, you know, the whole nine yards.  A few years ago now, I watched Lady and the Tramp after an extended hiatus and fell in love with it for completely different reasons.  It was no longer a cute little animated romance with dogs, it was now a beautiful, intricate film that not only managed to adequately anthropomorphize household pets and sweep them into an epic love story, but also to fully engage the senses.  So much of Lady and the Tramp is tactile or plays, discreetly, with canine sensory overload and adapts it into something visually poetic.  The cobblestones and puddles in the final chase scene are unbelievably rendered, the way Jock and Trusty sniff at them (the way Trusty sniffs at anything) brings you there too.  The light that refracts through the glass bottles, the satiny elements that come along in the nursery, the dankness of the pound, the way the Siamese cats claw at the table runner, it's all done so well it's actually tangible. 


5. Fantasia (1940):  Again, I feel I'm having a bit of the deja vu...

4. The Jungle Book (1967):  For me, The Jungle Book is about the perfect marriage of image and sound.  It's from Disney's scratchy and sketchy design period, and the aesthetic matches the jazzy soundtrack beautifully.  The Jungle Book has atmosphere in spades.  Putting it on is like listening to a worn out record that crackles and pops in that way the remastered version doesn't.  There are few things that feel like this film.  Also, I was always really upset that I couldn't have a panther for a guardian too. 

3. Peter Pan (1953):  It may be one of the biggest offenders in terms of political correctness, but I'm an absolute sucker for all things Peter Pan and will admit that the various adaptations and appropriations of the story are around 80% guaranteed to make me come really close to crying.  I just don't want to grow up, is the thing, guys.  I've always loved Peter Pan, though.  The story includes all the right magical elements; pirates, pixies, mermaids, flying, jungles, 'Indians', islands, crocodiles, London, tribal bands of roving would-be friends.  It's bittersweet, but comforting.  Though Disney's version isn't totally faithful to the Barrie play, it's dilution is charming, and leaves a mark after a life time of returns to Neverland.

2. Alice in Wonderland (1951): I've gone off on tangents about this in the past, most recently in December.

1. Sleeping Beauty (1959):  The very first time I saw Sleeping Beauty, when I was very small, it terrified me.  I've always been a tad embarrassed about admitting this, as I grew into a relatively fearless cinemaphile, but it's true.  Maleficent was one villain who made me a shrieky mess of spittle, and remember running into the other room to beg my aunt to turn off the movie.  Of course, I got over that pretty fast, and for me Sleeping Beauty became the quintessential example of not only Disney's fairy tale retellings, but of the brilliance of their animation in general.  It's an exceptionally beautiful film that demonstrates an attention to detail, a use of light and dark and color so extraordinary that it verges on painstaking.  Everything is hand-inked, and it famously made use of the largest spectrum of paint shades of any Disney work.  It's a work of art in every respect, and renders an otherwise shallow story into a magical, utterly transportive bit of imagination.  Sleeping Beauty is a dream in which the princess may be the least important part.  Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, Maleficent, the epic battle of good vs. evil told in swirling galaxies of color and positively acidic greens, the powerful use of Tchaikovsky's ballet score, the delicious perfection of that toppling unbaked birthday cake; it's perfect.  That's all there is to it.



Honorable mention:  While the movie itself got edged out by the older fare, I have a soft spot for Lilo and Stitch and feel it's worth noting that Stitch is pretty much my favorite Disney character in the canon.   He's a charmer, that one...




Friday, January 28, 2011

Under 250: The Disappearance of Alice Creed

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a sharp, bony little thriller that manages to do more with three actors and a room than all those globe trotting blockbusters can with their bloated budgets and overpaid A-listers.  Martin Compston and Eddie Marsan star as two small-time thugs attempting to execute a kidnap and ransom as precisely as possible.  The thing about that is...well, these things never go as planned, and the scenario is infinitely more complicated than either could have known.  Alice Creed has the performances and atmosphere to successfully back up its twisty betrayals, sudden turns, and well-kept secrets.  Compston, Marsan, and Gemma Arterton deftly handle the film's slippery nature and prevent it from becoming over-typical horror or from falling too comfortably into routine.  Smartly produced, occasionally clever, and smoothly edited, the Disappearance of Alice Creed offers cheap, yet well-organized thrills. 




Under 250: Machete

With Machete, Robert Rodriguez proves several key points.  1. You can make a really fantastic film based on a joke trailer, 2. Someone pushing 70 can still be an action figure style badass, 3. There are still plenty of unique and entertaining ways to kill people onscreen,  4. He is the only director capable of making a film even Jessica Alba cannot destroy.  Machete is madcap, A-list grindhouse cinema of the highest order; violent, ruthless, and often satirically brilliant.  There's nothing subtle about Machete.  The nudity is on the gratuitous side, the blood flows in rapids, and each punch line is hammered home with a blade through the spinal column...but, the exuberance with which each exploitation detail is delivered makes the film relentlessly entertaining, and too joyfully self-aware to frown upon.  Danny Trejo has a pitch-perfect presence for this strong, silent assassin, and he delivers his one-liners with all the conviction of one you do not question.  If Machete says he don't text, he don't text, alright?  If Machete picks up the blade instead of the gun, let him do it, alright?  Machete is pure unbridled anarchy with a surrealistically blunt political agenda on illegal immigration.  That doesn't matter, though.  Machete is about the bloodbath and the B-movie fun, and there can be no doubt it was one of the most flat-out entertaining movies I watched in 2010.   

Under 250: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

I'd been suitably impressed with the first adaptation of Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Though I'll state once again for the record that I loathe the books themselves with a fiery passion, the film worked.  With part two: Girl who Played with Fire, I found myself bored and disappointed.  It was more of the same, and seemed to drop the plot points I had been most intrigued with in the first go.  When it came time for the third and final chapter, I honestly wasn't really looking forward to it.  I figured it would be another drawn out two and a half hours of repetitive intrigue.  In some ways, it was.  This time around, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is trapped in the hospital while intrepid journalist Mikael Blomkvist works on blowing the lid off of the conspiracy behind Lisbeth's troubles and covering his ass.  While the story, as per usual, could stand a bit of a trim and a good shove in the right direction, the film is a solid enough thriller with a mechanism more complicated than your standard American affair.  Rapace remains cooly magnetic, appearing larger than life in spite of the pint sized stature of her character.  The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest is propelled by a need for justice, and it's that want to see things wrapped up to resolution that will push tired viewers through its perhaps too-long runtime.  It's good, but I can honestly say I'm glad this trilogy is through...

Under 250: Catfish


I tend to steer clear of films about social networking because I’m cranky and jaded and when it comes to Facebook, I’m especially crotchety and go into full avoidance mode. I was pleasantly surprised when I finished the is it or isn’t it documentary Catfish by filmmakers and brothers Yaniv and Ariel Schulman. The documentary begins when younger brother Yaniv (a photographer) begins receiving unsolicited paintings of his photographs from a nine year old painting prodigy in Michigan. He soon develops a relationship with her and her family (particularly her older sister) via Facebook and texting before realizing that they may not be all they seem. Most assume the documentary is a fake, even though the filmmakers still contend that it’s real. While some of the slickness makes me question its authenticity, the emotion is sincere enough to make that question unimportant. But even though I got caught up in that emotion while I watched, Catfish doesn’t have the sort of depth I wanted, introducing big concepts like identity, technology and the development of relationships, and the connection that art can create between two people, without ever really bothering to examine them in much detail. But that criticism itself seems to reflect the authenticity of the film, as it seems more an effect of the immaturity of the young filmmakers on screen than a real failure of their abilities to properly convey the “truth” of a story.

Under 250: A Prophet


I’m not sure how we missed A Prophet on this blog, but we all make mistakes (and what a mistake it was). Brutal, gut-wrenching, and with a strange charm and charisma, it's one of the best of the decade, if not tied for the best film spot of 2009. Within the first 30 seconds of meeting protagonist Malik (Tahar Rahim) you’re hooked, and as he struggles to survive and find his identity in the wilds of a French prison while under the thumb of Corsican crime boss Cesar (Niels Arestrup), there’s no turning away, even when shit gets too real for comfort. While Arestrup's performance is what you’d expect from a fat, over aged crime boss ala the Godfather, Rahim’s Malik captures you from the moment his dark eyes are framed on screen. He says very little throughout the film, but his expressive face carries all the depth of emotion needed to charm the pants off the audience and get you 100% emotionally invested in his fate. The film is gritty, but still beautiful, the colors expertly drawn out while each shot is artfully composed, instantly high class but without sugar coating the violent prison experience, perfection in every way. 

Viral: Bottle

This excellent animated short is either the sweetest thing you've seen, or the saddest, depending upon whether you're a glass half empty, or half full kinda a person.


Bottle from Kirsten Lepore on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Under 250: Cairo Time

Cairo Time is a quiet old fashioned  romance built around impossibility and unstated taboo.  It's at once a gentle travelogue and a vessel for ideas, a picture postcard of the lighter side of Middle Eastern culture shock.  Patricia Clarkson stars as a  Juliette, the wife of a UN official who is idling around Egypt waiting for her husband to take the time to give a shit.  As a stand-in, her husband sends Tareq (Alexander Siddig), his former right hand man who plays willing tour guide to Juliette.  As desert days stretch on, Tareq and Juliette become comfortable around one another.  She processes things through him and he seems to see things differently through her.  The result is a little bit Casablanca, a little bit Before Sunrise;  a self-aware exercise in pacing that possesses an undeniable artistry even as it shoots for that soft spot in your mom's heart.  It's passively flirty and never sinks too deeply into the morally ambiguous mire.  In Cairo Time we have a dalliance that's just plain nice, that takes its time and lingers like a lovely little dream.

Under 250: Dinner for Schmucks

It doesn’t seem that hard to write a good comedy vehicle for Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and Zach Galifianakis. Sure, it would be hard for me, but for the old comedy pros in Hollywood, you’d think they could at least make something derivative yet funny. There are some people that can do the nonsensical crazy post-modern comedy thing well (Andy Samberg, Seth McFarlane, the Coen Bros., the team that gave us The Hangover), but the creative team that has given us Dinner for Schmucks, are not those people. When assigning traits to Mr. Carell’s insufferable Barry, including his hobby of collecting and stuffing dead mice for use in dioramas, they failed to realize the thin line that exists between said post-modern and plain weird/stupid. Little is funny in this film, including the great missed opportunity of Galifinakas as psychopathic mind controlling IRS agent. If they had some proper slapstick, if you let Carell and Galifianakis be Carell and Galifianakis, you might have had something here, but instead Dinner leaves you feeling like you’ve spent the last two hours staring at a dead mouse diorama, confused, disappointed, and annoyed, especially when they try to inject life into the DOA onscreen relationships near the end.

Under 250: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Is it a documentary?  Is it a mockumentary?  What's real, what isn't?  How much of Banksy went into this film, how much is masquerading as Banksy?  Who is Mr. Brainwash?  Is he real?  He can't be, yet he is.  Is he Banksy?  Maybe, but probably not physically.  Who is Banksy?  Is Banksy one person, or a collective?  Can he do all he does, or does he employ a 'factory' of others.  Is MBW just part of Banksy's elaborate hoax on the art world?  Survey says:  definitely.  Exit Through the Gift Shop takes the intro level primer question 'what is art?' and obliterates it into the flying shrapnel of a postmodern dirty bomb that transforms notions creative commerce, public persona, domain, property, guerrilla missions and methods, the artist as individual, the artist as collective, etc etc.  It's the entire history of contemporary art, the whole theoretical inquiry that took up countless hours of college courses, in one rough around the edges feature-length package.  It's as delightfully cavalier and instructive as it is brilliantly philosophical, giving viewers a real behind the scenes glimpse at street art culture even as it deconstructs the last century of image production in a way that assimilates and (in ways) one-ups Warhol.   Super smart and insanely cool.


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