Monday, June 27, 2011

Late Night Trailers: Brave

The teaser trailer for next summer's Pixar output: Brave.  Too bad it wasn't this summer's Pixar film, is what I have to say.  The company is getting in on Disney's Princess racket, contributing one flame haired tough cookie in Merida.  The visuals and character design are gorgeous thus far, and the synopsis doesn't sound half bad either:
"Brave is set in the mystical Scottish Highlands, where Merida is the princess of a kingdom ruled by King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). An unruly daughter and an accomplished archer, Merida one day defies a sacred custom of the land and inadvertently brings turmoil to the kingdom. In an attempt to set things right, Merida seeks out an eccentric old Wise Woman (Julie Walters) and is granted an ill-fated wish. Also figuring into Merida’s quest — and serving as comic relief — are the kingdom’s three lords: the enormous Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), the surly Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), and the disagreeable Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane)."  [source]
Have fun waiting until June 2012.

Recap: Sucker Punch

With Sucker Punch out on DVD/Blu-Ray tomorrow, I sort of figure people will once again be talking about the film being talked up as one of the biggest flops of the year.  Is it a misfire, or is it something else?  I'm still pretty conflicted on this 'un, and it's hard to say, but I do believe Zack Snyder's big budget mess has some merit and will point you in the direction of the crazy person essay on the subject I went overboard on back in April.  Check it out, and feel free to watch the movie and join in the conversation. 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Love: Bad Teacher

It would be easy to step up and blow apart Bad Teacher.  Really just too easy.  If I wanted to attack it all I'd have to do would be to start ragging on its loose plot, its underuse of some really fantastic supporting actors, and the way it never manages to be little more than a cheap presentation of a superficial character performing superficial gags, flitting from semi-predictable plot point to plot point with a flippant refusal to mine anything for even a tiny bit of depth.  If I really wanted to nail this film to the cross I could start (as some have) picking apart the film's protagonist as a nasty blow by Hollywood in which they once again make their strong female character a manipulative, selfish, rather skanky lady who feels the need to get attention by pulling on her daisy dukes and writhing all over a car or two.  Yeah, it would be pretty easy to tear this movie apart.  The thing is, though, I actually liked it.  Bad Teacher is one of those perfect no-brainer comedies.  It's an ugly, rude, grown-up treat that takes extraordinary pleasure in doing ugly, rude things.  Like a million movies before it, its primary bent is to make you laugh and not fret the small stuff.  At that, it succeeds.  Repeatedly.  Think of Bad Teacher as, well, Bad Santa with a lady.  Or, an 80's Bill Murray comedy starring Cameron Diaz.  You get the picture.
 Diaz assumes the funny-lady role she's used to playing, but at a pitch the films offered to her don't usually possess.  As middle school teacher Elizabeth Halsey, she's got spark and bite, never ceasing to be anything but convincing in her perpetual bad hangover attitude.  Similarities of the aforementioned titles aside, I couldn't help but see Diaz as a great, don't-give-a-shit proxy for someone like Billy Bob Thornton.  She's got the swagger, the belief that she's invincible, and the quicksilver personality shift between charmer and asshole.  Say what you will about her character's so-called "manipulative wiles."  For what it's worth, I saw it as more of an "it's about time" moment in which our female heroine gets to play as tough and dirty as all those typecasted dudes. 

Our story closely follows the exploits of Elizabeth, a gold-digging middle school teacher whose early retirement plans are abruptly canceled when her impending millionaire marriage falls through. Forced to go back to the gratingly upbeat, team-oriented Midwestern school she spent the previous year skating-by at, she arrives pissed off and prepared to do the bare minimum.  She does just that for weeks, sleeping and swigging from mini bottles of booze as her anxious class watches Stand and Deliver.  If she participates, it's only to attract the attentions of the new sub, Scott (Justin Timberlake), a pretty little dork with an appealing pocketbook.  Of course, Scott's a hot property on campus, and soon Elizabeth is engaged in battle with her perky, overachieving (and aptly named) co-worker Amy Squirrel  (Lucy Punch).   She does her ranting and venting to her sponge of a 'friend' (Phyllis Smith) and staunchly refuses to entertain the affections of a gym teacher (Jason Segel) she'd be well matched with.  All these little elements?  Perfect excuses to exhibit a fantastic lack of compassion and a total disinterest in almost everything that would make her at all decent at being a teacher.  I'd be lying if I didn't own up to being a little bit delighted by Halsey's lack of heart. It was pretty fun to watch a classroom figure teach in Louboutins, smoke up in the parking lot, scrawl "are you fucking kidding me" on tests, drink to excess each night alone, and engage in a truly awkward moment of on-screen dry humping.

There may be tepid points in the film, but there aren't very many punchlines or facial cues that go sour.  Diaz does well here, but she's got magnificent back-up.  Timberlake steps back and allows himself to be the joke instead of the scene-stealer, and Segel gets a slew of great moments.  Boys aside, though, it's Lucy Punch and Phyllis Smith who may be the film's unsung heroes.  Smith brings her Office brand of bumbling comedy to the table and accomplishes amazing things with a mumble.  Punch (who has previously been seen in Dinner for Schmucks and UK flicks like St. Trinian's) is brilliantly manic, giving you as much to sympathize with as absolutely loathe.  For so much lowbrow comedy, the cast is functioning at a pretty high level, playing off own another in the sort of effortless manner that makes it seem as though there's nothing to it, which many might say is actually the case.  Regardless, there's talent here, and a whole lot of raunchy, breezy fun.

Friday, June 24, 2011

RIP: Peter Falk

Actor Peter Falk, who famously portrayed one of pop culture's most famous detectives, Columbo, died Thursday at his home in Beverly Hills.  Falk was 83 years old, and while he has been suffering from Alzheimer's since 2007, the direct cause of death has not been disclosed.

Falk made a name for himself over a span of over three decades, multiple made for TV movies, and thirteen seasons as the bumbling, beloved Columbo.  As any film aficionado will be quick to remind you, however, he also appeared in a bevy of now classic/cult films (The Princess Bride, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Murder by Death) and art house favorites, collaborating with John Cassavetes and appearing as himself in Wings of Desire

He is survived by his wife and two daughters, and will be remembered by generations. [source]

Monday, June 20, 2011

(Alternate Take) Love: Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's fifth directorial effort, has been described already as a 'tone poem'.  There is perhaps no better way of defining it, though I will try at various times throughout this entry.  It's less film than symphonic union of music and image.  It rises and falls and sweeps through emotions and time, contrasting microcosms with macrocosms and finding intangible comparisons in all that's bound by simple molecules.  Malick does not presume to define the outline of his story.  He sets his pieces on an infinite stage that traverses all of time and space, and within these largely unnamed characters we glimpse both vague and specific.  They are bodies in orbit, pushing and pulling away from one another.  They're a family unit, ourselves, our parents, our neighbors, our friends, and yet they are none of these people just as The Tree of Life is and is not as much a movie as a photography exhibition, opera, or anthology of poetry.
Tree of Life is its own entity, but it is one not entirely unfamiliar.  It is Fantasia's 'Rite of Spring' blended into a non-sexual Enter the Void mixed with Koyaanisqatsi, Baraka, and any number of Discovery Channel documentaries on the universe in miniature.  It's 2001 set in suburbia with biological offspring as the dangerous technological advancements gone haywire.  In a double feature it could be paired opposite of Antichrist, with one standing in for hell and the other as heaven.  It's the Omnimax movies I went crazy for as a kid queuing up at the Museum of Science and Industry; all nature, all star clusters, all threadbare lawns, open rooms, and empty asphalt.  It is church.
  As we watch it we must forget traditional narrative, Tree of Life has no time for storytelling conventions.  Chronology does not matter in the spirit or the memory, and our understanding of the world is wrapped up with our knowledge of our personal histories.  Tree of Life attempts an experimental fiction, a cut-up method with sources pulled from religion, nature, individuality, and Americana.  An extensive sequence early on offers no dialogue, no human presence.  Within we see a condensed history of time, the origin of life through pulsating jellyfish and rather beautifully rendered dinosaurs.  If you can succumb to this sequence, you will be rewarded with frame after frame of incredible imagery and active inspiration.  As a sometimes visual artist I found a million excuses to pick up a brush, shot after pristine shot strained with pain, emotional longing, and gorgeous, vibrant, HD color.    
When the film isn't dabbling in impressionism (well, not quite as severely), it strings together a childhood for the boys in the O'Brien family.  We are introduced to Jack (Sean Penn) as an adult working within an urban landscape of immaculately captured but unquestionably cold glass, concrete, and stone.  We get the impression that Jack is unhappy, that he's disillusioned or engaged in an existential crisis, perhaps provoked by an event off screen  (the death of his mother?), but the why doesn't matter.  Through the cinematic lens of Jack's memory, we are given his formative years in melting flakes and shattered glass.  We meet a father (Brad Pitt) who loves but whose dreams have been hampered.  He rules with an iron fist; believes in principle and the particular order of things.  It's no leap to imagine that he stands in, with his religious convictions and upright piety, for a godlike figure.  He constructs the cosmos and Jack is made in his image, for better or worse.  
Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is strong-willed.  He wrestles with compulsions towards good and evil, knowing what's right even as he does so much wrong.  Jack and his brothers engage in those 'boys will be boys' activities that spring from curiosity but reveal paths towards sociopathy.  They dance on the brink, toeing the line between innocence and destruction.  Jack's father is the destroyer, his mother (Jessica Chastain) is the creator. She's playfully naive, often depicted as a pushover; a graceful playmate instead of a guardian.  She shows them how to find joy, how to revel in a sprint down the block, the bubbles in the bath, or sparklers in the dark.  He shows them how to survive the real world, how to punch, how to finish what they've started, how to control the things around them.  Together they strike a balance that is part harmony and part constant battle.  They may not be drawn in black and white as good and evil, but they are parts of a whole that will, as Jack suggests, always wrestle inside him.
This is a film turned internally.  The acting, when it happens, is naturalistic, the characters so organic they seem documented instead of performed.  Malick does not want to process your information for you.  Instead, he finds all the right scenes with a gentleness and delicate touch that makes the viewer understand that on some level these are personal, that each moment could potentially be the key to a larger narrative thread.  If this sounds pretentious, perhaps The Tree of Life is not for you.  I would argue, however, that any pretentious element at work in this film is canceled out by way of sincerity.  Malick is never anything but sincere.  He means the whispers in that narration and he means the rushing water and undulating nebulae with all his little arty heart.  I may be a connoisseur of pop artifice, but when a film reaches the way this one does towards establishing a personal connection with the void and in search of itself, I can't judge it on any other merits but its ability to make the same connection with me.  It did, and I believe that trumps all.
I saw Tree of Life on Father's Day with two parents who had, for all practical purposes, not a clue who Terrence Malick was.  They're no strangers to a certain breed of art house cinema, this much is true, but they never shy away from calling something boring (I still don't think they're totally sold on There Will Be Blood, for example) if it doesn't appeal to them.  They loved the film.  My Dad even said he'd probably buy it for the cinematography alone, but that it reminded him of people he'd known, of neighborhood kids who never came back from Vietnam.  That's why, for all the talk of the inaccessibility of Tree of Life, and for the difficult packaging of its volatile contents, I don't believe the film is one that needs to be recommended with caveats on its potentially preachy incoherence.  Its flaws, echoes, and evolutionary navel-gazing are what make it all the more haunting.   Its unanswered questions (and breathtaking visuals) are what make it an artwork that will be discussed and viewed for decades to come.  Maybe you'll love it, maybe you'll hate it, but you'll talk about it either way.  It is what it is, and that's life.  You know what they say about life, right?  It's not perfect, but it is what you make it.  No one can tell you otherwise.

As soon as I post this, M. will see it and roll her eyes.  When next we speak, she'll probably make some snarky remark about how I'm easily seduced by cinematography and beautiful objects.  I will inevitably concede, maybe a tad bitterly, but, of course, she's correct.

Mixtape: What's Your Damage?

Dear diary: we’ve seen a lot of bullshit: angel dust, switchblades, sexually perverse photography exhibits involving tennis rackets…but this suicide thing...I mean, what’s your damage, Heather? She tells me, real life sucks losers dry, you want to fuck with the eagles, you have to learn to fly. 19 songs for Veronica Sawyer. Featuring The Weeknd, Austra, and Sisters of Mercy. How very.

Listen here or there.

PS: The advent of real summer means we'll be scaling back on Mixtape construction for a little while.  Expect about one a month instead of every other week...

Love: Beginners

Beginners is another confused little love story filled with male anxiety, partial adolescence, emotional hang-ups, whimsy, and quirk.  It has its own sort of manic pixie dream girl in the form of Melanie Laurent.  It has typical indie-film melodrama packaged with aging relatives and cancer cells.  There's a Jack Russell terrier that plays a critical character role.  Yes, it's rather twee.  If you add up the elements, it should be too twee to function outside of the dorm rooms of girls wearing floral print summer dresses in the dead of winter.  Thankfully, though, it is not (500) Days of Summer.  The characters, the organizational structure, and the simple guilelessness of what would otherwise be entitled melancholia see to that.  All that's too twee is rounded out with the echoes left by our families, the marks made by depression, and some smart performances by a trio of talented actors.  Beginners transcends its genetic makeup to become a film not solely for those post-ironic hipsters and adolescents in love with being in love, but for humans struggling to maintain that love and find themselves worthy of it.  Yet, it's more than that.  What marks this film apart from vapid romances and its too precious brethren are the familial aspects.  Beginners is essentially about the constant renewal of life, about it never being too late, but also about the impressions made on us by our families and our societies.
Via fluid temporality, Beginners is the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic designer in his late 30's who is reluctantly falling for a girl at the same time he's grappling with the death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer).  We see Oliver's relationship with a pretty, struggling French actress named Anna (Laurent) blossom as it's interlaced with memories and flashbacks of Hal's late in life personal renaissance as an out and proud gay man (something he was not able to indulge thru decades of marriage).  The story is a semi-autobiographical one for director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), and its sensitivity to the subject matter shows.  Plummer plays gay with a spectacular vibrance.  His joie de vivre is the sort that seems natural after a lifetime of living imprisoned, and he gleefully adopts the trappings of a lifestyle long lusted over in a way that's infectiously endearing.  Even as he suffers from an untreatable cancer, he can't be bothered not to live.  Hal takes a young lover, joins every club he can, reads and writes and dances and leaves Oliver in a sort of self-conscious shock.  He's not living this way.  He's too hung up on what this all meant for his mother, on her death, and on the way his dying dad has more life than he does.   
Plummer has grabbed quite a bit of press for his performance, but again (just as with I Love You Philip Morris), Ewan McGregor is doing quite a bit of the work here.  McGregor is faced with the daunting task of pulling off a performance in all the stages of grief and uncertainty.  He wants to be happy, but he's sad.  He wants to escape his sadness, but he doesn't know how.  He's adorable, but he doesn't know it.  He's the straight man, the protagonist, and (unfortunately for him) the least interesting of the larger than life personalities he's surrounded with.  It's a tough task, but McGregor's Oliver is nuanced and real, not some Joseph Gordon-Levitt archetype.  What he knows is that he's not comfortable, that he worries too much (against reason) about the state of his parents' marriage, and that in some ways he never quite grew into a successful adult...but maybe that's because he spent so much of his youth trying to be prematurely wise and stable for his eccentric, unhappy mother.  McGregor handles Oliver with care, we read his uncertainty in his eyes even as his mouth says something else.  He's a bit of a sad sack, which leads him at times to be a bit of an accidental asshole, but there's a glimmer of optimism that he keeps hidden, and we're given enough understanding of his character through those flashbacks and interactions to know that its for his own protection.  We don't need an explanation, we have all the evidence we need to draw our own conclusions. 
A great mechanism here, which Mills pulls off amazingly well, is the relationship of both father and son with a Jack Russell terrier named Arthur.  You'd think an overly anthropomorphized dog with subtitled thoughts might have no place in a movie for adults, but Arthur is given an insight that adds humor to the film's darkest moments, and the bond he shares with his keepers is played to effectively mine their most sympathetic qualities.  He bears witness to the ways Oliver is his father's son, and the successes and failures of the people who surround them as a unit.  I found reason to love each of the characters and each of their stories while appreciating that their charms and drawbacks were, while laced with that dangerous element: whimsy, never destroyed by too much sentimentality or sap. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

May We Grow Into Electric Sheep

A quick shout out and thank you:  this week Love and Squalor was added to the roster (/directory) at the Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB).  We're pretty thrilled to be officially connected with a larger community of film bloggers and film fans, and hope to join in on some of the events in upcoming weeks and months.  So, for those wondering what the new badge in our sidebar is: there you have it.  For folks stumbling upon us via The LAMB: thanks for checking us out.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #19: Auntie Mame (1958)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.

Until a couple weeks or so ago, I was blissfully unaware that a crucial bit of cinema had been missing from my childhood.  Now, the curtains have been pulled back, the lights are on, and I now know that I've missed many good years of time spent with imaginary relatives.  I should have watched Auntie Mame ages ago.  It is (and for this I need a cigarette holder and an affected accent) positively divine.  My dears, have you seen Auntie Mame?  No? Well then, just wait, let me rephrase that, why haven't you seen Auntie Mame?  There's no good reason unless you happen to already have an 'in real life' aunt who's already out traveling the world, taming wild bachelors, and redecorating according to her momentary interests.  I simply have to doubt, darling, that you have such a relative.  Unless, of course, you're the blood relation of Daphne Guinness.  Oh, you're not?  Well then, you can say you do, but I'm going to prejudge you as a liar. 

Auntie Mame is one of those great works of Orphan Porn, by which I mean it's a 'grass is greener' type tale that finds a way to make perfectly happy children suddenly lust after a life with either no guardian, or, any guardian or caretaker who is not their biological parent.  Sometimes, that caretaker may pay more attention to the child, sometimes it's a zero supervision situation.  Annie is obvious Orphan Porn, but Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, Narnia, Lord of the Flies, St. Trinian's, and Sound of Music are too.  All of these things make people under 18 concoct elaborate fantasies about the potential for a life without three square meals and a ride to and from soccer practice.  Don't try to pretend you never secretly hoped (even for an instant) you weren't related to any of these people and had veins full of witchery.  Seriously. Don't pretend.  I'm once again calling you a liar.  Seriously.  There's a reason these movies are so eternally possible and that's because everyone wants to be adopted into a family that can buy them everything, everyone wants to have magical powers, everyone wishes their medicine tasted like Rum Punch, everyone kind of wants a secret portal in their closet, everyone might not mind being able to inflict tribal violence on their playground enemies, and most people would have liked to have gone to a boarding school were no one was paying attention and they were free to do as they pleased.  No one wants to bolt through the mountains to escape Nazis, but that's not really the point.
As Orphan Porn, Auntie Mame is of the non-magical, non-boarding school subcategory.  Its wonders are derived from two things: money and exoticism.  Mame is no one's nanny; she's not one for discipline or carefully planned lessons.  Her tale isn't one specifically built around bringing family closer together or outfitted for unlikely romance.  Instead, it's simply about being Mame.  Auntie Mame is Orphan Porn because you wish you had a family member so fancifully headstrong, but unlike its counterparts, it's a spectacular character-driven comedy that plays as love letter and study of a smart, sparky, genuine, and imaginative woman.  There's no real focus on the child here, just on the guardian.  Auntie Mame is told without rhyme or reason, with bridges built from scene to scene and vignettes that fill in the blanks with pure personality.  It runs long, but is nothing if not irrepressibly giddy about it.  The story originated as a best-selling novel by Patrick Dennis in 1955, and was a semi-autobiographical account of life with his rather bohemian-minded aunt.  If she was anything like Rosalind Russell's portrayal, I'd have loved to meet her.
When I was 12 or so, I saw Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of Great Expectations.  If you're literate and logical, you'll have surmised this is leading towards a Miss Havisham comment.  You win.  Cuaron called her Nora Dinsmoor and case Anne Bancroft.  I watched the film and immediately decided that in my old age I would have to start painting on more eyeliner than a drag queen, chain smoking, and adopt a shambles chic aesthetic.  That's just the kind of lady I am.  Keep in mind: I was 12.  I was discussing my retirement plans with fellow 12-year olds as we ran around a field in gym class.  I was describing, in detail, the manner in which I would become a patroness of the arts, the vines that I would consider allowing to grow all over my walls, and the white-blonde bob haircut I would get instead of some silly perm.  Mame fits into my retirement plan without succumbing to the emotional imbalance and depression at work in a Havisham archetype.  She's poised, larger than life, ever-changing, and impossible to bring down.  So maybe, apart from Orphan Porn, Auntie Mame is one of those movies that offers up the building blocks for successfully becoming a grande dame.  Through the film we receive an etiquette primer on how to be a classy eccentric in every circumstance.  A life alone?  Grab all the artists in Manhattan, invite them over for cocktails, speak on philosophy as if you knew Aristotle himself.  Economic hardtimes?  Sell those material possessions, take those jobs, have no shame, but do everything slightly off-kilter (or dead wrong).  Yankee out of water in Dixieland?  Jump on that horse.  Don't let go.  Sudden acquisition of small child?  Enroll them in a progressive school, speak to them as an adult, take them on adventures and do not hide your morning drinking.  Crappy, prejudiced future in-laws?  Make them drink fire. Literally. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Late Night Trailers: The Muppets Parody Green Lantern

These just keep getting better.

Late Night Trailers: Moneyball

Based on a true story (and on a  Michael Lewis book of the same title), director Bennett Miller's Moneyball has been a much-discussed project for a long while and today it finally received a real trailer.  Featuring Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jonah Hill, a lot of baseball, and a screenplay co-written by Aaron Sorkin, let's not kid's primed for success and a bunch of hushed Oscar buzz.  Honestly, though?  I'm not really feeling it.  Are you looking forward to Moneyball?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Squalor (With Some Love): The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is as beautiful and haunting as Terrence Malick’s other masterpieces. But unlike his other films which float expertly between big concepts like god and the meaning of life with careful subtlety, Life throws all that to the curb with mixed results…and dinosaurs.

Life loosely follows the childhood of Jack, primarily focusing on his memories from a particular year or so before resurfacing in present day where he is played as an adult by Sean Penn. There isn’t a real narrative line, but as always, Malick weaves images together seamlessly into an experience that feels like memory itself. The beauty of the film is that you experience this boy’s life as he does and the familiarity of what it was like to be child, to struggle with your parents, to run through grass at dusk, to encounter your first brushes with death and disease. Its purity is striking and effective, bolstered by Malick’s mastery of natural light and cinematography. These moments and the acting (particularly Brad Pitt) are the perfect parts of the film, the moments when it transcends and becomes the movie you’d expect it to be from the title. It’s pure meditation, not entertainment and perhaps not even art.

But Malick doesn’t let the film flow naturally and instead breaks up these moments with heavy-handed pretentious scenes and narration. The ideas are intriguing but their execution is lazy. Each time the film goes into “transcendental metaphysics” mode, Malick falls into the pattern overdone by filmmakers, setting the mood by blasting operatic themes and solemn agnus dei's as his charters whisper “why?” As the film comes to what could have been a perfect climax, the narration and music is even more leading, made worse by Jessica Chastain (Jack’s mother in the film) as her airy angelic voice gives her son to the universe while surrounded by angels. Malick has proven that he knows how to invoke similar emotions without resorting to this kind of melodrama, and it’s disappointing to see him do it here. It’s a hard balance to strike, and in this film Malick appears to have lost the battle.

SPOILER One particular, non-sequitur near the center of the film is Malick’s version of the Big Bang up through the death of the dinosaurs. The imagery of the birth of the universe is gorgeous, the sound editing in particular making the large quakes and explosions of fire on the surface of the earth shake the theater. But then we get the dinosaurs. One dinosaur trots out into a small stream where he finds another one who appears to be dying. The healthier newcomer proceeds to force the head of the other dying dinosaur down into the water until he no longer tries to raise his head. Then the asteroid that we assume ended reptile reign on earth hits, and we return to mid-century suburban Texas. A metaphor for Jack’s troubled relationship with his Father? A sign that we are set-up only to harm each other? A sign that God isn’t watching and doesn’t care? Is it all of these things? Malick is my all time favorite director so really, he can do what he wants. I even loved the swirling bits of color that marked a transition between scenes and may stand for the light of human spirit, memory, and god. I was expecting to defend the dinosaur moment to friends when I first heard about it a few months ago, my Malick loving spear in hand ready to pounce. But in the end, I can’t. Other than a pretty look at the birth of the universe, the scene is wasted in the film and detracts if anything. Throw in the severity of an Orff worthy choir and it just becomes laughable.

Is The Tree of Life all that bad? Not exactly. People in the Malick fan base like yours truly will gain much from his incredible imagery and forgive the other overly lofty parts. But to the uninitiated, I predict they’ll leave the theater confused and bored. You might want to start them on Badlands or The Thin Red Line before you usher them into this one.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Love: Super 8

Super 8 is an incredible success as summer blockbusters go.  It's a rousing, good clean throwback to a simpler time that goes great with popcorn, air conditioning, roughly a gallon of Coca-Cola, and an ounce of willing nostalgia.  It helps, of course, if you also have a free Saturday morning, or a summer off from school.  J.J. Abrams has knowingly directed an old-school Steven Spielberg film, and Spielberg (sitting in the producer's seat) has sat back and guided this half-homage in all the right ways.  Super 8 is, perhaps, a celluloid version of Proust's madeleine.  Moments into our first bite, we're transported into a glorious remembrance of things past, of creature features, childhood games, and days spent biking to check out books on unexplained phenomenon from the library.  Though I technically wasn't old enough to see flicks like E.T. or The Goonies in their first runs, Super 8 took me to those moments and more.  It's built to tap right into your youth, to channel time spent propped on the couch with a tape in the VCR and mom in the kitchen, and those first viewings of Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and Back to the Future.  This is a sensation worth paying the price of admission for, and Abrams has studied his source material well.
The film is best, perhaps, in its first half hour or so.  Without too much spectacle or lens flare, Super 8 carefully assembles all the pieces that will allow for an emotional connection to survive as the more ridiculous elements take hold.   Cinematography and art direction plays a major role in this, and the pros in charge have done wonders personalizing the spaces of these characters.  A teenager's bedroom is an extension of their personality, and the beginning walkie talkie conversations and hurried digs through piles of mess does no disservice to the film's young protagonists.   The housing division is deftly chosen, the cars and bicycles neatly placed, but it's as we travel through the messy suburban bedrooms decorated with posters of John Carpenter films and painted models, strewn with cast off clothes, bed sheets, and stray siblings, we understand who junior high kid Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) used to be before his mother's untimely death.  We similarly grasp the monster movie obsession that will guide Charles (Riley Griffiths) to a bigger and better future.  Their relationship clicks, somehow, almost subconsciously.  We realize that we know these places and we know these kids; they're the neighbors you battled on dirt hills with before puberty hit.  They're the boys happily watching late night TV and secretly pining away after girls they'd rather not mention unless necessary.  This is what makes Super 8 work.  It's a great adventure not because of its science fiction elements, but because it captures childhood, and all the secrets, mysteries, suspicions, and grown-up plots that go along with it, so well.
Joe and his friends are using their summer vacation to help Joe's obvious BFF Charles work on his entry for a youth film competition.  It's a zombie piece peppered with references to George Romero and filmed on super 8 with all the boys dressed up as adults and playing soldiers and hard-boiled detectives.  What else does it have?  Oh, yeah, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning, the oldest 13 year old on the planet), who Joe swoons over though their relationship is one hampered by bad blood between their fathers.  In the midst of a blissful evening of joy riding and film making, the crew witnesses a 'pretty mint' deliberate train crash.  Someone caused it, there was something on that train, something that needed an end, they just don't know what.  As the kids keep their lips sealed, the military moves into town and strange things begin to occur: dogs are fleeing, people are disappearing, engines are being stripped from every car in the dealership lot.  In your standard action-driven summer blockbuster, this is the point at which the film might just become one big chase scene in which the kids are constantly narrowly missing a bullet to the head.  Super 8, thankfully, is character-driven.  While we're given crucial developments in the case via scenes with Joe's police deputy father (Kyle Chandler), the kids believably have the goldfish memories kids tend to.  They worry, they fret, but they also fret and worry about not being able to hang out or how realistic the make-up looks, or whether Alice Dainard likes one of them more than another.  These small moments are where the film comes into its own, and where it separates itself from the prosaic, heartless summer battleships.
Of course, it's not perfect.  What it achieves in feel good heart, it occasionally skimps on in terms of real sci-fi cohesion.  The action here is often fairly sloppy, and while I could excuse or explain away quite a bit of the logical pratfalls of the exploding, creature-y, machine gun scenes, the fact of the matter is that compared with the human interest story, the sci-fi aspect is fairly weak.  The secrets held by the film are the stuff of repetition.  They're cobbled together from other films, offer very little we haven't seen before, and are concluded with [POTENTIAL SPOILERS] the sort of too-perfectly coincidental closing scene Spielberg got slammed for in his remake of War of the Worlds.  Normally, I wouldn't hesitate to argue that Super 8 might be best with its last ten minutes reconsidered, but then again, I did feel them as I was watching the film, so who am I to say?  Super 8 isn't merciless, that's not the point.  It's also not quite an action movie, though it sometimes pretends to be one.  Instead its a coming of age in a fantastical war zone, its themes run oddly around unity and togetherness in numerous forms, and yes, though the kids are pretty salty, Abrams drops in some artificial sweetener to make you feel good about it.  And yeah, it's artifice, but it's built for summer days, not Oscar build-up.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Future of Yes, Really

We've been busy, but you can expect our thoughts on Super 8 and that tone poem Terrence Malick shot soon enough.  First, though, this...

Newcomers to Love & Squalor may not be aware, but from time to time I write up very casual pseudo-reviews on movies that have been around for awhile.  These are the odd films that, for some reason, I've skipped in my film self-education, but which you may have actually seen ages ago.  Well, either that or they're cult/critical faves I'm just getting my paws on.  We call this sort of entry "Yes, Really,"  and as I prepare to reboot my capacity to rant or gush on potentially uninteresting topics, I'm allowing you the chance to partially dictate future entries in the series.  If you scroll to the bottom of the sidebar on the right, you'll find a poll that will let you vote for one or two films you either A. think it's criminal I haven't watched, or B. really want to force me to endure. There are already a few in the queue, but, for the six people who read this little blog: voting for the next round will be open until midnight on July 4th.

In the meantime, check out some of the old Yes, Really entries here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mixtape: Stay Out of My Mind

 We're from England. We'll have gin and tonic instead of saving the world, thank you. We'll preserve our bodily fluids, if you don't mind. If you please, we'll watch all the televisions at once. We're from England. Or are we?

17 songs that will bring you face to face with Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth.  Listen here, or at our home planet on 8tracks

Monday, June 6, 2011

Love: X-Men: First Class

X-Men: The Last Stand was one of the single most disappointing film experiences in my immediate memory.  In the wake of the surprisingly decent X-Men and the remarkably improved X2, the third film attempted to inflate itself into something bigger, better, full of new characters, and weighed down with a plot it couldn't sustain.  We lost Bryan Singer on that one, and we the geeks continue to lament to this very day.  Of course, things got considerably worse in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  In some spectacular effort to add insult to injury, Fox and Marvel decided to make a film in which logic was non-existent, the more interesting characters weren't present, and the effects weren't in keeping with the bulk of its comic book blockbuster contemporaries.  Wolverine was 100 minutes of Hugh Jackman screaming at the sky, so you could bet that when the first trickles of info and teasers for X-Men: First Class came around I didn't dare get my hopes up.  As time went on, though, I came around.  The X-Men's true leading mutants, Erik/Magneto and Charles/Professor X, have a rich origin story and director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) had successfully cast two competent actors (Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy) to play them.  Assuming the two of them entered the film operating at at least 50% of their charm, the movie would make for entertaining summer fare.  Luckily, they're on top of it.  First Class is undoubtedly better than our last two dalliances with the X-Men.  It's a harmless summer blockbuster that's low on red-faced frustration even if it's too hollow and camp to really make good.  Fassbender and McAvoy offer steps in the right direction, but unfortunately, the rest of the film isn't playing at quite the same level.    
First Class follows, in part, the rise to power and the origins of the friction between Magneto and Professor X.   Our glimpses into their childhoods are intriguing, but heavily glossed over.  We get a confused instance in which young Charles is cooped up in his New York mansion with an English accent and no explanation as to how a boy stateside may have acquired such a thing or why Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is rooting around in his refrigerator in the first place.  The dialogue here is a complete muddled mess, and the child actors hired are nothing short of pathetic.  In our intro to Erik, things dig a little deeper.  Erik is a German Jew imprisoned in a concentration camp and at the mercy of study and experimentation in the hands of Nazi creep Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).  We spend just enough time with both children to get a preview of their powers and then POOF, we're whisked away to a future in which Charles is a witty academic studying gene mutation, and Erik is a badass Nazi hunter out to avenge his mother's death.  When Charles teams up with the CIA to work on capturing Shaw, now a mutant gone rogue, they chance upon Erik and convince him to assist in heading up a new division of semi-public mutants.  After a funky little 1960's mutant recruit montage, the rest, as they say, is history.
The X-Men are a Marvel property still held by 20th Century Fox and not in the hands of Marvel Studios/Disney.  It shows.  Where Marvel Studios is gripping the reins firmly on the films leading into the Avengers, First Class feels like a film unclear as to its purpose.  It's a revenue generator, yes, but not one as polished as the Avengers films have been.  What's perhaps most notably absent in this film is a concern with cinematography and stylization.  The art directors may have put together a few lovely period sets, but the cameras don't quite know how to shoot them.  There's no ambiance here, no respect for the art that would be pumped into each frame if this were a comic book.  DC/Vertigo, in its partnership with Warner Bros, has cornered the market on effectively immersing the audience in a world that possesses properties different from our own.  Stylization to this end makes suspension of disbelief more plausible.  First Class offers camerawork so generic that poor CGI isn't even masked in shadow, lens flair, or upped contrast, but instead thrown directly into the sun naked and exposed for the shoddy, flawed material it is.  There were points at which I laughed at the implausibility of action I likely wouldn't have questioned if it had been staged in a world resembling, for example, the New York of Watchmen.  With each club scene or couch lounge, I couldn't stop myself from wishing with every fiber of my being that this film had been executed in a manner between the exacting aesthetic of A Single Man and the noir darkness of Hellboy.  In these worlds, Beast's fluffy blue body might be better incorporated into the scene, Azazel's red skin won't look so painted on, and maybe Riptide's tornado generating (wow they should have cut that) might actually manage to be nifty.  In Tom Ford lightning and exactly make-up, January Jones' Emma Frost might be able to wander about in a silly white bikini and be more like Ursula Andress than a Fembot prop.  Then again, maybe not, Jones is a pretty weak link in the film...she tends to mutter through dialogue she should enunciate and spit...
Ultimately, while First Class is an improvement and a good time on a Friday night, it should have focused on the origins of the men in charge and not the building of a useless team of teen crime fighters (Zoe Kravitz got a few eye rolls from this writer).  McAvoy brings levity to his role as Charles Xavier, but it's Fassbender who really gets dealt all the best hands.  I enjoy Ian McKellan's take on Magneto, though it's a lot of cheese and flash.  Fassbender's is a different animal, one who would rock it in a Nazi hunting exploitation film and one who actually manages to make a character in a silly helmet seem menacing.  And yes, as I mentioned to M. in a text convseration immediately after, he's also horribly attractive.  Yes, even when holding his hands out and making that constipated "imma magnet this submarine" face.  The great shame of it all is that he'll now be recognized more for this role than his star turns in Fish Tank, Jane Eyre, and Inglourious Basterds.  So, there's that.

Past this, while I love the X-Men in that way that clever, misfit kids tend to, I can't speak at length about the validity of this particular take on the origin story for the superfans out there.  That ball is in M.'s court. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Love: Kaboom

Oddly enough, Kaboom is a film in the same vein as Daydream Nation.  It's a shiny new piece of teen dream trash that feels like a composite of a dozen other films and genres.  Where Daydream Nation felt too familiar, though, Kaboom is a maniacally fun pop hallucination unconcerned with real drama and chock full of raging hormones.  Kaboom is an apocalyptic sex romp in which Smith (Thomas Dekker), a college freshman, embarks on a magical, mystical journey with cults, murders, witches, conspiracy theories, and a full pornucopia of hook-ups.  This is Gregg Araki doing what Gregg Araki does best: Gregg Araki.  That is: candy colored, postmodern, self-aware, horny, trippy pop fluff and stuff.  There was a moment there (we call it Mysterious Skin) in which Araki filled in his skimpy plots and concentrated on serious drama.  It was good.  It was disturbingly good.  But the time has come to put that aside. Kaboom is a return to college cult shock schlock like The Doom Generation.  It is, however, significantly better than The Doom Generation, and in possession of quite a bit more screwed up self-satisfaction.  Kaboom is juvenile, completely silly, fairly vapid, mildly disturbing, oversexed, and just the kind of film that feels tailor-made to divide critics and repel most audiences.  That said: after a bumpy opening, I wound up really enjoying it.  The film possesses a surrealism more in keeping with David Lynch than Daydream Nation, while maintaining visuals that run in the John Waters arena.  Though it's littered with influences, Araki (clearly pop-literate) never seems to try too hard to run with any established genre, idea, or aesthetic.  Kaboom is something new, something surprising, and something wholly liquid.  It exists for itself and in itself, the story as fluid as the sexuality of its protagonist.  

Sure, you can slam it.  There's quite a bit to attack if  you're not in the mood.  The writing, for example, is half-baked, but it's there.  Smith, his best friend Stella (Haley Bennett), and his fuck buddy London (Juno Temple), communicate in that apathetic, cooler-than-thou, narcissistic manner that feels oddly true to them, while it may drive the majority of viewers up the wall.  The world they move in is one filled with supernatural oddities and reality bent outside the norm.  It's a place inhabited by the fiction I wrote in college, and a place where sorority girls in sweatpants sit in workshop and say "i don't understand what's supposed to be happening here."  In that way, I suppose, Kaboom is like a piece of experimental science-fiction that's been filmed and has lost something.  There are ways in which you have to be in that culturally open-minded college moment, or remember that moment, to go along with Kaboom.  The world is ending in a literal way in this film, but it's really no different than the way the world, that is, the universe of which you are are center, is always on the verge of ending when you're 18, stressed, in a new place, angsty and hormonal as hell.  

Araki is Araki, and he's not for everybody.  Kaboom, though, feels more accessible than his past efforts, more lived in and less abrasive.  It's ticky-tacky fun.  Like, I don't know, some x-rated gag gift you pick up at Spencer's Gifts.  Nothing to get worked up about.  I say all this though I suspect most folks I know would hate this film.  Why?  Well, because as you watch it you may wonder if the scenarios were conceived by a room full of adolescent kids or if it's a scabby band-aid peeled off of the UK version of Skins.  You may also wonder why the acting occasionally feels as though it's being done by a blend of porn actors and CW starlets.  I wouldn't be surprised, really, if you asked yourself "who the hell is this movie made for?" and decided it was for deviants, stoners, and idiots.  Meh.  My advice: don't take it too seriously.  Ultimately, Kaboom is a twisted teen movie.  It's oddly refreshing, but in that sugary cocktail way where the alcohol is too well hidden and the next thing you know you're bent over a toilet.  I have a high tolerance for sugary cocktails.  If you're more of a fine wine person, steer clear.  That's it.  I'm done with the similes and metaphors.

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