Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Barbarian Invasion

I was expecting to hate the new remake of Conan the Barbarian (2011, directed by Marcus Nispel), so the fact that I didn't hate it was an unexpected delight. Oh, it was big and stupid, but it was more plugged in to Robert E. Howard's pulp aesthetic than I was expecting, including a raft of beheadings and naked boobs (to say nothing of Jason Momoa's naked butt). My resistance to the film essentially crumbled three minutes into it when Conan's dad (played by Ron Perlman) performs a battlefield Caesarian to deliver his new son. That's such an outre beginning that I was up for the ride. And when, as he is instructing the youth of Cimmeria in the finer points of being a barbarian, he tells his students "When a Cimmerian feels thirst, it is the thirst for blood!" I was sold. At the end of the scene that follows, in which young Conan takes up the challenge and winds up returning from a manhood test with four heads of enemy scouts, I was grinning.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

2011 List Mania Part One: The Documentaries

I'm composing my ballot for the Muriels right now, so I thought I'd use the blog to think out loud about the process. I'm starting with documentaries because I just watched a couple of them over the last two days and I only need to list five of them for the ballot. So, the best documentaries I watched from 2011:

1. Leh Wi Tok (directed by John Lavall). This is an example of how to go from the specific to the universal. It's ostensibly a portrait community radio in Sierra Leone through the eyes of DJ Andrew Kromah, but radio or any kind of media in Africa touches on so much else. You get a portrait of Africa from the point of view of Africans rather than through a white/colonialist lens, and that's invaluable. Kromah's radio station has been the target of strongman dictators and other factions in Sierra Leone's civil war. It has been burned to the ground twice. Cromah keeps plugging away, though. The filmmakers specifically watch him as he attempts to bring to light the causes for a landslide that claimed several homes and lives. In the process, you get a portrait of corruption, of powerful interests keeping the poor and disadvantaged in their place, and of the ultimate value of journalism as it speaks truth to power. This was the best film I saw when I was a film festival screener last year. This is still making the festival rounds. I hope it makes it into distribution. Here's the film's official site.

2: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (directed by Göran Olsson), which is an assembly of footage shot by Swedish television during one of the most turbulent periods of American history. Some background: I was a lower middle class white kid, so even though I lived through this (the film picks up the year after I was born), I don't know anything about what this movie depicts. I know the names of some of the players, but that's it. So this was eye-opening. Given that there's currently a movement in conservative statehouses to stamp out any American history that alludes to oppression and racism in the nation's schools, this sort of documentary becomes even more valuable. Race and oppression are still the fundamental problem of the American experience, and this film is just as relevant to current politics as it is to the politics of the late sixties. If this story is forgotten, it will only happen again.

3. Bill Cunningham in New York (directed by Richard Press) follows the titular New York Times fashion photographer around the city and beyond. The 90 year old Cunningham has been photographing the fashions of New York for decades, watching fashion take to the streets rather than walk the runway. Cunningham is a spry, charming old man who lives for his work. He doesn't appear to have much of a personal life, but, you know? It's fun watching someone who loves their work so much that it becomes a lifestyle. You also get a catalog of idiosyncratic fashionistas and a philosophy of fashion reporting. At one point, Cunningham says of Catherine Deneuve (who is arriving on the red carpet at Paris Fashion Week): "Why would I shoot that? Boring!" This is a man with a point of view and the movie makes that point of view infectious.

4. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (directed by Werner Herzog) finds the director exploring Chauvet Cave in France where the oldest cave paintings ever discovered decorate the walls. This was originally shown in 3-D, and watching it, I can see why it might have worked that way. I saw it on video, so I didn't benefit from this. It doesn't matter. Herzog's camera moves through the caves as if it was moving back through time. The paintings themselves are astonishing, showing in no uncertain terms that the human need for the aesthetic experience and our capacity to fulfill that need were fully formed 32,000 years ago. There's too much of Herzog himself in this film--a common failing among the director's documentaries--but the images he puts on the screen have a raw power that transcends the film's own limitations.

5. Tabloid (directed by Errol Morris). I'm a sucker for Errol Morris and his Interrotron. I mean, you would think that I would be over his technique after all this time, but I still find the stories he chooses to tell to be fascinating. In this case, we have a particularly lurid story (note the title, after all), in which the filmmaker recounts the case of Joyce McKinney, a Wyoming beauty queen who, in 1977, allegedly followed a Mormon missionary to Engand, kidnapped him, and held him as a sex slave. The film becomes an examination of the nature of truth, between what McKinney has to say for herself and her motives and what other people believe to have happened. For that matter, the truth of what happened is actually kind of beside the point. Morris, as he so often is, is interested more in the personality of the person in front of his camera than in what they may or may not have done.

Unfortunately, I missed some key docs this year, including The Interrupters, Into the Abyss, and a few others. I'm going to be blogging the True/False film festival in March, so hopefully, next year I won't be thrashing about to come up with five good entries. Also, it was all I could do to keep from listing Troll Hunter in this list.

Needless to say, this list is entirely fungible. The order has more to do with what I've seen recently and the freshness of what I've seen in my mind than it does with any qualitative differences between the films. Plus, I have my prejudices just as anyone does. So take all of this with a grain of salt. The mission of lists like this is not to enforce a standard of taste--at least it bloody well shouldn't be--but is rather a means of championing good films. The only utility found in this list for anyone who reads it is to point them at a film they may not have considered or heard of before.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Ball Don't Lie

Baseball movies always work on some level. The stuff of drama is built into the very nature of the game: baseball is about failure. Think about it for a bit and you'll know I'm right. The best team in the majors this year will lose a third of its games. The best hitter in baseball will sit down two thirds of the time. Some baseball teams wear failure as a badge, whether it's the Chicago Cubs or the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox. To be a baseball fan is to be a masochist. If, as in football, winning is the only thing, then the most hated team in baseball would not be the New York Yankees, who are a symbol of outsized success (the Yankees, it should be noted, have won a quarter of all of the World Series ever played). It's even in the literature of the game. Mighty Casey strikes out. So does Roy Hobbs at the end of Bernard Malamud's The Natural (and nevermind the bullshit uplift of the movie version--it rings totally false). The best baseball movie ever made is Bull Durham, where Crash Davis ends his career with meaningless home runs in the minor leagues while dreaming of making into the bigs as a manager. I mention all of this, because it informs my reaction to Moneyball (2011, directed by Bennett Miller), a film about an outrageous success that ultimately ends in failure. That's baseball for you.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Some Housekeeping

I've been invited to vote in the Muriels at the end of this month. Fool that I am, I agreed. If it seems like I've been watching more new movies over the last several months, that's why. I started out way behind the eightball and it's been a struggle to catch up. This means that I'll actually be posting a best of the year list, which is something I've never been comfortable with. Unfortunately, I've been so focused on this that I've been neglecting some other things.

One of those other things is the fact that I'm starting a new career as a self-employed artist. I'll have more about that when I get all my ducks in a row. I'm not planning on turning this into an art blog, but I may start posting a lot more shameless self-promotion. My apologies in advance. Some of that art will definitely be movie related, and I'll post a link to my Etsy store once I'm ready to start selling stuff. I'll also probably start a sister blog for art.

Also, Womanthology is coming. I haven't plugged it recently, so here you go. I have a single page in this mammoth book, but I think I hold my own against all comers. I don't lack for ego sometimes. Seriously, there's all sorts of awesome stuff in this book. Here's the link:

Womanthology was one of last year's big Kickstarter success stories, so I'll pay it forward a little. I was contacted by an indie film producer to see if I would link to the Kickstarter she's running for The Joneses, a documentary about a quirky family headed by a transgender matriarch. Trans cinema being something of interest here at stately Krell Labs, I think it would be an interesting film. I hope it gets made. Here's the promo video:

Monday, January 16, 2012

Everything's Awesome But Nothing is Good

It wasn't until I got to the end of the movie that I really started to hate Sucker Punch (2011, directed by Zack Snyder). I mean, I was irritated by it already, but the credit sequence, in which the filmmakers stage a big production number in which Oscar Isaacs and Carla Gugino sing Roxy Music's "Love is the Drug" and then completely fracture the frame for the requirements of the credits such that you can't actually see much of it was salt in the wound. The movie already wants to be a musical, and if the filmmakers were willing to go that route, it might have ameliorated the appalling sexism inherent in the movie, so say nothing of its other narrative flaws.

A Stab in the Dark

I wasn't expecting to like Scream 4 (2011, directed by Wes Craven) all that much. I'm not really a fan of either the original Scream movies or of Craven himself. Oh, there are spots in his filmography that I like quite a bit, but the reflexive nature of the Scream movies seemed to be the director devouring his own tendencies. Craven has always been a post-modern filmmaker; Scream represented post-modernism eating itself. The second film in the series reduced this tendency to absurdity. I never did see the third film. I can probably take a stab in the dark as to how that film plays, given that it's set in the movie industry. It's been over a decade since the third film. One would hardly think a fourth film would be necessary at this point, let alone one where the principles from the original are all getting a bit long in the tooth. And yet, here it is.

Note: this review contains heavy spoilers. I'll put the rest behind the cut.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Lights Out

Even though I'm the right age to have seen it when it first aired, I don't remember seeing the original Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. I saw plenty of made-for-tv horror movies when I was growing up and I remember them fondly. Those movies had an aura of weirdness all their own. They generally creeped rather than shocked, though that's not a universal--I mean, I'm still freaked out by that damned Zuni fetish doll from Trilogy of Terror, after all. These movies are a nice counter stream to the splatter films that were in the drive ins and grindhouses of the day, a refuge, as it were, for the Gothic as it retreated from movie screens. One of these days I should probably hunt down Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, because the remake (2011, directed by Troy Nixey) is interesting.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Is It Real or Is It...

If you want to talk about a movie that was totally misrepresented by its trailer, look no further than Certified Copy (2010, directed by Abbas Kairostami). If the trailer was to be believed, this was some kind of romantic ode tour of Tuscany, where a couple rediscovers their marriage. While there's certainly an element of that, that's SO not what this movie is interested in.

With Friends Like These...

That Will Gluck is such a tease. At the beginning of Friends with Benefits (2011), he gives the audience a brief interlude with Emma Stone (who he kinda sorta turned into a star in Easy A) and then she vanishes for the rest of the movie. Doing this to me is like flashing a pregnant woman some chocolate and then withholding it. You take your life into your hands, sir. Still, Mila Kunis is a suitable and appealing substitute. Appropriate, too, in a completely synchronistic meta sort of way, given that she's in the EXACT same kind of movie her Black Swan co-star, Natalie Portman, made a few months earlier, only this one is pretty good even if I find one of the film's central conceits to be kind of offensive. I'll get to that and my own unreasonable expectations in a bit. But first, a short interlude at the video shop:

Video clerk (handling the disc): Wow, this movie has a LOT of sex in it.

Me: More than Shortbus?

Video Clerk: Hah! No. That was kind of a special movie.

Turns out that this one is kind of special, too. I LOVE how it depicts sex. I'll get to that in a bit, too, but first, a synopsis:

Monday, January 09, 2012

Out in the Cold

After John le Carré wrote his last novel about spymaster George Smiley, he lamented that Alec Guinness had stolen the character from him. In what is, perhaps, a bid to reclaim the character, the author acts as a producer on the new version of his seminal spy novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, directed by Tomas Alfredson), in which Gary Oldman takes on the role. Smiley, in this story at least, is not an easy role to play. He's essentially a listener and for most of the movie, he's entirely passive. He has barely enough dialogue to register as a character. He's the audience, listening to the secrets of gray, tired men who have been out in the cold too long. Intelligence work is not James Bond, le Carré tells us. It's wearying, tedious, soul-crushing work. There's violence in this movie, but it's not thrilling. It's merely another unpleasant chore between poring over files and listening to taped conversations and drinking and smoking too much.

Friday, January 06, 2012

New Year's Movie Meme

Rachel over at The Girl with the White Parasol has authored her very own movie meme for the new year. Rachel is one of my very favorite movie bloggers, so I'll play along even if I'm a week late. Warning, this is image-heavy pic spam. Be aware.

She asks twelve questions:

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Not a Dog

My partner lives under a rock. When I asked if she wanted to go see Tintin with me, she said, "That's about a dog, right?" I tried not to facepalm, and mostly succeeded. "No," I said, "That's Rin Tin Tin. There is a dog, but Tintin isn't the dog." I imagine that more than one American has had a variant of this conversation. Tintin isn't well-known here in the states, and this is a blockbuster that seems designed for the world market rather than the domestic one. The numbers on Box Office Mojo appear to bear this out.