Wednesday, February 27, 2013

True/False 2013, Day Zero: Bring Up the Lights

I'm doing the True/False Film Festival again this year. This is the tenth year of True/False. I've attended all ten festivals in one degree or another. Last year was intense for me. I saw fifteen movies over four days last year. This year will be even more so. This year, for a change, I'm  involved with the festival. I was on the screening committee this year, a process that is as fun as it is frustrating. Fun, because I saw a TON of movies. This is the reason my blogging tailed off so drastically toward the end of last year. Festival screeners were squeezing out my ordinary movie viewing and I couldn't write about what I was seeing. I still can't legally or ethically write about most of what I saw, which is where the frustration comes in. The other piece of frustration comes from the fact that T/F had something like a thousand submissions this year and only forty something slots. I saw a bunch of films that would be terrific selections for somebody's film festival. They'd be terrific films for True/False in an alternate dimension. I've seen big name docs in past editions of  T/F that weren't as good as some of the films I saw. At the top level of films, it's almost random chance that gets you into the festival. There are too many worthy films and not enough slots. The guys making the final selections based on the films forwarded to them by the screeners surely had to kill a lot of their darlings. I don't envy them.

The upside for me is that I've seen several of the films playing the festival beforehand. Theoretically, this should have made scheduling the festival easier for me because there are blocks of films that I can ignore. In practice, that turned out not to be true, but that's fine. I'm sure what I'm signed up to see will be terrific. Meanwhile, I can tell you about three of the films at this year's fest as the curtain rises.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bitter Pills

If Steven Soderbergh's troubling new medical thriller, Side Effects (2013), is indeed his final feature film, then he's entering his retirement on an up note. No small feat given how few directors leave their profession with grace and dignity. I mean, just look at Vincente Minnelli's or Billy Wilder's last films if you want a cautionary tale about staying on the stage too long. Side Effects, by contrast, is one of Soderbergh's most assured films.

Note: here there be spoylers.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

...Lest Ye Be Judged

Low expectations are a wonderful thing. When I heard that there was going to be another film based on Judge Dredd, I cringed a little bit in my mind. Things didn't go so well the last time someone had a go at the character. By every yardstick you can imagine, the Stallone film from 1995 was a first class debacle. I'll admit, however, that I have a certain amount of fondness for it. It mistakes comics for cartooniness, but it goes so far over the top with that choice that it has a certain low comedy to it. But it doesn't have much in common with the hyperviolent comics on which the movie is based. The new movie, Dredd (2012, directed by Pete Travis) returns to Mega City One to check up on Judge Dredd. Much to my surprise, the character in this film is recognizably the same character from the comics. Color me shocked. The movie turns out to be surprisingly entertaining and surprisingly sophisticated.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Odds and Ends: Muriels Edition

The Muriel Awards are upon us once again, and once again, the powers that be have foolishly allowed me to cast a ballot. I guess they needed to let at least a couple of girls into the boys' clubhouse to make things legit.

The awards are rolling out gradually this week, so check it out. I'll be posting my own ballot with some comments once the whole thing has posted next week. I'm a horrible list maker, and a few of my selections were disallowed for distribution reasons, but what the hell. I might want to refer to this sometime in the future.

Anyway, the Muriels site can be seen here.

I'll also be participating in the White Elephant Blogathon again this year. I thought about being cruel with my movie selection this year, but I went with something interesting instead.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Warm Bodies (2013, directed by Jonathan Levine) is a perverse reworking of Romeo and Juliet in the idiom of the contemporary zombie romantic comedy. I can't believe I just wrote that sentence. The future is not what I expected it to be. These truly are the days of miracles and wonders. In truth, I'm not entirely opposed to adding legions of the living dead to Shakespeare. Certainly, this could work for Lear or Richard III. Hell, the living dead are already on stage in Hamlet and Macbeth. What bothers me about Warm Bodies is not the mash-up, but rather how warm and cuddly it has made the zombie. Still, I don't suppose it's entirely at fault for this. The process by which we have ended up here started decades ago.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Broken Bones

People are messy. That's something that movies seldom understand. The mystery of why people behave the way that they do is something that eludes most films. Hell, the fact that there even IS a mystery is lost on most filmmakers, who are content with canned motivations and "turns out what happened was" back stories. People are sometimes broken and unpleasant and there's no solving that at the end of two hours. The characters in Rust and Bone (2012, directed by Jacques Audiard) are broken and unpleasant and human and inhabit a movie that refuses look away from this fact. It's a harrowing film.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Flotsam and Jetsam

There's a dream sequence near the end of Juan Antonio Bayona's disaster film, The Impossible (2012) that's just about the most frightening thing I've seen in any movie ever. It's a callback to an interesting lacunae during the film's big set piece in the first act, in which the screen goes black for a bit when the 2004 Christmas tsunami sweeps into the resort where our protagonists are vacationing. That sequence is profoundly terrifying, too, and so well-conceived and executed that it temporarily paralyzes whatever cognitive function distinguishes fiction from fact, real life from make-believe. But the dream sequence at the end? that scene compounds that cognitive short circuit by adding a sense of existential terror and dread. We see Naomi Watts swept along by the wave from underwater. She's lacerated and pummeled by debris, surrounded by bodies swept along with her. Then, ever so briefly, the film slows down into something like the Matrix's bullet time, and the audience should reset their sense of reality because the movie is showing its hand as a movie, but I didn't make that leap. It's the bubble of air just escaping her lips as the film slows down. That bubble is the coup de grace. In that moment, I was entirely surrendered to the film. In retrospect, I can fault the film for privileging the narrative of movie star-attractive white people over the millions of Asians swept away by the same waves, I can cringe a little at the fact that the real Spanish family at the heart of the story has been whitewashed by the film, but in that moment those considerations were a million light years from my mind.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Maternal Instincts

The ghost story is the most ritualized card in the horror tarot. The elements of a haunting almost always follow a set path that delves into the sins of the past. There's always a past, pieced together by the protagonists from old newspapers, mouldering town records, or unearthed diaries. Ghosts are most often avatars of past traumas, reliving some private inferno again and again until someone comes along to appease them. Or not. A friend of mine doesn't like ghost stories much. She thinks they're too much of a strait jacket. I dunno. I dig them. Once I accept that the theme is going to be the same as in every other ghost story out there, I can groove on the variations. Ghost stories have been enjoying a renaissance in the last fifteen years or so as filmmakers have wedged the tropes of the ghost story into modern, technological settings, fueled by the imagery of the J-horror boom and bust. The latest of these is Mama (2013, directed by Andrés Muschietti), and it's more or less of a piece with other similar movies like The Orphanage or The Possession. The contemporary ghost movie is a glum affair, and this is no different. What IS different with this movie is the way it codes its narrative. It also indulges in stylistic tricks derived from producer Gullermo Del Toro's cinematic legacy.