Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Secret of Kells / **** (2009)

Much gets lost in the winds of change when it comes to feature film animation, not the least being obscure movies that circulate outside of major studio distribution and settle for diminutive exposure. “The Secret of Kells,” a small picture that dwells far from the standards of the mainstream, argues against that reasoning in an era where CGI has eclipsed the prevailing power of hand-drawn cartoons, and finds a quality worth revisiting. This is perhaps the most enchanting and zealous animated endeavor you will see this side of the Pixar lineup: a stylistic and vibrant piece of art that tells a rich story, and does so with an implication that would marvel the finest storytellers of the Hollywood Golden Age. To imagine something this special coming along in a time when theaters are obsessed by the high tech mediocrity of 21st century cartoons is quite revealing. Regardless of where the values may lie, here is a genre that continues to inspire the imaginations of artists of all walks and cultures to immense heights.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Man of Steel / **1/2 (2013)

Any movie about a superhero usually begins with the same pointed questions: what are their origins, and how did they come into their abilities? The answers in the “Superman” movies have not always encouraged directors to see them as more than just a suggestive afterthought. “Man of Steel” immediately presents a distinct departure from that sentiment – in a prologue that is both vast and realized, the planet of Krypton is seen in the final throws of a demise that exposes great social unrest. According to a being known as Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the Kryptonians have depleted their planet’s core of essential resources, sentencing its inhabitants to certain doom as their habitat begins to implode. The endeavors of a man named General Zod (Michael Shannon) are stirred to tyrannical proportions by such prospects, and he spearheads a rebel movement to overthrow the existing leaders and steal from them a critical codex containing the genetic blueprints of their civilization. Shoot-outs and fast chases aboard flying starcraft ensue, and then Jor and his wife are seen stowing away the codex on a ship that will carry their newborn son across distant galaxies to a little blue planet that, hopefully, will give him an opportunity at a better life. Unfortunately for the child, those rebels too survive the experience of a dying planet, setting the stage for some sort of eventual confrontation between them.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones / *1/2 (2013)

There have been countless pictures featuring actors who basically phone in their performances, but “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” is the first in a while in which the screenplay encourages that laziness. Penned by newcomer Jessica Prostigo, the movie plays like one of those film school experiments where everyone on set remains aloof from the material because their drive is dictated by getting class assignments out of the way rather than having passion for the craft. She and her director Harald Zwart find an odd choice to exhibit this behavior for, however: the movie is the first based on a popular series of young adult novels penned by Cassandra Claire, which by definition would suggest that they might have a stake in its success. Instead what we get is a result with a bad case of attention deficit, built around clich├ęs and half-inspired visual and narrative gimmicks in which characters pass through scenes of flashy textures, discuss predicaments with inane dialogue, and occasionally stop to kiss one another when the soundtrack cuts to a pop song.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Hitchcock / *** (2012)

It all begins with a need, they say. Then comes the discovery, sometimes found in the low rumbles of a source off radar. And then the all-important idea: the single thought and purpose that will lay the groundwork for one’s drive. These are the seeds of inspiration that many movie directors go through in that narrow window of artistic limbo between completion of one project and scoping for another, and sometimes they come together with almost divine purpose. One wonders if this is how the real Alfred Hitchcock felt in that time of uncertainty when he went searching for new material after the success of “North by Northwest,” and found a lurid little novel in his hands that fictionalized the gratuitous crime spree of serial killer Ed Gein in the late 30s. The book was called “Psycho,” and the rest was bloody entertaining history.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Magnolia / **** (1999)

In the haze of late 90s human dramas that observed characters through the cracked lens of pragmatism, fresh faces in the cinema found a playground of golden opportunities. From this threshold came the onslaught of a new generation of ambitious thinkers, paving the way for names like Neil Labute, Lars von Trier, Darren Aronofsky, Danny Boyle and Sam Mendes to show up on movie screens – men who worked within the shadows instead of stepping outside of them, each employing a voice relative to the times and finding tremendous inspiration in the turn-of-the-century paranoia that quietly wove its way through narratives. These were not necessarily cynical stories, but they underscored the vulnerability of their players in a way that removed the gloss and polish of previous decades, and brought them closer to our experiences. Some might say even dangerously close. Just imagine the faces of more optimistic movie artists like Capra or Brooks as they watched a picture like “Trainspotting” or “In the Company of Men”; no doubt their joy would be replaced by looks of shock and crashing feelings of despair.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Oblivion / **1/2 (2013)

When a movie engages in the argument of DNA being the source of a human’s memories and identity, one finds very few scenarios in search of plausible conclusions. In the recent “Moon,” those ideas were echoed in meditative passages that refused to be decisive, imploring audiences to consider the uncertainty rather than revel in final explanations. In a more popular example, “Alien Resurrection” featured a story arc of the character of Ellen Ripley being cloned hundreds of years after her death, and the replica seemed to possess vague hints of the original’s memories and feelings. How are these threads of reasoning possible? Are they possible at all, even? The doubt emphasizes the joyous continuity of the great sci-fi fables of our lifetime, echoing the words of Phillip K. Dick or the visions of Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott in their desire to ask questions impossible to answer in simple episodes. To reply to them with conclusive reasoning is to defy the core intentions of this genre, which means to leave the discussion open for our inspired minds.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Elysium / *** (2013)

The world of class division and social imbalance in “Elysium” is not one I would ever hope to visit. Sure, that giant circular space station hovering just outside Earth’s orbit is intriguing; using machines to create its artificial atmosphere and solar panels to wall in narrow stretches of man-made land, the wealthiest of human societies find total peace and serenity in this oblique habitat, as if residents of the Hamptons never displaced from home. Their advances in medicine are quite miraculous too, and even a terminally ill patient would marvel at technology’s ability to simply remove all traces of viruses and pathogens by a simple body scan in a “med bay.” But there is a sense of passive acceptance in their perfunctory lives that acts as blinders to the ways of the rest of human civilization, 99 percent of whom still occupy an Earth that is overpopulated, drenched in fatal sicknesses and poverty, and given no hope of improvement. To many of them, the existence of Elysium stands out in the sky like a Utopian vision, a symbol of promise that inspires one to the highest of goals. It never dawns on them that the same palace they idolize could also be the very thing that is turning a blind eye to their needs.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter / *1/2 (2012)

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is the first in what will no doubt be a long and exhaustive trek across the cinematic landscape of well-known historical and literary figures coming to blows with the movie monsters made famous in the golden age of Hollywood. Based on a popular book of the same name, it sets an example now widely embraced by fiction readers of this generation, in which characters from famous stories like “Sense and Sensibility” do battle with sea monsters, or the heroine of “Pride and Prejudice” is caught in a world of zombies. In some meandering way, I suppose, this marriage of genres is a clever gimmick on part of skilled writers wanting to lure aspiring bookworms into the practice of developing knowledge of the classics of literature outside of educational curriculums. Such a ploy is shrewd on their part, but effective for an audience of novices that are easily hooked by the supernatural sensibilities of modern art.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Red Violin / ***1/2 (1998)

The obsessive nature of man is stirred by desires of impossible reach – desires to capture perfection, to acquire something greater than the mind can comprehend, and to bask in a glow of inspiration that may open a pathway to unmatched elation. The fault in possessing such aspirations is that the human soul is usually too frail to endure the lessons it must confront. For all the important players in “The Red Violin,” that message is shown within the presence of a singular object that transcends time and culture. Crafted in 1681 by the hands of a gifted violin maker named Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi), a remarkable violin – so named in the title because of its distinctive red hue –becomes a physical and emotional current affecting various sets of lives from one century to the next on a journey of divine mystery. It possesses great secrets. And in all instances, it passes from one owner to the next as if a muse meant to inspire them (and their observers) to masterful heights – heights, unfortunately, so great that they bend the will of men and women to equally tragic depths.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Melancholia / **** (2011)

Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” is a symphony of poetry conducted with almost fortuitous precision, the kind of movie that happens not because it was calculated with certain dedication, but because all of its key ingredients come together in the right time and place when its director is emotionally mature enough to assume the material. Few films are as effective at evoking the purely intuitive nature of their directors, but they do exist in rare instances. Think of Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” or Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.” Achievements of this regard abandon structure and grounding because they are impulses in motion, and are conducive to the development of artists who are ready to step beyond traditions in order to seek transcendence. The journey von Trier has taken to this one immaculate moment has been bold to say the least, but at long last, he has revealed his full ability, and the result is his masterwork.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Lessons from Criterion:
"Antichrist" by Lars von Trier

To make a film as divisive as “Antichrist” in a movie climate that laps up torture and despair at the hands of cruel sadists, Lars von Trier made more statements than he perhaps intended to. Created in a vacuum of professional uncertainty and often described by the director as his “therapy” in very dark personal times, the end result became a hot discussion during its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. Some lauded what they saw with thunderous cheers (most of the European press was captivated by its frontal implications) and others engulfed that enthusiasm with equally-commanding boos and lashings (one prominent American critic even branded the material as “worthless,” and questioned the sanity of the Festival board for including it in the competition). The festival went on to even honor the endeavor with an “anti-award” – one of the fewest in festival history – and called the end result an exercise in misogyny. In both extremes, the display became the precursor to similar outbursts of enthusiasm (or repulsion) in the hands of its eventual audience. No person who saw the movie was unaffected by the suggestions it made, and no response lacked passionate conviction.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Joyful Noise / * (2012)

The title “Joyful Noise” is as much a misnomer as you can find when it comes to descriptive movie names. Noise it is, joyful it is not. Somewhere in some dark and quiet room, potentially with sad music playing softly in the background, the person who opted to fund this ill-conceived comedy is sitting in dead silence with his head in his hands, shamed by the same question that all investors who once faced financial ruin have pondered over time: “where did this all go wrong?” Endorsing the movie to any audience with favorable IQ points would be an insult, but there is a certain morbid fascination I uphold in what viewers with some knowledge of church choirs would think of what they see. My gut tells me their reactions would be even more spiteful than mine, and the enthusiasm in those convictions would no doubt be more energetic than anything the filmmakers have conveyed.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Pacific Rim / *** (2013)

With the Japanese being the primary victims of giant monster attacks over the course of decades in the movies, it’s just as well that they get to be the ones who name the giant creatures who wreak havoc in “Pacific Rim.” Dubbed the “Kaiju,” these giant alien beasts begin making sudden appearances on Earth in the year 2013, causing mayhem and catastrophe along the pacific coastlines in routine intervals before being conquered by military forces, only to be replaced by others much more ferocious than the previous. A voiceover at the start of the picture points to the source of their arrival: a portal nestled at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean which allows beasts from another world to pass from theirs to ours with minimal fuss. But why would they even want to invade us in the first place? By means of educated guesses, we suspect that these alien life forms are simply eager at eradicating the human race for the sake of planetary takeover. Thinking further about the idea of dimensional doorways being the source of movie monsters in general, I half wondered if a similar gate in the Atlantic is what essentially unleashed the creature in “Cloverfield.”

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Illusion of Influence

My admiration for Johnny Depp and the dexterity he brings to his movie roles has been unwavering for decades, but the diatribe he and his cohorts from “The Lone Ranger” went on during the recent U.K. premiere plays like a blatant absence of sanity. In the press room, the brains behind Disney’s biggest flop of the year rallied around director Gore Verbinski and continued to push their faith in their big-budgeted remake of the famous television series, but took the argument against its domestic failure up a notch when they opted to direct the crosshairs of blame onto the critics.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Lincoln / ***1/2 (2012)

The opening scenes create a clear distinction: war is not the sole component dividing this society. The man in the tall hat seated in the center of a military encampment stares beyond the piercing rains and sees his supporters trapped in a cycle of building and preparing, mindful of the reality that many will not be left standing alive after the inevitable battles that remain to be fought. Their drive nevertheless is inspiring, and reflects the enthusiasm for the ideals being set forth by the visionary who calls himself the commander-in-chief in these dark and tumultuous times. A young black supporter wanders nearby and reminds the president, somewhat unintentionally, of the importance of the mission: his eyes beaming with a light of hope, he recites the introductory lines of the famous Gettysburg address. For him, and thousands of other slaves who were victimized and persecuted for countless generations before the dawn of the civil war, these words were more than just a call for important change: they were, in essence, the keys to opening the door that had long been shut on a sect of population. The subsistence of these proclamations underscores the greatest desire of all human life, which comes down to, quite simply, freedom and liberty for all.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Lessons from Criterion:
"Ali: Fear Eats the Soul" by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

If German history books must paraphrase the sum of its important contributions to world cinema, all statements begin and end by referencing the country’s two most essential eras – that of “Germanic Expressionism” in the 20s, and the more recent “Neuer Deutscher Film,” which began in the 60s as a way to usher in a generation of thinkers who thought beyond the proverbial boundaries of their culture. In both instances, young aspiring artists were conditioned by the fallout of Germany’s involvement in two World Wars, and under the weighted influence of a social structure seeped in uncertainty, they were eager to embrace the fires of chaos in order to obliterate the illusion of harmony that was used as an oxygen mask.

Friday, August 2, 2013

A Muse of a Different Color

Photographed by Cherie Renae, of Cherie Renae Photography.
The second act of the movie that is my existence began in a moment of slow motion clarity. He walked across the grass with an entourage of acquaintances come to exchange greetings with the gentleman I was then seeing. Superficial gestures masked a transparent need to feign interest in one another: an action, I guess, based on a need to simply keep good face in a crowd of people already pretending to care more than they did. A drag queen ferociously lipped the words of Rihanna’s latest hit remixed to thumping trance beats, and all attempts at conversation were muted under the reverb. There were no words necessary; he smiled slyly in all directions, and sharp brown eyes under a shaded face shot gazes through the crowd that were disarming. The music stalled for a moment, and a man stoned out of his head lumbered forward, clasping his shoulders as he passed. “If you don’t mind me saying, you look like dinner,” he announced. He continued to walk on, and the circle of conversationalists glanced past as if amused. My face revealed honest impatience with such a transparent come-on, and I responded without the faintest hesitance: “And what does that make you, a leftover?”

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook / ***1/2 (2012)

The internal conflict that overwhelms the main character in “Silver Linings Playbook” is obvious even before a word is spoken. His eyes shift to and fro with a sense of unease, and the mannered, almost calculated way he speaks to staff and fellow patients within the psych ward he is soon to be released from suggests a knack for exaggerating the truth, possibly because it makes it that much easier for him to stay within the confines of denial. But all will be okay in the long run, he believes, because “Excelsior,” the Latin word for “ever upward,” is on his lips relentlessly when in the face of his heavy-handed reality. Alone, somewhat detached and clueless as to the damage control that will be required in the world he alienated, Pat is ready to face the future head on with absolute optimism. And that means finding a silver lining in all day-to-day situations even if he has to practically beat it out of himself.