Thursday, October 31, 2013

Awake in the Stars – In Memory of Sharon

Sharon Blasing was not always the simplest person to comprehend. Obscured inside a myriad of colorful euphemisms was an approach to life that inspired great consideration, and even more bewildering was the vast data bank of knowledge that permeated from her lips every time they spoke. Nomads wander through time and culture with rigorous intent to collect varying fractions of knowledge, but here was a lady that absorbed all of her surroundings (literal and figurative) like fruits of the Earth, and she did everything in her power to pay the wisdom forward. Sometimes it came out aggressively, and could open old wounds. But there was never malice in that conviction: only a desire to lift others, even if it meant making the journey more rigorous in the process.

These thoughts were not always easy to see, especially in the company of a woman whose external thought process possessed distinct flaws. There was stubbornness in her that was downright infuriating, especially when it came to health habits. She had chutzpah in asking favors, and it evolved often into audacity when they became unspoken expectations. I also recall a lot of heated discussions over politics that seemed ripe in misinformation, and it struck a nerve when she dismissed gay marriage as a “non issue” during the very tense 2012 presidential election. Her intention was never to offend or cause awkwardness, but sometimes those are natural in the face of dissonant perspectives about the world.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bad Grandpa / *** (2013)

Mel Brooks once said that a good comedy requires no fewer than five big laughs. “Bad Grandpa,” the newest MTV film from the creators of “Jackass,” has exactly that many, with several minor chuckles in between. The first comes early on in the picture when the Grandpa character is conducting the eulogy at his wife’s funeral. Their daughter arrives, indicates she is going to prison for violating parole, and angrily insists on leaving her son behind in his care until the father can retrieve him. They banter back in forth with dialogue exchanges that are overheard in the other room via a microphone that remains turned on between them. Guests are shocked and outraged by some of the vulgar proclamations. And then grandpa returns to the room, shaken up, falls back and the open coffin collapses to the floor, which is then nervously played off by the choir breaking into a hymn while the old man dances with the body. In a traditional comedy this kind of audacity would have inspired guilt in those that found it amusing, but here is a movie that, like “Borat” and “Bruno,” uses its shame in a strategic illusion to get reactions out of unsuspecting victims. And the results are often incredibly funny.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Hostel / *** (2005)

Eli Roth’s “Hostel” is an agonizing experience to sit through – disheartening, unpleasant, bursting with torture, detached and harsh, and unrelenting in its passion for the horrific. To call it a challenge in the visual sense does not begin to explain its ability to completely rob you of the comfort of artifice; it so fully indulges in its reality that every cut, every bloodcurdling moment in which pain is inflicted on a number of unsuspecting victims, is felt rather than seen. That may rob the movie of repeat value even in the hands of audiences who willingly embrace this overzealous sub-genre of torture-driven horror, but it does provoke deeper considerations: in the hands of skilled filmmakers who know how to establish reason and perspective, can extreme visual depravity rise above its nature to merely sicken and appall? Like “Saw II” and “High Tension,” here is a movie that elicits a powerful reaction not simply because it goes for the hardcore, but because it has plausible justification for doing so.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Apocalypto / **** (2006)

“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

There are a plethora of subtexts in Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” that come scurrying off the screen, but the most commanding of them is also the most subtle: the presence of a calm acceptance encasing the barbaric catastrophes of its characters. Movies often paint portraits of primitive cultures with certain detachment as a way of dealing with their tragedies, but here is a movie that skillfully masks its displacement with an air of alarming cognizance, as if to suggest the material is being viewed from human eyes rather than movie cameras. There is never a sense that what we are seeing is merely staged for an effect of shallow entertainment or even mere education, either. Gibson’s famous “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ” embellish on these feelings, but here the concept arrives at the absolute center of its psychology, and doesn’t look back for any relief. Like a survivor of inconsolable suffering, the movie endures its findings even as they grow darker and more gratuitous. And after two long hours of simple people being victimized, humiliated and tortured beyond comprehension, we are left with a hard reality that points, alas, to a universal pattern amongst all civilization: no force between men is greater than violence, and those that endure do so because they reject fear in the face of immense pain.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Aliens / ***1/2 (1986)

Think of the calculated patience of the Ellen Ripley persona. Here is a woman whose level-headed approach armed her with a foresight that would have allowed all those involved in the “Alien” movies to circumvent confrontations with menacing bloodthirsty monsters, had she not been surrounded by those too lazy or corrupt to follow rules. It was she who anticipated dread when those aboard the Nostromo decided to answer an ambiguous alien distress signal on a remote planet. It was she who refused to open the ship’s hatch when it became obvious that one of her comrades had been exposed to a face-hugging parasite. It was she who expressed discontent over others placing themselves in uncertain danger, even though it may have made her seem unsympathetic in the minds of emotional crew members. It was she who dug deep enough to discover that her crew’s resident android had been programmed to bring the alien life form back to Earth regardless of the safety of others. And when the creature gradually began picking crewmembers off in the shadowy corridors, it was she who stayed focused and committed to the cause of survival, despite the fact that the encounter caused the deaths of all those around her (save for a feline named Jones).

Friday, October 11, 2013

Sex and the City 2 / 1/2* (2010)

Here are ladies of distinct social buoyancy that have now completely lost their mojo. “Sex and the City 2” sees the bravado of four likeable demeanors reduced to the patterns of overpaid escorts; they dress in short scraps resembling dresses, drink as easily as they breathe, smile and charm crowds with superficial gestures, laugh like they are faking courtesy, and take pause long enough to engage in one-note relationship woes or sexual promiscuity, sometimes even when in conservative cultures. Once upon a time these antics were delivered with sharpness and wit that gave them a humorous context, but now they emerge from a place of vulgar excess. Why in heaven’s name did no one high up in this production take long enough pause to warn all of its talented actors that they were participating in a spectacular travesty? Like all bad ideas taken to the pinnacle of development, dollar signs likely negated the need to use logic. I certainly hope they are proud of themselves for their dubious achievement.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sex and the City / ** (2008)

The governing powers of television comedy would have salvaged many careers and avoided countless embarrassing situations had they established the following doctrine early on: keep sitcoms on the small screen and out of movie theaters, or else suffer the consequences. Evidence supporting this statement fills a list as long as most wedding registries, while notions to the contrary materialize like sightings of the Tooth Fairy. Consider the girls at the center of “Sex and the City,” for example; as the owners of a piece of prime real estate during the weekly cable network lineup for six long years, they earned a notoriety for taking a brazen approach to the taboos of love and sex: discussing them openly, exploring fetishes, dealing with embarrassment and, more importantly, finding their place in a society where they could only guess the intentions of horny men, and either love or hate them for it. Contrary to the suggestion, it was successful not just because it took provocative risks, but because it framed it all with intelligent contemplation.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Richard III / ***1/2 (1995)

There are few certainties rushing through the great Shakespeare plays, but a consensus does persist when it comes to considering the notorious Richard III: he is easily the most vindictive and cunning of all the bard’s major villains. Essays have been written over countless centuries as cathartic measures to understand the ruthless driving forces of his persona: the ability for him to anticipate human response in the face of grief, to manipulate grave tragedies to his political advantage, and to even create a convincing façade that masks his obsessive impulses in front of those who would grant him great power. It was the playwright’s first well-received tragedy, and its endurance through a career punctuated by more highs than lows adds substantial weight to its overreaching influence: for most audiences, the shadowy visage of a hunched man ruthlessly playing his way through the ranks of familial hierarchy represents the kind of multi-faceted antagonist one hopes for in all modern storytelling.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gravity / **** (2013)

A simple spark in the corner of an eye is sometimes all it takes to arouse great visionary endeavors at the movies. Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” which occupies this sentiment, is the sharpest and most effective science fiction thriller of our time: a triumph of detail and nuance that imagines something from a source of simplicity and then wraps it in a cloak of ambition that carries us through phases of wonderment, despair, alarm and sometimes outright horror. And it does so without sacrificing the critical component of the great space thrillers: its ability to create a mood without overzealous action or special effects. For the talented filmmaker who also made the fantastic “Children of Men,” the movie presents us not only with a worthy successor, but an even deeper truth: his consistent and passionate finesse with a movie camera now places him in the company of Kubrick and Spielberg.