Monday, April 10, 2017

The Last Circus / 1/2* (2010)

“The Last Circus” begins with a haughty conceit, an insinuation of profound moral challenges in which our enthusiasm is incited by striking images of a cheerful circus and the soldiers of political revolution converging in the shadows. The year is 1937: war-torn Spain faces uncertainty in a violent transition of power, and the threats of rebels seem to inspire desperation in the minds of fighters, forcing them to turn to the likes of mere entertainers for numbers among their crumbling ranks. “Don’t take off your makeup,” a general says to a newly drafted clown. “You will scare them more that way.” And so he does, roaring through a mess of violence and chaos carrying only a machete, all while a sadistic grin anchors the horror of the moment. The slaughter is swift and merciless, and inspires the disquieting respect of the opposition. When he is captured after the massacre, they don’t even bother with an outright execution – what would be the relevance? And of course that would undermine the more direct focus of the film: a small child lurking in the dark who is destined to replicate the clown (his father) in equal measures of cynicism. When the two share a moment after the battle is waged, in fact, the advice he receives goes to the core of more promising cinematic visions: “Become a sad clown. Ease your pain with revenge.” Forty years later, that child instead becomes the adult plaything of filmmakers who are bankrupt of basic tonal conviction.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

House of the Dead / zero stars (2003)

The utterly dreadful “House of the Dead” wages war against the enthusiasm of moviegoers by asking a dangerous key question: can filmmakers be as stupid and irresponsible as the characters they exploit? Five minutes into the picture and I felt my inner child weeping for the future of the industry. That’s not to say this is an endeavor made with dubious intentions; on the contrary, I’m positive everyone involved legitimately thought they were participating in something amusing, at least on a professional level. But that makes their associations all the more damning when one contemplates them in the context of the final result, a film so inept that one can only gaze on it with relentless confusion. What possessed the director, Uwe Boll, to orchestrate his maddening opus with the hands of a clueless lunatic? What nerve did these writers (if you dare call them that) have in pitching a screenplay that most college students would be embarrassed to submit as a first draft assignment? And what of the designers of the game it is based on, who will no doubt look on at these images and find themselves inflamed with outrage that their source will now forever be disparaged by this stain of an incompetent adaptation?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Cinema Soul

Life as I know it began in the fuzz of an old television screen. Through it I gazed into what felt like projections of dreams, images frozen in a procedure of motion that meant we were free to imagine, to wonder, to long for adventures outside of the monotonous grind. Sometimes those realizations came out of old cartoons, other times sitcoms, and other times old Atari video game cartridges. But movies were something more. They seemed to withstand the erosion of time, of earthly cruelties meant to wither and decay all that was necessary to inform our futures.

I sensed this the first time I saw “The Wizard of Oz,” probably the most important live action film of my youth. For me it was as current as the visual of my schoolmates running across the playground, and made more profound by the belief that those peers could sprout wings and take off midflight if they felt inclined. That, I believe, is one of the primary strengths of a timeless picture: if its images could reach you in a way that blurs the lines between worlds, then they slip past the notion of mere escapism and become extensions of personal experiences. For what seemed like years after I would often reflect on Dorothy’s adventures – in film and in book – and how my own would seem had that cyclone come and carried me away instead. And Oz, as whimsical as other worlds come, felt like the hidden fortress of a backyard daydream that could become tangible with just the right squint of a young eye.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Hell or High Water / **** (2016)

The opening scenes of “Hell or High Water” establish the broader intentions of this story: a failed system against its most hardened victims. The latter are a pair of brothers, aged beyond physical measures, forced into personal decisions that reflect a cynicism birthed by grief and poverty. They arrive at a local bank in the heart of small-town Texas wearing ski masks and holding pistols, but undertake a robbery of unorthodox specifics: they will only steal small bills, allowing them avoid the obligatory tracing as they repeat the dangerous routine over a series of unsuspecting stops. As they progress, so do the confrontations; nervous sorts quickly become replaced by more audacious observers, leading to shoot-outs that acquire the attention of the Texas Rangers division. What are they doing this for? What is their destination? The sarcastic but perceptive Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) has a good grasp on the situation but not much of an understanding on motive – no doubt because in the barren isolation of the Texas desert, motives become incidental to the authorities that are after them.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Manchester by the Sea / ***1/2 (2016)

A good hour of somber exposition passes before the most important emotional current reveals itself in “Manchester by the Sea,” invariably setting us up for a stampede of dramatic traumas. Until those events of the past are unearthed, our perceptions are measured by fascination in the more literal realities, where characters seem to pass through spaces in a removed context of their existence. This knowledge is reflected further by the strange, almost distant relationship the camera shares with its locales. Nearly every shot of the film is staged in static fashion, usually with the subjects standing a few paces away or on the edges of the frames. The interiors of houses, hallways and public settings are all muted and sterile, as if to imply others only use them to house the sleepwalking vessels they use as bodies. And then a key memory drops us into the deeper crevices of this story, and suddenly we are jarred awake from the more outlying observations. What we are experiencing in those moments is not an attack on the senses or even a point of clever manipulation, but a testament to the power of deeply rooted stories of ordinary people. These are characters we would scarcely keep company with beyond a few fleeting moments of intrigue in the real world, but what they have gone through behind closed doors is a pain too unfathomable to turn away from. Their struggle becomes a test of questioning one’s own personal endurance: on the long road of paralyzing realities, do you ever regain consciousness from the waking nightmare of grief?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Unearthed and Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary (2016)

Prior to a chance viewing of the new documentary “Unearthed and Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary,” it had escaped my notice that any sort of significant fanbase existed for Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaptation of the famous Stephen King novel, about a burial ground that curses its victims to evil undeath. Even as a teenager, easily amused by the audacious antics of the most leaden horror films, here was a movie that had no sort of power or prominence; it seemed to lumber around on screen much like many of its awakened monsters, half-dead and lacking a conclusive goal beyond bleak undertones and ordinary bloodshed. But that experience of a viewing, I freely admit, had come during an onset of more exploitative genre values, when I was less interested in the straightforward pitches. Was I simply missing something that others were freely savoring? The implication of a revisit stirred deeply as I observed the case being mounted of its great power over a plethora of devoted followers, many of whom turn out to pitch their product in ways that ought to make enthusiastic Hollywood promoters envious. Here is a living document about people who treasure this lost little film so deeply that they never once reference the poor reception that came after, which is suggestive of one of two prospects: either the early audiences were too out of touch to comprehend its value, or those who adore King’s menacing yarn are doing so out of a devotion that makes them oblivious to cinema’s conventional measurements.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Great Wall / * (2017)

“The Great Wall” adopts a philosophy that all famous wonders must be rooted in the legend of absurdist yarns, and that their endurance apparently comes at the expense of sacrifices too great for the respect of modern civilization. Of course, no one involved contemplates the scientific practicality of that suggestion, but no wonder – movies of this vain are far more devoted to their underlying cynicism than they are focused on creating believable worlds, even in the context of their rather elastic suggestions. But for the sake of getting through a basic plot description, let us suspend, for a brief minute, the disbelief that comes when we contemplate this ridiculous premise. Thousands of years ago, China’s great wall was constructed as a barrier to keep enemies away from the empire they hoped to dismantle, but the greatest of those threats was not human at all: it was a horde of ravenous beasts resembling alligators on stilts, who moved with ferocious speed, attacked with evolving precision and seemed to feed from the psychic energy of a queen who, I guess, desired to conquer all mankind in some karma-ridden crusade. The human characters regard this war with military precision and unsmiling focus (as they should), but it never dawns on anyone involved that maybe, just maybe, a future that must be saved from the dangers of an alien reptile onslaught may not be a future worth facing in the first place.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Vicki Cristina Barcelona / ***1/2 (2008)

Romantic interests are rarely as simple as an act of affection or a passionate gesture, though few of the more naïve movie fantasies freely dissent from that assumption. To their directors, it’s easier for a story to coddle the complexities into a neat package of hopes and desires rather than descend into their paralyzing mysteries, though that may be of a great disservice; once we become wise to the sensations we grow to resent the idea of unrealistic happy endings. On the other hand, an exhausting discussion about contradictions can lead less experienced sorts astray from taking risks, because we are not easily programmed to tolerate a constant barrage of mistakes and arguments, especially if they may lead to damaged connections. In some strange way, both perspectives are dealt with at arm’s length by the characters at the forefront of “Vicki Cristina Barcelona,” which tells of two female friends vacationing in the Spanish countryside who walk into the lives of people who may expand (or even tarnish) their views of human relationships. Woody Allen is hardly foreign to the concept of these kinds of spirited discussions, of course, but rarely has he taken them this far, or been so perceptive about the discoveries he makes in the company of his focused actors.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Vatican Tapes / *1/2 (2015)

When it comes to supernatural dangers, a priest to the movies is what black cats are to superstitious amblers – a presence that should to be avoided at all costs, lest they lure you into the hungry jaws of pain and suffering. A certain awareness of this possibility rises to prominence in the early scenes of “The Vatican Tapes,” in which Father Lozano (Michael Pena) is seen casually brushing past an injured woman arriving at the hospital. Their dialogue is brief and innocuous, but necessitated; it implicates their relationship as one of destiny, to be escalated shortly thereafter when said woman begins to show signs of a dangerous pathological state. Yet just as precise the foreshadowing is, one can’t help but wonder if it all comes off as excessively ham-handed, even for a film of this nature. Certainly we know what we are in for right from the beginning as opening credits roll, in which a montage of footage of exorcisms is seen flashing between title cards. Certainly the early discussions of priests warning each other of demonic forces are enough to implicate a source. And certainly the abrupt transition of the heroine’s charming demeanor to one of misery is enough to lead one down all the obligatory psychological and moral detours of demonic possession premises. Observing these devices in all their vulgar and excessive glory made me nostalgic for the subtlety of “The Exorcist,” a film that outlasted all others because it trusted the audience to assemble the mystery in the slow passages.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Split / ***1/2 (2017)

The scene is a parking lot, just after a teenager’s birthday party, where three high school girls enter a car that is destined to be their final link to freedom. He who enters the driver’s seat is not the vehicle’s owner but rather a stranger – ominous and suspicious, wearing black-framed glasses and an expression of deadened complacence. Their uncertainty is far more persistent than their fear, resulting in knee-jerk struggles that come far too late; after spraying their faces with a sleeping agent they awake in a small dusty room somewhere underground, unknowing of what troubles await them. Their confusion is emulated by audiences that too have little concept of what will transpire, even as the movie delves deeply into the framework of a psychological crisis. That’s because its villain, played with deadpan conviction by James McAvoy, is not your conventional psycho interested in orchestrating brutal suffering (although there is some level of that throughout). His is a body housing multiple personalities – some childlike, others nurturing, and a few troubled beyond rational thought. Who are they going to see every time the door to their prison opens? A less threatening face, or one that will bring them incredible harm?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Funny Lady / **1/2 (1975)

The central relationship in Herbert Ross’ “Funny Lady” involves characters whose baggage has made them inconsolable mules: a gifted songwriter with no concept of stage management, and an experienced performer hardened by the weathering of failed marriages and declining artistic standards. They meet in an early scene that is destined to generate fireworks, but not the sort that necessarily constitutes positive distinctions. They argue, express mutual respect, discuss professional partnership, and even explode into aggressive verbal tangents, sometimes in that order. There are claims of dislike that infuse their interactions, yet they continue to find reasons to be around one another. Does the aggravation inspire them? Or are they feeding off the blatant honesty of the moment, perhaps because it is a luxury rarely afforded to them? They say that damaged souls with a quick tongue have a loyalty to those who spit back the same venom; because they understand the context of the words, a respect persists beyond the outlandish tirades. Theirs is a connection so strangely alluring that it gives the film an edge rarely seen – not even in “Funny Girl,” its popular predecessor, where the only significant relationship the female lead had was the one she shared with the audience.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Funny Girl / *** (1968)

On the cusp of what seems to be turning into the silent death for movie personality, great stars of the past century have entered a stasis in the memory as images of a lost idealism. One of those in particular – the face of Barbra Streisand – embodies the spirit of the most important of filmmaking eras, when conventional beauty was redefined by those whose gifts were as monumental as their artistic endeavors. A divisive figure who rose from the cinders of old Hollywood glamour, found her presence during the age of feminists and endured beyond the inert populism that would attempt to silence her great aspirations, few entertainers of the past hundred years match the depth of her contributions. To consider those achievements now is to be swept up into the awe she has created in the hearts of her most loyal admirers, many of whom have come to regard her legend as pervasive even among her most accomplished peers. On a chance occasion this last August she and I finally came face-to-face during one of her rare concert tours, which culminated in an even more resonant realization: midway through her 70s there is a sense that no other living performer is as motivated to spread richness among members of the audience, even when they might not be as cognizant of the realization.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Basic Instinct / * (1992)

The most notable curse of time at the movies is the dulling of the proverbial edge of shock, the realization that a once-sensational gimmick can be annulled by the ongoing sensory expansion of more modern exercises. Erotic thrillers, perhaps the most notorious of testing grounds for these standards, have worn the most erosion. Once embraced with a certain apprehensive enthusiasm, they came and went in the latter half of the 20th century during a boom for suggestive imagery, when the marriage of sex and violence was seen as the most challenging of weapons for a director to wield. Nowadays it seems almost blasé to consider their work in a context of more ambitious shock value, especially given the rapid advance of both implications. It is rare to find any R-rated film now, for instance, that doesn’t celebrate the extremes of gore or the thrusting of excited human anatomy; they are as much a staple of pop culture trends as a mere cuss word or insulting gesture. Would a movie like “Fatal Attraction” work at all now against what has become the norm of genres intoxicated by the excess of human exposure?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Moana / *** (2016)

Once upon a time in a faraway Hollywood boardroom, producers and executives fashioned the premise for what would become the most impenetrable force of mainstream movie genres: the family film formula. Few avenues have been as loyal to the perseverance of that standard as the animated feature, though their images are often devised to blur one’s awareness of the process; the belief is that the more distinctive or colorful the style, the less likely it is for someone to pick up on the conventional nuances or predictable indicators. But those well-versed in film cartoons eventually find themselves deciphering the output with two minds: as a child-at-heart in search of harmless adventure, and as a seasoned adult with the nerve to understand the mechanics functioning behind the curtain. A good movie will allow the former perspective of circumvent the skepticism of the other, but others may simply sell their illusions too candidly for us to forget their underlying clichés. As I watched Disney’s new “Moana,” both sides of that brain engaged in a tug-of-war that tempered my enthusiasm for what would otherwise have been a harmless experience.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

"Princess Mononoke" Revisited

“Princess Mononoke” begins with a voice that throbs over the chords of an ominous score, heralding the arrival of a menacing reality. The scene is the edge of a lush forest, fogged over, and its docile facade is jarred from silence by the breaking of branches and the flight of frightened birds. What lurks among the tall trees is not man but rather the monster man has created, a former deity of nature that has withered under corruption and now seeks to lay waste to those in his path. The peaceful denizens of a nearby village are triggered into frenzy by its dismaying appearance – a massive boar covered in an armor of maggot-like parasites – but among them is a young man whose face never seems to engage in the nightmarish rampage. It is his destiny to fight the creature and ultimately be cursed by it, leading him towards quests of intricate mystery that will blur the lines of fable and reality in ways that are rarely told (or at least done so with such precision). Those opening impulses exist above the sphere of ordinary exposition; the fact that they occur at all in an animated film is cause to contemplate the elasticity of movie genres, especially in a time when most are geared towards much simpler tastes.