Sunday, January 31, 2016

Lessons from Criterion:
"Ivan's Childhood" by Andrei Tarkovsky

Had the debut feature of Andrei Tarkovsky been merely regarded as one of the first of many critical essays about the impact of war on the innocence of youth, it certainly would have been enough. But “Ivan’s Childhood,” one of the saddest and most honest tragedies ever to come out of Russia, rose above even those standards – it was the caveat of the profound possibilities of eastern cinema, effectively heralding the discovery of one of the most perceptive minds to ever stand behind a movie camera. While the very concept of war films was certainly nothing new to industries overseas – especially given that most countries could only reach wide distribution by dealing with such material – seldom had they been devised under the weight of such heartbreaking humanity, or in the space of impeccable artistry. Before his undertaking, the genre had mostly been dominated by the onslaught of propaganda agendas, or movies about the strategy of the act; more routinely they were crude excursions, cut together like sensationalist news reels. But after his audacious foray into the most unfortunate reaches of the victim pool, perceptions changed so intensely that it paved the way for nearly all anti-war films that would follow. Rare is it for any single achievement to drive the hands of the cultural zeitgeist, and even more elusive is the realization that so much of today’s standard still rests firmly on any single achievement.

Monday, January 25, 2016

1408 / *** (2007)

The common decree of the haunted house formula insists that harmful energies must exist in places where great pain has been inflicted – that in order for there to be a legitimate case for ghostly curses to remain behind, some sort of catalyst must lurk underneath, waiting for someone perceptive enough to trigger release. Rarely do writers and film directors deviate from that standard, although they are apt to stretch the possibilities. Consider a recent series like “Insidious,” or the ambitious “The Conjuring.” What do they have in common beyond their own self-reliant boundaries? Each implores the use of details that heighten the stakes of the outcome, usually at the service of climaxes that stretch the limits of the stories (or highlight strange fragments in the psyches of the characters). And in even rarer cases there are those infrequent journeys through locales that create impossible mysteries; they become mere devices to propel the personal dilemmas of the victims, and one is often left to wonder what – if any – source could inspire so much evil.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Balls of Fury / 1/2* (2007)

In a literal context, “Balls of Fury” is a movie about a misfit competing in an upscale Ping Pong tournament in order to gain information against a government enemy, but on some subterranean level, it’s a study of how celebrity agents can coerce a talented veteran actor into participating in one of the most painfully unfunny comedies ever made. The very existence of Christopher Walken has the capability of inspiring devious intrigue, but the suspicion that any person in his circle did not look at this project and insist on restraint is a disheartening prospect. That, of course, opens the door to more centralized contemplations. Did he really think what he was getting involved in was flattering to his legacy? Was he simply manipulated into it for a financial gain too precious to contemplate? Or worse yet, did he find it at all funny, essentially pigeonholing his own sense of humor as one of tone-deaf naivety? The lack of an answer may be even more troubling, especially in context of a supply of scenes where he is made to look and move like a confused impersonator doped up on mood enhancers.

Monday, January 18, 2016

What We Do in the Shadows / *** (2014)

There’s a challenge at the start of “What We Do in the Shadows” that supplies audiences with a fascinating quandary: what kind of lives would vampires lead if they were not privy to the glitzy glamour of gothic romance novelists or horror film architects? For most, the implication might not have involved something so tongue-in-cheek. But here is a movie that suspects there would be no other option beyond characterizations so seemingly absurd; caught in a world that recognizes their elaborate curses from a place of silliness, it tells the story of a group of close-knit bloodsuckers who engage in wild nightlife antics that are neither strategic nor threatening, and often culminate in elaborately disastrous consequences. Beyond the gruff exterior of pale skin, sharp fangs and insatiable bloodlust, these are beasts that possess none of the preconceived characteristics of a vampire and simply emerge as nocturnal simpletons. If only their appetites – and their decision-making skills – were as sound as the legends painted them to be.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Everest / **1/2 (2015)

Ominous warnings fill our heads when we contemplate the details on a narrative card at the opening of “Everest,” and only some of them are subconscious ruses. The mere thought of Earth’s tallest peak inspires a sense of uneasy anticipation; while it has rested comfortably for millions of years atop the Tibetan plateau, man has inherited a long-standing fascination with its deadly charm. They see it as a monument of impossible endurance, a testing ground for an extreme layer of human limitations that have no certain answers. And while many have attempted to scale its dangerous slops in the last century, only a handful have ever made it all the way – peaking at the altitude of most aircraft, the very low supply of oxygen has diminished one’s odds for survival, and the upper echelons have become icy graveyards for those succumbing to the harsh cold. At some point those odds became more favorable when more skilled climbers mapped out the most navigable paths, but like an evolutionary predator the mountain had its own dark intentions, and would eventually offer new and fatal challenges for those partaking in the daunting ascent to the summit.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Revenant / **** (2015)

It all comes to pass in a sphere of towering mountains and steep rolling valleys, a setting of disquieting immensity. Among the trees walk the soiled figures of a troupe of white men, who have gathered for one specific purpose: to partake in the ambitious fur trade sweeping the Americas. It is, unfortunately, also home to a native population that is as mysterious as it is threatening, and conflicts of a violent nature will inevitably undermine their missions. But the reasons are nearly lost in a haze of shared hatred and misunderstanding. What is known, at least to those who will come to survive, is that the weight of nature will crush any remaining aspirations they possess, because they have reached beyond the borders of order to arrive at the center of a storm of unrelenting destruction. And somewhere in that bedlam of anger are the unflinching survival instincts of a man who hardly knew he possessed them, which raises this particular doubt: when hope fades and death refuses to come, what is left for you in a world already on the verge of destroying itself?

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Hugo / **** (2011)

Upon first impression, the colorful world of a young boy living inside a Paris train station hardly seems like the sort of material that would come to the attention of Martin Scorsese. Traditionally driven by the cold realities on the mean streets of the big city, his is a pattern of more serious sensibilities, and not at all brought to fruition by the simple pleasures or characters possessing mere hope and confidence. But then there is a revelation of stirring importance that rises to the peak of our awareness, and a critical connecting point emerges. Reflecting his impassioned crusade for the continued preservation of film heritage, the story ultimately becomes a fable about one such discovery (and certainly one of the most enriching) falling into the hands of inquisitive youths. So harmonious are those links that once our eyes awaken to the truth, alternate scenarios feel like nightmares, even betrayals. What other filmmaker – dare we say even the most visual or artistic – could have shown so much love for a subject this precious, or enveloped it in such a passionate embrace of careful technical values and stirring emotional undercurrents?

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Hateful Eight / ***1/2 (2015)

What charms this bitch got, to make a man brave a blizzard and kill in cold blood? I’m sure I dunno.

A carriage at the edge of a blizzard trots hastily across silent miles of snowy terrain, galloping towards a destination that it may never reach. It stops only twice: once to pick up a stranded bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) and three of his prized corpses, and again to rescue a drifting would-be sheriff (Walton Coggins), on his way to be sworn into his newly-elected position. Already aboard are two coarse faces carrying distinct agendas: one also a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) who speaks in urgent commands, and the other his prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose eyes shift to and fro as if suggesting mutilated euphemisms conceal more devious intentions. Their inadvertent union is one of perplexity and discomfort, but their wicked smiles do not reveal the details of that unease. There is dialogue, too – a rather abundant supply of it, and it carries their strange destinies towards a plot scenario in which they become stranded with another four strangers, all walled up in a rickety cabin just as the menacing blizzard overtakes them. On some subterranean level, they are meant to converge this way – as pieces on a chess board that seems made to inspire violence and chaos, all under the ruse of intense suspicion. What secrets do they carry? Those certainties are less important than the question of why, because the root of the greatest movie westerns is understanding the morality of the man holding the gun, not what brought him to that key moment of reaching for it.