Queen & Slim
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
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As a film, "The Help" is obvious and dull; as a social statement, it's toothless and pandering. Images of race and the struggle for civil rights will always be powerful, but the film doesn't earn their power, instead resorting to manipulative kitsch. In "The Help," racism is depicted as a bygone problem, not a complex issue we continue to wrestle today. As a result, viewers aren't challenged to take a harder look at racism in their own lives, but rather given a pat on the back for living vicariously through the plucky "Skeeter" (Emma Stone), who is the deliverer of the black women's salvation. Even strong performances (especially by Viola Davis, who would be this film's heart, if it had one) can't bolster characters this broadly drawn - the racist ladies couldn't have been more cartoonishly evil if they'd been given moustaches to twirl. Moreover, racism as portrayed by "The Help" is not a hurtful act capable of great harm, but is rather to be avenged with schoolyard pranks and gossip. "The Help" is so far out of touch, it feels like an issue film from the era it portrays: well-intentioned, but cringe-worthy.
Lars Von Trier has made no secret of his life-long bouts with depression, and this film may be the closest thing to evidence of a mind that truly understands the depths to which we can sink. Each character (all anchored by remarkable performances, not the least of which is Dunst's) represents a different facet of depression, and the film strikes an uneasy balance between the destruction such feelings can sow and the unpleasant notion that they perhaps prepare us for our inevitable fate. Despite the apocalyptic sci-fi premise, this film is concerned entirely with the private lives of its characters - no international drama or alien's-eye view of humanity's extinction is to be seen. If anything, it feels like an inverse Tree of Life, searching, perhaps in vain, for a greater meaning in the Earth's end. Von Trier's direction feels more restrained than usual here, but while the film moves often at a snail's pace, its slow build culminates in an unshakable conclusion. Available now, before it hits theaters, on both iTunes and Xbox Live, Melancholia is absolutely worth spending a contemplative evening.
Heavyweight performances from an all star team of character actors and big stars alike make this a must-see, as does Clooney's classical eye as director. While the political intrigue may feel a bit warmed-over, and the pervasive cynicism about corruption's nesting doll spread in government may seem tautologous, the suspense (over just who will do what to whom, and when, and how) never lets up.
A thrillingly minimalist modern noir with a killer soundtrack. Gosling plays the kind of stoic hero every man would like to envision himself. The action scenes are shot with a clarity and nail-biting sense of suspense that's rare these days. Unflinchingly violent, dually classical and fresh, Drive is not to be missed.
Cronenberg and Fiennes allegedly declined to take payment just in order to get the money together to get this film made, and that passion shows onscreen in this intimate portrayal of a young boy's complicated relationship with his parents, burgeoning sexuality, and the tragedy that turns him into a broken, schizophrenic man. As pop psychology it may be a bit too pat, but the assured directing and a hypnotic performance by Fiennes make this intimate little gem well worth watching.
It's interesting to watch Cronenberg's fascinations develop from their rough roots in films like The Brood to his later, frighteningly great works like Videodrome and Existenz. Here, he focuses on the mind's ability to affect the body, with plenty of opportunities for mental scar-inducing body horror. While the main character is a flat everyman, Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar's performances make it worth the watch, as does the gross-out climax which may be seen, but not believed.
I think it's possible that everything you can learn in film school is contained within Videodrome.
Jim Emerson said: "A horror or science-fiction movie without subtext is like Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory without electricity. The inner metaphor is what gives it life and resonance. Otherwise, it's just a story about stitched-together people parts."
It was hard not to think about this quote while watching Tron Legacy. It's a movie with such a seemingly obvious subtextual metaphor that it's overwhelmingly disappointing when the cyberspace setting is used as nothing more than a magical fantasy land where our hero can stomp out the rote path of the Hero's Journey. The original Tron gets a pass on this, largely because it was made before computers were fully understood, certainly before they were a part of the public consciousness as a whole, so it's understandable that the tech metaphors are flimsy to nonexistent. Also, it was (and remains) a visually striking film, a benchmark for computer and traditional animation alike. Doesn't hurt that it stars a young Jeff Bridges, a charismatic titan to this day.
Maybe it shouldn't be surprising, then, that Tron Legacy is a big, dumb, surprisingly fun flick. Although striking CGI visuals are no rarity these days, it's still gratifying to see someone use those effects gracefully and with wit. The action is an absolute blast, the digital vistas are stunning. It's more fun than it should be, even if it feels more like watching someone play an arcade shooter than actually getting swept up in an epic story yourself.
The plot is laughable at best, cringeworthy at worst, like when our young hero is cast as some modern Robin Hood for hacking into his own company's database to release free Operating Systems online. The irony of a major motion picture lauding a software pirate as hero goes without comment. When the dialogue isn't aping standard action cliches, it's forcing Jeff Bridges to coin bon mots like "bio-digital jazz," which, let's face it, may be worth hearing on its own account. In between, you're left wondering why a computer program would make the effort to walk sexily, or put on make-up, or what it drinks when it goes to a nightclub after a hard day on The Grid, and does it dream of electric sheep?
But there I go again, expecting Tron to make good on its central metaphor. Even, sadly, the villain's promising origin as ruthless efficiency borne of programming error just gives way to tooth gnashing and howling at the sky, like so many forgettable film baddies. If you enter Tron looking for disc battles, lightcycle races and hot beats from Daft Punk, you'll be reasonably satisfied. Too bad that's all we can ask from our blockbusters these days, to be reasonably satisfied.
Here's a rarity: a truly fun genre flick that's not just an endless riff on previous genre flicks. Takes the concept of inner-city gangs vs aliens entirely seriously, which is not to say the film doesn't also have a wicked sense of humor. The creature design is fun and truly alien in a very cool way, but the humans are who you care about here. Really refreshing filmmaking, both from a entertainment and aesthetic standpoint.
A throwaway line minutes into Captain America cleverly invokes the Spielbergian muse of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not the wisest choice, as the comparison makes it hard to overlook how inferior this film is to that classic. While the "Nazis unearth sacred artifacts" plot is similar, what this film (and most modern blockbusters) misses is the attention to detail: objects, clothing, sets that should reflect the wear and tear of everyday use have that glossy, just constructed on the backlot look. Dramatic locales feel sterile because they're so clearly constructed on a soundstage, or more likely, glued together piece by computer generated piece in post. Johnston's cinematic eye isn't as keen as Spielberg's, and many shots feel like tick-marks on a checklist of coverage, rather than motivated by any real intent. Without that sense of real grit or creative wonder, it's hard to get lost in the adventure and romance of it all. No one ever got lost in the adventure and romance of plastic.
For the first hour, this artifice is nearly impenetrable, not that the by-the-numbers hero's journey archetypal screenplay structure helps any. Then, a funny thing happens. The film seems to find its legs, starts taking chances, starts showing the vulnerability of its characters. It grounds itself in its time period in interesting ways, not just with arbitrary news clips and topical one-liners. Steve Rogers' journey to becoming America's hero takes unforeseen turns. More importantly, the film starts having fun, and in the process becomes fun itself.
It never reaches the height of a film like Spider-man 2, lacking a truly mind-blowing action set piece or sense of danger, although there are some nicely choreographed fights. Cap's shield is something we haven't seen before, and there's some nice thematic depths to plumb in the idea of a character's main weapon being a form of defense. At the same time, it rises above mediocre flicks like Thor or the latest X-men, investing real empathy in its characters and ultimately achieving an unexpected poignancy.
Captain America has the dubious honor of being the best superhero flick of 2011. One of those films that you wish would be better because they got enough right. A fun time at the movies, but perhaps not the hero we deserve.
Never seen the original, but Herzog's re-imagining has plenty of food for thought. It's nice to see Nic Cage playing batshit crazy for a director who can craft his madness into something powerful (Herzog's specialty, really). Bad Lieutenant is a compelling exploration of a man's descent into darkness even as he tries to battle the darkness in the world. Herzog's films often center on an extraordinary man going to impossible lengths to solve an unsolvable problem, and this is no exception. He asks if it's possible for a man to truly escape the darkness once he's embraced it, and also if it's possible for a good man to ever truly be "bad."
This type of uber-self-aware homage is not typically my bag, but Black Dynamite has at least two things going for it: a kitchen-sink approach to gags, and the hurricane of charisma that is lead Michael Jai White. Probably funnier if you're not completely ignorant of the Blaxploitation genre, like me, but I had a good time regardless.
Departing wildly from source material, Hammer still draws a logical conclusion for where Dr. Frankenstein might take his mad theories. The result is a slightly more thoughtful film than the previous entry, although it all ends up in murder eventually. While the Hammer Frankensteins lack an iconic Monster, Cushing is infinitely watchable, even when given largely thankless, procedural dialogue. Still missing that humanity the Karloff monsters had - no moments here comparable to the girl with the daisies, or the blind man in the woods, from Universal's first two Frankenstein movies.
History has shown that it's hard to meet expectations for the end of any epic series, but JK Rowling pulled out the stops to make the Potter ending the high point of the series, and the movie adaptations follow suit. While the previous installment is probably my favorite for all the attention paid to smaller, intimate moments, the apocalyptic action is on full display here, with many memorable magical battles and clever callbacks to earlier entries in the series. Endings always make me a bit misty-eyed, and this was no exception. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that just as the Potter series was becoming truly interesting, it ends.
Finally, a Potter film that's not collapsing under the weight of its own plot. It helps that it's based on the first half of the best book of the bunch, as this is the first story where Potter & Friends seem to be living in a real world with real consequences and real decisions to make. Keeping Hogwarts out of the story - magical setting as it is - gives the plot a chance to break free of the stale school year structure and grow organically, providing space for the characters to just be themselves. The direction is the best the series has seen, with genuinely interesting visual choices, not just fantasy spectacle, though there's enough of that to keep you munching popcorn. The spectacle feels grounded, however, in a way that it hasn't in the past, much like the whole film. Only wish they could go back and bring some of this compelling gravitas to the previous films!
Meant to watch this when I was on my Hammer/Frankenstein kick a while back, but I never had the chance. Cushing is fun to watch as the smug, obsessive scientist, and Lee is duly horrifying as the staggering, unstoppable Creature. What the film lacks (that the Karloff Frankenstein so memorably owned) is a sense of empathy for the Creature, which is what makes the story of Frankenstein compelling to begin with. Jettisoning this exploration of what defines humanity puts it on the level of a slasher flick, and not a particularly inventive one at that. Hammer movies usually have the tone of a stageplay, but manage to create truly memorable images through art direction. Perhaps they're doomed from the start by competing with the brilliant castle lab in Bride of Frankenstein, but the country cottage look here just amplifies the overtly staged look of the film. All in all, not Hammer's strongest, but still good fun for fans of the Frankenstein mythos.
An intriguing look behind the curtain at the perilous, ingenious collaboration of Herzog and Kinski. I can't imagine this would be interesting for anyone who wasn't a huge fan of their work together, and even then much of the film centers around Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, anecdotes which have been well covered in other areas. Still, there are many moments of interest here, such as Herzog touring the house where, entirely coincidentally, as a young boy he lived just down the hall from the raving mad, starving actor Kinski. Herzog recounts tale after tale of Kinski's outbursts, and their intense love/hate relationship, although he seems content to reminisce without exploring Kinski's behaviors and history in-depth. In the end, I felt saddened even more that we only got to see five films from this inspired pairing, and all the more grateful for those.
Herzog and Kinski's last film together is a stunning and fitting end to a legendary collaboration. It's the sort of film that I can't imagine being made nowadays, and certainly couldn't be made without the combined creative insanity of those two. Kinski plays another in a long line of characters who are entirely unlikeable and yet utterly enthralling. Though his actions are all deplorable, he demands a begrudging respect in much the same way a salivating grizzly would. We follow Francisco from his start as a loathed Brazilian bandit all the way to his unlikely end as a slave baron in Africa. As usual, Herzog doesn't spare humanity's ugliest moments, while paradoxically admiring a man who does what he must to survive and thrive in impossible circumstances.
Not the first and certainly not the last story of a wide-eyed innocent moving to the Big City only to find out The Dream is a sham, but Midnight Cowboy is a classic regardless. What really makes the film is Voight and Hoffman's chemistry together, a love/hate relationship that propels this meandering film through the dark urban reality of late 60's NYC. Its momentum is often halted for a number of aimless flashbacks and dream sequences which try to provide insight into Voight's character, not realizing that everything we need to know is right there in Voight's performance, and that the real main character here is the city and its desperate, dirty citizens. Still, Midnight Cowboy is a landmark film, and if its X-rated (now justifiably re-rated as an R) view of the world doesn't seem quite so shocking today, perhaps it's just all the more relevant.
Hilariously subversive satire about incompetent terrorists that, like all boundary-pushing humor, will make you squirm in your seat about as often as you laugh. It's a good balance struck by the creators of the similarly acerbic "In the Loop." Here, they lampoon everything from fundamentalist zealotry to clueless intelligence organizations, and the result is one of the funniest, most daring films I've seen in years. The entire cast is brilliant, but Nigel Lindsay nearly steals the show as Barry, the Walter Sobchak-like Islam convert.