Dec 31, 2012

Catching Up: Oscar Hopefuls Edition

Quentin Tarantino's cameos in his own films are like signposts along the paths he's forged, their narrative and thematic functionality frequently overlooked amidst quips about his performance skills, excessive language, etc. His brief third act turn in Django Unchained might be his most obviously symbolic yet, a microcosmic reflection of a work that suggests someone brave or foolish enough (or both) to charge into a hellfire with dynamite strapped to their back. The absence of longtime editor Sally Menke is felt in this film's untamed sprawl and reinforced by a permeating melancholy; despite the anachronistic energy, cartoonish flourishes and brazen subversion of institutionalized dehumanization ("You want I should treat 'em like white folk?" "No, not like white folk."), this strikes me above all as a remarkably sad, boldly confessional picture, all the more remarkable for Quentin's restraint amidst material easily pushed over the line of taste. Jamie Foxx's titular slave-turned-bounty hunter rages (with glorious crimson strokes) against his captors but the scars (of whips, brands, and friends lost) remain, rendering his triumphs against the pre-Civil War establishment dubious at best. Impulsive choices (dialogue, in particular, feels less hyperbolic here than we've come to expect from this most conscious of writers) feel both mythic and lived-in, the film's relative imperfections complicating the knotty emotions of someone fully aware of their own creative and social privileges as a historical outsider. The trade-off is for something even greater than the sum of its parts, and what could in hindsight prove the most important contribution of an artist equal parts heralded and misunderstood.

A thousand thank yous to Robert Zemeckis for showcasing a most terrifying (near) mass death sequence without a shred of the pornographic destruction or contempt of life that routinely infects the supposed entertainments of the multiplex, but one would be foolish to expect anything less from one of our great humanitarian mainstream artists. The first live-action film Zemeckis has helmed in the twelve years since Cast Away, Flight suggests the finely tuned studio work of Frank Capra or Jack Arnold, the material both blatant yet deep (the film's stairway conversation is a miniature masterpiece), the narrative structurally obvious on the page but raw and pulsating on the screen. A fortuitous convergence of events sees alcoholic/drug addicted vet pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington, alternately buried and on air, and leviathan at both) saving the doomed passengers of a malfunctioning jet, minus six, his lucid state the likely reason for his collected defiance of certain death, yet a professional and personal offense now inevitably confronted. What follows is a character drama fueled by devastating introspection: into addiction, into ego, into fear of death and life. Certain elements of this film hit close enough to home that I should confess a likely bias (the couple sitting nearest to me at a packed screening seemed disturbed by my persistent weeping), but we and our loved ones all must go sooner or later, and Flight's much-criticized turning point seems to me both natural and earned, for how else can we judge ourselves than by how we live up to those who passed before us? One of the great studio pictures of the year, and another reason to consider Zemeckis a major player.

Hitchcock is relatively inoffensive if you consider it the inevitable feel-good runoff of the zeitgeist shift that displaced Citizen Kane with Vertigo on the Sight & Sound list earlier this year. Whatever the reason I don't hate the film like my cohorts mostly do (likely the fact that I've worked as a projectionist showing it the better part of a month; disposable as it is, it plays well with audiences, an achievement that's undeniably infectious), it's still an essentially useless consideration of the infamous director save for the few to whom it will introduce his body of work, otherwise amounting to little more than an adept dramatization of a few pages' worth of IMDb trivia. If you haven't seen Psycho, the making of which is explored herein, the factoids will be mostly lost on you, and despite the intolerably pronounced theatrics of the cast (as the titular Hitch (hold the cock), Anthony Hopkins spends too much time on a synthetic identity crisis to show us how interesting the man really was; he flashes a nasty smirk at the climax I'd liked to have seen more of), inane Psychology 101 visions and snarky historical perspective ("Let alone to flush one!"), I appreciated that the film in question is never itself glimpsed, only the reactions to such. (Yes, that sentence went on too long; final side note: how the hell did they pass up the opportunity to show off the giant shower head?) That's more likely the result of a copyright issue than a creative choice, but then, assuming the latter, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

To get lost in the rhapsody of Schönberg/Boublil/Kretzmer's world famous musical, here, I'd have to overlook almost all of Tom Hooper's Les Misérables' visual qualities, at which point we'd no longer be talking about cinema, which is not to suggest that it should qualify as such in the first place. Feeling like one is suffering a migraine that will ultimately lead to blindness isn't my ideal approach to experiencing something attempting uplift and affirmation, and so this lavish production mostly embarrasses itself to these violated eyes. The choice to record the fifty-some songs live on the set, allowing for greater spontaneity and depth of performance, pays off only insofar as the cast is occasionally able to sign and act simultaneously (your mileage will vary depending on how much of the cast seems like they're mistakenly auditioning for Saturday Night Live). Little of that matters given Hooper's astonishingly inept technical handling: not merely fourth-wall breaking and emotionally overbearing, his roving, impatient camerawork feels like a drawn-out implosion of time and space, snippets of footage so randomly and haphazardly assembled as to approach a dadaist fever pitch if there were any sense of purpose behind it. Altogether, I'd doubt if it contained ten minutes of legitimate human emotion, no small achievement for a film with the singing talents of Hugh Jackman in the lead. (I prefer Sally Field's work in Lincoln but Ms. Hathaway arguably deserves and is surely overdue for the Oscar she'll garner for her lightning rod single take solo, about to become the most watched sequence since the Zapruder film.) My pity goes out to the craftsmanship and thesping talent that sank into this trench, and the millions of hours that will be wasted on it. The King's Speech wasn't my cup of tea by any stretch, but 2010's Oscar winning flake seems positively mountainous compared to this whimpering black hole. Fosse wept.

James Bond looks both forward and back in Skyfall, a triumphant return to competent action filmmaking (and then some) after the visually inept/atrociously scripted Quantum of Solace. If I don't quite prefer this fiftieth anniversary's love letter to its predecessors to Casino Royale's furiously self-reflexive genre deconstruction, so be it; these two high water marks have more in common than not, and both evidence the fact that Daniel Craig's line readings are never better than when he's tied to a chair. The stereotypes and trademarks are mostly in place here sans regressive offense (with no proper Bond girl in her way, Judi Dench's M is as prevalent and dynamic as Bond himself), but from the not-unjustified vengeance of Javier Bardem's nightmarish villain (shades, naturally, of Anton Chigurh, and an entrance that might be the single best piece of acting the series has ever witnessed) to the avoidance of field work by an old friend, what propels this grisly chapter is the characters' keen sense of agency (minus one exception that's fitfully disturbing). Bond's self-devouring manhood is both gift and curse, and from the soulful murmurs of Adele's powerhouse theme song to the countless lethal blows 007 deals and nearly suffers, Skyfall especially kicks ass in suggesting that it's far cooler to be tortured and resourceful than brash and destructive. It's also damn beautiful to look at, especially the elevator/skyscraper sequence. As self-aware milestones go, there's few comparisons. A great action film by Sam Mendes – who knew?

Dec 20, 2012

Girl Walk // All Day

In an effort to try to make this space more along the lines of a real blog, I decided it's time to share more stuff. Those who caught Slant's 25 Best Films of 2012 might have noticed our endorsement of Girl Walk // All Day, one of my favorite films of the year. It's available for free viewing through its official web site, albeit a chapter at a time. Click through the picture above of the exhuberant Anne Marsen to experience it.

Dec 17, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Peter Jackson's talent gets the better of him in An Unexpected Journey, the first film in a planned trilogy adaptation of The Hobbit culled not only from the Tolkein book of the same name but other stories and appendices within his Lord of the Rings literary universe. Beginning approximately 60 years prior to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit tells the story of a reclusive halfling, Bilbo Baggins (a game Martin Freeman, filling in as the young counterpart to Ian Holm), who is whisked away from his earthy Shire to assist a band of dwarves in reclaiming their home from the dragon Smaug, during which time he will encounter the deranged Gollum (Andy Serkis, barely rising above shtick) and the "precious" ring in which a terrible power lies dormant. The jury is still out on whether the late decision to expand an initially planned two film arc into three sprang genuinely from creative urges in the editing room or mere financial whims, but it's hard to not be cynical about the coming features after this underwhelming and obviously plotted first chapter.

The fact that Jackson continues to make this kind of epic filmmaking look easy compounds the feeling that the air's gone out of the balloon on this one, as no quantity of signature landscape shots, trademark Howard Shore music cues or overemphatic nods to characters and events already established in earlier films can compensate for the obviousness of story and dearth of feeling – a bizarre failure for a film that affords itself so much time to cover so little ground. After a promising introduction, the film sets its ducks in a row (the initial scenes with the dwarves are a leisurely high point) before settling in for the long haul, at which point An Unexpected Journey's undercooked narrative – complete with unsubstantiated personal conflicts, thinly rendered characterizations, and viscerally deprived battle sequences – begins to fall to pieces, floundering from setpiece to unjustified setpiece with distressingly little attention paid to narrative friction or subtext. Perhaps ten minutes of inspired imagery could be culled together from this material; compare it to any other ten minutes' worth of what Jackson's done with this world before, and the stark decline in quality control is embarrassing to behold. Butter spread over too much bread, Bilbo might say.

That An Unexpected Journey is more competently made than your average tentpole blockbuster only underscores what a hollow affair it adds up to, and one that borders on odious when it repeatedly acknowledges the sterling footsteps it treads upon. The Lord of the Rings trilogy earned its nine-hour-plus running time by virtue of an exquisitely articulated world in spiritual crisis and the filmmakers' genuinely epic heft (to say nothing of the groundbreaking technical achievements that this prequel fails to sufficiently utilize, opting for less miniature and makeup work and more overly polished CGI), while the effort An Unexpected Journey puts into replicating this effect smacks of being at odds with the more kid-friendly, streamlined source material at hand. Tone-deaf and rhythmically deprived, An Unexpected Journey is a concession to many things: technology for its own sake (I saw the film in standard 24 frames per second 3D, already a waste), audience expectations, fanboy culture, and quite likely both greed and good taste. The magic is gone, replaced with telegraphed gestures and protracted bombast, the offenses of which culminate in a series of third-act contrivances and convenient resolutions so far removed from the baited cliffhangers and lovely denouements of its predecessors that the fact that many of the same creative minds are responsible strikes one as being more fantastical than anything in the film itself.

Dec 15, 2012

Favorites and lists and things

I've been less active on this blog than I'd prefer for many months now (such is overworked adult life vs. the joys of unpaid criticism), but it didn't dawn on me how much I'd let things slide until I realized I hadn't even provided linkage to the long-in-the-works Best of the 1990s list I spent several hundred hours researching over the course of the last year or so for Slant Magazine.

Clicking through the photo of Nomi Malone (of the inimitable Showgirls, my #2 choice for the decade, yes, I'm serious) will take you to that feature, while Freddy Quell, below, will see you to our more recently published Best of 2012 poll, the first of Slant's yearly features I've had the privilege of contributing to. I wrote some words on Lincoln. (And for what it's worth, both Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained were sadly amongst my blind spots at the time my vote was submitted.)

Write-ups at #93, 80, 69, 63, 39, 25 and 10.